The morning after Sarah Williams defeats the Goblin King, she gets up and makes toast. She has to brush some glitter off the toaster—it withers and vanishes at the brush of her fingertips, and she stares at her hand for a long time.
It mostly just looks like her hand. Even when she turns it over, and sees where she scraped her knuckles against the oubliette, where the shattered mirror cut the back of her wrist. It looks like she fell, or was playing in the street. That’s all.
The toast comes out burned, and Sarah stares at that too. Eventually, she slumps down against the cabinets and cries, wracking sobs that send her dad and Karen rushing into kitchen. They check her forehead for a fever, put their hands on her, and keep asking, “Are you okay? Sarah, please, tell us what’s wrong…”
Eventually, her dad drags her into his lap and cradles her against his chest, like he did when she was little. Her legs are too long to really fit anymore, but Sarah hugs him around the neck anyway. “It’ll be okay," he says, keeps saying. "You’ll be okay.” And Sarah—doesn’t laugh, because she can’t, and doesn’t have the words to express what—how—
(None of her stories ever talked about this. What did Sir George do, the morning after he slayed the last dragon in England? Did Tam Lin eat breakfast, or did he sit there, shivering, wondering if his hands were different, having been claws and wings and scales?)
Afterwards, she leaves the burnt toast outside on the back porch. Not an offering. Maybe a reminder.
It’s Didymus she sees the most often, mostly because he’s the one who invites himself rather than waiting for an invitation. He comes for tea, but even if there’s no tea—which there isn’t, usually—he comes to tell Sarah stories. She learns to love poetry because there’s no escaping it with him. (She won’t read Idylls of the King until Brit Lit in college, but she ends up scrawling a lot in the margins; Didymus’ telling of events had been much more interesting.)
Once, she falls asleep like that, her hands tucked behind her head with Didymus curled up and sleepily reciting from the crook of her elbow. “So tender was her voice, so fair her face—though I don’t think he was looking at her face, my lady, pardon me for saying so—”
Sarah buries her nose in his fur. Didymus always smells of rosewater, and a crispness she thinks is just…the Labyrinth. She falls asleep trying to place it.
She wakes up with a wild fox in her bed, animal-black eyes frightened and flat, teeth bared. The fox is whining, and she’s tempted to throw herself across the room, to get away from this wild thing and its teeth. It takes a monumental will to keep herself still and her breathing slow, even; like she’s still asleep and unafraid.
It takes her longer to swallow, and start humming one of the songs he taught her—a knight’s round, he’d said. She’s shaky at first, but the fox’s ears flick forward. It cocks its head, and slowly, the teeth disappear behind its lips.
She almost laughs when noses at her throat curiously, butting its head against her jaw like a cat might.
Not long after, she comes home from school to find a piece of parchment, folded over many times and sealed with wax, sitting on her bed. I do not think it wise for me to return so soon, Didymus writes. I do not know—what chanced that night, but I cannot risk such debasement again. Many apologies.
In a different style of handwriting—spiky, with too many flourishes on the ‘t’s—someone has written a postscript: stop turning my subjects into yours. they lose too much in the transmutation.
Sarah pretends she doesn’t know who left it there.
The thing about humans, he would say, if she asked (she’s never asked) is that there’s too much iron in them—iron in their blood and iron in their bones. Teeth. Iron enough to make a nail so they made nails, and swords, and hammers, and walls and ships. Everything Aboveground is cold iron, leeching into the soil and the water and the air. It means that everything rusts, all things move towards entropy, even magic.
But down, in the Underground—
She can feel him, sometimes, testing his limits. Not the owl—though occasionally she sees feathers from the corner of her eye—but more a sense of pressure, a heaviness. Static electricity, jumping between her and door handles. Once, she’s walking home from school with a friend and they look up, suddenly. “Do you feel that?” Denise Yarmley asks, squinting up at the relentlessly blue sky. “I wonder if it’s going to storm.”
Sarah lets him. Mostly because it’s…strangely reassuring, to know he’s there, even at sixteen, at eighteen. Sometimes she tests him back—walks along the edge of the bridge with her eyes shut, goes down dark alleys by herself. She’s pretty sure she imagines the hand between her shoulder blades, steadying her, or the sound of heeled boots on pavement, just step behind.
Still, she’s alone, the first time he tries to pass the threshold.
