A.C.H.Smith. The Labyrinth. Chapter 12: And No Birds Sing

      The paving stones on which they were standing flipped open like trapdoors and precipitated them into a dark chute. They skidded helplessly down it.
      To have gotten this far required Sarah to be persistent in threading her way through mazes and in resolving paradoxes. That was nothing, Hoggle would have told her, had he not been skating down the chute on his back, waving his arms and legs in the air like an unhinged wood louse. Jareth was King of the Castle, and he would tolerate no display of emotion here, no gesture of friendship or sentimentality. With her kiss, Sarah had fulfilled Jareth's menacing promise to Hoggle - that Hoggle would become "Prince of the Land of Stench."
      Everyone in Jareth's realm was an island. If you did something for someone else, it was never an act of kindness but of calculation, an investment that would return a percentage when you called on it. The verb "to give" was considered obscene, and was scrawled on lavatory walls. The verb "to love" connoted nothing but desire. You stood on your own two feet, and if you could stand on somebody else's feet at the same time and reach higher in the fruit tree, you were doing all right, which was better than doing good. How much envy you could command from others was the measure of your success. Everyone in the castle envied Jareth. All his questions were answered. He was going to keep things this way.
      The chute skittered them down to a sort of vent, and they tumbled out of it onto a narrow ledge, about halfway up the immense inside face of the Great Goblin Wall. Hoggle came out first, landing sideways, and as a result, he rolled over the edge. Sarah, arriving just behind him, luckily landed on her feet. Thrown forward onto her hands and knees, she was just able to grab Hoggle's hand before he dropped.
      Swinging dizzily above the sheer fall, Hoggle squealed for a moment. Then he stopped. A more potent emotion than fear was working on him, particularly on his bulbous nose. He wrinkled it. Then he shut his eyes and said with a puckered mouth, "Urrrggh!"
      Sarah's reaction was quite similar. In spite of their precarious perch, all her attention was concentrated on her sense of smell. Nothing like it had ever assailed her, nothing had even suggested that such a stink could be generated within the universe.
      "Urrrrggggh!" Hoggle groaned. "Blech!"
      "What is it?" Sarah asked, agonized.
      The face that Hoggle turned back up to Sarah's was haggard. "It's...," he gasped. "It's... the... Bog... of... ," he swallowed, "...of Eternal Stench."
      She remembered Jareth's threat to Hoggle, in that terrible passageway, and Hoggle's explanation to her, later on, that should one drop of that quagmire ever stain you it could never be washed away, nor would the stink ever abate. At the time she had not taken it seriously. She did now.
      "Urghh!" she moaned. "I've never smelled anything... It's like... like... urgghhh!"
      "It doesn't matter what it's like," Hoggle told her sharply. "It is the Bog of Eternal Stench." And in quite a small voice, so that he did not have to inhale deeply, he added, "Help."
      She recalled that she was holding Hoggle up. Straightening her knees, she managed to haul him alongside her, as he had recently hauled her on the rope.
      Far below them, at the foot of the wall, was a vast mire. It was darkish khaki in color. All across its surface, bubbles of fetid air, having forced their way up through the viscous sludge, were gently popping. As they popped they cast a little spray of filth in a ring around them, and it took several minutes for the droplets to settle back again.
      The noise was indescribably disgusting. The seldom used adjective borborygmous is inadequate. Other commentators have been driven to the coinage evisceral, after finding that glairy or mucilaginous did not arouse in their readers anything like the appropriate degree of revulsion.
      But if it is scarcely possible to describe the noise, what hope is there of finding in any dictionary an adjective for the smell? One writer tackled the problem thus: "If you call to mind the three worst stinks that have ever molested you, sensitive-nostriled reader, imagine them raised to the power of seven, then intensively distilled into a small but curiously powerful pump held an inch away from your face and driven by a fan, you ought not to have reached the end of this sentence for the tears in your eyes, such is the iniquity of that odor."
      The ledge on which Sarah and Hoggle were standing on was narrow, but the pathway it offered in either direction along the wall was narrower yet. Not only that; Sarah could see that many stones in the ledge were insecure, just balanced on each other, the mortar perished. The thought of going ten steps along it was frightening, yet alone going however far around the wall it ran before it offered some escape. She could not see the end of it in either direction. Very probably it would have no end at all, but just bring you back here again. Not that you would have the slightest hope of getting that far before it crumbled beneath you. Even as Sarah and Hoggle stood wondering which way to try, some small stones under their feet broke off and went cascading down into the mire far below.
      Hoggle was looking far from grateful for being saved by Sarah. He scowled up at her. "What did you go and do that for?"
