A.C.H.Smith. The Labyrinth. Chapter 17: Saints And Whiskers

      Goblin City was a shantytown, numbering about ten blocks of ramshackle houses, hiding in each other's shadows, with winding lanes between them. The buildings rose to sharply pointed eaves or conical thatch roofs. The windows penetrating the walls were so higgledy-piggledy that from the outside you might wonder if the houses had floors at all. Most of the buildings were decorated in the Goblin Grotesque style, timber trimmed to a rising point like a waxed mustache, goblinomorphic feet or horns carved into a pediment. The cat-prowled lanes were littered with scraps of food tossed from the windows, and other garbage so rotten that it would be an unsavory task to analyze what it had once been.
      The place was huddled in the shadow of the castle, which rose behind it in bonnet-towered and turreted splendor. A wide flight of steps, the main entrance to the castle, faced the inner gates of the courtyard, and must have formed an imposing approach before the shantytown had risen up to interrupt the vista.
      Sir Didymus on Ambrosius, Hoggle, Sarah, and Ludo tiptoed through the marketplace just inside the gates. It was dawn and the city was apparently fast asleep. Seeing the castle looming up ahead of them, they made their way quietly through the lanes toward it. Here and there they crept past a snoozing goblin, propped against a wall.
      Sir Didymus cleared his throat and announced, loudly, "This stealth is alien to my nature."
      "Ssshhh!" Sarah told him.
      "Quiet, yer windbag!" Hoggle added, in a growl.
      "Sorry, fair maid," Sir Didymus apologized, in a voice hardly lowered at all. "I know not the word fear."
      "I know," Sarah answered, "but I do."
      "And I does, too," Hoggle added. "Shush!"
      Beyond the shantytown, they came into an open square. The steps up to the castle were on the far side. Everything was still eerily quiet. They began to walk softly toward the steps.
      Sarah's heart was pounding. "We're going to make it," she whispered.
      "Piece of cake," Hoggle told her.
      He should have known better. When he had heard her use that phrase, the penalty had been the slashing machine. This time, it was war. A bugle sounded, and from both sides of the square the goblin army suddenly came charging at them, with pounding feet and clanking armor and a weird, ululating war cry. Scores of helmeted heads could be seen scuttling along the lower ramparts of the castle. There was only one thing to do: run for it. And there was only one way to run - back into town.
      The armies were issuing from twin corridors, which curved around the sides of the main steps so that their exits faced each other. A platoon of bombardiers trundled a cannon in the vanguard of each army, and as the corridors were on an incline, and the cannons were heavy, and the trundling was enthusiastic, the cannon platoons were going to collide unless they hauled back hard. Which they did. Unavailingly, however, for the press of infantry and cavalry behind them drove them inexorably on. As the four invaders raced for the cover of the town, they heard a stupendous smash, like a thousand empty cans crashing together. They turned around, and watched wave upon wave of the goblin soldiers piling upon top of each other. On the ramparts, an inaudible bugler was red in the face with blowing the charge.
      Jareth was standing perpendicular at a window of the castle, watching the action. He winced, almost imperceptibly.
      Hoggle led Sarah, Ludo, and the mounted Sir Didymus in a sprint along the mazy lanes of the town. Goblin heads popped out of the windows above them to watch. Sir Didymus was protesting, "We must stand and fight them face to face. It is the only honorable..."
      Hoggle suddenly stopped, his arms spread wide in warning. The rest halted behind him. At the far end of the street, a detachment of goblins appeared facing them, spiky with spears.
      "Uh-oh," Sarah muttered. "This could be it."
      "Fear not, sweet damsel," Sir Didymus told her. "These puny goblins are no match for Sir Didymus." He raised his staff, and was about to charge the army single-handed when Ambrosius wheeled around and bolted again. This time, his rider managed to stay in the saddle and, after touring the streets, brought Ambrosius back to where they had started.
      Sarah called urgently from a doorway. "In here!"
      She had found a deserted house in which to make a stand. It was built like a tower.
      Reluctantly, Sir Didymus dismounted and led Ambrosius inside. Sarah slid the bolt. She was grinning with excitement. However extreme the peril they were in, nothing would ever be as daunting as the old junk woman. "You hold the doorway," she told Sir Didymus. "Hoggle and I will guard that window. And you, Ludo - up on the roof."
      Ludo nodded obediently. "Ludo - up." He climbed the winding rungs of the stairs.
      "Look out!" Sarah cried suddenly. On the wall of the room, she had seen goblin shadows, snouted and horned, cast through the window by the rising sun. Sir Didymus at once took up his on-guard position beside the door. Sarah and Hoggle stood by a dresser full of china.
      Sarah called up the staircase. "Ludo, are you ready?"
      "Ludo - ready."
      A goblin smashed the window with his pike, and stuck his head inside to see who was in there. Sarah, standing to one side of the window, brought a dinner plate down upon his head. He collapsed onto the windowsill and rolled outside.
