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Howl's Twisted Castle

Chapter Text

Whoever said cities were the place to find romance never lived in an area like Market Chipping. Our little town is located just on the outskirts of the capital, out of reach of commercial influence. A place where people like our family could own a successful little hat shop. My father built his business from the ground up with only sweat and determination as his tools. It was through this store that he met the first great love of his life, my mother. With her eye for detail and his passion for creating, they had made a living in this quaint little town. Shortly after that, my sister and I came into the world, and it seemed like everything was perfect.

Well, at least we still had the hat shop.

With a knot on her face like she'd smelled something unpleasant, my stepmother, Gerta, kept a constant eye on my sister and me. She licked the pad of her thumb, counting what I assumed was a shockingly small amount of money in the till. I shook my head and sighed, turning away from her scowl and fixing my attention instead to our shop.

Doll hats, beaver hats, top hats, Gainsborough hats and every other manner of headpieces adorned our shelves. Only a few remained that my father created. The rest were proudly my own. I had a knack for design and an eye for colour, having spent so much time watching my father whip up masterpieces from scratch.

I busied myself stitching the last flower into a deep mauve doll hat and trying to ignore Gerta's petty attitude. We always argued about the pricing of our goods; she insisted we charge double because our hats were of superior quality, but I refused to budge. I wanted to keep things the way my father would have wanted them, on peoples heads instead of displays but trying to explain my view to her always resulted in a fight. Sadly her attention was fixed solely on profit margins.

Thankfully, my older sister was all the support I needed when it came to our business. Lettie at the moment was bustling about the room, tending to this customer and that, offering her million dollar smile to all the young men who came through the door. It was an oddity seeing so many male patrons at a hat shop, but one look at them told me their admiration was more for my sister and less about the merchandise.

She had inherited all of our mother's good looks and charm. It was a mystery that she wasn't tied down by now, but that's how Lettie wanted it. No man could persuade her to settle down when she had so many dreams of her own to fulfill. If Gerta had her way, Lettie would have been married off to the first wealthy suitor that walked through the door, but thankfully Lettie was too strong-willed to let anyone dictate how she lived her life. I smiled at her as she glided past the counter. Lettie winked back at me, fluffed her golden locks and straightened out her petty coat to continue her walk about the room. Waltzing past patrons, she offered sincere compliments to the ladies trying out our new line of sun hats.

I focused my attention on the stitching I had finished on a little red hat, pulling it neatly with a knot before trimming the ends. I hopped off my stool and grabbed the mauve doll hat next to it before edging my way past a few people to display them on awaiting mannequins. As I adjusted the fit on the last one, a couple of hushed voices caught my attention.

"I heard he's in town again," one of them giggled.

"You mean Howl?" Another clapped her hands together, dreamily.

The third hushed the second with a slap on the arm. "Don't say his name too loud; you don't want him to show up! I heard he steals hearts."

I fought hard not to roll my eyes as they gasped in mock horror. How many times had I heard that ridiculous story before? The apparently handsome, yet oddly never seen in person, wizard Howl had been rumoured to steal women's hearts to replace the vacancy of his own. I smiled inwardly at the thought. I could only imagine that the real Howl was a pervert who thrived on these rumours to court women into his bedroom at night.

"Well, he can steal my heart any day!" The first lady placed a hand on her chest, fanning her face with her hand.

My point exactly.

"What does he look like?" one of them asked.

"That's the thing, nobody knows! But I heard that he casts spells on himself to change his appearance!" The ladies shared astonished looks.

"Why would he want to do that?" I invited myself into the conversation.

They blinked at me, noticing for the first time that I had been eavesdropping on their private conversation. One of the ladies politely stepped forward.

"They say Howl and the witch of the waste have a long-standing feud. Something about her wanting to steal his heart. He changes his appearance to hide from her, you know--," she leaned in closer and whispered, "--because he's immortal."

Lettie wrapped her arm around my waist and pulled me to her side, interrupting me before I could give them my learned opinion.

"Sophie sweetheart, a charming young gentleman is waiting to be served. Be a dear and help him out?" she whisked herself away, leaving a scent of honey and lipstick in her wake.

I smiled politely at the ladies and hurried away, thankful to have a reason to leave the conversation.

Across the room, an attractive young man stood patiently by the till looking every part the gentleman. The suit that man wore became him. With perfectly polished oxfords complete with a lavender handkerchief tucked neatly into his breast pocket, he made both women and men stop and stare.

I calmed the fluttery feeling in my chest at the sight of him. I looked over at Lettie, who I had hoped would save me from doing something stupid, but instead, she shook her head, winked at me mischievously and then carried on into the back room.

As I made my way over to him, he turned and let his eyes wander over me. Adjusting his cufflinks which I assumed were perfectly alright to begin with, a slow smile spread across his face.

"Can I help you, sir?" I managed.

"I certainly hope you can." He voice was velvet, giving me a wink reserved for ladies like Lettie. He gave me an appreciative look from head to toe and uttered something a lot like lovely under his breath.

I spent more time than was needed smoothing down my dress, avoiding his eyes. What on earth did he think was so lovely?

"Is everything alright?" He brushed my arm with his fingertips, and all I could feel was fire licking my skin from the touch.

"I-- uh," I couldn't find my words.

With a white-gloved hand, he combed his fingers through his perfectly oiled blonde hair, hiding what looked like a smile.

"I'm looking for something to go with my suit, miss. . ?"

"S-Sophie," I curtsied and quickly set about finding one that was just right. It was easy to focus on this task instead of the man who's eyes continued to watch me. At the back of the room, on an older and worn out mannequin was one of my father's hats. It was a black gossamer top hat, pinned with a white satin ribbon. A part of me wanted to put this particular one away, but I knew well enough that seeing it worn would have made my father happier than if it had been stowed away in a box.

I brushed it lightly with my hand and placed it on the counter for the man's inspection. He ran his fingers along the perfectly spaced stitches in the seam and removed one glove to touch the gossamer that covered the outer surface.

"This a beautifully crafted item, miss Sophie," he nodded his approval. Turning it over he placed it in my hands, "but it's not one of yours, is it?"

That took me by surprise, one look and he could tell it wasn't my work? He didn't even know my name a minute ago.

I shook my head. "It isn't. It's one of the hats the former owner of the shop made."

"That would be your father?" he gauged my reaction.

"Yes. . ." I couldn't find the words to fill the void.

He nodded sagely. "Not to besmirch his work, but I think I would prefer something you've made, Sophie." His words were butter on toast.

It took me a few seconds to remember where I was and what I was doing. By that time, most of the patrons in the shop had fixed their attention on us. Mechanically, I forced myself to turn around and grab the top hat I had just recently completed. It was missing a satin sashing, but within moments I had fixed it with a lavender ribbon to compliment his outfit. The stitching was a little uneven, and there was a slight wear in the fabric from stretching it, but when I showed it to him, he approved of it instantly.

"Perfect." he bowed his head, allowing me to fix it for him. The hint of lavender brought out the bright flecks of green in his eyes and lightened his face which, at the moment was admiring me. He ran his thumb over the rim of the hat with the most breathtaking smile I'd ever seen.

"This will do nicely, Sophie," he pressed more money than was necessary into my palm and, leaning in closely, he whispered, "it was lovely meeting you."

He tipped his hat and was out the door and into the busy streets of Market Chipping before I could say the same.

"Sophie, sweetie?" Lettie shook my shoulder until I had grounded myself again. She peered into my eyes, looking very concerned about something. "You don't look well, is everything alright?"

Feeling my legs begin to give out, I sat down on my stool and gave her an incredulous look.

"I'm not entirely sure Lettie, but I think I just met Howl."

Chapter Text

"Howl? You must be joking Sophie; no one even knows what the man looks like! How can you be certain?" She dragged the second stool over, waving away a group of men who had formed around us.

"I-I don't know, I just have a feeling that's all," I shook my head to clear it. Never has anyone made me feel like that before.

One of the women who I had eavesdropped on earlier leaned over the till to add her voice to the mix. "Without a doubt that was him, he changes his look every once and a while but did you notice how everyone stared at him? That's just his way; has a charm he casts on himself to win people over."

"A charm? That doesn't seem right, why would he want to do something like that?" I didn't want to believe her. If he was, in fact, using magic then what I was feeling just now was the effects of his spell. Fake feelings, not real.

Lettie fluffed her hair and tossed a wayward smile at the woman leaning over our conversation. "Oh, I honestly doubt that I greeted him first and I wasn't charmed! Yes, I thought he was good-looking, but he seemed more focused on Sophie, which is rare when I'm in the room." She wasn't boastful, we both knew that between the two of us, she was the reason we had such a high male clientele.

I looked down at the clothes I was wearing and examined them for the first time today. Plain white smock, threadbare grey dress and scuffed black boots, not to mention the mousy brown hair I had inherited from our father was piled on top of my head in a messy bun.

"I don't think he was that interested in me," I sighed to Lettie, "I'm rather plain, aren't I?"

She rolled her eyes in her usual Lettie fashion, the way she did before she spent an hour trying to fluff my ego about how beauty was only skin deep. Before she could begin her pep talk, she was interrupted by Gerta.

"Sophie's right, Lettie, the only thing that man was interested in was the merchandise," she stuck out her hand impatiently and nodded to the money in my hand. " If you want to eat tonight, you'll keep working instead of swooning over a man who's out of your league," without skipping a beat she turned to Lettie and said, "except for you dear, if he's rich go for it." She stuffed her pocket with the money she had filched from me and returned my look with a wrinkled upturned nose. We both knew very well that that money wasn't going to us.

Lettie untied her smock and threw it on the till. Turning to me, she offered me an apologetic look.

"I'm taking a break Sophie, the air in here is getting a little too stuffy for me." She was out before I could save the conversation. Not wanting to give Gerta the satisfaction of winning a fight, I offered up my smock to her.

"Here, feel free to do some work instead of leeching off us for once," I turned on my heel and followed Lettie out the door.

