Title: Hearts Aflame, Chapter 10

Summary: It's moving day!

The emotions he was feeling were so new to him, and yet they'd been there since Sophie had first appeared in his life. The peace he felt when she was near, the worry when she was in danger… that almost uncomfortable way she made the hole in his heart burn, it was all love. I'm in love with Sophie.

Slowly, another thought occurred to him. He loved Sophie, and that meant he could truly tell her that she was worth being loved. If he played things right today, Sophie might be free by evening. That alone was enough to get him moving, though the clammy feeling of sitting in tepid water was motivation as well. He dried off quickly and dressed in his simplest clothes—a blousy white shirt and a pair of tight black pants. He was aware that the outfit was not his usual flashy style, but he had originally chosen it to show off his best features. Today he chose it because it was something Sophie might approve of. "Now let's see about getting that curse lifted," he muttered to his reflection, and then, with a sense of determination and renewed vigor, he dashed down the stairs.

"Howl, hello," Sophie said. She sounded almost surprised to see him.

She wasn't the only one who was surprised by what she saw. He placed his hands on his hips and had to bite his lips to keep from laughing at the motley crew assembled at his kitchen table. "Good morning, everyone."

"Glad you're home," Sophie murmured, almost too quietly for him to hear. But he did hear, and Calcifer's fire burned just a little bit brighter. Being in love is going to take a bit of getting used to.

Markl soon distracted him from his thoughts. "Master Howl, we can keep this dog, can't we?"

Howl couldn't say no to the plea on his apprentice's face, so in answer he turned to Calcifer and said, "The Witch of the Waste and Suliman's dog at my table? What possessed you to let them into my house, Calcifer?"

"I didn't let them in!" the fire demon said, in high dudgeon. "Sophie crash-landed her plane into my face!"

Joy overflowed from him in the form of laughter. Calcifer was so irate, and Sophie so indignant that he'd given away her secret, he simply couldn't help himself. "I knew she'd make a great pilot," he said, and then went over to check the hole she'd left in his castle.

Hopping around outside the hole was something very unusual, even for his house. It was an enchanted scarecrow. In fact, unless he was very much mistaken, it was the missing prince who had been turned into a scarecrow. I'll have to pay attention, maybe I can figure out how to break his curse and end this war. "Looks like we have yet another addition to the family." There's something interesting here… "Hmmm… You've got quite the nasty spell on you too, huh?" I can't quite make out the counter spell… not yet anyway. "Seems everyone in this family has problems."

"What a handsome man!" the Witch of the Waste said, pulling his attention back to the group at the table. I can see some things haven't changed. He felt a brief twinge of unease when he saw she was still obsessed with him, but he quickly shoved it aside. After all, she's harmless. What can she do to us now?

He turned around to face them again, feeling his face break into an excited smile. "So! We've got a lot of work to do. We're moving."

"Moving?" Sophie asked uncertainly.

Markl stopped eating long enough to say, "That's good, I'm sick of being stuck out here in the middle of nowhere."

To answer Sophie's unasked questions, Howl said, "Madam Suliman is hot on our trail, so we're going to have to hurry."

He looked back at the scarecrow, and suddenly, he could see it. Broken by true love's kiss, he realized. But the only lady here is… Sophie. "I'm afraid your spell is too strong for this move," he said truthfully, but with not one whit of sorrow. "You're going to have to stay behind." And away from my Sophie.

Once the interloper was gone, he settled down to business. He had meant it when he'd said they needed to hurry; even now, Madam Suliman might be directing her henchmen to destroy their shops in Porthaven or Kingsbury. If that happened before they moved the castle to Market Chipping, he'd be forced to fight, and who knew what would happen to Sophie. "Markl, you come with me. You can watch me draw the runes; it would be a good lesson for you."

"Thanks, Master Howl!" Markl exclaimed, pushing back from the table and jumping to his feet. At the same time, the dog leapt up from his spot on the floor, running around in circles and following Markl around wherever he went. Howl smiled slightly—it seemed Markl had a new friend.

"Sophie, you and the Witch can stay in here. Why don't you push all the furniture to the side of the room so we're ready to go as soon as I'm done?"

"All right, Howl," she agreed and immediately started cleaning the breakfast dishes.

