In which the Wizard Howl and the Witch of the Waste have an affair
It had been some time since the witch had ventured out of the Waste. At first everyone feared she was merely rallying for a new attack, but after forty-nine years, the people of Ingary engaged in cautious optimism. No one ventured into the Waste—anyone that did was caught and killed as cruelly as ever—but if they left her alone, she seemed content to let them be. She seemed to have gone into seclusion, hopefully for good. Of course there were still some tense situations with the towns nearest to the Waste, where someone might venture too far into the witch's territory, and it didn't quite look good for Ingary to have a powerful threat sitting in the middle of the country with the king doing nothing about it. That might look, the king had said, as though they couldn't do anything about her, and Strangia was always feeling for weakness. So every so often, a band of hopeless soldiers was sent into the Wastes with every armament and wizardly spell that could be provided, and none of them were ever seen again. The king quietly did not send the royal wizard, or his brother, with them.
It struck Howl as rather hard. Certainly he understood the King's reasons, but to send innocent people to their deaths for really no reason whatsoever… he felt quite strongly that someone ought to put a stop to it.
It was entirely coincidental that Howl ran into the small war-party setting forth into the waste when he did. He'd gotten turned around somehow. And when he heard the sound of fighting, well, the best hiding place was obviously closest to the action, where no one would suspect to look. The fight that was taking place on the sands was easy enough to see. The sun beat down heavily, and dust was rising in expanding, sluggish clouds. The clash of metal was muffled in the absolute stillness of the wastes, armor and swords glinting like flame. From behind a low, shrubby bush, Howl crouched and watched. If anyone had looked over at him, they would have found their attention being drawn to the tree, and they would have noticed the emptiness of the land beyond, and totally failed to notice the entirely obvious figure hiding behind it. But at the moment, no one's attention was spared.
The witch stood, a tall slim figure in the midst of the fighting, looking rather like a tree herself. Her long chestnut-brown hair flowed in a straight fall down her back, and neither the dust nor the weapons seemed to touch her. Instead, swords were bent to pierce the armor of their brothers; shields broke strangely, and thrusts that should have run her through somehow found themselves hitting a different target altogether. When the soldiers were almost all wounded and stood staggering around the battlefield in bewilderment, the witch raised her arms and the dust swirled more thickly around them. Howl could hardly see what was going on now. The dust seemed to be drawn to the soldiers. It pelted itself against their armor, scouring it clean; it rushed toward their faces, swirling into their eyes, ears, noses, and throats. The staggering figures coughed, choked, and screamed as sand poured into and around their bodies inexorably. A moment later, the dust settled, and Howl saw on the ground the swords, the shields, and armor filled with bleached white bones.
Howl fought the sudden urge to be sick.
The witch turned around to look at him.
"The Wizard Howl, I presume," she said, with a voice as dry as the desert. Her glass-blue eyes traced their way across Howl's form, and he stood up straight, stepping out from behind the tree and brushing the dust away from his clothes. He had spent two hours in the bathroom that morning, but what with following the soldiers into the Wastes and the dirt, dust and heat, he felt he was not quite at his best advantage. He smoothed down flyaway strands of hair with mild annoyance.
"Yes," he said. "That was quite an impressive display." He gestured to the bones surrounding her.
"Oh, that," she said. "It was nothing, really—they're just annoyances. I don't understand why the king keeps sending them. Really, all I want to do is live my life in peace." She sighed, and the sadness that fell over her made Howl hurry over to her side. She turned her head to look into his eyes as Howl's hand hovered awkwardly at her shoulder. He could not quite bring himself to touch her. "Is that too much to ask?"
Howl stared into her perfect, sculpted face; took in the dark eyelashes framing eyes shining with tears, the soft curve of her mouth, and understood at once. "No, of course not," he said breathlessly, realizing with a belated moral conscience that he was standing far too close for propriety. He stepped back and allowed himself to admire her lithe form and the flattering curves of her dress.
"I knew you would understand," the witch continued. "I could feel it the moment I sensed you. We're kindred spirits."
"Well, I'm not sure…" Howl stumbled over his words.
"Yes," she said at last. "I'm sure of it." She stepped forward, running her hand up his arm in a way that sent tingling through his body in a very distracting manner. Her hand traced its way across his shoulder to come to rest on his chest, just above where his heart should have been. There was no beat, because there was no heart.
"We both traded something of ours for power," she finished quietly.
Howl paled. "I…" No one else had ever guessed the deal he had made, and a thrill of fear went through him to realize the witch had, without any apparent effort at all. Of course it must be easier, she herself being in the same position. In fact, if Howl allowed himself to look, he could sense it with her—though he hadn't noticed it before, having already known, as everyone did, that the witch had traded her heart to a fallen star. "Well," he said lamely. "I suppose we did." In fact the thought of the power he would gain by the deal had not even occurred to him until after the deed was done—even now he could remember the scared way Calcifer had danced toward the marshes, trying desperately to slow himself down, the terror in his shining silver eyes.
