AN: I broke my promise. I'M SO SORRY!!!! Hopefully, it won't be another ten months before I get to post the next chapter. It's partially written … so it shouldn't be too terribly long.
That's right! I'm still alive! WOW! I haven't forgotten about this story, far from it. Unfortunately, real life has intervened in the form of 60 – 80 hour work weeks until now. I am so grateful for the numerous reviews I have gotten on this story in the past few months. I can't tell you how much they meant to me. In fact, it was those reviews that got me to sit down and finish up this chapter.
DISCLAIMER: Howl's Moving Castle is the property of Diana Wynne Jones for the novel and Miyazaki for the movie. I do not own them, and am making nothing from the publishing of this story on the internet.
The Battles of Peacetime
Sophie woke slowly. She was lying on her side, but her body felt heavy, as though she couldn't move. The sensation was especially strong around her hips. She shifted slightly and realized there was something warm draped over her, giving off a sense of comfort. Drifting in the haze of warm comfort she found herself amused at having twice woken up feeling unusual sensations in the past day. Not one to lie about, she decided to open her eyes to see what it this waking would hold. Normally, when she woke, she was facing her windows, able to watch the sun rise as the grasp of sleep drifted from her mind. The sight that greeted her was unexpected. The arm of a blue brocade chair was in front of her. Resting upon it was a strong hand with long fingers. The fingernails were clean and close cropped, skin smooth. Sophie lay there studying the hand for a moment before her brain finally became fully awake and she realized just where she was and why there was something warm across her hips.
She was lying with her upper body sprawled in Howl's lap. A blush rushed from her hairline to her toes, and then a thought flitted through her head making her grin. She supposed she should be thankful his lap was the same height as her bed or all the blood would have rushed to her head and she'd have quite the headache this morning … not that her blush wasn't having the same blood-rushing effect.
Her movements must have made him aware of her conscious state, because a warm, husky voice spoke from above, "Good morning, my dove. Sleep well?"
Sophie nodded as she pushed back to kneel on her bed, the quilts wrapped around her to take in Howl's appearance. His arm released her and he watched her, lounging in his armchair. The blue of the chair and his rumpled clothes made his eyes seem even deeper. Sophie bit back a giggle. She had never seen Howl anything except perfectly put together, but this morning he looked rumpled and dishevelled. Sophie felt a warmth blossom in her stomach. His effect on her senses seemed to be even more potent like this. She determined to never give Howl that particular tidbit.
He shifted, propping the arm that had been around her waist on the chair and resting his head on his fist. A slow lazy smile crossed his features. "You look delicious enough to eat this morning, all wide-eyed and sleepy," Sophie blushed a deeper shade of red and he grinned, "The blush just adds to the effect."
Sophie glowered at him, her blush not decreasing, "The peacock is in fine form this morning I see."
Howl chuckled and stood, "I'll leave you to get dressed in peace, if my nose is correct, Markel is indeed as good as his word and has breakfast well on the way." With a gesture the chair began moving with him toward her door. "Don't take too long, or I may have to peek in and see what's keeping you," Howl winked at her as he opened the door, then he and the chair were gone and Sophie was once again alone in her room, not certain if that was what she had really wanted.
Markel hurried around the kitchen preparing breakfast. Calcifer was being very helpful warning him when food was ready and giving him hints on what food would go well with what spices.
He turned as Howl emerged from Sophie's room with a chair.
"Morning Howl," fizzled Calcifer from the hearth, "How's Sophie?"
Markel nodded eagerly, "Did she sleep alright?"
Howl nodded at the two anxious expressions facing him as he massaged a stiff shoulder, "She's just fine. Slept most of the night and looks much better this morning. She should be out shortly. I'm going to head upstairs to get cleaned up. Cal, I'll need some hot water for my bath please."
For once Calcifer didn't complain.
Markel watched Howl trudge up the stairs and heard the bathroom door shut. He glanced at Calcifer, "Something's not right with him."
Calcifer nodded, "I have the feeling he's about to be very busy."
"What do you think …" Markel's question was cut off by Sophie emerging from her room dressed in another of the dresses Howl had purchased for her. This one was a pale green color with dark green stripes and a large dark green ribbon emphasizing her slim waist. A yoke of white lace around her neck set off her creamy complexion adding a healthy pink glow to her cheeks.
"Good morning, Markel. Calcifer. Breakfast smells wonderful. Can I help with anything?"
Markel paused a moment then raced over to give Sophie a hug. She hugged the young man back affectionately.
"You look much better than last night, Sophie." Calcifer observed with a cheery glow.
Sophie smiled ruffling Markel's hair, "I feel much better. Now, why don't I set the table while you two finish up breakfast, hmm?"
