Wishful Thinking

Once Bitten

The moment Sarah’s foot landed on the bridge, the whole structure creaked and settled down a couple of inches. She jumped off again quickly.

“Have no fear, sweet madam,” Sir Didymus reassured her. “This bridge has stood a thousand years.”

Sarah looked warily at the bridge. “I just hope it stands another five minutes.” She put her foot on it again and felt it sway beneath her. Gingerly, with a hand held out for Ludo to grab if need be, she put her whole weight on the bridge. It settled again, with a noise like a very dry hinge. A couple of fragments fell off, with a puff of dust, and plopped into the bubbling bog.

One hand on the rickety handrail, the other arm outstretched like a tightrope walker, Sarah advanced a step, then another. There were noises of squeaking and cracking at every movement she made. Behind her she heard a dull splash. A stone in the pier, loosened by her weight, had fallen. She felt the plank beneath her feet give another inch. The only thing that made her go on was the certainty that she had no alternative.

Sir Didymus, in contrast, had no qualms. He was giving no more thought to the bridge, in fact. His brain was glowing with the prospect of, at last, submitting himself to the supreme test of chivalric code—a quest. He had no idea what these people’s purpose was, but it was clear that they must have one, from the sense of urgency that his trained eye had detected in the damsel. It was, moreover, a purpose of such high import that her courtiers were willing to engage in unarmed combat with a warrior such as himself in order to achieve it. His skin tingled and his eyes flashed as he turned to Ludo, and said, “Since thou art my brother, I will come with thee on whate’er they quest. Lead on!” With a little bow and a flourish of his hand, he invited Ludo to follow Sarah across the bridge.

Ludo shook his head. “Ludo—wait!”

And even as Ludo eyed the bridge suspiciously, another large chunk of masonry crumbled out of the pier and rolled into the bog. The bridge suddenly sagged and swayed. Sarah grabbed hold of the handrail with both hands. Other stones and loose cement were falling from the pier. In the middle of the shaking, sinking bridge, Sarah was stranded. She looked around in horror, saw that the whole thing was collapsing, and made a run for it to the other side.

Too late. With a screeching, rending noise, the rotten timbers gave way beneath her. The vile muck bubbled over the edges of the planks in front of her. Sarah leaped for the overhang branch of an ailing, leafless tree beside the bridge and managed to get both hands onto it. Swinging there, looking down at the crust of scum bubbling beneath her feet, and at the remains of the bridge floating on the bog, she moaned at the thought of being stained and stinking forever. With each swing she heard the branch tearing away from its trunk. “Help!” she cried pitifully. “Ludo! Hoggle! Sir Didymus! Help! Do something!”

Sir Didymus was transfixed. His bridge had been erased from the landscape. It took him a little time to accustom himself to the new view, and a little more to accept that the role he had always played so devoutly had now been abolished. Then he remembered that he had just dedicated himself to these people’s quest.

“Fear not, fair maiden,” he called out to Sarah. “I will rescue thee.” He looked around giddily for the means. “Somehow,” he called encouragingly.

Sarah, feet swinging, hearing the branch splitting, gurgled, “Help!”

“Sir Didymus held his staff toward Sarah. It bridged about a thirtieth of the gap between them. “Here!” he shouted.

Hoggle, on the far bank, just closed his eyes.

Ludo sat back on his haunches, threw back his head, opened his huge mouth and howled ten times more loudly than he had when the goblins had been tormenting him.

Sir Didymus gaped round at the amazing noise. “By the saints in their stockings!” he exclaimed. “Can I believe my ears?”

Sarah felt the branch starting to lower her and screamed, but none of the others could hear her above Ludo’s earth-shaking roar.

Sir Didymus was shocked. “Sir Ludo, my brother!” he said reproachfully. “Art though the manly knight I fought e’en now? Canst thou sit by and do no more than howl when yon damsel stands in need of our most gallant assistance?”

“HOOOOOWWWWLL!” Ludo continued.

Sarah’s feet were now wriggling only inches above the khaki-colored slime. She bent her knees to postpone the dreadful moment of contact, but she could feel that the branch was tearing its last fibers.