Howl then went outside with his apprentice and his apprentice's dog. The two of them watched quietly from the sidelines as he painstakingly drew the chalk marks on the ground for Calcifer to line up over. When he was done, he surveyed his work critically, knowing the slightest errors here could create disastrous problems when they moved. "There, all done," he said finally. "All right, Calcifer, line her up!"

He waved his arm at the castle and then watched the hulking building move into position over the runes he'd drawn. Even though he'd designed the castle himself, he was still impressed by the sight of the enormous structure heaving itself into place over the spot he'd indicated. Steam billowed out of every chimney, and there were loud creaking noises as the various parts of the castle settled itself into position.

Once Calcifer was in place, he went back inside for the final piece of the spell. Sophie had done exactly has he'd asked; all the furniture was neatly situated around the outside of the room. "You need to get up on the kitchen table," he directed his small family. "No one can actually be standing in the castle except me and Calcifer when I move us."

With a much smaller piece of chalk, he drew matching runes on the floor where the kitchen table had stood less than an hour ago. Once again, he examined the markings, making sure he'd written the magic out correctly. When he was satisfied that he had, he said, "There. That should do it. Sit tight for a second."

Now for the most important part, he thought. He walked over to the hearth, picked up the shovel, and slid it carefully under the glowing ember Calcifer was resting on. "Be gentle with me, please," the fire demon said, sounding quite nervous.

Howl however was completely confident in what he was doing. Without a shimmer of doubt, he stood in the center of his diagram and said, "On my mark." Then he held his arm out beside him and felt the first stirrings of the magic beginning to work. A subtle wind picked up and blew his hair around, but he barely noticed, so concentrated was he on what he was doing.

On cue, Calcifer added his own power to the spell. The typical face of the calm fire demon disappeared, transforming into his true form. The pair blended their magic as they had done many times before, and the house started to change around them. The ceilings lowered first, and he could hear the castle groan slightly from the strain. Their combined magic buzzed around him like static electricity, and he could sense the changes that were happening.

Windows appeared and brick walls were quickly covered with floral wallpaper. Above their heads, the open beams disappeared into a finished ceiling. Two new doors appeared, along with furniture and vases full of flowers. As a final touch, he included an extra bed just off the sitting room for the Witch of the Waste to use as long as she was with them.

Gradually, he felt the magic ease off and he lowered his arm. Everything around them is exactly like the house he'd visited the day before, except for the few changes he'd made to suit their own special needs. Each of his family members wore a slightly different expression, ranging from Markl's amazement to the Witch's now constant placidity.

It was Sophie he was most interested in however, and she seemed to be in shock, still sitting on the table. He blinked, noticing they were all still sitting on the table. "Moving's done," he told them. "You can get down now."

Markl and Heen jumped down and raced circles around the room while he put Calcifer back in his grate. "This is great mater Howl, it's huge!!"

The Witch meanwhile just uttered a variation of her standard line. "Oh, what a pretty fire." Again, Howl felt a slight misgiving. She seemed just as enamored with Calcifer as she was with him; what if she tried to steal him? He didn't dare think what would happen to his castle or Sophie if she succeeded. He himself could survive, though he wouldn't be happy having his heart in her hands.

To bury that unwelcome thought, he looked back at Sophie. She still seemed to be shocked by her new surrounding, unable to believe her own eyes. Finally, she raced to window just in time to see the train roll by, smoke billowing from its stack. Just like in my dream, Howl thought.

"But this is…"

Before she could convince herself that she was imagining things, he stepped in to point out the few changes he'd made. He opened a door on her right that she hadn't noticed and started talking; purposely using phrasing that would confirm this was her old house. "I added on a bathroom since our family seems to keep growing."

Once he had started, he couldn't stop. He left her still examining the new bathroom; he was more interested in the room he'd added on for her. "Come over here Sophie!" he called out, wanting to show her what he'd made for her

She walked slowly, still taking things in. When she was by his side, he opened up the door in front of him, this one leading to a large bedroom with a comfortable feather bed and windows looking out to the grassy lawn beside the house. "I added another bedroom too… Have a look."

Something in heart clenched a little as he watched her explore the bedroom he had designed with her in mind. Her eyes roved over every nook and cranny of the room, taking in the bed and the furnishings. She entered the room slowly, and he watched delightedly as her back straightened a little with each step.

