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Return to the Labyrinth: Dreamcatcher

Chapter Text

PROLOGUE

 

"DREAMS"
by Langston Hughes

 

Hold onto dreams
For if dreams die
Life is like a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

 

 

Once upon a time in the Land of Faerie there was a King who ruled a vast kingdom of illusion and dreams. The King was a powerful sorcerer, much feared, who took great pride in his own cunning and intelligence. He enjoyed testing his shrewdness against any who came before him, mortal and immortal alike, and he had never lost. His greatest pride, and favorite challenge to his opponents, was the vast Labyrinth which he had built to encircle his castle. The route through was never the same, for the Labyrinth was ever changing, some even said alive. The only safe way through was with the permission of the King himself.

Challengers came from near and far to try and solve his Labyrinth, but none succeeded. Eventually they stopped, for it was said the great maze was unbeatable, and the King grew bored with none to challenge his cunning against. It was then he began to lure mortals into his realm by stealing away unwanted children. To get the child back, the mortals would have to navigate a tangled web of enigmatic riddles and dangerous pathways. If they failed, the child remained to become a subject of his realm, The Goblin Kingdom. In this way he expanded his lands and satisfied his ego, for none ever solved the labyrinth…until one day someone did.

There was a very young mortal maiden who lived aboveground. She had been a pampered only child until her father found a new wife who bore him a son. Feeling betrayed and forgotten, she found escape in the vivid realms of her imagination and dreams. Her favorite story was that of the Labyrinth and its King.

One night she was caring for her baby brother when the frustration became too much. The selfish, spoiled girl wished the boy child away to the goblins, and the Goblin King obliged her request. Realizing her mistake, she begged him to return the infant, but he refused. Instead he put before her a challenge. Solve the Labyrinth in 13 hours and she could take her brother home again. Fail and the boy would remain to be turned into a goblin. She accepted, and her journey is one of our most cherished stories…but what of after?

After she solved the Labyrinth using perseverance, imagination, and a kind heart, after she battled through to the Goblin Castle and confronted the King himself. After he, that powerful magician, in a last attempt to stall the girl, to stop her from defeating his cunning challenge, offered her one final temptation…himself and her dreams. After she won the game but lost something far more precious. After she said those fateful words that would forever change her life, words from a mysterious red book that was her most cherished possession. “You have no power over me…”

It was then the Goblin King suffered his unexpected defeat. For the girl saw past the seductive words and generous gifts, saw past the illusions he cloaked himself in, and realized the key. His power over her was as much an illusion as the rest of the maze.

“You have no power over me,” was all she said, and his hold on her was broken. With that one sentence she defeated the cunning Goblin King and took her baby brother back. But there was one consequence she did not intend. For the dreams he had offered had not been an illusion.

Like all mortals, her dreams originated in the underground. Dreams are the raw stuff that fuels the magic which the fey wield with such skill. It is the mortals’ link to this illusory realm that allows them to draw upon and feed their dreams. The King could not truly offer to give her her dreams, for they already belonged to her. But when she rejected him, and his false gift, she rejected them as well. When she denied her dreams and returned aboveground her link to that place of magic was severed, and try as she might she could never retrieve it. A mortal cannot live without dreams, for without them the soul will eventually wither and die in agony, and so the maiden discovered as her belief and fantasy were suddenly taken from her. Years passed and while she grew lovelier each day, her life became a misery of hard reality which eventually drove her to despair.

This is the story of her quest to retrieve that which she unwittingly gave up.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

 

What dreams may come

 

 “How are you feeling today, Sarah?” asked a soft female voice. Tired, she thought. So tired she could feel it in her bones. She glanced up at the nurse standing next to her chair.

 

“Fine,” she said tonelessly, the lie leaving her lips easily. Her eyes drifted back to the open window, watching a spider working industriously on its web. Sarah wondered bitterly if the spider imagined its web before it began building it. The elderly nurse smiled and patted her on the shoulder.

 

“That’s good dear,” she said, “and did you sleep well last night?”

 

“Yes,” Sarah lied again, memories of the night before drifting through her head. She had lain awake most of the night, fighting off sleep any way she could. She was afraid of sleeping. It wasn’t what she saw when she drifted off, but what she didn’t see. A vast emptiness, a bottomless void just waiting to swallow her up. An empty place inside of her that used to be full. It terrified her, that blackness, and she would wake screaming and shaking, sheets twisted and hands clammy, then try to stay awake as long as she could before exhaustion overcame her.

 

She had been doing it for years now, finding ways to avoid sleep. Caffeine, parties, schoolwork, sex, alcohol; there were lots of things she had used over the years. She had gotten very used to being tired. It took its toll on the mind though, the constant exhaustion. Eventually, she just couldn’t do it any longer, so she tried the last thing she could think of, a permanent solution to avoid that emptiness of sleep. It might have worked too, if her roommate hadn’t come back early from classes. 

 

“Did you have another dream then?” asked the nurse. Sarah’s lips twisted slightly in a parody of a smile.

 

“Oh yes,” she said, glancing again at the nurse, “I was a spider spinning a web in a window.” The nurse beamed.

 

“That’s wonderful, Sarah. You’ve made excellent progress.” Sarah merely nodded in agreement as the woman began to brush her hair. “You’ve done so well, in fact, that the doctors have decided to let you go home again. Won’t that be nice?”

 

Sarah blinked, her head swiveling to look back at the nurse. “Home?” she asked in mild surprise. The nurse nodded.

 

“Yes indeed,” the woman said, “You’re father is sending someone to pick you up. We’ll send you home with the medication you’ve been on for the last month, since it seems to help, and you can start getting back to your life again. Won’t that be nice?” Sarah gave a short, disbelieving laugh and leaned back in the chair once more. The nurse kept chatting on about how good her life would be out of the psych ward, but her patient wasn’t listening.

 

To die, to sleep-- to sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come…The longing words of Hamlet’s soliloquy ran through her head, her lips moving, but no sound coming out. She was thinking about finally being free of the watchful eyes of the nurses. She was looking at her wrists, the scars white and faded now, and she was thinking that this time she would do it right.

 

 

.:o_o:.

 

 

Several hours later Sarah sat on the massive stone steps of the old hospital. The cheery nurse sat beside her as they waited for her ride to arrive. They were determined to watch her till the end, she thought, as if just looking for signs of a relapse. Well, she could hold it together until she was away from the hospital. All she needed was a few minutes alone and she could finish it once and for all.

 

After a few more minutes of waiting the sound of a struggling engine could be heard down the road. Soon enough a small yellow VW bug churned its way around the corner and puttered up the hill toward the hospital. An older woman with wild and frizzy red hair caught up in a bun was behind the wheel. Sarah didn’t recognize her, but the nurse seemed to.

 

“Well, here you are dear,” she said as the little car came to a chugging stop. Sarah’s brows scrunched in confusion. The strange woman jumped out of the little punch buggy in a frenzy of energy and hustled over to the two waiting women. Sarah had no idea who she was.

 

“Sarah, dahling,” the woman squealed, “You look mahvelous.” She reached down and wrapped her arms around the confused brunette, either oblivious to or ignoring Sarah’s attempt to back away. “He will be so pleased to see you!”

 

“Do I…” Sarah began, but the woman cut her off.

 

“Of course you get to go home, dahling,” she woman gushed, scooping up Sarah’s small bag of belongings and wrapping a surprisingly strong hand around her arm. She practically yanked the young woman onto her feet. “Everyone’s just dying to see you.”

 

Sarah tried to dig her heals in, but the woman’s strength was incredible as she began dragging her to the car. “But I don’t…” she started to speak again, looking desperately back at the nurse behind her.

 

“Go on, dear,” she said, “I know you’re nervous. It’s only natural to be nervous of leaving when you’ve been here so long. But you’ll be fine now. Go on with your Aunt”

 

“But wait…” she tried again, only to be cut off once more.

 

“Now, don’t be silly Sarah. It’s a long journey, and we really must be going,” the red haired stranger declared. They had reached the car and somehow the woman had opened the door and stuffed her inside. It closed with a click and before Sarah could get her befuddled head together the woman had slipped into the drivers side. The little car started with a shudder and a cough before starting back down the drive.

 

Sarah still sat in confused shock for a moment more as they sped away before turning to look at the woman who was most certainly not her aunt. “ I don’t know you,” she said in a slightly confused tone. “Who are you?”

 

The woman laughed and it felt like a million and one warm drops of sunlight landing on Sarah’s skin. She shivered. “Who am I? Why, I’m the one who will help you get your dreams back, my dear.” She said it as matter of factly as if she was announcing her intention to pick up milk at the store. Sarah didn’t know what to say.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

Two Roads Diverged

 

Sarah was frozen, unsure how to take this odd woman’s offhand statement. She huddled back against the car door, her bag clutched in her hands, and stared at the stranger with a long, unblinking gaze. She studied her, wracking her mind trying to recall any memory of the woman.

 

Her hair was a shocking, brilliant red streaked with orange and gold. Sarah couldn’t begin to fathom where those glittering gold strands came from. Her skin was tanned, smooth and flawless, and looking at her now Sarah couldn’t determine her age. When she had first seen the woman at the hospital, she had seemed her father’s age, if well preserved. Now she seemed almost youthful, perhaps closer to Sarah’s own 26 years, or even younger. The more Sarah looked, the more she seemed almost timeless.

 

The woman glanced her way, one eyebrow raised quizzically. Sarah didn’t think she had ever seen a redhead with eyes so black, but looking closer they seemed to glitter, like a night sky strewn with stars. The troubled girl could feel anxiety setting in, her palms sweating, her breathing speeding up. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, trying to control the panic.

 

"You do want your dreams back, don’t you my dear?" The woman’s manufactured Hepburn accent was slowly fading away. In its place was a light, lilting sound. Her voice made Sarah think of crisp, mountain streams bubbling through a forest beneath lush green trees. She could almost taste the freshness of the water.

 

The vision made her gasp. It had been ten years since she had imagined anything. Ten years of feeling hopeless, empty and fractured. Sarah tried to hold on to the vivid image, but it was like trying to grasp smoke. The picture in her mind faded to nothing. It had been so beautiful, that momentary daydream, but it was gone again.

 

Her eyes snapped open, welling with tears. It was just like those first weeks ten years ago when her mind’s eye went blind, the dreams and fantasies shrinking and fading away more and more each day. Her confusion was absolute as the person she had been became a distant memory, unable to enjoy the pursuits she once had. Her waking world became dull and colorless, and sleep a terror where she was confronted with the nothingness in her own head.

 

A sob hitched in her throat as the tears flowed faster. That was twice now…first the sunbeam laughter, and now a voice like a mountain stream. It had been so long, so long. And now the absence was worse than before. "Why?" she managed to croak out before the sobs overwhelmed her. Why would you show me that and take it away again, she wondered desperately. That small taste made her realize that she truly had nothing left in her. She could not continue on like this any longer.

 

"Well of course you do. You see? I knew you did," her abductor continued on her own, as if Sarah were not having an utter meltdown in her passenger seat. The mountain stream effect was gone again, as if the woman realized how it had affected her. "You’re not whole, my dear, no, not at all. But I suspect you know that. That’s why I’m here to help you."

 

Sarah was not listening. Her sobs continued as she sank into her own misery. All she could think of was finding a way to end the pain, rid herself of that empty feeling any way she could. Sarah didn’t know how long she cried, but all things must end eventually. She cried until her tears dried up, and her sobs turned to sniffles. "Why are you doing this to me?" she rasped in the quiet of the car. "Who are you?"

 

"You may call me Amaranth, and I resent your accusation. I am not doing a thing to you. You did it all to yourself, as I am sure you would realize if you were rational." She said pointedly.

 

"I don’t understand," Sarah said with another sniff, trying not to care, but feeling very much as if she should. Shouldn’t she be too drained to dredge up the energy? If she was gong to end it all anyhow, why was she curious?

 

"Yes, well," Amaranth huffed, rolling her eyes, "That much is obvious. Frankly I’m impressed you lasted as long as you did in your condition." Sarah waited quietly for her to continue, but she didn’t elaborate. Her thoughts drifted, trying to make sense of Amaranth and her cryptic words, but nothing made sense any more.

 

They drove on in silence for several more minutes before the little yellow bug finally pulled off the road and came to a stop. "We’re here," Amaranth announced softly. Only then did Sarah really become aware of her surroundings.

 

Outside dusk was setting in, creating heavy shadows among the trees out the back window. Directly in front of the car was empty air where the land dropped hundreds of feet to the sea. Amaranth got out of the car without another word and walked to the cliff edge. She stood with her back to Sarah, watching the sun sink toward the horizon. The wind off the sea whipped her colorful peasant skirt around her legs, and the light seemed to flash off the gold in her hair.

 

Sarah opened her own door slowly, stepping out warily, as close as they were to the edge. She looked down at the surf pounding the rocks far below. How easy would it be just to step off into the ultimate dreamless sleep? "What is this?" she asked, raising her voice above the wind.

 

Amaranth turned her head to look at her. "It’s a cliff Sarah," she said, her voice never raising above an even, level tone. Instead it seemed as if the wind carried it from her lips straight to Sarah’s ears. It was lilting, almost seductive. It reminded her of another persuasive voice from long ago, a memory of a very vivid dream she had tried to forget for ten years.

 

"I…I mean…why are we here?" she asked loudly, trying to shake off the sudden familiarity. Her lackluster weariness was beginning to disappear beneath a rising nervousness. A faint suspicion was forming in her mind. Amaranth stared at her for long moments before speaking.

 

"Think about this place as the fork in the road…or the point of no return…" she said. She glided closer, her eyes meeting Sarah’s. It seemed as if they were almost too normal, too plain. It seemed to Sarah that there should be something in the woman’s eyes that wasn’t, something missing. Amaranth continued. "I wanted to give you options Sarah. I mean, it’s all about choices, isn’t it?" She smiled sadly and looked down at the sharp rocks far below. It took a moment for Sarah to realize what she was talking about.

 

"You brought me here so I could kill myself?" she asked, shocked in spite of herself. She took a reflexive step back from the emptiness. "Why would you do that?" Granted, only moments before she had been thinking how easy it would be, but to have it put so plainly out in front of her made it seem almost vulgar.

 

"You’ll do it eventually…if you stay," Amaranth said absently, still looking down, as if fascinated by the rocks and their deadly potential.

 

"If I stay…?" Sarah asked softly. Too soft to be heard above the wind, but Amaranth responded none the less.

 

"You can have your dreams back Sarah. You just have to make the choice." Amaranth looked up and met Sarah’s eyes once more. "Two paths lay before you Sarah. One leads to the castle…" Sarah’s eyes widened, her breath hitching in her throat.

 

"…at the center of the Labyrinth," Sarah continued the sentence for her, her eyes filling with tears once more as the memories rushed back, "and the other…the other leads…" She looked down at the drop below, unable to finish. She had tried so hard to forget what dreams were like. Did she have the strength left to take such a risk, or did she give it all up and take the safe road to no more pain?

 

"Precisely," Amaranth said.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Do Not Go Gentle

 

Sarah’s mind was whirling, turning over and over Amaranth’s last words. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be real. The Castle beyond the Goblin City. The image of its twisting stones was as vivid in her mind now as if it had been only yesterday. How could that be when every dream she’d ever had had faded into oblivion?

 

It was then that realization struck her. It was a memory, not a dream. Not a dream. She had buried it, ignored it, for so long that it hadn’t struck her until then. It was a memory? The Labyrinth was real? But if the Labyrinth was real, then…

 

Her head shot up to look at Amaranth. She was standing just as before, watching, her expression mild, curious. “The Go…” Sarah started to say, but caught herself. Would saying his name catch his attention? She paused and rephrased. “So, this is about him after all. What he did to me.”

 

Amaranth’s eyes crinkled in amusement, her lips turning up in a small smile. She shook her head as if in exasperation. “Foolish girl,” she said lightly. Sarah squirmed at the amusement in her voice. “Don’t be ridiculous. He didn’t do anything to you. You did it to yourself, as I keep telling you. Stop shifting blame.” Her unease turned to a frown of confusion.

 

“But, then, you can just give me back my dreams?” she asked.

 

“No,” Amaranth said solemnly, shaking her head.

 

Sarah’s thoughts plummeted, her voice taking on a wounded tone. “But, you said…”  Amaranth held up one hand to silence her.

 

 “I can’t just anything,” she continued calmly. “This is your show. It always has been.”

 

“So you’re offering to, what, to help? To help what? Find them?” Sarah asked, starting to feel a little irritated. However, since it was the first thing other than apathy that she’d felt in a long time, she didn’t fight it. Why couldn’t the woman just answer a question?

 

“Sort of. I can help you with getting started, and a few other things,” she shrugged but did not elaborate. The sun had dipped below the horizon and Amaranth’s hair no longer glittered gold. But now small lights seemed to twinkle out of her deep, black eyes.

 

“Well that’s not cryptic or anything,” Sarah snarked, refusing to feel uneasy about those strange eyes. She pursed her lips, trying to concentrate on her train of thought. “And in return? I mean, why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?” She peered at Amaranth warily. “What do you want?”

 

Amaranth quirked an eyebrow, but her expression seemed pleased. “Who is to say I want anything?” she asked lightly.

 

“No…no. Don’t bullshit me,” Sarah said, determination entering her voice. “I know how it works. You don’t do something for nothing. Not down there.”

 

“No,” Amaranth conceded, “you don’t.” Sarah waited for her to continue, but wasn’t surprised when she didn’t.

 

“So then,” she sighed in frustration, “What do you want?”

 

Amaranth shook her head. “No, make your choice first, Sarah. Just remember, a mortal cannot survive aboveground without dreams. You know this.” Her voice was firm, but compassionate, leaving no room to argue. Sarah did know. She certainly couldn’t. But still, she needed a little more to go on here, and Amaranth wasn’t giving her anything.

 

“You said its about choices,” she accused, “but you won’t answer my questions so I can make an informed decision.” Sarah tensed up, feeling real anger start to germinate. Then again, maybe that was her intention. Maybe Amaranth was hoping desperation would push her into making the choice. Sarah began to remember how much she hated being railroaded into things.

 

Amaranth’s eyes flashed, a fleeting sight, but her expression remained calm. “Enough whining, Sarah,” she said softly, but with authority.

 

“I’m not…” Sarah began angrily, but Amaranth held up one hand to stop her. Sarah pinched her lips tight together, but held her tongue.

 

“ What is it you think lies beyond those rocks?” Amaranth asked, pointing to the dark water below. “Do you truly know where it leads? What the price will be?” She shook her head before continuing. Sarah could already see where she was going and her righteous anger was beginning to dissipate. “You already know as much about this path as that one. You are waiting for me to convince you that mine is the better choice, and I will not do that.”

 

She was right, Sarah realized, looking down at the water. Both paths held temptation, both unknowns. She was trying to avoid making a choice. She hadn’t used to be so timid. Finally she looked back up at Amaranth. She had one final question. “And how do I know you can really help me? How do I know this isn’t just another illusion? Another lie?” She felt her eyes burning with unshed tears, but fought them back. “Things aren’t always what they seem,” she muttered bitterly, remembering a lesson well learned from her last visit to the Labyrinth.

 

“You’re thinking too hard, Sarah,” Amaranth said gently, “It’s what got you in trouble in the first place.” She sighed. “Still…if it’s proof you want…” Gliding around the back of the car, she stopped in front of Sarah. In her hand she was holding out a small wooden goblet. Sarah hadn’t seen where she got it from and didn’t have a chance to wonder. At the bottom was a very small amount of silver liquid, almost like mercury, moving sluggishly as if alive.

 

“What…what is that.” Sarah asked, brows furrowed. She moved closer until her nose was almost touching the rim of the cup. The substance inside seemed to react to her nearness. One thin tendril oozed up the side of the cup and seemed to reach out to the hovering girl. Sarah jerked her head back, and the tendril retracted. She looked up at Amaranth.

 

“Pure Dreamstuff. Yours actually,” the redhead said softly, as if afraid of startling it. She shook her head. “You have no idea how hard it was to collect even this small bit.” She paused, watching the rippling liquid, then looked at Sarah. “Here, hold out your hand,” she said, wrapping Sarah’s limp fingers around the goblet. “It’s very weak…it won’t last much longer aboveground.”

 

She looked Sarah in the eye, her gaze glittering brighter than the stars above them. Sarah couldn’t bring herself to keep meeting that gaze, so she turned away to look back across the water. Amaranth spoke once more from behind her. “It’s almost time for me to leave Sarah. I was not meant to linger so long in this world.” She paused. “It is time to choose.” She backed away, leaving Sarah alone on the cliff edge, and waited.

 

The whole of the last ten years of her wasted life weighed down on Sarah. The bitterness, the sorrow, and the numbing fear washed over her. She stood at the edge of infinity and didn’t know if she had the will to step back from it, or the courage to step over it. Looking down into the darkness she could not see the rocks that would be her end, could only hear the sound of the waves breaking themselves against them. Could you have hope for a better life when you couldn’t even imagine one?

 

She stood there for what seemed like ages, but in reality was only a few seconds. She was startled from her reverie by the touch of something shockingly, refreshingly cold against her hand. The tendril of dream had reached out again and this time touched her skin. It seemed almost to be tasting her, and regretfully she gently pulled her hand away. Closing her eyes and firming her shoulders, Sarah took one last deep breath before the plunge into the unknown.

 

“Alright,” she said, turning to face the waiting Amaranth, “I’ll go back. Tell me what I need to do.”

 

Amaranth’s solemn expression turned instantly into a brilliant smile. “Easy,” she replied, nodding at the cup in Sarah’s hands, “Drink up.” Sarah’s eyes widened in disbelief, but Amaranth just laughed. “Trust me.”

 

Sarah realized she had already made her decision, and there was no point in getting squeamish now. The silver dream in the cup was spinning energetically, almost as if it were excited…or agitated. Squeezing her eyes shut, Sarah lifted the cup to her lips and tipped it.

 

The liquid didn’t so much flow into her mouth as rush, as if with its own momentum. It was like a cold fire racing down her throat, and then every where. Her whole body felt infused with a cold, refreshing energy that made her eyes pop wide open. Then suddenly the feeling was gone, and all her energy with it. She felt tired, so tired. Her limbs began to give way and her vision dim as exhaustion overcame her, but strong arms encircled her before she collapsed. The last thing she saw as she fell into magical slumber was Amaranth’s twinkling eyes as her voice whispered against her cheek. “Shhhh, my pet. Everything will work out fine.”

Chapter Text

Sarah dreamed….

 

The stone corridors seemed to stretch on endlessly into darkness in every direction. At the opening of one of the corridors Sarah could see herself, beckoning her dream self forward. She turned to look at the next hall, and there she was again, waving, gesturing. She stood at the opening of every doorway, urging herself down every path. What should she do? She felt so confused. They all looked much the same, except…was that a light down one of the tunnels?

 

She walked down the hall, running her hands over the cool stones. The light grew brighter, larger, closer. Soon enough she stopped. It was a small window, too small to fit through, overlooking a magnificent twisting landscape. She knew this place…why did she know it?

 

Her eye was caught by something sparkling. There in the window was the perfect spider’s web, glistening with diamond dewdrops, spun from crystal thread. In the center of the web lay a jewel of surpassing beauty. The sun shone through it, making it seem to burn with green and gold fire. She wanted that jewel. She reached out and touched it.

 

Sarah fell into the crystal, like falling through sparkling clouds of green and gold. But then she wasn’t falling, she was floating, and ahead there was a light. She wanted to reach that light and, with that goal in mind, she started swimming. Strong, sure strokes brought her ever closer, until she broke through the water’s surface into the bright daylight.

 

A cool, gentle hand cupped her cheek and brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. Sarah’s eyes fluttered open, blinking at the bright sun coming in from a high window. She felt so rested and content, better than she had in years. Perhaps the new medication really was working. Still, something didn’t feel…right. Then she realized the difference. She was awake, but she hadn’t woken up screaming and sweating in the night. Brief fragments of her dream brushed her mind and her heart fluttered with shock and hope. Gasping, she sat up in bed and the soft hand fell away. Sarah turned, smiling, tears gathering in her eyes, and froze.

 

The sight of a familiar woman stopped her gaze, with waves of red hair and twinkling eyes…who was not her usual nurse. “Good, you’re awake,” the woman said. Sarah’s brows knit in momentary confusion before it all came rushing back. The yellow VW bug, the cliff, the agonizing decision, and…She looked at the smooth skinned woman at her bedside.

 

“Amaranth,” she muttered, remembering. A single tear traced its way down Sarah’s cheek and she smiled. “I was dreaming,” she said, her voice awed, “It was…beautiful.” Amaranth smiled back and nodded, reaching out to hold the girl’s hand. Sarah drew her knees up to her chest and laid her head on them. She breathed in deeply and the air tasted fresh and clear.  It tasted…magical. She glanced at the window above her. “We’re there, aren’t we? In the Labyrinth.”

 

“We are in the underground,” Amaranth corrected with a smile. “But not the Labyrinth. My magic cannot reach that place.”

 

“Oh!” Sarah sighed, feeling strangely disappointed. Eager to see the world outside the window she threw back the covers. She rolled out of bed only to feel her legs collapse beneath her, Amaranth’s strong arms catching her before she fell. Shivering, a wave of weakness passed through her body.

 

“Not so fast, Sarah,” Amaranth cautioned, helping her back onto the bed. “You need more rest.”

 

Sarah looked at Amaranth questioningly worry shadowing her eyes. “I don’t understand. Why am I so weak?” Amaranth grimaced and sat back in her chair.

 

“I’m sorry, Sarah. A miscalculation on my part,” she brushed more loose tendrils of hair from Sarah’s face. “Without the inherent magic of your dreams your body used a great deal of your own energy to make the trip. I knew it would, but not to such a degree.” She smiled. “You’ll be fine though. Just a little more rest, and some food, and you’ll be right as rain. In fact, I’ll be right back with some soup.”

 

Amaranth stood and glided out of the room on bare feet. Sarah took the opportunity to glance around her sick room. It was a small, stonewalled chamber with tapestries softening the barren walls. They depicted forest scenes full of animals both imaginary and real, although Sarah knew that those concepts were very different things down here than aboveground. The bed was softer than a cloud and heaped high with quilts in the colors of the autumn forest. A single window looked into the room, just above the head of the bed. Off in a corner was a small stool with a patchwork fur blanket draped over it. Her small bag from the hospital sat beside it.

 

Sarah was examining the tapestry of a prancing unicorn when Amaranth returned. In her hands was a small tray with a cup and bowl. Steam was rising from both vessels. She arranged the tray on Sarah’s lap and sat back in the chair. Sarah inhaled deeply the savory scent coming from the bowl before picking up the spoon. Her mouth was suddenly watering. She didn’t know the last time she’d felt so hungry. She was just about to dig in, when a thought occurred to her. She paused to look at Amaranth. “You said your magic doesn’t reach the Labyrinth. Why not, if you’re magic, like him, whatever he is?” She wondered if the question was even coherent enough to understand.

 

Amaranth smiled. “We are both Fey,” she said, “But the Labyrinth is wholly his and none can enter without his permission. Now eat.” Sarah blinked at the simple, seemingly straightforward answer.

 

“Oh…ok,” she started to dip the spoon into the bowl, but stopped once again. She looked hard at Amaranth.

 

“If you can’t get in, then how do I? And what’s my part of the bargain…you haven’t told me yet.”

 

“Ever the persistent one,” Amaranth laughed. Sarah shrugged, not sure if that was a compliment or a complaint. The fey woman’s face grew serious. “Eat, Sarah. I’ll tell you what I need from you while you do.” Sarah didn’t need to be told a third time. She ate.

 

“First of all,” Amaranth began, “we must get you into the Labyrinth, and keep you there…”

 

 

 

***Later, elsewhere in the forest…***

 

 

The woods resounded with the sound of baying dogs, the terror of the hunt close on the heels of its prey. The dogs rushed through the close growing trees, bounding with ease over boulders and fallen logs. Behind the dogs could be heard the thundering hooves of the hunter’s horses. The prey rushed just steps ahead of them, always just steps ahead, surprisingly nimble for its apparent bulk. The patchwork fur of the quarry taunted its pursuers, glimpses of it flashing through the trees. The dogs strained harder, long red tongues flapping out from between sharp, white teeth.

 

Sarah was panting from the exertion, but she kept running. Amaranth had assured her she wouldn’t get caught, not until she wanted to at least, but that didn’t keep her heart from nearly pounding out of her chest in fear. The heavily muscled hounds were so close, red eyes locked on her back. At least the cloak of patchwork fur she wore around her shoulders was light. She could barely feel its weight, and somehow it never caught on the grasping branches as it flapped around her body.

 

“You needn’t evade them for long,” Amaranth had said, settling the cloak around Sarah’s shoulders. It seemed to cling to her like a second skin. “Remember, you <b>want</b> to be caught.” Sarah looked at her with disbelieving eyes. Amaranth laughed. “Trust me.”

 

Ahead Sarah saw a tree, thick and twisted. The trunk was knotted enough for easy climbing, and the branches high enough that hopefully the hounds couldn’t reach her. She scrambled up the black trunk, crouching among the sparse leaves. Her hands, the skin black and leathered, gripped the smaller branches tightly.

 

The cloak covered her entire body, from head to toe, leaving only her face and hands exposed. She looked at her hands, scrubbing them against each other. They looked terrible, black and gnarled, but felt just as they always had. She turned to peer into the small mirror on the wall. Her face had receded deep into the shadows of the furred hood, but what little she could see matched her hands. Her eyes were very white and wide against the darkness.  She touched her cheek tentatively, relieved to feel familiar soft skin. “I can see why he won’t remember be, but how does this get me into the Labyrinth?”

 

“Trust me,” Amaranth replied.

 

The hounds rushed at the tree, jumping and snapping their jaws at the creature huddled just out of their reach. They bayed, snarled, and barked ferociously, but it did no good. They simply couldn’t reach their quarry. They backed away, but remained close enough that Sarah couldn’t have escaped if she wanted to. They seemed to lounge, as if they no longer cared about what was up the tree, but Sarah knew they were ever vigilant. That was fine. She focused on her breathing, trying to calm down and remember everything Amaranth had told her.

 

 “That’s it?” Sarah asked, “Are you sure he’ll go for it?” Amaranth smiled, and Sarah just sighed. “I know, I know. Trust you.”

 

Amaranth brushed her hand over the soft, patchy fur. “He won’t be able to resist,” she assured her.

 

Minutes later the horses, lithe and muscular steeds, charged through the trees. There were perhaps half a dozen of them, decked out in bright, fanciful colors. The riders were much the same, three men and two women, dripping in silks and satins of every color. They fluttered and twittered like so many birds, circling the tree and peering up into the branches to catch a glimpse of their prey.

 

One man stood out among the peacocks. He rode on a stallion that seemed no more than smoke, but its hooves struck the rocky ground with a sound like steel. Compared to his companions his clothes were practically subdued. But the high-collared, short-waisted, blue doublet and glossy black riding boots only enhanced the paleness of his features. His hair was a shocking white blonde and floated about his face like soft feathers. Mismatched eyes examined the tree with keen interest as he dismounted. He strode up to the tree with a leisurely prowl, and the dogs moved out of his way on their bellies, heads bowed.

 

Sarah was frozen. He seemed to be staring right at her, trapping her with his raptor gaze. She realized that with everything else going on she hadn’t even considered what it would be like to meet him again. She realized she had pushed the fear away, buried it, and now here she was, about to confront him and completely unprepared to do so.

 

Below her, the Goblin King propped one foot up on a tree root and leaned forward, resting his elbow on his knee. He stared up at her through the branches, tapping his riding crop against his boot. “Well now,” he drawled, “what have we here?”

Chapter Text

Strange was not a term the Goblin King used lightly or often, yet he found himself thinking it now as he peered up into the ancient ironwood tree where their quarry had hidden itself. He tried to catch a glimpse of it, but the foliage was too dense. A soft rustle and scraping coming from among the branches was the only indication the creature was still there. Jareth’s eyes focused on the spot the noise came from and he caught a glimpse of a large, hairy form.

 

“You’ve led us a merry chase,” he commented almost to himself. The dogs whined softly, as if in agreement, but quieted when he turned to glance at them. The persistence of his hunting dogs had been the first clue that aught was amiss. His hounds were simple creatures of magic, and as such their attention span was, to put it kindly, minimal. If the chase ran too long they were quick to lose interest. However, as fleet of foot as they were, the chase was very often over before it had truly begun.

 

Not so with this hunt. Even now the pack of hounds was focused on nothing else but the tree, their red eyes never wavering from its branches. Jareth wanted to know what had grabbed their spotty attention so thoroughly. He was…curious, for now.

 

The Goblin King’s hair seemed to flutter, as if moving in its own wind, as he focused a small bit of persuasive magic at the creature. “Come down, little one,” he murmured, “Let me see you closer.” His voice was smooth and cajoling. It inched forward just a bit into the light, but stopped suddenly, shaking its shaggy head.

 

“No,” it said defiantly. Jareth frowned slightly. It should not have been able to resist the persuasion spell with so little difficulty. Strange indeed.

 

The voice sounded feminine, soft and lyrical, an oddly pretty sound coming from such a form. It also roused the dogs again. Their soft whines turned to growls, and one even leapt at the tree with teeth bared. With a sigh Jareth waved one hand and the dog was gone, dissipated like smoke on the wind.

 

“Will you come down?” he asked of the creature. If magic would not work, then perhaps good old fashioned charm would do the trick. He was speaking to the tree again however, as it, she he amended, had hidden again when the hound attacked.

 

“No,” the answer came from out of the tree.

 

“Why not?” he asked conversationally, studying his leather gloved hands as if completely disinterested in the answer.

 

“It’s not safe,” she replied in a tone that implied he was a fool not to have figured it out on his own. The dogs growled louder. His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Time enough later to teach a lesson if need be. Instead he dismissed the remaining hounds with another wave of his hand. One instant they were there, the next, smoke. Silence, but for the stamping hooves and jingling tack of the horses, descended.

 

“And now, my dear?” he asked smoothly. The she-creature shifted forward, back into the light, but made no move to climb down. Jareth straightened, holding his hands out from his sides, and took three steps back from the base of the tree. He could see her watching him intently, thinking. He tried once again with a bit of magical persuasion, and once again it seemed to have little effect.

 

“Won’t you go away?” she asked a little desperately, as if hoping he would say yes.

 

“I’m afraid not,” he said gently, a smirk on his face. He wasn’t going anywhere until he had satisfied his curiosity. The Goblin King did not take no for an answer. “Not until you come down and speak with me.” The beast seemed to consider this for a moment before heaving a heavy sigh and nodding her head. She scrabbled down the gnarled trunk with a surprising agility, watching him very closely as she did so.  As soon as she reached the ground she stopped, watching him and waiting. He saw her glance at his five companions, but only for a moment. It was him she watched, as if expecting him to do her some harm.

 

Jareth studied the odd female creature crouching before him. He had never seen her like in his Labyrinth, and he was fascinated. Her hunched figure was covered with fur of many colors, somewhere between calico and patchwork. Only her hands and face were without hair, the skin black and leathery, what he could see of it. The fur around the she-creature’s face was longer, almost like a head of hair, or a mane, concealing the details of her features in shadow. All except for wide brown eyes, the whites a startling contrast against her skin. He didn’t know what she was, but those eyes, full of a curious caution, intrigued him. He walked around her, studying, and she turned with him, watching him back with her bright eyes.

 

He reached out one gloved hand toward her, but she shrank back, as if suspicious of his intentions. Jareth frowned, eyes narrowing, but pulled his hand back. He hadn’t been reaching to touch the thing anyhow. He had tasted her magic, trying to determine her origin, and he was perplexed by what he found.

 

“Impossible,” he muttered. This was no natural creature of Faerie, hence why he had never seen its like. It was made up of magic with no master, magic created by mortal dreams that had lost their way. Such magic seemed to have been increasing in Faerie, most notably in and around his Labyrinth. It caused havoc when it met the stable magic of the maze, changing things randomly which he had great difficulty undoing. He could usually do little but wait for the magic to grow bored, dissipate, and move on. Until now it had been small patches of wild magic, small unstable changes. It shouldn’t be possible for such random, lost bits of magic to come together in such a stable form, yet here she was. Standing before him and watching him with intelligent eyes.

 

“What in the world is it, Jareth?” asked Leila from atop her horse behind him. He did not answer for a moment.

 

“I am not sure,” he replied softly, eyes never leaving the beast in front of him. “Roarke,” he said, his tone commanding. Behind him he could hear a leather saddle shifting as one of the men dismounted. The she-creature’s eyes shifted to watch Roarke approach, but seemed to dismiss him soon enough and return back to Jareth.  Roarke stopped beside him, sweeping his green cape in a small bow toward the king.

 

“Your majesty. What is it, my lord?” he asked softly. Jareth glanced at him.

 

“Tell me if my sense is deceiving me, Roarke,” he replied. Roarke frowned, but obliged. He too reached out toward the creature, tasting her aura. Jareth noticed that she did not shrink from his hand, as his fingertips lightly brushed her fur. He frowned, strangely irritated, but said nothing. Roarke too was frowning, but in pure puzzlement, tinged with a hint of worry.

 

“Wild magic? But Jareth, it’s not possible, is it?” he asked, looking at the king.

 

“I thought not, but…” The Goblin King shrugged, his own findings confirmed. It explained why his persuasion spell had not worked. The she-creature looked back and forth between the two of them, and Jareth wondered how much she could understand.

 

A small, irritated huff came from behind the two men, followed by the sound of several people arguing in hushed tones. “But I want to see what’s so interesting,” Leila finally said loud enough to be heard. Jareth turned this time to see the raven haired beauty picking her way toward them over the uneven ground, holding her bright yellow skirts out of the dirt. The rest of the party followed behind at a distance. His mouth thinned in irritation at the interuption, but he said nothing.

 

The girl paused when she reached Jareth’s side, studying the furry creature. “What is it?” she asked, a curious look on her face. “Is it one of yours? It’s certainly ugly enough to be.” A look of irritation passed over the creature’s face. Jareth had a feeling she was offended by Leila’s petty insult.

 

“She,” he corrected.

 

“Pardon?” Leila asked, looking up at him.

 

“Not it, my dear, she,” he replied. Leila’s pixie face scrunched in confusion for a moment before she realized what he was saying.

 

“That thing is female? How on earth can you tell under all that hair?” she asked in a disgusted voice. Jareth noticed something like anger pass over the creature’s face and wondered suddenly if she could be dangerous.

 

“Leila, my dear, perhaps…” he began, his hand wrapping around her upper arm, poised to pull her away. He didn’t get to finish.

 

“I’d rather be ugly than stupid, little girl,” the creature sniped. Leila’s eyes widened, then narrowed, and the rest of the group gasped. Except for Jareth, who’s lips momentarily twitched up in amusement.

 

“How dare you!” Leila hissed in outrage, “How dare you speak to me that way! Do you know who I am?” She stamped one dainty foot, glaring at her offender.

 

The creature shrugged. “Do I care?” she asked.

 

“Oh!” Leila sputtered, “Jareth, Jareth, do something! You can’t let it talk to me like that!” The more demanding her voice the colder grew the Goblin King’s eyes.

 

“Can’t I?” he asked in a soft, dangerous tone. Leila did not seem to notice, although the rest of the group shuffled nervously. She was busy glaring at the creature. “I think it is time for you to return to the castle, Leila,” Jareth said. The girl whipped around, a shocked look on her face.

 

“But, Jareth…I…” she began.

 

“Now.”

 

The creature spoke again. “I do know who he is,” she said, pointing to Jareth, “and you must be more stupid than I thought to try and give orders to the Goblin King.” Leila stood momentarily stunned before realization seemed to dawn on her. She looked at Jareth with pleading eyes.

 

“I didn’t mean…your majesty, please…” she began, hands out in supplication. Tears filled her green eyes. Jareth’s mouth thinned, but he did not look at her.

 

“Marlee, escort the Lady Leila back to her horse. I will deal with her later,” his voice was cold and ominous. An older blonde woman in a dress the color of orange sherbet swept forward with a curtsey and took Leila’s arm. She drew the distraught girl away, speaking in hushed tones. The third woman followed quickly behind. The creature stuck out a small pink tongue after them, much to Jareth's amusement.

 

No one spoke a word after the women had moved off. Jareth and the creature stared at each other in silence, each contemplating the other. The forest was silent, as if holding its breath, waiting to see who would make the next move.

 

“So,” Jareth finally spoke, “You know who I am.” He said it lightly, but not idly. She nodded, rolling her shoulders in what could have been a shrug.

 

“You’re the Goblin King,” she paused, “Master of the Labyrinth.” His eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

 

“Then you have me at a disadvantage,” he replied softly, silkily. “I do not know your name, nor where you come from.”

 

The creature seemed to hunch further into herself. Her bright eyes followed the retreating women, then cast down to the ground as if searching. She was silent for long moments and Jareth almost decided she would not answer him. Then her voice came, soft and sad. “I...don’t know who I am,” she said, “I was nothing, before today.” She paused. “Before today,” she said, a tone of wonder in her voice, “I don’t…believe…I really existed at all.”

 

Jareth studied her in silence for long moments before speaking. “Very well,” he said abruptly, “then you will come back to the Labyrinth with me.”

 

“Oh, but I don’t…” she started to protest. He held up one hand and she stilled.

 

“You will return with me to the Labyrinth,” he stated, his tone brooking no argument. “And we will give you a name.” He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, “Aisling, I think. It will be a very good name indeed.” He turned on one booted heel and strode away, expecting them to follow. The wild magic creature, Aisling, would need to be watched very carefully. Jareth wouldn’t be surprised if the magic that made her suddenly grew unstable and broke apart into smaller magics, but until it did he wanted to keep her close. Beyond his own curiosity at her existence, some instinct told him that this was the start of something strange.

Chapter Text

Sarah dreamed…

 

A little blue cat jumped on her bed. ‘I found you!’ the cat purred to her sleeping self in bed. It pawed at the patchwork fur blanket. ‘I’m so glad. Wake up!’ Her sleeping self stirred and stretched and blinked. She looked up at the cat who looked back at her.

 

‘Who are you, little cat?’ her dream-self asked.

 

‘Don’t you know? Don’t you see? I am you! You are me!’ The little blue cat laughed a little blue laugh. ‘I was gone, now I’m back. What fun we shall have!’ It’s fluffy blue tail swished back and forth. ‘I thought you were lost, but I found you again.’

 

‘I don’t understand,’ she said to the cat. ‘What do you mean?’ The little blue cat gave a toothy white grin. It rubbed its fur along her hand.

 

‘I’ll show you,’ it said. ‘Come with me and you’ll see!’ The little blue cat jumped into her eyes and she dreamed she was a bird.

 

She flew on gossamer wings, the Labyrinth spread out before her. The sky was blue and clear, the day perfect. She remembered feeling lost once, but it passed. Sometimes she felt she had no purpose, but then she forgot. Today she thought she’d try being a bird.

 

A small sound below caught her attention. Looking down she saw a girl, sitting against a stone wall making soft sounds. She glided down and perched on the wall. The girl was young, with short blonde hair, and she was crying. ‘What’s wrong little girl?’

 

The child looked up, her blue eyes glistening with tears, blinking up at the dream Sarah-bird. ‘I don’t know the way,’ she wailed. Sarah cocked her bird head and laughed. ‘I do, I do! Follow me!’ Sarah-bird swooped off the wall and ahead of the girl. She could hear the little girl behind her, running to keep up. As she rounded the corner a wall reared up in front of her. She climbed through the air, up and over the wall, and behind her she heard the girl shouting. ‘Wait! I can’t follow! Oh…It’s not fair! I hate this place!’

 

The girl’s voice grew fainter as Sarah flew away. ‘Not fair, not fair,’ she chanted in a singsong voice. She had forgotten completely about the girl as she felt a pull from the direction of the castle. She headed toward the center of the Labyrinth. She was almost there when a sparkling crystal ball came out of nowhere and shattered against her. Startled, her bird form broke apart and she drifted like a cloud to the ground.

 

She hovered just above the ground, trying to remember what she was doing, when she felt that same pull again. She was tired of flying, she thought, so she decided to try something else.

 

Dream-Sarah slunk across the ground, through courtyards and around corners, following the pull. She came to a dead end, an ivy covered courtyard with a fountain in the center and trees made of crystal. The fountain was singing. She jumped up on the fountain ledge, but all she saw when she looked down was the wavy reflection of a small blue cat.

 

Shrugging, she jumped back down. The pull, almost magnetic in intensity, was coming from the far ivy-covered wall. Creeping over she spied an opening which hadn’t been there before. She slipped through and was off again, loping through the twisting, turning maze until she turned the corner and a stone wall rose up before her. It was the Goblin City wall. She slipped past with ease and loped through the city toward the castle.

 

Around the back she ventured, following that lure. It was a familiar call, and it grew stronger as she closed in on the castle kitchens. How strange she thought as she ran along. Into the kitchens, narrowly missing a wooden spoon swung in her direction, she darted down the hall and into the little room beneath the stairs. Curled up in the corner was the source of the pull, wrapped in technicolor furs and sleeping soundly.

 

She jumped on the bed. ‘I found you!’ she purred to her sleeping self. It pawed at the patchwork fur blanket. ‘I’m so glad. Wake up!’

 

Sarah stirred and stretched and blinked, gazing up into the darkness of her cozy room, trying to chase away the cobwebs of sleep. The edges of her dream were dissipating like smoke as she became more aware of the waking world. She tried to hold on to it, but dreams are elusive creatures, and all that remained was the vague image of a small, blue cat purring in her face. No matter. What mattered was that she dreamed at all and no longer faced that endless void within herself.

 

Sarah stretched once more and sat up on the straw mattress that was her bed, hunching to avoid cracking her head on the beams overhead. She’d had a throbbing bump on her scalp for the first few days before she learned. There was no way to tell what time it was in the darkness of her room, but she hated to lie in bed for too long. Too many memories of lying awake in the dark afraid of the emptiness of sleep. She was awake now. It was time to start another day.

 

Her quarters were a bit cramped, but with minimal contortions she managed to wrap the patchwork cloak round her shoulders and pull up the hood. She could almost feel the magic wrapping itself around her, sinking into her skin. She sighed and cuddled into the fur before pushing open the small wooden door to the closet she had been given to sleep in.

 

The door stopped suddenly with a thud and an outraged squeak came from out in the hall. Sarah scrambled out into the stone corridor and peered behind the door. She winced as a long wooden spoon fell onto her shoulder with a smack.

 

“Watch where ye go, ye hairy beastie,” chittered an angry voice. Sarah swung the door shut to find herself staring into the wrinkled, nut brown face of Niela, the head chef, flat on her back. The Brownie glared at her as she struggled to get up.

 

“Sorry, Nel,” Sarah apologized, reaching down to set her back on her feet. As soon as she was standing again the long spoon started down for another smack. Sarah held up one hand, catching it on the down stroke. She held it there and just looked at the angry Brownie, saying nothing. Sarah had learned quickly that if you gave Nel’s temper an inch, it took a <i>kingdom</i>. She wasn’t giving her a third swing. <i>Second. She only swung at you once.</i> Sarah paused at the thought, but only for a moment.

 

The silence stretched out, the two of them standing almost nose to nose, until Nel gave a small “hmph” and pulled the spoon away. She adjusted her frilled white cap, which had gone askew when she fell. The spoon disappeared into one of her apron’s many bottomless pockets. Sarah often found herself wondering what she kept in those magical pockets, but at the same time she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

 

“’Bout time ye rolled yer lazy arse outta bed,” Niela groused. She turned on her heel and trundled back down the hall toward the kitchens. “Well, come on!” Nel stopped and turned, ready to urge her on, almost running into Sarah who was already following close behind. “Watch ye don’t run me over,” she snapped, grumbling something else beneath her breath and continuing on again. Sarah held back her smile until Nel’s back was turned, but followed a little less closely.

 

“Days half done,” she continued as they walked into the spacious kitchen. Sarah noted that although a fire blazed in the main hearth, none of the other kitchen staff were there yet. Outside the kitchen’s many windows there was darkness, although perhaps with a hint of graying.

 

“The sun isn’t even up yet, Nel,” Sarah commented, her grin widening.

 

“No excuse when there’s work that needs doin’,” Nel snapped back. “Now wipe that silly smile off yer face and get tae work.”

 

“Yes, Nel,” Sarah laughed as she headed out the door to get more wood, ignoring the Brownie’s irritated huff.

 

Sarah hummed as she set about her chores, enjoying the quiet of the early morning before the castle really began to bustle. Two months had passed since her return to the underground and Sarah could not remember ever feeling so…right. Each night she lay down to sleep was easier than the night before, and each time passed without her having to face the formless void that had once led her to despair. It was as if just being in the labyrinth had healed a wound inside. She didn’t always dream, often collapsing at the end of a long day in dreamless exhaustion, and rarely remembered when she did. Still, there was a presence now, a company of players waiting just beyond the curtain of her mind, prepared to perform at a moments notice.

 

She had seen neither hide nor hair of His Majesty since the day he had her brought back to the castle, which suited her just fine. Although it was glaringly obvious that he hadn’t recognized her, she would just as soon not tempt fate until she had to.

 

In the meantime, she worked for Niela in the kitchens and slept in a closet beneath the stairs. Nel was firm, but fair, most of the time, although she never gave Sarah, “that Aisling creature” as she called her, a moment’s peace. Sarah was pretty sure they’d gotten off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. Niela was the master of her kitchens and nobody, not even the King, was allowed to tell her how to run them. So it hadn’t sat well when Jareth had ordered Niela to give “his new creature” a job and a bed, before walking out without a second glance.

 

Still, Sarah had been only too glad to be set to work. It was a far sight better than the desperate tedium of her life before now, spending her days in white walled rooms trying not to think too hard. She found, in fact, that she liked keeping busy. It gave her a feeling of accomplishment that she couldn’t remember ever having before. She had thrown herself into the work, doing such a good job that even Nel eased up a little. Sarah was sure she was winning the temperamental woman over bit by bit.

 

Morning blossomed in the Labyrinth, shedding a shimmering golden light over everything. Sarah was out in the yard sweeping, enjoying the light, when she was interrupted by a flock of panicked chickens suddenly surrounding her. Batting at the birds and spitting feathers out of her mouth, she looked to see what had startled the stupid fowl. She spotted a small goblin with red, yellow, and grey speckled fur chasing one of the hens, cackling gleefully.

 

“Twiggy!” she barked, glaring at the little creature. He froze in his tracks, his eyes wide with shock. “No chasing chickens. You know that!” she scolded. The little goblin grinned sheepishly and started playing nervously with his tail.

 

“Sawy, Aisling,” he giggled, looking anything but.

 

Sarah shook a finger at him. “Should I tell Niela?” she asked threateningly. The little goblin’s eyes widened further and he shook his head vigorously. His floppy red ears whipped back and forth.

 

“No, no. Twiggy be good. Don’t tell Niela,” he mewled. His lip quivered.

 

Twiggy was the only goblin who worked in the kitchens, although he wasn’t very good at it. Normally, according to Niela, getting a goblin to do anything took more work than just doing the job yourself. And they were absolute troublemakers of the first degree, which was why she wouldn’t even allow them in her tightly run kitchens. Except for Twiggy. He stayed, and tried to work, because, for some unfathomable reason, he was thoroughly smitten with Niela. Sarah didn’t know why Niela let him hang around though, given the trouble he was constantly causing.

 

“Why are you out here, Twiggy?” Sarah asked, suspiciously.

 

“Oh!” Twiggy jumped, forgetting his contriteness. “Niela send Twiggy to get Aisling! Twiggy forgot when he saw chickens.”

 

“Why?” Sarah asked, wondering why Niela would pull her from her chores. It wasn’t like her.

 

“’Cause chickens make Twiggy laugh when they run away!” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Sarah rolled her eyes.

 

“No, why…oh, never mind. I’ll find out myself,” she sighed. “Let’s go, Twiggy. I’m not leaving you out here alone with the chickens.” Twiggy screeched as she picked him up by the scruff of the neck and headed back inside.

Chapter Text

Twiggy squirmed in her grip like a ferret on speed, but to no avail. Sarah carried the little creature into the cavernous kitchen and dumped him on one of the wooden trestle tables that was momentarily not cluttered with bowls and ingredients. The room was far livelier now than it had been earlier. Near a dozen industrious workers, a varied mix of brownies, dwarves and pixies, bustled about, preparing food for the castle’s denizens. A couple of fairies, Sarah had learned they were called city sprites, also flitted here and there. It looked like a chaotic mess, but she knew that everyone there moved with a purpose. Nel would have it no other way.

 

Once she released him, Twiggy spit an irritated hiss at her before scampering over to Niela where she was barking orders at two very harassed looking pixies. The taller of the two, Peaseblossom, was three and a half feet, practically a giant by pixie standards, with long pink curls. Her sister Cowslip was half a foot shorter with short, spiky blue hair. At the moment her delicate, pointy chin was tucked into her chest, her elvin eyes glued to Nel. As soon as Nel finished, both girls zipped away as if the entire goblin army were behind them. Niela had that effect on her peons.

 

“Aisling was mean to Twiggy, Niela!” the little goblin tugged at Nel’s skirts.

 

“Aye, and sure I am you probably deserved it,” she replied, looking at Sarah questioningly.

 

Sarah just rolled her shoulders in a furry shrug. “Twiggy said you wanted me, Nel?”

 

“Aye,” the cook said, shaking the clinging Twiggy off her skirts. “Her high and mighty ladyship’s been ringin’ fer her breakfast, and Izzy ain’t to be found. I need ya tae bring Miss Leila’s tray up.” She pointed to the covered tray sitting on the table.

 

That would mean traversing the castle’s inhabited wing and risk running into HIM again. Besides, the last thing she wanted to do was serve anything to that little tart. Sarah shook her head frantically. “Me? But, Nel, I…I can’t.”

 

“You’ve two ‘ands, haven’t ye? Two feet?” she snapped, peering up at Sarah with suspicious eyes. Sarah just shrugged in reply. She was saved from responding by a squeal from below.

 

“Twiggy can do it! Twiggy take Miss Leila’s food!” The little goblin was hopping from one foot to another, tugging at Niela’s skirts again.

 

“Aye, and eat it halfway there,” Nel sneered, snatching her dress back. “No, Aisling’s capable enough to do it.” She looked at Sarah with a questioning eye, as if daring her to contradict.

 

Sarah struggled to find a reason, any reason to avoid the chore. “But…I don’t know my way through the castle, Niela,” she said in desperate relief. So far she only knew her way around the bowels of the castle. The upper levels were a complete mystery.

 

“It’s simple enough,” the brownie sighed. She began explaining, but after the seventh turn and the fourth stair, Sarah could feel her eyes crossing. Niela paused and grumbled under her breath. “Alright then,” she sighed. “Take twiggy. He’ll show ye the way. But no dawdlin’!”

 

Twiggy jumped up and down in excitement at the pronouncement. So exuberant were his movements that his whipping tail caught on a rack of hanging pans and pulled them crashing down. Niela gave a screech like an angry cat as she watched her precious cookware tumble to the floor with a thunderous clatter. Silence descended.

 

Twiggy stopped moving and stared at Sarah, eyes wide with terror. Sarah, just as wide-eyed, stared at Nel, who seemed frozen in shock. Not good. She did not want to be around when Nel snapped to. Suddenly coming face to face with the Goblin King seemed preferable.

 

“Time to go Twiggy,” Sarah rasped to the speckled goblin.

 

“Twiggy agrees,” he said with a gulp, and dashed for the door. Sarah, in turn, grabbed the breakfast tray and loped after him.

 

Predictably, Twiggy’s attention span went only so far. He vanished just as they reached the guest wing of the castle. Sarah supposed she should be grateful he led her that far, but it didn’t much help with reaching her goal. She emerged from the hidden staircase into an empty, twisting corridor. Looking left and right there were doors as far as the eye could see. She was completely at a loss as to which one she needed.

 

Well, anything was better than standing here like a dolt while the food got cold. Left was just as good as right, and Sarah turned down the hall. She walked and walked and walked, past door after door. Each one she tried was locked, which gave her hope that eventually she’d find one that wasn’t.

 

Five minutes and twenty-five doors later, Sarah was ready to call it quits, when she rounded the corner and spied a familiar face. Izzy stood at one of the tower windows, her dark hair pinned back in a bun, gazing out at the Labyrinth spread out before her. She was one of several servants who had arrived at the castle from a kingdom to the east several months before with their master, Prince Roarke. Izzy was the only woman in the prince’s entourage, and as such had been given the position as one of Leila’s ladies maids, a job Sarah did not envy of her. She was the only human, other than Leila, whom Sarah had seen since her return to the Labyrinth, and she kind of wished they could be friends. Unfortunately, even if Sarah weren’t playing a part that would be difficult. Izzy had the unfortunate characteristic of being mute.   

 

“Izzy!” Sarah exclaimed with relief, hurrying over to her with the tray. She stopped however when Izzy turned at the sound of her name and Sarah spotted the glistening dampness on her cheek. The woman’s eyes widened and she quickly turned away, wiping at her face with a lace handkerchief that matched her simple pale blue gown. When she turned back her eyes were dry, if a bit red and puffy. She looked at Sarah quizzically.