From the far side of the bog, a rumbling noise could be heard, growing louder as it approached. A huge rock was rolling across the ground. Hoggle, hearing the noise behind him, had to jump out of the way. The boulder went past him, slipped itself gently into the bog, and came to rest, breaking the surface, immediately underneath Sarah’s feet. As it arrived there, the branch cracked off the tree. Sarah landed on the dry rock, curled up and crumpled. She lay there sobbing with relief, but nearly asphyxiated by the stench a few inches from her nose.

Ludo’s howling had not been a cry of useless dismay. The stones of the earth had saved him not long since, when Sarah’s aim at the tormenting goblins’d helmets had proved so accurate. Now he was summoning them again.

Sir Didymus was open mouthed. He kept turning his head, looking from the boulder to Ludo and back again, unable to decide which element of the miracle more deserved his attention, cause or effect, brother or rock.

Ludo was not done. His head was still back, and he sustained his howling. This time he was answered by rocks dwelling beneath the mire. One by one they came to the surface, shedding the slime as though it were egg white. They stood themselves side by side, until they had created a perfectly flat causeway stretching from Sarah’s rock to each side of the bog.

Sarah stood up. She gazed at Ludo and shook her head in wonder. Then she smiled, gratefully blew him a kiss, and ran across the causeway to the far shore, where Hoggle held out his hand to help her onto the dry ground.

“Oh!” Sir Didymus sighed in a low, respectful voice, and looked ardently at this most potent knight, the flower of chivalry, his brother. In almost a whisper, he asked, “Canst thou then summon up the very rocks, Sir Ludo?”

“Rocks—friends.” Ludo stood up, and charged joyfully across his causeway to rejoin Sarah.

“Sir Ludo!” Sir Didymus called after him. “Wait for me.” He did not want to lose his noble company. He looked around and barked out, “Ambrosius!” My noble steed!”

From behind a tree a woolly Old English sheepdog poked his nose warily out. When he saw that it was safe, he trotted obediently to his master, panting in anticipation.

Sarah, waiting on the far side of the bog, was incredulous when she saw Ambrosius. He was the identical twin of Merlin (who, she thought glumly, was probably still confined to the garage). “That’s your steed?” she called to Sir Didymus.

“Indeed it is,” Sir Didymus called back, mounting up. “And no knight has one better—fleet and sure-footed in battle, loyal and obedient in peaceful times, he is a flawless mount. Except when he sees a cat.” He squeezed Ambrosius in the ribs with his heels. “Onward,” he commanded.

Ambrosius carried him at a trot over the causeway. There, Sir Didymus dis mounted and led his steed, walking beside Sarah and Ludo. The valiant knight was agog to hear how perilous their quest was to be, but he contained his impatience like the perfect gentleman that he was.

Sarah looked around for Hoggle. The dwarf was still hanging around the edge of the bog. Could he have gotten to like it there? “Come on, Hoggle,” Sarah called.

Hoggle was vacillating in a hoggish dilemma. His hand was in the pouch that hung from his belt, fingering the peach. If he gave it to Sarah, he would be betraying his heart. If he did not give it to her, he would be dumped headfirst in the Bog of Eternal Stench.

He brought the peach out and held it over the bog. He had not quite reached a decision yet, but he reckoned it would be wise to be prepared to act instantly once he had, with no time to change his mind. The peach might even slip accidentally from his fingers and relieve him of the responsibility of making the choice.

He was still holding the peach over the fetid scum when he heard a voice in the air above his head. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” it said.

Hoggle was so startled that he almost dropped the peach. But his fingers tightened around it. He closed his eyes in anguish. Jareth, wherever he was, was watching him. “Please,” Hoggle whispered, “I can’t give it to her.”

He felt his feet sliding toward the brink of the bog.

“No!” Hoggle squealed. “No! All right!”

He put the peach back in the pouch and walked miserably toward the others.