      Another took his place. Another plate served the same purpose.
      At once, a third head was poked in. This one had time to peer at the defenders. "Hoggle!" the goblin exclaimed. "You used to be with us."
      "Yes," Hoggle agreed, and broke a teapot on the goblin's helmeted head.
      Another ugly head took its turn at the window, and another, and as fast as their pointed ears and jagged teeth appeared they were stunned by Sarah or Hoggle.
      Sir Didymus was watching with mixed feeling. He had to hand it to the girl, she was doughty, and she might make a decent commander of horse one day. On the other hand, she had posted her most valorous knight inside a bolted wooden door, where nothing at all was going to happen. Inexperience, that was all it was. He was wondering whether to disobey orders and join them at the window when an axhead shaped like a trefoil splintered the door. Through the crack it had made, he saw mad red eyes watching him and heard voices talking rapidly.
      This was more like it. He squared up. Then, through the crack, he saw half a dozen goblins charging with a battering ram. In a trice, he slid the bolt back and opened the door. As the ram went past him at full tilt he dealt with each of its bearers adroitly with a thrust of his trusty staff. "Have at thee!" he hollered excitedly. "En garde, sirrah!"
      He slammed the door shut and bolted it again, and was trying to use the battering ram to shore up the splintered door when it was burst open by a fresh squad of goblins. He had no time to grab his staff. They leaped upon him, pinioned him face down to the ground, and, holding his hair, began to bash his nose on the floor. After a while, they paused to examine their work.
      "Ha!" Sir Didymus shouted tauntingly. "Had enough, have ye? Craven curs, how little it takes to subdue varlets such as ye are!"
      They started to give him another bashing for that, but Sarah had seen what was going on. A well-aimed chamber pot sent the goblins flying, and in a moment Sir Didymus was standing over them. "Saints and whiskers!" he exclaimed. "Is it worth splintering my staff to dispatch the likes of ye?"
      Sarah and Hoggle were still holding the window, but their reserve of crockery was running low, and the horde of goblins was not abating. When there were no more dinner plates, jugs, or soup bowls, they had to use teacups and saucers, but sometimes it took two of those to deal with each goblin.
      Another one of them had time to recognize Hoggle. "What have we done to you?" the goblin asked.
      "Not me," Hoggle replied. "Her - you stole her baby brother."
      "So we stole a baby! That's what goblins do. You know that, Hog -"
      His sentence was ended by a soup tureen that Hoggle had been saving for a special occasion.
      On the roof of the tower, Ludo was showered with spears. He simply ducked below the parapet. Then a detachment of commando goblins stormed the outside walls of the tower, clambering up ladders with the idea of overwhelming Ludo. He was not readily overwhelmable, kicking them down to the ground one by one as they reached the top of the ladders and peered over the parapet. The artillery was called up. From a cannon, a goblin with a spiked helmet was fired at Ludo. The outcome was that the goblin's helmet was impaled in the mud wall of a nearby house, leaving him stuck out behind it, flapping his limbs.
      Sir Didymus was listening keenly. Outside the door, he could hear two goblins conversing. "She's got brains," one said.
      "Yes," the other replied. "I could do with brains like hers."
      "So could I," the first said. "To eat!"
      Sir Didymus was incensed. To hear them impugning so beautiful a damsel without mercy was more than his knightly honor could tolerate. Throwing open the door and leaping on Ambrosius's back, he cried, "Ye Goths and Vandals! Have at ye, then, for the foul blasphemers that ye are of a maiden's virtue."
      Sarah looked across and saw Sir Didymus level his staff and charge out.
      "No!" she cried. It was too late.
      Sir Didymus came back a moment later, on his back, head first. Ambrosius followed at a gallop.
      The peerless knight-in-arms was up and at them in an instant. This time, Ambrosius bolted with him all around the town again, until they came face to face with a bristling line of spears. More spears appeared behind them in the narrow lane.
      "Don't worry, Ambrosius," Sir Didymus told him. "I think we've got them surrounded."
      With a dazzlingly rapid series of thrusts, parries, and flicks, he disarmed all the adversaries in front of him, and charged triumphantly forward into a low porch beam, which unseated him from the saddle. By the time he was on his feet, he was hemmed in by spear points.
      "Ha!" he snarled. "Can't take any more, eh? Very well. Throw down your weapons, and I'll see to it that you're well treated."
      As the spears came down at him, he ran up one of them and vaulted back into the saddle, which unfortunately was no longer there, Ambrosius having once again taken the sensible course of action.
      Meanwhile, Sarah had an idea. "Ludo," she shouted, "call the rocks!"
      The noise of the battle was too loud for Ludo, at the top of the house, to hear her. She would have to go up to him. "Hoggle, retreat!" she called. "Up the stairs."
      "You first," he called back.
      She did as he said. Hoggle followed her.