It was the young Sophie who turned to face him, with the exception of her still silver hair. Beautiful, Howl thought briefly. Then he realized she was talking to him.

"Why do you do this?" she asked, her voice full of breathless amazement and something… something he couldn't quite identify.

He leaned casually against the doorframe, feeling completely satisfied with her reaction to his gift. I'll tell her I did it for her, and the spell will be broken. "So we'd have a room for you," he said. "Do… you like it?" He couldn't hide the touch of anxiety he felt.

Nor could he completely hide his disappointment when she turned back into an old lady right before his eyes. "Of course," she said, and her voice was scratchy again. "It's perfect for a cleaning lady." Now he recognized the other emotion he'd sensed in her a moment earlier—it was dismay, dismay that someone would go to all this trouble just for her.

I'd do more for you, if you'd let me. "I got you some new clothes too, but you can open them later." As in the dream, he was afraid that if she saw the lovely silks and damasks he'd bought her, she would never believe he loved her as she was, even as a 90 year old woman.

Unable to mask his frustration any longer, he walked away from the room. As soon as he was out of her presence, the tug at his heart from her ring ached, and he couldn't help but call out to her. "Come on Sophie, look at this!" Markl and Heen joined him first, and he opened the back door for them.

"All right, a courtyard!" Markl shouted, and he and Heen immediately claimed the area as theirs to play in.

"That shop's ours too," he said, knowing they probably wouldn't care. Sophie would have, but she hadn't come out of her room yet. Apparently, she was more impressed than she wanted to let on, he thought, slightly cheered.

There was one more thing he hadn't shown Sophie, and now, when everyone else was occupied, was the perfect chance. The pull at his heart had lessened, so he knew Sophie was right behind him. He stepped back into the house and looked up at her as he shut the door. "See that new color on the dial? There's a new portal."

He took a deep breath and turned the dial to magenta and then opened it up. The house was quickly filled with the fragrance of the sweet meadow, and Sophie gasped. "It's a present for you; come see," he entreated, holding his hand out in a gesture for her to go first.

She did, and the quick indrawn breath and soft sound she made were very gratifying. After only a few days with her, he'd learned to identify what all her various sighs and murmurs meant, and this was his favorite. It meant she was happy, content. I'd give anything just to hear you sound like that for the rest of my life.

"Do you like it?" he asked, already knowing the answer but needing to hear it from her. "It's my secret garden."

"It's incredible," she breathed, gazing around at the hills dotted with pink and blue flowers. "Did you use your magic to make this?"

That Sophie thought him capable of such a feat flattered him tremendously. "Only a little," he said modestly. "Just to make the flowers grow."

Then for a long time, they were quiet, both content to simply enjoy the flowers and the warm sun. He offered her his arm, and they walked together through the tall, grassy fields. He didn't dare look at her, but with each step he could feel her walking grow a little less labored, a little easier. She jumped a brook with all the agility of a young woman, and he knew that they were close, so very close. When the lake was in sight, she dropped his arm and ran to its shore. She was his beautiful, silver-haired dryad again, and watching her, he felt like his whole body was on fire.

She spun around and shouted, "This place is gorgeous Howl, it's like a dream!"

Yes, just like a dream, he thought, but said nothing. Instead, he simply watched her stand by the lake and soak in all the beauty around her, and allowed himself enjoy it with her. The cool lakeside breeze felt good, and the air was redolent with the fragrance of wildflowers and sweet grasses.

All his most important moments had happened here—his first magic, the first spell he'd done correctly on his own, the day his uncle had told him his parents said he could live with him and become a wizard. It had all happened here. And then, almost fifteen years ago, the most important night of his life had taken place here as well.

Thoughts of Calcifer and the bargain he'd struck with him crept into his happy memories, but he quickly shoved them aside. Of all the things not to be thinking about when he was so close to breaking Sophie's curse, his own curse had to top the list. There was no way he could prove to her that she was worth love, despite anything she might do for him, if all he could think about was how much he needed her help.

He shook himself out of his thoughts. "Sophie?" he said quietly, trying to pull her out of her thoughts without startling her. When she turned around to face him, he momentarily lost all ability to speak. I've never seen her look so… happy, he thought.