 

“Oh..I. I’m sorry Izzy,” Sarah muttered, “I, uh, I was looking for Lady Leila’s rooms, um…” She held out the breakfast tray in explanation. Izzy’s eyes widened, one hand flying to her mouth.  She nodded vigorously and gestured for Sarah to follow. A few minutes later they arrived at their destination. Izzy gave a soft knock of warning and opened the door.

 

She led Sarah into the sitting room and pointed to a small table at the side, the top sporting a delicate design of inlaid abalone shell. She set the tray down and looked around while Izzy went to knock on the bedroom door. The whole room was like something out of a Disney fairy movie. Plush curtains hung from gold sculpted ceilings. Couches and chairs in gold and ivory were placed around the room. Sarah wondered how much of it was Leila’s taste and how much was the result of what Jareth thought human girls wanted.

 

“It’s about time! You servants are so lazy! I’ve been ringing for hours.” Sarah’s attention was drawn by Leila’s voice as she flounced out of her bedroom in a lush cream dressing gown. She followed Izzy, headed straight for the table, until she caught sight of Sarah.

 

“Oh!” she gasped, stopping, a disgusted look on her face, “What is that ugly, hairy thing doing here?” She pointed at the door. “Get away from my food you dirty creature!”

 

Sarah narrowed her eyes, but held her tongue. Really, the stupid girl wasn’t worth her time. Secretly though, Sarah wished she could ruin that fancy robe she was wearing. She had just opened the door when she heard an unearthly screech from behind her. “Killitkillitkillitkillit!” Leila was screeching, turning back and forth and hopping around like a mad woman. Sarah turned to see a small, blue creature dodging Leila’s dancing feet. In her frenzied flailing her robe managed to catch on the silver pot sitting on the tray and pull it over. Hot, steaming chocolate poured out, covering Leila from the chest down. The small animal, Sarah thought it might be mouse, scampered out the open door.

 

The room descended into shocked silence as Leila stood with chocolate dripping from her clothes. Then her hand shot out and slapped Izzy across the face with a deafening crack. Sarah felt anger sweep over her. “You stupid bitch!” Leila was screaming in Izzy’s face, her own red with rage. The other woman shrank back as Leila’s hand raised for a second swing. Sarah jogged over and grabbed Izzy, pulling her out of the way of the descending hand and toward the door.

 

“Get back here!” Leila shouted, coming after them. She reached out and grabbed at the fur of Sarah’s hood, catching nothing but a few colorful hairs. Sarah pushed Izzy out the door and followed after. A porcelain statue shattered against the door frame by her head. “I’m telling Jareth exactly what you did! You’ll regret this!” she yelled as the door closed. Sarah gritted her teeth against a retort.

 

She was following Izzy when the woman stopped suddenly and she bumped straight into her. Peering around her body, Sarah looked to see what had stopped her. Izzy herself had walked straight into the broad chest of Prince Roarke and was now staring at him with a horrified look on her face. She composed herself quickly, however, and performed a curtsey. Sarah followed suit, although hers was closer to a bow. The prince himself had a quizzical expression on his face as he looked at the two servants.

 

“You’re in a fine fettle, Izzy,” he commented. She continued to stare at her feet, not moving. Roarke put one finger beneath Izzy’s chin and lifted. He studied her closely, and Sarah could see something harsh gathering behind his eyes. She glanced up at Izzy’s face and couldn’t hold back a gasp. The woman’s left cheek was already swelling, turning blue and purple where Leila had struck her. Roarke’s mouth thinned and he transferred his narrow eyed look to Sarah.

 

“You’re Jareth’s little wildling,” he said. “What happened?” His tone brooked no argument. Sarah kept herself from protesting that she wasn’t Jareth’s little anything, reminding herself she was playing a part.

 

“It was an accident,” Sarah muttered gruffly. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Some hot chocolate spilled on Lady Leila’s robe.” She knew better than to outright accuse Leila of abusing the servants. For all she knew the prince didn’t give a damn.

 

“I see,” he murmured grimly. He released Izzy’s chin. “Go take care of that bruise, Izzy.” He glanced at the door to Leila’s chamber before continuing down the hall. With a sigh of relief Sarah and Izzy headed the other direction, back toward the kitchen. Unbeknownst to Sarah, a small blue mouse scurried out from a corner and jumped beneath the fur of her cloak as they passed.

 

>:o_o:<

 

 

“Something must be done with that human, Jareth.” Roarke declared as he slammed into the Goblin King’s study. Jareth barely glanced at his guest from his windowsill perch. His attention was focused into a small floating crystal ball hovering just above his hand. Inside could be seen a blonde, blue-eyed girl wandering through the stone pathways near the beginning of the maze. Pathetic child. Her baby sister was better off in his world.

 

“You are interrupting, Roarke. I thought your parents taught you better manners than that.” Jareth drawled.

 

Roarke just snorted and collapsed into a heavy leather chair. He watched Jareth watching the crystal, fingers tapping against the chair arm. After a few moments Jareth dismissed the delicate crystal and leapt smoothly from the ledge. He walked over to his large, cluttered desk.

 

“How is your newest little mouse doing?” Roarke asked, nodding toward the open window and the Labyrinth beyond.

 

“She is a pitiful creature,” Jareth sneered, a disgusted tone to his voice, “Barely worth my time. She hasn’t even made it past the second tier. She will break soon.” And none too soon for him. She wasn’t even a challenge.

 

“And the infant?”

 

“She has already been placed with her new family,” Jareth shrugged, sitting behind his desk. Lord and Lady Rathbone were delighted with their new daughter, and Jareth was pleased with the treaty extension he had gotten out of the deal. He cleared a space on his desk by pushing aside several books and scrolls. He opened the leather bound journal where he kept track of the Labyrinth and made a few notations.

 

“You are that sure of victory?” the prince asked with a small smile.

 

“Yes.”

 

“It is possible she could win,” Roarke wheedled.

 

“It is not,” Jareth replied coolly.

 

“It’s happened before,” Roarke said slyly.

 

Jareth paused, glancing at Roarke with a narrow-eyed look. “Yes,” He said softly. He paused again, remembering the willful and spirited girl who was the only person ever to best him. “That was …unexpected. But this ghost of a girl is no match for her predecessor.”

 

“Amazing,” Roarke laughed, his tone shocked, “I did not think you would admit to it.”

 

“Why should I not? Everything is a lesson Roarke.”

 

“How did she do it?” the prince asked curiously.

 

Jareth stopped writing again and looked at Roarke. His pointy teeth flashed as he laughed. “You can hardly expect me to reveal it.” He paused again, studying Roarke. “Or are you planning to challenge my Labyrinth that you wish to know the answer? You would make a decent change from these mewling mortals.”

 

Roarke laughed in turn. “Hardly. I may be young and reckless, but I am no fool. So, you will not say how one mere mortal girl brought you low?”

 

The Goblin King’s eyes narrowed.  “I weary of this subject,” he drawled, his voice chill.

 

“Did you offer the same to her as the other girls?” Roarke continued, seemingly oblivious to his host’s displeasure. “Did she turn you down?”

 

Jareth laid his quill down with care and leaned back in his chair. “You come very close to wearing out your welcome, Roarke”

 

“You will not send me home, Jareth,” Roarke dismissed the threat with a boyish grin. “I am far too entertaining. Besides, you gave your word I could stay, and the whole underground knows you keep your word.”

 

Jareth acknowledged the fact with a small nod. “However, I made no mention of WHERE in the Labyrinth you would stay while you were here. Continue to try my patience, princeling, and I give you MY WORD that your chambers will be found in one of the more unpleasant parts of my demesne.”

 

“Alright, alright, peace then, your majesty,” Roarke laughed, his hands held up in surrender. “I will change the subject.”

 

“A wise choice,” Jareth murmured with a small smile.

 

“For instance,” Roarke continued, “what have you decided to do about your little mortal mistress?”

 

Jareth frowned over at his guest, recalling that he had mentioned something about the girl when he first walked in. “Leila? What about her?”

 

“Don’t be coy with me, Jareth,” Roarke remarked.  “It’s reached about that point when you start getting bored anyhow. I can see the signs.”

 

“She can be tedious lately,” the king acknowledged. Leila had become a bit full of herself in her time at the castle. A far cry from the young girl he had first met, giving a half-hearted attempt to save the newborn son she had wished away and didn’t even want. Still, it had been easy enough to get her to forget about her quest in return for the favors he offered. In the end they all gave in to temptation, except for one.

 

“Tedious?” Roarke said in a disbelieving tone, “She is proud and spoilt, and far to full of herself.” His mouth set into a grim line as he recounted his suspicions that she had attacked Izzy with little to no provocation.

 

“Mmm,” Jareth stood and walked to the window, frowning, as he listened to Roarke. “I will speak to her. But in the meantime, she still amuses me.”

 

Roarke sighed, throwing up his hands. “That is only because you have not had real company in ages.” His expression grew sly. “Why not throw a ball?” he suggested idly, “Pawn her off on some poor court peacock and meet someone for yourself who is just as amusing but less…” he waved his hands, unable to think of a suitable derogatory term for the annoying girl. “I think you forget the pleasure a true fae woman can offer.”

 

“Your lack of subtlety leaves me breathless,” Jareth said with a smirk. He turned from the window and leaned back against it, arms crossed. “Are you so bored with the company here that you must try to convince me to invite more? You could always go home. It was your choice to hide away here in the first place.”

 

“What company?” Roarke sighed. “Well, it was worth a try at least. If nothing else, you really should consider what I say of Leila.” Jareth inclined his head in acknowledgement.

 

“I will take your suggestion under consideration,” he replied. It had been long since he entertained. Perhaps a ball was in order after all.

 

“Perfect! Wonderful, Jareth!” Roarke leapt to his feet with a grin, looking ever so much like a boy in a candy store.

 

“I said I would think on it.” Jareth said dryly, knowing full well he would probably give in. He was interrupted by a chime vibrating through the air from outside the window. He looked behind him, a small smile playing around his sculpted lips. “Ah, the little mouse has given up. If you will excuse me, Roarke.” With a rush of air and a rustle of feathers, the Goblin King was replaced by a snowy owl.

 

“Show off,” Roarke muttered. The owl simply looked at him before flying out the window. Roarke strode to the window and watched him fly out across the maze.

 

“No, I’m fine Jareth. I have plenty to keep me occupied!” he called after the bird and turned back into the room with a sigh. He went to the study door and opened it, looking out into the hall. “You!” he said to a large goblin walking by. The vacant eyed beast just stared at him. “I’m bored. Tell me a joke or something.”

 

“Uh…” the goblin pondered. It’s eyes brightened suddenly. “Uh, two goblin’s walk into a bar!” it said triumphantly. Roarke waited, the goblin stared at him with a stupid grin on his face.

 

“Yes,” he said impatiently, “and?” The goblin looked stymied.

 

“I, uh…I don’t know?” it stuttered. With a disgusted sigh Roarke slammed the door shut.

 

“No wonder you go for those mortal girls Jareth,” he said to the empty room, “Anything is better than your usual company.”

Chapter Text

 

In the oldest and most secret parts of the Labyrinth something was stirring. These were the deep places, all but forgotten by the Labyrinth’s denizens, as old as dreams, but younger than time, if there is such an age. The air, musty and still, suddenly shivered with the disturbance.  Small stony rubble skittered across the ground, and the walls shifted, as if a slumbering giant were yawning deep within the earth. It was as if the maze took one long deep breath, released it, and was still. Something was stirring, but not yet awake.

 

Like a pebble in a pond the small breath of magic rippled out from its source, touching each part of the Labyrinth as it passed. It was a subtle shift, a slight course correction to a river, a minor change in hue for a field of flowers, nothing truly noticeable. The animals startled, but did not know why, and many a faerie fell to fits of sneezing. Only for those most closely tied to the realm was there a sense of...something different. The rocks whispered nervously to each other, and the trees shivered suddenly in the still air, as if a great gust of wind had just ruffled their branches.  And just as quickly, it was gone, as if it had never been.

 

 

>:o,o:<  Elsewhere in the Labyrinth >:o,o:< 

 

 

Nel’s expression was thunderous when Sarah and Izzy finally arrived back at the kitchens. Sarah’s step faltered when she caught sight of the glowering little woman, bracing for another scolding. However, as soon as Nel caught sight of Izzy’s face she became a whirlwind of motherly concern, herding the young woman toward a seat by the fire. Sarah found herself mildly shocked at the sudden change in demeanor, never having seen Niela’s caring side before.

 

The small brownie woman sat Izzy down and ordered a scullion to fetch water and a cloth. “The rest of you back to work,” she snapped, momentarily reverting to her usual stern self and sending gawping servants scuttling away in every direction. Her expression softened again as she turned back to Izzy. “We’ll have you right as rain soon, deary,” Nel said to Izzy gently. She held the silent woman’s chin and peered closely at the colorful bruise.

 

Sarah hovered but a moment before reluctantly turning to finish her chores. She felt responsible for Izzy’s current condition and wished she could do something more to help. It wasn’t lost on her, the strange coincidence between her idle thought in Leila’s room and the freakish incident that followed. Surely it was JUST a coincidence though. Nothing more. Then again, things weren’t always what they seemed in this place. Just thinking about it made her head hurt.

 

As she shuffled away, Sarah was stopped by Nel’s no nonsense voice. “What happened?” she barked, stopping Sarah in her tracks. She hesitated, wondering how much to tell the formidable cook. Then again, what was the worst that could happen? She might as well tell Niela the whole truth.

 

Resolved, Sarah proceeded to tell Nel only what occurred, no speculation on strange coincidences included, leaving out the short encounter with Prince Roarke. The woman said nothing during the tale, her only reaction a periodic thinning of her lips in anger, or a shake of her head. After Sarah finished silence settled around them, only to be interrupted by the pixie scullion returning with a bowl of cool water and a cloth. Nel nodded in thanks, but never took her eyes from examining Izzy’s cheek.

 

“Twill need a salve,” she said finally, breaking the silence. “I’ll need some herbs fer it. I’m a bit short o’ what’s needed here, but I can’t be leaving now.” She glanced at Sarah, then went back to dabbing at Izzy’s face with the damp towel. “Ye’ll need tae go fetch it for me. It’s for the best I s’pose. Needed tae restock anyhow.” Niela picked up a small reed basket and shoved it into her hands, while Sarah just looked at her with wide, dark eyes. “Well, beastie, go on!” Nel demanded in irritation when Sarah just stood there with the basket in her hands.

 

“Where do I go, Nel?” she muttered, “I’ve never been outside the castle.” Nel sighed in aggravation, but could not deny that Sarah had a point.

 

And so it was that Sarah found herself leaving the castle for the first time and navigating the twisted, narrow alleys of Faerie Mews, the eastern part of the Goblin City closest to the castle, where most of the castle’s workers, and supplies, resided. She picked her way carefully along the muddy street, barely aware of the curious glances thrown her way, counting the doorways as they passed. Finally she stopped in front of a small blue door, hanging crooked on its hinges.

 

She pondered over Nel’s obscure and confusing directions once more. The 19th door on the left, down from the fountain at the end of the third row of two story buildings just outside the kitchen gate. Sarah looked at the door in front of her, shrugged and knocked lightly, hoping she didn’t break the ramshackle scrap of wood. Moments later the little portal opened outward with a crash, slamming painfully into Sarah’s foot. With a cry she hunched over even further than usual, hopping a little and grasping at her injured toes.

 

“What are you hollering on about?” a high-pitched voice demanded. Sarah stilled and peered down at the open door, shaking her shaggy head to get fur out of her eyes. A sense of familiarity engulfed her as she blinked down at the speaker. A small, elderly fox woman, her white hair pulled back in a messy bun, stood in the doorway and stared up at Sarah suspiciously, nose twitching.  Her small, beady eyes held the same fierce vitality as another Sarah had once known, a valiant knight in tiny armor.

 

For the first time since her return Sarah was reminded of the friends she met on her last trip through the Labyrinth, and she found herself momentarily speechless. A sense of guilt stole over her. She had forgotten them, almost entirely. Had they been a dream or a memory? She seemed to recall trying to call on them, long ago when things had begun to fall apart, but to no avail. Why had she gone so long without thinking on them, now that she was back? Sir Didymus, Hoggle…gentle Ludo, were they still around? Had they been punished for helping her in her quest?  Had they ever existed at all?

 

“Well ye great clod?,” the elderly vixen yipped, pulling Sarah from her thoughts with a start, “Are ye in or out?” Sarah blinked down at the interruption, trying to pull her thoughts back together.

 

“I, uh,” she struggled to remember why she was there, and finally it came to her. “I need some herbs,” the little woman just peered at her with suspicious eyes, “That is, Niela sent me. May I..um..come in?” The vixen sniffed, but finally nodded and held the door open. Sarah smiled feebly and ducked into the small dwelling.

 

 >:o,o:< Elsewhere in the Labyrinth  >:o,o:< 

 

            Jareth dismissed the small crystal with a wave of his fingers. The girl was back in her own world again where she would wake with only the vaguest wisp of a memory of a dream of the Labyrinth. The changling he had put in place of her sister would sicken and die within days, and the real baby would grow strong among magic of the underground, happier and healthier than she would have aboveground. Not to mention the lucrative treaty he had negotiated with the new parents. He should be satisfied with the outcome, but found, to his annoyance, he was not. A strange sense of discontent had gripped him shortly after he left the castle, and even now the feeling persisted, like an itch deep inside that he could not find to scratch.

 

An irritated scowl passed over his porcelain features before he brushed it away again. What had he to be discontent about? He was master of his own vast kingdom, powerful and full of magic. With less than a thought he traveled to one of the many hills overlooking the Labyrinth, dusty red and desolate looking to the untrained eye, and admired his kingdom. His magic-laced eyes, one gold, one green, surveyed his domain and a small smile of satisfaction flashed across his lips.

 

No other kingdom in the underground could rival his for size. Very few fey could rival him for power. His cunning was such that those who knew him dared not challenge him. Whatever he desired, he could have. Not everything, a soft voice whispered in his head, and he frowned, recalling once again the young brunette who had been the only one to defeat him. How strange that now, after so many years, the memory of that girl was plaguing him once again. Jareth dismissed the thoughts with a soft growl of frustration. What he needed was a distraction. With a soft pop he faded out of sight, leaving behind nothing but a fragile bubble to float away on the breeze.

 

He reappeared with a soft sigh in the sitting room of Leila’s suite, blinking as he gazed around the room. It was rather less welcoming than he remembered it being on his last visit. To be frank, it was a disaster area. The entire room looked as though a horde of Goblins bent on mischief had swarmed through. Furniture was overturned, broken glass littered the lush carpet, and drapes had been torn from the walls to lie forlorn on the ground.

 

Jareth’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the devastation. Then, with a wave of one elegant hand, the room was restored as if it had never been altered. He had a feeling he knew the cause, and it was not improving on his mood. With lazy strides he prowled across the room and through the doorway into Leila’s bedchamber. The scene was even worse in there. Fabric was shredded and tossed everywhere, pillows torn open, their soft down scattered. Tapestries were ripped from the walls. Jareth eyed the scene coldly. Finally his eyes lit on the open doors to the balcony and the quarry he sought.

 

Leila lay soaking in a large porcelain tub out on her balcony, looking out over the maze of gardens. She did not notice him at first, preoccupied as she was gazing at the view, a sour expression on her face. Jareth took a moment to study her dispassionately.

 

She was quite lovely, he acknowledged, but human lovely, not the otherworldly beauty that fey women possessed. Her night dark hair was piled haphazardly atop her head, but small tendrils had escaped and clung damply to her neck. Her face had a delicate beauty, a small, pert nose, pointed chin and cheek bones that would put a few fey women to shame. But her eyes, he realized, were sharp chips of obsidian, devoid of warmth.

 

The steamy, lilac scented water in the tub was clouded with trails of soap, tantalizing him with glimpses of pale flesh as it swirled around. He needed no reminder of how nubile and supple her young body was, the slim waist, lean legs, and soft bosom. He was, after all, intimately acquainted with every inch of her soft, mortal skin.

 

Jareth knew that many Fey, like Roarke, did not understand his penchant for human lovers. How could they? Most denizens of the Underground avoided humans as much as possible, not counting the stolen children, who ended up being as much Fey as any other after being steeped in the magic of the Underground since infancy. They tended to view humans as unpredictable, destructive, and stupid creatures whose only use was providing dreams to fuel their magic and children to increase their numbers.

 

Jareth’s views were colored by years of dealing closely with the aboveground mortals. There was no doubt that they were inferior to his race, but they had other qualities that the Fey lacked. Their passion intrigued and confounded him. There was something about a race who took their emotions to such extremes. They threw themselves at life despite how easily manipulated they were because of their emotions, despite how delicate their physical bodies were, how easily broken or killed. For such short lived beings, they had the most amazing capacity for good, as well as evil, and the inventiveness of their dreams, the breadth of their imagination, amazed him. After all, it was the collective dreams of humans that brought his Labyrinth to life, and that alone deserved some measure of respect.

 

Still, all things once new and exciting became too familiar after a time and interest trickled away. Watching Leila from the shadows of her ransacked room, Jareth realized that the novelty of her was wearing off. Soon enough she would need to be disposed of, but for now she still amused him.

 

Stepping out onto the balcony, his mouth turned up in a cold smile, he let his shadow fall over the bathing girl. “Hello, my dear,” he drawled silkily, “I trust your day is going well?” 

 

Startled by his voice interrupting her thoughts, Leila’s head whipped around to stare at him. Her scowl returned, her lips turning down in a pout. “Where have you been?” she asked petulantly. Jareth raised one imperious brow at the bite in her voice. Seeming to realize how her question had sounded she smoothed out her expression and gave him an apologetic smile. “Forgive me, your majesty,” she said. “It’s just that, I was looking for you.” Her smile took on a seductive quality as she looked up at him through her lashes. “After all, I missed you last night, Jareth.”

 

“I see,” he murmured, gliding closer to the steaming tub. Idly he picked up the bathsheet draped over the balcony and held it out for her. As Leila rose out of the bath Jareth lazily admired the way the water glistened as it ran down her naked skin. He wrapped the soft cloth around her as she stepped out of the tub and rested his hands on her shoulders. “And you missed me so much that you felt compelled to destroy the beautiful room I gave you?” he asked in a silky, dangerous voice.

 

Leila stiffened and tried to turn, but his hands tightened delicately. Not too hard so as to hurt, but enough to remind her that it could. “Your majesty…that is,” she stuttered over her words, a thread of wariness in her voice. “I didn’t mean to, Jareth, it’s just…”

 

Jareth leaned down to rest his head against hers, his breath tickling her neck. “Just what?” he breathed softly, his lips brushing her ear. She shivered delicately beneath his hands as another thrill of wariness went through her.

 

“I was…very upset,” she managed to whisper.

 

“Mmm…indeed,” he said. His elegant hands tightened further on her shoulders before relaxing again. “I’d like to show you something, Leila.”  Guiding her with his hands he turned her toward the view of the Labyrinth, pressing her against the stone railing of the balcony with the length of his body behind her. One hand moved across her throat to cup her chin, directing her gaze outward over the gardens. “Tell me, Leila. What do you see?” he asked, his thumb stroking softly over the tender skin where her jaw met her throat.

 

It took Leila a moment to process the question, as if his touch made it difficult to concentrate. However, after a pause she answered, “The Goblin Kingdom…The Labyrinth.” Her breath hitched in her throat as he tightened his hand on her shoulder before pulling the towel off and letting it fall to the ground. Jareth cupped his hand around her bare shoulder and lowered his mouth to her neck. Very gently his pointed teeth nipped at the tender skin there, causing her to shudder.

 

“MY Labyrinth,” he practically hissed against her throat. Leila shuddered again as a soft sigh left her lips. His lips went back to nibbling at her neck.

 

“Your Labyrinth,” she whispered raggedly, her head tilting back as she leaned into his body. The hand at her shoulder trailed down her arm before snaking around to cup one small breast, pinning her arm in the process. Lifting his head he looked down at her upturned face. Her lips were parted and her eyes closed in pleasure. Softly he continued to stroke her with his fingers, barely touching her skin with his hands as he held her tight against the front of his body with his arms. A satisfied smile touched his lips.

 

“My Labyrinth,” he agreed. “And have you enjoyed your stay in my Labyrinth?” he asked lightly. When she did not answer right away his hands tightened, almost to the point of pain, but not quite. Her eyes flew open and locked with his, glazed with desire and a hint of fear.

 

Her head nodded, but when that did not loosen his hold she gasped out an answer. “Yes.”

 

“In MY castle?” he continued, his voice growing harsher.

 

“Yes!” she replied after another prompting squeeze. He forced his knee between her own, parting her legs wide as he pressed against her.

 

“In MY bed?” he hissed, eyes narrowing. The hand at her breast trailed down to cup her between her legs, pulling her even tighter against the heat straining against the fabric of his breeches. She squirmed and whimpered in his grasp, but the effort to escape was futile and token at best.

 

“Yeeessssss…” she hissed softly when his hand left her throat to untie his trousers. As soon as she felt the heat of his skin against her buttocks she tried to turn, but he grabbed her tightly by the arms, squeezing her between his body and the unyielding stone of the railing until she cried out.

 

“No!” he hissed, widening her legs with his own and positioning himself against her heat. “No, my dear.  You need to be reminded…” Slowly he pushed at her entrance, pausing to rest his lips against the shell of her ear. “…That everything in MY Labyrinth…belongs to ME.” He entered her with a powerful thrust, pushing her torso forward over the railing, and she cried out again at the pleasure-pain of the sudden invasion. He paused, his own breathing beginning to become heavy. “And you would do well,” he said softly, “To remember that next time your temper gets the better of you.” He pressed deeper. “Know your place.”

 

Leila whimpered, trying to move, but he held her immobile. “Please,” she begged, her head turning to look back at him.

 

“What, my dear?” he asked, eyes narrowed. He gave a small thrust of his hips and she moaned.

 

“Please,” she gasped, “I’m sorry, Jareth…your majesty…It won’t happen again.”

 

“Why not?” he asked softly.

 

“I will remember my place,” she rasped, “Please Jareth, I swear it. Please.”

 

“Good,” he said, with a predatory smile of satisfaction. Releasing her arms he braced himself against the stone railing and set a slow, powerful rhythm. Within moments she was crying out again, this time only in pleasure, and shuddering beneath him. His pace quickened as his own satisfaction approached. He buried himself inside her with one last heavy thrust, practically purring as the pleasure washed over him.

 

They stood there for a minute, panting, before he stepped back and straightened his clothes. Leila turned to face him, but her legs failed her. She sank to the ground, leaning back against the railing, and looked up at him with lazy eyes. Neither spoke, until he turned his back on her to go back into the room.

 

“You’re leaving?” she asked, incredulity lacing her voice. Jareth stopped and looked back at her, his eyes cold.

 

“I’m quite finished,” he said quietly, “and I think I’ve made my point.” With that he walked into Leila’s bedroom, righted it with a wave of his hand, and faded away with a pop.

Chapter Text

“Now don’t you worry none, Aisling,” the vixen, whose name was Gertrude, advised as she and Sarah walked back into the front room of her very cramped house. Sarah nodded as she crouched down to avoid hitting her head on the hanging lamp like she had when she arrived. Gertrude herself seemed oblivious to how awkward the tiny space was for her guest to move in. She opened the door to the street, waiting for Sarah to catch up. “I’ll be sure to send Reggie up to the palace with Nel’s order. Shouldn’t be more than an hour, I ‘spect.” 

“Thank you, Gertrude,” Sarah said politely, ducking to avoid another lamp. “I’ll…” her voice trailed off when her eyes were caught by a painting that she hadn’t noticed when she first arrived. She paused, and didn’t even realize she had been staring until a small squeaky voice piped up behind her. 

“That’s my great-great-grandpa,” Reginald, Gertrude’s eldest grandpup, squeaked. Barely half as tall as his Grandmother, who herself only reached Sarah’s knee, the small fox pup was an energetic ball of red fur with bright black button eyes. His plain shirt and pants were embellished with a ragged homemade red sash and a tiny wooden sword. “His name was Sir Didymus and he was the most famousest knight in the Kingdom.” Sarah just nodded, unable to do more, as she stared at the remarkable likeness of her old friend. Reggie just prattled on proudly. “He worked for the King, and some day, I’m gonna be a King’s Knight too!”

 “Reggie!” Gertrude snapped, “What have I told you bout botherin’ my customers with yer nonsense stories?”

 “It’s alright,” Sarah said quickly, feeling her eyes stinging. “He looks like quite a hero,” she said softly, glancing down at Reggie and Gertrude. “What happened to him?”

 Gertrude snorted softly, but there was fondness in her gaze as she looked at the painting. “Don’t really know. Died when I were a wee girl. M’ Granny said he got himself killed on some fool quest.”

 “It was not, he was…” Reggie was silenced by a look from his grandmother. He glowered at her, but held his tongue. Sarah just nodded, blinking back tears. It would be just like Sir Didymus to ride off in search of a glorious quest.

 Sarah smiled down at the boy, although it looked more like a grimace on her disguised face. “I believe you, Reggie. I’m sure he was a brave and loyal knight. Maybe you can come to the palace and tell me sometime, hm?” Reggie nodded, his eyes bright. He looked like he was about to start gushing again when his grandmother stopped him.

 “Enough now,” Gertrude chided. “Aisling needs to get back to the palace, and you’ve chores to do, young pup.” Reggie nodded, but as he left the room he looked back at Sarah and grinned. Sarah smiled back before saying goodbye to Gertrude and ducking out the door and onto the street. The door closed behind her with a smack.

 She hadn’t taken more than five steps when she realized she was crying. And she couldn’t seem to stop. Sarah hunched deeper into her disguising cloak, grateful for the illusion it showed the world, as silent tears streamed down her face. Poor, sweet, valiant Sir Didymus. Although she had wondered what had happened to him, never had she believed he might be dead. Some part of her had always thought she would see her friends again. But now she knew that was a false hope.

 She wondered again how much time had passed since she ran the Labyrinth. After all, if Reggie was his great-great-grandson, then that meant he had been Gertrude’s grandfather. How long ago was that? A hundred years, two hundred? Not that it mattered. There was no doubt in her mind that if Sir Didymus was gone, so were her other friends. The pain she felt at that thought was more than anything she had felt in the last 10 years. It washed over her until she could no longer put one foot in front of the other. Devastated, she sat down on the ground, put her head on her knees and let herself cry it out.

 Sarah had no idea how long she cried, mourning dear friends she would never see again. When she resurfaced from her grief she realized that, in her wandering, she had gotten herself hopelessly lost among the warren of streets and alleys that was Faerie Mews. She had no clue where she might be, and could see not a soul to ask directions of. The neighborhood itself had a wild, rundown look about it that made her nervous. Worried, but not yet panicked, she looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the castle past the rows of drunken buildings, but to no avail. The looming structures crouched so close together that she could see nothing beyond the street she was on.

 Still sniffling back the last of her tears she tried to figure out the best way to proceed. Logic told her that she should probably stay put. That someone would wander by eventually and she could ask them to show her the way back. But what if no one came? It was already late afternoon, and she didn’t relish the thought of being trapped in this deserted neighborhood after dark. Niela might notice she was gone, but given her expectations that Sarah was bound to disappear on her any day, she might or might not send someone looking. On the other hand, if she tried to retrace her steps, she could wind up becoming even more lost, but she could also run into some city dweller who could help her.

In the end it was the eerie, vacant buildings surrounding her that convinced Sarah she would rather be lost in any other part of the city but this one. Pushing to her feet she picked a direction and started walking. Hopefully she would stumble back into a busier part of the city soon. After all, she couldn’t have wandered that far.

 Sarah hadn’t walked very far when her gamble paid off. Shortly after turning onto a third street she finally saw a corner she recognized. Picking up her pace she turned past the building and saw another familiar path. Relaxing now that she had found her way again, she quickened her pace. After several turns, however, she started wondering again. The route was certainly familiar, but there were still no people, and she couldn’t clearly recall walking this way when she was looking for Gertrude’s house. She turned another corner and was suddenly confronted with a solid wall of stone covered in a curtain of ivy. A dead end.

 Feeling increasingly frustrated she turned around to head back the way she came when she was assailed by the feeling of déjà vu. She knew this street, she was sure of it. But she hadn’t passed any walls on her way into the city. As if walls never moved in this place, she thought to herself with a groan. Still, she was sure she knew the place, but not sure how.

 Turning back she looked at the wall again. What was it about the wall that was bothering her? There was something...A trickle of a memory came back to her. She turned the corner of the hedgerow and a stone wall rose up before her. It was the Goblin City wall. She slipped past with ease and loped through the city toward the castle. “It’s not what it seems,” she muttered to herself. She didn’t know when she came this way, but she remembered it. She did.

 “It’s an illusion,” she said aloud. As soon as the words left her mouth it was as if a veil was lifted from her eyes. She could see, clearly, where the wall was real and where it wasn’t. There, near the base of the wall, concealed by the thick ivy vines, was an irregularly shaped hole, just large enough for a small animal to crawl through. It seemed so obvious now that she knew where it was. Crouching down, Sarah peered through the break in the wall, seeing strangely familiar hedgerows on the other side.

 “Not possible,” she muttered, “I couldn’t have fit through here. It’s too small.” She started to get up again when she noticed that, in fact, the hole was NOT too small. It was, strangely enough, just about the right size for her to crawl through. She blinked, thinking she must be seeing things again. She was SURE it had been a smaller hole a moment ago. She peeped back through the hole and felt an overwhelming curiosity to follow this eerily familiar path.

Sitting back on her heels she looked back behind her. She should head back to the castle. She knew she could find her way back to the kitchens from here. She didn’t know how, but she knew it as sure as she knew her own name. Which name, her mind countered, Aisling or Sarah? She scowled and brushed the thought away.

 Not to mention the fact that the last thing she should do is venture into the Labyrinth and risk getting lost. But, deep down, she was sure she wouldn’t. Even the thought of the twisting maze didn’t overwhelm her like it had ten years before. And that deep tug of curiosity was getting stronger. She needed to know WHY she knew this spot. And she was sure the answers lay beyond the wall. Curiosity got the better of the argument, and Sarah, crouching down on all fours, crawled through the mysterious opening.

 On the other side Sarah found herself among the familiar paths of the Hedge Maze. Yet even while they were familiar to her from the first time she ran, they resonated even further with another memory. She tried isolating the thought, but it slipped away again. Almost as if the memory had a mind of its own and didn’t want to be caught.

 Cautiously she began walking the maze, but after each turn her confidence grew. She wasn’t lost at all. Just three more turns and she would be at the garden. She paused at the thought. What garden? How can I know how to get somewhere I don’t know I’m going? She looked back the way she had come. Perhaps she should turn around. But no, she had already come too far. She might as well continue.

 Three turns later and she was once again confounded by a wall, but this one was a hedge. Or…no. “It’s another illusion!” she realized out loud. Once again, as soon as the words passed her lips, she could clearly see what was real in the illusion. This section of wall was two hedges that overlapped in such a way as to create the illusion of being solid, but in fact was one hedge set in front of another. She stepped around the forward hedge and found herself in a small alcove, looking through a stone archway into the most spectacular garden she had ever seen.

 “The garden,” she breathed, wide eyed. As soon as she saw it she knew why she remembered it. Within the ivy covered walls was an enchanting sight. A variety of trees, crystal trees, stood around in clusters. In the center of the area stood a small stone fountain, presided over by a set of weeping willows. The trees’ delicate prismatic branches swayed in the warm breeze, chiming soothingly in time with the singing of the fountain. Radiating out from the fountain in an ever widening spiral was a pathway made of silver tiles set into intricate interlocking patterns. Planted between the pathways and the trees were beds upon beds of wildflowers, bursting with color and life, that seemed to shimmer as if a mirage. They danced in and out of her vision, and no bed of flowers looked the same from one glance to the next. “I dreamed this.”

 With a sort of awed reverence she stepped into the garden. It seemed different than her dream, smaller, but at the same time more vibrant and full of life. The silver walkway was cool beneath her feet as she followed it, just for fun, in narrowing spirals until she reached the fountain. “How is this possible?” she muttered. She had never been here. How could she know this place? How could a dream show her something real? How could she dream of somewhere she had never been?

 Sitting on the edge she looked down into the water clear as glass and was startled to see the strange, dark and furry creature that was reflected back at her instead of a small blue cat face. Following that thought was the surprise she felt that she hadn’t expected to see her own face, her real face. Shaking her head, and watching her shaggy reflection shake its head as well, she tried to make sense of it all.

 She leaned closer, touching her face lightly with her fingers. It felt rough, weathered. She remembered how it had felt the first time she donned the patchwork cloak. She had still been able to feel her own smooth skin beneath the illusion. A chill fear gripped her. Perhaps this was the catch that Amaranth hadn’t told her. A disguise was one thing. But she didn’t want to permanently give up her true form in exchange for her dreams. Is that really true though? she asked herself. Didn’t you once say you’d do anything to get your dreams back? Would you really go back to that empty place just to keep your pretty face?

 The thought panicked her. She didn’t want to have to make that choice. With fumbling, nervous hands she pulled the hood of her cloak back off her head. The reflection in the fountain wavered, hazy, before clearing to reveal her own human features. A wave of relief washed over her. She touched her face, and it felt smooth on her fingertips, even as those same fingers, still under the magic’s sway, felt rough and gnarled against the skin of her cheek.

 Her shoulders slumped in relief as she sighed. For the first time, she realized, as she gazed around at the crystal garden, she was really thinking about what she might be doing here. She had come here for her dreams, and as promised she was dreaming again. But at what price? She still didn’t know, and shouldn’t that worry her? Sure, she knew what she was supposed to do in exchange for their return, but not why. Did it matter? It hadn’t then, when she’d agreed to Amaranth’s terms on that cliff aboveground. And it wasn’t as if the fae’s terms would hurt anyone. And since when could she understand the motive’s of a fae anyhow. Jareth had been as much a mystery 10 years ago as today, and Amaranth was even more so.

 What if she were to not do her part of the task? Would she lose her dreams? Of course, she doubted she could stop herself from doing it. Amaranth had bound her to the terms of the agreement with what amounted to a fae contract. A geas, she’d called it. A magical binding that would essentially make her perform her half of the agreement until the contract was fulfilled. And what then? Would she go home? Could she stay here? Did she want to?

 Her old friends were dead, and to be honest none of her new acquaintances seemed too attached to her. Everyone she had met this time around treated her with a wary curiosity. Not the most welcoming of environments. And last time, she had been here with a purpose, a goal. What would be her purpose here after this? But at the same time, what waited for her aboveground? 10 years of her life were lost. She would be starting over in a cold, uncaring world. Could she do it? Did she have a choice?

 The questions beat at her brain, swirling around in mad, chaotic patterns. The singing of the fountain and the chiming of the trees were a soothing background noise. But then another sound broke through her churning thoughts. Like a whisper on the breeze it floated to her ears. Saaarrraaaah it whispered, almost humming. Startled, her first thought was that someone was watching and had seen her without the hood up and recognized her. She snatched the hood over her head and looked around frantically, but the garden was empty and still, just as before.

 Saaarrraaaah, the whisper came again. She spun around looking for where the voice was coming from. Nothing. A third time it breathed her name, and this time it seemed right beside her ear. Turning her head she didn’t immediately see anything until she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. A butterfly,with red crystal wings, hovered just above the hand resting on the fountain. She blinked. That couldn’t be the source of the whisper, could it?

 Curious, but strangely not alarmed, she lifted her hand up beneath the fluttering creature and let it land delicately on her skin. It moved as if exploring its perch, tickling her skin with its tiny feet. Sarah watched the crystalline insect with delight as it bent its head to touch her hand with its proboscis. It reminded her, strangely, of the liquid quicksilver dream that Amaranth had given her aboveground, as if it was tasting her in some way.

 And then it launched itself off of her hand and fluttered away. Sarah watched it, bemused, as it fluttered over one of the flower beds. A soft rustling sound, like a thousand tiny voices laughing in the distance, seemed to surround her. And then, the garden seemed to burst with an explosion of color. Every flower launched upwards as a glittering butterfly until the garden air was thick with them. They seemed to move as one, homing in on Sarah like bees to honey. She stood, backing away slowly before she realized she was surrounded.

 Her heart jumped into her throat as the butterfly swarm began circling her, forming a vortex of shifting colors. There were so many of them that they created their own spinning wind around the hapless woman, faster and faster, until she could no longer discern the individual butterflies any longer. As the funnel of color began to tighten she knew real fear. She could hear the wind calling her name. Sarah! it sighed, almost joyfully. What was happening?

 As the first butterfly dive bombed her she gave short scream. “Get away!” she shouted, her voice getting higher in her terror, “Don’t touch me!” She flailed her arms, trying in vain to swat the swarming insects away. Her hand made contact with one of the little monsters and she felt a stinging heat. She turned it over and swatted at it. The butterfly was crushed, but did not fall. Instead it smeared, like a drop of oil paint rubbed over her skin.

 She watched in horror as the smear of color seemed to melt into her arm, the searing heat sinking into her skin. She felt another one land on her other arm, and several more on her cheek. She could feel them being absorbed into her body. Into her very bones. She started to scream again, but it was cut off as her vision went blank. Her mind was assailed with images. They came so fast, so many, that she could catch only a few out of the multitude, rather like a hundred people all talking at once.

 She was flying over a forest of blue and purple trees. A white owl looked at her through a window. A mermaid laughing in a lake. A vaguely familiar dark haired, sorrow-eyed girl begging to booted feet, “Please, let me stay with him.” Dark, sinister, faceless golems rising up out of the mud. Goblins and Fairies dancing in the streets of the city. A rose dying. A shooting star. A young Sarah crawling out of a pile of garbage. A chimera roaring. Twiggy singing a “ballad” to his “Dear Nel” outside the castle kitchens. A shoe came flying out of the darkness to hit him in the head. “I love her,” the little goblin said, a stupid grin on his face, as he lay on the courtyard cobblestones.

 When the last image of Twiggy (of all things) finally faded away, Sarah realized she was curled up on the ground. No, not away, she thought. They were somewhere in her mind, she was sure of it. She could hear her own heart racing, her breaths panting, but a careful tally revealed no injuries, other than a humming warmth that seemed to suffuse her body. She opened her eyes to see the evening sky over the Labyrinth. The butterflies were gone, and only the soothing chime of the willow trees broke the silence.

 Groaning, Sarah sat up slowly and looked around, noticing that where the flowers had once been there were now evergreen hedges with red crystal roses. She was getting to her feet when her eye caught movement in a corner of the garden. She turned her head and stopped, breath freezing in her lungs.

 Beneath the spreading boughs of a crystal oak sat the Goblin King, lounging, like some great cat, in a wooden swing. It seemed almost incongruous to see such a menacing man dominating such an innocent perch. Sarah tried not to admire the picture he made, but it was difficult. She knew it would be burned into her memory.

 His lean legs were stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, encased in dark grey breeches. His shirt was white and flowing, the deeply plunging neckline showing off not only his medallion, but a smoothly muscled chest as well. He was studying her, with glittering, crystal eyes, like she was the most fascinating thing in his world, his chin resting on one gloved hand. Sarah shivered beneath his gaze, and knew, could her face be seen, that she would be blushing under the scrutiny.  This was the Jareth she had been trying not to remember, the deeply seductive, devastatingly handsome King who had engendered both fear and fascination in a 16 year old girl on the verge of womanhood.

  “You’re still here,” he remarked in his arrogant, elegant voice. Sarah shivered again, and forced herself to breathe. Her skin seemed oversensitive after the butterflies, and his voice seemed to crawl over it like seductive fingertips.

 “So are you,” she managed to say, before berating herself for the imbecilic response. She took a short step back as he began to chuckle.

Chapter Text

He flew a patrol of the Labyrinth in the form of his owl familiar, trying to shake something he could not name. The encounter with Leila had left him strangely unsatisfied and restles, the whispers of discontent still plaguing him. Not wanting to delve too deeply, he sought refuge in his duties. When the screams came they were a welcome distraction. It was the voice that drew him. Like a far away memory, its shrill fear struck a chord somewhere in his mind. No mortal ran his maze, although they had every reason to scream when they did, so who could it be?

 He flew toward the sound, arriving at the walls of his private garden to a startling sight. A storm of magic confronted him. Never had he encountered such a high concentration of wild dreams. They swirled in a chaotic vortex of color, and at the center of the maelstrom was a figure he could not make out. He perched on the garden swing and returned to Fae form, his first instinct to do whatever he could to disrupt the magical turbulence. However, he quickly realized, the storm did not seem to be harming the garden. It was localized over and being drawn into the figure at its center.

 He lounged back on the swing, watching as the roaring magic finally dissipated, fascinated despite himself. Once the air cleared he could finally catch a glimpse of the figure at the center of it all. The patchwork fur was a familiar sight, although an unexpected one to be sure. The wildling. His brows snapped down into a scowl. He had thought her long gone, although he should have known better. Just as he had predicted when he first found her, her arrival in his domain was the start of something strange. And now, he realized something potentially dangerous if such large concentrations of wild dream magic were involved.

 He waited patiently for the furred creature to regain her senses. She was completely still, curled on the ground like a babe. He wondered if the huge influx of magic had somehow managed to kill her. But no, she stirred and stood, stumbling. Shaking, she looked around dazedly until she spotted him and froze.

 “You’re still here,” he stated. She stared at him with wide eyes like liquid caramel. Such strangely intense eyes, so alive, for a creature made wholly of magic. She watched him like a deer watches a wolf eyeing her throat. It irritated him, and he didn’t know why, since he preferred his subjects to have a measure of fear for their ruler.

 “So are you,” she managed to reply, her voice husky, almost hoarse. She swayed on her feet, still looking dazed, and no wonder. She had just been pummeled with an enormous amount of uncontrolled energy, more than he had seen in a very long time. He was a bit surprised she was in as good of shape as she appeared, if he was honest with himself.

 “So I am,” he replied with a cold chuckle, leaping lightly from his perch, “But as it happens, I am the King, and I have always been here.” He glided toward her and she skittered back another step. He cocked his head, like a curious bird. “You do not know to bow before your King?” She seemed bemused by the question, but then paused to consider it. He could tell by the flash of her eyes that she had come to some decision. It intrigued him.

 “Forgive me, your majesty,” she said softly, bowing from the waist, although he could tell it was an effort by the way she swayed. “You startled me, but I didn’t mean to show disrespect.” And still she watched him closely with suspicious eyes.

 “You on the other hand,” he mused, as if she had not spoken, “were not supposed to have lived this long.” He stalked her, circling her like a vulture, examining her from head to toe. He was impressed at how she did not flinch, although he could see the wariness in her wide eyes.

 The dark creature scowled, but Jareth could see her struggling to control her angry reaction. He could almost see her bristling. “If Your Majesty did not want me in your Labyrinth, why did you bring me here in the first place?” her lilting voice said calmly, but with a thread of demand in her tone. Jareth merely raised one eyebrow. Clearly his implication that she should not exist irritated her. A strong sense of self, this one had. That could prove a difficulty.

 “I merely observe that experience would suggest your existence should have ended not long after it began,” he said mildly. “That you are still here is…curious.”

 “I am honored to have caught your majesty’s interest.” She said dryly. Was that a note of sarcasm he detected in her voice? He could feel his lips twitching, wanting to smile. He circled her again, narrowing the distance between them with his circuit. She mirrored his movements in turn, backing up another step to keep them the same distance apart.

 “Why do you shy from me? Do you fear me, little one?” His voice was a soft challenge, and she took the bait.

 “No!” she barked, almost shouting. She stopped mirroring him and stood her ground, only following him with her eyes now. He had pricked her pride, had he? Her voice lowered again. “No, I’m not afraid of you,” she clarified, “I just…” She paused, as if searching for the words, before firming her jaw and continuing.

 “I do not trust you, Your Majesty,” she admitted. Jareth gave an abrupt laugh. What refreshing honesty, and naiveté, this creature displayed. Did she know the insult she risked by even implying a fae might lie?

 “Have I ever given you reason not to trust me, my little wildling?” he prodded silkily.

 “Your majesty has given me a name,” she replied pointedly.

 “Indeed,” he bared his pointed teeth in a grin, “but you have not answered my question. Have I given you reason not to trust me, my Aisling?” He saw her eyes flash at the possessive, then narrow. She looked down, back up at him, then all around, as if searching for a way to explain. Finally she met his eyes with a challenge in her own.

 “Your Majesty had me chased down by the wild hunt,” she stated.

 He smiled and countered, “I dismissed them. Brought you out of the wild and into the safety of my Labyrinth.” He circled closer.

 “Your Majesty speaks of me as a thing to be studied,” she shot back.

 “You are unique in my realm. Is that not worth a little curiosity?” Another step. He found he enjoyed this verbal sparring.

 “Your Majesty has deliberately tried to intimidate me.” Her chin notched higher, eyes flashing.

"And yet it has not worked," he replied softly, narrowing the distance yet again.

She paused, struggling for another reason. He took the opportunity to close the gap while she was thinking. “Your Majesty has a reputation for being unpredictable and volatile,” she finally said.

“Big words, for such a little wildling,” he commented, eyebrows raised as he looked down on her. He could reach out and touch her now, a fact she finally seemed to realize with a start as she looked up to meet his eyes.

“I hear things,” she breathed, wide eyes locked on his. She looked away, no doubt seeking a way to escape, before her lips firmed. She met his eyes again without fear as he towered over her. 

“Then you must have heard other things,” Jareth said silkily, “I can be generous.” 

“You can also be cruel,” she bit back. 

“Do you really think your King such a villain?” he asked curiously, cocking his head.

She paused for a moment before delicately replying, “My caution is justified, your highness. Your Majesty is ruler of a realm that thrives on deception, trickery, and illusion.” 

“So much you think you know,” he marveled. “Things are not always what they seem.” His voice was nearly a whisper. He reached out one gloved hand, hovering over the wild mane of hair on her head, but not yet touching. He could sense the magic humming around her, no doubt reacting to her agitation. 

The creature seemed to pause at his words, as if taken aback. “That is true, Your Majesty,” she finally said, her voice husky, almost wistful. He wondered what she was thinking, for he sensed that there was more than one meaning behind her words. 

He reached out with his own power, tasting the aura of magic surrounding her. It was even more powerful than when he first found her in the wilds, he noted. It tasted of human dreams, wild magic, some young, some so old he knew they had been around his Labyrinth for centuries. Far from weakening, as he had suspected, the creature had only grown more stable, apparently drawing lost dreams to her like flies to honey. But at the same time, her magic was uncontrolled. It was a riot of disparate dreams, unconnected, but for their connection to her. He could feel each one as it brushed against his own thread of magic, like the smell of a hundred different spices in the air. 

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he mused softly. His black gloved hand dropped down to lightly finger her hair. She stood frozen beneath his touch, watching him. The mane looked wild and unkempt, but it was as soft as fairy flax. He ran the strands through his fingers, watching them slide like colorful waves of silk over the soft leather of his gloves.

The shock, when it came, was small, but it reached through the leather, vibrating up his fingertips and into his arm. He snatched his hand back with a loud hiss, and Aisling jumped back with a yelp, eyes wide. Jareth recovered quickly. 

With a rueful smile on his face, he shook the small static charge out of his fingers, stretching them to get the feeling back. Aisling was watching him as if he had grown a second head. No doubt she thought his behavior very strange indeed, but he found that he was absolutely fascinated by her. She could hardly know that he didn’t make a habit of fondling every subject in his realm. But…a new creature, born from magic, here in his Labyrinth. The more he learned, the surer he was that this…new evolution of magic…was something momentous. 

They stared at each other in eerie silence for a long moment, each studying the other. Finally Aisling spoke in that rich, husky voice of hers. “Please stop, Your Majesty.”

“Stop what?” he asked idly, making a show of adjusting his gloves. His usual regal demeanor never faltered, despite the fact that inside his thoughts churned with speculation. 

“Looking at me like that,” she growled, glowering at him now. 

“Like what?” His voice was soft, probing. 

The growl intensified markedly before she ended it in a huff. “Like you’re trying to figure out what to do with me!” she almost shouted. His brows raised at the outburst, but he couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

“But I am doing just that, my dear Aisling. I am trying to decide what is to be done with you.” He circled behind her again. She kept her place, but turned to keep herself facing him. Her expression was perplexed and not a little disbelieving. 

“Why?” she asked bluntly, even a little desperately, frowning at him. “Why are you so interested in me?” He ignored her, trying to puzzle out the truth from what he knew. The silence stretched out, and Aisling shifted from foot to foot impatiently. 

“Do you know why I gave you the name Aisling?” he asked suddenly

She frowned harder. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It is the old tongue. It means “little dream,” he continued, as if she had not spoken. “And dreams never last, especially the small ones…except for you.” He mused to himself. “And yet, you are not so small now, are you, little dream?” He paused in his pacing, watching her closely again.

“What are you talking about?” she bit back. “I’m not a dream! I’m as real as you are!”

“No. No, little one. You have no idea what you are, do you?” He spoke softly to himself, not really looking for a reply from her. Of course she wouldn’t see herself the same way he did. Real was a relative term, he knew.

“I…I don’t understand. I’m…me. I’m just…me. Who should I be?” He could see her agitation increasing. “Why can’t you just answer a question?”

“I do not know either,” he continued calmly, “but I have a theory.”

She blinked at him, her mouth opening and closing for a bit. “A theory?” she asked weakly.

“Mmmm.” He turned on his heel and glided back to the garden swing. Throwing himself onto it, he lounged back, pushing himself back and forth gently with one foot on the ground.

“What kind of theory?” she prodded, suspicion lacing her voice. He paused, wondering how much he should say. Then again, better that she learn sooner than later, he supposed. Especially if she were to be as useful to him as he hoped.

“Dreams,” he said, “are capricious things. They are the raw stuff of magic, but they do not simply pop into existence,” With a flourish of one hand a glistening crystal appeared, resting on the tips of his fingers. Aisling opened her mouth as if to say something, but he shook his head, one eyebrow raised in imperious demand. To his surprise she acquiesced, settling back to watch him warily. Just as he thought, she had a curiosity that overcame all other concerns. He continued. “Nor do they exist on their own…usually.”

He moved his hands, and the crystal danced from one set of fingertips to the other. Aisling’s eyes followed the bauble as if mesmerized. “They are channeled and formed within the minds of mortals.” The crystal stopped, and within its depths could be seen a sleeping child. Aisling inched forward until her nose was only a breath away from the globe.

“Fragments of mortal imagination, trapped in mortal minds, only active when they leave the bounds of reality in their sleep. That is where our magic comes from. But sometimes…a dream becomes lost.” The crystal popped, like nothing more than a glittering bubble. Startled, Aisling jerked back, her gaze flying to his. He smiled at her with pointed teeth and she blinked, easing back a step.

“Without the focus of a mortal mind, dreams become wild magic, unstable, even dangerous, and they do not play nice with the stable magic of the Underground.” He frowned, remembering numerous problems he had encountered with the phenomena. “There are many lost dreams in my Labyrinth. And they have always been a source of…irritation for me.” He focused once again on the creature before him. She seemed to actually be listening, a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Eventually they die. All dreams do, wild or not. Some within days, and others…the stronger ones, can last centuries.” He studied her for a moment. “I didn’t think it was possible for them to do anything else. And yet…all it took was one dream, one small dream, stabilizing, becoming aware it existed,” he said, “and here you are.”

She contemplated him for a moment, mulling over his words. Finally she spoke. “And that’s what you think I am? A self-aware dream?”

He shook his head, “No, I think you are much more.” He leaned forward in the swing, bringing his eyes level with hers. “I think that the dreams that are lost long for their old existence. They want, for lack of a better word, a host. I think you have provided that for them.” He leaned back in the swing again. “The how of it still puzzles me,” he mused to himself.

They sat in silence, both lost in their own thoughts as dusk fell over the land. “I don’t think I really understand,” she said finally. “What does it all mean?” He shrugged, still pondering the question himself.

“In the short term,” he said, “it means you need to be trained.”

“Trained?” she asked surprised, “In what?”

“In the use of magic,” he concluded. He frowned at her. He hated having to explain himself, but supposed it couldn’t be helped in this situation. She had to be checked, and he had to convince her it was for the best. “Right now, you are like a sponge…absorbing wild magic as if it were water. But magic without control is a dangerous business.” He waved one hand negligently. “I expect you will draw more of these dreams to you, and I don’t want you dripping magic all over the place without direction…so to speak.”

She was staring at him with her mouth open again, he noticed, a confounded expression on her face. “Magic,” he said, with what he thought was enormous patience, although Aisling flinched, “is directed through intent, but some of these dreams have been on their own a long time. Until you learn some control over them, it’s possible they could grab on to any stray word, or even thought, and interpret it their own way. I’m sure I needn’t warn you that this may lead to some very undesirable results.”

