Stephanie learned that her new friend, Beynon, was a pygmy griffin, and he was taking her back to his nest to get advice from his parents before taking her to the portal. As Beynon had warned her the area the portal lay in was dangerous, she didn’t think that was a bad idea. They reached a particularly fat and tall tree. Stephanie could see a large nest up in the branches.
“Ma! Da!” Beynon called, flying up to greet them. Two larger pygmy griffins who were about the size of cats, flew out from the nest to meet him. Stephanie watched them fly circles around each other.
“We were worried sick!” the larger of the two said with a feminine voice. Stephanie supposed that must be his mother.
“Where were ye, son?” his father asked.
“I was caught by a carnivorous plant, but Stephanie saved me!” Beynon told his parents, looking down at her.
“Stephanie?” his mother asked. She and his father also looked down at her. They flew lower and circled Stephanie.
“You saved our son?” his father asked.
‘Yes,’ Stephanie thought.
“I’m Eynon,” his father introduced himself.
“And I’m Aerfen,” his mother said.
“We are in your debt,” they told Stephanie, landing and bowing to her.
‘There’s really no need for that,’ Stephanie though, ‘But… I was hoping you could help me find the portal?’
“The portal?” Eynon and Aerfen gasped.
“Oh, ye don’t want to go there!” Eynon said.
“It’s dreadfully dangerous!” Aerfen agreed.
‘But I must find my sister, and I don’t have much time,’ Stephanie thought earnestly. ‘If I don’t hurry, my little brother will be turned into a goblin!’
“I see, your sister wished him away, did she?” Aerfen said with a tone of disapproval, plucking that information from Stephanie’s mind.
‘She didn’t think anyone was really listening,’ Stephanie thought in her defense.
“Well, be that as it may,” Eynon said, “we can guide ye to the portal, but you’ll have to pass through the Shadows. It’s a dark part of the forest where the deepest, darkest thoughts ye’ve ever had are echoed back at ye.”
“Many go mad trying to make their way through there. We’ll be all right, because we can block it, but ye’ll be completely vulnerable,” Aerfen added. “Then it’s the Vale of Unicorns.”
‘Vale of Unicorns?’ Stephanie thought. That didn’t seem so bad.
“It is bad,” Aerfen said. “Very bad. Unicorns are aggressive. They’ll charge anything that moves and they wound to kill. There’s only one way to get past them. You have to sing a song they like. Then you can pass while they’re dancing. But they are extremely picky.”
“And after that, it’s the dragon,” Eynon said.
‘Dragon?’ Stephanie asked, startled.
“Dragon,” Eynon repeated with a nod of his head. “It guards the mouth of the cave that holds a treasure hoard. You must travel through this cave to reach the portal on the other side.”
‘A dragon, great,’ Stephanie thought sarcastically. ‘What could possibly go wrong there?’ To be honest, she was terrified. But she had to find her sister and help her rescue Toby, and a part of Stephanie was excited—the part of her inner child that had always wanted to be a knight rather than a princess. She finally had a chance to face off against a real dragon. ‘Let’s go!’ she thought with determination.
The Fireys were hauling Sarah along as though she were a reluctant donkey. She certainly was reluctant. She could not see the castle anywhere, and when she asked how far away it was they answered with whoops and cackles. The clock was ticking toward thirteen all the time. So perhaps she was indeed a donkey for having got herself into this mess.
She tried to figure out where she should have made a different choice. It was impossible. Suppose she and Stephanie had not approached Hoggle, right at the start, but walked the other way around the great wall? Might she not, by now, be back home, with Stephanie still with her and Toby safe in his crib? Perhaps. How would she know? What evidence had she been given that any of her choices were the right ones? If they were right ones; if it wasn’t all a cruel hoax by which Jareth tormented her with the illusion that Toby could be rescued.
She blinked back rising tears. She would not start that again. If she hadn’t been such a crybaby, perhaps these creatures she was with now would have left her alone.