***

A sudden breeze kicked up, lapping around my legs and cooling my fevered skin. Sometimes I forgot just how stuffy it was working in that little building, especially now that it was the middle of spring.

Our town was the ideal little paradise for city folk who wanted to get out and experience country living first hand without actually living here. We loved the business; they loved the peace. It was a perfect trade-off.

Retying the thin black sash around my middle, I set out to find Lettie. It was one thing for me to get angry at our stepmother but Lettie was a sweet and gentle person, and I hated seeing her that way. It wasn't unexpected when our father died, he had been ill for over a year, and by the time the doctors realized what he had, it was too late. He put his affairs in order, giving the three of us, that is me, Lettie and Gerta, ownership of the hat shop. At the time we had accepted it without question after all Gerta was a different person when my father was alive. It's hard to imagine it, but Lettie and I might have even loved her as a mother once.

After his funeral and an extended period of grieving, something happened to Gerta that changed her. I don't know what caused it, but she began to put unreasonable pressure on us to sell our rights to the business to her. When that didn't work, she threatened to close the doors unless we paid her to keep it open. It was a gross abuse of power on her part, and we both knew it, but we couldn't bear to see our fathers legacy fade away. It was after that point that Gerta suggested Lettie find a wealthy suitor so that he could buy her out of business. I was furious when Lettie came to me about the idea. In her heart all Lettie wanted was for Gerta and me to stop fighting. I convinced Lettie that an advantageous marriage would only keep Gertas pockets lined, nothing more. Once she knew she could get away with extorting us, it'd just be a matter of time before she came back for more.

The only positive thing that came from that fight was the change I saw in my sister. She developed the confidence to stand up for herself before our stepmother could use her as a doormat. Lettie had an aura about her that men were drawn to and she was alright with that, Lettie knew what she wanted, and she knew she wouldn't settle. For Lettie, her life was about making her mark on the world and finding success in her personal and professional life. If that didn't include a man, she didn't care.

Which was a shame for the man gazing longingly across the fountain at her at this very moment. Bits of messy red hair stuck out from under the man's tweed flat cap which he had adjusted nervously. I'm sure I'd seen this man before. He must be one of her many suitors, come to be shut down. I almost couldn't bear to watch the disappointment.

He had on a dark green vest overtop of a white collared shirt which had been tucked neatly into his matching tweed pants. He couldn't have been much older than Lettie I guessed, but he looked out of his depth. In one hand he held a bunch of daisies that had probably been plucked from someone's front garden, while the other nervously adjusted the knot in his tie. I would have found the scene adorable if I didn't already know how it would end.

I found an upturned bucket to seat myself on just outside the bakery across the road and decided not to interrupt. Lettie was seated on the edge of the fountain with her back to him, combing her fingers through her hair as he approached. I could hear him clear his throat which startled Lettie and before she could say anything he thrust the flowers at her. He mumbled something unintelligible, bowed and beat a hasty retreat up the street and out of sight.

I held my sides to stop from giggling as I found a seat next to my bewildered sister.

"Who was that?" I managed to ask with a straight face.

Her face was all astonishment. "I should ask the same thing! I've never seen him before in my life! I couldn't even tell you what colour his hair was that's how fast he ran away," she shook her head.

"Red hair, tall and rather handsome if you omit his clothes," I surmised for her.

She arranged the flowers in her hand neatly, sighing inwardly. "Shame really, I love daisies-- first time someone got that right. Would have been nice to have a conversation with him at least. . . he screamed and ran away." She pulled a face.

A giggle bubbled up from my lips before I could tamp it down.

"You do have that effect on them, Lettie."

"What's wrong with me? Am I that horrifying?" she frowned.

I plucked one of the daisies from her hand and inhaled. "Lettie, you make men within a five-mile radius nervous. I'm impressed that he even dared to speak to you. But next time, you should stop him before he runs away."

She propped her chin in her hand and nodded. "He was cute though?"

"Very," I agreed.

Again she sighed. "What a shame."

From out of the blue, a smock landed on Lettie's lap. I didn't need to look in the direction it came from to know that break time was over. Gerta pointed to Lettie and jerked her thumb in the direction of the hat shop. Lettie handed me the flowers briefly so she could re-tie her smock before I gave them back.

I stood to dust off my dress and found myself in the company of my stepmother. Not wanting to get into a fight, I politely sidestepped. Then she sidestepped. I sidestepped again and stopped her before she could do the same. I held up my hand to parlay.

"What is it? Or are we just dancing awkwardly in the middle of town square for no reason?"

"Don't get fresh with me young lady! I've got an errand I need you to run." She thrust a piece of paper at me before continuing' "I want you to go to this address, there's a very wealthy client who wishes to be fitted with a custom hat. They've asked for you by name, so it has to be you. Not to mention the fact that they're willing to pay handsomely for it."

"Why can't they come into the store to have their measurements taken?" I asked, letting the irritation seep into my voice.

"Didn't you hear me just now? I said they're paying us handsomely; you will go to them."

I looked at my thread bear clothes and then to her rich velveteen petty coat and emerald drop earrings, reminding myself who would be getting paid for this service and pushed past her.

"Do it yourself," I spat, tossing the paper back at her.

Her hand gripped my arm too tightly, and the effect was instantaneous. I turned and gave her a dirty look.

"Let. Go," I growled.

Her face curled into a sneer. "Wait just a minute; you didn't forget our agreement did you? You do what I say, and I'll continue to let you live in the shop rent free. Or would you rather live on the streets like a beggar? Lettie would be confused if that happened, I mean you still haven't told her about it have you?"

I ripped the paper from her hand and jammed it in my pocket. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that this wasn't worth a fight.

"Is that all?"

She let out a girlish giggle that I knew too well was her way of saying she won. "Yes, that's all. Do make sure to smile dear; they won't pay you well if you pout." She flashed a toothy grin in my direction and took off down the road.

What I wouldn't give to get her out of our store and out of our lives, I thought.

I pulled the paper out of my pocket and checked the address over twice. It was an odd address, and I wasn't entirely sure I'd ever been in that area of town before. I checked my pockets to make sure I had the necessary tools to head over and took another deep breath to calm myself. I reminded myself it was a beautiful day out and although I wasn't in the store doing what I loved, at least I was getting away from her.

Chapter Text

Gentle wisps of air tugged at the hem of my dress, pulling me along the cobblestone path where the sound of my footsteps mixed with the footsteps of others following down the same road. A few shops had their wares displayed out front; bits and baubles glittered and shined, enticing people into their stores for more. Sometimes we had done the same, but on the particularly windy days, we spent more time chasing hats down the street than actually selling them.

The rich scent of savoury herbs mixed with the heady smell of spirits guided my eyes to a small veranda where tables had been placed outside for patrons to enjoy the cuisine and the sunshine. Several ladies sat at one of the tiny wooden tables in their summer dresses, wearing floral hats that I recognized as my creations. I bit down a smile as I watched them complimenting each other for their purchase. Seeing all my hard work appreciated helped me understand how my father felt and why he was so passionate about his shop. Moments like this reminded me why I couldn't give up.

A lady giggled uproariously over what must have been a great joke and when I glanced over again I happened to recognize the gentleman who had spoken. With his newly acquired top hat resting on his knee, he was a hard face to forget.

One of the ladies tried to touch his shoulder, but he ducked away from her before she could reach for him.

My hand clenched into a ball my pocket.

Another offered him a sip of her drink of which he politely declined.

My chest tightened up.

What was this I was feeling? Didn't he do something similar to me not too long ago?

They say he charms people, my thoughts reminded me sagely, but my heart couldn't take it. I ducked away from the patio and out of view before I could embarrass myself.

Leave it to me to have an emotional meltdown over a man whose name I didn't even know, all because he gave his attention to me for five minutes. Why was I getting worked up about this though? Lettie handles men like him daily! Maybe I felt it more because I never got the admiration she did. I would be lying to myself if I said I wasn't jealous of the attention she got from her suitors, but that wasn't her fault. She was blessed with mothers looks, and I took after our father. Not that I hated the way I looked, no I loved that I shared my father's dusty brown hair and brown eyes but put me next to Lettie with her soft golden hair and bright blue eyes and it was no contest.

I turned the corner into a back alley and sank against the cool bricks to calm my frayed nerves. I closed my eyes and counted backwards in my head.
10. . .
9. . .
8. . .
7. . .

"Sophie?" A voice asked.

I turned to see the man walking towards me holding his top hat in one hand, a slow smile spreading across his face. Beautifully combed back blonde hair, tight-fitting suit and a sharp jawline. It was hard to forget such a man.

"Hats are for wearing you know," I pointed to the one in his hand while internally slapping myself for saying something so tactless.

He held the hat in both hands and placed it neatly on his head, still smiling at me.

"Yes I know, it's just such a lovely piece that I didn't want to ruin it." He stopped and leaned against the wall next to me.

Why did he follow me out here? Was it pity? I wasn't dressed well enough to be seen with a man like him. I thought of the sundresses the ladies wore and felt a twinge of jealousy. He should be back there with them, not in an alley next to me.

"You're Howl, aren't you?" I guessed.

His smile disappeared momentarily but quickly was replaced.

"What gave it away?" he asked.

The earnest look on his face combined with his honest curiosity made it very hard to think.

They say he charms people.

I cleared my head so I could form my words correctly.

"You're a flirt, do you know that?" I raised an eyebrow.

His face lit up. Apparently, he mistook that as a compliment.

"Am I that obvious?" he flashed his perfectly white teeth.

"Sorry, I didn't mean it that way," I said slowly, "I meant that when you flirt with everyone, some people might get the wrong idea."

He considered it for a moment. He tilted his hat slowly, offering me a lopsided grin. I kept my hands deep in my pockets, fighting hard not to be affected by him. Were these my feelings or was he using magic?

"--and who might they be?" he nudged my shoulder playfully.

I inched away from him, needing the space to think clearly.

"The ladies you were with on the veranda for starters--,"

His smile faded and his voice took and a more serious tone. "They don't mean anything to me; I was just having a drink by myself. They're the ones who sat down beside me. Besides, it would be rude of me to refuse them just because they wanted company. I didn't know I would end up bumping into you otherwise I would've wanted your company."