She’s alone, and her ears pop with the sudden shift in pressure; the air tastes sickly, like rotting honeysuckle. Worse is the sensation of being watched; she can practically feel him breathing against her skin, hot and damp and full of sparks.
Anger is a whipcord, and she grabs a hold of it, lashes out. When she stands, her biology textbook and sheaf of college-lined notes all slide to the carpet with a thump; she ignores them. She can feel him breathing, how dare he—in this house, where she lives, where Toby lives—
“I did not give you permission,” she says, and her voice comes out clear and cold as iron, or running water, other things she thinks his kind hate. (They didn’t exactly discuss what ‘kind’ he is, but she’s read enough fairytales to guess. Even if Andrew Lang left out the leather pants, and drugged fruit.)
The air feels like it’s holding its breath. Sarah Williams exhales, curling her hands into fists. “I said, get out.”
The presence vanishes.
Afterwards, every time she turns on the radio, it’s playing a song she likes. She can’t decide if it’s an offering, and whether to accept it.
“You look different,” she says to Hoggle. She’s eighteen and trying to decide what to bring with her to college; he’s supposed to be helping her, but actually she’s spent most of the past twenty minutes trying to explain the entire concept of college, and why she won’t be living in her father’s house anymore.
“Well, it’s a different sort of you, looking,” Hoggle says in that matter-of-fact way he has.
Sarah scoffs. “That’s not how it works. Things don’t change how they are just because I’m different.”
Hoggle, who now looks like something from a Rackham illustration, all floppy ears and abnormally-long, smooth limbs, huffs. “Shows what you know. Hope they teach you some common sense, at your fancy school.”
They don’t, really. Her roommate thinks she’s insane, for tucking the little bag of herbs and rocks into the corner of the windowsill, and thumbtacking another beside the door. She claims it makes the room smell bad—like honeysuckle and rosewater and something rotten, something off. But neither of them is ever late for class, no uninvited guest passes the threshold, and when Jason MacAllen sets off the sprinkler system on a dare, their room is dry as a bone.
“Maybe I can change you back,” Sarah says, her head propped up on a hand as she watches Hoggle eat his body weight in hostess snacks. Mostly her roommate’s. (She’s been reading a lot of horror lately, his mouth has taken on a grotesque slope, with too many teeth.) “Do you want to go back to—what you were?”
Hoggle shrugs. “T’wouldn’t be much of a point. You’d still be looking, wouldn’t you?”
(The observer effect, Sarah’s physics class teaches her. The act of looking at a thing changes the thing itself.)
The roommate moves in with her boyfriend halfway through the year. Sarah doesn’t miss her at all.
The thing about iron is that it draws all things to it. Even just to rust.
She honestly thought he’d show up—well, when she was seventeen and Peter Jacobson took her to the prom, then to a motel after. Even before she wrote her Comparative Lit final on psychosexual angst in fairytale reinterpretation, she knew maidenhood was important. (It was always Snow White and Red Riding Hood sent into the forest, not their stepmothers. Adventures happened to fifteen year old girls in white dresses, on the cusp of becoming complicated. Never those who have gone over.)
Sarah had been so sure that she had sat up awake afterwards, shivering in the too-cold motel room and peering into the dark, waiting—
But the Goblin King had not come. He had not come the first time, or any of the times after. She’d stopped expecting him, really.
Which is why Sarah stops dead at the sight of him, standing in the middle of the sidewalk. He’s shed the feathers, the glitter; if it weren’t for the long blue velvet coat and the shock of white-blonde hair, she wouldn’t have recognized him at all.
In the weak morning light, he looks almost…tired.
“Any further, and I will come into your kingdom,” he says, while she stares. The wind almost steals the words away—there’s still yards between them, more than a few sidewalk blocks, with weeds growing up through the cracks.
She laughs when she realizes he’s standing at the very edge of campus, where the public concrete turns into brick. One more step, even if he just leans, and he’ll cross the boundary.
Sarah didn’t know she owned a college.
She has to walk around him—skirting the edge of his long coat, which overflows the sidewalk, and drags on the grass—to plant her feet on her kingdom. She think she imagines the way he bends, just slightly, like a plant following the sun, as she moves past him.
His face is changed. His eyes are not.
“Hi,” Sarah Williams says to the Goblin King. She wishes she’d redone her makeup, or borrowed one of Steve’s jackets. Not that the Goblin King is staring (it would be easier, if he were staring) but she wants more armor for this fight than a miniskirt and a blouse wrinkled from a night on the floor.
