- LABYRINTH II
...             ...


CHAPTER XVIII

Sarah went through the doorway and found herself at the top of the stairway leading into the Goblin City. Looking around brought back memories of the battle she and her companions had fought in order for her to retrieve Toby. Now the city was quiet, void of everything that she had associated with that battle except for the few working goblins, the stray animals, and the scattered garbage.

            As soon as she reached the foot of the steps, the tremendous doors to the castle swung shut. The noise startled Sarah and she jerked around to face it in reflex. When she did, she found that she was no longer standing in front of the castle beyond the Goblin City, but instead before a door leading into the Labyrinth, a different one than she had first entered five years ago.

            When she turned around, she saw the edge of the forest that Jareth had spoken of. It strangely reminded her of the wooded area that stood behind her house in the real world.

            The real world.... It was quite an ironic thought, for, although this did seem to be some type of alter universe, it was real enough for Sarah. She might even enjoy the splendor of the Underground, its beautiful landscapes, and its strange creatures if it hadn't been for Jareth. He turned the entire place inside-out for her.

            The forest was intriguing, inviting Sarah to forget what lay in the past and to steal into the future, just like the forest had always done for her in her childhood. She did not know what adventures lay before her, nor did she know if she would be in any way pleased by them (or even if she would survive them) but she did know one thing for sure her friends were depending on her as, unfortunately, was Jareth, and if she did not return with what Jareth needed, her friends would not be returned to their living forms.

            With this in mind, she started up the dusty road and into the forest, a trail cut out for travel. "The sooner I get done with this, the better," she said to herself purposefully.  "C'mon feet."

An hour passed and monotony began to take over the peacefulness of the journey. If things remained as they were, then two weeks might be more than she could handle. She was already tired of looking at the surrounding forest. Except for the occasional passing of a bird, it was pretty quiet around.

            The crunch of her feet against the twig-laden road had become the canopy and rhythm of her thoughts.  One thing was nagging at the back of her mind. What was it exactly that she was trying to get for Jareth, anyway? She had been so troubled by things earlier that she had not thought to ask, even though asking would probably have done little good. It was obviously very important, or he wouldn't have dragged her all the way here in order to get it for him. And why did she need to get it? He should easily be able to get it himself. He also would have had it a lot faster if he had just transported her to where she needed to be in order to get it for him. Maybe he just brought her here to entertain himself; she wouldn't put it past him.

            Sarah stopped a moment and pulled her knapsack off of her back, reaching in to find some food. She was only slightly hungry she hoped that eating would make some of her boredom subside. Eventually she found a leather pouch containing many sandwiches, the ones at the top containing meats and vegetables, the numerous ones at the bottom being peanut butter and jelly.  After a moment of thought she figured that there were so few of the meat and vegetable sandwiches because they were perishable and had to be eaten soon after they were made. The peanut butter and jelly would last awhile. It seemed strange that Jareth would go to the trouble of finding food that was familiar to her. Even stranger that he hadn't just given her some type of magical pouch that she could draw food from whenever she wished. Maybe she would figure out why.

            She drew one of the perishable sandwiches from the bag and closed the knapsack. As she did so, a red, scrawny bird perched itself on a nearby branch. Sarah took little notice of it and continued on her journey. She had seen enough birds as it was they were of little interest.

            She took a bite of the sandwich as she walked. The bird flew over her and placed itself on the branch of a tree that she was closing in on. After she passed it, it put itself on a tree in her course, just as it had done two times before. The bird seemed oddly curious.

            Sarah stopped to wonder about the bird's behavior a moment, then resumed her walk, realizing that the occurrence must not be strange in the Underground birds probably stared at passers-by every day. So she did what she thought would be the proper thing to do, and ignored it.

            She took her second bite of the sandwich. Suddenly, a mad chirping began to close in from behind her. She turned around to see the bird approaching her. It circled around her head swiftly, proceeding with its loud chirp while she futilely swung at it.

            "Shoo bird!"

            She stopped in her tracks. It persisted with its swinging and chirping.

            "Go away!" she cried.

            The bird finally quieted and sat on the branch of a nearby tree, looking at her with what she thought was a very pouty expression. "You've got the idea," she declared. With that escapade completed, she started down the trail again.

            "Sheesh lady! All I wanted was a piece of your sandwich!" a high-pitched voice exclaimed behind her. "Can't even give a helpless little bird a few crumbs." She turned around in time to see the bird roll its eyes upward. "What's the world coming to?"

            Sarah was surprised that it could talk, let alone put her on a guilt trip. She approached it, somewhat stupefied, for she had not seen anything of such a bizarre nature in five years.  "You can talk?"

            The bird rolled its eyes again. "It ain't the trees, lady."

            "Sarah," she said absent-mindedly in an attempt to reveal her name.

            The bird looked behind her and around her, then turned to look behind himself, finally fixing his gaze back on her to say, "Who're you talking to?"

