The gunshot rings out and I pick up my skirts, weave between the burnt-out cars and the fallen debris. Hunch down behind a pitted wall and wait for my chance. I look up into the sky, torn and red, streaked with the burning tails from the meteor shower. It's bright, so bright, the colour doing nothing to hide me from the gunman's shrewd gaze.
Heart in my throat, I press close and duck, briefly, out of cover.
"Well now, Daniella. This is an interesting dream, isn't it?"
A chuckle and a cheerful, feminine voice.
My eyes screw shut.
Why are you still here? I've already beaten you, rejected you...
I open them, look to the source of the voice.
She sits across the street from me atop a smoking car, her demeanor regal like she's lounging on a throne and not a smouldering hunk of steel, riding crop tapping against her crossed legs. One gloved hand cups her chin as if she's bored but her smile is playful. The raven's feathers at her throat and her silvery blonde hair sway lazily in the wind, heedless to the utter chaos around us.
The bottom of my stomach falls out, and not for the first time I can't help thinking how beautiful she is. Her brilliant blue eyes that sparkle with mirth or shimmer with irritation, the dusting of freckles on her cheeks accented by gold glitter, the way her mouth ticks upwards instantly drawing me to it...
How foolish I must have been, to refuse her at the Labyrinth's end, her heart-breaking pleas and her kneeling form resurfacing in my mind.
"Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave..."
But I couldn't accept her, couldn't trade my charges for a chance at a fantasy life. I made a mistake that I needed to fix, above all else. Never in my wildest dreams could i have imagined that the boys' bedtime story would turn out like this. Didn't think that a single spark of irritation could cause them to be snatched up, taken from their beds in the night.
So as much as I might want her, want everything she's offering me and more... it cannot be. I cannot abandon or endanger my charges. I cannot. I won't.
But I still... I still...
Her eyes zero in on me, reading my face, the interest that must surely show there, the playfulness turning to something warmer in response. She opens her mouth, leans forward, one booted foot landing on concrete, and then--
I turn the corner sharply before she can move, running right into the hail of bullets.
The last thing I hear is her exclamation before I'm roughly thrown from my violent dream.
When I wake, I'm greeted by the quiet dark of night and a single white-brown feather on my pillow.
My shoes click-clack on the stairs as I run down and down, the staircase spiralling seemingly without end.
Dogs this time - bloodhounds, barking and gnashing as their handlers blow the horn that signals the hunt.
It seems their prey is me.
I spy their wine-red uniforms and the brown of their horses as I glance briefly up, gauging the distance between them and me. With each floor they seem to draw closer, as if I'm running in place instead of jumping the stairs two, or four, or five at a time.
Frustrated I redouble my efforts, but the next time I grab for a rail it's a shiny black shoe instead.
I know who it is so I ignore it and rush past, but it is for nought.
"Come now, Daniella" She says a touch exasperated, appearing on the next floor as I reach it.
"It's rude to ignore people when they're making such an effort--"
I pass her again, and without fail she pops into existence at the next bend.
"To try and talk to you-- Look. You really aren't going to get anywhere like this. Unless your goal is to keep on running forever, in which case you can carry on as you are."
Her words are designed to stop me in my tracks and they work. Grudgingly I stop, spare a look above to my pursuers and stifle a sigh, tamp down every emotion I feel, the way I always do while I'm awake.
She grins wide, knowing she's won. For now.
She does nothing else though.
"Well?" I say, aiming for coolness and detachment in my tone. She just crosses her arms. "Aren't you going to tell me how to leave?"
"Oh?" She says, eyebrows lifting in mock surprise, "My dear Daniella... whenever did I say that?"
I manage a cold stare, then move to pass her.
I don't know what I expected. Certainly not useful advice from the Goblin Queen.
"Wait!" She shouts, her voice commanding but wobbling slightly with anxiety, hands reaching toward me. "This is your dream. If you wish to outrun them" She gestures toward the rapidly approaching hunting party, "then you need only think it. This is your world, it bends to your will and yours alone. Try it, and you will see that I'm right."
It can't hurt.
I concentrate, think about ways to outrun them, to remove them. I think about the pink alligators from Riccardo's favourite cartoon, the broom that I use to sweep away the Belli household's messes, the dolls and animals, cars and trains that the boys always play with. The trains...
The moment I think it there's a loud rumble, like an earthquake. Then a large plastic train bursts through the wall, running through the screaming party and then out the other side.
A beat of stunned silence, then she speaks.
"...Not exactly what I had in mind, but it worked."
Indeed it had. The stairwell above, free of my stalkers (and the steps, and the banisters... ) is silent and danger free.
"I was meaning that you could give this endless, boring stairwell an ending. Maybe a door, or a corridor, or maybe..."
She jumps from the banister so we're on the same level and sidles closer, her dazzling grin firmly in place.
"It could open out into a ballroom. We never did finish that dance." Her tone is hopeful and regretful at once, holding out a hand for me to take.
She sighs and lets it drop, smile faltering.
"Some other time, then."
Then she's gone.
