"Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
For the world's more full of weeping
Than you can understand."
--"The Stolen Child" W.B. Yeats
There was once a labyrinth at the center of the world, she read. In the center of this labyrinth there was a city filled with goblins. They were ruled by the Goblin King, who knew every step of the labyrinth, even though it was always changing.
Ofelia looked up from the book. Gunshots echoed outside. The streets were still not safe for little girls, her mother said, and so she remained at home behind shuttered windows while her mother worked.
Many of these goblins had been human children, wished away by their parents and brothers and sisters. The Goblin King came and took the children away. Yet he gave the wishers one chance to undo what they had said in anger. He gave them a task to complete. If they were successful, the child was returned. But few were clever or brave enough, and so the unwanted children remained in the labyrinth forever as goblins. To send away the child and summon the Goblin King, the wisher said—
The door opened. Carmen stepped in and Ofelia hurried to her mother.
Less than an hour had passed since the funeral's completion. The mourners left the cemetery rapidly, politeness on their faces and empty condolences on their lips. The Captain didn't look back once. He looked only at the male baby in his arms. Ofelia remained by her mother's grave. Once alone, she scooped up a bit of dirt from the top of her mother's grave and wrapped it in her handkerchief. A tear dampened the fabric as she knotted the ends.
When she returned to the building, everyone went about their tasks as on any other morning. Only Mercedes spared a look for Ofelia and passed a hand over the girl's hair.
Ofelia slipped down the hall, meeting nobody's gaze. Hearing silence in the Captain's office, she crept in. The room stank of his tobacco and liquor. Her brother's cradle stood near the window. The baby slept, not yet understanding what it would be like to grow up without a mother.
She stood by her brother's cradle, listening for the sounds of the Captain in the hallway. She bent close and whispered lovingly into her brother's ear, "I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now."
The staccato noise of boots sounded in the hallway. Ofelia's head snapped toward the door. The footsteps passed and she turned back. A man stood by the cradle, holding her baby brother in his arms.
She breathed easy for the first time that day. "Are you the Goblin King?"
"I am." His voice sounded odd to her, the accent different from any she knew. She thought that perhaps he spoke Spanish too fluently, and wondered for the first time what a Goblin King's birth language might be.
"Are you taking my brother away because I said the right words?"
Ofelia watched him in the light from the open window. She was not sure what she had expected a Goblin King to look like. He was very strange, to be sure: young-seeming but with hair nearly white, one eye blue as the sky and the other dark as the earth, and clothing in a style she wasn't familiar with. He stood there in the shape of a human yet she knew instantly that he was something she had only ever thought of in dreams.
The King of the Goblins shifted the bundle in his arms and turned back the blanket from the baby's face. The unnamed babe slept on, untroubled by funerals, magic, or the threat of abduction. "He's but days old, still small and wrinkled. What can he have done to make you so angry at him already?"
"I wished for you because I love him," she said.
The Goblin King raised one eyebrow and looked at the now dry-eyed little girl dressed in her funeral black. "I don't hear that explanation often. Are you sure he didn't do anything to make you mad? He was given your favorite toy, perhaps?"
Ofelia shook her head. "He killed our mother being born."
"So you're angry at him because your mother is dead."
"No. I miss her," she explained, "but it's not his fault. He couldn't help it."
"Interesting. So if you aren't angry at him, why did you call me?"
Instead of answering, Ofelia watched his arms. She would have preferred to be holding her brother herself, but his grip looked safe enough. He appeared to know more about babies than the Captain did, though that wasn't difficult to accomplish. "You won't drop him?"
"Child, I have held more than a hundred thousand babies since that wish came into existence. Now answer the question."
"The Captain is my stepfather. He wanted a son. But he doesn't love my brother and he doesn't want me. I can't let him have my brother. I want him to be safe."
"I don't do something for nothing," the King of the Goblins said. "I'll make a deal with you…" He paused and raised an eyebrow.
"Ofelia," she answered.
"Ofelia. If you can pass a test, I'll keep your brother safe from your stepfather. If you fail, he'll stay here and you'll be turned into a goblin."
"Do you promise?" she asked.
"I never joke about children."
"What do I have to do?"
