Continuing Tales

The Lady and the Knight

A Labyrinth Story
by Jack Hawksmoor

Part 15 of 19

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The Lady and the Knight

Sarah had a sinking suspicion that she wasn't going to make it in time. The forest had thickened into a nightmarish tangle of greenery. Sarah was having trouble keeping her feet, much less making good progress.

It was also getting very cold. She was grateful for the cloak Jareth had given her. She would've loved to be able to thank him, or even give him that kiss he'd bargained for in exchange for it. Unfortunately the Goblin King in question was currently an owl, and not likely to understand or appreciate the gratitude.

Sarah stumbled over a glitter-encrusted tree root and cursed. The owl flailed his wings in silent irritation in order to keep his perch on her shoulder. Sarah sighed, sitting down on the offending root for a rest stop. The owl (it was too strange, somehow, to think of him as Jareth) had chosen his spot on her shoulder as they traveled, hunkering down as best he could. Fluffing his feathers against the wind and squinting his great shining eyes against the light. There was a hint of something in those eyes that would have disturbed her if she hadn't known he was a transformed creature. Something aware, and thinking much more than a simple animal ought to.

Sarah searched for a moment through her pack and brought out what she was seeking with a weary sigh. She gnawed glumly on her jerky stick, trying to get it down fast enough to avoid tasting it.

She would give real money for a pizza, right about now...Looking down at the stick in her hand, Sarah admitted that at the point she was at she'd give real money for a rice cake. She broke a bit of jerky off and the owl consented to nibble on it, looking even more miserable than she was. When she lifted a hand to stroke his feathers she could tell he was shivering.

Her heart clenched up a little and she helped him down off her shoulder, letting him rest on her forearm and holding him close to her chest.

"Another day or so," she urged softly, running her fingers lightly through his feathers, wishing that she could do more. Had Jareth felt this way, caring for her? Helpless and useless. It was awful. She tugged at her cloak, pulled it over the chilled bird, sort of tucking him in close to her body.

He huddled up to her chest as if grateful for the warmth. She could feel his little heart pounding against her. The woods around them were utterly silent so close to the road. Sarah could not imagine how sad and lonely it would be for her out here if she was alone.

"A little longer," Sarah soothed, lifting her legs up onto the root, curling herself around the small trembling form as if it were the most precious thing in the whole world. He hooted softly, as if pleased.

She kept him tucked close to her body when she started walking again, keeping the cloak tugged down to cover him. Sarah tried to ignore how he was leaning on her, how weak the grip on her forearm had become. By the time she finally staggered to a halt and surrendered to the necessity of at least a few hours sleep she was effectively carrying the bird in her arms. He fluttered feebly as she pulled the cloak away to get a look at him.

"Oh," Sarah said, her heart in her voice. "Oh no." She looked down at the sad little tangle of feathers in her arms and blinked back tears. He wasn't going to make it.

Sarah shook herself and blinked her eyes furiously. It was too cold for him. They needed a fire. She tore the cloak off her own shoulders and made it into a little nest for him, tucking him carefully inside it. Then she went off to get some firewood. Given the vicious, tangled nature of the forest around them, it wasn't a difficult task, but the cold took its toll on her. It was hard to light a fire with frozen fingers.

In this particular instance, even when it was lit, the fire didn't cheer. The sun had finally set; In all rights the owl should be more active in the dark but if anything he was worse. He was limp and still in her arms, his heartbeat slow against the palm of her hand. Much slower than it had been even a few hours earlier.

The light from the fire made his white feathers glow softly, made the smooth dark curve of his beak shine. She brushed her finger over it lightly. He wouldn't open his eyes anymore.

"Don't die," Sarah said quietly, leaning close. She kissed him gently between the eyes and he stirred slightly in her arms.

If this were a proper fairy story, Sarah thought sadly, he would turn into himself, healthy and whole at the touch of her lips. Sarah was possessed of the nasty certainty that this was another kind of story altogether.

