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The Castle in the Woods

Chapter Text

Sarah changed out of the horrid white gown as soon as she could, wishing she could abandon her memories of Jareth just as quickly. It helped to ground herself in normalcy; the familiar tasks of sweeping out the kitchen and organizing the pantry made her feel a little better, even if she felt like she was going to drop from exhaustion. Sleeping against the wall hadn’t helped either.

“Girl, go to sleep,” Agnes ordered when she saw Sarah’s eyes close for just a beat too long. “You are dead on your feet.”

“But I…” Sarah glanced up at the ceiling, where she knew Jareth would be sleeping a few floors above.

Agnes picked Toby up and bounced him on her hip, pinning Sarah with a stare that brooked no discussion. “Go to sleep. When you wake up, you will need the energy to run fast and run far from this place. Let me worry about the details,” she coaxed. Sarah found herself nodding, wishing for the relaxation of rest. If she couldn’t be free of Jareth immediately, perhaps she could be in dreams. She fell asleep to the noise of Toby babbling at Agnes and bumblebees buzzing at the window.

Sarah woke to Agnes shaking her shoulder. Her heart pounded and the sound of panic-rushed blood roared through her ears. For a moment, her nightmare of being trapped with Jareth bled into the waking world, and it took her a moment to compose herself.

“You’re nervous, good,” Agnes said with a nod. “Means you’ll be vigilant. Look, it is just turning noon. We will have a few hours before the mater wakes; we must be prepared.”

Sarah nodded, but didn’t have time to say anything before Agnes was shoving a basket in her hands.

“There’s something we need from the forest. It’s an herb. It grows tall, with large, pointed leaves.” Agnes drew the pattern on Sarah’s palm with a blunt nail. “And it has white flowers with a dark purple middle. They grow on the stem like an upside-down bluebell.”

Sarah listened raptly, committing it all to memory. “But what is it?”

“I am not going to tell you the name; if you know it, then you might accidentally let it slip, and all our efforts will be wasted.” Sarah felt the reproval in the woman’s words and cast her eyes to the ground, only looking up when Agnes placed gardening gloves in her basket.

“Bring me that plant, and a little bit of whatever happens to catch your eye. Let’s disguise our movements, eh?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said with a nervous grin. She wasn’t stupid; she knew the plant was meant to harm or disable the master of the castle in some way, and if Agnes didn’t even want her touching it, then it must be potent. Sarah slipped the gloves onto her hands, rested the basket in the crook of her arm, and kissed Toby on his forehead. She looked away sharply when he opened his eyes and stared at her with his mismatched gaze. Fury coiled in her stomach.

He’ll pay , she told herself. And she didn't particularly care how.

Sarah slid the gloves on and crept out the kitchen door; she knew she didn’t need to worry about being spotted--Jareth would be asleep for a few more hours yet--and none of her other friends in the castle would stop her. But even with that in mind, she stuck to the shadows and tried to walk as quickly and quietly as possible. She prayed that she would not run into Sir Didymus or Ludo, though she loved them both dearly; the fox knight had a habit of broadcasting his actions, and the beast, though gentle, was far too large to try and sneak anywhere with. She wove her way around the hedge maze, remembering how Jareth grabbed her face so hard as to leave bruises. She set her jaw and quickened her pace, setting her eyes on the forest. Somewhere within was the answer to her troubles.

“Watch where yer goin’, girl!” cried a voice from her feet. Sarah stumbled, trying not to step on Hoggle, who was, as usual, hunting for pesky fairies among the roots of the flowers he tended.

Sarah mumbled out an apology and adjusted the handle of the basket on her arm. It wouldn’t do to tarry by talking, but at the same time…

“Hoggle, Agnes has me searching for a specific flower. She said that it would be in the forest; would you mind helping me find it?” She couldn’t help the glance up to the tallest tower of the castle, the one with all of the windows drawn shut.

Where she knew he would be.

Hoggle narrowed his eyes at her and crossed his arms.

“Seems you’re in a hurry. Best to be going, then,” he said, motioning for her to follow him. “And while we’re walkin’ you might as well tell me what we’re looking for.”

Sarah signed in relief.

“Well, I can’t really say,” she admitted. “Agnes did not tell me what it was called, only what it looked like.” She dropped the volume of her speech as she described it to him, as if there was something listening. She didn’t need to be told that just because she couldn’t see anything didn’t mean there wasn’t something lurking.

Hoggle nodded at her description and bid her to follow him on a path through the forest that she couldn’t see.