            Sarah realized that the bird had thought she was talking to someone else when she stated her name. "No, I mean my name is Sarah," she explained.

            The bird had been putting all of his weight on his right leg and now shifted it to his left, his wings flapping up, then down once to emphasize his next statement. "Skip the pleasantries, lady, and give me some grub."

            Sarah decided against correcting him again about her name being called "lady" did not go well over on her, for some reason and looked down at her sandwich. "Um, sure," she replied as she pulled a piece off and handed it to him. He took it with his wings and began gobbling it greedily, having stuffed the whole thing into his beak in no time. "What's your name?" she asked after letting him consume most of the sandwich fragment.

            His mouth was full when he replied. "(mumble) Rootleweak (mumble)," he said with some difficulty.

            "What was that? I can't understand you with food in your mouth."

            The bird swallowed the last bite and replied, with more clarity, "Rattlebeak."

            "Do you, by any chance, know about any, oh, mythical treasures of the Underground?" Sarah asked.

            "Got any more food?"

            The bird was beginning to aggravate her. Still, she kept calm.  "Yeah," she replied. "Here's the rest of my sandwich." She reiterated her last question. "Well, do you?"

            The bird swallowed the rest of the sandwich, seeming to get faster with practice, then spoke. "Look, lady, when you're a bird you don't care about wealth or jewelry or power or whatever it is you're looking for. If it has something to do with food, then I can help you."

            "Thanks, anyway," Sarah declared as she headed away. "It was nice meeting you!" she called out somewhat sarcastically once she was a good ways along the trail.

            "Hey, lady!" The bird caught up to her and flew at her side.

            She gave him a sidelong glance. "The name is Sarah."

            "Where ya goin', lady?"  The bird continued to ignore the fact that she possessed a name.

            Sarah pulled the map from a pocket on the outside of the knapsack and opened it. She examined it as she replied, "I'm on some treasure hunt. Against my will. The Goblin king sent me and has..." she concentrated on the map, her speech obviously the least of her thoughts, "has my friends captive until I return. If I don't get whatever it is he wants, my friends are doomed."

            The bird seemed disinterested. "Goblin King?" he declared. "Never heard of him."

            Well, that seemed to be the end of the subject for him, Sarah mused sardonically.  Sarah was a bit wounded by his lack of curiosity, but, why should he care? His friends weren't the ones in danger.

            "Can I go with you? You seem to be headed in my direction," he asked after following her a few minutes. She had not noticed him because of her concentration on the map. She hesitantly drew her gaze away from the guide.

            "I guess so. I could use some company."  However low the quality, she mused to herself.

            "How far are ya goin'?" it asked in what appeared to be an attempt at small talk.

            Sarah glanced at the map and ran her finger along it. Her finger found its destination and she replied, "To the grasslands."

            "Whoa! Wait a minute!" the bird called and floated in place, flapping his wings. Sarah had never seen a bird do that before and suspected she never would again. She stopped.  "I'll go as far as the Shadow Mountains, but no further," he nearly screeched.

            He makes it sound as if I asked him to come, Sarah thought, a wry smile forming on her lips.

            "I have to get back home," it explained further, realizing the sudden lack of friendly reception to its intrusions.

            Home.  Sarah would love to go back home. The only other thing she had to look forward to at the end of this expedition was to see her friends; there wasn't much else.  "Okay," she finally declared, not really caring one way or the other with all of the other things on her mind.

 

Night was closing in on the forest. Sarah had slight vision of the trail due to passing lightning bugs in the area. At home they would not glow so brightly, but here they were luminous enough to light her way.

            "We've been goin' all day, lady!" Rattlebeak declared, his wings beating more slowly than usual. "We gotta stop. My wings are killing me."

            Sarah began to realize that she had been walking non-stop all day long. She had been so distracted that she hadn't noticed the sleep tugging at her own eyes or the cramps in her legs. If it was that bad for her, then how would Rattlebeak feel, having to flap his wings constantly throughout the day? They had only had two breaks that day and they were very short ones; only long enough to drink something or get some food out of her bag, maybe check their location on the map. She had been tunnel-visioned and had not concerned herself with the fact that she had a traveling companion, however bothersome he tended to be.

            "Well, alright," she responded, finally stopping at a small clearing off to the side of the trail. "I do guess we should stop." She put her knapsack down. "It's getting a little cold, so I'll set a fire."

            "Fire?" he declared. "Uh, uh, I hate fires!"

            Sarah was beginning to feel exasperated. "It's getting chilly! I have to start a fire!"

            The bird turned tail and flew into the forest, calling as he left, "Good-bye, lady! My feather coat's worth more to me than a free piece of bread!"

            Sarah could do nothing to help it. She would not be miserable just to spare the bird. He had just followed because he thought she would give him food; if he believed that flying away would cause her to back down, he was sadly mistaken.

