Author's Note: This chapter has been touched up, as I just today finished reading the novel version of HMC. I'm not sure which I liked better, but Howl is truly brought to life more (I personally think) in the book. So that said, I'll be mingling movie-verse and novel-verse Howls together. I've also altered the storyline as things make much more sense to me now. Hope you still enjoy!
It was when she rounded the corner and found herself face to face with the eager, slightly mocking faces of the soldiers that Sophie knew she should have stayed home—locked her doors for the night and simply been content to spend the evening immersed in a book. Too late she realized how foolish she had been to traverse the late night streets—it was idiotic to think, she chastised herself in that moment, that in these times of war she would be able to peacefully roam the city as she was so used to doing in times past. And so, as first one soldier and then the other approached her, Sophie steeled her nerves and pasted a small, insincere smile on her face, hoping against hope that they would leave her alone.
"What have we got here?" The first soldier, a young man barely older than herself, clean shaven and lanky, asked his comrade with a wink that was meant to be discreet and wound up being anything but.
"A little mouse," the other replied; much older, with a thick mustache and eyes that gleamed in a manner Sophie found most alarming, he reached out to flick the brim of her straw hat. She backpedaled immediately, putting several feet between them. He smiled then, revealing a mouth full of chipped and uneven teeth. He chided jokingly, "Ah, don't be like that, love."
"She looks frightened," the younger one remarked, and then added as an afterthought,"She's prettier that way."
"If you please," Sophie said coolly, silently congratulating herself on the fact that her voice was even, "I need to get past you. I'm really in quite a hurry."
"Not anymore, you aren't," said the older man, and quite suddenly his expression became serious.
"Come inside, meet some of our friends," said the other, reaching for her abruptly. Sophie reeled back away from his touch, feeling his hot breath, redolent with alcohol, against her face.
"No, I—" She began to protest, but then the elder caught her by the arm and she cried out in wordlessly instead. "Hush!" he barked at her, but Sophie did not heed his order. Instead she pulled back frantically, succeeding in breaking his hold on her. He lunged for her again; she whirled around unsteadily in order to flee, and found herself facing instead another man that had come upon them all unnoticed. Now truly frightened, her eyes wide with dismay, Sophie became still; there was no way she could fend off three of them …
"Are you gentleman quite through harassing my lady?"
Sophie's breath left her in a quiet gasp as the newcomer spoke, his voice calm and mellifluous. Wondering if perhaps he had mistaken her for somebody else, or if he was in fact there to aid her, her attention was jerked back to the soldiers as the older one began to speak with no small amount of anger.
"Your lady? Why is your lady wandering around down here by herself?"
"She fancied fresh air and a bit of excitement," the stranger replied, and taking one step to close the difference between himself and Sophie he draped one arm languidly about her shawl-wrapped shoulders. "And now that she's found both, we'll be on our way. Excuse us, gentlemen."
The younger soldier shrugged and stepped aside, the elder glowering as he did the same a moment later. Propelled forward by the stranger's arm about her, Sophie didn't dare breathe a sigh of relief until she knew exactly whether this newcomer meant her any harm. She tried to slip out from beneath his touch; his fingers tightened about her shoulder as he murmured in her ear, "Not yet. Wait until we're out of sight."
Sophie, at an utter loss and bewildered, nodded her resigned understanding.
A few minutes later, having rounded a corner, the stranger let fall his arm, and Sophie turned to see him clearly for the first time since his … rescue. Bathed in the dirty wash of light from the overhead street lantern, he stood absolutely still with a small smile curving his lips, letting her know he was aware of her scrutiny. He was a tall man, leanly built, clad in finery that seemed at once outlandish but perfectly suited to him. His face was angular, small laugh lines obvious about the corners of his mouth. From beneath his thick mass of shoulder-length cornsilk hair she caught a glimpse of dangling blue stone earrings he that he wore in both ears. Partially obscured by the wayward tendrils of disobedient hair, his vibrant emerald eyes watched her with quiescent amusement.
"Are you satisfied with what you see?" He asked her after a moment, and his words held an intonation that made blood rush furiously to her face.
"I—" She said, and then stopped, completely flustered. "Thank you for helping me," she finished lamely.
"It was my pleasure," he replied, dipping effortlessly into a courtly bow that he made seem both sincere and vaguely mocking. Deciding she didn't like the way he confused her or the way she was almost certain he was toying with her, she scowled as he straightened, nodded her head perfunctorily and began to back away.
"Thank you again," she said politely, edging around him. "I am indebted to you for your kindness."
"Yes," he said, his smile having widened without her having noticed it. He pivoted on the spot to watch her progress, "you are."
She opened her mouth to ask him what he meant but thought immediately better of it. Instead, she began to ramble nervously, wanting nothing more than to be back in her own home, "I must be on my way, I'm afraid. It was nice to have met you."
"You don't even know my name," he said as she reached the open street they had just come from. "Aren't you at all curious?"
Not at all, she wanted to say, but instead she replied with false courtesy, "Of course I am."
