Hello everyone!

This is the first chapter of the second part of the Wallmaker Series. I recommend you read the first part, Beyond the Indigo Veil, before reading the following story.

Be forewarned, it's gonna get dark for a while. But have hope and remember that joy, like sorrow, often comes in threes.

Thanks again for reading!

Lady Librarian .


Children of the Stars: Part II of the Wallmaker saga

Chapter 1: Home and Hearth

A war was going on inside of Sophie's stomach.

"Oh!" She gasped as the tiny life inside her dealt a strong kick to her back.

"What is it, Sophie? Are you alright? Is it the baby? Can I get something for you?" Howl's worried, and sleepy, voice reached her through the early morning light. He had been sound asleep a moment ago.

As she progressed in her pregnancy her husband had become more and more nervous for her health, fussing over every sound she made and hanging about waiting on her every word.

It was positively vexing.

But she was feeling quite content at the moment, in spite of the fact that she couldn't sleep.

"He's kicking," was her short reply, and she placed Howl's hand on her swollen belly. The raven-haired wizard was silent for a long moment.

"No wonder you can't sleep. Does he do that all the time?"

"No," she giggled at the incredulous tone in Howl's voice, "But he's been really active early in the morning recently."

It had been almost four months since they had gone beyond the Dull Wall and returned once more to the mortal world. She had managed to escape the Dark without loosing her husband or the beginnings of the life that grew within her. A semblance of peace had descended upon the family, in spite of the spinning world that went on beyond the walls of the flying castle.

Outside the harsh winds of winter whistled and blew eddies of drifting snow, which blanketed the entire wastes in white. It had been an early winter, which meant discomfort for them, but devastation for the people of Ingary. The majority of the north part of the country had been affected by the blizzard and most of the wheat crop was lost to frost and damp rot. Normally this would not have been a problem because King Ferdinand kept a healthy store of grain in Kingsbury for such occasions.

But all of the farming communities in Tyrn had been affected as well. Young King Walden had sent a desperate plea for help and Ferdinand had responded generously. However, it meant that grain would have to be rationed among the poorest folk. And that meant hard winter for both kingdoms.

But Sophie turned her mind away to happier things.

The previous evening they received word that Martha and Barimus had returned from their honeymoon. Sophie's mind wandered back to that joyous evening. The two had married under the mid-winter moon among the verdant green plants in the Palace Greenhouse. The red wizard had exchanged vows with a radiant bride, veiled and dressed in forest green. It had been a grand affair, full of pomp and circumstances. Their mother Honey had been absolutely ecstatic; like in the fairy tales, the blond woman had always hoped that her youngest would marry royalty. Barimus was Royal Wizard, and that was close enough for her.

Sophie had always been awkward around crowds of people. And she felt as out of place as ever among all the fancy courtiers that rubbed elbows in Barimus' circles. But she was determined to make her youngest sister's wedding a success.

Between she and Howl they had brought hundreds of magic red roses, which were an impossible extravagance in the middle of winter. Her middle sister Lettie once again catered the event, who never once removed her toddler from her hip. The pretty blond was dressed in her finest uniform, a great flounced pink get-up with a matching white ruffled apron.

The woman orchestrated an entire fleet of apprentices and palace pages with the ease of a seasoned navel captain. Under the strict line of communication between Lettie and her husband in the kitchen of Ceasri's café, the two had taken command of every closet and office doorway in the tiny restaurant. Servants issued forth from the kitchen archway with treat laden trays and great platters of sumptuous food, for the arch had been converted into a magic portal. They served a banquet in Kingsbury Palace from a kitchen in Market Chipping, and the feast went off without a hitch.

However, in the process Lettie had managed to make a few enemies in the royal kitchen, which was cold and empty at the moment. Her sister grinned fiercely, placing her free hand on her hip triumphantly when her mother Honey mentioned the sour looks she was receiving from the court chef.

"All is fair in war and catering," the rosy cheeked woman laughed resolutely. She turned on a dime, beamed gregariously and began chatting with another courtier that came by to ask for her card and compliment her cooking. Mr. Hausa, their new step father, chuckled merrily and smiled proudly. He wasn't a man of many words, but his new wife had enough for both of them.

