Continuing Tales

The Lady and the Knight

A Labyrinth Story
by Jack Hawksmoor

Part 9 of 19

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The Lady and the Knight

Sarah scrabbled at the ground, pulling out clumps of grass as she was dragged along through the undergrowth. Mud slid through her fingers as she clawed for purchase. Snarling, she aimed a vicious kick at the thing that had hold of her leg. It contacted solidly, and she twisted around on her back as the thing growled, stumbling. It was so cold it felt like it was burning her skin where it had grabbed her, even through the cloth of her pants.

From far behind her, she heard a horrified shout.

"Sarah!" Jareth had noticed her absence.

She hissed in a breath, terrified as the creature went for her throat. Twisting to the side, she pushed her elbow up into the thing's mouth, forcing it back. It was too dark where it had dragged her to see much else but the white gleam of its icy skin. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another one, its pale hide giving it away, coming up on her right. She looked over with panic in her eyes, barely holding her own against one, and her faintly glowing hand connected with a deathly cold white shoulder.

Her hand flashed brightly, shooting sparks, and she felt warmth flare up her arm all the way to her shoulder. The thing hissed, recoiling from her. There was a smell of scorched flesh. Sarah looked at her golden, glittering fingers with wide eyes.

"Oh, yes," she said, grinning viciously, and walloped it in the face. Its skin at point of contact ignited like sodium in water and it shrieked, clutching at the smoking black hand-print on its terrible white face. It fell away from her but the one on her right leaped to take its place before she could get up, pinning her arms down, leaning close to her. She stiffened, expecting to be mauled, but it only pressed its face in, moving its head as she jerked hers away. The Bemony leaves in her mouth exploded with scent and flavor, as if reacting to something. The monster was trying to get her to look it in the eye, she thought with a stab of fury, struggling against the press of its weight on her arms.

Smart, damn it, too smart... Sarah looked up at it, pushing the leaves around in her mouth, and spat them in its face. It fell back with a wail of agony, as the wet, well chewed leaves exploded to life, growing and tangling around the beastly thing as if it was the best meal it had ever seen. Sarah scrambled to her feet and ran for her life. She got about ten feet back the way she'd come before she realized that her pack had come off as she was being dragged, and she cursed, searching the ground, scrambling around through the undergrowth as she followed the crushed plant life that marked the path back to where she'd been grabbed.

She'd just spotted it, when she heard a cry.

"Sarah!" there was a hint of real desperation in the voice now, and the sound of it plucked her heart like a violin string. Sarah snatched up her pack and took off running again with real worry riding high in her chest. About twenty feet ahead of her, the undergrowth suddenly burst into flame. Sarah skidded to a halt when she could feel the heat singing her eyebrows.

He had to be all right, if he could do that. Clever of him. Those things would stay away from the heat... She could hear the screams of panicked horses from within. The fire curved around, a circle of flame enclosing a safe area inside. Sarah was somehow a little hesitant about running through to safety, seeing as her hair was already singing just standing next to the fire. It was unbelievably hot. Sarah turned, the flames at her back, to regard four of the beasts, spreading out around her in a semicircle like wolves closing in on a wounded deer. Sarah's heart sank into her stomach like a stone.

"Oh, hell no," Sarah said. She turned, threw her hands over her face, and dove through the flames to the other side. She rolled when she landed, desperately smothering out the small bits of her clothing that had ignited on the way through.

She looked up, sweaty and shaking, to see three of those things wrestling with Jareth inside the circle. He tossed one of them into the flames as she got to her feet, but her view was suddenly blocked by the figure of a horse gone half-mad. It was still tied to the tree, and Sarah was abruptly certain there was something magical about the rope, because it should have snapped already. The line did limit the range of the horse's movement, but it also seemed to enrage him beyond all reason.