Markel grinned up at her and dashed off to finish preparing the pancakes and bacon he'd decided on. He quickly dished everything up on serving plates and placed them on the table, then returned to the hearth to put on a kettle for tea. By the time the kettle was whistling the table was ready for the occupants of the castle. Markel quickly fetched the kettle and poured tea for himself, Sophie, and Howl.
Sophie served up a plate of pancakes and bacon and brought them to Calcifer, scraping them into the daemon who munched happily as Sophie returned to the table, taking her seat.
Markel paused watching her as she sipped her tea, "Are we waiting for Howl?"
Sophie shook her head, "He may fall asleep in the bath considering, if I guess right, he spent most of the night awake making sure I was alright," she reached out and offered Markel the plate of pancakes.
The next while was taken up with small discussions of the tasks they had to accomplish for the day and the sounds of a companionable meal. It was while they were cleaning the dishes that Sophie steered the conversation in the direction they were all avoiding.
"So Markel, what did you help the Royal Wizard with last evening?"
Markel paused for a moment, unsure if he should bring it up, but the excitement of last night was too much and he had been dying to tell Sophie of his heroics. He looked up at her, eyes sparking with remembered excitement, "We had to protect the refugees from an attack by those awful-looking creatures. Master Howl asked me to fetch the Royal Wizard and warn him, but by the time I got there he had already mustered a unit of soldiers and wizards and we set out. It was really scary, but I was able to use the protection spells Master Howl taught me. Master Suliman seemed pleased with my abilities. After a while we were able to drive the creatures back to their … what did you call it?"
Calcifer cut in, watching Sophie intently as she stood at the sink, "Nest, Markel. They're calling it a nest."
Sophie nodded, continuing to wash dishes and set them on the counter for Markel to dry, "And you Calcifer? What part did you play?"
Something in Sophie's voice alarmed Calcifer, but she didn't seem to be trembling or in pain, so he answered cautiously, "I went to help the refugees until the Royal Wizard could arrive. Then stayed and assisted in driving the creatures away."
Calcifer paused, "Sophie …"
At that moment, Howl came down the stairs dressed in a black shirt and pants and a dark grey doublet left open, "I hope breakfast was …"
"You didn't tell me the creatures attacked the refugees."
Howl froze, a hand on the banister, watching Sophie's back as she stood frozen at the sink. He turned his gaze to the window gazing out as he took a deep breath and when his gaze swept back to take in the room, his indigo eyes were dark and unreadable. Calcifer hissed in the grate; this was what he had been afraid of. He desperately glanced at Sophie, trying to derail her, "Sophie, you were injured and …"
Sophie spun around, cutting the fire daemon off. Her skirts twisted about her legs as her eyes hard as stone gazed accusation at the cool wizard standing before her, "Why didn't you tell me? Especially after my nightmare last night."
Howl gazed steadily at Sophie and Calcifer wanted to fizzle into the hearth; he knew Sophie was still not emotionally healed, and was lashing out, he was sure Howl knew that. But sometimes knowledge does not prevent emotions from rising up and taking over. The wizard was drawing Calcifer's gaze like a moth to the flame. Tall and dark, with eyes like dark ice. This was the wizard Calcifer had always known existed within Howl, but had never seen. This was the wizard Howl was so careful to conceal because he knew if anyone understood what he was really capable of, Howl would lose his freedom.
"You were there when I mentioned my sending Calcifer to protect the refugees and Markel to Suliman to warn him of the danger." Howl didn't move as he spoke, his eyes never leaving Sophie's face, "Besides, you weren't ready."
Sophie's brow furrowed, "Not ready? When would I be ready? Why didn't you go help them? I was going to be fine. Just fine. It was only a shoulder wound! I would have been able to wait for you to return. Did anyone die?"
Calcifer flared in the grate, desperate to save a situation quickly spiralling out of control, "Sophie, you …"
"Did anyone die because you didn't go and help them, Howl?"
Howl watched her with deep blue eyes. Sophie wanted him to deny it. Her eyes pleaded with him to deny it. To tell her no one had died last night. No one had been injured because she had been careless enough to call attention to herself with a spell. But she could see it in his face. In his eyes. People had died, had been injured. Why? Why did he have to stay with her? He could have protected them. He could have saved those innocent people. He had the power. Her wound hadn't been life-threatening. After all, here she was, the day after feeling fit as a fiddle.
"Sophie," Howl's voice was soft, an odd husky tone to it. His eyes were deep pools, blue, dark and unfathomable, "There was only one choice for me. The choice I made. I'm sorry you feel it was the wrong choice."
