A.C.H.Smith. The Labyrinth. Chapter 9: Another Door Opens

      Sarah walked past the hanging tree. Ludo, wincing with the soreness of his nipped body, followed.
      Behind the tree, two high doorways had appeared, set into a stone wall that seemed to be part of a rough forest hedge. On each door was an iron knocker.
      "Well, look at these," she remarked, glad to have a companion again. It was more fun than talking to herself.
      They approached the doorways and looked more closely at the knockers. Each had the form of a repulsive face, with a ring set in it. The knocker to her left had the ring coming out of its ears. The one on the right held the ring in its mouth.
      She looked from one to the other. Which to choose? She always found choices hard to make; if there were two kinds of cake at a birthday party, she would contrive to have a bit of each, at a decent interval, naturally, and hoping that no one noticed. Now she looked around the glade, to see if there was some other way past this wall. There wasn't, so she examined the knockers. "Well, Ludo," she asked, "which one of these two ugly characters shall we choose?"
      "It's very rude to stare," said the first knocker, the one with the ring set in its ears.
      Sarah jumped, still not accustomed to the habit that normally inarticulate things had, in the Labyrinth, of speaking their minds.
      "I'm sorry," she said, though she felt that she was scarcely to blame for assuming that a door knocker would have no mind to speak, let alone blunt opinions on acceptable social behavior. "I was just wondering which door to choose, that's all."
      "What?" the first knocker asked.
      Sarah was about to reply that, where she came from, to say "What?" was thought just as rude as staring. But before she could open her mouth, she heard a mumbling noise from behind her.
      It was the second knocker, with the ring in its mouth. It said something like "Mmm gli m g any."
      "Don't talk with your mouth full," the first knocker said primly.
      "Ker glimpfwrt mble mble mble..."
      Sarah addressed the second knocker: "I don't understand what you're saying." Then she realized what the problem was. "Ah," she said, "wait a moment".
      "What was that?" the first knocker inquired.
      Sarah took hold of the ring in the second knocker's mouth and pulled. It came away easily. The face looked tremendously relieved. It exercised the muscles around its jaw and chin with evident pleasure.
      "It's so good to get that thing out," it sighed.
      "What were you saying?" Sarah asked.
      The first knocker, behind her, said, "Huh?"
      The second knocker nodded at the first. "I said it's no good talking to him. Oh, dear me, no. He's deaf as a post, that one, I can tell you."
      The first knocker said, "Mumble, mumble, mumble, that's you. You're a wonderful conversational companion, I must say."
      "YOU SHOULD TALK!" the second knocker yelled back. "ALL YOU CAN DO IS MOAN!"
      "It's no good," the first knocker said, in a matter-of-fact voice. "I can't hear you."
      Sarah looked at the second knocker. "Where do these doors lead?" she asked it.
      "What?" asked the first knocker.
      "Search me," the second one answered her. "We're just the knockers."
      "Oh," Sarah said, reflecting that she ought to have known better than to expect a simple answer.
      Well, she had to try either one door or the other. She chose the second one. Having engaged in discourse with it, however slightly, she felt it would somehow have been discourteous to turn her back and choose its neighbor. On the other hand, it could be that the knockers would prefer their doors not to be opened. She shouldn't take it for granted that the knockers would like people to make use of them. Every either had its or. If she weighed the implications of every alternative, would she ever get to make a choice at all? When one door opens, so does another.
      She had committed herself to the second door by now, with her hands against it, so she went ahead and pushed. It didn't budge. She pushed harder. She leaned her shoulder against the door. It was as solid as the wall it was set in. She thought of asking Ludo to help her. His gigantic bulk would surely open the door.
      But she wasn't sure it was the right door to choose, and so, instead, she asked another question. "How do we get through?"
      "Huh?" asked the first knocker.
      The second one, with an arch smile, replied, "Knock and the door will open."
      "Ah." She looked at the ring she held, and went to put it back in the second knocker's mouth.
      He made a face. "Uh-uh, I don't want that thing back in my mouth." And he clamped his lips tightly shut, and refused to open them even when she put the ring against his mouth.