The baby woke. Ofelia started forward but the Goblin King raised his hand against her. He sat in the chair below the open window. As she watched, he held the baby in the crook of one arm; a crystal appeared in the other hand. It looked like a soap bubble. He spun it around on his fingers before the baby's face. The infant's cries of hunger changed to delighted gurgling and he struggled against the blanket, trying to free his arms to reach the toy. A cool smile appeared on the Goblin King's face.
He looked up from the baby but his fingers kept turning the crystal. "I have a castle at the center of the labyrinth," he said. "I'll bring you to the labyrinth's entrance. If you can reach the castle in thirteen hours, your brother may remain."
"Will he stay human, or will you make him into a goblin?" she asked.
"We'll see what happens. Do you agree to the bet?"
The Goblin King returned his gaze to Ofelia's brother. "Such a little child. Does he even have a name yet?"
"My mother wanted to call him Andrés," she said. "It was my grandfather's name. But she didn't tell the Captain. He never liked any of her ideas."
"Andrés, then." He touched the crystal to the baby's face and Andrés vanished.
"What did you do?" she cried, forgetting to be quiet in case one of the people in the mill should hear.
"I sent him ahead to the castle. He'll be taken care of during your test." The Goblin King stood. "You and I will go to the labyrinth from one of the gateways in this world."
The Goblin King took her hand in his gloved one as they walked out of the mill. Ofelia walked without speaking. She thought he must have made them invisible, for although they neither purposefully avoided nor attracted attention, nobody they passed by made any sign of recognition. They should have stared, seeing the Captain's stepdaughter walking away with an unknown person in that closely guarded place. She wondered what Mercedes would see, if they passed her.
They exited the building and passed into the woods. He took Ofelia to her labyrinth, walking confidently through the crumbling walls until they came to the stair. She didn't see the Faun when they reached the bottom.
"Close your eyes," the Goblin King said and she obeyed.
When she opened her eyes they stood on a sandy hill below a desert-bright sun. Trees grew but they were wizened things, the branches leafless and stunted. The labyrinth stretched out before them, spreading out for miles in all directions. Far ahead she saw a dark smudge among the gray stone that she thought must be the castle.
The Goblin King twisted his hand in the empty air. A new crystal appeared. He spun it on his fingertips and it turned into a pocket watch much like the one the Captain always carried. The only different was that the face held thirteen numbers instead of twelve. He dropped it into her hand. "So that you'll be able to keep track of time." The watch started ticking when she took it. As Ofelia watched, the Goblin King faded until there was only the sand and the trees.
Ofelia looked at the watch. A minute had passed already. She stuck it in the pocket of her dress and jogged down the hill, her good shoes scuffed by the pebbles scattered about. The walls of the labyrinth were too tall for her to climb over and she didn't see a door.
She sighed and turned away to think. Something zipped by her head with a small buzz, like a bug. Another whatever-it-was flew by in the other direction. She spun about several times before the creatures stopped playing their game of chase. At last she saw: they were fairies. Four of them hovered in the air before her.
Ofelia's face brightened. "Hello!" She tried to get a closer look but they wouldn't stay still. With a sudden pang, she missed the fairies the Faun had sent to her and wished that the one who remained could have come. She squinted; the little creatures were so pale, they were almost invisible in the bright sun. She could make out that they possessed hair as pale as dried dandelions and skin like moonflowers. At length she held her hand out, as she would to a standoffish cat.
One fairy landed on her palm. She felt her face move strangely for a moment before realizing that it was a smile, the first in several days. The fairy looked at her consideringly, the dark eyes unblinking in its pale face. It darted forward and pulled her hair, flying off with a cackling little laugh.
Ofelia jumped back. "You didn't have to be so mean," she told the flock of fairies now hovering in the air just out of reach. She shook her head over the wasted time and returned to the wall.
There were still no openings to be found. She put her hands in her pockets while she thought. In the pocket that held the handkerchief, she found something else. It was the Faun's piece of chalk. She had carried it with her to the funeral, even though it smudged the dark fabric of her dress. She drew a door.
Stones fell out of the wall. They piled up at her feet until the door was open. She clambered over the stones and entered the labyrinth.
A long corridor stretched to her right and left. Both directions looked the same. She turned left and began walking.