Howl stepped off the stairs, and moved through the room, the steady thumping of his boots, the only sound as he made his way to the door and turned the knob black side up. He paused, one hand on the doorknob and spoke softly, without looking back, "I'll send your sister to you as I promised last night," then he opened the door and disappeared into the blackness.
Lettie smiled as she knocked on the door which led to the Wizard Howl's home. She hoped Sophie would like her surprise. She fidgeted impatiently, anxious to reassure herself that her sister was alright. The sound of the knob turning caught her attention, then the door opened and Lettie blinked at a very serious-looking Markel.
"Er … hello, Markel. I'm here to see Sophie."
Markel nodded, then glanced behind him, "Please come in, I'm afraid Sophie's still not feeling quite herself."
Lettie nodded, "Howl told me a bit of what happened; so I brought a surprise." She gestured behind her.
Markel glanced around the girl and blinked. Waiting with impatient concern were Martha, Sophie's other sister, Fanny, Sophie's step-mother, and Granny Witch and Heen, obviously having returned with Lettie.
Lettie winked at Markel, "Don't you worry, we'll have Sophie feeling more like herself in no time." With that the four women and one old dog whisked through the door and up the stairs into the parlour.
Fanny swept her way to Sophie who was sitting in the Queen Anne's chair by Calcifer gazing into space. "Sophie! Oh, I'm so glad you're alright. When I heard what had happened, my heart nearly stopped, but here you are!" Fanny swept Sophie up into a warm hug.
Sophie blinked for a moment in surprise, shaken from her dark mood, "Mother? I …" Sophie's face crumpled and she returned her step-mother's hug clutching her almost desperately as her body began to tremble with her sobs.
Her sisters, sensing their moment moved in on either side, each resting gentle hands on her head or shoulders. Sophie lifted her head from Fanny's shoulder, eyes glistening with tears as she gazed at the three sympathetic faces, her eyes latched onto Lettie and the horror of her dream came hurtling back, "Lettie! I had the most horrible dream!" She detached herself from her step-mother and hugged Lettie tightly, reassuring herself her sister was alright. The tears made damp tracks down Sophie's cheeks as she was surrounded by the warmth and safety of her family.
Granny Witch made her way to her chair in the corner, content to wait and allow Sophie a moment with her family. She slowly seated herself with a small grunt and leaned back in her chair. She watched the small family reunion with a smile. Heen hopped up into her lap, seeking some attention himself and she gently patted his head.
Eventually, the women finished their greetings and Fanny led Sophie to Granny so she could welcome the old woman and gentle dog home properly. They all fussed over Granny for a moment getting a quilt and preparing some tea. Then, all three women went to the table nearby and seated themselves.
Markel watched the proceedings with a wary eye. He was glad Sophie seemed to be feeling a bit better. At least she was talking and not just staring into space silently as she had been since Howl had left. He took the chair Sophie had vacated near Calcifer and waited, willing to do anything to help, but also curious to see if her family could possibly shake her out of her uncharacteristic melancholy.
Fanny pulled out a white lace handkerchief and handed it to her still sniffling daughter, "Now, dry those tears, you know I've always told you, you have such pretty brown eyes until you cry, then they turn the color of mud. Most unattractive with your skin tone."
Sophie let out a small wet laugh as Fanny smiled at her affectionately, "So, Sophie, how are you feeling? Howl mentioned you had been hurt and were doing fine, but I had to see for myself," Fanny patted her hand on the table smiling at her.
Sophie wiped her face with the kerchief as she forced a small smile, the expression not quite reaching her eyes, "I'm feeling very well, thank you."
Lettie shook her head, "We don't mean physically, dear. We can see you're physically fine, but there is definitely something wrong. Come now, tell us. After all," she gestured to all the occupants of the room, "We're all family."
Sophie wetted her lips and looked down at her hands on the table which were currently engaged with twisting the kerchief. She was struggling with terrible feelings of guilt and anger. She was hesitant however, to share her emotions, even with her family, when she herself wasn't sure what exactly she was feeling or why.
Granny made the decision for her, "Why is Howl not here taking care of you, dear?"
Sophie's fingers clutched the kerchief tightly, her knuckles turning white with the strength of her grip, "He … left to take care of some things because of … because of what happened."
Lettie nodded, "You mean the attack on the refugees last night."
Sophie looked up at her sister with wide eyes, "Why Sophie dear, everyone knows about the attack. They are declaring Wizard Suliman a hero for keeping the injuries and casualties as low as they were."
"But … it was my fault!" the words burst from Sophie before she could stop them, "I made Howl bring me and then accidentally used a spell and drew their attention. When Howl rescued me the creatures followed and attacked the refugees and he stayed with me to heal me. But … I'm fine! He should have gone to help the refugees, then maybe no one would have gotten hurt."