      "Oh, come on," Sarah said encouragingly. "I want to knock."
      He shook his head stubbornly.
      "Hmmm," commented the first knocker, morosely as usual. "Doesn't want the ring back in his mouth. Can't say as I blame him."
      "Then," Sarah said, putting down the ring, "I'm afraid I'll have to bother you instead." She walked over to the first knocker and took hold of its ring.
      "Ow! Ooh," the first knocker protested.
      Sarah took no notice. She knocked twice upon the heavy door. It swung open.
      Cautiously, she put her head through the doorway, to see what was beyond. She heard giggles, splutters of suppressed laughter, honks and hoots. Instinctively she started to grin herself, and went farther through the doorway. She turned, waiting for Ludo to follow her. He remained in the doorway, shaking his head.
      "Come on, Ludo."
      He shook his head again.
      "Well," she thought, "it can't do any harm to see where this might lead." She would come back for Ludo if she spotted the castle.
      She was in a sunlit forest, with clumps and banks of flowers, daisy-decked hillocks, dingles and dells, shady trees all around. The laughter was infectious. Giggling, she looked hard for the creatures who were enjoying all this merriment. All she could see were the forest plants. "Who is it?" she called out, chuckling.
      From right behind her came a laughing snort. She spun around and saw a tree's branch moving to cover a hollow in its trunk that just might have been its mouth. "It was the tree," she declared. "Tree, wasn't it you?"
      That sparked off a tinkle of giggles at her feet. She looked down and saw a cluster of bluebells shivering and shaking together with amusement.
      "Oh, look!" she exclaimed, falling to her knees and giggling with them. They were beside themselves with hilarity now.
      The tree above her could hold it in no longer. It exploded in a bellow of mirth. Sarah threw her head back and joined in.
      It was the signal for a general outburst. A tree stump nearby was laughing in a deep, cracked voice. Birds on a branch were hopping and cackling. Another tree was rocking. Ferns waved about, squirrels and mice peeped from their holes with tears in their eyes.
      Sarah was helpless with laughing. Catching a breath, she panted, "What are we laughing at?"
      "I don't know!" the tree above her roared. "Ha-ha-ha-ha!"
      The whole forest shook. Even the grass on the ground was trembling.
      Sarah was feeling faint. She sat down. "Oh... please... please, I must stop." She clutched her sides.
      In response, the laughter around her redoubled. It reached a pitch of hysterical shrillness.
      "I've never laughed so much in my life," Sarah gasped, flat on her back.
      Birds convulsed with mirth fell out of the trees and hit the ground headfirst. She saw their eyes were mad, with pinprick pupils. Other creatures came screaming from under the roots of trees, and as they approached her she managed to sit up, alarmed by their sinister gaping mouths and crazy eyes.
      Still laughing, she moaned, "Oh, please, please! I must stop."
      "She can't stop," the tree howled, and the whole forest screeched in reply.
      She got to her feet. Her body and mouth were shaking uncontrollably, but her eyes were haggard. "Stop!" she whispered. "Stop!" She staggered back toward the open doorway and collapsed.
      Shrieking hysteria applauded that.
      She raised her head. She could see Ludo just outside the door, and held up her hand for help. He looked very uneasy and wouldn't come inside the door, but he held his arm out toward her, and nodded his great head in encouragement. Her eyes fixed on him, she dragged herself across the last few yards, until he could bend down, pick her up, take her outside, and shut the door.
      The laughter stopped dead. The breeze in the leaves of the maze outside was the sweetest sound she'd ever heard.
      It took her some time to recover. Ludo watched over her anxiously. When she stood up, sniffed, and gave him a small smile, he said, "Ludo - glad."
      "Sarah - glad," she answered, and ruffled his head.
      There was nothing for it but to try the other door. She walked across to it, picking up the ring.
      "I'm sorry," she said, and pushed the ring against the knocker's lips. He pursed his mouth and resisted her.
      "Oh, come on," she said, and tried again. The knocker frowned and squeezed his lips together even more tightly.
      Then she had an idea. With her finger and her thumb, she squeezed the knocker's nose. He held out a while, scowling more and more fiercely, but in the end he had to open his mouth for breath. "Damn!" he gasped.
