"War does not determine who is right, only who is left." – Bertrand Russell
Six Years Prior…
He sat there, kneeling in the destroyed remnants of the west wing that had been inspired by one of the posters in her bedroom, for what seemed like hours. He'd crafted it meticulously, certain that it would be the final piece to the puzzle that was the willfully determined girl he had to beat and would secure his success.
He had been wrong.
The place was eerie and quiet – no goblins, no other denizens, friendly or otherwise, disturbed him. He didn't register the passage of time, only realizing the length in which he had remained there when his knees began to ache from where they were pressed to the stone floor underneath him.
Snarling, he shoved a hand forward and shattered another block of the stone wall in front of him, watching the sharp chunks of stone float away in the chaotic heap of unconstrained magic the room had been reduced to.
Willing a crystal into his palm, he stared as she returned to her room in accordance with the old rules formed by the Underground and the Labyrinth itself. Still, despite his anger, he found himself begrudgingly impressed. A mortal – a girl no less – had bested him at his own game and done it fairly.
Closing his eyes and tapping into his power, he felt the magic pull at his flesh and he was suddenly spreading his wings and flying, hovering above her home. Casting an eye downwards, he watched her parents return and idly heard their calls for her. She responded, then seemed quiet for a moment, only to hear his own subjects suddenly voice their presence.
Gliding down, he settled into the branches of the tree across from her room, watching what unfolded. Rancor flooded his senses briefly as he watched his subjects dance with her, enjoying in her ruin of him, but still he stood guard. He could sense the Labyrinth portal in her mirror and his talons briefly dug into the bark of the branch he held onto but he did nothing – simply continuing to stare.
For the oddest of reasons, one he couldn't press to explain if he tried, he closed his predatory eyes and willed a silent command on a whim to the occupants within the home. So quick it would be hard-pressed to notice without a trained eye, ice crystals formed on the window and then on the girl's skin and her guests, making them briefly pause in their festivities and shiver for a moment before the cold marks were gone.
She turned then, when the group had frozen for a moment, almost spotting him, but he'd since flown away, only seeing the small twist of her form before he had stretched his wings and released his hold on the branch outside her window.
He knew there would be consequences to the summation of tonight's events and he had to prepare.
The runner was failing.
He smiled briefly into the crystal he'd summoned between his fingers, twirling the loose stone before releasing it into the ether, studying the small child of two that sat in the center pit of his throne room. He felt the Labyrinth's power building as the frustrations of the mortal increased.
It wouldn't be long now.
Casting a hand upwards, he generated the summons to the fiefdoms who'd recently requested access to the lost child, willing them off to their suitable notaries.
Canting his head to the side, he looked down at the sight before him and relished his most recent upcoming victory, the bud of growing power at the mortal's impending loss almost ripe for the picking. The girl was small, dirty, and half-starved, clearly from a harsh area of the Aboveground. By the looks of the girl, he'd been surprised that the cousin had been determined to run for her. Still, given both their states, it wouldn't be long until the boy gave up.
The goblins had taken to her almost immediately, shoving little bits of food and drink in her mouth when she'd arrived screaming and hungry. They had coaxed her into submission and now she was grinning and playfully chewing on whatever the creatures found to feed her, obviously more than whatever had been sustaining her previously – a sign of how dire her previous circumstances had been by the willingness to eat whatever was offered.
His eyes shifted as he felt a cold presence appear in his throne room, glancing across the recesses of the space to find a smirking member of the peerage studying him with cold eyes. The room and the thrumming rustle of the goblin's activities suddenly ceased, sensing her alien presence in the room. The woman seemed unphased at the amount of yellow and red eyes staring at her in silence.
"Good morning, Neverin. What brings you to the Labyrinth?" He replied calmly, forcing any inflection out of his voice as he addressed the viscountess.
The woman smiled dispassionately, her blonde ethereal beauty in stark contrast to the crude creatures gracing the floor and walls of his throne room. She stepped forward, her red velvet skirts swishing quietly along the discarded litter that crunched under her heels, tilting her head and giving the child a brief glance before looking back at Jareth. If she was disgusted by the filth he purposefully let his creatures maintain in his throne room, it didn't show. That briefly disappointed him but also made his observation of her sharpen – she was here with a purpose if she was willing to soil her dress in an effort to talk to him.
