She tumbled through the door, foot catching on an unexpected lintel, and falling for what felt like half an eternity. Until she landed in what was little better than a briar patch, though she managed to avoid being scratched too badly somehow. Looking around, everything, including the sky, was colored subtly wrong.
"Through the looking glass indeed," she muttered. "If this is what Alice saw and described to him, its no wonder that people thought Carroll was using opiates when he wrote those books."
Sarah picked herself up off the ground and dusted off the worn jeans she was wearing. She had a strong sense of deja vu. So much like the last time she'd been here....
"Come on, feet1, lets see what we've got..."
Aside from the briars she'd mostly avoided, the area was unkempt. Something that might once have been proper hedges stood to her left while in front of her was an area of broken slate pavers and a small copse of trees. Turning to look behind her, she found an overgrown thicket at the bottom of which was a set of twisted old roots and branches that formed the doorway through which she'd just come
She reached into a pocket to check the compass she'd brought with her just in case, and held it flat in her hand briefly, watching without any surprise at all as the needle spin round and round for a long moment. She shook her head and snapped her hand shut around the cool, solid, familiarity of a beaten up possession from her own world, grounding herself in it’s comforting familiarity.
Finishing the circle of the clearing that she'd started, Sarah sighed. "Of course it's not going to be easy. You knew that. Now stop being a silly little girl and go find what you came here for."
As she spoke, a path seemed to form itself through the copse of trees.
"And of course. This place is magic, isn’t it. Magic is malleable. Lore says it’s The Will and The Word, that’s important doesn't it? Want something badly enough and say the right words ..." The briars shivered as if in agreement with her. "And if that's the way we're going to play this game, then how's about this; Show me the quickest, least dangerous path by which to get to the castle at the heart of the Goblin Kingdom.”.
The briars wrapped themselves around her legs, biting into skin, drawing blood. They crawled higher and higher; leaving a trail of bloody punctures, warmth trickling down to stain her clothes.
"Lesson learned, lesson learned, damn it!" The briars dropped away and the scratches healed themselves. She looked at them quizzically, trying to remember old readings and even older lore as guidance for how to properly phrase her next questions.
"Was that the price of the path or a warning about asking too much?"
But the briars offered her no answers. Sarah stepped over them with cautious respect as she moved across the clearing to start her journey down the path they'd revealed.
"Thanks anyways?" she offered over her shoulder as she turned to look back at the clearing one last time. She knew better than to expect that she'd be finding her way back to precisely this spot in order to return to her own world. That wasn't their way. From this point forward, she was going to have to trust to her wits and pray that when the time came she found a way out more easily than she'd managed to find the way in.
Behind her, unnoticed, the briars flowered, putting forth sooty greyish pink flowers which faded just as quickly as they had come only to be replaced by fruit, ripe and tempting. It happened in the blink of an eye, growing into a potentially deadly trap almost before her blood had finished being absorbed by them.
The woman shoved a thick handful of tangled black and grey hair out of her face as she stooped down to pluck a berry off the briar bush. She held it between two wrinkled fingers, examining it thoughtfully.
They shouldn’t be here, the berries. Not in The Wild. The space between the courts was suppose to be unformed, unshaped, a deliberately barren buffer between two factions with fundamental disagreements - and secret alliances. True; there were oasis in it - the Labyrinth was one example - but to maintain an oasis requires someone powerful enough to form and hold them.
And everyone powerful enough to do so was currently either bound by one court or the other. Or, like dear Jareth, already bound by blood and oath to an existing construct so they wouldn’t destabilise The Wild. The presence of fruit, here - someone was either trying to shape a new place for themselves or weaken the wall between the courts - perhaps one of the bastards had gotten stronger?
She bit into it. The fruit was wine sweet, as it should be, with a dry undertone to it and an unexpected metallic tang. Not the blood of pure Unseelie fae. But neither was it one of the Shining Ones. A puzzle. And she liked puzzles. It had been such a long time since the briar berries had tasted quite this way. She bit into another one thoughtfully. A bastard then; half-fae, half … something. A weapon potentially. Or an apprentice. If that is, the child were to survive her tests...
