It wasn’t that she wasn’t hungry, Sarah reasoned to herself. It was that Toby was probably even hungrier, and he was still just a baby to boot. He couldn’t walk more than a few steps without stopping to wobble, and he only used a small handful of words confidently. He was still growing; she was not--at least, not as much. Sarah didn’t really know when people stopped growing, but she supposed that fifteen was as good a time as any, and both her her parents had been short, anyway. So it made much more sense for her to split at least some of her meals with her baby brother to make sure that he was getting enough to eat so that he could grow up all the way.
And it wasn’t that her family was completely destitute either, but things were far from comfortable. More often than not they had squirrel stew for dinner, and the garden behind their cottage had turned into a major source of vegetables ever since her mother died. Sarah spent most of her days foraging for fruit, checking the traps her father set, mending clothes, or helping her father collect firewood to sell at the very edge of the forest.
Really, it was the forest’s fault they were all in the position they were in. When she was very, very little, Sarah remembered it being a better place. It wasn’t completely safe--no forest ever really truly was--but she didn’t have to make sure that the sun was bright before she went into the trees, and she never had to wonder about whether or not the shadows were actually shadows. Back then, people bought the firewood that her father cut down happily, and there were no ill effects when it was burned.
But something changed in the forest not too long after her father remarried. It wasn’t the fault of her stepmother, of course, but Sarah couldn’t help but to feel that the woman brought ill tidings all the same.
The first spot of trouble was when her father did not come back from his day of marking trees ready to be felled. Sarah waited up with her stepmother and infant brother all night, but her father did not return until late afternoon the next day. He swore he’d only been gone for a few minutes, and it took quite some time for him to start believing his daughter and new wife’s claims that he’d been gone a full day.
Her stepmother was the next victim, and she refused to go anywhere near the woods ever again after she returned from picking tomatoes one cloudy afternoon. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her hands shook as she explained to her husband that one of the shadows grabbed her. No amount of rationalizing that shadows were unlikely on a cloudy day could soothe the woman’s nerves; it had been Sarah’s job to tend to the garden ever since.
The real trouble began when people stopped ordering bushels of wood. The requests slowed to a trickle, and even then became rarer and rarer, until her father practically had to beg the townspeople to buy from him again.
One evening he returned from market, his face stormy and his temper short. He was gruff with Sarah and irritated with his wife, who prodded him for answers and wanted to know what was so wrong that his mood was so sour.
“Magic,” he said, spitting out the word like bile. “That’s what. There’s something in the forest, and it’s infecting the trees. Makes it so the wood can’t be used to build. It can’t even be used to burn.” He scowled. “Frau Schneider said that the last time she burned our wood, the smoke shimmered and made everybody in the house fall asleep where they stood. Herr Lang said that nails worked their way out of his planks overnight. The whole barn he was trying to raise collapsed. Magic,” he said again, shaking his head. “All around the town, people are telling me about the magic in the forest and how they don’t want it near them. Well, we’re just fine, aren’t we? And we live right next to it!”
Sarah glanced at her stepmother nervously, but her stepmother ignored her. She wondered if the woman was thinking the same thing she was; they were not fine--they were very much not fine. But she dared not speak up. She knew well enough that her father was trying to convince himself more than anybody else, and she let it alone.
Now she wished she hadn’t let it alone. She was hungry and tired, and she knew her stepmother was plotting something. Sarah just didn’t know what yet, but she made it her mission to figure it out. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been good; whenever they happened to pass each other during their chores, her stepmother always looked vaguely guilty. Sometimes Sarah would catch her staring out into the forest. It unnerved her even more whenever her stepmother’s gaze landed on herself of Toby after that, almost like she was trying to link the children to the problem of the forest.
Sarah watched and waited for any sign of impending doom. For a long enough time, all seemed well--or well enough, anyway. Her father was able to sell a large order of wood to a travelling inventor, who seemed interested in studying the properties the wood was purported to have. He packed it up and took a large portion of it away, leaving her father’s purse full enough. The money lasted them well through the winter, when their garden couldn’t provide and game was scarce.
It was springtime that brought even more trouble. News had spread to the neighboring towns, and people refused to have any dealings whatsoever with Sarah’s father. Their money dwindled. Sarah got better at planting tomatoes and trapping small game. Her stepmother’s gaze grew hard and calculating.
“We can’t afford to feed so many mouths,” Sarah heard her say one evening when Sarah and Toby were meant to be in bed. “We can barely afford to feed the two of us; what are we meant to do with a half-grown girl and an infant boy?”
Her father mumbled something about them being his children, but his argument did not sound convincing. He was tired. They were all tired. You should fight for us, she wanted to shout at him. We are your family! But instead, she went back to the room she shared with her brother and was too afraid to fall asleep.
When she was asked to follow her father into the forest to help collect firewood, she didn’t think too much of it. After all, she was happy to help and prove her worth to her father and stepmother. Perhaps if she did well, the danger would pass. And Toby couldn’t be in any real danger anyway, she reasoned with herself. He was a baby. What could they expect him to do? So Sarah entered the forest and tried to be brave, even though the trees loomed taller than she remembered, and the shadows stretched out longer than she thought they had any right to. She took with her a canteen of water and a sandwich made of the bread she’d baked that morning and the salted pork that was left over from the winter.
Her father was silent as he marked off the trees that he would cut down later in the season, and even when he set to work felling one of the early ones, he did not ask for his daughter’s help. Sarah tried to be of use by collecting kindling that they could use for the rest of the week. Even though she strayed, she always, always made sure that she could hear her father’s ax ringing through the woods.
It wasn’t until the light in the woods started to dim that she realized she had strayed too far. She could no longer hear the steady sound of metal on tree that had filled her ears earlier, and her stomach rumbled with hunger. Even before she stood up straight to look around herself, she knew that she was completely and hopelessly lost. Sarah clutched the dry twigs she gathered to her chest as if they could provide any security whatsoever.
“Father?” she called out, hopeful that he might somehow still be nearby. Nobody answered, as Sarah expected, and that only made her feel worse. She remembered the shadows that had tried to grab her stepmother all those months ago and tried to stay in the patches of forest floor that still had some light; as the day went on and bled into night, that would become impossible. Sarah had to find her way home, and quickly.
But although she was the daughter of a woodcutter and had lived next to the forest her entire life, Sarah was not all that familiar with the paths within the forest. She knew that the tallest trees were at the center, and that there was no truth to the story that moss on a tree trunk could tell you which way was north, but she knew next to nothing else about navigation. And besides, she would have to climb one of the trees to see if there were any taller, and even knowing that she wasn’t in the middle of the forest wouldn’t necessarily help her get home.
Sarah took a few hesitant steps backwards, hoping that she had walked in a straight path the whole time and she would be able to find her way back to some marked trees. But it was to no avail; no matter how far she walked trying to retrace her path back to her father and, eventually, home, she only got more and more lost with every passing minute. Nothing that she could see was marked, and every tree looked the same to her. She couldn’t even tell if she was walking in circles or not.
“This might as well be a maze,” she said to herself, frowning. Sarah had to face the fact that she might be spending the night in the strange forest alone. The impossibility of her situation crashed down on her, and she sat on the ground, setting her kindling to the side. It wouldn’t do her any good to cry, so she brushed her tears away. Besides, crying would only make her thirsty, and she had only a little bit of water.
Thinking about what she had in her satchel with her reminded her that she was terribly hungry. It had been almost a full day since she left home, after all, and she hadn’t had much for breakfast. Deciding to focus on filling her stomach rather than her hopeless situation, Sarah pulled her sandwich out of her bag; she was about to take a bite to at of it when a small voice caught her attention.
“‘Ello,” it said, and Sarah almost dropped her food in surprise. She looked all around but couldn’t find the source of it and she wondered how quickly madness set in--if at all-when one was lost and alone in a magical forest.
“Down here, behind you,” it said, and Sarah followed the voice to where it came from, down around her right elbow.
“Did you say… ‘hello’?” she asked, wondering if the bright blue caterpillar creature was a figment of her imagination. It was wearing a little red scarf, after all; Sarah didn’t think the caterpillars she was familiar with wore scarves.
“No,” the caterpillar said, shaking its head so that the little blue tufts of hair waved from side to side. “I said ‘ello, but that’s close enough. You seem lost, dear. Why don’t you come inside? The missus has a fresh pot of tea on.”
Sarah blinked down at the creature. She didn’t think that she could fit inside the tree, but that was also the least of her problems.
“Oh, thank you, but I really must be getting home. It’s just that… You’re right, I’m lost. I’ve never been this far into the forest before, you see.”
The caterpillar nodded. “I ‘spected as much. Well, if that’s the case, why don’t you let me pop inside and call for help? Wouldn’t want a nice young girl like you stranded out here all night.”