She had intended to sleep, she really had, but as time passed and the owl's heartbeat continued to slow, her anxiety ratcheted up higher and higher. Very shortly the idea of sleep was ridiculous, and Sarah was going over her limited options in a state very near to panic. She took out her compact, but didn't use it.

She'd already talked with Marcus earlier in the day. There had been a slim possibility that the horses might just show up at their stables back in the labyrinth, their packs brimming with the plants they needed. Equines tended to have a homing sense that offered at least a small portion of hope. Marcus had informed her they were still missing, and that no other Bemony had been found. No one knew how long Blotch had been walking around possessed, or what he had been doing while he was. Sarah had a hunch it had involved a lot of digging in the Bog, and probably a few small fires.

Marcus had been very tense when she'd talked to him, as if he was just waiting for her to ask him an uncomfortable question. She hadn't bothered. She knew asking him was pointless. It was his one weak point, the one area of his life that he approached madness in his stubbornness.

His world, and almost everything in it save himself was gone. Destroyed and lost in time. The one thing, the only thing he had left of it was a single seed he kept on his person at all times. Sarah knew how powerful it was, she had once had one herself and had used it to save an entire world. Marcus had been willing to die before parting with his, and that was a level of lunacy Sarah wasn't even going to try to understand.

'You've got the seed, Marcus. You could end this right now and Jareth wouldn't have to die.' Even knowing all she knew about him, Sarah had nearly said it. She'd bitten her tongue, but not to spare him the heartache of refusing her (and he would refuse her). Nor because she cared more for his heart than Jareth's life. She hadn't asked him because she didn't want to tip her hand. She needed Marcus to believe after what had happened last time, she would never ask him to make the sacrifice. She would never get him to buy what she had in mind if he suspected for an instant that it wasn't on the level.

Jareth had called her cruel, once. She had been a child when she ran the labyrinth, and not all of her time spent there was entirely clear in her memory, but that bit had stuck. At the time, even though she'd been distracted and desperate to get to Toby, that had stung her. It had bothered her for some time afterwards because it was, unfortunately, quite true. Sarah was quite capable of being extraordinarily cruel. She tried not to be. She tried to keep an eye out for that particular sharp edge to her heart, tried to blunt it for other people's sake.

Sarah was cruel, so she avoided asking Marcus to help her. If she was a kind girl she would have begged him openly to plant the last piece of his homeland in front of the portal in the labyrinth and save someone she...

Well. She would have just asked him. But Sarah was cruel, and she was thinking about doing something a kind girl would never consider.

In one hand, she held the compact. In her other hand rested the soft white feathers of the owl that was dying in her arms. Her hand toyed with the clasp on the compact, but didn't open it.

Not an owl, Sarah thought suddenly. Jareth. She looked down at the little creature in her lap. That was Jareth, damn it, and he was dying right in front of her...Sarah did not open the compact right away, because her heart had seized up so tightly in her chest she couldn't get any air at all. She bent over Jareth, gasping for breath.

Alright, Sarah thought, suddenly so furious with Marcus she couldn't have cared less if she ripped his heart right out of his chest with this next stunt. She pulled the cloak off her shoulders, tucked Jareth gently inside the warmth of the fur. Enough was enough.

"Marcus, help me!" she cried franticly. His face came into view in the mirror immediately. Sarah turned from him, looking about wildly into the darkness. She was utterly alone, with not so much as a squirrel interrupting the silence around her. Marcus, however, couldn't see that.

"Too many," she gasped, the picture of panic and distress, "there's too many of them, Marcus, I can't do this alone!"

"Sarah, hold on-" Marcus said, looking alarmed. Sarah clutched at her head, hunching over.

"They're whispering to each other," she sobbed, throwing herself into the role. "I can still hear them!"

"I'm coming-"

Sarah gave a shriek and threw herself to the ground, making certain the mirror landed reflective side down into the dirt.