Somehow word had gotten out that Sophie was expecting. Even the ruler of Ingary, King Ferdinand, had come by to tickle her hand with his moustache and exclaimed congratulations in his booming voice. If anyone had not known she was pregnant, they knew now. She had it in her mind to kick the monarch, but decided against it. If she was going to kick anyone it would be her younger sister. But it wouldn't do to plant her foot the bride's backside on her wedding day.

She had told her sister Martha not long after she had told Howl, but had sworn the hedge witch to secrecy. Hah! If there had ever been a secret in her family, it never lasted long. Martha went and told Lettie almost immediately, who in turn told their mother, who went and told the entire village of Chipping Market. At the time she had not yet begun to show, but gossip never needed sound proof to be taken seriously.

Many women the silver haired witch had never met before came by the table to inquire about her health and give their blessings and advice. Sophie ended up cuddling Markl in her lap and begging the little apprentice to pretend to be asleep so people would leave her alone. He squirmed restlessly and she finally gave up on the ruse.

As the evening progressed, Martha came to sit at their table. The dark haired woman was absolutely giddy with happiness and she chattered with uncharacteristic verbaciousness. Even Honey and Mrs. Fairfax, who were veteran natterers, found it difficult to get a word in edgewise.

"Oh, what a chatty bride," Granny Witch had murmured happily as she held a skein of yarn for Mrs. Fairfax, who was also seated at their table.

The two old women had become inseparable over the past few months, and the former witch of the wastes spent more time in the Folding Valley than she did in the castle. Howl had created a temporary portal to the Fairfax's farm through the tiny bathroom on the first floor since the closet under the stairs was already occupied by a gate to Market Chipping.

Calcifer, who at first was resolutely apposed to the former witch's presence at the castle, had moped about sulkily as Granny became present less and less. The little fire daemon had become quite attached to the old woman. But Cal began spending more and more time with Markl, and the two were off in the greenhouse somewhere, hopefully not causing mischief.

Howl and Barimus also disappeared off at some point in the evening, much to Sophie's chagrin. Her extroverted husband attracted conversation like bees to honey, and he had been absorbing the majority of the attention directed at his silver haired wife. For that she was exceedingly grateful. Although, she had picked up a few tricks from Howl, and managed to foist most of the attention off onto Martha.

As the party began to wind down Lettie had leaned over and whispered secretively in her eldest sister's ear that her wedding to Howl had been far more splendid. Sophie was almost annoyed with her sister for showing favoritism, but no one could be cross with Lettie for long. She was impulsive and brisk, but her intentions were genuine, and she always spoke her mind. Instead she laughed at the knowing look her sister gave her as she cuddled her little baby girl; I told you so, it said confidently.

She was dozing slightly, listening absently to Martha and Honey chatter when Howl appeared suddenly at her elbow. They said their goodbyes and went to collect their son and his fiery chaperone. Sophie had noticed that the look in her husband's eyes did not match the dazzling smile on his face. The silver haired witch could always tell when he was irritated because he smoothed the back of his hair unnecessarily and often fiddled with his earrings. Her witchy sense told her that he and Barimus had not parted on good terms.

She wilted slightly; couldn't they ever leave the palace without something bad happening?

Whatever it was, Howl kept his own council. It had been almost a month since the wedding and he had never mentioned anything to her. Returning to the present from her recollections, Sophie looked over at her husband and found him sleeping peacefully, his hand still resting on her stomach. She smirked at the way he sprawled on the pillows with reckless abandon, mouth agape in a soft snore. She was wide awake but decided to let him sleep. There would be enough sleepless nights for him once the baby arrived.

Carefully extracting herself from their bed, Sophie grimaced and placed her hands behind her back. She felt 90 years old again as she crept out of their room and down to the fireplace. She could hear Granny Witch snoring softly and knew she would not wake up even if she banged together all the pots and pans in the kitchen. Calcifer was glowing pale and yellow in the ashes, but the hint of red in his color belied the fact that the little spark was not asleep.

"No use pretending, Cal. I know you're awake." She spoke knowingly as she settled into the plush couch. The ember peeked open an eye and regarded her sideways with mild irritation.

"You're too witchy for your own good sometimes, know that?"

Sophie laughed and settled back against the cushions as the life within her began doing back flips. She made a cross-eyed face and placed her hands on her stomach; four more months of this and the worst was yet to come. Cal had flickered larger and was regarding her growing belly with a disquiet expression.

