'Sarah,' her stepmother said, 'you didn't have to come all this way. Your dissertation is due next week, isn't it?'
'This week.' Sarah corrected, entering the room where her stepmother sat beside a long, white-sheeted bed. 'But I had to come.' Her eyes went to the still form beneath the sheet. 'Toby's my brother, you know. I couldn't just stay in Chicago, not knowing.'
Her stepmother sighed, rubbing her eyes wearily. 'Of course. We should have known you'd take the first flight out of O'Hare. You and Toby have always been close.' She sighed again and looked at Sarah with grim eyes. 'But there's really nothing you can do. There's nothing any of us can do.'
Sarah came further into the room, slipping into the vacant chair beside her stepmother. She would have like to take the woman's hand, to offer what comfort she could, but she didn't. Even though their relationship had improved over the years, it was still not close. Sarah credited the improvement to the fact that she'd gone off to college at age eighteen and had stayed there except for the occasional visit home between semesters and at holidays. If it wasn't for Toby, she wouldn't have even bothered.
'What's exactly wrong with him?' She asked. 'Dad was pretty vague on the phone.'
'He was vague because he didn't have any answers when he called. We still don't. The doctors have run a battery of tests, but they can't find anything wrong with him. There's simply no medical explanation as to why he won't wake up.'
'Won't wake up?' Sarah echoed. 'You mean he's just…sleeping?'
Her stepmother nodded. 'The doctors thought it might be narcolepsy, but his sleep patterns resemble normal sleep.'
Sarah's eyes went to her brother. His breathing was long and deep, peaceful even. There was a slight smile on his mouth as though his dreams were particularly pleasant, and she wondered what he might be seeing in his mind's eye. She'd bet her bottom dollar that it wasn't sugar plums. With a slightly queasy feeling, she hoped they weren't anything like her own at that age.
'How did it happen?' She asked before old memories could crowd into her mind like impatient shoppers the day after Thanksgiving.
She had learned a long time ago to keep those memories locked deep within her subconscious. She had even almost convinced herself that they'd never happened, that it was all just a dream conjured up by an over active imagination and too many books.
'Three nights ago he went to bed a healthy twelve year old boy.' Her stepmother was saying, jolting Sarah back to the present. 'The next morning when I tried to wake him for school, he was like this.' She waved a hand at the still figure. 'I thought maybe he'd stayed up late. He often does, reading some book under the covers. He thinks I don't know, but I've seen the flashlight shining through the blankets when I'm passing his room on my way to bed. So I decided to let him sleep, thinking that I'd be able to get him up later on, but when I went in at noon and then again at 4 o'clock, he was still sound to sleep. When your father got home at six, we decided to take him to the hospital, and we've been here ever since.'
There was silence as Sarah digested this piece of information and then she said, 'So what are they going to do?'
'Run a few more tests, and if nothing's conclusive, they'll send him home.' Her stepmother replied. 'A nurse will come in daily to administer fluids and nourishment, but if he doesn't wake up in the next few weeks, we'll be forced to place him in a nursing facility.' There was a little catch in her voice as she said this, and she hurriedly searched for and found a tissue in her pants' pocket. She dabbed at her eyes. 'We simply don't have the means to care for him at home.'
Sarah once again resisted the urge to take her stepmother's hand. Instead she clasped her own together and turned her eyes back upon her brother. He'd lost the baby curls long ago and his hair was no longer blonde but a rich brown like her father's. In a couple more years, he'd be a handsome young man. She frowned worriedly. Would he still be with them in a couple years if he didn't wake up?
Oh, Toby, she thought, reaching out to touch his hand lying upon the bed sheet, why am I always losing you? Last time it was a Goblin King and this time…she stopped as an insidious snake of an idea slithered it way around her. Was it just some freak disease he'd contracted or was Jareth up to his old tricks?
Very unlikely, she decided. She hadn't seen the Goblin King since she'd solved his labyrinth. He had disappeared along with her childhood, making her wonder if it had all been a dream. A very vivid dream but a dream nonetheless. As an adult she knew that magical kingdoms did not exist, and that depressed her. Somewhere down deep inside she wanted the Goblin King and his world to be real.