Aisling gave one long, slow blink and shook her head. She frowned in thought, glancing toward the alcove that was the hidden entrance to the Labyrinth. He needed to settle this now, before she could think it through too much.

“We will begin tomorrow,” he commented. “You will come to my study after your duties are done in the morning.”

She frowned up at him, her eyes finally focusing again. “Do I have a choice?” she muttered querulously.

He flashed his pointed teeth at her in a satisfied smile. “I am your King,” he reminded her gently. She frowned harder, but nodded.

“As you wish, Your Majesty,” she muttered.

Chapter Text

Jareth watched through a hovering crystal as Aisling made her way through the hedge maze toward the city. He thought his offer to take her back to the castle had been very generous, but she had flatly refused. She did not trust him yet. He would have to work on that. As she slipped through the stone wall surrounding the city, he wondered at how easily she navigated the twisting paths of the maze, even in the failing light of evening. She was awfully comfortable in the Labyrinth and its environs for having been there for so short a time. How was it that she had found his secret garden in the first place? A puzzle indeed and one he believed he would enjoy unraveling.

Satisfied that she was truly heading back to the castle, Jareth dismissed the crystal with a flourish and traveled back to his study. He arrived, somewhat carelessly, on a pile of books that promptly collapsed beneath him. Scowling, he managed to leap aside from the falling pile with a modicum of grace, landing on a relatively clutter free spot on the floor, until he heard a snicker behind him.

Turning on one booted heel, he looked down his nose with an imperious air at Roarke, who was lounging on the settee, a book open on his lap. A single candle burned beside him on the table. "What," Jareth asked sharply, "do you think you are doing?" With a flick of his wrist the wall sconces roared to life, bathing the room in a cheery glow. Roarke just raised one insolent brow as he closed the tome with a 'thunk' and set it down on another pile. His mouth was still twitching in an attempt to stifle a smile.

"You know, old man," Roarke said cheerfully, ignoring Jareth’s scowl, "Once in a great while I see some merit in my mother’s advice. You definitely need a woman’s touch in this place." He gazed around the study, which was strewn with stacks and piles of papers and books. The shelves were equally stuffed with various tomes and volumes in a distinctly haphazard fashion.

Jareth likewise looked around and admitted to himself that, yes indeed; the room could use some tidying up. He rounded his desk, and sighed at the piles of scrolls and parchment that covered its surface. He threw himself, gracefully of course, into the heavy leather chair and looked at Roarke thoughtfully.

"Did you know that wild creature I picked up is still here?" he asked, producing a crystal with a flick of his wrist and proceeding to absentmindedly roll it back and forth across his hands. Roarke leaned back on the couch with a sigh.

"Mmm…yes," he murmured idly, "She was with Izzy when your harridan of a mistress attacked her."

Jareth’s eyes narrowed at the not so subtle reminder from the younger man. "I have spoken to Leila, as I told you I would."

The younger fey rolled his eyes and leaned forward, giving the king a look. "Forgive me if I do not place great faith in her ability to comprehend your instructions." Roarke drawled dryly.

Jareth merely shrugged. "Nevertheless…" he began.

"Nevertheless, Izzy will no longer be serving her." Roarke interrupted, voice firm when he said it. Jareth gave no outward reaction, other than to turn his head and look at the younger man unblinkingly.

"She is your servant to do with as you wish, boy," he finally said tonelessly. The single crystal was joined by a second one, and together they danced from one hand to the other.

Roarke sighed, his gaze turned inward. "It would be far simpler if she had not come with me on this trip. But my mother insisted on it."

Two elegant brows shot up at Roarke’s admission, and a smile tugged at Jareth’s mouth. "I thought you ran away," Jareth pointed out innocently, "Disappeared into the night, begging me to hide you and risking your father’s wrath."

Roarke gave him a crooked smile, "Well, I might have had some assistance in the matter. My mother seemed to understand my need to get away." Jareth chuckled, having known as much already. After all, the royal parents had contacted him about their son’s impending visit, asking him to keep an eye on the younger man until he got his priorities straight.

"Speaking of your situation," Jareth said slyly. Roarke’s eyes narrowed.

"What about it?" he asked suspiciously.

The King didn’t meet Roarke’s gaze, choosing instead to focus on the crystals in his hand. "Has it occurred to you that I will need to invite them to the ball? Not just your parents, but the lady in question as well. How do you propose to handle that?"

Silence greeted him after his question. Jareth glanced over and smirked as a blush stained the prince’s cheeks. Roarke cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Well, as to that…" he looked at Jareth sharply. "Are you really going to hold one?"

The King just shrugged, but his smile was wide and pleased.

Roarke started grinning in turn. "You know your majesty. I think I’ve had enough time away to think clearly on the subject. I feel sure I can deal with it if it comes up."

"That is a relief," Jareth drawled mockingly.

Roarke just frowned. He ran one large hand through his thick brown locks and sighed. "That aside, there is still the matter of Izzy. She needs something to do. Surely you have some other task she can perform?"

Jareth sighed again and tossed the two globes into the air. They popped in a shower of glitter that floated softly to the floor. The boy had a one track mind sometimes. "Yes, there is still the matter of Izzy indeed." His gazed out the window at the night sky strewn with stars, a faraway look in his eyes. Blinking, he focused back on his guest’s expectant face. "I believe I have just the thing. Shall I tell you over dinner?"

Roarke grinned, shoulders sagging in relief. "Thought you’d never ask. I’m starving."

"Oh yes," Jareth murmured with a lopsided smile, "you look it."

0;0 The next morning 0;0

Sarah spent a restless night fighting off dreams, something she never would have anticipated two months earlier. Although, in this case the experience was mildly different than it would have been aboveground. These dreams were not restful creations of her sleeping mind. Instead, it was like a hundred different people talking at once, all trying to tell her something terribly crucial, pushing and jostling in an attempt to get her attention. The images she saw were disjointed and confusing. Some were benign, others terrifying, but all were unrelenting.

She finally awoke in the quiet, predawn hours with a groan, one hand resting on her throbbing head. The dreams that had plagued her sleep were fading, but not the feelings they provoked. So many of the dreams in her head had felt alien and wrong somehow, like an ill-fitting coat. Her stomach was churning and she felt almost more tired now than she had the night before. Rolling off her pallet bed, she tried to shake off the eerie feeling, but the odd discomfort seemed to enfold her until she felt like a stranger in her own skin.

She sat in the darkness of her closet and thought back to the extraordinary events of the day before, hoping to chase away her current mood. Memories, mazes and magic, she thought to herself whimsically. So much had happened in one day, it was almost overwhelming on its own. And one magnificent monarch, her mind added impishly. A shiver of awareness ran up her spine at the thought of the Goblin King. There was something far different in her perceptions of him now, she thought, than when she was a girl. He unnerved her still, but in an entirely different manner. Then he had been just a specter of villainy, another obstacle to overcome, but now… She thought of his elegant, gloved hands as he had fingered her hair and shivered again. Now she was aware of him as woman, and that made him far more dangerous.

Still, even beyond that, it felt like something important had happened yesterday that she didn’t understand. Something told her she needed to figure it out, and soon. Perhaps the "lesson" that she would be attending with the Goblin King today would help. She vowed not to let stray thoughts of his hands distract her.

One thing was certain. She seemed to be well on the way to her goal of regaining her dreams, which should have made her happy. Instead the thought brought another wave of almost-nausea and discomfort. She shook her head with a frown and wondered if she was thinking too hard. Her headache seemed to be getting worse.

Sighing, she resolved to put the matter out of her mind for the moment. There was too much that wasn’t making sense. She needed more information before she really understood what was going on and right now, she had chores to do. Her priorities determined, she headed out to the kitchens for the day.

When she reached the cavernous rooms she was surprised to see a roaring fire already burning in the hearth. Not only that, but for the first time since her arrival the windows were shuttered and the courtyard doors closed. Niela, her small shoulders covered with a shawl, was stirring a large pot on the stove and muttering to herself. No one else was around yet. Sarah hesitated a moment before speaking. "Nel?"

The brownie turned, a frown on her face. When she saw who was speaking she gave a little sniff and turned back to her task. A savory and comforting aroma wafted from the pot, and Sarah could feel her mouth watering. "Si’down then, beastie," Niela said with her back turned. A small frown appeared on Sarah’s brow, but she complied. Less than a minute later Niela set a steaming bowl of the aromatic brew on the table in front of her, along with a hunk of bread and a mug of what appeared to be water.

Sarah blinked down at the meal. It was the first time in the last two months that a meal had been given to her. Always before she had simply scrounged and scavenged what she could from the leftovers in the kitchen. She had never gone hungry, but neither had the food been very memorable. Sarah looked at the brownie, a question in her eyes. Nel shrugged uncomfortably and set about putting together her own breakfast as she talked. "Figger yer here tae stay. You been a good worker, and hard and well...I ‘spect yer allright for a wierdling. You just eat up, is all."

Sarah was touched by the woman’s gruff words. "Thank you, Nel," she said with a smile as she dug into the meal. The bread was fresh and warm, and the soup was heaven. Sarah couldn’t remember the last time she tasted anything so good, like liquid comfort. Sarah savored it, noticing the radiating warmth it seemed to create throughout her body with each swallow. "This is delicious," she mumbled around bites, "I’ve never tasted anything like it."

Nel just grunted as she started eating her own soup. "Just chick’n’dumplin’s," she muttered, "Don’t thank me none. I don’t need you draggin’ round tired and hungry, what with the Masque coming up. Need all the help I can get, I do."

Sarah paused, the spoon halfway to her mouth, and blinked at Nel. "Masque?" she asked hoarsely, "you mean like a masked ball with guests and dancing and such?" She set the spoon back down and stared at Nel.

"You’ve the right of it," Nel confirmed with a snort. "Right out of the blue, His Highness says to me last night that he wants it held in a fortnight." The brownie woman’s sharp teeth tore a chunk out of her own bread and chewed. "Two weeks, says I," she continued after swallowing, "and how’s I to get ready for a banquet in two weeks? All them fancy guests needin’ meals fer breakfast, lunch, ‘n dinner while they’re here, an’ who knows how long that might be. It’s hassle enough cookin’ fer that hoity-toity lady mistress o’ his and the prince and his folk, an’ now I got tae make meals fer them all, plus a banquet fer more’n three hunert lords ‘n’ ladies the night of the Masque!"

Nel stopped grousing long enough to finish her own bowlful of soup. When she glanced over and noticed that Sarah hadn’t even half finished she scowled. Sarah wasn’t even aware as she stared off into space, her mind whirling. "You’ll want to finish that, beastie," Nel barked, jolting Sarah back to attention, "What with the work and the weather, you’ll need it."

Sarah blinked again. "The weather?" she asked quizzically.

Nel peered at her, before understanding seemed to dawn on her. "Oh aye, ye wouldn’t know would ye? Well, take a look fer yerself," she gestured toward the tightly closed shutters with her empty bowl.

Hesitantly, Sarah left the table and approached the shuttered windows. She was curious and nervous at the same time. What could Nel mean? Reaching out she unlatched the casement, but before she could push it, a hearty blast of wind snatched it open with a clap. As the blustery gusts made her hair dance about her face, Sarah stood transfixed at the change in the world outside.

Autumn had blown in to the underground in a rush of gold and crimson. A chill wind blew, and every tree and shrub, just yesterday crowned in glorious green, was bedecked in leaves of yellow, orange, and red. Not only that, but the entire landscape was covered with a dusting of gold that shimmered in the rosy light of dawn. Sarah reached out and touched the outside of the windowsill, her fingers coming away smudged with the glittering stuff. Rubbing it between her fingers it felt like a soft powder, but sent tingles running up her arm.

"Close the window, ye daft thing," Niela barked from right behind her, startling her. Sarah reached out and pulled the shutters closed again, latching them securely. Her technicolor mane settled round her face and shoulders once again, causing her to sneeze as gold dust tickled her nose. Pulling on a strand of hair, she noticed that every bit of her that had been exposed to the wind was covered in the dust. She sneezed again.

"It’s beautiful, Nel," Sarah said, not a little bit awed at the overnight transformation of the world outside. She brushed glitter from herself where it was clinging to the fine hair all over her front. "What is this stuff?"

"Glitterdust," Nel grumbled, "Left o’er from magic o’ the season’s change. Pretty it may be, but a blessed witch tae clean. Fine as powdered clouds and sticks o’er ever’thin’." She handed Sarah a broom and dustpan. "Might as well get used ter cleanin’ it up. It’ll stick ‘round fer the next week, ‘least. An’ finish yer soup afore ye start yer work. Twill help with the chill in the air." With that she trundled off to start her own morning routine. With a sigh, Sarah looked at the fine dusting of gold on the floor that had come in through the window and began to sweep.

Her morning chores passed quickly enough, even with unrelenting gusts outside. Although the air held a chill it had not had the day before, it was refreshing more than uncomfortable. In fact, the crisp breeze brought with it the kind of smells that only fall can bring, and Sarah found herself daydreaming. She remembered a long ago autumn day when she was a girl, before Karen and Toby and the hospital. She and her father had gone out apple picking. It had been a magical day, the two of them closer than peas in a pod as they filled their baskets, sneaking bites of apple along the way and laughing. She could almost taste the crisp sweetness of the fruit on her tongue.

"Aisling, Aisling!" her reverie was interrupted by Twiggy’s childlike voice. "Nel say…" He stopped talking with a small "erp" sound, skidding to a halt in front of her. His wide eyes stared with what appeared to be horror at something behind her.

"What is it, Twiggy?" she asked with a frown, turning to look behind her.

"Twiggy didn’t do it!" was all he squeaked, darting to hide behind her legs and hiding his face in her fur. Sarah didn’t respond. All she could do was stare.

In the center of the yard, having apparently burst up through the cobblestones, was a trio of trees. Their full leafy branches, which spread to shadow over half of the yard, were bowed beneath the weight of glistening, ripe apples; one tree of ruby red fruit, one of green, and one of yellow. Sarah froze, a kind of sick feeling in her stomach. She thought of the memories of those apples so long ago, and then she thought of what Jareth had said about "dripping" magic. She gulped, realizing she must have done it, but not wanting that to be so.

"What is they?" Twiggy asked in a loud whisper, tugging on her fur. Sarah looked down at the little speckled goblin who was staring at the trees with fascination. "Where they come from?"

"They’re just apples, Twiggy," she muttered, hoping that was true. "And I wish I knew where they came from." She started walking over to one tree, dragging a clinging Twiggy behind her.

"They not spose’ to be here," Twiggy whispered again.

"No kidding," Sarah muttered to herself. She reached the first tree, the one with the red apples, and reached up to pick one. It was cool and waxy to the touch, and fell easily into her hand. She looked at it closely, turning it over and over, searching for a flaw but finding none. She remembered the last piece of fruit she’d eaten in the Labyrinth.

When she went to bite the tempting looking fruit, Twiggy gave a terrified squeak and hid in her fur again. She ignored him and sank her teeth into it. The sweet flesh was better than any apple she had ever tasted, like the memory of those apples from so many years ago. She sighed in contentment as she swallowed the first bite. It was like eating pure happiness. She stopped caring where the trees had come from as the pleasure spread through her.

Twiggy was still hanging off her leg, and she looked down at him. "Do you want one, Twiggy? It’s just an apple. It tastes great." She found herself giggling in girlish delight. She picked another of the red globes and held it out to him. Hesitantly he took the fruit.

"Is apples tasty?" he asked quizzically, looking at it cross-eyed and sniffing at the skin.

"Very," she said, taking another bite of her own, her craggy face grinning from ear to ear. "What did Nel want?" she asked, remembering his earlier aborted comment. Twiggy was still sniffing at the fruit and poking it lightly with the barbs at the end of his tail. One particularly careless poke pierced the skin and a dribble of clear juice oozed out. He jumped with a yelp and nearly dropped the fruit. "Twiggy," she said, "what did Nel want?"

He frowned up at her, as if trying to figure out her question. "Nel?" he mumbled, "Nel want…Nel want you inside." He sniffed at his fingers, which were now smeared with the apple's juices. Sarah nodded and headed for the kitchen door. Behind her a little forked tongue zipped out to taste the juice, and a huge grin broke out on Twiggy’s face. "Apples tasty!" he shouted to the now empty courtyard. He took a big bite out of the sweet fruit and groaned.

A short time later, at Nel’s instruction, Sarah found herself on her way to the Goblin King’s study for her first magic lesson. Nel hadn’t seen the trees yet, and Sarah felt guilty at how glad she was that she wouldn’t be there when she did. She wondered grimly if she should tell Jareth of the apple trees in the courtyard, or not. Now that the strange euphoria brought on by the fruit was wearing off, she knew she had to do something about this magic after all. Who knew what might happen next.

She was about to knock on the study door when she noticed it was slightly ajar. She could hear Jareth’s imperious voice speaking from inside, and she paused, not wanting to interrupt. "…am sorry you have received ill treatment in my house. You know I would not desire it so." There was no response. Curiosity overcoming her caution, Sarah peeked through the crack in the door, and caught a full glimpse of the room in the mirror above the fireplace.

The Goblin King, a dark red cloak wrapped over his shoulders, leaned back against the front of his desk, his back to the mirror. His fantastical hair sparkled with gold dust in the light from the window. In front of him stood Izzy, staring silently at her feet while he spoke to her.

Sarah held her breath, struggling to make no noise as she watched the scene playing out. "How long have you been serving our young prince, Isolde?" he asked conversationally. "He seems to have grown quite fond of you." Jareth put a strange sort of emphasis on that last, making Sarah wonder what the subtext of the comment was. Izzy’s head shot up at the statement, and Sarah could see an unexpected anger and sadness smoldering in the other woman’s eyes.

"He has asked that I assign you other duties while you are here," Jareth continued, unaware or uncaring of her stare. "Is that what you want?" Izzy made no move to agree or disagree, and the king sighed. "If so, I will be glad to use your talents as secretary here in my study. As you can see, it needs some organizing, and I know you are capable of such." Still no response from the silent woman, although she was looking around the room with a critical eye. The pause stretched out before Jareth purred softly. "There is one other option as well, Isolde."

Izzy looked at him sharply, a hard suspicious light in her eye. Jareth cocked his head to the side and folded his arms, just watching her. "I could send you home, Isolde," he continued softly, "if you’d like. Things are far different now than they used to be. You could…start a new life." Izzy’s face paled visibly, her expression stricken and horrified. She shook her head in frantic denial, tears pooling in her eyes, and fell to her knees on the stone floor. Jareth turned his back on her, facing the mirror, and Sarah ducked back out of sight quickly, afraid he might see her.

No outraged protest came from within the room, however, and she took the risk of peeking back inside again. He was facing the mantle now, staring into the fire with a brooding expression and gripping the dark wood tightly with his black gloved hands. Izzy knelt behind him, one hand grasping the hem of his fine spidersilk cloak in supplication, tears streaming down her face. There was something familiar about the sight, but the harder she tried to pin the thought down, the more slippery it was.

Sarah was surprised by the strange sadness in Jareth’s gaze as he watched the flames. "Why do you not relent, Izzy?" he rasped. The tearful woman merely shook her head, unable to answer. "You have done more than anyone else would, and he will never know. Why do you remain? You mortals confuse me so."

His eyes fluttered closed and his head tilted back, as if he were too tired to hold it up any longer. "Sweet, loyal Isolde," he growled, "Can you not be content that he is well and happy? Have you not satisfied whatever responsibility you once felt for him?"

The kneeling girl slapped the ground hard with one hand, drawing the Goblin King’s gaze back to her. She shook her head emphatically, her own expression that of hardened resolve, and jabbed one finger into the floor, clearly indicating her intent to stay. Disappointment and acceptance flickered in his gaze. Sarah heard a sigh escape Jareth’s lips, and she watched as all emotion melted away from his handsome face, leaving it as cold as marble.

"Very well, then," was his chilly reply, "but a bargain is a bargain, my dear. As long as you remain, the terms are set." Izzy nodded, her eyes relieved. She moved to touch Jareth’s cloak again, but he smoothly stepped out of reach as if he had not noticed. He sat down at his desk with a sigh, while the girl picked herself up off the floor.

"You may go now, Izzy," he said, his voice empty of any trace of feeling. "Your duties begin tomorrow." As Izzy sank into a low curtsy, Sarah backed away from the door and hurried back into the stairwell to avoid being caught eavesdropping. When she reemerged a few minutes later to knock on the study door, the other woman was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter Text

Aisling sat cross-legged on the garden path, her mane of hair drifting in the dust free autumn breeze, and contemplated her situation. Somehow the Goblin King had managed to save his own private garden from the worst effects of the weather change. The only glitter that could be seen was the stuff that had arrived with the two of them. A robust breeze still blew through, ruffling their hair with its fingers and making the trees chime loudly in passing, but nothing else was changed in the small enclave.

The King had been explaining some finer point of magic for some time now, and his student’s mind was drifting far afield. It didn’t take long into the lesson for her to realize she was completely out of her depth. Her mind was wandering about, despite her best efforts, having given up on paying attention somewhere between "using your will" and "it's subconscious, really". How contradictory was that? He seemed to believe magic was as simple as "a swish and a flick", and yet it might as well be quantum physics for all she understood his explanations. 

It didn’t help that she had so much else to occupy her mind. Between dreams and apples and Izzy, not to mention unwanted lustful thoughts for her instructor, she had a lot to contend with.  For instance, just now HE was lounging in the swing once again. He was still wearing the crimson spidersilk cloak, but she was getting an eyeful of the rest of his outfit as well. He certainly knew how to match the mood of his Labyrinth in the most dramatic way possible. 

The cloak was draped around his shoulders in many-layered folds and then the voluminous fabric trailed out to dance on the wind. Beneath that he wore a cream poet’s shirt and burnt orange doublet. It was set off by tight breeches in dark green and a pair of gleaming brown boots. His pale hair and even paler cheeks were dusted with golden glitter. She decided the sparkling stuff suited him better than her. He shimmered in the light of the Labyrinth’s autumn sun. It was very distracting.

Jareth paused mid-sentence. The wildling was staring at him again with her soulful eyes, looking a little overwhelmed, or lost. He tapped his fingers across his leg. "Why don't you simply try using your magic?" He suggested. 

Aisling stared at him, blinking. "How, exactly, should I do that?" 

"Just do as I've been telling you," he said gently. 

She blinked again. "I don't think I can," she said with a timidity that didn’t seem to fit her. 

"It's quite easy," he assured her. "Just try." 

"I can't,” she said again, her expression starting to become stubborn. 

His eyes narrowed. "Try." It was an order. 

Aisling’s eyes flashed fire as she glared at him. “I. Can’t.” she said, spacing her words out, as if speaking to a child, “You haven’t told me what it is I’m supposed to try, exactly.”

The Goblin King’s lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. “You have not been paying attention,” he stated silkily. Softly. Dangerously. Aisling’s eyes widened before darting away from his gaze. She ducked her head and hunched into herself. She was silent for a long moment before her shoulders slumped and she sighed.

“No,” she said softly, “I haven’t.” Her eyes darted to his face for a moment before looking away. “I’m sorry, your majesty, you are correct. I am distracted.”

With a quizzical brow he watched her, somewhat surprised at her candor. He felt his irritation draining away. “Is there some reason why?” He asked.

Her dark face twisted into a grimace. She could hardly tell the Goblin King that she was having trouble paying attention because she was drooling over him. Nor could she question him about the secrets he seemed to hold over her friend Izzy’s head. But those weren’t the only reasons for her distraction, and she wanted to be as honest with him as she could. She didn’t know why, but it seemed important that she not deceive him more than she had to. She hardly believed he would be so considerate if their roles were reversed, but there it was. She licked her lips nervously, wondering how to be truthful without revealing too much of the truth.

“I didn’t sleep well last night,” she finally said. “I guess I’m a little tired.” The King’s eyebrows rose and after a moment a toothy smile crept over his features.

“Bad dreams?” he asked, still smiling, and she realized he seemed pleased with the thought.

“In a manner of speaking,” she said slowly, watching him, wondering at the apparent satisfaction he took in her answer.

“In a manner of speaking, or in fact?” he pressed.

“I suppose it depends on what you mean by bad,” she replied cautiously.

He thought about it for a moment. “Were they…these dreams you had…invasive visions, to the point that you could not sleep, or were they merely,” he waved a hand in the air, leaning close and peering at her with a grin, “run of the mill nightmares brought on by a bad bit of fish?”

She caught herself smiling at the question, and ducked her head to avoid his gaze. She cleared her throat, “They certainly kept me awake most of the night.”

“And can you recall any of them?” he asked.

She thought about it, but it was like grasping smoke. An image of Izzy kneeling at the Goblin King’s feet flashed before her inner eye. But no, that hadn’t been one of the dream images. She had been quite awake for that little drama. “Only bits and pieces,” she admitted.

“Hmm,” he leaned back in the swing again. “What are you not telling me, I wonder?”

Aisling’s heart skipped a beat, afraid for a moment that he suspected who knew what. But, no. She took a deep breath, assuring herself that he was speaking only about the topic at hand and nothing else.  She forced herself to concentrate on the discussion. “Well, I may have already used my magic. I mean, I didn’t mean to,” she assured him hurriedly, hoping to forestall any anger, “and I won’t do it again.”

He didn’t get angry. He leaned back in the swing and stared at her thoughtfully. His eyes seemed to be staring into her soul, so intense was his scrutiny. The silence stretched out before he finally nodded. “As I expected would happen. And how can you expect to prevent another such problem if you do not know how it happened in the first place?”

She could feel a blush rising in her cheeks. “I do not know, your majesty,” she admitted honestly.

His mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile. “The simple answer is, you can’t,” he said gently. “You must learn control, or accidental magic will be more than just an occasional irritant. It will become a real problem.” He was quiet again, thinking. “I believe a change of tactics is in order,” he mused, “You need less magic theory and more hands on application, I think.”

“As Your Majesty wishes,” she sighed. If she admitted it to herself, she didn’t think she could learn to use magic at all. Not really. She was just a girl, after all, not a sorceress. Just a girl looking for her dreams.

“And that’s enough of that, I think,” he said crisply, eyes narrowed.

“Enough of what, your majesty?” she asked, confused.

“That,” he said. “No more titles. It will go much smoother during these lessons if you think of me as your teacher, not your king. From now on, when we are alone at your lessons you will call me Jareth.”

Aisling’s mouth dropped open in shock. She realized she had never called him by name. The thought of doing so terrified her, and she didn’t know why. “I c-couldn’t, Your Majesty.”

“Jareth,” he corrected.

She shook her head. “Please, I…I can’t.”

“You keep saying that. You have a serious lack of faith in your own abilities, I think.” He chuckled. “Now, little Aisling, say my name.”

She swallowed, her mouth opening and closing but no sound emerging. Her shaggy head shook before dipping to let her hair conceal her expression. Jareth reached out one gloved hand and cupped Aisling’s chin. “Say it,” he demanded gently, lifting her face so he could see her eyes. They were a wide, shimmering amber. He told himself that he needed her to stop being afraid of him if he was going to teach her. Nothing else. It certainly wasn’t a desire to have this strange creature’s eyes look at him with something other than caution or anger.

She stared at him and realized she wasn’t breathing. She forced herself to inhale deeply, then wet her dark lips with a small pink tongue. She tried to speak, but her voice cracked like dry leaves. Another deep breath and she tried again. “Jareth,” she said. The name felt warm on her tongue and vibrated high in her chest, before humming through her body to her fingertips. She shivered.

The Goblin King dropped his hand and stared at her with a peculiar expression on his face. After a moment he blinked, his mismatched eyes coming back into focus. A small smile curled one side of his lips and he shook his head. “There now,” he said, “was that so difficult?” He leaned back in the swing once again. “Now we can get on with the hard work.”

The next hours were slow and frustrating for both of them. The task he had set before her was to create a small glowing ball of light. A basic skill, he called it. She had her doubts. He cajoled and encouraged, ordered and threatened. He led her in a sort of “magical meditation”, his voice soothing and hypnotic, telling her to relax, to feel the flow of magic. By the time noon came and went she had still managed not to manifest even a spark.

She could tell that Jareth was getting frustrated as his normally bored voice became ever more heated. His instructions and responses became shorter and shorter until he was nearly sniping at her. She sniped back in turn, not willing to be intimidated by his temper. It probably wasn’t the best idea, like swatting a hornet’s nest, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.

She had just managed to fail yet another attempt, and he appeared ready to explode, when a peculiar thing happened. A tiny twinkling shape hurtled between the two of them, breaking the staring match that had begun. The twinkle paused at Jareth’s sleeve and she recognized it as one of the dainty faeries that infested the Labyrinth. She knew little about them except that they were tricksy creatures, and they had sharp teeth, a lesson Sarah had learned on her first visit. The tiny woman was tugging at the King’s sleeve.

He frowned at the winged figure before brushing it away. “Not now, little one. I am busy.” But the faerie would not be deterred. Moments later she was joined by another, flitting in front of Jareth’s face in what could only be described as an agitated manner. He waved her away as well, frowning harder. Little good it did as the air was suddenly filled with a dozen faeries flitting to and fro, bombarding him. Aisling scooted back, trying to avoid the small swarm, who thankfully seemed focused on the King.

One very bold little creature landed on the King’s shoulder, grabbed a lock of his silken hair, and yanked with all her tiny might. Jareth winced. “Enough!” he intoned, his voice seeming laced with power. The faeries froze, hovering in mid air, as did his student. Jareth turned his head to fix an aggravated eye on the dainty woman on his shoulder. “Attend, siofra. This had best be important.” Her tiny head nodded.

The faerie tiptoed daintily to Jareth’s ear and seemed to whisper something. The King stiffened, his face becoming remote and cold. “You are certain?” he asked. The faerie nodded once more and his lips set into a grim line. He looked at Aisling, and she shrank back at the intensity in his eyes. “The lesson is over for today. You may return to your duties.” He stood and the faerie on his shoulder took flight again. “Come little siofra,” he ordered, “Show me.” With a flick of his wrist a hole opened in the air, beyond which Sarah glimpsed a familiar landscape of mossy trees and putrid pools. The faeries flitted through, their King following, and the opening winked out of existence with a small pop. Alone in the garden, she sighed and headed back for the castle. All the while trying to convince herself that she was not curious about where he had gone.

 

 

:.O_O.:

 

The Bog of Eternal Stench was a putrid, festering place. Rarely did the Labyrinth’s denizen’s venture among its trees, not even the most adventurous of the goblins, due to the noxious fumes that roiled up from its bubbling pools. They would no doubt be surprised to know that the King was not so rare a visitor to the area as might be expected, although today’s jaunt was hardly planned.

Jareth stepped out from nothing onto the spongy ground beside one small pool. He did not appear unduly concerned that he was close enough to be splashed by the foul water. Despite rumors to the contrary, there were ways to remove the stench from one’s person, especially when it was your magic that helped create it in the first place. The flock of faeries fluttered about his head, their wings rustling like tissue in his ear. All else was eerily quiet, except for the bubbling of the pool behind him.

 The lead faerie pointed off beyond the trees and uttered a few musical words before darting off to lead him. Jareth just nodded, and strode off in the indicated direction, his steps sure on the marshy ground. The faeries followed at a respectful distance. He followed the sprite as she threaded through the twisted trees, brushing aside the heavy curtains of trailing moss as he progressed.

He walked for nearly fifteen minutes, penetrating ever deeper into the bog. The trees grew more dense and tangled, and the pools more numerous. Jareth avoided them with an ease born of familiarity, following his winged guide. Finally the faerie stopped and pointed at a dense copse of blackened trees.

They grew next to a high stone wall that was encrusted with twisted looking vines and clumps of Watcher’s Moss. The small eye-stalks were stunted and twisted, their “eyes” tinged yellow and red. Jareth ignored them. They were, surprisingly enough, normal for this part of the Labyrinth. The stand of blackened cypress was not.

He paced closer examining them. Most of the trunk and the branches were not black, but dark ashy grey. Dead, but dead as if they had been dead for years. He suspected that they hadn’t. The bottom of each was covered in a black substance that seemed to shimmer with a strange opalescence; oil on the surface of a pond. He crouched down about a foot away from the blackened area, studying it. The ground was cracked and dry, like it had been scorched. He picked up a rock lying within the affected area. It crumbled into ash in his hands, fine and powdery. No living plant could be seen within the blighted space.

The King was frowning in earnest now, his eyes deeply troubled. He stood and backed away from the copse. With a flick of his wrist and a swish of his hand he produced a crystal. It gleamed with a soft luminescence in the gloaming dark of the forest. He threw it at the trees, careful to aim for the bare portion of the trunk untouched by the black paste. The trees exploded into a fine dust just as the globe shattered against the foremost one. The fine particles drifted off on the wind.

Once the trees were gone the wall was revealed and the black substance seemed to collapse in on itself until it was a thick, gooey puddle on the ground. Beyond it, at the base of the stone wall, Jareth could see the source of the blackness.  A thick, oozing tar was bubbling slowly out of a chink in the wall. He turned to look at the swarm of faeries still hovering behind him.

He bowed his head at them. “Thank you little ones. It is best if you hie from here.” The lead faerie chimed her agreement and in a twinkling they were gone, leaving Jareth alone with the ooze. Carefully he removed his fine cloak and hung it from one of the trees behind him. He walked over to the black puddle and stood over it, examining it and the wall closely. The stuff was not shimmering now, but was a dull, angry darkness that seemed to absorb the light around it. He smirked as he crouched next to it.

“Not today, I think,” he murmured to himself. The pool seemed to vibrate in reaction. He stripped the leather gloves from his fingers and placed them in the pocket of his vest. He rubbed his elegant, long fingered hands together and then drew them slowly apart. In the dim light of the swamp something glistened between his pale fingers. A silken web of crystalline strands seemed to stretch between his parting hands.

He moved the magical net toward the black substance, and it reacted violently, bubbling and shrinking back toward its emanation point. Slowly, slowly the net advanced and the ooze retreated, finally turning from molasses to oil as it slithered back into its hole. Jareth’s palms touched the wall on either side of the chink and smoothed the net, now more like a crystalline cheesecloth, over it. With each pass of his hand the aperture got smaller and the stone more natural looking. When he was finished he passed his hands over the blackened earth and it faded to a more natural color.

He stood, slipping his gloves back onto his hands. He frowned up and down the wall, looking for any other signs of weakness. He would have to inspect it tomorrow, first thing in the morning. Satisfied with his work, he turned and made his way back the way he had come, grabbing his cloak as he passed, and pondered what could have made the wall crack in such a way.

Mere moments after his departure, a dark, inky shape detached itself from the natural shadows off the wall. It looked after the King, if a shape with no eyes can be said to look.  It flowed over and inspected the healed fissure closely, testing it with one shadowy hand and gazed off toward the castle, before slipping away into the bog.

 

.:O-O:.

 

Back at the castle, Aisling was back at her chores and trying not to wonder too much over the abrupt end to her lesson. It was probably for the best anyhow. She hadn’t been learning much.

She made her way through the castle corridors toward Jareth’s study, this time to fetch Izzy at Nel’s request. When she reached the room, she glanced inside to see Izzy moving books from the shelves onto several orderly piles. She knocked lightly on the doorjamb, so as not to startle the other woman.

Izzy turned at the sound and regarded Aisling with a quizzical, if silent, expression. “Nel wanted me to fetch you to the kitchens,” she said. Izzy nodded, and made a gesture that Sarah interpreted to mean she would head there soon. She nodded her shaggy head.

Just then she noticed that Izzy was not alone in the room as Twiggy came careening from behind the desk, swaying beneath a pile of books larger than he was. He dumped them in a pile in the middle of the floor, partially knocking over one of Izzy’s stacks in the process. Sarah rolled her eyes.

“Do you want me to…?” she began, pointing at Twiggy and nodding out the doorway. Izzy just shook her head, apparently fine with the little goblin’s dubious help. Sarah just shrugged her shoulders and nodded. “Ok, well, I’ve delivered the message,” she said, and headed back to the kitchen.

Back in the study, Izzy went silently back to work, restacking the books and sorting the pile that Twiggy had brought her. Behind her, Twiggy had moved on to a more ambitious project. He was climbing one of the larger stacks of books that swayed and groaned with his passage, toward the topmost shelf of the bookcase. A large heavy tome was wedged into the shelf and Twiggy wanted it.

Standing on tiptoes the little goblin reached, straining, for the book. He got his small hands on it and grasped it, wiggling and pulling to try and get it unstuck. Below him Izzy was waving her arms frantically, her mouth open in a silent shout, but of course he did not see her. He got a better grasp on the book and wrenched with all the strength in his small body. As a goblin, this was not inconsiderable.

The precarious pile of books beneath him could take the abuse no longer and slowly began to topple. He scrabbled for purchase, but it was useless. The tower fell and Twiggy was left dangling from the end of his prize. He flailed and wriggled, and above him the hefty book inched forward with a loud scraping sound. He screeched as it broke loose and tumbled forward, sending him falling to the floor. It landed with a thud on top of him, along with a small box that had apparently been lodged on the shelf behind it. Several more books followed suit and fell with a deafening clatter.

Izzy scrambled over and started digging Twiggy out of the pile of pages. She had just laid hand on the curious box, a small wooden thing with a now broken lock, when Twiggy’s head appeared. He looked at her sheepishly. “Twiggy sawwy?” he asked hesitantly. She just frowned at him and he ducked his head.

Instead of chastising him further, much good it would do even if she could speak, Izzy turned her attention to the box. It was worn and weathered, and the small lock had been smashed in the fall. Hesitantly she opened it, allowing her curiosity to get the better of her. “Is it something to pretty?” asked Twiggy, clambering onto Izzy’s lap and peering into the box.

Izzy did not answer of course. Inside were three objects, a lock of brown hair clasped in a barrette, a small scroll of parchment, and a bracelet of multicolored beads that looked like glass, but felt much lighter. She was about to reach for the parchment when Twiggy’s small hand darted in to seize on the bracelet. “Pretty!” he squealed.

He didn’t get far. Izzy snatched the bauble back and put it into the box, shutting the lid with a snap. She shook her head at the pouting Twiggy and stood, the box securely under her protection. Twiggy sulked, but as soon as Izzy motioned her hand to her mouth, like she was eating something from her fingers, he forgot the little treasure. It was dinnertime, and that meant a chance to see his Neila. With a skip and jump he raced out the door. Izzy followed at a more sedate pace, closing it behind her, the box still in her hand.

Chapter Text

She dreams…

”What’s said is said.”

The voice was a far away buzz, fuzzy and difficult to make out. She tried to get closer, but she was not in control of her own actions. She was drifting in the wind.

She drifted closer and a picture came into focus out of the misty darkness. A red sun rising in the east shimmered on the horizon as light bled over the land. She wondered why the light did not hurt her eyes.

There was a small, stunted tree, with two figures beneath it. It took her a moment to recognize the Goblin King, and only then by his eyes. He looked so different, harsher, harder somehow. His face, although still handsome, was blunter, wider, with a strong jaw and square forehead. And his figure was different, shorter and more muscular. He wore simple clothes, an embroidered white tunic beneath tooled leather armor and grey trews, An elaborate brooch, reminiscent of his horned amulet, clasped a dark blue cloak at one shoulder. A heavy silver torq circled his neck. Even his hair was out of place, thick and free flowing, with braids scattered here and there. He stood like a warrior, there on the hill above the Labyrinth, feet spread, gloved hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

At his booted feet a woman knelt dressed in a dark torn kirtle. Her voice came soft on the air. “I am all he has, O’ King of the Daoine Sidhe. I cannot abandon him. ”

“And the price to be paid?” His voice throbbed with power and menace. It was definitely his voice, but less refined. If she’d had a body, she would have shivered.

The supplicant turned her face away, toward the invisible dream-watcher. Her dark hair was limp and tangled and her pale face was smudged with dirt and something darker that looked like blood. “I will pay it,” her voice came, low and husky, but firm.

Even in her dream she could feel herself panicking. This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. Who was that girl, who seemed so familiar? And why did the Goblin King seem like a man one step away from violence. What was happening? Her mind struggled against the images, and the scene began to break apart and grow dim.

“Why am I seeing this?” she wondered to herself. She did not expect an answer, but yet it was not a shock when one came.

“We want what you want. You wanted to see. You see what we see. Don’t you want to see?” She couldn’t see anything at the moment. The landscape of her mind was dark, but not empty. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere in her head. It was one voice, and yet many at the same time. The thought occurred to her that she should probably be worried that she was talking to voices in her head, but she couldn’t seem to muster that emotion. Instead, she was curious.

“Who are you?” she asked the voice in her sleeping mind. It seemed a logical question in a place with no logic. In that world between waking and dreaming, where the mind drifts open to all manner of possibilities, she accepted this strange conversation. Pursued it even, hoping it would lead to enlightenment.

There was no answer to her question. It came to her then, but it was not her thought, and a new question formed in her mind. She remembered the chaotic images that had plagued her sleep the night before. “Are you a dream?”

“Yes,” said a voice within the voice.

“Are you my dream?”

“No,” said the voice. “Yes,” said another.  She was perplexed. She tried to work through the cryptic clues in her head.

“I just don’t understand,” she thought, not yet frustrated although the potential was there.

“You see what we see,” repeated the voice. She felt somehow that it was chiding her. She pondered the statement. Could it really be as simple as it sounded? She had trouble taking things at face value here.

“What you just showed me, this was something you saw? It happened?” The voice just seemed to hum approvingly and settle back in her head. She could feel it pulling away.

“Wait, but how is it I can see what you see?”

“Your mind is our mirror,” the voice seemed to whisper. She drifted in that transitional place for a time, thinking, before swimming up from sleep’s grasp and into the waking world. She knew she must remember all she had seen, even though she could not quite place why.

She woke feeling dazed and confused. The wispy edges of her dream were fading already, but she focused on it, keeping it in her head until she was sure it could not escape. A few pieces, the early bits of her dream, still vanished like smoke, but the important parts remained. She felt a small sense of accomplishment at the feat.

She ran over the dream images in her mind, trying to piece them together as best she could. There was a vision of the Goblin King, but not, and a dark haired girl who had looked like death warmed over, but she couldn’t remember what was said. There was a feeling of wrongness, then confusion, and a conversation with dream-voices in her head. She remembered this clearly, that the dreams in her head were showing her things they had seen, things they thought she wanted to see. “Your mind is our mirror,” they had said. But what did that mean? What did any of it mean? For that matter, why was it happening? And could a dream show you reality?

It was these thoughts that occupied her mind as she readied for the day, running her hands through the soft fur of the cloak. It felt like a second skin now, part of her in many ways. Moments later Aisling crept out of her small room and into the quiet of an early morning kitchen. Once again the doors and windows were shut tight, and Nel was waiting with warm soup and bread. They ate together in a companionable silence, each lost to her own thoughts.  When she finished, Aisling made her way out into the golden dawn of the courtyard to start her chores.

The morning passed much like any other in the last two months. Her chores were simple, leaving her mind free to ponder the many strange things that had been happening lately. By the time she was finished working though she had still made no sense of anything. So she put the matter aside and headed up to the Goblin King’s study for the day’s lesson. When she reached it, the door was open wide and through it she could see Izzy hip-deep in books and papers. She walked inside, but there was no sign of the King.

Turning she studied the mute girl, and found herself wondering once again what her secrets were. For her part, Izzy stopped what she was doing and looked at Aisling quizzically. Aisling stuttered, realizing she had been staring.  “Um, I…I‘m looking for His Majesty. Have you seen him?”

The girl shook her head and shrugged. She pointed toward the peaked stone window overlooking the Labyrinth and then folded her hands together and flapped them. A bird, Aisling realized. The King had gone out the window as a bird, probably the beautiful white owl she remembered from some time in the past. When was that? She walked to the window and looked out over the Labyrinth. It shimmered in the sun, all reds and greens and yellows and browns with a dusting of gold for sparkle. She couldn’t see any sign of Jareth, or the owl, but then she hadn’t expected to. No doubt he was off taking care of something more important, perhaps even welcoming a new challenger to the Labyrinth. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

Somewhere in the back of her mind though was a twinge of disappointment and she realized she had been looking forward to the lesson. Even when they sparred, there was a thrill to spending time with him that was almost like a drug. She knew that if she wasn’t careful she might become addicted, so perhaps it was for the best that he wasn’t there. Sighing, she turned from the window and thanked Izzy before making her way back downstairs to the kitchens. There was plenty else she could be doing, especially with the entire castle preparing to receive guests for the masque.

For the next three days Aisling made her way to the King’s study only to find him absent. She finally, reluctantly, admitted to herself that the lessons must be over, which was probably for the best. She couldn’t perform magic, never would, and surely Jareth had realized that as well. And it was certainly the King’s prerogative to end the lessons and not tell her a blasted thing about it. The thought made her scowl, and the scullery maids edged out of her way as she stalked by.

It was one week until the ball when Aisling received a visitor, her first since her arrival in the Underground. The weekly grain delivery from the miller came late in the morning, cart piled high with sacks of flour, oats, cornmeal, and barley.  It rumbled past where Aisling was stacking wood against the courtyard wall, blowing up dust as it passed, and a small figure in a very large hat jumped down from the back and onto the cobblestones.

“Ahem,” came the tiny voice from behind her. Aisling turned to see Reggie making a courtly bow in her direction, sweeping his wide-brimmed hat off his head so that the giant purple feather bobbed in the breeze. He was grinning up at her, his sharp canines gleaming and his tail switching back and forth in excitement. Aisling grinned back.

“Why, if it isn’t the future Sir Reginald!  Surely you didn’t come all this way just to visit little old me?” Reggie replaced his hat and shook his head.

“Gran sent me with some herbs for Miss Niela,” he piped, holding up a basket that Aisling hadn’t noticed earlier. “But I was hoping to see you too!” he reassured hurriedly, obviously thinking he might have hurt her feelings. Aisling just smiled.

“Well, I’m very glad to see you again, Reggie. Now, you shouldn’t keep Nel waiting. She’s not the patient sort. But by the time you get back, I should be done here and maybe we can talk for a bit?” The little kit’s eyes brightened and he nodded before jogging off toward the kitchen.  By the time he returned, ten minutes later, Aisling was waiting for him beneath the apple trees.

“Let’s go up here,” she said, pointing into the tangled branches. They climbed high into the crown of the largest tree and made themselves comfortable among the swaying branches. Aisling plucked one golden apple from above and offered it to the fox, who took it with a smile. “So,” she said, tentatively, “you were going to tell me about your…ancestor, Sir Didymus…and the quest he went on?”

Reggie nodded. “Gran thinks it’s all hogwash, but it’s true. My uncle told me all about it. See, there was this fair maiden, that’s what he calls her, but I think it must have been a princess, ‘cause Knight’s are supposed to rescue princesses.”  He took a bite of the apple, the juice running down his chin, and an expression of bliss lit up his face. “Wow,” he sighed and took another bite.

“A fairy princess?” Aisling asked impishly, taking a bite of her own apple. A sweet contentment seemed to radiate out from her stomach as she swallowed. Reggie scrunched up his nose, and twitched his whiskers.

“What? No!” he sounded appalled. “What good would some pesky fairy be? They’re even smaller than I am.” He sounded sad when he said it.

“I don’t know that size matters so much. Look at Sir Didymus, he may not have been the biggest or the strongest but he was a great knight.”

Reggie seemed to pause at her words, as if turning them over in his mind, looking for a flaw. “Well, it wasn’t a fairy anyhow,” he said firmly. Aisling just nodded.

“And then what happened?”  she asked. Reggie grinned and continued his tale.

“Well, so anyhow, the King took her brother, see, and made her run the Labyrinth to get him back.” Aisling gasped a little, at the familiar story, but Reggie paid no notice, continuing on without even a breath. “But, he didn’t think she would win, but she did, with my Grandda’s help. Then she went back to her own kingdom, and he didn’t see her again. She was beautiful and kind and Great-Grandda swore to defend her. Well, except he couldn’t on account of she weren’t in the underground anymore.”

“Where…where did she go?” Aisling asked softly, almost afraid to hear the answer even though she knew, she knew, what it was.

Reggie shrugged. “Somewhere above, which is why Gran thinks it’s all a story. She says noone ever beats the King’s game, ‘specially not someone from above, but Uncle Hoggle wouldn’t lie to me.”

Aisling froze, sure she hadn’t heard right. “Who?” Her voice was very small, and unsure.

“Uncle Hoggle,” said Reggie, blithely chomping on his apple. “He was there, when the princess beat the Labyrinth, so that’s how I know it’s all true.”

“I see,” she murmured, thoughts whirling. “But how come he’s still alive, if Sir Didymus is dead?”

“Oh, Uncle Hoggle’s a dwarf, not a fox like me, which I guess means he’s not really my uncle. They live a really, really long time.” Aisling only nodded, half afraid to hope that it might be true.

“I’d like to…to meet your Uncle sometime,” she said, tentatively.

Reggie shrugged, “I mean, sure I guess. He doesn’t like people much, but I’ll ask him.” Aisling nodded her thanks.

“So, what happened to the princess?”

Reggie looked sad, his eyes downcast. “I dunno. Uncle Hoggle said that Grandda had a dream that the princess was lost or in trouble, or something. He said that he was going to the Witch of the Woods for help. Ask her to send him where the princess is, so he could find her and bring her back. I guess he never found her though, cause he never came back, and it was a very, very long time ago. Maybe someone else rescued the princess by now.” He brightened for a second, “Or maybe, when I become a knight, I can rescue her. What do you think Aisling?”

Her smile was strained. “Maybe,” she replied softly, “but you’re probably right. She probably doesn’t need rescuing any more.” Somewhere inside her heart was breaking all over again. “Oh Didymus,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.” She took a bite of her apple and welcomed the surge of forgetful bliss it sent rushing through her mind. She looked at Reggie, who looked back at her, and the two of them started to giggle.

 

 

>:O-O:<

 

Jareth was quietly irritated as he stood beneath the courtyard apple trees and looked up at his quarry through the branches. His voice, however, was as mocking and empty as always. “Why is it I am forever finding you hiding in trees?” he asked lightly. There was a sudden silence and a frantic rustling and muttering. Moments later Aisling was blinking owlishly down at him. She was quiet at first, before she broke into a wide grin.

“Hello, Your Majesty! Would you like one of my apples?” She held out a glistening golden fruit to him. He did not return the smile.

“Your apples?” he asked sardonically.

“They are my trees after all,” she sniffed, “so they must be my apples as well. You really should try one.”

“How would you explain that,” he asked softly, “when everything in the Labyrinth belongs to me?”

Another pause. “I don’t belong to you,” she declared obstinately. Jareth simply raised one eyebrow imperiously but did not correct her. “Besides, I made them.” He realized, of course, that these were the “accidental magic” she had conjured a week before. However, he was surprised to note that the trees were still here. He would have expected the magic to break apart by now. He touched the tree with one gloved hand and could feel the pulse of magic that was not his own mixed with the Labyrinth’s distinctive flavor. It was not wild magic he felt, however, and that was a very interesting thing indeed.

“Indeed,” he replied. He looked back up at her and they studied each other in silence for a moment. “You did not come for your lesson today. I have been waiting” It was said lightly, as if it was no matter to him whether she had or not, but Aisling could hear a thread of irritation. She winced, but then wondered why she was feeling defensive. After all, he was the one who disappeared in the first place. The apple’s effect was wearing off quickly.

“Why would I have?” she asked mutinously, “You haven’t been around for a week. I naturally assumed there weren’t going to be any more.”

“An ill-advised assumption. I was busy,” his eyes narrowed at her tone.

“Well, perhaps you could have told me that, instead of just leaving me to wonder,” she snapped. His eyes narrowed further as he studied her dark face. He heard a small voice whispering worriedly to her, and she turned to shush it reassuringly.

“Ah. And who is that with you?” he asked.

“My friend,” she said, daring him to argue, “Reggie.”

“Indeed,” he replied. He paused. “Reginald Thaddeus Longsnout,” he called up into the tree. There was a small, frightened ‘eep!’ from behind Aisling. “Come down here.” He ordered softly. The small creature shimmied down the tree and stood in front of the King, hat in hand. Jareth crouched down in front of him, his face pleasantly empty. “Gertrude will be worried about you. It’s time you went home.” Reggie just nodded vigorously, glancing up at the tree before he ran for the gate.

To his surprise, after the little fox had scampered away, Aisling climbed down from her perch, without any coercion from him. She scowled at Jareth and he wondered why she was in such a foul humor. “That wasn’t very nice, sending him home and scaring him half to death.”

He ignored the comment. “You did not show up for lessons today.”

“You did not show up for lessons all week,” she shot back. “I’ve been here. Where have you been?”

“I don’t believe that is any of your concern.” He bit back arrogantly. She didn’t argue, but a glance told him she was quietly fuming. He sighed. She had a point, he conceded to himself.  “I was tending to my Kingdom. It was unexpected. I will inform you next time our rendezvous is canceled.”

She blinked at him with wide, startled eyes. Her mouth opened and closed before she finally spoke. “Thank you,” she said quietly. He nodded brusquely.

“Now, I have something I want to show you,” he placed one gloved hand on the bark of the tree. “Put your hand here,” he said, pointing, “like this.” She complied, and looked at him, waiting for further instruction. “Now, close your eyes, and look beyond the tree, try to feel the pulse…”

His voice was soft and soothing, all traces of arrogance gone. Aisling could feel the rough bark of the tree beneath her hand, but as he spoke she detected something else. It was a pulse, just like he said. It was faint at first, but as she focused it became clearer. It was a steady beat of light and color and energy, and under that was a slower pulse, like a wide slow river carving its way to the sea. “I can feel it,” she gasped in wonder, “Like a heartbeat inside the tree.”

“Good,” he said, and she thought he sounded relieved. She opened her eyes to look at him.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Magic,” he replied, a satisfied look on his face, “Your magic. And now that you know what it feels like, maybe we’ll have an easier time teaching you to use it.” He stepped back and with a sweep of his arm a doorway opened beside them through which Sarah could see the crystal garden sparkling in the afternoon sun. “After you,” he said.

 

 

>:O-O:<

 

A week yielded few rewards in Aisling’s studies, and now it was one day before the Masque with no time for studying at all. At least now she could sense that bright thread of power within herself, but as yet she had been unable to tap it. The lack of progress was frustrating both teacher and student to the point that this forced break was probably a blessing. There was far too much to do, for both King and kitchen drudge, to take time out, so it was agreed that lessons would resume after the ball.

Aisling wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, although she was surprised at how patient Jareth was being with her. Patience didn’t seem to fit with his personality. Then again, what did she really know about him or his personality? Her encounters with him had been…limited, at best…before these lessons started. You can’t take anything for granted, she reminded herself. Of course, with all the hustle and bustle at the moment she didn’t have much time to take anything for granted.

The castle had been cleaned from top to bottom in the last week, and now was filling up with guests, not that she had seen any of them. Nel had given strict orders that only the servant’s stairs were to be used while the castle was occupied by strangers. Frankly, Aisling was perfectly content not to leave the kitchen at all until she had to. The closer drew the ball, the more nervous she became. She would do almost anything to avoid thinking about it, even if it meant braving the dark, damp caverns of the castle cellars.

She held tight to the candlestick, the short tallow candle sputtering, as she crept down the stone stairs into darkness. The cellars were a vast underground complex of vaulted rooms cut out of the rock beneath the castle. Aisling did not like the cellars. Deep down was a fear that should the light go out she would be trapped in an endless, empty void with no escape. She didn’t even know where the fear came from, just that it was there. She shuddered at the thought and pushed it back into a hidden corner of her mind.

She was down here to retrieve two bottles of sylvan sherry, which were, unfortunately, in one of the further rooms. Aisling moved quickly, relieved that there was no breeze of air in this dark place to threaten the candle flame. She reached the sherry room without trouble and started looking for the bottles she wanted.

She had just found them when she thought she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head, but there was nothing but shadows dancing with the candle flame. She shivered, but turned away. Her imagination was getting away from her. As soon as she turned away however a sharp, cold breeze brushed past her face. The candle guttered, and to her horror, suddenly went out. She was paralyzed with terror as the room plunged into darkness. She felt something brush by her and gave a short scream as her arm went numb with cold. A soft tremor of laughter floated in the air.

“Who’s there?” she asked, trying not to let the fear leak into her voice. She concentrated on breathing, trying to reach out with any senses she had to pierce the darkness. Her hand landed on the rack of bottles and she clutched it, holding herself up on shaking legs. “This isn’t funny, whoever you are.” The laughter came again, sending a chill down her spine.

She closed her eyes, trying to convince herself that there was light on the other side of her lids. She focused on breathing, jumping only a little as whatever it was brushed by her once again. Again, breathe, in and out. She focused on it like it was a life line and below that she felt a pulse. Yes, her magic. This wasn’t a void, it wasn’t empty. There was that bright beat of color that she recognized as the magic inside. She grabbed at it, and held tight. This was her light, her anchor in the darkness. It flared behind her eyes and an angry, shrill scream cut through her mind. Her eyes snapped open, and the darkness, and whatever evil it contained, was gone.

