Chapter 1: Stepmother
Chapter One: Stepmother
Soundtrack for Chapter 1:
The Sound of Music: “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”
“He is the tender butcher who showed me how the price of flesh is love; skin the rabbit, he says! Off come all my clothes.”
Sarah Williams pinned her book between her upthrust knee and one idle finger and stared at the snow-covered landscape outside the passenger-car window. She was going to visit her mother for Christmas. She knew she was supposed to be excited; she knew this was a special treat. But instead of excitement, she felt a mild dread that only got stronger the closer she got to her destination. Perhaps it was just her period coming on. Or perhaps it was her reading material. She turned the book to look at the cover. A woman in a white tower raised her hands to the heavens in desperation. The rough sea below was made of blood. The Bloody Chamber, read the title, cursive script like slashes in skin. Yes, it could be the book, or PMS, but she wondered if probably wasn’t plain guilt. She was going on vacation just when her family needed her.
“Aunt Bub’s had a mild scare.” Irene had informed her, two days before Christmas. Aunt Bub was Irene’s aunt, not Sarah’s, but Sarah liked her. She gave Sarah free range of her library on family visits to Vermont, and Bub’s library contained some real hum-dingers, books which scandalized and delighted Sarah. In fact the book she had now, a gory slim volume full of sexified fairy-tales, was one of Aunt Bub’s.
Aunt Bub had had a mild stroke, and Irene wanted to take her home from the hospital and tend her herself. “When are we going?” Sarah had asked, wondering what fresh hell this would wreak on her life and plans, and at the same time, worried.
“There’s no we, Sarah. Robert will need to stay here with the baby,” Irene said, as if Toby were still an infant and not walking and talking—and screaming—with all of an almost-two-year-old’s half-baked competence. “And I’ll have my hands full with Bub. You’d just be in the way. We want you to go visit your mother a few days earlier than we’d originally planned. This afternoon, actually.”
“What?” she’d replied, head spinning with this abrupt change of fortune. “So soon?” It was her mother’s year to have her for Christmas. Two years ago she had been just as glad to be away from an extremely pregnant and aggravating Irene. When she had returned, the only Christmas present she had received from Irene was a squalling newborn sibling who ate everybody’s attention up until there was nothing left for her. It had been like being a ghost. Nobody saw her; everybody saw the baby. It had been the biggest disruption of her life, as bad and worse than her parents’ divorce. She was afraid something terrible would happen if she left home again—that Aunt Bub would unexpectedly die or something—and Sarah would be completely forgotten again, perhaps this time for good.
Obviously Irene had expected a more enthusiastic response, and she pounced on Sarah’s apparent truculence like a cat on a mouse. “Oh, honestly, Sarah!” with that little flutter of frustration in her voice. Sarah knew that flutter—it was the overture Irene played when she was gearing up for a fight with her stepdaughter. “I thought you’d be happier about it. You see her so rarely, and she always spoils you rotten.” Irene turned to the lists she was writing at the kitchen table, lists of groceries, lists of meals to prepare, lists of feeding times and naptimes, as if her dad was just a taller, more capable child. “She ought to, you worship the ground she walks on. Your vanity table is practically a shrine.”
“That’s not fair!” Sarah said, the words out of her mouth before she even considered them. But it was unfair, it was! The only picture now on her mirror was personal, her mother and herself and Merlin. She’d taken down all the other pictures of Linda, all the press clippings and posters and playbills almost six months ago, after the Labyrinth… not really sure why she’d done it, but doing it anyway. She no longer spent Sundays poring over the society and entertainment pages for articles that mentioned her mother’s latest social and theatrical conquests, no longer really cared as much about maintaining what Irene occasionally referred to, in acid tone, as ‘The Linda Williams Bible.’ No, it wasn’t fair. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You never give me any credit for—“
A dark blot appeared on the paper of the lists, and then another. Irene gave a quiet sniff. Her big blue eyes, so like Toby’s, were moist.
Without consciously thinking about it, Sarah realized two things immediately: Irene was terribly worried about Aunt Bub, and she’d prefer to fight with her stepdaughter than to worry any more. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” she said, even though she knew damn well it was Irene who ought to be apologizing. “Irene, I’m sorry. Please, do you want me to stay here?” She had the weird impulse to try to hug her stepmother, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Irene was so brittle in this moment that too much warmth would shatter her. Instead, she pulled a length of paper towel from the dispenser and handed it over.
“Robert thought you should stay, but I want you to go. Someone in this family ought to have a merry Christmas.” Irene pressed the paper towel to her face, her voice almost a whisper.
“That was really nice of you,” Sarah said, and Irene uncovered her face and stared at her, testing the landscape for sarcasm. Well, Sarah knew she deserved that, if not right now then for any number of nasty things she’d done and said to her stepmother in the past. It was Irene who closed the distance between them, taking Sarah’s hand and patting it with teary and mascara-sticky fingers.
“You’re right, Sarah. I haven’t given you enough credit. You’ve been trying hard, but I’m always afraid you’ll get bored with being a grownup and snap at me. That’s not fair of me.”
Sarah’s mouth gaped open, shocked. Irene gave her one of her wicked little smiles as her tears dried up, the type of smile she turned on her father when she was happy. Sarah had never been given that smile before. It made Irene look… nice. It made her look like Toby. “My, she’s speechless. That’s a first. Go pack, Sarah. Your train leaves at twelve-thirty.” She patted Sarah’s hand again. “Thank you.”
“I wish there was something I could do for you,” Sarah said.
“Sweet girl. Come back in a good mood,” Irene said dryly, tucking the smile away, crumpling the paper towel in her hand. “Enjoy yourself.”
As the train rounded the bend into Grand Central, Sarah realized she’d been spaced out for almost the entire journey. She also realized that her boots didn’t match. She sighed and collected her things as the conductor began blaring names, transfers, and timetables in a slurred boom. The crowd moved, taking her with it.
“S. WILLIAMS” read the rectangular card in the hands of the driver at the pickup lane. He deposited her heavy suitcase in the trunk and her scruffy-looking backpack into the seat next to her. The contrast between the glowing leather and the patched canvas made something clear to her for the first time. Her mother was filthy rich. She wondered what it might be like, to have so much money that you could toss it away on rented car and driver in New York City, land of cabs and subways, when your daughter came to visit. The driver said nothing beyond confirming their destination, and he drove her through Manhattan in almost complete silence. She was glad for his silence; she didn’t want to talk and she didn’t want to hear anyone else talk either. Perhaps the best thing about money was the ability to have things your way, Sarah considered, testing out the idea. To have the power to decide when and how and under what conditions you would live your life. She wondered what it would feel like, to have that kind of power.
The whole city was celebrating the Christmas season. Lampposts and shopfronts and caged trees passed, captured by nets of lights, bursting with glaring green-and-red-and-gold cheer. Anticipation was heavy in the air, anticipation for good things. So why did she feel so bad? She wished she could buy off her own feelings. Could money buy relief? Perhaps that was what shrinks were for. She cracked her window and let the scents of dirty snow and hot bread and oily running engines waft in on the cold air. The buildings were like walls, and passages between them offering only more walls. The city was a labyrinth, and she’d never get out. Her breath came faster, and she had to put her head between her knees to keep from hyperventilating.
“You okay, Miss Williams?” the driver asked, his voice shocking her out of her path of thought.
“I’m okay, but I think I might throw up,” she croaked.
“Ain’t no room to pull over in this city,” the driver said mildly. “There’s a carsick bag in the side pocket there. Use it if you have to, try not to get any on the leather.” He turned his head to stare back at her at a red light, his face surprisingly kind. “Or you can pinch your upper lip. Sometimes that helps keep it down.”
“Okay. Sorry.” She pinched her lip hard, and the pain made her head clear. She felt fine again, just in time to arrive at her mother’s building. She signed for the fare, added a ten dollar tip without thinking about it, doing what her mother might do, paying the driver for his personal concern, his lifting of her suitcase. “Thank-you, miss!” he said, clearly pleased.
“It’s nothing,” she said. It wasn’t her money; it was her mother’s. Her mother was paying for everything. Still, she was glad she could use that power to make someone feel good.
After scrutinizing her ID in a way that would have been insulting if she’d had the energy to care, the doorman handed her an envelope with a note and the two keys she needed to access her mother’s residence. One was for the front door, one was for the elevator.
She read the note in the elevator, with a pang of disappointment. The note read: “Dearest darling, I’m so happy to have you with me for such a nice long visit. News of your arrival was a bit sudden, so I’ll be out until 6 PM, and then we’ll all have a nice dinner. J. is at home and will take care of you if you need anything. There is a present waiting in your room. Don’t wait until Christmas to open it.”
She stepped through the elevator into the foyer that serviced two apartments on the nineteenth floor. Like the city streets, these halls had been decked in utter splendor, in a winter wonderland color scheme of pale silver and white and crystal beading. She caught her reflection in the wide mirror above the French sideboard. She looked pale. Her upper lip was red from the pinching, and her hair was black and frothy as city slush. Sarah smoothed it down almost without thinking. Her hair had a tendency to fluff and curl at the tips, “Something you get from your father, darling,” Linda always said fondly, but Sarah always felt it as a rebuke. Linda’s hair was as straight as a sheet.
She idly picked up one of the blown-glass ornaments artfully jumbled together in a bowl, blue, silver, translucent. The one in her hand was clear as ice. With the cap hidden in her palm, it looked almost exactly like… one of the Goblin King’s crystals.
She shivered once, violently, not completely from cold although this foyer was ice-cold. What she wanted now, more than anything, was to go home, where things were shabby but known, where she knew exactly who she was and where she fit, and where she wasn’t a visitor.
Get a grip, she told herself. Dad’s looking after Toby, Irene’s looking after Bub, and Mom is looking after you. That’s the way it is. You can go home in… forty-eight hours if you have to, but you can’t ditch your mom for Christmas. You can’t just disappear on her. Sarah sighed and put the crystal bauble down, back into its bowl, wishing she had Merlin with her.
Silence reigned over the glacial sea of her mother’s penthouse as she opened the door and stepped inside. “Jeremy? Hello?”
There was no answer. She set her luggage down on the tile. Linda’s home was palatial, but it always had the quality of a picture from a hotel brochure or a film set, anonymous and expensive. Take down the framed pictures and art from the broad walls and anyone could live here, really. She closed her eyes. She could smell the Christmas tree, its resinous reality embraced and enhanced by other smells, Christmas smells—cinnamon, cloves, the grapey reek of red wine—and something else, something that she couldn’t quite name. She trailed her hand against the silver-flocked wallpaper, letting her nose lead her around the corner in to the living room, and opened her eyes. There was the tree, as she had expected, dominating the corner against the high French windows, green and gorgeous with ornaments and lights. Two sequined stockings hung against the mantle of the dark fireplace.
“Hello?” she called again. “Jeremy, are you home?” She caught sight of a blond head poking up above one of the swayback chairs. She rounded the perimeter of the room. Was he sick? Sleeping? “Jeremy? Are you okay? For Pete’s sake, why aren’t you answering me?”
“You weren’t using the right name,” an unforgettable voice drawled, stroking a ceramic carafe that steamed with the aroma of mulled wine. “So I chose not to answer.” She took a step back, not willing to believe it. He stood and turned himself to face her, and he seemed to be ten feet tall, twenty, a hundred feet tall, filling up the room entire, filling up her life again.
“Hallo, Sarah,” said the Goblin King.
Chapter Two: Princess
Soundtrack for Chapter 2:
Stone Temple Pilots: "Sour Girl"
Velvet Underground: “Venus in Furs”
She stared at him in shock. Everything in her rejected his reality, but at the same time, her eyes drank him in. His clothes were all in shades of brown and red, and his pendant winked out like a gold eye between the lids of his half-open red shirt. He wasn’t wearing the make-up he’d affected last time she’d seen him, and he’d drawn his hair back tight against the nape of his neck, showing his slightly pointed ears. He could pass totally unnoticed in the streets of Manhattan, but she would never mistake him for anything human.
The shock to her was that he was still beautiful to her, and she hated him for that. She hated the way he used it against her, making her feel, with an evaluating look of his own, small and grubby and babyish.
“Well?” he asked.
She turned on her heel and ran for the door on instinct, pure panic.
“Where are you going?” his voice followed her.
“Away from you!” she cried, struggling with her boots. Her eyes flicked back and forth between her suitcase and her backpack, and chose the backpack. She felt that sickness again, vomit rising in her throat, and she had to pause to pinch her upper lip again, take time to breathe again, shallow gasps that gave his voice time to find her around the corner, speak low and pliant as if his lips were next to her ear.
“You certainly could leave, Sarah. I can’t stop you. But then, I’d be left all alone with your mother. Are you willing to let that happen? The consequences could be… dire.”
Cornered, she thought, slumping against the wall. He was holding her mother hostage against her, just like he’d once used Toby. You son of a bitch.
When she went back to the living room, he was slouching in his chair again, a goblet balanced precariously on the upholstery between his vulgarly-spread thighs.
“Your boots don’t match,” he said mildly. “Is that the fashion these days?”
“What are you doing here?” she asked, chest heaving. “What have you done with Jeremy? What are you doing with my mother?”
“Jeremy and Linda split up some months ago, Sarah. You’d know this if you’d been following her press. It was quite the nine-days’ wonder. I’m filling in that rather copious vacancy in your mother’s life until she finds a new man to ensnare. But at this particular moment, I suppose what I’m doing is offering you a hot drink. The hippocras came out very well. Do you want some?” He poured out a second goblet and handed it out to her.
“Like the last time I took something from you?” Sarah hissed. She smacked the drink out of his hands where it made a stain on the fluffy white rug, like blood in snow. “I want you to leave. Now. Get out of here!”
“I can’t. I’ve been summoned. I have duties,” he drawled. “And unless you’d like to accept the offer I made you some six months gone, I’m not your slave, to do your bidding.” He drew a circle around the rim of his glass with one slim white finger. Slowly, he dipped that finger into the hot wine, and then brought it to his lips, sucking it clean. His eyes never left hers, and she felt herself blushing.
Oh yes, she remembered his offer very well. She had ignored it in the final moments of the game, believing it just a last-ditch effort to distract her… but afterward, days after the victory celebrations, in the dark of night as she lay naked between clean sheets, she had remembered. And she had wondered, as she had traced her cold fingertips down her sides, what it might be like, to surrender everything to him, and in return, have him be there for her, be … something she couldn’t quite imagine. Something adult. Something… luxurious, decadent, wicked. Sexual, certainly; she had come with a series of little jangling shocks that sent her flesh afire. Then she had wondered if he was somewhere there, outside, watching. She had been left embarrassed. She was embarrassed now.
He was still looking at her with that sensuous smile on his face, as if he were tasting all her thoughts and finding them savory. “By the gods of hell, you’ve only become more lovely in your ripening. Your pale face and your red lips. You’re ready for me now.”
Sarah’s mouth dropped open, appalled. “You’re disgusting,” she snapped.
He gave her a lazy and knowing look in return. “Deny it if you must; we don’t have time for me to force your confession. There are three hours left, perhaps less than that, before your mother returns. I can tell you much to your profit, if you ask me the right questions.”
Another pang of fright caught her heart. “Does she know?” Sarah quavered. “Does she know just what you are?”
“Oh yes,” Jareth said, setting his goblet aside and advancing on her. “Linda Williams knows me exact. What she doesn’t know is that you had a little adventure in my Labyrinth recently. She doesn’t know that we’re intimately acquainted. And if you wish to avoid an untimely death, you won’t tell her.” He had backed her against the wall, leaning over her. She could smell cloves on his breath, could smell him, the scent of his male heat, beneath his cloves. She trembled as he reached out a naked hand, as if to stroke her hair. “You can’t possibly know how much I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again, Sarah,” and his voice was a lover’s murmur.
“You have no power over me,” she said, wielding the words like a shield.
He rolled his eyes. “Most certainly not. This is well-established.”
“Then back off,” she said, hating that her voice shook. But he obliged, as quickly as if she were fire and might burn him. “There’s no point talking to you. I can’t believe anything you say.”
“I’ve never lied to you.”
“No?” This was a disturbing idea, too frightening in its implications to be considered at this moment. He wasn’t to be trusted. He opened his mouth to say more, but her panic overwhelmed her. “Shut up,” she told him. “Just shut up.”
The words died between his lips, and he backed up another step. His face was white with frustration. Clearly he wanted to say things to her—slimy innuendo, upsetting compliments, cruel flirtation. But he couldn’t. Could it be…
“Stand on one leg,” she commanded him, with sudden insight.
Teeth clenched, the Goblin King obeyed her, tucking one ankle behind his knee.
“Jump up and down,” she said, unable to believe what she was seeing. Silently, lips a white scar as they held his words back, he hopped on one foot.
“No way,” she breathed. “You have to do what I say? You have to do what I say!” She laughed hysterically. “Oh my God, you have to do what I say!” She caught her breath, hugging herself with joy. How was this even happening? “Stop,” she told him. He stopped jumping. After a moment, he slowly lowered his leg and stood with both feet on the floor. The anger in his face had darkened to something more like hatred.
“Why is this happening? Is it some trick?” She pressed her hands over her mouth. Maybe the train had crashed and she was dead, or in a coma, or maybe it was yesterday and she was asleep. “Speak!” she told him. “Talk to me!”
“Don’t do that to me again!” and for the first time, his voice had the whipcrack edge of temper. Sarah flinched, feeling little-girlish and ashamed. “How would you like it, if someone turned you on and off, like flipping a switch? I’m not your plaything.”
I wish you were, she thought defensively, and the words were half out of her mouth before he thundered, “Stop!” He held up a hand in warning, or in defense. “Have a care for what you say to me, little witch. Some words cannot be unsaid.” His eyes burned shame into her like twin brands, one black, one blue. “Your mother ought to have taught you better. Throwing your power around, willy-nilly, not giving a damn for what it does so long as you get your way.”
“You’ve got some nerve, telling me about throwing power around. You fairy thing,” she returned, defensive in the wake of feeling like she owed him an apology. I don’t owe him a thing, her mind shrieked, even as another part of her questioned whether, perhaps, she did.
She circled around him warily, as if he were a strange dog who might bite, and came to the endtable where his half-full goblet sat, waiting. She had never wanted a drink more in her life. “Tell me, what will happen to me if I have a cup of this?”
He huffed with impatience. “You’ll become drunk. It’s very potent.”
“I suppose you might choke on it,” he said with a growl, clenching and unclenching his hands, “But that’s probably too much to hope for. Come on, hurry up, you stupid girl! Ask me questions. The right questions!”
She poured wine into his own goblet and drank deep, and slowly, asking nothing. She narrowed her eyes at him over the rim. Somehow, she trusted him more when he was outright insulting than when he was attempting to seduce her. What was his game this time? What was the point of all this?
“Sarah,” he said in a new tone, attempting a new route, conciliatory and pleading. He held out his hands. “You think I’m here as your adversary. You have every reason to think so, given what happened between us last time. But circumstances are changed. I want to be your friend, your helpmeet, if you’ll just let me.” His face, for one slim moment, was open and vulnerable. She saw fear there, and a terrible tenderness.
“Why?” she asked, not impressed. “Why should I believe that? Why do I need saving?”
“Your mother is a witch, and you are her competition, Snow White. The Hunt is on, and tonight she’s determined to finally have your heart in a box, fairest of them all.”
“Oh my God!” She wanted to throw her glass down at his feet, but two stains on the carpet would be a bit excessive. Instead, she stamped her foot on the floor, feeling she could crack the tile under her heel. “You prick, you unbelievable prick. No, stop,” she said, as he opened his mouth to say more. “I’m done with you. I need time to think. You say you can’t leave the apartment?”
“No,” he said, whisper slim as a knife.
“Go stand out on the balcony then. I need a shower and a change of clothes, and I want you as far away from me as possible. If I can’t get rid of you, I can at least put you some kind of outside.”
Looking over his shoulder at her as he did so, he opened the French doors and stepped out. His feet made soft tracks in the heavy blanket of virgin snow. He glared at her as she shut the doors on his face.
“Turn around and look the other way,” she told him through the glass, finishing off the wine. “I don’t want you peeping.” She watched in wonder as he obeyed, and she still couldn’t quite believe it. More snow had begun to fall, in heavy wet leaflike flakes. She smelled the wine as she drank it, heard the sound of the city streets, snatches of songs from buskers, the chirps of whistles, snatches of shouts and calls from human beings, and the beeping chorus of car-horns. And she saw in the last of the afternoon light how the snow melted against his pointed ears and down his neck, how his shivering made his entire body tremble.
Good, she thought. Very good. This is exactly as it should be. I wonder, if I make him stay out there, will he die? Can things like him be made to die, if they’re commanded to? The idea was completely satisfying.
She left off staring at him and hauled her luggage to her room.
Notes from Chapter 1:
The epigraph given is taken from “Erl-King” by Angela Carter, from her Bloody Chamber book.
This story is inspired by multiple sources, among them Tanith Lee’s White As Snow, American Horror Story: Coven, Subtilior’s sublime and inimitable “Erlkönig,” Jalen Strix’s “The Beast Within,” and Frances Osgood’s “A Wish Unspoken.”
Thanks are due also to Shadow131 and TheRealEatsShootsAndLeaves, who are helping to edit, guide, and sharpen my plot and prose.
I give fair warning: this story will contain elements of violence, sexuality, an underage Sarah, politically incorrect depictions of witchcraft, Dark!Jareth, cussin, and general wicked skullduggery. A slightly more censored version will shortly appear on Fanfiction.net under the same title, same author. Any feedback you'd like to give in either context is welcome.
Soundtrack to Chapter 3:
Fleetwood Mac: "Mystified"
Def Leppard: "Hysteria"
The suite that Linda Williams kept aside just for her daughter had originally been meant to house a nanny, most likely—the terrace on this side was just an extension of the fire escape, and the windows looked out on a view of the building next door, functional and ugly. Still. It was always Sarah's own room, decorated with tasteful apple-blossom white and pink and green, always prepared for anything she might need or want as she went from twelve, to thirteen, up to sixteen. It was never given over to any guests, no matter how important.
Sarah stared off into space as she unpacked her heavy suitcase. She was determined not to play the Goblin King's games, not even to think about what he had said. Her mother loved her and would never hurt her. That was all that mattered. She bounced herself on the canopied bed, and saw the box that was waiting for her, the gift her mother's note had promised. It was a big box; heavy.
"Oh," she gasped in appreciation as she removed the lids and drew the tissue paper aside. Like the jewel in the lotus of the wrapping was a a frothy dream dress, silver strands woven through the cream knit of the long-sleeved bodice, and a long skirt of white tulle, gathered in princess style. There was even a sash wide as a corset, made of the same white tulle; it fastened with a series of eyelets and hooks.
I'll wear this to dinner, she decided. For her, not for him.
It was only after she had propped a decorative wooden chair underneath the doorknob that she felt like she had some form of sanctuary from him, secure enough to undress.
Her fears melted a bit under the hot downpour of the shower in her en-suite bath. For the first time in almost six months, she felt the tension in her belly unwind. She had suspected, sometimes with dread, sometimes with anticipation, that the Goblin King would come back into her life. But she hadn't expected that things would go this way. He had no power over her. The tables had turned. Whatever it was he wanted from her, whatever weird spell he was trying to cast, whatever disgusting enchantment he might have set upon her mother, Sarah was determined to resist, and to come out the winner.
There had been a drop of blood on her panties; she found the necessary supplies in her top bureau drawer, touched by her mother's thoughtfulness.
He's a liar, he is, she thought, as she dried her hair and perfumed her skin. Save me from my own mother? As if Mom would ever hurt me. Liar liar pants on fire, playing with me, manipulating me. We'll see how he likes it when it's him being pushed around! We'll just see.
Fifteen minutes later, she stepped back into the living room, feeling utterly grown-up. The mismatched boots and the boring jeans were forgotten; she felt as pretty as a Hollywood ingénue about to be discovered and propelled into a world of fame, money, glamour. There had been a Tiffany's box in the bag with a pair of silver bauble earrings, and a wide gauzy ribbon to hold her hair back, and another box with a pair of shoes, and oh what shoes! Impractical, kitten-heeled straps of silver with red soles that flashed out in shocking and voluptuous color with every step. She walked in them precisely, graceful as a cat. She felt her own beauty upon her, like a drawn knife, powerful and dangerous.
The lights on the topiary on the grand terrace were lighting up under their burden of snow in the advent of twilight. It seemed like a gorgeous perfect dream. The only thing that marred the view was the Goblin King.
She poured herself a second measure of spiced wine and sipped it slowly, watching him shudder in the cold. He was standing in the same place, as she'd commanded, but he'd tucked his hands into his armpits and occasionally gave a little bounce at the knees, trying to keep warm. She could hear the castanet-clacking of his teeth chattering, even through the glass.
She walked over to the fireplace and turned up the gas, and threw a match in. Flames like slaves danced there for her.
"You can come in now," she said, loudly enough for him to hear her. "Close the doors behind you, and come to the fire."
Shivering, shaking, snow pouring down off him in a glittering cloud, he came obediently as a dog. He came closer to the fireplace than she would have imagined would be comfortable. There was a scrim of ice on his pendant. She touched his shoulder. "On your knees," she whispered.
Just a touch and the look in her eyes was enough to put him where she wanted him. He looked up at her, fragile and wild. She stroked the wet hair off his temples. He felt like silk, he was beautiful to touch, just as she'd imagined, though cold, cold. He leaned into the warmth of her hand, squeezing his eyes shut, as if he couldn't bear it.
She didn't feel sickened by him any more. She felt wonder. It was as if a wild animal had come and let her touch it, fearful, shy, but enchanted.
"Please," he whispered, lips soft against her fingertips.
"Why do you want to help me?" His face followed her palm, and he moaned as she tenderly pinched the pinna of his pointed ear between her fingers, warming it, just as the wine had warmed her, with courage. "Goblin King, why?"
"Because I love you," he admitted, and she could see the pain in his face, what the truth cost him. "You asked it of me, that it should be so. And so I love you, Sarah, I do. Send me out in the snow again, cut pieces of me out, hurt me, it makes no difference. I love you still. I will love you forever."
This was too awful to be anything but the naked truth.
She bent over him, and traced her hand shyly down the column of his strong throat. Her questing fingers found his amulet. His entire body seemed to tense in anticipation as she balanced its weight in her hand. "Is it really so?" she asked. He nodded. More daring now, she let her hand wander between the folds of his jacket and his shirt, to find one warm erect nipple, shocked at her own forwardness, her own desire.
"You are your mother's daughter," he gasped, pleasure writ in the lines of his mouth, rocking back and then collecting himself. "Your games are very much in her style."
She tried to withdraw her hand, feeling ashamed, but he took her forearm and kept her hand on his skin. "Don't you like it?" she asked, slightly confused. "Should I stop?"
He whimpered as he guided her hand to trace the curve of his pectoral, and she tickled her fingers over the soft cords of the jointure of his armpit. "I do like it, you witch, but you could have asked first. You're still toying with me. Would you enjoy being on your knees before me, at my mercy? Would that be fair?"
"That's not the way it is, though," she said, giving him a shove. He splayed out on the hearth-rug, limbs akimbo. She stared hard at him as she took a seat on the ottoman and spread her skirt down over her knees. "I was afraid of you. Now I'm not. I'm ready to listen to you. Tell me whatever nonsense you needed to tell me about my mother."