Fanny patted her clasped hands, "My dear, while your faith in Howl's abilities is quite sweet, the attack on the refugees was not your fault."
"But … I attracted them and we fled … they followed …"
Granny spoke from her corner, "Sophie, can you say for certain the creatures attacked because of you?"
Sophie paused, "We were there and escaped and they were following … I …"
Calcifer fizzled from the grate, "Sophie, they are mindless creatures following the orders of their queen. You didn't make them attack the refugees."
Fanny squeezed Sophie's hand, "He's right you know. Much as I would dearly love to blame this on your wizard friend, it wasn't either of your faults. The creatures have been attacking the refugees since they arrived at Market Chipping."
Sophie frowned and looked at Lettie, then Calcifer, "I didn't know there had been other attacks ... why are the refugees still there if they are attacked for staying?"
Martha smiled at her sister, "Because Market Chipping is their home. I would go and stay with them as well if mother hadn't insisted I stay with her. Many of them don't have anywhere else to go. They want to stay and wait for the day they can go back and begin to rebuild. Besides, there are soldiers there and they are protected as much as possible. They knew the risks when they stayed."
Sophie fidgeted as she processed this new information. Her opinion was starting to change a bit but something still bothered her. "Howl should have stayed to make sure the refugees were going to be safe."
Markel spoke this time, "Sophie, when Howl brought you home, you weren't moving. You were so white I was scared you were already … that you …" Markel's hands fisted in the fabric of his pants.
Calcifer nodded his head from the hearth, "Sophie, you needed healing. You lost a lot of blood."
Martha spoke from next to Lettie, "I think it's romantic. He made you his first priority. I wish someone would do that for me."
Sophie froze, remembering Howl's look as he spoke to her before he'd left, 'There was only one choice for me. The choice I made. I'm sorry you feel it was the wrong choice.'
Sophie paled as she thought of what she'd said to him, "Oh no. What have I done?"
Fanny patted her hands reassuringly, "My dear, never fear. We are here to aid you. As much as I may not like you staying here with a single wizard, he does take good care of you. Perhaps we both need to rethink things we have said and done. For now, I think it's time we begin to think about some lunch. You need your strength. You can talk to Howl about everything when he returns and this whole mess will get straightened out. Now then, where's that tea kettle. Calcifer, I expect you to cooperate, please."
Sophie watched her family bustle about preparing lunch and smiled, relaxing a bit.
"I want it back."
Sophie blinked and looked at Granny, "Beg your pardon?"
Granny just gazed at Heen as she stroked his back, "I want it back."
"What do you want back, Granny? Do you need another quilt?"
Granny looked up at Sophie and suddenly Sophie was gazing once more into the eyes of the Witch of the Waste, "Howl's heart. You were supposed to take good care of it, but you didn't. I want it back."
Sophie's eyes widened, "I don't know what you mean …"
The Witch smiled and cocked her head at the confused young woman in front of her, "Yes you do. He offered it to you and you ripped it in half. I would take much better care of such a precious heart. If you can't take proper care of it, I want it back."
"I would never have …" Sophie paused, considering. Howl had been very sweet and gentle toward her lately. And they had certainly gotten a bit carried away in the tub … Sophie flushed at that memory. Then it struck her.
'There was only one choice for me. The choice I made. I'm sorry you feel it was the wrong choice.' Deep blue eyes, the window to his soul, the doorway to his heart. All this time, she had been waiting for the answer to her silent question, but it had been there all along. She just hadn't been observant enough. Her eyes widened and she gazed at the Witch.
"Ah, you understand now. I suppose I'll give you another chance. But don't waste it." The Witch settled back into her chair and then Granny looked up and smiled at Sophie, "Such a pretty girl."
Sophie smiled a little, her mind reeling. All she wanted now was to talk to Howl. To tell him she was sorry. To tell him … she loved him? Could she tell him? Sophie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. No sense worrying about it now. She'd face it when she faced him.
With that decided, Sophie stood, "Anything I can help with?"
Howl moved through the remnants of the battle lending a hand when needed to help clear the corpse of a creature here or cast a healing spell there. He nodded at familiar faces and returned greetings quietly. He was a familiar figure among the refugees. It was not the first time he had come to help them, and it wouldn't be the last. His bearing, however was unfamiliar. His usual smile was nowhere to be seen. He stood straight and tall, eyes older than his years. He took in everything, working tirelessly. Many marvelled at this new side of Howl and whispered that the wizard had finally come into his own. As the afternoon waned into evening, Howl had reached the westernmost edge of the refugee encampment. He gazed back as campfires were slowly popping out against the black of the mountainside. He had done what he could, but he knew it was not enough. Not for Sophie who would mourn for those injured and lost her whole life.
