A.C.H.Smith. The Labyrinth. Chapter 2: What's Said Is Said

      The storm raged on over Sarah's house. The clouds boiled. Rain lashed the leaves on the trees. Thunder was followed by lightning.
      Sarah was listening. What she was listening to was an unnatural silence within the room. Toby had stopped crying, so suddenly it scared her. She looked back inside the nursery. The bedside light was out. "Toby?" she called. He did not respond.
      She flicked the light switch beside the door. Nothing happened. She jiggled it up and down several times to no effect. A board creaked. "Toby? Are you all right? Why aren't you crying?"
      She stepped nervously into the quiet room. The light from the landing, coming through the doorway, threw unfamiliar shadows onto the walls and across the carpet. In the lull between two thunderclaps, she thought she heard a humming in the air. She could detect no movement at all in the crib.
      "Toby," she whispered in anxiety, and walked toward the crib with her breath drawn. Her hands were shaking like aspen leaves. She reached out to pull the sheet back.
      She recoiled. The sheet was convulsing. Weird shapes were thrusting and bulging beneath it. She thought she glimpsed things poking out from the edge of the sheet, things that were no part of Toby. She felt her heart thumping, and she put her hand over her mouth, to stop herself from screaming.
      Then the sheet was still again. It sank slowly down over the mattress. Nothing moved.
      She could not turn and run away and leave him. She had to know. Whatever the horror of it, she had to know. Impulsively, she reached out her hand and pulled the sheet back.
      The crib was empty.
      For a moment or an hour, she would never know how long, she stared at the empty crib. She was not even frightened. Her mind had been wiped clean.
      And then she was frightened, by a soft, rapid thumping on the windowpane. Her hands clenched so tightly, her fingernails scored her skin.
      A white owl was flapping insistently on the glass. She could see the light from the landing reflected in its great, round, dark eyes, watching her. The whiteness of its plumage was illuminated by a series of lightning flashes that seemed continuous. Behind her, a goblin briefly raised his head, and ducked down again. Another did likewise. She didn't seem them. Her eyes were fixed on the owl's eyes.
      Lightning crackled and flashed again, and this time it distracted her attention from the window by shining on the clock that stood on the mantelpiece. She saw that the hands were at thirteen o'clock. She was staring distractedly at the clock when she felt something nudge the back of her legs. She glanced down. The crib was moving across the carpet on scaly legs like a lizard's, with talons for toes, one leg at each corner of the crib. Sarah's lips parted, but she made no sound.
      Behind her, something snickered. She spun around and saw it duck down again behind the chest of drawers. Shadows were scuttling across the walls. Goblins were prancing and bobbing behind her. Sarah was watching the chest of drawers. Like the crib, it had a scaly, clawed foot at each corner, and it was dancing.
      She wheeled around, mouth open, hands clenched, and saw the goblins cavorting. They ducked away into the shadows, to evade her eyes. She looked for something that would serve as a weapon. In the corner of the nursery was an old broom. She took it and advanced upon the goblins. "Go away. Go away," she whimpered, trying to sweep them up, but the handle of the broom twisted in her hands and slithered out of her grasp.
      The storm wind rose to a pitch. Lightning made daylight in the room, and scared faces suddenly began to vanish into cupboards, drawers, or down the cracks between floorboards. As the thunder boomed and the wind shook the curtains, a blast of air blew the window open. Between the fluttering curtains the white owl entered.
      Sarah wrapped her arms around her face, and screamed, and screamed again. She was petrified that the flapping owl would brush across her. She thought she would die if it did.
      She felt the wind blowing her hair around, but the flapping had ceased. Between her fingers she peeked out, to see where the bird was perched. Perhaps it had flown out again.
      A prolonged crackling of lightning was throwing a giant shadow on the wall facing the window. It was the shadow of a human figure.
      Sarah spun around. Silhouetted against the stormy sky was a man. He wore a cloak, which swirled in the wind. She could see that his hair was shoulder-length and blond. Something glinted about his neck. More than that she could not see in the dim light.