Why? She asked herself that whenever the fog of melancholia settled over her. After all, he hadn't been a very pleasant sort of creature. He'd nearly scared her to death several times, but when she'd seen him framed in those French doors, looking so terrible and so wonderful at the same time, her heart had leapt as strongly as her knees had knocked. If it hadn't been for Toby, maybe…
Suddenly her cell phone rang. Grumbling under her breath, she pulled it out and looked at the number. Damn. She should have known he'd be calling. Giving her stepmother an apologetic glance, she got up and walked out into the hallway.
'Sarah? It's Paul.'
'Hey, what's up?' She asked as casually as she could.
'Where are you?' He asked. 'I stopped by your apartment and that roommate of yours said you'd up and left this morning without saying a word.'
'I had to go back home. My kid brother's sick.'
'But your dissertation is due this week.'
'I'll get it done. Don't worry about it.'
She could hear the lecture coming. Why did he always have to treat her like a child? That was one of the reason she'd broken up with him…that and his hair was too neat. It reminded her of a Ken doll's, molded to his head in perpetual perfection. Unfortunately, he didn't seem understand about hair or what 'we need to see other people' meant. For a man only a couple weeks away from earning a Ph.D. in Psychology he was amazingly dense.
'Look, Paul, I've got to go. We'll talk when I get back. Bye.'
She closed the phone with a satisfying snap…and then turned it off.
Two hours later, she turned her rented Kia into the driveway of the large, sprawling Victorian where she'd grown up. Her dad had insisted she stay with them, and she hadn't argued despite the rather pinched look her stepmother had gotten around her mouth at the suggestion. It had been a long day, and she wasn't in the mood to look for a hotel room. Besides, after buying a plane ticket, her bank account was looking a bit anemic.
The house was completely dark, not a light burned in welcome, but she hadn't been expecting the warm glow of a Currier & Ives Christmas scene. After all, her dad and stepmom were still at the hospital and had been at the hospital virtually non stop for three days. The front porch creaked under the weight of her steps, but it was a comforting sound rather than an alarming one. Those floorboards had creaked since she was a little girl no matter how many times her father had had them replaced.
What she missed the most when she pushed open the front door and walked inside the dark foyer was the lack of happy canine greeting. Merlin, the sheepdog, had died while she'd been away at college, and he'd not been replaced. No doubt her stepmother was glad to be rid of the mess and the smell.
Sarah, you're being catty, she chided herself as she went into the kitchen and started rummaging around the fridge for something to eat. Some people just weren't dog people. She pulled out a jar of mustard and a package of sliced turkey. There wasn't any law against that, was there? No, she decided, settling herself on one of the tall chairs along the kitchen counter, there wasn't any law against it, but it did explain one of the reasons she'd never warmed up to the woman.
It seemed amazing to her that such a great kid like Toby could have come from such a person. But, of course, she'd had a hand in shaping her little brother's character. It was Sarah who had taken care of him in the summer while his mother worked, and it was Sarah who'd given him his first 'grown-up' book. The Knight's of the Round Table, she remembered with a smile. When she'd come back for a short visit that summer, he'd insisted on her acting out the book with him. She'd been surprised at how much of it he'd memorized. He hadn't forgotten key verses like she had.
Having finished her meal, she stood and carried her empty plate over to the sink. After she'd placed it in the dishwasher, she grabbed her overnight bag and started up the stairs. She had thought about watching TV until her dad and stepmom came home but decided against it. She was tired. Flying out of O'Hare was always an exhausting experience. It'd be so much easier if she could turn herself into a great white owl and take the direct route, she thought wistfully.
At the top of the stairs, she turned towards Toby's room instead of her own. She didn't know why. Perhaps she just wanted to be close to him. Perhaps somewhere in the back of her mind she hoped to find the answer to his current illness. What do you think you'll find, she asked herself, pushing open the door. An enchanted spindle and an evil fairy godmother with an attitude?
If that was what she was hoping for, she was sadly mistaken. There was no blood-stained spindle, no fairy godmother. There was nothing but the normal clutter found in a twelve year old boy's room. She was about to turn away when her eyes fell on the shelf above his bed. Sitting in a patch of moonlight was Lancelot.