His gentle, innocent Sophie.
No, not his. Her face this morning returned to his mind's eye. He had lost her. He had known, when he made the choice to save her life that it was a possibility, but the reality hurt far more than he could have guessed. Howl's hand came up to rub his chest over his heart. No matter. He would protect her always. No matter where she went, or who she was with, he would always be watching over her and protecting her. Everything he did now was for her. He turned and gazed in the direction of far-off Kingsbury. Knowing what he must do tomorrow, then he shrugged. As Sophie said, why put off till tomorrow what can be done today. With a thought he leapt into the air, wings catching an updraft and went to face an uncertain fate.
Suliman strode into his rooms head high and closed the door behind him. The moment it was closed he let out an exhausted breath, his body slumping in exhaustion. He leaned on the staff which declared his position as Royal Wizard wearily, then glared at it and tossed it across the room.
A sardonic voice lilted through the room, "Is that any way to treat the staff our mentor gifted you?"
Suliman whirled his eyes seeking out the owner of the voice.
Howl was hardly more than a shadow sprawled across Suliman's large amethyst couch. The last of the day's sunlight was backlighting him from the window behind the couch making it difficult for Suliman to see, but even with this difficulty, Suliman knew this was a very different wizard he was dealing with. He slowly approached the relaxed wizard, wariness in his every motion.
Howl chuckled, "No need to fear me, you act as if I might attack you at any moment. You have had a day of it, haven't you?"
At the more familiar teasing tone in Howl's voice Suliman relaxed a bit. He smiled, unsure, at the wizard and flumped down onto the other end of the couch, relieved he could finally see Howl's features. There was definitely something different about the Howl he faced today from the Howl of last night. Suliman determined to find out just what was going on, whether Howl liked it or not.
"The King is raring to go out and attack the creatures in Market Chipping with all the soldiers we have remaining after the success of the attack last night. I have spent the day chasing him around explaining why exactly that would be a bad idea. We still do not have enough information. Of course, I am hoping you can remedy that some."
Suliman paused for a moment, gauging Howl's mood. Then, carefully turned the conversation, "I was surprised to hear you were with the refugees all day today. How fares Sophie?"
The dark wizard next to him gave no indication of anything amiss except for a slight tensing of the muscles in his left hand. Suliman paused, patient enough to wait as long as it would take for a response from Howl.
"Her family came to visit her and care for her. She had a bit of a nightmare about her sister, so I asked Lettie to visit. She insisted on bringing the entire clan, I knew Sophie was in good hands."
Suliman nodded, it was a perfectly reasonable answer to his question, but Ben knew there was more to it than what Howl was saying. He decided to let it go for now, not sure he wanted to antagonize Howl when he was in this mood. "I have to admit, I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow. It isn't like you to be early for appointments. I had assumed I would have to track you down."
Howl slanted a lopsided smile at his apprentice-brother, "Perhaps Sophie is finally starting to cure me of my slither-outer ways, hmm?"
"Then again, sometimes it's easier to slither-out if you launch a surprise attack." In a single lithe movement, Howl stood and strode over to the Royal Wizard staff lying on the ground. He picked it up and walked over to carefully lean it in a corner of the room.
Suliman stood and watched, "You do realize that technically it's yours. I really do feel I am merely keeping it for you. I could never compete with your abilities, Howl. The Royal Wizard should be the most powerful wizard in the kingdom …"
"I will never take on the mantel of Royal Wizard, Ben Suliman, so you may as well get used to it."
Suliman paused where he stood as Howl slowly turned to look at him. What he saw made him pale slightly. Howl stood tall and straight, no hint of childishness. A great wizard already more powerful than any in the land with even more potential than most started with, still untapped. His dark eyes appeared ancient, hiding secrets none would ever know. Suliman knew then why Howl had fled from responsibility his whole life and a small part of him wished it could have remained so. This new Howl was terrifying in his power and, Suliman knew, unstoppable. Then, Howl blinked slowly and smiled, the power fading until, once more it was merely Howl standing there. Suliman knew, however, the power was there, inside Howl, waiting to be released.
"Ben, you use your magic to help people, if the King asks you to do something, you understand the workings of a kingdom and make what needs to happen, happen. I use my magic for one purpose only. To make Sophie happy. I am selfish that way, but she is my world. If I were given the choice I had to make last night again, and I knew scores of people would die because I chose to save one life, I would still choose her. Everything I am belongs to her. I cannot swear an oath to a King I will not obey. Sophie is my Queen and I have sworn an oath in my heart to place her first in all I do."