"No, you're not." And there was no mistaking this time the undisguised mirth riding within his voice. Aghast that she had been so easy to read, Sophie paused in her tracks, watching him suspiciously. He began to move around her then, in a silent tread that seemed to her both inherently graceful and purposeful.
"You're afraid of me," he told her, circling so that it was now she that had to turn in order to keep facing him. "Which is understandable, of course, but completely unfounded. I mean you no harm; I thought that much had been obvious."
Sophie was unsure whether he was reprimanding her or not, so gentle was his tone. Wanting to flee from these streets and from this unusual man and feeling somewhat remorseful after his last words, Sophie heaved a silent albeit defeated sigh. "I'm sorry," she said finally, unwilling to make eye contact and therefore becoming firmly interested in the way the light reflected off of his polished ebony shoes. "You were only trying to help, and for that I am grateful. I was caught off-guard by your appearance."
"You were meant to be." The man replied cheerfully, and thrown off by this Sophie's eyes flicked to his face. "After all," he continued, smiling still, and Sophie was beginning to wonder if he were capable of any other expression, "I couldn't very well make a dashing rescue if you knew I were coming beforehand, could I?"
Sophie opened her mouth and immediately closed it, being at a complete loss for words. Taking advantage of her silence the stranger strode quickly forward, taking her by the shoulder and turning her. Tucking her hand into the crook of his arm, he began to walk, and stunned Sophie had no choice but to go with him.
"R-really … I'll be quite alright. I can find my way back on my own, thank you." Perturbed by his nearness, by his aggressive yet charming manner, Sophie wanted nothing more than to take her leave from him; she was not accustomed to the attention of men, and even though this one had saved her from the others, she was no less disconcerted by his presence.
"You could," He said jovially, "But what kind of gentleman would I be to let a lovely woman such as yourself travel alone at night in such disreputable streets?"
Lovely? Sophie couldn't stop the strong blush creeping across her cheeks, and so she ducked her head, hoping the wide brim of her hat would hide it. She was many things, but she was not lovely, and she wondered if perhaps the man was being subtly cruel.
"Have I said something wrong?" He asked after a long minute of silence on Sophie's behalf.
"Not at all," she lied, keeping her eyes fastened on the simultaneous rising and falling of their feet.
"You are very poor at lying, you know, and besides, it's not becoming."
"I think," Sophie said very loudly, stopping in her tracks and tugging her hand free from his arm, "that you have taken me far enough, Sir. I can indeed find my way back from here, thank you."
"Nonsense!" Completely unperturbed by her rude and pointed outburst, he caught her hand in his own, firmly entwined his fingers with hers, and tucked it securely back beneath the bend of his other arm. Sophie knew her face was now blazing with color; it was unseemly to hold hands with a man she hardly knew! She began to speak heatedly, embarrassed, but he cut her smoothly off with a soft tsking noise.
"You need to learn to relax, Sophie. I won't bite, and as long as I'm with you nothing else will either."
"H-how … how did you know my name?"
"From your hat," he was all he said as they resumed their walking, which was more a case of he leading and she following numbly after. As she tilted her head to stare at him blankly from under the brim of said hat, he chuckled. "I recognize master workmanship when I see it, my dear. There's only one hat shop in this district of the city, and it belongs to your family, does it not?"
"I … yes." But how did he know she hadn't just bought her hat there? She wanted to ask but didn't; it was better, she decided, not to know anything more about this strange, strange man than she absolutely had to.
They strolled then in silence, one that would be almost amiable if not for the fact that Sophie found this man's erratic behaviour both vaguely exhilarating and exceedingly disconcerting. He didn't remove his hand from hers; from time to time his fingers would flex against her skin, softly rubbing, inciting unbidden tremors to make their way up and down Sophie's spine. He led her with an unerring sense of direction through the night streets, managing, she noticed dazedly, to avoid people of any sort. When finally they stood beneath the carved wooden sign of the hat shop, Sophie's knees were weak and she felt decidedly light headed.
"Thank you very much," she murmured, and when she quickly pulled away he made no move to stop her. Without another glance at him she climbed the three steps that led to the house section of the building and had placed her hand upon the doorknob when behind her, the man spoke.
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Sophie."
She stopped turning the knob and half turned to face him with a last-ditch attempt at politeness, "Likewise. I didn't catch your name …"
Leaving her question hanging, he said with a flutter of one hand, "I can tell who the good people are usually just by seeing them, but with you I wanted to be sure. I can say, without a doubt, that you have a good heart. Wouldn't you agree?"
And with a vague, charming, and very enigmatic smile, he turned on his heel and strode off into the dark. And Sophie, playing his last words over and over, recalling all the odd things about him, suddenly realized who this man indeed was.
You have a good heart.
"Oh …" Sophie whispered, staring wide-eyed in the direction he had gone; her entire body trembled now with alarm and fear. All the legends told about the great wizard that roamed the Wastes in his walking castle came flooding back to her—how he traveled in search of hearts, the hearts from young girls, that he needed to sustain him …
Sophie had been rescued by none other than the wizard Howl.