The sound of the pocket watch was muffled by the fabric of her dress but she could hear its tick. "Too slow, too slow," it seemed to say, one word for each second. Even after she had walked for what seemed to be a very long time, she didn't find any openings that would lead her deeper into the labyrinth. She left the watch in her pocket, unwilling to find out how much time had passed.
Ofelia had fallen into a daze. When her eyes focused, she realized there was a spot of color on the opposite wall. A little blue smudge, as though someone had been careless with his paintbrush. And then it moved! She jumped back for a moment, pushing her shoulders against the damp wall. It was such a pretty shade of blue, however, that at last she stepped forward to get a better look.
A little worm resembling some sort of caterpillar sat on a tiny alcove carved into the wall.
"'Allo," it said to her in a little, creaky voice.
"Hello," she said politely. She knelt in order to be at eye level with him, although the rough ground bruised her knees. "How are you, Mr. Worm?"
"Very well, thank you. But what's a nice little girl like you doing in this place?"
"I have to get to the castle in this labyrinth. Can you tell me how to get there?"
The blue fringe atop his head bobbed as he shook it. "Not me. But I might be able to help all the same. Why don't you come inside and meet the missus? We'll have a nice cup of tea and maybe figure something out."
He was so charming and his funny little voice made her smile. "I think I'm too big, Mr. Worm."
"Not at all. Just step in." He slipped back into a hole in the wall.
Ofelia held her breath and leaned forward. As far as she could tell, the hole didn't get any bigger and she didn't shrink, but somehow she ended up standing in the alcove. The hole in the wall appeared between two crumbling bricks and she stepped through.
She stood in a little parlor. A fire crackled at the far end of the room, though she couldn't imagine where the chimney might exit. Unsurprisingly, she saw no windows. Portraits of worms in a variety of colors were arranged on the walls. There were sitting chairs, lace doilies, and knick-knacks on the mantel. A trio of teacups sat on a little table.
"'Allo, dear," a slightly different creaky voice said behind her. Ofelia turned to face a worm that was a paler blue than the first one she had met.
"Hello, Mrs. Worm," Ofelia said in return.
"My husband just told me all about you. Why don't you sit down and have some tea, and we'll talk."
Ofelia never could decide how the worms had arranged everything without hands. The teacups they drank from were more like saucers, making it easy for the worms to lean forward and sip. She herself had never been greatly fond of tea, but there was plenty of sugar and it felt good to have something hot to drink. Although mindful of the passing time, she told them everything had happened, from her arrival at the mill to entering the labyrinth. The worms made sympathetic noises at hearing of her mother's death and listened closely when she laid out the details of her bargain with the Goblin King.
"We can't take you all the way to the center of the labyrinth," Mr. Worm said when Ofelia came to the end of her tale. "We worms have our own ways of getting there but you wouldn't be able to follow. And it would never do for the King to find out. But I think the missus and I can do something, can't we?" he addressed this last bit to his wife.
"Oh, yes," she agreed and turned to Ofelia. "The labyrinth is always changing, that's what it does, but we can get you started out on one of the right paths. Have you finished your tea?"
"Come along, then."
The two worms slinked out of the parlor and Ofelia followed. The trio went down a dark, narrow hallway that she assumed must still be within the stone wall; a narrow groove had worn into the floor from many years of the worms gliding up and down. They passed several doorways but entered none of these. The passageway turned several times and grew brighter with each turn. When the light of day could be seen directly ahead, the worms stopped.
"We can't take you any farther than this," Mr. Worm said. "But walk straight and soon you'll come out of the wall. It's not quite the center of the labyrinth, but you'll be well on your way."
"Good luck," Mrs. Worm added. "Nobody ever made it through the labyrinth without plenty of luck. Don't fret too much about your brother; the King is a tricky sort but if he said your brother would be safe during the test, he'll be kept safe."
"Thank you." Ofelia hugged both of the worms. She walked a little ways, turned to wave to them, and continued on her way.
After a short time she came to the edge of the hallway, a crack between two of the stones. The tiled floor below looked very far, but she held her breath and jumped.
Ofelia landed on her feet. When she turned, she saw that she had returned to her proper size and that the crack was no longer than her ring finger. She put her eye to the opening: nothing but darkness could be seen within. "Thank you," she called into the stones, in case the kind, funny little worms with their creaky voices should still be there.