Sulliman stood there, struck by the wizard's words and understanding the truth in them. He took a breath and resigned himself to his fate, than gave Howl a small smile, "I do expect to be able to call upon you for consultation on a regular basis."
Howl nodded, feeling a weight lift from him, "Of course."
The Royal Wizard crossed to the fireplace opposite the windows and gestured for Howl to seat himself in one of the chairs, "Well then, down to business, I need to know everything you have learned of these creatures and their queen."
Sophie sat near Calcifer's hearth, a quilt wrapped around her. She had changed into her nightdress and was sitting up waiting for Howl's return. Her family had left shortly after dinner with instructions to visit soon. But it was Fanny's farewell Sophie couldn't get out of her mind.
In the bustle of gathering belongings and last minute cleanup from dinner, her mother had pulled her aside.
"Sophie, I know I haven't exactly been supportive of your wizard in the past, but … I wanted you to know I will be happy no matter what you decide as long as you are true to your heart. He has changed since I first met him and he cares so much for you. And … I can't help but notice how you look. This dress is beautiful and you glow from happiness ... at least, when you haven't recently had a life or death struggle."
Sophie opened her mouth to speak, but Fanny held up a hand to stop her, "Let me finish please. Sophie, I love you, and that is why my first priority will always be what makes you happy. If this man makes you happy, if living here, makes you happy. Don't give it up. Fight for it. I was so happy with your father, happier than I'd ever been in my life. I wish I would have cherished my time with him even more, but I'll always have my memories of him. And you girls. Be happy."
Both women were crying by the time Fanny finished speaking and embraced tightly, "I will be mother. I promise."
After that, everyone had left in a flurry of hugs and goodbye's and then it was getting Markel into bed and Granny comfortable for the night. Sophie hadn't had time to think, she had gone to her room as habit, changed into her nightdress and then stood there, in the middle of her room, the chill of the floorboards seeping into her feet. She looked at her bed and knew if she tried to sleep she'd have nightmares. So she wandered out to Calcifer's hearth and curled up with a quilt, her feet tucked up onto the seat of the chair.
Finally, after a while of sitting she whispered to Calcifer, "Where do you think he is?"
Calcifer, relieved she was speaking glowed warmly at her, trying to dispense some of the chill in the air, "I don't know Sophie, but I'm sure he'll return soon."
"Was I really as terrible to him as I remember?"
Calcifer flickered, "Sophie, you are still dealing with a very traumatic experience. You didn't understand everything that was going on. It will all turn out fine."
"I love him, Cal. How could I have not allowed him to explain?"
"Sophie, you haven't been yourself. No one would be after what you've been through. Honestly, everyone is amazed you've recovered as quickly as you have. You need to allow yourself the opportunity to heal fully. And if that means you lose your temper a couple of times, so be it. We all just want you to be well again."
Sophie sighed and rested her cheek on her arm, "I want to help the refugees. But I don't know how."
Calcifer fizzled, "Ask Howl if you can join him when he goes to visit them. I'm sure there's plenty you can help with."
"There's so much I didn't know. Why didn't he tell me?"
"Sophie, Howl isn't used to telling anyone what he's doing. He's used to hiding what he's doing at all cost. Many times his life has depended upon it. Ask him questions. If there's anyone he'll answer, it's you."
Sophie gazed at the play of light Calcifer cast on the wall, thinking everything through. Then, she heard the sound of the dial switching and her head lifted to gaze at the door. Her heart began to pound as she waited for the familiar figure to appear on the stairs.
The door opened and Howl came striding in, not really looking at the room, heading straight for the steps, "Calcifer, I'll need hot water for a … Sophie …"
Howl froze halfway across the room staring at her his eyes sweeping over her form drinking her in. He had missed her desperately all day and had planned on sneaking into her room to watch over her as she slept.
Sophie swallowed and slowly rose from her chair, the blanket clutched about her shoulders. "Howl …"
Howl schooled his face into a mask of cool civility, "I thought you would have been asleep already after the bustle of having your family here. I hope I didn't disturb you."
Sophie's heart dropped into her stomach. This is not what she wanted. She wanted him to smile at her the way he had in the bathtub the other night. She wanted honesty and truth, not this cold stranger. She would even prefer the childish Horrible Howl act he played for the rest of the world to this dark wizard facing her. "No … I couldn't sleep. Nightmares."
Howl nodded, "Of course, to be expected. Tell you what, I'll cast a sleep spell which will ensure a restful night with pleasant dreams of rainbows and flowers, hmm?"
