Chapter 1: The Way Back In
The thing no one mentions at the end of an epic book, where the hero accomplished great deeds in a land of magic and wonder, is that once they go home everything’s changed and home doesn’t feel like home at all.
Everything seems dull and mundane after braving trolls and slaying dragons. And the hero will keep trying to make sense of their world, of why it’s changed, only to realise they were the one who changed and the entire world was remade in their eyes.
It took Sarah years to come to that conclusion. Years where she went through her days studying literature, trying to recapture the magic of the Labyrinth in ancient tomes and flowery language penned to entice long dead lovers. Years of playing lady #3 or baker’s wife in drama class - she who had once vanquished a king.
And now back in her father’s house, fairy tales and dolls banished to a tight corner of her room, making way for books upon books critically analysing other books, she felt the weight of all those stories, all those lives long ago lived and returned home and – now she knew it for herself – unfulfilled to their last.
Irene was glad for the help now that Toby was 5, and her father was genuinely happy to have her home. And for all the time he’d spent clutched in the Goblin King’s arms Toby was a surprisingly normal child, obsessed with a cartoon called Darkwing Duck and delighted that Sarah didn’t contradict him when it came to his belief that animals could talk and fight for the greater good.
She contemplated pursuing a master’s degree as she took her daily walk to the park, her steps slow and patient as Merlin, now old and frail, struggled to keep up.
It was beneath the dappled light filtered down from the canopy of leaves above her as she laid under a great tree, Merlin dozing at her side, that Sarah would dream.
Sarah would dream of what-ifs.
Sarah would dream of the strength she possessed as a young girl, the strength to best a Labyrinth and fell a king.
Sarah would dream of that furious hot power coursing through her veins, the taste of magic and blood like hot embers on her tongue.
Sarah would dream.
And Sarah would hunger.
The last time Sarah went into the Labyrinth she had made a wish.
But that wouldn’t do now, for wishes had power and a beggar entered the Labyrinth as a supplicant.
She had left as a conqueror, she wouldn’t go back as less.
So she took to her books for she had learned it well: she may not have the power of a Goblin King, but women since time immemorial had had power of their own, as maiden and mother and crone.
She was not quite any of them, no longer a maiden, not yet a mother, while her life blood was slow and ready for the end in her veins like the crone, who she was also not.
But perhaps that was what being a woman truly was: being all and none at the same time.
Through heavy tomes and dusty libraries, with hasty scribbles like spiky thorns she noted down what power was. And thus armed she searched through the earth from which life grew.
She looked into the musty places in which moss gathered.
She looked into the decay from which mushrooms grew.
She looked through the patterns the frost left with its sharp freezing talons.
She looked through the crooked black branches of the trees, reaching to the sky like arthritic fingers.
She looked at the prey and hunter, the new life so easily taken, the hot blood so easily spilled.
She looked into the dark fog of the night, the deepest shadows, and the emptiest silences.
And she found her way back in.
Chapter 2: Through a Spyglass Darkly
She stood outside the Labyrinth, watched it spread in twists and turns, its earthy tones dry and crumbling under the baking sun.
She wondered if things had changed since she was last there. If what she last saw had been distorted by her youthful eyes, and it would be different now. Realer. As real as it could be, at least.
She wondered if the funny little goblins were now lurid creatures out of medieval bestiaries.
Whether the sparkling fairies were macabre confections of nightmarish exoskeleton.
Whether he, himself, was different.
But a trickster would always be a trickster, so on that, at least, she could count on.
As soon as she entered his Labyrinth he would know she was there. So she didn’t.
Instead she took a spyglass from her bag. A thing of gilded beauty and hard metal, extending as far as her ravenous curiosity.
She looked through it and searched the castle beyond the Labyrinth, its empty entrances and deserted windows.
She was about to give up when a quick turn of the wrist pointed her spyglass at the sun, blinding her.
With stars bursting in the hot darkness of her closed eyes, she waited a moment and looked again.
And there he was: pale, and strange, and fey.
Lean muscle and stringy tendon, with nothing left to spare, a thing of wild beauty just sitting at a window.
He was staring absently into his Labyrinth, so otherworldly and exquisite in his oddity, and Sarah wondered, in all the vanity and self-centeredness of her young years, if he thought of her.