"Is it moving again?" He crackled curiously, hints of pink creeping into his edges.

"He is."

"Why aren't you in bed?" Calcifer popped distractedly as he hunkered back into the ashes.

"I can't sleep when the little one is being acrobatic," Sophie replied as she rubbed her tummy.

Calcifer watched her for a moment with an enigmatic sideways glance, then reached out a thin tendril of flame to pull the kettle closer to his fire. He dragged another log over from the bin and began to chew it noisily. After a moment the little flame stared at her with meaning, and then shifted his eyes to the front door and back mysteriously. Suddenly there was a brisk knock at the front portal and Sophie jumped, making a froggish face.

"You have a visitor from Kingsbury," Cal spoke crankily, "He made me swear to secrecy."

Standing with difficulty, the silver haired witch hurried to the door and let in half the winter outside before a tall figure wrapped in a thick crimson cloak could enter.

"Woo! It's blowing out there!" The red wizard shivered violently as he stamped and wiped his boots on the front mat.

"Barimus!" She exclaimed in surprise as she looked up at her brother in law. The blond wizard smiled at her warmly as he hooked his cloak onto the wall.

"Hello, little sister," He beamed down at her, hugging the little witch carefully as he regard her growing belly.

"I'm quite fine and I'm anything but little, thank you," she replied testily as she went back to the couch and eyed Calcifer, who was doing his best to pretend to be asleep.

Barimus pulled up the spare chair and warmed his hands over the fire. She crossed her arms and regarded her sister's husband crossly.

"Have you been eavesdropping, Barimus?"

"A little; I wanted to make sure that Howl was asleep before I came. Besides, Calcifer told me you'd be up this early."

"Now we're fraternizing with the enemy and keeping secrets, are we Cal?" Sophie watched the little flame shrink under her stare.

"Don't be angry with him, Sophie. He did it for me as a favor," the weary tone in Barimus' voice melted away any annoyance she had felt about the red wizard's early morning visitation. She glanced back at the blond man and noted that he had dark circles under his eyes, his lips pressed into a thin line.

"Why aren't you at home with Martha?" She asked mildly, hoping reverently the two weren't already having a fight.

"She doesn't know I'm here. I left her sleeping," He replied quickly with a shiver "I'm here because I need your help, Sophie."

The kettle gave a soft hiss and Sophie flicked he hand at it. It pushed back from the fire under the invisible hand of her magic. Cal gave a start and regarded her curiously. The silver haired witch waved a hand over her shoulder, never taking her eyes off of Barimus. A cup lifted from the kitchen shelves and filled with tea before it sailed over to her waiting palm. She leaned forward and poured the hot water into the cup, handing it to her brother-in-law.

"Thank you, Sophie. I see you're getting used to your magic," he replied in amusement, making polite conversation.

"Everything hurts when you're pregnant, Barimus, especially your feet. Normally I wouldn't be this lazy, but the ground is cold. What can I do for you?"

Her first words were irritated, but she softened towards the end and watched the red wizard relax. She felt a close kinship to Barimus, one that had been present even before he had married her younger sister. The two of them had experience great hardship together; that made them family of a kind stronger than blood and marriage.

"The wizard's council is in shambles," Barimus began in an exhausted voice.

"The murder of witch Suliman by a daemon and the Wallbreaker's betrayal has thrown them into chaos. Many have flat out refused to acknowledge me as the Council Leader because I was not stipulated in Suliman's will as her legitimate heir.

"The majority of the new councilors are young wizards and witches sent from Marda and Tyrn to replace those lost to the daemon the Wallbreaker's let into this world. They're presence should have ensured that the balance was restored to the council. The alliance between Ingary, Marda, and Tyrn depends on the strong leadership of the Wizard's Council. But their ambitions outweigh their duty and they're vying for power through political alliances and intrigue.

"The few elders left on the council are still shocked and paralyzed with doubt. They are closer to the otherworld than the young ones, and they still feel keenly the heinous crimes committed by the Wallbreaker. Plus, they are terrified that the Dull Wall has failed and that daemons are trying to steal their souls."

"What they don't understand and what they won't believe is all their quibbling only weakens the Wall further. I had hoped that things would have settled down after Martha and I came home, but it was foolish of me to think so. We're in the middle of the worst winter ever recorded, trying to cope with a massive food shortage and the idiots are quibbling over votes and titles!"

