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Castles of My Own

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She was never particularly good at art, but once Sarah turned sixteen she took up painting as a sort of relaxation technique. On a whim twelve years ago her mother had tried her hand at it, producing some very fine watercolors, acrylics, and oils before setting aside her brush for the stage. The canvases, easel, brushes, and paints had all been left behind in the divorce in some dark corner of the basement Sarah rarely traversed.

There, in that corner next to rusted cans of nails, boxes of curtains, and old vases, did Sarah find these artist's tools. Karen had sent her down to fetch something-or-other. As her stepmother was in the midst of feeding a very fussy Toby – teething was never fun – Sarah did not argue. In fact, she hadn't argued much since returning from a certain 13-hours worth of misadventure.

The easel was propped against the brick. The cardboard box on the nearby shelf was labeled in that fondly-familiar scrawl of Linda's Paints. Without much thought, Sarah lifted it off the shelf.

Brushing off a heavy layer of fine grey dust, Sarah caressed the pine box in which the paint and brushes sat. There, among the stubs of pencils, the glass jar used for cleaning brushes, the blending scrape, sat the sketches. Pages, nestled among to tools. Rough charcoal drawing. Smooth graphite lines. A small book of scrawled ideas, of tested colors. Sarah traced the shapes, absorbed the textures and temperatures of the experimental bits. For a good long time, she sat, until Karen called down the stairs, inquiring after the girl's health.

The paints were, naturally, past any useable state. Sarah made the purchase of new acrylics within the week. Three days after she had found the box, she started her first painting.

It wasn't much. Just a field at sunset, with a few trees. The horizon was lopsided, but the use of colour and form an admirable effort. Her shading was quite good, and the use of texture diverse. Mr. Williams proclaimed them a good start - though being an accountant with little interest in the arts, he was critiquing with rose-colored glasses.

What followed this was mountains, forests, cityscapes, fruit, vases of flowers, chairs. Simple, basic scenes. She began drawing idly in class, planning out canvases, sketching in the middle of homeroom, or in the middle of lectures. After nearly a month she had filled twelve canvases. Then the summer came and she turned to watercolors for quick, basic outdoor paintings. These were of butterflies, gates, bridges, and walls of the park, lonely swingsets, lazy sunrises, flowers with fat, glistening buds of dewdrops. Summer days were spent bent over sketchbooks or hovering over the rickety easel.

Sarah began working from a different place in her mind. Suddenly images began appearing in her paints that didn't…quite…belong….Odd sorts of things. Absent-minded additions of delicate fairies, brusque gnomes, burly, bug-eyed goblins. Sometimes a grinning little fox. Others, in the shadows of the woods, a tall, furry, bright-eyed giant.

When she painted a careful rendition of a stained-glass window of the local cathedral, a shadow with wild hair and a tense, tight form, appeared in the corner. One producing a round object with one hand, head tossed back in a half-laugh.

These additions were never quite intentional. Rather, they appeared as a last-minute surprise. She would blink abruptly, brush in her hand, to find them after she's mentally dozed for several seconds. And there, suddenly, there they were.

Those were the painting she didn't really share with anyone else.

Around mid-July she was struck with a desire to paint castles. Tall, skinny, sharp buildings with menacing walls and dark skies to set the mood. She painted many, for days upon days. Now seventeen, the hours spent alone in her room ceased to worry Karen. A three-year-old Toby was tearing through the house at a breakneck-speed, giving her stepmother something other than Sarah's solitary habits to worry about.

They came to her in a spill of inspiration. Sarah scarcely knew what she was doing with her brush. Pictures were produced of their own accord. It was a wonder. They were positively the best things she'd ever painted. For days upon days Sarah painted, filling the whiteness with bold, biting colors. Scenes of her imagination grew upon the virgin surfaces, sparked with life and passion she'd never released before.

Seven canvases were filled before Sarah took her rest. Each was unique unto itself. One had a crack of lightning tearing across the sky. Another rested on a lakeshore, its twin overlooked a thick forest of pines. One was in ruins. Another possessed extensive gardens, complete with fountains and bridges. A wide scene depicted a surrounding city abuzz with life. The final painting displayed a hint of pink at the skyline. Dawn.