The horse saw her, and Sarah stepped back at the hate and terror in the great beast's eyes. It aimed a vicious kick at her head that would have cracked it like a ripe melon, but Sarah scrambled away, losing her balance and falling hard on her rear end. The hoof snapped through the air above her head, and Sarah realized that she was pinned, flames behind her, mad horse in front.

"Jareth," she gasped hopelessly, knowing he couldn't possibly help her in time. She rolled desperately to the side as the horse kicked out again, not really at her this time, just out at a world that was terrible and dangerous and currently aflame. She had thrust her head out of its way, but her arm was flung out awkwardly and with almost dreamlike accuracy, the horse's hoof contacted with the flat of her palm at the very farthest extension of it's kick. Sarah's hand snapped back with the force of it and she was flung half into the flames, shrieking and scrambling for safety.

She looked up, expecting to see her death coming at her with sharp hooves and wild eyes. Instead she saw Jareth, proving beyond any doubt that he was much more than human. He was clinging to the rope that tied the horse to the tree, and hauling the horse bodily away from her. The stallion, a king among its fellows, at eighteen hands high and nearly 2,000 lbs, was losing ground against the determined strength of the Goblin King. He leaned back against the rope with all his strength, cords standing out on his neck and his feet slipping a little on the wet ground. Sarah looked with wide eyes at where he had left the crumpled bodies of the three beasts that had attacked him.

It was Jareth's horse that had gone for her, and she heard Jareth speaking to him, hissing through his teeth as he pulled. She felt the ripples of magic riding on the words. The stallion stomped it's hooves, almost like a petulant child, but finally settled, allowing his master to relax and even stroke his neck.

Sarah looked to her gelding, tied on the other side of the tree, dancing slightly on his feet, looking anxious but not completely mad, the power woven through Jareth's soothing words not as affective at a distance.

Sarah looked out beyond the flames and saw pale shapes moving in the reflected glow of the fire, pacing around them but not trying to get closer. Repulsed by the light and the heat.

She sighed and slumped a little, cradling her hand against her chest. It stung where the horse had clipped it. When she looked down she saw with surreal clarity the muddy imprint of the horses hoof pressed neatly onto her palm. She wiggled her fingers, amazed that her hand wasn't broken.

"Lucky," she murmured in disbelief.

"Are you all right?" Jareth said, and she looked up, realizing he'd gotten close without her noticing. He reached for her hand, turning it over, running his fingers over the mark on her palm with a sharp inhalation of breath.

"Can you move it?" Jareth said, with a sharp, angry glance over at his horse, who was standing calmly now and looking rather sheepish.

"I'm fine," she said, flexing her hand and looking him over with a critical eye. His hair was sticking up in clumps and he had a fresh scrape across his face. It went down his forehead, crossing his nose and curving up underneath his right eye. She reached out but did not touch it, frowning.

"What about you?" she asked, concerned, searching for any other injuries. Jareth noticed, and smiled at her, looking amused and rather pleased.

Sarah made a face at him, letting her hand drop. He had to be okay if he could still act smug. Sarah glanced over at his horse, over to where Jareth had just impressively saved her skin. Then she pushed up on her toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Jareth straightened, looking as though he'd thought the whole thing had been entirely worth it, just for her reaction to him.

"Those things..." Sarah said, turning to look beyond the flames for a glimpse of them. Jareth's hand rested protectively at her back, and she did not move away from him.

"They've gone, but not for long," he said, looking grim.

"The magic you used," Sarah realized with a jolt. Jareth sighed and stepped away from her.

"They'll all have seen it. Every wretched beast on the black road that has made it within twenty miles of us. And they'll be on their way here as fast as they can come." Jareth picked up a saddlebag, and walked over to his horse, Bim by name. Jareth almost never called his horse by name. It was weird. He hadn't even told her their names until she'd threatened to name them herself.

"We have to run," Sarah said, her voice very carefully devoid of anything like surprise. Jareth heard it anyway and looked at her with a wry smile.

"I can't fight all of them, Sarah. If I could we wouldn't be here." He picked up another bag and walked over to her, pushing it into her hands.

