Over the next couple of days Sophie settled into a routine, rising early, bathing, preparing breakfast and then moving onto whatever work had to be done. She saw nothing of Howl for three days, which was fine as far as she was concerned; the wizard unnerved, frightened and confused her. She contemplated several times the wisdom in accepting the pendant from him, and finally decided that when next she saw him she would return it. It wasn't a matter of not liking it—it was a matter of accepting a gift from someone who had, she felt, coerced her into her current position. Rather than tell her outright that she was in his debt when first he'd come to her aid, he'd chosen to hide the truth from her until he came for her at the hat shop. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became, and she attacked the chores around the house with renewed vigour. The sooner she was out from beneath this roof, she mused darkly, the better.
With Howl's absence, it seemed as though Calcifer became more cheerful and open, not hesitating to heat water if Sophie needed it and even upon occasion breaking into song. Markl was the same as he ever was; helpful, talkative at times, and completely secretive about the lady who had his affections, despite Calcifer's constant badgering. The camaraderie she shared with the two of them was almost enough to erase the foreboding from her mind from earlier, but then upon occasion she began to notice Calcifer staring sombrely at the pendant hanging round her neck, and all her worries came rushing back. Several times she asked the fire demon what was wrong, but he never answered her outright, looking away or shifting the wood that burned around him in an evasive manoeuvre. Sophie, frustrated by his lack of forthrightness, would then return to whatever it was she had been doing, and so things would continue.
With the house clean, Sophie turned her attention to anything else that was in need of doing—which seemed to be a lot. At Sophie's offer to mend any clothing that might need it, Markl ran upstairs and returned with a rather intimidating armload of clothes that were badly in need of repair. When she wasn't working on those Sophie cleaned the windows, some of them so grimy it took more than one bucket of water to penetrate the dirt. She also swept the large hearth free of what seemed to be many years worth of ashes, carefully moving Calcifer about as she did so. When she was done she piled wood to one side and within reach of the grate so that the fire demon could sustain his flames on his own. The other side of the grate became the designated area for the cooking fire; Sophie had a feeling she endeared herself more to the demon by not forcing him to cook for her.
Quite frequently during the day the door would be pounded upon, and if Markl where present he would answer it. The visitors were customers of Howl, Sophie learned, who was in fact aliased as two separate wizards, Pendragon and Jenkins. When somebody knocked, the fire demon would call out the name of the portal being knocked upon—Porthaven or Kingsbury—and Markl would then turn the dial to the appropriate color before answering it. The customers came for all manners of things—potions, salves, good luck charms, and even mild curses. Sophie watched with undisguised curiosity as Markl would rush about, getting ingredients together and creating these items before delivering them to the people waiting at the door. He was paid handsomely for most of them, she noted, and after the customers had gone he deposited the coins and folded bills into a nondescript black jar sitting on a shelf near the window. When people knocked upon the door while Markl was away, Calcifer told her simply to ignore it, and so she did. When the apprentice went out during the day into the cities, it was to do errands for Howl, or so she understood; when he went out in the evening to Porthaven, however, she knew he was off to visit his lady friend.
On the sixth day since her arrival, Sophie came downstairs early in the morning to find Howl bent over a book laid open on the table. He didn't glance up as Sophie made her way over to the hearth, muttering to himself while skimming over the book's small text with his index finger. As she neared, Calcifer asked loudly, "Sophie, could I trouble you to hand me some wood?"
She knew the biting sarcasm in the fire demon's tone was meant for Howl, who was at the moment quite oblivious to both of them. She did as she was asked, taking up an armful of logs and piling them close to Calcifer. He thanked her shortly, all the while glaring in the wizard's direction. Sophie, made uneasy by Howl's presence this early in the morning, set about the ritual she had followed for the past few days and began to prepare breakfast. As she rummaged through the cupboards and shelves that held the food she couldn't help but glance erstwhile at the wizard, wondering why on earth he had risen with the sun; as Calcifer had said when first she'd arrived, Howl was rather fond of sleeping until noon or later. This day he was looking particularly resplendent in a patterned shirt of grey and green—the same green as his eyes. Grey breeches tucked into tall, polished black boots with a riding heel, and over it all he wore a dark, ankle length cloak made of heavy silk which clasped at the throat with a small silver chain. It took several more glances before Sophie realized that his hair had changed again, and that it had changed drastically; it had been shorn to hang just above his shoulders in even lengths with a thick fringe of bangs falling across his brow. What caught her attention, however, was the color, for even in the dim light of dawn filtering in from the window she could tell it was brilliantly, violently red. Turning her attention back to the task at hand, she shook her head—who knew a man could be so vain?