While Sarah was contending with the bridge, Stephanie faced a dragon. She stood there behind a tree, peeking out at the great, sleeping reptile while she tried to think of her next move. The pygmy griffins had retreated to a much safer distance. The dark-purple dragon was as big as a house, with rolls of fat and wings that looked too small to fly bearing such weight. It lied in the gaping mouth of the cave she had to go through to reach the portal, blocking the way completely. Climbing over it would surely wake it. But getting it to move out of the way required waking it as well.

‘Looks like I’ll have to fight it after all,’ Stephanie thought nervously, shaking a little. She could see the skeletons of previous challengers lying scattered on the ground before the beast, still in their charred and rusted armor. It seemed a safe bet to Stephanie that this dragon did indeed breath fire.

A sword still in good condition lay on top of a discarded shield. ‘Guess I’ll have to use that.’ She would grab the sword and shield there and then do her best to take the dragon by surprise. It somehow felt extremely wrong to attack it while it was sleeping. Stephanie wished there was a smarter way to go about it, but she couldn’t think of one, and the longer she stood there, the more time she wasted.

Walking on the tips of her toes, careful not to make a sound, Stephanie approached the sword and shield, and picked them up. They were both lighter than they looked. The sword was only twice as heavy as the épée she had practiced with, and the shield felt like it was around eight pounds. She moved around a bit, practicing with the sword to get a feel for how she might need to compensate for the extra weight.

Stephanie realized she was surrounded by silence. All the sounds of life she had heard before, the birds, and even the insects, had stopped. Stephanie looked at the dragon. Its amber eyes were open, and it was staring back at her through slitted pupils. Before Stephanie had time to even think an obscenity, the dragon was sitting back on its haunches and inhaling deeply. She quickly ran forward and ducked behind a boulder near the cave’s entrance. She crouched down into a ball with her shield over her, praying it would be enough.

The winged serpent readjusted its aim and spewed flames all over the rock and her shield. Stephanie was unharmed, but the shield was warm in her hand. It would only be able to take so much heat for her before it became too hot to hold.

While the dragon was inhaling again, Stephanie jumped up on top of the rock and launched herself at the dragon. She slashed with her sword across the beast’s belly, but it slid uselessly over its scales, which were harder than steel. Stephanie hit the ground and rolled behind another boulder and shielded herself again. The dragon turned her way and exhaled its fiery breath. The shield grew too warm to hold without burning herself. She had to discard it. Stephanie decided to try stabbing it this time, though she doubted it would work after feeling how unyielding those aubergine scales were.

Once again, as the dragon was breathing in, Stephanie attacked. She thrusted her sword at it with all her might. The sword’s blade snapped, breaking in two. Stephanie was shocked and alarmed. She dropped to the ground and ran into the cave, ducking behind a huge pile of gold. Her hope was that the dragon would not use its fire when it might melt the gold.

“Very good,” the dragon said with a booming voice. “Most people don’t think of that. You’re right. I can’t destroy what I’m protecting.” It’s thundering footsteps came closer to the mouth of the cave. It raised its front leg. “But there are other ways to kill.”

Stephanie realized that it intended to squash her like a bug and dove out of the way as it stomped its foot down upon the spot where she had been. She landed harshly next to a sword that was embedded in a stone sticking up from the ground inside the cave. As her other sword was useless, Stephanie tossed it aside and staggered to her feet. The dragon was stomping its way toward her. She gripped the handle of the sword in the stone tightly in her hands and pulled, hoping against hope.

The sword tugged free of the rock, and she raised its blade just as the dragon was bringing its foot down on her. The sword pierced the underside of its foot, and the dragon howled with pain and recoiled. Stephanie stood on the stone she had pulled the new sword from, panting. She took a brief moment while she was catching her breath to appreciate the sword. It didn’t look particularly special. It had no gold or jewels adorning it. It had a single-edged blade, like a saber, but that wasn’t so unusual. It just looked like a plain, old sword.

“I yield!” the dragon said suddenly, surprising Stephanie. It bowed its head low to the ground.

Stephanie wondered what its game was. Why would it suddenly admit defeat? She may have wounded one of its feet, but it still had the upper hand, didn’t it?

The dragon opened its eyes again and looked at the blade in her hand. “That is a dragon-slaying sword you’re holding.”