She let her hair tumble messily back over her face. Hiding her true self once again as she shambled back out of the clearing. Just another harmless old lump. Just another doddering granny.
“Argh!” Sarah grunted out between clenched teeth, “How on earth did I manage to forget how annoying this place is?”
Assuming that the position of the sun was anything to go by, she’d spent half her day wandering, following the barest hints of former civilization and goat-tracks (or something like goats) as they wound and twisted without ever seeming to get her any closer to her goal.
“I know this isn’t supposed to be easy but really, I did ask, and I was quite specific and quite polite. Would it really have been that much to give me some tiny something? Something just the least bit useful?”
The wind and the brambles around her didn’t answer and Sarah sat down hard on the ground, huffing out a breath in frustration. She sat there for a long moment, before something tugged sharply at her hair and she barely bit down on the scream that tried to escape. Whipping around, Sarah found a lock of her hair to be firmly clenched between the teeth of a … creature. It looked for all the world like a scraggly pony, though its hide bore the frosted green tinge of sea glass and it’s mane reminded her of the tarred ropes found on old sailboats.
Mystical horses, mystical horses. What are the rules about them? Think Sarah, think!
But her thoughts were interrupted as the horse tugged sharply on her hair again.
“You want me to come with you?” she asked, temporizing as she desperately tried to remember.
Kelpie2, Puca3, a riderless Steed from the Wild Hunt4? Which is it to be, Sarah? If it’s a Puca, it’s harmless, though it’ll be a wild ride. Kelpie and I’d better learn to breath water before I drown. The Wild Hunt’s Steed - Gods, not if I ever want to return to the mortal realms. Best not go there. Not till I’ve talked to Jareth. Though it is a last resort to staying here if I need to.
“Okay, horse, or whatever you are, I’m coming. No coercion or force needed. Just, let go of my hair, okay? I’m rather attached to it and I’d prefer that it stay attached to me as well.”
The horse (or whatever it was) let go of Sarah’s hair. She stood, thoughtfully rubbing its nose and cheeks for a few moments. While she was at it, she surreptitiously checked the thing’s whiskered chin and teeth, making certain it hadn’t retained any stray strands of her hair.
If for no other reason than leaving pieces of myself behind will only give someone or something else in this realm a tool to use, a magical hold over me. Thanks but no thanks. I at least know enough to avoid that trap.
A small pang in her chest, a guilty reminder of the friends who’d helped her through her last journey in the Underground. But no, it never hurt to be too careful. She’d been lucky last time. Alice’s diary was proof of that. No, the precaution was entirely reasonable. She was sure the horse would understand.
“So do you want me to follow you? Or were you expecting me to ride?” Sarah looked dubiously at the horse. While its body appeared sturdily built, it was still rather small in comparison to her own form, its pricked ears coming up barely to the height of her shoulder.
As she’d expected, the horse didn’t answer with words but rather plucked at her sleeve with its lips until it had gotten a grasp on the cuff of her shirt and given it a firm tug.
“That way?” Sarah asked, pointing across a dingy brown field of scrub, that she could have sworn hadn’t been there a minute before.
The horse nodded, shoving her shoulder just in case it’s intention hadn’t been clear enough.
“Fair enough,” Sarah said with a shrug. “Lay on, Macduff,.”5
The horse started walking, in front of her at first until it was certain that she was continuing to follow then slowing down to walk beside her. Sarah resisted for a while but eventually she put her hand out to rest on the heated firmness of it’s flank. The creature’s side was firm, less yielding than a horse’s flesh should be. Warmth radiated like partially cooled glass fresh from the furnace. So much like her own world, and yet so different. Just like the sky with its oddly colorless sun that seemed to light everywhere and nowhere in particular at the same time.