"Marcus!" she wailed, scrambling back from the mirror. As if she was being dragged...then, louder, "Marcus!" a hopeless, pleading cry.

Think it through, Marcus, she thought as she took several more steps back. You can't get to me with the mirror blocked. The only person who can possibly save me is...

"Jareth!" she screamed, long and loud and hard. That one was the kicker. Sarah could act her ass off when she had to, and she put everything she had into that scream. It was desperate and bitter and wild and terrified. The last scream of someone watching themselves being eviscerated. She poured her soul into it.

Many miles away, Ludo lifted his head as if scenting game. At home, Toby awoke in a cold sweat from a nightmare. Sarah felt it in the air. Jareth in his owl form stirred as if trying to respond to her call. It was that good.

She approached the mirror lying in the dirt silently, gritting her teeth. Her fists were clenched so tightly she was digging into her own skin with her nails.

Marcus was calling for her, from the mirror, and he sounded frantic.

You can't help me, Marcus, she thought furiously. You can't. But Jareth can help me, and you can help Jareth...

It was a trick, a terrible trick, but she knew Marcus pretty well and it was the only way she was ever going to get him to help her save Jareth. The mirror grew silent, and Sarah held her breath, tears breaking free to pour down her cheeks unnoticed. He would not part with the seed to save his own life, but he just might do it to save hers.

Love me enough for this, Marcus, she thought desperately. Please, love me enough.

She heard it first through the mirror, and her knees went out from under her in blessed, liquid relief. He'd done it, good god, he'd actually done it for her. She hesitated for a split second over whether or not to pick up the compact.

What's done is done...

She fumbled with the mirror and nearly dropped it picking it up. Marcus wasn't looking at her. He was looking at the thing he had planted in front of the black portal into the labyrinth. There was a unique sound as it grew, a strange harmonic thrumming as fibers stretched and shot up at an impossible, supernatural pace. It was a beautiful and unmistakable sound, and it was the last time anyone would hear it ever again. Sarah blinked tears down her cheeks as the last tree from Marcus' world took root in the labyrinth.

Marcus knelt in front of it as it shot into the sky, and cried as if he would die.

It did not envelop the portal so much as utterly obliterate it. Pale bark gleamed white against the dark sky and golden leaves spread overhead, sparkling amongst the stars.

Sarah could hear it in the air now, right where she stood. Every creature in this world could hear it, that harmonic thrum that seemed to promise that all that was ill or wrong would soon fade away into memory. The creatures from the black road would wail in agony as the sound sliced at their ears, and good folk everywhere would smile and feel comforted, not knowing why. Sarah took a deep breath and fancied that the air felt a little cleaner, a little more wholesome.

Sarah turned to look at Jareth, and found him still feathered and unchanged. Too soon yet. She gathered him up gently, holding him close. Marcus would never forgive her, but feeling how strong the owl's little heartbeat was growing against her fingers, she could not bring herself to regret it.

The black road had just received a major blow, and not only from the destruction of the portal. Just the existence of the golden tree in this world made any threat of destruction by the Road significantly less likely. Even if all the world fell to darkness, the tree would still stand clean and untainted, and would protect the land directly around it. Perhaps an area as large as the entire labyrinth.

She couldn't tell what its presence would do to Jareth. He was tied so closely to the labyrinth, and it could not help but change after this.

Sarah looked back down at her compact, and jumped. Marcus' face filled the entire mirror. He was staring at her, and there was death on his face.

"Sarah," he hissed.

"Marcus," Sarah said, and was surprised at how quavery and uncertain her voice was. "I'm sorry," she whispered. She had never seen him look so far gone into rage. She thought suddenly, with some surprise, that he could harm her very easily if he had a mind to.

She would have laughed, if anyone had told her she would one day need to defend herself against Marcus.

"A trick," he said coldly. "A trick. Oh, Sarah," he said, his voice sharp enough to cut glass, "well done."