“I know the plant,” he said, wringing his hands together. “And I’ve got an idea of what Agnes wants ‘ta do with it; don’t mean I like it, mind. I’m a coward.” He nodded once as if to reinforce his proclamation. “But I also can’t let him hurt another person again. He’s a bad, bad man, Sarah, and I won’t let him touch ‘ya. Not even if things go back to the ways they were.” Hoggle scowled and paused a moment to ge this bearings.

“This way,” he said, taking a hard right further into the forest.

“I don’t think you’re a coward,” said Sarah, but she doubted her friend heard her. They walked in silence for a few more minutes while Sarah tried to figure out what Hoggle meant by his words.

“There it is,” he said, pointing a knobbly hand to the very plant Sarah was looking for. Just as Agnes described, it was white and purple, with the flowers growing on tall stalks. It was one of the strangest flowers Sarah had ever seen, but it didn’t look particularly dangerous, even if it did have a particularly unpleasant aroma.

“What is it?” she asked, forgetting Agnes’s earlier words.

“Henbane,” Hoggle grunted. “That’ll take care of him.” The flower itself wasn’t familiar to her, but the name was. Poison. Agnes intended to poison Jareth.

And Sarah couldn’t find it within herself to feel too badly about it. With a grim slant to her lips,Sarah carefully gathered the flower, from petal to root, while Hoggle turned his back. Damp dirt clung to the pale roots of the plant and dirtied her gloves. Thinking to disguise the henbane as Agnes suggested, Sarah plucked a few harmless blooms from the creeping vine winding up a nearby tree.

It was a long walk back to the kitchen, made longer by Sarah’s nervous energy. Every time a twig snapped or a bush rustled, she was sure it was Jareth come to foil her efforts. Every time a breath of wind breezed across her neck, she remembered his gloved hands and shuddered. Hoggle remained silent and grim all the way back, until he left her at the kitchen door. He nodded to Agnes, who nodded back in understood communication. Sarah thrust the basket out to Agnes, who took it from her hands. The sky was just beginning to glow a vibrant red, signaling the setting of the sun.

“There’s a bath drawn for you,” Agnes said, sounding more tired than Sarah had ever heard her before. “I’ve been given word that you’re meant to bathe and dress. I am to attend to your hair.”

Sarah’s heart hammered in her ears, a reminder that her nightmare from earlier in the day was very, very real. He was summoning her again, and if Agnes’s plan didn’t work…

Sarah felt slick dread coil in her stomach. Toby, oblivious to his sister’s distress, played with bread dough on the floor in front of the table. In their room behind him beckoned a brass bathtub half hidden behind a privacy screen, tendrils of steam rising just enough for her to see.

Resigned to her immediate fate, Sarah dunked herself in the steaming water and rubbed her skin raw. If she cried, her tears fell into her bathwater unheeded. She would have liked to say she didn’t cry, not a tear, but that would have been a lie.

Instead, she focused on how the soap was strongly scented with lilacs, and how she was sure she’d hate lilacs forever.

But eventually the water cooled, and she could no longer hold off getting out and preparing for her next encounter. Agnes helped to dry her hair--Sarah found that anxiety made her clumsy--and laced up her new gown. Like the last it was white and glittering, but unlike the last, every last inch of it was covered in pearls and crystals. When Sarah moved in it, she sent glints of light dancing around the room.

“You could sell this and make enough to live off,” Agnes pointed out as Sarah picked at a pearl on her sleeve. Sarah heard her but did not respond; it was difficult to think of a future when she felt like she was being dressed in fine silks only to be sent to the slaughter. Or the wedding bed.

She wasn’t sure which one was worse.

She didn’t react when Agnes curled her hair with a heated iron rod, but she eyed the silver headdress nervously. It was exactly like something a fairy princess would wear, and that terrified her. In all of the stories she’d heard, in all of the warnings her mother whispered to her late at night, it was always the fairy princess who got a terrible deal. Forced to marry a troll, or forced to marry a human, or forced from her home when she pricked her finger on iron--always, always forced to do something against her will. And as soon as she was sent off, her part in the story ended. Sarah never heard of a fairy princess returning. And Sarah knew that if she was forced to stay, forced to play family with Jareth, that her desires--her will--would be ignored, and she would be crushed into submission.

She did not want the gilded, finely-worked crown. Her tears started anew.

“Agnes, please,” she choked out, grabbing the woman by her sleeves. Agnes did not respond, only poured the recently boiling water from the kettle into a large teapot after shaking Sarah off.

Into the tea caddy she poured the crushed leaves and berries, which she’d dried as well as she could on a tray over the fire. The leaves still stunk a bit, but the berries smelled sweet.