      "What, rescue you?" She was bewildered.
      "No. You kissed me."
      She looked at him. "Don't pretend to be so hard. You came back to help me. Don't deny it. You are my friend."
      He blew out his cheeks. "Did not. Am not. I just come to get me property back, that you filched from me." He reached down and took hold of the peach. "And... to, er... to give you... uh, give you..."
      "Give me what?"
      Hoggle shifted his weight onto his other foot, nervously. It was enough. The stone on which he was standing gave way, and fell. Others beside it, which had been supported by it, followed. Then the entire section of the ledge broke off, and Hoggle went down with it, snatching uselessly at a piece of rock that came away in his hand.
      Too late, Sarah tried to grab him. Off balance, she teetered momentarily on one sagging stone. Then she plummeted after him.
      She landed on something that felt like a big, furry cushion. It was Ludo.
      Hoggle, having rolled down Ludo's back, was now trapped beneath his great bulk, bellowing in terror.
      Sarah gasped. "Ludo!"
      Ludo put his head back, and howled.
      He was crouched on a little shoal beside the bog, which had been imperceptible from the height of the ledge. From only a few feet away, the stench of the putrid morass was cubed in intensity.
      Sarah put her hands over her face. "Oooh! Aaarghh!"
      Hoggle was struggling to get from under Ludo. "Help!" he shouted, in spite of the intake of foul air that shouting entailed. "Let me out!"
      Sarah could not see where Hoggle was trapped. She assumed he was just frightened. She reassured him. "It's all right, Hoggle. He's a friend, too. This is Ludo."
      "S-M-M-E-L-L-L-L-L-L!" Ludo wailed.
      Sarah found that it helped if she pinched her nose tightly and used only the corner of her mouth to breathe and speak. "You can put me down now, Ludo," she said gratefully.
      He complied, with a gentle care remarkable in so large a body.
      Then Sarah saw Hoggle's plight. "Ludo," she said. "Let him get up. It's Hoggle."
      Crawling out, Hoggle at once resumed his testy tone. "What do you mean, he's your friend? I'm your friend."
      "You're both my friends," Sarah said. "I need you."
      "Not as much as I need me," Hoggle answered, shuddering at the lake of muck.
      "You're impossible," Sarah muttered from the side of her mouth.
      "No I'm not. I'm just as possible as you are. More possible, if the truth be told."
      Sarah shrugged. She turned to Ludo, wanting to know how he had reached here from the forest of bones. But Ludo had been using his eyes while the other two were bickering, and now he pointed.
      They looked, and saw a rustic bridge. It ran from a point farther along the shoal they were standing on, across a narrow neck of the bog, where a few sick-looking trees grew out of the mire, and finished on the opposite shore. Beyond it stretched a forest.
      More forest. Sarah shook her head resignedly. Well, whatever perils or paradoxes that forest might hold, it offered more chance of traveling on to the castle than they had on this side, with the vast cliff and the Great Goblin Wall behind them, and the bog a few yards in front of them, bubbling and fermenting. "Come on," she said, and led the way. "Let's get across quickly."
      The three of them picked their way along the narrow shoal. The stones and pebbles were loose beneath their feet, and an incautious step could skid them into the loathsome mire.
      With Sarah in the lead, they approached the bridge. The sticks of wood of which it was constructed were pretty much the same color as the bog, as though they had been impregnated by it. The very air seemed tinted and heavy with the odor.
      The bridge stood on piers of stone. They were only a few steps away from the nearest pier when a belligerent little figure came running out from behind it and confronted them.
      "Stop!" he said, with an air of authority, as though there were nothing more that needed to be said.
      He was courtly in appearance, wearing a smart jerkin, cut in the military style, and a cap with a plume in it. His mustache was white and aristocratically long, and his legs, though thin, were held still and apart. A bushy tail rose proudly from beneath his jerkin. His right hand held a staff. Altogether he gave the impression of a character who, though diminutive, was used to commanding and to being obeyed.
      Sarah, by now reduced to pinching her nose and holding the sleeve of her shirt over her mouth to keep out the pervasive stench, mumbled, "Oh, please! We've got to get over -"
      "Without my permission no one may cross."
      "Who are you?" Sarah asked.
      He bowed briskly from the waist. "Sir Didymus is my name, milady."
      "Please, Sir Didymus," Sarah besought him. "I've only got a little more time left."
      Hoggle nodded in eager agreement. "We got to get out of the stench."
      "Smmelllll," Ludo moaned, frowning so expressively that his eyes disappeared beneath his brow and the corners of his mouth reached the edges of his jawbone.