"You have not answered your summons to Lucius. I am here as a reminder that they cannot be ignored much longer."
Jareth felt his insides tense but snorted faintly with a hint of disrespect. "I am not his jester, free to do his bidding as he wants on a whim. I have a runner, as you can see." He summoned a crystal and gestured at the boy struggling to make it past the stone pillars at the beginning of the Labyrinth.
Briefly, his thoughts betrayed him as he turned his gaze to watch the boy, thinking back to four months ago when she had been the runner in question. She had made it much further by the sixth hour. What a pity.
"I can tell," she replied calmly, looking back at him as the crystal vanished from his fingertips. "Still, you have not had runners the entire past fortnight since you received the summons. Explain."
Jareth sat up and stood, slowly descending the raised dais his throne rested on to peer down at the child. He felt a few of the missives he'd sent out return from the ether, raising a hand and reviewing the replies, ignoring the woman beside him for a moment.
Troll claim, gnome claim, sprite claim. Glancing over the girl's weakened form, he dismissed the first two and replied to the sprite notary that the girl would be released to their court at the succession of the run, sending his response back into the ether.
"I'm waiting," the woman smoothly interjected into the silence of the throne room at his side. Jareth glanced back at her and contemplated his choices, keeping his face schooled. He knew it would only been a matter of time before they'd come.
"The run shall be concluded in seven hours. I shall arrive shortly after," he replied.
The woman nodded and soon vanished from sight. He summoned his crop and stood there, staring at the spot she'd been in for several minutes. Slowly, the goblins shifted, nervously eyeing their monarch.
In a whirl too fast to catch to any but a fae, he turned sharply and shattered a casket of ale they'd been drinking with his free fist, the noise sudden and deafening. The child jumped, startled, and began crying loudly in fright.
"Call me when the boy gives up," he snarled, stalking out of the throne room, the goblins nodding and quickly moving out of his way.
He shifted effortlessly into the center of the crowded court room, dressed in silky dark tones indicating his station that best suited his silvery-blonde coloring, the rich brocade reflecting the glow from the lanterns scattered around the cavernous room. The court panel lounged in their seats ahead of him in a raised dais with stone chairs of impressive stature, the High King seated at the throne in the center. They hadn't appeared to be waiting long, dropping their casual conversation to stare at him with crisp intensity when he appeared.
Sweeping back his coattails, Jareth bowed in the presence of Lucius and ignored the peerage behind him who had pressed their heads together and begun to whisper the moment he had arrived. He had expected some turnout but the rumors of what had occurred must have become common knowledge with the size of the murmuring crowd at his back. Rising slowly, he heard the quick rap of a gavel, indicating his summons hearing was in progress.
A stillness descended in the marbled opulence of the court room and Jareth waited idly for the first question, schooling the impatience he felt out of his features.
"Your run was successful in adding ranks to the sprite kingdom?" Began the High King, casting a disdainful glance over Jareth's form. Jareth could feel a brush of mind magic tease his senses and he tightened his defenses, feeling the sensation fade with a slow gleam in his eyes as he shut down the probing magic. Did you think it would be that easy?
"Yes, Your Grace. The girl joined them within the hour," he replied with a slow smile, noting the flare of animosity that briefly entered Lucius' eyes as he answered, reaffirming Jareth's theory that the probe had been from him.
"Good, good," Lucius interjected, overriding the last bit of Jareth's words. "The sprite kingdom has had dwindling numbers. I assume she did not meet the requirements of the other two petitions?"
Jareth stared, forcing his smile to remain in place despite his annoyance rising. He'd expected the High King to be monitoring him, but not to that degree. "Indeed, Your Grace. She was too fragile to survive the transformation of the other two. Better to add to the sprite population than risk a loss to the Underground as a whole, wouldn't you agree?"
Lucius nodded, glancing down at some thick parchments in front of him, ignoring the soft retort of Jareth's words. "You've been the steward of the Labyrinth for the past four centuries, correct?"
Jareth nodded, confirming with words what the entire courtroom already knew. "Correct…"
"And have you ever lost to a contestant in all that time?" Lucius asked, looking up sharply, his eyes narrowing, daring Jareth to utter a word out of line.