            Alone again, Sarah gathered some scattered, fallen branches and retrieved some flint from her knapsack, eventually getting a small fire going. Unknown to her, Rattlebeak had returned and was now watching her silently from a tree a few yards behind the campsite.

            Sarah pulled out a sandwich and glared at it thoughtfully a moment; the bird would return. It seemed to Sarah that it was in his nature. Maybe he would not come back out of consideration for her well being, or because he was worried about her having to brave the forest alone, but he would soon enough return.  The question was whether or not she wished him to come back; he would most definitely do what he could to diminish her already limited food supply and break her already stretched nerves.

            She bit into the sandwich with a sudden relish; the day's happenings had taken away her appetite completely, until now.  As she chewed the bread, she mumbled, "A nice steak would be good right about now...some mashed potatoes..."  She continued eating her sandwich thoughtfully and contemplated a five-course meal out loud, "Yeah, mmmm, and an apple pie.  A big apple pie, all just for me."

            Rattlebeak followed her consumption carefully with his eyes.  With every word, he seemed nearer to the prospect of drooling.

            She swallowed and bit again.  Maybe the bird was still there, listening, she thought.  "Yeah, a nice..."

            The bird's beak opened slightly, as if he were preparing to say something, to capitulate to the mighty call of the food, but it promptly shut soon afterwards.

            "...juicy...."

            It was a game only one of them would win.

            Sarah took another bite.

            "...broiled..."

            Unfortunately for Rattlebeak, Sarah was the one with the winning hand the hand full of edible material.

            "You gonna eat that whole sandwich?"

            Speak of the devil, thought Sarah to herself.

            "...bird for supper!" she finally finished.

            Rattlebeak immediately jumped at her final addition to the statement and began to fly away when Sarah exclaimed as she relished in his silliness, "Come back, I was just kidding!"  He stopped and seemed to think it over, mumbling to himself as he did so.  He finally returned, and she declared, "I thought you were going to leave," as she continued to face the fire. Rattlebeak eyed the sandwich from afar as she consumed the food and took an exaggerated amount of time to chew and swallow it. The bird was on the verge of drooling, that was, if birds did that sort of thing.

            "My stomach has more conviction than my threats," he whined, not being able to stand the sight of someone with food, while he had none.  "I hope it's not the same for you?" he whined, still harping on her mention of an aviary dish.

            Sarah chuckled to herself. She had predicted his actions accurately and it gave her a greatly needed ego boost. "You can come out," she finally replied. "It's safe."

            "You sure I won't catch on fire?" he queried.  "You won't eat me?"

            It seemed that the bird was beginning to get on her good side. He was very entertaining.

            No. She couldn't think like that. That was exactly the type of thing Jareth might say. Individuals are put on the earth to live their own lives, not for someone's personal enjoyment, someone's entertainment, she said to herself.

            "Of course not!" she exclaimed in response to his question.

            "You're...not gonna toss me in that blaze, are you?" he continued to nag.  She smiled warmly and shook her head "no"; Rattlebeak finally left his position on the tree branch and glided down behind her on spread wings. Hesitantly, he began to inch his way to her side, jumping only slightly at the sight of each burning ember that shot from the fire.

            Sarah handed him a large portion of her sandwich and reclined against a nearby tree. He quickly bit off a piece before bending his scrawny knees and sitting on his haunches like a human being would. He acted human enough as it was, so why not? thought Sarah. She was becoming adapted to his oddities.

            Sarah worked on her half of the sandwich once she was sure that Rattlebeak was satisfied.

            Through half of his chunk, Rattlebeak swallowed and asked, "What did the...whatsisname? The Goblin King do with your friends?"

            This show of concern surprised Sarah. She hadn't even believed he had been listening when she mentioned it the first time.  Her mouth was full, so she bent over and showed him the necklace.  "He gave 'em a necklace?" the bird asked with confusion.

            Sarah swallowed and replied, "He turned them into the charms on the necklace."

            A look of understanding flashed across the bird's face. "What a cad!"

            "Tell me about it," Sarah mumbled.

            A few awkward moments of silence lapsed before Rattlebeak continued, "I was on the way to see my friends and family when I met you."

            "They'll be worried won't they?"

            "Nah!" he exclaimed. "They don't even know I'm comin'."

            Another pause.

            "You're not going out of your way are you?" Sarah asked in an attempt to break the silence.

            "Oh, it's no big deal. They live just a little bit north of where we're headed..." he jerked his head in the opposite direction. "Did you hear something?"

            "No."

            "I hate these woods at night. They give me the creeps there it goes again."

            "There goes what again?" Sarah certainly did not hear anything.

            "That sound. Like someone whispering."

            Sarah thought about it and something clicked. She suddenly remembered something from the map. "The title of this forest is making you paranoid." She remembered that the guide had said it was called the Whispering Forest. "Calm down. It's time to go to sleep."