"I know that," Sarah said, taking it. "I just didn't expect you to..." she thought better of the end of that sentence, and stopped it leaving her mouth. She busied herself with loading up her horse, who she'd been informed was called Windle. He didn't look like a Windle.

"Didn't expect me to what?" Jareth asked, sounding amused.

Sarah sighed and mounted her horse, murmuring to him how wonderful and marvelous he was for not trying to kill her. Her gelding, having been consistently bribed with treats and flattered with near constant praise over the last few days, turned his head to look at her with one dark eye, offering his cheek for stroking in an almost friendly fashion.

She obliged him, trying to ignore Jareth and his murderous horse as they came up beside her. She finally glanced at him when he made no move to banish the flames surrounding them. He was waiting expectantly.

"I just...didn't expect you to be so reasonable," she explained with a shrug, somewhat embarrassed for underestimating him.

He laughed at her, flashing sharp white teeth in the firelight.

"I'm not a fool, Sarah," he said, and with a gesture the flames vanished. He urged his horse ahead. "Do try to keep up," his voice trailed after him as his horse sped up into a canter.

They rode like all the hounds of hell were after them, which wasn't all that far from the truth. Sarah was grateful for the growing moon. It was bright enough in the open country they were covering to show the Black Road clearly enough for them to stay well away from it. They switched the horses between a canter and a trot for most of the night, until Sarah was sure they'd gone outside the twenty mile radius Jareth had mentioned and was ready to scream at him that they were killing their mounts.

They crested a hill and Sarah finally stopped her horse and moved to dismount. Jareth brought his stallion around, looking back at her with annoyance.

"What are you doing?" Jareth demanded. He looked over his shoulder at where the horizon was just starting to lighten. "It's not dawn yet." They weren't safe yet, she knew that. Those things hated the sun like Jareth hated life without a bedazzler, but they had seen the monsters come out during a cloudy day and they probably wouldn't balk at tracking them right up until actual sunrise.

"I'm not going to let you kill our horses because you couldn't beat those creatures without getting all flashy," Sarah said, shaking her head. She patted the side of her gelding. He was sweaty and puffing for breath.

Jareth looked at her like she'd grown a second head.

"I know my own animals, Sarah, and you'd be dead if I hadn't gotten flashy." he said the last with delicate venom, and Sarah pressed her lips together tightly. "They can make it until dawn and then you can pamper them at your leisure," he said shortly.

Sarah settled unhappily back into her saddle, and Jareth nodded once, turning and urging his horse on as if he expected her to follow. He was watching the horizon carefully for any sign of pursuit. Sarah, however, was loathe to push Windle any harder than he already had been pushed, and they ended up at a walk.

Jareth swung around again when he realized she wasn't with him.

"Sarah, we don't have time to be sentimental. Get back on the pace," he demanded, which might have normally been enough to provoke her temper. She thought briefly of Jareth throwing himself rather heroically at his own mount on her behalf. With that in mind, it was somehow much easier to remain calm.

"I'll tell you what," she said, "I'll catch up with you."

Jareth stared at her with his lips parted, his emotions streaking his hair with purple and black. For a moment it looked as if he would do just as she suggested, ride off and let her catch up with him later. Then he flushed angrily and turned his horse, letting Bim start walking at a medium pace beside Windle. She heard him muttering dark things under his breath, and frowned.

"I mean it, I'll catch up-"

"Stop," Jareth snapped. "Idiot girl. I'm not leaving you here unprotected." He gave her a fierce glare and then looked away. Sarah, recognizing that she had won and rather flattered at his continuing determination to protect her from anything more dangerous than a hangnail, remained silent.

"Putting the health of a horse over the safety of an entire kingdom," Jareth muttered. "My kingdom for a horse."