      Sir Didymus, hard pressed, ran into the house just in time to cover their retreat. He came up the stairs backward, ceding one step at a time, fending off his attackers with cut and passado.
      Sarah raced up to the top of the tower. "Ludo," she panted. "Call the rocks. Call the rocks, Ludo."
      Ludo did not need the second bidding. He threw his great head back, closed his eyes, and bellowed longer and louder than an alpine horn.
      The tower quivered and the earth shuddered. A distant rumbling was heard. Bits fell off the castle walls.
      While they were waiting for the rocks to arrive, their immediate position was perilous. Sir Didymus could not hold back the invaders for much longer. Ludo had kicked away the scaling ladders, and so they were going to be trapped at the top of the tower unless there was some way down the outside. Not even Ludo's friends the rocks could help them up there.
      Sarah looked over the parapet. All the goblins were congregated at the front of the house, struggling to get in after those who were forcing Sir Didymus back. The lane behind the house was empty, which gave Sarah an idea.
      Just below the tower roof she had passed a room with two beds in it. The goblins had not yet advanced that far. She ran down. "Hold them back for as long as you can, Sir Didymus," she called.
      "'Twill be the greatest pleasure of my life, fair maid," he called back up to her.
      Swiftly, Sarah knotted sheets and blankets together in a rope. Then she ran back up to the tower roof, tied one end of the rope to a column of the parapet and threw the rest over the side. She looked down and was relieved to see it reached nearly to the ground. "You first, Hoggle," she said.
      He hesitated. "I'm a coward."
      "No, you're not."
      He paused, almost smiling. "You're right. I'm not. Funny, I always thought I was." He grasped the rope, stood on the parapet, and shinned down to the ground. Then he held the rope to anchor it for Sarah. She followed him down.
      "Ludo!" she called. "You next! Tell Sir Didymus to come after you."
      Seeing the bulk of Ludo loom above the parapet, she crossed her fingers and prayed that the rope would bear his weight. She could barely watch.
      It was all right. Ludo came down, a little too fast, scorching his paws, but he landed safely on the ground.
      Now it was for Sir Didymus to make good his escape. The three of them, their heads craned back, saw the tiny puissant chevalier come onto the parapet with his back turned and his staff arm working hard. With his free hand he took hold of the rope and let himself a few inches down the outside of the tower. Then they saw him raise his staff and unhitch the rope from the parapet. He plummeted.
      Sarah pressed her hands to her cheeks. Her mouth opened in horror.
      But the resourceful knight knew what he was doing. With his staff hand he grabbed the other side of the sheet, and spread his arms wide. The air filled the sheet, and he parachuted gently down beside his friends.
      Sarah used the breath she had been holding to gasp, "Sir Didymus! What did you do that for?"
      "Prithee, sweet damsel," Sir Didymus answered, "wilt thou raise thy lovely eyes aloft?"
      Sarah looked up, and saw a ring of baffled goblin faces staring angrily down from the top of the tower.
      "Thou wouldst not have wished them to join our company, wouldst thou?" Sir Didymus asked, his eyes twinkling.
      During their escape, the rumbling of the rocks had grown into an oceanic roar. They came rolling across the plain by the hundreds, answering Ludo's call, and when they hit the outer walls of the city they built themselves up until the next to arrive could just roll up the slope and vault inside. Soon they filled the streets, knocking goblins down like tenpins and ruthlessly pursuing those who fled. There was no hiding place. The boulders crashed through the doors of houses where the army had taken cover, and when the goblins jumped spread-eagled out of windows, the rocks were close behind them. Whole platoons of goblins were walled up by rocks stacked against doors.
      The artillery commander, knowing no other way to fight, ordered the cannon to be loaded and discharged at the invaders. Just as the fuse was ignited, a rock stuffed itself into the mouth of the cannon, which exploded, leaving the commander a blackened, ragged scarecrow.
      Sarah led her friends back through the chaotic town to the square in front of the castle. A couple of stray halberdiers boldly confronted them before the steps. From behind them, Sarah heard a loud rumbling. She whipped around and screamed. A boulder was rolling at them. It leapfrogged them and dropped splat on the halberdiers.
      "Rocks - friends," Ludo remarked, with a touch of pride.
      At the top of the steps was a tall, narrow, grotesquely carved door, the ceremonial entrance. Sarah pushed at it. It was locked and solid.
      Ludo walked past her and broke the door down as though it were matchwood.
      Inside the castle, a grand corridor ran ahead of them, and at the far end of it, through an open door, they could see the throne, with the vulture squatting above it.
      "Toby," Sarah whispered, and ran to fetch him. If Jareth were there, he could not stop her now. Nothing could.
      The chamber was deserted. In the middle of it was a cradle, empty. The clock showed three minutes to thirteen. On his perch, the vulture shifted from foot to foot. He opened his beak and made a noise like ghastly laughter.