            "I can't sleep!" he declared with a whisper as he moved closer to Sarah. "Someone's watching us."

            Sarah strained her ears, but she still heard nothing. Only the distant hooting of an owl. "Go to sleep and the voices in your head will be quiet. You'll feel better in the morning."

            "In the morning the voices will have eaten me!" Rattlebeak whimpered.

            "You don't make much sense," Sarah chuckled. The bird seemed unable to accept that she was laughing at his expense. It was not funny to him.

            She saw this and straightened her expression. "Listen," she coaxed, "I'll stay up and keep watch."

            "You will?"

            "Yes."

            He considered it and finally whined a response. "Well, okay."

            With all words finally said, Rattlebeak eyed the campsite suspiciously, as if expecting something to leap out at them as soon as he shut his eyes. Nothing stirred, except for the crackling fire, which was slowly dying. Eventually convinced that no harm would come to him, Rattlebeak snuggled up to Sarah. She watched as he closed his eyes then instantly popped them open again, to make sure that nothing was coming out of hiding. When he was completely satisfied, he yawned and stretched his wings, closing his eyes for the final time.

            Sarah sat in silence for some time. She felt warm and comfortable having a friend to snuggle up with, her mind easing somewhat after leaving the lonesomeness of Jareth's castle. She remembered with disdain how cold and eerie it had been, how disturbing and frightening. And, although she was comfortable, the darkness of the forest was beginning to press into her like the castle had at one time. It was always something. There was never absolute peace in her life, especially when she entered the realm of the Underground.

            The fire had died and was only orange ashes by now, but her eyes were adapted and the moon sifted through the roof of the trees enough to shed light on the area about her. Yes, the only sound was that of the hooting owls...

            Owls? Didn't Jareth transform into an owl?

            Sarah looked about herself anxiously. There seemed to be no owls in the nearby trees. Still, she could not help but feel the cool night air begin to chill her bones.

            Suddenly, Sarah heard a whisper to her left. She turned and saw no one there. Then, it came from the right. Again, she could not find the source. Numerous murmuring voices slowly filled her head and they increased as her paranoia increased. She covered her ears, to no avail. It appeared they were inside her head.

            A thought fought its way through the grove of vocalizations:  it must be Jareth. He had gotten into her mind as he had done earlier that day. He was attempting to frighten her with the darkness and enhancing it with the whispers. She gritted her teeth and held her ears more tightly, an immeasurable pain growing within her head with the growth of the numbers of whispers. They taunted her with secrets, but took them away before she could comprehend. They toyed with her emotions, but changed the subject before she could give an adequate counterattack. They were everything and nothing, and although she deemed them worth no more than the ground she treaded on, she had to hear what they were saying. She had to defend herself and say something back, but they would not allow her to do so. So she continued to listen fearfully, being able to do nothing as the pain seared through her.

            Ignore them, and they will disappear, a voice said above the whispers in her mind. You must not care about what they are saying; do not defend yourself against their mockery.

            The voice was familiar and struck a new fear within her, but it's advice was logical, so Sarah tried it.

            At first it didn't work. They were very obviously there, so it was difficult for Sarah to pretend that they weren't. So she thought of her friends and family, imagined what she would have done the day after Toby's birthday, thought of what she would say to her friends once they returned. One by one the whispers ceased until only her own thoughts were plaguing her.

            Sarah waited until the headache subsided before she began to wonder who had given her the recommendation. It was a disturbingly familiar voice, but, like the whispers and their secrets, her understanding was pulled away before she could get a firm grasp on it.

            After this ordeal, she did not think it would be possible to sleep. Then she wondered about Rattlebeak. Had he slept through all of this? She almost expected to look down at him and hear him say, See, I told you there were voices.

            Instead she saw him deep in slumber. Sleep appealed to her and, without warning, that's all she could think of. Beautiful slumber. Earlier she had been too disturbed to sleep, but she was now struggling to keep awake long enough to complete the formation of her thoughts.

            It teased a memory that was not there to be remembered.

            Who had told her to ignore the whispers?

            It could wait until morning.

            Now, it was time to sleep.

***

Sarah awoke to the thunderous squawking of Rattlebeak. Once she cleared her eyes of sleep, she could see him flying about her head in turns, making a horrendous racket. She jumped up with a start. Perhaps it was a wild animal.

            "What is it!?" she exclaimed.

            He calmed a bit and flapped his wings with less ferocity, hovering before her face to respond. "You fell asleep!"

            "I what?!" she declared somewhat vehemently.

            "You fell asleep!" he cried indignantly.

            "Of course I did! I have to sleep too!" She blew her bangs from over her eyes with exasperation and plopped down on the ground, sitting Indian style.

            He stood before her and waved his wing at her expressively. "You promised you'd stay awake!" he scolded. "I could've been eaten by an owl or something!"

            The idea of an owl eating him was not so farfetched, Sarah concluded, but she decided to keep the thought to herself. She was becoming too obsessive with her thoughts about Jareth.