It pleased her to think that she still tormented him, obsessed him, consumed him.
The sun caught the bright gold of her spyglass and Jareth sharply turned his head towards her, his focus intent like a predator of the skies.
Sarah placed her spyglass back in the bag and retreated. It wouldn’t do for him to see her now.
She left as a conqueror and she would return as a conqueror.
And a conqueror needed more power than she currently had.
Beyond the entrance to the Labyrinth, after a dry dusty walk, vegetation started growing, becoming thicker and a deeper green, and soon she stood before a dark wood.
Witches made their home in dark woods. When their power was too vast, when their knowledge was too deep and they unsettled the men in power.
She-wolves lurked in the dark woods, glittering eyes in the darkness, hungry mouths and the violence of a wolf mother protecting her pups. They walked around careless of their nakedness, their pelt tied around their waists, hairy skin licked clean of the blood of the men who dared to venture too far in.
Water nymphs inhabited the green stagnant pools, their long hair floating around them like swirls of ink, their eyes wide and innocent, their plump arms enticing men to the drowning depths, just like their mermaid sisters did at sea.
There were wood nymphs with skins that looked like deep brown bark and who waited for a weary traveller, a careless man trampling through the bright green foliage, who would rest for a moment and be strangled by her vines, soon vanished within the confines of her deep roots.
There were boar-women who fussed among the dark earth and waited for the hunters to come with all their eagerness for hot blood, juicy meat, and a dying breath fogging the frigid morning air, only to be gored to pieces and left to rot and sprout meaty mushrooms which the boar women devoured with lusty hunger.
There were spider-women weaving ghostly webs of glittering silk in dark caves, a beautiful gem in their centre, waiting for the greedy hands of men who, consumed by the galaxy of light shards the gem scattered around the cave, became blinded to the trap that awaited them and were thus siphoned of their filling, delicately liquefied by a poisonous biting kiss.
There were troll women who shook the woods with their heavy steps, great oaks shaking like young saplings, as they looked for bands of thieves and made hearty stews out of them, marrow slurped and skulls emptied as they supped.
The woods had always been a seat of female power.
And Sarah would make this seat hers.
Chapter 3: Courting Gifts
Sorry it took me so long to update, but my grad studies are destroying me.
For the people who are unhappy with the formatting of this story, know it's a short story, two pages a chapter, four chapters long. My focus is as much on the story as on the language and the references I can make as concisely as possible. Pretty prose turns to purple prose once you lengthen it, in my case.
She makes her home in a one room cottage hollowed out of an enormous tree, and becomes know to the other women of the woods: the she-wolves, the nymphs, the trolls. There are ladies who show up at dawn, made of mist like spools of spider web, who stretch themselves across the forest, languid arms hugging spindly tree trunks, long fingers entwining in their leaves.
She visits the water nymphs, the membranes between their fingers translucent and fragile, the prettiest green, and they tell her the secrets of the water. How the cold stream of melted ice water is safe to drink, but how when it's pooling on dead leaves, no one may dare step on their brownish decaying depths. They tell her of the pretty men they drowned, a lost smith apprentice, a lonely poet, dragged to the depths and there devoured by their sisters.
She learns from the troll women how to choose the tenderest green shoots, the meatiest mushrooms growing out of dead things, and which nests have the yellowest yolked eggs.
She learns too, to brew potions out of bitter greens, out of wine-red berries dangling from prickly brambles, heavy and poisonous, which left a gleaming tempting juice on her fingers staining them with their fatal blood.
A myriad of birds in willow cages fill her cottage to trembling with such plaintive songs they pierce the heart. The prettiest things she's ever owned, presents from the women of the forest for successful births.
But she is not alone in her bird-filled solitude. He visits. He never comes close, because the woods are her own labyrinth. Unlike his, in hers there are no illusions, only the impenetrable secrets of old, hiding from the sight of those who do not know how to truly see. He doesn't know it is only easy to lose yourself if your purpose is to be found.
So he walks the woods' floors carpeted in thick grass like walking in a dream, and follows the smell of green growing things and the fumes of deadly poisons. He sees the footsteps of hunters which abruptly disappear, while foxes and crows try to guide him out of allegiance to their king. Blackbirds with yellow bills guide him as he flies through the forest, on owl wings, and leaves his courting gifts by her rose covered cottage: a deep copper astrolabe, smelling of blood. Green silk. A golden compass of which she has no need. Sparkling gems by her door, rubies sparkling redly between the tall green grass. Green velvet. A brass sextant. A crystal ball that will take her to his maze if she so wishes.