Howl blinked at Sophie. She was standing with her fists clenched in the blanket, her toes curled against the cold floor. Her face was hidden by the curtain of her silver hair. "Stop it, Howl … please … just stop … I …"
Howl felt his heart flip in his chest, he hadn't meant to hurt her. He just needed to distance himself from her a bit, but she was standing there, buried in that silly quilt, her feet were obviously cold and she was starting to tremble. He swore under his breath, then strode over and scooped her up in his arms, carrying her to her room. She buried her face against his neck arms clutching at the fabric of his doublet.
"Why am I so weak right now? I hate this. I feel like I can't control myself at all."
Howl smiled against her hair unable to stop his mask from tumbling down when she was in his arms clutching him to her tightly.
"Never fear, my own. You'll soon be yourself again and we'll all tremble in fear of your bossy mouth." Howl bent down to set her in her bed, but she wouldn't let go of his doublet. He stroked one of her hands, "Sophie dearest, you need to let go. I will stay with you if you like, but I need to fetch a chair."
Sophie clutched harder, "Don't leave me again. I'm sorry I said such awful things, I didn't understand … I … please, stay with me."
Howl gazed down at her pleading brown eyes and smiled, "Very well, my dove. But I must at least walk to the door to summon a chair."
Sophie scooted over and patted the side of the bed, gazing up at him with liquid chocolate eyes.
Howl blinked then groaned and his head dropped to the bed next to hers. He took a few steadying breaths and laughed huskily, "My own, you are going to be the death of me." He finally raised his head and gazed down at her, one hand caressing the side of her face. "When you are once more yourself and feeling fit as a fiddle, then you will have the fight of your life to keep me out of your bed. Fair enough?"
Sophie flushed crimson but nodded, appeased for the time being. She released Howl so he could go to her door and summon a chair, which he did quickly. She was yawning even as he settled himself at the side of her bed. "Howl, where were you all day?"
Howl smiled and gently brushed some strands of hair from her face, "I had many things to take care of. I will be gone much of tomorrow as well. Perhaps you should go and visit with Mrs. Fairfax and your sister."
Sophie was finding it extremely difficult to stay awake, "But I want to go with you."
Howl laughed softly, "Much as I would like that, I'm afraid it isn't possible. Even Markel would not be allowed to come with me on these errands."
"Howl you promised you would give me an explanation when I wasn't allowed to do things, don't you dare slither out of your promise."
Howl grinned, "I wouldn't dream of it, my dove. Let's save the explanations for the morning when you can badger me for them, hmm? Sleep now."
And she did.
Sophie woke in the morning and stretched, then sat up abruptly, eyes darting around her empty room. "Howl …"
She dashed out of her room without bothering to grab a robe racing into the parlour. No one was stirring yet, except Calcifer who was trying to hide in the hearth.
Sophie stalked over to him, "Calcifer … did Howl leave already?"
Calcifer tried to make himself as small as possible. "I tried to make him stay. I knew you wanted to talk with him, but he couldn't. He insisted he had to leave."
Sophie stood there, fists on her hips and considered the situation, "That slither-outer, no good, wizard!"
Calcifer perked up a bit, "I'm glad to see you seem to be feeling more yourself today."
Sophie crossed her arms under her breasts, "That does it." Sophie stalked over to her drawer she kept her writing things in and quickly jotted off a letter, she addressed it and sealed it in an envelope, then she disappeared into her room.
Calcifer watched with wide eyes, waiting for her to reappear. When she did, he blinked. She was dressed in the navy striped dress Howl had given her and had a matching cloak slung over her shoulders. She nodded at Calcifer, "I'm going out. I'll be back before dinner." With that she turned the knob to the Kingsbury door and disappeared through it.
Markel came stumbling down the stairs moments later, "What's all the racket? Is breakfast started yet?"
Granny snored away in her bed, unaware of the tempest that had just swept out the door.
Calcifer grumbled from the hearth, "You may have to get your own breakfast this morning Markel, Sophie is out on a mission."
Howl sighed as he landed in the field of flowers outside the castle. Home. It was a relief after everything he'd been doing today. He glanced down at his ripped clothing, the result of numerous skirmishes today with creatures as he tried to scout as much information as he could. The creatures seemed more on guard and more easily attracted than usual. Obviously, the queen had her hackles up. He stretched the fingers of his left hand and winced as the abrasion on his hand shot fire up his arm. He knew the damned bat-thing had injected it with something when it had bitten him. Fortunately, he had been able to contain the poison for the time being, and would be able to eliminate it completely with a healing bath.