      "Stench?" Sir Didymus inquired. "Of what speakest thou?"
      "The smell!" Sarah removed a hand from her mouth to point at the air.
      Sir Didymus took several keen sniff, sampled them in his nostrils, and shook his head, puzzled. "I smell nothing."
      "You're joking," Hoggle told him.
      Politely, Sir Didymus applied himself to understand their problem. Holding himself erect, he ventilated his nostrils with several cubicfeet of air. He shook his head again. "I live by my sense of smell. Yet I detect nothing."
      The others, nauseated and dumbfounded, stared at him while he continued to inhale deeply. "The air," he pronounced, "is sweet and fragrant." Gripping his staff, he added, "And none may pass without my permission."
      Ludo threw back his head, and howled.
      "S-M-M-E-L-L-L-L B-A-A-D!"
      Hoggle barked, "Get out of the way!" and attempted to rush past and over the bridge.
      Sir Didymus raised his staff and stood in the way. "I warn thee. I am sworn to do my duty."
      Hoggle was desperate. He put his head down and charged. But Sir Didymus, moving agilely on his feet, arrested him with the point of his staff held intimidatingly at Hoggle's breast.
      Ludo, bemused by the whole affair, was galvanized into activity when he saw one whom Sarah called "friend" being threatened. He advanced his great body toward Sir Didymus, pointed at Hoggle, and in a voice of reproach declared, "Friend."
      "Then have at thee, too." With reckless gallantry, Sir Didymus launched himself at Ludo, flashing his staff in a dazzling series of thrusts. Ludo was forced to retreat.
      Hoggle took the opportunity to dive around behind Sir Didymus, and make a run for the bridge, but the dauntless defender of the true faith was ready for him. In a bound he was back in position, his staff leveled at Hoggle.
      While Hoggle screeched to a halt, then took several careful steps away again, Sir Didymus was flaring his proud nostrils and taking deep breaths. He appreciated fresh air, but most of all he was enjoying the exercise. Not many travelers passed that way, and fewer still were prepared to test his knightly skills by trying to force their way over the bridge. In fact, no one had ever tried it before.
      Sir Didymus had practiced his staffplay, ready for this moment. Now that it had arrived, it was a delicious treat. His blood thrilled and his sinew stiffened as he enacted the chivalric code of courage against all odds. This was the life. This was what he had been born for and sworn most solemnly to uphold. He would gladly have fought off a hundred Hoggles and a thousand Ludos, had such an army come tramping along and ventured the crossing of his bridge. He wished devoutly that such a horde would come, properly armed for the combat. How might a knight prove his valor, except it be tested?
      Sarah walked forward. In a reasonable tone of voice, she pleaded, "Oh, look, let us cross your bridge, won't you?"
      Sir Didymus answered her with his staff, lunging forward with one knee bent and brandishing the stick several times in front of her, using his wrist dexterously. Sarah recoiled.
      This was more than Ludo could stand to see. With a great roar of anger he set about Sir Didymus. The tiny knight responded vigorously, with lunge and thrust. Deft footwork danced him out of reach of Ludo's massive swipes. Sir Didymus made adroit use of the terrain, skipping on and off the parapet of the pier, tripping nimbly along the very brink of the bog. As for Ludo, he had no finesse, but his ire and the strength of his bulk kept him shuffling after his adversary, ignoring the bruises that were inflicted upon him. Had just one of Ludo's blows landed, it would have been enough to knock Sir Didymus clean over the bog.
      While the fight went on and on, Hoggle craftily seized his opportunity to scuttle across the bridge. Sarah watched him with dismay. He was just looking after himself again. There was little that he, or she, could do to assist, but she felt strongly that they owed Ludo their moral support.
      Bits of the bridge fell off as Hoggle pounded over it. The whole structure shook and rattled.
      At least Hoggle had the decency to stop, when he reached the far bank, and watch the rest of the epic battle. Sarah had expected him to vanish into the forest. Perhaps she was winning the battle with Hoggle's thick skin. Gradually, she was getting through to him.
      The present battle was still locked. Holding her nose, Sarah cheered Ludo on, but there was no sign of victory for either side. Sir Didymus swung his staff, Ludo grabbed it and wrenched. Instead of being disarmed, Sir Didymus clung on, and was carried up into the air, legs kicking. Ludo lost hold of the twisting stick, and Sir Didymus thudded to the ground. He was up and at it again like a rubber ball, thwacking away at Ludo's shaggy legs.