Barimus sat down his tea and scrubbed his face with his hands. With a frustrated growl he sank back into his chair and stared moodily into the fire. Sophie heard the soft click of nails on the wood floor and Heen emerged from Granny Witch's bedroom. The little dog came over and sat next to the red wizard, wagging his tail gently. The dog wheezed softly and sat on Barimus' feet. The blond haired wizard looked down at him and the aggravation melted from his face. He reached down and patted the little creature on his head. Calcifer popped softly.

"What does this have to do with me?" Sophie was not unsympathetic; in fact she had been worrying about the state of the food crisis. But she had a sneaking suspicion that Barimus was trying to use her as a bargaining chip again. The red wizard stared into the fire, avoiding her eyes.

"I tried talking to Howl about this, but he flat out refused to speak of the Wizard's Council or its problems."

Ah, so that's what it was. The silver haired witch remembered the look on Howl's face as they left their wedding.

"I'm shocked that you even tried, Barimus!" She cut him off regarding him reproachfully.

"You know how Howl feels about the Wizard's Council. He's still grieving for his Uncle and it reminds him too much of Agyrus; please understand how hard loosing the last of his family has been for him."

"I'm an orphan as well, Sophie, don't forget that! You don't see me hiding under a pile of pillows!" Barimus retorted angrily. The red wizard was normally unflappable, but circumstances had pushed him beyond his normal limits.

"I'm sorry, Sophie. I didn't mean to snap at you," he immediately apologized, a contrite expression passing over his face.

"It's alright, Barimus. I understand your situation and to a certain extent I also understand your frustration with Howl. I just don't appreciate being used as a deal broker."

"You're the only one that Howl will listen to. If you could just convince him-"

Sophie cut him off again, but did so gently, "That's where you're mistaken, Barimus. Howl makes his own decisions; I have no control over him anymore than you do. But I am willing to hear you out."

A look of relief flooded across his face and the blond wizard swiveled his chair to face the silver haired witch. Sophie regarded him in the moment before he began describing his plan. He looked thinner than normal, and the 90 year old woman that lurked in the back of her mind clucked her tongue. His face was thin and delicately handsome like Howl's but he had more of a stubborn chin and a wider mouth. Lines of age had begun to show around his eyes. Sophie tried to remember; Barimus was at least four or five years older than Howl.

But what did age mean to a wizard? There was no way to tell for sure how old any of them actually were. They spent so much time between worlds that time really had no meaning to them anymore. But she was drawn out of her musings as Barimus began telling her his plan.

"I need you and Howl to scare some sense into the Council. You should hear them talk about you two. They whisper your names with more reverence than they speak of the 1,000 gods."

Great, Sophie grumbled in annoyance at the silliness of human nature, Now we're gods! But Barimus continued without noticing her grimace.

"In the eyes of the Council you both are the rightful heirs to Suliman's place of leadership. Plus, you both are the ones who defeated the Dark and rebuilt the Dull Wall. They'll believe you when you tell them the story. When I tried to explain what happened they thought I was trying to jockey for power.

"That's a bunch of rot," Calcifer chimed in suddenly, popping and crackling with irritation, "You had a hand in every part of the battle, Barimus. You are as much a hero as any of us."

"Thank you, Calcifer," the red wizard smiled wearily at the incensed little fire daemon, "But try telling that to the Council."

"Most view me as a usurper and contradict everything I say. That's why you must come and speak at the Council. They will believe you when you tell the story of what happened. Plus, your presence will assure the elders that there is nothing to worry about.

"It would be for just a little while, Sophie, long enough to make it clear that you and Howl are the ones who appointed me Council Leader. If you back me publicly, it will give me legitimacy in their eyes. Hopefully they'll start cooperating and we can work out this blood mess!"

Barimus finished by punching his fist into his open hand. The silver haired witch was very impressed by how strongly Barimus felt about the situation. It was clear from the look on his face how determined he was to reconsolidate the Council. Sophie did not need Barimus to explain that the Alliance between Ingary, Marda, and Tyrn depended on it.

Howl was right; Barimus did indeed make an excellent Royal Wizard.

"I'll see what I can do, Barimus," she replied after a moment of staring into the distance. This was not going to be easy.

"Wonderful!" The red wizard exclaimed and he flew to his feet with renewed vigor.

"Don't thank me yet," she replied dubiously.