Jareth hesitated, forcing another slow smile on his lips. "Once."
The crowd burst to life then, the rustle of fabric reaching Jareth's ears as he kept his gaze locked with Lucius' own, no doubt springing at the chance to gossip in the background. The older man smiled from his perch, showing a hint of sharp teeth. Jareth didn't rise to the bait, simply staring back without emotion. He had known this was coming.
"And yet, you failed to notify the court." Lucius stated with overt tones, watching Jareth curiously as he set the parchments down, gesturing to them. "The Underground sustained a considerable drain at the loss of this runner and yet you did not attempt to capture and return her to regain this magic?"
"I did not, Your Grace."
Outraged cries came from the peerage behind him but Jareth remained still, watching the gleam enter Lucius' eyes. He knew the man had wanted him dethroned for centuries and now he was giving him his chance. Still, he could tell he rankled the man by not rising to the bait of playing the outraged victim.
"And by failing to do so, you allowed the very essence of our world to lose a source of stability and denied the court their established right to summon the Nokmim. Why?"
Again, he hesitated, a flash of Sarah appearing in his mind's eye. Because she bested me. We are not Gods, despite our attempts to be one. She – a mortal girl of fifteen – bested me. Countless runners have lost to me over the centuries and she won. She deserves her spoils. Despite the thoughts running rampant through his head, he held Lucius' gaze and answered simply, the peerage behind him having gone eagerly quiet, awaiting his answer. "Because she won fairly, Your Grace."
Explosive shouts erupted behind him as the High King smirked. Jareth stared, refusing to reduce himself to seeking mercy, knowing he would garner none. He knew the others would react just as they had now but he was firm in allowing Sarah her victory. He hadn't played fair and still she had won – he'd not let them take that from her now. Besides, the die had been cast the moment he'd visited her in the throes of her victory at her mortal home. Briefly, Lucius raised a hand and Jareth once more heard the crash of the gavel and silence descended once more in the large room.
"This court cares nothing for the fairness of mortals, you know this. Tell us the mortal's name and all will be forgiven. No one can be perfect all the time, even Kings. Give us the mortal's name and you can carry on in your duties unimpeded…" He flashed Jareth a knowing smile and Jareth knew then that he'd discovered what he had done.
"No," he replied softly, his eyes flashing despite the subdued sound of his voice. Another riot of shouts echoed out from behind him but he ignored them again. Lucius smiled perversely, the gleam in the depths of his stare telling him he enjoyed seeing Jareth's reputation drown in the eyes of the court. Still, he held his ground, keeping his expression void of emotion.
"This troubles me, Jareth, and it appears that it troubles the court and peerage, too." A loud chorus of agreements rolled over the crowd in swift succession of his words. Lucius smiled briefly around the room but motioned for the crowd to quiet, returning his gaze back towards Jareth once the crowd had settled into silence once more. "The Labyrinth is a vital source of magic for us and you let a mere mortal escape our realm and now refuse to give this mortal's name. Yet, despite these concerning actions, I assume you still see yourself fit to rule over the Labyrinth and all the responsibilities there?"
"Of course, Your Grace. You will note we've yet to have another victor."
"But if we did? Would you find, in your arrogance, that your judgment should supersede that of this court and once more turn the victor back to the mortal realm without notifying this council?" Lucius replied smoothly, canting his head to the side.
Jareth kept wisely quiet but the harsh epithets coming from behind him indicated there would be a reckoning to be had. Still, he'd set his fate some four months prior and requesting clemency would do little for him now and he wouldn't give Lucius the pleasure. Lucius stared, the tightening of his mouth subtle but enough for Jareth to notice, then turned his gaze to the floor, watching as Neverin entered the court from a side door, dressed in an exquisite dress of fine blue silk.
Jareth glanced back over at the woman who'd appeared before him earlier, biting the inside of his cheek to hold back the snort that threatened to roll out of him. Neverin was a viscountess and a powerful magic user and he immediately knew her reasoning for appearing. She was also a favorite of Lucius' notorious carnal appetites, having held his undivided attention far longer than Jareth had originally thought she would. He glanced back up at the High King, feeling his predatory gaze turned towards him and Lucius smiled once more, the expression an exercise in irony.