      In a flash, she had the ring back in his mouth, and knocked on the door.
      He was protesting. "Kgrmpf. Mble. Mble. Mble. Grmfff."
      "Sorry," Sarah said. "I had to do it."
      "That's all right," the first knocker told her. "He's used to it."
      This door swung open to reveal a forbidding forest. On this side of the wall they were in sunshine, but through the doorway was a dismal and brooding prospect.
      Ludo was growling and trying to draw back, but Sarah was not going in without him this time. "Come on," she said, and braced herself. "There's no other way we can go. Except back where we came from, and I'm not doing that."
      She stepped through the doorway and waited for Ludo to join her. He followed her, reluctantly. The door swung shut of its own accord, with a resounding thud. The echo lasted a long time.
      Sarah shivered. The sky was the color of cast iron, and the forest plants looked shriveled, as though the sun had never shone on them since their first day on earth. She felt terribly dispirited after just a minute in this place, and she looked for Ludo to hearten her. His expression was unhappier than her own.
      "Oh, come on, Ludo," she said, trying to sound cheerful. "Fancy a great thing like you being so scared."
      Ludo shook his head. "Not - good."
      She shrugged, with a heavy heart, turned around again, and wondered which way to go. A path ran in front of her into the forest, but how could anyone take it for granted that a path was the way you wanted to go? "I don't even know which way the castle is," she said. Again she looked at Ludo, hoping that from his height he would be able to see it, but he had his head sunk resolutely on his chest and took no notice. She tried standing on tiptoe. That was no good.
      Nothing was any good. She felt a tear of despair rim her eye and brushed it irritably away. "There's nothing to be scared of," she said, and felt she had to take some initiative, if only to persuade Ludo to buck up.
      She peered up into the branches of a tree. What she did not see, behind her, was that the earth opened up beneath Ludo and swallowed him into a great hole. He had no time to utter more than the first tremor of a roar before the earth closed up again above his head.
      "Maybe I could climb up there," Sarah was saying. "Then I must be able to see the way to the castle."
      She took hold of the lowest branch and put her weight on it. It snapped off in her hand, with a dry crack like china, and before she could register that it was dead the whole tree collapsed. Lying before her she saw a pile not of dead wood but of bones. The thing she was holding was a bone. With a shudder she threw it away. There was a dry, rustling noise going on all around, and in dismay she saw the whole forest was collapsing, like a series of dinosaur skeletons.
      One bone tree after the other clattered to the ground, each bringing down the next, like dominoes, until the entire landscape had been reduced to heaps of bones, all jumbled together. And Sarah knew it was all her fault, the destruction of this delicate balance. She had snapped off the branch. It was too much to bear. She burst out weeping and sank to the ground. She couldn't do anything right. It was all hopeless. Quite hopeless.
      She cried and cried, with her hands over her face. Eventually she looked to see if Ludo was crying, too. "Ludo?" She looked all around her. He wasn't there. Distractedly, she inspected the bones on the ground to see if any had ginger fur on them.
      "Ludo!" She rushed around the spot where the two of them had been, looking in a panic for any sign of him. She saw none. Above, the sky had grown even darker and more miserable. "Ludo!" she screamed, feeling utterly alone in this desolate bonescape. "Where are you? What's going on?"
      She ran, to get away, anywhere. If she stayed there she would be bones herself. She ran through the heaps of bones and into another part of the forest, also grim. Huge gnarled roots stretched across the path. The trees had trunks like tight fists. Fallen branches and dead leaves covered the earth. Here and there a brief vista between the trees offered a way on, but along each one that she took cobwebs clothed her face. From clumps of ferns, clouds of dark moths flitted up at her. "What's going on?" she whimpered as she ran.
      The forest got darker as she ran deeper into it. She stumbled into a glade above which the trees were so close that she could not see her feet in the darkness. Still she ran, until a terrifying, bright, savage figure leaped out in front of her.
      "Yeah!" it screeched. "What's going on?"
      Sarah's mouth and eyes formed circles. She screamed.