Delighted to see her old childhood friend, she walked over and picked up the bear. The feel of its scratchy fur made her smile, and she rubbed the bear against her cheek as she let her eyes wandered around the rest of his room, looking for other treasures.
On his bedside table was a worn, red-bound book. Like sister like brother, she thought, putting Lancelot back on the shelf before picking up the book. She turned the cover toward the light coming through the window so she could read the title. The Spellweaver. Well, at least, it wasn't Labyrinth. She put the book back on the table and just out of curiously pulled open the nightstand drawer. A smile touched her lips when she saw a flashlight.
She was pushing the drawer shut when a noise caught her attention. It wasn't much of a noise, just a whisper of movement really, but in the silence of the house, it sounded deafening, and she whirled around, a hand going to her throat. She nearly laughed out loud when she saw a cat sitting on the windowsill, twitching its tail. It was sleek and white like a Siamese but without the dark ears and face. Around its neck was a glittering rhinestone-studded collar with one large green stone hanging from it.
So her stepmother was a cat person. Figures, she thought, walking over to the cat to pet it. But before she could, the cat hissed, flashing out a paw and catching Sarah's hand with its claws.
'Why you nasty little beast.' She muttered, putting her injured hand to her mouth. The cat had drawn blood. With a brute like that roaming the house she'd make sure to close her door. With one last look at the cat, she turned to leave.
'I've not given you permission to leave the room, Sarah Williams.'
Sarah's heart jumped but then calmed as she realized the voice belonged to a woman, not a man. Nonetheless, a woman shouldn't be talking to her, not in an empty house and not in that imperialistic tone and certainly not in Toby's bedroom. She turned around with a sense of dread snaking its way up her spine.
Never had Sarah seen such a beautiful creature as the one standing where the cat had once sat. She was tall and slender, like a beech tree, her arms and hands as delicate as new shoots, her eyes almond-shaped and slanted at the corners. A gown of shimmering green, like a cascade of leaves, clung to her body, and her hair, hanging in a thick braid to her waist, was silver-white. Around her neck was a rhinestone-studded collar with one large green stone hanging from it. Feeling those cat-like eyes on her, Sarah suddenly knew how a mouse must feel.
'I don't need permission to leave.' The woman who had once been the girl who'd come through hardships untold to defeat the Goblin King was not about to cower. 'This is my house, and you're a trespasser in it.'
'Bold words.' The woman said. 'But I was expecting as much and so I'm prepared to be generous.'
Generous, Sarah fumed. Why did all these strange creatures think themselves generous when they were nothing but tyrants?
'Who are you and what are you doing in my brother's bedroom?'
'I am Morwenna, the Queen of the Dark Wood.' There was a pause and then she added, 'I'm also a spellweaver.'
'A spellweaver?' Sarah echoed. 'What's that? A fancy name for a witch?'
'I am not a witch.' Morwenna declared. 'I am a spellweaver. I am not much different than your Jareth in that respect.'
'He is not my Jareth.' Sarah hastily corrected. 'I barely know the Goblin King.'
'What you say may be true as far as you're aware.' The woman conceded with a nod of her brilliant head. 'But he is most definitely your Jareth.' She tilted her head to one side and studied Sarah with narrowed eyes. 'And I think you are his although your will is too strong to admit it.'
That's it. She'd had enough. She wasn't about to discuss her relationship with the Goblin King with this mysterious woman who called herself a queen. What in the world am I saying, Sarah asked herself. She didn't even have a relationship with the Goblin King.
'Look,' Sarah said impatiently, 'I've just flown hundreds of miles to get here, my little brother is sick, and I'm too old to believe in you or the Dark Wood or whatever you call it. Either tell me what you want or I'm leaving.' She paused and then said with deliberate force. 'You have no power over me.'
'Perhaps not.' Morwenna conceded. 'But I do have power over your little brother.'
Sarah frowned as that feeling of dread tightened, nearly choking her.
'What do you mean?' Her voice sounded hoarse.