She built the cooking fire up while Calcifer watched; he extended one limb and helped ignite the tinder Sophie had gathered. When the flames were steady and large enough to cook Sophie laid the pan flat and proceeded to add strips of bacon and eggs to the sizzling iron. As she tossed the shells of the last egg to Calcifer for consumption, Howl spoke up from behind her, "Would you mind, Sophie dear, making some for me as well?"
"I am." she replied, looking over her shoulder to find that the wizard hadn't removed his attention from the large book. While both Calcifer and Markl had told her that the wizard never ate breakfast, she had figured that because Howl was awake she might as well cook enough for him for propriety's sake. Anything left over could be fed to Calcifer. Silence descended, broken only by the sizzling of the grease in the frying pan and the occasional sound of pages turning as Howl rifled through the tome. Markl appeared not long before the food was finished, as though drawn forth from his slumber by the aroma. He, like Sophie, cast a confused glance at the wizard who was not only awake before the sun had reached its zenith, but clothed and coherent as well. When everything was ready she and Markl took their share of the food and took seats at the table; Howl pulled his attention from the book, closed it, and went off to get his own portion. He returned and sat down with while nibbling on a piece of bacon held between his thumb and forefinger, wearing a pensive expression. After a moment he sighed, a great, deep exhale of air obviously meant to command attention. Sophie chose to ignore him, refusing to lift her gaze from the plate before her. Markl, however, asked after swallowing his mouthful of food, "Is there something wrong, Master Howl?"
There was an overly long pause as the wizard finished eating his strip of bacon. When he spoke, his tone was serious in a manner that made Sophie think that perhaps he was putting on an act. "Yes, in fact," he said, nodding; the stones hanging from his ears glinted in Calcifer's light with the movement. "You see, I do believe I'm going to be summoned by the king soon."
When he didn't elaborate, Sophie looked up from her food. If he was expecting Markl to get the gist of what he hadn't said he was going to be disappointed, for his apprentice was staring at him blankly. After huffing another great sigh, Howl went on. "I don't want to be summoned by the king, Markl. If I am, it means I'll have to go into service, and that would not be a good thing—don't you agree?"
There was an intonation to his words that brought a sudden look of comprehension to Markl's face. The boy nodded. "I see, Master. So what will you do? You can't refuse to see the king …"
"No," Howl said, swirling the eggs on his plate around with his fork. "But if I can't be found, then I can't be summoned."
"A vanishing spell?"
The wizard shook his head. "No, nothing as trite as that. More of a misdirection charm, really. Anyone looking for me—us—would keep finding themselves in odd places like an outhouse or a tool shed. It's really rather simple to do, except …" he trailed off, dropped his fork, and leaned in close to Markl. "It requires components I don't have and can only be found in certain places."
Markl's expression clearly indicated he didn't like where this was going; he asked with a heavy, expectant sigh, "Where do I need to go?"
"That's my boy!" Howl said brightly, slapping the apprentice on the back. "Not far at all. Porthaven. To Mistress Thora's."
"Mistress Thora!" The apprentice yelped. "Howl, she'll recognize me and then she'll kill me!"
The wizard had stood and moved away from the table, taking his half-full plate and scraping the remaining food into Calcifer's eager mouth. As he did so he said over his shoulder, "Not if you wear the cloak, she won't. Besides, the last time she saw you you were just a boy."
"That was last year. I haven't changed that much."
"Hence the need for the cloak." Depositing his dish in the sink, Howl turned to face his apprentice with his hands on his hips. "Really, Markl, it's not like I'm asking you to venture into a dragon's den."
"It's exactly like that, and you know it." This came from Calcifer, who licked up small, wayward pieces of Howl's breakfast with a tongue of flickering blue flame.