“Make his breakfast tea out of this,” Agnes said, “but do not drink it yourself.” Onto the breakfast tray she placed the small tea tray, complete with tea caddy, tea pot, and two tea cups along with his normal breakfast.

“Make sure he drinks at least a cup,” Agnes said. Sarah nodded, trying to keep her hands from shaking. She was going to do it; she was going to poison the master of the castle.

“Hurry along, now.”

Sarah didn’t need telling twice. She remembered through her haze of fear how to get back to his rooms, and could only hope that her appearance would not be interpreted as an invitation. She tried not the shudder again as she knocked on his door.

“Come in,” he said, she she was only a little relieved to hear to jovial tone in his voice.

“I have breakfast,” she said, hoping to lure him out of his bedroom.

“And I have a table. Anne, come in.”

Sarah gritted her teeth but schooled her face into a gentle smile after her moment of frustration. As long as he went on thinking Anne was her real name, she had at least a measure of safety. Using her elbow to push down on the door handle, she let it swing open so she wouldn’t have to let go of the tray with one hand. She didn’t want to risk spilling any of the tea.

“Marvelous,” he said, but Sarah couldn’t be sure if he was talking about the appearance of his food or her. Instead of responding, she pressed her lips into a thin line, placing the serving tray down on a little table.

“You have eggs, ham, toast, and tea,” she said, pointing to each in turn, hoping to draw his attention to everything equally so nothing else would specifically stand out. “I’ll pour some of the tea, shall I?”

Sarah didn’t wait for his response, and instead spooned a generous helping of the henbane tea Agnes prepared into the waiting teapot. Almost immediately the water colored--the woman had probably mixed the henbane in with some black tea to mask the taste. Sarah relaxed ever so slightly.

“Now, to business,” Jareth said, having already plated his own food. “I believe it is fair to say that you have enjoyed your time here,” he said, and however much Sarah wanted to dispute his words, there was at least some truth to them. She had enjoyed the week she’d spent within the castle before she drew his attention; that much, at least, was true. The time since he’d discovered her, however…

“Eat something, Anne,”he ordered. “You seem so nervous ; perhaps something to eat will put you at ease.”

Knowing she couldn’t refuse a direct order, not if she wanted him to keep thinking her name was Anne, she selected a slice of toast and spread some fruit preserve on it. He seemed put at rest as well, watching her eat; she wondered if he was aware that some part of his breakfast had been tampered with.

“And since I have been so generous as to allow you and your brother to live at my castle, I believe a discussion as to how you will repay me is in order.”

She almost grimaced, wanting to remind him that she hadn’t been living without repayment; she’d cleaned the kitchens and the lower floors of the castle, or helped Hoggle with the gardening when he couldn’t reach something. It was only in his mind that he was being generous. Sarah glanced back inside the teapot and was glad to see that the tea had steeped long enough to pour it. Without waiting to see if he even wanted any, Sarah poured two cups of the poisoned tea.

“Here,” she offered the teacup out to him, glad to see that her hands weren’t shaking with the nerves she felt.

“Take a sip, Anne,” he ordered with a tilt of his head. Sarah brought the teacup to her lips and without letting herself think too hard on it, took a small sip. The tea didn’t taste too off, at least--perhaps a bit sweet, but that was it. Before she could settle the teacup in her hands, he reached out and plucked it from her grasp. Somehow he managed to avoid spilling any of the tea inside.

Sarah wanted to look brave, but found she had to stare down at her hand rather than watch him inspect the rim of the cup to find the exact place she’d had her lips. There was something deeply unpleasant about watching him place his mouth where she’d had hers a moment ago.

She felt a sharp sense of victory as she watched him drain his cup and then pour himself another.

“Is this a new blend?” he asked.

“I had it prepared myself earlier today,” she said, feeling bold. “I do hope you like it.” He hummed in assent and brought the cup to his lips again. With every sip he took, Sarah felt her freedom inching closer. She took her own teacup filled with poison and held it in her lap.

“Now, about your repayment,” he said. “I have dressed you in fine clothes; I have provided you with food; you have slept under my roof. Many people would agree, little Anne, that you belong to me.”

Sarah placed her teacup on the table so that she wouldn’t break it out of anger.

“Well,” she started, knowing she should probably be quiet and let him live in his delusion. She didn’t get to complete her thought, however, as his teacup fell out of his hands and shattered on the floor. Jareth blinked once, twice, and then listed to the side, slumping over in his chair.

“Anne,” he growled. “What have you done?”

“Nothing,” she said, trying to keep the tremor from her voice. Jareth slumped over more, sending his plate of eggs and bacon clattering to the floor.