And she does so wish.
She was, however, not quite ready to go. There were things to be done first.
From a deer she felled she made beautiful slippers, from his blood she made delightful potions, and from his meat she feasted.
The green velvet she turned into a dress, sewn with the finest gold thread she could trade for with the troll women, and from the green silk she made sleeves for that very dress.
His gifts she melted and shattered so she wrought the most delicate of crowns to place upon her brow.
And this gown she wore like a ruling queen, velvet like the skies above, when she picked the crystal ball and was transported to the centre of the labyrinth.
Fairies flew low, peeking into the gobblins' windows. Spiderlike creature of hell and nightmares. Hard to believe she once defended them. Hard to believe how blind the eyes of youth were.
A few goblins meandered here and there, horrifyingly mutated things. Babies warped by magic and the rotten side of power. But she wasn't fooled. Her greatest enemies standing between her and her prey were his courtiers. Those laughing masks who had teased her at the ball so long ago. High powdered hair, and chalky skin, wouldn't even do as potion ingredients.
Even so she would make use of what was left of them, once she was queen.
He was waiting for her in the throne room. Unchanged but not. She knew he would be different. She no longer feared him, she no longer wanted him as a girl wants: fiercely and desperately, with little hope. She coveted him. He was so pretty. The prettiest thing she'd ever seen.
"I knew you'd come back to me," he said, eyes glittering, a vulpine smile at odds with his avian features.
She'd brought him her sweetest songed bird in a willow cage she'd wrought herself. She told him it was a baker's son and she laughed so sweetly he couldn't help but laugh too.
He had a feast waiting, warned by his spies in the woods, foxes, and crows who with swift feet and chattering caws alerted him to her arrival.
His courtiers were there, unmasked, unnamed, for who amongst the fae would give out their name?
Women in flowing dresses of silk and silver, their corsets tight, their hair intricately amassed atop their heads. Rouged cheeks on powdered faces, belladonna liquid eyes. Men in ruffled shirts and soft doe breeches, gleaming silk coats with golden braid. Their eyes predatory and cruel. But not as cruel as hers. Not as cruel as her.
She took care not to eat. No wine goblet for her, no herb encrusted bread crumb covered mushrooms, no fragrant fowls in butter sauce, no ruby red pomegranate seeds.
And she danced all night in his arms, like she had so long ago, a doll following fixed steps, is what she was then, but now the trapped one was he.
You couldn't deny the love in his eyes. The way he looked at her, his endless smile of a victory long awaited and now finally in his reach, in his arms.
When the darkest night fell, she insisted on accompanying him to his bedchamber. His kisses drugging, his lips wine stained, their clumsiness in undressing was loud in the dark, her potion bottles empty, a dagger in her hand. This clattered to the floor, slippery with blood spilled earlier that night. If he noticed or cared or guessed didn't interest her. You don't really love the things you covet. You don't really care for them.
As she rode him and he whispered her name, "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…", she was his queen.
When he awoke the next morning most of his courtiers were dead or dying. Syrupy residue at the bottom of their wine goblets, thin steel wire cobwebs clinging to slit necks, wide eyes with constricted pupils in cold death.
He seemed not to mind.
Her rooms, adjacent to his, are as green as the woods, green as her eyes, he says, and she smiles absently, slightly resenting how freely he moves about, how just about anyone else can hear him sing.
Chapter 4: The Filigree Cage
He knew. Either he saw through her enchantment or her woodsmoke magic never truly wrapped itself around him, never plunged into his lungs and ordered his every breath.
That’s what she thought when he gifted her with a magnificent birdcage of filigree gold, owls wrought into its work, golden leaves so real you could almost feel autumn’s light through them. A test. A gift for her being with child.
He had one of his undead courtiers, reanimated by her hands after that fateful night, bring it into their rooms and he asked her what she thought of it.
“Do you like it, my sweet?”