            "Are you dead right now?" she said instead.

            "Well, no, but "

            She placed her finger over his beak. "Then hush."

            The confrontation being over, Sarah rose from her sitting position and went to explore, hoping to find a lake or stream nearby. To her satisfaction, she did find a stream, and bent over to bathe her face in it.

***

The trunk of the great tree went high into the air, its branches twisting out in magnificent knots of wood and intertwining with the others to form gnarled shapes and bent images of fearsome proportions. Toward the top, the trunk broke up into four separate branches that stretched to the ceiling like a four-fingered hand. The tree bore only a few, dry, brown leaves, but was blanketed instead by glistening cocoons.

            The ceiling formed an egg-like dome and the wall was made of stone, its surface enshrouded in vines stretching in numerous directions, cocoons hanging off of them as well. Candles were strategically placed on the wall so that they formed a straight circle along the structure. They were few in number, giving the room little light.

            Between each candle was a protruding pipe that sent water into a moat that encompassed the entire length of the room. The water itself was brackish and not fit for drinking, but sparkled nonetheless due to glittering crystals that covered the bottom of it.

            Only one door led into the humongous chamber, a single bridge connecting it to the dirt ground of the room.

            The first unusual thing about the chamber was the mass of exotic moths that fluttered throughout, and, like the chamber, even with their lack of bright color and their possession of an eerie quality, they were strangely beautiful.

            The second unusual thing about the chamber was the presence of the Goblin King. He sat in the palm of the hand of the gigantic tree, watching intently as a moth flew to a cocoon and entered it. The cocoon closed about it, sealing it into the realm of metamorphosis. Simultaneously, another cocoon cracked open to reveal a caterpillar that had completed its transformation. To Jareth, it was a spectacular sight, no matter how backwards.

            He turned to watch the crystal sphere that was hovering beside him. Within its depths was an image of Sarah, bending over a stream to wash her face.

            "It seems, my dear Sarah, that you're making new memories. That means its time to lose some old ones."

            The diary appeared in his lap and he moved his hand over it ritually, causing the end of his silk scarf to fall to his side and blow in the light breeze. He held his oval-shaped necklace before him and a blue light surged from the crystal to the talisman. Afterward, the image of Sarah put her hand to her head to ward off dizziness. Once she recovered, she went back to her task of washing up, her memory of the incident having vanished.

            Then, blue light flowed again, now from the talisman to his hand, then his hand to the diary.

            "This should provide interesting reading later on," Jareth said, letting the diary vanish again until he was ready to examine it. The talisman laid limp against his chest and mingled with his princely white shirt and scarf.

            "So, you have found a new companion," he said to the crystal. "You always have been fairly amiable. It has proven helpful to you in the past. It has also proven to be one of your greatest faults. This time your amiability has helped me." He laughed to himself. Too bad there was no one to laugh with him.

            He quickly ebbed in his mirth. The silver necklace with the charms of Sarah's old friends suddenly hung from his hand. He held it before the hovering crystal and gazed at it intently, as if pondering over it. "A very wonderful imitation if I do say so myself....very realistic....quite detailed. One would almost be prompted to believe that it was truly them. But why would anyone believe that?" He chuckled.

            A crow flew to his side and he addressed it. "I think they're quite ugly. Wouldn't you agree?" The bird did not respond, but flew away instead. Jareth turned back to the sphere.

            A serious expression gained control of his face abruptly. "I apologize for last night's inconvenience, Sarah. I did not explain to you why the Whispering Forest was named as such. Of course, now, you will remember very little about it, or the voice that guided you away from its whispers. I suppose it's all very well." An almost disappointed look shadowed his face.

            "It is too bad that we must be rivals," he stated with a sigh as he reclined against a branch of the tree, not in the least bit frightened of falling down. "But, it is as you seem to have chosen. I have very little control of you now.

            "Nonetheless, in the end, what you feel will not be of your choosing.

            "But, in the meantime, your speedy acquisition of friends might prove harmful to my plan. I do not want you winning against me due to their help, as you did the last time. I will have to draw upon another of your weaknesses for later use."

            A ceramic figurine of a unicorn fearfully reared up on its hind legs replaced Sarah's necklace. Its blue, sapphire eyes glistened in the dim light.

            "A gift hardly fit for a five year-old. I wonder who prompted her to buy it for him?"

            He laughed wickedly.

***

Now clean, Sarah made her way back to the campsite. She was utterly aggravated to find Rattlebeak head first in the bag of supplies. Crusts from at least three sandwiches were scattered about the floor.

            He came up from inside of the bag, stuffing his mouth with food and eating contentedly when she ran up to him and jerked the food away.  "Rattlebeak, what are you doing?!"  He looked at her with a confused stare, as if when she took away the food, he forgot who and where he was.  "That food has to last me at least a week!" she exclaimed as she cleaned up the mess.

