"When manipulating the weather you have to keep tight control on the flow of your magic. Release too much as you could end up with an energy surge and end up doing something you didn't intend," Master Howl explained, leaning back on his elbows. He and Markl were reclining on a blanket in the sunshine beside Star Lake, having their magic lesson outside.
Sophie was flitting in and out of the Castle with baskets of clothes, humming happily to herself. She had only been with them a few weeks, but already Markl didn't know how they had coped without her. It was certainly nice to have clean clothes all of the time.
"Because weather is a universal occurrence you have to keep your magic focused on a single area, preferably wherever you are at that moment," Howl continued. "Its far more difficult to try and change the weather on the other side of the country, and, let's face it, what would be the point?"
Markl frowned at Sophie, only half listening to his Master's lesson. She was hanging the washing out on a makeshift line. One end was attached to the Castle, while the other was being bounced to the edge of the Lake by Turnip Head.
"Of course there are also the Demons to consider – especially the ones found in rain or lightening," Howl said, his now jet-black hair falling over his brilliant sapphire eyes as he stared out over the shimmering water.
Markl watched as Sophie picked up the empty basket to take it back inside. Normally she would wince and there would be an audible creaking of her old bones, but today she was standing straighter than normal. The frown on his round face, usually childlike with his perpetual smile, deepened into a confused scowl.
"Huh?" he said, turning his gaze back to Master Howl.
He raised a rakish black eyebrow at him, and Markl realised that he had missed a question.
"I said, what are the four ways of recognising the presence of Lightening Demons in a thunderhead?" he repeated.
"Oh, umm … a wind circulating North to East, irregular formations in the clouds … umm …" he trailed off again, looking towards Sophie once more.
"You seem somewhat distracted Markl," Howl commented, tilting his head to one side, making his long hair fall over one shoulder. "Something wrong?"
"Well, it's about Sophie …" he said slowly, wondering how to explain what he was thinking.
"What about Sophie?" Howl asked, a tight note in his voice. He glanced towards the Castle, and then visibly relaxed as Sophie threw open a window and grinned at them, the multitude of lines around her eyes crinkling as she smiled.
Except, there were less lines than normal.
"Is it just me, Master Howl, or does Sophie look … younger?" he asked.
Howl laughed, his eyes sparkling with delight. "So you finally noticed!" he said, grinning.
"It's true?" Markl gaped, having thought he was simply going crazy.
The Castle door burst open and Sophie stuck her head out. Behind her they could hear Calcifer complaining about the draft the open door let in.
"I'm making lunch, are you two hungry?" she called out to them.
"Starving," Howl said over his shoulder, smiling after her as she went back inside, shutting off Calcifer's voice as he asked caustically how she was planning to cook.
"Is it a spell that went wrong?" Markl asked, interested.
"You could say that," Howl said, still looking towards the door.
"I knew she was a Witch," he muttered, thinking of the way Calcifer (reluctantly) did what she said – sometimes.
"Oh she's not a Witch, I believe she's been cursed." Howl turned to look at him.
"Remember that message from the Witch of the Waste?"
"So she cursed Sophie just to deliver you a message?" Markl deduced. "That's rough."
"Indeed," he agreed, laying back on the blanket.
"And the curse made her old?" he asked, fiddling with his bow-tie as he thought about her situation. "How old is she really?"
"My guess?" he said, looking up at the cloudless blue sky. "She's about nineteen."
Howl then tilted his head and smirked at him, a lock of hair falling over his eyes. "Do you remember that girl I told you about?"
"The one from the Westside?" Markl asked, confused by the sudden subject change.
"The blonde one?"
"No, the special one," Howl said, obviously irritated that he hadn't guessed straight away.
Markl's eyes went round as coins and his mouth fell open. "The one you took flying?" he gaped, remembering the foolish smile his Master had worn when he had first came in after that day. He had been distracted all through dinner, an abstract expression on his face, and had then gone out again – and the day after that, Sophie had arrived.
"Wow," he said simply as it all clicked into place.
Howl nodded. "She bares it so well. Calcifer say's she can't even talk about it. He sensed it the moment she arrived."
"Can we help her break it?" Markl asked, thinking about the young girl trapped in an old woman's body.
"She's breaking it herself," Howl said. "Slowly, anyway. I'm not quite sure how she's doing it, or even if she knows what she's doing. I think it's linked to her emotions. And besides, curses are difficult to shift magically – it takes a lot more skill to break a spell than it does to cast them."
Markl rolled his eyes. "I know, Klain's theory of magic, we studied that years ago."
"Indeed we did," Howl agreed, then pierced him with a stern stare. "I would appreciate it if you didn't mention anything to Sophie about her condition. She has enough to cope with without her worrying about our reaction to her. Just be natural around her, Markl."
"Surely there is something we can do to help her?" he said, hearing the note of finality in his Masters voice and wilting a little despite the midday sun.
"We are helping Markl," Howl said, looking towards the Castle again. "Everything we do helps her. She's part of our family."
Markl stared at his Master, taking in the wistful curve to his mouth, feeling a strong suspicion rising within him at the voice Howl used when he said the word family.
"Master Howl, do you lo-?"