Stephanie looked at the sword. Again, she saw noting special about it. But then she felt it, now that her focus was no longer mostly on the dragon, a low humming. The sword was vibrating in her hand. It was alive. She was so surprised that she nearly dropped it, but she tightened her fingers around it. She had the means to fight for real now. It wouldn’t be like it was before, when her previous sword couldn’t even put a dent in the winged-serpent’s armor.

“Now, hold on,” the dragon said, raising its front feet. “I’m not looking for a fight anymore. I was just looking for a distraction from my boredom, but it ceased to be fun when you gained the means to kill me. I will let you pass.”

Stephanie stared at the dragon with slightly narrowed eyes, suspicious. Since when was anything in the labyrinth ever that easy? She suspected the dragon would kill her the moment she turned her back or relinquished her grip on the sword.

“Ordinarily, you would be right,” the dragon admitted. “But ordinarily, the people who come here are thieves looking to rob me of my hoard. You’re only here to use the portal.”

‘If you knew that, then why did you attack me?’ Stephanie wondered.

The dragon gave a great shrug of its shoulders. “As I said, I was bored.”

Stephanie considered this for a moment. She decided the dragon could be telling the truth. But that didn’t mean she would put the sword down or turn her back on it. She wasn’t stupid.

“Keep it,” the dragon said, referring to the sword. “Nasty thing. I don’t know why I kept it around to begin with.” He had kept it around thinking that if he had it, then no one else could use it against him. But Stephanie had just proved him wrong, so what was the point? It was the only piece of his treasure that he wouldn’t miss.

‘How do I get to the portal from here?’ Stephanie asked.

“You go straight back, then take a left and then a right,” the dragon directed her.

‘Thanks,’ Stephanie thought. She backed away carefully from the dragon until she felt she had reached a safe distance from it, then she turned and ran straight back until it was completely gone from sight and she reached the first turn. Stephanie let herself walk after that. It was so dark in the cave that she could barely see her own hand in front of her. She didn’t want to miss the next turn or run into a wall.

She fumbled along in the dark until she found the right turn, then she made it and continued to walk forward. It felt like forever before more light entered the tunnel. Stephanie kept walking until she reached the light outside. She blinked and found herself standing a few yards away from something shining on the ground.

“You did it!” Beynon said as he and his parents joined Stephanie, having flown over the cave to reach her.

“The portal is just up ahead, dear,” Aerfen encouraged her.

Stephanie followed their directions and walked straight ahead until she found herself in front of a large, gleaming pool of silver that reflected the trees surrounding it and the evening sky, filled with ribbons of pink and amber cloud, like a mirror.

“Go ahead and kneel in front of it,” Eynon instructed her. Stephanie kneeled down by the edge of the pool. “This is the portal. It will take you anywhere you want to go within the labyrinth.”

‘Thank you… But I don’t know where I want to go,’ Stephanie thought. ‘I don’t know where Sarah is.’

As soon as she thought of her sister, her face appeared in the mirror before her. She could see a scene where Sarah was walking along through some woods with a large creature with rusty-red fur, what appeared to be a clothed dog riding another dog, and Hoggle. Stephanie had no way of knowing, but they had just been through quite the ordeal themselves escaping the Bog of Stench. She saw Hoggle and Sarah stop while the others continued on. Hoggle removed a beautiful, juicy-looking peach from the pouch on his belt. It was so luscious and ripe that it appeared to be glowing. Stephanie’s own stomach growled as she realized how hungry she was.

But there was something about that peach she didn’t like. Perhaps it was too perfect, or perhaps it was the stories where she had read about mortal heroes, who ventured into the fairy world, who would be advised against eating or drinking anything in the other world, lest they be trapped there forever. Sarah took the peach and raised it to her mouth.

‘No! Don’t eat it!’ Stephanie screamed internally at her sister, but it was too late, Sarah ate a piece of the peach. Stephanie watched as her sister became dizzy, stumbling around with an unfocused look in her eyes. Hoggle looked a shamed of himself and ran away. Now Sarah was tottering. She leaned against a tree. There was a dreamy, intoxicated expression on her face. ‘Oh, great! She’s stoned.’

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