Howl made an exasperated sound, and Sophie chose that moment to jump into the conversation. "Who is Mistress Thora, and why is she comparable to a dragon?"
"She's not that bad—" Howl began, but the fire demon interrupted him.
"She's a woman that Howl pursued for the better part of last year. And when finally he won her heart, he up and left her like he's done with all the others. The thing is, Mistress Thora didn't react like all the others. She's a herbalist, and an adept one at that, and she has an amazing temper. And so for revenge against Howl—"
"She poisoned me!" The wizard exclaimed, striking a pose that screamed of righteous indignation. "That … woman … sent me a cake with poison baked into it!"
"Why," Sophie asked slowly, "would you eat something sent to you by a woman whose heart you broke?"
Howl scowled at her and the obvious disapproval dripping from her words. "I thought perhaps it was a peace offering."
Calcifer snorted. "You're lucky it wasn't deadly poison."
Howl made a face, and Markl told Sophie, "He was sick for three weeks after he ate it. And he literally turned green, too. He could only eat broth and drink water and he couldn't move around without getting really sick."
"Imagine, if you will," the fire demon said to her, "A bedridden Howl, feeling horrible and unable to cure himself, cooped up in this house for twenty one long days …"
"I wasn't that bad." Howl said defensively, while at the same time Markl whispered to Sophie, "It was awful!"
"That will be quite enough out of the two of you, thank you kindly!" The wizard said loudly, glaring at first one and then the other. "May we get back to the subject at hand? As I was saying, the components I need are rather exotic and Thora's shop is the only that carries them in this kingdom. You will go, and you will wear the cloak, and things will go smoothly."
Markl said glumly, "Yes, Master Howl."
"Why don't you go yourself?" Sophie asked, feeling sorry for Markl because of the dejectedness he was exuding.
"Oh, now there's a question!" Calcifer crowed; the wizard narrowed his eyes and graced the fire demon with a very icy stare. After a moment he turned to Sophie and said rather stiffly, "Because if I were to go in person, Thora would most assuredly and happily refuse to give me what I needed."
Sophie opened her mouth again to state that perhaps that was exactly what he deserved; Howl smoothly interrupted, waving a dismissive hand in the air. "As well, I have an appointment to be kept today of which I am already in danger of being late attending. It's a matter of the utmost importance."
"Which is why you're as flashy as a peacock today?" Calcifer asked.
Howl flashed the fire demon an irritated glance. "Yes. It never hurts to make a good impression." He produced from an inner pocket a slip of paper—his component list—and handed it to Markl, who looked it over and heaved a resigned sigh before nodding. The wizard then brushed past them all and strode over to pick up the guitar before moving to the stairs. Halfway down them he turned around with a sudden wide smile. "I say, Sophie, why don't you accompany Markl? Surely you're sick of being inside this house already, and a bit of fresh air will do you well, don't you think?"
Despite herself, Sophie found this to be an ideal suggestion; she was in fact sick of the confines of the house. She wondered if there was some ulterior reason behind it, but was distracted from that line of thought by Howl's next words. "Don't go out in those old rags, though. Look in your room—I think the yellow one will look especially nice on you." And with that he carried himself down the rest of the stairs, swivelled the dial to black, and promptly left the house.
Sophie, torn between indignation over his rather unfair assessment of her current wardrobe and curiosity about what he'd meant about yellow, stared after him for a moment before making a rude noise and gathering up the dishes and carrying them to the sink. Behind her Calcifer said, "And you've only been here a week. He gets even more irritating with time."
She made a noise that was half laugh and half sigh before turning to Markl. "Well? Would you mind some company?"
"No." The apprentice said quickly. "I want you to come. Maybe if you're there Thora won't hurt me." He slid off the chair and made his way to the stairs. "I'm just going to change, Sophie, and then I'll be right back."
"No hurry," she sighed, following him. "It seems I'm to change as well."
Author's Note: This chapter was supposed to be longer, but every time I sit down to try and finish it I get interrupted, which is why I decided to post this part and work on the rest whenever I have time.
As well, thank you for all your support! I really appreciate it, and it makes writing this that much more enjoyable.