So many things can change in just a few months. For starters; who knew that this mousy young woman had a penchant for adventure?
After the events of the night I fought and defeated the Witch of the Waste, I found my quiet little life in Market Chipping a little less than fulfilling. It isn't to say that I didn't want to go back to my hat shop, for I loved my quaint little shop with all my heart. It's just that when I perched myself on my stool with a needle and thread at the ready, fabric propped on my knee, I couldn't conjure a design in my head.
Things were quieter now, what with Lettie traveling the world with Markel, in search of exotic plants and flowers to stock their apothecary. The shop lacked the whimsical atmosphere she left in her wake. I missed her boundless laughter and infallible smile, but it warmed my heart to know that where ever she was, she was spreading that light to the world, with Markel at her side.
Lettie hadn't taken things well when I came home. She had been hurt and confused by the Witch's deceit, but more than that, she was scared for me, for everything that had happened. She couldn't wrap her head around the thought that I had been turned into an old lady that she hadn't even recognized. I told her that I never held it against her but it did little to assuage her guilt. Not long after I returned home, Markel had arrived at our doorstep. I was relieved to see that he was alright, and that the Witch had not harmed him that night, and I soon became thankful for his constant presence in my sisters life. He became the balm that soothed the pain and destruction the Witch had wrought upon our lives. It was him who encouraged Lettie to let go of the foolish idea that she was responsible for my happiness; instead he asked her only to follow her heart.
Besides that, I was happy-- for the most part. After recovering from his injuries, Howl did not stay long in Market Chipping. Having realized that the sword I'd taken from the Witch held a rather large heartstone in its pommel, Howl set out to return the stolen hearts Solana had collected over the century. He couldn't give me a timeline of how long it might take, but I wasn't going to stop him from his task. He needed closure.
The first heart he returned was that of my step mothers, and although it did nothing to fix her sunny disposition, she was more amiable to the sale of the hat shop to a Mr. Alexander Davies. As she counted the stacks of bills in the back of the carriage leaving for Kingsbury, I did something that surprised us both, I hugged her.
"I know that things between us weren't good after my father passed," I had said into her shoulder, "but I wanted to thank you for the years that you made my father happy and for the years that you held us together as a family. I hope you find happiness again someday."
Gerta was more than a little startled by my words, giving me an awkward one-armed pat on the back in response, but I wanted her to have closure as well. Deep down, there had to be some goodness left in her. I wanted to believe that she had it in her to change.
With her departure, I hadn't felt like I'd lost a family member. If anything, seeing my brothers smiling face as he took the keys from Gerta reminded me that I had gained another, and he intended to stay.
Alex might have been that absolute last person I would have thought could be a seamster, but he insisted he give it a try "in honour of our late father," he had said. Where he lacked in skill, he made up for with a positive attitude. Alex's bizarre, if not clinical, approach to sewing was enough to make my head hurt, but it worked. Only a week into owning the shop, he had brought more than a dozen books to reference while he worked, scattering them over every available surface in the shop, pinning his sketches to the walls so that he wouldn't forget his ideas. I admired his creative energy, but cleaning up after him was getting a little bit tiring.
Customers seemed taken aback by this strange new owner, but as it happened, talent ran in the family. Where Lettie's absence was felt, he had filed it with bold new creations that had tourists saying words like "marvelous", "ingenious", or my personal favourite, "avant-garde". In a short few months, Alex had made our shop one of the most visited stores in all of Market Chipping. Even the King had commissioned a piece, the King!
The day we received the letter stamped with the royal wax seal, I had thought the worst, that the King had found us and was having us arrested for our part in the raid on his castle, but it was only a summons for a private fitting for one of Alex's hats. It did little to ease my anxiety.
Alex had assured me many times that there was no need to worry. He told me that the guards that night all had a mysterious case of narcolepsy. Apparently they had awoken with mild headaches and no recollection of what had happened. He wasn't able to disguise the destruction of the statue however, so the King had launched a full scale investigation into the matter, even going so far as to ask for Howls assistance. Howl had cited a blocked chimney in the kitchen to explain the guards condition and hypothesized that a rather large bird must have took off with the stone from the statue, given that the balcony was open to the elements. That and he assured the King that no one in their right mind would have scaled the cliff side to gain access.
I think about that night often. I wake from a cold sweat after drowning in the middle of the ocean, unable to get to Howls heart in time. Sometimes I dream of the Witch conjuring a great storm as I stand helpless in the middle of a field, a broken sword clutched in my hands. Then there are the ones in which Howl lays lifeless in my lap. Those are the worst nightmares, and even though I know that I am okay, and Howl is okay, and the world is right again, I cannot sleep. Instead, I would look up at the pommel-less sword mounted on the wall of my bedroom and remind myself that it was I who survived that night, not the Witch.
It was after one of those sleepless nights that I approached Alex.
"Take me back to Dunbeath," I begged one morning as I followed him around the store.
"At this very moment? We're quite busy if you hadn't noticed," he gestured to the crowded room with a jerk of his chin. He had pushed his shirt sleeves up to his elbows, turning about the room with a measuring tape draped over his shoulders like a scarf.