      Surprised by the minuscule martinet's ferocity, Ludo stood off for a moment, whereupon Sir Didymus took the opportunity to dive between his opponent's legs, crawl up his tail, as though storming a battlement, and belabor the back of Ludo's head. With a jerk of his neck, Ludo threw Sir Didymus clean over his head, then peered left and right for his plucky opponent, who was holding on to Ludo's whiskers and dangling beneath his chin. Ludo felt an itch and raised his hand to scratch it. He got Sir Didymus's teeth in his finger. With a howl, Ludo flicked his hand. Sir Didymus was shaken off and flew through the air until he hit the cliff. He was bouncing back in a trice, buzzing with the chance all this was giving him at last to prove his mettle.
      Now Ludo had found a log and was crashing it down at Sir Didymus, but it was like trying to swat a fly with a club. All it did was make pits in the shoal. Sir Didymus took cover under the exposed roots of a mangy tree. Ludo advanced and brought the log down with such force that he smashed the roots and the tree keeled over.
      For a moment, there was a stillness. Ludo gaped. He had killed the little knight. He sighed, feeling wretched, till Sir Didymus darted out of a hole in the trunk of the tree.
      Both of them were exhausted by now. Sir Didymus's legs were too tired to risk getting close enough to wound Ludo. Ludo could not swipe fast enough to hit Sir Didymus.
      Eventually it was the diminutive chevalier who leaped back into his position on the bridge, raised his staff, sans peur et sans reproche, and gasped, "Enough! Thou fightest as a true and valiant knight."
      Ludo gratefully accepted the truce. He sat down on his haunches, panting, and when he had recovered his breath he used it to bellow, "S-M-M-E-L-L-L-L!"
      Sir Didymus regarded him with admiration. "Before this day," quoth he, "Never have I met my match in combat." He smiled ruefully at Sarah. "Yet this noble knight has fought me to a standstill, quite."
      Sarah's concern was all for Ludo. "Are you all right?" she asked him tenderly. "Ludo?"
      Ludo was still recovering. "Uhhh..."
      Sir Didymus marched, wearily but still smartly, to confront his equal in combat. "Sir Ludo, if that be thy name," he declared. "Here I yield my staff to thee." He held it out before him.
      Ludo glanced at the staff without much interest. He was preparing to utter yet another howl about the stench, in the hope that someone could do something about it. He opened his mouth.
      Sir Didymus continued his speech. "Let us be brothers henceforth, and fight for the right as one."
      Ludo's mouth remained open, but he postponed the howl. His face, beaming, came down to regard Sir Didymus. "Ludo - get - brother?"
      The pocket-sized poursuivant, bushy tail erect, went to clap his brother-in-arms on the shoulder, which he could just reach since Ludo was almost prone. "Well met, Sir Ludo."
      "Ludo - sir?"
      Sarah thought she would soon die if she had to go on breathing in the fetid air. She was trying not to breathe at all. Seeing that the two noble knights had apparently reached a satisfactory agreement, she said, "Good. Come on, then."
      She made for the bridge, but Sir Didymus was there before her, blocking the way. "Hold!" he cried. "You forget my sacred vow, milady. I cannot let you pass."
      It wasn't possible. Sarah thought she might pick the little figure up and hurl him far into the bog. But he had raised his staff again and was holding it toward her. "Oh..." She made a noise of frustration through her pinched nose. "You said Ludo was your brother. Surely in that case..."
      Sir Didymus replied with a firm shake of his head. "I have taken an oath. I must defend it to the death."
      "SMELL!" Ludo bayed.
      Sarah closed her eyes and gave it some thought. "Okay," she said, "let's handle this thing logically. What exactly have you sworn?"
      Sir Didymus raised his staff high above his head and gazed up at it devoutly. "With my lifeblood have I sworn, that none shall pass this way without my permission."
      Sarah nodded. "Ah," she said, and considered the point. "Then," she asked slowly, "may we have your permission?"
      Complete silence followed her question. Sir Didymus was thunderstruck. He tried looking at the proposition from one side, then from the other. He turned it upside down and inside out. He went away from it and came back to take a fresh look at it. No matter how he tried it, he could see no flaw in what Sarah had suggested. Finally, he shrugged, drew himself up straight, and delivered his considered conclusion. "Yes."
      "Good," Sarah said, trying not to breathe deeply with relief. "Shall we go?" She gestured past Sir Didymus to the bridge. At the far side of it she could see Hoggle still waiting.
      Sir Didymus executed a gallant bow, and offered her the bridge with a flourish of his hand. "Milady."
      "Well, thank you, noble sir," Sarah said, and stepped onto the rickety bridge.