"Neverin, dear, thank you for joining us on such short notice. Please, discover the name of this mortal the Goblin King insists on keeping from us." The woman smiled up at the High King and bowed, moving towards Jareth. He didn't bother protesting, settling into the chair that was summoned at his side, gently brushing his coattails back as he sat, watching the woman approach.
Lucius continued on in the background. "Let it be known that an outside source had to be summoned to grant the court the name of this mystery mortal. A secondary trial for the competence of the current Goblin King's continued hold on the throne of the Labyrinth will be held at a later date. It is a pity, had he not withheld her name, he would not be facing these trials. One must begin to suspect his motivations towards us, my fellow peers."
Jareth did snort then, knowing there would be no trial. He closed his eyes as Neverin approached, hearing the soft clink of her heels against the marble. Her fingers skated along his temples and suddenly he felt the sharp pull of her magic. She hadn't chosen to be gentle and he had expected nothing less, ready for the unblunted singe of her probe.
She jerked back, staring at him with a brief stunned expression and he had to catch himself from swaying at the immediate absence of the pain, which had almost been as jarring as the sudden impact of her magic. Still, he managed to hold her gaze briefly with a look of sardonic amusement. Color scalded the hollow of her cheeks, the only indication of her ire, and she turned her gaze back to Lucius, who watched them with interest from his perch.
"I can't see the name," she stated in a brittle tone. Lucius' expression slowly turned dark as the crowd behind him once more rippled with gossip, too leery of the king's rising anger to outright shout at this stage in the hearing.
"Summon a denizen of the Labyrinth, test them. Do it." He hissed, gripping the armrests of his throne as he glowered at Jareth.
Jareth smiled slowly back. Checkmate. You didn't think I would have realized that?
Neverin stepped away sharply from Jareth and waved a hand at her side. Suddenly, Hoggle appeared, looking startled and frightened. He cast Jareth an imploring gaze but Jareth ignored him. Despite his frustrations with the dwarf, he didn't want the creature hurt but there was nothing to be done now but watch. Hoggle turned in trepidation, suddenly catching sight of Neverin and the court panel. Realizing who he was in the presence of, he cowered on the marble floor and pulled his cap off his head. "Y-Your Grace….?"
"Silence, dwarf. Neverin, continue." Lucius commanded, ignoring Hoggle's pleading gaze. Neverin stepped towards the dwarf with a brief flicker of disdain but did as she was asked, gripping the temple of the aged dwarf between her smooth fingers and probing ruthlessly. Unlike Jareth, Hoggle let out a wrenched cry and jerked in Neverin's grasp but her hold was too strong to wrestle out of. Eventually, she stopped and Hoggle flung himself away from the woman, curling into a ball on the marble floor and letting out a series of pained moans. Lucius rolled his eyes at the sight of Hoggle and gestured at the dwarf with impatience and Neverin vanished him back to where she must have plucked him from the outskirts of the Labyrinth before she turned once more to the King.
Again, her agitation was briefly apparent, but she looked up at the King with a clean expression, her tone concise as she delivered her findings. "There is no memory of a recent run with a mortal victory there. He has suppressed it somehow. I was unable to negate the spell."
Lucius' expression turned thunderous as he jerked to a stand when he heard Neverin's words, a wave of outrage sweeping up from the crowd behind him in tandem with his rising anger. "You dare!"
Jareth simply flashed another sliver of a smile and shrugged a single shoulder, feeling the combined wrath of the peerage behind him as they demanded his crown and his blood for his actions.
Lucius stared venomously at Jareth, jerking his hand at the guards by the court panel to circle around the Goblin King. "Seize him! Restrain him!"
Jareth didn't protest again when four knights rushed up and restrained him with rough grips. He felt the cold shackles of magic suppressing cuffs lock around his wrists, watching Lucius all the while, finally allowing a glimmer of amusement to reflect in his eyes. He felt the chair dissolve underneath him and did not grunt when his knees painfully hit the cold marble floor beneath him, keeping his composure, which only seemed to agitate the High King more. Relishing his small victory, despite his losses, he leaned back on his heels, watching Lucius' rage suffuse his face with a small measure of delight.