Slowly, in a way that no human man might be able to bend, or at least with not such natural grace, he came back to his knees, sitting back on his heels. He shook his head. "There are rules in these games. I can't tell you straight out. You have to ask me. You're smart, surely you can find a way."
Sudden inspiration hit. "Can you… can tell me a story, Goblin King? A story…that tells the truth?"
The Goblin King's face broke into a smile of triumph. He shrugged off his leather jacket. His shirt was disheveled from her pawing; two more buttons had come undone and his nipples winked out like a dove's pink eyes. "Oh, yes. Yes. Clever, clever, clever girl. Listen well." He bent his arms into a strange configuration, one parallel to his shoulders, the other perpendicular, palm upthrust—a witness bearing testimony.
"Once upon a time," he began, eyes darkening conspiratorially. "Once upon a time there was a cunning woman who could call upon demons or fairies or spirits or whatever you might like to call them. This witch ensnared the most powerful one she could find as her familiar, and made him her slave. With his help, she made herself Queen. In time, she bore a child, a girl-child, a princess, to secure her legacy. Lips red as blood. Skin white as snow. Hair black as ebony. And one day her daughter—"
"Step-daughter," Sarah interjected.
"Am I telling this story, or are you?" he demanded. She shrugged, and he continued, and she was fascinated by him, fascinated.
"One day her daughter came unsummoned to her apartments, and uncovered the witch's mirror. The girl spoke to the slave in the mirror… and the slave answered her. Now when she learned of this, the Queen understood that her daughter was becoming what she had been in her prime, a fierce and terrible witch. And being afraid for the time when her daughter might supplant her, she had her daughter killed. The Queen ate her heart. In this way, the Queen's own beauty and power were returned back to her, returned twofold. In twoscore years more, when the Queen felt her magic waning once more, she knew what to do. She took another husband, and bore another daughter who fared identically to the first. You know this story. It is your mother's story, Sarah."
Her lips opened to object. And yet… she had asked him for the truth. "So you're saying… my mother is a witch? And she plans to… kill me? Like the wicked queen in Snow White? So… what's your role in this story, Goblin King?"
"Five hundred years before tomorrow and perhaps one thousand years after, this story has been told, and the slave in the mirror has been helpless to stop the cycle." His eyes glazed slightly, looking off into the middle distance, hatred in his face, but not for her. "To the contrary. He's been forced to play his part in these wicked games, even to bringing harm. Even to bringing death."
"The slave… you're her slave? The magic mirror—" Sarah asked, eyes wide. "It's you?"
He gave her an ironic smile. suffused with self-disgust. "I've been Linda's to command for years upon years. I've waited, and I've watched, hoping that there might someday come a daughter more powerful than the mother, one wise enough to take my counsel, balance the scales, break the cycle and set me free. I've waited twelve generations for you, Sarah. I longed to see your face in my mirror since even before you were born. You're the thirteenth daughter. You're the fairest one of all."
"Then why not just come to me, ask me, tell me all this six months ago? Why'd you take Toby? Why did you put me through all that?" She wanted to punch him, but instead bunched up folds of her skirt in her fists.
"Because I'd been sent to watch you! To report back to my keeper, to tell her if her witch's blood had thrown true, a perfect daughter. And it did! When you called on me, I heard you. I heard you, Sarah, and that is something that wouldn't have happened if you had just been an ordinary girl. So I took the baby. I took my chance. I brought you to my hidden kingdom to test your strength, away from the eyes of your mother, and you passed the test."
"What test? What test?" she felt the tension rising in her, feeling as if she were about to hear something she didn't want to hear.
"This is the part of the story you tell me," he said darkly. "What did you learn? I watched you, afterward. Your behavior was quite strange. Why did you do what you did?"
She thought of her personal explorations in her bed, and blushed.
"Not your night-games, Sarah," he said negligently. "The other thing. Before you used your power to throw yourself a party, before I went back to Linda to tell her that her daughter was more beautiful and more powerful than any witch-child in twelve generations. What did you do?"
"I started… putting away all my mom's pictures. Her posters. The scrapbook," she said softly.
"I don't know," she whined, twisting the hem of her dress. Her eyes felt sticky and hot.
"You do," he insisted, sitting up and putting his hands over hers. "Sarah. Tell me. You know. Why did you win at the Labyrinth?"
"Because I said the right words," she choked out, flinching from his touch. "I knew the right words to say."
"No, Sarah. You know that's not so. Your victory had nothing to do with throwing words at me. You knew that you had won from the moment you jumped off the heights, to save the helpless abandoned baby poised on a ledge. Why did you jump? What did you know in that moment?" His hands were like manacles on her wrists.
"I couldn't just leave him!" Sarah said, and then the tears were on her. She couldn't breathe. "I couldn't abandon him the way my mom abandoned me!" Her sobs broke loose from her chest and she cried. She shook off his grip and put her hands over her face. "She left me! She threw me away for her dreams… I couldn't do that. I couldn't!"
"No," he said quietly. "And that's why you defeated the Labyrinth. Not magic words. A choice you made. A better choice than hers. That was the test I put on you. That was how I knew you were the one."
She felt the urge to shove him away, but she ached with hurt. Linda had banished her, left her to Irene's un-tender care, left her all alone so she could achieve her dreams of glory and wealth. The Goblin King's apparent love was the only balm at hand for this pain. She crushed her face into his chest and cried. And he… he rocked her, as if she were a baby, as if she were his baby, his precious thing.
"I couldn't think of a better way," he said when her tears had stopped, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and daubing her face clean. "I couldn't risk giving my trust to someone unworthy. Do you believe me?"
"Yes," she said reluctantly.
He showed her the handkerchief. "I thought you painted your eyes, your lashes are so dark. But see, the only stain here is your tears." He tucked the cloth away and sat back on his heels again. "Sarah. Put your faith entirely in me, and I will see you through this ordeal alive."
She shook her head in denial, even as the words formed on her lips, mournful, defeated. "Okay."
Author's Note: Nothing can stop this sleigh now. Grandmas better watch out.
I'd like to give some inspirational credit for this story to HyborianQueen's "Toby's Wish," which includes magnificent plotting as well as one of the best-drawn versions of Dark!Jareth out there. And, of course, Subtilior's "Advent" is superb. Both of these stories are lurking in the back of my head as I write.
If you're looking for lighter Christmas fare, I decided this story probably takes place in the same canon as "The Night Near Christmas, the Not-Elf and the Nice List," All of the above stories can be found on FF.net
Also... I saw Krampus last night. You had better believe it gave me inspiration for a later chapter. You'll know it when you see it.
Soundtrack for Chapter 4:
Fleetwood Mac: "Seven Wonders"
My mother plans to kill me and eat my heart, Sarah thought. Somehow, the idea didn't seem as impossible as it had before he'd reminded her of her mother's abandonment.
He stood up, limber as a serpent, and went to the kitchen.
"Couldn't I—we— run? Hide?" Sarah trailed after him, worrying a rough spot on her nail.
He poked his head out of the door and gave her a look of towering scorn. "Like rabbits? I'm disappointed in you, Sarah. In any case, I can't run. I'm bound." He disappeared again.
"I don't want to fight her," Sarah said, following him into the kitchen. He was placing the lid on the vat of mulled wine that sullenly bubbled under a low flame. "Sir Didymus and Ludo and Hoggle… they could come and help me," she said.
"Could they," he said flatly, a strange expression in his eyes. "No, Sarah, I think not."
"They said they would," she answered, crossing her arms and tossing her head at him. "They said all I needed to do was call, if I needed them."
"Making your slaves fight your battles for you?" he sneered, upending an entire bag of flour upon the pristine granite. "How like your mother."
"They're my friends, not my slaves," she informed him. "Don't you know the difference?"
"I don't," he said, turning away from her and opening up boxes of confectioner's sugar. "Here is what I do know. If you run, your mother will have you hunted down and returned to her, either by the mundane authorities, which will be embarrassing to you, or by me, which will break my heart." He avoided her eyes when he spoke of his feelings, which suited Sarah's mood. Her own feelings were also uncertain. "If you summon your friends—" and here his tone was downright ugly, "—your mother will annihilate them, just like that." He snapped his fingers. "And if she doesn't, I just might. I'm jealous by nature, and I don't want you taking help from anyone else. Forget them, and attend to me."
"You really are a bastard," she said. "… what are you doing?"
"Making cookies," he said, as if it were a chore too disgusting to be politely discussed.
"You want me to help you make cookies," Sarah had asked, deadpan with disbelief. "My mother wants to kill me, you say we can't run, and you won't let me talk to my friends, and you want me to help you make cookies." The kitchen was already a mess, flour and fine-ground sugar floating like crumbs in a snow-globe, but somehow the Goblin King's own person remained immaculate.
"No, I have to make the cookies. You need to take instruction from me. But since you wasted a small hour acting the idiot-child, now I need to do two things at once. Stand back. Well back. We can't have you mussing your pretty dress, can we?"
Sarah sat down at the breakfast table by the window. The kitchen had been designed to accommodate caterers and help for social gatherings, not to be cozy, but the breakfast nook was sweetly personal. There was a Christmas-candle centerpiece on the table.
"Attend," the Goblin King repeated. "To fight a witch, you must be a witch, and we need to see which of the powers you have, before your mother returns." He opened the refrigerator door and tossed out a club of unsalted butter, the fancy kind. He flicked his wrist as it flew, and it landed among the dry ingredients with a foomf. "The Seven Wonders are in the ken of all witches, but they first learned these arts from us, their slaves." He took out two dozen eggs, and threw them at the dry mess on the counter. The cartons opened themselves and the eggs flew free, twenty-four fragile missiles, and then cracked themselves in midair. Sarah watched wide-eyed as the eggs separated and folded themselves into the mixture. Other ingredients followed, a dance of cookery that was aggressively chaotic, but successful. The rosemary he saved for last, tearing the spines of it off in hatred.
The dough roiled and kneaded itself as if by unseen hands. Perhaps not unseen—he made subtle gestures with his hands in midair, sometimes one-handed, a disinterested conductor. He spat in the dough when it was mixed, a perfect glob of venom that shot green sparks and then was absorbed without trace. He nodded at his contribution with satisfaction.
"The first power is the power of movement," he told her, as he made the kitchen dance for him. "This power encompasses many others—bilocation, telekinesis, flight, the summoning of objects—and I am quite skilled in its use, if I do say so myself." He jutted his chin at the dough crashing and thrusting itself flat under invisible pins.
"Then," he said, holding out a denuded sprig of rosemary to her, "There is the power to fructify. To cause growth to happen, to bring life from death." As she watched, again, surprised at her ability to continue to be surprised, the sprig put forth new green leaves, and even bloomed in clusters of spicy purple-white flowers. "And then there is the power to wither." And the rosemary sprig died, turned black, turned to dust that he blew away. "To cut strands, to cause life to stop."
He came close to her then, as cookie sheets dressed themselves in parchment paper and perfect rondels stamped themselves onto perfect rounds the size of her palm.
"And there is the power to bewitch. Seduction." His lips drew so close to hers that she could feel their warmth. She closed her eyes on him, drew her lips flat. "Until there was you," he murmured, "I believed I was quite good at these arts. But you defied me at every turn. Let's see if anything has changed. Open your eyes," he commanded. She did. The entire kitchen was full of roses, roses which shed their red, red petals, petals which became clouds of fragile butterflies, thick as a red sky at dawn. His voice spoke to her from somewhere behind this cloud. "This power is also the power of glamour, illusions so powerful that they become real." The butterflies skimmed their feather-soft wings across her lips, soft as a kiss, but then they became larger, the metallic undercarriage of their legs and looped proboscis visible, skittering, crawling. They knocked over the centerpiece as they swarmed her; she shielded her face from their insectile jabbings.
"Please, make it stop," she begged him.
"You stop it," he said. "I know you can. You thwarted this magic in my Labyrinth, over and over again."
Sarah began to speak an order, knowing she'd made a mistake to ask instead of demand, but a butterfly climbed inside and pinioned her tongue with its prickly legs, filled up her mouths with its throbbing wings. It smelled of roses, the thick and cloying stench gagging her. And more came. They crawled over her, infiltrating her skirts, stuffing themselves with chitinous pokings velvet strokings down her back, into her bodice, her brassiere, fluttering across her breasts, over her belly, pricking her with desire. She crossed her legs, but velvet wings stroked her cleft, kissing her, coaxing her to part. She felt that if they penetrated her, they would metamorphose in reverse, into caterpillars, larvae, and burst her open with their wriggling. She clasped a hand over her sex. "Stop!" she screamed, but she was choked. Like an animal ignorant of how to swim until thrown in fast waters, she acted on desperate instinct. She grabbed the candle from the centerpiece and threw it at him. She felt the magic shatter.
She opened her eyes. The butterflies lay quiescent like piles of red autumn leaves on the floor and counter and table and chairs. Sarah spat out one lone petal, shook out her skirts with disgust, but none of them were on her. It had all been an illusion.
"Good," he said. The red drifts blew toward him, leaves on the wind, and their color and substance was absorbed by his clothing. "Very good. The Fifth Wonder is the power to unbind, to revoke curses, to reinstate truth, to set things free. You seem to be able to invoke it by throwing things."
"You didn't have to do that!" Sarah said angrily. "Was that your idea of getting even?"
"No, it was my idea of a practical education," he retorted. "You wanted me to stop it, do your magic for you? You might think it's better to take shortcuts, Princess, to get slaves to do all your magic for you, take all the risks for you, but it's far better to do things yourself. Slaves have minds and desires of their own, and we can and will turn on you, if you give us a chance."
"So what's next?" she demanded, definitely not wanting to continue a conversational thread about either his desires, or his chances.
"The power of the tempest. That's weather control, to call the rains or deny them passage, to bring the hail and the snow to blight the crop, but I don't think your mother would appreciate a rainstorm in her apartment. In any case, I don't sense much snow in my Snow White." He opened the oven and began to load the batches of wafers in by hand. Four more trays waited, and the kitchen fairly levitated under flying carpets of cookie-lined paper waiting their turn. There were far, far, far more than the three of them might be able to eat, even in a week of eating.
"Any questions?" He asked her, setting a timer.
"The last wonder?" Sarah asked. "Movement, fruitfulness, withering, bewitchment, unbinding, the tempest. That's six." She raised a finger for each as she counted off, saving her middle finger for the last, holding it out for his inspection. "What's the Seventh Wonder?"
He nodded approvingly. "The Seventh Wonder is the greatest and most dangerous of all the other powers, the power to command spirits. Animal spirits also, or those of men, as you desire. The power to command is the greatest of the Seven Wonders, and it is your mother's especial gift, the thing which she has used to make herself Queen. As her daughter, you have a natural aptitude for it." The expression on his face was strange, distant. "We both know your skills to command. We don't need to test your power there—unless, of course, you truly enjoy humiliating me."
"No," she said, ashamed. "I'm sorry. Jareth… I'm sorry I did all that to you."
He cut her a formal bow. "Princess," he said, coldly courting, "I don't know how you learned my name, but hearing it on your lips is worth precisely a thousand apologies. Now. Let's see where your other talents lie. Tonight the Hunt is on, and you will need to use your magic to survive."
"So soon," she said breathlessly, hugging herself.
"But dinner first, before the show," he nodded. "Let's begin with the First Wonder. See if you can open the cupboards and pull out some baking racks for me."
Their heads both turned in unison when they heard the elevator signal Linda's immanent arrival. She felt suddenly shy. In attempting to work the arts, he had suggested help in the form of touch.
"This is the way it's done, when you're learning from your mother's familiar." He had come quite close to her, and rested his hand lightly over her waist. When they were in contact, she was able to feebly move around empty cardboard boxes, or make the snow skirl in vague patterns outside the window. He had gone so far as to tuck his chin over her shoulder, and lift her hands under his.
"You fancy yourself an actress," he murmured against her hair, as Linda's footsteps echoed in the foyer. "But Linda is better. She will lie to you, and so you'll know I've told you the truth. A witch is no one to trifle with. When she comes, you must conceal what you know about me, and conceal what you know about her plans."
"Lie to her?" Sarah asked. "Lie to my own mother?"
"Not lie," he said impatiently. "Conceal. Pretend you're a bit more ignorant and a great deal more stupid than you actually are. The art of deception is telling almost all of the truth and letting others fill in their own meanings."
She had wondered at that, feeling another strong pang of dislike for him. "Like you do?"
He only held her closer. His touch was both alarming and soothing, but when Linda's cheerful voice echoed in the vestibule, Sarah practically shoved him away.
"Sarah? Are you here? I'm home!"
"Mom!" Sarah said, rushing to Linda and throwing her arms around her, her black sable furs tickling her cheek. She looked up. "Mom, I'm here!"
"My darling, let me look at you," Linda said. She held Sarah out at arm's length, and she inspected Sarah even as Sarah inspected her. Linda was dressed all in black, a king's ransom of diamonds winking in her décolletage, her wrists, her ears and over the black leather of her gloves. She had carried the cold in with her, and she smelled of her sables, the musk of weasels, the snowy air outside, peppermint, comfort, home, mother. "My, I think you've grown another two inches since I saw you last. And in that dress! You've become a beautiful young woman."
Sarah smiled back shyly, but her smile faded as she saw the slight dismay in her mother's expression as she looked at her, her melancholy emphasis on the word 'woman.' And she saw how her mother's own face had changed as well, that she was old, the bones in her face more obvious, tiny wrinkles like crepe appearing around her eyes when she smiled, between her breasts when she moved.
"Mom," Sarah said, stepping away from her, out of the reach of her clutching hands. "I thought your note meant Jeremy." Please give me some explanation for this, Mom! Please, let him have tricked you. Please, prove he's the liar, not you! "But you meant him! He's not human, Mom."
Linda unsheathed herself from her magnificent coat and tossed it over a chair. "Oh, I know that, darling. But I didn't think that you would," Linda said, her face as cold as frost as she assessed the Goblin King. "You," she said to him. Her voice sweet as honey, but Sarah flinched at the sound. "You were told to wear a glamour."
"I was," the Goblin King admitted, with a flash of a grin. "But she saw right through it. I told you she would. Your daughter is twice the witch you were at her age, my Queen."
"We'll just see about that," Linda said sweetly. "So you've told her about me, I assume? Just how much have you told her?"
"I've told her enough," the Goblin King said nonchalantly. "Enough for her to be cautious."
"And did you touch her? Did you persuade her to try to free you from my collar?" She advanced on the Goblin King slowly as a thunderhead, and as black. She lifted the Goblin King's heavy pendant in her hand, and squeezed.
That necklace he wears, Sarah thought. A collar? Like for a dog? "It was me," Sarah squeaked. "He didn't ask me. I did it on my own."
Linda let the pendant drop, ignoring her daughter. The rings on her hand flashed like lightning as she slapped the Goblin King across the face, hard.
"Mom, no!" Sarah said, an anguished cry.
Linda's other hand slapped the Goblin King's other cheek, her face caught in a snarl. Nothing in his body seemed moved by these blows, except for his head. His expression was distant, as if he were observing everything from a great height, and feeling only mild contempt for it.
"Stop, please!" Sarah cried. "You're hurting him!"
"I wish I could hurt him," Linda said, eyes blazing black, color high on her cheeks, all the intensity of her gaze leveled at the Goblin King. One of the rings on her hand had cut his cheekbone, and the blood that ran down his neck exactly matched his shirt. Sarah voiced another inarticulate protest, and then Linda turned her attention to her daughter, her expression of frustrated rage unchanged. "Sarah, stop sniveling." Her face softened, but her voice was as compelling. "Or if you must do something, darling, go to the kitchen and fetch me some of the hippocras I can smell. And some wafers. I'm cold and I haven't had a thing since breakfast."
Sarah opened her mouth, ready with a sharp answer… and found herself without a voice. She wanted to stamp her foot and have a tantrum, but instead she turned on her heel and found herself in the kitchen before she was even aware that she wanted, quite badly, to go there. She fumbled for the ladle and poured out wine from the pot bubbling on the brazier into another glass goblet with trembling hands. It wasn't like being forced, there was nothing strange about her feelings at all. It was what she wanted to do more than anything else that moment. She opened up the topmost of the pink cardboard boxes full of the exquisite, fragile-looking cookies the Goblin King had made—each of them stamped with a roundel and five-pointed star—and arranged six on a fancy plate.
From the living room, Sarah could hear the song of her mother's voice, but not her words. On the other hand, the Goblin King's replies were clear as bells to her, ringing in her ears. "She has the potential to become formidable, providing she lives. But her powers now are nascent, all but for the power to command… and to unbind."
His voice was… meek. He was afraid of her mother.
That makes two of us.
"Sarah," Linda's command rang clear and true. "Don't dawdle. Come out here."
Author's Notes: The phrasing of the witches' powers as the "Seven Wonders" is borrowed directly from American Horror Story: Coven, although I have altered the nature of these powers to better align with the powers of witches described in the Malleus Maleficarum.
After writing so many stories where Linda Williams is a bubblehead or a placeholder or generally ineffectual, I'm finding it delicious to dial up her presence and power and watch her go.
Please leave a review, if you would be so kind.
Soundtrack for Chapter 5
Elliot Smith: "Waltz #2"
Peter Bjorn and John: "Young Folks"
Linda was curled on the couch, wicked patent heels off, looking tired… and old. She took the plate and cup from Sarah's hands. "Thank you, my darling." She cracked a wafer in half, sweet with rosemary and crispy with butter. "Have one for yourself."
"He spat in those," Sarah admitted, just before her mother took a bite. Jareth gave her a disgusted look, clearly accusing her of being a tattletale.
"A little demon's spit improves the flavor," Linda murmured, as she dipped the halves into the hippocras and ate them.
"Then you'll love what I put in the wine," Jareth said ominously. Linda only drank her cup down, as if she didn't hear him. She held out the dishes, and the Goblin King took them to the kitchen, the perfect servant.
"Come," Linda said, standing up and taking Sarah's hand. "Let's go freshen up before dinner."
"O Queen, the hour is late," the Goblin King said from the kitchen doorway, crossing his arms over his breast and scowling. "There is no time for that. The company awaits you. Some will have been waiting since sunset."
"And so they'll wait a bit longer," Linda said, leading Sarah to her bedroom. "Ring for the car, and then play some music, Jareth. I want to be able to hear you, and I don't want you overhearing us. Sarah and I are overdue for some girl talk."
"As you wish." He inclined his head, and went to the phone.
Linda's bedroom was an ostentatious art deco shrine. The white bed stood like an altar on a dais, and her vanity table was wide and well-stocked with all manner of perfumes and paints and beauty aids, and beautiful framed photographs of herself, of Jeremy, of Sarah. She sat Sarah down on the stool and, over her shoulder in the mirror, cast her eyes down at Sarah's face. She took her hand and pulled back the skin on her cheekbone, erasing the wrinkles, looking for a moment as if she were young, very young. Linda shook her head at disgust as her reflection, and then her eyes met her daughter's.
From the living room, she heard the Goblin King began to play delicate glissandi that filled up the silent corners of the apartment.
"What did he tell you about me?" Linda asked, as Sarah picked up one of the photos from the vanity, to throw if she needed to break the spell. But how to know when? "What on earth could he have said, to make you look at me like that?"
"Like what?" She clutched the frame between her hands.
"Like a mouse who sees the owl." Linda picked up Linda opened an enameled pill-box in the shape of an own, took one of the blue pills with hearts at their centers, and held it before Sarah's mouth. "Take this, Sarah." Sarah swallowed it unresisting. "What did he say, that has you so upset with your own mother?" She rested her hands on Sarah's shoulders.
Sarah shook her head. And then suddenly the words were there, dancing out of her mouth. She heard, or she thought she heard, a break in the Goblin King's playing on the piano. "He said you were going to have me killed. From jealousy. He said you wanted to eat my heart so you could become young again. Like the Wicked Queen from Snow White."
The grip of her talons only became tighter. Linda's eyes were wet with tears, and her fingers trembled even as they dug into her flesh. "And you believed him. Don't you love me, Sarah?"
"Yes," Her head felt floaty. "But I don't trust you anymore. It's not just what he said. It's all this. I don't know what to believe."
Linda drew loose the bow from her hair. She picked up her hairbrush and began brushing Sarah's hair in long seamless strokes. Sarah closed her eyes, so soothed. She was transported to the time when she was a child, when Linda would brush her hair like this, never tugging, never pulling. "It's enough that you love me," Linda said. "I love you, too, Sarah. You have no idea how much."
"Then why did you leave me? I could have stayed with you. All this wouldn't have been so awful. This witchcraft, meeting him—it would have been okay if I could have had you." Sarah said, tears starting up in her eyes again.
"And I wanted you, my darling. I wanted you, so much. But if you ever become a mother, you'll understand that sometimes we need to do what's best for our children, instead of having what we want. If I had kept you, you would have grown into your womanhood meek as a mouse, pliant to my will and pleasure. I would have made you weak. I've seen it happen to other witch-children. They become unstable little shits once they're finally free of their mothers' apron-strings. I gave you a gift when I left you. Be grateful." Linda drew the ribbon up again over the crown of Sarah's head, and retied the bow at a slightly jaunty angle, perfection in gauze. "You were thirteen," she said decisively, as if trying to convince herself of her righteousness. "That's more than I had with my own mother. And you had Robert. He's practically a breast."
"Mom!" Sarah said, outraged. She turned in her seat, wanting to ask her—what was it she wanted to ask? Reality seemed softer now, the edges of her vision frosted with Valium. There was something…
"Are you going to kill me tonight?" she asked, tears spilling over her cheeks.
Linda tilted Sarah's face upward, tapped one perfectly manicured red nail against her chin. "Sarah. You've come of age. Your red moon has risen. You are a witch. I understand your need to take refuge in childishness, but you aren't a child any more. The world will not treat you gently, no matter how many tears you shed. Now be calm and listen to me. Unlike that thing in there, I won't use the truth to deceive you, even if it makes me look the villain." She knelt down and crossed her arms over Sarah's knees.
"Tonight, at dinner, I have to present you to the rest of the coven as a novitiate, as every other witch has had to do with her children once they've demonstrated their aptitude. You will be tested. You will be put into deadly peril, and you must fight to prove you're fit to live. The coven will stomach any moral defect in the candidates, except for weakness. Weakness in a witch cannot be tolerated." Linda turned her face aside and gazed out the window into the night-falling snow. "Least of all in a Queen. I'm weak where you're concerned. I would have put off your novitiate until you were older. Nineteen, maybe twenty. But I have enemies and rivals who want me cast down. They've seen to it that circumstances arranged that you would be here with me tonight, at Yule, when I have no choice but to bring you before them. If you fail, you die, and your power will bleed back into the heart of the world, and the coven will consume it. I will eat your heart, even as it breaks my own." She leaned up and kissed Sarah's brow. "It's not for jealousy that I risk you. It's duty. I must risk paying the price every other witch-mother has risked paying in her time. Only please believe me, I didn't want it to be so soon."
"Then you don't want me to die?" Sarah asked.
"No, oh no!" Linda stroked her face. "I gave birth to you. I fed you at my own breasts. I love you more than I love myself. I don't want you to die. I want you to live. I can't cheat at the game tonight, exactly, but I can arrange for you to have the best help possible. Look down at the picture you're holding."