He gazed up at the castle again and smiled. Sophie would be in fine form this evening after his escape this morning, at least he hoped so. They still had a lot of talking to do, but things seemed to be on the mend. He was half tempted to leave the glamour off so she could fuss over him, but decided not to. His hand moved in a familiar pattern and he righted his appearance quickly. It wouldn't hold if someone grabbed his injured hand, but he was certain he could prevent that long enough to make it to the bathroom.
He sighed and made his way up the steps, opening the door. The sounds that greeted him were certainly not what he had expected and he froze halfway through the door.
He could hear Sophie and Markel laughing. Granny was chortling and Heen was wheezing. In the hearth he could hear Calcifer crackling. But the sound that froze him to the spot was Prince Justin's voice as he spoke, regaling them with tales of palace life. Howl's good hand clenched. Here he had been out for hours, first in meetings with Suliman and then sneaking around what was left of Market Chipping while the Prince came in and … Howl took a deep breath and let it out aware he was exhausted and needed to control his temper. Still, he was on edge as he came up the steps.
Markel was the first to greet him, "Master Howl! We saved you some dinner. Sophie made the most wonderful sweet potatoes with asparagus and pheasant. And Justin brought some pastries from the castle! They're so good, you have to try them!"
Howl nodded at Markel as Justin stood, bowing, "I hope you had a pleasant day, Wizard Howl, as Markel said, Sophie's cooking this evening was excellent, you must have some."
Sophie smiled up at Justin then gazed at Howl, he could read the mischief in her eyes and took a breath. He could feel the poison throbbing in his arm and knew he needed to get in the bath soon or his containment spell might start to fade. He also knew he'd better get past everyone before Calcifer realized just how much he was hiding with his glamour and said something.
Howl swept a gallant bow to the room, his ultimate charming façade firmly in place, "As eager as I am to try the food, I fear I have had an exhausting day and must retire, but please Justin, feel free to stay as long as you like. I hope you all enjoy your evening."
As he swept past the table the unthinkable happened. He had seen the light in Sophie's eyes dim slightly as he had excused himself, but hadn't expected her reaction to be to prevent him from leaving by standing and grabbing the very hand he had been trying to keep from everyone's grasp.
He cried out in pain as her gentle hands clamped down on the bite and his glamour crumbled out of existence as he stumbled to his knees. Even as he had cried out Sophie had dropped his hand. He knelt there on the floor gasping in pain, desperately trying to keep the poison from breaking through his containment spell on his arm.
Sophie stood with her hands over her mouth, eyes wide in horror. He turned and gave her a small pained smile, "Come now love, I know I'm a bit of a mess, but it can't be that bad."
"Howl …" she fell to her knees beside him one hand resting carefully on his back, the other gently stroking his arm, "Are you alright? How can I help?"
Howl reached up with his good hand, patting her shoulder, "It's alright," he slowly made his way to his feet, "Nothing a good bath won't fix, Cal, if you would."
Calcifer flared up as Justin came over to Howl's other side, propping him up. "I've got him, Sophie, we'll get him up to the bath and he'll be right as rain in no time."
Sophie stepped back and watched as Justin helped Howl up the stairs to the bath. She heard the door to the bathroom open and shut. Everything in the parlour was silent for a long moment, until Justin came down smiling reassuringly. "He'll be just fine. He was getting his healing rituals ready even as I left. I believe I will leave you all to your evening." He crossed to Sophie and took her hands in his, "He will be fine, Sophie. Never fear. Would you like me to send Suliman to you?"
Sophie seriously considered it for a moment, but caught Calcifer trying to get her attention. He shook his head, his eyes warning her against calling the Royal Wizard when Howl was not at full strength.
"Thank you for the offer Justin, but between, Calcifer, Markel, and myself we should have adequate help for Howl should he need it. If something changes, we will summon him immediately."
Justin searched her face, then satisfied with her answer, he gave a graceful bow to the room and whisked out the door into Kingsbury.
There was a long pause and then Sophie burst into motion. "Markel, Granny, take care of the cleaning up. Markel help Granny into bed. Calcifer, keep that hot water coming."
She stalked toward the stairs as Calcifer crackled in the hearth, "Sophie, where are you going?"
Sophie turned to look at him, determination in her face, "To save that idiot man from himself."
With that she stormed up the stairs and they all heard the bathroom door open, Howl yelped in surprise, then the door slammed shut, and all was silent.
Granny grinned from the corner, "That's our Sophie."
End Chapter 8
As always thanks to my hubby for the beta.
I did update the other chapters of this story, but they're minor fixes and edits as well as bringing the Disclaimer up to snuff for certain websites.
Thank you so much again for all the reviews, as I said, it's the reviews I got over the last few months that got me back to the computer to finish this chapter. Chapter 9 is well on its way, but I can't make any promises, except that I won't ever forget about this or my very loyal fans:D