She concentrated on what could be evidence, however flimsy, that she had gotten some things right. Her brief friendship with Ludo, poor Ludo—that couldn’t be meaningless, could it? The happy, goofy smile he’d given her when she had rescued him—was that a gratuitous event in a story with no ending? Even Hoggle, flawed character though he was, had unwittingly helped her to find out that she was capable of doing more than she had known. To have gotten this far at all, in spite of the hideous traps Jareth had set for her—surely that was some kind of evidence in her favor? Perhaps. But it would mean nothing at all unless she could find Stephanie and get to Toby in time, and save him from being turned into a goblin. She had to get away from this bunch, who were just passing the time—her time.
“Hey! Ain’t that it over there?” one yelled.
“Noo-h,” another said. “That’s just a rock.”
“How ’bout that? That a castle?”
“Noo-h, that’s just the stump of an ol’ tree.”
“Well,” shrieked another of them, “how ’bout that? That got to be a castle.” He was pointing at a pond.
“Nohow,” the wiser one said. “A castle’s got windows and all that.”
An eel popped it’s head above the surface of the pond and looked at them. The effect was as though they’d struck oil.
“It is a castle.”
“Dogone,” conceded the wiser one. “Well, whaddya know? We must be there.”
Sarah looked coolly at their whoopings and leapings. “That’s not the castle,” she told them.
“It got windows. That ol’ eel must’ve looked outa somethin‘.”
“Well,” Sarah answered, “it’s not the castle I have to find. Please let me go now.”
“Now, you,” the eel piped. “What’re you doing?”
“We’re just havin’ ourselves a good old time.”
They were capering about, slapping their thighs. “Hey, eel. You a castle?”
“No, I ain’t,” the eel trilled tartly. “Now get along.”
“Hey, eel. So why you got windows?”
“So’s I can tell you to scat,” the eel replied, and vanished with aplomb and a plop.
“Hot dog!” They were unaccountably delighted with everything that had happened. Setback or success, it made no difference.
“Please,” Sarah said, “I want to go.”
“Ain’t you havin’ a good time?”
“Yes,” she lied politely. “But I must get to the castle.”
“We nearly found it for you.”
“It did have windows. Well, one anyway.”
“We want to help you.”
“Yeah! ‘Cause we like you.”
Sarah sighed. “But you’ve got no more idea of where the castle is than I have.”
“We have too!”
“No you haven’t.”
“It’s just over this here hill.”
“Yeah, you tell her.”
“Come on! What we waiting for?”
Meanwhile, Jareth watched Stephanie’s progress. Sarah would soon be taken care of, and he wanted to see how far the troublesome girl could get. He looked into his crystal and saw that Stephanie had entered the Shadows, a place he, himself avoided.
Stephanie blinked. It was dreadfully dark, and it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the almost complete lack of light. The trees a were black and reflected no light back, almost as if they had been burned to charcoal. And there was a gloomy chill in the damp air. It was the type of environment that Stephanie wouldn’t have been surprised to see a ghost in. It was so eerie that she expected it to happen. Eynon and Aerfen gripped the wrists of her sweater with their talons and flew forward, guiding her, while Beynon rode on her head, which was the cleanest part of her.
Stephanie really wished she could wash herself off.
The first assault came as whispers that Stephanie could barely hear over the sound of leaves crunching under her feet. Then they became louder and louder until it was as if she was surrounded by a sea of people, all of whom sounded like her.
Jareth saw her falter. Stephanie began to shake. He wondered what she was hearing. What made her tremble so?
Stephanie could hear her own voice telling her to die. That she should have died. That she was a burden on her family. That it was her fault her parents split up. That no one really wanted her. Not her father, who had let her mother take her. Not her mother, who often made her feel as though she was just another prop used to enhance whatever role she was playing. Not Sarah, who hated having to share their mother’s attention with her. Not Irene or Jeremy. She wasn’t even their child. And not Toby, who was too young to care. None of them wanted her, so why was she still alive? She didn’t have any friends because the only one who had stuck with her through her illness had moved away. She had classmates that she talked to and rivals in fencing. But those classmates couldn’t care less what happened to her. Her rivals would prefer to have her gone. Everyone would be better off if she was gone. Why didn’t she end it and put herself and everyone else out of their misery? Why did she even exist?