Sarah ran her thumbs over the edge of the decorative frame, and examined the picture inside. It was a picture of herself as a baby, taking steps with her chubby fists held in her father's hands. Baby-Sarah in the photo looked up in excited fondness at her helper. She knew this picture. It was a staple of family photo-albums, or the ones she kept in her room at home, taken out and stared at when she needed to remember that her parents loved her. Now she looked at it again, and saw what she hadn't seen before. The hands that held her were long-fingered, pale, almost feminine in their smooth hairlessness, and two curving spokes entered the top of the picture, as if the man leaning over her were wearing a necklace, and it had dipped down into the frame as the picture was taken.
It was the Goblin King's pendant.
"Jareth is fond of you, I think. Certainly he likes you more than he ever liked me, but it may be he just sees you as a an easy target, malleable, susceptible to his charms. And he can be charming, Sarah. He can be extremely charming—but you have to resist his charms. He's dangerous. He'd like you to be the weak link in the chain that binds him. Don't let him use you. Use him instead. He's my familiar, and after tonight, he will be yours."
"What if I can't control him?" Sarah asked. Linda shook her head.
"What if?" Sarah repeated insistently.
"Then you die, and our line ends with you," Linda said, drawing herself up. "And it would be for the best. I would sooner see you dead than give Jareth over to a witch who can't control him. He would break the world apart if he could. Love is at the heart of what it is to be Queen. A greater love than even a mother for her daughter. And I am Queen. Do you understand?"
Sarah hugged her mother's arms around her and leaned her head back against her belly, her source. "I understand," she said, but it made her sad, sad. It seemed so unfair.
"Now let's be off to dinner," Linda said. "Remember what I told you."
The picture dropped from her limp fingers to the floor, and the glass shattered.
Author's Notes: The line, "He's practically a breast" is borrowed with gratitude for its exactitude, from The Birdcage.
I'm indebted to folklore, particularly Matthew Hopkins' Discovery of Witches, for intimate discussions of the role of familiars in the lives and magic of witches. Thematic elements of Jareth's relationship to the Williams women are also lightly borrowed from Anne Rice's The Witching Hour.
Soundtrack for Chapter 6:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: "Red Right Hand"
Gene Autry: "Up on the Housetop"
They sat in the car, the three of them in the back together. Jareth's left hand was on Linda's knee, and her glove gripped his in a black embrace. His right hand was gloved in a shade of red less black than the other, and it was this hand that Linda instructed Sarah to take, so he was firmly bound between them.
Sarah was calm, drug-calm, but she was still able to be nervous about touching Jareth in her mother's presence, even touching him through the integument of her gloves. These gloves were as new as the dress, white kidskin gloves with pearl buttons and the fur lining on their cuffs, meant to match the new coat that had been waiting in the vestibule closet—white wool with fur lining the hood, the fur of arctic foxes, or perhaps snowshoe rabbits.
What does he feel? Sarah wondered, staring at Jareth's face in profile. He seemed supremely indifferent to everything, staring straight ahead through the glass partition of the sedan, the lights of the lampposts striking flares off his pupils. Does he like holding my hand? Or does it feel like holding a shackle? Does he know I wish I didn't have to hold his hand like this? Does he know I pity him a little, even if Mom thinks I shouldn't? Inadvertently, she gave his hand a squeeze. His eyes flickered so quickly over to her that it might have been a trick of the light. The light pressure he returned was not her imagination.
"Sarah," Linda's sweet soprano interrupted her train of thought. "Have you enjoyed him yet?"
"Enjoyed?" It took a moment for her mother's meaning to sink in, and she blushed and turned away to stare out into the snowing streets. "No. I'm not… I've never… " her voice trailed off into a whisper. "I'm not ready for that."
"My daughter, a virgin?" Linda mused. "Well, we can take care of that problem. It's traditional for your mother's familiar to initiate you into carnal pleasures. Now, if you like. I can have the driver take us around the park. It shouldn't take long."
"No," Sarah said, the hair on the back of her neck standing up. "I can't. I'm… I can't." She wanted to die of mortification.
"Leave off," Jareth said quietly. "Her innocence is the only shield she has against you."
"Innocence is no protection," Linda said with malice.
"I know that already!" Sarah said defiantly. She'd learned it from Jareth himself, through the medium of Toby. Toby had been nothing if not innocent. He'd done nothing to hurt her, other than being born, and technically that hadn't even been his fault, any more than being born to Linda was her own. He hadn't even been the one to take Launcelot—it had needed adult hands to swipe her first comfort item from that high shelf. And yet she had blamed him, and yes, she had hurt him. Innocence was no protection from anything.
"You've made me your whore, witch." Jareth said quietly. "But you can't make me hers." His hand seemed to vibrate in hers, and she stroked his glove, trying to calm him. Whatever else, she absolutely did not want to be in the same car as a fight between a witch and the Goblin King.
"But you are a whore, slave. You are whatever we say you are. Sarah needs to understand that. There are consequences to too much affection for slaves, especially ones who give service in bed. Tell her why, Jareth."
His face never changed. "A witch's familiar can be fertile with a witch, but must never be allowed to sire a child on one," he said mildly, as if making a commentary on the weather. "All the Seven Wonders we possess, except for the Seventh, the power to command. A half-breed child would be capable of practicing the Seventh Wonder." He turned to Linda and his voice was so gentle it was frightening. "And then woe to you, witches, for the father of such a child would surely groom it for revenge from the moment it drew breath."
Linda stroked his cheek gently, oh so gently, with her hand clasped in his. He flinched from her, staring straight ahead once more. "Just so. He's tried for years to coax me into bearing him a son. Now he knows I won't, so he will begin working on you, my daughter. Has he proclaimed his eternal love for you yet?"
"Yes," Sarah said, watching the snow fall down. "He said he loves me." Her heart ached, a featherlight ache, the touch of snow. "And I believe him." His hand spasmed in hers, as if she had surprised him.
"Do you, truly? Foolish girl."
"Just like I believe you, Mom, when you said you love me." Sarah caught her mother's eyes and glared at her in anger, finding some heat in the blue mist of the Valium. "What difference does you saying it or my believing it make? We're still going to dinner anyway. Just be quiet, the both of you, the rest of the way. I need to think."
To her amazement, she had compelled them into silence. She had fifteen perfect minutes of silence, until the car pulled up before a black awning.
As the driver struggled with carrying carafes of wine and the string-tied column of pink paper boxes of wafers, the three of them glided in on red carpet. The coat-check attendant was a young woman, wearing a green part-mask. Sarah idled in the warm hallway as their coats were taken, making note of a pay phone ensconced between the restroom doors. She kept her gaze vague, but she perked up when she saw the line of photographs at eye level, exquisitely framed and matted, and wandered over to take a closer look.
Every picture was something horrid. There were bodies, women's bodies, though it was almost hard to tell, bound up as they were in straps and belts and ropes. She saw configurations of women's legs spread by bars, women's mouths stretched by gags, women's breasts pierced by needles. Their faces were all pale and calm as classic sculptures, so Sarah supposed they must have been willing to be photographed like this, but looking at them still made her feel ill.
"They call this a gentlemen's club," Linda said, putting her hand on Sarah's shoulder. "A closed venue where some of the most powerful and wealthy men sit and drink and eat, waited upon by women, all just to pretend they're as potent as they were in their youth. Its membership includes, and has included, senators and presidents, generals, captains of industry, surgeons, prelates and corporate bigwigs. We're borrowing it tonight for our revels, but we've changed nothing about the décor." There was hate in her mother's face as she looked down the line of the gallery. "Look well, Sarah. What are these pictures about?"
"Fear," Sarah answered without thinking.
"Whose fear? Hers?" Linda touched one pale black-and-white face, blindfolded under glass.
"No," Sarah shook her head. "It's… a joke on her. On women. It's a joke with a vagina as a punchline. So… it must be their fear. People only make jokes about the things they're afraid of."
"You're so wise, darling." Linda fluffed the bow in her hair where it had gone flat from her hood. "Now listen: this place is an altar to men's terror of women, and reveals just what they would like to do to all women, for the crime of their own deficiencies. It's good for you to see their hate on its face. In the world outside, misogyny wears a mask in polite company. Men don't torture us or burn us or hang us anymore, because they've convinced themselves they're civilized and not afraid of us. But all men still believe all women belong under their boots, and they will try to punish you if you don't smile as you submit. Because they are afraid of you, because you are a woman. Let their domesticated cunts kneel and bow and beg and serve—but never you. You are a witch. You do not kneel to men. You make them kneel to you."
"I understand," Sarah said, but she had her own rebellious thoughts about submission and punishment, and the fitness thereof. Her eyes glanced over to Jareth, who was tilting his head far to the side in examination of one of the photos.
"Good." Linda took her hand and let her in, Jareth trailing in their wake. As they passed the photo Jareth had been so interested in, Sarah saw that he had unbound the woman in the picture. The ropes that had squeezed her breasts and sex were lying in little two-dimensional piles around her, and she was only lying on her side, half-smiling, as if she knew a funny secret.
And lo, the glories of the banquet-hall! Sarah was overwhelmed for a moment by the tidal wave of sensation that broke over them as they entered. She could smell the pine boughs in bunting on the mirrored walls, and the cooked meat and butter that promised dinner. The cacophony of voices was underscored by tinny recordings of rather old-fashioned Christmas music, the type sung by lounge crooners turning their talents to holiday classics.
And then there were the people, my God, she thought, the people! Only some of them weren't people, strictly speaking, not the way Linda would have defined them, anyway. There were cats with fire dancing on the tips of their tails, and snakes with hoods of jewels, and yes, even a few men and women, but the ethereal nature of their beauty, the collars around their subserviently bent necks, indicated a kinship with Jareth—though none, in Sarah's opinion, more beautiful, more proud, more wild than he. One or two of these she recognized, in startlement, as having attended her Cinderella party in the Labyrinth, Jareth's cruel parody of her girlish dreams.
In contrast to these startling apparitions, there were human people, the witches they served. Women were everywhere, all of them in black, middle aged and older and some so ancient their white hair was only puffs of tinted floss. And there were a few girls and young women marked out by the white they wore, white like Sarah's own, a sprinkling of salt in on an ebony windowsill. The youngest one of these could have been no older than fourteen.
Their arrival was met only with the most subtle of hushes, but she felt the energy of the room change into something darker, more anticipatory as Linda led Sarah over to a table obviously reserved just for them. Eyes traveled over Sarah, some circumspectly and some aggressively. Sarah kept her face calm, and her eyes steady.
"Dinnertime," Linda said. "I'm famished." Jareth pulled out her chair, and the other revelers in black and white all took to their seats as she did.
Dinner was as nice as Linda's note had promised, and better. There were tiny roasted game hens small as songbirds, and tiny boiled potatoes glazed in butter and parsley. There were comfits and jellies and root vegetables in rich cream sauces. Linda ate neatly, but ravenously. Sarah wanted to follow her lead. Her stomach rumbled angrily, having had nothing more substantial than wine in it since the long ago boxed lunch on the train—another lifetime ago. But she refrained, taking only a few morsels of every dish put before her, because the Goblin King ate nothing. There was no place set for him, and none arrived. The other… creatures, the familiars, stood at servile attendance behind the chairs of their women. Jareth sat, and she saw how his presence at the table was an insult to the other witches, and how Linda allowed it precisely because it was insulting.
What the Goblin King dined upon was contempt. His manners were perfect—perfectly rude. He pulled his chair far back enough from the table so as to be in the way of all the servers, and smoked cigarette after cigarette until a blue haze of smoke drifted low in the room like fog. He bared his teeth in a smile at every witch who looked at him, a smile that was a snarl, and was only just barely courteous enough to flick the butts into the sterling silver ashtray-stand that one of the bemasked waitresses had put at his left hand when it had become apparent that he was just as happy to drop them to the polished floor and smear them there with his boot.
The smoke was like perfume, like a censer of resinous opium, and it seemed to waft the fear right out of her.
There was entertainment with their nice dinner, but the entertainment wasn't nice. Masked men were marched in from the side door leading to the bar, wearing floppy Santa hats and black shoes polished to mirror-sheen, and not much else. They were old, they were naked, and there were chains of sleighbells strung to their sagging genitals, their flabby waists, and their ankles with red curling ribbon. They moved with ponderous dignity, like creatures in a dream, bells jangling in unison as they stomped and pranced and performed complicated turns arm-in-arm. The women in black and white applauded and laughed, clearly finding the show great fun.
Not wanting to look at them, Sarah watched Jareth instead, and saw what perhaps no one else saw. Just as the women in their blacks and whites had all given Linda bows and salutes and curtsies when passed within the boundary of her gaze, so too did the changeling creatures, the familiars, give Jareth their acknowledgement. It was much more subtle, a brightening of the eyes, a flash of fire, a skirl of notes out of nowhere, but it was there. Sarah wondered why no one else saw it. She looked back at the dancing men and saw how their eyes rolled in their sockets from fear or exhaustion, how the sweat of terror stood out on their brows. No one noticed or cared for their pain, either. They were only slaves, after all. Witches didn't seem to notice much about their slaves.
"Who are they?" Sarah wanted to know.
"Behold the kings of the world," Jareth drawled. "All the membership of this club, all bewitched, serving on this one night in the way they themselves demanded service. Tonight they Morris-dance for the witches."
"It was this or have them wait upon us at table, but I doubt any of those dry-balled enormities know how set silverware, much less cook something edible." Linda smiled and bisected the breast of a tiny bird, her fourth, with a long, sharp knife.
"May I be excused?" Sarah asked. Cramps were rising in her belly, wave after wave of mind-sharpening aches. "I think I need to be sick."
"Go," Linda told her. "But don't go further than the lobby. Be back in fifteen minutes, no more."
Sarah looked with longing at the pay phones, but she needed to check how things were going in the underwear department. She went through the doors to one of the two restrooms—both of them marked "MEN" –and came face-to-face with another girl all in white, her orange curls bouncing disconsolately against the wall, looking thoroughly miserable with her lot in life.
Sarah immediately sympathized.
"This fucking place," the redhead said. "It's all built for men. I can't find a tampon for love or money!" She jutted her chin at the discrete urinals by the door. "I just started. I mean, that's good, moon-blood always gives an edge to a witch's power, but… if I'd known I'd be wearing white, I would've just as soon done without."
Sarah opened her purse, revealing a veritable bouquet of menstrual supplies. "Here. Take anything you like."
"What do you want for it?" Her cat's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Sarah shrugged, bewildered. "Nothing. Help yourself. "
"Thanks." The girl grabbed half her stash and deposited it in her own purse, but Sarah didn't mind. It was going to be a long night, after all, and Sarah didn't even like to contemplate the misery of telltale bloodstains in addition to every other horror and humiliation the night had already delivered.
They went into separate stalls and ignored each other in the polite way people have of giving privacy when there is none, until they came out.
"My name's Nan," she said, digging around in her purse and pulling out a poisoner's ring.
Nan boosted herself up on the counter. The silk petticoats from her skirt bounced up in a froth around her thighs, and there was a hole at the knee of her green-and-white striped stockings. Sarah joined her on the other side of the sink. Nan took a tiny gold spoon and snorted a miniscule portion of white powder from the ring. "Want a bump?" she offered.
Sarah was intrigued, but she wasn't sure what her first experience of cocaine would be like on top of her first Valium and her first coven dinner. "I'd better not," she said. "I have too much going on already."
"Yeah, like what if you died or something," Nan said with gallows humor, and Sarah laughed. They exchanged the casual little glances girls give when they're sizing each other up. Sarah thought Nan was very pretty, maybe a bit punk-rock, a little dangerous and fun. Maybe even someone she'd like as a friend, if they'd met in different circumstances.
"I thought it would be different," Sarah said, swinging her feet. "Tonight. I thought there'd be black candles and… chanting backwards in Latin, human sacrifice, that sort of thing."
"Well, there probably will be," Nan said, putting her drugs discreetly away. "They're saving that for the Sabbat. This is just Esbat, the party leading up to the main event. We can't be here for the Yule Sabbat. We're not initiated into the coven yet."
"So, do you know what's supposed to happen tonight with that?" Sarah asked. "Nobody's really told me straight out."
"Yeah, nobody will. It's forbidden. My mum and my two older sisters went through it and came out okay, and I've heard some things around the edges. It's a hunt. The crones—the oldest ones—they'll summon up something horrid. Some kind of creature. And then it hunts us down through the streets of Manhattan and brings us back to our mothers for judgement. Some of us will die, and some will live, but the only way guaranteed to live is to not get caught before dawn. There are a lot of us tonight—seventeen, counting you. Whatever it is, it can't be in two places at once, so the more of us there are, I figure the better my chances." Nan bounced to her feet.
Sarah followed her, and reached out her hand. "When we're out there… could there be safety in numbers? Two of us together stand a better chance than one."
Nan glanced at Sarah sideways, suddenly shy. "No. I think once it starts, you'd better stay away from me, Sarah. You did me a favor so I'll be honest with you. I'd like to live, and I'll throw you under the bus if it means saving my own skin. I'm sorry."
"That's just what our mothers are counting on," Sarah said, keeping her hand out. "But let's shake on this instead. If I save your life out there, or you save mine, we don't betray each other afterward. Deal?"
Nan gave a crooked smile. "You're weird. Okay, Sarah. Deal." She clasped Sarah's hand and was out the door the next instant, in a fluff of white skirt.
Sarah followed her out more slowly. She buttonhooked around to the pay phones, intending to place a call collect. She didn't have any coins on her. She had a few low-denomination greens left over from her travelling cash, and there was a hundred dollar bill tucked safely in her brassiere. She had Aunt Bub to thank for that. "Always keep a Benjamin in your bra when you travel, honey. You won't lose it, and he can be handy in emergencies." Sarah blessed Aunt Bub for her advice and her cash, and spared a thought of love and gratitude for her, hoping she was doing well. Benjamin Franklin would be a friend to her tonight.
Unfortunately, no one else probably would, and luck seemed to have become an outright enemy of hers. There was a boy loitering by the phones, scrutinizing the bondage porn with a look of intense interest—almost approval. His hair was a cable of brown down his back. Sarah noticed with distaste that he had an erection.
"Stop looking at those and get out of here," she commanded him. "I need to make a phone call."
He only turned and gave her a speculative look. "No," he said.
It was only then that Sarah realized he was wearing white, a tailored suit in creamy winter wool. There was a white Hermes scarf wrapped around his throat. He was handsome in a Nordic sort of way, face marred only by a small nest of acne on his chin. "Apollonaire Vaan Knecht," he said.
"You're one of the … novitiates?" Sarah said, surprised. "I'm Sarah. Sarah Williams."
"Yes, I know," he said, running his eyes up and down her in a way that was positively rude. "Everybody knows who your mother is, and who you are. She's famous."
"I thought all witches were girls," Sarah said.
"The Vaan Knecht witches are men. I have the power from both sides. My mother, from House Locusta, and my father, Johann Vaan Knecht. Didn't you know?"
"I don't know anything. Look, Apollonaire," Sarah tried on her best smile, but it was admittedly a bit shaky around the corners. "I really, really want to make a phone call. Could you maybe go and leave me alone here? I'll owe you a favor," she said, thinking about what Nan had said, and the stock that witches put in owing and being owed.
He went on as if she'd said nothing. "Your mother is the Queen, and the name you have means "princess." Our families both have a taste for precise names."
"That's great. Excuse me." She didn't have time for useless conversations with boasting boys, especially ones who looked at her like her mother had looked at her dinner, or ones who enjoyed ogling degrading pictures of women. She picked up the receiver and dialed zero, but Apollonaire kept talking.
"Your mother lets that thing sit at table with you. It's disgusting. But then, there are rumors that it's your father. Is it your father? That thing? Are you born from demon seed?"
Sarah ignored him. "I'd like to make a collect call," she told the operator. She was about to give her name when Apollonaire's hand slapped the switch down, cutting her off.
"Listen when I talk to you!" He was close, too close, and his penis jutted out in his pants like an insult. She knew it was an insult, and she knew it was thanks to Jareth that she was capable of coping with this particular type of insult. Before the Labyrinth, it would have embarrassed her to death, shut her down. Now, it was only an appendage, aggravating and unthreatening as a middle finger. The receiver hung heavy in her hand, and she contemplated whether she'd like to smack him in the nose or the crotch with it.
"Say what you have to say," Sarah said. "So I can get back to my life."
"You'll need allies tonight, Sarah Williams. Our family knows about you. You know nothing, you can do practically nothing, and you'll need help to survive. My father wants an alliance with you. Your blood might be diluted, but my father believes you'll throw true sons for me."
"This is a marriage proposal?" Sarah asked sourly. This night, Christ, she thought. I can cope with being afraid. It's the absurdity that's going to drive me bugshit. "If it is, my answer's no. Fuck off."
Again, he ignored her, as if she'd said nothing, as if she was a dog, or a cat… or a slave.
"And for your insult to me earlier, you can show me your tits and jerk me off." He grinned at her, lewdly pressing her in against the wall. "Now."
The Seventh Wonder doesn't work on him, Sarah thought in irritation. Well, we'll just do this the old-fashioned way. She brought the heavy edge of the receiver down across the bridge of his nose. She felt the bones break, and it thoroughly delighted her.
"You half-breed bitch!" Blood was positively gushing from his nose, and his hands reached out for her throat, pressing, squeezing. She smacked his wrists with the phone, trying to break his grip, but the angle was difficult.
And then suddenly Jareth was there between them, standing in front of her like a dark angel, the edges of his red-black jacket pouring out glitter and skeletal remains of leaves.
"Polly Vaan Knecht," Jareth said reproachfully, "You've insulted Sarah. Apologize."
"No," the boy hissed. "Slave. She broke my nose. She should apologize to me. You and she both."
Jareth crossed his arms, and Sarah was delighted with him, delighted. The last time she had experienced his presence like this, he'd been speaking to her in her father and Irene's bedroom, making her feel small and stupid. It was quite the experience seeing him use it on someone else, on her behalf.
Jareth's reply was as darkly forbidding as his coat. "Go back to your father and your table, now. If you don't, I shall convince your tongue and your prostate to switch positions in your body."
"I'm not afraid of you!" Apollonaire said, but he backed away as he said it. "I'm telling my father what you said!"
"Yes, naturally," Jareth replied cordially. "And if you don't crawl back into his pocket in the next thirty seconds, you'll be telling him out your bunghole."
Apollonaire turned and ran. "There's a good fellow," Jareth said, mildly amused. He turned to face Sarah. "You're all right? He didn't hurt you?" Sarah shook her head, and trembled from head to foot. He took her by the shoulders, supporting her. "You're not going to faint, are you?" Sarah shook her head again and a stream of hysterical giggles came out of her, like bubbles in champagne. He gave her a look of intense concern as the giggles devolved into whoops of laughter. "Not going to faint, no." He smiled uncertainly.
"Thank you for that," Sarah said, when she'd caught her breath. "I think I could have handled it, but thank you for not forcing me to handle it alone." When he offered her his arm, she took it, and gave him a warm smile that he returned.
"Would you truly have done… that thing you said you would do?"
"Hm. Yes. I might even have gotten away with it, too. The Vaan Knechts are some of your mother's most bitter enemies. She might even have rewarded me. Or perhaps punished me. It would depend on her mood." He shook his head. "She sent me to look for you. You've been gone now for precisely twelve minutes. She gave you fifteen. It's time to go back in." He began to steer her toward the banquet-hall doors.
She tried to drop his arm, but he pressed it firmly against his side, dragging her along with him. "No, wait,… I wanted to call my Dad. And Toby."
"What, planning on a rescue?" Jareth said with distaste, still pulling.
"No," Sarah said, wriggling her arm. "No. Jareth, please… I have to call them. I need them to know… to know I love them. Just so they know…. If anything happens tonight…" her voice trailed off, as did Jareth's inexorable grip. "I just wanted to tell them." She felt the tears start in her eyes again, and told herself she would not, would not cry.
"You can call them later tonight. I'll find a way. But giving your last testimony…" he shook his head. "There will be no need. You will live. I made you a promise, and I don't break my promises. Now come. It's time for the drawing. You will be asked to choose a gift from your mother to take with you, as a weapon." He looked around furtively, as if looking for invisible eavesdroppers. "When they ask you what you would have, look for me. Sarah, look only for me, and I will be there for you."
Inside the Esbat, the room crackled with magic. The hippocras and wafers had been served around, and the Morris-dancers dismissed. At sixteen other tables, sixteen other witches had their fingers pricked by their mothers, the drops bled into a common wooden bowl held by the very oldest women, the crones. Sarah winced as the lancet pierced her. Linda was not gentle, and the blood flowed freely. The crone with the bowl demanded the ribbon from her hair as well, and draped it over her arm along with trinkets and favors culled from the other sixteen novitiates. Nine crones dipped their hands in the blood and raised them up, and began a crooning chant in German.
An old woman brought a silver bowl to their table. At sixteen other tables, sixteen other untried witches were offered the same bowl. Inside each bowl were clusters of crystal spheres, milky and translucent like fresh reptile eggs, just the size to fit in a hand, to be juggled out of air…
"You must choose," Linda said, as Sarah looked over the contents of the bowl. "You are allowed one boon on your journey, a gift of your mother's power to see you through the night."
Jareth stood behind her. She could feel his presence like a comforting touch, and she wished she could see his face. "Look for me," he had said. "Look only for me."
Sarah picked up the crystals one by one, and laid them on the table. Six. There were six. The power of movement… a wheel turned inside the first crystal, a wheel with thirteen spokes. The power to fructify… a withered winter apple hung inside the second crystal. The power to wither… a garland of rose-leaves, the buds frosted with ice. The power to bewitch… a compact, cracked half-open. The power to unbind, a knife. The power of the tempest, a carved wooden fan.
"Choose," Linda intoned.
At the other tables, young witches in white made their choices, some pell-mell, and some with deliberation. Sarah didn't know what to choose. And then choosing was forgotten as the chanting of the crones reached a fever-pitch.
The mirrors against the back wall were cracking open, steam pouring through. Nine old women with bloodstained hands took up nine harnesses and strained under their burden as women straining in childbirth, bringing this diabolical engine into reality.
It was a box, an iron box, ten feet tall, chained down to a six-wheeled cart, shaking and shuddering with what it contained. As the nine crones advanced into the center of the room, passing their table, Sarah saw that it wasn't quite square, this box. There were oblique angles that slipped out of the corner of vision, infinite turnings, subtle prismatic conversions of space and form. She understood very suddenly that the crones hadn't just drawn this thing into the room; their magic was drawing it into reality. She could hear sounds from inside—gigglings of many voices, the clanking of chains, subtle whispers, the stink of sulphur and lanolin. Even the spirits, the familiars, flinched away from it, some cowering, others weeping.
"It's an Elf," Jareth said, voice flat with horror. "They've summoned an Elf."
And the thing in the iron box roared, and the room shook, and the foundations of reality shook with it.
"Well," he said behind her, cold and disinterested. "You're fucked. It was lovely knowing you, Sarah Williams."
"Choose," Linda's voice whispered.
"I can choose anything I see here?" Sarah asked, voice trembling.
"Anything from the bowl, yes. What will you have, Sarah?"