She couldn't see the castle. The walls were twice her height. Jumping didn't bring her nearly close enough and there was nothing for her to stand on. There were many openings in the walls now: some stretched on for a long ways but others were merely stone slabs the width of her outstretched arms, scattered throughout the larger open spaces. She couldn't decide which way to turn. Frozen hands stuck out of the walls, pointing in different directions. She shuddered. Were they merely carvings, or had the hands belonged to people who became stuck when the labyrinth moved?
She took out the watch. The third hour had begun. How long had she been with the worms? Or had walking down that first hallway eaten up the largest amount of that time? Had time sped by while she watched the fairies?
She frowned and shoved the watch back into her pocket. She shut her eyes and spun in a circle. When her body stopped swaying, she kept her eyes shut and took three steps forward. She opened her eyes.
The wall she had exited was out of sight. The castle still could not be seen, yet in front of her she saw a path between two walls that continued straight for a little ways. She began to walk.
Now she did not look back. Ofelia never had to turn back from coming to a dead end, but several times from the dizzying turns she made, she thought she must have gone in a circle. The labyrinth remained silent around her. No birds flapped or sang overhead. She heard no voices and saw no other living beings pass by. Yet she felt the weight of somebody or something's gaze on her back.
She grew tired. Her feet hurt in the new shoes her mother had given her that were not yet broken in. Their hard soles echoed on the flagstones. The sun held the same position in the sky as when the Goblin King had brought her to the labyrinth. Time must be passing but she refused to look at the watch again. Each time her fingers strayed to the pocket, she dug her nails into her palm.
"You'll have to do better than that if you want to get there in time," the Goblin King said.
Ofelia jumped. Every footstep sounded loud on the flagstones but she hadn't heard him approach. He lounged against one of the fragmented walls on her right. Surrounded by all the fantastic strangeness of the labyrinth, he looked less alien than when he appeared in her world. She didn't see her brother.
"You aren't supposed to leave babies alone," she told him.
He looked amused at her scolding. "I promise that he isn't alone. He's being cared for by a very capable nurse. She's seen to many of the wished-away children."
"Are there a lot?"
He smiled coolly. "Thousands."
She swallowed. "How many did you turn into goblins?"
"Many. I don't keep count." He started to walk around her. "You've gotten surprisingly far for never having been here before. How did you do that?"
"I just…guessed right." Her mouth was dry. She turned to keep her eyes on him as he paced.
"You 'guessed right.' Did your guesses happen to have any help?" His voice was overly pleasant and he stood too close.
Ofelia thought of the friendly worms in their snug home within the labyrinth walls. "No."
"Very well. Which way will you go now?" The Goblin King pulled a crystal out of the air. He lazily rolled it from one hand to the other, seemingly bored.
"I don't know."
"Make a decision. Time's passing, Ofelia. Wait too long and I'll send him back. I don't think you'd enjoy being a goblin." The crystal turned into a pocket watch, identical to the one he had given her. He swung the watch back and forth by the end of its long chain. The hands ticked.
"Let's play another game," he said and pointed past her.
She turned around. Two doors stood behind her where before she had seen only a slab of wall. One door was made of shining black stone; the other, of white marble. They had popped into existence without a single puff of air.
The Goblin King said, "Choose one of these doors. One of them will take you nearer to the castle."
"What happens if I pick the wrong one?"
"The other will return you to outside the labyrinth's walls. And if you choose the wrong door, you won't be let back in."
She examined the doors. Aside from the different coloring, they appeared the same. Each door possessed a keyhole—she looked through but saw nothing on the other side. No sounds came through the keyholes, either.
"No peeking before making a decision. It won't be that easy," the Goblin King said.
Ofelia didn't look at him. It must be some sort of riddle. She didn't know it, though: all the riddles from her stories had tricks hidden in words that could be unraveled like a ball of tangled yarn, or magic stones to throw into a gluttonous toad, or monsters that hid their hearts far from their bodies. She thought the Captain was the sort who would cut out his heart and hide it far away, if he knew how. She knew that riddles were obvious after somebody solved them. She touched the black door.
It was hot! She put her fingers to her mouth.
"Make sure you pick the right door."
This time she looked at the Goblin King. He lounged against an outcropping of rock, still playing with the watch. He reminded her of the cat her neighbor in the city had owned: it saw in the open window, tidying its whiskers and pretending not to see the birds outside until they came too close and it could pounce.