"Not at this very moment, no, but tonight? I just want to see Maggie and Hamish. I haven't checked up on them since-- well since Howl took me to Dunbeath a few months ago."
Alex nodded in understanding. "Very well, if you find me some chalk, I will teach you how to open a gateway there."
Dunbeath was exactly as I remembered it, a wild and wonderful sea of green pastures and rolling hills that went on for miles. Maggie was more than a little ecstatic to see me and Hamish had smiled, actually smiled when I arrived at the inn. They shared a meal with me as I told them everything that happened while I was gone. Very little had surprised them, including my stories of the Witch and her evil deeds. Maggie was relieved to know that she was gone and could no longer haunt the families in Dunbeath.
"Now that the blight has been cleansed from our lands, the clans in Port Haven can begin to heal," she said sagely, "which means we have work to do. How do you feel about helping out lassie?"
"Me? Help out?"
"Aye, I think it's time that we reclaim our families homes but it's been a century since any clansmen stepped foot in Old Port Haven."
"After all this time, do you think anyone would want to go back?"
Maggie and Hamish exchanged glances and nodded. "If we start cleaning the place up, I think there's a good chance. That is, if you're willing to come with us."
The prospect of seeing Howls childhood home restored gave me a thrill that I hadn't felt in a long time.
What do you need me to do?" I grinned.
Bit by bit, we cleared the streets of Old Port Haven, chopping down dead trees, planting saplings in their place, mending fences, repairing signs, rebuilding the boardwalk along the pier. Each day, Maggie, Hamish and I made the trip through the forest to the old town and each night, the town became a little greener and cleaner. Soon we had villagers following us with wagons filled with tools and building supplies and clan by clan, doors were unlocked and lamps were lit. Everywhere I looked, smoke billowed cheerfully from chimneys as the clans reclaimed their loved ones homes. Every home, except for one.
The brooch that once belonged to Howls mother stayed tucked safely in my pocket, a quiet reminder that one home at the top of the hill remained untouched. It didn't feel right for me to reclaim this home for him. I had already trespassed upon his memories once, I wasn't inclined to do that again.
I kept myself so busy that I didn't have time to think about the little house on the hill. The nightmares, blissfully, had stopped. Maggie had introduced me to a group of weavers who were responsible for making the clans tartans. They showed me how they dyed and set the threads so that the colour wouldn't run, they allowed me to sit with them at the loom as they passed the threads back and forth with a wooden tool, creating the patterns with such complexity that I knew I couldn't replicate it, but I wanted to.
Summer turned to autumn and too soon I was saying farewell to Maggie and Hamish. Winter was our busiest time of year and I knew that Alex would need me back at the store before long. I left them with the promise that I would return soon and visit the new inn they were building by the pier.
The bell chimed as the door opened, ushering a bitter winter wind into the shop. Alex muttered something under his breath and gathered his sweater in one hand, stepping away from the cold as I continued to stock our shelves. The patron tapped their boots against the door mat, knocking the heavy snow away.
"Be with you in just one moment," I spoke over my shoulder as I shoved the remaining stock on the shelf. Climbing down the ladder, I dusted my apron and made my way over to the customer.
He had his back turned to me, wearing a soft grey waist coat over a simply pressed white shirt. He had slung his jacket over one shoulder and was admiring a small selection of hats I had made. The tips of his ears were pink from the cold and his black hair appeared more than a little tousled by the wind.
"It's a cold one out there today," I remarked reaching for one of the thicker bowler hats on the shelf, "are you looking for anything in particular? Perhaps something to keep your ears warm?"
"I'm looking for something to go with my suit," the familiar voice answered.
I froze, half grabbing the hat, half turning at the sound of his warm laughter.
"Howl," I breathed, "you're back."
My heart fluttered at the quiet excitement that danced in his eyes, the easy smile that came to his lips as he took me in and nodded.
"I'm sorry I took so oof--" I almost knocked him over as I wrapped my arms around him, scaring some of the other patrons at the same time.
Startled momentarily, his warm arms surrounded me, holding me to him as he placed a kiss to my hair.
"Had I known you missed me this much, I would have tried to be back sooner," he chuckled.
"No," I sighed into his chest, "what you had to do was important."
His lips brushed my ear with a soft caress. "You are what is important to me, Sophie."
I inhaled the wood smoke on his shirt and cleared my head.
"You're a flirt, Howl Pendragon, did you know that?"
"I may have been told that once, by a remarkable woman standing in a back alley. I recall her telling me to shove off as well . . ." I pushed away from him teasingly, but he held me tighter.
I peered up into is deep green eyes and flicked his nose. "You told me back then that you felt like you were missing something, but you didn't know what it was. Do you remember?"
"I do," he said softly with a thoughtful look, "but I have since found it."
"What is it? That you found?"
He tilted my chin with his thumb, aligning us as he dipped down and met my lips with a gentle brush of his, cradling my face in his hands. As he drew away, starlight danced in his eyes, and I knew then that I wanted to be with him every day from this day forward, just to be the one that made him want to dream the way he did when he looked at me.
Taking my hands in his, he kissed them with gentle reverence.
"Love Sophie. I found love."