And before she could thank the creature properly, it disappeared back into the tree through a chewed-out knot that she hadn’t noticed before. Sarah had a moment to think that if all creatures in the forest were this obliging, then perhaps magic wasn’t really all that bad. After all, something terrible and hungry could have happened upon her, and then where would she be?
Sarah started wrapping her sandwich back up, deciding to save it for dinner rather than try and eat and walk at the same time. After all, help was coming. The forest suddenly looked brighter and far more welcoming.
Help, as it turned out, was a ferocious-looking beast covered with bright orange fur. Sarah had a brief moment of panic when it reached down to her, which quickly turned to relief when she realized he was only offering her a rather large hand to help her stand. She quickly grabbed her satchel and kindling, thinking that she ought not go home empty-handed.
“Thank you,” she said, taking it. “Do you happen to know your way to the little cabin at the edge of the forest? My name is Sarah,” she offered.
The beast grunted once and nodded. “Ludo,” he said, and Sarah took that to be his name. She didn’t protest when he gently tugged her in a direction she hadn’t thought to try before--at least, she didn’t think she’d not thought to try it. It was so difficult for her to tell.
“Well, Ludo! I sure am lucky to make not only one, but two new friends all the way out here, just when I’d thought my luck had all run out.”
“Friend?” Ludo asked. Sarah got the impression that he had a difficult time speaking with words because of the large tusks jutting out of his mouth. She smiled up at him anyway, thinking that having friends in the forest could really only be a good thing.
“Of course. And to celebrate that, I really should give you a thank you gift,” she said, trying to think of something that could work. All she had, however, was her canteen of water, a bundle of sticks, and her sandwich. Well, she thought, he probably has plenty of sticks and water.
Not knowing what else to do, Sarah offered him her dinner.
“Friend,” Ludo said happily, putting the sandwich into his mouth. Sarah nodded and smiled up at him.
Before too long, Ludo guided her back to trees Sarah thought she remembered. And not too long after that, Sarah started to see trees that were marked with the red clay her father used. Sarah smiled wider and hugged Ludo out of excitement.
“Thank you again, Ludo! I can see my house through the trees, so I will be okay, now.” She patted his hand. “You’re a dear friend; I hope I see you again!”
Ludo patted her hand back, bowed his huge head once, and grumbled out a word that sounded like “okay.” Sarah watched him lumber off, and then turned and skipped out of the forest. It wasn’t every day that one went from hopelessness to relief quite so quickly, Sarah decided. Despite everything, it had turned out to be a rather nice day.
At least, until she entered the kitchen and both of her parents turned to stare at her, aghast.
“We thought you’d been lost,” her stepmother said, choosing her words carefully. “Your father tried to find you, but you would not respond.”
Sarah very badly wanted to point out that she doubted that was true. She’d tried calling him too, after all, and she hadn’t been that far away from where he was. She was certain that if he called for her, she would have heard him.
“I must not have heard,” Sarah said instead. “I was gathering kindling.” She offered her armful of sticks to her father and stepmother as evidence. “But I found my way back in the end.”
“You did,” murmured her father, with a quick glance at her stepmother. Sarah’s stepmother pursed her lips and doled out some stew to Sarah in an old wooden bowl.
“You certainly did,” her stepmother responded, echoing Sarah’s father’s words. Sarah decided against telling them about the two new friends she’d made in the forest. Even though her getting lost had only been a little bit her fault, she still felt as if her parents thought she’d done something terribly wrong. A deep feeling of unease crawled through her chest.
“Well,” her stepmother said after some time. “Since you did such a good job at gathering firewood today, why don’t you take your brother out and gather some more tomorrow?”
Sarah knew in that moment that her and her brother’s fate was sealed; she looked to her father for a defense that would not come.
After all, nobody said no to her stepmother.
That night, Sarah sat up in her bed, too scared to fall asleep. Her parents really did mean to rid themselves of their children, and her stepmother, at least, seemed content to let the forest do the job. Even though she’d made two friends in the forest, Sarah was still nervous about going into it again; after all, there was no guarantee she would come across Ludo or the worm again.
And next time, she might come across something much worse.
Sarah tightened her blanket around her and frowned. There had to be a way to thwart her stepmother’s plans. Perhaps she could find something to mark her way…
Her eyes lit on her small sewing box. It was old, and had a lot of things Sarah didn’t necessarily use in it. She didn’t have much use for the ribbons her mother had stored in it all those years ago, and only occasionally needed a button; most of the ones she avoided using in the kit were painted. And they were bright enough that they would catch her attention as long as she was looking for them. Sarah crept out of bed and placed the ribbons and painted buttons in her satchel.
“I’m going to fix this, Toby,” she whispered to her sleeping brother. “I’m going to save us.”
Sarah closed her eyes just as the sky was lightening, and opened them just a few hours later. Without speaking to either her father or her stepmother, she gathered Toby, something for the both of them to eat and drink, and then left the house. Her stepmother did not try to stop her; their father did not say a word.
Sarah only paused when she stood in front of the forest, just inches away from the trees. The ribbons and buttons were still in her satchel, but she patted them anyway for reassurance.
“This is it, Toby; we’ll show them that they can’t get rid of us so easily.” She hoisted her brother up so he sat higher on her hip, pulled out a button, and stepped into the forest.
It wasn’t like yesterday, when she had no reason to suspect that her parents were trying to be rid of her. But it also wasn’t like yesterday in that she was not afraid of what might be in the forest; this time she knew she had friends waiting, if only she could find them. She doubted she’d be able to retrace her steps from yesterday to find the worm again.
Every few feet, Sarah was careful to mark her path with either a brightly-colored button or a ribbon. The siblings would find their way home; she was going to make sure of it. ...But still, she checked behind her to make sure she could see which path she’d taken.
Not too long into her trek into the forest, Sarah grew tired of carrying her brother. Her stepmother would be cross if they returned, but she would be even angrier if they returned without the small pieces of firewood they were ostensibly send into the forest to retrieve. There was no way for Sarah to win.
Sarah sat Toby down on the forest floor, dangling a bright red ribbon in front of his face. He latched onto it with one chubby baby hand and yanked it out from her grip; Sarah patted him on his head and transferred the rest of her ribbons and buttons into the front pocket of her satchel, where their lunches waited. It would probably be best to wait to return home until just before nightfall so that their stepmother couldn’t concoct any other chores for them to accomplish in the forest.
It didn’t take her long to fill her satchel with things to take home, and it wasn’t quite afternoon. Sarah sat down next to Toby and brushed some of the stray leaves from his hair.
“What do you say, Toby… Should I see if I can find my friends?” He babbled up at her without forming any real words. She took that as a yes and clapped her hands together, the matter decided.
“Ludo,” she called out into the forest, hoping that the beast would somehow hear her. But it was a large forest, and she was only a single girl, so she resolved not to be disappointed if he didn’t hear her. “Ludo, are you out there anywhere? It’s me, Sarah, your friend!”
Sarah knelt next to Toby and waited, trying to be patient. But patience was not necessarily her strong suit, so before too much time passed she grew restless. Not even the novelty of being so far into the forest could stave off her boredom. Still, she supposed it was better than avoiding catching her stepmother’s attention and walking on eggshells all day. And playing with Toby wasn’t that bad, either, even if he did tend to tug on her hair.
Just as she thought it, Toby let go of her hair to point to somewhere behind her.
“Eee!” he said. Sarah turned around and found herself staring up at the orange beast from the day before.
“Ludo!” she said happily, jumping to her feet. “And… Hello, I’m not sure who you are.” Sarah peered down at the little fox perched atop a huge shaggy dog. She offered him her hand to shake, but he declined, choosing instead to leap off his steed’s back.
“My brother tells me that your name is Sarah,” the fox said, sweeping into a bow. His tail stuck straight up behind him, and Sarah had to stifle a giggle. It didn’t help that he was dressed like a knight errant; even his dog wore barding of leather and soft cloth.
“Brother?” she asked, failing to see the similarity between the two creatures.
“Brothers in arms, to be more precise, fair maiden. I am Sir Didymus.” He straightened his cap on his head so that it sat evenly between his ears, making Sarah smile again. The forest, she was learning, was very, very far from the awful place she’d grown up thinking it was. In fact, it seemed downright magical. If she’d known about Ludo and Didymus as a small child, perhaps she wouldn’t have been as lonely.
“But tell me,” the fox knight continued, “what a girl such as you would be doing in a place like this?”
Sarah shrugged, pulling Toby back to her side so he didn’t crawl too far away.
“Our father and stepmother want us out of the house. Or rather,” she amended, “they want us gone for good. Everybody thinks that there’s something terrible in the forest, and I suppose they think it will finish us off for them.”
Ludo rumbled, the angry sound coming from deep within his chest.