The bowl was silver, polished to a mirror sheen. It reflected the room, concave, reflections of reflections of the mirrored ceiling, the guests below.
"Look only for me."
And there was his face in the mirror, in the bowl, looking at her with fear and longing. His eyes met hers… and he nodded.
"I choose Jareth," Sarah said.
Author's Notes: The previous chapter was a bit short. This one is a bit longer to make up the difference.
Please note that I warned in my first author's note that the witchcraft depicted here would be completely politically incorrect. This is not actual witchcraft, wicca, or paganism as it is currently practiced, nor are real life witches necessarily villainous. Linda, however, is a villain. (This doesn't mean that her ideas about patriarchy are completely wrong, either.) Consider any offense you may feel as spice to this brew I'm cooking. It's fiction. Rest content.
Have I already promoted the 2015 holiday film Krampus here? Boy do I owe it for revivifying some of the holiday horrors of Christmas past. Teutonic elves, ladies and gents. Sarah's screwed.
Soundtrack for Chapter 7:
Dean Martin: "Baby It's Cold Outside."
Chaos Chaos: "Do You Feel It?"
"You said I could have anything in the bowl," Sarah said. "I see Jareth in the bowl. I choose Jareth."
"What!" One of the novitiates in white turned to her black-clad mother, all outrage. "She can't take a demon! That's not fair!" She held out her witch's gift, its novelty gone pale. "If she gets that, I get Bochomedes!" Her whining elaborated, her mother remonstrated, and Sarah wasted no more time on her. Instead, she looked solemnly at Linda.
"I'm to be given one gift of your power."
The Elf in the box roared again, shaking its chains. Linda winced. "My darling, you should choose something else," she said pleadingly. "I have better things to give you, gifts you can control. The power to control the blizzard, the most subtle of concealing glamours…"
"I choose Jareth! Are you going to give him to me or not?"
"Obstinate girl!" Linda said, giving up patience. "Thrice asked, once answered. Have him then! Hold out your hand. Touch your ring-finger to mine." Sarah did, and Linda slid her diamond ring down her glove and onto Sarah's hand. As it was transferred, the ring became a crude bronze loop, thick, the same metal as Jareth's pendant.
"He belongs to you now. In a world of witches with the power to command spirits, the ring gives you the power to be ascendant over him. Never remove that ring, not for an instant. For if you do, your enemies may seize it, and use him against you." The ring shrank to fit her finger, and it pulsed around her finger like a heartbeat. His heartbeat.
"And now a warning." Linda's eyes flashed with restrained fury. "Jareth is shaped for betrayal. He will turn on you the first chance he gets. Do not give him that chance. It's his fault your father divorced me. As for you…" She addressed Jareth. "Keep her alive and pristine. If you don't, I will make you wish you could die, the punishment I'll give when I take you back."
"Linda," Jareth said coldly. "She whose milk is maggots. May you never take me back." Sarah's coat, her white coat, was winging over the pandemonium of the hall, and he had her sleeves in it and was buttoning her up before she could say one word of objection. She shoved her purse in her pocket as his arms clutched around her, lifting her in his arms as a child is lifted. His chest was warm against her knees. She looked over his shoulder and had a wonderful view of the Esbat as he carried her away from it.
Chaos reigned in the banquet-hall as the guests pinballed against each other, buffeting, bowing, the familiars puffing out smoke and sparks, women in black leaning on each other in nostalgia and fear, and the sixteen other novitiates in their white, with baubles clutched in their hands, scattering for the doors, some few pausing, still choosing, others receiving a last touch, a last loving embrace from their mothers.
Sarah saw Apollonaire standing at his table, with a grey-haired father, and his mother as well, all in black. Each of them had a hand on his shoulder. He stared at Sarah aggressively and made a disgusting gesture with his mouth.
She screwed her neck around and saw that Jareth was taking her to the iron box. No dignity left, she squealed and tried to fight her way out of his embrace. "Please don't! Don't! The doors are behind you!"
"We'll be leaving through the back. Now shut up," Jareth said, and the ring on her finger went cold with his fear. "Hide your face."
Sarah clapped one hand over her eyes, with a slit to see through. The chains holding the box closed had some slack now, and little fur-mittened hands, three, six, seven, were reaching out, some to pry at the chains, and others to snatch the offerings left on the cart—white hair-ribbons, white scarves, white cords, white laces… and quantities of red-dyed cords made of leather. These things giggled, they screamed in delight, strange bells rang inside the box, and the silence of the Elf was ominous.
"Close your eyes," he murmured, and Sarah did. She blindfolded herself with a lock of his hair. "Don't even breathe," he said. She inhaled one last gasp, filtered through the strange perfume of his hair. She could hear the Elf inside snuffling, smelling for her.
He turned her away from the box as they passed it, so close that her hood brushed the wall. She kept her eyes shut tight.
Jareth sang to the box, low and resonant, as if a lullaby. She recognized it as 'Good King Wenceslas' by the tune.
"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather."
He held her so gently, so securely, even reaching up to press the flat of his palm against her back, to calm her as if she were a frightened baby. She gave herself up into his keeping entirely, having no other choice, but she longed for her father, wished she was still a little girl whose parents could protect her from anything.
Sarah sensed the change in temperature, the smell of their dinner, the clank of dishes being washed, of pans scraped and scalded, that she knew they were through to the kitchens.
"Help me!" a man's voice cried out. "For the love of Jesus, help me!"
Sarah dared a peep just in time for a priest in a long black cassock to lock eyes with her. He was handcuffed to the leg of a stainless-steel counter. The servers and chefs ignored him, bewitched. Human sacrifice, Sarah thought, and suddenly her defiance cut through her terror and her sorrow. No. I won't have it!
"Help him!" she commanded Jareth. The ring on her finger throbbed. Without breaking stride, he picked up a cleaver one-handed from a plate of roast, and doubled around.
"Stretch out your chain as far as you can over the counter," he told the priest as he advanced. "Make it taut. I have time for one cut, no more."
"Thank you, thank you, may St. John bless you," the old man babbled, pulling the slack around, so that one hand was atop the counter, one below.
"Bless my lady, Archbishop. It's wasted on me." Jareth raised the cleaver and brought it down one clean inch into the wooden countertop, and then he was turning away again, and the priest was screaming, holding on to a bloody stump, but free of the handcuffs, certainly. Sarah stared at him in horror as Jareth kicked open the door to the street and took them out into the cold.
"You didn't have to do that!" she yelled, struggling in his arms.
"Yes I did. My lady gave her order." Jareth ignored her struggles. "He's free. He'll even live, provided he stops squealing and runs. If you don't like it, stop dictating my actions to me."
"You cut off his hand!" Sarah yelled.
"Pah, who cares about him?" He laughed, a breathless laugh, and spun around with her in his arms. "Think of me, and how much I love you! I'm free. I'm free of her." He practically crowed his joy to the night-dark alley. "Clever, clever girl! Clever Sarah!" He jostled her up and down and rocked her so hard as he walked that she thought she might throw up. She saw very clearly that he had only offered his help in order to get away from her mother. It sickened her to think that his protection would only be as strong as that hatefulness—which in this moment seemed infinite.
"Put me down!" she ordered. "I can walk!"
He put her down and gave her an ironic bow. The temperature had dropped at least ten degrees since that afternoon, and the cold pierced through her nylon stockings so thoroughly it was as if she were naked. She shoved her hands into her gloves, grateful for her coat. Jareth stayed jaunty, even to humming "Good King Wenceslas' in unforgivable good humor. He grabbed her arm proprietarily and dragged her out the alley, three steps to her four.
"And no more hurting people," she ordered, jerking her arm away.
"Still on him?" His clothing had transmogrified, she saw; the short jacket was now a redingote with wicked-looking brass buckles at the waist and wrists, and a crimson scarf like a spill of blood was tucked between the points of his high collar. The wealth of his hair had come unbound and spread like a nimbus under the sodium lights of the city. His immaculate beauty irritated her instead of confounding her, though, now that she knew she could command him to strip naked and walk barefoot in the streets. And I just might, she thought angrily. If I have to punish him, I just might.
"Still on him," Sarah said grimly, walking as quickly as she could manage in her fancy shoes. "Don't hurt anyone else. That's an order."
He glared down at her. Cruel eyes calculated her worth and let her know she was coming up short.
"What?" Sarah demanded, just before the cold of the wind whipping down the open streets took her breath away. The snow was driving down as hard as rain. He instantly whirled around to her side, protecting her from the blizzard in the lee of his body.
"I don't know why I'd hoped Linda's daughter would see me as more than a wish-fulfilling dildo, but I'm an endless optimist," Jareth muttered. The drifts of unshoveled snow melted under his boots as she followed his footsteps. "If your most loyal and humble slave may offer his very great lady some advice," he said, walking backward,"You want to rescind those commands. If I'm to keep Snow White alive and as pristine as her mother demands, I may have to hurt several people. Including the Elf and the alfarstreussel. Perhaps in the next few minutes, if you don't hurry up."
"Those weren't people," Sarah insisted, but picking up her pace.
"No?" Jareth's face mocked surprise and he turned his back on her, still sheltering her, still breaking their trail. Every fifth or sixth step he would pause, and cock his head as though listening for something.
"Aren't they?" Sarah asked, pulling up her hood. Even with his help, this was hard going. She practically had to trot, and her shoes weren't made for walking.
"Obviously I can't tell you anything, Sarah," Jareth said tightly. "You've seen so much of the world, and are so very informed on every subject altogether, particularly on who counts and who doesn't."
"I know what you did to that man was wrong," Sarah said, stopping in her tracks. "No more hurting human people. I mean it!"
Jareth walked on several paces without her before turning around. He crossed his hands behind his back and cracked the ice on the pavement with a stamp of his boot-heel. "Show me your tits and jerk me off," he said, in falsetto imitation of Apollonaire Vaan Knecht. "He's human, so I suppose he matters. Should I retroactively apologize for threatening such a precious flower of manhood? No? Well then, speak, Sarah! The whole world waits to hear you!" His voice thundered in his rage.
"No more hurting innocent human people!" Sarah yelled against the wind. The ring on her finger squeezed her so tightly, so painfully, she was afraid that digit would fall off. "You mutilated him! And the witches were going to kill him. Don't tell me they weren't!"
"Oh, they surely were," Jareth said. He spread out his arms and began walking backwards again, daring her with his eyes to refuse to keep up. His speed increased until she was practically jogging, icy air stinging her lungs and freezing her nose. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the Salvation Army bells ringing. "One could even give them credit for performing justice. That priest you love so much more than any cautionary thought for your own survival… he's innocent as a lamb. He never pressed his child-hungry cock into portals too small to receive him, or threatened the raped with visions of hellfire and damnation should they open their mouths for anything but—oh, does this information trouble your virginal ears?" He broke off as Sarah made a face of disgust. "Archbishop Del Rais, to his credit, has brought comfort and solace to a great many individuals—mostly brother priests below him in his order, all of whom have been taken from their old stalking-grounds and given new ones."
He crossed another street in a bold dash, and Sarah followed close behind him. The cars passed behind them like hissing ghosts. "If thy right hand offends thee, cut it off. In my opinion, it should have been both of his eyes, his bollocks, and his hypocritical tongue. But you believe I exceeded my authority?"
"I didn't know all that!" Sarah objected.
"There's precious little you do know, princess." He grabbed her by the wrist and practically dragged her along with him in his rush.
"I know you tried to kill me, with the Cleaners!" Sarah snarled.
He merely shrugged. "You insulted my Labyrinth. Served you right. Anyway, you didn't die, unless of course you did, and all this is just a vision in the Hell we occupy together."
"Hell wouldn't be this cold," Sarah muttered into the fur of her hood.
"Let's take the subway," Jareth suggested, taking her hand and leading her down the icy staircase with infinite care. She could hear the bells more loudly now, but they were intermittent and clanking, not the cheerful notes of the golden charity bells. Something about the sound troubled her, made her walk more quickly, made her more grateful for his help.
It was blessedly warm inside, blessedly bright. Sarah shuddered with gratitude to be out of the wind, although the store of coins and bills in her purse seemed alarmingly small after she paid their fare. Jareth spread himself out over the seats, as if the world entire were his throne. She sat near him, but not too near.
"This will work," he said, as they began to move. "By the light, it just might do." He breathed a deep sigh and hung his head in his hands. "Remember the bargain we agreed to? I promised to see you through the night alive, if you promised to put all your trust in me. You're not holding up your end."
"It's hard to trust someone who says they love you but don't even like you," Sarah retorted. She stomped her feet against the train-floor. They were alarmingly numb. She couldn't feel anything below her knees. "You're so mean to me."
"Ah, but I do like you, Sarah." He sounded tired. "Bickering with me arouses your anger, and your anger is a far better servant to you than your fear." He lifted his face and stared out blankly at the unjust world. "You never move as quickly as you ought to, at least not until it's almost too late. But we're well away now. The train will throw them off the scent as effectively as running water." He shook his head. "I've been in a near-constant terror since I put you down in the alley. You have time for a little fear yourself, now. Are your feet cold?"
She opened her mouth to say something cutting, something snide, but stopped herself. She caught a glimpse of a face like a doll's face, lacquered wood, but stuffed atop a misshapen child's body. Horns? And then their car was past the platform, into the dark. Over the clack of the rails, she thought she heard the sound of an iron bell.
"They were that close," she whispered.
"That close," Jareth said, taking her feet into his lap with trembling hands. He removed her shoes and chafed her feet one by one until the blood came back into them, and they began to prick with pins and needles. They had the train almost completely to themselves, and as with all irregularities in New York, people ignored them, the wild-haired man in the red-black coat and knee-high leather boots, and the girl in her white party dress with her feet on his lap who was trembling with fear—but not for him.
"Do what you have to," Sarah said, shivering all over. "Do what you think is best. Just please, don't hurt anyone if there's some other way. Not if you really love me."
"There's the trust," Jareth said quietly. He gathered her up into the circle of his arms. "It's bitter, isn't it, having no choice?"
She clung to him and didn't answer.
Author's Notes: Some of you may recognize "Do You Feel It" from the Rick and Morty episode, "Auto Erotic Assimilation." I love that show so much I may someday write fanfiction for it. Totally brilliant.
Archbishop Del Rais does not exist, but his style of blasphemous sin certainly does, and not just among Catholics.
I hope those of you who celebrate had a merry Christmas, that others kept good Yule cheer, and all others assorted have/had/will have very happy holidays. Mine was particularly sweet this year.
Reviews are always appreciated, and as this story is going to be approximately 8,000 words longer than originally anticipated, they will serve to fuel my fire. Thank you to those who have responded. It's really lovely of you to give me feedback.
Soundtrack for Chapter 8:
Fitz and the Tantrums: "Spark"
T. Rex: "20th Century Boy"
When her shaking had stopped, Sarah put her fear away, since it wasn't doing her any good. Or rather, she pretended she had, and pushed Jareth away to symbolize the sham. "What I saw on the platform was small," she said, tucking her feet into the folds of her skirts. "It wasn't the Elf. What was it?"
"Alfarstreussel," he said. "Elf-droppings. Elf-sprinkles. We could even call them 'dwarves' if you want narrative continuity, but they're not. They cling to Elves like fleas on a goat. Did you see the chains on it? Hear the bells?"
"I didn't see the chains, but I heard the bells. How dangerous are they?"
"Middling so," Jareth admitted. He mimicked her pose, chin propped on an arm over the seat-backs, leaning forward conspiratorially. "Where there is one alfarstreussel, there are many close behind. They can divide themselves. Each division makes the parts smaller and less powerful, but they can all tug their chains and get their master's attention. The biggest threat they pose is in creating snares for us and alerting the Elf to our presence. They're best avoided."
"And the Elf? What happens if it finds us?"
"That's a highly undesirable eventuality," Jareth said, frowning. "You know these aren't your pretty pointy-eared Tolkien variety, or the cute little things that make toys in Santa's workshop."
"I'm getting that, yeah," Sarah said, biting her lower lip. Apparently what she didn't know about Elves could fill a book.
"The coven was foolish to summon something like that, and think they could puppet him like they do their slaves," Jareth said with disgust. "But if their game is the same as the last Grand Esbat—"
"Every seven years, or according to augury. They don't hold the Hunt every year. There simply aren't enough witches to make it feasible. Stop asking questions and listen to me." He wound a lock of Sarah's hair around his finger. "They won't release the Elf right away. They'll need to propitiate him with an offering, slow him down. You let the priest get away, so either they'll turn the Elf out hungry, or they'll make some substitution, but either way they won't be able to hold him back for long. Mind you, this is an ancient creature who properly belongs on the heights of the Alps, not in the streets of New York. He'll be very strong, very canny, and very powerful. If he catches you before sunrise…" Jareth tugged her hair so slowly and gently she didn't realize it hurt until he let go, "he'll put out your lights, and drag you back to his home in the bones of the mountains, and make you his wife." He leaned back and fiddled around in his pocket. "Or perhaps his dinner. It will depend on how obliging you decide to be."
"What happens at sunrise?" Sarah asked.
"Hm?" He had pulled out his lighter, all made of brass and bronze, inlaid with the sigil of his pendant, and prepared to light a cigarette.
"I don't think you should smoke in here," Sarah said, poking him with her toe.
"I don't think I give a damn," he grumped back, but put the cigarette away unlit, and contented himself to play with his lighter, walking it between his knuckles, opening it and shutting it.
"What happens at sunrise?" Sarah repeated, mesmerized in spite of herself.
"At sunrise the spell will break. The light of the sun will drive them all away, Elf and alfarstreussel and every other spirit who rejoices in darkness. But that's several hours off. It is the solstice, after all."
"Can you get me out of the city?" Sarah asked him. "Away from them? Safe?"
"Now there's a question. There are powerful wards up all along the edges of this wretchedly small island to prevent magical beings from leaving the hunting-grounds, but I could get you out. Certainly I could. We could both disappear without a trace, and no Elf or creature or god or witch would ever be able to find us." He snapped his lighter shut and smiled a vulpine smile at her. "All you have to do is wish."
"What, wish myself away? To you? To the Goblin King?"
He nodded once. "Of course, if you did so, you understand that it would be forever. Fear me, love me, do as I say. It's my kingdom and I control its reality. No more rearranging the landscape to suit yourself. No more Seventh Wonder whipping me around by my heartstrings. You'd be mine. That's the price I set on that particular wish." He put his hand on her knee and squeezed.
"I'll pass," Sarah said.
"You'd let me rule you, and I'd give you everything you want. It wouldn't be so bad, would it? After all, I do love you so, precious thing." His hand stroked gently up under her skirt, thumb firm against her thigh, promising pleasure.
"Pass!" Sarah said, narrowing her eyes, trying not to give herself away with her breathing.
"For now," he agreed negligently. He removed his hand, but where he had touched her burned.
"You're insufferable," she said, drawing further away from him.
"Oh? I thought I was being remarkably upfront," he said, opening his lighter again. He twirled its flame around his fingers as naturally as he'd twirled a lock of her hair. "If you'd prefer me to lie, tell me so. I'm nothing if not obliging." He had twined the flame like a cat's cradle, thin as a golden thread between his red and black gloves. "I fear you. I love you. And while we stand on this mortal plane, I must always do as you say." In a move of frustration, he tore the pattern apart, and it dissolved away into the air. A tiny flame reformed in the palm of his glove, and he poured it back to his lighter, a drop of sunshine.
"She might find me. My mother. You don't know that I didn't tell her about your kingdom," Sarah said, crossing her arms.
"She's more of a danger to you than the Elf, if you could just see it."
"What do you mean?" she asked, but he shook his head, concentrating on his fire.
"I've told you all about her plans for you, thirteenth daughter, and you haven't listened, and I can't say more. You don't want her to find you, but yes, she would try. You're valuable to her. She'd move Heaven and Earth to find you. Fortunately, my Labyrinth lies rather southward of those areas, and she doesn't know it exists, because you didn't tell her."
"How can you be sure?" she asked.
"Oh, I can be sure for two reasons," he said, snapping the lighter shut. "Reason the first: she did everything she could with word and deed to drive a wedge of fear and mistrust between us. If she had known about my refuge, she would have used it against us both. You can see that, can't you?"
Sarah nodded. She could. And it was sobering to hear him voice the same thoughts that had occupied her in the car.
"Reason the second: I know you didn't tell her because of who you are. You have a strong sense of justice, but you're also conniving and entitled. You always get what you want playing by the rules, but you never show your hand until it's a winning one."
"Pot calling kettle," Sarah scoffed, but gently, gently.
"You hate me a little, but you love me a little, too," Jareth continued. "You may not trust me fully, but you barely trust her at all. Why she can have your heart and I can't is frankly beyond me."
"You do," Sarah said. "You have a hold on me. A little. A very little!" she said, when his face lit with what she thought was too much gloating pleasure. "It's probably mostly lust. But this situation is impossible! You're only helping me to keep yourself free of my mother. I only freed you to stay safe from the Elf. There's not a lot of room for us that isn't mutual self-interest."
"You're fairly barren of romantic notions, aren't you?" he asked, putting his lighter away.
"I used to have them," Sarah sighed. "But then there was you."
"There's a phone," Jareth told her curtly as they debarked, pointing at the kiosk at the back of the station. "We have some ten minutes to spare. Make your call."
She did. Her fingers didn't tremble, nor did her voice. She was, after all, an actress. Toby chattered in the background, an endless stream of two-year-old's gallimaufry of words and phrases. Her father sounded surprised and happy to hear from her, with news that Irene had come into Vermont safely, and that Aunt Bub's stroke had been so insignificant that she would be back in her own home by Christmas.
"I think I'd like to come home for Christmas, too," Sarah said wistfully.
"Aren't you having a good time?" her father asked, and she almost laughed.
"I'm uncomfortable." She cut her eyes at Jareth, who was standing sentry well within earshot, smoking shamelessly in front of the NO SMOKING sign. "I don't like Mom's friends." Her father laughed. "Dad… tell me, why did you divorce Mom?"
"Sarah…" Robert said uncomfortably. "That's a personal question."
"Was it because you didn't love each other?" Sarah pressed.
"Well, no," Robert admitted. She heard him transfer the phone to his other ear. "We loved each other. I think we still love each other."
"Well, what was it? It would really help me understand her if you just told me."
She could hear her father's frown in his silence. "Without getting too personal, Sarah, I suppose it's because she couldn't be faithful. I'm just not strong enough to cope with that kind of pain."
"But I'm yours, right?" Sarah asked. "You are my father?" She stared at Jareth, who was staring right back at her, not even bothering to conceal his observations. He pointed to his wrist and held up five fingers on his hand. Five minutes left.
Robert paused. "Sarah, what's wrong? Has someone been at you over this?"
"I just need to know," Sarah said.
"You're mine, of course you're mine." She heard him pick up Toby, whose babble made brighter music in his arms. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised you're asking. The cracks in our marriage began the day I asked Linda the same question. She'd admitted to an ongoing affair with that blond man—not Jeremy, the one before him. I was afraid you belonged to him, and it tore me up inside to wonder if you were his, because I fell in love with you the minute you were born."
"So what happened?" Sarah traced the mortar in the tiles, but her fingers always took the path right back to where she'd begun. "Quite often, young woman, it seems as though we're not getting anywhere…"
Robert let out a defeated sigh. "I insisted on a blood test. It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know in my heart. You're my daughter. It cost me your mother to learn that, but at least she let me keep you." "…when in fact, we are." She nodded to herself, and rubbed the grime off her glove. "Sarah, are you sure you're all right? Do you need me to come get you?"
"I'm fine," Sarah lied. "Anyway, the storm here is too bad. I don't want you or Toby out in it. But… thanks anyway. I love you, Dad."
"I love you too, sweetheart." There was no uncertainty in his voice.
"Will you put Toby on, please?"
"Sure. Goodnight. Call me tomorrow if you change your mind." She heard the phone transfer to Toby. "Talk to Sarah, Toby," he cajoled, but Toby needed no encouragement.
"Saah!" Toby cooed. He told her several things in half-formed words, only some decipherable. She let him talk on as she faced the wall, loving him so much that her heart ached inside her.
"I love you," she told him, as he wound up an anecdote apparently involving Launcelot and today's substandard dinner. "Sarah loves Toby." She didn't know if the Seventh Wonder could be felt over telephone wires, but she put all the strength she had into the words. "Sarah loves Toby."
"Bey love Saah," Toby replied. "Saah."
My heart's yours, kid, she thought to herself, smearing her eyes clean on her sleeve before hanging up. It was funny, how the people you'd wronged the most got the biggest hold on you. Maybe that was why Linda loved her. It was certainly why she loved Toby. And really it was a relief, that despite the tug-of-war Jareth and Linda seemed determined to have over her heart, that it belonged to a two-year-old up way past his bedtime, safe and sound in Connecticut.
"So where are we going?" she asked a mercifully quiet Jareth, leaning in against him as they left the warmth and light of the station.
"I was thinking Thirty-Rock plaza," Jareth said. "I need a fire. So do you. Your dress might as well be made of paper, for all the warmth it gives."
"I have my coat," Sarah said, but she was grateful to see the lights of the center, even the top of the gigantic tree, rising between the walls of the buildings.
"I provided your bloody coat," Jareth grumbled, but he put his arm around her shoulders, and she forgot the cold. He was toasty as a mug of hot tea. "The more heat, the more light, singing, more people… all should provide some cover for us both. Just until we decide what comes next."
"How long do you think we might have?" she asked, ears attuned for any sound of iron bells, eyes scanning profiles of heads for horns.
"With any luck, we might have all night."
Despite the blizzard and the darkness of the hour, crowds of people had congregated upon the tree, rising above the gilded statue of Prometheus. Many more had taken to the stating-rink, gliding in skittering patterns over ice created for their pleasure. "Wait here," Jareth said, leaving her beside one of several woven metal balls caging woodfire, encircling the perimeter of the rink. The few people who had gathered here dispersed as if naturally, leaving it all for her. The fire was wonderfully refreshing, and Sarah spent minutes bathing her fingers and her face in its heat.
Jareth was back almost before she missed him, handing her a metal thermos full of hot cocoa. She assumed it was pilfered. She offered it to him first. After all, he hadn't had any dinner.
"Thank-you," he said, toasting her with the plastic cup top. He drank it in one go, thirstily, and she poured him another. "You spoil me," he said awkwardly. "This was meant all for you."
"No, you can have it all, if you want it," Sarah said. She watched him drink another cupful, and when he was done with that, he took the thermos and poured a measure out for her, and put it in her hands so she must take it, or drop it.
"This is how it was in the old days," Jareth said, staring into the fire. "When it was balanced between us, the witches and their familiars. Gift for gift, and no need for regret." He looked at her through the flames. "You make me recall that time."
And then he did what she had only pretended to do, and bathed his hands in the flames rising above the fire-cage as if it were a flow of water. He even leaned his face into the fire, where it splashed over his skin, and sparks ran down the threads of his hair like fuses.
"What are you?" Sarah asked in wonder. "Are you… fae? Fair folk? Tuatha de Danann?" She had pored over the local library's entirety of Time-Life Enchanted World encyclopedias the day after her return from the Labyrinth, and she had long wanted to know if her educated guess was correct.
"Tuatha de—" Jareth snorted in derision. Smoke curled out his nostrils. "Fae? Do I look Irish to you?"
"Well, you sound British. That's practically the same thing, isn't it?"