"Jareth, King of the Goblins and custodian of the Labyrinth, you are forthwith stripped of your title and powers associated with the land. You will remain in custody while the measure of your crimes are discussed with the fellow peers of this court panel. In the interim, Viscountess Neverin will assume your title and all its responsibilities, effective immediately."
Jareth threw back his head and laughed, letting rancor color his voice. "Neverin? Well, it certainly helps your political aspirations if the new sovereign is your bedmate, does it not? How does Queen Maeve feel about your decision, oh high one?"
With that, Jareth felt a blow to his temple, making his head spin. Lucius had stood, shouting down at him, but he was no longer able to make out the words, a warm flow coating his eyes and eventually making his vision cloudy at best. When it reached his lips, he realized it was blood.
Flashing the crowd a bloody smile when it coated his teeth, he allowed himself to succumb to the edging blackness, losing consciousness.
Hours later, Jareth woke with cramped muscles and a searing headache, his arms twisted painfully beneath him where the magic suppressing cuffs still held him bound. Lifting his head, hissing at the sudden sharp pain that exploded behind his eyelids, he gingerly rolled onto his side and sat up, pressing his back against the nearest wall and letting his eyesight adjust to the darkened room.
It was an oubliette.
Fitting, he thought.
A rustle drew his gaze and he turned his eyes towards the noise, watching as Neverin made her appearance known. She kneeled down beside Jareth, still dressed in her silk finery from earlier that morning, reaching out to touch his temple with a concerned sound escaping her lips.
He was simply too tired to resist her touch, watching her as she smiled coldly while she fondled his wound with a light caress, looking amused at his expense. After a few moments, his head cleared. She had healed him.
"Why?" He asked, actually curious. He knew there was no love lost between them.
"I can't have my newest pet suffering unnecessarily. I will be a generous Goblin Queen, after all. You and I have work to do."
Jareth tensed, watching her impassively. He snorted after a moment, casting his eyes away from her. "You bluff."
"Do I?" Neverin responded sweetly. Jareth glanced back at her and she smiled again, making him inwardly suspicious. "Still, I'll give you time to contemplate the choices ahead of you. The court allowed me to merit out additional punishments on your crimes and I do so love to be creative. How does a few years in this dark hole sound, with barely enough food to feed your pathetic mortal-loving self? I think it sounds fair, don't you?"
Jareth grit his teeth as she faded from view, her laughter echoing off the walls. Still, he closed his eyes and thought of Sarah, a small smile playing at his lips, remembering some of the lyrics he'd sung her in the dreamscape. He was bitter, yes, but finally decided to embrace his fate after having cast the spell of forgetfulness around her those four months ago. I'll be there for you, as the world falls down…
But instead, it seemed to be as his did. The irony did not escape him as the meager lights in his cell blinked out, swallowing him in darkness.
Present Day – Vienna, Austria
The open market had been bustling for several hours, sellers and buyers bargaining amicably as the lone woman moved through the crowd, dissolving in the forgetful safety of large numbers. Tugging her hood lower, her dark scarf riding high on her face and her worn backpack pressing against her back, she pointed at a few overripe and half rotten fruit, negotiating a vendor down in German from his original price to a mere trade of a few loose shillings. Tucking the purchases in the large front pockets of her coat, she nodded her thanks and moved away from the stand.
Instantly, she felt a probe touch along her senses and picked up her pace, not so much to be noticeable but enough that she'd gain a few extra seconds if she was lucky. Moving quickly between carts and tents of various merchants, she reached into her pocket and found what she searched for, gripping the small knife firmly between her fingers.
When she walked briskly into the alley at the end of the market, she felt the movement behind her. Appearing oblivious, she let her gait slow briefly when the follower grabbed for her, using his momentum against him as she dropped and whirled, throwing him off balance and settling on top of him, pinning his arms and legs underneath her with her weight.
Before he could jerk his hands up to attack, she smoothly pressed the edge of her blade against his throat, relieved her brief element of surprise allowed her to gain the upper hand.
That was too close, Williams.
She could tell it was a man, or as close to a man as he could ever be, her eyes roaming over his face without expression.