“I know,” Sarah placed a hand on his forearm. “But there’s nothing bad out here; just you two, the worm, and the trees.”
Ludo and Didymus exchanged glances at her words, and for the first time that day, Sarah wondered if she’d been too trusting.
“We are not the only denizens of the forest, fair maiden, but the others are not for you to worry about. Put them from your mind. Why don’t you spend your day with myself and Ludo?”
Toby was already enchanted by Sir Didymus’s dog, and the dog himself seemed content to let the boy crawl all over him. Toby would be kept content for a long time, Sarah thought.
“I’d love to,” she answered her new friend.
Sarah taught Ludo and Sir Didymus how to make crowns out of the ivy climbing some of the trees and whatever fitting leaves she could find. Didymus took to it easier than Ludo, who was more content to let Sarah decorate him with whatever she made. Sir Didymus taught Sarah the best way to climb a tree, and after a few false starts--one of which required a rescue from Ludo--Sarah thought she was getting rather good at figuring out which handholds were best to pull herself up by.
But it wasn’t until she was sitting at the crown of the tallest tree she’d climbed that day that she saw something peculiar in the distance. It wasn’t the cottage that she shared with her family, as Sir Didymus told her that was to her back.
No… Sarah squinted into the distance and shielded her eyes form the glare of the sun. This was much more grand than just her home; this almost seemed like a castle. What looked to her like a tower spiraled into the air, higher than any of the trees around it. And if Sarah looked closely, she was sure she could see gardens. It looked lovely. She wondered how long it would take to walk there.
“Didymus,” Sarah said, scrambling down from the tree as fast as she dared. “I saw something very interesting off in the distance. It looked like a castle, but I can’t think of why one would be so far out here in the woods. Do you know anything about it?”
Sir Didymus stilled, the tip of his tail twitching. Sarah thought that it was very good he styled himself as a knight because he could never get away with anything as dishonorable as lying.
“I do, but young maiden, you must never go there. The master of the castle does not… he is not prepared to receive guests,” Didymus said, and Sarah thought that he was perhaps stretching the truth. Not a lie, she thought, because his tail didn’t twitch again. But perhaps not the entirety of the truth.
“Okay,” said Sarah, who was still entirely too curious about the castle. Didymus nodded once, the matter settled in his mind.
“Wouldst thou perhaps enjoy a game of tag, young maiden?”
Sarah laughed and said that she would, proclaiming Didymus “it” before he could say anything else. She took off between the trees in a random direction, satisfied that he and Ludo would not let her get lost and that Ambrosias would not let her brother wander away. Besides, Toby had chosen that moment to take his afternoon nap. And Sarah, so long denied the frivolous games of her childhood, could not pass up the opportunity.
If her stepmother knew she was cavorting around the forest with two talking beasts, Sarah was fairly certain she’d be very, very cross. And perhaps afraid, because the woman seemed afraid of just about everything from the forest. Her father would shake his head but would not likely say anything else on the matter. It was that sort of hands-off attitude that landed herself and Toby in the mess they were in to begin with, and as Sarah dashed around a particularly large oak, she decided that she didn’t care one whit about what they thought, since they clearly didn’t care about their children.
The thought was freeing, in a sad sort of way.
Every now and then, when Sarah turned quickly or paused long enough to take a good look at her surroundings, she thought she saw something in the underbrush. Whatever it was definitely had eyes, yellow and luminous and larger than she’d expect of a stray cat. As she squinted into the shadows, Didymus bounded up to her, tapped her on her knee, and proclaimed her “it.” Sarah stared at where she thought she saw the mystery creature for a moment longer, and then, when she decided it was a fruitless effort, took off after Didymus herself. Ludo was easy to avoid; his lumbering size made traversing between the trees at a rapid pace difficult for him, and unlike the fox, the noise he made always gave away his position. Sarah could tell that he was somewhere behind her.
Sarah jogged in the direction she thought Didymus dashed off in, only to come across a particularly thick layer of brush. He was small enough to fit through it, and if she were a fox, that was exactly where she’d hide; Sarah pulled some of the branches away and fought her way through.
She stood in the opening she’d wrenched open, slack-jawed and staring at what was before her. It was the castle, and it must not have been as far away as she thought it was; only a little bit of running and she was standing just before it.
The castle stood imposing behind the gardens she saw, made up of solid-looking brown stone and, if buildings could have moods, generally rather grumpy looking. Didymus said that the master of the castle was not up to receiving guests, which was a shame; the gardens looked peaceful and welcoming, and although the castle itself cast a shadow that reached almost to where she stood, Sarah thought it looked like it might me warm and clean inside.
Just as she was about to take a step forward, Ludo yanked her backwards through the brush. It closed behind her, hiding the castle once more from her view.
“No,” Ludo rumbled, shaking his head so that his fur was tossed from side to side around his face. “No, no, no.”
“Okay,” Sarah soothed, patting his arm. “Alright. I didn’t know it was there--I was just… looking. No harm meant.”
But Ludo could not be made to relax, and seeing him so distressed upset Sarah. She did not protest when he tugged her back to her brother, and she waited patiently as he went off to find Didymus. There was no use arguing; he seemed as convinced as Didymus that the castle was a bad place. Despite its welcoming appearance, Sarah was prone to believe them. After all, they knew the forest and its denizens far better than she. But all the same, she was full of questions.
“The sun is setting, fair maiden,” Didymus announced as he returned with Ludo. “Perhaps it is time you returned home. We will lead you.” His tone would not allow any protestation from her, but Sarah was not inclined to argue. It was getting late, and she was tired.
“Can you please tell me about the master of the castle? I promise I won’t try to find it again--it was an accident, I swear. But I am curious, and we are neighbors in a way.”
Ludo would not even acknowledge that she asked a question, and Didymus avoided answering for a very long time. Sarah started to see some of the ribbons and buttons she’d placed before he opened his mouth.
“He is a wizard, a master of the arcane, and we are all his vassals. We daren’t cross him, for his temper is wild. Please, young maiden, do not question me further. I do not know how much more I can say.”
Sarah frowned and almost patted the fox’s head at his mournful tone.
“I won’t,” she promised instead, hugging Toby closer to her. “Perhaps I will see you both tomorrow?”
Ludo shrugged, his lips held tight together as if he were trying to keep himself from saying anything. Didymus bowed once, briefly.
“Perhaps,” he murmured.
Sarah tried to kill the trepidation that she felt, choosing instead to think positively.
“Well, goodbye until then,” she said, and walked out of the forest and to her home. Behind her she head Ludo and Sir Didymus scuttle away. In front of her waited her stepmother, hands on her hips. Her father held his woodcutting ax above his whet stone, but the fury in her stepmother’s face and the sight of the ax made Sarah wonder if the castle might not be safer. For the first time she was really, truly afraid to be home.
“What exactly were you thinking,” her stepmother asked, “taking all of our ribbons and spare buttons into the forest?”
Sarah wanted to argue that she did not do what she was being accused of. The ribbons and buttons were hers to do with as she pleased. It would do her no favors, however, to argue with someone whose mind was already made up.
“I did it so that we might find our way back,” Sarah said, challenging her stepmother as much as she dared. Her stepmother’s lips thinned into a thin white line, a sure sign of her impending fury.
“Get something to eat and get yourself and your brother to bed,” her stepmother demanded, and Sarah wasted no time in getting out of her sight.
That night, Sarah listened to her stepmother clear the house of anything that Sarah might use to mark her path the next day.
Sarah’s stepmother put a crumbling loaf of bread in her hands and shoved her out the door, Toby in tow. Behind her, Sarah heard the lock slide shut and knew one thing.
No matter what, she and her brother would not be returning home that evening. Not without a fight, at least.
And Sarah’s resourcefulness had come to an end; she had nothing but the clothes on her back, her brother, and the bread which was too stale to eat. It was one last cruel reminder that the children were no longer wanted; because Toby was too young to understand anything yet, Sarah carried that burden herself.
It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair , she thought, wanting to cry. But that might set Toby off, and then what would she do, alone in the forest with a screaming babe? That was by her parents’ design, of course; nothing Sarah learned could have ever prepared her for a life in the forest all alone, and she doubted anybody from the village would be willing to take her and her brother in.
Oh, perhaps some family might take the boy in despite him coming from the forest. After all, he was young enough to grow up thinking his new family was his only family, and he was adorably angelic looking. Sarah knew that she was not so lucky; even if people could ignore that she lived so long right next to the woods they all feared, she was too old to raise. Perhaps she could find work as a maid, or…
The thought gave her pause. Yes, she could work as a maid, but nobody in the village was likely to need one. There was, however, a castle hidden away in the forest. A castle that, based on Sir Didymus’s words, required vassals--why would it not need a maid? Sarah tore off a small chunk of the stale bread and dropped it on the ground; if something miraculous happened and she needed to find her way back home, she wanted to be able to. Even so, she knew foolish hope wouldn’t get her anywhere.