            He finally came to and countered, "I was hungry!"

            "You're going to be really hungry when there's nothing to eat! Because of you, we're going to have to start skipping lunch!"

            His eyes widened at this remark. "Skip lunch!"

            Sarah looked up from her cleaning process. "I'm not the one who ate all of the food. Put the things that you didn't eat back into the bag. After I see where we are on the map, we're leaving." She brushed her hands off on her pants and pulled the map and compass out of the bag while Rattlebeak gathered the uneaten food. Sarah looked to the sky in an attempt to calculate the time before looking at the compass and then at the map. The mountains were the next obstacle on the agenda and, seeing that  the sun was still at the horizon, the journey there should not take too long, that was, if they did not take long breaks.  That would be another battle with Rattlebeak, she was sure.  She glanced ahead to see the peaks of the mountains just barely rising above the foliage.

            As she turned around to report this to Rattlebeak, she noticed his mumbles over her decree to omit lunch. His displeasure had been expected, however, and she did not pay it much attention. When he saw that she was ignoring him, he made his complaints more audible.

            Instead of giving any indication that she heard him, Sarah gave their current status. "By noon we should be able to see the mountains completely. Are you ready?" She looked down to see him flapping his wings about in different directions, a frown forming on his face as he argued, not responding to her question, "I get a cramp when I fly on a full stomach." Sarah rolled her eyes, exasperated by the fact that he was placing blame on her after eating all of the food without care to the consequences it would bring. "If I had a choice, we'd stay awhile so my breakfast could fully digest."

            Will there be no end? He was continuing to test her limits. "Well," she stated and rolled her head irritably to look at him, "you don't." He began to flap his wings agitatedly again, giving Sarah a warning as to the fact that he would create an argument over her stubbornness. Before he could continue to protest, she added, "You can sit on my shoulder if you want. Then you won't have to fly."

            His wings slowed down a bit before he took one last pursuit at the topic. "I still say we should stay. It's too early to leave. Who knows what things are out there to "

            Sarah slung the knapsack over her shoulder and walked away while she cut him off, "Stop complaining and get over here."

            The bird made a few last remarks prior to giving in and ascended into the air, reluctantly landing on Sarah's shoulder. He crossed his wings and began his mumbling again. She continued to walk, attempting to not let his noise phase her. She looked resolutely ahead, yet he continued to moan. She took on an expression of indifference and he persisted with his muttering. Finally, she could take it no longer.

            "Would you stop that?" she chastised. She hated the fact that she was giving in to his childishness.

            He looked at her innocently. "Stop what?"

            She sighed with obvious irritation. "Stop mumbling."

            "Hmpf!" With nothing else said, he turned around indignantly and began rummaging through the bag of supplies, apparently trying to rile Sarah further.

            Sarah discontinued her brisk walk in response. She struggled to turn her head around enough to see him and exclaimed, "Get out of there!" His head remained in the bag. Sarah had grown tired of his rebellion.

            She grabbed him roughly and put her arm before her face, putting him atop it so that she could look at him, eye to eye.

            "Listen. If you're going to keep traveling with me and eat my food, then you'll do as I say. You got that?"

            He turned his face away and began to shift his feet. She took hold of his beak and turned his head so that he was facing her again. "I said, You got that?"

            "I guess," he whined. "But"

            "And stop complaining so much. Or, to be more precise, don't complain at all."

            With her lecture finished, she placed him back atop her shoulder and started on her way for the second time.

            Sarah thought about her second encounter with Jareth in the castle and how he had pulled her by the chin so that she was facing him. Guilt crept in on her as she realized how small a difference there was between what he had done to her and what she had done to Rattlebeak. It made chills run down her spine to think that she would act like him in any way.

            You are cruel, Sarah. We are well matched, you and I. I need your cruelty, just as you need mine.

            Jareth's words from the past rang in her ears like the after waves of a gong. Had she been cruel? It was beginning to seem that she had. But that had merely been average teenage behavior, the smart-aleck remarks and refusal to face reality all a normal part of adolescent behavior, especially the behavior of a child who is used to being spoiled. She had long grown out of that. But the idea that she and Jareth were well matched was...revolting.

            Yet, she remembered not having thought so when she was fifteen. At that time, yes, Jareth was frightening, but he was also captivating and mysterious, eloquent and handsome. Things that could easily cause a teenage girl to become fascinated and entranced. Things that would instantly send a young girl's hormones for a roller-coaster of a ride.

            But, wasn't he still all of those things? And, if so, why did she no longer react to them the way she once had?

            That was a simple enough question to answer. She had grown up. She was somewhat wise to the ways of the adult world and they no longer captured her attention in the way they once had. Or did they?

            "Bully!"

            Sarah was forced out of her contemplation by Rattlebeak's insult. It had been put forth in a somewhat teasing manner, hiding only slight resentment, so she returned the remark with good humor. "Bigmouth!"