She touched the marble door. It didn't burn her. Ofelia wrapped her fingers around the doorknob. She waited for a taunting remark but it didn't come.
Ofelia stepped back. As she hesitated between the doors, a scent arose. She closed her eyes and breathed in. It smelled like the soap her mother had used. A clean scent, one that she had thought was gone forever. She leaned toward it; opening her eyes, she saw that she faced the black door.
"Careful," he said. "Pick the wrong door and there's no turning back."
She tucked the end of her sleeve around her hand. Sometimes riddles weren't logical. Sometimes you had to guess and believe that you would be right. She grasped the hot doorknob. Gritting her teeth against the heat, she turned it.
"Such a pity," the Goblin King said as she stepped through the door.
The door slammed shut behind her. Nothing else happened. The ground didn't drop out beneath her feet, nor did she see the exterior of the labyrinth. The walls continued before her with no obvious differences. On this side the doors had no knobs and the keyholes had vanished. She only smelled a hint of her mother's soap now. The throbbing left her hand; it was as though she had never touched the burning-hot surface. Ofelia walked on.
Within a short distance, the stone walls changed to thick hedges. She might not be any closer to the castle but at least she had something different to look at. There might even be gaps in the hedges that she could fit through and go straight ahead, instead of this continuous weaving about walls. Ofelia wedged her hands between two branches and eased them apart.
For one moment she saw through. The branches sprang out of her hands and snapped shut. Ofelia cried out and jumped back. She had felt the hedge move on its own, not the usual resistance from branches bent back. The back of one hand was scratched. She pressed the throbbing skin against her mouth.
The hedges rustled. She felt no wind but the hedges all around her swayed and shook. They rustled as though hundreds of small birds hopped about within. When she backed away, she only came up against a hedge that moved like it had a will of its own. Ofelia moved to the center of the path. She turned around and around, the hedges bristling at her. The shadows and gaps in them began to look like faces.
"Stop that at once!" a shrill voice cried out from the other side of the hedges. She jumped.
The voice wasn't speaking to her, though, it shouted at the hedges. "Stop acting like that this instant or I shall turn you into topiaries!"
"Hello? Who's there?" she called.
"Never fear, my lady, you're safe now. Stay where you are and I shall be with you anon."
Confused but relieved, Ofelia did as she was bid. A clattering noise sounded on the stones. It had a regular rhythm, as though it might be a horse. The sound came around the corner and she saw him.
A red fox dressed from nose to tail in fanciful clothing sat atop a shaggy, gray-and-white dog. One year for Ofelia's birthday, her father had given her a copy of Don Quixote that possessed color illustrations. The fox reminded her of that book. He wore a puffy doublet and jaunty blue cap that sported a feather almost as long as himself. He wore an eye patch that almost looked jaunty. He even held a small lance decorated with ribbons. The dog was short and thick-bodied. Thick fur hung down over his face; all she could see poking out were his nose and mouth.
"You should be wary of those hedges, my lady," he told her. "They're harmless much of the time but if woken up, they like to cause trouble. So long as you don't touch them, you will usually be safe."
"It scratched me," she said and held her hand up.
"That could be what did it. I have to admit that parts of this labyrinth can be rather bloodthirsty." At these words the dog whined and shuddered. "Ambrosius, don't be so rude in front of our guest!" the fox scolded.
"I didn't think that ever really meant thirsty for blood," She admitted.
"Oh, yes. But where are my manners? I am Sir Didymus and this is my noble steed Ambrosius, the both of us at your service, my lady." He bowed while still sitting astride the dog.
She giggled. His devotion and extravagance reminded her a little of the Faun, though this Sir Didymus was amusing and the Faun still unnerved her. "I'm Ofelia."
"My lady." He bowed again. Ofelia thought of being the Princess Moanna but didn't say anything.
"How may I assist you?"
"I have to get to the castle," she told him.
"What should a girl such as you want with a place such as that? I warn you it isn't the most pleasant place, my lady. You didn't wish somebody away, did you?"
"My baby brother," she said and his face fell. "But it's all right," she added hastily, "I did it to keep him safe and he will be, if I can get to the castle in 13 hours."