He is looking at her, and it’s an awful cliche how much he looks at her like a man dying of thirst. Like she’s water. When he notices her looking back, his mouth twists in a small smile. “You are cruel as iron, Sarah Williams,” he says, finally.
She waits for him to go on. “Is there anything else?” she asks, when he doesn’t.
“Is your intent to taunt me with them?”
“The—whelps, the boys you lay with. I thought they merely the indulgence of youth, but this one has lasted almost a twelvemonth. Are you trying to wound me?”
Sarah stares. She can’t help but laugh, breathless with how presumptuous—“If you disapprove, don’t watch.”
For a moment, he looks like she remembers—cold and fey and strange as he had been amid the ruins of the Escher room. Then it slides away, and he is tired again. “Fidelity is supposed to be the great virtue of your kind,” he says, and she can’t help laughing, still.
“You have no power over me, Goblin King,” she says, and his eyes (unchanged, after all this time) narrow. “So you have no right to my fidelity. You can’t ask that from me.”
“A fact you taunt me with!”
“I’m not taunting you! I barely think of you at all!” Sarah shouts, and he jerks back, cringing away
It’s early and the world is quiet, but the silence is somehow deeper, between them. Sarah licks her lips, swallows. “I don’t—I don’t think about you,” she repeats, more quietly. “It’s just my life.”
The Goblin King is staring blankly; no emotion in his face at all. Without his smirks and songs to distract her, it’s almost terrifying, to watch the inhumanity of him laid bare. (There’s a part of the human brain that remembers what it was like, to be something small, cowering from beautiful monsters with cold blood. It screams, in recognition.)
Sarah shuts her eyes. When she opens them again, he’s still looking at her. “Is it the one you want?” the Goblin King asks Sarah Williams, there on the concrete sidewalk that spans the chasm between her kingdom and his. “This life you have here, with the whelp—is it the one you desire?”
Sarah laughs quietly, crossing her arms over her stomach. The chill of the morning is finally getting to her; she can feel herself shivering. “Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s—it’s still better than peaches.”
She’s cold, so he gives her the blue coat in exchange for a kiss, her mouth with fading lipstick pressed dryly to his cheek. She almost loses her balance, and she can feel him shudder, when she digs her fingers into his shoulders to steady herself.
The hem of the coat drags across the grass as she makes her way back to the dorm. That afternoon, none of the students know what to make of all the cornflowers, growing up from the dust.
The other thing about iron: it always knows where north is, seeks it. You cannot lie to iron.
Ludo is the only one who’s never changed, in all the years between. He’s still burnt orange, with horns like a brindled goat. Sarah couldn’t count the hours she spends curled up against him, studying or reading as he brushes out her hair, sings nonsense songs. Sometimes his teeth look a little sharper, or his paws become talons, but Ludo is himself, ever
Which is maybe why she’s so surprised when he comes to her with a cream letter in a silver envelope, stamped with wax and signed, jareth, the goblin king. She hadn’t expected it from a creature so straightforward as Ludo.
“I don’t like him,” Sarah says, holding the silver letter in her hand.
Ludo moans, and she scowls at his tone. Uses her nail file to break the wax seal open.
She doesn’t blush, reading it. It’s not an offering, a favor, or a gift; there’s nothing flowery there, no compliments or flattery. It’s a plain apology, which is rarer, and more precious. She isn’t so young she doesn’t know that.
Sarah tucks it into her desk drawer, attempts to forget about it. How he called her, dearest one, nearest my heart.
Her senior year, she goes down to the sea—with her friends, the ordinary human ones—to celebrate spring and their last grasp at freedom. Sarah honestly forgets the name of the town when she tells this story. It was cool and smelled of the tide; she ate shellfish, and built fires on the rocky beach. She fell asleep that way almost every night, listening to cold-water mermaids sing about oil tankers, and sailors who stopped breathing when they dragged them under.
No one else can hear them but her.
And maybe that’s—her ears are full of mermaid song and her belly is warm with beer and wine spritzers, and she decides to walk back from the bar alone, through dark alleys and down the rocky beach. A test, like when she was seventeen and guiltily enjoyed the idea of a Goblin King in love with her. (Hold me fast and fear me not, and she could never decide which of them was supposed to be Janet and who was Tam Lin.)
She smiles when she hears heeled boots, a step behind her in the alley.