"Certainly. Just like someone who lives in Manhattan is practically the same thing as someone from New Jersey."
"So, not fae," she said, disappointed.
"I suppose technically they and I might be considered cousins," Jareth said reluctantly. "But they're a free people, and I'm a slave. We don't often mix. Sarah," he said, resuming that strangely wistful tone that made her so nervous, "If you must command me tonight, let it be between the two of us the way it was in the beginning. Give me something in return for every demand you make." He tossed his head and the sparks rained down on his shoulders.
"Why would I agree to that?"
He smiled at her, a sad smile, his blue eye gone the deep sapphire of a gas jet, the tips of his hair dripping particles of fiery ash. "Because if you don't, you'll decide I'm not a person. Because conscience is inconvenient to a witch. When that happens, do me one favor. Put out my eyes. I don't want to see Linda so clearly in your face."
She let out a breath, dumbfounded. "You hate her so much," she whispered. "Why? What's the worst thing she's ever done to you?"
"Once," Jareth said. "Once upon a time, she commanded me to love her."
She gave him one moment of vulnerability, where she let him see how deeply he'd cut her.
And then she huffed in derision. "All right. Fine. Here's where I'm at on the subject of you and me and my mother, Jareth. I think you're an utterly amoral piece of work who knows exactly how to manipulate me. I think you want to possess me, just like the plaything you say it's so awful to be, and I think you actually love the fact that you're enslaved, because it provides a handy excuse for all your wrongdoing. I don't trust you and I can't trust you."
He bared his teeth at her, and the lights went out. It took her a moment to realize these two elements were not related. There was only the dark, and the sound of a crowd groaning its dismay, and Jareth's face over the fire.
"But I'm going to give you a chance to prove yourself," Sarah said calmly. Somewhere in the outer darkness, she heard the sound of slinking iron chains and discordant little bells. She ignored them. They were immaterial now. She'd made her decision, and for once the timing was absolutely perfect. "I'm going to give you one chance… to be the hero."
"We must go," he told her. "The alfarstreussel. Sarah. Don't you hear them?"
"I hear them," Sarah said. She stripped off her glove. "Take off your glove and touch your finger to mine," she commanded.
"What are you doing?" he whispered, even as he obeyed.
"I'm done playing games," she said. The connection was made; his fingertips trembled against hers, but she was steady as a rock. The ring came away from her hand with a terrible tearing sensation… and came to his.
"You're free," she said. She laughed a little. Snowflakes landed on her eyelids like kisses. "And so am I."
He was silent, contemplating the glint of the fire on the ring, fitted exactly to his hand as if made for him.
"You control yourself now," she said to him. Beyond him in the crowd, she saw two, three little shapes cut from darkness advancing upon their fire. "Go and leave me, or stay and protect me. Love me, or don't. It's your choice."
Twenty yards, and then ten, the alfarstreussel came, little cries of shock and alarm and panic as they bumped through the clusters of people.
"Time is short," Sarah said, relishing the ability to turn his own words back on him.
"And you said I was manipulative?" he said, clutching his fist closed on the ring. He kicked out and the ball of fire tumbled out into the crowd, shooting flame and sparks everywhere. "Get on my back!" he snarled.
"What?" Five yards, but confounded by the fire, the alfarstreussel paused.
"We must fly! Wretched girl," and he scooped her up and flung her over his shoulders. "Awful girl. 'Done playing games,' ha! As if I would ever leave you."
She clasped her arms around his neck, and he took three mighty steps. As he did so, he transformed under her. He became an owl, white as snow, tawny as gold, and either he became very large, or she became very small, but she was astride him, legs clamped around his shoulders, and they were flying! They were flying up, up, above the labyrinth-walls of the buildings and far above the darkened rink in the low plaza, and the creatures shrieked and gibbered their dismay at the prey eluding them once more.
Author's Note: (updated) Small changes made in here, a paragraph added about Jareth's non-fae nature. We are off the map here, people! (At least for me, who's never told a story where Jareth isn't fae.) Thanks so much for your kind reviews, too.
Hooray and here's to a Happy New Year!
Soundtrack for Chapter 9:
10cc: "I'm Not in Love"
Lady Gaga: "Paparazzi"
She had never dreamed of anything like this, flying on the back of an owl. His feathers covered her better than her coat, softer than powder against her throat, and his body was all warmth and the scent of his hair, the scent of drug-smoke, of sex, of wine. His muscles moved powerfully between her thighs. His wing-beats carried them higher, ever-higher, with belly-tickling swoops. She felt his heart humming under his ribs, felt it right to her core.
"Higher," she urged in excitement, all fear forgotten, clapping her heels against his flanks. "Faster!"
He screamed a fierce call to the night, wings bearing her up higher, catching the wind hurtling between the buildings. He was so light, so quick, so strong, and the city poured out beneath him, as if he were laying it all at her feet. Windows aside them lit with emergency lighting as he obeyed, higher, high above the city streets. Below them cars still trundled through the blizzard, centipede-chains of amber and ruby jewelry. He followed these rivers to their sources, some destination clearly in mind.
Remember, she told herself as he dove toward a landing on an anonymous balcony. You were a witch riding on an owl's back on a black Solstice-night, and he was glad to bear you. Remember that, no matter what happens next. He might continue his strange wooing, or he might decide to take a more personal revenge on her, or (worst possibility of all) he might simply abandon her now, the favor of his freedom traded for favor of her escape…but remember…
Her feet touched ground and he whirled in a dizzying spin of feathers and cloth and he was standing before her, his shadow cast over her, glitter and skeletal leaves and sparks trailing from his clothes. "Well?" he said imperiously, with a cocky tilt to his chin.
"You're perfect," she breathed. There was no need for pretense; she worshipped him with her eyes.
He said nothing, but his nostrils flared with delight. She reached out for him and pulled herself to him, feet skidding on the snow. She had one moment for apprehension, staring up at his fierce and terrible face. That face grew larger and larger until it eclipsed all the light, and she closed her eyes as his mouth covered hers.
Oh my God, no! Sarah thought, thrilled. His lips were firm and warm, and he was warm, warm as toast. She melted against him like a snowflake as his kiss deepened.
The tip of his tongue penetrated her, then withdrew, returned to probe against the edge of her parted teeth, coaxing her to open. She wasn't sure what to do, how to return. It was her first kiss, her first really-real kiss, and romance books had only explained the theory and not the practice. So instead she tasted him, afraid he would taste bad, but the flat smoky flavor of his cigarettes seemed all wrapped up in everything else—sweet chocolate, sugar, milk, flesh—so that it seemed to her that the taste of him would have been incomplete without the element of his vices. She gasped a breath through her nose and the flavor improved, mingled with the scent of his hair, the leather he wore… he sucked her tongue into his mouth and drew upon it almost painfully, and it was provoking and bizarre not to know where his mouth ended and hers began, slick flesh writhing upon itself, an intimation of the sexual act…
"Mmph!" she protested, and with one last lascivious curl of his tongue around hers, he released her. She was surprised to find that she had her hands on him, fingers strung through his hair and clasping his shoulder, as if he were her personal property. For his part, he had held her with nothing more than his kiss. Sarah flushed, let him go, moved away from him, but reluctantly, feeling as though it were more something she ought to do than something she truly wanted to do.
"Go in," he said, opening the doors for her. He ran his tongue over his prominent teeth, and his eyes promised cruelty.
"But where…?" and she didn't need to finish the question as she stepped inside. They were back in her mother's apartment. He closed the door behind him with a slam that set the glass to rattle. "Yes," he said. He advanced on her, put his hands on her, and she was melting, melting…
"No!" she said. "I don't want to kiss you again."
He laughed. "A lie." He had gotten her buttons undone, and he shoved her coat off her shoulders.
"I'm afraid," she admitted, still retreating from him.
"Better," he said.
"Keep back," she commanded, even knowing it was no longer any use.
"Oh, now, Sarah, your short-term memory is really disappointing. It's my turn to give the orders."
"What do you want?" Her feet tangled in her coat, and she almost tripped.
His mouth curled into an amused grimace. "What I want… at the moment, I want you to go to your mother's room, and fetch me back the box you'll find under her bed. That's what I want."
"Get it yourself," she said, finding stability, standing her ground.
"I would, but that the sight of Linda's bed provokes certain appetites in me, and I doubt you would enjoy satisfying them. Go, Sarah. Go get the box, and bring it back to me."
Afraid to turn her back on him, she walked carefully backward to the corridor, grasping at walls with every third step in the darkness. And he smiled that smile at her, tasting her fear, enjoying seeing her submit. His laugh pursued her into Linda's room, where she found the box, as promised.
She carried it back with her, clutched to her chest. The box was rectangular, black-lacquered, small for its weight. It filled her with dread, that box, the more so because as she returned as he'd commanded, she saw that he had lit the fire.
He was a demon's shadow sitting before the mouth of Hell. "Now come here," he said, beckoning her forward. The fireplace had grown very large; an ox could have been roasted in its depths. And the glacial stillness of the living room had become a field of snow, and the Christmas tree had multiplied until it was a veritable forest, with the snow falling, falling.
"Sarah," he said. "Don't make me ask twice. Bring me that box."
She put it in his hands, and he rested it upon one splayed leg. "What's in it?" she couldn't help asking.
"Sit, and find out," he said. He patted his knee. The fire outlined his silhouette in coronae of red and gold. "Or if my lap won't do, you might instead kneel at my feet." He spread his legs widely, indicated the spot with his bootheel. "But you will sit, and you will listen."
She chose his knee. When she sat there, he caressed her in one long stroke, from her hair, along the side of her breast, down to her waist. She shuddered as he touched her, his ring hot against her skin. "Are you going to hurt me?" she asked.
"You'll be hurt," he assured her. "Because you didn't trust me, and still don't, you'll be hurt. Open the box. The envelope should be on top."
The box didn't want to open for her at first, but when she removed her gloves and prized at it with her fingernails, the lid came off at once. Inside, as promised, was a large envelope, heavy and expensive, with letterhead that indicated a law firm. Unsealed, she unfolded the contents. A will. Linda's will. Naming her… sole heir.
There were more pages to it, many more pages. "I'm supposed to be hurt by this?" She shuffled the pages back into order. "I'm my mother's only child. Naturally she's leaving everything to me."
"You're hardly her only child. It might be more appropriate to say you're her only living child," Jareth said. "She's had many children, lifetime after lifetime. You're merely the latest, and with any luck, the last. I told you a story tonight, Snow White, about a young girl and a jealous queen. As you ordered, it was a pack of lies which also told the truth. Now you've given me my freedom, and I can tell you the truth without lies. Check the date."
Sarah inspected the signatures and the headers. It was dated…
"She had several arrangements to make before you arrived, remember? Updating her will was the most important. Go on. There's more in there that might interest you, and will certainly provide the proof you want as to her intentions."
The will had sat atop a shallow drawer, full of little compartments. The widest of these held photos. She picked these up and shuffled through them. There, herself and her mother, sitting with Merlin. Her freshman year photo, 4x6, smiling back at herself with preening idiocity. And underneath these, photos of a much younger Linda, no more than twenty, standing next to her mother, Sarah's maternal grandmother, whom she had never met. She thought at first that it was one of those novelty photos from Coney Island, the kind where you could dress up and receive a faux-vintage sepia for twenty dollars… but the cardstock on which this photo was printed was old. Two women, both wearing old lace and antique jewelry, the elder still so lovely that she might also have passed for her daughter's sister, wearing a heavy ring on her forefinger… and another photo underneath this, with Linda a few years older, her expression hardened and knowing, the ring on her finger. And more photos, and more, until they were no longer photos of people but photos of portraits. Always either two together, mother and daughter, or the young woman alone, a ring on her finger… with that same expression on her face, cunning, sophisticated, and bitter, as if… they were all the same woman, the same old soul peering out behind new, fresh eyes.
"It's her," Sarah breathed. "It's always her. How old is she?" She let the pictures cascade like leaves from her fingers.
"This time around? Eighty-something. For all time? More than five hundred years, as I told you earlier. As you can see, she's well-practiced at the art of slipping out of her old body and taking up residence into the one she's prepared for herself. You… are next. Bred, perfected, chosen. The fairest one of all."
Sarah stood up in shock, flinging the box away from her, hoping to see the enchantment break, hoping there would be some clue, some possibility of lie. The contents of the box spilled out in the snow, pell-mell, and yes, the photographs were unchanged. She stamped her foot in anger and took off her shoes, one after the other, and threw them at him. And he was sitting only in the swayback chair he seemed to prefer, and the fire was just the fire, and the snow was only the rug.
"What happens to me?" Sarah asked. "Do I get her body? What happens to me!"
"You die," Jareth said simply. "As to the question of an afterlife, you're asking the wrong person."
"How do I stop her?" Sarah asked.
"You kill her before she can perform the necessary spell," Jareth said, eyes narrowing in pleasure. "She won't be able to do it when you're awake, so we have some hours to take the necessary steps. We should be safe here, after that flight. Nothing can track us. And I can show you how to—"
"No," she said flatly.
"Your mother has never been able to command your father," he said, trying a different tactic. "It may be one reason for her obsession with him, perhaps even her love. It's a power he possesses, a latent one. A witch's power comes from their physical bodies, and Linda has been most careful in her selection of mates. She can't command your father, but you can. I believe it's her plan to breed her new body—your body—with Robert and produce an even more powerful container for her malignant soul, one that cannot be controlled by any force whatsoever. How long will your baby brother live once he becomes an inconvenience to her plans? How long will your stepmother last?"
"There's got to be some other way." She knelt down on the rug and began scooping the carefully organized contents back into the box. Bottles with jeweled stoppers, leather pouches, stones of amber and resin, candles, pouches…
"There is one other way," Jareth said. "I take you away from this world."
Sarah sat back on her heels and hid her face in her hands. "I kill my mother or I spend eternity with you. That's no choice!" She pressed her palms against her eyeballs. "You were telling me the truth. And she gave the ring because she knew…"
"She knew that she'd have it back in a matter of hours, or days, once she put on your body the way she would put on a new dress. But Sarah, you've interrupted all that by giving me the ring. Now she'll never be able to reclaim me."
"So why are you still here?" she asked, furious with him. "You can get away from her. From me! What kind of game are you playing with me? Why are you still with me?" She stood, picking up the first loose object that came to hand. "Don't say it's because of love! You don't even know what that word means!" She threw the ovoid sphere at him, and he caught it with a flick of his wrist, standing, facing her down with a force of will as strong as hers.
"Don't I?" he said. He held up the metal object. "This is called a Pear of Anguish. It's a device of torture. This one is fitted for the mouth, though it could be adapted to other orifices. Do you see?" He turned a key in the pear's base, and it expanded with each cycle, a clockwork toy that would break teeth and pierce tongue… certainly stifle speech. "An original object, kept for the sake of nostalgia, and for my punishment. After all, when my mistress cried out for me to save her, I was able to ignore her… because this was in her mouth, and because I was bored with her, and because I was interested to see what might happen with a new witch, a prettier one. And so I passed to your mother. I've had to endure punishment for that betrayal for over five hundred years. And you ask why I won't leave you alone?" He spun the key around in the other direction, and the awful blades of the pear contracted. "You're wrong when you say I don't know what love is. Love is how I began. Loving you can redeem me." He shoved the pear into a coat pocket. The fire behind him crackled with rage.
"Once, long ago, it was women who kept the fire," Jareth said, reaching his hand for hers. Reluctantly, she took it. They stared into the flames together. "You can see, in the fire, things that aren't there." he murmured against her hair. "Every human being has that gift. But once, it began to happen for the first time. Women kept the fire, and women were the first ones to see the things that weren't. And my kind came to exist, even though we didn't."
She saw things in the flames as he spoke. A woman, dark and small, sat nursing a baby by a fire, food cooking on this primeval hearth. And then a man came, and he took the food, and he took the woman, too, after dashing out her baby's brains on the stones.
"Her name was Mem. She'd lost her man to a boar. In those days, Sarah, marriage was made by a man claiming a woman's fire, the right to her food, her sex, her children in exchange for his protection. They were a brutish people, your ancestors. But Mem was different. When the new man was satiated with food and rape, and slept like the animal he was, Mym took up a stone-flake knife and slit his throat. I was watching, because she had been watching me, seeing the signs I gave her in the fire, where to find the sweet water and where the game, and where the herbs she used to make medicine. She was in such pain, so alone, and I loved her so much. So I came out of the fire and into her arms, and I was her baby."
In the blue heat of the flame-core, she could see it, just as he described, just a moment before he described it.
"She fed me at her breasts, and I was real for her. She named me Chyaret. It means 'little fire,' or 'fire-child.' I was most grateful for a name. I was grateful to belong to her, even if existence was painful. I told her what to do next, to keep my attention fixed on her. She must take the rendered fat of her dead infant from the ash-pit of the fire, and make it into a little manikin, and keep it close to her, to be my body. One drop of blood, or a drop of milk nightly, to feed me, to hold me, to remind me of my name. And then to take me with her wherever she went, to carry me close to her, and when she had a new baby, not to abandon me. And so it went on. When Mem wanted a new man, I helped her find the best one. One who could think. One who could see me, one who could pass his gifts on through their children. And when she was old and dying, she instructed her eldest daughter in how to tend me, and passed my body and my name on to her. And so it went for generations, mother to daughter. I became very powerful, and so did the women. No one could force them to marry, and no one could force them to bear against their will. More, they were respected, because if evil was done to them, they could ask me to revenge them. If someone needed help, they could provide. They taught me how to live in the real, and I taught them the uncanny arts. We lived together, the witches and I, for millennia. There were others in my stamp, called from the fire, and others who became gods because gods were needed, but I was content to be Chyarat, and later Yaref, and finally Jareth, and be theirs alone.
"But things change. The servants of the god called God are jealous of their master's honor, and things became quite dire around the time of the Protestant reformation, even up into the roots of the mountains of Germany where I dwelled with the witches. Old Catholicism had more patience for and less power over the old ways of magic before the Protestants came, with their distaste for fantasy and their fetish for logic. Under threat, the Catholics finished Luther's work for him in that country, killing and burning witches where they found them. Out of fear. Out of ignorance of what they were doing. All of Mem's line were burned, but for two. A witch, and her infant son.
"There was a cunning woman among the nuns the witch-hunters and travelling priests took with them. Her name was Hrotsvitha. She could speak to me, she could hear me. She was the loveliest thing I'd ever seen, with her white hands and her clean black eyebrows and her red lips and the shy and canny way she had of looking out from under her wimple. She's right, you know, when your mother told you I was shaped for betrayal. I was happy to betray Mem's last daughter for the chance to escape, to live on, to get away from the barbarous and efficient country Germany was becoming. So when she asked, I taught my new mistress how to claim me. A handful of ashes from the punitive fire that burned Mem's last heiress, a handful of witch's fat and the scrapings of charcoal which were all that were left of my talisman. She did as I told her, but she was clever in the matter of demons, being well-tutored by her abbess and the many pieces of lore the priests carelessly let drop.
"The remains of my talisman are contained here," and he put his fingertips over the double spiral of his pendant, "but they were also forged into the ring she wore after, made of the same metal, containing the same power. And so she came to own me. But now I own myself, and I choose who I serve, and I choose you, Sarah."
"Why?" she asked desperately. She clung to his hand the same way fire clung to the faux wooden logs of the fireplace.
"Mem's line died out in the feminine branch, but not the male. The baby boy was comely, and obviously innocent. His name was Wilhelm. He lived. He had a son, and that son had a son, and now there are three who remain. Your father, you, the boy Toby. That rare chance, that convergence of your mother's powerful bloodline with my first mother's distant son…" He caressed her face. "But even if you weren't the culmination of my hopes, or bore the mark of destiny, I would still choose you, Sarah. I choose you for yourself. No one else has ever even thought of doing what you did tonight, of giving me a choice. So I choose you."
This time, when he leaned down, she kissed him with open eyes.
"About the Labyrinth, though," she said, when the kiss broke. "Because I fear you, and I love you, and I'll do what you say. Tell me—"
She thought for one instant that the ringing of the bells in her ears was just the effect of his kiss. But then she heard hands pounding at the wood, and the sound of giggling.
"Impossible!" Jareth said in shock. "We flew! How could they track us here? Impossible!"
"You keep saying that, but here we are," Sarah said breathlessly, finding her shoes and pulling them back on, along with her gloves, and her coat. Really, after everything else, the Alfarstreussel seemed a petty concern.
"Come," he said. "We'll fly again and this time—"
But under the manic giggling and squealing and the jingle of the bells, Sarah heard another sound. It was a voice, a human voice, trying to scream a warning, but stifled, as if gagged.
It was Nan.
"We won't fly this time," Sarah said. "You were right before. What good has running done us? This time…" she breathed a sigh and took up the ornamental fire-poker from the hearth. "This time we fight them."
Author's Note: The actual Hrotsvitha was an 11th century abbess and playwright, a remarkable woman of a remarkable age. Her name is used here as tribute to a powerful creative talent from a singular and fascinating era.
Also, big upps to the Harry Potter books here. I just finished my yearly re-read and boy howdy if human Horcruxes aren't a fascinating idea.
If you like this story and you're jonesing for more in like vein, may I please recommend to you Jalen Strix's "The Beast Within," or TheRealEatsShootsAndLeaves's "Don't Defy Me and Other Phrases" or Shadow131's "I Did Not See Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - and I am Willing to Testify to that Effect." You can find these stories over at Fanfiction.net in the "Labyrinth" category.
Finally, massive thanks to everyone who left me a note during the Great Review Blackout of 2015. It is heartily appreciated and gratefully received.
Soundtrack for Chapter 10:
Olivia Newton-John: "Magic"
Def Leppard: "Love Bites"
"What on Earth makes you think I can fight?" Jareth asked, nonplussed. The banging on the door intensified, but he crossed his arms, looking down at her in mild outrage. The high piping voices—Voices plural, Sarah thought, so that means at least two of them to deal with—sang sweet requests for entry. The room seemed to stretch, making yards of space where inches had been, yards and miles between them and her mother's door. "Or that I even want to?"
"I thought you could do anything," Sarah said, surprised.
"Do you really believe in me?" Jareth said, in a tone so conceited that she had to resist the temptation to smack him. Vanity notwithstanding, though, she could tell his question was in earnest.
"I do," Sarah said quietly, reaching out to touch his face. "I've always thought you were capable of anything. Even the beautiful things. Even the terrible ones."
"So you do fear me," he said, satisfied. "Very well then, Sarah, I'll do as you ask, for a price."
"What price?" She withdrew, instantly suspicious.
"The next time I attempt to seduce you, you allow yourself to be tempted." His voice was a black velvet counterpart to the silver sparklings of the Alfarstreussel singing and scrabbling at the door.
"Oh, that and a kiss." He smiled. Beyond the door, she heard Nan's pleading scream rising up above the jeering high-pitched laughter of the little creatures.
"Okay," she said grudgingly. "Since I have no choice."
"There's my girl! So now. You stay out of it," and he pushed her back, so that he stood between her and the threat at the door. "I don't want them touching you. But if you must, and there's no other help for it, pry their masks off. Unbind them. That will stop them, or at least distract them. Whatever you do, don't let them tie you up. Certainly do not let them take you."
She looked at the poker. It was a ludicrous thing as a weapon, something never meant for a real fire, something made of hollow brass with tin rivets, something that would bend like a paperclip under the first serious blow.
"Or we can still run," he suggested, reading her second thoughts.
"No," she said.
"That noble streak of yours will get us all killed yet," Jareth said cheerfully. "Now, Sarah, watch me." He closed his fantastic, impossible eyes. "Watch me and imagine I'm all the things you believe I am… and I will be."
Jareth clasped his hands together in the attitude of carved kings resting atop their stone tombs, and he breathed. It was one breath, and in that breath, he glowed. Sparks and ash fled up his legs and hair, and as they left, his jacket had gained armor over his shoulders and arms, and dagger-spurs to his gloves which were now heavy with a knight's jointed vambraces.
She heard the door go with a scream of wood, heard the door slam open, and heard the heavy clank of belled chains slithering across the expensive parquet floor. She took up the poker in a batter's stance, ready to crack skulls if she had to, and ready to defend Jareth if she'd pushed him into a fight he couldn't win.
Sarah wasn't sure, afterward, if the fight was perhaps something she dreamed, because he was as perfect as her fantasies.
The Alfarstreussel came. There were three, each armed with a daft-looking switch. Nan was on the back of the third. They rushed forward as a mob, four feet high, the tree-branches that made horns over their wooden masks adding an extra foot, grasping at him with their terrible withered hands, lashing out at him, but he danced around them, spinning, dodging. He used his heavy gloves as weapons, jabbing and gouging at their fur-bundled bodies, parrying their blows. She saw one switch make contact with his leg, and his body smoked there like the seam of a broken teakettle.
Jareth made it his main business to encounter the tallest of the company, the one who carried Nan on its back. It struck out at him with its stick, laughing maniacally, and he fought well, his taller body and longer reach almost evening the odds. He severed the chain that bound it with one stamp of his heel, and he struggled to claw its mask off with the hooks of his greaves.
She shouted a warning as the two flanking him divided into four, moving to knot his legs together in their chains. She shoved the curved edge of the poker into their web, and pulled with all her strength. And she pulled with that other sense she was beginning to recognize in herself, the power that let her unbind things. The lengths of chain burst asunder, and the trailing edges whipped away out of the apartment with the agonized and speedy writhing of stepped-upon nightcrawlers.
She cried out as their suddenly-freed owners turned upon her. One giggled as it struck her across the wrist in an almost coy gesture. First there was numbness so deep she thought it nothing, and then the slash burned so cold she screamed. Her skin smoked, went the ice-grey of frostbite… but she refused to drop her weapon. She struck back, parrying a blow by another that only grazed her skin with its chill, disarming her assailant. "Jareth!" she cried out, realizing she had broken her promise, and left him to fight without the attention that fed him.
And he was there, turning on his heel, moving like a shadow, the shadow of an owl, and his talons were fierce in her defense.
He seared the four where he struck, fire against ice, moving with impossible agility. And he sang as he danced, choreography impeccable, a song whose tune she knew, but the words unfamiliar, as the four became eight, but only two with masks.
Nothing so brutal could have been beautiful, but it was, this fight.
And in the space of a few more moments, it was suddenly over. There were two devastating hookings of his gloves which parted the wooden masks from unseen faces, masks which came to rest smoking upon her mother's expensive carpet, and there was Nan, cruelly bound and gagged by red leather thongs, lying on stinking goatskins which were now empty.
"Well?" Jareth asked her, hands on his hips, smoking from cold blows, winded, hurt, but decidedly pleased with himself. "What do you have for me?"
She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.
"I call that weak tea," he grumbled, "I call that a promissory note, Sarah!" She rushed to Nan. "Are you hurt?"
"It's not bad," Sarah said, worrying the leather knots loose with the fingers of her working hand, and with her teeth. Her injured hand stung with cold, and it felt paralyzed. Jareth limped to the fire. He took a handful of the flames and pressed it to his injured leg like a compress, and sighed with relieved pleasure. "Help me with her, please?" she asked.
"Just use your magic," he said with disdain, rubbing fire into his ribs. He collected the abandoned skins and threw them on the fire, and they burned with the smell of pot roast.