The wind changed directions, and at once I could smell the undertones of deep amber and rich cinnamon rolling off of his suit. It was enough to surround me and rob me of my senses. His eyes roamed every inch of me, leaving nothing untouched. I picked consciously at the fraying ends of my sleeve to stop myself from reaching over to see if his hair felt as silky as it looked, or if his lips were warm and smooth.

They say he charms people.

My chest squeezed uncomfortably.

"People like me. I mean look at me," I waved my hands up and down my clothes, "do I look like a person who should be seen in your company?"

He did look, and it made me overly aware of how old the dress was I was wearing and how messy and knotted my hair was and how scrapped and cut my fingers were from work. I wasn't manicured or clean by any means and by the time he answered I had almost forgotten what we were talking about anyways.

"What does it matter what anyone else thinks? I, for one, think you're lovely," he said quietly.

I couldn't find a way to say it out loud.

Because it doesn't make sense for you to take an interest in me.

Because the Howl I've heard of only goes after the most beautiful women.

Because you've stolen peoples hearts and I can't handle you taking mine too.

Slowly, he leaned forward, gently brushing the back of my hand with his fingertips until I had forgotten my sense of reason. Agonizingly he closed the distance between us. My hand had found its place on his shoulder, pulling me towards him closer. . . Closer. . .

"Howl! We're baking out in the sun waiting for you!" One of the ladies giggled off it the distance.

The illusion shattered. I pushed Howl gently away from me and shook my head. I couldn't do this to myself.

I held a hand to my lips, taking one step back and then another. Howl grimaced, clearly disappointed he'd been interrupted.

"So that's how you do it," I whispered.

"What do you mean?" he meant to reach for me, but I stepped out of arms reach.

"You charm woman so easily, don't you?"

He pulled off his hat and ran the other hand through his hair. He was smiling, but he wasn't happy.

"I don't know what to say. I didn't mean to upset you, Sophie, please understand me," he searched my eyes desperately. "Sometimes I don't know how to act. It feels like I'm missing something, something important but I can't explain what it is." his expression looked pained and for a moment I felt like I might have believed him.

Out of the corner of my eye, one of the ladies had caught up with us and was now keeping to a short distance away. I knew it wasn't wise for me to continue talking but I also knew it wasn't fair of me to be angry with him for having a prior commitment. After all, I barely knew Howl and what I did know, frankly, scared me. So I did the only thing I could.

"Where are you going?" Howl asked desperately from behind me.

"I'm removing myself from the situation. Goodbye Howl." I could hear my voice crack.

I turned the corner before looking back to make sure he hadn't followed me. I wasn't surprised when I found the alleyway empty when I peered over my shoulder.

So the rumours were true about Howl. I guess I was better off stopping him now before something worse happened.

I rubbed the back of my hand where his fingers had touched me and let a tear trickle down my cheek. I rubbed it away with the hem of dress which felt thinner and dirtier than before. I pulled at the material, hating how it felt on me, how it looked on me, wanting to be home where I could throw it away and never wear it again.

***

Before long I was matching the address on the piece of paper to the one on the house. I found it odd that I didn't immediately recognize it. I had grown up in this town, so everything had a familiar feel to it, but this house seemed as though it had appeared overnight. Squished between two other townhouses, this one looked newer than the others.

Everything about it was lavish; from the crystal handle to the gold filigree on the woodwork. The shutters were a brilliant white and the windows sparkled in the sunlight. It contrasted oddly with the other rundown homes in the area. Was there ever a person that rich living in Market Chipping? I wondered to myself. I reach for the polished gold door knocker, but before I could grab it, the door swung inwards and a voice welcomed me.

"Sophie! So wonderful for you to come! Do come in," a woman tittered sweetly.

As if enchanted by her voice alone, my legs carried me forward into the mysterious house.

Chapter Text

Draped across a chaise lounge with her legs drawn out over the white leather, I could almost imagine an artist setting up an easel on the opposite end of the room to paint her portrait. She wore a black lace face covering to disguise her features; a black gown hugged her tiny frame in all the wrong places with thousands of sequins glittering every time she shifted her body. Her long spider-like fingers balanced a cigarette that she pressed to her lips periodically and pulled until the ashes tumbled onto the floor. A polished ebony cane was left propped against the armrest, adorned with an immense blood red ruby.

Her eyes appraised every inch of me, and her expression told me she didn't like what she saw. She took another long drag of her cigarette and put it out on the white leather armrest. Pulling herself up to a seated position, she wrapped a minx shawl over her bony shoulders and walked over to get a better look at me.

The air around me was foul and felt heavy in my chest. I was finding it difficult to breathe let alone speak. Who was this woman? Looking now with her so close, I could see her pallor had a bluish tinge to it, dotted with sunspots and spider veins. Something told me this woman had lived a very long life.

She reached for my hand and held it in hers. The chilled feeling of her fingers reminded me of the carrots I had taken out of the fridge to cut up this morning. She examined my hand front to back, tracing circles across the surface of my skin periodically. The woman eyed me with disgust and released me abruptly. I let my hand fall back to my side quietly. I took this as the opportune time to figure out what exactly was going on here.

"Excuse me, ma'am? Why am I here?" The way her eyes continued to assess me, I had a feeling this visit was more about me and less about hats.

"What is it that you have?" she asked, more to herself than to me.

I fidgeted with the fabric tape in my pocket and showed it to her. "Well, I can take measurements so we can get started making your hat," I suggested. So I can get out of here, I thought.

She waved me off with her hand. "No, no I said nothing about a hat."

I pulled the address out of my pocket and read it out loud just to confirm it, "this is 39 Rosewood Lane. . . isn't it?" I asked.

"Yes it is," she lit up another cigarette and pushed it between her lips, staining the filter with lipstick.

"I'm sorry ma'am, but I'm here about a custom hat. If you're not looking for one then I'll be--," I pointed at the door and made to turn and leave.

"It's witch of the waste," she corrected me.

A sick feeling washed over me. Where had I heard that name before?

"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" I hoped I had misheard her.

"I am the witch of the waste, not ma'am. You have heard of me, haven't you?" her red lips curled over her stained teeth and into a wicked smile.

I had heard of her. It was back at the shop when the other women were gossiping about Howl. But that would mean that,

"You and Howl have a long-standing feud," I said out loud. I clasped my hand over my mouth, surprised I had mentioned it.

She tossed the now used butt into a corner and blew the smoke in my face, looking smug. She flicked her hand, and I heard a click behind me.

She had locked the door.

She wasn't going to let me go.

I had to stall her while I thought up a plan. Scanning the room, I noticed a rather large and possibly heavy metal lamp slightly behind me.

"What could you possibly want with me? I don't even know the man." I slowly inched my way over to it.

She threw back her head and cackled. "Ha! I find that very hard to believe considering he's been in your store every day for the past month."

A month? But that's not even possible. Indeed, I would have noticed him long before then. How could a man, who stands out as much as Howl does, blend in so well that I didn't see him?

"He couldn't possibly have been in the store before today," I sputtered, "and what would it matter anyway? I only spoke to him twice today and not for very long."

The witch of the waste turned and walked back to her chaise lounge, seating herself comfortably once again. She grabbed a handbag from beside her and rummaged around until she produced a tiny pink vial. Satisfied with her selection, she tossed the satchel over the couch. "That may be true, but there's one thing you have that I need." She uncorked the vial and smiled up at me.

I let my hands grip the lamp carefully behind my back. "Whatever it is I don't have it okay? So you're going to let me go," I said with more confidence than I knew I had.

"Oh but you will because you see, you won't have a choice in the matter." She let out a raspy cackle, holding the bottle up to prove her point.

My hands gripped the lamp tighter, waiting for an opening.

"What makes you think I'll be of any use to you?"

She tapped one of her bony fingers to her lips with a secretive smile. "Well you see my dear, the one thing you have that I don't is Howl's trust. He doesn't let people touch him, and he certainly doesn't touch other people and yet--," she aimed her bony finger at me, "he's touched you. I wonder why that is?"

Panic welled up inside my chest until I was a ball of nervous energy.

With more bravado than I've ever had, I swung the lamp at her. It connected with her head with a sickening crunch, and she collapsed like a rag doll on the floor. I tossed the weapon aside and made for the door, fidgeting with the lock in a desperate attempt to open it before it was too late, my hands shaking so much I couldn't get a grasp on the bolt. Quick footsteps sounded behind me followed by the searing pain of something connecting with the side of my head. A hot gush of something oozed down the back of my neck, staining the front of my dress.

I fell to my knees with a thump and hit my head on the door. I could hear her cursing behind me as she discarded the lamp. As she closed in on me, a weird sensation washed over my body. Kneeling down beside me, she gripped the back of my neck.

"That hurt," she growled, pulling me back until I was flat on the floor.

I couldn't move. Why couldn't I move?

"Please don't," I begged her. This was it. This was how it was all going to end.

"Oh, I'm not going to kill you." She dug one if her sharp nails into my collar bone and grinned. "However I am going to curse you and the beautiful part about it? You won't be able to tell anyone about it dear. Youth and beauty? Gone, Sophie, all gone. If you want it back, you're going to bring me what I want."

Black dots began to creep their way across my vision and my body felt heavy.

"What do you--," I tried to form the words on my deadened lips.

She leaned in close and whispered, "what I want. . . my dear Sophie is Howls heart."

I stared blankly at the ceiling, but I could see nothing but blackness all around me. A question remained on my lips as the darkness took over.

A heart?

Why would she want that?

Chapter Text

Lub, dub. . .lub, dub. . .lub, dub. . .

Either someone was playing the drums loudly, or the witch had hit me hard enough that my heart relocated its self in my skull. Reaching around, I touched the back of my head gingerly where a sizeable lump had formed, a painful reminder that I was bludgeoned with a lamp.

The witch of the waste had a decent batting arm.