Sarah squared her shoulders, set Toby more comfortably in her arms, and strode off in the direction of the castle. Behind her, something small and squat crawled out from the shadows and took the crumbs of bread. Human food was something of a delicacy, after all.
She ran out of bread earlier than she thought she would, long before noon. Sarah thought she’d been careful with it, dropping pieces only barely large enough to be seen and far enough apart to indicate a trail. But when she looked behind her, she saw nothing--not even when she walked a few paces back and stared at the ground where she was sure she left some. It was right beside a fallen, twisted tree branch distinctive in its shape. She explicitly remembered doing it, so why were the crumbs nowhere to be seen?
Sarah took a deep breath and tried to keep the frustrated tears from her eyes. There was no other choice; she would have to either find her friends, the castle, or--what she thought was perhaps most likely--get herself and Toby even more lost and die in the forest. Which was really only two choices; find her way to the castle or perish. Once Sir Didymus and Ludo heard of her plight, she was sure they’d let her become a maid in the castle, grumpy master or no. They had to.
She had nowhere else to go.
Just as she turned to keep on her self-determined path, she saw something creep up behind her out of the corner of her eye. Sarah went very still. It didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen before, but by the way it was foraging through the leaf litter on the forest floor, she knew that it had to be behind her missing trail of crumbs.
“You! You beast!” She shouted, not caring if the broke the silence of the forest. “That was not for you!” And, impulsively, she kicked out at it, her boot only narrowly missing its head. The movement sent her tumbling backward, and with a squeal of indignation she fell to the ground, clutching Toby closer to her. He started wailing, the movement shocking him from his nap, and Sarah joined right in.
And that was how Ludo found her, sniffling and sore. Without much more than a grumble, he flopped down next to her, patting her on her back. His hand thumped against her and Sarah hiccuped in surprise.
“Hello, Ludo,” she said glumly, leaning into his side. “It’s nice to see you too.” Toby whimpered in her arms, probably hungry; Sarah didn’t have anything to feed him, not even the stale bread. Now that she thought about it, she was rather famished herself. Her stomach rumbled in confirmation.
It was now or never, because her courage wouldn’t last long.
“Ludo, I have a favor to ask of you. I know that you and Sir Didymus don’t want me going near the castle, and I appreciate that it is to keep me and Toby safe, but… We really have nowhere else to go. Please, please take us to the castle. I’ll work!” she added when he frowned and started to grumble. “I’ll work really, really hard. I won’t be a bother at all. I do not expect to seek refuge for free.”
Ludo stared at her, and Sarah looked back into his huge brown eyes. He was thinking hard about something--Sarah hoped it was taking her and her brother to the castle, but she couldn’t tell. The beast snorted once, looked away from her, and then looked back at her.
“Please,” whispered Sarah. “I can’t get there without you.”
Ludo growled, a low rumbling that turned into a whine as he tilted his head.
“Follow,” he said, and Sarah struggled to her feet, keeping Toby in her arms. The tears she let fall freely down her face had mostly dried, making her skin feel tight where they left trails. She tried to tell herself it would be okay, that Ludo was leading them to the castle where she could find a job and take care of Toby. They’d never have to go home again to face their treacherous parents. Not for the first time in her life, Sarah wished her mother hadn’t left her.
Sarah followed Ludo in silence broken only by the occasional twig snapping or whine from Toby. She wondered where Sir Didymus was and if he would stop her if he found her, and the thought made her feel cold. She couldn’t let herself and Toby wander the forest. Sir Didymus would see that, if she had to explain it to him. Sarah forced herself to believe that.
Exercise made her hunger more pronounced, but as they approached the wall of briars Sarah passed through yesterday, it was displaced by excitement and a touch of dread.
“Wait,” Ludo ordered, leaving her and Toby in front of the wall. Sarah nodded her head even though he’d already turned his back, and sat down on the forest floor. She hoped he wouldn’t be long; Toby was terribly hungry and would soon start fussing again, which would lead to ear piercing wails, which in turn would surely attract the attention of the master of the castle. Surely, there couldn’t be other children hidden within the stone walls. Sarah wondered.
Before too long, Ludo returned with Sir Didymus, who tsk ed at her and shook his head, whiskers twitching.
“Ludo tells me that you cannot return home, where it is safe .”
Sarah did not miss the emphasis on his last word.
“He’s right. Our father and stepmother do not have enough food to feed all of us, and so they kept sending us into the forest, no doubt hoping…” Sarah blushed, knowing that her friends would never harm her. “That you, or something in the woods would hurt us so we could not return. Well, I made sure that we made it home each evening, but…”
Sarah paused, and considered the ax her father brandished as they were forced out that morning.
“It is no longer safe to return,” she finished. “So, you see, between two unsafe homes, I would rather live in the one where I have friends.”
Sir Didymus’s whiskers drooped, which Sarah took to be a frown. Ambrosias sniffed at Toby, who was in no mood to be mollified, not even by a dog.
“Very well,” sighed the fox. “If you are sure of your decision…”
“I am,” insisted Sarah.
“Then follow, young maiden. And keep the young sire quiet, if you can.”
Sarah did so, careful not to catch her clothing or Toby’s skin on the briars as they passed through them. As before, Sarah saw the castle and couldn’t resist the urge to stare up at it. It was the most magnificent thing she’d ever seen in her entire life, and she’d soon be living in it. As a maid, of course, and with a terrifying master, but that wasn’t quite the point.
She noticed that Sir Didymus and Ludo kept them to shaded paths and frequently looked up at the tallest tower; Sarah squinted up at it but couldn’t see anything. As they walked, Sarah tried to commit the maze-like path to her memory, just in case she ever needed to traverse it herself.
Ludo ambled off as they approached the castle, but Sir Didymus took her right up to the back of it, and used his staff to rap on the wooden door. Sarah heard the clattering of what sounded like metal, some muffled cursing, and finally, the thumping of footsteps.
“What? What do you want?” The woman was hunched over, as if she carried a heavy burden on her back. Her grey hair hung down her back in tangled ropes, as if she hadn’t seen a brush in a very long time; it was kept from her face by a bandana tied around her head. The woman eyed Sarah and her brother with interest.
“These two staying for dinner?” she asked, and cackled as if at a joke that Sarah didn’t feel she was part of.
“Not quite,” sniffed Sir Didymus. “Agnes, this is Sarah. She is applying to be a scullery maid here, and will be looking after her brother.”
Agnes examined Sarah with a new interest, pinching Sarah’s chin between two dry fingers and pulling her closer. Sarah tried not to worry about the state of the woman’s cracked fingernails.
“Excellent,” Agnes declared. “We could do with someone to scrub all those pots. My back aches if I’m at it too long.”
Sarah offered Agnes a weak smile.
“I’m used to hard work,” she said. “I used to take care of the garden and clean the cottage; I am sure I can be useful to you here.”
Agnes nodded and patted Sarah hard on her shoulder, jostling Toby. The infant whimpered again, which turned into screams when he woke up fully. Sarah glanced around, eyes wide and wild as if the master of the castle already heard and was standing just out of sight. Sir Didymus winced, his fox ears pressed back against his skull, and Agnes scowled and dragged Sarah and Toby into the kitchen with her.
“He’s hungry,” Sarah explained, bouncing him on her hip. “We haven’t had anything to eat all day.” Her own stomach rumbled, but it could barely be heard over her brother’s wailing. Agnes’s frown deepened as she pushed Sarah onto a rough bench and, in the same movement, reached up above her to pull something down from a shelf.
“Here,” she said gruffly, shoving a fruit tart into Sarah’s hand. “For starters.Taking in kids like lost kittens,” she muttered after she turned her back, still rifling through shelves. “Come to my doorstep hungry-- what is that fox thinking?” A small pile of food grew in the woman’s arms, and then on the table when her arms filled up. Sarah tore off bits of the tart and fed them to Toby, trying to ignore the woman’s ramblings and how she looked back and smiled at the siblings when she thought Sarah wasn’t looking. Toby quieted down after the fruit tart, and Sarah snagged the small bowl of blueberries that Agnes placed on the table in front of her. Toby ate those happily too, and Sarah wondered how she had fresh blueberries so early into spring.
She wondered if there was a greenhouse on the castle grounds, and if she might be allowed to see it.
Agnes stood in front of Sarah and watched Sarah feed her brother with her hands on her hips.
“Thank you,” Sarah said, “I can’t even begin to thank you properly, really.”
Agnes sniffed and held out her arms. “Give the boy to me; you’ll be no use to me if you’re so hungry you’re falling over yourself later.” Her sharp demand was softened by the small smile that graced her craggy face once Toby was in her arms, and Sarah thought that despite Agnes’s harsh demeanor, she really was a kind woman.