A warm pulsing globe of yellow light floated peacefully in the air in front of her face. At first shock assailed her, her grip on the magic relaxing, but when the globe began to dim she quickly recovered and pushed a little magic back into it. It brightened and held steady. She stood for a moment and let the amazement subside. She’d done it. A week of fruitless work and she’d finally done it. Excitement bubbled up through her and she knew she needed to share this miracle. Grabbing for the two bottles of sherry, and the now broken candlestick, she ran for the stairs, the little light bouncing behind her. A single, inky shadow watched the light fade up the stairs, and waited.

 

 

:O-O:

 

Ten minutes later she was knocking on the door to the King’s study. “Aisling, Your Majesty,” she replied, when he asked who it was.

“Enter,” his voice came through the thick wood of the door. She opened it and hurried inside, mouth open to share the news. The smile died on her lips however when she saw the white garbed figure facing the window. She stopped just inside the door.

“I..didn’t mean to intrude,” she mumbled. She looked at the King, who was leaning indolently against his desk and tossing a crystal from hand to hand.

“You’re timing couldn’t be more perfect, my dear Aisling,” he drawled. “I was about to summon you. I have someone I want you to meet.” The figure at the window turned, and familiar eyes that glittered like a night sky filled with stars confronted Aisling. She ducked her head, hoping the fall of hair would conceal the shock on her face. “This is my sister, Lady Amaranth.”

It was all Aisling could do to give a little bow and not fall over. Amaranth smiled softly in acknowledgement. “A pleasure to meet you, Aisling. Jareth was just telling me about you. I am quite fascinated.”

She was completely different than the last time they had met. A picture of winter, her hair was shades of white and blue flowing in waves down her back. Her clothing was elegant, icy blues and greys shimmering in and out of the white. And her voice was crisp and chill, like the smell of snow in the air, although beneath that it sounded very much like her brother’s insolent drawl. Aisling realized that this must be why Amaranth’s voice had sounded so familiar when they first met. She did not trust herself to answer so she held her tongue.

Amaranth smiled a sharp, brittle smile. “You have overwhelmed her, little brother,” she said. Jareth scowled at his sister, who’s pale, exotic features were so like his own, now that one saw them standing side by side. “Perhaps we can talk later, when she is not so on the spot.” Jareth shrugged.

“As you wish,” he said, “I would be pleased to hear your opinion on the matter.” Amaranth gave a graceful nod of her head and moved toward the door. Her path took her directly past Aisling, and she laid one pale, cold hand on a furred shoulder as she passed. When the door closed behind her silence descended on the room. Aisling and Jareth regarded each other without speaking.

“Why were you telling her about me?” she asked suddenly. Jareth gave another gallic shrug, the kind that could mean everything or nothing.

“We have made so little progress. Amaranth was my teacher, so I thought she might have some advice.” He continued to play with the crystal in his hands, rolling it over and under his fingertips.

“Oh,” was all she could reply. The silence stretched out until she suddenly remembered why she had come in the first place. “Oh! Well, we might not need her help, Your Maj…” he raised one eyebrow and she corrected herself quickly, “Jareth.”

“And why would that be?” he asked silkily. The crystal disappeared in a blink, and he leaned back to watch her curiously.

“Well, I,” she paused, trying to rekindle the giddy excitement of earlier. “I was in the cellars and the lights went out, and well…look!” She held out one hand and concentrated on grasping one pulsing thread of magic. Concentrated on her anchor against the dark. At first nothing happened, but then, slowly, a small ball of golden light coalesced above her hand. It hovered there for a moment before suddenly snapping out of existence when she spied the fiercely satisfied look on the Goblin King’s face.

He met her eyes and she was absurdly pleased at the look in them. “Excellent,” he said, his sharp teeth flashing behind curled lips, and she was glad her dark skin concealed her blush. She told him about the candle going out, and her fear in the darkness of the cellar that led to the breakthrough, but made no mention of the chilling presence. In the light of day now it felt so ridiculous and silly. She realized it was probably just some goblin getting a kick out of scaring the servants. He seemed pleased, and when she left minutes later she was actually looking forward to their next session.

It was just inside the servant’s stair that Amaranth appeared again. The regal fae woman stood tall, and brilliantly bright against the dark stone of the stair. Aisling stopped and regarded her silently, and Amaranth smiled her secret smile. “I have a gift for you,” she said, turning her hands over in a sweeping gesture to reveal a small wooden box. The dark, rich wood glistened with age. Aisling took it without a word, but hesitated before carefully lifting the lid. Inside, nestled on a bed of red satin, were three acorns, one silver, one gold, and one crystal. Aisling looked up at the pale, glistening woman, eyes wide with sudden aprehension. She did not have to ask what they were for.  “Remember your oath, Sarah Williams,” she said, holding up one finger to her lips.

“I won’t tell,” Aisling said. Amaranth nodded and smiled. She lay one cold hand on Aislings dark cheek.

“You will do fine,” she said before slipping out into the corridor again. The box shut with a snap and Aisling made her way back to the kitchens in silence.

Chapter Text

She dreamed…

There was evil in the darkness and it watched her. Terror stopped her breath until she made the light, golden and sweet, that chased it away. She breathed slowly and looked around. The box waited with absolute patience. It seemed as though it had been waiting forever, and was content to continue waiting until the end of time. The blue cat lay curled on the pillows watching her. It too waited, patiently, as cats are wont to do. She looked at it, but the cat simply shrugged and shook its head, tail switching back and forth.

“Sometimes a dream is just a dream,” it meowed, answering the question in her eyes. It rolled over and stretched, looking at her with upside-down eyes, “until it is not.”

She did not want to open the box, but she had to. The wood was warm and smooth beneath her hand. Inside they lay, all in a row on black satin. Three apples; one ruby, one emerald, and one gold. They glittered with a bright, frantic pulse, practically vibrating.

She looked up and the trio of apple trees stood before her. They stood alone and barren. All they needed was fruit. She could do that.

She touched the tree and felt for the beat of bright color. It writhed in her hands. It wanted to be released, free, used. “Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave,” the voices within voices cried, coiling tightly around her mind. But it wasn’t enough.

She reached deeper, and beyond the quicksilver dazzle was a river of infinite depth with a slow, timeless pulse. It was wide and calm, but she knew the current hidden beneath the surface was enough to make mountains low.

She plunged her hands into that coolness. It brushed over her skin like living silk and anchored her even as it drew her deeper. So dark, so cool, so comforting. A mover of mountains, a carver of canyons, a kingmaker. So patient. Waiting, watching, shaping. The river breathed and filled her like a cup with the knowledge of the ages. It was, always had been, and forever would be. She wanted to drink that knowing, drown in those depths, and be consumed by the endless water. It breathed again, as if it could breathe her in, and she breathed with it.

“Saaarrraaah,” it sighed.

A wail cut across her senses, sharp enough to bleed if sound could slice. Aisling sat up in bed with a gasp and her dream fled into the darkness. She conjured a light (she was getting better!) and her eyes caught on the box waiting patiently in the corner. Her stomach clenched for just a moment.

There was a clatter of running feet outside her door and a loud chorus of voices raised in excited fear and curiosity. She suddenly remembered that chilling scream that had woken her. Quickly throwing on her technicolor cloak, Aisling darted from her room. Although it was normally empty and quiet at this hour the kitchen blazed with light, an early morning for all because of the Masque. But no one was working. The castle servants milled round about the cellar door, talking in hushed, horrified tones. Aisling crept closer, trying not to draw attention to herself, and listening to the chatter. A sick feeling was settling in her stomach.

“…found him just now…”

“…scream of the Baensidh, did you hear?”

“…probably just drunk…”

“…made my skin crawl…”

“…serves ‘im right for stealing the kings wine…”

“…unnatural. What could it be?”

“…Lord Braxton’s manservant…”

“…evil afoot…”

“…don’t be ridiculous!”

“…these things don’t happen here…”

“…good man. Didn’t deserve this…”

“…King Jareth will set it right…”

She slipped through the crowd, trying to catch a glimpse of what was causing the furor. The cellar door was partway open, but the others blocked her view of what lay beyond it. Off to the side she could see Nel speaking quietly to Cowslip. The pixie seemed frail and shaken, her teary eyes staring at nothing as she replied to whatever Nel was saying.

“I get him! I get him! He come now!” Twiggy tore into the room with a clatter, his tiny claws scrabbling on the stone floor. He was going so fast that he could not find the purchase to stop and slid beneath the table and into a pile of dishes with a crash. Not even Niela paid him any mind. All eyes were on the corridor as the Goblin King swept into the room, his face unnervingly blank. He seemed to have dressed in a hurry, leaving him looking tousled and wild. His shirt hung unlaced, horned amulet resting over a large swathe of exposed chest, with tight grey breeches. Silence descended until Nel finally spoke.

“All right, everyone out of the room or back to work. We’ve enough to do without fools wasting the time gawking and spreading tales.” It was more than their lives were worth to argue with Nel, so reluctantly the group began to disperse. As they did, Aisling was finally able to catch a glimpse of what was beyond that cellar door. She could not hold back a gasp and Nel looked at her sharply.

It was the body of what must have once been a man, but no longer. It lay on the stairs, just short of the door, one arm outstretched and reaching. In its other hand a taper was clutched tight in clawed fingers. It was pale and grey, as if all color had been leeched from it. The hair was brittle, and the face was set in an expression of abject fear. Aisling shuddered and looked away, remembering the cold presence she had felt the day before. Could it be a coincidence? She caught the Kings eye but looked away quickly. There was a darkness in his gaze that gave her chills.

“This is inconvenient, Nel,” he said coldly, “I trust you fetched me for good reason.”. The brownie woman just sniffed and glared at him.

“Aye, and ain’t it just as inconvenient for me to have a dead man in my kitchen,” she snapped back. The king raised his eyebrows at that.

“A what?” he asked mildly, and Aisling realized that from where he stood the door blocked any view of the scene. Nel just nodded solemnly and pointed to the cellar door. Jareth scowled.

He strode over and threw the door open wide. He stood mutely staring at the body, lips pressed tight and eyes narrowed. He crouched and Aisling was momentarily distracted by the play of muscles in his thighs. She was grateful once again that no one could see her blush and then guilty for having such thoughts under the circumstances. A movement among all the servants scattering to their various jobs caught her attention, out of the corner of her eye. A dark garbed figure disappeared around the corner, and her skin broke out in goose bumps. Her face darkened, and she took a step to pursue when the king’s voice stopped her.

“Stop,” his voice was soft, but steely with command. She looked back and he was staring at her, his eyes dark, expression shrouded.  

She frowned. “But, Your Majesty, the…” she did not get a chance to finish.

“You will not move,” he gritted out between clenched teeth. His voice was cold enough to make her shudder. For the first time she realized he might be angry at her, although she had no idea why. She opened her mouth to speak, but the look in his eyes stopped her. “You will obey me, wilding, and remain there until I say otherwise.”  She could only nod and he looked away again, glancing at Nel. Her stomach felt like it was in a vise. Why was he so cold?

He quizzed Nel and Cowslip, who answered mostly with nods and headshakes. When did the kitchen shut down? Who was the last to go down there? Was there anyone seen coming out? Until finally he was satisfied and bade Nel to get the shaken pixie to a healer. He stood, and looked down at the body for a long time. Finally he made a swift gesture with his hand, and the body disappeared. Aisling wondered where it had gone to.

He turned to look at her, and she flinched at the cold heat in his eyes. His jaw was clenched and a muscle twitched in his cheek. He held out one hand to her in a gesture of invitation, and a doorway to his study opened in the kitchen wall. She looked at him for a long moment before hesitantly stepping through. He followed behind her.

Once in the study he strode past her without a word and stood at the window overlooking the Labyrinth. It was still dark out, dawn was hours away yet, but he stared as if he could see every stone and tree in clear daylight. He did not speak to her. Finally she could not stand it any longer.

“Jareth,” she whispered. The name dropped like a stone in the silence. He turned, looking at her, and his face was so empty. “What is going on? Why are you so angry at me?”

“Am I angry?” he asked lightly, but his voice cut. Her eyes darkened with hurt.

“Have I done something wrong?” she asked tentatively.

“Have you?” his lip curled in a sneer.

Now she was getting angry herself. “Stop that,” she growled, “If you’re going to accuse me of something, then do it. Don’t play games with me.”

“Was there something you perhaps forgot to tell me last night?” he asked softly.

“Last night?” she paused. She thought of the frightening presence she had felt when the candle went out, and the ashen horror on the cellar stairs, and her veins turned to ice. “The cellar!” she gasped. “I never thought…Oh Jareth, It seemed so silly at the time!”

“What exactly would that be? It certainly doesn’t appear ‘silly’ from where I’m standing.” he bit out. Of course! He was only guessing at a connection. He needed her to spell out the details.

“When the candle went out…well, at the time…it felt like someone, or something, was there in the dark with me. It was so cold.” Briefly she described the strange presence she’d felt, and the scream when the light appeared. “But, I never saw a thing, Jareth, I swear. I thought I was imagining things. It didn’t…it didn’t seem important. Oh God, that could have been me!” The thought sent a shudder through her body.

Jareth took a deep breath and stared at her for long moments. Abruptly he turned away, running both gloved hands through his pale hair, and turned back to look at her again. His eyes were searching.

“What are you thinking?” she asked warily, although she hardly expected an answer. She was pleasantly surprised to get one.

“I am trying to decide whether or not I believe you,” he growled. She flinched, and her heart broke just a little at the thought that he might not trust her.

She forced herself to take deep breaths, trying to calm down and keep the hurt from her voice. “I have never lied to you, Jareth.” His eyes narrowed but he said nothing. She thought about the situation, turning it over in her mind.  “You can’t really believe I had anything to do with this…”

“I cannot rule out the possibility,” he replied coldly, cutting her off. She pressed her lips together.

“Yes, yes you can. Your Majesty…Jareth. I thought you knew me better than that by now.”

“You thought wrong,” he snarled, “I know very little about you. You are a complete mystery to me in every way.” He stalked away from the window, stopping in front of her. He towered over her, studying her with his mismatched eyes. “You had no part in this?”

“I have said I did not. I cannot make you trust me, Jareth.” She kept her voice as calm as she could.

“No, no, you do not need to. I can see you speak the truth,” he sighed, and she could almost see the anger bleed out of his eyes in a rush, leaving behind only a brooding weariness. He threw himself into one of the high-backed chairs. The fingers of his right hand held up his head at the temple, the black leather of his gloves stark against his pale skin and hair, and he stared at her.

“You sound disappointed,” she said dryly. He frowned.

“It would have made matters easier,” he muttered. He turned his head to look back out the window.

She looked at him aghast and then something clicked in her mind. “You never really thought I had anything to do with this,” she accused.

He looked back at her and smirked, “No, I suppose I didn’t.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and ignored her offended scowl. “But it really would have made matters easier.” He sighed again. ”You should have told me.”

“And you’re not really angry at me,” she added, heat in her voice.

“I assure you I am quite irritated that you did not mention this last night,” he said matter of factly.

“That may be. But I think you’re really mad at yourself. You think this is somehow your fault, that you could have stopped it if you’d only known.”

He only scowled, “You presume much.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, excited now that she had figured it out. “You take the safety of your subjects very seriously, don’t you?”

“I am the king,” he stated, sounding a bit offended. “The welfare of my Kingdom is my first responsibility.”

“Yes,” Aisling agreed. But I never really noticed before. she thought to herself in wonder. She crept closer, until she was standing beside the chair. “There’s no guarantee you could have prevented this, you know.” Her voice was soft and low.

“Will you lecture me now, my Aisling?” he drawled in a bored tone. She grimaced and shook her head. Arrogant bastard.

“Fine, never mind. If you’re done insulting me, I have chores to attend to. It’s a busy day, “ she paused, “unless you’ll tell me what’s going on? I have a feeling you know.” When he didn’t respond she shrugged, and turned for the door. She had just reached it, when he spoke.

“Tomorrow,” he glanced at her, “at your lessons, I will answer what questions I can.” He smirked, slipping into his familiar, arrogant role. “If that is acceptable of course,” he added mockingly.

“Thank you,” was all she said, before slipping out the door.

As soon as Aisling left, Jareth returned to brooding. He felt a twinge of remorse for being as hard on the wildling as he had been, but the simple fact was that she should have told him about her encounter last night!  Perhaps it had been merely coincidence that she was the last person in that cellar. But there was no coincidence, he was sure, between this malignant creature and the recent shifts in the Labyrinth.

The first one he hadn’t even felt, it had been so subtle, but after finding cracks in the barrier, he had done some checking. The Labyrinth had shifted, just barely, but enough. He remembered the feelings of discontent from two weeks ago that had plagued him. He knew now it had just been an aftereffect of the shift.

And then last night. He had been woken from a sound sleep by the Labyrinth’s power surging ever so slightly. Something was disturbing the natural balance, and he couldn’t figure out what. Before he even had a chance to investigate, however, he was further disturbed by that annoying kitchen goblin, Twiggy, barging into his chambers and telling him that he had been sent by Nel to fetch him. His mood had gone from bad to worse when he saw the body.

There were creatures in the Labyrinth that he could not allow to roam free, trapped in their small corner of the kingdom behind walls of more than just stone. The first shift in the Labyrinth’s power had weakened those walls, and he had spent the better part of a week repairing them. Obviously he had not managed to find all the escaped nightmares, but that this creature made straight for the castle was disturbing. He would have to increase the palace guard to look for the intruder and protect his guests. He sincerely hoped this more recent surge had not done too much damage. He would patrol before the Masque to take a look. But first, the onerous task of telling Lord Braxton and his simpering daughter that they were one servant less after this night.

 

:.O-O.:

 

The day passed far too swiftly for Aisling’s taste, and the moment of reckoning arrived. The Masque was in full swing, the ballroom and terrace gardens filled to brimming with guests. The music trickled down through the stone walls into the kitchen and everyone was tapping their toes. Aisling was at the top of the servant’s stair, across from the ballroom doors, just listening, for now.

Aisling took a deep breath. Beneath the fear that had her stomach in knots was a burgeoning excitement. She wanted to do this as much as she didn’t. It was probably best that she didn’t have the choice to hide in her room until all the pretty fae went home. She fingered the acorn she had hidden in her pocket, looking for courage. It was time.

Carefully she took out the silver acorn. It gleamed in the dim light of the landing, beckoning to her. It was with a careful twist that she opened it and began to gently remove what was inside. It didn’t seem like the dress should fit into that tiny space, but somehow it did. It was as light as clouds, as soft as a whisper, and shimmered like moonbeams. She sighed at how beautiful the dress was.

Stripping out of her cloak and garments beneath, she stuffed the lot of them behind a rock in the wall, and then slipped the dress on over her pale skin. It seemed to sink into her, just as the cloak did each time she put it on. She could feel the tingle of magic at work, from her toes to her scalp, in a rush that brought a gasp. Finally it settled and she took stock. Looking down, she lifted the delicate skirts to see a pair of lovely silver silk slippers. She was relieved that at least there wasn’t some ridiculous heel on them. The fabric itself was light and soft to the touch. It felt so delicate she was afraid she might rip it just by running her fingers over it. She needed a mirror. She needed to see if she looked nearly as lovely as she felt.

The secret door creaked only barely a she peeked out to make sure no one was about. When she was sure the coast was clear she slipped out of the door and closed it softly behind her. She was in the main corridor, just round the corner from the ballroom doors. Her heart was beating like a frantic bird with excitement, all fear washed away.

Just down the hall she spotted a mirror and hurried over to it. She stood before it and all she could do was stare. The sweetheart neckline was complemented by small cap sleeves that fell over her upper arms, leaving her shoulder and throat bare. The bodice was jeweled with a spattering of stones, and the skirt floated down from the empire waist as if it were lighter than air. Around her throat was a silver velvet choker with a small moon pendant, which matched the large moon half-mask. Her dark hair, looking even richer against the pale silver of the dress, was pulled up into a loose chignon, with small curls escaping just around her face. She reached one hand in a small silver glove out and touched the image reflected in the mirror. Could it really be her? She had never felt so lovely in her life.

“Here now, missy. You ain’t s’posed to be out here,” the gruff voice barked from just down the hall. Sarah jumped, and whirled around to find Hoggle standing not 10 feet away, staring at her with a grumpy expression.

“I,” she swallowed past the exultant thrill in her heart at seeing him, “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to wander away.”

“Hmph,” he muttered, “Dangerous business to wander this castle. Go on. Back to the ball with ye, missy.” Sarah could only smile as he shooed her toward the ballroom doors.

“Thank you, Hoggle,” she said, smiling down at him. He appeared momentarily starstruck, which might explain why she had already closed the doors behind herself when it finally occurred to him to wonder how she knew his name.

Chapter Text

Jareth stood alone among a glittering throng and surveyed his guests with a distantly amused expression on his face. Of course this mask, shown daily to the world to hide his true thoughts, was itself hidden beneath a far more grotesque creation of plaster and paint. Only the cruel twist of his lips could be seen beneath the simple half masque, shaped to look like a goblin with a protruding, hooked nose and vicious red-rimmed eyes. There were others among the guests who were amused to play the part of Goblin, but all far more elaborately than their true king, with bright fluttering fabrics, flounces and jewels. They intermingled with costumed Dominos, Harlequins, Pieros, Columbines and other figures from the Commedia dell’Arte, along with dozens of different animal themed disguises.

Of course, the costumes were a mere affectation of glamour for most, concealing only when they wanted to be so. And even with the masque’s, there were many who were simply too recognizable to remain anonymous behind such flimsy disguises, such as the Goblin King himself. His pale, feathery hair stood out among the throng, as did the simplicity of his dress. White breeches with black boots laced to the knee, complemented by a sleek black doublet, embroidered with silver stripes. The billowy sleeves of his white shirt were stark against the black of his long cloak, held on by a delicate silver chain. His hair was framed by the tall, angular collar, like some sort of canvas created to display the fine shimmering strands.

Roarke appeared beside him carrying two glasses of ambrosia laced wine. He handed one to the King and the two men watched the revelry in some silence for a time. “I would call it a rousing success, eh Your Highness?” Roarke said, grinning from behind a wildly striped orange and black tiger masque. Jareth shrugged.

“I am not yet amused,” he murmured.

“Oh, come now, old cynic,” the Prince laughed, “The night is yet young!”

“And therefore promises only to become more tedious, I expect,” replied the King dryly.

“Bah, you love it, Jareth. Every lord and lady in the underground paying court to the Goblin King. Do not deny it.”

A shrug was his only answer, but a small smile played about his sculpted lips. Roarke took the opportunity to point out several of the more lovely Fae women to the King, expounding on their virtue, or particularly delightful lack thereof. Jareth merely grunted and sipped his wine.

“Have you spoken to your parents?” he suddenly interrupted slyly, “I believe I saw the lovely Lady Cassandra standing around looking particularly forlorn earlier.” Roarke grimaced, his normally sun-bronzed cheeks turning a dull red.

“I have not yet had the pleasure of speaking to any of them, no,” Roarke mumbled, downing his wine. His eyes darted around frantically for a moment, before alighting on one figure with a look of panic. “If you’ll excuse me, Jareth,” he said, and slipped off into the crowd in the opposite direction. Jareth chuckled evilly to himself.

No sooner had Roarke moved off than Amaranth joined the Goblin King in his silent reflection. She looked stunning as usual.  She was bedecked in white fur and feathers. A fantastical white fox masque rested over her twinkling eyes and her long white hair was piled atop her head in a complicated arrangement of curls.  She followed his gaze to see a short, dark haired woman wearing bright turquoise and black. Leila dressed as a bird of paradise, the common striving to appear exotic among creatures who had always been so by their very nature.

“That one is trouble for you, brother,” she said lightly. The sharp look Jareth gave her belied the casualness of the statement.

“Do you speak from what you have seen, or is it simply that you don’t like her?” he asked dryly, maintaining a relaxed posture.

“Perhaps a little of both, perhaps no reason at all,” she replied mysteriously.

“I did not think you cared one way or another about mortals, Ami,” he replied in turn. He was too practiced himself at being mysterious to be drawn in by his sister’s naturally cryptic responses.

“It is not that she is mortal that disturbs me, Jareth.” This was said with a soft sigh. He merely frowned at this and followed her gaze back to the young woman, who was preening before the avid eyes of a group of young-blooded fae. Other than a tendency toward narcissism, he failed to see what the problem was.

“My, my,” Amaranth murmured suddenly, and he was caught by the speculative tone in her voice. “That one does not look like Prince Roarke’s fiancé. I was sure she was a blonde.” Jareth followed her gaze to light on the jarring orange and black stripped cloak of Roarke’s costume, but he could not at first see the prince’s partner. When the couple finally swept around in a turn he caught sight of a lithe brunette in glittering silver, identity concealed behind a crescent moon half masque. Roarke was plying her with all the charm he could muster, by the looks of it. Jareth frowned.

“That is NOT the Lady Cassandra,” a gruff voice said from behind him. “I thought you were going to set my son’s head on straight, Jareth, not give him something else to run after.”

“Your Highness,” Jareth murmured dryly, looking behind himself at the giant bear of a man towering, and glowering, over him. Aillil, King of the Dwarves, was more often known as the Mountain King, in part because calling him the Dwarf King led to far too many sly inquiries among court ladies. Given his legendary temper, it was agreed that Mountain King was a far better moniker in the interest of social and political peace. The name suited him, for he was truly a mountain of a man, with dark curled hair and a swarthy complexion. He was another of those for whom a costume would disguise little. To this end he had forgone a masque altogether in favor of his own intimidating visage. “I am so pleased you could come to my little gathering.”

The large man frowned harder, but there was a twinkle in his eye. “And thank you for inviting us, yes, yes,” he rumbled, adding “Your highness” after a pregnant pause.  His voice was as the low thunder of rocks down a distant mountain side. “Now about my son,” he pursued.

“Ah, yes, your son,” murmured the Goblin King, glancing at the dancing couple. “I am not his Nanny, Mountain King. I said I would put the Prince up, not ride herd on him.”

“Who is that woman he dances with?” Aillil finally gritted out, after a great deal of outraged sputtering.

“I have no idea,” Jareth replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. He tried to change the subject. “How is your lovely wife, Mebd?”

“Not speaking to me again, as you well know, Jareth. Is that not your wee mortal mistress in my son’s arms?” The Mountain King would not be deterred from his course it seemed.

Jareth’s eyebrows rose, “I assure you it is not.” He sighed and held up a hand before Aillil could speak again, “But as you are obviously distressed over the matter, I will see what I can do, old friend.” He escaped into the crowd before the other King could pursue the matter further.

“Slippery as a cave snake that one,” King Aillil muttered. “Between my wife, my son, and Jareth, I’m downright sick of people not speaking to me.” A soft, throaty laugh from Amaranth drew his attention. “What’s so funny,” he demanded. She smiled softly.

“I am reminded of a poem from Above I once heard,” she replied. “by a man named Ogden Nash.

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

The Mountain King snorted, but a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth.

“No doubts but you are wise beyond your ken, Lady Amaranth,” he replied, trying to maintain his fearsome glowering with great difficulty. “Perhaps I will take your advice and have at least one conversational companion back again.”

Amaranth smiled back. “I wouldn’t worry about that one,” Amaranth changed course suddenly, nodding to the woman in silver. “She poses no threat to your son, Your Majesty.” Before he could question her, she slipped away into the crowd.

Minutes later Jareth was softly charming the petite and lovely Lady Cassandra out on the dance floor. She was swathed in layers of pale yellow and pink, with dainty daisies threaded through her blonde hair. Her bright blue eyes stared fixedly from out her feathered masque at the Goblin King’s collar, her cheeks blushing gracefully at each word he spoke to her. Gently he maneuvered her through the dancers, until he reached the enthralled Roarke. Brushing by the younger man, he paused and gracefully suggested exchanging partners. The prince didn’t have a chance to respond before he found his arms encircling the one woman he had been successfully avoiding all night, and his partner abducted by his host.

Jareth smirked as he made the switch and danced away, turning his head just enough to keep an eye on the flabbergasted Prince. Roarke looked suitably terrified, and the Lady Cassandra looked cautiously hopeful as she gazed up at him. Of course, courtly manners won out in the end and the younger man swept his new partner into the waltz. Jareth nodded, satisfied that perhaps he could be left in peace for a short while at least, and turned his mind toward finding a way to extricate himself from his own new partner. He turned to examine the woman in his arms.

Her eyes were rich caramel as she stared at him with a speculative look, and a touch of caution. He studied her in turn, wondering which hopeful Lord he would have to fend off once they saw him dancing with their daughter. The quicker he disposed of the girl, the less would be the need to deal with such irritation, he hoped.

“I hope you don’t mind my taking you from your partner, Lady Moon,” he said politely. She smiled tentatively.

“What girl would object to trading in a Prince for a King, Your Majesty,” she replied demurely. Her voice was smoky and low, and vaguely familiar. He tried to place it, even as he gave a startled chuckle at her temerity.

“Indeed,” he replied, smirking down at her, “but the point was rather to trade the canary to the tiger.”  She stiffened and blinked up at him for a long moment, then glanced at the couple in question as they glided past. He thought he might see a shred of disappointment in her gaze. Well, it was not his concern if her ego was bruised. His lids drooped into his usual expression of world-weary ennui as he swept her across the floor, looking for an opportunity to get rid of her.   

“It was very neatly done, sir,” she ventured at last, “May I ask who she is?”

He tilted his head in acknowledgement of her compliment. “The Lady Cassandra. His Fiancé,” he replied. She stumbled at that and her eyes widened, before delicate brows swooped down into a frown.

“Fiancé. But I thought…” she grimaced and shook her head, cutting the thought off before it was voiced. The crinkle of her brow brought on another wave of familiarity to Jareth, and he tried once again to put his finger on who she might be.

“Thought what?” he asked softly.

“Nothing. It’s not important,” she shrugged, and fixed her eyes on the open collar of his shirt, avoiding his scrutiny. The slight firming of her jaw, the graceful curve of her throat, and the huskiness of her voice all seemed to tease him with a chord of recognition. He frowned.

“Have we met before?” he asked suddenly.

“We have, Your Majesty,” she said cautiously, meeting his eyes again.

“I see. Care to remind me, Lady Moon?” His brows rose in inquiry.

“Years ago,” she replied, a sad smile stretching her lips, “You’ve forgotten I expect.”

His arms tightened on her ever so slightly and she caught her breath. He leaned in so they were cheek to cheek, his lips at the delicate shell of her ear. “I cannot believe you were that bad, Lady,” he whispered softly. She gave a little gasp and turned her head, leaning back so their lips were a mere whisper away, but not touching. She looked at them a moment before her eyes rose to meet his. Lambent heat had turned them from caramel to liquid amber. He knew there was no doubt an answering heat in his own eyes.

“I wasn’t,” she said, her voice catching, “I was very good.”

“Then I doubt I could have forgotten,” he said with a small smile, before sweeping her into a turn that separated them again.

“I don’t,” she muttered. His brows rose in interest.

“That smacks strongly of bitterness,” he smirked, leading her round the parquet floor.

“Just realistic, Your Majesty,” she replied dryly. He chuckled, wondering what he had done to cause her to be so…realistic. Any number of things he suspected, and not a twinge of guilt to show for it. Still, he found her intriguing now.

“Jareth,” he corrected her lightly.

She smiled sweetly, but would not take the hint. “I know.”

He frowned but decided to try a different route. “If I could see your face it would doubtless jog my memory.”

“Perhaps,” she allowed, her smile growing mischievous.

“But you refuse to remove your masque.” It was not a question.

“Mmm,” she replied, tilting her head in agreement.

“And if I insist?” he pursued, eyes narrowing.

“The answer would be the same,” she blithely assured him.

He tightened his arms around her again, but this time she just sank into him. His face lowered until their lips were practically touching once more. “You would defy me?” he growled dangerously.

“If you insist,” she agreed breathily, before wetting her lips with a small pink tongue.

“I am King,” he reminded her arrogantly. Somehow her amused smile only served to whet his appetite. Who was this coy and teasing creature that he had so accidentally stumbled upon.

“And you are very used to getting your own way, aren’t you?” she asked.

“I am King,” he purred again, with a careless shrug. That secret, amused smile again floated over her face.

“But not my King,” she replied gently, drawing away from him as they came to a halt. He realized the music had stopped. The dance was over, and this time he found himself wishing it wasn’t. Before he could pursue the conversation further, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“May I have the next dance,” Aillil rumbled, bowing politely to the Lady in silver. She smiled and nodded, turning to thank him with a curtsey before moving into the Mountain King’s arms. Jareth frowned and watched them drift away among the other glittering couples. He was perplexed at the entire encounter, not to mention pleasantly aroused. He knew he should recognize the woman, but the memory stayed stubbornly buried.

A soft, black gloved hand touched his sleeve, and he looked over to see Leila smiling suggestively up at him. She wrapped both arms around his one and snuggled close to him. “Will you dance with me?” she asked.

He looked at her for a long moment, without answering, and studied her from head to toe. His eyes drifted to the silver garbed figure out on the floor. “No,” he finally said, peeling himself away from her grip and slipping away into the crowd. He did not see the shocked and furious look on Leila’s face, nor the pure venomous hatred when her eyes looked to the mysterious woman he had been dancing with before. He probably wouldn’t have cared if he had.

With a huff, Leila turned and stalked out of the ballroom onto the balcony overlooking the garden. She made her way down from the lighted terrace and onto one of the garden paths. Like a poison, the jealousy seeped through her system, and all she could do was imagine wrapping her hands around that silver slut’s throat.

She hadn’t gone very far among the manicured hedges when a voice stopped her. “Such a beautiful lady should not be troubled by such dark thoughts,” the man said from the shadows. The lights from the ball did not reach this part of the garden, which was lit only by the occasional flickering torch.

“Excuse me?” Leila muttered, peering into the shadows. “How do you know what I’m thinking?”

“Your pretty face betrays you, my dear,” the man said with a chuckle. Leila realized she had a fierce glower on her face, and quickly smoothed it out.

“Who are you?” she asked suspiciously, not entirely without concern for her solitary state. The man stepped out from the shadows and bowed. She was relieved to see a perfectly normal handsome face with sandy brown hair.

“You may call me Morgh,” he replied taking her hand in his and brushing his lips across her knuckles. She shivered as a heavy bolt of desire swept through her.

“I’m Leila,” she breathed softly, leaning closer to him. He smiled down at her.

“Such a pretty name. Why are you so troubled, pretty Leila?” he asked silkily. He stepped closer, keeping hold of her hand.

She frowned, remembering Jareth’s cold dismissal of her. Her chin notched up. “My lover wouldn’t dance with me,” she said petulantly.

“Amazing,” he said, looking shocked, “If I were so lucky, I would not scorn you so.”

Leila leaned closer into him, thinking that he really was very handsome, and he obviously wanted her. She smiled seductively. “Really?”

“Indeed,” he said, a confident look in his eyes, and wrapped his arms around her in a deep kiss.

 

.:O-O:.

 

Jareth claimed the Lady Moon for another dance as soon as Aillil released her. He didn’t give her a chance to say yea or nay, but simply wrapped her in his arms and swept her off into the crowd.

“Why do you seem so familiar, and yet so strange to me?” he muttered, frustration coloring his tone. She tilted her head to look at him.

“I’m not the same person you met before. I’ve grown up I suppose,” she said softly. He watched her with shrewd, calculating eyes.

“Tell me more about the last time we met,” he urged in silken tones. She hesitated, and he could almost see the debate raging in her mind. “You cannot leave me so in the dark. How about one small question at a time, hm? Like a game. I will try to guess.”  

She seemed to consider this before a mischievous grin lit her face. “Alright, Your Majesty. A game. I will answer three questions about my…our…the past, but I will not tell you my name, and I will not show you my face. Agreed?”

“And if I guess your secret, Lady Moon?” he asked, leaning in to her and brushing his lips against the shell of her ear. “What then is my prize?” He felt her shiver in his arms, and he smiled.

“What do you want?” she asked huskily. He drew back and saw a deep wariness in her eyes. He held her gaze with his own, and did not try to hide his interest.

“A kiss,” he said lightly. “Nothing too onerous.” She looked away from him and bit her lip thoughtfully. When she met his eyes again, there was a curious resolve in them that made him smile.

“Alright,” she agreed.

“Wonderful,” he smiled, and his sharp teeth gleamed in the soft light of the ballroom. He cocked his head to the side, considering for a moment. He thought of how well she fit in his arms. “The last time we met, did we dance?”

A small, shy nod. “Once,” she replied, “but it was a very short dance.”

“And where did we meet before?” he asked.

“Here, in your castle.”

“And did you enjoy our dance?” he purred, drawing her closer until the line of their bodies were pressed tightly together as they moved around the floor. Her eyes fluttered closed and her mouth parted slightly. A sweet blush could be seen rising from her throat to her cheeks.

“Yes,” she breathed. “It was frightening and thrilling and I enjoyed the dancing very much.”

“But only the dancing?” She smiled and shook her head lightly, a smirk on her face.

“Only three questions, Your Majesty,” she said scoldingly, “do you have a guess?”

He nodded in acknowledgement, an amused expression on his face. “Not yet. But I will discover your secret yet, Lady Moon.”

“I do not doubt it,” she replied, and her face was no longer teasing, her eyes deep and serious. He wondered at the sudden shift.

“And how are you enjoying my ball tonight?” He asked, drawing her even closer, wanting to chase away her somber mood.

She smiled up at him. “It’s wonderful. And terrifying.” His eyes gleamed in satisfaction and they danced in silence. Jareth maneuvered them toward the edges of the ballroom, so when the music finally finished they had relative privacy behind a screen of palms and draped fabric. He could tell the exact moment when his quarry noticed their isolation, for she stiffened in his arms and tried to back away. He followed her course, keeping one hand firmly on her waist, right up until she had backed herself into the wall. His other hand came to rest against the wall beside her head. She looked up at him with wide eyes.

“What are you doing?” she breathed. He grinned wickedly. She had had him off balance since opening her pretty mouth. He enjoyed turning the tables. He drew his hand up from her waist, trailing the black leather up along her arm to her shoulder. She shivered.

“I believe I will start by kissing you,” he murmured, letting his gaze travel to her lips.

“You didn’t win the game,” she insisted, although the breathy tone of her voice lent little force to the words.

“You never said I couldn’t kiss you before I won the game,” his thumb stroked her lips, and they parted, before trailing down the curve of her jaw. He wrapped his hand around the back of her neck, anchoring her in place, and moved in closer until the length of their bodies touched. “Consider it a good faith payment. A sample of what I intend to claim once I win.”

“You’re so sure you’ll win?” she asked, a catch in her voice.

“I always win,” he assured her. His eyes narrowed at the smug smile that graced her face. His lips closed over hers before she could come up with something else to say.

The kiss was gentle at first, but as soon as she relaxed into it he wrapped his other hand, that had been against the wall, around her waist and drew her tight against him. She was soft and pliable in his arms. He groaned softly, and she responded in turn, as his lips moved over hers. Finally he drew the kiss to an end, and leaning away he felt absurdly pleased at the foggy look in her eyes.

The great ballroom clock began to chime with strong, vibrant tones. Her eyes widened when she heard it. “What time is it?” she asked suddenly.

He shrugged. “Midnight I would guess. We have plenty of time to enjoy ourselves still,” he grinned down at her. To his surprise she suddenly stiffened and started struggling against his hold.

“I have to go,” she said. She succeeded in tearing herself out of his arms and began backing away slowly.

“What?” he asked, flabbergasted. She looked at him pleadingly.

“I – I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry, Jareth. I have to go.” And with that she darted into the crowd. With a vehement goblin curse beneath his breath, Jareth went after her.

Chapter Text

She ran. She ran as if the hounds of the hunt were on her trail once again. Stupid, she said to herself, Idiot. What have you gotten yourself into? What were you thinking? She wove her way through the crowd, pushing people out of her way. It was like trying to run through an ever shifting forest of brightly colored trees. She paid no mind to the shocked sounds the brilliant Fae made as she waded through them.

Her thoughts were scrambled. All she could think of was getting back to the kitchens before Nel started looking for Aisling. She’d been here too long already. That and getting away from him and the dangerous feelings he created within her. You can’t run from yourself, a voice laughed wickedly in the back of her mind. She pretended not to hear.

The ballroom doors were just ahead. She could see them through the milling guests, tantalizingly close. She knew that he was not far behind, and suddenly her bold behavior seemed like the greatest folly she had ever committed. Where had that exhilarating defiance come from that allowed her to taunt the Goblin King in such a manner? If he caught her, discovered her, she feared the outcome. So intent on her goal was she that she did not notice the large figure step into her path.

With a startled “oof” she ran straight into an immovable wall. Large, strong hands wrapped around her arms before she fell. A blush stained her cheeks as she looked up and up into the merry green eyes of the Mountain King. His eyebrows raised as he took in her state of urgency. “Whither away so hurriedly, little one?” he asked in his booming voice. Sarah blushed deeper and backed away. The King released her gently as she pulled back, his expression one of fatherly concern.  

“Forgive me, Your Highness,” she said breathlessly with a little curtsey. “I…I need to…leave, I…” she glanced behind her and caught a glimpse of Jareth drawing closer. King Aillil followed her gaze. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said rather desperately and slipped past him before he could stop her. She hoped he was not too offended. She reached the doors and slipped through, glancing back only long enough to see that Aillil had stepped in Jareth’s path. The Goblin King paused, but his eyes caught hers across the distance and the promise blazing in them made her shiver, whether with anticipation or fear she could not tell. She fled out the door.

Once outside she paused for a moment to breathe deep and look around. She was relieved to see that there was no one to notice her incautious exit. She headed quickly down the hall to the servant’s door around the corner.

She was just closing the door, conveniently concealed behind a heavy tapestry, when she heard the ballroom doors slam open. The sound reverberated through the corridors and she froze. The door through which she had come was still open just a crack, letting in light from the hall. She didn’t dare close it completely for fear the noise would catch his attention, but she hoped it wasn’t leaving a telltale lump in the tapestry. His distant voice, laced with power, lashed through the air like a whip, crawling up her back in dainty claws and making her shudder. She could not make out the words, but the tone was unmistakable. She felt a twinge of compassion for whoever was on the receiving end of such icy contempt. 

She could not stand here waiting for discovery. Softly, carefully, she closed the door and scrambled to retrieve her cloak. She had no idea if Jareth had heard the soft scrape of wood on stone, or if he knew the stairs were there. It seemed the sort of thing he would dismiss as beneath his notice, but she couldn’t assume she was safe. She couldn’t take the chance of him opening the door and finding her there. Her heart was beating so fast she thought it might burst, and her hands shook as she fumbled with the loose stone concealing her cloak’s hiding spot. Finally her hand sank into it’s soft fur and she threw it over her shoulders, praying she could cover one disguise with another. Her other garments tucked beneath her arm she gave one last furtive glance at the portal behind her and fled down the stairs, back to the kitchen.


>:0_0:<


Jareth had no choice but to pause in his pursuit when the Mountain King stepped into his path. “I would speak with you,” his deep voice rumbled. 

“Now is not a good time,” Jareth gritted out, watching his quarry slip closer and closer to escape. He wondered if the minx realized that getting out of the ballroom was the easy part. The castle was not so simple to steal away from. As she reached the door, she turned, and her tantalizing eyes met his. When they widened in fear, he knew she was aware that the chase was far from over. 

“The lass seems eager to avoid you. I wonder what you might have done…” replied Aillil, still not moving. He watched the Goblin King closely, noting the direction of his gaze.

“Stand Aside, Mountain King.” Jareth’s voice was soft and dangerous. “I think you forget you are a guest in my lands.” His cold, mismatched eyes finally rose to meet the other man’s gaze. 

Aillil frowned, but stepped aside grudgingly. “I forget nothing, Goblin King,” he replied stiffly, “I do not mean to insult your hospitality.” Jareth did not respond, but disappeared back into the crowd, headed for the ballroom doors. 

When he reached them they slammed open with shuddering force at the touch of his power. A small, gnarled figure gave one startled screech before freezing on the spot in fear and staring open mouthed at his king. Jareth paused as the echoes of the slammed doors reverberated and disappeared down the corridors. He heard no sound of slippered feet running on stone. Where had the mystery lady gone? 

Looking down he recognized the creature cowering before him. “Hogwart,” he snapped, his voice icy with contempt.

“H—H—Hoggle, y—yer Maj…” but he did not finish. Jareth took two steps to tower over the dwarf, and his voice failed him. 

“Have you been out here all night?” the king asked, his voice, although softer, still bouncing off the stone walls of the corridor with a cutting tone. 

“I—I have,” Hoggle stammered, “Been patrollin’ the halls, like you said.”

“And did you see anyone leave the ballroom just now?” He spoke slowly, as if to a particularly dimwitted child. Hoggle flushed a dull red and gulped.

“Just you…uh… Yer Highness,” he said. 

“Not me, Hogbrain,” Jareth snapped. “Of course you’ve seen me. I’m standing right in front of you. I meant anyone else, for instance a woman, in a silver dress.” 

Hoggle did one long, slow blink, remembering the lovely lady he had seen earlier that evening. He knew that Jareth would probably want to know about that, but he was not about to tell him. Hoggle was, after all, a creature of the Labyrinth, and his actions were often dictated by the nature of what he was. Had Jareth remembered this, it might have made his search more fruitful. 

As it was, beyond being an excessively antisocial dwarf with marked tendencies toward cowardice, Hoggle was also something more. He was a living Enchiridion, one of several formed of the Labyrinth for the purpose of being ...useful. The Enchiridions provided answers, to almost any question. The key, of course, was asking the right questions. An Enchiridion did not, could not, volunteer information. Not even to the King that terrified him. It was this quality that made him so useful in misdirecting many of the Labyrinth’s challengers.

Slowly the dwarf’s head shook back and forth. “No, I only seen you come out,” he said, which was the absolute truth.

“And which way did you just come from?” Hoggle pointed behind him, his hand shaking.

“If you’re lying,” Jareth threatened softly. The dwarf gulped and scuttled back further, shaking his head fiercely. “Go, summon the guards to every gate of the castle. Tell them no one leaves until I say so,” he ordered, before sweeping down the hall and round the corner opposite where Hoggle had been patrolling.

A long, unbroken corridor lay empty before him without even so much as a wall niche to hide in. He knew this hall led straight to a dead end, after several promising turns, but he also knew, somehow, that she would not be there. He conjured a crystal, holding it up before his face. “Show me the Lady Moon,” he commanded, visualizing the person he meant, but the crystal did nothing more than swirl with some sort of glittering dust, obscuring the shadowed figure within. He gave a frustrated growl and crushed the globe with a flex of his fingers. She had, it seemed, disappeared right beneath the nose of the King of Illusions. 

There was one last thing he could try, beyond spending the rest of the night in a fruitless search. Removing one glove, he rested his bare hand against the cool stone of the wall, and let his mind sink into the not quite alive consciousness of the castle. Although it was an extension of the Labyrinth, it was more aware than most parts of the maze of the creatures that walked its halls. With one touch, Jareth could see, or feel, every creature in that place, like brightly colored fireflies burning on a map. He asked, or perhaps directed, he could never be sure, the building to look for the mysterious lady, locate her. But there was too much going on, too many strangers within its rooms, cluttering and confusing its focus. With a sigh of regret, Jareth drew back his hand and the connection was severed. Perhaps he would try again, when he had more leisure.

He stared unseeing down the hall, trying to decipher how the lovely stranger could have eluded him so completely. Even his magic had failed to reveal her, which was strange indeed. Decidedly so. She had definitely piqued his interest, which, depending on who you asked, was either good or very, very dangerous. She may have escaped this time, but one way or another they would meet again. And when that happened, he looked forward to discovering each and every one of her secrets.

A throat cleared behind him with a soft “ahem.” Turning, he saw Amaranth in all her icy splendor looking at him quizzically, one eyebrow arched. “Are you well, brother?” she asked with cool reserve, “Your guests became concerned when you ran out so suddenly.” Jareth merely glowered and brushed past her, back toward the ballroom. Amaranth followed behind, smiling to herself.


>:0_0:<


Meanwhile, down a particularly dark and mostly unused corridor, the small furry figure of Twiggy was vigorously attacking thick deposits of dirt and dust with a broom. There were parts of the Castle that were full of rarely used, mostly forgotten rooms and corridors. None resided there, and the servants had no reason to travel the halls, unless they were avoiding something.

Twiggy didn’t question why he was sent to sweep one such distant, unused corner of the castle. It never occurred to him that Nel would do such a thing just to keep him out from under foot. Of course, there wasn’t much that did occur to Twiggy, not even the fact that sweeping involved picking up the dust, not just moving it from one part of the hall to another with the broom. But it kept him occupied, admiring the dust as it swirled and sparkled in the air around him with every sweep. So caught up in his task was the little goblin that he did not notice the figure of Aisling rushing past at the end of the hall, headed back to the kitchens and hoping to avoid the notice of anyone by traveling the long way around through empty halls. Of course, even given the unlikely possibility that he did notice her, Twiggy would have thought nothing of it.

 As it happened, Twiggy was nearly finished with his task. And by finished it is understood that he in fact was tiring of watching the swirling dust, and his attention was moving on to other interests. And so he decided he was done, and leaving his broom sitting against the wall, he wandered down the hall to find something more interesting to do.

Had he stayed a moment more he might have noticed when the corridor began to shiver and warp, like stones viewed at the bottom of a shallow pool. Had he looked round as he whistled his way down the hall, he might have seen the broom sinking into the wavering stone wall. He might even have found this strange, and worthy of investigation. But he did not notice. Even when the ceiling seemed to ripple and liquefy, Twiggy continued on his way, oblivious to the magic building around him like the threat of lightning just before a storm. 

Had he noticed the fluid texture of the normally solid stone ceiling, even he might have become alarmed. As it was, he did not see the drip that formed at the center of the ripple. He could not appreciate the long, thin string of suddenly elastic stone that stretched toward the floor, looking like nothing so much as a length of pulled taffy. He was unaware of the small shape being spontaneously formed, as if from soft clay, at the end of the string. In fact, he was completely caught up in thoughts of chasing chickens and eating pudding, when he thought he heard the soft chink of a pebble hitting the floor behind him. 

Twiggy twisted around and craned his neck, looking for the source of the noise. But the hall was empty and looking perfectly normal. Shrugging to himself, he began to walk again. Plink, plink, plink. He stopped. The sound was different, higher. 

It was as he was turning to take another look that something sparkled on the ground, just on the edge of his vision. Twiggy pounced like an eager puppy, cupping his hand over that glittering spot on the floor. Picking it up, he opened his hands to look at his prize, and an expression of excited awe crept over his face. A small silver charm, in the shape of a moon, gleamed within his grimy palm. Grinning, in a manner very much akin to an idiot, Twiggy squeezed the trinket tight in his fist as a wonderful, marvelous, brilliant idea occurred to him. He took off like shot toward the kitchens, skidding and bouncing into walls as he went. He just knew that this was the perfect gift for his Nel.


>:0_0:<

 

Sarah reached her cupboard without incident. She rested back against the door and breathed a sigh of relief, her heartbeat sounding like thunder in the lightless confines of the small room. She tried to light the lamp, but her fingers were trembling too hard, then her legs, and then she was sliding to the floor in a boneless heap as the adrenaline left in a rush and she gasped for breath.  She forced herself to breathe deep until the shaking stopped and her heart slowed to something resembling normal. Once she could feel that still place inside herself again, she decided against the lamp, and focused her magic into a floating orb of soft yellow light instead. The small exercise seemed to help focus her mind as well as her senses. It was time Aisling got back to work. 

She undressed with care, and laid the delicate silver dress out carefully on her bed. She didn’t have time to try and get it back into the acorn now. She would worry about that later. Quickly she pulled on the denim jeans and cotton shirt she normally wore beneath her disguise. The fabric suddenly felt coarse and irritating against her skin after the silken soft dress. She clasped her multicolored cloak over her shoulders once more and pulled the hood up securely. She felt the garment’s glamour pour over her like warm syrup. Not only that, but with her senses open in concentration, she thought she could feel, even recognize, the threads of magic humming as they bound themselves around her. 

There was no mirror in her small room, so she touched her face gently and was satisfied to feel the rough skin that marked her altered face. Her hands were black and gnarled once again. With a sigh she extinguished the light and opened the door. She turned to take one last look at the magnificent dress, but somehow she wasn’t surprised to see that it had disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a faint glittering dust. 

Aisling crept into the bustling kitchen, trying to avoid Nel’s all-seeing eye. A pointless effort, as it turned out. She wasn’t three steps into the steamy room when the Head Cook spotted her.

“About time you showed up ye lazy creature!” the small woman fumed, as she waddled up to a contrite looking Aisling. 

“I’m sorry Nel,” she said softly, “ I just lost track of time.” 

The brownie sniffed, “Hmph. Admiring them pretty Fair Folk no doubt.” Aisling just shrugged and looked sheepish. “Hmph. Well, pretty is as pretty does,” Nel went on, nodding decisively, “An’ them up there is all style and no substance. No heart. Exceptin’ a few exceptions, like our good King…his sister.” She paused to give Aisling a sharp look, and her captive audience obediently nodded her head in agreement. 

“Right then, just so’s you know, beastie. I may not like you much, but I’m not one to wish grief on anyone.” Aisling swallowed a snort as Nel continued. “Mind what I say. Admire them pretty ones from afar, but don’t put yer hand in the snake pit lest it get bitten off.” She gave a nod, satisfied she’d said her piece, before turning to shuffle away. “C’mon then, I’ve work fer ya,” she said over her shoulder. 

Aisling followed behind with a troubled heart. She was just thinking the same thing not so long ago, or something very like it. That she was out of place in that glittereing court. That it was a dangerous game to spend time with the Fae. Why then did she have a sudden desire to argue with the older woman’s well meant and sensible advice? 

Neila led the distracted Aisling to the third hearth, the smallest of the three cavernous  fireplaces used for cooking. Even being the least of the three, it was massive enough that Aisling could walk into it without stooping when it was empty. Now, however, there was a good fire going and a large iron cauldron set low over the flames. The golden liquid inside simmered with soft rolls and ripples and gave off a smell so appetizing that Aisling couldn’t help but drool. 

Neila held out an extra long wooden spoon. “Butternut squash soup,” she said, “needs tending and constant vigilance in the last stage. It’ll be time to serve soon, and I’ve other dishes to attend to.” 

She glanced at Aisling, who stared back with empty eyes, her thoughts turned inward. Nel’s well-worn wooden spoon, always on hand in her apron pocket, cracked across Aisling’s furred shoulder. When startled brown eyes met her own, she unpursed her lips and continued. 

“Stir it. Don’t burn it. You can manage that can’t you?” Aisling nodded sheepishly and took the long handled soup spoon. Nell sniffed again, peering at her with narrowed eyes, before trundling off to see to something else. 

Aisling dipped the spoon in and began to stir. The soup was smooth, the texture of fresh cream, and its color was the rosy gold of sunlight and autumn leaves. Aisling stirred slowly, watching the rich liquid form little whirlpools in the wake of her spoon. Absently she rubbed at the now sore spot on her shoulder and grimaced as the coarse weave of her shirt abraded the oversensitive skin of her arm. Her entire body felt hypersensitive even as she found it difficult to focus her thoughts. 

Her mind drifted, remembering the silver gown sliding over her skin in a silken caress as the Goblin King held her close for their dance. She remembered the feel of his breath on her cheek when he leaned in to whisper in her ear, and the sweet, dreamy smell of the skin at his throat. Thinking back to that moment in his arms, she couldn’t place what that scent could be, but it put her in mind of magic, power, and pure seduction. 

Her heart sped up even as the spoon’s hypnotic motions began to slow. Every thought was absorbed with remembering the last two hours as Sarah. With a pang she came to realize that her predicament might be far worse than she had previously imagined. She wanted nothing more at that moment than to lay eyes on him again, to touch him, to hear his smooth and spicy voice. Oh, God…could she be falling in love with him? 

After weeks spent in his company, she didn’t think of him as so much of a villain any longer, that was true. There was even a part of her that could think of what they had together now as a friendship, in a way. But surely it was not love. This entire situation was too difficult, too treacherous, for her to risk herself that way. After all, he was still the Goblin King, and she still feared him should he discover her. Any trust he might have for Aisling would be shattered once he learned the truth. But what do you really fear, the voice in her head replied, Jareth or your feelings for him? Do you fear his wrath, or discovering he does not care for you as you have come to care for him? 

She might have stood in stunned immobility forever if not for Twiggy’s excellent, or perhaps lamentable, timing. The speckled ball of fur came careening through the kitchen door in his usual style, scrabbling for purchase on the stone floor. Aisling saw him coming and moved to get out of his way, but nothing was going as expected today. Murphy’s Law had nothing on the Labyrinth. 

Just as Twiggy was about to race past her he tripped, quite spectacularly, and barreled head on into Aisling’s chest. It was with horrified fascination that she watched as time seemed to slow to a crawl. Twiggy was a flurry of fur and speed hurtling toward her, and out of his hand a small, glittering object flew in a graceful arc. It seemed to pause at the apex of its climb, and she had only enough time to note with horror the direction of it’s fall, and let out a shocked denial, before the goblin hit her, and the both of them went down in a startled heap. A stack of bowls and pans collapsed with a roaring clatter on top of them. 