I carefully opened my eyes, letting bits of sunlight in as they adjusted to my surroundings. The house where I had been unconscious in was no longer there. From where I sat, which happened to be on a garbage heap between two houses, my prospective future was looking a little dim. I had to hand it the witch of the waste though; she must have had an immense power to have conjured up a building and then demolish it in less than twenty-four hours.

"Wait a second why am I praising that evil old windbag anyways?" I grumbled to myself.

"Mommy! That weird old lady is talking to herself," a little girl across the street from me stood and pointed a finger in my direction.

Weird? . .Old? To my left, I saw mounds of garbage and to my right, more waste. Then it occurred to me that I was the old lady she was referring to! I peered down at my gnarled old hands, paper thin and covered in tiny little red veins. I touched my face, my arms, my legs and everything about me was wrong; I was too soft, too stretched out and so frail. The panic welling up inside me came to a boiling point, threatening to make me run like a mad woman.

"Allison we don't talk to beggars, they can be dangerous," a woman grabbed the little girls hand and rushed her away, studiously avoiding me.

"Beggar? Who's a beggar?" I snapped back, shaking a fist at her. The woman covered the little girl's eyes and hurried her out of site.

Staring down at my tattered and stained clothes, I had to admit I fit the description better than I wanted too.

I eased myself up using a stick that I'd fashioned into a makeshift cane. Spying the corner of an old blanket, I pulled it out of the heap and appraised its condition. Shaking it out, I covered my head to disguise my wound and draped the rest across my shoulders like a cloak. Climbing out of the mess I found myself staring down the street, entirely at a loss for words.

My first instinct was to go home for a well-needed shower, but that meant seeing Lettie and explaining why her little sister was now her grandmother. Besides that, it would suggest getting her involved in something dangerous. I wasn't selfish enough to take that risk.

What else could I possibly do though?

My next best option then was to find a way to tell Howl what happened to me and hope he could use his magic to reverse it. The more I thought about it, the more I liked this plan. I'd just have to write the witch of the waste cursed me on a piece of paper and handed it to him. He'd work a little magic on me and then voila! No more curse. Simple right?

I laughed humourlessly. That loophole couldn't possibly be that easy, or the witch of the waste wouldn't have bothered cursing me in the first place. Even still, it was a better plan than anything else I could think of at the moment.

Odd looks were being tossed in my direction, reminding me how aware I was that I needed a change of clothes and a bath. There was no question; I had to risk my luck at home.

And after that, I'd search for Howl.

***

I ran my hand along the splintered window frame of our shop, searching for a small space where we wedged a spare key for safe keeping. My fingertips found the sharp edge of the key, and I eased it gently out of the gap. It was rusted with age, having been placed there well before my father passed away, but I was thankful now that he'd had the foresight to plant it there.

I pushed the key in slowly and waited for the gentle click of the lock before opening the door. Turning the handle, I let the door swing open before peering inside to see if the coast was clear.

No voices and no movement. Good. Things were finally looking up for me. Closing the door quietly, I crept along the wooden planks, careful to pick the ones I knew wouldn't creak underfoot. I was halfway across the room as the back door flung open and Lettie burst into the shop. Her face was beat red, and her usually coiffed hair was a messy tangle of curls.

"Gerta you need to back off and give Sophie and I some space. This pressure to have me married off to some rich guy is getting old!" She threw her arms in the air, punctuating her frustration. I took this opportunity to blend in with the mannequins as Gerta followed her into the room.

"Well, I keep telling you that the only way I'm giving up this business is if you two buy me out and to do that you've gotta have money. So, do you have any money?" she smirked.

"You know we don't and that's your fault! You take all the profits from our sales and leave us with barely enough to feed and clothe ourselves! How do you expect us to save up enough to buy you out, especially when the amount you want is outrageous!" she grabbed the closest object, a teacup, and hurled it at the wall. It shattered into a million tiny little pieces and the effect instant. Gerta took a few steps back and held her hands up in defence.

"First lesson of adulthood sweetheart; life's not fair. You don't like it then find yourself a husband and buy me out." She turned and sneered at me, "oh and do it before you turn into an old hag like that one." She mashed her finger on a button on the till until the drawer flung open. She cleaned the cash float with a swipe of her hand and stomped out the front door, slamming it shut.

Lettie fell to her knees and dissolved into a puddle of tears. It crushed me to see her like this, dealing with our stepmother was my job, not hers. I didn't want to give myself away, but I also couldn't leave her in such a state.

I cleared my throat and tried for my best old lady voice which was surprisingly convincing. "Excuse me miss? Might I trouble you for a moment?"

Lettie's head snapped up as she realized she wasn't alone in the room. Taking me in, I thought for a moment she might have recognized me, but she quickly left the room without a word. Armed with bandages and water, I could tell she was only concerned with my well-being. It was so very like Lettie.

She dropped to her knees and dumped the dressings next to her, choosing to soak one with water before applying it to my neck.

"I am so sorry I didn't see you there at first, I do hope you'll excuse me for that. What happened to your head? Did you have a nasty fall?" She applied cool compress again to the growing lump in my head, and I felt instant relief.

"I suppose I fell," I agreed with her. It was better than mentioning anything about the witch of the waste.

She smiled politely and decided not to pry. Instead, she focussed her attention fussing over me. It was one of the things I loved about Lettie; she couldn't help but be kind. As she worked her magic, cleaning and rinsing the wound, I could feel a void opening up between us. My worst fear was confirmed. We were strangers to each other.

"Oh dear, did I hurt you?" her face was full of worry.

She must have seen the tears that fell freely down my cheeks. Quickly I wiped them away, shrugging off her concern for me.

There was a quick knock, knock, knock at the door. From where I sat I could see a man with bright red hair fidgeting with his tie in the reflection of the glass.

I let out a low whistle and winked at her as she tried to hide her blush. "Is that man the suitor that nasty woman was going on about?"

She watched him from where she knelt beside me and stared off dreamily. "My stepmother would never approve," her smile turned into a frown, "--because he has no money."

"Money isn't everything sweetie," I reminded her. "Does this young man have a name?"

She held a hand to her cheek to hide her blush.

"His name is Markel. We had dinner last night after he spent an hour working up the nerve to ask me. He's quite charming."

Her statement surprised me. Lettie never let men take her to dinner.

"He must be a wonderful man, to have secured your affections," I smiled.

She turned away so I couldn't see her expression. "I'm sorry. You're the first person I'm telling this to when I had hoped to tell my sister." She turned to me, worry written on her face. "I'm a little worried about her because I haven't seen her all morning. She's about my size with pretty brown hair and matching brown eyes; you haven't seen her have you?" She looked hopeful, grasping my hand tightly.

My heart squeezed a little. I forgot that not only could I not come home, but that also meant Lettie wouldn't know what happened to me. I'd have to leave her a note saying I was away on a trip or something. I didn't need her fretting over me.

I shook my head, to her disappointment. I reached for her hand and held it in mine. "Don't worry dear; I'm sure she'd be happy to hear it when she comes home."

Lettie smiled back at me. Wiping her hands on her dress, she opened the door for Markel.

He seemed a little less nervous today. He offered a handful of daisies yet again which earned him a dazzling smile from my sister. He looked as though he was about to kiss my sister but Lettie stopped him, pointed quickly to me and then offered an apologetic look.

He cleared his throat and bowed to me, utterly unsure of what to do. I tried to stifle my laughter and ended up in a coughing fit. Lettie quickly ran over to help, but I pushed her away.

"I'm fine! I'm not dying or anything," I promised her.

For once Lettie surprised me. She stomped her foot on the ground, demanding my attention. "Your clothes are in tatters, you're wearing a dirty old blanket, and you're suffering from a head wound. I would say you most certainly are not okay. Do you have a place you can stay?" she looked at me earnestly.

"No," I said quietly.

Markel seemed all too willing to please Lettie. Quickly he made his way over and plucked up the courage to speak.

"S-she can stay with m-me," he looked directly at Lettie for approval.

Lettie flashed him a secret smile I knew she only reserved for men she liked and also for when she wanted special favours from me.

"You'd do that Markel? That is incredibly sweet!"

"I-I'd do anything for you," he mumbled under his breath, rubbing the back of his neck shyly.

In a blink Lettie glided across the room and into the back of the shop, back to where I knew our rooms were, reappearing a moment later with a couple of worn out dresses that I immediately recognized as my own.

"I know my sister wouldn't hesitate to give these to someone in need so I'm positive she wouldn't mind if I gave them to you. They're a little older, and we'd meant to turn them into rags, but with a little needlework, you could get some use out of them. At least until your back on your feet, that is." She rummaged around in her pocket until she found a spool of thread and a few needles. "Do you know how to sew, miss. .?"

I used the first name that popped into my mind.

"A-Allison--," I held out my hand for the sewing notions and smiled sincerely, "and I know enough to get by, thank you, Lettie."

At the sound of her name, she looked at me most peculiarly. I pulled consciously at my hood to hide my face from her curious eyes.

"I feel like I've met you somewhere before. . ." she scratched her head.

"I've been around the market; you may have seen me there," I shrugged.

Markel cleared his throat, reminding us that we weren't the only ones in the room. I rolled the needles and thread into the dresses and tucked them under my arm for safe keeping. I couldn't figure out how to thank Lettie without being too familiar, so I settled on a light pat on the shoulder. People did that sort of thing, right?

Turning to Markel, I was beginning to feel more determined than ever to fix this curse.

"S-Shall we?" he looked nervously to Lettie and then to me. This man was in deep for my sister. "It's a bit of a walk, so I-I hope you're prepared," he held the door open and offered his hand to me.

Hooking my arm through his, I steeled myself for the journey to come.

I needed to be ready.

Chapter Text

Spring.

Spring is my favourite season for so many reasons; the colours in bloom; the fragrance of new blossoms that poke out of the ground after a long winter, washing the countryside with the warm breeze that rolls through, melting away the last bits of offending snow.

Today though, spring was not my friend.