“You should walk with me, Goblin King,” she says, but she’s still surprised when he does. It only takes him a few steps and he’s there, dressed in blue-black shadows and smelling of honeysuckle, carrying the heat in his wake. His makeup is darker around his eyes and mouth; it looks like bruises.
He is very beautiful. Never let it be said that Sarah Williams does not know how beautiful her Goblin King is.
“You’re drunk,” the Goblin King says.
“A little,” Sarah says. “But you shouldn’t complain, you know.”
“I’m not complaining,” Jareth, the Goblin King, says. “I’m noting.”
“Oh, fine then,” Sarah says, and takes his arm, laughing when he puffs up, his feathers ruffled like a bird’s by her closeness. His eyes are animal-black and frightened. (Sarah does not sing for him, though she might if she thought it would soothe the wildness, chase it from him.)
She says, “I can’t eat peaches anymore, you know.”
He says, “I hardly see why that’s my fault.”
“I liked peaches.”
“So eat them.”
“Trauma,” she says, and he snorts. It is very unmythical.
“Yes, my sincerest apologies for a sparkly dress and a ball.”
The sky is clear when they step out of from the shadows, onto the water front. Starlight makes him stranger still, and Sarah spends a few minutes deciding that she will not touch his skin, no matter how beautiful he is in the jagged, silver starlight.
“I was trying to save my brother. You just have terrible timing, Goblin King.”
“So if I asked you to dance now—?” he asks, and somehow they’re on the rocky beach already, the sound of the sea crashing against the shore in her ears. (Here is the secret about mermaid song: they love the oil tankers, all those sailors with slick black painted on their bodies. Never underestimate the capacity of a thing to love what can destroy it, or to destroy it in turn.)
“You haven’t asked me, Goblin King,” Sarah Williams says, and he catches her, when she trips over a rock. The moonlight is weak, but his eyes still burn silver, and she burns too.
Sarah Williams has read all the fairytales and folklore. She knows exactly how to ask, to count out pomegranate seeds and give real consideration, weight if she’s heavy with child or just desperate. And she knows exactly how to turn up the next morning, her eyeliner smudged and lipstick worn away, but smiling, still.
Her jewelry was gold, the night before. Moonlight turns all things grey, and bright.
The thing about goblins—or fairies, she’s still not sure what he’s supposed to be—is that there are rules. (Not like iron, the Goblin King would say, if he were invited to take part in this conversation, which he isn’t. Iron obeys no laws except its own will. Like her.)
But goblins have rules. They are cruel, and unjust, but they are rules all the same. Stricter than laws. Cold as iron.
The rules say: a favor for a favor. The rules say: you cannot take what isn’t given. The rules say: one, and that’s all and everything.
The Goblin King called fidelity a virtue of Sarah’s kind, but he was the one who picked her. All and everything. No takebacks. Not ever.
The celebrations have subsided. She’s a graduate now—Latin, prayed over her degree, summa cum like an invocation (though there was an invocation, and Sarah had wanted to laugh at it. Or not laugh, but maybe question which god, and why. Didn’t they know how cruel some of them could be?)
This is her own private ceremonial; apart from the school-sanctioned or family-attended. Sarah had to search three different liquor stores for mead—actual mead, that smells like honeysuckle and the sharpness of alcohol, underneath. She takes a nervous drink from the bottle, even as she kicks off her shoes and walks barefoot, across the grass.
She’s technically not supposed to be in the park after sundown, but she’s also not supposed to open-carry alcohol, or pour a little out onto the dirt. She’s not supposed to feel the dull ache of desire, hoping her prayer is answered—
This is an offering, but she’s still surprised how quickly he comes.
He looks around anxiously, taking in what is her kingdom, and has been for the past four years. “I was summoned here,” Jareth, the Goblin King, says.
“I did not trespass.”
“I know that too. I invited you.”
He stares. His eyes are ever the same. “Why?”
“I wanted to see you.”
She offers the bottle of mead out to him, and he drinks. His eyes never leave her face, even though the dark of almost-night envelops them both. “You have no power over me,” Sarah says casually, and watches him choke.
“Yes,” the Goblin King rasps, once he has recovered his breath. “This is true.”
“What about you?” she asks, and the Goblin King shudders, the way he did when she dug her fingers into his shoulders, nails-first. “Do I have power over you?”
She takes his mouth, pressed to the pulse-point of her throat, as an affirmative.
A final truth about iron: it alloys with silver only rarely. It takes too much pressure, and heat, and what some—the uninitiated, fools—might call magic.