“Nothing you haven’t deserved,” she hissed, feeling braver, standing slowly so that she could dash out of his reach if she needed to. “Nothing you haven’t earned.” Sarah stepped over him and over to his single open window. As if pulled by marionette strings, she latched it shut. Her hands shook, but if it was because of the poison or the terror of murdering someone, she couldn’t tell.

Jareth was curled up on the floor, the most undignified she’d ever seen him looking. His wild mane of hair was half stuck to his neck and forehead with his sweat; if he had been anybody else, Sarah would have tried to help. Even knowing who he was, she still fought the urge to comfort him.

“Never touch me again,” she said, pulling her skirts out of his grasp. He groaned and tried to reach out to her again, but she stepped away from him and picked up a candle sitting on the sideboard. Luckily for her, it was lit.

She didn’t feel like she needed to say anything more; what she already said would likely haunt her for the rest of her life as it was, and she did not feel the need to add to it.

“Anne,” Jareth ground out, he voice raspy from pain. “Get back here at once. Do not leave me . Anne!”

“My name is not Anne,” Sarah said. “You have no power over me.” And without letting herself think too hard on it, she dropped the candle. The flame leaped to the thick rug on the floor and smoldered there before starting to inch outwards.

Before she could second guess her actions, Sarah closed the door behind her and wedged it shut so that he couldn’t follow her. The sound of his furious screaming followed her as she fled down the corridor and into the kitchens.

By the time she made it back down to Agnes, the first tendrils of smoke had arrived as well. Agnes was pacing just outside the door, holding Toby; she took one look at Sarah and sighed.

“Fire as well, Sarah?”

“I had to be sure,” Sarah replied, taking Toby from Agnes’s arms. “I had to know he wouldn’t follow us.”

“Yes, well,” Agnes said, sounding distracted. “Everyone else is waiting for us at the edge of the forest; we all agreed that we would accompany you as far as we could. Hurry, now!”

Sarah did not need to be told twice. She dashed after Anges as quickly as she could while holding Toby and wearing her ridiculous skirts. Nestled as he was into her shoulder, Toby startled Sarah when he screamed. She almost dropped him in fright, but kept her grip strong; she didn’t have enough time to stop and look at him. There was precious little time to get as much distance between herself and the castle as possible; she did not want to tarry.

“I’m sorry, Toby. I’m so, so sorry,” she tried to soothe him, but his screaming only continued.

Until it stopped.

That was what made Sarah stop dead in her tracks. That, and the fact that Ludo stood in front of her trembling.

“Ludo?” Sarah whispered, but Hoggle held her back.

“The magic,” he rasped out. “It’s giving out. He’s dead. You did it, girl.”

It should have been a cause for celebration. It should have relieved Sarah that the feared master of the castle was dead. But it didn’t.

Because as she watched, Ludo’s skin rippled and shifted, and within a minute a bear stood in front of her. She stumbled backwards, staring in horror at her friend who had been so gentle. The bear stood on its hind legs and sniffed the air, turning to stare at her. She stared back.

“Ludo,” she whispered. “It’s me. Sarah.”

The bear took one step towards her, then two, then dropped down to all fours. If bears could look confused, she thought this one did. It sniffed the air once more, and then turned its back and trundled off.  Beside her, Didymus shifted into a wild fox with a yelp, and with a groan and a curse, Hoggle shifted into a toad. Ambrosius remained a dog, and remained uninterested in Agnes, even as she turned into a lanky grey cat.

“No,” said Sarah, holding Toby to her tight. “No, no, no, this can’t be.”

It took two, maybe three heartbeats for her friends to turn into animals. Sarah stared at the cat and dog, all that remained of the creatures that did their best to shelter her in the castle. There was nothing left; she resolved to cry about it later.

For now, she had to go home.

The bodies of her parents were flung outside the cottage door. The scene was strangely bloodless, a gift from the forest insects, but Sarah knew their deaths had not been painless. A high keen started in her throat; tears had been rolling down her cheeks every since she’d stepped into the clearing, which felt like only seconds since she left the castle. It hadn’t been.

Sarah held Toby’s head against her chest, desperate to keep him from seeing what she could barely force herself to look upon. Her tears fell freely and obscured her vision, which was both a boon and a curse. When she stumbled on something while entering the cottage, she didn’t look down to see what it was.

It had only been a little over a week, perhaps two since she last saw the inside of her childhood home, but it had changed so much since then. Or she had--she no longer felt like a child. It was empty, and cold, and already collecting a layer of dust. The mice had moved in quickly enough; she heard them rustling in the walls.

“Well, Toby,” she whispered to him, feeling beaten down, tired, sore, and pretending at bravery. “What are we going to do now?”