Silence descended over the huge room as everyone froze to stare at the commotion. Aisling was lying stunned on the floor, trying to restart her brain. A dazed Twiggy was muttering in Goblin beside her, and shaking his body like a dog. Carefully she started to pick herself up off the floor when Neila’s voice shrilled through the quiet.

“What by all that is good is going on?!?” she screeched, and the silence seemed to thicken into dread. Aisling could see her approach by the way those in her path quickly found something else to do in some other direction. She winced as the brownie appeared, a thunderous expression on her face. 

“You!” she said, pointing her spoon at Aisling. “As if I haven’t enough to do, I’ll be pushed into an early grave by the likes of you! What have you done now? I swear you bring trouble with you in spades you hairy…And what is HE doing here?!?” Her voice rose shrilly as she spotted Twiggy staggering woozily to his feet. “If you have ruined my soup….” she began, eyes darting between the two of them. 

Aisling thought about the glittering thing that she had seen heading straight for the vat of soup and cringed inwardly. She didn’t know what it was, but she was fairly certain that Nel would be less than pleased to learn her soup had been contaminated by some random bit of junk that Twiggy had been carrying. She glanced down at the culprit, who seemed unaware of the danger he faced in the angry cook. He was turning in circles like a dog chasing its tail, searching the ground and muttering to himself. 

“Well? What happened?” Nel barked, glaring. 

“Twiggy tripped,” the goblin piped up absentmindedly, still searching the floor. He glanced at his hands, face puzzled, and patted his worn vest as if looking for something.

“On what?” Nel asked in exasperation. She and Aisling both looked down. No bump or knot marred the stone floor that had been burnished and smoothed by centuries of traffic. 

Twiggy blinked up at her, seeming to realize for the first time that he was being questioned. His eyebrows shot down and his lips pouted almost mutinously. “What tripped Twiggy? The floor up and grabbed him is what!” he whined. “And now I’ve lost my…” 

Realizing what he was about to say the very wrong thing and make things worse, Aisling made a desperate move. Snatching the goblin up in her arms she covered his mouth with one hand and held on for desperation as he started to struggle. “It was all just an accident. I wasn’t paying attention when he slipped into me. He didn’t mean to cause any trouble, you know how he is. I’ll make sure we get this all sorted and put away.” 

Nel opened her mouth to speak again, but seemed to think better of it. She stared suspiciously between Aisling and the struggling Twiggy. Finally she said, “Aye, see that you do. I want no more trouble from either of you. An’ just to be sure, once yer done here I’ve a job to put you to for the rest of the night.” With a decisive nod she turned and stormed away. 

Aisling’s shoulder’s sagged in relief, even as she struggled to keep hold of the squirming goblin in her arms. She hissed when she felt his sharp teeth bite into her hand and suddenly wondered if goblins had rabies. Was there even disease in the Underground? 

Leaning down she hissed into Twiggy’s ear. “Stop squirming, Twiggy. I’ll let you go if you just stop.” Twiggy froze and mumbled something behind her hand. “Do you promise to behave?” she whispered. He nodded. 

Carefully she took her hand away from his mouth, but kept hold of him in her arms. He was surprisingly cuddly for such a vicious little pest. She looked at her hand and was relieved that she didn’t immediately see any teeth marks, but then she wondered if the glamour would hide that sort of thing as well. 

“Twiggy didn’t slip,” he pouted, “Twiggy felt the floor jump and trip him.” 

“Fine, whatever,” Aisling muttered, rolling her eyes. She was far more concerned with the small object that had fallen in the soup. “What were you carrying Twiggy?” 

The little goblin’s eyes lit up. “Twiggy found a sparkly for Nel!” he chattered happily, “Twiggy dropped it when he fell. Will Aisling help me find it?” 

“I can’t Twiggy,” she said, sighing. Sparkly was such a vague term. 

“But Twiggy needs it!” his voice started into a whine. Aisling grimaced. 

“It’s gone Twiggy. It fell into the soup.” She made him look at her until the words sank in. 

“Nooooooooo!!!” Twiggy’s wail pierced the noise of the kitchen and Aisling winced. “My sparkly!” She really hoped Nel hadn’t heard that. Suddenly Twiggy was out of her arms like a shot and diving for the bubbling cauldron. Aisling was so shocked she almost didn’t react him in time. Luckily her hands clenched reflexively and she caught him by the tail. It might have made a ridiculous scene, had anyone been watching. Aisling held on to Twiggy’s tail for dear life, her arms raised high so he could not touch the liquid below. Twiggy wriggled and squirmed, trying to reach his prize at the bottom of the bowl. 

In his flailing, the goblin’s barbed tail slipped through Aisling’s grip until a single spine at the end pierced the fleshy tip of one finger. With a shocked “Ow!”, she reflexively yanked her arms back toward her body, but not before a single drop of red, ripe blood fell unnoticed into the pot. Starting to get angry now, she dumped Twiggy unceremoniously onto the ground and clutched her throbbing finger in her other hand. 

“That’s enough!” she growled. Something in her voice must have given the little goblin pause, because he stopped in the middle of preparing to leap for the pot once again and looked at her with wide startled eyes. Aisling paused, trying to calm herself down before continuing. “Think about it Twiggy. What would Nel do if she found out you dropped something into a dish meant for the King? Do you think she would be happy?” Twiggy processed the question before shaking his head shortly. “Do you think she would be happy with Twiggy going into the soup to get it out again?” Twiggy again shook his head. “Right. And if she ever found out that you ruined her soup to get a present for her?” Twiggy gulped and his eyes bulged. 

“Aisling will not tell Nel that Twiggy lost the sparkly in her soup? Please?” He grabbed at her fur and clutched at her leg. “Please don’t tell. Twiggy does not want to be sent away from the kitchens. Twiggy wants always to be close to Nel.” 

Aisling tried to keep her voice stern, despite suddenly feeling sorry for the little guy. “Alright. I’ll keep your secret, Twiggy. But you owe me a favor.” She ignored the little twinge of guilt at manipulating him. After all, she’d be in just as much trouble if Nel ever found out. Twiggy nodded vigorously in agreement. “Cross your heart and hope to die,” she said. 

“Twiggy crosses his heart and hopes to die,” he squeaked, tracing one hand over his chest in an X. “Twiggy thanks friend Aisling for not telling Nel.” 

“Okay,” Aisling nodded. “Now help me clean up all this mess before Nel gets back and sees we haven’t done it.” 

It didn’t take long to pick up the fallen pots and bowls and put them back in order. By the time they were done, though, Nel had returned with Cowslip and Peaseblossom to retrieve the soup for serving. She watched closely as the golden liquid was poured into a waiting glass tureen. Satisfied that it wasn’t burnt or spoilt in any way, she directed the pixies to bring it upstairs to the feast. “You two,” she said, pointing her wooden spoon at Aisling; and Twiggy, who started guiltily. “Follow me.” She led them to the far corner of the kitchen by the garbage chute where a giant pile of potatoes towered over Aisling’s head. “Start peeling,” she said, handing them each a knife and walking away. Twiggy whimpered and Aisling groaned, but they both sat down and set to work. 

Aisling sat tensely as she worked the knife over the skins, worrying every minute that disaster would strike. She just had a feeling that the incident wasn’t quite over. She was not soothed when, not even half an hour after the soup had gone up, a sprite zipped into the room and whispered something urgent into Neila’s ear. The small woman stiffened and nodded, before disappearing through the door with the little messenger in the lead. 

Twenty minutes later Nel stalked up to Aisling and glared at her, arms crossed, foot tapping. “The King means to speak with you, wildling,” she snapped. “And I’ll thank you to tell him the truth.” Aisling opened her mouth to ask what he wanted her for, but Nel cut her off. “I’ll not be hearing it. Just go.” Meekly Aisling followed after the sprite, who had come back with Nel. Twiggy watched her go with wide, terrified eyes. 

The long walk to the banquet hall seemed far too short for comfort, and she was not relieved to note the increased presence of goblin guards in the main corridors through which they walked. When they reached the hall, Aisling was a little puzzled to note that they walked past the double doors to a smaller one just beyond. It turned out to be a small hallway that circled round the dining hall to a small antechamber which was situated behind the King’s throne at the head table. The sprite urged her in and the door closed gently behind her. 

Aisling stared silently at Jareth where he lounged against the wall. The small room was comfortably decorated with a pair of chairs and a chaise lounge covered in pillows. It was separated from the main dining hall by an open doorway covered with a shimmering drape. Aisling could hear the musical chatter of the Fae as they ate just beyond. 

Jareth did not speak at first but studied her in silence as he tossed a small object from hand to hand. It glimmered as it flew back and forth. Aisling forced her face to remain impassive, even as her heart began hammering in her chest. The King smiled. 

“Hello my little dream, and how are you this evening?” he asked silkily, watching her closely. 

She forced herself not to watch the glittering trinket as he played with it, and put a puzzled look on her face, hoping it was convincing. “I am well, Your Majesty,” she said slowly. 

“And your duties in the kitchen? How do they suit you?” he continued idly. 

“Well enough,” she replied, not sure she wanted to know where he was going with this line of questioning. 

“Nel tells me you take on new duties almost every day. For instance tonight, that you helped her make the soup?” He made it a question. 

“Not so much help,” she said, almost too quickly. She took a breath. “I only stirred it, for a few minutes at the end.” 

“Ah. Nel’s soup is excellent. She has made it for me before.” He paused. “Are you certain all you did was stir it? It seemed, different somehow tonight. More enticing, delicious…intoxicating almost.” He smiled coldly. “I wanted to give my compliments to the chefs. Nel mentioned that you had helped prepare it. Surely you wish to take credit for such a delight. 

Aisling smiled tightly, but shook her head. This verbal sparring was like dancing on the edge of a knife. “It was kind of Nel to mention me, Your Highness, but I had little to do with it. As I said, all I did was stir.” 

“You added nothing, not even salt to spice it up?” 

“Added?” she asked, sounding surprised. “No, Your Majesty, I added nothing.” 

“I see,” he replied, but the words sounded sour as he said them. His eyes narrowed as he contemplated her. “You have sharp eyes, wildling. Perhaps you saw someone suspicious lurking around the kitchen? Perhaps a guest who lost their way?” 

At this real confusion emerged. She did not try to keep it off her face. Was she wrong about why he was questioning her? Why was he asking about guests in the kitchen? “A guest? In the kitchens? No, I’m sure I would have noticed that.”

He stared at her, lips pursed. His hands had stopped their constant motion and were crossed over his chest. The silence stretched out. 

“And you saw no one put anything into the soup, anything at all?” he asked. She tried to follow the sudden jump in topics, but at least this one she knew what he was talking about. She pretended to be thinking about his question, when in fact she was trying to think of how to answer it without perjuring herself. She wished she could just lie, but part of the geas Amaranth had placed on her forbade her from doing so. It hadn’t been a problem until recently. 

She looked Jareth square in the eye as she gave her answer. “No, Your Majesty. Other than my spoon, I saw nothing put into the soup.” She had seen something fall toward the soup, she reminded herself, by accident, but she had not seen it go in. And she had not seen it put there. It was so close to a lie it made her sick to her stomach. But it was the absolute truth none the less. 

Jareth was less than satisfied with her answer, but realized he could do nothing about it. She obviously didn’t know what he was talking about, although he had hoped she could shed some light. He dismissed her back to the kitchen and watched her leave with a frown on his face. He opened his fist and looked again at the small silver charm in his palm, shaped like a crescent moon, which he had found at the bottom of his bowl earlier.

The mysterious lady would not be forgotten. It was as if she had ensorcelled his mind to dwell on nothing but her. From the first bite of soup to the last, when he had found the charm, she had occupied his thoughts. It was a message, he knew, though he could not figure out how she had managed it. They would meet again. And this time, he decided, she would not escape him so easily.

Chapter Text

She dreamed…

The ballroom was familiar in a distant sort of way. It glittered and twinkled, filled with strange, masked revelers dancing to and fro. Ahead she caught a glimpse of Jareth slipping through the crowd like a ghost. She tried to follow, but the room was too thick with people. She was trapped in a circle of dancers, and they laughed slyly and pointed.

Looking down at herself she saw a fine white dress, but her hands were black and gnarled, her arms covered in patchwork fur. Shame swallowed her whole, and she pushed her way through the crowd, desperate to escape. She passed a mirror, and saw a deformed, furry creature playing at being human in a shining starlight dress. She pushed through the door and out, tearing at the delicate fabric of the dress with grasping fingers, and then the fur on her arms and body, until both disguises fell away in pieces and she was naked.

The room she arrived in was dim, barely lit by moonlight through wide windows, with a pale flickering light in the corner. It was filled with dozens of plastic chairs, blessedly empty, all facing one direction. She recognized it almost instantly as the common room at the hospital. The blinking light was the television, bolted into the ceiling corner, pale and silent images flickering across the screen.

She crept forward through the room. It felt so alien to her now, with its stark emptiness, its modern simplicity. There were two chairs at the front of the room, and in one she saw…something…a bundle on the seat. As she drew up beside the chair the bundle moved and stretched. A small blue cat, she was beginning to recognize it now, sat up and looked at her a moment before turning to watch the TV.

She looked too, and saw the images changing one after the other after the other, as if some invisible person with the remote were flipping through the channels. At one point it stopped, and she watched the sun rise over the Labyrinth, and a ragged dirty girl knelt before the Goblin King. She had seen the scene before, but all at once she recognized the girl as Izzy, and wondered why she hadn’t noticed before. It was too bad the sound was off and she could not hear the conversation.

She was reaching to turn up the volume when a voice spoke. “Saaaarrraaaahh…” it whispered behind her.

She turned and squinted against the hazy sunlight shining down. Limestone pathways from some part of the Labyrinth spread out around her. Behind her the TV room had disappeared. The voice whispered her name again and it was this she followed, not quite sure where she was going. Wasn’t she looking for something?

She turned a corner and saw an arched entryway across a rubble-strewn courtyard. The courtyard itself had an air of neglect, an abandonment to time that had left behind a decaying elegance. Chipped and broken carvings adorned the walls and pilasters. The ground, once cobbled and level, was uneven, great stones pushed up by the roots of ancient trees that spread their branches over the high walls. The carvings around the door were so worn away with age and time that their images were indecipherable. Soft clucks and scratches from the corners drew her attention to half a dozen scrawny chickens pecking at the barren ground. The archway itself loomed, like a great, gaping maw over a small form standing before it. She recognized the candy-cane striped footie pajamas.

“Toby,” she whispered to herself. “Toby, wait!” she shouted as the baby disappeared into the dark opening. She followed him, descending down stone steps into shadow. The long and winding stair seemed to go on forever, snaking ever deeper, but never forking, until finally she reached the bottom.

The catacombs stretched into the darkness, arched niches built into the corridor walls, with many new hallways branching off along the way. She could see Toby some distance ahead, just barely in her range of vision. She didn’t think to wonder that she could see without light in this lightless place.

She followed Toby’s elusive form through several twists and turns, until finally the corridor ended with a huge cavern. So vast was the space that she could not perceive its length, breadth or height. Only the walls nearest to her were visible, sparkling slightly. She looked closer and saw that the stone surface was embedded with glittering dust.

Toby continued further into the cavern, a small dark shape nearly lost in an even darker emptiness, and she followed.  Finally he stopped and she saw that he stood on the bank of a river that was wide and deep and dark. She could feel the river in her chest, and she recognized the slow, throbbing pulse, although she still did not understand it for what it was.

She picked up her pace, hurrying to him. He toddled into the river, slipping silently under the water, and she cried out a warning. She ran to the edge, desperate to rescue him, but no ripple marred the surface. It seemed still, but she knew there was a current that, while slow, was strong and deep.

She waded in, and was suddenly reminded of her nakedness as the cool water felt both invigorating and soothing against her exposed flesh. She dove, feeling for his tiny shape. She felt hands brush hers, and she grasped them, kicking for the surface. She found her footing and stood, the water reaching her chest, and pulled the hands up with her. They were not the hands of a child.

It was Jareth, his pale hair completely dry, a feathered mane around his head. She dropped his hands and stepped back, feeling vulnerable and unsure although the dark and the water concealed her nudity.

“Give me the child,” she said. The words were familiar, seemed right.

“He is not here Sarah,” he soothed. His voice was strange to her ears, his own and yet not. “You have already saved him, remember?”

She shook her head, frowning, trying to remember. “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I…I…have fought my way…” She stopped, lips trembling. No, he was right. Toby wasn’t here. She had already saved him, when she gave up her dreams so long ago.

“I’m glad you came back, Sarah” Jareth said softly.

“I had to,” she murmured, half to herself.

He smiled and nodded. “For this.” He turned his hand over and it held a perfect crystal sphere. Her dreams.

“Yes,” she drew the word out in whispered longing. She reached out one hand and touched it, but it changed. It became shiny and metallic, and the surface seemed to swirl with faint clouds in shades of silver and steel. She could see shadows floating within the globe, and every so often one drifted close enough to the surface that she could almost make it out. She was holding it now, and she thrilled to the weight of it in her palm.

“What is it?” she asked.

“It’s a mirror. Nothing more. But if you turn it certain ways, and look into it, it will show you dreams.”

“My dreams?”

“And so much more,” he purred. A hand rested on her shoulder and her gaze rose to meet his. His eyes blazed with heat. “I have been waiting for so long.”

“For what?” she asked

“For you to be ready to receive what I have given you. Dreams. Magic. Power. All in the palm of your hand.” He replied, smiling.

“Sarah,” he took her empty hand and kissed the palm. “I want to taste you.” His mouth moved to one finger and he nipped it with sharp teeth. She gasped at a small jolt of pain, remembering that she had pricked that finger earlier on Twiggy’s tail. His eyes gleamed as he wrapped his lips around the small injury and laved it with his tongue. She made a soft sound at the back of her throat.

“Stay with me,” he said and kissed her. She waited for the rush of desire that had followed after his kiss in the ballroom, but it didn’t come. He smelled wrong. He tasted wrong. This was not her Jareth.

“NO!” she gasped and pushed away. “Who are you?”

“Shh. Sarah, I need you. And you need me. That is all that matters,” he tried to draw her close again. “Come to me.”

“No…no. Let me go,” she twisted in his arms, but his grip was too strong. She was trapped.

“Dear Sarah. You cannot leave. I made you. You are part of me now,” he tightened his hold on her wrists.

She froze as fear washed over her. “What are you talking about?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.

And then she screamed as he disappeared beneath the water and dragged her down by her wrists.  She thrashed and struggled, but her arms were trapped in a liquid vise. She opened her mouth to scream again and the water rushed in, but it was not water. It was heat and power and knowledge, filling her mouth and nose, and she was drowning in it. She could feel it invading her lungs as she reflexively tried to breathe, and like fire it spread from her chest and seemed to rush through her body. Her heart and mind seemed to burn, the pain almost consuming her consciousness, and her struggles were weakening. And then suddenly she was free and the heat and pain seemed to be absorbed into her body and fade away. She desperately clawed for the surface and the riverbank. Pulling herself out of the water she lay coughing and shivering, hugging herself tightly. Her entire body felt hot and electric.

She was exhausted, afraid, and although she fought against it, she could feel darkness closing in. She was acutely aware of how exposed she was, naked and vulnerable on the bare ground. A shadow rose to stand above her. “I’m so pleased it was you, Sarah,” the voice that was not a voice murmured as she slipped away.

Babptized in the waters of the Labyrinth…

She awoke with a start and sat straight up, sputtering and shaking, trying to scramble away from an unseen enemy. She could feel the cold water as it dripped over her face and down her back. It took mere moments to focus her eyes in the dim light, but she realized that she was back in her cupboard, awake, if not safe. Nel stood over her pallet, an empty bucket in one hand, and her long-handled spoon in the other. Aisling thought she saw a flicker of concern on the brownie’s face, before it returned to its usual scowling countenance.

“Nel,” she muttered groggily, “what…”

“Are you ill?” the head cook demanded acerbically.

Aisling blinked up at her, struggling to free herself from the clinging tendrils of her dream. “No..that is..I don’t know.” She sat up further and groaned as her head exploded in splitting pain. She slumped back against the wall. “Maybe.” Her mind felt sluggish, bogged down by so many competing thoughts that she could not sort them out. She shuddered with remembered fear. The dream had left her feeling violated. Her stomach turned and she hunched into herself. What was happening to her?

“Laziness, that’s what it is,” the brownie sniffed. “Given ye too much leeway, I have. And for what? So’s ye can take advantage of my gen’rous nature.” The little woman’s eyes narrowed and she brandished her spoon threateningly. “Well, don’t ye be thinkin’ I’m fallin’ for it. Don’t care how sick ye is, ye’ve chores to do. An’ I don’t care if the King hiself come down lookin’ for ye. You’ll finish ‘em ‘fore ye do anythin’ else. You mark me?”

All through Niela’s tirade Aisling could do little more than nod, flinching as every strident word assaulted her ears, and try to look contrite. “Yes, Nel,” she agreed hoarsely, once she could get a word in edgewise. “I’ll start right away.” She would have agreed to anything at that moment if only to get the cook to leave her in peace. There were thoughts and ideas beating at her mind that needed to be examined.

Niela hmphed quietly and gave a sharp nod. “See that ye do,” she snapped, before stomping out. Or at least, it sounded like stomping to Aisling’s sensitive ears. She cringed as the door slammed home.

Aisling forced herself to breathe deeply as the echoes died down into silence again. She could feel herself trembling, ever so slightly. The dream was clear in her memory and although the pain had faded, the knowledge it had left her with was far from coherent. Whatever it was she had encountered, it had left her with more than just a feeling of helpless vulnerability. It had flooded her with so much information that she couldn’t process it all at once.

She closed her eyes, breathing slowly to try and calm her pounding heart. She had a more immediate concern at the moment than worrying about what greater forces might be meddling with her fate --- namely avoiding Nel’s wrath, which meant getting to work. With a groan she pulled herself to her feet and headed for the kitchen. Maybe chores would help her forget the dream, for a little while at least, until she was ready to deal with it.

Sometime later Aisling found herself cleaning the stone countertops with an air of vague abstraction. The problem was that she was thinking too much. She had been thinking from the moment she awoke, going over the massive amount of information roiling in her head, trying to comprehend an event that was far more than some run of the mill nightmare. She was beginning to wonder if getting her dreams back was worth it all.

She understood much better now, or thought she did, but it was all so much to take in. She simply couldn’t concentrate on the mundane daily tasks that were her duties. She stood at the marble counter and polished the same spot over and over while she sifted through the knowledge that had been bestowed upon her. Like the ultimate stream of consciousness exercise, one thought led to another and then another, setting off a cascade reaction of comprehension. It was like pulling back a curtain and finding a door that opened to a window beyond which was a gate that led to an archway and on and on. It was thrilling and exhausting at the same time.

They weren’t all her dreams, that was one fact. The first fact, anyhow, that struck her as important. Oh, some of them were hers, true, but only a fraction. She remembered back at the start of her lessons, after the dreams had found her in the crystal garden, when Jareth had been speculating that she was a magnet for loose dreams. She hadn’t really thought much of it at the time. After all, she was there for her dreams, wasn’t she, so what was the big deal if she was attracting them. Wasn’t that the point? It hadn’t occurred to her that he could be right, that she was attracting so many more dreams than her own.

Of course, they’d told her that, the dreams, or tried to. In her sleep she’d spoken to them, but she hadn’t listened. Who really listens to their dreams after all? She understood now that she needed to start, because they were aware, some more than others. The oldest ones were the most…conscious and strong willed, having kept themselves more or less together for decades, perhaps centuries. They had wandered the Labyrinth, purposeless as they were, but still watching, listening…remembering. So they could think, or reason, in a very alien way. That was where the apple trees, and other random acts of magic, came from. In their own way the dreams had been trying to please her, give her what she wanted, if only subconsciously, in exchange for her being the vessel through which they could fulfill their purpose. After all, a dream without a dreamer is a sorry thing.

That strange blue cat, the one that had led her to the crystal garden, was one of her own dreams though. It had been alone for so long after she had abandoned it. (Its thought, not hers) How long was anyone’s guess, it having no real concept of the passage of time. But now she was back, and it was so pleased that it had bound itself closer to her mind than the others. She thought she might be able to touch that dream easier, and it in turn could guide her through things she still did not understand.

Like the mirrors. She still didn’t understand the mirrors. “It’s a mirror, nothing more…You’re mind is our mirror…” The dream voices seemed to whisper through her memory. She couldn’t sort it. She knew the mirror was important, somehow, but she didn’t know why or how or… It was too much, too much. The bits of knowledge in her head were fighting for prominence, each trying to push its way to the forefront of her thoughts, and her headache was getting worse.

A spoon cracked against the countertop, and she jumped. Niela stood on the other side of the table, her glower looking particularly fierce despite her small stature. “Get out,” she growled, pointing her spoon toward the courtyard door.

“W-what?” Aisling stuttered, her eyes wide.

“Ye heard me, beastie. Get out o’ me kitchen.” She stomped one booted foot for emphasis. “Useless is what you is today. Takin’ up space and gettin’ in the way, an’ nothin’ gettin’ done to show for it. I don’t know what the matter be, an’ I don’t care. Get out and get it taken care of. I expect you to work when you get back, else you can find somewheres else to laze about from now on.”

“Nel...I…I’m sorry…” Aisling started, backing away from the ferocious brownie and her makeshift weapon.

“Just get!” she shrieked. Aisling went.

 

 


 

Jareth was brooding. It was an activity he had perfected over the centuries. Less charitable minds might have called it sulking, for like a spoilt child he only fell into these moods when things were not going his way. Last night, things had most certainly not gone his way. This was not a state of affairs he was used to, and it made his disposition even more prickly than usual.

He scowled as a knock sounded at the door. Was he to have no peace this day? His sleep had been plagued by strange dreams, visions of the Lady Moon, her amber eyes full of sultry promises, disappearing into crowded ballrooms, around stone corridors, always just one step out of reach. Then he was roused from sleep in the wee morning hours by furious guests who had not been able to leave. His lips twitched in a momentary smile as he recalled one particular Duke’s face flushed beet red in anger.

When he had ordered the Goblin City locked down the night before, he had not only been relying on his incompetent guard troops. He had also directed the pathways to rewind themselves for any who tried to leave the city. As such, many unfortunate guests who had attempted to leave kept ending up right back in front of the castle gates. Aillil had had a few choice words for him on the subject.

He had reluctantly been persuaded to restore the routes out of the Labyrinth. Even he could not risk offending so many nobles at one time, despite the pleasure he might get by doing so. However, the great maze had been sluggish to respond, although the change was a simple one that he made frequently, and it had taken twice as long as usual for the roads to clear, much to his frustration.

And the irritations hadn’t stopped there. Every time he turned around someone else was vying for his attention. A string of Goblins had bombarded him in the halls with any number of requests or bits of information they thought would please him. As he was sitting down to break his fast, Niela had stomped up from the kitchens with some new complaint about the wildling, then bustled away again in a huff when he brusquely told her to deal with it. Roarke had barged in shortly thereafter with a thoroughly irritating grin on his face, looking like the cat who ate the canary. Which appeared to be nothing short of the truth as he proceeded to expound, loudly and excessively, on how much lovelier the Lady Cassandra was than he had remembered, how fascinating her conversation, how ravishing her habits and would Jareth mind if she and her chaperone stayed for an extended visit?

Deciding to forgo breakfast, Jareth had walked out on the still prattling prince and headed for the hopeful privacy of his study. Even this was an adventure in frustration as he was once again stopped by one creature after another with some complaint or problem for him to attend to. Finally, he stopped trying to walk to his destination and instead just flashed himself into the cluttered room.

Now he sat in the quiet, booted feet resting on the top of his desk, and watched the silver charm sparkle in the sunlight from the window as he twirled it between his gloved fingers. He was big enough to admit what the true cause was of his short temper today. The mysterious lady from the night before had stirred his senses and challenged his pride. He was still baffled by the strange woman’s disappearance. It made no sense. If not for the fact that she had been seen by more than a dozen of his guests, he would think she was a figment of his imagination. What else but a hallucination could have vanished so completely, without a trace?

The knock came again, more insistent this time. Jareth growled beneath his breath and palmed the jewel. His booted feet hit the floor with a thump as he turned to face the door.

“Go away!” he snarled. There was silence for a moment before the soft scraping of a key in the lock reached his ears. His face incredulous, he jerked out of his chair and stalked to the door.

He yanked it open just as it began to swing inward and glared down into Izzy’s startled eyes. A delicate blush stained her cheek and she shrugged. The keys he had given to her to allow her access to the study for her duties were in one hand and in the other was a small battered box.

He narrowed his eyes, prepared to flay her right there in the hall when he glanced beyond her and froze. A small crowd of creatures took up most of the hall, and the moment he appeared they all broke out into loud, jumbled shouts for attention. All excepting Izzy, of course, who seemed to shrink into herself at the expression coming over his face.

As the crowd of goblins, pixies, dwarves and others clamored for his attention, Jareth could feel his temper rising to a dangerous level. What the bloody blue blazes was going on this morning? The entire castle was on his case, and all he wanted was a moment of damned peace and quiet so he could think! Only Izzy seemed aware of his precarious mood, clutching her box close and looking around frantically for escape.

Jareth stood stiff and silent in the open door. His eyes slowly dilated until there was nothing but a thin rim of color showing, which seemed to glow like flame, one green, the other gold. He could feel the rising hum of power battering at the back of his mind. His increasing agitation weakened his hold, and the magic quickened, eager to be unleashed. It had been centuries since his control had been so sorely tested, a thought which only served to fuel his anger. The discordant shouts compounded an already emerging headache, and he clenched his jaw as he tried to harness his emotions. His angular features grew sharper, the seething magic seeming to peel away the façade of humanity he wore to reveal something harsh and alien beneath. His skin became almost translucent as his feather-light hair floated about his face in a non-existent wind. When he finally broke his stillness it was with a suddenness that shocked those gathered into silence.

“Enough,” the Goblin King roared, one hand slamming into the door jamb. His voice was so laced with power that it crashed against the walls and rolled away. Beneath his hand the heavy wood cracked, and somewhere in the distance the now silent crowd heard what sounded like a small explosion and a cut off scream.

Several dozen pairs of eyes rose to look at their King and froze, finally realizing the danger they were in. But before he could give in to his temper and do something rash, Jareth drew himself up and flashed away, leaving behind a vibrating sense of barely leashed power. With a collective sigh the crowd glanced at each other before quickly dispersing, suddenly afraid what would happen when His Majesty returned and deciding it wise to be elsewhere.

 

*******************************************************************



Aisling was still disturbed and lost in thought as she wandered through the castle gardens a short while after fleeing the kitchens. She meandered without a destination, keeping to the manicured gardens that branched off from the castle to avoid losing her way. Periodically she would stop, and reach out with that other sense, to feel the bright, fluttering light that was the magic inside of her. It was much easier to touch now, and she would hold it in her mind, trying to figure it out. Where did it come from? What could she do with it? Why did she have it? Why did she even deserve to have it? That last question brought a sinking feeling to her stomach and she sighed.

She knew that the bigger question should be, why wasn’t she more afraid? She had been here, living in the underground, for half a year now, and it had changed her drastically. Most of the time she felt a sense of security, of belonging, but then there were times, like now, that she would remember the life she came from, the reason she was here, and the girl she was. Or was she? Were there deeper changes? Was she becoming a different person? Would it bother her if she was?

She paused beside a hedge and looked back at the castle. It glimmered in the clear autumn air, and she felt a tug at her heart. Her time here was limited, she had known that from the start. Would she remember any of it when she returned home? Would it be like a dream, or would it be a clear, sharp regret for all she would leave behind?

Would he hate her, in the end?

Her stomach sour, she turned at the sound of rustling leaves. The figure of Leila came quickly, furtively, from around a hedge and froze when she saw Aisling. The girl was disheveled and pale. Her fine dress from the night before was crumpled and smudged with grass stains. Her hair was a tangled mess, her face wan with dark circles under her eyes, and Aisling was fairly sure there was a substantial hickey on her neck. Her eyebrows rose in speculation.

Leila quickly regained her composure, her normal sense of superiority over the wildling kitchen drudge reasserting itself. Gathering herself she notched her chin up and smirked at Aisling. “The ball was wonderful. It’s too bad you can’t attend them,” she snickered, “Jareth and I had an amazing time…all night long.” With another brittle laugh the girl swept past her and toward the castle.

Aisling just gaped after her. She was fairly sure now of why Leila looked such a disaster, but whoever she had been doing it with, it hadn’t been Jareth. And Leila desperately wanted her to believe it had been. Aisling knew Leila was feeling neglected. The whole castle was gossiping about his declining interest in her. Aisling would almost feel sorry for her, if she wasn’t such a vicious bitch. Shaking her head she continued on her way. Sneaking around behind the Goblin King’s back...well, she hadn’t pegged Leila as quite that stupid. Apparently she’d been wrong.

She walked on a few minutes more in silence and the feeling of being watched assailed her. She looked up. A pale and statuesque figure, draped in white and grey, had paused in the courtyard arch. When Aisling glanced up, her gaze met Amaranth’s star-spangled one for only an instant before the lady glided out of sight again. A glance was all it took, however. Looking around to be sure no one was watching, she followed.

When she rounded the corner, Amaranth was nowhere in sight, but the garden gate at the end of the wall stood ajar by a hair. Aisling slipped inside, closing the gate firmly behind her. She spotted Amaranth almost immediately, seated beside a small pond, watching brightly bedecked fish in the crystal water. The lovely fae did not look up as she approached.

“Hello Sarah,” she said in a soft, throaty voice. Aisling blinked, thinking how strange that name sounded now. No one had called her by her real name in all the months she had been here, except in her dreams. She felt as if that girl, Sarah, was someone else entirely. Amaranth turned a pale face to study her with fathomless eyes of the night. “You look tired. How goes it?”

“I don’t know. You tell me,” Aisling said, a mutinous look on her face.

Amaranth raised one icy brow. “Whatever do you mean, child?”

“I mean...things are happening to me here, and I’m damn scared. All of it…” she held out one hand, and stared as it shook. She struggled to find the words for what she wanted to say, but could not. Instead she flicked one wrist and an orb of golden light flared to life above her palm. “All of this…It wasn’t part of the bargain,” she finished.

“I see,” and for the first time Aisling could hear the resemblance to her brother in the frosty arrogance of Amaranth’s voice. “You are questioning my word. Have I not fulfilled my part of our agreement? Have you not found your dreams again?” Her voice was soft, but there was no mistaking the cold danger lingering behind her words. Aisling eyed her warily, remembering at last who and what she was dealing with. The light wavered and blinked out.

“No,” she said steadily, “That is, yes I do seem to have my dreams back, but…” She paused, not sure if it was wise to continue.

“But?” Amaranth asked softly, her tone biting.

“I’m collecting other dreams too, not just mine,” she began, blurting it out before she lost her nerve, “and…and they talk to me, send me visions. A stray thought from me and they make a tree grow out of cobblestones. I don’t understand what is happening to me, or why. I thought…I thought you might know.” Her eyes flicked away nervously, and then back again. She softened her tone even more, but there was a note of accusation nonetheless. “You sent me here, with your bargain and your rules, and your secrets…And I want to know why…why I’m here…why you chose to help me…why it must be done this way for me to get my dreams back.”

Amaranth studied her for one long gut-wrenching moment, her face blank, eyes fathomless. When she spoke her voice was icy-smooth and just as chilly. “Are you still such an ungrateful child, Sarah Williams? There was a time you longed to wield the power you have now, was there not?”

“That was a long time ago. I was young, a dreamy, naïve child. Things are a lot more complicated now.” She thought of the rush she got when she felt the power, resisting the urge touch it again, as if it was some sort of security blanket. She thought also of the sense that she was losing herself to something that she couldn’t fight, and didn’t want to. She wrapped her arms tight around herself, and looked away from Amaranth’s too knowing eyes.

“They don’t have to be,” she said lightly. Aisling just shook her shaggy head.

“How can you say that? I may have my dreams back, but...” Her voice hovered at a husky whisper. “What happens when this is all over? What happens when he finds out who I really am? What happens when I go back above?”

“So this comes down to my brother after all.”

“Doesn’t it always?” the girl muttered. She looked out over the garden without really seeing.

“I cannot answer your questions, Sarah,” the fae woman said, a note of regret in her voice.

“Can’t or won’t?” she asked bitterly.

“As you like,” was Amaranth’s cold reply. “The fact remains that we have a deal, and you will honor it.”

“I never said I wouldn’t,” Aisling grumbled, drawing back, knowing the conversation was at an end. “It’s just that, I know I’m being used, and I’d just like to know what for. I don’t want a broken heart in exchange.”

Amaranth shrugged and sighed.  “There are some things that are bigger than our petty woes, Sarah. This journey you are on may be one of them. How you handle the consequences is up to you.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid you’d say,” she whispered, eyes on her hands. There was no response, and when she looked up it was to discover that the garden was empty, but for a shimmer in the air. She was alone again.

 

*********************************************************

 

The Goblin King stalked the crumbled stone-bound paths deep in the heart of the labyrinth, letting his mood burn its way down to a few smoldering embers. He had resumed his previous train of thought, rolling the events of the night before over in his mind, and over again. He paid no attention to the direction he traveled, and it hardly mattered in any case. He wasn’t exactly concerned about becoming lost.

Given his frame of mind, and the intensity with which his thoughts were occupied, the encounter with the Sage should have come as no surprise to Jareth. The Labyrinth was a reactionary construct in many ways, and it was more attuned to the King than any other creature within its walls. So it could happen, when he was not paying attention, and his emotions were riding high, that the great maze would respond to his subconscious wishes, anticipate his desires. At the moment he was looking for answers, so he shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. He was lost in thought and so consumed with an amber-eyed enigma that he was more than a little taken aback when he turned into the dead end courtyard and saw the old man waiting for him.

The ancient figure was ensconced, asleep, on a large stone throne, surrounded by intricately carved stone sculptures of haphazardly piled books. His dirty, tattered robes concealed everything but his hands, which hung limply over the arms of his chair. It was impossible to know exactly what sort of creature the Sage really was. His sunken eyes, and ancient, craggy face so wrinkled they concealed any clues as to what he might be. Most likely he was a goblin, and indeed Jareth had always assumed so, but there was no way to tell.

As the old one’s head sagged in sleep, a duet of snores could be heard, one rough and low from the Sage himself, and the other high and whistling, which emerged from his hat. Perhaps the most interesting of all headpieces in the kingdom, the Wise Man’s hat was in fact the slender neck and head of a bedraggled phoenix. The bird’s eyes cracked open now at the sound of the King’s approach and it shook itself sleepily. The Sage himself was undisturbed.

The bird hat looked up to notice Jareth and began to rock back and forth with excitement. It craned its neck to peck at the old man’s ear. The Sage snorted sat up with a jerk.

“What’s this? A young man?” he rasped, blinking rheumy eyes up at the King’s towering form.

“It’s the king, you senile old goat,” the bird muttered waspishly, glaring down at what little he could see of the Wise Man’s face.

“Be quiet!” the old man snapped, as the bird continued its muttering.“Hmmm, the King, eh? What can I help you with, young majesty?”

Jareth contemplated the ragged goblin before him, musing at the irony that he should encounter the Sage in his own labyrinth. “Greetings, Old One. Have I stumbled upon you for a reason, I wonder? Perhaps you can shed some light.” Jareth leaned back against the wall that had appeared behind him, where the doorway used to be, and cocked his head inquiringly. “Things have been happening in the Labyrinth lately that are quite mysterious, and I find myself at a loss as to what the blazes is going on.” There was still an edge of tension in his voice, the remnants of earlier anger still glowing softly.

The figure coughed, rattled, and groaned before clearing his throat. “You, hmmm…do not wish to know…hmmm…what is happening to the Labyrinth,” the old man intoned, pausing and staring into space for a moment.

Jareth frowned, looking scornfully at the scruffy bird who simply shrugged as best he could, not having any actual shoulders. “Actually, I do,” the King corrected in a soft, dangerous voice.

The old man started as if pinched, “or you would already see,” he finished, frowning at the King for his interruption. He paused again and then continued. “Hmmm, and, the mighty oak cannot stand against the River in flood, but the supple reed will flourish.”

“Oh, yes, as if that makes sense,” said the bird, rolling its eyes..

“Will you please be quiet,” the old man grumped.

“Sorry,” said his hat.

“Now, you were saying, you’re looking for something, eh boy?” The old man squinted up at Jareth.

“I don’t believe I said that, no,” the King replied dryly

“Hmmm. Well, the harder you look, the less...”

“…You will find,” finished the bird. “Clear as mud, eh?” it chirped cheerfully.

Jareth was not amused. “I tire of your riddles old man,” he growled, pushing away from the wall. He could feel his temper building once more.

“Change is the best medicine for fatigue,” the old man said serenely. The Goblin King hissed in irritation and turned to leave.

“I should have known better than to ask,” he rubbed gloved fingers over the tight skin at his temple. “This was a waste of time,” he gritted out through clenched teeth. He heard a soft rattling behind him.

“Please, leave a contribution in the little box,” the bird piped up hopefully. Jareth turned very slowly to face the pair, eyes narrowed.

“A contribution?” he repeated, voice deadly soft.

“Ah, it is expected…that is, traditionally,” the bird stammered, staring at Jareth like a mouse facing a cobra.

“…that I compensate you for not answering my questions?” He began walking back toward the seated pair, “That I pay you for wasting my time with pithy sayings and obtuse wordplay?” His sorcerer’s eyes were dilated fully once again as he towered over them, and his nostrils flared as if scenting their fear. “How, indeed, do you suggest I reward you for your…assistance?”

“Uhhh…” the old man gurgled, becoming aware, for the moment, of the tension around him.

The Goblin King gave a predatory smile. “My gift to you then. I leave you to your garden, alive and unscathed.” he prompted softly.

“That, uh, that sounds very generous, Your Majesty,” the bird said with a shaky gulp. Both heads nodded vigorously.

“Yes, I thought so,” he agreed. He stepped back. With a flourish of his cloak he disappeared. A moment later a large white owl soared away over the Labyrinth with an angry screech.

“Well, well then,” the bird muttered peevishly into the silence, “what got his petticoats in a knot?”

The Sage grunted and stared after the departing King as if contemplating the meaning of the universe.  Finally he spoke. “ The fates lead him who will; him who won’t they drag.”

The bird looked down at his companion, eyes wide in shock. “That bad off is he? Well…well then. Poor bastard.”

“I think I could do with a little nap now,” the old goblin sighed.

“That’s the wisest thing I’ve heard you say all day,” the bird grumbled in agreement.

“At least you listen to me,” the Wise Man mused, “They never listen to me.”

“It’s not as if I have a choice,” replied his hat.

The old man heaved a long suffering sigh. “Oh, do shut up,” he said, before settling down into his throne with a snore.

Chapter Text

 

It was peaceful in the Crystal Garden, and for once Aisling was alone, in a manner of speaking. A small blue kitten was perched contentedly on her lap, purring at each stroke of her wondering fingers. In turn, each glide of her hand sent a warm tingle of energy sparking across her skin. It was an extremely soothing activity, and had helped, a little, to calm the riot of her mind.

The creature gazed up at her through slit eyes and seemed to smile. She smiled back, marveling once again at its existence. An hour ago it had been no more than a fragment of an idea. She had been pondering her dream of the night before when the memory of the blue cat tiptoed across her mind on silent paws, and this time she reached out to touch it with her waking thoughts. To her delight it responded.

She hadn’t expended much more effort than a thought, and a small exhalation of will, to manifest the dream onto the bench beside her. She did not know why she did it, or why she thought it would work, except that it seemed the thing to do at the time. It was not a comfortable process. It felt rather like a band-aid being slowly peeled away from tender skin, only from the inside. However, as soon as the animal appeared, with a small pop, the sensation eased. A child-like sense of wonder infused her as the little dream looked up at her with a Cheshire grin and mewed.

In the time since, they sat in the quiet of the garden, wedged into a hollow made by the roots of a crystal willow. Periodically she would create a fairy light, and the kitten would oblige her by batting at it with one paw. When he made contact, the magical light would flare up brightly, wavering, before easing back down to a steady golden glow. Aisling laughed delightedly each time.

She had laid her head back against the trunk of the tree behind her, sunk into a pleasant lassitude, enjoying the beautiful afternoon weather, when the light suddenly dimmed around her, as a cloud passing across the sun. A breeze began to blow. She and her dream both sat up, looking to the blue sky curiously. It was empty of clouds.

The breeze became gusts, growing stronger moment by moment until the trees were whipping back and forth violently and the garden swing spun madly. She had never thought the delicate tinkling of wind through the trees could become a sound so sinister.Spooked, Aisling backed closer against the tree trunk, away from the crystalline branches as they sliced the air above her. The cat clung to her shoulders, wide eyed, as shadows gathered. Darkness descended on the garden despite the clear sky above. Aisling thought she could hear a hissing, angry voice carried on the wind.

Suddenly there was a searing burst of light in the center of the garden and an ear-splitting crack. Aisling ducked, but she wasn’t quite quick enough to avoid being blinded by the flash. As her eyes tried to readjust she could see the dark outline of a tall figure standing where the lightning had hit, muttering to itself. The figure uttered something she couldn’t understand and threw out his arm. On the other side of the garden a burst of blue-white fire hit the sandstone wall in a small explosion. When it cleared she could just make out a large portion of the wall half melted into glass slag, and she shuddered.

The figure threw another flame, another, and another, all the while spitting out words in a language that sounded a great deal like Goblin, guttural and sharp. Her eyes were clearing their light blindness when the figure, person, man, slumped, one hand clenched, and the other running through his hair. Aisling blinked, and her jaw dropped as she recognized the Goblin King.

To say she was shocked did not cover it. She was awed, confused, and terrified, at the sight before her. His power seemed to possess him, and altered his familiar features into something of such harsh and terrible beauty that she wanted to weep. His eyes blazed with green and gold fire, and his hair floated in the unnatural wind around a thin, ascetic face, revealing glimpses of long, pointed ears. If ever she had any doubt as to the Otherness of the Fae, it was gone now. It was as if he were pure energy, crackling with power, and anger. “Jareth,” she whispered, but not softly enough.

Quicker than a thought he whirled to face her voice, hand outstretched. His eyes burned with power blindness that did not recognize her. By the time he realized who was standing before him it was too late. The deadly flame was blazing straight for her. She had no time to do more than shout “Jareth, wait…” and then scream, crossing her arms in front of her face in a useless gesture of defense.

Or not so useless as it turned out. Just before reaching her the fireball hit something and sizzled, like grease in a pan. The blue flames flickered and bled around her, slipping off to either side, as if she were a stone in the middle of a raging river, and then suddenly went out. A crystal fell to the ground at her feet with a thunk.

It took her fully a minute to realize she wasn’t dead or writhing in pain. The blue cat was mewling at her feet, rubbing against her shins reassuringly. Slowly she lowered her arms and looked up. Jareth stood frozen, a shocked expression on his face. The mantle of power was dimming, almost gone, and he looked practically normal, relatively speaking. The stunned look lasted but a moment before a wall slammed down behind his eyes and his usual sardonic smirk appeared.

“Well, well now,” he mused, “that was interesting.” He walked a circle around her, head cocked to the side thoughtfully.

“Interesting?” she croaked. “I don’t think that’s the word I’d use.” She licked her lips, trying to restart saliva in a mouth gone dry with fear. She was trembling with a combination of adrenaline and burgeoning anger. “You just tried to kill me!”

“And yet you still live, little dream,” he said with a dismissive shrug, his lazy circuit bringing him back around to stand before her.

She gaped at him. “I..what..that’s not the point. You tried to kill me!” She could feel the adrenaline wearing off. It was either collapse in a boneless heap or take refuge in fury. Of the two, fury seemed the better idea.

“I did not try to kill you,” he scoffed, “ I did not even realize it was you. Besides, as you defended yourself, quite successfully, I fail to see the problem.” He scowled down at his shirt sleeve where an errant spark had dared to char a small black hole in the pristine white silk. He flicked at the spot testily and it mended itself.

“The problem,” she gritted out, “is that you lobbed a lethal ball of faerie fire at me…”

“Lob…what a vulgar word. Where ever did you pick it up?” he muttered as she continued speaking. He hardly seemed to be paying attention as he checked the rest of his outfit for burns.

She continued as if he had not spoken. “The fact that you missed doesn’t justify committing the act in the first place.”

“I did not miss,” he said, in an affronted tone of voice. “I always hit what I aim at. If you had not deflected it…” he seemed to realize what he was saying and closed his mouth with a snap.

“So you were trying to kill me.”

He scowled, and Aisling could see he was getting irritated again. She wondered why she wasn’t more cautious of that, after what she’d just seen. “My intent was not to kill anyone. I simply wished to be left alone.”

“As a smoking crater in the ground I doubt your intentions would have mattered much to me, Your Majesty.”

“What ridiculous nonsense. You aren’t a…smoking crater,” he waved one hand dismissively. “If you hadn’t been invading my privacy it would not have happened.”

“Invading your…I was here first!” she snapped, her voice rising to a shriek.

“And it is my private garden!” he shot back, nearing a shout.

“In which I thought I was allowed!” Any vestige of fear she might have felt was washed away in an exhilarating flood of anger.

“Not when I want to be left alone. Perhaps you should learn the difference!” He roared. He was towering over her now, his eyes sparking as he glared down at her.

“Well perhaps you should learn to control your temper!” By now her face was but a breath from his, and she panted as if she had just finished a race. His eyes mesmerized her, and she felt as though she was falling into sparkling clouds of gold and green. She paused, feeling off balance. She stepped back, trying to shake it off as he started to speak again.

“Well you…” he stopped abruptly, one gloved hand raised mid-point. He looked down, puzzled, and Aisling’s eyes followed.

The small blue cat was rubbing against the Goblin King’s ankles, weaving figure eights around his feet, a look of pleased self-absorption on its face. Aisling was mortified, a tingling that started at the bottom of her feet and began creeping up her legs. She was ever so glad her dark skin didn’t show a blush. She glanced back up at Jareth from beneath her lashes, but his attention was held by the creature at his feet. Time froze for long moments as he watched the cat, and Aisling watched him.

“What is that?” he finally asked, voice puzzled. “Is that a cat?”

“Um…well…actually…I think it’s a dream.” She blurted out, discovering a sudden interest in her hands.

“A dream,” he said, arching one brow as he glanced up at her.

“Well, my dream, I think. That is, one of my dreams…maybe.” Her voice was husky soft, and she took a step back, suddenly realizing how very close she was standing to him.

“One of your dreams…” he mused, examining it with what seemed a critical eye. She wondered what he was thinking.

“I think so,” she said, practically whispering now. She was a little nonplussed at his sudden change in demeanor, and she wondered what had happened to all that courage boosting anger she had been experiencing only moments before. She gnawed her lip nervously.

You manifested a dream. From your own self, your own magic?” He paused delicately, “On purpose?” He looked her straight in the eye at this, piercing her with his curious gaze.

“I suppose…I mean, I guess,” she took a deep breath, “Yes.” He peered into her, as if looking for some better answer, before looking back down at the small cat. It looked back up at him and mewed in that heart-melting way that kittens and strays have.

He chuckled and reached one hand down, but paused to look up at her before touching it. “May I?”

Aisling shrugged her agreement, and wished she hadn’t when she experienced a strange feeling of pressure on her midriff as he scooped the cat up. Of course, that was nothing compared to the sensation as he began to stroke the kitten’s soft fur. The feel of his hands seemed to translate across the distance, from the cat to her. It was a fuzzy sensitivity, as if there were three layers of cotton between his hand and her skin. Except it wasn’t her skin. It was as if he was stroking her mind, and it, in turn, interpreted the impulses the best it could, as muffled, skin-tightening caresses. It was enough to send shivers down her spine, and other places, and she bit her lip to keep from making any sort of embarrassing sounds.

“Oh you are clever, my girl. Cleverer and cleverer every day, it seems. I knew you could do it,” he sounded satisfied, but the smile on his face was not a pleasant one.

The cat, traitorous little hedonist that it was, sat comfortably in the crook of his arm and purred. Aisling thought she might melt into a puddle right there. And then the King took off one glove. With one bare hand he ever so gently touched the fur, and scratched behind the kitten’s ears.

For half a moment Aisling lost all perspective as the sensations overwhelmed her. Her memories flew back to the ballroom again, trapped against the wall as he plundered her mouth. A small whimper left her lips. If his hands felt this good now, without even touching her, how would she ever find the strength to walk away the next time they danced? The thought was like a shot of ice in her blood, and she took a deep, gasping breath as she came back to herself. What was wrong with her? She had to get a grip on herself.

The Goblin King looked at her sharply. “Are you well?” She was silent for many more moments as she pulled her thoughts back together.

“Give it back..please, your majesty,” she croaked, reaching out for her dream. With one eyebrow raised he acquiesced, holding the purring bundle out to her. When she touched it, her hand brushed up against his bare fingers, and a current of energy jumped between them with a shock. She clutched her hands reflexively and stepped back. Jareth hissed, opening and closing his hand a few times, and looking at her strangely. The cat only blinked.

She tried to remember what they had been talking about. Oh yes. “What…what did you think I could do?”

He was silent for long moments, just looking at her. When he spoke it was not to answer her question. “Can you reabsorb it?” he asked, nodding to the creature still cradled in his arms.

“I…I think so.” She mumbled. He held the creature out and it jumped lightly from him to her.

The cat did not leap into her arms so much as beyond them, disappearing into her chest. She didn’t even have to think about it. She sighed at the feeling of the dream returning to her, back where it belonged, and ran her hands over her fur curiously. Jareth was watching her with calculating eyes.

“It seems to have worked,” she muttered. His silence was so pronounced she couldn’t stop from looking up.

“You have been holding out on me…again,” he said softly, carefully. “You did not say you could do such things. Manipulating the magic on such a complex level…” His eyes were hard and narrow, his mouth twisted in a mockery of a smile.

Her instinctual reaction was to respond with sarcasm, but she stopped. A thought had occurred to her. He was so touchy. It was almost as if he were itching for a fight.

“Your Pardon, Jareth,” she said slowly, choosing her words carefully. “I only just discovered this ability myself.” She paused to watch him a moment, gauge his reaction. “And even so, I have had little opportunity to speak with you in the last days…”

He interrupted her. “I care not for your excuses, wildling. I would have thought I made myself clear the other night that you are not to keep things from me. I will not tolerate deception or disobedience, not from you, not from anyone. Do I make myself clear?”

She blinked up at him, her mouth open in shock, but did not speak. “Well?” he asked. “Do you understand me, wildling? Have you nothing to say? Or should I simply get on with punishing you for your disobedience?”

Her own eyes flashed and narrowed. She took a breath to speak, seemed to think better of it and then tried again. “Jareth,” she began, struggling to keep her voice level. She glanced at his stormy expression. “My Liege,” she corrected carefully. “What the bloody hell is wrong with you today?” Although her voice was steady, she did not try to keep the accusing tone out.

He seemed startled by her question. “I don’t know what you mean,” he replied stiffly.

“Sure you do,” Aisling scolded, “You’re like an ogre with a sore paw. Something’s nettling you and you can’t get rid of it, so you’re taking it out on me. And not just me, I’d wager.” She glanced at the half-melted garden wall.

He had the grace to look, if not chagrined, then at least thoughtful. But the moment passed and he was back to scowling within seconds.

“So,” she continued, “instead of picking a fight with me, why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“Do not think you can avoid my wrath by distracting me, beast,” he snarled. “I have tolerated a great deal from you…”

“Tolerated?!? You…!” she took a deep breath, “From where I stand, Jareth, I am not the one doing the avoiding.”

“You dare…”

“Yes, Jareth, yes, I dare,” she shot back. “Somebody has to. Just, tell me what has you so upset. What’s the worst that could happen?”  She was taking a terrible risk, and she knew it. If she was wrong, if all she was to him was another subject, an object of curiosity, then at best he would laugh in her face. At worst, well, he might do something unpleasant to her.

Aisling’s words reached him as if from far away, but he listened. Jareth felt something sapping the strength from his anger. On closer inspection, he thought it might be guilt, or perhaps regret, emotions he rarely had occasion to bother with. He tried to hold on to the flame of irritation, but it was slipping away.

He managed to keep the cold expression on his face, but just barely. A habit no doubt cultivated from centuries of disguising any sign of weakness. He realized that he wanted to talk to Aisling. How strange that he had not noticed this connection between them before. How odd that it would be her he wanted to trust. The realization left him momentarily speechless.

He supposed it made sense that he should desire a confidant. He was accustomed to keeping his own counsel. He had been doing it for centuries. But it was a lonely business, confiding in no one. Perhaps the strain after all this time was more trying than he had previously imagined.

But why Aisling? Why this common, ugly creature, a relative stranger to his realm and an enigma he dearly wanted to solve? He watched her in silence, trying to figure it out. She challenged him at every turn, confounded him. She defied explanation, understanding or control. Her very existence was a contradiction of all he knew of magic. Yet even though he terrified her at times, and he did terrify her, he could tell, she never cowered for long. She matched him, word for word, breath for breath, and challenge for challenge.