I’m tired of walking, she thought wearily, looking longingly at the horse by her side. Safest not to ride though. Not without knowing what this thing is. They trudged onward, the creature’s plodding steps beating a tattoo against the packed and barren ground, slipping her into a trance, a timeless dream as unchanging as the scenery around them.
And so it was that when the horse stopped, Sarah kept walking, going several steps farther before one foot landed in gently burbling water so warm that she almost didn’t realise she’d stepped in it in time.
“Kelpie1,” she hissed as the creature’s teeth snapped just short of grabbing her braid again.
“And proud of it,” the horse replied, its voice papery like the fine silt dust on the bottom of a drought stricken river bed.
“So was I dinner, or entertainment?”
Kelpies, kelpies, come on Sarah, think! What the hell does Robbie Burns6 have to say about how to outwit a kelpie.
“Why couldn’t you be both?” It asked, lunging for her arm again with it’s teeth. “I’m from the Unseelie court, bastard-child; we like to play with our food before eating it.”
Sarah ducked, stumbled backwards just a few more steps into the water. Looking behind her she saw that the current was rising, moving more swiftly as it crept up her calves, soaking the legs of her pants in water that was still invitingly warm. In the distance, she heard a rumbling; rocks tumbling one over another, thunder rolling across the flat plains just outside her childhood home in Evanston.
“Not a chance, cailpeach7. Not this time.” Turning suddenly, Sarah had the knife from her pack in hand. She lunged for the shoreline, grabbing for the handful of dusty earth still just barely within reach. “Earth. The dust that enslaves you. And iron. The bedrock that anchors your chains. You can’t have me, cailpeach, not even if your entire herd rushes through here. Drowning me won’t work so long as I hold fast.”
The kelpie stomped one hoof and snorted in frustration. “Then lets see if you can still hold onto that tiny handful of dust when my brothers and sisters arrive.”
“You mean you intend to share your dinner, kelpie?”
“We hunger, all of us, bastard-child. You’d be a feast if I had you to myself but to do so would be to break my oath to my kin. So I’ll share. Better to have less in my belly than be hunted down by my own kind.”
Sarah snorted, the sound not unlike that which the kelpie had made. “So there really is honor among thieves. Even in the Underground.”
The kelpie didn’t answer, its head turned upstream, ears pricked tall as it listened to the growing thunder. The level of the water around her legs dropped abruptly, and then she saw the wave crest towards her, the tumbling, writhing forms of the herd within it, and she made a desperate lunge for the now distracted kelpie currently still standing on dry land.
She managed to wrap one hand around a section of the simple bridle it wore, meaning to hold her dagger to its throat. But the moment she had a proper grip on what she grasped (the form was instinctual, riding lessons being good for something) the kelpie became suddenly and disconcertingly pliant.
The bridle! she thought. Damnit, why didn’t I remember that before?
“If memory serves, cailpeach, there’s nothing you can do to me once I’ve got hold of this,” she shook the bridle roughly for emphasis as she slogged back onto dry land, water streaming down from her waist, jeans plastered to her skin.
One of the kelpie herd from the wavefront laughed. “That only applies to the young idiot you’ve got your hands on, bastard-child, and only while you keep a piece of his bridle. The moment it leaves your possession, however it leaves your possession, he will kill you and we will feast.”
Sarah’s expression turned stony, determination mixing with something uglier, more adult. So very unlike the girl-child she’d been on her last visit to the Underground. Yanking hard, she pulled the kelpie’s bridle around to get its attention. “In which case, I guess you’ll be staying with me for a while.”
One hand still tightly wound around the reins, Sarah pulled herself up onto the kelpie’s back. “No tricks now. You’re taking me away from here. Away from any bodies of water. Away from your herd’s territory.”
Her gut twisted as the entire herd started to laugh and the kelpie beneath her broke into a wild ground consuming gallop, that soon had her unable to differentiate between land and sky, yet she could still hear that laughter ringing in her ears.
Behind her, an old woman watched from the tangled branches of an old apple tree as the kelpie herd rumbled and burbled their way back upstream.
“Oh child, what have you done...”