"It all seems so familiar, yet I know I've never been here before. I feel so at home."

The peace in her voice washed over him, and he forgot all about Calcifer or their curse. He simply held out has hand to her and smiled when she took it. "Come with me."

"Okay," she agreed quietly, and they strolled slowly deeper into the meadow. The castle was far behind them now, the door barely a glint of light in the summer sun.

"Look there," he said, pointing toward a building much closer to them. The cottage looked exactly as it had the last time he'd seen it—weather-beaten and comfortable, looking like it had grown out of the meadow, just like the flowers. The old mill wheel was still turning lazily in the bubbling brook, and he remembered another time when he'd been here and tried to run in place on top of the wheel.

"What a cute cottage!" Sophie said delightedly.

"That was my secret hideaway. I spent a lot of time here by myself when I was young." Sometimes, to my folly, he thought, then forcefully moved on.

"You were alone?" she asked, and he thought he heard a glimmer of concern there for the young boy who had been so lonely that he'd made a very foolish choice…

When he spoke, his tone was matter of fact. He did not want her pity; that was not why he had brought her here. "My uncle, who was a wizard, gave me this place as my private study." He paused for just a moment, hoping she wouldn't understand what he was about to tell her. "And now you can come here whenever you like."

But the sympathetic lady who could hear the glimmers of a lonely boy in his happy story also heard what he wasn't telling her now. He tried to walk down the hill with her, but she stayed where she was, her hand leaving his grip. When he turned around, she was holding both of her hands together in front of her. "What's the matter?"

"It's… You're scaring me. I have this weird feeling that you're going to leave."

He looked quickly at the ring she still wore on her finger and cursed his own forgetfulness. Of course she'd be able to sense the truth behind his words; that was half the point of the ring, to let Calcifer know exactly what he was thinking.

"Howl, tell me what's going on," she demanded. "Please. I don't care if you're a monster."

His first thought was, How did she know? That was followed quickly by, Does she truly not care? A swelling of emotions washed over him then, happiness and regret and disbelief and fear, and over all, through all, was love. She doesn't care, she doesn't care… She must love me, otherwise she'd never accept me for who I am.

But she had asked him a question, one that needed an answer—an honest answer. "I'm just setting things up so all of you can live a comfortable life, Sophie. With all the flowers you've got in this valley, you could easily open up a flower shop. Right? I'm sure you'd be good at it!" All his enthusiasm for Sophie and her abilities were poured into that one sentence. In his mind, there was nothing Sophie wouldn't be good at—except, perhaps, accepting a compliment.

His eagerness did not rub off on Sophie. "So you are going away," she said, and her sadness ate away at him. The fire he'd felt earlier cooled to barely glowing embers. "Please Howl, I know I can be of help to you…" She paused here long enough for him to think about how true those words were, and then she said something that completely shocked him. "Even though I'm not pretty, and all I'm good at is cleaning."

His reaction was instinctive. "Sophie! Sophie, you're beautiful!" And for the second time that day, she turned back into an old woman right before his eyes. This time he knew what he had done wrong—she didn't need to be told she was beautiful, she needed to believe that she could do something to help him, and he hadn't argued with that at all.

"Well, the nice thing about being old is you've got nothing much to lose."

Howl however felt like he'd lost everything. For one glorious summer hour, he'd thought he'd beaten her curse, and maybe his own as well. Anger at the unfairness of it all welled up inside him, and he struggled to control it before he took it out on Sophie.

Before he could, he heard something in the distance, a sound that did not belong in his peaceful valley. He held up a hand for her to be quiet and not move and looked over his shoulder to see what it was.

When he saw it, the anger he felt a moment ago was given a new direction. "What is that thing doing out here?"

"A battleship?" Sophie asked, confused.

"Still looking for more cities to burn," he muttered bitterly.

"Is it the enemy's, or one of ours?"

The question flamed his anger higher. Hadn't she learned anything in her time with him? "What difference does it make?"

Together, they watched the ship fly directly overhead. "Stupid murderers," he said when he saw the bay full of bombs. "We can't just let them fly off with all those bombs." Finally, there was something he could do with his anger. He ruthlessly ignored all the warnings Calcifer had given him about using his magic in anger, so determined was he to stop their mission. With just a wave of his hand, the ship was crippled.