Morwenna smiled. She knew she held the ace. 'Your brother is not sick, not in the usual sense of the word. He's merely asleep like Rip Van Winkle and Sleeping Beauty. The spell doesn't harm the victim. They are quite content to dream. They love the dream in fact and never want to leave it. But for those who love them, it's most distressing, especially as they watch the loved one waste away, becoming just a shadow of their former selves. And so they are. The longer they sleep, the more a part of the dream they become. Soon they and the dream are one.' She looked at Sarah, her cat eyes glinting. 'Are you willing to let that happen, Sarah Williams? Are you willing to let your brother become a Dreamshadow?'
Sarah didn't even protest. Instead she asked grimly. 'What do you want me to do?'
Having gained her attention, Morwenna now seemed to want to take her good old time laying down the terms of the deal. She sashayed across the room and settled herself upon the rumpled cover of Toby's bed. She motioned to Sarah to take a seat in a nearby desk chair, but when she remained standing, Morwenna shrugged her graceful shoulders as though to say 'suit yourself, you stubborn creature'. Then her fingers went to the stone in her collar and she began to speak.
'The underground is at war.' She declared. 'I want the Goblin Kingdom, and Jareth is refusing to release his claim to it. We've been at war for many years although he was not aware of it. His attention was,' She flicked her eyes over Sarah, 'elsewhere. I admit that I was… annoyed. To be ignored so he could play games with a little girl was incredible, but I soon realized my good fortune. When this chit of a girl defeated his labyrinth, I knew I'd found my ally. I knew that you could deliver his kingdom into my hands.'
'Isn't the Dark Wood enough for you?'
'If you knew anything about royalty, you'd know that one kingdom is never enough. A king or queen is not great unless they rule everything, and I, Sarah Williams, intend to be great.'
'If you are so great,' Sarah interjected, 'then defeat him yourself.'
From the look on Morwenna's face, it was clear she had hit a nerve. The cat eyes became hard and her lips thinned into a tight line. At that moment she did not look nearly as beautiful as she first had.
'I cannot.' The Queen of the Dark Wood stated. 'His power is too strong.'
'Then I certainly can't.' Sarah declared with a laugh. 'I have no power at all.'
'That is where you're wrong, Sarah Williams. You have more power than any of us.' When she said nothing, Morwenna continued, a slow smile spreading across her face as if Sarah's ignorance amused her. 'Every castle, every fortified structure has a weak spot, and that, my precious thing, is the key to its defeat. When I heard that the Goblin King had offered a human girl her every dream, had reordered time for her and had vowed to be her slave if she only feared and loved him, I knew.' The cat eyes glowed triumphantly. 'I knew it was only a matter of time before I possessed the Goblin City.'
'I don't understand.' Sarah said, shaking her head. 'I don't understand what you want me to do.'
'It's very simple. I want you to discover the source of his power.'
Sarah looked at the strange creature as though she'd lost her mind. 'He'd never tell me that.'
'Oh, but I think he will. With the right encouragement.'
'So what you're asking me to do is to gain his trust, somehow, and then betray him.'
'Finally.' Morwenna murmured. 'A glimmer of the intelligence you had as a girl.'
Sarah ignored the insult. 'I won't do it. It's not right.'
'Not right?' The Queen of the Dark Wood repeated. 'Was it right stealing a baby and then doing everything in one's power, cheating even, to stop the sister from retrieving it? Your world has a phrase from such things, my precious. It's called turn about's fair play.'
'He was only doing what I asked him to do.'
Morwenna stared at her with speculative eyes. 'You sound as though you actually liked him.'
'I…I suppose I did…in a way.'
'Yet you turned him down.'
'I had to have my brother back.'
'Then you shouldn't have any problem doing what I'm asking you to do.' Morwenna said, uncurling herself from the bed. 'If you want your brother back, you'll discover the Goblin King's secret for me. Otherwise,' she slunk, catlike, over to the window, 'Toby, dear thing, will become a dreamshadow.' She fingered the green stone on her collar. 'And the longer you delay, the longer he sleeps. If he sleeps too long, even I won't be able to wake him up.'
And with those words a white cat slipped out the window into the darkness beyond.