In the dawning light, Sarah and Stephanie could see below them a path that zigzagged down the hillside. They picked their way to it through the rocks and shrubs. At the foot of the path, they came to a great wall, strengthened with buttresses. It stretched as far as they could see to the left and right.
Doubtfully, the sisters approached the wall, with no idea what they might do when they reached it. As they got closer, a movement just at the base if it caught their eyes. There was a little man. He was taking a wiz in the small pond he was standing in front of. Lovely. Stephanie’s face deadpanned, while Sarah wrinkled her nose slightly in disgust.
“Excuse me,” Sarah said tentatively.
The little man nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Oh, excuse me,” he said, before he had even seen who it was, zipping up his fly in a hurry.
When he did turn, he had his face down so that he regarded them from under his thick, bushy eyebrows.
“Well!” he exclaimed, looking cross and astonished at the same time. “Well!” It seemed he had never before set eyes on people like Sarah and Stephanie. Or perhaps it was that no one like them had ever caught him unawares. Or perhaps it was because there were two of them this time. “Well!” he said again.
‘We’ll never get anywhere like this,’ Stephanie thought.
He was an odd little person. His sprouting eyebrows clearly wanted to be fierce, but his wrinkled face couldn’t live up to that ferocity. His expression was wary now, not particularly friendly, but not hostile either. He seemed to be avoiding their eyes, and the girls noticed that whenever they moved their hands his gaze would follow them. On top of his head he wore a skullcap. From the belt that held his breeches up, he had a chain of ornaments dangling, costume jewelry as far as they could tell. Sarah saw his mouth moving to say “Well!” again and interrupted quickly.
“Excuse me, but we have to go through the Labyrinth. Can you show us the way in?”
His mouth frozen in the formation of a W, he blinked at her once or twice. Then his eyes darted to one side. He rushed a few steps toward a bluebell, at the same time pulling a spray can from under his jacket. As he aimed the spray, Sarah and Stephanie saw that a diaphanous little fairy was emerging from the bluebell.
He sprayed it, with a couple of quick bursts. The fairy at once wilted, like a shriveling petal.
“Fifty-seven,” he said with some satisfaction.
Stephanie frowned. Sarah was shocked. “Oh, how could you?”
He answered with a grunt.
Sarah ran to where the fairy was lying on the ground, wings quivering and shriveling. Stephanie followed at a more careful pace. “Poor thing!” Sarah exclaimed. She picked it up gently in her fingertips and turned accusingly to the fairy-slayer. “You monster.”
She felt a sharp pain, as from broken glass. The fairy had bitten her finger.
“Oh!” Sarah dropped the fairy and stuck her finger in her mouth. Stephanie gave her sister a curious look. “It bit me,” Sarah muttered around her finger.
” ‘Course she did,” the little man chuckled. “What do you expect fairies to do?”
“I…” Sarah was frowning, perplexed. “I thought they did—well, nice things. Like granting wishes.”
Stephanie cocked an eyebrow at that. ‘Really, Sarah?’ she thought. Her sister had been watching too many Disney movies (not that Stephanie truly believed there was such a thing). Actually, fairies were known for being very mischievous and temperamental. In the old folklore and unsanitized fairy tales that Stephanie had read, fairies often did more harm than good, and were famous for playing nasty tricks on the humans who offended them, and even some who hadn’t.
“Ha!” The little man’s eyebrows went up, and he chortled. “Shows what you know then, don’t it?” He raised his spray can and casually hit another bluebell with it. A second shimmering fairy fell down, turning brown like a leaf in autumn. “Fifty-eight,” he said, and shook his head. “They breed as fast as I spray.”
Sarah was still wincing as she sucked her finger. “Ooh,” she complained. “It hurts.” She took her finger from her mouth and shook it. Stephanie reached into her pocket for a Band-Aid. She always carried a few out of habit, since fencing could be rough, even with protective gear.
The little man walked to a plant nearly as tall as he was, tore off one of its broad, grayish leaves, and handed to Sarah. “Here,” he told her. “Rub that on it.”
Sarah gratefully did what he told her. No sooner had she started rubbing than she dropped the leaf, clasped her finger with the other hand and hopped around in pain. “Ow!” she shouted. “That makes it worse. Much worse. OWWW!”
Stephanie shot the little man a harsh look of disapproval.
He was holding his sides with his pudgy little hands and roaring with laughter, ” ‘Course it do. Fancy rubbing one of them on a fairy bite. You don’t know nothing, do you?”
Her face screwed up with pain, Sarah answered indignantly, “I thought you were giving it to me to make it better. Oh! Ooh!”