He knew instantly that Calcifer had been right about using his magic like this. His arm felt… funny, like it wasn't quite a part of him. He glanced down and saw the spiny black feathers that he knew meant he'd taken his magic too far. He'd seen them just the day before when they'd narrowly escaped from Madam Suliman. Not wanting Sophie to realize what he'd done, he tugged his sleeve farther down his arm

"What's happening? What did you do?" Sophie asked when the alarms started going off.

Howl felt no remorse, just a grim satisfaction in stopping these monsters from murdering anyone else. "Just messed with it. It won't crash them," he assured her, though he wouldn't have minded if it had.

He was still trying to hide his arm from her, but she saw it. "Oh! Howl!"

But there wasn't time for her sympathy or recriminations. Dozens of animal-wizards were flying out of the bays that would normally drop bombs, and he knew without a doubt that they were Madam Suliman's henchmen, given a double task to man the ship and take care of Howl if they found him.

"Uh-oh, here they come. Those things are Suliman's henchmen." At last, he felt a brief twinge of compunction for his actions. I can take care of myself, but I put Sophie in danger too… Just because I couldn't control my anger.

Without giving her time to protest, he grabbed Sophie by the arms and they started running. A crazy sense of déjà vu swept over him, and he realized how similar this was to their first meeting. "Let's go! Faster!" he urged as he pulled her beside him. "We need to take off!"

Before she could protest or even think about what he'd said, his wings appeared and they soared into the air. So much like that first day… They flew together over the lake and the meadow, but he barely spared them a glance. There simply wasn't time if he wanted to get Sophie home safely.

Finally, finally, the door to the castle was almost directly in front of them. "All right, you're going in," he shouted.

"No, don't let go!" Sophie hollered back up at him.

He knew he didn't have any other options however, and when they were lined up with the door, he let her go and flew off without a backwards glance. The wizards weren't after Sophie, it was him they wanted, and that would give him time to draw them away from the castle and her.

For the second time in as many days, he found himself in an air chase. This time it's your own fault though, he admonished himself. If you'd left well enough alone… "But then those bombs could have been used again innocent people…

With the wizards still hot on his trail, he didn't have time to think any further. Yesterday when he'd been chased, it had been near sundown. Today it was the hottest part of the afternoon, and sunset was hours away. He gritted his teeth and readied himself for a long chase.

His best weapon at evading capture was his own knowledge of Ingary. There was no way he could last long flying on his own, so he led his pursuers into the mountain country, weaving in and out of trees and over large boulders. One by one, the trained wizards of Madam Suliman dropped away, either flying into obstacles or simply running out of strength.

At last he was alone—more alone than he'd been in years. He couldn't go home without risking leading Suliman straight to Sophie and Calcifer. He shuddered, thinking what she would do if she got her hands on the fire demon who controlled his heart. Without the ring, he didn't even have Calcifer to keep him company, and Sophie… well, after what she'd seen today, surely she still wouldn't say that she didn't care if he were a monster.

That was the worst of it. He'd ignored Calcifer's warnings for years, continuing to turn into his bird form as it suited him, telling himself that he was in control, not the magic. Today he knew that wasn't the case anymore. And yet, today it was more important than ever that he be able to fly.

A plan was forming in his mind; a dangerous, risky plan, but the one plan that might keep them all alive until after this senseless war was over and they could get back to the business of breaking each others' curses. He would remain in his bird form until the end of the war, flying overhead to ensure no one he cared about was injured. Perhaps he'd ever be able to redirect the bombs falling on houses below.

As soon as he was able, he'd find the scarecrow and take him back to Sophie. He'd let her break the prince's curse, so the prince could go back to his own country and his father would call off the war. And… if Sophie wanted to go with him, he wouldn't stop her. Sophie deserved more than life with a wizard who couldn't even control his own temper.

For a moment, he was tempted to call on the spirits of darkness. Surely losing the only woman he'd ever loved was sufficient reason… But that would definitely give away his location to Madam Suliman, and it wouldn't help his situation at all. Instead, he settled himself high up in a tree, wrapped his wings around him for warmth and comfort, and tried to drift off to sleep.