            "Push around!" he countered.

            "Coward!" she retorted.

            "I'm not a coward!" he exclaimed, clearly offended.

            "You are too!" she declared.

            He lowered his tone, sniffled with indignity, and faced the other way. "Not a coward...just a little paranoid."

            She just grinned and replied, "Whatever you say."

***

Toby opened Sarah's door slowly, peering inside as he did so. His sister had just come upstairs to bring her suitcases up here and he was surprised to find the room empty. He didn't question it for long, his awe over his new possession far greater than his curiosity over his sister's whereabouts. She would surely be back.

            He sat at his sister's dresser and placed the figurine of the white unicorn on its surface. He certainly did not want to drop it. Even a five year-old had the presence of mind not to want to break something so lovely.

            The wind started up outside, lashing the trees near the window about so that they scratched at the window noisily. Toby jerked to see what had made the noise out of reflex, then turned his attention back to his gift. When he looked at it again, it's blue sapphire eyes were glowing.

            It startled him at first, but soon a calm took him over and he was more curious than afraid.

            He watched with complete amazement as the figure that had formerly been hard and motionless became fluid and moved from its position on its hind legs to a four-legged stance. Its eyes were no longer sapphires, but had become real eyes with blue irises and large, black pupils. The unicorn was tiny, but was perfect in every detail, more so than it had been before its sudden transformation from an inanimate object to a living one. It just stood there without motion, except for its visible breathing and blinking of the eyes. The nostrils flared somewhat as it inhaled and exhaled, its chest puffing out in syncopation.

            Toby eventually was released from his stupor and reached out to touch it. When it shook its mane, he drew his hand away.

            "Don't be frightened," it coaxed. "I won't harm you."

            Toby was still reluctant to touch it. He just continued to look at it indecisively and awkwardly.

            "I am a friend of your sister's," it added.

            Toby found his voice. "Where is Sarah?"

            "She is at my home."

            "Where do you live?"

            "Just on the other side of this mirror. But enough about me. What Sarah told you about me is true. I can grant wishes for you. At your command, I will show you your dreams."

            "You will?" Some of Toby's shyness persisted, but he grew bolder with the escape of his trepidation and the enhancement of his curiosity.

            "Since it is your birthday, I can grant you three wishes freely, as a gift. But, after you use those three wishes you must do what Sarah told you to do. After they are used, you must do good deeds, some I might give to you, in order to win a wish. For each thing you do, I will grant any wish that you ask of me." The unicorn's coat glistened underneath the light of Sarah's soft, bedside lamp.

            "Any wish?" Toby asked.

            "Any wish," the unicorn confirmed. "What will your first wish be?"

            Toby became thoughtful. The unicorn watched him closely and, seeing that the child might wish for something mediocre, added, "Use your imagination. You can do anything you want."

            "Can you get big?" Toby asked.

            "You mean, like the size of a regular horse?" the unicorn queried.

            "Yeah," Toby said. "I want a ride."

            "Very well, then," the unicorn replied. "It shall be so."

***

Sarah and Rattlebeak had been walking a couple of hours when something white flashed through the forest with ultimate speed, not far from where they had been standing. Rattlebeak dove his head into Sarah's hair while still perched atop her shoulder and only pulled his head out long enough to exclaim, "What was that?!"

            "I don't know...It looked like...," Sarah seemed to think it over, "It looked like a white horse to me."

            "It's too close for my comfort," Rattlebeak's high-pitched voice replied as he slowly came out of hiding. "I'm going to fly. Maybe it won't be able to reach me."

            Sarah looked in the direction that the white steed had been heading. It was no longer in sight.

            Rattlebeak did as he had said he would and went into the air, wings flapping, until he was at least two and a half meters off of the ground.

            Sarah looked up as if somewhat surprised that he had actually carried out with his plan of action. "Horses don't eat birds, silly!" she declared. "They eat grass and hay. You have nothing to worry about."

            "Anything that runs that fast," he whined, "must be chasing something."

            Sarah chuckled to herself and added, "He's long gone."

            Rattlebeak looked in the direction off the horse's path and said, thoughtfully, "I don't know..."

            It was beginning to occur to Sarah that when even slight things set Rattlebeak off, he was completely serious about it. It was unadulterated paranoia that ailed him, not the need to annoy her.

            "How about we stop for lunch?" she asked tactfully.

            He immediately discontinued his stare in the direction of the horse. "But you said "

            "Forget what I said. I'll make an exception this time. But, if we eat, you have to calm down."

            Rattlebeak looked as if he were considering it. He must be frightened if he was even considering putting his fear of the horse above food. "I'm not so jumpy when my stomach's full."

            "Good."