"You smell ripe, mortal filth…" The fae hunter hissed, making her smile, referring to her magic. Roughly, she slammed the heel of her free hand down on his forehead and summoned the best of her rudimentary skills, making the man seize underneath her as she pilfered through his memories, not caring or having the knowledge yet to do it delicately.
Satisfied when she saw no images of her family or of a certain King, she jerked her hand back and stood. The fae struggled to overcome the effects of the spell and she used the opportunity to kick his jaw violently with the heel of her boot. He jerked against the blow, his lip exploding with blood all over his face, then sprawled out loosely in the alley, losing consciousness. Sarah reached down and went through his pockets, stealing what little currency she could find along with his coat, scarf and boots, tucking them into the backpack that graced her shoulders. By his appearance and the glamour still in place, he would appear as a simple mugging victim to any mundanes that happened upon him.
Murmuring something underneath her breath, she erased her presence from his mind and stood, moving again with a slow gait back the way she'd been heading, leaving the hunter to a rather confused and rude awakening. Better than what they show us, she thought with bitterness. Still, she wasn't ready to take a life, no matter how much sense it made. For now, she'd stick with leaving them with a gap in their memory and missing a few items.
After an hour's hike into the industrial section of the city, Sarah stilled, whistling out a distinctive noise. An abandoned warehouse in the distance briefly rippled and she stepped forward again, smiling and waving at the guards along the roof that hadn't been there mere seconds before.
"Ah, Sarah!" A baritone voice called from across the street, making her grin and roll her eyes as she tugged the hood of her jacket back and unwound the scarf from the lower half of her face.
"Hey, Jonas. Early bird got you up this morning? I'm shocked." She teased, reaching into one of her pockets and tossing him two apples. He kissed the skin of each fruit and offered her a gesture of thanks as he came up and fell alongside her as she headed towards the warehouse.
"Schatz, you've brought me breakfast and everything. I knew you liked me." He leaned in, quickly grabbing her cheek and pressing a quick kiss to her jaw before jerking back from Sarah's immediate swing, laughing faintly and taking a bite out of one apple, pocketing the other.
"You touch me like that again and you'll have no more breakfast…or hands." She warned him, keeping her tone light but making sure he understood the underlying strength to her threat. Jonas seemed unphased with the simple shrug he gave her.
"Eoin is asking for you. We had a new arrival today."
Sarah paused in her stride to the warehouse, surprise briefly flickering over her features. "When did they arrive?" She asked, frowning.
"About three hours ago, when you were out. Where did you run off to, by the way? Eoin wouldn't explain." Jonas watched her curiously, a blade of dark hair shifting over his forehead as he tilted his head, studying her with intense brown eyes.
Sarah deliberately left his question hanging in the air, turning away from him to head towards the warehouse again. She heard Jonas' faint sigh then smiled at his call. "Thanks for breakfast, Schatz!"
Wandering inside, nodding briefly to those she spotted, she climbed the rusted steps to the upper floors of the warehouse. The entirety of the building screamed neglect and disrepair, but to the trained eye one could see the improvements that were being done. Walls were being constructed on the first floor, as were showers and a small rudimentary kitchen. It had taken them several months to smuggle in the parts to allow for functional plumbing and electricity but the excitement of the others was tangible. They were finally making progress in this assembled sanctuary.
"Eoin?" Sarah called, shrugging off her backpack and tossing it onto a repaired chaise lounge by the entry to the upper sanctum of the warehouse. She tilted her head down the long hallway that ran parallel to the open deliberation room. Her eyes paused on the row of doors, spotting her own amongst the other leaders, seeing no turn of a handle in response to her call.
Frowning, she stilled when she heard a rustle of fabric across the room. Turning her gaze, she spotted a waifish boy with a dark complexion crawl out from a hiding spot behind a couch against the far wall. Smiling faintly, she reached into her pocket and plucked another apple from her coat.
"Good morning. What's your name? Are you hungry?"
The boy didn't answer so Sarah simply tossed him the apple. The boy jumped back and stared at her but eventually hunger seemed to win out and he snatched up the fruit, devouring it with the forced ravenous movements of someone who had skipped too many meals in their life.