“Now, let’s see if we can’t find some goat’s milk for you, eh boy? Let your sister eat in peace.”
Sarah ate her fill of the food set out for her on the table--she’d never seen such a wide variety of things to eat--and tried to put everything else back from where she thought Agnes got it from.
But when she went to go find her brother and Agnes, they were nowhere to be seen in the kitchen, or any of the closets Sarah checked in. Worry coiling somewhere behind her navel, Sarah left the kitchen and dashed out onto the castle grounds. She dared not return to the maze, and she didn’t want to stray too far from the kitchen door in case Agnes came back.
And that was how she stumbled--almost literally--over a little man crouched beside a bush. He had a small spade with him, and a canister filled with what was perhaps smoke, like she’d seen beekeepers use.
“Hello,” she said hesitantly, “I’m looking for--”
“You Sarah?” he asked, standing and brushing dirt off his knees. Sarah nodded. “That’s what I thought,” he continued. “Name’s Hoggle. Ludo and Sir Didymus mentioned you. Can’t go home, can you? Don’t touch that; they bite,” he snapped as Sarah reached for the tiny fairy emerging from between the branches of the bush. Her hand stopped mid motion, and Hoggle sprayed the fairy with smoke. It fell from the air with a thump.
“Oh!” Sarah gasped, but she didn’t say anything else.
“Damn things are a nuisance,” he growled, picking it up by its wings and tossing it as far away as he could. Upon seeing the expression on Sarah’s face, he added “don’t do them no harm, of course. Just disorients ‘em, so they have a harder time gettin’ back.”
Sarah nodded, not wanting to contradict Hoggle.
“I’m looking for my brother. Agnes should have him, but I don’t know where they went.”
“If he’s with Agnes, he’ll come to no harm. She’s as harmless as a pussycat.” Hoggle grinned wryly to himself. “But I imagine you’ll find ‘em in the flower garden, if you just follow that path.”
Sarah thanked him and dashed off down the path he’d pointed out. She found Toby and Agnes easily enough, but Agnes seemed reluctant to let Toby go. Instead, Sarah spent the rest of the day learning her duties under Agnes’s direction. She was to collect water whenever they needed it, make sure the fire in the kitchen was kept going, help prepare meals, clean the dishes from the day, and clean a select few rooms in the castle. Under no circumstances was she to leave the kitchens after the sun set, whether to go outside or elsewhere in the castle. In fact, she wasn’t supposed to go anywhere else in the castle after the breakfast meal was served. Sarah wondered why, but didn’t question it.
Sarah settled into a routine; every morning she would wake late and help Agnes prepare breakfast for the master of the castle, which would not actually be served until very late into the afternoon. The master had, Agnes said with a solemn whisper, very strange eccentricities. It was best not the question them.
She followed her new rules to the letter, and watched sunsets from within the kitchen with Toby while Agnes worked on her seemingly endless knitting. Life, Sarah thought--when she had time to think--was good at the castle. Certainly better than living with parents who didn’t care one whit about her or her brother. Agnes was kind, even if her kindness was buried. Hoggle taught her more about fairies and dryads and the creature that lived in the well; Sarah wasn’t sure she believed that last one. Ludo would sometimes help her carry the heavy pails of water back to the kitchen, or offer her flowers to make into a crown. Sir Didymus was fond of riding beside her on Ambrosius, telling her about his heroic deeds. Sarah wasn’t sure she believed those, either, but she listened with a smile anyway.
By the time night fell each day, Sarah was exhausted. It was good work, but difficult work, and Sarah was afraid her small bubble of happiness would pop if she messed up somehow.
And that was how Sarah found herself tiptoeing out through the kitchen door just as the sun set; Agnes was fitting Toby for a new hat--no doubt crochet--and didn’t see her leave.
She’d left a pot or two sitting by the well; sometimes she took her washing there so she didn’t have to lug water back and forth to the kitchen, but this time she’d gotten distracted and left some of it behind. Sarah glanced up at the sky. If she moved quickly, she might just get back before the sky turned completely dark or she was missed.
Sarah scurried through the now-familiar paths, keeping her eye on the sun as it sunk below the horizon. An owl hooted from a tree above her, but she didn’t spare it a glance.
A pang of guilt lanced through her; she’d been at the castle for less than a week, and she’d already broken a rule. She consoled herself by thinking that she was still doing her job, and Agnes would understand; after all, Agnes wouldn’t want their cookware sitting out overnight either. It would have to be washed all over again in the morning, and that would waste time.
Sarah approached the well, fighting the urge to peek inside it to try and spot the creature Hoggle claimed lived within.
“My, my, my ,” drawled out a voice from right behind her. “What have we here?”
And before Sarah could try to dart away, a hand clamped down on her shoulder and forcibly spun her around. Sarah forced herself to look up into the eyes of the master of the castle.
Sarah’s mouth was dry and her knees were shaking. For perhaps the first time, she was glad for the thick skirts Agnes made her wear so she wouldn’t catch a cold. His hand tightened uncomfortably on her shoulder, and Sarah shuddered. It had nothing to do with the temperature of the night air.
“Speak, little mouse. Before I lose my patience,” he ordered. Sarah opened her mouth but couldn’t find any words--what she wanted more than anything was to have never left the safety of the kitchens. He narrowed his eyes at her silence and leaned in closer to her, his long hair almost brushing against her forehead.
“Perhaps I really will turn you into a mouse,” he mused. “And let Agnes have her fun with you.”
“She’d never!” Sarah protested, and then, realizing what she said, clapped both of her hands over her mouth. Now he’d know that she’d been living with Agnes in the kitchens, and he would no doubt discover that Sir Didymus and Ludo brought her to the castle themselves. From there, he would no doubt find that Hoggle had been friendly to her as well; she’d bring nothing but misfortune to her friends.
“She speaks!” He exclaimed in mock awe. “And she seems to know my cook. Curious.” The master considered Sarah, straightening himself and letting go of her shoulder. Sarah should have felt relieved that he’d let go of her; instead, the glint in his eye had her even more nervous than before. She slowly pulled her hands away from her mouth, lacing her fingers together in front of her to disguise her shaking and curb any fidgeting. She’d already gotten herself into enough trouble. The best she could hope for now was to make a good impression and hope for leniency. He tapped a gloved finger against his lips, and Sarah found that she had to look away at the ground. His gaze was too sharp, too probing.
“I suppose this is why my Agnes hasn’t been burning my toast lately--she hasn’t been making it at all!” And then he laughed, as if it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. “Little mouse, did you think I did not know the workings of my own castle? Of course I knew I suddenly had new inhabitants. I just didn’t expect such a comely little mouse to be living in my walls.”
Sarah blanched and took a step back, swallowing her sharp retort. She didn’t like being called a mouse, and she especially didn’t like being called a comely little mouse, not by him. She suspected that he was more than just a few years older than her, she felt every one of them keenly. Before she’d felt a little like an adult, setting out into the world with her baby brother. Now she felt like a child being scolded by her least favorite school teacher.
“I had nowhere else to go,” she said, falling back into her old refrain. Not that she expected it to matter to him; she hadn’t hoped for much in the way of pity or understanding from the fearsome master of the castle, not with the way her friends spoke of him. The most she’d hoped for was for a little bit of peace, but she’d ruined all chances of that herself.
“Oh?” he asked, raising a single slanted eyebrow. “And tell me, little mouse, why it is you thought it was appropriate to find your way to my doorstep. Or into my kitchen, I suppose,” he added dryly. Sarah paused, trying to reconstruct her tale so she could leave Toby out of it.
“Walk with me and tell me your story,” he ordered when she didn’t reply immediately, holding out a gloved hand. Sarah reached out for his hand but hesitated, drawing back at the last moment.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather go back to the kitchens, please,” she said softly, frowning at his hand. “Agnes is expecting me, and I only came out to retrieve something I’d left behind earlier. I am terribly sorry for interrupting your night. Morning,” she corrected, remembering that he woke incredibly late. “It was not my intention to cause any trouble.” She considered curtsying, but decided it was overkill.
“It doesn’t please me ,” he said, pursing his lips. “No, you will walk with me, and I will return you to Agnes myself. If you are as close to her as your are intimating, perhaps you’re not a little mouse at all. Perhaps you’re one of her little lost kittens.” He grinned widely then, baring his teeth to her. They were gleaming white and oddly pointed; Sarah felt a new sort of trepidation.
“But--” Sarah started, but she did not get to finish. Instead, the master of the castle grabbed hold of her wrist so hard she felt the delicate bones within grind together. She gasped in pain and stumbled forward to his side, unable to yank her arm away as it was tucked between his own and his chest. On the rare occasions she’d accompanied her father or mother to market, she sometimes saw courting couples walking in a similar manner. But Sarah doubted that one half of the couple was manhandled so forcefully, or that one was dragged behind the other like she was being dragged behind the master of the castle. Her skirt twisted around her ankles, tripping her and making her stumble to keep up with him; if he even noticed her struggling, which she doubted, he didn’t seem to care at all.