Unbind, Sarah thought, pulling hard at the most stubborn knot. It loosened, and the entire bundle fell away, and Nan was freed.
The redhead looked half a wreck, her punk stockings and skirt more tattered than they had been earlier that night, though less artful. Her exposed arms had quite a few ugly bruises, as if she'd been pinched, and her legs a few grey-white lash-marks, where she'd been struck with the branches. "Are you okay?" Sarah asked Nan, pulling a length of cord out of her bruised and bleeding mouth.
Nan gulped a mouthful of air, nodded, and then grabbed Sarah and sobbed against her in terror. "You saved me," she said, when she was able to say it. She rubbed her arm over her eyes, smearing her mascara into a mask. "And you," she said to Jareth, as he handed her a glass of her mother's sherry, "You saved me." She gulped and began to rub her wrists and ankles. "Why?" She looked at Sarah again. "I wouldn't have done it for you." And she burst into tears again.
Jareth gave Sarah a significant look over Nan's curly head, and handed Sarah another glass. She drank, and found the liquour devastatingly sweet and warmingly potent.
"What happened?" Sarah asked her, when she'd calmed. Nan's drink sloshed in her shaking hands.
"It was a bloodbath," Nan said. She shook her head in denial. "I don't think it was what had been planned. Not at all." She closed her eyes and gulped her drink down in two swallows. "That thing in the box—"
"The Elf," Jareth said darkly, picking up the empty wooden masks and stringing them through the mouth and eye-holes with discarded red cords.
"It got out," Nan said. "I don't know, I don't know. The little things—"
"Alfarstreussel," Jareth said, coldly informative, slinging his trophies over one shoulder.
"They came out, and they all grabbed their chains and pulled, and it came out. The Elf. It killed people," Nan said.
"My mother?" Sarah asked with a mixture of dread and hope.
"She got away. She and some of the crones, they tried to fight it back into the box. But there were too many of the little ones. I saw your mother throw a hex at them, but she… she ran. They were the smart ones. The ones who stayed… My mum and my sisters, and at least five of the novitiates… they got tangled in the chains. The little ones put them in the box. And the … the Elf, it was hungry, it was roaring…"
"And?" Jareth asked. "How did you get away?"
"I ran," Nan said. "I made it twenty blocks before the… Alfarstreussel caught me. I thought they were going to take me back. Kill me! Put me in the box!" More tears ran down her face. Jareth refilled her glass. "But they were too excited... they just kept running, hunting..."
"What of the brethren? Pardon the term, Nan Bullen, but what of the other familiars? What did they do?"
Nan's voice was soft as a shadow. "They ran away. The… Elf's roar was so loud, none of them could hear the commands our mothers were shouting. They ran away. They betrayed us. It was only five minutes, but they all… ran." She stared at Jareth with her green cat's eyes. "Even Prickpetal, and he's been in my family for over five hundred years."
There's that number again, Sarah thought. Five hundred years. She glanced over at Jareth and didn't care for the expression on his face. It was too satisfied by half. "Not even one stayed to defend their witches?" he asked.
"The only one who lifted a finger to save any of us is you, Jareth," Nan said, reaching out her hands in supplication. "I owe you my life. We both do." Kneeling on the carpet, she placed devout kisses on his fingertips. "Thank you. Thank you."
"You see, Sarah, it's not a hardship to kiss me," Jareth said. He stroked the redhead's curly brow and gave her an affectionate smile, which Nan returned. Sarah looked away, trying to suppress her jealousy. She didn't want to see Jareth touching someone else, smiling at someone else. "We'll keep you with us, Nan. You can teach Sarah proper deportment."
Sarah snorted flounced off to check the door.
"Now, can you walk, Nan?" she heard him say to her, and heard Nan reply in the negative.
One set of hinges had pulled completely out of the frame, but the others were sound. The foyer was a wreck of silver and crystal shards under the dim brownout lights. She wrestled the door back into place one-handed and threw the bolts into their splintered holes, wondering why she was bothering. It wouldn't take much to bring the door back down. She cradled her aching wrist as she tottered back to the living room, in time to see Jareth applying golden fire to Nan's injuries.
"Better?" he asked her kindly.
"Much," she said, groaning with relief.
"And you, Sarah," he said, coming to her with an orb of fire in his hand. To her, it looked as if he were offering her a peach made of crystal, made of fire.
"I'll be fine," she said, trying to be superior and aloof, and trying to figure out how to retreat without it looking like running away. "It hardly hurts at all."
"You're lying, but I'm wondering why you're lying," the Goblin King said. "You've saddled me with additional responsibilities. Surely you aren't going to go about all night with a useless hand? Come now, think of me. You can't leave me to do all the heavy lifting myself." He held out his other hand, palm open.
She could barely feel him as she placed her hand in his, and he brought the orb of golden fire down upon her wrist. She bit down on the sound she wanted to make. The fire lapped at her skin like a squirming animal, then bit in deeper through her flesh so tongues of flame seemed to gnaw at her very bones. The fire was full of heat that didn't hurt, but the intensity of the sensation made her want to shriek. And then the fire was gone, and she opened and closed her hand without pain or stiffness, and the lash-mark was gone from her skin.
"Better?" he asked, but with an edge of salaciousness that had been missing when he had asked Nan the same question. She only nodded.
"Good," he said. "Now, ladies, while I think it's no bad idea for us to leave this place for elsewhere, Sarah has brought something to my attention that bears consideration." He resumed his seat in the chair before the fire, masks clattering together as he propped one leg on his knee. "To wit, the Alfarstreussel keep finding us. Even with the spoor of your ribbons and bows, they shouldn't have been able to find Sarah and I, at least not so quickly in such rapid order. This stinks of witches' malice. I suspect there's some sort of lure or jinx on one or both of you."
"I agree," Nan said. "But I can't imagine where it came from. I didn't have time to get my coat, and that's the only time anything on me was out of my sight." She picked up Sarah's coat from the floor and began running her hands over it, turning out pockets and the hood. "It will be small, something physical, a strand of hair or a pin…"
"Linda, at least, wouldn't have put any malficia in Sarah's clothing. I know that for certain. What of your mother, or your sisters, Nan Bullen?"
"Unless the world doesn't make sense anymore, no. I don't believe they'd hurt me. They've been training for this night for years." Nan scowled at Sarah's coat as she folded it and tossed it to the couch. "Nothing there that I can find." She looked at Sarah and tried to communicate something.
"What?" Sarah asked, feeling like the world's biggest idiot.
"You'll need to take off your lovely dresses," Jareth said, with an amused smile. "Airclad, I believe the old word is, appropriate for witches dancing before their god." He settled back more comfortably in his chair, and the fire blew into height and red heat.
"Oh, brother," Sarah said. She took Nan's hand. "Nope. My bedroom is this way. You," she said to Jareth, "You can wait here and imagine all sorts of interesting things instead."
"No kiss, and now no striptease. Sarah, you're so cruel."
"Ignore him," Sarah said with disgust. She closed the door of her bedroom with gratitude and chucked her shoes in the corner. She offered Nan first go at the bathroom, and followed her quickly. She hadn't managed to stain herself, but it was a near thing. Nan had left her own bloodstained tights in the wastebasket.
"He's terribly sexy," Nan said, pulling her gauze and lycra dress over her head as Sarah upended her suitcase over the bed. "Are you sure he can't hear us?"
"I'm not really sure of anything where he's concerned," Sarah said curtly, reaching behind her own back to unhook her sash and then to unzip her dress.
"Endless risk, dealing with them," Nan agreed. She looked around as if gauging eavesdroppers, then shook her head, no longer wearing the pliant and sensual mask she had worn before Jareth—and Sarah could see now that it had been a mask. Her voice was so quiet and cautious that Sarah had to bend very close to hear her.
"Sarah. There's a story about witches and their familiars you should know." She raked idly through Sarah's supplies of winter socks and stockings, choosing a pair of black nubbly stockings and stepping out of her shoes to put them on. "They used to say that when a magician studied the arts, every thirteenth pupil belonged to the devil, and that was the price men paid. But among the witches, they say every thirteenth daughter who learns the Seven Wonders from a demon familiar belongs to the Goblin King. I'm a thirteenth daughter, and I think you are, too."
"What's a Goblin King?" Sarah asked, keeping her face neutral. Nan began feeling over her empty dress as she had done with Sarah's coat, and Sarah imitated her, though not sure if she would recognize a jinx if she felt one.
"The Goblin King is one of the arch-dukes of Hell, the Flame-White Duke. They say he governs over a kingdom of goblins, lesser demons, and that he sings to them about time and pain and mortal flesh. There's a prophecy that says he'll take a thirteenth daughter to wife, and use her to make a son. The anti-Christ. The end of time and pain and mortal flesh…" Nan trailed off. "I used to think it was just a fairy-tale, just the witches' personal version of the boogeyman. My mother always said Hell was just something the priests made up to keep the people afraid. But now I don't know."
"Huh," Sarah said, frowning. "Have you found anything? I can't find anything."
"Let's switch," Nan suggested, and they did, but everywhere Sarah touched, all she could feel was fabric and thread.
" I wonder about tonight," Nan said. "About how our familiars betrayed us. All of them, like it was part of some sort of plan. And I'm wondering now if the Goblin King really is real. Tell me, has Jareth ever told you about the Goblin King?"
Sarah opened her mouth and answered without thinking. "No," she said truthfully, glad that Jareth had never spoken of himself in the third person. "I have a storybook about him. The Goblin King. A play. He steals the baby of a queen and has to be overcome by a will as strong. And he—" Sarah broke off and looked angrily at Nan. "You're using the voice of command with me," she said. "Not very friendly when I've just saved your life!"
"Sorry," Nan said. "It's not completely under my control. Truly, I didn't mean it." She fluffed out her dress and slid it back on over her gamine and braless body. "I like your dress. Need me to do you up?"
Sarah took her help.
"You don't think he would… give you to the Goblin King, do you? Or me? I mean, he saved us both tonight, and you quite a few times. He'd protect you, don't you think? Or me, if you asked him? If Hell is real, I don't want to go there."
"Maybe Hell isn't that bad," Sarah said dryly, feeling taller and stronger, defiant of anyone's plans, as Nan hooked her sash for her. "I promise you, Nan, if I can help it, I won't let the Goblin King get you. But I wouldn't trust Jareth. Not at all." She picked up her party shoes and Nan's high-tops and stalked out.
"What's that?" Nan asked, as they returned to the Goblin King's presence. Sarah was too busy holding Jareth's eyes to hear her at first. "Sarah? On your shoe. Oh, warts, oh shit, Sarah, stop!" Jareth came to them, making a trio. There on the sole of her shoe was a black dot. Nan turned over her own shoes, sensible chucks that Sarah envied. There were three black spots on her soles.
"Don't touch them," Jareth cautioned, as he took up Sarah's shoe. He prized at the black dot with his thumb, until it came out, like a thorn. It was a tack. He held it in his fingertips for them to inspect. "Every step you took was like a neon sign pointing your way," he said.
"I didn't feel them," Sarah said, dubious.
"Well, you wouldn't, would you? They're self-concealing, even from sensation. My question, Sarah, is where did you pick them up?" He cast the tack into the fire, where it shrieked and sizzled and gave up a puff of black smoke.
"It was Apollonaire," Sarah said, infuriated and certain. "Jareth, he was waiting in the vestibule when Nan and I came out of the bathroom. Check your feet."
"This sort of thing won't adhere to me," Jareth said, but he inspected his boot-heels one after the other, which showed clean. "Apollonaire?" he said grimly. "It was House Locusta which drew the right to choose the hunter for this rite. They've laid their plans well, if so, but I've laid mine better." He took Nan's shoes from her and tied the laces together.
"You aren't going to get rid of them?" Nan asked. Sarah went and put on her mismatched boots and, with some regret as they were the only extra pair of shoes she had, got her loafers for Nan. "No," Jareth said. "We can use these as bait, to lure the Alfarstreussel into a situation that we control. But I don't think that place is here. It should be a place where there is light, and heat, and music, and people. Holy ground would be useful as well, for protecting the two of you, but I wouldn't be able to enter myself, not if it's a place of active worship. Hm." He slung Nan's sneakers over his shoulder where they clacked against his bolero of wooden masks. "I can't imagine a place that has all of those things, even in this city of wonders."
Nan slipped on Sarah's loafers, holding on to Sarah for balance. "Well, there's always the Limelight."
Jareth and Sarah both looked at her, intrigued.
"The Limelight?" Nan said. "The dance club? Open all night? It used to be a church, but now it's the best place for good coke and shitty hash?" Sarah exchanged a glance with Jareth, both equally confused and intrigued. "The Limelight? With all the club kids and their year-round Halloween costumes? For Christ's sake! The Limelight!"
"By all means," Jareth said. "The Limelight. Let's go to your profane church and set our snares there."
Author's Note: Like most of you, I've been having a hard time with the advent of blackstar. I have a lot of sad feelings, and I wish I could say something magnificent and good and healing here. But I have nothing.
This chapter is part of a story, and not a eulogy. I just wanted you to know that I'm sensitive to your pain, because I'm feeling it myself. If reading this story gives you relief in escapism, or if you forgive it its deficits because the author isn't in the best place, or it's not coming at the right time for you and you just need to turn away, that's all okay. Thank you, too, writers and artists working here and elsewhere, who are showing us all what a shadow of a blackstar looks like. It's a shadow made of light.
He casts a mighty shadow.
Chapter 11: Pursuit
Soundtrack for Chapter 11:
Benny Mardones: "Into the Night"
Sarah heard the faint sound of bells.
"We need to go faster," she said.
In leaving her mother's apartment, Jareth had put forward the rather intriguing notion that they should lure Alfarstreussel inside and then cause a gas explosion after exiting via the fire escape. Sarah had vetoed all of this proposition except for the fire escape. "Too destructive," she said. "Too many other people might get hurt." Jareth had only sighed and pinched his nose, as if he were getting a headache. The fire escape had been awkward. One of Nan's shoes, with their lures, had made audible contact with one of the icy railings. So now they were being followed again, and Sarah had the definite feeling that Jareth believed it was all her fault. It was her fault. At the time, she had been carrying the shoes.
Fortunately, he had refrained from carping at her as they walked through the nigh-deserted streets, every cab passing them by. Flakes flew from the sky, thick and fast, but the cold had abated somewhat.
"Could we fly away on your back?" she suggested, even as he took her hand in his, and Nan's on the other, and pulled them with him at speed. It was a little like skating and a little like speed-walking. She was again grateful for her white coat, and likewise grateful that her black one had fit Nan. Both girls carried improvised weapons close at hand, Sarah her fire-poker, and Nan the shovel. Jareth hadn't abandoned his armor. Perhaps that was why the cabs wouldn't pick them up. What with Jareth between them, in his brown duster and Batman gloves, they looked too strange to be safe.
"I won't carry two," he said. "Two is too much."
"But I thought—" Sarah said, ready to pick at his answer, but he only tugged her along harder.
"Yes, yes. You think I can do anything, but even I have limits. There are now some twenty blocks between us and safety."
The power had come back on, sullenly brown at first, but then lighting the city back up in fluorescent glare, and she felt immense relief, and then fear again, wondering if the lights might go out again just as precipitously. How quickly things turn savage without electricity, Sarah thought. No light, no heat, no water, no subway—everything that keeps this city running. If the power never came back, the city would cease to exist. We'd be primitive again, sitting around fires, stealing each other's meat, killing. Savage. Power keeps people civilized. We've forgotten almost every other trick we had for living with each other without it.
Sarah wondered if perhaps Jareth and all his kind would prefer things that way.
"Could we take the subway?" Nan asked, as they passed by one station.
"I wouldn't rely on regular service, considering the storm," Jareth said. "And I don't like the idea of being down in the tunnels in the dark with no train coming. Do you? No? Well then." Jareth sighed and pulled them along. "Let's pool assets. I can evoke glamour and fuck with the laws of temporal physics, but I'm taxed at the moment, having been starved for decades." The city rushed between them as they fled. The sound of bells seemed gone, but Sarah knew better, and so did Jareth. The Alfarstreussel were still on their trail. "You're witches both. Sarah has a dab hand for commanding spirits and unbinding. How about you, Nan?"
"Bewitchment," Nan said. "And command, but I'm better at animals than I am at people. But I'm not that great at it."
"Nothing else?" Jareth asked, audibly disgusted.
"The elf-thingies stole my bauble!" Nan huffed. "…I can do the Second Wonder really well, but I don't know how useful that could be here! What, am I supposed to grow a thorny hedge in the dead of winter or something?"
In spite of her worries, Sarah laughed. "It would be good if you could."
"You think the Second Wonder is just for plants?" Jareth asked snidely. "Apply it elsewhere. Grow our luck and our good chances. Serendipity, Nan."
"That's not how it works, though," Nan said. "Slow up a second, let me think."
"Not for long," Jareth cautioned. They stopped before a store-front dry-cleaner's.
Nan shook her head, catching her breath. "I don't have a focus."
"What do you need?" Sarah asked.
"I don't know. I don't know! Some charm for good fortune. A lucky rabbit's foot, a horseshoe?" She gazed inside. "A business's first dollar, the kind they frame." Sarah and Jareth both followed her gaze into the dry-cleaners, where George Washington smiled under glass above the register.
"Do you need to touch the item itself?" Jareth asked.
"I don't think so," Nan said, "But I've never done this before, either." She stared wide-eyed at the framed dollar.
Jareth came behind her and spread his hand out across the base of her skull. "Now try," he told her.
"I am trying," Nan protested.
"A circle of two is weak," Jareth said, casting his eyes down both sides of the street, ears pricked up to catch the sounds of pursuit. "What I wouldn't give for one more witch. Sarah, don't just stand there. Lend her your strength."
"How?" she asked.
Jareth grabbed her hand and pulled her into the triad. "Use your imagination," he said. "Imagine holding her up. Imagine giving." His fingers dovetailed with hers, squeezing, bringing her pain. His other gloved hand clenched hard at the base of Nan's skull, where tugged hair always hurt the worst.
"Don't think of the pain," he said gently, even as both girls flinched from it. "Let it fill you. Let it come and take the place of fear and doubt. Let it come and take the place of human frailty."
Sarah wanted to shriek at him. He was hurting her. His hand was made of fire, and her bones seemed wood. Pressure, immense pressure, a hot press of iron in the tenderest place in her hand…
"Ebb and flow," Jareth crooned. "Useless cares burnt away. And as it goes, you are an empty place for your power to fill. Feel it. Now, Nan. Cast now."
For one moment, Sarah imagined she could feel the power coursing through her, as if she were a contact point, and Jareth the filament that connected her to Nan. She smelled cordite, a fused connection, ozone, the scent of sparks… but then it was gone.
The sound of bells, many, many of them, echoed from the street.
Nan shook her head. "I can't tell if I've done anything or not," she said. She looked sadly at Sarah and Jareth, rubbing her scalp. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be, too," Jareth said, patting her shoulder and smiling kindly. "It was enough that you tried."
His compassion made Sarah's heart sink. They were in a tight spot if Jareth was being kind.
The sound of bells grew louder, and the sharp clopping of many feet. Jareth stepped forward, putting them between the building and the veritable horde that was approaching.
"Don't let them take you," he advised them both, as he drew his greaves higher on his arms. And then she saw them come out of the snow, white shadows on white, breath snorting hot drafts in the air.
"What the hell?" Nan asked. And Sarah only let herself be dumbfounded for a moment.
Two greys, pulling a white carriage, and a coachman huddled in a period frock-coat and tophat pulled up to the curb. Sarah ran forward, pulling Nan with her, pushing Jareth aside. "Don't you get it? Nan, it worked. This is our ride. Please," she asked the coachman. "We need to get to West Twentieth," she commanded.
"Long way," the coachman said, and she could tell by his voice that he was amused by her request, and had no intention of doing more than engaging in idle conversation. But Nan had slid them, and was engaged in soothing conversation with the horses. She saw their ears flit back once or twice nervously. Even if the driver had no idea what was coming, the horses certainly did, and whatever Nan was telling them, it made their skin shiver and their eyes roll in their heads.
"They're willing to take us," Nan said. "Convince him, though." She held onto the street-side horse's bridle and nodded at the coachman.
"You'll take us where we need to go," Sarah commanded. She made each word a needle and sewed it to the driver's brain. His eyes were soft with drink. "You want to. You must. We're the fare you want."
"Get in, then," he said, and Nan and Sarah needed no other invitation.
"No whip," Jareth said fiercely, climbing up into the box beside the driver. "They won't need it." He turned and looked back at her. Sarah squeezed into the seat next to Nan. This carriage was tiny. There was barely room for the three of them. However… it was light, and maneuverable. It might be just the thing.
"It was really good luck, Nan," Sarah said appreciatively. The horses pulled forward with a surge, and the bells on their harnesses began to ring merrily with each trotting step.
She had hoped the carriage might be enough to outrun them. They went several pleasant blocks before she began to hear the pursuit again.
"Quickly now," Sarah heard Jareth say mildly, but the horses needed no encouragement. Their hooves rang on the pavement, and cars honked and protested as the narrow carriage wove its way between them, up on sidewalks, ignoring red lights.
Sarah looked over her shoulder into the blizzard. Scampering figures, making nothing of the obstacles of cars, climbing over everything, horned, masked, belled. Close enough for her to hear the sound of their giggling. "They're coming," she said. "Jareth!"
His long legs scissored over the driver's seat and he pushed his way between them. "Give me your poker," he told her. His fine hair blew in the wind like cobwebs, and he never took his eyes from what followed them. "Switch places with me."
Sarah put the poker in his outstretched hand. His hand was trembling.
"Nan, we must go faster," Jareth said. His voice was trembling too. "Twelve blocks, yes?"
A car passed them on the left, the driver hammering the horn and shouting curses at them. Nan was standing up, shouting at the horses, hanging on to the back of the coachman's seat for dear life. The poor man himself was as terrified as his horses, jerking hard on reins that refused his quickly were they going? Would the carriage rattle apart? Nan bounced once as the carriage went up another curb, driving like hell upon the sidewalk. A pair of hapless people flung themselves out of the carriage's path.
Sarah turned to watch the pedestrians, over the carriage's bumper, clutching the folded bonnet anxiously. They appeared to be deeply offended, but not hurt. Beside her, Jareth maintained perfect balance, standing there like a stature of Joan of Arc, gazing back out into the storm. The curved edge of the poker flickered with orange fire in his tight grip.
That was when she saw it, source of Jareth's fear. Ten feet tall, hooded in red, horns ancient as recurved trilobite fossils. It leapt on goatish feet from the top of one car to another, with a trail of four tethered dwarves bouncing in its wake like kite-strings.
It saw them seeing it, and it roared, a three foot tongue lolling from a wide tusked mouth, dribbling spittle which froze on the air and on its filthy goatskin robes. Jareth flinched.
"Jareth," Sarah said weakly.
"I know," he said.
It was toying with them.
Jareth sang out, more "Good King Wenceslas," but this time in German. The Elf paused, listening. Then it shook its head like a bull shaking off a gadfly.
"Nine blocks. We'll never make it. Unless, of course, you'd agree to pitch Nan over the side." His free hand caressed her hair, but his eyes never left the adversary. "No, I joke. You're no coward."
As the Elf made another prodigious leap, the Alfarstreussel chained to it came even further forward, like cast bolas. One of them caught hold of the coach's bumper and began to climb. Jareth beat at its mittened hands with the poker until it was forced to let go. It rolled as it landed, tangling with others, buying them minutes. Only minutes.
"Pain is not the only way to create a space for magic," he informed her idly, as though they were still back in her mother's kitchen, hours ago, a lifetime ago. "Pleasure also works." He looked down at her and smiled wryly. "But you've always been afraid of the pleasures I offer. Such a pity. Listen, Sarah." He looked back out over the street behind them, where the hunters resumed their pursuit. He spoke his words to the streets, but she listened. "When you get to this church, you must go to the place where the altar stood, if it was a Catholic place, and to the pulpit if a Protestant one. That's where the protection will be strongest, in the place of attenuation. You mustn't come out until dawn, and you mustn't fall asleep at all."
"Jareth," Sarah said, and she wrapped her arms around his leg, hugging him tight to her, smelling the scent of him, sex and leather and incense-smoke. "Whatever you're planning to do, please don't do it. Stay with me."
"You stink of your blood and your fear," he replied. He prized her off him with the poker and thrust her rudely down. "They'll never stop now with you in their nostrils. I'd hoped to avoid this." He jumped up, balanced impossibly on the lip of the coach. Nan looked back just in time to bear witness.
"What is he doing?" she screamed. "Sarah, don't let him jump!"
"I love you," Sarah said fiercely. "Jareth, I love you. Please don't do this. Don't do this!"
"Oh, you little liar," he said fondly. "This isn't the end, Sarah. When I see you again, I will give you your ring. Or a flogging. I think I might rather prefer the latter, you sexy little horror of a girl."
And even as she surged up to catch him, to clutch him, he had dived, gracefully, becoming an owl in mid-lunge, and landed in the center of the street, blocking the hunters' path.
"Jareth!" Sarah screamed.
Chapter 12: Combat
Soundtrack for Chapter 12:
Karl Orff: "O, Fortuna"
John Williams: "Duel of the Fates"
In the street, Jareth brandished the poker, which had become a hooked iron sword. He held the weapon in both hands and advanced on his enemy, singing in German, the sound retreating with every swift step of the horses. The Elf carried a wicker cage on its back, which it shrugged off to the pavement with the sound of human screams—witches' screams—when it landed. Seeing them so helpless, and watching Jareth, ready to fight and die to protect her, Sarah didn't pause to count the cost. She closed her eyes and jumped from the moving carriage. Nan screamed and reached out for her, but too late. The carriage disappeared down the street and into the storm.
She should have died at the fall's speed, but either she had absorbed some luck from Nan's spell or she had instinctually used the First Wonder to break her headlong fall into something not quite deadly. The pavement seemed to punch her as she landed, and she rolled over and over like a pile of clothing in the dryer.
Not deadly, no, but the fall did still hurt. It hurt like a motherfucker. The sleeves of her coat were torn to shreds, and her knees and ankles had obviously given up and abandoned her for better environs. Worst was her face. She touched it carefully as she rose to her knees and then to her feet. Her gloves came away wet with blood, and two of her teeth swam in her mouth, one broken and one loose in its roots. She spat out the jagged edge of her broken tooth with a gobbet of blood and staggered slowly forward, determined to ignore everything but Jareth and the help she owed him, and the captured witches to whom she intended to offer rescue.
The heights of the city shone down around the combatants like disinterested eyes as Jareth and the Elf squared off. Sirens wailed in the far distance, and once and twice passers-by ran past Sarah, tight faces full of fear and clouds of huffing breath.
She didn't have time for fear. She spat out more blood to clear her throat, swallowed yet a bit more, and limped as quickly as she could to the scene of the battle. It was already well underway, and it was like nothing she ever could have imagined, a fight of apex predators. The metaphor that came into her mind immediately was a fight between a crocodile and a cape buffalo she had once seen in a nature documentary. As then, the outcome seemed in doubt. The Elf was easily twice Jareth's size, and massive with it, but her demon was fast, blindingly fast, fast as a dirty thought, fast as fire.