“You thought that too, did you? You’ve got a lot of opinions.” He chuckled. “All of them wrong.”
In spite of the pain in her finger, Sarah let Stephanie wrap the Band-Aid snugly around the small wound. The girls realized he was paying them back for having caught him unawares. “You’re horrible,” Sarah told him.
“No, I’m not.” He sounded surprised. “I’m Hoggle. Who are you?”
He nodded. “That’s what I thought.” Spotting another fairy, he squirted her. To make sure, he stepped on this one and ground his foot around. The fairy squealed. Stephanie winced slightly at the sound. “Fifty-nine,” Hoggle said.
Stephanie was thinking as she watched him. He seemed to know about her sister. So he must have something to do with Jareth, right? Some kind of spy, maybe? Well, maybe. Yet he was not her idea of a spy. This guy was no James Bond. Spies weren’t grumpy. They didn’t play mean tricks on you, did they? Weren’t they supposed to try to gain your trust first? But if making assumptions was what kept getting them into trouble, then maybe this one was wrong, too. ‘But in that case,’ she thought, ‘supposing he is a spy, then it might be his job to persuade us that all our opinions are wrong when really they are all correct. And if they are correct, then he is not a spy. But that would mean he had no motive for persuading us that we’re wrong about everything—unless, we really are, and he’s just the type of person who loves to point out others’ errors—so I could be wrong about this, too, and so… supposing he is a spy…’
Her already derailing train of thought was completely thrown off the tracks when Sarah spoke. “Aren’t you going to introduce yourself, Stephanie?”
Stephanie blinked at her. Well, first of all, she couldn’t. And second, why bother when she had just said her name for her?”
Sensing Jareth’s magic on her, Hoggle said knowingly, “Well, she can’t, can she?” He smirked. “She’s been enchanted.”
“What? Really?” Sarah said, with wide eyes, taken aback.
Stephanie nodded. ‘More like cursed,’ she thought. It was one thing to remain quiet simply because she felt like it, but she found that having the freedom of choice forcibly taken away from her was not only unpleasant, but rather inconvenient.
“When did that happen?” Sarah asked.
Stephanie stared at her.
“Oh, right… You can’t answer that, can you?”
Stephanie shook her head.
Hoggle chortled again, amused at their expense.
‘Well,’ Stephanie thought, glumly, ‘there’s nothing else to do. Whether or not he is here to spy on us, he is the only person we can ask for help.’ So she gestured for Sarah to try talking to him.
Catching on, Sarah asked, “Do you know where the door to the Labyrinth is?”
Hoggle screwed up his face. “Maybe.”
“All right, where is it?”
Instead of replying, he dodged to one side, raising his spray can. “Sixty.”
“I said, where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“The door into the Labyrinth.”
“The door! Into the Labyrinth! Oh, that’s a good one.” He laughed, not kindly.
Sarah wanted to punch him, and Stephanie wondered if a swift kick to the rear might help jog his memory. “It’s hopeless asking you anything.”
“Not if you asks the right questions.” He was giving them a sidelong look. “You’re green as a couple of cucumbers.”
“Well, what are the right questions?”
Hoggle stroked the top of his nose. “It depends on what you want to know.”
“How do we get into the Labyrinth?”
Hoggle sniffed, and his eyes twinkled. “Ah! Now that’s more like it.”
The girls thought they heard that music in the air again, the magic music that had hummed around the Goblin King.
“You gets in there.” He nodded, indicating behind them. “You got to ask the right questions if you want to get anywhere in the Labyrinth.”
Sarah and Stephanie had spun around. Now, in the great wall, they saw a huge, grotesquely designed gate. The two sisters stared at it most accusingly. They could have sworn it had not been there before.
“There ain’t no door, see?” Hoggle was explaining. “All you got to do now is find the key.”
The girls looked back at him and then all around them. They saw at once that it was going to be no problem to find the key. Near them was a very small mat, and from each end of it an enormous key was sticking out. “Well,” Sarah said, “That’s simple enough.”
The two sisters went over to the key and tried to pick it up. They could each just manage to get one end of it off the ground, but the whole key was too heavy even for the two of them together to lift up to the keyhole in the gate. Sarah glared at Hoggle.
“I suppose it’s too much to expect you to give us a hand?”
“Yes,” Hoggle said.
Stephanie rolled her eyes. She supposed they should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. The girls tried again, straining to lift it. It was hopeless.
“Oh,” Sarah said. “This is so stupid.”
“You mean you’re so stupid,” Hoggle corrected her.
“Shut up, you rotten little pipsqueak.”