He entered the hedge maze and finally slowed down, allowing Sarah to right herself and try to pull from his grasp. She was unsuccessful and starting to grow angry, moving away from fear. She didn’t care that he was some great and terrifying wizard--he was manhandling her and it hurt and just generally being a bully.
“Now, little lost kitten, tell me your story while we walk.”
“I have a name,” she muttered, tired of being called a mouse or a kitten. She’d never been fond of pet names, especially when they were used to condescend to her.
“Of course you do, but you have yet to give it to me.” He gazed down at her, a strange light in his eyes. “Are you going to give it to me?”
Sarah looked away and kept her mouth shut. Her name wasn’t any of his business, and she wanted to keep it that way if only to spite him.
“I thought not,” he all but purred. “My, you are a challenge, little kitten.”
“Not a kitten,” she whispered, deciding that she if she had to choose, she’d rather be called a mouse. There was something about the way he said kitten that made her feel a little sick.
“Back to being a mouse then, hmm?” he said as he pulled them around a sharp turn. “So speak, mouse, and tell me how you came to be cowering in my kitchens.”
Sarah clenched her jaw and reminded herself that her current situation was her own fault. She could hate the master of the castle, but she could not blame him.
“My parents are poor and could no longer afford to feed me,” she said woodenly. “My father is a woodcutter, but has been unable to sell his wares because the magic,” she glanced at him pointedly, “has made the wood impossible to use. I came here to find work. I’m a good worker,” Sarah said.
“How terribly tragic,” he crooned, patting her hand in a way that set her teeth on edge. “And I assume your parents were worried about such a pretty girl wandering the forest by herself; who knows what she might find--or what might find her?”
Sarah paused, her skin crawling where he’d touched her. She thought back to how her stepmother threw out all of her buttons and ribbons, and the way her father brandished his ax on the morning she and her brother left.
“No,” she said quietly. “No, I don’t think they are overly worried.”
“And I assume you are not going back to your unconcerned parents, are you, little mouse?”
Sarah’s silence was answer enough for him; he grinned again, and Sarah was reminded of the stories she’d been told as a little girl about wolves eating unsuspecting children. She shuddered.
While she was busy contemplating just how he might devour her, the master of the castle pinched her chin in between his gloved fingers and angled her face so she was looking up at him. Sarah tried to pull away but was rewarded only with a firmer grip that would surely bruise come morning.
“No doubt you are a good kitchen worker,” he mused, tilting her face this way and that. Sarah clenched her hands into fists. “But I think, little mouse, that we might just be able to find something that suits you better. I will think on it.” And as he let her face go, he traced a line along her jaw; Sarah could feel the sharp line of a fingernail through his soft leather gloves.
He turned away then, seemingly unconcerned if she kept up or not. Sarah stared at his retreating back, eyes wide in horror. She did not like his nicknames for her, even though she knew giving him her real name would somehow be worse; she did not like how he touched her, or the way he looked at her; most of all, she hated how he was planning to take her away from Agnes. She didn’t trust his plans, no more than she trusted him.
But although she didn’t trust him, she also didn’t want to be lost in the hedge maze while it was dark outside. She scurried along behind him, careful to keep far enough away that she couldn’t turn to grab her again. He drew her out of the hedge maze and back out towards the castle, and Sarah grew more and more nervous as she walked closer and closer to the kitchen door, where Agnes would be waiting. Sarah hoped her absence had been noticed and that Agnes wouldn’t answer the door with Toby on her hip.
To Sarah’s horror, the master of the castle didn’t even knock. He simply threw the door open, and Sarah flinched as it bounced back off the stone wall.
“Agnes!” he barked. “I believe I’ve found something you’ve lost. Careless indeed.”
Sarah leaned out from behind the master of the castle and saw Agnes, who was busy not looking at her, but Toby was not in sight. Once again, Sarah was filled with shame, even more so when she realized she’d left the pot at the well… And that was the whole reason she was knee deep in her current mess.
“My kitchen maid,” Agnes said slowly, drawing out her words. “You’ve been slacking off again, have you? Lazy girl.” The woman’s words were harsh, but Sarah was grateful for them; she knew it was an act, just like she’d acted irritated when Sarah showed up with Toby that first day. But Sarah was grateful for anything that might lessen the impact of her discovery on her friends, and would take any tongue lashing Agnes decided to dish out. She tried to step around the master of the castle but was stopped when she grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Not so quickly, my little mouse,” he purred. “I think you’ve forgotten to mention something. Tell me, why is it that I smell an infant?” As if to punctuate his words, he sniffed the air. “ Don’t tell me it’s yours .”
He grinned down at her, a ferocious parting of his lips; Sarah thought that for some reason he was angered by his thoughts and couldn’t think of why that was. Her eyes filled with angry tears.
“My brother,” she ground out, already missing the safety of the secret. “He’s my brother.”
“Ah!” he said, clearly pleased, releasing her from his grip. Sarah dashed away from him, going to stand behind Agnes. The woman was shaking slightly, which Sarah only noticed when she pressed herself against Agnes’s safe warmth. She was just as scared as Sarah; the realization made her feel even worse.
“Don’t worry yourself over my breakfast today, Agnes. I’ve something else to attend to; I think I will pay a visit to our little mouse’s parents. It seems to me that they’ve been rather negligent in their duties.”
And before Sarah could even think to protest, the master of the castle was out the door and off into the night. Agnes shut the door behind him and latched it shut, her movements slow and deliberate, though her hands were shaking slightly. Sarah sat down on the bench, her legs feeling weak; Agnes turned to her and stared at the girl.
“What have you done?” she asked. “ What have you done?”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah whispered, her voice breaking. “I’m sorry,” she repeated as Agnes came and wrapped her in a hug. The tears that had been waiting finally rolled down her cheeks, and Sarah didn’t do anything to try and stop them.
“What did he do to you?” Agnes asked as she stroked Sarah’s hair. Sarah shuddered and thought of the way he grabbed her face, the lingering touch along her jaw, the way he leered at her and grinned.
“Nothing,” she said. “I think. I just… he scares me, Agnes. I don’t want him around Toby.” I don’t want him around me , she wanted to continue, but that damage was already done.
“Far too late for that,” Agnes said, echoing Sarah’s thoughts. “But you have friends here, girl. We will all see what we can do. Watch your brother. I will be right back.” Agnes wrapped a kerchief around her head and unlatched the door so she could leave.
“Do not leave again,” she ordered before she left, and Sarah nodded. She had no intention of ever leaving the safety of the kitchens ever again, not if she had the choice.
It felt like an eternity passed until Agnes returned, with Sir Didymus and Hoggle in tow. Ludo was too big to fit through the kitchen door, but Sir Didymus said that the hulking beast was far too distraught by the news of Sarah and Toby’s discovery to be part of the conversation. Sarah believed the fox knight; despite Ludo’s large stature, he had a soft heart.
“That rat Jareth,” Hoggle grumbled, polishing off an apple on his vest. He bit into it, still scowling. “Can’t leave well enough alone. Why’s he got to bother a nice girl like you?”
Sarah turned the name over in her head, trying to remember if she’d ever heard it before, but decided that she hadn’t. It was such a strange name, she was just she’d have remembered. Just like she was sure she’d have heard of an evil warlock living in the forest if anybody else had known, but she hadn’t. Maybe if she’d known…
She closed her eyes and sighed.
“Well, it is of no use wondering because he already has,” Sir Didymus said. “And he no doubt will again. Perhaps worse.”
Sarah opened her eyes and stared at the fox in horror. He was right, of course; there was no way that Jareth, the master of the castle, would simply let her live down in the kitchens. After all, he said as much, hadn’t he? She whined deep in her throat, thinking of all the terrible things he could make her do.
“Don’t scare the girl,” snapped Agnes, who patted the top of Sarah’s head. “He’s already harassed her enough for the evening; you don’t need to go adding thoughts to her head.”
Sarah suddenly found it quite difficult to breathe. Sir Didymus sniffed at Agnes’s rebuke, but did not argue.
“Well. You did not tell him your name, did you fair maiden?”
“No,” answered Sarah, her voice small.
The group let out a collective sigh; Toby snored lightly in his makeshift crib, oblivious to the tensions in the room.
“Very good. Don’t,” said Hoggle. “He’ll ask, but it’s important that you don’t. That’s how they get you.”
“But you know his name,” Sarah pointed out. “It’s Jareth, isn’t it? You said so. Maybe we can…” but she let her sentence trail off as Hoggle shook his head.