He supposed it might be that she seemed to have no hidden agenda. She displayed no desire for power or material wealth, just a constant, avid curiosity and zest for life that was never sated. Above all, she did not treat him like the Goblin King, bowing, scraping, and cowering, or trying to manipulate him to her own ends. She treated him like just another person, and perhaps it was that which had him so off balance. She seemed to have no concept of what a rare creature she was in his world.

Jareth covered his discomfort by focusing on putting his glove back on, pulling it up with small, precise tugs. He didn't speak right away, but folded his hands behind his back and contemplated the melted wall of his garden. Aisling kept her peace as well, and he found himself wondering what she was thinking.

“Give us your hand if we be friends, and Robin will restore amends...” he mused to himself, a slight smile upturning one corner of his lips.

Aisling did not respond. He turned to study her again. She watched him, head cocked to the side, brow puckered between her deeply expressive eyes.

He did not respond to the question in her gaze. “So, you would play Puck to my Oberon, little dream?” Silence, and her face was carefully blank. No doubt she had no idea what he was talking about. The Bard was not precisely a common topic in their lessons together.

“A dangerous proposition, playing the king's secret keeper. I'm not sure you have the temperament for it, let alone the qualifications, a wild creature like you.”

He whirled and stalked swiftly toward her. He leaned over her, and his warlock eyes locked with her amber ones, only inches away. His mouth widened into a wicked smile, sharp teeth gleaming. He was inordinately pleased that she did not back away. “The things I could tell you little dream,” he mused, and reached one hand up to grasp a lock of her hair. “And when you tire of playing at being part of my Labyrinth, what then am I to do? Let you wander away, head full of ideas and tales?” He gave a short laugh. “No, for your own good I will keep my own counsel, little one.”

A mutinous expression crept over her face as he spoke. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared up at him with narrowed eyes. She made to speak, but seemed to think better of it. He could almost hear the demand in her look, as if she were saying out loud, <i>“I think you should tell me.”</i>

“I think I will not,” he replied to the unvoiced urging.

She did not argue or protest. She did not say a word, but simply stared at him, chin thrust out stubbornly. Her wide, liquid eyes were full of something that might have been expectation, disappointment, or pity, he could hardly tell. He scowled down at her, disliking the feeling of being judged and, perhaps, found wanting.

“I will not,” he repeated, although it came out sounding mildly petulant. And still she did not speak.

Jareth's scowl deepened. He wasn’t sure what reaction he had expected, but it wasn’t this patient silence. The guilt came rushing back, doing little to improve his mood. He whipped around with a hiss and stalked away, and then back again. He stood over her with the most arrogant, intimidating look he could, and still she was mute.

“What makes you think you would be of any help?” he shot at her, exasperated. “You’re nothing. Nothing but an idea. Perhaps more concrete than most but ultimately just someone’s dream made real.  It would be less than useless, a complete waste of time, to explain it all. You could do nothing.” He was pacing now, and he knew he should stop, should concentrate on finding that still place inside that allowed him to remain aloof, but his frustration was keen.

“It’s ridiculous, besides,” he muttered to himself, “What good will talking do? She’s just another female, just another pretty face.” He paused, head cocked in thought and shrugged, “Although I must admit I am only assuming on that part. She was wearing a mask, after all.” He whirled to face Aisling, “And now she has simply vanished? Who the bloody hell is she? And how, by all the Spirits, did she evade me so easily? I am consumed with curiosity.”

Aisling just blinked. Her brows had climbed up in a sort of astonished arch. He pointed one elegant finger in her face, “It is not amusing,” he bit out. Her burgeoning smile disappeared behind one gnarled hand and Aisling nodded vigorously, but he could still see a sparkle of mischief in her eyes.

He scoffed, and paced away again. “And then the body. What help will you be there? Something is happening in my Labyrinth, a shift, so subtle, yet damaging. The damned nightmares are leaking out again, and I cannot fathom why. I cannot waste the time explaining all of it, for what good would it do me? The Labyrinth, the barriers, the Wild Hunt. It would take longer to explain it all to you than to simply figure it out for myself and fix it.”  

Aisling still was not responding as he stalked back and forth. The silence stretched on. He growled beneath his breath, wondering when it was exactly that his life had started becoming so unpredictable and frustrating. He practically threw himself into the garden swing. He propped his chin on one fist and gazed off into the distance.  “On your head be it, then,” he muttered “But I’ll not be to blame if you come to regret it.”

He looked up and met Aisling’s eyes. She simply smiled softly and nodded. Then she bent over and scooped up the crystal at her feet and walked over to him. She held out one hand to him with her offering. He studied her face. There was no trace of triumph in her eyes, nor satisfaction, just a shy, pleased smile. “Maybe I can’t help,” she said softly, “But I’d like to try.”

He shook his head in bemusement. She was constantly confounding his expectations. “You are a puzzle, little one,” he murmured.

“That’s good,” she said, her expression serious. “I think that you like puzzles, Your Majesty.”

A brief smile ghosted across his lips. “That I do, dreamling, that I do.”

Before he could speak further he felt a faint vibration on the air. Of all the times, he groaned inwardly. The summons was faint, but distinctive. Someone had wished away a child and it was time to give them their choice. He glanced over at Aisling who was staring down at the ground, brows puckered in a frown, lips pursed. She looked up at him.

“What was that?” she asked. He arched one brow.

“What was what?” he asked, pleased to note his voice was back to its usual indifferent purr.

She frowned harder, looking around the garden and into the sky. “That…sound. Like a bell ringing, only not.”

He raised one brow. “Another mystery,” he murmured.

“You don’t know?” she asked.

“I do. It is a summons, from one who has wished away a child. The mystery lies in how you heard it.” He stood and carefully inspected his clothes, neatening and adjusting. With a flourish of his wrist a dark cloak wrapped around his shoulders. The very fabric seemed to draw in the light around him, making the faint glitter of his skin that much more prominent. “Questions will have to wait, however. I have a runner to attend to.”

“Wait,” she said as he turned away. She held out her hand. “You forgot this.”

A sly grin spread over his face. He did not look down at her hand. “And what should I do with that?” he asked softly. “It is no magic of mine.” She blinked at him and looked down. He was pleased to see her fluster as her eyes lit on the once clear crystal, now shimmering silver. Before their eyes images began to speed across the reflective surface. She squeaked in shock and dropped the silvered globe. It fell straight to the ground at her feet and winked at her as the sun hit its surface. The images stopped.

“What…what is it?” she whispered.

“I haven’t a clue,” he replied, chuckling, pleased to see her so confounded. Let her feel off balance for once. He waved his hand and a doorway appeared behind him, swirling with the energy of the veil between worlds. “But you are ever the clever little creature. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. We will speak of it when I return, my Aisling.” With that he stepped through to the Aboveground.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

Aisling sat on her straw tick mattress and contemplated the mirror above her dresser. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a tarnished thing she had found in an empty room. The surface reflected back nothing but the wall, like any ordinary mirror should. No swirling silver mist roiled within it, no images from her dreams danced across it, as they had across the silver globe in the crystal garden. The ball sat beside her on the bed now, inert and dull. Try as she might, she had not been able to get the thing to show those images again, but it had sparked an idea.  Your mind is our mirror, her dreams had once told her.

She took a deep breath. “Show me Jareth,” she said, but it came out at barely a squeak. Nothing happened. She tried again, this time with more authority in her voice. “Show me the Goblin King.” The mirror remained as innocuous as it had always been. She was sure she had figured it out, but it wasn’t working. She tried again, and again, changing the words, waving her hands, even closing her eyes first, but the glass stayed distressingly blank. She bit her lip, thinking back to what might have been different in the garden. She hadn’t said a word to trigger the images. She looked down at the globe at her side. They had just appeared when she picked up the globe and looked into it. Why couldn’t she duplicate it with the mirror. Did it have to be a globe? Or perhaps…

Tentatively she reached out with one hand and touched the cool glass with her fingertips. There it was, a frission of awareness like a hum in the back of her mind. It was the same feeling she’d had earlier in the garden. Suddenly the mirror blazed to life, like a movie screen and the projector had just been turned on. The images flashed across the surface too fast for her to comprehend. Her breathing sped up as she tried to catch something, anything, from the riot of pictures, until her eyes could take no more. “Stop,” she gasped, her eyes squeezed shut. She forced herself to breathe slowly before opening her eyes again. The flood of images had paused, just as if it had heard her command, and she dropped her hand in shock. The mirror immediately reverted to a simple reflective surface, although her fingertips tingled. Well then, it looked like she might have been right after all. She licked her lips and reached out her hand once more. Now that she knew it worked, she needed to see what she could do.

“Show me the Goblin King,” The mirror began to cycle through image after image. Some she recognized from their encounters in the garden and elsewhere. There was even one from her original run through the labyrinth years before, and another showing Jareth dandling baby Toby on his knee. “Wait, stop,” she said, panting, the images a tumbled confusion in her mind. The mirror paused on an image of the King standing at his study window. “Show me him now. Show me the Goblin King right now, in the present.” The mirror flickered and went dark.

She frowned in irritation. Perhaps he was still aboveground and couldn’t be found. She thought about it. Or perhaps there was a certain limitation to the mirror’s power. She decided to try a different tack. “Show me what is going on in the kitchen,” an image of the cavernous castle kitchen began to form, “at this moment.” The mirror sparked and went blank again. Well, that answered that question. It seemed that the mirror was limited to showing her only things that one of her dreams had already seen. No up to the minute live broadcast’s for her. There must be some use for such a power, if she could only figure out what.

A sudden thought occurred to her. She knew what she wanted to see, what had been haunting almost every dream she’d had since her arrival. “Show me Izzy,” she said breathlessly. The mirror flickered to life and a barrage of images flashed over it. “No, wait…show me Izzy, um, with the Goblin King…on the hill outside the Labyrinth.” The mirror flickered in the way that Aisling had begun to associate with it thinking about her request.

The mirror flared brightly, and she had the distinct impression that it was pleased she had asked. An image formed within the dark glass.

A barren red hill rose outside the maze, with a single stunted tree. A nimbus of golden-red light, a herald of the dawn, surrounded the hill and the two figures atop it, leaving them shadowed.

”What’s said is said.”

The voice was a far away buzz, fuzzy and difficult to make out. She tried to get closer, but she was not in control of her own actions. She was drifting in the wind.

The image drew in closer and the scene began to resolve itself out of misty darkness. The red sun rising in the east shimmered on the horizon as light bled over the land. She wondered why the light did not hurt her eyes.

Beneath the stunted tree were two figures. She recognized the Goblin King, having seen him thus before in her dream. He was the ancient warrior, harsher, harder somehow. His face, although still handsome, was blunter, wider, with a strong jaw and square forehead. And his figure was different, shorter and more muscular. His eyes were the same, though, powerful, cold, and brilliant.

He wore simple clothes, an embroidered white tunic beneath tooled leather armor and grey trews. An elaborate brooch, reminiscent of his horned amulet, clasped a dark blue cloak at one shoulder. A heavy silver torq circled his neck. Even his hair was different, thick and free flowing, with braids scattered here and there. He stood like a man used to many battles, there on the hill above the Labyrinth, feet spread, gloved hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

At his booted feet a woman knelt dressed in a dark torn kirtle. Izzy’s voice came soft on the air. “He is my brother. I am all he has, O’ King of the Daoine Sidhe, Lord of the World Beneath. I cannot abandon him. ”

“And the price to be paid?” His voice throbbed with power and menace. It was definitely his voice, but less refined. Aisling shivered at the feel of that voice over her nerve endings..

Izzy turned her face away from the King, so that Aisling had a clear view of her weary face. Her dark hair was limp and tangled and her pale skin was smudged with dirt and something darker that looked like blood. There were tracks down her cheeks from tears . “I will pay it,” her voice came, low and husky, but firm.

“Foolish child,” Jareth said softly, “you’ve no ken of what you risk. Tis nothing against you if you leave him to my care. ” He reached one gloved hand down and cupped her chin, forcing her to look into his eye. “Turn back, before it is too late.”

“I can’t,” she said in a choked, hushed voice. “I must see him safe.”

“Look what I’m offering you, child.” He turned his other hand over and presented her with a glittering crystal. “Your dreams. Dreams fit for a Princess of Erin. Don’t you want them?” He moved the offering back and forth before her, and her eyes followed it with a desperate longing, her lips parted faintly. “You have but to forget him, and they are yours.”

The crystal stopped and she stared at it for long moments. She squeezed her eyes tight and reached out with her hand and struck the crystal away. The triumphant smile that had been on the Goblin King’s face suddenly transformed into a snarl. He raised is fist as if to strike, and she dared him to do it with defiant eyes. “I will not leave him. I will see your bargain fulfilled.”

“Very well, you foolish, ungrateful girl,” he spat. “Let it be so. Isolde, daughter of Aiden, Son of Nuada, you shall remain to watch over the son of your father and see my bargain with him abided by in full measure. You shall be as the rain; seen, but never known; felt but never touched. Your voice shall be as the wind dying, for none shall hear it. You shall exist as nothing but a shadow of a memory of a dream. Forever shall you be chained to his fate, unable to tell, until your brother knows you as his sister. Only once this is revealed will you regain your voice, and your life.” He lifted her with hands on each arm and stared into her face. “Will you pay this price?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

His mouth swooped down to capture her lips. She did not struggle at first. Then she clawed at his chest and fell to the ground, clutching her throat in agony. Her eyes were filled with horror as she tried to scream but no sound emerged. “On your head be it,” he rasped. He raised both arms and they disappeared.</i>


Aisling was breathing hard as the intense scene ended, and she snatched her hand away from the mirror. The blank glass reflected nothing but her own horror filled face. She could feel hot tears tracing down her cheeks and her chest ached with fiery pain for Izzy’s plight. She remembered the look of wounded pride in the Goblin King’s face as he pronounced his cruel curse and she shuddered. She knew now what she needed to do.

Chapter Text

“I have decided to attend the Yule Ball,” the Goblin King intoned.

He pronounced it as if he were speaking to an entire gathered court of nobles, although there were, in fact, only two others present in the small study. Izzy sat at the small oak table, much marred by age and wear, transcribing from loose papers into a bound leather notebook. She paused momentarily to look up at the King’s pronouncement, her quill hovering just over the stained ink well.

Jareth was perched in the study window, his favorite place for reflection. Beyond him the Labyrinth glittered in the late morning sun, parts of it almost too bright to look at directly as the light reflected off the snow. Aisling sat on the floor, staring at her empty hand. Her face was twisted with intense concentration. She had been trying to manifest a bird, with no success, and didn’t so much mind the King’s interruption as welcome it. She blinked up at him, one brow arched, but didn’t speak. The crackling of the fire was the only sound in the small room. She had discovered that patient silence was often the most effective method for dealing with Jareth. It had been proven time and again in the weeks since their little confrontation in the garden.

Aisling’s life had fallen back into a comfortable routine since the aftermath of the masque; a daily rhythm of kitchen work and lessons. She might have been content, even happy, in her new existence, except for the knowledge that it wouldn’t last forever. She tried to savor every moment, knowing that it would end once she fulfilled her bargain with Amaranth and she might have nothing left to show but her memories.

A month earlier, Winter had swept over the labyrinth in a fury of wind and magic. The storm had lasted for three days, depositing not only snow, but copious amounts of glitterdust, as the temperature steadily plummeted. Aisling spent hours each day sweeping out the stubborn stuff where it lingered in various corners of the castle kitchens, as well as digging paths through the snow to the woodpile in the courtyard. Throughout the castle, little used fireplaces were dusted out and lit, and servants aired out hefty feather quilts for the beds. Nel’s kitchen began supplying a constant stream of hot, hearty porridges and stews, as well as hot cocoa.

The morning after the blizzard finally subsided, the whole of the Goblin Kingdom was transformed. To Aisling’s wondering eyes it looked like a frosted confection, sparkling beneath the Underground sun. The air was crisp and refreshing, despite the cold. The snow was half a foot at its shallowest, with drifts reaching halfway up the Labyrinth walls in most places. Mobs of children ran throughout the Goblin City, laughing and shouting in pure joy, demonstrating how well suited the white stuff was for packing snowballs. They even ventured in as far as the kitchen courtyard, until Nel finally chased them off. Not before giving them all a taste of hot chocolate first, of course. Aisling had a feeling it was probably a tradition.

By virtue of necessity, due to the weather, Aisling’s magic lessons were moved into the castle. The room varied depending on how much potential damage Jareth judged the lesson was likely to cause. Today he had chosen the study.

“I have decided to attend the Yule Ball,” Jareth repeated, when no response was immediately forthcoming from his audience.

He sat on the window ledge, leaning back against the frame with one knee drawn up in front of him, and looked down his nose at his furry quasi-apprentice. His brows dipped down as the silence lengthened. “Well?”

“Well, what, Your Majesty?” Aisling asked politely.

“Have you nothing to say?” he asked impatiently.

She seemed to think about it for a moment. “Me? Why, no, I don’t believe so. Are you asking me?” she said with deliberate care.

“Who else would I be asking?” he asked dangerously. Izzy was frozen in her seat, not even daring to breathe.

“Well, that is the question, I suppose. Who would you be asking?” she frowned as if thinking over a puzzle. “I do apologize, Majesty. Since you already know my thoughts on the matter, I did not think you actually wanted an answer from me. As I mentioned yesterday, and the week before, it only seems right that you should go.” She paused delicately. “Of course, I should have known you were addressing me, I suppose, since Izzy cannot speak to offer her opinion.” As you well know, she finished silently, tamping down a flicker of anger at the thought. Jareth stared at her in open mouthed astonishment for a heartbeat before glancing over at Izzy. His jaw shut with a snap.

For her part, the poor girl was studiously focused on copying the notes beside her, doing an admirable impression of being deaf as well as mute. The small, amused smile she was struggling so hard to suppress probably put a lie to her act, however. It was Izzy's opinion, if one wished to consider it, that the creature Aisling was quite mad the way she baited the Goblin King. She didn't know why he kept her around, but was glad he did. The wildling was in his company with greater frequency of late, and everyone remarked on how much more tolerable he had become. She supposed it was best to just enjoy this mellower Goblin King. And she liked Aisling. Izzy just hoped her friend's mouth didn't get her into more trouble than she could handle.

Aisling lowered her arm and curled her hand a few times to ease the stiffness brought on by holding it in one position for so long. She wondered if perhaps Jareth had forgotten the other woman was there. It would serve him right. After all, it was he who had ensured that Izzy was so very easy to overlook. Aisling reminded herself that what he had done to Izzy had been a very, very long time ago, and he might have even had good reason for it. Her anger, for the moment defeated, slunk away.

A wry smile curled the corners of Jareth's lips when he glanced back at her. “Quite the prettily put ‘I told you so.’ I can see my ego is safe in your capable hands, little dream.” There was genuine amusement beneath the dry sarcasm in his voice.

Aisling merely grinned back at him, inclining her head in acknowledgement. “What made you change your mind? About King Aillil’s invitation, that is,” she asked.

He shrugged. “Am I not allowed to do so?” he responded lightly. Aisling simply sighed at this familiar tactic, but deep down she had an inkling as to why, and it wasn’t due to a sudden fondness for socializing.

The Mountain King’s Yule Ball was apparently a highly anticipated event outside the Labyrinth. At least, that was the impression she received from overhearing the kitchen staff gossiping. Jareth usually declined to attend. This year, however, it was to be an event even more spectacular than usual since it would be embellished by the addition of a slightly rushed royal wedding. For reasons of her own, Aisling had encouraged him to go.

“After all, you did facilitate the two of them getting together,” she had argued when the invitation first arrived. “Not to mention the fact that it is sort of your fault that it must happen so quickly.”

“I am not a babysitter,” he muttered defensively, frowning. She shook her head.

“You gave them adjoining bedrooms, Jareth,” she commented dryly.

His pointed teeth gleamed briefly in a quick grin. “It is no fault of mine if they chose to give in to temptation,” he purred. He sounded nothing but pleased with himself, as he turned away. Aisling recognized a dismissal when she heard one. He would not be swayed that day. She resolved to try a different tack, which opportunity presented itself to her several days later.

“Do you think your mystery lady will be at the ball?” she had asked casually. True to his word, Jareth had begun to confide certain matters to her, and The Lady Moon had been one of many topics of conversation between them. She knew the ease with which she vanished was a sore point for him. It filled Aisling with no small amount of pride at his bafflement. It wasn’t just anyone who could fool the Goblin King.

“How should I know?” he replied, but she could see the idea had taken hold. His curiosity was peaked. She had little doubt that it was this more than anything that had prompted his decision to go. She very much doubted he would ever admit such, however.

“Roarke will be pleased to hear it,” she said now, focusing back on the present conversation. “He admires you a great deal.”

“Roarke is not known for his good sense,” the King said dryly. He conjured a crystal and began to play it idly between his hands.

“Are you saying he lacks good judgement?” Aisling teased. “Does that include Cassandra?”

“She may be the notable exception,” he replied, nodding sagely and trying to keep a straight face, but his eyes sparkled.

Aisling smiled, then cocked her head thoughtfully. “The masque is on the Winter Solstice, isn’t it? That’s only a week away. When will you leave?”

We,” he said, emphasizing the word, “will leave the day after tomorrow. Roarke has already gone ahead to bring word of my answer to Aillil. We will be escorting the Lady Cassandra back with us.” He began to weave and toss the crystal from hand to hand.

“We,” breathed Aisling, eyes wide. “Am I to go with you?” Jareth nodded. He did not see the sigh of relief as she realized she would not have to convince him to allow her to accompany him.

“It will be an opportunity to see if your magic is as effective outside the Labyrinth,” he said, by way of explanation. “Speaking of which,” the crystal paused, suspended between two fingers as he looked over at her. “I do not see a bird,” he chided, one brow raised.

Aisling frowned, but did not reply. When he looked away she stuck her tongue out briefly, then she lifted her hand back up and began concentrating again. A half an hour later she made a small sound of triumph and held her hand out to Jareth for his inspection. Perched lightly in her palm was a small bird, although it looked more like a ball of blue fluff with legs and a beak. It cocked its head to the side and looked at her with one bright, beady eye and chirruped. When she glanced up at Jareth he was frowning so hard that a crease had formed in his forehead.

“Is there something …wrong?” she asked hesitantly. “It’s a bird, just like you wanted.”

“It is a bird, indeed,” he said smoothly, “but perhaps not precisely what I had in mind.”

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked defensively. The bird turned to look at him and whistled, as if to emphasize the point.

“Nothing is wrong, precisely,” he muttered with a grimace. “It’s just that,” he paused, considering, “must you make them all so bloody cute?” He sounded so exasperated that Aisling had to struggle to keep from laughing.

“What’s wrong with cute?” she asked lightly. She looked back at the tiny avian and had to acknowledge, silently, that it did look a bit...Disney.

“What isn’t?” he growled. “This is the Goblin Kingdom, not the domain of prancing elves and ponies. I’m beginning to wonder about you, wilding.”

Aisling swallowed her imminent giggles, and tried to look affronted. “Well, let me see what I can do about that,” she intoned seriously. Looking back at her creation she scrunched her face up in concentration. After a few minutes the creature in her hand began to change. It grew, until the body shape resembled a large crow. The bird spread out its wings and shook its head and body quickly, ruffling the feathers out until the cheerful blue was replaced with a color closer to fresh blood, shading to black. With each head shake it changed a little bit more. On the first shake its sleek feathers grew slightly more rough and ragged. Then its beak elongated to a lethal point, with serrated edges. Finally its sparkling black eyes seemed to gleam with malevolence.

For good measure, and in part just to annoy Jareth, Aisling added a jaunty little patch over one of the raven’s eyes. It seemed to glare up at the Goblin King as it let out a loud caw. Aisling admitted to a little pride at the sight of the threatening bird.

“Better?” she asked politely.

“Much,” the Goblin King managed to respond after a great deal of throat clearing. “I must admit, your control continues to improve exponentially. The patch is inspired.”

“Thank you,” Aisling murmured with a nod and a pleased smile. The bird squawked, and jumped up onto her shoulder. It eyed the Goblin King menacingly.

“Yes, well. Well done, for today. You had better get back to your chores,” he sighed. Aisling accepted his dismissal with a nod and waved to Izzy as she left. The girl smiled back.

Aisling hoped she would have an opportunity to speak to Roarke once they reached the Dwarf Kingdom. She hadn't been able to corner him once since learning Izzy's story, and it was driving her mad. After weeks of her efforts to lift the curse being thwarted at every turn, she finally had to admit that perhaps it just wasn't time yet for that to happen. Yet surely she would know, once the time was right, wouldn't she? How much longer would the cosmos make Izzy wait?

The blood red crow gave a warning mutter as Aisling rounded the corner and she paused. A strange mewling sound could be heard from down the hall. She could see a door standing ajar. She crept close and looked into what appeared to be a small sitting room. On the floor she could see two figures locked in an embrace. The man was crouched, like some sort of spider, over a supine Leila, her skirts bunched up around her waist. Aisling could see the sinuous movement of his hips, and small sounds were coming in time from Leila's lips. Every instinct screamed at her to get out of the room—that something was very wrong here—but she couldn't make herself move. Leila had a look of bliss on her face, but she barely moved, her arms limp and eyes glassy. Her hollow eyes stared at nothing, and her cheeks were pale and sunken.

Just then, the man looked up and soulless eyes as black as pitch met hers. Her breath caught as she realized she could see no other features. Yet even as she watched, the shadows shifted and formed into a human face, one she recognized, although she wasn't sure from where. The raven on her shoulder gave a blood curdling screech, and the not-man was suddenly gone, out the window. The shutters swung in the winter wind. The bird went to follow, but Aisling stopped it with a gesture. She very much did not want any part of that thing near any part of herself. She rushed to Leila's side instead.

“Leila, are you alright?” she asked, pulling down the woman's skirts. She could see awareness flooding back into her eyes. She blinked up at Aisling and a flash of rage twisted her features.

“Go away,” she spat, “Don't touch me you filthy animal!” she slapped weakly at Aisling's hands.

Aisling sat back on her heels, shocked in spite of herself. “Leila,” she licked her lips, “You look—ill. Was that—thing hurting you? Does Jareth know...”

“What do you know? You don't know anything. Jareth doesn't care what I do.”

“Leila, I'm sure that's not...”

“Just shut up. You're just some stupid beast. Mind your own business.”

Aisling's lips compressed as she bit back a harsh retort. “Fine,” she said low, standing up.  She went to the window, but saw no sign of the man. Carefully she pulled the shutters closed and latched them. She looked back to see Leila standing shakily. She had no proof that the girl was in danger, only her instinctual dread at the very sight of that creature. She probably couldn't convince the selfish chit even if she did. “On your head be it,” she said. She walked out of the room, and the red raven followed behind.

 

:.0_0.:

 

As it turned out, she didn’t get the chance to worry overmuch about Leila. The next day was a whirl of activity as they all prepared for the upcoming trip and the incident was forgotten in the press of sorting and packing. On the morning of their planned departure, the travelers gathered in the stableyard, dancing with a combination of excitement and cold.

The Goblin King looked magnificent as usual, riding high on a hulking winter white stallion that pawed the ground, chafing at its forced stillness. His rich, red velvet cloak was nicely offset by the pure white flanks of the horse. It danced impatiently in the snow, and he reigned it in with a shift of his knees. The King, feeling similarly disposed, glowered at the small circus playing out before him. The two sleighs, and single baggage sled, were lined up and ready. It was the travelers themselves who were delaying the proceedings. Well, one traveler at least. The Lady Cassandra, apparently, was still being powdered and prettied, despite the King's clear instruction that she be ready to leave at first light. Even Leila, looking tired but eager, was sitting quietly in the second sleigh back, wrapped in furs and felts. She would be sharing the sleigh with the Lady Cassandra and her handmaidens.

Nel sat in the first sleigh, along with two pixie kitchen hands, and Izzy, also wrapped in warm cloaks, with blankets over their laps. Roarke had specifically requested that Nel make the wedding cake and, after much grumbling about the short notice, the brownie had agreed to do so. Hoggle sat in the driver's seat, surly as always, and two other dwarves on loan from King Ailil, whose names escaped Jareth, were driving the other sleigh and baggage sled. Steam rose from the horses' muzzles in the cold morning air. Silver bells attached to the harnesses, a simple precaution for repelling wyldfae, jingled every time a horse shuddered or stamped.

A few minutes more of waiting, by which time Jareth was ready to go up and fetch the Lady himself, and Aisling came hurrying out into the stableyard. She had declined his earlier offer of a cloak, and it certainly appeared that she was handling the cold with little trouble. She caught his eye and nodded before clambering up into the first sleigh to sit beside Izzy. She settled a small bag beside her, and Jareth found himself wondering what a creature who didn't wear clothes could possibly need to bring on such a trip.

Moments later and the giggling gaggle of four women, made up of Cassandra and her ladies, came out into the yard. It didn't take long to get them settled and with a relieved sigh Jareth nudged his mount forward. He drew up alongside the Lady Cassandra's sleigh and nodded his head. “Are you ready now, Lady?” he asked, striving for politeness. She nodded, but would not meet his eyes. He gritted his teeth in an effort to keep himself from doing or saying anything to really frighten her. Considering how very strong the urge was, he thought his restraint was quite admirable.

As he was passing the first sleigh he caught Aisling watching him and trying to conceal a smile. He leaned over and quirked a brow. “Something amuses you?” he purred. She shook her head.

“I did have a question though, sire,” she said quickly, before he could move away. He looked back at her. “I thought the Dwarf Kingdom was three days ride,” she said. “How in the world are we going to get there by this evening?” He smirked.

“I often have to remind myself that, despite appearances, there is still a great deal that you do not know,” he drawled. She just sighed at him and he conceded with a small nod of his head. “I can open a way that will bring us to the border of that kingdom, but no further. From there we must travel in a more...traditional manner.” He nodded to the three horse drawn vehicles.

“Open a way...” she mused. “Is that like what you did when you traveled above? Like opening a door? Why only to the border; why not inside?” She bit her tongue to stop the stream of questions building up behind her teeth. Jareth didn’t respond well to badgering.

“Always so many questions, but now really isn't the time for lessons,” he said impatiently. When he saw the crestfallen look on her face he moderated his tone. “It is similar, but less complicated,” he held up one gloved hand, “and before you ask, I will try to explain better after we return home. We go to the border only because the Dwarf Kingdom is not my realm, and my magic cannot reach there without permission, or greater effort than I wish to exert.” When she opened her mouth again, no doubt to ask another question, he shook his head sharply. “Your curiosity will have to remain satisfied for now, little one.” He did not give her time argue, but wheeled the charger around and cantered to the head of the group.

Drawing on the power of the Labyrinth, he stretched out both arms and concentrated. A hush fell over those gathered, as if the whole courtyard held its breath in awe of the magic. An opening appeared in the air and expanded as he widened his hands, until it was large enough to allow the vehicles' passage, single-file. Beyond the door could be seen a towering, craggy range of mountains that marched off into the distance. He nodded and beckoned, and then rode through. He heard the jingle of the sleighs as each one followed.

Aisling was as delighted as a child on vacation as they journeyed toward the black peaks of the Dwarf realm. Almost as delighted as she had been when she discovered that Hoggle would be driving the sleigh she was riding in. To her imagination-rich mind, it seemed like fate. It was the perfect opportunity to finally strike up a conversation with him as Aisling. She turned around in her seat to face the dwarf's back.

“Hello,” Aisling said, smiling. Hoggle glanced back at her and frowned.

“Oh, its you,” he growled, before turning his back again. Aisling wasn’t about to give up.

“I’m Aisling,” she said, by way of introduction.

“I knows who you is,” he muttered.

“Ah,” she nodded. “And you must be Hoggle.” He merely grunted, neither affirming, nor denying. He studiously tried to ignore her. “I’ve heard a great deal about you,” she persisted.

He glanced at her, looking momentarily interested, before shaking his head. “That ain’t likely.”

“I have,” she said defensively.

“Oh, yeah?” he shot back, “From who?”

“Well,” she said, “Reggie mostly.” Hoggle gave a long suffering sigh.

“Reggie says a lot of things he shouldn’t,” Hoggle muttered darkly.

“He says he’s your friend,” she prodded lightly.

“Well he ain’t. Ain’t nobody Hoggle’s friend. Hoggle is Hoggle’s friend.” There was an underlying bitterness to the familiar statement that tugged at Aisling’s heart. Did Hoggle think that Sarah had abandoned and forgotten him all those many years ago?  She wanted nothing more at that moment than to wrap her arms around him and show him how wrong he was.

She let the silence draw out, waiting for the tightness behind her eyes to relax before speaking again. “So are you excited to be going home for a visit?” she asked casually. Hoggle flinched as if struck.

“Wh-what d’ya mean?” he asked gruffly.

“Well, you’re a dwarf...” she commented, pausing to let him confirm or deny this statement.

“Aye,” he admitted, somewhat cautiously.

“Well, didn’t you come from the Dwarf Kingdom? You must be looking forward to seeing it again. Do you have family there?”

“It’s complicated,” he grumbled, “’sides, it ain’t no business o’ yours, so leave off.” Aisling opened her mouth to pursue the matter but felt a tug on her arm. She looked back to see Izzy pulling her back into her seat. The girl shook her head emphatically and Aisling understood that it must be a painful topic for the dwarf. She nodded, sat back and sighed.

Idly she touched the sack at her side that contained the wooden box and its valuable contents. With nothing to distract her from worries over the coming ball, it was going to be a very long journey indeed.

 

:.0_0.:

 

The dress was gold, as shimmering as the sun and with a mask to match. Sarah's breath had caught at the first sight of her own reflection. The bodice was topped by gathered, off-the-shoulder satin held to a point by a glittering, sun shaped brooch, centered to reveal just a hint of cleavage. The skirt belled out wide in yards of gold satin, covered in drapes and gathers, underneath which she discovered masses of petticoats. Her satin toed slipper barely peeked out from beneath the ruffles at the hem. The skirt seemed to swing elegantly as she moved, and even if it was not the most practical garment in the world she was utterly enchanted.

The sun mask that covered the upper half of her face extended in a half circle of wavy rays, like a halo, around her head. Or a crown, she thought. She looked at her hands, and the golden gloves that covered them, then reached back and touched the back of her head. Her dark hair had grown, she thought. It was far longer now than it had been when she arrived. Had she really been here six months already? Now, even pulled up in a half-twist, the wavy locks reached down past her shoulder blades.

She took a deep, calming breath and stepped out of the powder room that she had dashed into in a panic a few minutes earlier. So many reasons to be nervous—So many things that could go wrong. It had overwhelmed her. She couldn't linger though. It had been difficult, slipping away from the rest of the servants, especially given the circumstances. The castle's head chef and most of his staff had apparently sampled a bit too much of the goblin ale that had been brought for the feast. They still weren't awake from their stupor, and Nel had had to take over the feast preparations. She had conscripted every able body she could, including Aisling and Izzy, to help. Sarah didn't know how long she had before Nel noticed she was missing. Not long enough probably, but what was she to do?

And then there was the problem of Jareth. If getting to the ball was difficult, she had a feeling leaving would be even harder.

Sarah peeked both ways down the hall and saw no one. The Mountain King's palace was enormous, jutting out from the side of a mountain. More than half of the palace, however, was a warren of interconnected rooms and corridors that penetrated deep into the heart of the mountain itself. And most of the servants that weren't attending the guests at the party were down in the kitchens, being worked into exhaustion by a manic brownie. She didn't think she had to worry about being seen, but it was good to be cautious. Taking a deep breath, she slipped through one of the side doors of the ballroom.

 

:.0_0.:


...A familiar dwarfish face watched the woman from the far end of the hall. Hoggle didn't know why he had concealed himself behind the large potted plant when the woman emerged from the powder room. Perhaps it was her furtive movements, her cautious glances up and down the hall. He couldn't be sure, but he thought it might be the same woman he had seen before.

Only after she had slipped out of sight did the dwarf wander over to where she had been standing. On the ground was a small, sparkling object. Reaching down to pick it up he realized it was some sort of  charm, for a necklace or bracelet, in the shape of a sun. It must have fallen from her gown. It was gold and he admired it for a moment before slipping it into his belt pouch to join the rest of his collection. As he wandered on down the hall, he wondered if he should alert Jareth that the mystery woman was there, but immediately dismissed the idea. He would just as soon stay as far away from Jareth as possible, no matter the circumstances, thank you very much...

 

:.0_0.:

 

The ballroom wasn't just cavernous, it was an actual cavern. Jareth had always felt quite comfortable in the palatial hall, and perhaps a bit envious of how well crafted the space was. The walls of smooth worked stone were liberally studded with candelabras, glowing with brilliant, flameless faerie lights. The number of guests easily tripled those that had been at his own soirée, which only managed to emphasize the room's size, not diminish it. It could have easily held a small army without difficulty. Not that he would ever admit to being impressed, of course. It wouldn't do.

Jareth had foregone a mask for the Yule Ball. After all, as one of the official witnesses to the marriage that morning, he was encouraged to make his presence known. Most guests had brought small hand-held masks with them, but they were more for show than concealment, a concession to tradition. Weddings were few and far between among the fae nobles, let alone among the royals, and anyone who was anyone wanted to be seen, and known they were seen, at the event of the century.

For that reason alone he had no patience for the type of ridiculous scene Leila had just finished performing. Her selfish, socially unacceptable behavior had reached its limit, he thought. Everyone in that room knew she was the Goblin King's leman, even if they did not discuss it aloud. Her deliberately provocative behavior with the Baron Greyhill's eldest son was an insult Jareth was not willing to tolerate, and he had promptly dismissed her back to her rooms. He watched with twisted lips and smoldering eyes as she left the ballroom at the crest of a wave of vicious whispers.

“I trust I don't need to say I told you so?” a voice said from beside him. Jareth glanced over at the groom, resplendent in white and gold, the gold circlet of a Prince of the Realm gleaming among his black curls. Jareth wore the black and gold that was traditional for a member of a royal wedding party.

“Be careful, boy,” Jareth said with a sharp smile, “Or I shall rethink my wedding gift.”

“Rethink it?” Roarke snorted, “You haven't even explained what it IS yet. To be honest Jareth, it's one of the most hideous pieces of jewelry I've ever seen.” Jareth arched one brow and the prince grinned. His voice was dry as he continued, “Cassandra nearly fainted when she saw it twitch.”

Jareth's eyes gleamed with humor, but he tipped his head in acknowledgment. “I wouldn't expect you to recognize it,” he commented, his tone becoming suddenly serious, “It is called an Ambire Medallion, one of few.” When Roarke continued to look at him without comprehension, Jareth shrugged. “It bestows the Freedom of the Labyrinth on the wearer,” he explained. The prince's eyes widened in sudden understanding.

“Your Highness,” he said, awed, “That is...”

“Do not be too impressed, my lord,” Jareth said, “It has its limitations. It will not protect you from dangers within the Labyrinth. It will merely ease your passage through by showing you the shortest route.”

“Even so, Jareth,” Roarke said, “It is a kingly gift, and one I do not deserve.”

“On that we agree,” Jareth said solemnly, and the prince was surprised into laughter.

 

:.0_0.:

 

...The tears did not start until Leila had made it out of the ballroom, thankfully. Once they began she could not stem the tide. She ran, sobbing, down the hall. She didn't see the dwarf in her path until she, quite literally, stumbled over him. They both went down amid startled curses, entangled in her heavy green skirts. Desperate only to escape her humiliation, Leila struggled to her feet. When the bracelet on her wrist caught on something she did not stop to think, but yanked with strength born of desperation. Free once again she fled up the stairs.

Hoggle, in turn, watched in dismay as his precious pouch of trinkets flew through the air. When it landed, the various bits and bobs of his collection scattered over the floor of the hall, bouncing and tumbling every which way. Whimpering, he didn't even spare a thought for the girl who had just passed, but scrambled to gather his treasures up again...

 

:.0_0.:

 

Sarah felt small and lost among the glittering crowd of the ballroom. There were so many of them. How was she ever to find the prince in such a crush? She picked her way along the wall, scanning the crowd. With a jarring suddenness she walked right into a solid wall of muscle. Two large hands reached out to steady her.

“What's this now?” a deep voice rumbled. King Aillil peered down at her with a ridiculous grin on his face.  He squinted, bringing his face close to hers in consideration. “I recognize those jeweled eyes,” he boomed, “Tis the wee, lovely lass who was in such a rush last time.” His words were slurred only slightly, but his normally light brogue had deepened into near unintelligibility. Any astute observer could tell he had been celebrating a little too much.

“Your Majesty,” she said in surprise. She took a step back as he swayed toward her slightly. “Congratulations, sir, on your son's marriage,” she continued, trying to get her composure back again.

“Yes, yes, a wonderful day. A beautiful bride, almost as beautiful as you, my dear.” He continued to grin foolishly, even as he brought the back of one of her hands to his lips for a gallant kiss. “I am so glad you could come, my dear. So pleased to have you here. You're not alone are you? That won't do at all, not at a celebration such as this. Such a lovely girl, I'm sure I can find you a partner.”

Sarah blushed and tried to gently extract her hand from his giant grip. He didn't seem to notice her efforts. “That's quite all right, your highness,” she said quickly, “I'm fine.”

“Nonsense,” he insisted, “a delicate, golden flower like yourself must be surrounded by attentive suitors. I will introduce you to some fine young men you would do well to be courted by.”

“Uh, My Lord, please, it's not necessary...” she stuttered, but she could not resist his strength as he pulled her along.

Across the room, Roarke groaned silently as he saw his father accost another unfortunate maiden. The man had been overcome with a particularly aggressive desire for matchmaking ever since the engagement had been announced and the copious amounts of alcohol had only encouraged him. Half of Roarke's evening had been spent trying to distract him from his self-appointed mission.

“Excuse me, Jareth,” Roarke said, “I need to save another poor girl from my father.”

“Better you than me,” the Goblin King replied wryly.

Roarke threaded his way through the crowd, smiling and nodding as guests gave their congratulations. It only took him a few minutes to navigate the room, but as he approached he could tell the poor girl was getting desperate. Smiling broadly, the prince stepped into his father's path. “Your Majesty,” he said lightly, “you seem to have absconded with my next dance partner.” He winked at the woman, whose expression was vastly relieved at his rescue.

“What's that?” the King muttered, coming to a halt. “Bah, you've a wife now, son. Dance with her.”

“Now, now, Father,” Roarke chided, “The lady promised me a dance, and I won't allow you to assist in her escape.”

The King frowned hard, his brow furrowing as he tried to follow the logic of his son's statement. Roarke saw that the lady took the opportunity his distraction presented to slip her arm gently from out of his father's grip. By the time the King's gaze blinked back into focus, his son had disappeared onto the dance floor with the Golden Maiden.

Roarke grimaced as he danced Sarah across the floor and they watched the Mountain King looking around in confusion. He looked down at her and smiled. “I am sorry about that, My Lady,” he said with a rogue's smile. “He has a tendency to get over-enthusiastic at times.”

“I'm sure he means well, Your Highness,” Sarah demurred politely.

“Oh, he certainly does that. It doesn't make it any more comfortable to be on the receiving end however,” he laughed.

“I will grant you that point, My Lord,” she replied. An easy silence settled between them, and Sarah let it, as she tried to think of the best way to bring up the topic foremost on her mind. Finally she decided that perhaps the best choice would be approach it head on.

“Your Majesty,” she said hesitantly, “I wonder if you would allow me to tell you a story.”

“Oh?” he asked, brows raised in question, his eyes twinkling. “I don't think I've had a story told to me since I was a child.”

“Well, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't classify it as a children's bedtime story,” she cautioned soberly. Her own attitude seemed to peak his interest.

“Perhaps you would like to speak somewhere more private, My Lady?” he offered quietly, nodding toward the French doors that led out onto the extensive network of balconies outside the ballroom. Sarah could only nod, relieved that he seemed so amenable to listening to her.

Once they stepped out of the crowded room into the cool, fresh mountain air Sarah felt the tension start to ease. She took a deep, cleansing breath and looked out at one of the most awe-inspiring views she had ever seen. The Mountain Palace, high up the mountainside, overlooked a vista of craggy peaks on either side of a snow shrouded valley. The air was so clear at this altitude that the stars were crisper and brighter than she had ever seen them.

“My Lady,” Roarke's voice brought her attention back to the task at hand. “You had something you wanted to tell me?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” she said, turning to face him. She clasped her hands in front of her. “I wanted to tell you a story about a girl I knew...know.” She corrected herself, grimacing slightly.

“I'm all ears,” he replied, leaning back against the balcony, his arms crossed.

“Once upon a time,” she began, smiling at her own choice of words, “There was a young girl, a princess, who's task it was to care for her baby brother. She loved her brother, but there were times when he tried her patience, for she was barely more than child herself. They lived in perilous times, though, and she took her charge very seriously. Her father, the King, knowing there were enemies ready to attack at any instant, had told her of a secret pact he had made with the King of the Daoine Sidhe.” She glanced at the prince as he twitched at the familiar title once used by the Goblin King. His forehead furrowed as she continued.

“It was a pact meant to save his son, the heir to his throne, should the need become dire. I do not need to tell you that the need did indeed become dire, My Lord. The Kingdom's enemies overran her borders, and the King was slain in battle. The princess knew her duty, but even without that, she loved her brother beyond any reason, and would do anything to protect him. And so she said the words. The words to invoke the promise and protection of the Daoine Sidhe. 'I wish...I wish...'”

Her voice broke and she had to take a deep breath to steady herself, her eyes squeezed shut. She felt a warm hand take her own in a strong grip. When she opened her eyes it was to see Roarke standing over her, his gaze steady and serious, his face a handsbreadth from her own. There was a burgeoning recognition in his eyes, that what she was telling him was important, but he didn't understand, not yet. “Tell me the rest,” he ordered softly. She nodded.

“The Daoine Sidhe came for the child, but only the boy. That was the agreement. She begged to stay with her brother, and he offered her the same deal he offers all runners. If she solved the Labyrinth she could take her brother home.” Sarah looked up at him, willing him to understand what she was saying. He held both her hands in a tight grip now, but neither of them noticed. “But they had no home to go to. The Kingdom was ground to dust beneath the boots of their enemies. She refused the Daoine Sidhe's offer and begged once more to be able to stay with the brother she loved. Finally he agreed, on one condition.” Roarke nodded, urging her to continue. She closed her eyes as she began reciting from memory, and the prince had to lean in close to hear her whisper-soft voice.

“Let it be so. Isolde, daughter of Aiden, Son of Nuada, you shall remain to watch over the son of your father and see my bargain with him abided by in full measure. You shall be as the rain; seen, but never known; felt but never touched. Your voice shall be as the wind dying, for none shall hear it. You shall exist as nothing but a shadow of a memory of a dream. Forever shall you be chained to his fate, unable to tell, until your brother knows you as his sister. Only once this is revealed will you regain your voice, and your life.” 

She stopped speaking, and silence descended, broken only by the sound of their soft breaths. There was a strange fear in his eyes almost as if he were seeing something he did not wish to, but there was knowledge too. “Izzy?” he whispered, searching her eyes for the confirmation. All she could do was nod, her voice momentarily frozen even as she felt a great weight lift from her shoulders. “Who are you?” he whispered. She did not get a chance to answer.

“Well, well, well, what have we here,” a familiar, biting voice snarled, “Isn't this a touching scene?”

The shock of the interruption drove them apart as they turned to face the Goblin King. His face could have been carved from stone, so cold was his expression, but his eyes flickered with fury. Behind him Sarah managed to catch only a glimpse of Cassandra's stricken face before the newlywed bride fled back into the ball. Roarke didn't even hesitate. He cursed beneath his breath and ran after his wife, with only one worried look back as he left. Belatedly Sarah realized how compromising the scene must have looked to Jareth and Cassandra, and she couldn't blame them.

Sarah couldn't speak, but she didn't really need to. Jareth stalked across the balcony like some sort of sleek, feline predator, to stand over her, but made no move to touch her. His gaze flicked over her from head to toe with unconcealed contempt. “I think, Lady Enigma, that you and I have some things to...discuss,” he said coldly.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hiding among the branches of a potted palm, a tiny blue bird ruffled its feathers contentedly and watched the goings on. It couldn't remember precisely what it was supposed to be watching for, but that didn't matter. Hadn't She told it to stay and keep watch? Why even now there was an interesting to do in the hall. The little bird poked it's beak out of the leaves just in time to see a great many sparkling objects spill onto the carpet, just as the Poisoned Girl ran off. The small wrinkled creature that was part of Mistress's dreams was grabbing them all up again. The little twinkles were everywhere, and the fluffy bird's eye was caught by one that shone brighter than all the others. It shone gold, like Mistress had when She made the little bird and left it to stand guard.

Pleased with its discovery, the little bird forgot its assignment and fluttered down to the floor to examine the sparkly. No sooner had it reached it when the doors opened and three brightly dressed Undreamers bustled out of the same door Mistress had left through. They were talking and giggling in high pitched voices, and they startled the little dream bird into flight.

“…common, ugly creature she is. I really don’t know why Jareth tolerates her,” said one, her voice dripping venom. She tossed her dark curls with a vicious laugh.

“She is vulgar, is she not?” agreed a second. “Did you know the lady Marlee once waited on her? No wonder she won’t show her face in decent society! It is a mortifying thought!” She shuddered delicately.

“Really?” the third asked in a tone of horror. “ Well, did I tell you what I saw her doing in the corner with the Turkish Prince? They were…”

Their voices were cut off by the powder room door closing behind them, and the little bird blinked and chortled. What had it been doing? It's attention was caught by the bright noisy energy of the ballroom, and it winged its way through the closing door. It had already forgotten the shiny sun that even now was far down the hall, caught by the ruffled hem of a ladies dress and carried beyond Hoggle's sight.

The cavernous room glittered as light from a thousand hundred candles reflected off the jewels and sequins of the dancers below. The dream caught a glimpse of gold, and spied the Mistress in the arms of the Mountain Prince. Ah, Mistress, I come. It began to flutter down, intent on the golden dress...when it noticed Him. The little bird froze in midair, then darted for a concealing chandelier, just as the Dream King glanced up, eyes narrowed in suspicion. His gaze passed over the little dream's hiding place, but moved on. The bird hopped out and peered over the crowd, watching.

Nasty, mean, vile King that slandered dreams and tried to bind them to his will. He did not like free dreams, no, no, not at all. He smiled when wild dreams died for lack of a child to believe in them. But now they had Mistress, so open, so empty, so fresh, she was the perfect home for all of those dreams that had been lost. That Mistress took joy in his company was a wonder not to be believed, but so it was.

The little bird looked around again. Mistress was gone! Where, where? There was her dress, golden bright, leaving the ballroom. The bird swooped toward the open balcony doors. Mistress, Mistress, I come! NO! That mean Dream-Killing King, there he is again. Hide, hide, do not let him catch me. The bird found a stone nook, and nestled inside, and it's tiny head peeked out from the shadows to watch and wait.

As the King's attention was taken by the pretty White Princess, the little bird dropped from its perch and fluttered aimlessly through the crowd, darting between heads and flitting past startled faces. The shivering beat of its tiny dream heart danced in time to the tinkling music. Just as it reached the doors, open onto the winter night, a small hand reached out and snatched it from the air.

“And where are you going, little one?” asked a young girl's voice. The bird poked its beak between her fingers and one beady eye looked up at her young face. “Did our  Sarah leave you behind? That could be dangerous.” She laughed soft and low, and it sounded like a spring-fed brook after the first snow melt trickling down a mountain.

 

:>0_0<:

 

Like most structures in the underground, the Mountain Palace and immediate environs were kept at a temperature comfortable for the inhabitants through the use of magic. Sarah didn’t pretend to understand how it worked, but at the moment it seemed to have failed. She was sure she could feel the biting winter wind sweeping across the balcony unimpeded. The icy chill traveled straight down her spine as she forced herself to meet the Goblin King’s eyes, and she shivered in spite of herself.

 “Good evening, Your Majesty,” she said quietly, forcing her voice and face to remain calm. If she were perfectly honest with herself, she had hoped to avoid Jareth tonight, to do what she came for and slip away without ever seeing him. She hadn’t really believed she’d get away with that, but hope was hard to kill. It died a pretty final death now, with him standing in front of her, disdain in his sorcerous eyes.

“Do you make a habit of having intimate discussions with married men, Lady, or is it only Prince Roarke you have set your sights on?” he asked conversationally. He prowled back and forth before her, and his tone was cutting.

Despite his obvious displeasure, she felt something inside of her relax. She had been worried that he might have overheard her conversation with Roarke, and that was an explanation she would rather not try to give.

“Contrary to your own high opinion of yourself, Your Majesty, what I choose to discuss, and with whom, is none of your business,” Sarah replied. Her tone was calm, but firm, without even a hint of the unease that was growing within her. She moved to step past him, but he shifted over to block her path.

“Roarke then,” the King replied. “After all, you have placed yourself quite conveniently in his path twice now, with some success.” Sarah could only look at him in consternation, the idea was so absurd. She paused thoughtfully for a moment and looked at it from his perspective and realized what it must have looked like to him. Not that there would be any way of convincing him that looks could be deceiving. Not in his present mood.

“I'm going back inside,” she said, choosing to ignore his jab. “I find I've had enough of refreshing night air.” Again she tried to leave, but he stepped in front of her path once more. She tried to keep her face smooth of any betraying hints of anxiety as she looked up at him, brows raised in inquiry.

“You certainly seem to have a way of catching his eye, Lady Sun,” Jareth continued smoothly, taking in her golden mask. “Twice now you have drawn the boy into your orbit, despite how deeply committed I know he is to his blushing bride.” He stepped closer, towering over her and smiling a cruel, humorless smile. “That's quite an accomplishment. But I find myself wondering just how talented you are at keeping a man's attention—instead of a boy's.”

“Excuse me?” she choked, shocked despite herself at the imaginative leap his mind had taken. She was a little insulted too, she thought. It wasn't as if he'd found them in flagrante delicto, so why was he pursuing that particular idea with such single-mindedness? Just who did he think she was? The thought made her pause and she couldn't stop a small laugh. Well and so, who did she think she was? Sometimes she didn't know herself.

“Indeed,” Jareth continued, looking at her with hooded eyes, “If you are so eager to spread your legs for royalty, I'm sure something could be arranged.”

 Sarah's vision ran red. She reacted before she could reconsider and managed to surprise Jareth as much as herself. The resounding crack of her palm against his cheek seemed to echo across the mountain-side, and she watched with unholy satisfaction as his head whip-lashed to the side. They both stood frozen in shock for a few seconds before her outrage overcame her surprise and she turned to walk away. Run really. She didn’t get far.

A strong hand gripped her wrist with bruising strength and she cried out softly in pain as he twisted it back toward him. He yanked her hard against his front and tried to grab her other hand, while she tried equally hard to squirm out of his grip. The struggle was brief but intense as they grappled together, the only sound the rustle of cloth and a few soft grunts of effort, but any illusion she had of escape was rapidly dispelled. Jareth might eschew physical confrontation, but it certainly wasn’t because he was weak, she realized with a sinking sensation. Not only was he faster than her, but he was stronger as well, and within less than a minute he had her effectively immobilized with both her arms behind her back and the front of her body pressed tightly to his.

“That,” he hissed, “was a very foolish thing to do, My Lady.”

“Let me go,” she demanded sharply. Neither of them had made a sound during the short struggle and she realized now that she probably should have screamed for help. She still could, she thought, but her own pride got in the way. So now, instead, she was alone with one of the most dangerous beings she knew who seemed intent on blaming her for something she didn’t do and not a single soul knew it. Jareth’s eyes blazed with fury, but behind that was something even hotter. Sarah cursed her own traitorous body as it reacted to the desire she saw in his hooded gaze. She was acutely conscious of how much stronger he was than her, how easily he had subdued her, and it excited her.

“Let me go,” she repeated through gritted teeth, taking refuge in her outrage and trying to twist her body out of his grip. All she succeeded in doing, however, was proving how very unyielding the Goblin King could be. She could feel the incipient panic creeping up on her, but she quashed it with brutal efficiency. If nothing else, Jareth was a predator at heart and he would probably salivate at any sign of weakness.

Jareth ignored her, instead allowing his eyes to travel a leisurely journey from the top of her head down. She followed the direction of his gaze and realized that pressed tight against him as she was the low cut of her bodice left little to the imagination. The swells of her breasts were pushed high against his chest and his nostrils flared as he drew in a deep breath. His gaze was almost like a caress, and she could feel goose flesh rising on her arms that had nothing to do with the cold. There was a wicked gleam in his eyes when they lifted back to hers.

Jareth relished the scent of her, letting his eyes close momentarily as he took another deep breath. She smelled like golden apples and honey. He looked at her again. Ah, if looks could kill, her amber gaze would leave him bleeding on the floor. She was magnificent, and dangerous, no doubt. He wanted all of her.

“I don't think I will. I find my curiosity—aroused,” he said with a feral grin. To most women, Fae and Mortal alike, it might have sounded charming. As it was it only pissed her off further.