"You have my sincerest thanks, dear sister. You also have my utmost confidence," Barimus gave a flourishing bow, his face alight with charm.

"Go home, Barimus," Sophie replied as she rolled her eyes.

The red wizard bowed his way out of the house. Turning the magic knob to the red mark, her brother in law wrapped himself in his great crimson cloak. As he opened the door and disappeared into the streets of Kingsbury, he let in the other half of winter. Sophie shivered in the cold draft and scooted over as Heen jumped up into the couch and curled up on her feet. She and Calcifer stared mildly at one another for quite some time.

"I don't envy you at all, Sophie. I can't believe you let monster's husband talk you into this," he popped and snapped. The little flame still had not forgiven Martha for trying to smother him with a water bucket when he accidentally spit soot on her.

"Can it, Cal. I'm trying to think," she frowned moodily as the wheels in her head began to turn.

xXx

"Oh, what a dear little boy," Granny Witch mumbled as she helped Markl into his snow parka.

The wizard's apprentice winced and cast his eyes at the castle ceiling as more sounds of things breaking filtered down from upstairs.

"Why are Master Howl and Sophie fighting, Calcifer? They never fight." The young boy seemed very worried as heated voices filtered down from upstairs. Calcifer cracked an eye as the ceiling above groaned and twisted slightly, sending bits of plaster tumbling to the floor.

"They're not fighting. They're having a discussion," he popped cryptically.

"Sounds like fighting to me," Markl frowned. The little boy gave a start as the shadows in the kitchen began to darken and the stairs groaned and twisted under the magic born from the emotions of the pair upstairs.

"You'd better go, there's no telling what they're liable to conjure in the mood their in," Cal frowned casting an anxious glance around the kitchen.

"Tea and honey buns at Mrs. Fairfax's; oh, what a wonderful visit we'll have," Granny Witch mumbled again as she picked up Heen and opened a snowy portal through the bathroom door. Markl came a few steps after, casting a troubled glance over his shoulder as he shut the door. Shortly after the old woman and the young boy left, the discussion moved downstairs.

"I can't BELIVE he put you up to this!" Howl yelled as he pounded down the stairs to pace the kitchen, his eyes bright with fury. Sophie followed shortly behind him, walking with calm steps to stand in the middle of the living room. She watched her husband stride around the kitchen, trailing a long shadow of sick green mists.

"Barimus is desperate, Howl. He would not have come to me if he had not exhausted all of his resources."

"This isn't our problem, Sophie; we've already done enough for the Alliance! The idiots on the council need to learn take responsibility for themselves; if we step in now they'll never leave us alone."

"This is exactly what I'm talking about, Howl. What about our responsibilities? Barimus is family; we have a duty to help him. He's not asking for much," she replied evenly.

"Yes he is!" Howl yelled with vehemence.

He was throwing a child's tantrum over a rather simple request. But Sophie had an excellent understanding of the mercurial moods her husband was subject to. He often over-reacted with the opposite emotion of what he was feeling at the moment. Even now the silver haired witch could see the pain in his eyes and the fear in his heart. Howl held the council responsible for allowing the Wallbreaker to rule over them with fear instead of fighting back; as a result he also blamed the Council's cowardice for his uncle's death.

Sophie had known this conversation was going to be hard for Howl. They had not spoken of what had taken place in the otherworld, nor had they talked about Agyrus' death. She did not begrudge her husband's silence, but she would not let him slither-out of important obligation because he did not want to dwell on the past. She knew Howl would come around eventually, although this time he was being particularly stubborn.

"Howl, your brother needs our help!"

"He can take care of himself!" Howl replied sulkily, turning his back to her.

Sophie lost her patience; she was tired, she was cranky, her feet hurt and her back ached. It was freezing, even inside the magic walls of the castle and she had enough of her husband's childish behavior. Stamping her foot she yelled at her husband giving both he and Calcifer a fright.

"For heaven's sake, Howl, quit acting like a child and listen to me!

"You won't be forced to take leadership of the council and you're not going to become your uncle. I won't let that happen. But you need to accept that you are the Wallmaker now! As the most powerful wizard alive in this moment you have a responsibility to deal this situation!"

The surprise on Howl's face was plain and Sophie knew she had reached him. Suddenly Sophie experienced a strange feeling of weightlessness and felt as though she was sinking. The world swam before her face and turned at once very bright and then very dark.