He had not yet begun to really regret the deal he had made with Calcifer, though he was beginning to. He looked at the witch and wondered if that was where they must end up eventually. He looked away, to the bones around them, and with a careless hand, the witch made them sink into the sand, until nothing was left of the battle at all.
"There," she said. "It was an unsightly mess." She smiled up at him, conspiratorially. "While you're here," she said, "it seems rude not to invite you to stay." She sighed again then, with palpable loneliness. "I so hardly have the opportunity for guests."
"Whatever you desire," Howl said. "My lady."
She laughed. "It's been some time since I've been called that," she said, and looked at him slyly. "Are you courting me?"
"Of course. How could I resist?" Howl answered, with a charming smile.
"Good," the witch said. "I would have been offended if you didn't try. I do so love to be courted." She held out her arm, and Howl took it gallantly. With a rush of wind, they had stepped to the center of the waste, to stop outside the strange, chimney-pot structure in the sands. She led him through the mazelike ways of the house, and Howl had to concentrate to look beyond the visual turns to see the spells within it and remember the way. And somehow in concentrating on that he found himself answering the witch's shy questions about himself. Where did he come from? He had such an extraordinary magical ability. And he was interested in poetry? Wonderful. "I majored in philosophy," he confessed, "with a focus on charms and spells. What with my own talent I found it a natural course of study, although I was largely self-taught until I came to Ingary. … Alternate worlds were an interest of mine, and I spent quite a bit of time finding and creating portals. Finding your land was a brilliant stroke of luck." It involved running from several friends of a girl he had just realized he wasn't in love with, and stumbling through a door—rather less flattering a story than he would have liked. Naturally, he left out those insignificant details.
In return, the witch told him of her own upbringing, of the way her powers were ignored in her home town, the drudgery of her life in her family's flower shop, and the spiteful rival of hers that had lost no chance to make her life a misery. Looking into her beautiful face and imagining her suffering, Howl fell deeply in love with her. They rested in a central courtyard of the castle, where the sun shone through the arches of the roof to ignite the dust floating lazily about the ground.
"But, you see, I became the most powerful witch of this age," she said, "and the most beautiful woman. My only sorrow now is that I have never found a man worthy of me." Here she looked over at Howl.
"I know," he said. "I myself have searched the land far and wide, but I have never found a woman that deserves me." This, he had become uncomfortably aware of, had perhaps more to do with some lack in himself than in a real failing in young women. The trouble was, he enjoyed the chase—he loved the romance—he admired the beauty of every girl he courted, but somehow he could not give any of them his heart.
Still. Looking at the soft, sad beauty of the witch, he knew this time would be different. Hearts did not even enter into the picture. He could already feel that he was in love with her. She was beautiful, beguiling, intelligent, and with a truly pitiful backstory. He felt sorry for her, passionately. Of course she had somewhat of a bad reputation, but then again, so did he. It conveniently did not occur to him to compare the way both reputations had been earned. He did not spare a thought for the dead soldiers. The horror of their deaths had passed quickly from a heartless chest that had nowhere to store deep emotion.
The afternoon was wonderful, with only one uneasy incident. It was just as they were having tea, with boiling water drawn from the ground by her fire demon, who flickered bluely in the hearth of what may have been a sitting room. He looked down at the pattered china uneasily at the curt, demanding way the witch spoke to her fire demon, and he found himself peering disquieted into the hearth at the throbbingly earnest answer the fire demon gave as she complied. Something about the tone struck him as entirely dishonest, and not in a way he approved of. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he felt the fire watching him, though the witch did not seem to notice the close scrutiny the keeper of her heart gave him. There was something calculatedly possessive about that scrutiny that made Howl want to slither out very badly. But there was the fact that he was in love with the witch.
They parted with promises to meet again soon.
The fact that Calcifer did not seem to approve of the witch was slightly troubling. The fact that Howl breathed a sigh of relief as he left the Wastes and closed the door to his house in Porthaven was something he avoided looking at too closely. And the real stab of fear that went through him in noticing a familiar face near the docks one afternoon a few weeks later must have been nothing more than a reaction to the sea breeze, for he was entirely happy to see the witch once again. He was breathless at the sight of her. She stood watching the waves calmly, as though sizing up its power and comparing it to her own, seeming quite ready to take it on, and her beauty was even more unearthly than he remembered. He walked over to join her when she glanced his way, and they stood side by side for a moment before she spoke.
"I thought we promised to meet again," she said, lowly. Her voice held no recrimination, and Howl felt instantly guilty. He had worried her, cast doubt into her mind, and she had been suffering all this time while Howl had been working on a commission for the king.
"Of course, darling," he said. "I've been dreaming of you all these weeks. But I didn't think it proper to come back too soon. One might think we were rushing things."
The witch smiled. "Concerned with appearances? I wouldn't have thought you so easily influenced." She cast a dry look his way, lingering on his fine clothes and the spells of beauty layered over him, and Howl fought the urge to squirm. It hardly mattered that the witch's own beauty was equally enhanced with magic, when under the view of her cold glass-jewel eyes.