Once finished, they lay across her mattress. Sarah peered into every scene for a good long time before pulling away to her mirror, pensive. They were fine, probably the best work of her life. Yet…unsettling. Each picture was eerily...

"Familiar?"

But no, no. Not familiar. Sarah Williams had only ever seen two castles in her life – Cinderella's castle at Disney World, and the castle of the Labyrinth

Yet none of these castles resembled those establishments. Frustrated, Sarah fiddled with the wire binding of her sketchbook. Castles. Palaces. Fortresses. Castles….

The words and images circled through her mind until she slumped to rest her upper body on the desk. Arms folded to a makeshift pillow, she allowed her eyes to drift shut, breathing to slow, and mind to escape. Dozing would only do her good.

-XXX-

She dreamed of fields of tawny and sanguine skies. The dark purple silhouette of a castle cut the clouds. Breeze, sweetened with summer flowers, wafted past. Sarah, lying on her back in the bronze blades of grain, watched the pale pink-orange nimbus whisks pass overhead. Crickets softly chirped frogs of the nearby pond call. A heron keens in the distance.

Just as the clouds being to twist the scene is overcome by a faint dark, which grew to overwhelm, easing the surroundings into darkness. Sarah was greeted with stars and a sliver of a moon. Fireflies and a cool wind, which kissed her skin with all the fondness of a long-departed lover. She shivered. Hair drifted lazily in the toss of air. When she raised a hand to brush the locks back, she finds it already occupied by a horse-hair brush. The scene shifted, and Sarah realized that the bronze field she's had only just occupied is depicted on the canvas resting before her.

She stood in another place, on an outcropping of slate stones with a cliff rising ahead, a great round structure resting on its lip, overlooking the crash of ocean waves against its foundation. The air was sharp with salt and mildew.

Sarah inhaled deeply as the wind whips at her hair. Her gaze turned to the canvas. She let out a small gasp - the picture altered again. The building that stood before her now, the cliff, the iron-colored storm clouds, it was all there. She reached out, putting her fingers to the surface of the painting, pulling them away when she found them sticky with fresh paint.

When she looked up, the location again shifted. This time it was a red-desert scape. Black skeletons of trees canopied their branches overhead. Scruffy grasses grew from the rust-coloured sand. And beyond was layers and layers of stone walls, leading to a single point of rise, a hill in the distance. And on the hill – a city. Leading up to a solitary castle.

Sarah Williams reeled back. A rush of warm air nudged her forward, however, and she stumbled forward, tumbling to her knees gracelessly. The castle, the goblin city at the center of the Labyrinth.

No, no, no! These are not hers, not of her creation! Not her castles…not her castles.

The soft sound of a landing broke her horror. The girl whipped 'round to face the figure gliding forward from behind her. Sharp eyes, furious hair, a slash for a mouth. Emotion rose to her throat. And yet nearer and nearer he came. Sarah scrambled to her feet before stepping back in time. All that familiar fear and desire welled up immediately as he stalked forward.

The Goblin King paused about a meter from her. "Hello, Sarah Williams," came liltingly.

The girl gaped openly, mouthing out words, but not a sound passed from her frozen lips. He took the opportunity to draw closer.

"Have your kingdoms been as great?" he asked quietly. "You've created a number of them…castles…forests...plains and fields. You have been quite busy, have you not?"

Swallowing, she spoke. "What do you mean?"

"Your kingdoms, Sarah Williams. Your claim against me…."

"Oh…oh," said the girl faintly. "My paintings."

His lips curl. "Indeed, my girl."

"They're just pictures," she squeaked. "Of...daydreams."

"Indeed. Your kingdoms. Tell me, Sarah, with your will as great, what of your kingdoms?"

"They're…they're…." Hesitation ruled her expression. Arms crossed unconsciously. She had lines she needed to say.

"They're just a strong," she insisted. "Just as great, Goblin King."