Frowning again, this time out of concern, Sarah eased across the room, in the opposite direction of the boy, settling down in another couch to eat her own apple, the last she had left. Tugging her feet up on a small table beside the couch, she studied the odd group of people working below to bring life to the stove they'd managed to pull into the warehouse. She grinned, thinking of the day she looked forward to more delicate served food rather than the simple campfire fare she'd been forced to accept the past several months.
Eventually, she felt the couch dip at her side, knowing the boy had joined her. She didn't look his way, not wanting to frighten him, but handed him the rest of her half-eaten apple. He snatched it from her grip and she listened with a small pang of sympathy as the noise of his hurried devouring filled the silence of the room.
"Do you want more?" She asked, still watching the others struggle over the kitchen appliance.
"No," came a timid response at her side.
Sarah slowly shifted her gaze over to the boy, who watched her warily. She smiled faintly and they sat like that, silently observing each other for several minutes.
"What's your name?" She asked softly, keeping her tone barely above a whisper.
"James," the boy replied, fiddling with the hem of his shirt that had started to unravel. She noted the ghost of his protruding collar bones and inwardly winced.
"My name is Sarah. It's nice to meet you, James." She replied with a soft smile. The boy looked up, studying her for several minutes, and he eventually smiled back.
"You're going to protect me from the bad men?" He asked, his voice a feather soft plea on her ears. It took considerable power on her part not to embrace him, not overlooking the similarities between the boy in front of her and the brother she'd left behind years ago.
"Yes," She whispered. "I'll protect you from the bad men."
The boy nodded, fidgeting again and looking away. "They came for me when my mommy was shopping. I was just playing with them, the little glowing men that came out of the telly."
Sarah frowned, tipping her head to the side. Sylphs? What would they be doing with a boy of five? "And the bad men came then?"
"No, only when the glowing men told me that I wasn't allowed to play with them. When I asked why, they looked scared. That's when the bad men appeared."
Sarah swallowed but forced a smile to her face. So, the magic he has must be strong. Sarah reached out tentatively with her senses, feeling the brightness in the boy, confirming her suspicions. The hunters would have taken him immediately upon sensing him. Studying his malnourished form, she wondered how long he'd been running, remembering back when she had first started hers, years ago. Pulling herself from painful thoughts of her past, she forced her smile brighter as he stared at her with wounded eyes. "Well, no need to worry about the bad men here. This is our secret hiding spot. No one can find it but us."
The boy tentatively smiled back and relaxed on the couch. Sarah stood, tugging the afghan from the back of the couch and motioned for him to lay down. He did as she asked and she tucked the blanket around him, crouching down to kneel beside him. "Get some rest. See that room?" She pointed across the way and he nodded. "That's my room. If you get scared, just go in there. If I'm not in there, I will be soon. Okay?"
"Okay." She moved to stand and the boy reached out quickly, tugging on her hand. "Thank you for the apple, Miss Sarah. My mommy said it's polite to thank people."
Sarah swallowed the lump of emotion that once more formed in her throat, nodding with a smile at the boy. "Your mommy was right. Rest now. We'll talk again in a few hours."
The boy nodded and she stood, watching his eyes drift closed. Only once she was certain he was asleep did she move across the room towards her quarters.
Closing the door behind her and shrugging out of her coat and boots, she tiredly moved towards the bare mattress with a simple sheet tucked in the corner of the room. The room was mostly bare, a small sink and washing basin in the far corner, a shower still being installed in the other. Falling back on her makeshift bed, she reached into the pocket of her jeans and dug out a folded piece of paper.
Unfolding it gently with shaking hands, she stared at the picture printed on the paper that she'd snagged from an internet café two hours away from the sanctuary, doggedly determined to leave no trace between her visit and her newfound home. Running a hand over each of their faces, Sarah willed herself to make no noise as she sobbed quietly, studying the changing faces of her family that she hadn't seen in years. They looked relatively happy, despite the soft haunted look that never seemed to leave their eyes, and her own response was to shed silent tears while she memorized their smiles. I'm so sorry. Dad, Toby, Karen…forgive me.
Turning, tucking the paper into a journal that sat beside the bed amidst other printed images she'd collected over the years, Sarah leaned back and closed her eyes, doing her best to find solace in sleep.