"Let's not go there, Markl," Howl said firmly, though his eyes were sparkling.
"No more Markl," he said, dodging the subject. "We aren't covering curses in your training for at least another six months. Now, back to weather spells …"
Howl's approach to teaching magic was a rather hands on education, without any formality and very few text books. He was the sort of man who believed that the best way to learn was by experience, trying something and, if you failed, simply trying again, this time trying to get it right.
Of course, he was always close at hand to correct any of Markl's more … spectacular magical mistakes.
So, within fifteen minutes Howl and Markl were standing on the edge of Star Lake in a torrent of localised rain that was focused on the area around the Castle, while everywhere else around the Lake was still basking in sunlight.
"Howl, Markl, lunch is ready -" Sophie called hoarsely, opening the door to call them in, and then shrieked when she saw the rain. "My washing!"
Markl looked around, and saw that the clothes she had meticulously hung out earlier were now saturated with rain water, hanging limply from the line held by a dripping and bedraggled Turnip Head.
"Uh oh," Howl said lightly, watching as Sophie picked up her skirt in her gnarled fingers and ran out into the rain towards the washing line, trying to salvage her laundry. He flicked a single finger in the direction of the washing line and, as if they had a mind of their own, every single item of clothing flew off the line and into the Castle.
Sophie, taken by surprise by the flying clothes, stumbled backwards and landed on the ground, mud splattering the back of her dress.
"Howl!" she yelled, clambering to her feet, though there was an unmistakably amused smile playing around her mouth. "I've had just about enough of your magic lessons, something always seems to get broken."
"How else is Markl supposed to learn?" Howl asked, extending a gentlemanly hand to help pull her to her feet.
"Some way that is less destructive," she said, her voice clear as a bell, folding her arms over her chest and glaring playfully at him – her face was now completely unlined and round with youth and beauty, though her hair was still silver.
Howl grinned back at her, and then her deep brown eyes dropped to his chest. His white shirt had turned transparent in the rain and was moulded to his skin. A faint blush suffused her cheeks, making her look more youthful than ever. Markl watched in amusement as she lifted her gaze back to Howl's face, and then looked quickly away, not meeting his eyes.
It seemed his Masters feelings were reciprocated, Markl thought, smiling in turn.
"Shut the damn door! Its raining out there, and there's a draft," Calcifer complained from the hearth inside the house, breaking the mood between the two adults.
"Come on," Sophie sighed, beckoning them inside. "Lunch is ready."
"Markl, grab the blanket," he ordered, following Sophie into the Castle.
He ran to pick up the blanket he and Howl had been leaning on, which was now wet and muddy since neither of them had thought to put it away before they started messing with the weather.
Flexing his will, he carefully released a small burst of energy, sending it skywards. The heavy rainclouds surrounding the Castle vanished, replaced by streaming sunlight once more. Holding the dripping blanket gingerly in his arms, he ran towards the front door, his feet sloshing in the mud the rain had caused.
"Why can't you just use magic to keep everything clean?" Sophie was asking Howl as Markl burst though the door. She was staring with mild despair at the perfectly clean, folded pile of washing that, a few seconds previously, had been dripping on the line.
"And put you out of a job?" Howl said with his mouth full from where he was sitting, a plate on his lap and his feet resting on the hearth with his shoes casually left on the floor beside him. "I wouldn't do that."
Sophie looked over at Markl, her face now slightly wrinkled once more. "Looks like I have to mop again," she said.
Markl glanced guiltily down at the mud and water he had dripped on the floor. "Sorry Sophie," he said, dutifully removing his shoes and leaving them by the door.
"Go wash your hands, then you can have your lunch," she said, taking the sodden blanket from his hands and carrying it over to the sink, where a washboard was still set up.
Obediently, Markl hurled up the stairs and into the bathroom, quickly rinsing his hands so that he could eat – Sophie had made bacon sandwiches, his favourite. He heard Howl's loud, bell like laugh from downstairs. Curious, he sprinted back down, throwing himself into a seat at the table.
Master Howl was still toasting his feet at the hearth, eating a piece of bacon with his fingers. He glanced at Markl as the chair skidded across the wood, and grinned at him. "Sophie is under the impression that I am deliberately trying to make things difficult for her," he said.
"Why would you do that?" he asked, digging into his bacon with savage intensity.
"So that she stays, of course," Howl said lightly, casting Sophie a small smile.
Sophie had one hand on her hip, while the other was holding a large spoon in a vaguely threatening manner. "I was thinking more to annoy me," she said, narrowing her eyes at him.
Howl laughed again, and threw a bit of his lunch to Calcifer. "I wouldn't risk irritating you Sophie," he said, tilting his chair back on two legs. "I happen to have gotten used to having black hair now, and I certainly don't want it ginger again."
"Hey," Markl said, frowning as he reached up protectively to touch his reddish hair.
"No offence intended," Howl added, smiling at him.
Sophie shook her head indulgently. "You two are a right pair," she said, turning back to the sink where she was washing the blanket.
Markl choked slightly on his food as he saw the back of Sophie's dress, which was still caked in mud from where she had fallen on the floor. He smothered a laugh at the thought of how irritated she would be when she realised she had mud all over her back.
Howl caught his eye and winked mischievously.