Every bone in my body ached from the crisp breeze. It nipped at my exposed cheeks and numbed my fingers until they felt raw and sore. I kept the blanket wrapped tightly around my shoulders, muttering curse words under my breath. Markel, on the other hand, followed quietly beside me, matching my stride and waiting each time I needed to rest. He smiled at me jovially, remarking on the lovely weather we were having. It took every bit of my effort to smile back rather than tell him how I felt about the bloody weather. My old age was making me cynical.

Markel stopped for what seemed like the thousandth time and pulled a pair of pruning shears out of the satchel he had strapped to his back. Kneeling next to the dirt road we'd been travelling on, he rubbed his fingers on the leaves of a little plant that jutted out from the ground and sniffed them. The first time I saw him do this, I thought it was strange, but Markel was quick to explain his method when it was apparent that I was perplexed. Markel was a botanist by trade; he collected herbs he found during his travels and cultivated the herbs he couldn't see. The herbs were then dried, packaged, and sold for a modest fee. He explained that some herbs were the sort used for cooking and others had critical medicinal properties for healing. The more he told me about it, the more I was amazed by his work.

Markel pushed up from his knees, tucking the bundle of herbs into his satchel. He held out his hand in offering, and I leaned in and inhaled the crisp, refreshing fragrance on his fingertips. It smelled of the little candies we kept in a glass dish back home.

"Peppermint," I hummed, inhaling the sweet scent once again. "It's incredible that you can spot all these different plants so easily, I feel like I'd be plucking grass and weeds all day if I tried!"

He merely shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road ahead of us. "You make it sound more difficult than it is. Botany requires no amount of real skill, only memorization of pictures in a book. I don't apply the remedies; I just collect them. Healers are the ones with the real work, making poultices and medicines out of all this stuff," he gestured to the now bulging satchel of herbs.

"You're too hard on yourself," I remarked. "If not for all your hard work, healers wouldn't have the ingredients for their remedies."

"I suppose you're right," he chuckled, running a free hand through the mess of curly red hair.

"I must ask though, why botany?" I gave him a quizzical look.

"Money I suppose," he adjusted the strap on his shoulder, thinking about it more. "Master and I have to pay for food somehow, and he's not exactly inclined to work. I took up botany, and I like it well enough." He dropped the conversation at that, but it only served to raise more questions for me.

For the first time, I seriously considered where we were going. Markel seemed to live far on the outskirts of town, really, really far out. We'd been walking for almost an hour, and the only change of scenery was the town as it slowly disappeared into the background. Nothing but rolling hills lay ahead of us and to my right was a dense forest so thick with underbrush we couldn't possibly walk through it. The further we walked, the less certain I was about our destination.

Something felt very off. Markel used the word master just as a servant would. I've never heard someone calling another person master and yet he used it so casually. The images that popped into my head were of slave drivers and cruel men who looked down on others of lower standing. My thoughts then settled on the visage of the witch of the waste, her cold, steely fingers wrapping around my throat as she sucked the life from my lips.

No. Markel couldn't possibly be one of her, her minions, could he?

I peered over at Markel, now uncertain of his motives. Why was I following this stranger so eagerly? I didn't know anything about him, aside from his fondness for my sister.

No, Sophie, get a grip on yourself. If Lettie allowed him into her life, he has to be a decent person, I told myself.

He noticed me staring and shifted the satchel on his shoulders again, clearing his throat uncomfortably.

"Markel. . ." I hesitated, ". .earlier you mentioned you have a master. Who were you referring to?" I could hear my heartbeat drumming in my ears and felt the warm flush in my cheeks. Did I want his answer? What if he was a bad guy? I couldn't defend myself if the witch of the waste came after me now.

"The master? You'll meet him soon I suspect," he said over his shoulder, "depends on when he comes home. I can never predict it; he's always travelling."

I heaved a silent sigh of relief. If Markel's master was a man, he couldn't possibly be the witch of the waste.

Markel stopped at the fork in the road and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Come to think of it; I don't know how he'll react to having a stranger in the house." He offered me a wink and gestured with his hand towards the opening in the tree line. "Ladies first."

I followed the worn path on the ground that wound it's self through the forest, surprised at how quickly we made our way through, given how densely packed the trees were. I was confident that if I got lost now, I'd never make it out.

Now you're old and a pessimist, I scolded myself internally.

In the distance, I could make out horizontal stacks of pine logs joined by a cedar shingled roof and the makings of a chimney that poked out of the centre of the little house. The windows were shut and covered thickly with soft green foliage that crept along the side, partially camouflaging the wood. Situated between the windows was a rather strange little red door, with what appeared to be a gold handle. The weird thing was, something about it seemed vaguely familiar.

"How long have you lived here?" I turned to Markel, marvelling at the little house as I made my way around the outside of it.

He scratched the back of his neck, looking as though he couldn't find the right words. "Well, I don't live here. This house is just one door of about a dozen or so doors we have to the castle."

I looked at the little house and counted the doors.

One. One door on the house.

House. Not castle.

The poor guy must have dashed his brains on one of the trees further back.

"Markel. . ." I examined the house once more, just to make sure I wasn't going blind. "This is a house," I circled the air with my finger outlining it as if that could make my point any clearer. "Not to mention the doors. . . What do you mean a dozen? I don't see them."

He stared at me for all of a moment in disbelief and uttered something under his breath, wiping his hand across his forehead. "Damn it, I completely forgot. How stupid am I? How did I forget something like this?" He paced back and forth in front of the house, fighting his little internal battle. I waited for him to elaborate but he seemed lost to the world.

"I'm sorry but-," I held out my hand to stop him, "-what exactly is the problem here?"

He pointed at the door as if that could answer my question for me. I gave him a queer look in response. "It's a door?"

Markel looked astonished. "You can see that?"

Equally astonished I answered back, "am I not supposed to?"

He shook his head. "I don't know! Non-magic folk shouldn't be able to see this door. Master enchanted it so only people he permits may pass. In fact, I don't even know if it'll let you in, to be honest."

Magic. Heat flushed again on my cheeks.

Magic was what got me into this mess.

Magic was the weapon the witch of the wastes used on me. I wanted no part in it.

But, magic was the only thing that could change me back. The wind picked up and found its way through the openings of my dress, chilling me to the bone. Not even a day had passed, and I was painfully aware of the effects my old body was having on me. It was an unwelcome reminder of what I needed to do.

"So if I can see the door, then I can enter?" I asked.

"There's only one way to find out," Markel guided me to the door, his hand on the small of my back.

I looked over at Markel as he nodded his head encouragingly. I reached for the polished golden knob and twisted it gently, releasing it as it gave way to the threshold. Hesitantly, I took one step forward through the doorway, but to my surprise, there was no resistance. Markel shut the door behind him, chuckling to himself as he un-shouldered the satchel.

"You must know the master after all," he patted my back.

He shouldered himself past me and into the room; it was easier to describe the place more like a hall than a house. Everywhere I looked the walls were a brilliant white, made brighter by the immense picture windows that cascaded warm sunlight into the room, soothing my aching body as I stepped into his home. A lounging area complete with intricately carved wooden rocking chairs and a cobblestone hearth to my right. Ahead of me, a kitchen opened up into an area with rows of rope hanging parallel from the ceiling. Markel stood in the kitchen, quietly fixing his herbs to the rows with string while watching me explore. A solid mahogany table took up space next to the kitchen complete with clean place settings for two. All the pots and pans stacked in an orderly fashion, all the books neatly categorized on their shelves and even the hearth was well stocked and maintained. To my surprise, everything about the house was neat and tidy.

"Your place it's so clean, Markel," I remarked.

He snorted without looking my way. "Of course it's clean, I pride myself that this castle is always spotless."

"There's that word again castle," I tapped the kitchen counter with my fingers. "Why do you call it that? This house isn't one, I've seen the outside. It's not a castle." I deadpanned.

A secret smiled played on his lips. "You've seen one entrance, yes. But there are a dozen or more, and they don't all look like the one in the woods."

"That makes no sense." I looked at him, confused.

"Why doesn't it though? Shouldn't every wizard have a castle?" he supplied.

"Are you a wizard?" I raised my eyebrows.

"Apprentice wizard," he corrected me. "Master is a wizard though, why do you ask?"

I tried to kept my voice calm as I gripped the edge of the counter, "c-can he help people? Like with curses and such?"

Markel eyed me suspiciously. "Why?"

"Because I . . ." I started, but something cut off my voice. "I . . ." I tried again, but still nothing.

Markel waited for me to continue but I could only shake my head. The words couldn't come to me. The witch wasn't lying; I couldn't say anything even if I tried. He directed his attention elsewhere and pulled more herbs from his satchel, binding them with twine.

"Never mind, I was just curious is all. My mind isn't what it used to be," I laughed mechanically. At least that part wasn't wrong, I thought sadly.

Markel continued to hang his herbs as I made my way around to the other side of the room. A winding staircase made its way up to the second floor, but before that, my curiosity leads me to one of the doors on the left side of the room. Once opened, I found myself in a lavish wet room covered in marble. An ornate claw foot tub was the focal point of this reprieve. As I made my way over to look at it closer, I found myself frozen in place.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a floor length mirror propped in the back of the room. I broke out in a cold sweat. Letting the blanket fall off my shoulders, I stepped into the path of the mirror and gazed at the reflection that looked back at me in horror. A stranger stared at me, her eyes gaunt and hollow; her hair coarse, white and caked in dried blood. My skin, where it poked out from my tattered dress, was pale, spotted and wrinkled, as was my face. My nose had become bulbous and rouged with scabs that spread to my cheeks. I ran my fingers along the fragile skin of my forehead and stopped at my eyes. The warm colour of my irises was now a faded, dull brown. I held my sides, fearful that my fragile self might fall apart. This body was not my own; this person looking back at me was a stranger. I quickly wiped an offending tear from my cheek as Markel knocked on the open door, letting himself in.

"Are you alright, Allison?" his expression was serious. I wiped another tear before it could betray me. Even my name is not my own. He placed a towel and the bundle of spare clothes on the ledge next to the tub before looking me over. "Are you in pain? Do you have other injuries that you haven't mentioned? I'm no healer, but I might have something that could help."