Sarah's jaw dropped and she stared at him hard for a moment, watching closely for signs that it had been a deliberate joke. Jareth continued to mutter balefully, and Sarah had a sudden, dangerously amusing flash of Jareth as Richard the third.

'I am determined to prove a villain!' said a tiny image of Jareth in her head, shaking his little fist.

Sarah pressed her hand to her mouth desperately, hiding her face behind the fall of her hair. The tiny little Jareth in her head looked somewhat hurt by her amusement. He had a scrape on his face, like the real one. Sarah bit her lip and peeked over at the real Jareth, feeling a teeny bit guilty.

"One might think that after the way they treat you, you'd be a little less concerned about their welfare," Jareth added, still on a roll.

Sarah eyed Jareth's mount with no small amount of distaste, rubbing the hand that he'd kicked against her pant leg.

"I think mine is starting to like me," Sarah said defensively, patting at her horse's neck.

Jareth pressed his lips together in a thin line, and breathed out through his nose.

"It is not necessary for them to like us, only to obey us," He looked lovely and grave and serious in the dusky light, an angel on his way to a funeral.

"Bim likes you," Sarah said, tilting her head to watch him closely. I like you. She did like him, even if he seemed to have far too much charm for his own good. However, there were some interesting parallels with his views on horses to his views on people. Bim, as if listening, snorted, seeming to agree with her.

Almost unconsciously, Jareth patted him a little, and Sarah smiled quietly to herself.

Don't try and be so hard...

"Bim is obedient, and that is all I require of him," Jareth said, not looking at her. Sarah turned in the saddle and made no effort to hide it as she stared at him frankly, thoughtfully.

"So is that how you feel about it? Obedience before affection?" She mused. Jareth suddenly looked as though he did not like the turn their conversation had taken, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. He glanced at her with the vague alarm of a man who suspected he'd blown it with a girl he liked. It was a rather universal look, and it was amusing to see it on Jareth's face.

"He's only an animal," Jareth explained, and Sarah started to suspect she knew why he hadn't bothered to tell her the horses names until she'd pressed. To him they were just things.

"He's your friend," Sarah said without thinking. Jareth's face turned cold, and Sarah winced, wishing she'd bitten her tongue and kept her mouth shut.

"Ah, yes," he said sharply, "Well, you certainly would know, wouldn't you?" He scowled and continued more softly, as if speaking to himself. "Sarah and her multitude of friends."

Sarah did not look at him, but watched the horizon as the first rays of sunlight speared over the hills. The grassland glittered like gold all around them. They could almost be the land of his dreams, except for the color. Sarah was suddenly hungry for the impossibly bright greenness of the grass there. She had continued to see his dreams when she slept. Though usually she was wearing the silver dress now. Sometimes she even let him catch her.

"You're my friend," Sarah said simply. Beside her, Jareth stiffened in the saddle. Sarah halted her horse and dismounted. She would swear Windle looked back at her in relief.

Bim halted a pace or two ahead of them on his own, and turned to look at Jareth uncertainly. Sarah craned her neck and realized he'd dropped the reins.

"Jareth?" she asked, tentatively.

Jareth jumped a little and turned to look at her. He looked just about as happy as she'd ever seen him. He was almost grinning. Sarah smothered a smile, realizing she'd won their little disagreement, and staying quiet about it. Instead she pointed silently at his reins swinging loose, and turned away to look out at the rolling fields around them.

She saw a little river ahead of them, winding through the land like a silver ribbon in the early light. It cut right across their path, and when Sarah turned to look upstream, she saw it cutting through the Black Road as well.

Those things would be watching for them, for Jareth and any hint of magic. They would be expecting them. On this side of the road, anyway.

Sarah turned to look at Jareth as he dismounted, noticing how energetic he seemed even after a night of riding. His mismatched eyes were shining. He just looked so pleased with himself...she should have told him he was her friend several days ago.

"I have an idea," Sarah said.

The Lady and the Knight

A Labyrinth Story
by Jack Hawksmoor

Part 9 of 19

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