When I wake it's morning, another feather placed carefully by my head.
I put it with the others, neatly lined up along the windowsill, and wonder how -- and when -- this will end.
Cool, damp earth. Purple sky. Howling wind.
The see-saw creaks and the roundabout rattles, long chains clinking as i glide gently forwards and backwards on the swing.
An abandoned children's park at night. How ominous.
I hear footfalls close behind and I take a breath, brace myself. Her gloved hands cover mine on the chains, warm and solid, the heat from her body bleeding into mine as she leans against my back, golden strands of hair brushing my cheek.
She breathes against my ear and i shiver. I want to turn, to look upon her face.
I hold myself back.
She stands for a long while before she speaks.
"I don't understand you" She whispers like she's confessing her deepest, most troubling secret, voice gravelly with emotion. It sounds like grief, like resignation, like giving up.
My heart lurches and I can't help stiffening in response. She takes it as rejection and stands back, away from me, the chains jangling wildly at the movement.
"You always dream of me. You're always running from the chaos in your dreams, from the monotony of your waking life. Always running straight into my arms. It should be so simple, and yet..."
I swivel awkwardly to face her, catching the last of her action as she shakes her head, ponytail flying.
"You would rather dive head first into a shower of bullets than face me." There's wonder there, her eyebrows raising and mouth laughing, but it isn't a happy sound.
"Than trust me.Than-" She lets out a ragged breath, as close to tears as I've ever heard.
It's disturbing, that emotion. More than I've ever seen -- or heard -- from a woman I'd thought incapable of it. A villain. Someone who captures babies and kicks goblins, who threatens and postures and sings the sweetest of love songs to lead lovesick girls astray.
I reach out a hand to her, but she isn't looking at me.
Two little words pierce the silence.
Then a laugh, a bitter sound.
"After everything, i thought-" She turns away sharply, face hidden in the shadows of the trees behind us.
"It doesn't matter. It was foolish for me to think, at the very least, we could be...friends." Her voice breaks on the last word, then becomes strong as steel as every shield clicks firmly back into place to deliver one last devastating question.
"Am I really that intolerable to you?"
The question hangs in the air. My words stick in my throat, unable to explain, unable to make a single sound.
"Nothing, then?" She wavers, all the strength leaving her, shoulders drooping in defeat.
And still, not a single word will pass my lips, no matter how much i will myself to speak.
A broken sigh and she's gone, her touch and her warmth vanishing as if she'd never been there.
I stay for a long time afterward, trying to summon the words i need to explain.
"You... are not. But i can't do this." I finally manage, speaking into my empty dream, "Riccardo... Ugo. They are my responsibility, they..."
I pause. " I could never leave them, or trade them. It would be cruel and selfish. What you're asking of me is impossible."
I wake to another feather, this time pressed into one closed fist.
It's black, a raven's feather, curled inside a piece of yellowed parchment with flowing script written upon it:
"I am not so cruel" It starts, the black ink barely dry and slightly smudged, "to take children from those who have beaten my labyrinth. I assure you they are safe; that debt was paid long ago, i see no reason to open old wounds. This was between you and i alone -- the only price was your love, which you cannot give. I understand that now, and i beg your forgiveness for my actions, for saddling you with my unwanted feelings. I will no longer haunt your dreams, you are free.
I wish you all the happiness in the world, in whatever endeavors you choose.
- Fiona, the Goblin Queen
I clutch the feather and the note -- impersonal, a touch cold -- close for a long time in the dark, stomach roiling with heat and ice, hope and deep, crushing despair.
What happens now?
Am i really too late? Is this the end? Will I ever see her again?
Sleep doesn't find me again that night.
My tears certainly do.
Ten days, ten dreams unvisited by a fair-haired Goblin Queen, just as she promised.
Ten days to think through what i should do, to be chased, to run and hide, to think deeply and with purpose.
No blonde hair, no bright smile, just an emptiness that comes from my dreams and invades everyday life, leaving me an irritable mess.
When day eleven rolls round and my head hits the pillow, I think. Loudly. About bubbles and ballrooms and grotesque masks. About sparkling suits and goblin faces. About a voice that sings softly in my ear, the words speaking of love and beautiful things.
And above all, about second chances.
When I next come to, I'm inside a fishbowl.
It isn't what I want but it's close, decadently dressed dancers milling about as they did in my peach dream, sans their awful masks.
They're elegant now –- despite having to dodge truck sized goldfish this time around -- simple and classic in black and white, a jarring contrast to me in my normal work clothes: dress, stained apron, stockings, heels and my tired, bare face.
It's a Cinderella story if ever I saw one, the girl in rags searching for her prince charming. For a dance, for fun, for enchanted love...
I think about her as loudly as I can.
Imagine her standing there, peeking out from between lust-filled couples, her midnight blue jacket shining with precious gems. Her glitter-dusted cheeks and shark-tooth smile, throat and wrists ringed with white ruffles as she reaches for me...
Abruptly there she is, confusion clouding her face as if I've plucked her straight from her world without warning.
Maybe I have. Who can tell? Such details are unimportant in a dream.