He left the room and returned quickly with a glass bottle fixed with a cork. The contents reminded me of the tea leaves I'd used to scoop into the kettle every morning before work. His warm hands pressed the bottle into my palms.

"What's this?" I asked, turning the bottle over in my hands. I recognized lavender and rose petals, but the rest were foreign to me.

"It's just a concoction I made a while back. Master uses it after his long journeys, says it helps to take the ache out of his muscles. It might help," he gave me an earnest look.

Markel was a genuine man, and it warmed my heart to know that Lettie had found such a person. I squeezed one of his hands and thanked him with a smile.

"I've left some things on the ledge for you. Have a bath and relax. We'll make lunch once you finish, alright?" he made a quick exit, allowing me my privacy.

I leaned over the huge tub and turned the knobs until my fingers felt the warm, soothing rush of water. Pulling the cork off the bottle, I breathed deeply and added a generous amount of the herbal remedy to the bath, feeling a little more at ease. I tugged the shoulders of my dress until it fell from my body. Peeking over my shoulder at the mirror once again, I tossed my tattered dress over it in the process. It was better covered up anyways.

Chapter Text

What was it about a bath that made everything in the world seem better? Even after an unusually long day at the shop, Lettie would draw me a bath, insisting I'd earned it for all the hard work I'd done that day. I almost never argued with her; Lettie always won our arguments and honestly, I knew it gave her joy to take care of me. Well, hunching over my work all day was terrible for my posture, and I did need that bath. I honestly don't know how dad did it all those years.

As I held the bar of soap, I turned my hands over scrutinizing them. They were still covered in little scars from needlework and scissor cuts, even if they looked a lot older now. I settled back into the tub and breathed contently. The warmth of the water soothed my aching skin, and the herbal soak Markel had given me did wonders for my muscles and joints. I almost felt like me again.

It was hard to accept what the witch of the waste had done to me, but I had to remind myself that things could have been a lot worse. She could have killed me, but she didn't. She could have harmed Lettie, but she didn't. The effects of her curse on me were purely physical, that's all.

If anything, my body now suited a person who bends over her needlework for ten hours or more.

Still, every time I risked a look down at my body, I was reminded of my gnarled fingers and knobby knees. Even the mirror seemed to tease me, peeking around the tattered dress that hung across it, showing me everything I hated about my new old body.

I dispelled those thoughts by pulling the plug out of the tub and easing myself slowly out. Markel had been kind enough to leave the assortment of old dresses out on the ledge. After wrapping myself in the towel, I pulled the needle and thread out of the pocket of my discarded clothing and set about fixing one of the dresses.

The dress in question was a faded royal blue number paired with a white sash that came in under the bust. The seams were beginning to unravel, but apart from that, it was entirely wearable. Using my ever trusting whip stitch, I closed the loose seams and plucked the stray threads using my teeth. Satisfied with my handiwork, I slipped it on and tied the sash with an artful bow in the back. I may be old now, but it's no excuse not to dress nicely. I found another white sash amongst the dresses and tied my hair into a braid down my back, using the sash to finish the look.

The bath cleaned the wound on my head well enough that my hair disguised it. I folded the towel neatly, tossed the soiled dress into the waste bin and gave myself a smirk in the mirror.

Not bad Sophie, not bad at all.

I decided that I'd spend some time mending the other dresses before lunch, so I tucked them under my arm and opened the door, honestly feeling better than I had all morning.

"Markel I don't know what you put in that herbal bath soak, but it worked wonders on me! I really must repay you," I singsonged happily, making my way over to the to the rocking chairs.

Just as I rounded the staircase, I picked up on not one, but two voices in the lounge. Standing with his head turned away from me, Howl smoothed his fingers over his hair as he removed his top hat. He placed it gingerly on the mantel, running a finger along the stitching before he turned around and met my gaze. My body responded instantly, and without thinking, I squeezed the spool of thread in my hand and embedded the needle in my palm.

I gasped in pain and dropped the dresses, gripping my hand at the wrist. Markel shot up out of his chair and was in front of me in an instant. He quickly plucked the needle out and staunched the bleeding with one of the discarded dresses. Howl, on the other hand, stood silently next to Markel, staring at me with the most peculiar look.

"Markel, who is this?" Howl asked without taking his eyes from mine. I fought to look away, but like a moth to a flame, he trapped me in his gaze. More magic? Was he using it on me again?

"She's, err. ," he stuttered, rubbing his neck awkwardly.

"Allison," I provided.

I meant to say Sophie. . . Wait, why can't I say my name?

"Yes, Allison is her name," he responded.

I felt very cross. "No," I tried to correct him, "my name is Allison."

Markel's face screwed up in a knot as he tried to decipher what was going on. "Yes, as I was saying, she's Allison, I met her--,"

"Allison!" I said in frustration. What in the bloody hell? Has the witch of the waste taken over my name too?

Howl kept his eyes fixed on me. "Her name doesn't matter at this point, Markel. Why is she here?"

"Well you see," he stammered, looking for his words as if they were drawn on the ceiling, "she happened to be at the hat shop this morning when I went to see Lettie. . ."

Howl's eyes widened when he mentioned the shop, and he broke eye contact for a moment to address him. "Did you happen to see her when you were there?" he asked earnestly.

Markel shook his head, "sorry master; I didn't."

Howl pulled his white satin gloves off and stuffed them in his pocket, massaging the tension from his forehead. He collected himself by tugging at his cufflinks and addressed me with a nod, "you've got quite a nasty curse placed on you, am I correct?" he walked in a slow circle around me, gauging my appearance.

My eyes widened. It was the only response I could offer given that my mouth refused to cooperate.

Markel's jaw dropped. "Seriously Allison? Why didn't you say so in the first place?"

My mouth opened but the words vanished.

"You can't tell us, can you?" Howl guessed, holding his chin between his thumb and forefinger. "That's why you're struggling to tell us your name. You must have made someone very angry to have incurred one; curses are a lot of work."

Mountains upon mountains of words built up inside my lungs ready to burst forth, but all were held back by an invisible dam. I gazed down at my appearance and back at Howl, desperate for him to understand me.

"Can you help her?" Markel asked. I could have hugged him at that moment.

Howl looked me over once more a shook his head.

My heart sank.

"Curses are unique, Markel. Every witch and wizard places their mark on it, like a lock that only their key can open. Unless I have their key, I can't unlock it. Not to mention, it is unlikely that whoever cast the curse is willing to give that key to me."

I fought the tears the welled up in my vision, but with a blink, they dripped down my cheeks. Markel pulled a kerchief from his pocket and offered it to me, shooting Howl a look in the process. I smiled weakly and turned away from them to hide my shame. I was stuck with this body forever, wasn't I?

Markel placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "There now, the master can be a bit harsh at times but if there's any way we can help, we will."

The warm smell of amber and cinnamon hit me, and when I looked up, Howl was standing in front of me. He made to touch my shoulder but then thought better of it. Retracting his hand, he stuffed it into his pants pocket and nodded. "I'll do a little reading tonight and see what I can come up with but please don't misunderstand me. You would be better off to find the witch or wizard who did this and apologize for whatever it was you did to provoke them."

I don't know what came over me, but his words lit a fire in my heart and anger washed over me. Apologize? To the witch of the waste? If only he knew that she'd done this to me because she wanted his heart!

"What master means," Markel interrupted, "is that if he had the power to help he would, but as it stands he can't because--,"

"--that's enough, Markel." Howl cut him off, giving him a stern and meaningful looking.

Why was Howl lying to me?

Howl stared past me at Markel and sighed. He shrugged off his coat and removed his bow tie, draping them over the rocking chair. His oxfords clicked neatly on the solid ebony floors as he made his way over to the kitchen. He waved his fingers in an artful manner, and within moments a pot had arranged its self on the stove while a cutting board and knife made quick work of a stack of vegetables.

I rubbed my eyes and refocused on what was happening. Howl continued to wave his hands and flick his wrists as the bowls moved to the counter, awaiting the food. His perfectly oiled hair fell across his forehead as he looked down, loosening the top button on his shirt while he worked.

It felt almost like a dance of sorts, his movements mesmerizing me. I could have watched him for hours, but I was uncomfortably aware of the barrier between us now, and I felt guilty watching him.

"Allison, are you joining us for lunch?" Markel asked, seating himself at the table. I agreed too quickly, earning a smirk from Markel.

Almost as soon as I sat down, my bowl appeared before me filled with piping hot vegetable soup. Before I could ask for a spoon, it found its way next to my dish, and I was surprised to see a handkerchief already covering my lap.

I sampled the soup and put down my spoon. I curled my fingers around the bowl with delight, the same way I always did when Lettie made a batch of chicken soup and drank deeply. Not only was it delicious, but it felt a little like home.

Howl seated himself across the table and placed his handkerchief in his lap, his lip curving upward as he looked over at me.

For a moment I considered the possibility that magic wasn't all that terrible.

"Is it good?" Howl asked, cocking an eyebrow at me as I held the bowl up to my mouth and drank.

Markel sighed next to me. "Table manners," he whispered a little too loudly.

For a moment, I had forgotten where I was. Slowly, I put my bowl down and picked up the spoon and cleared my throat. "Very good," I agreed politely.

Howl broke out in a grin and placed his spoon on the table. Taking up the bowl with both his hands, he slipped as well, complimenting himself on his culinary skills. "I make a rather nice bowl of soup, don't I?"

I covered my mouth, forcing myself to swallow before I coughed up my soup. "I don't recall seeing you do anything but wave your fingers around all willy-nilly," I teased him.

Howl met my eyes with a challenge, "you think you could make a better one?" he crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, smirking.

I knew darn well I couldn't. In addition to inheriting her good looks, Lettie had also mastered mothers cooking skills; I, however, did not.

At least I knew how to anchor a stitch.

"No! I'm no witch, Howl," I giggled.

The smile vanished from Howls face, and the room went painfully quiet. Markel looked at him and then to me in shock.

"How do you know my name?" Howl asked, leaning across the table to get a better look at me.