“I'm sure that's not the only thing,” she snapped sarcastically, eyes flashing fire, “but I find I'm disinclined to be used as an outlet for a royal temper tantrum.”

He laughed low, and she felt it vibrate through her chest, making her catch her breath. “You play the outraged maiden to a tee, my dear. I might almost believe you.” His voice dripped disdain.

“Oh, Your Highness, I need not play,” she replied through gritted teeth. “I am most assuredly outraged.”

“But not a maiden?” he sneered slyly.

She tossed her head. “That’s not something you’re ever likely to discover the answer to.”

“Is that a challenge? I do so love a challenge,” he purred. He rubbed his leather clad thumbs in small circles over the sensitive skin of her wrist. Her body shuddered at the gentle friction. “See how you tremble beneath my touch,” he sighed. “I could do—anything—to you, and you would not stop me.”

“You wouldn't dare,” she breathed, eyes widening slightly. He found himself pleased that he could shake her confidence that little bit. It was a war of wits and will between the two of them, and he was enjoying every minute of it.

“I would dare much,” he said silkily, tightening his hold until she made a soft sound of protest.

She froze like a startled doe for half an instant before a sudden realization struck her. Her eyes narrowed. He was trying to intimidate her, but so far all he had actually done was restrain her and talk. Jareth was not a man who needed to force himself on anyone when persuasion was so much more satisfying. With a shake of her head, she relaxed in his arms and smiled up at him crookedly. “Probably,” she admitted, her voice sure, “but not this.”

“You think not?” he asked dangerously.

“No. For all your cruelty and selfishness, I don’t for a moment believe that rape is part of your repertoire.” He drew in a hissing breath.

His eyes narrowed. “That is an ugly word.”

“An even uglier act, Your Majesty,” she said. Her chin ticked up defiantly. “Well, oh Great Goblin King? What will you do now? I am at your mercy. Will you press your advantage.”

He growled low in his throat. “That you even suggest I would do such a thing is insulting. I should fulfill your expectations for that alone.”

“Indeed” she replied soberly, “it is insulting to be accused of intent to commit an act you find abhorrent.”

“Meaning?” he snarled.

“Only that adultery with a spoiled princeling holds about as much attraction for me as rape does for you, Goblin King.”

It took him a moment to track what she was saying. Finally he realized she was referring to his accusation that she was trying to seduce Prince Roarke. He pushed her away with a sudden vehemence, his expression shuttered, lips twisted bitterly. Sarah took the opportunity to rub her wrists, sore from his vise-like grip. “Touché, Lady, but that was a blow of desperation.” Sarah merely raised her brows inquiringly. He smiled cruelly, “I think you are afraid of me precisely because you know I could make you want me.”

She laughed without mirth. “God, you are blind Jareth.” She shook her head, but there was a touch of sorrow in her voice. “I already want you. I probably always have,” she admitted with no lack of bitterness. “but that doesn’t change the fact that I won’t be used by anyone, especially you.”

The silence on the balcony was broken only by the echoing cracks of snow and ice falling from the cliffs around them. They stared at each other for a long moment in the twinkling evening, two adversaries on equal footing sizing each other up for the battle to come. Finally he spoke, his manner stiff and offended. “I would never force myself on an unwilling partner.”

“Yes, I know,” she said idly, no hesitation in her voice. She was at the balcony wall now, her back to him, looking out over the valley. The white light of the moon gilded her dark curls in silver. He wanted to reach out and bury his fingers in that fall of silk. Instead he leaned back next to her, resting against the short stone wall with his hands behind him.

“How can you be so sure?” He asked with honest curiosity.

She shrugged, but would not look at him. “I suppose because I know you better than you think. I have seen the honorable man beneath the ferocious mask you to present to the world.”

“Again, you have the advantage of me,” his lips twisted. “Are you ready yet to tell me who you are?”

“You should know better than that, your majesty,” she said gently, amusement lacing her voice.

He scowled down at the top of her head. He was almost surprised at how short she was. Her head would fit nicely in the crook of his neck. The force of her personality made her seem so much larger. “You hide your face, conceal your identity, and yet you expect me to trust your word. That hardly seems fair.”

“Well, life isn’t fair, Jareth,” she said solemnly. “I know that better than most.”

He frowned. Her words struck a chord in his memory, but he couldn’t isolate it. Perhaps a change of subject was called for. “If it was not a lover’s tryst then why were you out here with Roarke.”

“It is none of your affair, Your Highness, as I already said.” She looked up at him then, a smile in her eyes and scolding in her voice. His breath caught, and for no reason he could discern his pulse sped up.

“Jareth,” he corrected.

“If you insist,” she said mildly.

His own smile stretched his mouth wide. “I do, so let's not revisit that old argument. And why should I believe you?”

“Speaking of revisiting old disputes. Believe me or not, it doesn't matter. I have never lied to you Jareth, and I swear to do my utmost never to do so.” She did not look away from his probing gaze, but held it as the silence lengthened between them. He reached up one hand and brushed a stray curl off her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. His hand lingered, fingertips stroking the nape of her neck lightly.

“And with no way to prove it, I must either take your word or no,” he pointed out. It wasn't a  malicious observation. He did believe her, he just wasn't sure what to do about it. Absolute honesty was not something he was used to.

“I suppose so.” She murmured. Her eyes fluttered closed as he continued his feather light touches. His fingers moved from behind her ear and down her cheek, tracing the curve of her jaw. Her breath shuddered and she drew away from him, backing up a few feet.

He began to stalk toward her again. “In that case, I suppose I must reevaluate what you said earlier.”

“What I said?” Her voice caught in her throat, but she refused to continue backing away from him.

“Oh yes. You might say the thought of it consumes me.” He stared fiercely into her eyes. “You want me. You said it yourself.”

“I supposed I did,” she admitted huskily.

“Not only that, but I can see it in your eyes. I can smell it coming from your very pores. You want my touch so badly you can taste it. Why do you fight it?” His narrow eyed gaze pinned her in place.

“Self Preservation,” she explained. “I won’t – I can't – be just another woman for you to spend your lust on.” It would destroy me if that was all I was to you, she thought sadly.

“I have a feeling, Lady Mystery, that you could never be “just” anything, even should you actively pursue such a goal.” The hand at her jaw paused and his thumb stroked her lower lip. She tried to clear her head. This gentle Jareth was much harder for her to handle than the arrogant one.

“Please, enough, Jareth.” She held up one hand, and he paused as her golden gloved fingertips rested lightly on his lips.  “I am a puzzle for you to solve, and nothing more,” she said softly, “Why can't you simply admit that and leave it be? Leave me be?”

He captured her wrist gently, holding her hand in place. “I enjoy unlocking secrets, dear one,” he whispered, kissing her fingertips softly. “Oh, but you would enjoy it, too, Lady Sun. You would burn so brightly the real sun would pale in comparison.” Her body agreed whole-heartedly, it seemed, and she shuddered.

“Nevertheless, I must decline.” Her voice hitched again, softly, and she took a deep, steadying breath.

He released a frustrated huff of laughter. “Why do you resist, when we could find such pleasure together?”

She wondered herself sometimes, but that was a very dangerous question to dwell on. “I won’t say it again. No means No Jareth.”

He shook his head, refusing to let her deny him with such ease.“Tell me why.”

“I won’t be used,” she said, which was true enough, if not the whole of it.

“I will not use you.” He frowned, strangely offended at her implication.

“You know nothing about me. How could it be anything else?” Her voice was exasperated.

“You're wrong, Lady Sun. I know you. I knew who you were from the moment I saw you in the ballroom, dancing with the Prince. Did you think your mask fooled me?”

“What...what do you mean?” she asked, suddenly afraid that he knew everything, despite the unlikelihood.

“I know your scent like the back of my hand,” he leaned down, drawing a deep breath by her neck. One hand trailed down her arm, from her elbow to her palm, before weaving their fingers together. “The feel of your hand in mine, the sound of your voice. The sight of your luscious,” his lips curved, his eyes flicking down to take in her body, “...curls. Even the taste of your honey-wine lips is branded onto my memory. No matter what disguise you use, I will always find you out.” His voice had dropped to a whisper now, his face only inches from her own.

She froze and had to force herself to keep breathing. He didn't know. He didn't know, oh thank God. She closed her eyes in breathless relief. Then another thought on top of that one. He would be furious when he learned the truth.

“So you see, there really is no point in hiding,” he breathed, nuzzling at her ear. “Why don't you remove the mask?” His nimble fingers burrowed into her hair, searching for the ties to her mask.

She realized almost too late what he was doing. “No!” she gasped, tearing her head away from his searching fingertips.

His eyes flashed, his entire manner going from gently seductive to furious in a heartbeat. “Again and again you defy me! You are a vexatious creature. Are you trying to annoy me, little vixen? Is that your purpose in coming here so concealed? You taunt me at your own risk.”

“Make up your mind,” she said, exasperated, struggling to use her own irritation at his tricksy ways to erase the lingering desire.

“About what, my dear?” His eyes narrowed and he took her hand again. The traitorous thing wouldn't stop trembling, either. “I thought I was quite clear in what I wanted to do to you...with you...for you.” His words were interspersed with little kisses on her hand, her wrist, and the exposed skin at the crook of her elbow. His other arm stole softly around her waist, pulling her closer until his legs tangled in her heavy skirts.

“Ten minutes ago you accused me of having designs on the Prince. Now you claim I am here to irritate you, and you alone. It cannot be both, Your Majesty.” She tugged lightly on her arm, but he would not relinquish it. She settled on frowning at him in a stern manner. “So perhaps you would care to decide which it is before we continue.”

As long as we continue, he thought. He chuckled. “I may have been hasty in my earlier accusations,” he allowed. He was pleased to note how well they fit together.

“About time,” she muttered.

“Indeed,” he breathed. And just like that he tightened his arm and backed her up, effectively pinning her against the stone wall of the castle. It was shadowed here, the light from the ballroom barely reaching them. She realized that, once again, he had maneuvered her quite elegantly into a secluded spot out of sight of any guest who might wander out onto the balcony above them. His arms bracketed her on either side, bracing himself against the wall. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, she thought whimsically, even as her heart began to beat a frantic rhythm.

“When you are mine, Lady Sun, you will not leave my bed until you have forgotten the very name you refuse to give me. I will bring you to heights of pleasure you have never even imagined. And before we are done you will be willing to do things that would shock you to your very core. You will beg me to let you do them, My Lady. And I will be only too happy to comply.”

“You speak as if my surrender is a forgone conclusion. You never change. How many times must I turn you down, Goblin King, before you finally believe me?” Sarah clenched her hands tight at her sides. She could feel her will weakening beneath the onslaught of his presence. She just knew that if she touched him her self-control would crumble, and this confrontation would go to a dangerous place that she might not even want to escape.

“You may believe what you say, but I think you are lying to yourself and therefore to me,” he whispered.

“I...” she started.

“But I think I know a way to winkle the truth from you. There is our little game yet, isn’t there?” he said, abruptly changing the subject.

“I..uh…what?” She blinked, startled at the sudden tangent.

“Our game,” he said reasonably, while crowding her closer against the stone. He pushed one foot between her own and nestled his hips closer in to her. She forced herself to breath deeply. “I still have my three questions, to try to guess your name.”

“Y-es,” she said slowly. She reached up both hands and pushed them against his chest. It was solid and unyielding, but at least he didn't keep moving forward. He only smirked down at her.

“Any three questions I want, so long as I do not ask you your name or ask to see your face,” he reminded her.

She nodded. That was about all she could do, in all honesty. Her ability for speech seemed to have deserted her.

“And you will answer with absolute truthfulness,” he continued. It wasn't a command so much as a statement of fact. She nodded again.

“My first question then, Lady Sun. When we first danced, what was the occasion for that ball?” He brushed another curl from her face, and then left his hand resting on her shoulder.

She cleared her throat, trying to find her voice again. “Uh..a distraction, I believe.” She smiled, “but aren't they all?”

He frowned thoughtfully and wished he could accuse her of being disingenuous. It was quite an uninformative answer, although, to be fair, probably the unvarnished truth. Most of the dances he held were a form of distraction, because he had grown bored with the usual day to day of his Kingdom, or just wanted a little company. “And how much time has passed since then?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but then paused, thinking. He took the opportunity to move his hand, burying his fingers in the hair at the back of her neck “Do you know, I'm not sure,” she said softly, a puzzled frown on her face. He frowned in turn.

“Do not be coy with me, my dear,” he growled. “How can you not know?” He flexed his fingers, tugging lightly on the handful of hair. The faint pull at her scalp sent shivers down her spine. She closed her eyes briefly, her lips slightly parted. Then they opened slowly to look up at him, and a small pink tongue darted out to wet her lips.

Her voice was rough with desire when she spoke. “Ah, Jareth. Time is a fickle mistress, especially in the Underground. It seems too long ago, and not long enough at the same time. But if I had to guess, I'd say it has been perhaps ten years.”

Ten long aboveground years, she thought. Almost too long for me. How long has it been for you down here, Jareth? She thought of Reginald, and his grandmother who was a girl when her grandfather, Sir Didymus,died. And she thought of Hoggle, who didn't look to have aged a day. How far back would you have to go, Goblin King, to remember one frightened mortal girl?

“Ten years,” he mused. “So short a time. I should remember...”

Her hands were moving now, sliding up his chest to circle around his neck, playing with his hair as he had hers. She was turning his own tricks against him, and it was very distracting. “Mmm, and what were you wearing that night, Lady Sun? I wager you did not hide your face from me then.”

“No, I didn't dare,” she smiled slyly, “But you have used up all your questions, sir, so what I wore will remain a mystery.” He opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again abruptly. An ironic smile twisted his lips.

“I was bored with that game anyhow,” he murmured silkily, before yanking her forward by the hand at her neck and crushing her mouth beneath his. So demanding were his lips that she didn't even have time to protest before passion swept away all reason, and she couldn't recall why she had been so wary in the first place.  He ate at her lips, as if he were a starving man and she were a feast laid out only for him. He trailed his mouth up across her cheek and over to her ear.

“Open for me, sweet,” he whispered. She tried to shake her head, but it would not obey her.

“Jareth...” she breathed.

“Good girl,” he said, capturing her lips once again. His tongue plundered her mouth, demanding a response, without mercy. She whimpered, but could do nothing but obey. The sheer carnality of his kisses overwhelmed her, and her only thought was for more. She tightened her arms, leaning into his chest and giving back as good as she got.

He paused in his assault, pulling back just long enough to make her have to follow him if she wanted to continue. And follow she did, this time exploring his mouth herself, running her tongue gently over sharp teeth. He growled softly when she caught his bottom lip with her own teeth.

His other hand came up, all ten fingers burying themselves in her hair and locking her head in place. He crowded closer, pushing her hard against the wall. His body molded to hers, and she could feel the hard heat of him against her hip.

She expected him to continue with the rough, drugging kisses, but instead he nibbled and nipped gently at her mouth, drawing small sounds of frustration from her. Her arms drifted down from around his neck and fisted in the fine black material of his shirt, anchoring herself and him. The world narrowed to his mouth on hers, and the gasping sounds of their breathing.

When he pulled away again, she made a sound of protest, but he only rested his forehead to hers and looked into her eyes. His eyes, one green, one gold, were mesmerizing. One hand loosened from her hair and trailed softly down her neck and shoulder. His fingers traced lightly over her collarbone, and then the low edge of her neckline, causing goosebumps to appear in their wake. He gave a sharp smile when her breathing paused.

“You taste like apples and honey,” he murmured, before capturing her mouth again. Sarah thought he tasted like wild, sinful things – chocolate and wine – dark, bitter, and rich. He fingered the golden fabric of the sleeve at her shoulder before pushing it down her upper arm, pulling the neckline down with it. The night air was cool on her heated flesh. The hand on her arm moved to span her ribs, resting tantalizingly close beneath her chest. She arched in reaction, drawing him closer, her entire body rubbing against the front of his like a cat that needed stroking.

His lips descended to lick and bite over the newly revealed tops of her breasts. One easy tug and he could expose her soft, tempting bosom in full, but he was content to leave it as it was for the moment. Now that he had her where he wanted her, he could take his time.  He was looking forward to it.

“That's it, little one,” he purred into the soft valley between her breasts. “So fine. You don't need to fight me.”

“Wait,” she muttered. The hands at his chest pushed weakly at him.

He growled a denial. “I am not a patient man, my sweet. And I am tired of waiting.” The hand still buried in her hair clenched reflexively and she moaned softly.

“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind him. He froze and wanted to roar in frustration, but managed to restrain himself. He carefully loosened his hold on his prize and glanced behind him. He stiffened as he caught sight of the intruder, then turned, shifting his body to block his companion from view of the young girl standing a few feet away.

“I tried to tell you,” Sarah said, but he seemed to be ignoring her now. She had seen the girl standing there, watching them with solemn eyes that were as eternal as the starred sky above them, and just as dark and fathomless. Now she had to peer around Jareth's shoulder to try and get a better look.

Sarah recognized those star-strewn eyes, but this was not the Amaranth she was used to. The fae looked no more than thirteen or fourteen, a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Her hair was long and loose down her back, the color of corn silk, and there were spring blooming flowers of every color woven throughout. Her dress was youthful, a yellow and green striped pinafore that stopped just below her knees. Her slim pale legs were encased in white tights, ending in a pair of white patent leather Mary Janes. Sarah thought she looked a lot like Alice from Wonderland.

“Ami,” Jareth said, his voice pleasantly level, although that ease was belied by the whipcord tenseness of his body. “What brings you out here?”

“There was a bird,” she said in her sweet girl voice. Sarah was having a hard time reconciling this childlike figure to the mature Fae woman she knew as Amaranth.  She followed the girl's pointing finger to see a familiar little blue bird perched on the stone rail. It was watching her intently, and she could feel the soft beat of its pleasure at seeing her again.

Shoo, she thought. She flicked her hand behind Jareth's back, trying to gesture the little dream away and back into the castle. I will meet you inside shortly.  The little bird gave a delighted chirrup and hopped into the air and away toward an open window. When Jareth glanced back at her suddenly she tried to look as innocent as possible.

Jareth looked back at his sister. “You should not be out here, Ami. You've no cloak and you could  catch a chill.” Sarah saw the girl’s eyes narrow dangerously and almost laughed. She recognized that look. It was very similar to her brother's when he was being particularly contrary. Combine that with the no doubt volatile temper of a teenager, and Sarah wanted to laugh out loud at the irony of it.

“I am not a child, Jareth,” she spat out petulantly, going from friendly to fury in the space of a heartbeat. “I can go where I please, when I please.”

“Now, Ami,” Jareth tried soothing, “I didn't mean...”

The girl stomped her foot. “You do this every year, Jareth. You insist on speaking to me as if I am incapable of taking care of myself. May I remind you that I am still older than you.”

Jareth's own temper flared, and he stepped forward to meet her. “Indeed I remember, dear sister. But you seem to have forgotten your manners...again. A yearly regression to puberty does not excuse bad behavior. I am in the middle of a conversation.”

“It didn't look like any kind of conversation to me,” Amaranth scoffed scornfully. She tossed her head, causing several flowers to float to the ground. “Since when do you have to resort to pawing women on the balcony at parties?”

“It's none of your business, Ami my darling,” he gritted out through clenched teeth. “It's not a subject for young ears such as yours.”  She scowled harder, her lips pressing tight. “However, perhaps you have a point. The lady and I will find someplace more comfortable to continue our discussion.”

Amaranth smirked. “Will you? That might be difficult, little brother,” she commented. He raised one brow inquiringly and she pointed. “It seems your lady bird has flown. You must not have had as good a hold on her as you thought.”

He whirled around to find the alcove empty and no sign of a temptress in a golden dress anywhere on the balcony. “Bloody Bog Bones, not again,” he muttered through gritted teeth. Behind him, Amaranth began to laugh, and it echoed across the mountain valley like bells on a feast day.

 

>:0_0:<

 

Ailil, The Mountain King, stumbled through the halls of his castle, mumbling an off key, love ballad in his deep baritone. “An 'is true love said to 'im, me mither won' mind...” Hic. Cup.  “An me father won' fight you, for yer lack o'...” Hic. He shuffled to the servant stair leading down toward the kitchen. He could smell the fragrant fumes coming up the stairs and his mouth was watering. A snack would not be remiss at this juncture, and it smelled so delicious. He pushed his way into the narrow stair, and of course never noticed the golden trinket that was kicked down ahead of him. The charm skipped and bounced down the uneven stone steps, just ahead of the King’s heavy tread. As he shuffled into the large kitchen, it was swept aside by the bare feet of rushing servants and lost into the depths of the room.

Ailil leaned heavily against the stone door frame and lifted his head to scent the air. His mouth watered. “Just a taste…” he rumbled. Silence descended on the great room as he stepped forward, although he did not notice it.

“Can I...can I help you, Sire?” a tentative voice asked. Ailil blinked down and saw a pretty dwarven lass with a shining black braid staring at him with wide dark eyes.

“Aye, m'girl,” he boomed, and his voice echoed through the still room. “Just a wee taste. M'belly's rumbling.” Across the kitchen, Aisling was carrying a basket of fresh rolls in from the ovens when she heard it. She didn't know what the protocol was in these particular castle kitchens day to day, but with Nel in charge for the evening, if she found the King mucking about in her domain things could get ugly.

She set down her basket and snagged a familiar pixie as she ran by. “Peaseblossom,” she hissed, remembering the girl's name, “where's Nel?” The elf shrugged Aisling's hand off her shoulder with a grunt.

“She's with Izzy then, i'n't she?” Peaseblossom snapped. “In one o' the back rooms.”

“With Izzy? What's she doing with Izzy?” Aisling asked, confused. She couldn't conceive of a reason why Nel would ever leave the kitchen on a night like tonight.

“The girl had a fit, she did. Right in the middle of the kitchen, coughin' and gaspin' like she was fit to drown. Then she keeled over like a goblin drunk on vintage ale. Nel 'ad her laid out in a room. She's been back and forth checkin' on her since.” She darted away before Aisling could say anything more.

It didn't take much for her to figure out what was wrong with Izzy. Magic had a way of messing with you both coming and going. It was a lot like men that way. She hoped that Izzy would be well. However, she had a feeling Nel would return soon, and it would probably be best if the Mountain King were not in residence when she did.

Aisling glanced back at the door and saw the crowd of dwarven women around the King had grown substantially. Several of them were talking to him in hushed, urgent tones, while others were trying to steer him back up the stairs. He swayed like a reed in the wind, but his bleary eyes never left the tray of sweets set on the counter just out of his reach.  She started for the small crowd when a thought occurred to her.

This was not her problem, and she didn't need to make it her problem. She didn't need to stick her nose into anything else that might cause her trouble. Goodness knows she'd probably borrowed enough trouble for a lifetime as it was. She would just leave it to play out as it would and not get involved. Yes, she would just keep her head down, help get the dinner ready, and let the chips fall where they may, or the dwarves as the case may be.

She turned reluctantly back to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, grabbing up her basket of bread. She could feel the sweat running down her temples as she went back to work. It was stifling hot in the room and she wanted to get done as soon as possible so she could go outside in the cool winter air. She had only gone a few steps when something sharp stabbed into the soft meat of her foot. With a low curse she hopped on one foot and scowled down at the ground. A small, golden object glittered at her feet. Bending down she picked it up and recognized one of the small golden suns that had been woven into her hair earlier that evening. Curious. How had it gotten here? Had it caught in her cloak and only just now dropped?

She was turning it over in her hands when someone brushed by her rather forcefully, and she realized she was blocking the way. Closing her fist around the trinket, she stepped aside and set down the basket again. Beside her a dwarven girl was trying to fill the gravy boats for the guest tables. Aisling tried to stay out of her way as she opened her hand to look at the charm again. She wiped one hand over her sweat streaked forehead as she looked at it.

It was perhaps unfortunate that Aisling had forgotten the presence of the King, as it might have prevented what happened next. Both Aisling and the dwarf beside her were so focused on their particular tasks, that neither noticed the wave of silence come over the kitchen as Nel stalked back in. Her screech was piercing enough that some might be forgiven for wondering if she had been a baensidh in a former life.

As it was, the sound so startled the dwarf beside Aisling that she jumped and glanced behind her. Her shoulder knocked into Aisling's hand, and the trinket dropped soundlessly into one of the crystalline gravy boats. Aisling leaned over to look for it, but her eyes were obscured by sweat and hair sticking to her cheeks.

“Ye great lummox!” she could hear Nel shouting somewhere behind her, “What do ye think ye're doin' in MY kitchen!?!”

She blinked her eyes, trying to clear away the sweat that was dripping into them, and one salty drop fell unseen onto the charm. She finally had to wipe one hand down her face to clear her vision. She spotted the charm and reached to grab it, but the dwarf beside her had gathered herself as well, and a sudden flow of rich brown gravy drowned it from sight.

Aisling heard no more of the dispute by the kitchen door. She stood over the now full gravy boat, frozen in shock, mouth agape. The wheels in her head were turning, albeit with reluctance. She knew, somehow, without a doubt, that this particular batch of gravy would make its way into the hands of one Goblin King. She didn't know how, or why, but it just fit. There was the hand of something larger than herself meddling in this, and Aisling wondered if she would find out who it was before they got her killed.

Chapter Text

Far Too Deep


She dreams…

The dream was the same and not the same. The courtyard still showed the signs of faded glory, but there was a new silence that filled her heart with dread. It took her a moment to realize that the chickens were missing. She looked closer and a chill crawled up her spine. Amid the rubble scattered over the stones she could see delicate bleached bird bones. In fact, the whole area was barren of life or movement. Even the leaves on the overhanging trees hung slack in the breezeless air.

A soft cry behind her broke the silence. Glancing back she saw her little blue dream cat sitting on the cobblestones. It was shuddering. Its eyes were fearful. She gathered the dream into her arms and soothed it with wordless noises.

“Saaaarraaaaah…”

The voice was barely a whisper, but she felt it brush across her senses. The cat mewled pitiably. The now familiar voice drifted from the darkness of the archway. “Sarah, please. You are needed.” There was so much yearning in those words that it tugged at her heart and her feet followed.

The absolute darkness struck her first. She didn’t remember it being so dark. With a flick of her wrist --- she really was developing quite a flair for that --- she created a fairy light. It hovered in the air before her, barely managing to pierce the blackness. It was enough to see the stairs, however, and she started down them.

The journey seemed to take longer this time. Without Toby, and the urgency of the chase, the stair seemed truly endless. Factor in the darkness and silence (even her footsteps were muffled), and the dark stair and catacombs were stifling. The little blue cat was silent for the interminable journey.

When she reached the cavern, she paused. The glow of her light did not reach as far as the river, but she could feel the deep, slow beat of it with that other sense, the dream sense. The cat mewed and twisted in her arms until she released it. It jumped to the ground and pranced into the darkness, tail high and eyes bright. She followed more cautiously, but not, she realized, with any sense of fear. When had she lost that fear?

When the river appeared out of the darkness it looked much as it had before, wide and dark and deep. The cat sat on the bank, staring intently into the deceptively still water. Sarah knelt beside it. She reached out one hand, then drew it back, suddenly uncertain.

“Do not be fearful, little Sarah,” the voice came from the dark water. It came from everywhere and nowhere.  Strangely, she realized she wasn’t afraid, but some nagging part of her seemed to think she should be.

“You tried to…you nearly drowned me…before…” she whispered, feeling the need to justify her hesitation.

“You were unharmed,” the voice said. Her own inner voice agreed. She’d come to no harm at the time, but for a bit of a fright, and had woken up the next day with more knowing and comfort than she’d had in her last ten years of life.

“Why?” she asked, wanting to know.

The voice replied simply, “It was necessary. You are needed.”

“Why?” she asked again, frustration coloring her own words.

“You needed to understand. You needed to learn. You need to learn quicker.” Not an answer as far as she was concerned. She decided to prod a little harder.

“Well, I DON’T understand and I certainly don't know what it is I'm supposed to be learning.” She sat cross-legged beside the riverbank, huffing slightly as she settled.

“That is untrue,” said the voice. “You understand, but you fail to see. You fail to see and so your control is weak.”

“See what?” she fumed, “Control what exactly? Magic? Who are you?”

“So many questions,” the voice chided, “Why ask what you already know?”

Sarah threw her arms up in frustration. Her eyes roamed around the empty room, trying to find something to settle her glare on. “Don’t you get it?! I DON’T know. I don’t know who you are or what you’re being so vague about.”

“That is untrue,” repeated the voice.

“It is not. I have no idea who you are or what you need me for.”

“That is untrue,” repeated the voice.

“Stop saying that!” her voice reached a screech and the cat mewled in protest. It butted her leg and hopped into her lap. Instinctively she steadied it, her hand caressing softly down its back. She felt the touch along her own spine, and it seemed to help sooth her frustrated temper. She took a deep breath before continuing. “Why can’t you just give a straight answer?” she asked evenly.

“Truth is truth and cannot be otherwise.” The voice said simply.

“Could you possibly be more cryptic?” she muttered, frustration heavy in her voice.

“Yes,” said the voice, and this time she was certain she heard an undertone of amusement.

“Why me?” she asked no one in particular with a tired sigh, leaning back and staring up into the darkness..

There was a moment of silence. “Your passion was the fiercest…the purest.”

“I wasn’t asking…” she started to clarify, then muttered, “Oh,never mind.” Somehow a discussion about the nature of rhetorical questions didn’t seem to be the way to go right now.

The voice continued as if she had not spoken. “Your belief was the strongest. You believed in them all.” 

'My passion?,' she thought to herself,  'Believed in what?'  She kept the questions to herself, but glared at the water.

“You found the book,” the voice finished. An expectant hush descended on the cavern.

An uncomfortable thought began to grow in the back of her mind. “What book?” she whispered, fearful where she had not been before. Her hand stopped stroking the cat’s soft fur.

“The book,” purred the voice. The surface of the river rippled, and an image appeared of a familiar red leather-bound book.

“Oh,” she sighed, “Oh, I had forgotten.” She reached out one hand reflexively toward the image. Instead of cool water her fingers brushed soft leather, and the book was suddenly in her hand. The spine settled softly against her palm, as if that was where it was supposed to fit. “This was you?” she asked reverently. She opened the cover gently and the familiar smell of leather and old, worn pages wafted out.

“It only showed you the way. You found the key. You believed.”

“I believed in the Labyrinth,” she said, “I didn’t…oh, but that’s it isn’t it?” Even as she said it she knew it was the truth, and some part of her had always known it. Dreams were the very best places for epiphanies, after all, when your mind was open to the improbable. “That’s who…what you are. You ARE the Labyrinth.” There was no response, and she needed none. One hand brushed the cool surface of the water. “I can feel you,” she whispered, filled with awe, “like a heartbeat in my stomach.” The silence lengthened while her mind worked, analyzing this new information. Another realization struck her. “You’re a dream. That’s why I can feel you like this.” She breathed in deeply, closing her eyes and stretching out that other sense, the one she called her dream sense. “You feel…ancient.”

“Among the oldest,” it confirmed.

“What do you want?” She asked finally, opening her eyes. Before her a shadowy silhouette stood in the middle of the water’s flow. The surface of the figure rippled and swayed, as if the current were passing through it.

“They need you, Sarah.” The voice came from the shadow man now, instead of all around.

“They? Who are 'they'?” She clutched the book to her chest, and blinked at the apparition.

“The King. The cook. The smallest fair folk and the largest beasts. All who dwell within these walls, perhaps farther.” The shadow arms spread wide in an all-inclusive gesture. Beside her the dirt rippled and rose, shaping itself into a miniature replica of the Labyrinth, and the lands surrounding it. A blush of color swept over the three dimensional image, as if painted with an invisible brush, until it looked almost real. Well, wasn’t that a nifty trick. She wondered if she could figure out how to do it herself.

“I’m not sure what you think I could do…” she trailed off, engrossed in the pristine detail of the model. She squinted, thinking she saw a flock of birds wheeling around the tiny sky.

“A shadow rises,” the Labyrinth said. The sculpture shivered, just barely, and a small cloud of darkness oozed out of an area of trees, like a column of dense and oily smoke. The darkness seemed to pulse, but it did not grow any larger.

“Um…What?” Her thoughts stuttered. She leaned closer, trying to figure out where the fog was coming from. On one side of the smoke she could see swaying treetops that extended in a semi-circular area away. On the other side of the smoke the trees stopped --- as if some sort of fence were keeping them out --- and the land was nothing but grey hills. The maze was too complex, and the angle too high, however, for her to figure out if she recognized anything.

“An ancient darkness that thrives on chaos and conquest. It is almost free, and you have to be ready. Are you, little one?”

“What…Me?” she tore her gaze from the tiny map and blinked up at the shadowy figure in the river. “No, no I don’t think so.” Her throat felt suddenly dry and she licked her lips.

The shadowy head cocked sideways, as though it were studying her. “You are needed,” as if it were so obvious It didn’t understand why she had such a problem grasping it.

Sarah scowled and stood up, brushing dirt from her hands. The cat leaped lightly from her lap and went to investigate the mini Labyrinth with cautious sniffs. “Which brings us right back to my first question. Why me?”

“You will be the champion.”   Of course, the tone seemed to imply.

 “Oh, yeah? What’s wrong with Jareth? He seems perfectly capable.”

“He cannot,” the voice said.

“Uh huh. Ok,” she waited a moment for the dream to elaborate. When It didn’t she threw in a little prompt, “Why can’t he?”

“He is the King. You are the Champion. It is what it is and cannot be elsewise. There must be balance in all things.” Sarah just compressed her lips, biting back the instant sarcastic comment that wanted to come out. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Let me see if I understand you correctly. You needed someone from aboveground, someone to believe,” the shadow head nodded “And since I found the book and beat the Labyrinth, I'm it?”

“There were many books and many strong dreamers,” the figure shrugged. “One would emerge to become Champion. That one was you.”

Sarah sneered. “Ah, so I'm not even special. I'm just the one who got lucky.”

“That is untrue.”

“How is it untrue?” Her mind was racing. All this time, everything that happened, and she finally knew who was responsible. That was all she could focus on, all that mattered.

“You found the book. You said the words. You defeated the Labyrinth and forfeited your dreams.” She let the words sink in. Old, familiar feelings of bitterness and anger were welling up inside as she remembered years of misery and self-doubt. How many times had she railed at her inability to dream? How often had she wondered what she could have done to deserve such suffering? “You found the strength to survive without them for many years and have been forged into the perfect vessel,” the voice continued.

“The perfect what?” she said, so softly that any other person of sense would have heard the menace underlying her tone.

“You are as an oasis in a desert, drawing the lost and wild dreams to you. They THIRST for you. They NEED you.”

And that was all it took to break the dam. “Well isn't that just wonderful,” she rasped, her voice low and torn. “I just won the grand  fucking prize then didn't I? And all I had to do was solve the Labyrinth, defeat the Goblin King, lose my dreams and almost my sanity.” Her voice rose, “You ruined my life! And look, I even have souvenirs to remember the experience by.” Angrily she thrust out her arms toward the shadow man, revealing dozens of pale scars running up the undersides. There were several thicker ones puckered at her wrist. “I would have rather had a T-Shirt, but I imagine these have a lifetime warranty, huh?” The figure did not speak. She stretched her arms wide. She could feel them shaking with the intensity of her feelings, with the unfairness of it all. “Take a good look,” she shouted. Instead of responding the shadow man melted back into the river.

“That which failed to kill you has only made you stronger, Champion. You must survive the ordeals to come,” the voice said, once again coming from everywhere and nowhere.

“Stronger? I DIED, for ten hellish years, every day a little bit more. You did this to me! You did this!” she was screaming now. She fell to her knees with an inarticulate cry and swept her arm over the mini Labyrinth. It disintegrated into sand, but she slammed her fist over and over into the space it had occupied. “You. Did. This!” She collapsed to the ground, curled up, her body shuddering and heaving with the force of her sobs. Over and over she repeated, “You did this. You did this.”  

After long minutes she finally lapsed into silence and stillness. Only then did the ancient dream speak again. “You have suffered much, young Sarah,” she wondered if the sorrow she heard in It's voice was truth or deceit, “You will suffer more still, but you have the skills and strength to survive what lies ahead.”

“Oh, really? Is that so?” she said softly. “Well, I have news for you. You can deal with the fucking shadows yourself. I'm not here to serve the mighty Labyrinth. I came down here for only one reason, to get my dreams back, and the second I've fulfilled my end of the bargain with Amaranth, I'm going home.”

The voice seemed unconcerned with her pronouncement. “The rising shadow can be found in the Bog of Eternal Stench. You must go there, and soon.”

“I will not,” she said, and again, “I will not.”

“Beware, Sarah Williams,” the Labyrinth whispered, “Things are not always what they seem.”

Aisling awoke with a sudden jolt. The baggage sled, where she had chosen to ride in order to avoid Leila and her temperament, was still bouncing from the rut it had just driven through, and Hoggle, perched in the driver's seat, was grumbling something about declining road construction standards. The winter wind stung painfully against her cheeks. She realized it was because she had been crying in her sleep, and the tears were freezing to her face. She scrubbed at them with gnarled hands, trying not to alert anyone to her state.

Looking around she couldn't see a thing. The landscape was obscured by thick, blowing snow to go along with the angry wind. She could barely make out the back end of the passenger sleigh ahead of them, and the jingling of the harness bells was only just audible above the gusts. “Where...” her voice was raw and hoarse. She cleared her throat and tried again, moving closer to the driver's bench to make sure her voice reached Hoggle. “Where are we?”

When he didn't respond right away she wondered if he hadn't heard or was just ignoring her. “Near to crossin' the border o' the Goblin Kingdom,” he finally said gruffly, not looking at her. That made sense, she thought. That must be why the Labyrinth had been able to reach her. She hadn't had dreams while in the Dwarf mountain.

She huddled in silence and listened to the wind howling. The remnants of her anger from the dream still lingered, as did her resolution not to give in to the Labyrinth's manipulations, but overlaying that was an eerie sense of unreality. She shivered, and focused on calming herself down. She forced herself to forget the Labyrinth's words and turned back to Hoggle.

“Could I...” she began.

“No,” He snapped.

“But...”

“No.”

“Hoggle...”

“Look you,” he snarled, wheeling around to face her, “I ain't in the mood to converse. It's the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a magic fueled snowstorm.” He gestured at the heavy, blowing snow. “I've been awake since yesterday, and the only reason I'm here right now is because my King has a raging case of blue balls and throws right violent tantrums.” He faced forward again, and she heard him mutter. “'Course right now my balls is bluer than his with this cold.”

“Blue balls?” Aisling asked, her lips twitching in amusement despite her mood. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on Aisling. Here the King was, fuming over the loss of his prey, and the quarry was following him home in his own baggage cart. She smiled, thinking of the scene he’d created in the kitchen earlier that night.

No doubt the King had been frustrated when his mystery lady disappeared again, but as a guest in a Kingdom not his own there was little he could do about it. Then came the meal, and his discovery of a tiny golden sun dripping in gravy. Aisling would have given her eyeteeth to see the expression on his face when he found it. As it was she only witnessed the aftermath, which was spectacular enough.

It all ended in chaos in the kitchen. The Goblin King, glorious and otherworldly in his rage, swept in and demanded answers, but the kitchen workers were so overcome by terror that he could get nothing coherent from them. By the time Prince Roarke and several other guests burst in, Aisling was doing her best to remain unnoticed, Nel was shouting alternately at the cowering dwarven workers and at the King, and Izzy was crying in the corner.

Roarke had taken one look at the scene and stepped between Jareth and the frightened kitchen staff. He looked the King in the eye and told him to leave. The Goblin King went silent and cold, then turned on his heel and stalked out, obviously seething. Nel and Aisling followed him out. The last thing Aisling saw as she left was Roarke gathering a sobbing Izzy into his arms. It made her smile. Finally, despite the storm and the lateness of the hour, the Goblin King and his entourage began the long journey home.

Aisling smiled once more at the memory, gazing sightlessly into the night. It pleased her that Jareth was suffering. It served him right. She settled back and closed her eyes, hoping to sleep again, but the dream kept invading her mind. The more she tried to ignore it, the more it lingered. The last thing she wanted to do was give in to the high-handed, arrogant meddling of a sentient maze. After everything she'd gone through in the last ten years, in the last months even, she just wanted to rest. She wanted to fulfill her promise to Amaranth, take her dreams, and go home, wherever that was. She wanted time to figure out who she was now. The thoughts swirled around and around her brain, chasing each other. Finally she gave up trying to sleep with a sigh, and sat up to look at Hoggle again.

“Hoggle…” He kept stubbornly silent. She called his name again, and again no response. Finally she leaned in close to his ear and shouted “Hoggle!” making him jump.

“Why do you keep botherin' me?” he grumped.

She shrugged. “Maybe I want to be your friend.”

He snorted. “Well, I don't wanna be yours.”

She tried smiling at him, but he turned his face away. She sighed. “I need you, Hoggle. I could really use a friend right now.”

“Hoggle ain’t no one’s friend…” he started to say, but she wasn't listening. Her gaze was unfocused and distant as she kept speaking.

“I'm so confused. I hardly know who I am any longer.”

“Hmph. Well why ask me?” he muttered to himself, “I don't care who you are.”

She didn't seem to hear him. “Have you ever felt like you weren’t, you know, yourself? Well that’s how I feel. Who am I, Hoggle? I wish I could explain it, but I think I might not be who I thought I was. I’m not who I used to be, that’s for sure. I don't...I knew who I was when I was a kid, and then something, well, something happened…” She glanced aside at him, and his expression made her pause in her rambling.

Hoggle stared at her and his mouth worked, opening and closing a few times. The sound Hoggle made, widening eyes looking at her, was somewhere between a squeak and scream and a “Yeargghh” as he scrambled back away from her.

Aisling blinked, confused and unsure, wondering what she might have said or done to cause such a reaction. Moments later a large, fur shrouded shape materialized out of the storm and cantered toward the sled. Aisling, recognizing the Goblin King, bit her lip and sank slowly into her seat, feigning sleep.

“Hogwart, you scabby little toad, what was that awful shrieking noise?” he paused and peered around, his lip curled contemptuously. “Who are you talking to?”

“I uh...I was,” he swiveled to glance behind him and noticed the wildling sleeping. Well and so, she’d left him to face the firing squad on his own. “T...t...talking to, yer majesty? J...just a g...ghost, I guess.” He gulped, the noise audible even above the storm.

“Ghosts,” the king smiled condescendingly and gave a chilling laugh, “There are no ghosts that I can see here, Hoghead.”

“Of course, yer highness,” Hoggle gave a sickly smile in return.

Jareth sidled his horse closer to the sled, and leaned down, invading the dwarf's space. He spoke softly into Hoggle's ear. “I am not in a good mood, Higgle, as you may have noticed. If I hear one more word out of your puling lips, I will personally rip out your tongue and feed it to the faeries. Do you understand me?” The last came out on a snarl. Hoggle was still nodding vigorously as Jareth wheeled his stallion around and disappeared back into the storm.

“My, my, he is in a foul mood, isn't he? Frustrated, did you say?” Hoggle jumped at the sound of her voice, but before he could yelp again she clamped one hand over his mouth. He struggled a moment before he managed to tear away. He glowered at her.

“What'd you hafta go and do a thing like that for?” he growled.

“Stop you from shouting? I didn't want you getting his attention again. I didn't think it would be healthy.” Her eyebrows were raised in question.

“No,” he snarled, “You asked me...” he looked around and lowered his voice, “You asked me who you are!”

Aisling laughed nervously, not really sure what he meant. “Don't be silly. You know who I am. It's me, Aisling. Why would...”

He shook his head slowly, glowering from beneath bushy brows and her voice petered out. “I know who you are now, Sarah Williams. And you shouldn't be here.”

Time froze as she stared at him in horror. “How did you...? I never said...oh God, does Jareth...?”

He shook his head no. “I told you,” he grumbled, “You asked me. If you hadn't a kept jabberin', I could'a lived in peaceful ignorance.” Hoggle cursed her silently, and then himself. It wasn't the first time he had cause to regret being what he was. There were some things a body ought to be allowed not to know. Why'd she have to go and ask him a direct question like that?

“I don't understand,” she whispered.

“No, I don't guess you do.” His voice was bitter. He wasn't about to explain anything to her that he didn't have to. She'd asked the blighted question, and now he knew the answer. Well, perfect. He wondered if he could find some obscure part of the Labyrinth to prune so he wouldn't have to risk seeing the King while knowing what he now knew. Or maybe he could claim the need to shovel the snow from the never-ending corridor just off the main gate. That would keep him busy and out of Jareth's way, hopefully until any trouble she brought was long blown over.

“It's not possible for you to have just guessed...for you to just know...How is that possible?” She was still talking, he thought. She was always talking!

“S'possible, if ye ask the right questions.” Hoggle looked at her then and wondered how he could have not seen it before. Her voice was just the same, her questions...and her eyes. Bloody Bog Bones, if Jareth ever found out that Hoggle had known she was in his Labyrinth again, there would be nowhere safe for him. It made him angry. Getting him into trouble all over again.

She just blinked at him, mouth gaping. “What question?” she asked, baffled.

He just shook his head. “Bet ye just think you can swan in and outta here and we'll all just be waitin' to help you...” he snapped.

“No! Hoggle, I never...” she didn't get a chance to finish because just then the sled gave a mighty heave and she was thrown back among the baggage. Hoggle struggled to keep the horses in check. Ahead of them the other sleigh had stopped, and he could just barely see the shape of the Goblin King opening a passage for them. They'd crossed the border into the Goblin lands, then. He was a bit surprised that his preoccupation had kept him from feeling the change.

The lead sleigh began to move, and he urged the horses to follow. Behind him Aisling (who was Sarah, who was Trouble, he reminded himself) pulled herself back up into a sitting position. Ahead of them the castle courtyard was calm for the moment, but he knew the storm would follow them. Where the King's anger went, his own personal globe of snow was sure to follow. As Hoggle brought the sled to a halt he spoke, but didn't look back at Aisling. “If ye want my advice, you'll leave soon's you can. Ye should never've come back.”

Then he hopped down and started unhitching the tired horses. He didn't look back at her as she stared at him in wounded confusion. After a time she climbed down and slipped away from the group without anyone noticing.

 

:.0_0.:

 

Tension ran high among the denizens of the Labyrinth over the next week. Everyone seemed to share in the King's foul mood. Jareth was gone from the Castle every day, without word to anyone, and at night he closeted himself in his study and snarled at anyone fool enough to knock. Leila kept to her rooms and was more vile than usual to the servants. That only increased Nel’s bad temper, and the kitchen staff found themselves walking on eggshells every day.

Aisling's lessons were suspended, and she became bored and irritable with no one to keep company with her. Even Izzy's unprepossessing presence was gone since she had stayed behind in the Dwarf Kingdom. Aisling performed her chores, then spent her afternoons in the crystal garden, ostensibly practicing her magic. If some small part of her hoped that Jareth would seek out the garden for his own solace, then it was doomed to disappointment.

In fact she spent a great deal of time trying to understand Hoggle's words to her in the sled. He seemed even more wounded and defensive than he had been when she first met him. Was it somehow her fault? She'd hoped they could still be friends, but in fact he seemed to despise her. And then there was the mysterious fact that he knew who she was. How could that be?

It didn’t help her mood that the Labyrinth itself kept pestering her. Twice when she slept she had found herself in the courtyard dreamscape that led down to the river. Each time she had refused to follow the path through the catacombs, loudly cursing at her tormentor and reiterating her intention to have no part in it’s plotting. She discovered that with a great deal of effort she could change the dream to something more to her liking, but as interesting as that was it didn’t stop the Labyrinth from intruding over and over. She was starting to have difficulty sleeping.

She was on her way to the garden again, feeling even grumpier due to a restless night fighting off dreams. She turned a corner in the familiar path and stopped dead as the most vile, and familiar, smell assailed her. Like a thousand rotting corpses overlaying a melange of skunk and sour milk. It was so strong her eyes teared up immediately and she spent a good minute clearing them out.

When she could see once again, she was horrified to discover the bubbling pits of ooze before her. She clapped one hand over her mouth and nose, the very taste of the fetid air made her want to vomit, and turned back the way she had come. To her dismay there was nothing but a rocky cliff face behind her. She scowled.

Since her first sojourn to the crystal garden, Aisling had never again found herself lost in the Labyrinth. She would think of her destination, and then simply know how to get there. In addition, she’d developed quite a talent for reshaping the path when she needed to. Move a hedge here, create a door there, and she could get anywhere. She could think of only one reason why her direction sense was failing her now. Obviously the Labyrinth was taking more drastic measures to ensure her compliance.

“Hell, no,” she muttered. She found some footholds and started clambering up the rock. She climbed and climbed, but the top remained stubbornly out of reach. With a curse she started slowly back down, only to find the ground unexpectedly right beneath her feet. She fell with a startled shout, then punched the ground in frustration. “I said no!” She glared around her, then up at the moss laden trees.

Growling, she stood back up. To her right she could see the cliff petered out and the forest began. She stomped over and into the trees, heading away from the stench behind her. Slowly the smell began to dissipate as she walked deeper, and she relaxed. Too soon, as it happened.

One moment the soft loam of the forest floor was beneath her feet, the next emptiness. With a squeal she fell, tumbling down a debris strewn gutter. Breath knocked out of her completely, she rolled end over end, finally stopping with a bone-jarring crash. She lay, trying to catch her breath, but a familiar smell overcame her and she doubled over in painful coughing. Once the hacking subsided she lay for a moment. Above her the ugly, green hanging moss taunted her. “Ugh!” she shouted, kicking the dirt under her heels. “I know what you’re trying to do, and it won’t work!”

“And what is it exactly that I am trying to do?” a cultured voice asked. Aisling leapt to her feet and whirled around. Jareth stood leaning against a large tree, watching her with cold calculation. “Or were you speaking to somebody else?” He looked every inch the angry monarch --- very unlike the more relaxed companion she had gotten to know over the last couple of months.

“Jareth,” she squeaked. Appalled at the high-pitched sound she cleared her throat and tried again. “Your Highness, you startled me.” There, that sounded much steadier.

“That was rather the intention,” he said smoothly. He waited a moment. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m sorry, um..what was the question?” She sorted through and discarded several plausible answers for him. None of them sounded very convincing. She could hardly tell him she was talking to his Labyrinth, could she? Which led her to wonder if he could talk to his Labyrinth. That was better puzzled about at a later time, however. She watched him closely, trying to decipher his mood, the better to handle him.

Jareth’s brows drew together sharply. “I asked you…” he shook his head and gave a disgusted snort. “Never mind. I simply don't have the patience. What are you doing here?”

Aisling looked around, taking in the miserable view of the Bog of Eternal Stench. “Well, I’m not exactly sure. I seem to have gotten a bit turned around.” She looked back at him and beamed as innocent a smile as she could. “Lucky for me though isn’t it, meeting you here?”

His lip curled slightly. He didn’t look like he believed her. Now was one of those times she wished she could tell him about the Geas that kept her from lying to him. Of course, then she’d have to explain why she accepted the Geas, and what she was doing here, and who she was. Oh, dear, she might be hyperventilating.

"Lucky, yes, I’m sure,” he said, looking at her oddly. “Now, why don’t you turn yourself around again, and go back to the castle.” Aisling looked back at the gloomy forest and wondered how far she'd get.  

“I’m not sure I can,” she muttered. He looked at her sharply and she flinched. “That is, I’ve been trying, Your Majesty, but I keep ending up back here. I’m afraid I’m quite lost.” She looked at him hopefully. “Can you show me the way back?”

“No,” he snapped, “I’m busy.” He examined her at length, his gaze speculative. Then he frowned and looked around. There was no sound but the phlegmy bubbling of the bog. Carefully he removed one leather glove and placed his hand on the tree beside him. She remembered the time she touched her apple tree, and the first time she had felt the Labyrinth. She found herself wondering if he were doing the same thing. The silence stretched on, until she couldn’t take it any longer.

“Perhaps I should go with you,” she blurted out, breaking the quiet. He lowered his lids, until his eyes were mere slits, and looked at her.

“Perhaps you should,” he said. He did not look pleased at the prospect. He turned on his heel and strode away. When she did not immediately follow, he glanced back and threw out a terse, “Keep up.” Aisling scrambled after him.

They walked in silence for a long time. The King’s steps were sure and swift. Aisling marveled at his ability to find solid ground among the spongy land around them, even as she struggled to keep pace with him. Finally he slowed, his head cocked to one side, listening for she knew not what. He stopped and pivoted slowly in a circle. Then he started off in a new direction.

“What made you change your mind?” She asked after they had walked in silence for several minutes more.

“About what?” he asked absently.

“About letting me accompany you. You obviously didn't want me to.” She was surprised at the little pang of hurt that brought.

“You said yourself you kept ending up back here. Obviously something meant for you to be here. I have found it advantageous to pay attention to such signs.” She noticed he didn't say a word about the Labyrinth. Did that mean he didn't know it was sentient, or was he just hiding the fact from her?

“Oh.”

“Were you expecting a different answer?” he asked, one brow cocked as he looked back at her.

“No.” Not expecting. Hoping maybe, that he would have and share knowledge of the Labyrinth.

“No?”

She had to get off the subject. She didn't want him to know the Labyrinth was taking an interest in her. She wasn't sure how he'd take it. “I suppose it would have been nice had you wanted my company just for the sake of having my company.” There, it wasn't an answer to his question, but sounded like it was, and it was a true statement. She was getting better at this whole redirecting the truth thing.

“Hmm,” he purred. He said nothing else for the next few minutes. Finally she broke the silence again.

“Where are we going?”

He sighed and stopped, looking distinctly irritated when he glanced at her. “We are not going anywhere any longer.”

Chagrined she began to babble an apology. “I'm sorry. I'll be quiet. I didn't mean...”

The sly expression on his face stopped her. His lips quirked. “We are not going anywhere because we are here.” He swept one hand out before him. She leaned out to peak past him and pursed her lips in puzzlement. She looked to her right, and to her left, then all around.

“Here where? It's a wall.” It wasn't just any wall, she supposed. It was ancient looking, and high, so high that she couldn't make out the top when she looked up. It seemed to stretch into infinity in either direction. It had a presence that hovered at the edge of her senses, as if waiting for something momentous to happen.

“What's it for?”

“Why to keep things out and to keep things in. What else do you suppose a wall would be for?” He smirked at her.

“Yes, I understand the concept, Your Majesty,” she said dryly. “I meant, what is it protecting?”

“If that is what you meant then that is what you should have said. You must learn to be clear in your questions, or you will never get a proper answer.” He started walking again.

Aisling just sighed and followed, examining the massive construction as she walked. As she walked along she realized the wall was without a single chink or crack. Not even a breath of wind could escape from between its stones.

“It's awfully well built.” She said.

“That is because I built it.”

“Ah...So what is on the other side?” She paused a moment to look closer at the stones, mostly to stop herself from watching him walking ahead of her. Heaven forbid he caught her ogling him. She also tried to ignore the fact that she was finally wandering the Bog like the Labyrinth wanted her to. Instead she looked at the scattered clumps of Watcher's Moss, the eyestalks following her curiously. She never could get over those things. She wondered if they were the equivalent of the Labyrinth's eyes, or if that ancient dream had other ways of seeing what went on within It's walls. She stared at one clump and it stared back unblinking.

“The stuff of nightmares and darkness,” he said softly.

“Like your ego?” she murmured under her breath, eyes rolling.

“That would take a considerably larger wall,” he whispered silkily, suddenly right behind her, his breath caressing her ear. She yelped and turned, but tripped on an exposed root and fell to the ground. She stared up at him looming over her with his arrogant and enigmatic eyes.

Jareth didn't know why he teased her back. He should punish her for her temerity, but looking down at her sprawled in the dirt the only feeling he had was one of amused contentment. His mouth twitched, and Aisling's twitched along with it. A moment later he was laughing, his head thrown back as the mirth poured out of him, and she was laughing too. After their laughter subsided he held out a hand to help her up, and was pleased to see she accepted it without hesitation.

How long had it been since he had laughed like that, with genuine joy behind it? What a very odd feeling it was. The laughter trickled away into nothing, and they walked side by side in companionable silence along the wall. Jareth kept a sharp eye on the stones, searching for damage. There had been another shift, the night they returned from the Dwarf Kingdom, and he had been inspecting and repairing nearly every day since. He still didn't know what the cause of the shifting was, and that disturbed him.

“So,” Aisling finally spoke from beside him. He glanced over and she was peeking through her hair at him with her caramel eyes. “Nightmares and darkness, huh? Sounds ominous.”

“There is a reason for the wall,” he replied wryly. She nodded, her expression turning thoughtful.

“Yes, well. Would these nightmares have anything to do with that attack the night of your ball, back in autumn?”

He grimaced. Too clever by half sometimes was his little dream. “I suspect so, yes, but I have not found proof yet.”

“So, we're checking out the wall then, because you think there might be a hole somewhere that something might have escaped from?” she pressed.

“Indeed, very perceptive of you,” he sighed. She was quiet again for a time, then her voice reached him, hesitant and soft.