Jareth watched her fall to her knees. Tears streamed down her face. She was sobbing. She covered her ears with her hands, as if that could save her. The pygmy griffins were pulling on her, pecking at her, trying to snap her out of it.
Then, she felt metal against the skin of her ear. Stephanie realized that she was holding her hands over her ears, trying to shut out the thoughts. She was sitting on the ground, rocking back and forth. She was crying a flood of tears. Beynon, Eynon, and Aerfen were yelling at her to get ahold of herself, concerned. But it was the feel of metal that had brought her back, because she recognized what it was. The ring Jeremy had given her to celebrate her survival. It was a tangible sign that someone did care. Someone would miss her. She lowered a hand and felt for the locket around her neck. It was too dim to see the pictures, but she knew the images by heart. A picture of herself with her mother and Jeremy and a picture of her with her father, Sarah, and Irene. They were all smiles, none of them forced. They were happy to be with her, and she was happy to be with them. Those smiling people in the pictures would be sad if anything happened to her.
Stephanie didn’t want that. She wanted to see them again. She was shaking badly, but she made herself stand up again. She started walking again and Eynon and Aerfen took up their positions as her guides again. Beynon settled back down on top of her head. The dark thoughts were still on full blast in her head, but Stephanie made herself continue to move forward anyway, as she had done ever since her family split and her world fell apart. She focused on putting one foot in front of the other, moving one step at a time. As long as she kept moving, she would make it. Tears were still streaming down her face, and a sob escaped her every now and then, but she kept moving anyway. She pushed forward.
Jareth stared at her through his crystal, marking her slow but steady progress. Whatever she heard was clearly damaging enough to bring her to her knees as a sobbing mess, yet she continued. Jareth was beginning to develop a grudging respect for this girl.
At the same time bopping and raving, the Fireys dragged Sarah on through the wilderness, and on and on, until even they began to look exhausted and downcast. As for Sarah, her body was wilting and her spirit was exasperated.
“These castles are sure hard to find,” one said.
“Maybe it’s a small one,” another suggested.
“Uh-huh. Good thinkin’.”
Whereupon they all started to pick up little stones and peer beneath them.
“No,” Sarah told them wearily. “Castles are big things.”
“Maybe it’s over the hill,” one said to another. “Just have a look-see if you can spot the castle from up there.” He pointed to a fir tree.
“Sure thing!” said the other.
He took his head off and ran, bouncing it. When he arrived at the tree, he tossed his head neatly onto the topmost branches.
“Can you see the castle?”
“Yeah,” the elevated head answered. “I can see the castle!”
“What does it look like?” asked Sarah suspiciously.
“Well, it looks kinda like… er… like a … like a hippopotamus!”
“That’s some castle.”
“We’re as good as there. Come on!”
“Wait for me,” called out the head, while his body scrambled to reach him.
“I’m going back,” Sarah announced.
“Lady! You heard him say he sees the castle.”
“A big one!”
“Like a hippopopotamus… mus.”
They were whooping and jigging around so frenetically that she thought she might be able to slip away from them without being noticed. She walked slowly, letting them all get ahead of her. Then she turned and quietly walked back in the direction from which they had come. Of course, they were at her side again in an instant, and they all toiled on through the wilderness together.
Sarah was aiming to get back to where they had started, but then she realized the futility of that, since she would have no idea where to go next. She wondered what was the point of doing anything. She might as well go this way, or that, or stand still, or cry. Maybe just havin’ yourself a good time was the best anyone could hope for.
She shook her head and halted. Whatever the point was, all this was beside it. She could no nothing until she had rid herself of the Fireys. As they jigged happily about her, she looked around the wilderness for an idea. Any idea.
She noticed, in the distance to one side of them, a wooded bluff. She knew what she had to do.
She turned and addressed the Fireys. “Wait a minute. None of you knows where the castle is. You don’t even know what a castle looks like.”