Noon had passed and Sarah was relieved to feel the evening air coming about. By the position of the sun in the sky she figured it was anywhere from four to six o'clock, but she would be glad when it was much later. For one, it would be considerably cooler, and for two, she would have an excuse for stopping and going to sleep. She had gotten a pain in her side twice that day from drinking so much water, but she couldn't help it. It had been extremely warm that day, the unending traveling was making her very thirsty, and the water from the nearby stream was so cool and refreshing that she could not help but drink numerous handfuls of it. The pain hadn't kicked in until at least an hour after they ate lunch and she feared that she was beginning to sound like Rattlebeak with all of her complaining. He had shown concern for her once, but, after she told him not to mind her, he didn't.

            Most of the pain had subsided by now. She hadn't had much water since after the sun began to move closer to the east horizon.  She could see the Shadow Mountains more clearly above the forest.

            "So, what kind of bird are you anyway?" Sarah asked in an attempt to make conversation.

            "We're called Magicmockers."

            "Why are you called that?" Sarah questioned.

            Rattlebeak replied in a distinguished voice, his beak pointed toward the sky as if to imitate royalty, "Our song is said to bring good fortune."

            "Well," Sarah stated, "I could use some of that. Let me hear a tune."

            Rattlebeak turned to her with surprise. "You want to hear me sing?"

            "Yeah," she simply replied.

            "Really?"

            Because he was making such a fuss over it, Sarah was beginning to wonder if asking him to sing was a mistake. She got prepared to cover her ears, but, out of courtesy, answered, "Sure."

            "You positive?"

            "Just sing, okay?"

            He cocked his head to the side and dismissed further argument. "Okay."  With that, he cleared his throat and began to whistle a lovely tune. Sarah was shocked to find that she would not need to cover her ears, after all. She guessed that if he had been born human, however, he would not be so adept at singing.

            Not long after Rattlebeak had begun his tune, the ground beneath Sarah started to sink somewhat. She stopped out of reflex. In response to her abrupt halt, a vine was released from hiding and Sarah saw that her foot was placed precariously in the center of a loop at the end of the vine. The loop closed about her ankle and she was instantly pulled into the air, hanging upside down, by the vine trap. When the vine was pulled taut, she grunted from the sudden jolt.

            The ground she had once been standing on crumbled to reveal an abysmal pit. Sarah looked down into it, shuddered, and closed her eyes momentarily. She opened them again when she realized the vine was giving way and she would soon fall, most likely, to her demise.

            Rattlebeak began to fly and twitter about madly at the sudden appearance of the trap, but soon stopped when he saw that Sarah was looking directly at him.

            "Your song brings good fortune, huh?"

            "Hey lady, I didn't make up the tale! Do you need any help, or what?"

            Sarah surmised the situation. She quickly had a solution.

            "Let me see...Get me a vine from that," she pointed to a tree that was a few yards away from the pit, "tree."

            He flew over to a vine that was dangling from a branch, grabbed it with his claws, and, with some effort, brought it over to Sarah. The vine that held her was dropping her further each moment.

            She took hold of the vine and he prodded, "Now what?"

            She looked up at the vine that held her then looked back at him. It slipped a little more. It took her a few moments to get over the shock of each short plummet. She finally responded, "Bite the vine that's holding my foot!" She fell further, her knapsack sliding off of her back. She threw her arm out to grab it, causing her to fall somewhat further, and the bag eluded her grasp and fell into the pit, making no apparent sound that was associated with hitting bottom.

            She thanked her lucky stars that she just happened to be wearing the jacket with the key and marbles in the pocket. At least she would not lose everything.

            Rattlebeak showed visible trepidation over getting near the vine, let alone putting it in his mouth. "Um...."

            "Do it now!" Sarah exclaimed forcefully.

            "Okay, okay!"

            She eyed the endless hole with anxiety. Her knuckles turned white with the powerful grip she had on the other vine.

            Rattlebeak darted over to the vine that held her and bit firmly into the brown bark. It was not enough. He bit twice more and the vine was cut, leaving Sarah to swing on the other vine, over the pit and safely on the ground just at the edge of it.

            Sarah just stared into the pit blankly, taking a few moments to calm down and fully digest the fact that she had almost been killed. It was only luck that had kept death from succeeding in getting its grasp on her. She hated to think what would have happened if that other vine just hadn't happened to be there...

            She finally took a deep breath and put her hands on her hips, giving Rattlebeak some indication that she would be all right. He had been watching her carefully the past few moments with a worried expression and was just now beginning to relax.

            "That's just great," Sarah declared. "We've lost all of our food, the map, and the compass. Not to mention my mountain climbing equipment. Remind me never to ask you to sing again."

            Rattlebeak rose into the air and countered, "It's not my fault, lady!"

            She let her hands down by her side and answered, "You're right." Turning around, she glanced to the east. "Well, let's get going. I'll just keep toward the mountain. Let's hope that will keep us on the right path. I'll cross any other bridges as they come to me."

            They started slowly to the east, careful to watch where they stepped.

Jennifer Connelly     David Bowie    Jim Henson            C     C