“Don’t you call me that!” Hoggle was agitated. “I am not a pipsqueak.”
“Yes, you are,” Sarah said. She was uneasily reminded of herself at a much younger age, at school, chanting cruel jibes at some tormented girl, but she persisted. “Yes, you a-are. Rotten little nasty ugly pipsqueak!”
Hoggle was beside himself with rage. “Don’t call me that,” he said hysterically. “You! Ha! You’re so stupid you are, you take everything for granted.”
“I’m not. I’m not. Stop it! Stop it!”
“Nasty, creepy little pipsqueak!”
While those two were busy slinging playground-level insults back and forth at each other, Stephanie had decided to try a different tactic. She thought for a moment, and considered how nothing had been quite as it seemed so far. Then she went to the gate and gave it a little push. It swung open.
That stopped Sarah and Hoggle short.
“See,” he said, “if you weren’t so brainless, you might’ve thought of that. Nobody said it was locked.”
“Very clever,” Sarah retorted sourly.
“You think you’re so clever,” Hoggle said. “You know why? Because you ain’t learned nothing.”
Sarah ignored him. She and Stephanie were peering cautiously inside the gate. They did not like what they saw. It was dark and forbidding in there. The music humming in the air seemed to be more intense. There was a smell of things rotting.
They gathered their courage and took two steps into the Labyrinth. Then they stopped short. A passageway ran across the entrance. It was so narrow, and the wall was so high, that the sky was a mere slit over their heads. In the gloom, they heard a continual drip of water, echoing. Sarah approached the farther wall, touched it, and pulled her hand away. As Stephanie had suspected, it was dank and slimy, like mildew. She was glad she hadn’t tried to touch it.
Hoggle’s head was poking through the gateway behind them. “Cozy, ain’t it?”
Hoggle’s manner had altered. He was quiet, and it was almost possible to detect a hint of concern in his voice. “You really going to go in there, are you?”
Sarah hesitated. She shared a glance with Stephanie, who gave her a reassuring nod. “I… yes,” she said. “Yes, we are. Do you… is there any reason why we shouldn’t?” She was clenching her fists. Stephanie was nervous, too, to be honest. It did seem such a dreadfully gloomy place, inside the gate.
“There’s every reason why you shouldn’t,” Hoggle replied. “Is there any reason why you should? Any really good reason?”
“Yes, there is.” Sarah paused. “So I suppose… we must.”
“All right,” Hoggle said, in a tone of voice that implied, on your own head be it. “Now,” he asked, “Which way will you go? Right or left?”
The girls looked one way and then the other. There was no reason to choose either one or the other. Both looked grim. The brick walls appeared to extend to infinity. Stephanie was open to suggestions. Sarah shrugged, wanting some help, but too proud to ask for it. “They both look the same,” she said.
“Well, Hoggle told her, “You’re not going to get very far, then, are you?”
“All right,” she said crossly, “Which way would you go?”
“Me?” He laughed without mirth. “I wouldn’t go neither way.”
“Some guide you are,” Sarah huffed.
‘Isn’t he just pest control?’ Stephanie thought.
“I never said I was a guide, did I?” Hoggle pointed out. “Although you could certainly use one. You’ll probably end up back where you started, given your record for being wrong.”
“Well,” Sarah snapped at him, “if that’s all the help you’re going to be, you might as well let us get on with it!”
“You know your problem?” Hoggle asked.
Sarah took no notice, but tried to look determined to set out in one direction or the other. Left, right, she was thinking, that was the normal order. So in this abnormal place, she might as well try going to the right, mightn’t she?
“I told you, you take too many things for granted,” Hoggle went on. “This Labyrinth, for instance. Even if you get to the center, which is extremely doubtful, you’ll never get out again.”
Stephanie shrugged. They could worry about that once they had Toby back. Looking at the wall directly across from the gate, she wondered if, somehow, left or right were not the only options open to them. She reached out to search it for something that might feel like a hidden door, but before she could touch it, Sarah grabbed her hand and told Hoggle, “That’s your opinion.” Sarah led Stephanie to move to their right.
“Well, it’s a better opinion than any of yours,” he retorted, noticing how close the smaller of the two sisters had come to finding the first opening.
“Thanks for nothing, Hogwart.”
“Hoggle!” His voice came echoing from the gateway, where he remained. “And don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Her jaw set, Sarah strode out, pulling her sister along with her between the damp and dire walls.
The girls had gone only a few strides when, with a mighty, reverberating clang, the gate closed behind them. They stopped, and could not resist looking back to see if the gate would open again. It didn’t.