“That’s just what he called himself when we met him. Don’t know his real name, but he knows ours. That’s why when he tells us to do something…”
“We are compelled to carry out his orders,” continued Sir Didymus, nodding at the dwarf. “Hoggle has the truth of it.” He growled, a surprisingly feral sound from the normally polished fox. His tail lashed out angrily, almost knocking over a stack of clean plates, which earned him a scowl from Agnes.
They all talked late into the evening, until Sarah was struggling to stay awake and even Agnes seemed worn. Jareth had been gone for hours, and Sarah didn’t want to let herself imagine what he could possibly be doing. No doubt at least part of his activities were terrorizing her parents, but it wasn’t done out a sense of justice for Sarah or her brother; no, Sarah got the impression that he rather enjoyed scaring people by whatever means necessary.
And if he was off frightening them half to death, they no doubt would somehow think it her fault, and then they would go into the village to tell everybody about their wicked daughter who consorted with warlocks. She’d ever be able to go anywhere near it again.
In the end, they decided upon nothing; Sarah could not simply flee with toby, as everybody was convinced that she would be followed. Nor could she just hope that Jareth would go away, not until he lost interest in her. In the same vein, he was a warlock; though Sir Didymus brought the possibility up, Sarah did not think herself capable of harming him, not matter how much dread he filled her with.
She was a woodcutter’s daughter, not a warrior. And she did not have his true name.
The best, though not the most satisfactory, course of action they were able to settle on was for Sarah to be boring. The faster she was able to lose his interest the better, and although the thought rankled, Sarah was willing to act the part of a simpleton. If it meant her and Toby’s safety, she’d do anything.
But she was not expecting to have to put their plan of inaction to use so quickly. Not too long after when Agnes said the master of the castle would normally have his lunch, there came a rapping at the kitchen door. Not long after it was thrown open, much like it had before. And there Jareth stood, his midnight blue cloak billowing in a nonexistent wind.
“Liesel, come here. I wish for you to spend the afternoon with me.”
Sarah stared at him, not quite sure why, exactly, he referred to her as a name that wasn’t hers. She was saved from answering immediately when Hoggle stood in front of her. Like Agnes before, he, too, trembled under the scathing glare of the master of the castle.
“She ain’t going nowhere with you. We’re busy.”
Jareth snorted, but his eyes narrowed when Hoggle wrapped his hand around Sarah’s wrist to prevent her from moving.
“Why, you repulsive little scab. Let go of her at once, Hoggle.” Sarah felt the power in the name when he said it; it fell to the floor as if it had weight. She felt Hoggle’s fingers loosed from her wrist one by one, as if he was trying to fight the compulsion, but it was no good. Sarah squeezed his hand back in silent thanks, but stepped forward anyway. She couldn’t let him put himself in danger.
Jareth smiled triumphantly.
“Agnes, hand me the infant.”
“No!” Sarah gasped, but the same compulsion propelled Agnes to Toby’s side. She lifted him from the cradle and carried him to her master, a ferocious scowl on her face all the while.
“Come now, Liesel,” Jareth ordered, but Sarah’s bravery was just about used up. With her baby brother in the monster’s arms, she wasn’t sure she could trust herself to keep a level head. One tear rolled down her cheek, and then two, and Jareth frowned when he realized his compulsion was not working.
“So not Liesel, then. Very well, Clare, come along. Now.”
Sarah gritted her teeth and forced herself forward, letting him think he'd found her name. She looked behind her once before the kitchen door slammed just, just in time to see Agnes bury her face in her hands.
Sarah followed after Jareth, incensed that he wouldn’t even let her carry her own little brother. No, Toby sat on Jareth’s hip as if the master of the castle were accustomed to small children, trying to go back to the sleep he’d been pulled from. Sarah kept her gaze locked on the golden curls on her brother’s head, ignoring her surroundings. No doubt they were extravagant--Jareth lived in a castle, after all, and clearly took pains to assure that he himself was clothed in the finest of fabrics.
But Sarah did not care for his castle, or his riches; she cared only that he held her baby brother, and that she was likely powerless to stop him. Sarah gritted her teeth again and blinked a fresh wave of tears away from her eyes. Exhaustion was not helping her hopeless situation.
Jareth stopped suddenly in front of a carved wooden door. They were in a hallway, and Sarah realized with a start that she must have followed him all the way to the living quarters.
Get out, get out, get out , something in her screamed, and it took all of her strength of will to stay where she stood.
“Freshen yourself up. I will not have you reeking of the kitchens while in my company,” Jareth said, and in one fluid motion he’d opened up the door and shoved her into the room. Tired and surprised, Sarah couldn’t catch herself in time and landed in a heap on the stone floor; when she looked behind her, the door was already closed.
When she tried the handle, she found it locked.
“Let me out!” she cried, pounding on the door. But like most of the rest of the room, it was solid wood and could not be budged. If he was waiting outside at all, Jareth chose to ignore her pleas, and Sarah’s fists quickly began to ache. Sarah let herself crumple to the floor again, trying to massage her hands and letting her angry tears flow freely.
“I can’t even see anything,” she spoke into the dark, not seeing how she was meant to freshen herself up if she couldn't see her own hand in front of her face.
As if the darkness heard her words--or perhaps Jareth, she thought sourly--candles flickered into life all over the room. Some were held in a glass and crystal chandelier, which threw prisms of light all through the room. Others were held on golden candelabras resting on a dresser here, a shelf there--and they had clearly been used. Long trails of dried wax dripped down from them, some almost meeting the floor.
And at the far end of the room, safely away from the flames, rested a gown on a mannequin. It was white and shimmering in ways Sarah didn’t think fabric could achieve by common means, beaded with the smallest crystals she’d ever seen across the bodice. If anybody else had given it to her, if she’d come across in through any other means, she’d have been delighted to wear it. But since Jareth was the one forcing her into it, she’d like nothing more than to put a candle flame to the voluminous skirts.
Sarah frowned, glanced around the room as if looking for prying eyes, and then put the dress on as quickly as she could. The monster had her brother; she would do well to play along, at least for now. Besides, he was probably expecting her to put up a fight.
She pulled the stays as tightly as she could behind her back, and then tried to tie them in a neat bow. She couldn’t tell how much success her efforts were rewarded with, but she guessed it wasn’t much. The sleeves were wide up top and tight around her wrist, which severely impeded her movement, and generally covered with embellishments. At least the skirts are so wide there simply isn’t a way he can come anywhere near me, she thought, dreading trying to walk in them. Sarah wasn’t sure how she was to sit, either, but decided that was a problem for a later time. She had no intention of making herself comfortable in his presence. The slippers provided certainly wouldn’t help; they were so thickly beaded with crystals that they were terrifically inflexible, and Sarah had to force herself to take mincing little steps in them. Not that they could even be seen under her dress. Sarah snorted, irritated with the absurdity of it all.
There was nothing she could do with her hair, not seeing a brush of any sort--not that she particularly wanted to bend to his will any more than she already had. Still, it was almost a shame that she was wearing something she thought even a princess might be envious of and her hair still hung straight down her back.
Behind her, she heard the latch on the door slide back, and with a rustle of stiff skirts, she turned to give it a poisonous glare. The door swung open before she could wipe the look off her face, and she found herself staring at Jareth. Only he wasn’t looking her in the eyes.
Instead, she could feel every single one of his roving glances, taking in the sight of the dress on her body. All at once she was more aware than ever of how low the neckline was, and how shapely it made her waist. She wanted to burn it all over again, and sod the envious princesses. Nothing was worth having a man like him look at her like this.
Except… Sarah glanced up at Toby, trying to sleep in Jareth’s arms. Except perhaps her brother. She would tolerate Jareth for now, if only for Toby’s sake.
“I am… Freshened up,” Sarah said, even though she really meant disgusted. “As per your wish.”
“And you pretty yourself up very well, my Clare, but there is something still missing.” He tapped his chin with his free hand, pantomiming thinking. “Ah, perhaps some jewelry? Every fine lady must have some jewelry. Hold out your hands.”
I am no fine lady; I am a kitchen maid, and before that I was a woodcutter’s daughter , Sarah wanted to contradict him. Instead, she held out her hands as instructed. Into her outstretched hands dropped a bracelet and a simple gold band; both belonged to her stepmother. The band was her wedding ring, and the bracelet was made up of glass beads, a gift from Sarah’s father when Toby was born. Neither of which her stepmother would have parted with willingly; the only time she took either off was when she was cleaning something, and even then they were tucked safely away in a pocket.
And Sarah knew that her stepmother would never trade either for Sarah’s safety. In fact, Sarah couldn’t think of a situation in which her stepmother would ever willingly relinquish her trinkets, to save herself or not; she’d already remarked that she expected to be buried with both of them.