He crawled back to where she was lying in bed, he’d told her he loved her hair, could spend hours combing his fingers through it, twirling it round his fingers, draping it lovingly over her throat, now a noose gliding against the tender back of her neck, and wrapped it round front again, tightened it. Her hot cheek pressed to the cold smooth silk of his pillow. But never nothing beyond that, something always stopped him. The child within her, perhaps?
Children are precious to the fae or so the stories go.
As she tended to the birds in their cages at her cottage – so important to have a room of one’s own – she pondered over whether or not she cared that he knew and came to the conclusion that nothing really changed if he did.
Her red breasted birds sang louder than ever, fear gave them breath for she had been gone and they thought their fate was sealed.
And over in his castle in the middle of the labyrinth she could see through her spyglass that he, too, fretted, breast unmarred for now, no song that she can hear from where she stood.
One of her birds had stopped singing all together. Sarah hated it when that happened, as if the loss of hope could touch her somehow. She looked into the hauntingly human eyes of the red breasted robin she’d once known as a smith’s apprentice.
She went to visit her friend the Spider, who already awaited her at the entrance to her cave. A confection of delicate black spindly limbs, a fearful symmetry, the pale, pale underbelly. She gazed at Sarah though her many, many eyes.
“I’ve brought you something,” Sarah said, proffering the caged robin.
“A fine meal,” the spider said, artfully involving him with her spinners in more and more restrictive lace fine enough to make a princess green with jealousy.
“I’m pregnant,” Sarah revealed to her friend.
“Pregnant? My condolences,” replied the spider.
“Why so?” Sarah asked, amazed for once.
“Every spider knows her pregnancy is her end. You’ll find yourself devoured by your children. It’s the price of motherhood.”
“Oh,” said Sarah pensively. “It’s not really like that with humans. For starters, the baby is likely to be one alone.”
“Well,” said the spider. “In that case, without competition, I can assure you that the baby will end up devouring you whole. Oh, it may not be a devouring as it were, were it a hundred spiders, but it’ll take over your life, and crush your dreams, and steal everything that made you yourself. Steal every moment you had to yourself. And you’ll no longer be Sarah. You’ll be the baby’s mother.”
Sarah stopped and pondered on what her friend the spider had said and how it rang of truth, even though she did want her child.
“But what about the father?” Sarah asked.
“The father?!” The spider said scandalised. “You mean to tell me you let him live? No wonder you look so wan. You need sustenance to provide for your spiderling.”
“Oh, look!” Sarah said. For a prince, a very gallant one, was making his way towards the tourmaline at the exact centre of the spider’s web.
“Oh, we’ll be eating well tonight!” said the spider.
Next Sarah visited the nymphs. But both the tree nymphs and the water nymphs gave her the same answer: they had never had children. They appeared fully formed in their rivers, in their lakes, in their trees fully formed. Father river would make them. They were all sisters. They cared not for this repulsive reproduction of the lesser species of which Sarah spoke.
It was the trolls that gave her the answer.
“Pregnant?” asked one of the trolls.
“Congratulations!” said another.
“May it be the biggest baby we’ve ever seen!” They blessed her, even if Sarah privately hoped for this blessing to shatter like ice into the river at the beginning of Spring.
“But,” Sarah insisted, “What about the father?”
“The father?” The trolls looked at each other. “What about the father? He has nothing to do with it anymore. You don’t need the father.”
And with these thoughts she crossed the labyrinth and went back to Jareth’s rooms. She stood admiring the birdcage when he took her in his arms. She caressed his sharp necklace resting upon his chest and thought how easy it would be to pierce his heart, leave it red and bleeding, turn him into a bird, her most prized possession in its rightful cage. Knowing him he would keep quiet out of spite, but he would be the prettiest, prettiest thing she’d ever owned.
“Look my sweet,” he said. “Look what I brought you.”
And she saw all her old books, all her old dolls brought into the nursery meant for their child.
“Let us hope our little princess is as full of life, stubbornness, and cruelty as you,” Jareth said.
But every heartbeat on her throat was like a mantra of ‘You don’t need the father.’
However he had been kind. He had been so kind. She might as well see where all of this would take them.
Sometimes, yes, sometimes, Sarah would look at the birdcage while playing with her so very fey daughter. She would look at the clouds outside, pregnant with rain and soon to be rid of their burden, and Sarah would long, and Sarah would hunger.