He was pushing the Elf back. His movements blurred into flickers as he ricocheted from the pavement up to a hard double-footed kick to the Elf's chest, and back down again. His sword spun in pinwheels of flashing gold, and nothing could penetrate into that deadly circle of his weapon's space. But his progress was slow, slow. Jareth's advance was measured in inches and in feet. He could never hope to defeat the Elf this way. All he was doing was preventing the Elf's advance.
He never planned to defeat it, Sarah suddenly realized. He was planning to delay it, and then make a quick retreat when I was safe. I may have just killed us both.
She shut her mouth and watched the fight go on, wide-eyed. The ground Jareth gained now encompassed the prisoners in their wicker cage, and beyond. The witches, she thought, hobbling over to the cage. Bound arms reached out to her in supplication. I can't leave them. Whatever Jareth's plan had been, it hadn't included saving these people. So I'll help them, Sarah decided. With pain-numbed fingers, she felt for the knots that held the door of the lattice closed.
Unbind! Unbind! Unbind! Sarah thought, flinging snow in frustration at the tight knots, and hearing the moaning screams of the witches stuffed inside like pillow-ticking. Where the snow landed, the knotted withies and cords uncurled like worms.
"Out," Sarah said. Her own voice felt strange in her mouth, and her broken tooth stabbed her cheek ungratefully. "Go to the Limelight, the church on West Twentieth." She jerked out witch after witch, issuing instructions, pointing. "Hurry. Get out of here! Go!"
There were eleven of them crammed in there like lobsters in a trap. Not one wore black. They were all novitiates. Some of them stopped in shock to watch the fight Sarah was missing. "Don't watch them, just go!" Sarah said, giving a push to the penultimate witch in the cage. Sisterhood wasn't powerful, apparently, to these witches; each was in a hurry to save her own skin. They scattered down the street in the direction Sarah indicated.
Under the next-to-last witch, crushed, and with a dark flow of blood from his broken nose which had long since ruined his immaculate white suit, was Apollonaire Vaan Knecht. By his position in the cage, he must have been one of the first ones caught.
Sarah darted a glance up at the street as the Elf roared. Jareth's sword had made sharp contact with its shoulder, and its blood spattered and steamed in the snow.
Jareth laughed, cocky, and shook his sword.
Sarah looked down at Apollonaire. "Hello, Polly," Sarah said, eyes narrowing. "Would you like me to set you free, or would you like to wait here for whoever wins this fight?"
The boy shook his head violently and raised his bound wrists to Sarah. "Fffeef!" he shouted through his gag, eyes wide with fear.
"That's what I thought," Sarah said. "But if I set you free, you promise not to betray me or work against me or even think about doing me dirty. Ever! Or I'll make you wish you'd stayed in this cage. Agreed?"
"Mmmnh!" Apollonaire squeaked, nodding his head up and down vigorously. "Right," Sarah said, as she rolled the cage over to dislodge him. His knots took some undoing, but Sarah had finally caught the knack of the Fifth Wonder, and when she focused on the leather thongs, they fell apart under her fingers. "You should run," he advised her in a shaking voice, pulling the improvised gag out of his mouth. She clutched the wicker basket in both her hands and held on tight, watching the battle.
The four remaining Alfarstreussel had crept closer, round about the Elf, and had divided and divided again, until they were sixteen, small and quick. They grabbed at Jareth when he advanced, struck out at him with their switches. She heard him panting, heard him snarl with anger when one of those paralyzing wands made contact with his leg. He stopped that one by unhooking its mask and delivering a sharp blow with his armored gloves, but there were too many more of them waiting to take that one's place, giggling, clawing, grabbing. The Elf, meanwhile, regained its footing, and seemed to have sealed the wound on its arm by giving it a slimy lick with its enormous hanging tongue.
Jareth shouted imprecations and rude-sounding words at the Elf and its attendants in German. The Alfarstreussel seemed affronted, and Jareth unbound and destroyed a second during their moment of indecision. But then the Elf laughed, and Sarah had to cover her ears. The sound was jolly, terrible, headache-inducing.
Now would be a good time to run, Jareth, Sarah thought, narrowing her eyes. But Jareth didn't retreat. He spun and launched himself again at the Elf, flying at speed, his sword a talon which pierced and bit.
"He's going to lose," Apollonaire said quietly from behind her shoulder. His voice had a new nasally twang thanks to his flattened nose.
"He's going to run away," Sarah said stubbornly, wishing that of all the young witches, he hadn't been the one to ignore her orders.
"That one will never run away. Demons have their pride. He'd rather be destroyed than back down."
Sarah could see that the witch-boy was right. Jareth had wielded his ego against her from the first moment they'd met. He'd never give ground. He'd never give way. The Elf and the Alfarstreussel took back the advances he'd made. Jareth cut down another little one, and another, and still they clambered over each other to strike out at him, with their springy switches, hitting his side, and then his arm, so that he had to brandish his sword one-handed.
"Why are you still here?" Sarah asked, keeping her eyes on Jareth.
"I need to see one of them die," Apollonaire replied, with more cold anger than she could have credited. "The Elf killed both of my parents tonight, and almost all of the crones. And he… he let it happen. He's behind the rebellion of our familiar spirts. He's the goddamned Goblin King."
Jareth was slowing, Sarah could see, going pale in the cold. A pair of Alfarstreussel tripped him with their chains.
"But you knew that, didn't you?" His words were full of indignation and disgust. "Are you that much your mother's creature? Did you and she and that thing collude tonight to destroy the coven? Don't you even care that your demon's made you into his pawn?"
"What about you?" Sarah said, as Jareth made a brief recovery, and sliced one of the Alfarstreussel neatly in two. "You've all but admitted your family's been trying to kill my mother. You were the ones who conspired to get me at this test. And your family chose this Elf. This is all your fault, not mine, and not his!"
The Elf had Jareth by the scruff of his shirt. The blade had fallen from his hand, and he was limp in the Elf's grip.
She grabbed Apollonaire's arm and dragged him forward with her with the force of pure rage.
""Let him go!" Sarah shouted up at the Elf, voice cracking. "Put him down and leave him be!"
Distracted, the Elf lowered Jareth until his toes barely touched the street. It looked at her, with eyes as dead as black holes. She felt herself summed up in that glance. Huffing little monkey, screaming with indignation.
"I said let him go," Sarah said, pitching her voice the way her mother would. She felt Apollonaire's hand go cold in hers. She felt the connection between them, multiplied twofold, fourfold, sixteenfold. It felt strange, taking power from the witch-boy. It felt vampiric in the extreme. It felt just fine.
This is what it is to be a Queen, Sarah thought. And in the next moment, Please let this work.
"Hexeh," the Elf said, gibbering through its immense serpent-tongue. "Vas gibst du meer fyur een?" He shook Jareth by the neck, making his meaning obvious, but Apollonaire translated for them. "Witch, what will you give me, in exchange for this one here?"
Sarah spat blood. "You get nothing from me you don't already have. Only servants get payment. Are you my servant? If not, you go."
The Elf laughed again, dropping Jareth to the street. The Alfarstreussel scampered around him, skipping and shrieking with glee.
"Go," Sarah said.
"Hexehkind. Dee finsternis endet in wennigen stunden. Aber es weird doonkelheit morgen weeder in der dommerung syne. See moosen meer etwas abend erwatne, shleessich."
Apollonaire translated through chattering teeth. "It says that tonight will end in a few hours, but another night is coming soon enough. It says you must expect him some evening, eventually."
Anticlimactically, the Elf turned away from her, laughing in good cheer, with the remnants of its chained entourage in tow, sparks striking from the street where its hooves landed.
"I can't believe that worked," Apollonaire said breathlessly. "Did you know it would work?"
"Why shouldn't it have worked?" Sarah asked with a calm she didn't remotely feel. "We're witches. We command spirits." She tugged a reluctant Apollonaire with her to where Jareth lay on the pavement, pale as ashes. "Just because you didn't think of it." She lowered herself slowly and put Jareth's head in her lap. "Help me with him. What do I to help him?" But before Apolloinaire could answer, blood dripped from her mouth onto Jareth's amulet, and he made a small noise of pain. Blood, Sarah thought. An offering of my blood, brought willingly to him. She leaned over him and kissed him. Gross, she thought, even as she felt his mouth warm to hers, and felt him stir in her arms.
"Stop," Apollonaire said, jerking her back up to her feet. Jareth's eyelids fluttered and he reached out to her. "You mustn't give him anything." He compelled the winds to work on his behalf, and she was carried away several yards hand-in-hand with him before digging in her heels.
"I have to save him," Sarah said. On the pavement, Jareth had risen to his hands and knees, and a flicker of fire lit up his arching spine.
"No!" Apollonaire said. "I'm not trying to betray you, I'm trying to help you! Dammit, you stupid bitch! He'll burn the world if you let him!"
Jareth had come fully to his feet. His clothes had been washed in blood, washed clear of all color. He shone in bleached white, and his eyes were terrible. Sparks traveled up his shoulders and his hair ignited, a Molotov cocktail in the shape of a man. His flames spread, lighting up the darkness and the snow in a monolith of white fire, an owl of white fire.
The street shuddered under her feet once, and then again. Jareth pointed directly to Sarah's heart.
"An offering of milk. An offering of blood. And last of flesh. You are mine, witch."
The street gave way in cracks and sinkholes. She smelled sulphur and felt the heat braise her skin as a gas main gave way and exploded in yellow and orange flames. Behind her, Apollonaire was screaming in pain. The white wave of fire crashed over her, sweeping her up with it, pulling her with him. Somewhere in the pulses of power and light, she lost consciousness.
Author's Note: Thank you, all, for your encouragement and support and general good-wishes in the time between the previous chapter and this one.
Soundtrack for Chapter 13:
The Police: "Wrapped Around Your Finger"
Peter Murphy: "Marlene Dietrich's Favorite Poem"
There was far too much light to see anything clearly. Beautiful people danced in colors so rich they seemed to leap away from their ephemeral bodies. In hissing voices, these dancers congratulated others upon the acquisition of such excellent partners. Their partners, by contrast, seemed faded, translucent, not-quite-there. For all this communication and motion, there seemed to be very little noise. As in a church, a hush lay upon the crowd, the silence before a performance.
I've been here before, Sarah thought, with vague anxiety. But oh, she was so tired. It seemed an almost impossible expenditure of energy just to move her eyes over the glittering, familiar crowd. She smelled roses and pinecone fires and roast pork and the thin sweetness of a snow-carrying wind.
Another moment, and she realized she'd been staring at the dancers and having all these thoughts over and over again for a good long time.
I was looking for someone, she thought. Who was I looking for?
She felt a warm hand on the back of her neck.
"Calm," a familiar voice told her. She sighed with relief at how quickly her confusion went, stroked away by his touch, his voice, even if she couldn't see his face.
She looked out at the crowd until her eyes hurt from keeping them open. There were the people who were full of light, paired with witches, all in white. Some paused at delicate tables and shared fruit and drink, taking from the same cup and passing it on. Their lips came away red, and not with wine. Sarah blinked, but it was more like the shutting of her eyes for hours, and still able to see. The brightness was so intense that the integument of eyelids couldn't keep the visions out.
I need to find a chair and break the wall, Sarah thought, certain that this was the correct course of action. She made a small motion as if to get up, and his hand was on her neck again, holding her back with just a touch.
"No," he said. "Stay here, by me." His voice was the music in the room. It had the penetrating loveliness of an orchestra of violins playing one long subtle note, the hum of pleasant sleep.
"I—" she began. She was also the music in the room, a jangling skirl of whistles and flat drums. Upset by her own discordance, she ceased to speak.
The common cup had come to them at last. It was like the chalice for Mass, heavy brass, half-full of blood and the other half white flame, like the card for Temperance. And temperance seemed like a good idea to her, for even though the offering was made into her very hands, pressed to her lips, assisted by the one she knew, she shut her lips tight.
Blood. She smelled it. She even tasted it inside her mouth. She grasped the stem of the chalice and tried to throw it away.
"You must drink," he told her. And she did, obeying him without question. The liquid fire and blood had the taste of incense and wine. It was very sweet, and very good. He lifted the cup away from her and she turned her head to watch him drink the rest off.
Jareth. His hair was haloed by fire, and his beautiful face lit up with triumphant joy as he turned the chalice upend, and not a drop of the arcane liquor remained to fall.
"What is this?" Sarah asked, and winced at the cacophony her voice made in the concordant hush.
"Our wedding," he informed her. He stroked the hair on her head as he would a restive dog. He was sitting upon the altar, and she was sitting at his feet. Him, all in white, and she, in a gossamer silk of red and white stripes, roses sewn so deeply into the bodice that their thorns pricked her. He was so pale that the white should have washed his face away, but the white of him burned in fierce colors that were all the colors of flesh and desire.
"No," she said. "I won't. You have no pow—" but he unscrewed an apple in perfect halves, and fed one half to her in small bites, even to the seeds and the stem. And she ate.
"Hush," he said, feeding her. "I would hate to threaten you, especially on this most happy occasion." When both halves were gone, he leaned down over her, until she was all in his shadow, filling up all the world. "Kiss me, Sarah."
His finger slid sticky-wet, to the side of her cheek, and his thumb penetrated the corner of her mouth, so that he was there twice as his mouth met hers, tongue and thumb together, stretching her so widely she was afraid she would tear.
Under the fear and growing stronger, there was lust. O trespass sweetly urged, Sarah thought. Give me my sin again. She grasped his waist so hard she felt his hipbones under her fingertips and slid up the length of his body between his wide-spread legs, and he crushed her to him in his arms, and the rose-thorns stabbed her again, but not as poignantly as his tongue. Poison-fruit kisses, apple kisses, sweet as honey.
And then she was kissing him back. Oh, yes. She wanted him. She wanted to hear him make the sounds that she could hear herself making. Longing, aching, hungry sounds. And then he was. She felt him drawing magic out of her in great pulls of his mouth, and then giving himself back to her as she kissed him back, where he tingled in sparks down every nerve-ending she had.
"Thank you," he whispered against her lips as they parted, "for keeping your promise."
"What promise?" Sarah asked stupidly.
"You promised me a kiss."
"Oh." She was sitting on his knee now, looking at his red-stained mouth. She had some vague memory of a terrible hurt that had happened to her, that the tingling in her mouth ought to be an agony, but she seemed to have misplaced it. "I already gave you a kiss," she said slowly.
He only smiled and played with the buttons on the back of her dress. She had a vision, an anticipation, that he would undress her and take her right there upon the altar, writhing, naked, and public in the consummation, and for a moment she wanted exactly that. Instead she pushed his hands away and shook her head.
"Won't you?" he pleaded gently. "You also promised to let me seduce you. Leave the enchantment in place, and be mine."
"I can't," she said sadly.
Her voice was as sad as his, because she regretted what she had to do. Who would deny a momentary desire transformed into an eternity of that pleasure granted? Going by the atmosphere of the room, she was the only one that stupid. Oh yes, she regretted her choice. "I'm sorry, Jareth," she said, and with a casting of her hands and her spirit, she broke the spell.
Her magic seemed weak, or perhaps it had all been poured into him, but she couldn't break the spell over the room, only over herself. A stabbing pain went through her whole body as she unbound his glamour. In the chorus of pain, only her mouth and her right ankle stood out for solos. Her dress was a ruin. The red stripes and the roses were only blood, most of it hers, slowly fading to brown. He, naturally, looked perfect. She felt the tightness of burnt skin on her face as she scowled at him.
"We're at the Limelight," she said, with a sticky and swollen tongue. She had stabbed it through with her broken tooth at least once.
"Yes," he sighed in irritation.
"And I never agreed to marry you."
"No, but I want you terribly!" he said. "And we're already halfway there. A ring, a kiss, a cup. Won't you give me the rest?"
She felt that pang of desire again, but shook her head. She looked out at the crowd again with clear sight. Dancers, dancers in all colors, and their faded partners all in white. Most of these, she could see, were so exhausted that they didn't so much dance as were carried about by their partners, the way dolls are carried, their toe-tips skimming the tiled floor. Sarah counted twelve pairs.
Which makes Jareth and myself the thirteenth, Sarah thought, increasingly upset and angry.
"What's happening?" she asked him.
"A renewal of the coven," he told her, "Inevitable as the seasons." She felt the glamour tickling around her legs again, giving her back her phantasm dress with the red roses, but she didn't have the desire to throw it off again. Where the magic was, the pain wasn't.
"Every thirteen generations," Sarah said. "You serve them. You're slaves for thirteen generations and then what, a renegotiation of your contracts?"
"Something like that," he replied, smugly pleased.
"People are dead, Jareth." Her voice, high-pitched and screechy, cut through the room. "How many others? Are these the only ones left?"
"Mostly," he said negligently.
"Their deaths are on your head," she said, shouting. A few dancers glanced up at them, but resumed their stately floating progress about the floor.
"I disagree," he said, eyes glittering, voice a rasping cello. "Did I arrange that you would be among the novitiates tonight? I did not. Did I choose to summon an Elf I could barely control, to harass and hunt baby witches at the Esbat? I did not. These are all things the witches chose on their own. My only crime was knowing our chance might come tonight, and warning my kindred to be ready."
"You could have saved them," Sarah said, wondering why the deaths of all these strangers—who, she hadn't hardly forgotten, would have seen her death as collateral damage—upset her so much. Of course, that was assuming Jareth was telling the truth. He'd never lied to her, but there was always a first time, a first betrayal.
It was the betrayal that rankled, even though she'd been warned to expect it. Toys and dolls and slaves weren't allowed to betray you. They weren't allowed to jump out of their places on the bookshelves and toy-chests and dresser and submit their own plans for how a game of make-believe was supposed to go. It was against The Rules. It wasn't fair.
But then, Jareth had taught her the value of fairness some six months ago. It wasn't worth a damn if you only applied it to yourself. And that was why she was angry. Not so much the deaths of strangers, because she couldn't pretend she was any better than she was. She hadn't known those people and their deaths didn't affect her personally, except as a vague feeling of a monstrous debt owed for not saving them. She was angry because she had to acknowledge that what Jareth had done, or allowed to happen, was fair—at least according to his own standards. And everything about what he considered fair was monstrous.
That is, of course, if he were telling the truth.
She had all these thoughts quickly, still outraged by him, nostrils flaring with her anger.
"Suppose you be grateful," he said, taking her hand in his and squeezing it so the bones ground together, "That you are here at my side, little apple-rose, and not in the bonfire with the rest of the culls." He kissed her hand courteously, and she saw there was a ruby, vulgarly genuine, on her marriage-finger. She flinched, sweat-slick, and her hand came free. The ring did not. Sarah worked and twisted it, but it remained fast, jewel upthrust into the light, as if it had grown from her skin.
"Take it off me," she commanded him.
He only laughed and pressed their hands together, ring-finger to ring-finger, the metal clacking between them as their two rings rubbed together. "No, I don't think I will. You gave me my milk, and you gave me my ring, you gave me your word and you gave me your blood. You're mine now, Sarah, and I'm yours. You're Queen of the coven and I'll be—"
"God," he said simply. "But there are a few small details to manage before I carry you over the threshold and toss you into the marriage-bed."
"A small detail like my mother," Sarah said fiercely.
"Yes," he said grimly. There were scarlet ribbons in her hair and he tugged her face to his. "The wicked queen has been invited to our wedding. And here, in my court, I have power enough to destroy her. The iron shoes are heating in the fire. I will press them on her feet and make her dance in my fire until she is dead. And then we'll all have a merry Christmas together in Hell." He kissed her until she thought she might never breathe again. This time, as the glamour crept around her body, he took her power in his kiss without giving anything back. He made her languid, pliant as if drugged.
"What are my other options?" she asked, clinging to him like the veritable rose-tree was clinging to her bodice. Her voice had grown as soft and dulcet as his, that thrill of violins in the quiet air.
"Wish yourself away to me, and I'll let her go," he murmured back, tracing the curve of her eyebrows. "Give yourself to me, and I'll forgive her everything. For your sake, Sarah. I'll give you until Linda's arrival to make up your mind. Until then…" He stood and scooped her up like a bouquet and carried her down the steps to the floor… "I have an urge to dance, and my betrothed here in my arms. I believe you remember the steps."
Author's Note: "Trespass sweetly urged…" is a line from Romeo and Juliet.
A reviewer over at fanfiction.net asked that I give a photo credit for the story's cover. I found the image under a search for Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome, and I believed this was a correct attribution, as it's very much in Beardsley's style (which was sort of the point—I wanted a Beardsley Salome illustration for the cover of this work.) Closer inspection on one version of the print attributes it to "Henry Chantoni." If anyone can verify an attribution, I'd be grateful.
Soundtrack for Chapter 14:
Elton John: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
Wings: "Live and Let Die"
Author's note: Be advised that the following chapter contains a depiction of intense supernatural violence.
Jareth led her precisely through the dance, insinuating himself into her personal space like a persistent warmth. She tried to twirl herself out of his grip, but he clutched her wrist—like the ring he'd given her, stuck fast—and spun her back to his body. She watched the faces of other witches whirling by, saw on their faces the same bewildered and frightened gaze she knew she had. She couldn't bear it, so she decided not to.
As they danced, she worked a spell. Red and white threads of glamour unbound themselves from her dress, and as they circled giddily through the throng, she bound up the magic of Jareth and the familiars in subtle magic skeins. There was, Sarah discovered, very little difference in unbinding and in binding; they were two sides of the same coin.
Unknowing, Jareth helped her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and let him support her effortlessly as they glided about the room in spiral patterns, spinning her web ever wider. Physical submission was easy; it recalled very dim memories of being a baby, of being carried and held and whirled without the least effort on her part. Now it was helping her make magic. She tasted the edge of the other witches' magic too, felt how it flowed between themselves and their familiars, and worried at these conduits like a dog at a rope. Her dress slowly uncrumpled into lengths of bloodstained tulle as the last of the glamour spun itself out.
"Sarah," he said, finally aware of what she was doing. He paused in their dance and tugged her head back, so that she had to finally look him in the face. "Why?"
The other dancers stopped their ceaseless winding waltzes, now too dressed in ruined white finery, and though their familiars clutched at them, they couldn't seem to catch hold. "There's a thick stripe of sexual capitulation in you," he murmured. "Thick as a welt from a crop, Sarah. As red as blood. I'd hoped you would give in to it." His fingers ran down her bodice, spinning out more glamour, but it was instantly discharged throughout the room.
"I'm not stupid," Sarah said, shaking her hair loose, despite the tingles his grip had drawn up and down her spine. "And you wouldn't like me if I was." She did with the magical threads running through the room what he had done with her hair; gathered it into lengths in her fist, and tugged hard enough to bring pain, soft enough for pleasure. "I'm sorry, Jareth," Sarah said. "I'm tempted. I am. But I won't be your slave." Softly, she tossed the strands of magic over his head, lassoing him, binding him to her will.
"Free me now, and I'll do anything you ask," he begged, struggling like an angry cat in the sudden net cast around him.
Sarah shook her head in disgust. Around her like fairy-lights in the dark, the other witches glowed. She pulled power from them like dewdrops sliding down spider-silk, letting the bonds enclose him slipknot-fashion. "It's too late for that. I'm going to have to face her alone."
He barked a frustrated laugh, unsuccessfully trying to unwrap himself from the sticky cocoon she'd trapped him in. "My own fault, is that it?"
"Yes," she said flatly. "Hold him," she called out to the witches. "Hold him for me." And though their familiars clutched at them, whining, the other witches didn't listen. Burned and bloody, she saw Nan in the throng, and Apollonaire—though he would never be beautiful again, judging from the burns that covered half his face and one shoulder. Like sleepwalkers, they turned blank faces to the strands of magic in their hands and wrapped around them, and pulled. Jareth made a small noise of pain as his body was constricted.
"Send your court away," Sarah commanded him, and he gnashed his teeth and uttered a word and the other spirits faded like dampened disco lights.
"You can't hold me forever," he said darkly. "Not like this."
"I don't intend to," Sarah said. She could hear from outside, softly as if moving closer, the sounds of sirens and megaphones and the crackle of fire and jetting hoses. "You wondered tonight how long you'd have to be punished for betraying Mem's last daughter, five hundred years ago."
"Sarah," Nan's voice called out. "He's too strong. He's going to break free."
"Hold him!" Sarah commanded again, never moving her eyes from Jareth's face. "You were asking me for a judgement, whether or not you knew it. Well, I have a question for you, Jareth, and when you answer it, I'll give you my verdict."
"What, no trial?" he scoffed. Sticky bits of glamour were stuck across his forehead and hair like bits of bloody cotton-candy.
"Your trial has been going on all night!" Sarah said. "It was never about me. It's been about you, and my mother, and what I'm going to do with the pair of you!"
The smell of burning plastic and icewater were filling up the bottom of the room like black fog. The witches were all straining against the skeins of magic in their hand, in postures of tension and near complete exhaustion. Sarah took a little, just a little more from them, to uphold the wall separating the dance hall from normality, and to keep Jareth bound in place.
"Ask then," he said, "And you'd best ask quickly, Sarah. Your coven is at the limit of their strength." He slipped one foot free, and flames danced on his boot-heel.
"Then here's my question," Sarah said. She took a shuddering breath, wanting her voice to be steady, wanting her eyes to be clear, to see him, to really see him, when he answered. "It's the only question that matters," Sarah said. "Do you really believe I'm the fairest of them all? Or in other words, demon, after everything you've cast up in my face about love and trust and obedience… do you trust me to make the right decisions? That's my question. Will you trust me?"
"Damn you to Hell, Sarah." Flames in blue and green and white speared up behind his head, an arcane halo, and he flung one hand free of his bonds, conjured waxing fire in an orb in his palm.
"Yes or no, Jareth," Sarah insisted. She pulled the net tight with her own magic. "You have to answer me now." She saw him struggling with his answer, knowing she'd hold him to it, either way, and hold him to harder account to a lie than to the answer she didn't want. And she saw that he knew this, too.
The firey nimbus around his head dampened. "I don't like it," he said between clenched teeth. "I don't, I don't!"
"It's an answer that's predictive, not descriptive," she agreed. "And you'll be bound by your answer alone, whatever it is."
"Yes!" he shouted. "Yes!" A huffed sigh of dragonsmoke, but his eyes met hers. There was a terrible vulnerability there. He stopped struggling, and the flame in his hands dropped like a Christmas bauble, flattened itself into fiery shards at his feet. "I trust you, Sarah. Even if I don't want to, even against my better judgment. I trust you."
"Good," she said, feeling very much like she needed to sit down. "Then I absolve you of all past crimes. You'll never be bound again, except to your trust in me." The Seventh Wonder was in her voice, and she felt, by the way the world seemed to settle more deeply in its foundation, that this was a spell that would take. The sticky glamour floss disintegrated, and the witches fell back, pell-mell over each other and against the walls. A few, Apolloinaire among them, attempted to rebind Jareth, but he waved off their efforts as easily as fanning away cobwebs.
"No!" Sarah shouted, gesturing severely at them. "I meant what I said, and if you didn't hear me, let me say it again. None of you are to touch him. He's mine. He's free. So are you. You all owe me your lives. Do as I say."
The protests quieted. "Now," Sarah said. Reality was fast overtaking illusion; in the antechambers of the dance-club beyond she could see EMTs and medics dispensing first aid to fire victims. The church had become a nightclub had become a triage center for the explosion she'd helped cause. She jutted her chin at the weeping mass of singed humanity crowding into the club. "All the death and the pain they're in isn't your fault, but it's your responsibility. Go and help those people. Use your magic to clean up this mess."