"I have been witness to many strange things in my life here but never had I heard that explanation."
Once again, Ofelia had to tell her story. Mindful of the seconds ticking by, she shortened it to the most important details. "The blue worms helped me at the beginning," she concluded, "but they said they couldn't go far. That's when I came here."
"The worms told you the truth. Their kind does not do so well in great open spaces like these. But they know their part of the labyrinth as well as the King. Well then, Ambrosius and I shall have to take you through the next part."
"You know how to get to the castle?"
"Certainly! I know every inch of this labyrinth." The dog whined and he amended, "That is, I have been though every part of it. The labyrinth never organizes itself the same way twice but I'm certain I can find the way."
Ofelia squashed down her unease. A creature even only slightly familiar with this place would be helpful and just being with somebody friendly was better than being left alone again. "Which way do we go?"
He pointed the lance in a direction that looked no different from the others. "This way. I expect us to be at the castle long before your time is up. How much longer do you have?"
Her palm brushed the weight of the watch through the fabric of her dress. "I don't want to know."
"It's just as well," Sir Didymus admitted. "King Jareth can control even time in this labyrinth."
"Is that what his name is?" she asked. "I never knew he had one; I thought he was just the Goblin King."
"But of course he has a name, my lady. King Jareth is not the only person to have been King of the Labyrinth, you know."
"I didn't know. I never thought about it before today," she admitted.
"It's true. But as to the time you have to get to the castle, your watch could be set back or forward several hours from where it should rightfully be."
"It can? He never said that!" The speed of her pulse doubled.
"Try not to think on it."
Ofelia, Sir Didymus, and Ambrosius journeyed through the labyrinth. Sir Didymus was rarely silent; he constantly told stories of his past adventures. He told of chasing away fire-colored creatures that could pluck off their heads, of creatures that lived underground and moved the flagstones, and of braving a place called the Bog of Eternal Stench. Each story grew wilder than the last. She couldn't decide whether he knowingly embellished upon what had happened or whether he truly remembered it that way.
They left the hedges behind and walked among stone walls once more. At times Sir Didymus seemed overconfident of knowing the way but it was still better than having no guide at all. His stories entertained Ofelia and distracted her attention from her sore feet.
The hedges gave way to a forest. Early on she stopped and looked back but only the forest stretched out behind her, like the earlier part of the labyrinth had never existed. "Does the forest go for very long?" she asked
"The forest itself is small but it's easy to lose your way," Sir Didymus said. "We're following the path now and we must stay upon it. It appears to turn often but it'll guide out safely. If we stepped off it, I don't know where we would end up."
A short time later, Ofelia halted. "Didn't we pass by here already?" She looked at three large rocks clustered together. She had noticed it the first time because of a red-and-yellow butterfly that had hovered around wildflowers growing from in between the cracks. The butterfly had gone but she could still see the wildflowers.
"We just need to stay on the path," Sir Didymus told her, although it sounded as if he were reminding himself. Ambrosius whined. Ofelia patted the quivering dog's head.
Something bumped against her shoe. She looked down and saw a crystal sphere resting in the dust. It rolled several inches away when she reached for it. She walked over to it at the border of the path but the crystal rolled away once more. "Look at this!" she told Sir Didymus.
The fox had been muttering to himself. "My lady, you should stay on the path!" he said in an alarmed voice when he saw where she stood.
"I'm just looking at this crystal. I think I'm supposed to follow it." She pointed.
"You shouldn't do that. I'm certain we're going the right way."
She stepped off the path. The crystal began to roll slowly, but without stopping. Somehow it propelled itself across the level ground. Now Ofelia didn't look at anything else. She focused all her attention on the crystal. "Come on!" she called to Sir Didymus.
"Stay on the path!" he answered but already he sounded far away.
The crystal rolled faster. She ran after it. The ferns and weeds tickled her legs. Often the crystal rolled beneath the plants but each time she saw the gleam shining through. Not once did she look up at what she passed. She heard only her loud breath and footsteps.
The crystal came to rest against the roots of a tree. The sphere vanished when she touched it.
A woman's voice said, "Ofelia."
It was so familiar that she responded before remembering that she should not be hearing that voice. She couldn't hear it ever again. Half-hoping, half-afraid, she looked up. An elegant woman sat upon the large tree roots. Her dark hair was coiled at the nape of her neck and she wore a black dress. She smiled.