"Sophie!" Howl's distraught face was the first thing she saw when her vision cleared. Her husband had rushed forward and caught her just as she felt faint.

"I'm alright, just light headed," She grumbled petulantly as he swept her up into his arms and carried her to the couch.

"Now look what you did," Calcifer crackled nastily at Howl as the little flame danced along the rim of the fireplace, nervously eyeing the silver haired woman.

"Be nice, Cal. It's not Howl's fault. I haven't been sleeping well and I'm just tired is all."

But Howl held her to him and tucked her head under his chin, kissing her at random intervals. She could feel the contrition emanating from him as she hugged him back.

"I'm so sorry, Sophie. I didn't mean to upset you. I am acting like a child," the raven-haired wizard murmured softly.

"And a brute and a selfish brat!" Calcifer crackled, unperturbed by the frown Sophie flashed at him.

"You're right and I know it," Howl continued moodily, ignoring Calcifer, "It's just that the Council frightens me. They all expect so much and give nothing back."

"You won't be going alone, Howl. I'll be with you and so will your brother."

The raven-haired wizard gazed down at her with a dubious frown.

"I'm going with you," Sophie repeated firmly and gave her husband her best version of Martha's look of stone.

"And so am I," crackled Calcifer with a large plume of smoke.

"We're going to give Barimus our support and to scare the silly witches and wizards on the council into behaving. You never know, we might even have some fun."

The mischievous grin that crept onto Sophie's face was infectious and Howl couldn't help but smile. He leaned down and kissed her tenderly, cuddling her into him and all was right once more. They remained like that for a moment until the tiny life within her gave her side a vicious kick. She winced and Howl frowned.

"Even I felt that," he marveled then laughed in his carefree way, his liquid eyes full of love.

"I've been thinking about names recently," Howl continued on to another subject in his capricious way.

"Mmmm," Sophie replied, finally warm and sleepy for the first time that morning.

"What do you think of Akarshan?"

"It's beautiful… What does it mean?"

"Bringer of light; it was my father's name."

xXx

"I feel like a fool," Sophie grumbled in irritation as she looked down at her dress.

The thick brocaded silk was the exact color of her hair. It showed like starlight and was embellished with a pattern of gold threads that glimmered like hundreds of tiny stars. It was a prudent dress with a high neckline trimmed in delicate lace, but its opulence was in the fabric. A gold sash encircled her waist above her swelling stomach, making her feel all the more pregnant. It was a dress fit for a queen, but it made the silver haired witch feel like a clown.

"Hold still," Martha grumble in equal irritation as she pinned up her sister's hair in a series of graceful swirls.

"I think you look beautiful, Sophie," Markl stared at her in wonder over the forgotten book he had been reading.

"Oh, what a lovely woman," Granny Witch murmured over a stocking she was knitting. Thanks to her needles and yarn the family's feet had been very warm that winter.

"Thank you, Markl."

"I'll keep you warm, Sophie," Calcifer piped as he gyrated in the fireplace, keeping his distance from Martha.

Sophie tried to turn to thank him, but Martha clamped her hands over her ears and steered her head back straight. Her sister let out grumpy sigh and busied for a few more moments then released her. Another woman would have gone in search of a mirror, but the silver haired witch still retained an aversion to looking glasses.

Overhead she heard the bathroom door open and the brisk steps of her husband as he emerged. Howl flew downstairs in a dazzling glamour of good looks and smelling strongly of roses. He was wearing the sapphire and silver tunic she had made him for their wedding and the sight cheered her. Draped across his shoulders was one of his large cream colored coats, this one pattered with blue triangles. At his ears were the emerald jewels and around his neck was the matching pendent. He stopped at the foot of the stairs, his gaze riveted to Sophie

"Sophie, you look amazing!

"You look very handsome yourself," she replied with a smile, then gazed down at her dress moodily, "But I'm going to freeze to death walking in this flimsy thing."

"Barimus sent a car," Martha replied shortly as she coiled her long black hair around her head into a crown, pinning it in place with silver. Like always she was wearing a green. A knock sounded at the front door and Calcifer flared up and piped, "Kingsbury door!"

The family exchanged looks as the herbalist collected her grey coat from the wall peg and went outside. Calcifer was about to jump onto the wick of the tin lamp Sophie took from the wall when Howl caught the little flame in his hands.

