Title: A Woman True and Fair
Characters: Sophie, Michael, Calcifer, Howl
If you have not read Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle, DO NOT READ THIS FANFIC. It will spoil the entire novel for you. This fic is intended as an amusing "what if" accompaniment to the book, not as a replacement for the original.
Author's Note: This picks up from Howl's entrance in chapter 4 of HMC: In which Sophie discovers several strange things.
Further notes at the end of the story.
A Woman True and Fair
Chapter 1: In which Howell discovers an exquisite challenge
The truth was, she had intrigued him ever since Howell had returned home that morning from another fruitless day of working and wenching to find a young woman wearing 90-year-old skin cooking breakfast over Calcifer. He'd known immediately that he'd seen her somewhere before. For all his self-absorption, Howell never forgot a face, especially one with which he had previously fallen in love (it was safer to remember one's enemies). Sophie had lied to him then, claiming, "I am a total stranger." But the startled look on her wrinkled old face told a different story.
I see, thought Howell to himself, cleverly. You recognise me, but I'm not allowed to recognise you, is that it? What a splendid game! Of course, you shan't win.
What had concerned him more than ferreting out who she really was at the time, however, had been her unheard of subjection of Calcifer. Howell always took careful note of those few people to whom his disembodied heart warmed. But this woman had not only got its attention and cooperation, but appeared to have utterly domesticated it over the course of the single day he had been absent; a disturbing thought indeed. And why had his heart reacted in such a remarkable, dramatic way to this dishonest young woman who'd entered his home clothed in a spell both powerful and complex?
To be honest -- and he did not like to be -- though he did not have one, Howell was a hopeless romantic at heart. This unthinkable display with Calcifer, the way he'd known her at first sight (though not from whence), the fact that the curse which had undoubtedly brought her to him had been cast by his most recent (and unfortunate) paramour, all of these things added up to something Howell could not avoid. Was it possible he had finally encountered the woman who could put an end to his loveless life? Had Fate arranged that she be deposited on his very doorstep? Howell was instantly in love with the idea. But there was much to do before he could be certain.
The first thing to be done was to take off that curse and get a good look at her. (Actually, that was probably not the first thing to be done, but Howell wanted to do it first in any case.) From the way she had aged, it was obvious she was a great beauty and Howell, considering himself quite the connoisseur of such things, was eager to see just how lovely she would be restored to her natural age. It was like presents at Christmas. Howell had never been any good at enduring the suspense until Christmas morning. He wanted to know what his present was now.
The quickest way to get the spell off her was to link to Calcifer, which he did forthwith. In hindsight, Howell could admit he'd shoved her out of the hearth a bit rudely in his eagerness to get to Calcifer and unwrap his present. Still, she was none the worse for wear, and it was terribly considerate of him to have taken over the cooking, so Howell felt he could be forgiven.
As no one attested more often than Howell himself, he was dreadfully clever. One of the ways in which this manifested itself was his ability to do several things at once – flawlessly and subtly. He could search for Ben Sullivan while appearing to merely be courting young ladies across the countryside. He could work in secret on a commission for the king while tactfully avoiding the aftermath of yet another affair gone bad and generously providing Michael and Calcifer with a diversion. And he could anchor a multi-dimensional gateway in four different locations at once and evade the Witch of the Waste and run two businesses and keep up with his scholarly journals at home and do odd jobs for the king and still find time to be the best-dressed and most stunningly handsome and gifted wizard in two worlds.
Howell had employed his talent for multitasking as he'd cooked that morning, feeding Calcifer while he questioned Sophie in order to distract her while he used the fire demon's power to get a closer look at her curse. As ill luck would have it, the curse was a fearsome thing involving not only the powerful magic and vindictive spirit of the Witch of the Waste, but also a pervasive and deceptively subdued magic Howell did not recognise. In short, there were several layers and they would take even him time to sort through. Howell was not going to get to see his present any time soon.
He had just begun to work himself into a wretched sulk over being made to wait when Sophie called him wicked for the very first time, a comment he'd found both insulting and charming. Somehow, with this woman, he was capable of feeling both at once, which was also very intriguing. Moreover, she had called him a young man, which greatly amused him as he was certain her true age was at least five years his junior, probably more. Yet she insisted on playing the part of the disapproving old granny. What an interesting, beguiling, amusing woman.
Howell had spent their first breakfast together pondering these things and artfully dodging the barrage of questions Sophie threw at him. His proud tradition of avoiding giving a straight answer wherever possible seemed to vex her immensely. Feigning apathy, Howell watched her from the corner of his eye, concluding that she was probably the high-spirited, fiery-tempered type. The type that one could honestly say was beautiful when she was angry. This was an exquisite revelation, as Howell was particularly fond of that type of woman – unfortunately. It had been his penchant for passionate women that had first attracted him to the Witch of the Waste.
When they were finishing breakfast and it was apparent that receiving no answers was insufficient deterrent to Sophie's endless string of questions, Howell took pity on her (and himself) and magnanimously instructed Michael to answer her. Really, her nosiness and curiosity seemed to know no bounds – something quite dangerous in a woman, in Howell's experience. It was as if she were trying to pin him down just as he was trying to work her out. Howell hated being pinned down more than he hated bad hair days – which was quite a lot.
It was very entertaining, however, to watch the comedy of Michael explaining how the castle worked to Sophie. It had been years since Howell had met a woman who could make him laugh. The way she seemed to take personal offense at the answers was especially charming. That was, until she turned her self-righteous old granny act on him again. High-spirited was right. Howell could see that if Sophie had any idea how amusing he found her, there was no telling what she'd do. He resolved to keep his laughter to himself for the time being, and retire to the bathroom while it was still safe.
This most interesting morning came to a delightful close with a rich payment from the king for the seven-league boots. Truly pleased with how things were going in spite of being made to wait for his present, Howell expertly sidestepped the disappointed and disapproving looks of Michael and Calcifer as he pocketed the gold by slipping away to make himself perfect for a renewed assault on Lettie Hatter.
While he showered and shaved and plucked and highlighted and coiffed and primped and increased his natural good looks with every last spell he'd ever discovered to do so, Howell thought about the tempting puzzle that awaited him on the other side of the bathroom door. There was something terribly familiar about the construction of Sophie's age-obscured face, but he couldn't quite make the connection. How bothersome.
At least he could count on ample opportunity to remember. Sophie had made it quite clear she was not about to leave, even if asked. Little did she know what his actual thoughts were on the matter, and that suited him quite nicely. Howell congratulated himself on his flawless duplicity and shining dishonesty. Sooner or later, the present would be his. Opening it had just become a new game all its own.
More Author's Notes: The one line of dialogue in this belongs to DWJ. I could and would never claim it; I'm merely using it as a place-holder here.
I've chosen to use "Howell" instead of "Howl" because of the 3rd person narration bias. I don't believe Howl thinks of himself as "Howl" (or Wizard Pendragon or Sylvester Oak or Sorcerer Jenkin) in his own mind; I think he thinks of himself as "Howell".
This is very much a work in progress. Feel free to criticise or point out whatever you like or don't. I don't guarantee changes to suit everyone, but I'm happy to listen.