Something about the change in Howls attitude alarmed me. "Markel mentioned it, I think," I stammered.

Howl shook his head, telling me that was the wrong answer. "Markel never calls me Howl; he only calls me master. I'll ask again, how do you know my name?"

This time I truly wanted to say it, that I had met him yesterday at my hat shop, and later we almost shared a kiss in the alley, but the words wouldn't come.

"I can't," was all I could manage.

"It could be the curse," Markel offered. I wanted to hug him again because he didn't know how right he was.

Howl had leaned in so close now that I could feel his breath on my cheek. I tore myself away from his gaze and tried to think of a way to explain. Across the room, perched on the mantel, was the top hat Howl had purchased from me only yesterday.

That was it!

Quickly I got up from the table and made for the hearth, plucking the hat from the mantel. I searched the inside of the lid for a label with my name on it to show it to him, but the hat was taken from my grasp before I could find it. With a flick of his wrist, the hat disappeared.

"I don't know what you were playing at by touching that. Don't ever touch my possessions again, understood?" His voice was dark and full of anger.

"If you would just give me a minute to show you--," I tried to explain.

He held up a hand for silence. "Enough. I extended my hospitality to you, but this is where it ends. You may stay tonight, but I want you to leave tomorrow. Understood?" His expression held nothing but contempt for me. Before I could answer, he snapped his fingers at Markel and turned away from me. "Draw me a bath Markel," he commanded, his oxfords clicking against the floors as he walked away.

Markel tossed me an apologetic look and bowed to his master.

I couldn't bear it any longer, I grabbed the dresses from the floor and made for the front door. Opening it wide, I found myself looking out to a different landscape, it was no longer the forest. I didn't care where I was, all I knew was that I couldn't be there any longer. Without looking back, I stepped out of the house and away from Howl's castle.

Chapter Text

When Lettie and I were young, our parents often took us to the lake for some quality family time. Mother loved the outdoors, and my father loved her more than anything else, so it was no question where we spent our summers. Rosebay became our family's getaway paradise; it was a small inlet off the beaten path that featured a little island that was just a bit too far away to swim. Naturally our fathers curiosity had him purchasing canoes before long.

I wasn't fond of the idea at first; something about the nature of deep water made me uncomfortable. Seeing the murky water up close did horrible things to my imagination. My family was persistent though, and after a few attempts, they had me rowing out on open water.

Mother was a smart woman, and she knew full well that a basket full of home-baked bread and cheese could entice me out on to the water. Lettie and I shared a canoe, and when we pushed out into the water, I felt a wonderful sense of freedom. I was surprised that as long as I didn't look over the edge, I was perfectly fine in the water. In fact, I learned to like it eventually.

One thing's for sure; I'll never forget the first time we made it to that island.

It was large enough to grow a dozen or so soft fir trees that provided some well-needed shade from the sun. Further out towards the shore, that land turned from a woody earth to sand; its beach littered with smooth, flat pastel coloured pebbles. They were perfect, as my dad pointed out, for skipping because the tides had smoothed them over the years. He demonstrated the right technique, and we spent many afternoons skipping rocks across the water while mom made sure we were well fed.

There was something about being on that island that made me feel removed from the world. I'd close my eyes, let the sun warm my face and pretend this was an island I could call my own.

It's odd how memories like that come back to you.

I'd almost forgotten the summer vacations of my youth, but the site before me brought them rushing back. Cooling spray from the water crashed along the shores, mixing with the air and coating my clothes and my hair with moisture. The breeze surrounded me with the rich earthy scent of the fir trees and as I surveyed the area. It took me a moment to get my bearings, but there was no mistaking it, I was back on the little island in Rosebay.

I ran my hand up the rough bark of a nearby fir and felt the sticky sap that dripped from the tiny holes that birds and bugs had made in it. The dead needles shed from the trees stuck to my feet while I walked around the trees, reminding me of a different time. Lettie hated the way the tree sap stuck in her hair when we played. Mom had to console her by brushing the tangles out with promises of a nice bath when we got home. I didn't care, I loved the raw beauty of nature, even if it was a bit messy.

I stepped out of the trees onto the shoreline where I found the same rounded pebbles scattered across the sand. I picked up a small, pinkish looking one and turned it over and over in my palms as I continued my walk.

I looked over my shoulder at the little wooden shack that brought me here. It wasn't far into the island and it had to be recognizable from the shore, what with its bright red door and all. Markel had mentioned that some people couldn't see the red door though, so it supposed it didn't matter what colour it was. It must have been a new feature to the island, placed by Howl not doubt because I was sure I would have remembered it before now. The bright red door was at odds with the natural landscape.

It was peaceful, being back here so many years later. It felt as though time stood still here. Before long though, my mind began to wander.

What do I do now?

Do I just accept that I'll never go back to my former self?

Can I . . . Can I be okay with that decision?

I squeezed the pebble tightly in my fist. The thought of letting the witch of the waste get away with what she did to me was unacceptable. There were so many things in life that I would never have the opportunity to experience. They'd been robbed along with my youth no thanks to her. I wanted to live on my own, fall in love and create a life with someone else. That seemed impossible now and couldn't help but feel so hopelessly lost. I wanted to go home back to my old life, back to Lettie and the hats, back to my little room at the back of the shop where the furnace didn't work half the time, but it was okay because at least I was me! Why me? Why did the witch of the waste do this to me? Hadn't life already given me enough trials already?

I rubbed the pebble with my thumb, staring at the ruby red door in the distance. Magic. Why did I have to exist in a world with magic? Flicking it up in the air once, I aimed the rock at the spiteful door and threw it with all my might. At that very moment, the door opened, and Markel stepped out, but it was too late. The projectile struck his forehead with a solid clack and bounced off. I scrambled from the shore the minute it hit him.

"Good Lord, what was that?" Markel rubbed his head, examining his hand where he touched the red mark that was forming. He added a string of curse words, aiming his glare in my direction.

I reached out and gingerly assessed the beginnings of a goose egg in the middle of his forehead. "Oh my gosh, I didn't mean to hit you!" I stammered. "I was aiming for the door, but then you came and then I threw it and then I couldn't stop it and well. . . what I mean is I am so sorry."

I watched as his face screwed up when he touched it a second time.

"Haven't you ever heard the term don't shoot the messenger? I'm pretty sure that applies here," he grumbled, marching over to the water. He knelt down and wet the corner of his shirt, applying it to his forehead.

"Honestly Markel, I am so sorry for throwing that at you, I was just so angry! I didn't know what to do."

His features softened, and he nodded in agreement. "I get it. Howl can be a bit of an arse sometimes. Hell, I've fantasized about chucking more than rocks at him on one or two occasions."

"Seriously?" I held a hand to my lips to stop me from laughing.

He nodded seriously. "One time I was this close," he pinched his fingers together, "to grabbing a fist full horse dung and pitching at his shiny new suit."

I imagined what it would look like to see Markel chucking horse manure at Howl and I had to hold my sides to stop myself from bursting into laughter. "Why on earth would you do that?" My voice threatened to bubble over with laughter.

"We were fighting about something, can't remember what now, but I told him to grow up. He didn't like that, so he told me I looked the wrong end of a mule," he stared at me, completely serious. The ridiculousness of it sent me over the edge.

Usually, when I laugh, it's the sweet girlish type. This laugh was not that sort of laughter; a murder of crows couldn't out cackle me at this point. Markel's serious demeanour cracked, and soon he was laughing alongside me.

I rubbed my ribs tenderly, straightening my smock in the process. "Thank you; I needed that," I said, once I managed to gain control of myself.

He smiled, leaning back against a nearby tree trunk. "I imagine what you're going through right now is tough. I mean, I've never known a person who wanted to be cursed."

I picked and the hem of my dress, nodding absently. Markel had no idea how much I wanted this nightmare to end. At least I could take solace in the thought that he was trying his best to help me.

"I want to be me again," I sighed, grabbing another rock. He pretended to duck which earned him a shove from me. I turned to the edge of the water and threw it just as dad taught me. It skipped a few times and promptly sank.

Markel took up a rock as well, following suit. His rock skipped a ridiculous distance before stopping, earning another shove from me.

"Show off," I teased.

As Markel searched the shore with me for the perfect rocks, he stopped and gave me a thoughtful look. "You should stay. . . with us that is."

I laughed mechanically. "I must have walloped you back there. Did you already forget the outburst Howl had an hour ago?"

"Howl doesn't mean half the things he says, don't take it to heart. Besides, I've already talked to him, and he knows his behaviour was unacceptable."

I found that hard to believe. Howls outburst was precisely the sort of thing I expected from a man like him. He was a man used to getting what he wanted, that much I gathered. The rumours of him charming women were probably well-founded based on what I'd already seen. He snapped his fingers for a bath as though Markel was his maid. What, he couldn't be bothered to turn the knobs himself? I recalled Markel saying he didn't work for a living and that made my blood boil even more. Howl was a selfish man.

"How do you put up with him?" I asked, astonished.

"Master? He wasn't always like this," Markel sighed.

"I doubt that."

Markel stopped walking and fixed me with a severe look. "Truly he wasn't. I've known him for a long time, long before he changed."

"Changed how?"

He looked like he was trying to find the right words to say. "Something was taken from him long ago. He used to be a kinder person, but he made a mistake that cost him greatly, and he's been trying to fix it ever since."

I eyed him with disbelief. "That's vague, don't you think? What happened to him? Did a woman steal his heart and now he's acting like a scorned prince from one of those fairytales?" I was facetious, but Markel didn't laugh.

Markel shook his head. "You're not entirely wrong, but it's not my place to say. If the master wishes to tell you, he will."

"Seriously? A guy like Howl suffers from a heartache?" I gawked.

He shot me a sobering look.

"I never said that. Howl is afflicted with something much worse than a heartache. I doubt very much you've ever experienced it because if you had, you wouldn't mock Howl the way you are right now."

Something about his tone made me instantly regret my attitude. Maybe he was right; I was trying so hard to find a fault in Howl without giving him the benefit of the doubt.