      She said, "Uh...," and cleared her throat. "Who are you?"
      "Don't you know?" The man's voice was calm, almost kindly.
      Lightning traced the veins of the sky and lit up his face. He was not smiling, as one might smile on greeting a stranger, nor was his expression fierce. His eyes were fixed upon Sarah's with an intensity she found compelling. When he took a step toward her, into the light shining from the doorway, she did not retreat. If his eyes had not hypnotized her, the golden chain around his neck might have. A sickle-shaped ornament hung from it, upon his chest. His shirt was cream-colored, open at the front, loose-sleeved, with silken cuffs at the wrist. Over it he wore a tight, black waistcoat. He was shod in black boots, over gray tights, and on his hands were black gloves. In one of them he held the jeweled knob of a curious cane with a fishtail shape at the end.
      "I...," Sarah answered. "I..."
      The humming that she had thought she heard in the air was now quite distinct, and musical. The stranger smiled at her hesitancy. He was certainly handsome. She had not expected that. When she spoke, her voice was a whisper.
      "You're... him, aren't you?" You're the King of the Goblins."
      He bowed. "Jareth."
      She resisted the ridiculous impulse to return a curtsy.
      "I have saved you," he said. "I have liberated you from those bonds that distressed you and frightened you. You're free now, Sarah."
      "Oh, no. I don't want to be free," she answered. "I mean, I do, but - I want my little brother back. Please." She gave him a tiny smile. "If it's all the same to you."
      Jareth folded his hands on the top of his cane. "What's said is said."
      "But I didn't mean it," Sarah replied quickly.
      "Didn't you, now?"
      "Oh, please. Where is he?"
      Jareth chuckled. "You know very well where he is."
      "Please bring him, back, please." She heard herself speaking in a small voice. "Please!"
      "Sarah..." Jareth frowned, and shook his head. His expression was all concern for her. "Go back to your room. Read your books. Put on your costumes. That is your real life. Forget about the baby."
      "No, I can't."
      For a moment, they regarded each other, adversaries trying to size each other up at the outset of a long contest. Thunder rumbled.
      Then Jareth raised his left arm, and made a large gesture with his hand. Sarah looked around, thinking that he was summoning assistance. When she faced him again, a glowing crystal had appeared in his hand.
      "I've brought you a gift, Sarah," he said, holding it out to her.
      She paused. She could not trust him. "What is it?"
      "A crystal, nothing more. Except that if you look into it... it will show you your dreams."
      Sarah's lips parted involuntarily. With a teasing smile, Jareth watched her face, while he spun the shining crystal around in his fingers. Her hand started to reach out for it. He smiled a little more, and withdrew the crystal from her.
      Raising the cane with his other hand, he told her, "But this is not a gift for an ordinary girl, one who takes care of a screaming baby." His voice was quieter now, and huskier. "Do you want it, Sarah?" He held it out toward her again.
      This time her hands remained by her sides, and she made no answer. Her eyes were fixed on the dancing, flashing glints of the crystal. To see her own dreams - what wouldn't she give for that?
      "Then forget the child," Jareth said firmly.
      While Sarah hesitated, another bolt of thunder and lightning illuminated the sky behind the Goblin King.
      She was torn. The gift was not only seductive, it was also the choice of someone who understood her, someone who cared about the secret places of her imagination and knew how infinitely much more they meant to her than anything else. In return, she would have to trade her responsibility for an offensively spoiled child, who made endless demands on upon her and never showed the least sign of gratitude; who was, after all, only her half brother. The crystal was spinning, glowing.
      She willed her eyes to close. From behind shut eyelids, she heard a voice answering. It was her own voice, but it seemed to be a memory. "I - I can't. It isn't that I don't appreciate what you're trying to do for me... but I want my baby brother back. He must be so scared..." She opened her eyes again.