He invited her to his home. After all, it was only proper. If the room was filled with dust, cobwebs, and spiders, the witch seemed not to mind. Her own home, Howl thought, was at least as dusty with sand and far colder, for all that it stood in the middle of the desert. Calcifer watched them, sunk low into his logs, and declined to enter into the conversation. It was just as well. Howl didn't need his fire demon insulting her and having her be offended. The witch seemed very interested in poetry from his own world. He brought down volume after volume from his room and read out favorites of his, while she took some and flipped lazily through them. There was one she stopped at particularly, and laughed a surprised and bell-like laugh. "Why, this could be about us. Unluckiness in love. It even mentions a fallen star."
Howl felt unaccountably drained when the witch finally left, and he fretted, imagining her walking through Porthaven. It seemed that he had managed to make her leave the Waste, after forty-nine years of solitude. The thought was almost disquieting.
But, it means she is falling for me, at least, Howl thought. He was quite sure she did not love him yet.
"You're going to regret this," Calcifer crackled. "She's wicked."
"So am I," Howl retorted. Calcifer refrained from disagreeing. It was true—though Howl's wickedness paled from the witch's, despite what he might say. But Calcifer was the one with his heart, and he knew, though Howl might not, how soft it really was.
"And when you dump her?" Calcifer added. "The other girls are one thing—you can battle lawsuits, and," he flickered "even the aunts—but the Witch of the Waste didn't gain her reputation for nothing. She could make life very hard for you."
"Calcifer, you wound me," Howl said with a piteous look. "I may have been mistaken in the past, but this time I know—she is the one. It's true love, I tell you. I suppose you could hardly understand. Her beauty is unparalleled." Here he stopped for a moment, a wistful smile on his face, before continuing. "And she's very lonely, you know—no one will go near her. No one understands her pain like I do."
Calcifer snorted, sending a crackling spurt of flame skyward. "I'm sure," he muttered.
"She's powerful in a way none of the other girls have been. Her magic is an equal to mine. And hearts won't even be a problem," Howl added pragmatically. "She doesn't have one either."
Howl lost no time in visiting the witch in the Waste after that. And she was quite eager to spend time lost in working magic, and in showing him spells he had never dreamed of. If Howl felt sometimes that he ended up showing more of his hand in these lessons than she did, it was only a nagging worry, easily dismissed. And the witch talked often of the great things they could do together. Still, though he watched her constantly, it was almost a surprise when one evening, as he made to go, the witch wrapped her arms around him. "Stay," she said.
"What?" Howl asked. "It will be dark soon, darling, and you know I have work to do…" but the witch pressed a small kiss to his cheek.
"You're right," she said, murmuring quietly as she placed another lingering kiss to his skin. "It is late. You shouldn't have to travel through the dark. Stay the night."
The feel of her lips was heady, the electric tingle of her skin, the soft petals of her curving lips. Howl met her cold eyes and realized she almost loved him. He couldn't resist.
"If that's what you want," he whispered, almost drugged with the knowledge. She pulled him past dizzying turns into a small bedroom, open to the sky, and deftly pulled off his jacket and shirt. Howl was distracted a moment, watching where they fell to make sure they didn't wrinkled or dusty. The desert sand really was apt to get into everything.
"I've wanted to see you for quite some time," the witch said, pulling him to her. "You're just as perfect as I had hoped."
"We haven't even started yet," Howl said, amused. "At this rate you'll run out of compliments before the night is through."
The witch surveyed him with a lazy smile, from where she had sat at the edge of her bed. "Will I? I have quite a tongue. Though…" she added, "perhaps you'll show me something even more formidable."
Howl took himself to the task.
But it was late into the night before the witch's store of compliments was used up. Howl heard the last of them, watching the witch's face in the throes of passion, as beautiful as the flower of the desert she claimed she was.
"Oh—Howl, I love you."
He watched her fall asleep with a smile on her face, and felt his skin cool in the desert night air. He looked up at the stars, far away in the sky above, and listened, for a time, to the night sounds, and her breathing beside him. At once a restlessness took hold of him, and he turned a critical eye to the sleeping woman. She was not really as beautiful as all that, he thought. The echoing of those three words played through his head with an uncomfortable taste. Part of him had hoped she would not fall in love with him at all, desperate as he was to keep loving her. The sheets above him felt like chains of expectations. He considered, for a moment, that he might still love her. He had been so sure she was the one—the way their minds and passions aligned so perfectly. But he thought of the perfect way they fit together with the coldness of reading a list. They might have been heartless, but hearts seemed to have come into it after all.
Howl sighed, leaned down and kissed her one last time. Then he got up and searched for his clothes.
Forty-nine years since the witch was banished to the Waste—this story takes place a year before the beginning of HMC
The Witch's chestnut-brown hair—that's the color it is at the beginning of HMC, when Sophie first sees her in the hat shop
Howl's backstory is by Dianna Wynne Jones
The Witch of the Waste's backstory is taken from a wonderful story, Starfall, by betony archiveofourown works /2845580
The poem the witch reads in Howl's house is of course Song by John Donne, the poem that will eventually become Howl's curse