"I'm afraid you can't come with us, Cal," Howl spoke sadly as he sat the little flame back onto the log in the hearth. The fire daemon dwindled small and green with surprise and hurt.

"I'm sorry, but the Wizard's Council feels very strongly about daemons. I personally think they're a bunch of idiots, but for Barimus' sake I don't want to upset them."

"Bah, I didn't want to go. It's too wet outside anyway," He crackled red and orange sulkily as he hunkered down into the ashes.

"Oh, what a pretty fire," Granny Witch murmured and Calcifer seemed to cheer again.

"Don't worry, Cal. I can't go either so I'll keep you company," Markl smiled as he dragged his book over to the couch.

"You're master of the castle until we get home, Markl. Don't forget your lessons," Howl laughed and tussled his apprentice's hair as he passed by.

The blond little boy had taken the news of the new life on the way with very good humor. He actually seemed excited about having a little brother to play with. He still got possessive of Sophie from time to time; but there nothing wrong with a little boy loving his mother.

"Bye Master Howl! Bye Sophie!" The apprentice called as Howl held open his coat to Sophie, who fitted herself under the crook of his arm. Together they disappeared out the door into the streets of Kingsbury, where a rumbling wheeled contraption waited to take them to the Palace.

xXx

"Next time I will walk," muttered Sophie peevishly as she and Howl climbed the snow covered stairs into the main entrance of the palace. The car has jostled and jumbled her around so much that she could hardly stand once they arrive.

"I really do hate this place," she continued to mutter under her breath.

Martha ushered them through a series of winding rooms filled with decadent furniture and sumptuous rugs. They all looked the same to Sophie, and once again she was completely lost. Once again the servants fled before them and the silver haired witch frowned. People shouldn't be afraid of them and it bothered her that the servants regarded them with such terror.

She had brought Suliman's stick with her, although she insisted that Howl carry it. The raven-haired sorcerer complied reluctantly, as though he hated to touch the thing.

"Why do I have to carry it?" He grumbled petulantly.

"Because you need to make an impression on the Council. They feared and respected Suliman and seeing you carry it will make them more likely to listen to you."

Howl didn't appear convinced but took it anyway. They stopped in a large antechamber and Martha spun on her heel to inspect both of them with a critical eye. Apparently they were up to snuff because the silent herbalist nodded with a satisfied look on her face. She went to the door and cast a look over her shoulder that told them to wait. With that she disappeared into the chamber beyond. As they stood in their finery, Sophie began to fidget with her wedding ring.

"Don't fiddle, Sophie," Howl scolded her absently as he tugged at one of his earrings while staring up at the chandelier.

"Kettle calling the pot black," she smirked up at him and followed his gaze to the chandelier.

"Is that the one Suliman left you hanging from by your britches?" Sophie mused wryly and giggled as her husband flinched.

"Your too witchy for you own good sometimes, wife," Howl sniffed daintily and smoothed his hair.

The doors before them swung open suddenly, giving Sophie a fright, revealing the huge chamber in front of them. The gigantic room was domed with glass and gold buttressing like the greenhouse. High overhead eddies of snow gathered and blew by on the glass. A great chandelier of gold and crystal hung like fiery pendulum from the ribbed ceiling, shedding warmth and light into the round room. Arena seats of purple velvet and burnished red wood vaulted up from the polished marble floor. Gilded circular mirrors hung high on the walls above the seating, reflected the light from the burning pendulum.

A group of about fifty witches and wizards dressed in a rainbow of colored finery sat strew throughout the seats. Most were young and bespangled like dandies; although the older more prudent members dressed in subdued tones. Sophie easily picked out Barimus in his customary flame colored hues. The lanky red wizard stood on a small balcony that bridged the two wings of the seating. Behind him stood Martha, looking for the entire world like a living statue.

"Councilors," Barimus boomed in his warm tenor that rang like a golden bell, "I present to you Wizard Howl, son of the Wallmakers and his wife, Sorceress Sophie, witch of the silver flame!"

"Smile and look haughty, dear heart. We have an audience," Howl spoke gleefully without moving his lips.

Her husband burst into a radiant display of handsome smiling seeing that they were being watched intently by the entire Council. Howl swept her forward on his arm into what Sophie would later describe later as the belly of the beast.