“Just cause we’re wild doesn’t mean we don’t know what a castle is.”
“We ain’t stupid, we’re just wild.”
“Yeah, wild,” they all agreed enthusiastically.
As she anticipated, one of them showed how wild he was by picking up his head and tossing it in the air. As it came down, Sarah grabbed it, and threw it as far away as she could.
“Hey. That’s his head, lady.”
Two more heads had leaped up to see where the first had gone. Sarah grabbed them too, and hurled them in different directions.
“That’s my head!” one of the heads protested as it flew through the air.
Pandemonium broke out.
“Hey, wait a minute.”
“Lady, what are you doing?”
“You threw their heads!”
“Yeah, you’re only allowed to throw your own head, right?”
While trunks were pursuing heads, getting the wrong ones and chucking them around, Sarah bolted. She made for the bluff.
“Stop her, someone!”
“We gotta take your head off now.”
“Yeah, we get to throw your head around.”
“You can’t quit now.”
“I’ll take her head off.”
“Hey, little lady!”
“Hey there, come back.”
“We gotta help you.”
“Come on, everybody!”
They gave chase and gained on her but her initial advantage got her to the bluff before they had caught up. Slipping between trees, ahead of her she saw a crevice in a high rockface, and sprinted into it. She found herself in an alleyway running mazily through the rock. As she ran on, she heard the Fireys’ voices behind her, echoing. She had hoped she’d shaken them off.
“Hey, lady, you want me to take your head off, don’t you?”
“Sure she does!”
“It’s lots of fun.”
She ran on, oblivious, until the alleyway reached a dead end. Her eye ran up the rockface wall patterned with mosses and lichens, and saw no holds for climbing. At the top, the wall was crenellated, like the battlements of an old fortress.
She heard them come around the last bend, behind her. There was no escaping them.
“There she is!”
“Hey, lady, we found another castle!”
“Like a lunchbox!”
“No, like a wheelbarrow!”
Sarah closed her eyes.
Something tickled her nose. She opened her eyes and saw a rope. She threw her head back. Leaning over the parapet, high above, was a face. Hoggle’s face.
“Grab it!” he called down to her.
She grabbed it. Hoggle hauled. The Firey’s dove at her. They were too late by inches. They leaped up, snatching at her feet. She felt fingers brush her shoes.
“Hey, don’t you want to look like us?”
“Come on, take off your head!”
“Off with her head!”
“Get a saw.”
“It won’t hurt.”
Hoggle hauled on. Heads began to fly up beside her.
“Now come down, lady.”
“Come on—we’ll let you play if you take off your arm.”
“How about a leg?”
“An ear! Just take off your ear, lady. You don’t need two.”
One after another the heads rose beside her, yammered, and fell.
“We want to help you.”
“Ain’t we a-showin’ you a good time?”
“Yeah! You come on down and strut your stuff.”
“Let it all hang out, little lady.”
“Aw, c’mon, it’s fun. Let’s look for something’ else.”
Hoggle hauled her up to the top. He helped her clamber over the battlements and brushed his hand at the flying heads as if they were pestering flies. “Shoo!” he bade them. “Go away.”
Sarah was looking around, laughing in her relief. They were standing on top of a turret. To either side of them the stone platform of the Great Goblin Wall ran as far as she could see, rising and falling, turning, crenellated all the way, turreted at regular intervals.
She turned to face him. “Hoggle! she said warmly.
He ignored her, continuing to beat his hands at the last few despondent heads that rose up beyond the battlements. “Down!” he barked at them. “Go on, get away with you.”
When there were no more heads, he had to turn back to face Sarah, who was still beaming at him. The look he returned was as grumpy as ever, but it could not puncture the deep, affectionate gratitude she felt. Which she had swung from her belt. On his own belt hung a pouch in which he carried the peach Jareth had given him.
She held out her arms. “You’ve come back to help me. Thank you, Hoggle.” She caught hold of him and leaned over toward his face.
“No!” he wailed, and tried to brush her off like one of the flying heads. “No! Don’t kiss me!”
But she had done it, and the earth moved beneath them.