He tossed his head back, laughed loud and long. "Are they, Sarah? Places of fiction? Your will may be a match for mine, but your kingdoms? Your castles?

Hands ball to fists, but her arms remained crossed. She wasn't fifteen anymore. Wasn't a fool. A child. 

"I don't understand."

"Words only work so long a there is power behind them."

The king neared. His boots sank into the soft red sand, each step leaving a deep scar on the landscape. Sarah was rooted to the stop. She stared, wide-eyed as a fawn. The king loomed above her, silent, chests nearly brushing. The only noise that passed between them was the sound of breath, air exiting and entering lungs, along with the ever-dull pounding of hearts beneath layers of warm flesh. Sarah Williams bit her lip, looking up from beneath her lashes.

"My kingdom as great…." she whispers weakly. "My will as strong, my heart as brave, my courage as bold…."

One gloved fingertip presses into her lips. The leather felt slick against her skin. "Yet no castles of your own."

And Sarah's world fell to darkness.

-XXX-

She awoke to a chill. Her neck ached terribly, a result of hours spent sleeping hunched over her tiny desk. The room was dark. Night had crept up upon her. Karen must've let her sleep, as the clock read 11:25pm. Far past dinner time.

Slumping briefly, breath still heavy, chest-pounding yet, Sarah collected herself. "Just a dream."  Gathering calm before rising steadily, she removed the canvases from her bed, and shed her t-shirt and jeans, slipped into an oversized t-shirt, and fell to the mattress. When she drifted off approximately twenty minutes later, she slept without further interruptions

-XXX-

It was later that he came to her. Years, in fact.

She had just crossed the quad in the middle of a rainstorm – without a jacket, nor an umbrella, but she is in desperate need of a book for her anthropology course – rushing past the front desk, ignoring the disgruntled stares of the assistant librarian. Rushing up two flights to the second floor, then dashing to the right, straight back, she pulled out her phone to check the text – call number 544.67873 – and was thumbing through the pages when the crackle caught her. She glanced up. In the space where the book had been resting was a pair of mismatched, violently blue eyes.

Sarah cursed loudly, dropping her bag from her shoulders, along with the book, stepping back from the metal shelf. And, naturally, backing straight into the chest of the Goblin King.

"Built any castles yet, Sarah?"

She stumbled back again as she whipped 'round, hands outstretched to protect herself from the shelves. Hair in a long braid, dressed in a worn university hoodie and jeans, she feels like anything but a champion.

"No," she replied wryly. "I've been a tad occupied with grad school."

"Well, with no kingdom as strong, though your will may be as great, I am afraid," said the king mournfully. "Then you've lost the game. Your trials have ceased, fair Sarah. I've given you your time. Thirteen years of it. Now, shall you come with me?"

She gaped (as she often tended to do in the presence of Jareth). "What, you've been…waiting for me?"

He inclines his head.

"For…to take me away?"

Jareth raised his eyes to meet hers. They are soft. "Though you have the will, you've not the kingdom…and therefore not the power. And now I can beseech you. Come with me, Lady Sarah. Come, and I shall be your slave. Fear me, love me…and my kingdom shall be yours."

"Oh," said the girl – even though she was not quite a girl anymore, he made her feel awfully young and foolish – brushing back a loose lock of dark hair, heat rising in her fair cheeks. "

"I would prefer an answer soon," said the king gently. "Thirteen years is an awfully long time, Sarah."

"Yes," she agrees heavily. "Indeed. Well…." She looked about the library, about the miles and miles of shelves and books and florescent lighting and industrial carpet. She could see raindrops on the nearest window, the bent heads of undergraduates studying in their nooks and corners. And yet, beyond that, Sarah could so much more. Years and months and hours of her life. Of painting. Of wondering. Of castles.

"I've no castles of my own," she began slowly. "And a will that is no longer a match for yours, Goblin King. So, I should say yes. I would very much like to love you. Though, perhaps not fear you."

He was not perturbed in the least. "I could not ask for more. And please. Call me Jareth."

-XXX-