Ofelia dove into her mother's arms.
Carmen looked healthy now, as she had before the pregnancy had begun to make her weak. She smiled and her eyes were lively.
Ofelia buried her face in her mother's shoulder. "I miss you, Mama." Her mother felt warm and real, and there was a heartbeat under the black dress she had been buried in.
Carmen shifted Ofelia's weight on her lap. "I miss you, too." Her strong fingers laced themselves together around the girl's thin shoulders.
Ofelia leaned back so as to look into her mother's face. ""Are you a ghost?"
Carmen laughed and hugged her tighter. "Looking for fairies under every tree—you'll never change."
Ofelia looked away from her mother then. "Do you know what I did?"
Carmen sighed. She uncurled one arm and used her fingers to come through the knots in the girl's short hair. She found a stubborn one and Ofelia winced. "Only that you wished your brother away because you wanted to make things better. And that you have to pass a test for it to happen."
"I couldn't let the Captain keep him."
Her mother sighed. "He did a lot for us after your father died."
"He hates me. When he looks at me he wishes I was in the ground beside you. He doesn't love Andrés."
Carmen made a tiny noise. "Andrés?"
"I told the Goblin King that's what you wanted to name him. Was that all right?"
"Oh, Ofelia." She hugged the girl tighter until the air squeaked out of Ofelia's chest.
"Mama!" Carmen loosened her grip. She smiled and wept at the same time.
"How did you get here?" Ofelia asked.
"I wandered for a long time and found myself here. I felt you nearby and waited until you could reach me."
"Do you believe now? The fairies and the goblins and magic are real. There are Fauns, and monsters that have eyes in their hands, and worms that can talk. One of them invited me into his home for tea."
"I grew very small and went in his house between cracks in the wall. I met his wife and they showed me how to get to the next part of the labyrinth."
"And I'm sure they were very nice worms."
"Will you stay with me? Andrés will want you."
"You will have to keep him safe for me. Can you do that?"
Carmen kissed the girl's forehead. "You are the best daughter I ever wished for."
"I love you, Mama." Ofelia embraced her mother and shut her eyes.
"My lady!" The voice was loud in her ear. Something tickled her face and she brushed it away. "My lady!" it said again, even louder this time.
Ofelia opened her eyes. She lay next to the roots of the tree where her mother had been. Carmen wasn't there. As she sat up, the crystal fell out of the curve of her elbow. "Did you see her?"
"Who, my lady?"
She looked around. "My mother was here."
"There is nobody else," Sir Didymus told her.
"But she was here!" Ofelia's eyes grew hot. She blinked and the tears remained at bay.
"There's nobody else around," he told her gently. "I warned you not to follow that crystal. You know the Goblin King uses them."
"So he tricked me?" She threw the crystal away. It lay glittering in a pile of leaves, small and innocent-looking. "Was she even here?"
"It's difficult to say. Sometimes he creates only illusions. Sometimes what you see is real if you believe it. Sometimes, they cause visions."
Ofelia hugged her knees. "I really thought it was her. Mama's dead, but it felt like her."
"She may have been real. But I do not think you will ever know for certain."
They found the path after a short while. Sir Didymus continued to chatter away, though he had his hands full: Ambrosius was the sort of dog to shy at monsters in the shrubbery (whether or not anything really lurked there) and Sir Didymus had to calm him frequently.
The forest came to an end and a cobblestone walkway appeared. A short distance away they saw an enormous wall with padlocks on the gates. A palace rose up behind the wall.
Ofelia ran up to the wall. She didn't see a guard or hear anything on the other side. "Have you ever been inside?" she asked.
"A few times," he said. "The goblins like to tease my poor Ambrosius but for you, my lady, I shall storm the gates until they are unlocked for you."
"You don't have to do that." She pulled the remaining stub of chalk from her pocket. "I have this."
"I am sorry, but I don't see how that can help you."
"The chalk is magic. A Faun gave it to me so that I could make my own doors."
"You should be wary of him, my lady. I have known Fauns and they don't always tell the whole truth. It amuses them to hide things."
Ofelia bit her lips. "He scares me sometimes. But I have to save my brother and this is all I have."
"Well then, if you must, you must. I shall accompany you to the castle."