Such details are unimportant when she looks at me like this.
Eyes wide, mouth parted like I'm something impossible, instead of a tired maid in a worn out dress. With eager steps she parts the crowd, reaches for me.
I meet her half-way.
Our fingers tangle and a crackle of electricity shoots up my spine. She draws me close and i can't breathe, can't tear my eyes away from hers, can't deny the things i want the most, now i know that doing so hurts us both.
Now that i know the only thing i need exchange for her love is my own.
We spin slowly together, the music and the crush of bodies forgotten in an instant, dancing to a melody that is ours alone.
Her cheek brushes mine, impossibly close, lips grazing my jaw as she begins to sing.
"There's such a sad love, deep in your eyes..."
I clasp her hand, tighten my arm around her waist as i listen to her song, the words hopeful but tinged with so much sadness, like this is a fleeting moment. Like I'm going to turn from her, run far away and never return.
"...As the pain sweeps through, makes no sense for you..."
I shift the slightest amount and she releases me immediately, her eyes looking behind me to the clock, to the other dancers, to anywhere but my face.
It won't do. There's nothing i can say, nothing i can do to convince her that I'm not running away anymore.
Words... they've never been my strong point. For so long I've been silent, done as I've told, watched my life slip slowly by in an endless line of chores. But no more. My life is no longer big enough to contain me. The labyrinth, the people i met there, all my wonderful friends, her... they've shown me a world in colour, a world where i can be happy, not just exist.
I want, more than anything, to show her how grateful i am, to show her how much I...
I step back into her space, clutch the front of her shirt and the side of her face before she can back away, or protest. She freezes, stunned, a second before i close my eyes, press my lips decisively to hers.
There's a beat of indecision then she's clasping my arms, kissing me with a desperation and a longing i can scarcely believe. Warmth bubbles up as we cling to each other, foreheads touching, laughter and kisses flowing freely from our lips.
All at once sound returns, a roar of cheers that echo all around, startling us both, the other dancers -- barely noticed by either of us up until now -- making their presence known with whoops and cheers and claps.
My face heats and she holds my hand in hers as we look around at our audience. I catch her eyes and smile, her returning look genuine but a little hesitant. I squeeze her hand and her confidence fortifies, mouth smirking a little before it opens.
"I see you've made your choice." She says, mirthful, and i nod.
"Any second thoughts?"
No, no, I...
"No." I say, firm. "This is where I'm meant to be."
A smile, a laugh.
"Oh, Daniella." Her smile turns indulgent, "Didn't i tell you? We can't all live in dreams."
Her words worry me for a moment but then she's taking my other hand too, leading me to the center of the room, losing our bodies and our worries in the crowd.
We dance and dance, the world a dizzying swirl of black, white, blue, orange, my uniform transforming into a beautiful white dress, blue stones nestled among my curls and around my neck.
Sometime during the night she kneels, offers me a silver ring that i accept eagerly, to a symphony of gasps. Then we take to the floor once more, the ruler of the goblin kingdom and her queen-to-be, arm in arm, hand in hand, dancing through the night.
My eyes flutter open.
There are no feathers this time.
Not on my pillow, not on my windowsill, not under my bed or behind the headboard. In a panic i hurriedly shake out my duvet, just in case, in the vain hope that it's just become lost between the folds while i slept.
But there's nothing.
Panic rises with the doubt, fear that last night's wonderful dream could be just that - a dream - gripping me and refusing to let go.
Then I catch my reflection in the mirror across my room, see the morning light bouncing off my finger and everything stops.
I look down, heart in my throat, the same plain but elegant band from my dream wrapped around my wedding finger.
With renewed hope i clutch it to my chest, the warm and giddy feeling it brings carrying me through my morning routine.
At least, until Mrs. Belli's nasal voice screeches up at me from the floor below, and i have to bury it under layers of professionalism, coolness, and practiced detachment.
"You called, Ma'am." I say neutrally as i reach the last step, hands folded neatly in front of me as she whizzes past, clad only in a dressing gown and flapping about.
"Oh! come, come girl!" She bursts out, "Where have you been? Can't you see neither of us are decent, and with a new lodger coming to stay, too! Get the door girl, the door!"
She finds the kitchen door and slams it shut behind her, letting me see a sliver of Mr. Belli's unimpressed face as he reads the morning paper, both children causing breakfast time chaos in the background.
I compose myself, smooth down my clothes and hair.
They didn't tell me about anyone coming to stay. None of the guestrooms have been cleaned recently, nor bedding been changed. I steel myself for a demanding guest, school my features into a placid smile, then open the door.
And freeze, beyond shocked.
Ice blue eyes, wheat gold hair, shorter and less wild than I'm used to, clad in a white sundress and grinning madly.
The Goblin Queen herself leans against the door frame, taking in my shocked silence with a cat-that-got-the-cream look, eyes shining and completely unrepentant.
"Hello, my love." She smiles, brimming with affection, the silver ring on her finger -- the twin of my own -- tapping rhythmically on the wood.
"Can i come in?"