“What would it look like?”

Jareth gave a graceful shrug. “Therein lies the problem. It could be anything or nothing, an object, a creature, a shadow on a wall. This one must have some talent at illusion and concealment, to have eluded me so long. At the same time it may already have dissipated if it has not found a source of energy.”

“Energy? Is that what happened to that servant? It just...sucked the life out of him?”

“Yes,” he said simply. When he looked down at her he noticed her eyes seemed worried. She nibbled on her lower lip thoughtfully and he raised one brow in inquiry.

“Jareth,” she began, “I think...” She didn't have a chance to finish. With a discordant wail a dirty red creature suddenly launched out of the tree above them. Jareth stepped aside, but the wildling was not so quick. She gave a short gasp as the firey, Jareth recognized it now, wrapped its withered limbs around her and bore her to the ground.

“Hungry,” it whined strangely before sinking its teeth into the soft flesh where her neck and shoulder met. She screamed, and her hands clawed for purchase in the firey's fur and flesh, trying to pull it off.

“Aisling!” Jareth shouted, an unfamiliar feeling of fear washing over him. He buried his fingers in the firey's scruff and with a growl he yanked the creature off her. Unfortunately, the head did not accompany its body, but held firm to the wildling's flesh. He could see her trying to wedge her fingers into its jaw and pry it loose.

He threw the body to the ground and planted one boot on its shoulders to prevent it from crawling away. With a flip of his wrist, a gleaming silver dagger appeared in his hand. He drove it down into the firey's back, through the heart, with such force that the blade buried itself in the frozen ground beneath. The body spasmed and went limp. In that pause after death he could no longer hear a struggle behind him. When he looked over he was relieved to see that Aisling had managed to get the head removed and was curled on the ground whimpering, one hand pressed to her shoulder, the other clutched protectively to her stomach. He crouched at her side, ignoring the head beside her now staring at them with dead eyes.

“Aisling, Aisling, my little dream, can you hear me?” he asked urgently. Her eyes flickered open and looked up at him, glazed with pain.

“Jareth?” Her voice was breathy and weak.

“Hush, don't talk. You must let me see the wound.” She flinched away from his reaching hand, but he grabbed her good shoulder and held her down. “Shh, shh, shh,” he murmured. “You must let me look.”

“It hurts,” she croaked.

“I know it does, little one, I know.” He was persistent, and she finally allowed him to draw her hand away from the wound. Her shoulder was ravaged, blood soaked her fur and leaked out onto the hard ground, and his heart hurt at her pain. “Lie still, we need to stop the bleeding.”

“You're being so nice,” she mused weakly, as if in wonderment.

What does that mean?” he sniffed, taking offense at her implication.

“Gobli' King 's no'a nice man,” she slurred. Her eyes fluttering.

He scowled. “Even in this state you argue with me,” he muttered petulantly, but secretly he was pleased at her show of spirit. “Now stop talking and lay still. I will stop the bleeding and then carry you back to the castle for help.”

“Carry me?” Her forehead crinkled as she blinked blearily up at him.

“Yes.” He straightened and stripped his shirt off quickly. It was less energy to use it to staunch the wound than to produce material for the task.

“Why don't you just,” her free hand waved weakly, “you know, poof?”

“Poof?” he asked, his eyes narrowing in amusement. He tore one long strip from the hem of the shirt and laid it aside, then folded the remaining material into the wound. “Hold this here.” Her hand automatically pressed to the soft silk, and she groaned at the pressure.

“Yes, poof, you know, from here to there, poof, poof...” She blinked up at him kneeling shirtless above her. “Oh, my. Naked chest,” she breathed.

He couldn't help the chuckle that escaped. He took her injured hand gently in his and began wrapping the silk strip around it. “You cannot “poof” in the bog,” he said.

“Not even you?” she asked.

“Not even me,” he said, “It is part of the protection of this place.” He was glad to keep her talking; it meant she was hanging on. When she didn't respond for several long moments he became concerned and touched his fingers to her cheek. Her eyes moved to his face and she grimaced.

“Am I going to die?” she finally asked.

“No.” His brows lowered menacingly.

“I might. I think...”

“You...will...not...die,” he gritted out through his teeth as he tied the makeshift bandage tight around her hand, and then tied the rest of his shirt to her shoulder.

“You're always giving orders, you know that? So demanding...” She winced as he tightened the fabric sharply. “Jareth, want to tell you, just in...” She gasped suddenly and her body bowed backwards and started shaking. Mewling sounds of distress were escaping from her lips and she twisted out of his grasp, clawing at the ground with both hands. “Oh God,” she gasped, “it burns...Jareth, please...the darkness burns!”

“Aisling, my dreamling, what is it? Can you hear me?” He grabbed her arms, trying to keep her from injuring herself further as she writhed. It was then he noticed the ooze, black and oily, sink the rest of the way into the skin of her good hand. The dusty gray trail it left in the dirt led straight to the vacant eyes of the dead firey. “Aisling!”

“It...wants...” she gasped, before her eyes rolled up into her head and she went limp in his arms. With a growl, Jareth gathered her in his arms and started running for the edge of the bog.

 

:.O_O.:

 

Aisling moaned as the nightmare unfolded. Pain, blood, and fear chased her through endless corridors. Finally she'd had enough. She would not run, no more. She stopped and turned, and when the dark thing ran around the corner she was ready.

“Feed,” it hissed, a shifting shadowy snake, stalking her, swaying in her face.

“No,” she ground out, her voice one and many, her power flowing through her fingers, “You came to me, and that makes you mine.” She grabbed the shadow around its throat and slammed it to the ground. It writhed in her grip, but could not escape. Eventually it twitched and lay still. “You'll do what I say now.”

She awoke to a cool cloth on her head. Niela's face hovered over her. “Nel?”

“Awake are ye?” She turned to someone Aisling couldn't see. “Tell 'im she's out o' it. Whate'er had its grip has passed.” She sank back into darkness, and her dreams were nothing more than that.

When she woke next it was to the sound of goblin voices.

“But it boring!”

“It does nothing for hours.”

“Want to sleep.”

“Can't sleep, it sleeping.”

“Want to...”

She turned her head and saw a pair of short, purple furballs with bulbous noses and barbed tails. She tried to speak but her mouth felt gummy. She licked her lips and tried again. “Who...who're you?”

“It awake!”

“It talk!”

“Not suppose to disturb it. You disturb it.” One of the goblins poked the other in the belly.

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did...”

“Stop!” she ground out. She raised one hand to her temple, only to find it swathed in bandages. She lowered it again. “What...what happened?”

“Kingy bring you back. You hurt.”

“Kingy very very mad. Yell at everyone.”

“He be happy you ok now!”

“We tell kingy!”

With that the two rushed off and Aisling was alone. She tried to sit up, but it took a couple of attempts to manage it, and once she did she nearly doubled over from the pain in her shoulder. Nausea washed over her, and she hung her head between her legs, breathing deeply until it passed. There was something, something urgent she needed to do. What was it? Her thoughts were sluggish beneath a woozy haze.

The nightmares. The shadows, feeding on life energy. Oh, God. Leila! She had to find Leila. She tried to stand, but it didn't work. She had to do something. Leila was in danger, she just knew it. Aisling tumbled to the floor and lay there for a time, just gathering her strength, then she held out her good hand and concentrated.

It took almost 10 minutes, but her raven finally coalesced, perched on her stomach. It cocked its head and looked at her with a beady eye. “Leila,” she croaked, “You have to find her...follow her. Come back to me if you see anything bad happen.” The raven cawed and took flight, making her grunt.

She thought about getting up, but she was just so tired. She was just drifting off when she heard voices again. A familiar voice, a voice that made her feel safe, growled into the silence.

“They were supposed to be watching her. Why is she on the floor?” She didn't hear a response, but she did feel warm arms lifting her back onto the bed. A hand brushed her forehead and she drifted to sleep again, a deep, dreamless sleep for many hours.

She dreamed of him. They sat on a grassy hill, a tree full of spring blossoms above them. He took her hand and kissed it, his lips velvet soft.

“Darling,” he said. Then he kissed her lips, but a shadow fell over them, and she looked up to see a raven circling above her. “Danger,” it cawed, “Danger, danger!” It dove at her and pecked at her hand until blood welled. She looked at her lover and his eyes were dark, his hands like claws. His teeth sank into her lip, and blood ran down her chin. She fell back, crawling away, trying to escape, but hands were grasping at her, so many hands. They ripped and scratched and tore, and she screamed...screamed...screamed as they violated her, bruised her...devoured her.

Aisling woke screaming and shaking, her hand throbbing painfully. The room was empty this time, no bickering goblins to distract her. The raven sat on her stomach and watched her. Its beak glistened wetly and it butted her chest with its head. She knew what it wanted to come back to her, but she shook her head and she held it to her and absorbed it back in.

“Not yet, little one,” she whispered, “We have to find Jareth.” Her breath hitched, “Oh, Leila”

Oh, Leila. She had to find Jareth, get to him. The poor trembling bird climbed onto her shoulder and clung there, nuzzling her head and gnawing gently on her earlobe. She stumbled out of bed, but she could barely stand, even with the help of the wall. She'd never get to him on far on foot, she didn't have the strength. She rested her hand on the cool stone and tried to think. Jareth, she had to get to Jareth. He would know what to do. Even as she thought it, she felt a breath, a pulse of magic from the wall, and she knew where he was. “Will you take me there?” she asked, and the door appeared. “Thank you.” She opened it and stepped through without a thought, into darkness.

It took far more effort than it should to conjure the fairy light, but once she did she found herself on a stair. She climbed them, ever up and up, until they ended with a heavy door, burnished dark with age, and carved in elaborate fairy scenes. She touched it, then grasped the handle and pushed it open.

The moonlight streamed in through the windows, bathing one side of the room in soft, blurred light. The other side danced with red and yellow shadows cast by the crackling fire. Aisling's eyes were drawn to the bed, and there he lay. He looked peaceful in sleep. She wished she didn't need to wake him. “Jareth,” she tried to say aloud, but it came out more like a hoarse whisper. Her eyes traveled from his face and down. He lay on his stomach, face turned to the the door. He must have been warm, because there were was a pile of furs and comforters in a fallen pile on the floor. It took her three heartbeats to realize he was completely nude, and she tore her eyes  back up to his face --- and his open eyes. She met his glimmering gaze for but an instant before her exertions took their toll and she fainted to the floor.

Chapter Text

Aisling came to floating on a cloud, or at least something that closely resembled one. The room blazed with light. She blinked up at a carved mahogany canopy draped in fine velvet curtains so deep a green they were almost black. There was no sound but the soft crackling of flames. She couldn't remember where she was, or how she got there.

O, God, she ached; from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. Her shoulder was on fire, throbbing with every beat of her heart. When she turned her head the pain spiked and she groaned. A moment later the Goblin King strode into the room looking like some marble Adonis, clad only in a pair of gray breeches. He looked furious. Oh, yes, now she remembered. She'd seen Jareth's naked backside.

He stopped just beside the fireplace, hands on his hips, head cocked to the side as he examined her through narrowed eyes. Aisling found herself more distracted by his sculpted chest than by his scowl. Was the smooth, hairless expanse natural or did the Goblin King manscape? Not really an appropriate thought that, considering why she had made the effort to find him. There was an edge of hysterical laughter to the thought. She held back the urge to giggle, wondering if she'd hit her head. She closed her eyes for a long moment, struggling to still her foggy thoughts. She opened them again and tried to turn her head to see him better, but he snarled softly and she froze.

“Lie still. You are by far the most stubborn creature I have ever had the misfortune to know,” he growled through lips pressed grimly together. Her natural inclination being contrariness, Aisling shifted, pushing up on her elbow on the uninjured side. The pain flared again and she gave a tiny gasp. Jareth was at her side in an instant, sitting on the bed and leaning over her, providing gentle, but insistent, pressure, to push her back down into the pillows. She tensed, but his fingers dug into her arm painfully.

“Aisling, look at me. Attend!” He took her chin in his other hand and she had no choice but to meet his green and gold sorcerer's eyes. They looked like burning jewels in his pale face and she couldn't tear her gaze away. He brought his face close to hers, close enough to kiss, and her throat dried up completely. “You will heed me on this, little dream,” he said softly, voice a dangerous silken caress, “If you attempt to rise once more, I will tie you to the bed. Do you understand?”

Her body did not dislike that suggestion as much as she thought it should. He did not repeat his question, but waited silently. Only once she nodded, slightly, and mumbled her assent, did he release her and stand back up. He glanced at her sharply, once, before leaving the room again.

Aisling waited several minutes, watching the flames dance and feeling the sick tension of her mission twist inside her.  She was just considering risking his ire by disobeying him when he returned carrying a tray. He set it on the bedside table, resuming his seat beside her on the bed as she examined the contents with caution. There were two steaming bowls, one with a cloth soaking in it, the other with a spoon. The smell made her mouth water. However, the pile of clean bandages, needle and thread did not do pleasant things to her stomach.

Reason finally caught up with observation and she looked at him. “What are you doing?” she squeaked as Jareth began removing the linen at her shoulder.

One brow rose insolently, his expression implying it was an obvious question. “Changing your dressing. You tore your wound open...and you bled on my floor.” She hissed in pain as he peeled the last layer carefully away from her wound. She noticed the once white fabric was dark and stiff with blood, both old and new. Jareth dropped it into an unceremonious heap on the tray. She felt panic tighten her throat at the thought of him tending to her.

“No, you shouldn't...you mustn't do it yourself...” She twisted under him, but his hand shot out to grab her uninjured shoulder, hard. She stilled instantly, chest heaving. She blinked back the tiny, dancing sparkles of black and gold that had begun to edge her vision. Perhaps trying to move really was a bad idea. She couldn't tell him anything if she passed out again.

“Do you think me incapable?” He asked in a tone of polite menace. “I assure you I am not. Niela is busy, and as my other subjects have obviously failed to keep you in your place, it falls to me to make sure you obey.” He released her shoulder, turning his attention once again to the exposed wound. She gritted her teeth against the stabs of pain, despite that she could tell he was trying to be gentle as he cleaned the area.

“No. You don't understand...” her voice was rough and urgent, nearly a whisper, but loud enough in the too quiet room. The weight of time passing seemed like a solid thing on her chest. She had to get him to listen.

“Ah, so now I am dimwitted as well as incompetent?” His voice was a little chillier than it had been a moment before.

“No, that's not ...” she sighed, struggling to put into words the urgency of what she had to tell him. She gestured toward her shoulder with her bandaged hand. “This isn't important. I have to...”

“I will decide what is and is not important, wildling.”

“But...”

“Do you really wish to test my resolve on this matter, little one?” His eyes gleamed as he stared her down. He flicked a glance down at his hands, then back up at her. Her breath stopped when she saw he now held a length of white silk rope, which he was running slowly through his nimble fingers. A cackling sound drew her attention to the mantle where the raven perched. It danced from foot to foot, head cocked and watching her. It's eyes sparkled as if laughing at her predicament. It appeared a far cry from the frightened bird that had woken her up.

“I need no help from you,” the King snapped. The bird's feathers ruffled indignantly, but it hunkered down and fell silent. “Well?” he asked with eyebrows raised.

Aisling just shook her head mutely and settled back. He was in no mood to be reasoned with. She would have to wait just a little longer for him to listen. She focused instead on breathing through the pain and watching him from beneath lowered lashes. It wasn't often, she realized, that she could just look at him. For several minutes the only sounds were the fire crackling and the cloth being dipped into and wrung out over the bowl of water.

“As I thought,” he murmured finally, radiating satisfaction. At that moment she realized a greater danger than the one to her overstimulated senses. The firey's teeth must have damaged the cloak before tearing into her shoulder. Had they damaged the illusion too? Her whole body stiffened and dread lodged in her throat.

“What?” she choked out.

“Just here,” his fingers hovered over a spot on her shoulder. She wrenched her head over, trying to see, dreading the sight of pale white skin gleaming beneath the fur. She barely registered the searing pain before Jareth's unforgiving fingers grasped her chin and forced her head away again. “Are you dim, little one?” he asked, disgust in his voice. “You are twitchy as any wild creature. I was only confirming that you had torn your stitches, as I suspected.”

She did not hear him. She was both relieved and dismayed at the sight that had greeted her in that brief glimpse of her wound. Her shoulder looked just as if some wild animal had been gnawing and tearing at it. Several gashes, long and deep, made uneven lines of angry red. The fur had been trimmed away from the edges of the torn flesh, which was as dark and leathered as her hands and face. There was no hint of pale pink to give her away.

“I will have to leave it open for now. My sewing skills leave much to be desired, but Niela will be here soon enough to see to it.” He loosely wrapped her shoulder with the clean linen. “I think now you had better eat.”

“I can feed myself,” she snapped irritably.

“Did I say otherwise?” he asked mildly, eyes twinkling. “Let me help you sit up.” He had already wrapped his arms around her before she could protest, not that she could find the will to do so. Breathless with tension, she fought her initial flight response and tried to relax as he lifted her up against the headboard. The embrace may have been impersonal on his part, but she relished it. His fine silken hair tickled her cheek, and her nose was filled with the scent of spice and musk, uniquely Jareth. She closed her eyes, ignoring the pain of her shoulder, and kept them closed even after he had drawn away.

She felt his weight leave the bed, and opened her eyes to find him staring down at her, his brow wrinkled and lips pursed as he contemplated her. It was only a flash. His face smoothed out into its usual hauteur as soon as he saw her eyes open. He handed her the bowl of soup from the tray. “Eat,” he ordered, before turning away. He draped himself languidly over a chair by the fire and watched her with slumberous eyes. In fact, if she didn't know him better she would have thought him asleep.

Jareth forced himself to lounge as he watched the wildling begin to eat.  There was an unfamiliar sensation in his chest, concern with perhaps a touch of fear. It vexed him and made that spot between his shoulder blades itch with discomfort. When he had awoken to see her watching him sleep with those wide, liquid eyes, he had at first been irritated. Until he noticed the dazed look in her gaze and the lines of pain bracketing her mouth. He hadn't been quick enough to catch her when she slipped to the ground.

As soon as she passed out, That Damned Bird began flying about the room in a panic. He couldn't dismiss the pesky beast, it was not his magic. He told himself it was only natural to deposit her on his bed. It was the closest surface and the bird quieted down right after. It had been little enough effort to ring for the tray, no secret desire lodged behind it, except perhaps for peace and quiet. His gaze drifted to the night dark sky beyond his window. The last thing he wished in the middle of the night was for Nel and half the staff to be trooping in and out of his suite. No, better to see the wildling settled and let Nel tend her in the morning.

A small sound drew his eyes back to Aisling. She was sitting very still, eyes half closed, staring at the bowl. “Why have you stopped eating?” he demanded.

Her eyes rose to meet his, and he found himself momentarily caught in the amber of her gaze. Then she blinked, and the spell was lost. The wildling straightened her shoulders and firmed her jaw. Jareth felt his lips quirk at her obvious attempt to shore herself up.

“I find I can't eat another drop until you let me tell you what I've come to tell you,” she said decisively, with only a little tremor at the end. His eyes narrowed.

“Eat, or I will make you eat,” he said softly, even as he wondered to himself why he was so hellbent on making her do so.

Instead of meekly accepting his orders she just shook her head. “I came to tell you something urgent,” she said as if he had not spoken.

“I fail to see what could be so important you risked yourself.” He stood and began stalking toward her. She blinked, but he was strangely pleased to note how she did not shrink away. She held ground, shoulders back and head high. Still, she rushed to get the next sentence out before he reached the bedside.

“Leila's been attacked.” That stopped him in his tracks.

“What are you talking about?” He demanded, brow plunging into a deep scowl.

“I think Leila's been attacked, by nightmares from beyond the wall. Maybe dead...”

“You think ,” he murmured. “And what precisely would make you think that.”

“I could...I could show you,” she offered. One kingly eyebrow rose and he found himself intrigued despite his irritation. He waved one imperious hand at her to indicate his acceptance.

He watched her glance around the room covertly, as if looking for something. Finally her gaze settled on the bowl of red-tinged water at her bedside. Her good arm, with coincidentally her injured hand, started to reach across toward it, but stopped when she caught his displeased glare. She smiled weakly. “Could you...?”

“My, what bloodthirsty tastes you have,” he commented lightly. “No wonder you haven't finished your soup.” He deftly switched out the bowls.

“I'm not going to drink it,” she snapped, eyes crackling. Jareth simply looked amused. Her high dander didn't last long. She looked down into the bowl for a long moment, teeth worrying her lower lip.

“Are you reading the future?” he asked mildly.

“No,” she breathed, an odd note of sorrow in her voice, “the past.” She lay one gnarled finger lightly on the surface and the once clear water was suddenly clouded with roiling, half-seen images, tinted a sullen red. Surprised, loathe though he was to admit it, and intrigued, he leaned forward, towering over her. She started, barely a flinch, but her hand lost contact briefly and the liquid sloshed lightly, returning to its translucent state. She glared up at him, but he merely shrugged and raised his brows inquiringly. He smiled blandly when she shook her head and then perched on the edge of the bed beside her.

“Your mirror ability?” he asked softly. She nodded. She had told him of course, that she could see what her dreams had seen in mirrors, shortly after she discovered it. At the time it had seemed a quaint by-product of her dream magic, but hardly the sort of high magic control that he had been interested in teaching her. Perhaps he should not have dismissed it so quickly. If she was developing true mirror magic…

She touched one fingertip to the water once more. The images did not race past this time. Instead the surface shimmered and then resolved into an image of the labyrinth as seen from above. “I sent my Raven to follow her...after we talked about the shadows...” She hesitated. “It reminded me of something I'd seen, something that might have been a shadow, with Leila...weeks ago. I'd forgotten until you told me about them...”

On the path below was Leila, walking arm in arm with a brown haired man. The image shook, and the view changed frequently, no doubt as the raven flew from perch to perch. The couple reached a small hill and sat in the grass. They were kissing, caressing, when suddenly a squall of Shadows came boiling up from the base of the hill. They reached with many clawed hands for Leila, who, her face a picture of confusion, soon started screaming.

As the violent imagery progressed, a small, at first indistinct feeling unfurled in Aisling's chest. She barely noticed it, so intent was she on her task.

The whole thing happened very fast, too fast to follow each savage blow, which was perhaps a mercy. Glimpses of blood running down her face now, flashes of it dripping from her clawed fingers. Moments later her body was obscured by oily shadows surrounding and covering the struggling girl and all they could hear were screams and wicked laughter. Then one Shadow creature raised its head and looked up at the raven wheeling overhead. It screeched and the scene whirled away as the raven-dream fled.

She was breathing hard by the time it ended, obviously tired from the effort. She sighed, looking down at her reflection in the bloody water. It was then she realized, with a dawning sense of horror, that she was smiling, and in the back of her mind there was pleasure at the sight of her enemy laid low. As quickly as she noticed it, it fled, leaving only a sense of sorrow and disgust...and fear.

Jareth struck with the speed of a snake; her wrist was suddenly caught in the vise of his fingers. She couldn't help the cry that escaped her mouth, terrified that he had seen her look of satisfaction. The amused tolerance from moments ago was lost from his face. Lights sparked out of the depths of his eyes.

“Where is this?” he hissed. The bowl of water tumbled from her lap onto the floor and her eyes widened in fear.

She made a small animal noise of pain. “You—you're hurting me,” she said, voice low.

“Where?!” he demanded. She didn't understand his urgency, his sudden intensity, he could see by her eyes. He tried to rein in his reaction, but his hand tightened still, and he shook her ungently.

“I don't know!” she cried, too injured to pull away from him, although she tried nonetheless. “The raven can show you! I know not! Jareth, please!”

He was already bounding away from her, some part of him taking note as she cradled her wrist in her injured hand. That Damned Bird, of course. “With me, pest,” he sneered at the now agitated dream. He didn't look to see if it followed. It would. He strode out onto the balcony and leapt over the rail, the motion propelling him fluidly into the night air. Moments later the white owl and the black raven raced away from the tower and into the night, leaving Aisling alone with disquieting thoughts of her reaction to Leila's death.

He regained some control as they flew. It was always thus when he felt the wind through his feathers, the intent focus of the predator cooling his thoughts. Could he trust this vision she had shown him? The ramifications were dangerous if so.

They soared over field and hedge, stone wall and rushing brook. They did not fly as far from the settled parts of the kingdom as he would have liked before they saw the horse, Leila’s usual mount.

She was heading for the Goblin City at a breakneck pace, tossing her head in fear. There was no rider. The raven cawed urgently, drawing Jareth's attention away from the terrified steed and they flew on.

They finally landed at the base of a hill -- the hill -- one among many such craggy offerings in the rough landscape. Chunks of bedrock thrust through the soil like fists, only patchily covered with green, mostly rough scrub with the occasional hardy tree. It was a bleak and beautiful terrain, and nowhere near The Wall.

Jareth gestured for quiet from the bird once he was on his own two feet again. The contrary thing just ruffled its feathers and grumbled quietly at him. He surveyed the hill, and found a grassy path to the top. He went slowly, quietly, but he did not hide. They had come in from above, and he had seen no sign of the nightmares when they approached. What he had seen, well, it bore closer scrutiny.

He had expected a scene of carnage. Given the bloody vision that Aisling had shown him, there should have been some evidence of the violence, a pool of blood, savaged flesh, something. And yet the only thing on the hill was the body. She lay face up, dead eyes staring blindly at the rose-red fingers of dawn blushing the sky. She might have been carved stone for all the color that was left to her. Her once raven hair was like ash, her grass green eyes were grey-veined marble. He crouched by the remains and touched one finger to a strand of her hair. It crumbled like ash, the flakes blowing away in the wind.

The rest of her would be just as delicate, he knew. It had always been thus when the nightmares feasted on mortal dreams. The wind picked up and bits of her dress began to drift away in delicate flakes. He watched them dance on the breeze, devoid of sparkle. He felt no sorrow for Leila’s death, and the horror did not touch him, for he had seen worse in his long years, but there was a touch of remorse beneath the anger. Once more he had failed to protect someone residing in his kingdom. Once more the enemy had got the better of him.

He stood back and produced a crystal with a twist of his wrist. He tossed it gently into the air above Leila’s body. At the apex of its climb it burst, and a shower of glittering crystal drizzled down like mist. As it settled it encased Leila’s remains, becoming a delicate crystal coffin. With a negligent flick of his wrist a door opened to the castle. The crystal construct rose from the ground and traveled through. Jareth looked at the raven.

“Go back to your mistress,” he said softly, “I have other tasks to attend to.” The pestilential bird simply stared back dubiously, as if trying to decide if it was wise to leave him. “Now,” he hissed irritably, and with an offended caw the bird followed the coffin. The door winked closed behind it.

He stood for some time after he was alone, staring out over the highlands. In one direction the rocky landscape rose bit by bit toward mountains. In the other the craggy rocks marched on toward fertile fields and prairies. The Wall was not within site. It was a good distance to the east, he knew, hidden deep within the bog. The trees were not even in view from this vantage. With unerring knowledge, he turned toward it.

There was a smudge on the horizon, an ever present haze that darkened the sky just beyond the wall. That was nothing new. He turned away, back to the setting before him. He stalked down from the height of the tor, examining each inch of ground that he walked. When he reached the bottom he circled it, but found nothing that he was searching for.

Oh, there were signs that the nightmares had been here, now that he looked. There were specks of lifeless grey among the grass, even some oily residue on the rocks, but beyond the immediate vicinity there was nothing. It was as if the shadows had materialized out of the air and disappeared back the same way. He could find no evidence of where they had come from, or how they had gotten from their prison to this spot. He had been so certain that all the cracks in the wall had been repaired. How could they have escaped? How did they get here without leaving a trail?

He knew where they originated though. Foiled in his investigation and frustrated he took to the sky and flew toward the bog. This time he did not stop at the wall, but flew beyond it. He shook off the prickly sensation of flying through his own wards and headed for a stone circle standing alone on the barren grey plain.

When he landed and transformed into himself, he was outfitted in full battle regalia. His breastplate was black, scrolled in silver. His cloak was black spider-silk, whipping behind him in the wind.

“MORRIGAN!” He bellowed.

The ground shivered with a faint tremor and in the distance a cloud of smoke billowed, growing larger as it approached. As it drew closer a black steed materialized within, a man astride, wearing only an open white shirt and grey breeches. He drew to a rearing halt on the opposite side of the circle, then vaulted down to the ground and stared at Jareth unblinkingly, hatred simmering in his gaze. His hair was black as soot, with gleaming, tight, black curls just brushing the nape of his neck and the edge of his jaw, but his skin was a sun-kissed gold and his eyes were a familiar mismatched gold and green.

They stood wordlessly, a contrasting pair of statues surrounded by massive sentinels of stone. Moments later a low and sultry laugh sounded in the air, followed by a shadow materializing and coalescing between the two men, eventually resolving into the vague form of a woman. A neck-ruffling laugh came from the shade as she drifted back beside her dark companion.

“What’s this, my sweet? A visitor? How delightful.” The shadow that once was Morrigan hovered several inches above the ground. Where her feet might once have been a mist simply tapered off, swishing and whipping like an agitated tail. One hand trailed across the man’s cheek and he tilted his face into the caress.

Jareth did not respond, although his nostrils flared and his lips pinched. He watched them with a narrow gaze, but kept his body relaxed, his head tilted arrogantly.

“I was beginning to think you had forgotten about me. To what do I owe the honor, O Great Goblin King?” Her voice started pouty but ended in a silken hiss, a whisper on the wind, and a low sigh.

Jareth remained impassive, only the steely glare of his eyes betraying his ire.

“Oh, the silent treatment. Perhaps then I should guess?” She said gleefully. Her hands clapped together like an eager child. “Perhaps you missed my sterling companionship?” She floated toward him, her head tilted up. If she had a face it would be looking into his. “No?” She laughed lightly and twirled around, her misty skirts swirling behind her. She looked coyly over one shoulder, then her whole body followed, turning to face him and floating away backwards. “Well then, perhaps it's the darkness that draws you here. Perhaps you are plagued by an increasing infestation of <i>shadows</i>?” Her voice grew harder, thrumming with dark power, as she spoke.

Outside the circle a dark mist began to rise from the ground. It gathered into a pulsing fog of deepest grey, and within it swirled and drifted shadowed forms. The sound was like that of rustling leaves, soft and sibilant and eerie. The fog stopped at the outside edge of the stone circle, pressing against some unseen barrier.

“Ah, my pets arrive. Look, my sweetlings, we have a visitor.” There was a strange, shrill hissing from the shadows, more felt than heard, almost like laughter. His jaw clenched.

“You are losing ground, Goblin King,” she said. Her head cocked to one side like a bird. “How long do you think you can keep me here?”

He moved then, prowling the edge of the stone circle. Across the way, the other man kept pace like some dark reflection. Between them, Morrigan arched her back and stretched her arms languidly, sinuously, overhead, obviously pleased to have garnered a reaction.

Jareth bit back a growl, instead merely baring his teeth in a predatory smile. “Only forever; it's not long at all.”

“Oh, sweet boy, how naïve. Your pathetic purgatorial prison cannot possibly hold me forever. And when I am free,” she paused and gave a low sensual chuckle, “Ah, but when I am free I will leave you wrecked and ravaged.” Morrigan let out low hum at the thought, her voice turning as smoky as her form, and then she writhed. “I will savor your wretchedness when all that you hold dear lies dead and ruined at your feet. I will bask in your despair when your kingdom is left desolate by the nightmares you dare to believe that you can control, interred behind your warded walls and air.”

Opposite him, the man who was not Jareth gave a rumble of approval, briefly drawing the King's gaze to him, noting with disgust the light of agreement in his shining eyes. Reigning in his revulsion, he coolly advised, “If such lies help you to pass eternity then please feel free to continue to deceive yourself so.”

“Why lie when the truth is so much more delicious?” she laughed wickedly.

“Mmm,” he agreed, smiling a sharp smile in return. “And how are you enjoying your reality? The bittersweet taste of your exile? For myself, life is quite satisfying.”

“Enjoy it while you can, Goblin King, I can smell your defeat in the air,” she hissed, her emotions swinging quickly from delight to rage and back again.

He laughed lightly. “You can smell nothing. Nor can you taste, nor feel. You're a ghost, madame, a pitiful spook who has no impact upon the world around her.” He paused as though considering, then added thoughtfully, “Even at your height, you were hardly a match for me.”

“And yet here you stand in my domain, looking for answers like a lost child,” she said softly.

Jareth frowned. “You're an irritation, nothing more.” He waved a hand through the air as though swatting a fly.

“I think you enjoy being agitated by me. Why else would you come here and risk exposing your weakness? You're losing control of your little fiefdom.” She spread her arms, taking in the swirling shadows outside the circle. “The shades and the darkness may be trapped and waiting in the forgotten places now, but soon the sun shall set and your doorstep shall fall to shadow.”

“You are powerless here, witch. And you will remain so, at my pleasure.” He sighed, relaxing slightly. He need not have come. Whatever trick she used, it was an aberration, nothing more. He turned to the man, so eerily alike and yet so different. He stared at him, his gaze guarded, yet strangely intent. His voice was soft when he spoke.

“But you Melchior? You need not remain here. I have said as much before.” His eyes snapped with sudden rage, quickly subdued into a mask of indifference very similar to Jareth's own.

 “Brotherly concern after so long?” he bit out, his voice icy, “It is a bit late for that, don't you think?”

“Mel…” Jareth took one unconscious step toward him. He caught himself and stopped, folding his arms. “Do you not see the kind of creature she is? Have you not seen the error of your ways?” He knew immediately those were the wrong words, but it was too late to grab them back.

Melchior stiffened, the rage filling his eyes once more. “The error of MY ways? And what about the error of yours, dear brother?”

“I did what needed to be done,” Jareth replied.

Melchior laughed, but there was a manic edge that would terrify most people. “She, at least,” he pointed to Morrigan's shade, now floating still and quiet, watching the performance, “is honest in her treachery. She does not dress it up in pretty disguises like loyalty, duty, or,” he sneered, “love.”

For the first time during the whole confrontation the barb struck home. Jareth's eyelids shivered faintly, the biggest reaction he had yet to give. It was practically a flinch. Melchior flexed his elegant hands, but made no other move. “At least I KNOW I cannot trust her,” he said softly.

“Rot here then, for all I care,” Jareth gritted out in an empty voice.

Melchior laughed nastily, “Finally, an honest response from the oh-so-in-control Goblin King.”

Jareth raked him with a contemptuous gaze, then glanced at Morrigan. Her shoulders seemed to be shaking in silent laughter. He bowed to them both with a mocking flourish. Morrigan curtseyed back. Melchior stood stiff and fuming. “I bid you goodbye,” Jareth said, his familiar sly smile back in place, “I won't be seeing you again.” As quickly as he arrived, he launched into the air, soaring high above the swirling shadows of the plains.

Morrigan and Melchior watched them go, one in hate, and the other in anticipation. “Oh, but you will,” she whispered, “Sooner than you think. Time is short.” She started to laugh, and the chilling sound followed him halfway back to the castle.

 

:.O_O.:

 

On the outer edges of the great maze, between the endless corridor and the whipping willow forest, Hoggle was grumbling about the unfairness of his self-imposed exile. He whined as he weeded. He pouted as he pruned. He snarled as he seeded. He threw every sort of insult he could think of at the unsuspecting head of Sarah Williams and that Damned Jareth.

“Why,” he moaned, for the hundred thirty-fourth time, “Why did she have to go and ask the right question?” He fumed as he fumigated. He stomped around a half-broken plinth and something crunched beneath his foot. Momentarily startled from his bitching, he lifted his foot in disgust and used a convenient stick to scrape off the remains of a faerie. “Good,” he growled, flicking the nasty residue away.

He took up where he had left off in his internal ranting, continuing on his way. He had not gone far when --- Crunch. Step, crunch, crunch. He stopped, blinking down at the ground in growing surprise. Several more fairies lay in contorted poses on the frozen ground. Strange, he didn't remember spraying here recently.

His eyes rose to look ahead of him. The sparse trail of tiny bodies disappeared beneath a stand of tangled undergrowth. Curiosity momentarily getting the better of him, curse it anyhow, he knew he would regret this, he crept toward the bushes. The maze was strangely silent around him as he pushed the greenery aside.

He barely noticed the leaves and branches crumbling beneath his hands when he emerged on the other side. His brief moment of curiosity was replaced with a shaking terror. He stood on the edge of a clearing done in shades of grey. The ground, the trees, every blade of grass and trembling leaf was drained of color and vitality. It stretched before him into the distance, but that was not the worst. It looked like a war zone, hundreds of fairy bodies strewn across the ground, most of them horribly mutilated or in pieces, as grey and lifeless as the forest around them. From what Hoggle could judge, it looked like an entire colony.

Stumbling back through the bushes, he found himself bent over, trying to control his involuntary need to vomit, and being unsuccessful. When he stood he was still shaking. All thoughts of why he had fled left his head as he turned and began a shambling run for the castle.

Less than an hour later, Hoggle ran into the throne room, huffing and puffing. The King was not there, he was told by the first pair of goblins he met, so he would just have to wait.

“But I HAVE to tell someone!” he cried, “It's important! A matter of life and death!” The two fuzzy, purple goblins stared at him blankly before blinking at each other.

“He say important, Snick,” said one gravely, playing with the barb at the end of his tail.

“But Kingy not here, Snack,” said the other, scratching his bulbous nose.

“Then who else?” asked Snick. They cocked their heads in an exact reflection of each other and then jumped up grinning.

“We know!” they shrieked in unison.

“You come with us, we take you to Important the Second!” said Snack.

“Yes, yes. We take you to the Ash Lady!” said Snick gleefully.

A short time later he emerged from the castle and sat on the steps, frowning thoughtfully. Aisling had been as surprised as him when the goblins brought him to her, babbling about the life and death of matter. She was comfortably settled in a small room off Jareth's in the King's tower. Despite her uneasiness at her role of message receiver, she listened to his tale and promised to bring it to the King. Somehow he believed her.

He was still angry, he assured himself, but it had bothered him to see her looking so weak, her mouth lined with brackets of pain. He sighed, wondering irritably how long it would be before he found himself getting in trouble to help her again.

“What happen to hole when cheese is gone?” a chirping voice asked from behind him.

He jumped and looked behind him where Twiggy was looking forlornly at a half-eaten piece of swiss. He scowled.

“That's a stupid question. Bugger off,” he barked.

Twiggy glared back. “Yeah, well Hoggle stupid dwarf.”

Hoggle gritted his teeth in irritation. “I ain't no stinkin dwarf. I'm an enchiridian. And I can tell you that's the stupidest question I ever heard, and I heard a lot.”

Twiggy jumped up and shook his cheese at Hoggle menacingly. “Then stupid and stinky Inridin!” he shouted. He stuck his delicate forked tongue out and blew a raspberry before racing away into the castle.

“Yeah, you're probably right,” Hoggle sighed dolefully.

Chapter Text

She dreams…

There was a delicate crystal table set up in the secret garden, right in the center of the winding pathways. It was set with tea, and two small chairs. Sarah smoothed the wrinkles out of her apple red sundress and sat in one seat. She smiled across the table at her companion.

“One lump or two?” she asked.

“Oh, at least four,” said the child Amaranth, smiling cheekily. The little blue kitten in Amaranth’s lap peeked over the edge of the table and mewled, looking pitiably at the pitcher of cream. Sarah poured a small bit into a saucer and set it on the ground. It wasted no time in jumping down to lap at the treat.

They drank in silence for a moment before the pretty blonde girl sighed contentedly. “This is a lovely dream,” Amaranth said.

“Yes, lovely.” Sarah looked around the little garden. The crystal willows sparkled in the sun, and the fountain trickled merrily. She looked back at the girl. “How did you get in my dream?”

“That’s all your doing. Sometimes a dream is just a dream,” Amaranth said laughingly. “They’re a good way to sort out your thoughts, and you’ve a lot on your mind. You mortals are lucky that way.”

“I suppose,” Sarah said, frowning.

Amaranth took another sip of tea. Her bare feet kicked back and forth idly.  “I’m so very glad you decided to play, Sarah.”

“Are we playing a game?” She asked, surprised.

“The only game worth playing,” confirmed Amaranth, her eyes flicking down. Sarah looked down at the table and saw the strangest chessboard, the black and white squares following the undulating terrain of a fantastic landscape. There were dozens of pieces scattered around the board. It was obviously a game in progress.

“The Labyrinth tried playing games with me,” Sarah mused.

“Shocking!” said the girlish fae.

“It said it made my life miserable because it needed a champion. It said it needed my help. I refused.”

“Was that wise, dear?” Amaranth asked, her voice concerned.

“Well, it’s done now,” Sarah said with a shrug. “I made my choice. It can’t force me to help.”

“Are you sure? The Labyrinth can be very persistent. Besides, the game is already in progress.  Who else but the Champion would be playing? Look closely,” Amaranth said. Sarah leaned down to peer at the board. There were white pieces and black pieces, placed seemingly at random over the checkered spaces. There was no pattern or sense to their placement that she could see. In fact…

“They’re all pawns!” she exclaimed.

“Are they really?” Amaranth mused, her voice intrigued. “But do they have to be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to play,” Sarah said, looking up only to find Izzy sitting across from her. Her eyes were sympathetic and she beckoned Sarah closer. Sarah leaned in so Izzy could whisper in her ear.

“And that’s why you’re going to lose,” Leila’s voice hissed evilly, “You’re going to lose and then you’re going to die.” She started laughing as Sarah jerked back from her. The dark haired girl sat across the table, her face a mask of blood.

“No,” she breathed, “You’re dead. I saw you die.”

But Leila wasn’t paying attention. “He’s MINE! And now you’re going to die,” she laughed maniacally, reaching for Sarah with clawed hands, darkness swimming in her eyes. Sarah tried to run, but she couldn’t move. She stood on a vast checkered plain, Leila in the square across from her. She couldn’t move. It wasn’t her turn.

She was startled suddenly by a black, bat-winged shape landing beside her. The gargoyle cackled gleefully and peered over at her with sullen red eyes. Then it hopped forward and grabbed Leila from her square and gobbled her down like a cracker. Good riddance, Sarah thought with a flash of satisfaction. Sarah swiped a hand across her cheek, and idly sucked the blood she found there off of her finger. She savored the taste of her enemy’s defeat.

The little black gargoyle smacked its lips at her, grinning in delight. A mewling sound caught their mutual attention and Sarah noticed the blue kitten at her feet. The cat hissed and the gargoyle hissed back, then they launched at each other in a cloud of dust and flying fur. Sarah darted into the middle of the fray.

She pulled out the little gargoyle, now no larger than a fairy, his wings pinched between her fingers like a butterfly, and shook him. “I said no!” she scolded the little monster. It just snarled and writhed and snapped at her fingers. She batted it on the nose and it settled down, glaring up at her through slitted eyes. She settled it on her shoulder.

“Well, aren’t you the clever one,” a sultry voice said. “How did you manage to subdue one of my little messengers?”

Sarah looked up to see a buxom blonde bombshell standing across from her, or at least that was her impression of the stranger. She wore the same dress as Sarah, but somehow it looked indecent on this woman. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t clearly make out the woman’s face. “Of course, that’s only one little bit of darkness. What will you do with the rest?”

“Who are you?” Sarah frowned.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” the woman laughed. “Except of course you do know, you just can’t recall it. You should pay better attention. It showed you once, you just didn’t want to listen.”

Sarah just shook her head. The blonde’s words made no sense. “Do you know how to play?” she asked, gesturing at the board between them.

“Mmmm, I might,” the woman purred. She reached out idly with one hand and let her fingers flutter lightly over the figure of the white king. Sarah frowned. Hadn’t they all been pawns just a moment before? In fact, hadn’t she just been on the gameboard?

“So what do we do now?” Sarah wondered.

“It’s your move, little girl,” the woman hissed.

“But what do I do?” she asked a little desperately.

The stranger laughed huskily. “Oh, it wouldn’t be any fun if you knew all the rules. And by the way, wake up.

“Wait, what rules? Who are you?”

Thunder rumbled and the brightness of the day dimmed. The shadows encroached.

“Wake up, Sarah.”

She looked down at the chorus of voices. The chess pieces were all facing her entreating, “Wake up, Sarah. It's time for your medicine.”

The darkness swallowed the world around her, leaving her blind. She felt the warmth of the sun hit her face, and the sound of curtains pulling back.

Sarah's hand flung up in protest against the harsh morning light, trying to see who was there.

She blinked, squinting against the brightness. Jareth stood by the window, a slim, arrogant silhouette backlit by the light. “Did you find her?” she croaked. Her mouth felt dry and gummy.

“Find who, Sarah?” Jareth asked. It took her a moment to understand what he had said and her heart stuttered fearfully. She looked down at herself and saw no patchwork fur, only pale white arms akimbo on the sheets. Her eyes misted as she looked back at him.

“Oh, God. Jareth I can explain, I…” but her words deserted her. How could she possibly explain?

“Explain what?” He stepped forward, and her eyes readjusted. She realized this was most definitely not Jareth after all. It had merely been a trick of the light.

“Finally awake again are you dear?” the catty blonde asked. Her tone was sickeningly sweet, patronizing. “I was worried for a moment.” She paused for a beat. “Who’s Jareth?”

Sarah took stock of herself and her surroundings, feeling uncertain and off balance. Familiar white walls surrounded her. Familiar scratchy sheets fell away as she shakily sat up. Familiar blue cotton pajamas covered her limbs. There were thick white bandages around her wrists.

“Where am I?” Sarah asked in a hesitant voice. She knew where she seemed to be, of course. She just didn’t know how she had gotten there. Her last memory was sitting in the crystal garden as a storm moved in. “Who are you?”

“Oh, dear. You've forgotten again have you?” the woman said with a sigh. “You know very well where we are, if you think just a little bit.” She held up her hand, fingers pinched, and her smirk was oily. “It’s the new medication. Ever since you started taking the prunuspersica, it takes you a moment to wake up properly.” She cocked her head at the bewildered girl. “Now, try again. Who am I, dear?”

Sarah studied the white uniform, just barely on the decent side of too tight, the blond hair pulled up in a high ponytail, the dark eyes and full, pouty lips. No recognition tugged at her memory.

“You're my nurse?” She asked slowly, carefully, a sick feeling welling in her stomach.

The woman smiled brightly, eyes unchanged, “Yes, I am. Now you might be feeling a bit of nausea, so why don't we get you cleaned up and then we'll go see the doctor.”

Sarah numbly swung her legs over the side of the hospital bed. When she looked up again the nurse was almost disturbingly close.

“But first,” she chirped, “time to take your medicine!”

 

:.O_O.:

 

Sarah plucked anxiously at the white bandages around her wrist. She wanted to itch, but the nurse had firmly nixed that notion. Her eyes darted nervously around the cluttered office. Across from her was the doctor, a smiling middle aged woman with russet red hair and a frumpy dress. She was scribbling something on her tablet. For the life of her, Sarah could not think of her name.

After a few moments the woman looked up, and smiled. A flash of recognition made her open her mouth to talk, but then she snapped it shut. “Your nurse said you are experiencing some disorientation this morning. Is that true?”

“I don't...” she looked around, panicky. “No, I was just…a little groggy. Why am I here? I shouldn't be here.”

“Where do you think you should be?”

Sarah opened her mouth, but then shook her head and eyed the woman warily. She couldn’t mention the Underground to this woman.

“Do you think you should be home?”

Sarah paused, then nodded reluctantly. It was as good an answer as any.

“Or do you think you should be somewhere else? The maze, maybe?” Sarah startled.

“The Labyrinth,” she corrected automatically, then immediately pressed her mouth tight.

There was a fleeting triumph in the doctor's eyes. She scribbled more notes. “Ah, yes. The Labyrinth. Isn't a Labyrinth just a maze? A child's diversion?”

“No.” Sarah said quietly. She shifted uncomfortably on the couch. How did she get here? Sureptitiously Sarah pinched the skin of her arm between two fingers, pinched until it brought tears to her eyes. She did not wake up, and the panicky feelings came back. She pulled at the thin fabric at her right shoulder, looking for any sign of bandages, or at least scarring, but there was nothing there. How could there be nothing there? She remembered the terrible pain of the injury.

“Sarah, look at me.” She reluctantly raised her eyes to meet the doctor's, her expression mulish.

“We've talked about this fantasy of yours. We gave you the prunuspersica to help you sleep better, but I'm concerned about your difficulty telling the difference between your dreams and reality now. Perhaps we should cut back on your dosage. Or stop it altogether and try another therapy.”

“No, it's not...” Sarah firmed her lips and glared at the woman.

“Not what?”

She couldn't bring herself to say the words. Not a dream. She squeezed her eyes tight and clenched her hands. She could feel her nails digging into her palms. This is the dream, she though frantically, I have to wake up. I have to wake up. It's not a dream. She squeezed her fists tighter, until the cleansing pain of her nails cutting into her flesh washed over her.

“Sarah, what are you saying?” the doctor's low contralto reached her. She heard a voice mumbling “Not a dream,” over and over again. She realized it was her own. The doctor's cool hands grabbed hers and tried to pry them open. “Sarah stop. You're hurting yourself again.”

“No,” she moaned, “No, it's not a dream. I have to wake up. I have to wake up and go back. I have to go back.” When more hands touched her she tried to twist away. She was screaming now. “It's not a dream. It's not a dream! Let me go!” Rough arms pinioned her and she felt a pinch in her back. She squirmed and struggled, trying to escape the horrible nightmare.

She could feel her limbs growing heavy, her heartbeat slowing. She opened her eyes and even as the room faded around her she caught the cold and clinical gaze of the blonde nurse watching her. A slow smile twisted her lips as all went dark.



:.O_O.:

 

Visitors day came with monotonous predictability. The doctor had made good her threat and reduced Sarah’s dosage of prunuspersica. Ever since then dreams had been elusive. Each night she went to sleep, certain that she would wake in the proper world, in the underground. Each morning she was disappointed to wake back up in this harsh hell. She didn’t even dream of that other place and her faith was beginning to waver.

Now she sat in the rec room, staring sightlessly out the window. She was in a wheel chair, but only for the convenience of the nurses, who had determined it was a good idea to keep her arms restrained. Apparently they had gotten tired of her trying to rip herself to shreds. Her wrists were tied to the chair now with soft Velcro cuffs. She barely noticed.

“How are you feeling today, Sarah?” asked that sneering voice she dreaded. Tired, she thought. So tired she could feel it in her bones. She glanced up at the blonde nurse standing next to her chair.

“Fine,” she said tonelessly, the lie leaving her lips easily. Her eyes drifted back to the open window, watching a spider working industriously on its web. The nurse smiled and patted her on the cheek. It was a wonder her wickedly long nails didn’t leave scratch marks, Sarah thought.

“That’s good dear,” she said, “and did you sleep well last night?”

“Yes,” Sarah lied again, wishing the hateful woman would just go away.

“Did you have another dream then?” asked the nurse. Sarah’s lips twisted slightly in a parody of a smile.

“Oh yes,” she said, glancing again at the nurse, “I was a spider spinning a web in a window.” The nurse laughed, low and throaty.

“That’s wonderful, Sarah. You’ve made excellent progress.” Sarah merely nodded in agreement. “You’ve done so well, in fact, that the doctor has decided to let your family visit. Won’t that be nice?”

Her heart lurched. She didn’t want to see them. She wanted to see Jareth. God she missed him. And all her friends, Nel, Twiggy, Hoggle, Reggie. She couldn’t tell the nurse that. Once she stopped laughing she’d just dose her with another round of anti-psychotics. So she just nodded instead.

Later that day Robert and Karen eased into her room, strained smiles on their faces. Karen patted her hand awkwardly and kissed her forehead. Her father bussed her cheek before standing back quickly, as if he were afraid of catching something. Behind them, still by the door, stood a sullen looking twelve year old Toby. Sarah’s eyes lit up in the first moment of pleasure she’d had since her dreams had stopped.

“Hey there, Tobe,” she said, grinning.

“Come say hello to Sarah,” Karen cajoled. He scowled, and walked stiffly to the bed with manifest reluctance.

“Hi, Sarah,” he spat out. Karen cleared her throat pointedly, and he glanced askance at her before sighing loudly and bending down to kiss Sarah’s cheek. She caught him in a one-armed hug, but he squirmed quickly away.

“How’s it goin’ bud?” she asked, trying to smooth away the tension. “How’s school?”

“It’s fine. Whatever,” he muttered acidly. She could feel her smiled slipping as she watched him.

“Toby?” she asked softly “What’s the matter? Why won’t you look at me?” She reached one hand out, but he jumped back quickly.

“Don’t touch me!” he said, eyes angry and wild.

“Toby, what?” she could feel her smile congealing on her face.

“Just stay away from me!” he shouted, then turned and ran out the door. Karen followed, calling his name, her hands fluttering uselessly. She pulled the door behind her, but it didn’t quite close, and their voices drifted in clearly from the hall.

“How dare you speak to your sister that way!” Karen’s sharp voice snapped.

“What do you care? She’s crazy, remember? I heard you say so!”

“Toby!” Karen said, her voice shocked.

“This wasn’t my idea, okay? I didn’t want to come here. Why should I have to suffer just cause she’s a nutcase?” His voice started fading, presumably as he walked down the hall.

“Tobias Williams!” Karen tried again, her voice stern, but he wasn’t listening. His voice drifted back through the door, like some poisonous snake, even as it faded with distance.

“Next time I hope she jumps off a cliff, then this would be over!” Sarah sucked in a harsh breath and her throat burned with bitter, unshed tears. She looked at her father, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze, and finally she rolled away from him and closed her eyes.

“I’m kind of tired, Dad,” she choked out in a whisper, “I think I’m gonna rest.” The only response was the rustle of clothes and measured tread of feet, followed by the soft closing of the door. Only then did she let the tears fall, sobbing softly into her pillow. How could she stay in this hopeless place?

 

:.O_O.:

 

That evening, and for five restless nights following, when the night nurse brought her daily prunuspersica dosage, Sarah only pretended to swallow the tiny pale orange pill. She passed the long days saying little, except what the doctors wanted to hear, and staring out the window at the rolling lawns and gardens of the facility.

On the seventh night, she swallowed the pill, and smiled until the nurse walked out. Then she dug out the other six capsules from their hiding place beneath the bed, and downed them all at once. Her heart was racing as she lay back, staring out the window at the low hanging moon that shimmered with a pale orange light. Its light seemed to make the whole world sparkle, and below it the water tossed back a shivering reflection.

Even as she watched it seemed to pulse in time with the beating of her heart. She blinked once, twice, trying to keep that glowing orb in sight. It continued to beat a slow, lulling rhythm. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. How odd, she thought, I didn’t know there was water outside my window.

She got up from the bed, and walked to the window. She’d been so well behaved the last weeks that they had stopped strapping her in. She looked out into a night blacker than any she had ever seen. The moon seemed huge and burning bright, but the only thing it illuminated was its own reflection on the water below it. A shape moved in the blackness, and her breath stopped as she recognized the watery form of the Labyrinth. She was dreaming again!

The Labyrinth did not speak. It had no eyes, but she knew it watched her, and there was a grimness about its figure. She took a step forward, heart soaring, but the figure turned away from her.

“Wait! What are you doing? Take me with you!” she blurted out, reaching for it. It stopped and looked back at her, somehow sorrowful.

“A Champion is needed. Who are you?”

“I…” The words caught in her throat, and her cheeks burned with shame and anger. Again! It had manipulated her again! She thought back to the last helpless…days? Weeks? Months? She couldn’t even recall! The nameless nurses and doctors, the bitter reality of the hospital, none of it had been real.  She had never stopped dreaming!

She opened her mouth to shout, rail, something. Then snapped it shut. “Did you send me back there?” she asked in a small voice, “why?”

“Why did you seek to return?” it asked instead.

“Because,” she did not finish the thought aloud. Because I hated it there. Because all my life I have been trying to get home…to the Labyrinth. Because I don’t belong Above. This was her lesson then. She belonged in the Underground, but to stay, she had a role to play. And the Labyrinth was ruthless enough to make sure she understood exactly what would happen if she denied it. She shuddered, finally understanding the terrible power shaping her world.

“Who are you?” the voice that was one and many asked.

“I’m the Champion,” she whispered. “I want to come home.”

“You are home,” it said, “Wake up.”

“What?”

“Wake up!” it shouted, “Aisling, wake up!”

Her eyes flew open with a gasp, and Jareth’s face was a breath away, true concern in his eyes. She could feel the weight of one hand on her uninjured shoulder as he leaned over her. “Aisling,” he soothed, “are you all right?”

“I,” she drew in a deep, calming breath, “Yes. I’m fine. The Labyrinth…” She paused, suddenly aware of what she had been about to say. Jareth’s eyebrows arched in surprise, then his eyes narrowed in sudden speculation.

“Yes?”

She licked her lips, and took a chance. “It’s not very good at taking no for an answer.”

“Ah,” he stood smoothly and smirked down at her. “No, no it’s really not,” he stated simply, eyes sparkling. “Curiouser and curiouser.”