A heavy pit settled in Sarah’s stomach as she brought both articles closer to her face for inspection. The glass beads, which were normally sparkling and pristine, had drying earth stuck between some of them, and a rustlike scum that stuck to some of the flat planes of the facets. The gold ring had the same coating, but when Sarah scraped at it with a fingernail, it flaked right off.
Her stepmother hadn’t parted with her jewelry willingly. She dropped the bracelet and ring, letting them fall through her fingers and bounce onto the stone floor beneath her feet. Her hands were still held out in front of her stiffly, and she stared into the space where the jewelry had been moments before. No matter how much she wanted to rationalize it differently, there really was only one say for her to interpret Jareth’s “gifts”; her parents were dead. There would be no going back to the cottage she counce called home.
“Perhaps you are not a sentimental creature,” Jareth noted. “No matter.” He strode forward, grinding the glass beads under his heel. Sarah heard them crack and break under his boot and felt sorrow and her exhaustion wash over her; she didn’t even think to disobey when he snapped his fingers at her to get her to follow, so tired was she that the act didn’t inspire the anger it normally would have.
Her father and stepmother were dead. Her brother would never know his parents. And Sarah couldn’t help but to think that in some way, it was her fault.
She followed numbly as he walked her through hallways that grew more and more fine as they got further and further away from the servant quarters, but again Sarah was blind to the wealth on display. It wasn’t as if it would do her any good, not when she and her brother were trapped in the castle of a murderer. Sarah shuddered.
“Clare, stop,” Jareth ordered, halting in front of her himself. “Look into this mirror. Do we not make the very image of a fine family?”
Sarah turned woodenly and found herself in the mirror. Her eyes were wide and full of terror; her hair was unadorned, a stark contrast to her extravagant clothing, which only served to make her look even younger. It was as if she’d stolen her mother’s clothes and was playing at dress-up, only Sarah’s mother had never owned anything so fine. Her face was pale and drawn, making the dark circles under her eyes stand out. Toby was asleep and looked much the same, but he was still held in Jareth’s tight grip.
Jareth himself stood behind her, and Sarah watched, her skin crawling, as he placed a hand on her bare shoulder. She wanted to scream at his touch, but only pressed her lips more firmly together; as afraid as she was, she did not want to give him the satisfaction of knowing it.
The fine lines around his eyes and mouth deepened slightly as he offered her reflection a shallow smile, and Sarah wondered just how many years he had been alive. Certainly, he looked old enough to be her father.
No, Sarah decided. They did not look like a family, fine or otherwise. She wished she had the courage to say so, but her tongue remained rooted to the top of her mouth.
“He looks like me,” Jareth said, sounding proud. He jostled Toby so that the child woke, blinking up at him. In the reflection, Sarah watched as a small frown marred his face when he looked into her brother’s eyes. Jareth raised his free gloved hand and stroked the left side of Toby’s face, from his blonde eyebrow down to his chubby cheek.
Toby screamed, and Sarah’s eyes widened in horror as she watched his pupil widen in his reflection.
“What did you do?” she shrieked, turning and pulling her brother out of Jareth’s arms. She held Toby close, but her baby brother could not be soothed. His pupil wasn’t shrinking back to its normal size, and now that Sarah could look at him closely, she realized that he looked much, much more like Jareth.
She passed her hand over Toby’s eyes, closing them so she wouldn’t have to look at them. Toby continued to scream in her arms, and Sarah decided that if he’d hurt her little brother, it really would be the last thing the warlock did.
“I gave him the park of magic, the mark of the Sight,” Jareth said, leaning down to Sarah and pointing at his own eye. “My son should have it. All of my sons will have it.”
Sarah clutched Toby closer to her chest and hid her face against the top of his head, unable to stop the tears spilling from her eyes. Her parents were dead, she was being threatened and harassed by a powerful warlock, and now her brother had been changed, all in one night. Any sense of safety she once had had been stripped from her in one fell swoop.
“He is my brother,” she murmured, the closest she would get to outright telling Jareth that Toby was not and never would be his son. Sarah knew she had to be careful; there was clearly something wrong with the man. He had power, and it was obvious that he was unused to having that power checked or having his wishes denied. There was nothing more dangerous, Sarah was learning, than that combination in a man.
“Stop crying this instant, Clare,” he ordered, scowling at her tears. But Sarah couldn’t, and his order only made her cry harder. “So, your name isn’t Clare, I see,”
“I never said it was,” Sarah said in between hiccups. And she hadn’t; she just let him think it was.
“You little minx,” he said, and laughed. “I suppose we will keep up this game. Oh, you are amusing indeed, Anne. I’ll be terribly disappointed if your name is Anne, you know.”
Sarah, her arms full with Toby, who was still crying, didn’t even try to dry her tears. He hadn’t ordered her to stop crying with his new guess, so she was safe as Anne for the moment--however brief that moment was. Sarah wasn’t an uncommon name, and he would stumble upon it eventually.
And then she really would be doomed.
She had to think of something to escape the castle and Jareth.
“Quiet the little chap, and let us continue. I am not entirely uncivilized, dear; I can see you are tired, and even though you are being quite inconsiderate and ruining my plans, I will not have my precious little Anne sleeping in the kitchens with the help.”
But you are uncivilized; you’re an evil brute , she thought venomously. All the same, she soothed Toby back to sleep, still avoiding looking into his eyes. If only one of them was going to be able to sleep that night, she would rather it be him. He was still growing, after all, and she needed to be on her guard.
She followed Jareth all the way up a staircase and into a wide hallway. When he opened another door for her, she tried not to flinch. This time, however, he did not throw her into the room and lock the door behind her. This time, there was no grossly opulent dress for her.
This time, there was a large feather-down bed. Sarah felt her heart drop straight down to her feet. She tried to back up, out of the doorway, but she stumbled straight into Jareth himself. More hot tears prickled in her eyes.
“Do not worry your maidenly little head, Anne,” he laughed. “I have just woken up myself, and my craving for womanflesh has been sated for tonight. Rest and refresh yourself in my room. I will see you on the morrow.”
And he strode off, leaving Sarah trembling in the doorway to the bedroom. Fear and relief battled for dominance and left her shaking. Afraid she would drop Toby on the hard floor, she stumbled over to the bed and placed her brother down on it gently.
“Sleep, Toby,” she whispered. “I’ll find us a way out of here.”
If she were to lie down on his bed--the thought of which made her sick--she knew she would fall asleep. And if she fell asleep, she was not sure of what might happen or when he might return. That was a risk she just couldn’t take, just like she couldn’t risk immediately leaving, either. He gave her an order, and she didn’t want to completely disobey it just yet, not when he still thought her name was Anne. Sarah sat down beside the bed so she could keep an eye on Toby, and every time she thought she might be falling asleep she gave her arm a sharp pinch.
But despite her best intentions and attempts, she was bone tired and fell asleep leaning up against the wall. It was the rising sun that woke her up, streaming through the windows.
Her arm was littered with bruises, and when she touched her jaw, she could feel bruising there as well. She took a moment to catalogue her injuries, decided that the physical ones were not that bad, and looked over to Toby.
Only it wasn’t just Toby in the bed anymore. Sometime during the very early hours of the morning, Jareth must have come in and reclaimed his room. Sarah cursed herself for falling asleep and hasted to get back to Agnes. The woman would know what to do, Sarah was sure.
And even though her muscles ached, Sarah scooped Toby up and scurried from the room, trying to find her way back to the kitchens.
It took longer than she’d hoped, and the kitchen door was locked. Sarah knocked on it lightly and waited for it to open; as soon as Agnes saw who it was, she dragged Sarah and her sleeping brother inside.
“My dear girl,” she said, holding Sarah’s face in between her hands. “What happened to you?”
If Sarah had any more tears left in her, she was sure she would have cried; instead, though, she simply sat down and handed Toby to Agnes, her arms limp. It had been less than a day since she’d last been in the kitchen, but sitting down in her ridiculous gown made it feel like it had been years.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice raw. “I mean… Agnes, I can’t stay here. He thinks…” Sarah thought back to the way he touched her shoulder, the way he called them a family, the way he showed her to his room. She wanted a hot bath to scrub the memory of his touches off her skin.
“He thinks I am his.. family. He thinks Toby is his son, but I am not his daughter.” She couldn't say the words she really meant to, afraid she would gag on them. Agnes understood anyway; Sarah could see based on the way her eyes went flinty.
“I once had kittens of my own,” Agnes finally said after a heavy silence. “But they were taken from me far too soon, tied up in a bag and thrown into a river by a cruel farmer. You have not been here very long, but you occupy the same space in my heart. I will not let him hurt you.”
Sarah hugged the hunched woman to her tightly, feeling the warmth of a mother’s embrace.
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?”
If you smell sequel bait, you're right. Updates on it will be posted to the tumblr blog associated with this account.