"Please," Sarah said softly, "I had to, you don't understand."

"Oh, I understand very well." He laughed, and it was possibly the most horrible sound she had ever heard. "Undone by a girl, for her idle fancy," he said, his voice edged with hysterical tears. Sarah would have bristled at the slight if he hadn't sounded so broken. "Betrayed by a child, and all my dreams burnt to ashes." His face twisted in hate.

"Marcus," she said, desperate to make him see, "Please, you don't understand, I love-"

"'The love I bear thee can afford no better term than this: Thou art a villain'," he snarled. Sarah jerked back from the mirror, appalled, feeling as if his words had hit with physical force.

He saw her reaction, and nodded slightly as if satisfied.

"Never call on me again," he said coldly, his eyes glittering and just slightly mad. Sarah shivered.

"Please," she breathed, blinking fresh tears down her cheeks. Oh, Marcus, please don't...

"Mark me, girl," he said with the icy determination of an oncoming glacier. "If I ever lay eyes on you again, I will kill you."

Stunned, Sarah's mind groped at the words as if she could not manage to wring the meaning from them.

Marcus paused as if savoring the anguish on her face. Then he gestured sharply. The mirror shattered in her hand. Sarah dropped it as if it was aflame, pressing a hand to her heart, shaking.

"Marcus," she said softly, sounding lost to her own ears. Pictures of him came hard and fast to her mind, of their travels together, of all his many kindnesses.

'Dance with me...'

There was a warm weight on her thighs that had not been there before, and Sarah looked down numbly. Jareth lay with his head resting on her lap, whole and healthy. Unfeathered and looking completely like himself, he dozed peacefully in the reflected glow from the fire.

Sarah put her head in her hands and wept.

She did not feel it when he first moved, but she did feel a light tug on one of her wrists, and looked down in watery-eyed surprise. Jareth was awake, and he looked vaguely alarmed. He'd pulled one of her hands away from her face and was gazing up at her with concern.

"Sarah?" he said, looking confused and pushing himself up out of her lap. He might have meant to say something else, but she grabbed him up in a fierce hug and it was lost. He let out a breath as she latched onto him, as if she'd done something unspeakably wonderful.

He was stunned silent, seeming like he was having trouble gathering his thoughts in the face of her onslaught of affection. Sarah was grateful for the pause, and pressed her face feverishly against his neck, wetting his shirt a bit with her tears. He was warm against her cheek, and her sudden utter delight at that fact fought a swift battle against the heartache she was feeling over Marcus. She had a rough time of it for a minute, not certain whether to laugh or cry, and ending up doing a bit of both. Her heart had taken a lot of hits in the last few days.

She heard him taking deep breaths, pressing his face back into her hair as if savoring her scent. He held her very tightly, and she remembered that he hadn't really had a chance to enjoy her return to health before succumbing himself.

"What's happened, Sarah?" he said finally, registering that she was still sniffling. He pulled back from her, straightening with a look of surprise, as if it felt good to move. "Did Marcus close the portal?" he asked, looking startled and pleased, as if he'd only just realized how much better he felt.

Sarah flinched, and turned away from him.

"Marcus is gone," she said, struggling against a fresh wave of tears. She scrubbed at her face, chilled, thinking of that horrible murderous look on his face, filling the mirror. Almost involuntarily, her eyes darted over to where the remains of her compact lay.

Jareth noticed this, and immediately moved to pick it up.

"Don't!" she said sharply, alarmed. Jareth froze, his eyebrows climbing high. His fingers had just brushed the case, enough to send slivers of mirror tinkling into the grass. He looked up at her, shocked.

"What happened?" he demanded.

Sarah bowed her head. She looked into the fire, and told him. She did her best to pretend that it was just a fairy story that had nothing to do with her.

'This is the story of Sarah and Marcus, and how two close friends became bitter enemies...'

The Lady and the Knight

A Labyrinth Story
by Jack Hawksmoor

Part 15 of 19

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