She managed to dominate the rebellion she saw in several pairs of eyes, even to Polly, the very last to do her bidding, spitting at Jareth's feet before he obeyed. But he did obey. He went with the others to dispense what little magic they could offer to offset the damage done, conjuring medicine, healing with a touch, or giving the illusion of pain alleviated. When Apollonaire's fire-scarred ruin of a face had turned away, Sarah felt her knees collapsing. But Jareth was there, the strength at her arm, and he kept her on her feet.
"So what happens now?" he asked a bit testily. "You go and face Linda alone, with only your overgrown sense of nobility to defend you? And lose. And die. And I'll be a slave again."
"That won't happen," Sarah said fiercely. "Trust me, remember?"
"It's a new bad habit, this trust," he replied. "You know she's almost here, don't you? I can feel her approaching. Don't you understand? She's on her way now, and if she can't see us, she is most certainly close enough to hear us."
"I understand exactly what you mean," Sarah said. "I do." She'd been unconscious for a few minutes, perhaps even a moment, but that was all it took, according to Jareth, for the spell to catch hold, for Linda to begin her slow creep into her body, casting out her soul, sustaining her life at the price of her daughter's. "And I'm afraid."
"You should be. My plan was much better." His tone was indifferent, but his arms coming protectively around her were not. His voice softened as he held her, and as she let herself be held. "You'll need to lay eyes on her. A mirror would be best. The glass of truth. And remember, when you see her," he said, tapping the ruby ring on her marriage-finger. "Remember the fire that is my heart. Remember how my fire burns." He hid his face against her cheek. "I don't want to let you go."
She let him hold her for a minute more than was strictly necessary, and then she broke away from him. "I'll be right back," she said. "One way or another. Expect me."
Unswervingly, she walked to the double-doors to the north wall, labeled for men and women. She turned back as she pushed open the swinging door, to look at him. He was clutching his amulet so tightly that his forearm looked ready to burst open his shirt-sleeve.
"Trust me," she said.
She didn't look into the mirror fully until she had purified herself. It was with some relief that she used the facilities; the promise of earlier spotting and cramps were now bearing red fruit. She used magic to break open the sanitary napkin dispenser on the wall, her purse and coinage and cache of tampons long since having been lost. Sarah shook her head at her gruesome appearance in the chrome stall door. Gruesome was the applicable word. Full of gore. Eyes averted from the mirrored wall atop the sinks, she took scores of paper towels and washed and washed the blood from her face, her arms, her thighs like a baby Lady Macbeth, and left the wastebasket looking like the scene of a fastidious murder. The cold water stung on her abrasions and made her burns sing hallelujah, but the hot water seemed to have gone along with the gas main. Nevertheless, she felt better. She felt ready.
"Mother," she told her reflection in the mirror. "Are you there? I need you."
"My own darling," a voice behind her murmured. She would never not know her mother's voice. She'd ridden under it, been encompassed by the body that gave it breath for nine perfect months. She felt long-nailed fingers running gently through her hair in that loving way Linda had, never tugging or pulling. "My baby. My poppet. I'm here."
But you've been here a while, Sarah thought to herself. Since the moment I passed out, just as Jareth warned you would. I wonder, how deep do your claws go into my soul, Mother? Shall we find out? Shall we play?
She closed her eyes. When she opened them, it wasn't her face in the mirror, but Linda's, and Linda was occupied with primping her own diamond-bestudded hair. How girlish her mother looked. Her reflection was nestled just atop her own, obscuring it, stealing it.
"Mom," Sarah said. "What happens now?"
"Now, my ingénue daughter? Now I praise you. Truly, I'm pleased." Linda leaned forward conspiratorially, and Sarah found herself bending over the sink to meet her, so that their foreheads seemed to touch through the glass, a daughter hearing a confidence. "You've restored all my power and prestige. My queenship has been unstable for almost two decades. There were ugly rumors—" Not false rumors, Sarah thought, but 'ugly.' "—Rumors about how I chose to employ the Wonders. Such nasty nonsense from jealous people. But now all voices of dissent are silenced. The Elf killed many of my enemies, and the others… I had leave to take care of tonight. And now there are only the young ones left. I intend you shall be Queen of them all."
"Me?" Sarah asked, leaning away from her mother's reflection. Murderer, she thought angrily. Mother, you're a murderer. How can you admit that so coldly and expect to keep my love? She kept her face as unexpressive as possible, though likely all Linda saw in Sarah was Linda, only what she wanted to see. "I can't be queen. I can't even control Jareth. What am I supposed to do?" She was disgusted at how right her mother was—playing the sacrificial baaing lambchop, ready to be manipulated by the femme fatale and Byronic hero alike, yes, it was a comfortable role to play.
But it was only a role.
"Oh, that's why I'm here, darling. I'm here to help you." Linda raised her hand to admire the diamond ring on her finger, and Sarah found with horror that her own actions were mirroring Linda's, that her own hand, her own ring, were lifted for her own inspection. "I'm so glad of the form you made his ring take. It looks a bit like the ring I gave you for your fourteenth birthday, the one with the red stone. But this is a very ostentatious ruby. I love it. Perhaps I'll keep it like this when I take it back."
Sarah admired her ring, being compelled to. She'd been wearing it for hours, but now she recognized it. It was the ring she'd placed in the old man's beggar's box in the Labyrinth. Jareth had given it back to her as a betrothal-ring, but it had qualities it hadn't had before, passing through his possession. My heart, my fire, he had said. Just what might it do, if Linda took it back? How sharp was this needle, driven through her finger and drawing bright blood?
"You can't have it back," Sarah said, clenching her fist tight and holding the stone against her breast. "It belongs to me now."
"Dearest, don't be foolish. I'll have what's mine, one way or another."
"Am I yours?" Sarah asked, eyes hardening. "Am I yours, too? Body, soul?"
"Of course, Sarah. And don't worry. I'll take care of you. Much better than you've taken care of yourself, apparently, by the looks of you. And when I've made you strong again, I'll deal with Jareth."
"You'll leave him alone. You'll never see him again," Sarah commanded, striking at her mother with magic. But it was like a faucet-trickle compared to a firehose. Her mother only laughed at her. "No!" Sarah said. "He's not your slave anymore!"
"Disobedient, fretful child. I suppose I'll need to remind you who's in charge of the familiar, and you. So I'll have him back now. Two birds, one stone. He can help me put you in your place. Touch your ring-finger to mine." Her voice was dulcet as silver bells, and full of command.
"You mustn't," Sarah said. "Mother, don't make me do this. It's not your ring. You have no right to take it." Her hand faltered as it reached out and touched the glass separating them.
Quick as a viper-strike, Linda's reflection met her flesh, and it was as cold as ice, and as implacable. Her mother's hand penetrated the mirror, horribly off-kilter, hands spread in a grasping claw. Sarah felt the ring loosen, and slip down her hook-fingered last desperate grasp, and then the stone shone red on Linda's finger. The rest of her body followed her hand, coated with ice and glass from its seamless, liquid passage. Horrified, afraid, Sarah retreated back into the stall.
Linda admired the ring on her finger, admired the laval glow at the heart of the ruby.
"Will you wait for me to sleep, or are you going to steal my body now, like Jareth said?" Sarah asked.
"I think sooner is better than later, don't you, Sarah? After all, I'm not getting any younger here. I'll leave it to you to decide which death you prefer, fighting til the last or going gently into that good night. I love you enough to—" she paused. "I love y— I lo—" she coughed once, trying to clear her throat, and spat out a wisp of flame onto the floor.
"You love me?" Sarah asked. "Is that what you were saying? You love me. You love me to death."
"This isn't—" Linda gabbled, clutching at her neck, and then scrabbling to take off the ring, which was now burning the bright red of a hot coal. "Trick!" she hissed, emitting smoke from between her lips like a teakettle.
"There was no trick. You heard what you wanted to hear," Sarah said. "That's the thing, Mom. You never listened to me. Not even when I needed to talk to you about… so many things."
Linda let out a shriek as the ruby burned its way into her skin, and tongues of fire bubbled under her skin like serpents.
"But I think you're listening now," Sarah muttered between her hands, no longer able to look this torture full in the face. "I love you, Mom. I don't want to kill you, but I can't let you go on hurting people. So I'm going to make a spell. It'll be a good spell, even though I had to learn the Third Wonder by watching Jareth and not from you. I'm going to change the demon's work to suit my own desires. He would have used this fire to kill you, but I won't."
What happened next was really too awful to watch, but Sarah did, even though she was crying to see it. The hot brand on Linda's finger was joined by another on her other hand, and two more upon the soles of her feet. The pentacle described by the thrashing points of her limbs met its apex in her throat. Linda screamed and screamed until the fire seemed to burst something deep in her throat, and then the screaming went on in the form of horrible silent gurgling. She danced the rictus of the five-pointed star in her iron shoes.
"Here's my spell. Even now the pain is going," Sarah told her gently, fighting the emotion that threatened to silence her. "It doesn't hurt. There is fire, yes. There is fire burning through you, but the fire isn't killing you. It's the fire you called. It's the fire that comes from Jareth. His kind gave us our magic, from out of the fire. And now the fire will burn all your wicked magic right out of you."
With a gasp, Linda collapsed to the floor, smoking from the five cardinal points of her body, and Sarah knelt down on the cold tiles beside her. She saw deep wrinkles appear on her mother's fragile scorched hands. When she touched her mother's hair, now crisping into crone's white, shreds of it came loose and fell away at her touch.
"Now, Mom," Sarah said, rocking her mother's frail body in her arms. "Am I weak?"
Linda's voice would never be beautiful again. The fire had taken that, too. All she had left was a paper-fine gasp, fragile as ash.
"Kill me," she whispered.
"No," Sarah said. "You deserve to live." She lay her head against her mother's withered breast and cried and cried. "And even if you don't, Mom, I still love you. I'll love you forever."
Author's Note: Most of us here in Labyverse, if we admitted to our favorite webcomic, would cite Pika-la-Cynique's Girls Next Door as foundational to many of our literary efforts. What happens when a collegian Sarah Williams rooms up with a time-displaced Christine Daae? Why, a certain Opera Ghost and King of Goblins take up residence in the apartment below theirs. Crossover hijinks ensue! Since I just finished re-reading the entirety of GND, I owe some of the flavor of Sarah and Jareth's conversation to the epic GND full-color Eponine ball. If you haven't heard of Girls Next Door, you can fix that by hieing your butt over to DeviantArt, like, now.
Also, obviously riffing off of Avatar: The Last Airbender here for that big showdown. But since it fits, I sits. I sits by the fire and knits.
Chapter 15: Epilogue
Soundtrack for Chapter 15:
The Pogues: "Fairytale of New York"
Snow White: "I'm Wishing/One Song"
It took a long while for Sarah to remember to feel the cold. She thought of her mother's comfort and cushioned her sleeping head on her knees and a fold of her dress, but for herself, there was only a cold and a sense of loneliness that became more and more unendurable.
"So," Jareth's voice echoed in the bare room, one instant before she would have called out for him. She could see his reflection dimly in the chrome of the stalls and the tile of the walls, just a shadow of color. "It is done?"
"I told you to wait," Sarah murmured. Against her knee, her mother stirred.
"She's alive?" he asked indignantly.
"You," Linda croaked. She came suddenly upright, using Sarah's body as a ladder, and leaned hard on her shoulder with bony terrible claws. "This is your doing! Loathsome slave. Look what you've done to me!"
"You are rather an object of pity, woman," Jareth's voice replied. "And it gives me pleasure to see you so ruined, so I will look. Don't take this for my obedience. Something's rather wrong with your voice. I believe your power has gone."
"For now," Linda rasped.
"For now," Jareth's voice agreed. "Sarah, why isn't she dead? Do you need me to finish up for you? I will, and I won't even ask a price. She'll find some way to regain what she's lost, and then I'm sure we'll both wish you'd let me end her when we had the chance."
"You're not going to touch her!" Sarah shouted at him.
"I have a bargain for you, Chyaret, if you'll take it," Linda cackled. Her dress hung loose against her shrunken bosom, and her long yellow teeth gnashed together. "Have my daughter. Use her as you will. Use her, drain her, bleed her magic back into me, and I will reward you with a son."
"Your offer is tempting," Jareth considered, and Sarah could feel his hesitation in the pulses of warmth that filled Linda's vicinity, and then retreated. "But she is a woman made, and a witch. She isn't yours to give. No, woman. I'll do nothing for you."
"It's because he sees your power," Linda said, looking down at her daughter and clutching her shoulder so hard Sarah was afraid her mother's fingertips would meet around her clavicle and rip it out. Linda's rheumy eyes were leaking enraged tears. "You have everything and I have nothing. But he will use you and use you up. You still can't control him. But if you give me back a little of the magic you've stolen from me, I will teach you what I know. I will teach you what he taught me. How to cultivate the seed of men into a daughter's body, so that you can make and remake yourself and live forever. And I'll take no revenge. I vow it by my womb's blood."
"Jesus, Mom," Sarah said weakly. She stood up under Linda's terrible weight, her hand pressing her down and making the rising difficult. Then they balanced, and in the next moment, her mother held herself up against Sarah, leaning on her as child might. Her eyes closed, and then opened, and Sarah could see the girl she had once been, saw all her youth and her prime only lacquered over by the old age she had accumulated but never worn.
Sarah saw her own future there.
"No," she said.
Linda let Sarah go. "So. You've chosen each other over me. May it be bitter for you. A year and a day and a week, poison be love when you speak." Her curse seemed to boom in the echoing chamber, icy malficia swirling with it. Sarah shuddered as Linda walked away from her, slow but certain in the power of her curse.
I wish you were dead, Sarah almost said out loud to her. But Jareth was there, and Jareth was listening, and he would jump at the chance to grant her wishes., so she kept her mouth shut. The shadowy reflection of him coalesced into a core of bright and fiery solidity, and caught her before she fell down from sheer outrage.
"I told you," he said. He shook his head and bit his lip, but his arms around her were warm, and so was he.
"Do you need to talk about her?" Sarah asked him.
"No," he said, and his human face wore a look of human fatigue. "Not now. Perhaps not ever. I'd rather let it go." Leaning on him, or perhaps both of them supporting each other, they went out into the world.
"It's almost dawn," he mentioned, as they joined the general queue for medical attention. Sarah looked at the windows, where the black of night and the yellow of sodium lights was tinted just the faintest blue of approaching sunrise.
"Take me outside," Sarah asked. "I want to see it."
"It's cold and your coat is nowhere to be found," he warned her.
"I don't care," she said. "You're warm enough for both of us. Keep me warm, Jareth. Keep me warm, and I'll keep you fed. Is it a bargain?"
"Yes," he said. He scooped her into his arms and carried her like a bride into the threshold of the world, where the sun was rising, and the light was pouring down the white and icy streets, a sunrise in all the colors of fire yawning down the avenue. Solstice-day. The dawn had come. The long night was over.
Of course, Sarah thought later, it would have been very convenient if the story had simply ended there, with all prisoners freed and the living rejoicing to see another day, and the hag of night in the form of her mother banished to a suitable oubliette. The problem was, real life never quite worked so neatly.
The paramedics in their red jackets had pounced upon Sarah as she stood in the cold, diagnosing her with shock, mild hypothermia, some second-degree burns, a zygomatic fracture, a radial sprain, and several other complicated medical terms that passed her by. Jareth, they had ignored, either seeming to assume he had a right to be there, or just not seeing him. It had made Sarah laugh a bit under her breath. After bundling her into an ambulance with several other singed-looking individuals with various degrees of not-life-threatening injury, she was dropped off at a local hospital where, weary and unable to lie, she gave them her father's number. Several hours of poking, prodding, injections and bandaging later, she was left in a room off the ER floor with her injured wrist strapped to her chest and a strange hardened gum molded over her broken tooth until a competent dentist could look at it. And she had been warm, blessedly warm, and Jareth, in the unobtrusive form of an owl, had nestled in the curve of her hip under the blankets, safe and sound and sleeping. It felt better than five thousand orgasms, because she was achingly tired, and could rest.
She had dozed like that for a while, waking with a sudden start when she felt eyes on her. A man stood silhouetted in darkness against the window's daylight.
"Hello, ugly," he said.
The man's voice was slightly muffled from the bandages that covered half of his face. He had a nose-splint on, and these combined dressings made him look somewhat like a low-rent version of the Phantom of the Opera.
She jerked upright, hindered slightly by the soft braces around her knees. Against her, she felt Jareth startle, but she put her hand against him under the bedclothes, warning him to quiet. The other beds remained still, their sleepers occupied with dreams that perhaps were not quite natural.
"Hello, Polly," Sarah said warily. "Are you here to hurt me?"
"No," he said. "I came to talk." He approached and handed her the bed's remote. As he did so, something soft brushed her. It was a thick lock of long ash-blond hair clenched in his fist. She made a noise of inquiry as the bed came up gracefully against her spine.
"They had to cut it off," he explained, waving at the back of his close-shaved head. He sat beside her and ran his fingers over and over his severed ponytail, like it was in pain and needed his comfort.
"It'll grow back," Sarah said soothingly. And then in that same tone, "Why aren't you going to go for revenge? You're in better shape than me. Don't you want it? You probably won't get another chance, you know." Under the blankets, the owl's body tensed against her, ready to fly with fury and power, but she cupped his head in her palm.
Polly looked away again, out at the day-bright window. "No. I made you a vow. Anyway, even if I wanted to, what's the point? My parents are dead, and there's nothing that can fix that." He wound his hair over and over his knuckles and squeezed.
"But maybe you saved a life tonight," Sarah said gently, after long seconds had passed in his anguished silence. "Maybe lots of lives. That's a good thing, Apollonaire." Her voice stuttered over his name, but she wanted to give it to him.
He only laughed, harshly. "If you're appealing to my conscience, you can save it. If Mother and Father taught me anything, it's that the only thing that matters is power and powerlessness. Winning and losing. I lost tonight. You won." Slowly, painfully, he had gotten down on his knees.
"What are you doing?" she had asked. Apollonaire on his knees was dreadful and unpropitious.
"Pledging myself to you. You're Queen of our coven now."
"I don't want it!" Sarah protested incredulously. "Get up!" she commanded, but he fought her power, and stayed in place, though the muscles of his thighs jumped and quivered.
"My will's as strong as yours, Sarah Williams," he panted. The lost lonely skein of his hair slipped down to the floor, but he kept his eyes on her, defiant in submission.
"Why does it have to be me?" she had said. "You're a better witch than I am. I can't even command you. You do it, Polly!"
"You think I don't want it?" he had hissed. "You think I haven't dreamed of restoring the glory of the Vaan Knecht name, and proving that we're more than just a peculiarity, more than wrong-sexed freaks? It's right in my grasp but I can't have it!"
"Why not? What's stopping you?"
"Bootis," he replied. "My father's demon. Mine now, I suppose. I'm not sure what you were doing up on that dais with… yours, but I was trying to save my own skin. All of the rest of us made bargains and contracts with our family servants, and we had no leverage. I don't want to think of the mischief that will happen if I become King of the Coven with Bootis pulling my strings.
"My familiar spirit is as strong as yours, and his ambition is as great. The other witches left are in a similar fix. Only you, with yours—it's the most powerful demon any coven has ever associated with. And you made it submit to you." Apollonaire shook his head. "All of us need you to lead us. You're the only one who can keep the balance. You're the only one with any power that matters anymore. The rest of the spirits will obey it, and it obeys you. You're free."
"Fine," she said, trying to find the right words for the sense of the moment, and wishing she weren't laid up to deliver them. "Shit. Yes. Get up. I don't like you and I don't trust you, but yes, I'll do it. I'll lead. But I'm going to need your help."
"Naturally," he said, standing, the skein of hair back in his hand. "I'm going to stay near you, so you can borrow my power when you want it. And when things are a bit more settled, we'll reconvene the survivors, and re-establish the coven. We have enemies outside and inside, and we'll all be stronger together."
"Where's Nan? Is she..." Sarah had asked, though a bit belatedly, considering everything.
"Not a scratch," said Polly. "The lures I set on you backfired, didn't they? She might not forgive me for that, but she will if you tell her to."
"Polly," she asked, as he turned to go. "If you had known about the Elf and the Goblin King and everything else before tonight, would you still have done the things you did? Would you still have set the lures?"
"I would have set more," he said, the bandaging on his face pulling his grin lopsided. "Or I would have killed you in that vestibule before you had a chance to know your own strength. But that's not how it went. One more thing, Sarah."
He paused and put the long lock of ash-blond hair in her hand. "That's the token of my submission. You could do me wondrous harm with that. Don't let the Goblin King have it. And don't let him have you. Not until you know what you could be without him. He may not control you now, but if you let him stay as close to you as he's been all night, he'll control you just as surely. You're not your mother. Don't make your mother's mistakes."
"He's here now," Sarah said, exasperated. "He's been listening to every word you say."
"As if I didn't know that," he said flippantly. "Remember, if you need me, call. Or tug my hair. Just as good." And then he had gone, and she hadn't spoken another word to Jareth, and she had slept and slept for hours with Polly's hair clasped in her fist, until her father came, Toby riding his hip, to collect her and take her home.
"I'm looking forward to riding in the car," Jareth said, surveying her with untoward interest as she struggled to pull on the t-shirt and sweatpants her father had brought for her to wear. She was the last one of the patients in this bed-lined room to be discharged, because it had taken Robert so long to come for her. "Shall I be an owl, or perhaps a little coal, warm as bathwater, snuggled into your navel?" He had helped her gently, gently, to work her t-shirt over her head and injured arm, and managed not to stare too much at her naked breasts in the process. As he re-fastened her sling over shirt and sweater, Sarah was silent. She was thinking. She didn't want to share her thoughts, but she had to. The car ride home with her father was going to be fraught with questions that Sarah had no idea how to answer, unless it was with lies. She didn't want to lie to her father. She didn't want to explain Jareth to her father. In any event, in the form of ember or owl or man or pillar of fire and darkness, Jareth was not going to be there with her in that car with the only two people in the whole world who could be used to hurt her.
"You don't need to worry about the car ride, because you're not going. Stop, let me do that myself," she said irritably, as he put on her socks for her and slid her extra pair of boots—or rather, the second mismatched pair she'd created by leaving the proper mates behind at home—on her feet.
"Please," he said, on his knees at her feet, and resting his hands on her soles, and she realized he knew what she'd decided.
He was quiet a long time, head bent. "Sarah, please don't abandon me." He looked up at her through his stormy nimbus of hair, chin quivering. "Not again. Not after everything I've done for you. Please. Don't throw me away." He bent further forward and pressed two kisses to the very bottoms of her feet, devout, aching, fearful.
"Don't be so dramatic," Sarah said in exasperation. "I'm not abandoning you. I intend to keep our bargain. You're my demon, and I'm your witch. Nothing's changing that. But Polly was right. I'm still too inexperienced to handle you. I need time."
"How much time?"
"Three years, maybe four."
Jareth stood and whirled away with an angry toss of his head, refusing to look at her. "Or never. What's going to happen to me? You promised to feed me. Am I to starve while you're away?"
"I gave you more than enough blood to last a decade when I kissed you last night. Or did you use it all up making wicked magic to entrap me? But if that's not enough, here." She went to the narrow alcove where the blood-soaked rags of her white dress had been more or less made to drape over a wire hanger, and threw it at his feet. "That's for you."
"It's not enough," he said sullenly.
"Make it enough!" Sarah shouted at him, and then gentled her voice. "And when it's gone, come see me, and I'll give you what you need. Don't you understand? It's not just that you're bad for me. I'm bad for you. I'm selfish and childish and I care more about winning than I do about being good. Polly was right. Hell, my mother was right. I can't be trusted with you. I'm afraid I'll hurt people. I'm afraid I'll hurt you. And… I'm afraid you'll help me do it, too."
Jareth had gathered the folds of splotched tulle into his arms and he lay his cheek against them. "If I agree to this, what will you give me?"
Sarah thought. "Hope," she said. "I'll never love any man the way I love you. Not ever. You're my own. You're mine. What's that saying pagans have? Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again?"
"Hippy treacle," he said, "But I catch your gist. Do you promise not to abandon me? Promise? You won't forget me? You won't put me in a drawer and lock me away like so much junk? Please, I need to know. I will literally die without you. Unless I take another witch as my mistress, and that would hurt me… almost as much."
She embraced him, sorely tempted to take it all back, all her refusal, all her resistance, all her fears—but he'd taught her first, what was said was said.
"Never," she said. "Now kiss me, if it please you. Make me regret this."
He cupped her face between his hands, thumb running lightly over the agonizing pain in her cheekbone, and kissed her and kissed her as if he'd never get enough. He was fire for her, and she drowned in his fire, felt the strength of him move into the very roots of every hair on her skin, pricking at every nerve-ending, and soothing his singe with molten waves of gold.
And as quickly as it began, it was over, and he disappeared in a flash of feathers and flames.
"Nuts," Sarah said suddenly in the second hour of the interminable car ride home.
"What?" Robert Williams pounced on the first scrap of conversation his unusually-silent daughter had offered. "What is it, sweetheart?"
"Nothing." She sighed. She'd left Aunt Bub's book behind in New York. "I wish I hadn't," she muttered to herself. She looked out the window at the snow-covered landscape, at flashing yellow emergency-markers, at the trees and the grass buried in ice. Toby babbled happily from the backseat, wanting to be included in the conversation.
Plucking at a loose thread in her sling, her fingers found something flexible and oblong tucked between her arm and her chest. It was The Bloody Chamber. In it, bookmarked to "The Erl-King"—a story which in years later would always send Sarah into inappropriate paroxysms of laughter at the fairy king's comeuppance,—was her chiffon hair-ribbon.
"What's that?" Robert said with patient good cheer, as she unfolded the book and looked at the unusual bookmark. There were words burnt into it near the hem, infinitesimal, precise, smelling of spice.
BELOVED. WE PLAY OUR GAME A THIRD TIME. EXPECT ME THE WINNER. EXPECT ME. J.
Sarah swore under her breath. The Goblin King had found a loophole in their bargain. He hadn't promised not to grant any of her wishes. And if she called him to task for it, her respite from him would be at an end. She tried not to think about the weary future and watching every word she said. She had hoped for three years' grace—three years to grow older and wiser, three years to grow more powerful… and three years to prepare herself to lose to Jareth. It was not an encouraging thought.
"Dad," she said quietly, rubbing the ribbon between her finger and thumb. "I want to tell you about what happened last night. I want to tell you everything. It's weird and horrible and wonderful, and I want to tell you, but I'm afraid of what you'll think."
"Don't be afraid," her father said kindly.
"But what if you don't love me as much anymore?"
"Sarah," her father said, and the car skidded slightly as he took his eyes off the road momentarily to give her a serious look. "There's nothing you could ever say or do that would make me stop loving you. Don't you know, princess, my heart belongs to you? Always. Tell me what you want to, or don't. I'll still love you."
Comforted, Sarah clapped the book shut and slid it back beneath her sling.
"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl whose stepmother always made her stay at home with the baby," Sarah began.
The Fairest One of All:A Yuletide Retelling of Snow White
December 5, 2015 - October 17, 2016