"You don't have to. You already helped me so much."
"Nonsense!" The feather in his hat bristled. "I should be remiss in my duties if I let a lady go unescorted in such a place."
"I'm almost out of time," she said. "I'll just run right to the castle. They won't even see me. Besides, you have to think of Ambrosius. The Goblin King wouldn't like it if he knew you helped me."
"If that is what you truly wish," he said reluctantly. "But rest assured I shall wait here for news of your success."
She smiled. "Thank you." One hand clutching the watch, she used the other to draw a door on the gate. The metal swung open and she stepped in.
She had expected the city to be much busier. Only a few creatures were out and about. As when she left the mill, everyone she saw now acted as though she were invisible. She had never seen any drawings of goblins in her books before coming to the labyrinth. Despite the variety of shapes, none of the goblins she saw in the distance stood higher than her waist. They had round faces and wild hair. Several seemed to be wearing buckets as helmets. The few that were out in groups talked to each other in accents so strange that she could barely understand them.
Ofelia ducked around the backs of houses. She looked around corners before turning them. Once a goblin looked straight in her direction but seemed to see only the house behind her. After that she ran to the castle.
Nobody stopped her. She came to a grand set of stairs outside the castle and hurried up them. The doors were unlocked. She arrived in a large chamber. An empty throne sat at the far end of the room. She couldn't hear anybody through the hallways branching off of the room.
A cradle stood by the throne. Ofelia crept near. The dark wood was engraved with designs of all sorts of strange creatures. Some of the shapes were twisted and disturbed her, yet all the creatures smiled.
She looked into the cradle. Andrés lay there, swaddled in his blanket. He stared at her with his dark eyes and broke into a gurgling laugh. She brushed her fingers along the curve of his cheek.
A pair of gloved hands appeared on the side of the cradle and rocked it gently.
"Did I arrive in time?" Ofelia asked.
"Just barely," the Goblin King said. "You had maybe a few minutes to spare."
"And I win? You'll keep him safe, like you said?" she asked, wanting to believe it but afraid to hope.
"That was what we agreed."
"And…will he stay human?"
The Goblin King looked upon the baby. "I have never had a child stay here and not turn into a goblin. But no person has ever wished away her brother because she thought being here was better. Allowing him to remain in this shape could be arranged." He looked at her sharply. "You should know that no person who lives here can ever be completely human."
The baby fell back asleep. Ofelia's hand rested atop the blankets. She felt his warmth even through the layers of cloth.
"It's time for you to leave." She didn't look up. "Ofelia."
"He's my brother," she said. "He'll be alone now."
"He won't. Your story doesn't continue here; you have to go back to your own world and your own labyrinth. He'll know what you did for him."
Ofelia nodded. She leaned closer to the cradle and a small bundle fell out of her pocket. It was the handkerchief of earth from their mother's grave. Leaving it tied closed, she placed it next to her brother. She bent to kiss him goodbye. One tear landed next to his left eye. For the rest of Andrés' life he would have a birthmark by the corner of his left eye, a tiny stain that looked like a teardrop.
The Goblin King took Ofelia's hand once again. She turned away from her brother and a piece of her heart broke. They walked down a hallway and entered a room that defied the laws of gravity. Staircases built of tan stone were built coming out of all the walls, right side up and upside-down. They broke off in the air, nothing that she could see holding them up.
"This will take you home," the Goblin King said. He led her to the edge of their walkway; it was a long way down and dozens of staircases hung in the air below. He stretched out his free hand and a crystal appeared. He gave it to her. "Keep this until you get there."
Ofelia hung back from the drop.
"You won't fall. Think of your labyrinth and step forward."
Ofelia could see no expression on his face, neither regret not satisfaction nor curiosity. She nodded once. "Thank you. Tell him that he has a sister who loves him." She closed her eyes and jumped.
Ofelia stood at the bottom of the staircase in her labyrinth. The Faun was nowhere to be seen. The sky above her was still hot with daylight and she heard the hum of insects. In her hands she still held the crystal ball. Ofelia dried her eyes and began to climb the stairs out of the hole. She wondered what waited for her in the daylight.
The pocket watch lay upon the Goblin King's throne. It had stopped at 13 o'clock several hours before Ofelia had reached the castle.