      Jareth snorted, and tossed his mane of blond hair. He had lost patience with the girl. With a wave of his hand, he extinguished the crystal. With another wave, he plucked a live snake from the air. He held it with a straight arm in front of him, so that it writhed and hissed near Sarah's face. Then he threw it at her. "Don't defy me," he warned her.
      It was wrapped around her neck. She clutched desperately at the thing, and found that it was now a silk scarf. She yelled, dropped it and jumped away. When it hit the floor it shattered into a number of horribly ugly little goblins, who scuttled, snickering, to the corners of the room. Other goblins crept from the shadows, or popped out from their hiding places, and stood, all around the room, brazen now, watching to see what their king would do to her next.
      "You are no match for me, Sarah." Jareth sounded impatient. "Let the child alone. Take my gift. I will not offer it to you again."
      Before he could produce the crystal, Sarah told him, "No." She paused. "Thank you all the same, but I can't do what you want. Can't you see that? I must have my brother back."
      "You will never find him."
      "Ah," Sarah said, and took a deep breath. "Then... there is a place to look."
      Just for a moment, Jareth's face flinched. Sarah saw it, the merest trace of fear fleeting across his eyes. Was it possible? His nostrils tightened, he gripped his cane, and appeared to hesitate slightly before answering her. She could not quite believe it, but the suspicion that the Goblin King could be afraid of her, even if only momentarily, was encouraging.
      "Yes," he said. "There is a place."
      And now, with a really hammy gesture straight out of vaudeville, he twirled his hand and pointed through the window.
      Lightning and thunder, right on cue, she thought. She moved past him and stared into the night. On a distant hill, brilliant in the flashes, she saw a castle. She leaned on the windowsill, trying to see more clearly. There were towers with turrets, massive walls, spires and domes, a portcullis and drawbridge. The whole edifice was built on top of a sharply rising mound. Around it the lightning flickered and forked like snakes' tongues. Beyond was blackness.
      From just behind her shoulder, Jareth murmured. "Do you still want to look for him?"
      "Yes." She swallowed. "Is that..." She remembered the words. "...the castle beyond the Goblin City?"
      Jareth did not answer at once, and she turned around. He was still there, watching her intensely, but they were no longer in the house. They stood facing each other on a windswept hilltop. Between them and the hill on which the castle stood was a broad valley. In the darkness she could not tell what was down there.
      She turned again. The wind blew her hair over her face. Brushing it back, she took one timid step forward.
      Jareth's voice came from behind her. "Turn back, Sarah. Turn back, before it is too late."
      "I can't. Oh, I can't. Don't you understand that?" She shook her head slowly, gazing at the distant castle, and to herself, quietly, repeated, "I can't."
      "What a pity." Jareth's voice was low, and gentle, as though he really meant it.
      She was looking at the castle. It seemed to be a long way off, but not impossibly far to travel. It depended on what she would encounter in the valley, how easily it could be crossed. Was the darkness down there perpetual? "It doesn't look that far," she said, and heard in her voice the effort she was making to sound brave.
      Jareth was at her elbow now. He looked at her, with a smile that was icy. "It's farther than you think." Pointing at a tree, he added, "And the time is shorter."
      Sarah saw that an antique wooden clock had appeared in the tree, as though growing from a branch. On it were marked the hours to thirteen, as on the nursery clock in the lightning.
      "You have thirteen hours to unriddle the Labyrinth," Jareth told her, "before your baby brother becomes one of us."
      Jareth nodded. "Forever."
      Magic still hummed in the air. Sarah was standing still, hair tossing in the wind, looking out across the valley toward the castle. After a while, she said, "Tell me where I start."
      She waited for an answer, and finally she heard him say, "A pity."
      "What?" She turned her head to look up at him, but he was not there. She spun all around. He had vanished. She was alone in the night, on a windswept hilltop.
      She looked across again at the castle. The storm was passing away. Blades of clouds sliced across the moon. She thought she glimpsed the figure of an owl, high above, wings spread wide on the air, as he flew steadily away from her.
      She took another step forward, down the hillside. But there was no ground beneath her feet. She began to fall.