Hoggle was shut outside. The only sounds in the Labyrinth now were the drip of water, and Sarah and Stephanie’s quick breathing.
The two sisters each took a deep breath and set off along the passageway again. Since Sarah now seemed determined to take the lead, and neither of them really knew what they were doing, Stephanie decided to let her. A clump of lichen on the wall opened its eyes and watched them go. The eyes, on tendrils, had an anxious look, and when the girls had gone some distance away the clump, swiveling its eyes toward each other, commenced to gossip among itself. Most of it disapproved of the direction they had taken. You could tell that from the way the eyes looked meaningfully into each other. Lichen knows about directions.
When they had been walking for a while between the towering walls of the apparently endless passageway and gotten nowhere that looked different, they went on walking for a while more, and it was all the same. Sarah was beginning to lose her patience. The silence and aimless wandering was getting to her.
“Is this what a labyrinth is?” she said aloud, for the company of hearing her own voice. “There’s no single turn, or corner, or—anything. It just goes on, and on. This is your fault, you know,” she shot at Stephanie, feeling cross.
‘Oh, so now it’s my fault?’ Stephanie thought, dubious, with a frown.
“None of this ever would have happened of you hadn’t given me that book.”
‘Well, how was I supposed to know the characters in it were real? Besides, you didn’t have to make that wish.’
Sarah wasn’t done. She knew blaming Stephanie wouldn’t solve anything, but it was like something within her had been uncorked, and all of her accumulated stress came pouring out along with the envy and resentment she had been trying so hard to keep bottled up inside. “You know, you’re always ruining everything and making me look bad. Ever since we were young. Did you know most people used to think you were the older sister, even though you’ve always been so much shorter than me? It’s not fair. And you got to go with mom. How come you get to have a perfect life? Why do you get to live glamorously, and I don’t? It’s not fair. You don’t even like acting. It’s such a waste! What’s so great about fencing? It’s not even a real sport. All you do is wave a fake sword around. It’s not fair that you can get Dad, and even Jeremy to clear their schedules for one of your matches, when they can’t ever find time for anything I want to do.” Sarah carried on like this for quite awhile, unaware of the emotional toll her angry monologue was taking on her sister.
Stephanie was well aware that what had happened to them was “not fair”. There was no such thing as fair. Expecting life to be fair to you because you are a good person was like expecting a bull not to charge at you because you are a vegetarian. Stephanie did not have a perfect life. It wasn’t glamorous. For three years after the divorce, Stephanie had battled depression. She had made her parents and everyone else who knew promise not to tell Sarah, because she had wanted to protect her from it. Having to tell the two people she loved who had brought her into this world that she wanted out had been bad enough. Only eleven months had passed since she was able to prove that she was stable enough to stop taking her medicine every day. It was hard, and it took a lot of work, and it got worse before it got better—but she made it through. Stephanie was a survivor, and she would never forget that. But words still hurt, especially when said by the right person.
After the eighth “It’s not fair,” that was it. Stephanie decided she’d had enough. She quickly pulled out the small memo pad she always kept in her back pocket and undid her grape-scented pen-bracelet to write the response: “Sarah, not everything is about you. One more word, and I’ll slap you.” She grabbed her older sister by the shoulder, spun her around, and held the finished note straight out in front of her for Sarah to read.
When Sarah read the note and saw the expression on her sister’s face, she was stunned into silence. She had never thought in a million years that Stephanie would dare threaten her like that, but it was obvious from the sharp look in her sister’s eyes that she meant business. Sarah shut her mouth, feeling ashamed. Behind the steely glint in Stephanie’s dark eyes, she had caught a small glimpse of the pain that she had hidden so well these last four years. Although she could have no idea just how deeply it ran, Sarah did feel guilty for hurting her. She shouldn’t have taken her frustration out on someone who was only trying to help.
Walking along behind Stephanie in silence, watching her square her shoulders and put on a brave face, Sarah began to realize just how much she had been taking her sister for granted. ‘Maybe… that’s not the only thing I’m taking for granted,’ Sarah thought, coming to another realization. Maybe the Labyrinth did not go on and on. Maybe she was just taking it for granted that it did, because that was all that it had done so far. Sarah had an idea, but, first, she had to do something very important.
Stephanie stopped but did not look back at her. Sarah swallowed nervously and took several steps to close the gap between them, taking one of her sister’s hands to hold in her own.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah apologized, and she truly meant it. Seeing this, Stephanie looked down at her feet for a moment, then raised her head with a small, but genuine, smile on her face.
She forgave her.
Sarah smiled. “Come on, let’s try running for awhile.”