"What should I do?" I asked more to myself than to him.

"Well," he pushed off from the ground, offering an outstretched hand, "let's get out of this heat for starters and then we'll figure out the rest once we're back inside."

"And you're sure Howl's okay with me staying?" I asked hesitantly.

"Of course, it's water off a duck's back, I promise! Besides that, I've got something fascinating to tell Howl now that might help you," he winked at me.

With my curiosity piqued, I couldn't help but ask the obvious question.

"Help me? How?" I gripped his hand tighter.

"Well for starters. . ." he paused for effect, smiling like someone with a secret to tell.

"Oh come on now, just tell me already!" I dropped his hand and walked away, feeling a little bit frustrated. He said something that I couldn't quite make out, but it set my pulse racing. I spun around, holding a hand to my chest and my heart was beating fiercely. "S-say that again," I stammered.

The smile on his face spread into a complete grin as he repeated once again.

"Allison, you can use magic."

Chapter Text

Howl pulled a comb through his newly oiled hair, parting it at his temple with a clean line. He smoothed over it to tamp down the stray bits and turned away from his reflection to look at us. Howls eyes shifted momentarily to me but he quickly looked away. His cheeks contained a hint of pink as he fixed his attention on Markel.

Wait, was Howl. . . Embarrassed?

"You're certain?" he asked after Markel relayed his story.

"Absolutely master. The door was set to the forest exit, but when she went through, it was the rosebay exit."

Howl fixed his gaze on me and looked at me seriously this time. For a moment I thought I detected recognition in his expression, but he merely nodded and turned away from me.

"You're full of surprises, Allison," he said, pulling on a pair of black leather gloves he'd laid out on the kitchen table.

"What does this mean?" I blurted out, eager for them to explain this to me in plain English.

He reached for the bowler hat Markel handed to him and turned it over in his hands thoughtfully.

"Many years ago, long before you were born I'd imagine, I enchanted doors all over the world. Each one of those doors is tethered to this castle. To access these doors, one needs only to think of their destination and open it." he said.

I gave him an odd look. "How exactly does that explain the fact that I can use magic?"

"It's simple, really. At first, I assumed the residual magic used to curse you allowed you to not only see the door in the forest but allowed you to pass through it as well. However, that doesn't explain how you were able to the manipulate the door when you opened it to leave. You must be able to control magic in order to change its destination, otherwise, the door would have opened up to the forest."

"I didn't do anything though! I didn't wave my hands in the air; I didn't say 'open sesame,' I didn't sacrifice an animal, I didn't do anything at all! I just opened the door!" I punctuated my frustration by waving my hands in the air in a manner that must have looked funny because Howl was chewing the inside of his cheek in an effort not to laugh.

"For starters, waving your hands like this--," he demonstrated by flicking his wrist at his jacket, and it flew across the room, draping itself on his forearm, "--is used for levitation only. 'Open sesame' is an incantation found in children's books only, and there's no magic created by slaughtering animals, that's just barbaric. Really, where did you get these funny ideas?" his lips curved upwards with a hint of a smile.

I massaged the crease in my forehead, digesting this new information. Looking over at the red door and then back to Howl, I tried to piece it all together. He waited patiently while I searched for the right words, spinning the bowler hat on his finger.

"So. . . what you're saying is, if I go to that door right now and imagine going back to Market Chipping, it'll take me there?"

"More or less." he agreed. "It won't take you directly there, but it'll pick the closest door to your destination and take you there instead."

"Do you mind if I. . ." I pointed to the door behind him, eager to test out his theory.

"By all means," he bowed and followed me over to the door, stopping me before I could open it.

I gripped the door handle tightly, my hand shaking with excitement. "Now what do I do?" I asked barely above a whisper.

His hand rested on the door jam, and he leaned in. I could feel his breath against my neck as he tickled my ear with his voice.

"Try to think of a place you want to go and hold it in your mind's eye."

Hesitantly, I tried to imagine a place I'd always wanted to go. My mind was swimming from the warm amber that enveloped from the nearness of him. I took a step away from Howl and collected my thoughts before I could let my mind wander anymore. Confident on my choice, I gripped the shiny golden handle and turned it.

Beyond the threshold, a busy day at the market was in full swing. Bakers and farmers and fisherman and a variety of salesmen lined the storefronts with their goods. A fisherman across the way pulled an enormous sea bass from the back of the wagon. He chopped off its head, cleaning the fish with the efficient stroke of his filleting knife and a practiced hand. He slid the guts across the cutting board and into an awaiting pail below, slapping the filleted pieces on ice to sell.

"Kingsbury?" Howl chuckled over my shoulder. "Why on earth would you want to go to that dirty city? Craving fresh fish are we?"

I pulled a face, closing the door quickly after witnessing the fisherman lop another head off. I leaned against the door and breathed evenly to stop myself from gagging. "I can't stand the smell of fish."

"What were you thinking of then?"

"The ocean," I said honestly. "Does that mean it didn't work?"

His lip curved upward just a hint. He nodded towards the lounge, beckoning me to follow. Markel had situated himself in the kitchen and appeared to be pulverizing some dried herbs as we spoke.

Howl seated himself and propped the bowler hat on his knee. "If memory serves, Kingsbury is close to a harbour for imports and exports into Ingary. When you imagined an ocean, that's as close as it could get to one. Now if you had imagined a beach, then that would have been a different story. There isn't a beach in Kingsbury, just a lot of cliffs and a bay. So to answer your question, yes you can use magic."

I felt a rush of exhilaration when he said the words I wanted to hear.

"I just don't understand one thing," I calmed myself before I could get too excited.

"and that is. .?"

"How does the door know what I'm thinking? Is it like a seer or something?" My question must have been amusing because both men laughed uproariously.

Forgetting himself for a moment, Howl cleared his throat and adjusted his cufflinks self consciously.

"I apologize, I forgot that you're new to this. The best way I can explain it is that magic comes from emotions. The stronger your emotional response is, the stronger the magic will be. An enchanted object, such as the doors, pick up on your feelings and turn them into an action."

"So let's say, and I'm only asking this theoretically if you were very upset before you opened the door, would it take you somewhere remote, hypothetically speaking?"

"You mean like where you went before? Yes, I suppose. . . It would." he looked away awkwardly.

"Oh," was all I could manage.

Howl rubbed the back of his neck, avoiding eye contact. "Please forgive me for my earlier behaviour, I was feeling a little on edge this morning, and I did not intend to take it out on you."

For a moment I couldn't find my words.

"Apology accepted," I said finally.

From behind us, Markel laughed. "See Allison? What did I tell you hey? We'll be able to break your curse in no time!"

Howl made a disagreeable sound and fiddled with the bowler hat on his knee until I was sure it would come apart at the seams.

"We might be able to," he corrected Markel over his shoulder. "Have you ever actually practiced magic before today?" his look was a serious one.

"No, not at all, is it possible that I've used magic without knowing it?"

He leaned back in his chair and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "It's not impossible, but it's unlikely. Have you ever done something you couldn't explain? Like moving an object without your body, lighting candles without a flame, that sort of thing?"

"No, I can't say that I have," I admitted, and my earlier mood began to deflate.

"Hmm, it might make things difficult for us, but it's not impossible. You're just going to have to put in more effort." He said.

"I can do anything, just name it." I leaned in eagerly.

Howl walked over to a pile of boxes stacked next to the bookshelf. "I've left some clothing for you to mend while I'm away. Some of them are mine and some are Markels. You'll find them all in here." He tapped one of the boxes lightly. "I think it's only fair that you earn your keep until we can figure out how best to break this curse."

It seemed like an odd request, and I didn't understand how something like mending clothes would help me learn magic. "I have no problem contributing, but how exactly will this help me?"

"I have to travel for a few days so I can't work with you until I'm back, but in the meantime I want you to think of the most powerful memory you have. Do that while you're working on these," Howl tapped the box again.

It was a solid idea, I did some of my best thinking while I worked away at the shop, sometimes to the point that I forgot the time of day or the people around me. Lettie used to complain that I lacked social skills, but honestly, I just preferred my own company.

"The strongest memory I have?"

He nodded. "Yes, not just any memory. It needs to be one that creates a powerful emotion within you when you think about it."

"A memory that makes me emotional, huh? I can do that, but what happens if I remember a good one? Where will you be?" I asked.

The two men exchanged a look. "Nowhere you need to be concerned about. Just focus on the tasks I've given you and when I get back, we'll start working on your curse." He pulled a watch from his pocket and checked the time. "I must get going but in the meantime, Markel will show you to your quarters." He nodded to Markel and turned to leave.

"Of course master. Are you headed to the same place as last time?" he looked meaningfully at Howl.

Howl shrugged on his outer coat and held the hat in his hands. He glanced in my direction and then over to Markel before replying.

"Yes." He responded simply.

"When will you be back?" I found myself asking him automatically.

He squeezed the brim of his hat with his fingers and turned away from us.

"Soon, I suspect." Without another word, he opened the red door, and a gust of wind blew through the house. A sheet of rain blocked the view outside, hindering any indication as to where he was going. He went to leave, but he was still holding his hat.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you that hats are for wearing?" I smiled and pointed to the hat. It was silly to see him walk out into that kind of weather without it.

His back stiffened and he looked over his shoulder with an unfathomable expression.

"What did you say?" his fixed his eyes on me like he was searching for something.

"I-It's nothing," I waved him off, feeling self-conscious. For the very first time, I realized I didn't like him seeing me this way. I pulled the collar of my dress up higher, wishing he would quit looking at me.

Using the palm of his hand, Howl fitted the hat on his head. With his eyes still fixed on me, he tipped his hat. "Much obliged," he said politely and stepped out into the rain, leaving Markel and me alone in the castle.

Chapter Text

Markel seemed just as confused as I was about Howls reaction, but it didn't stop him from his duties. I was given the grand tour of the castle swiftly with Markel ensuring he filled me in on all the little details along the way. At first, when he had told me this place was a castle, I didn't believe him, but now I wasn't quite as confident.

For starters, the area Markel showed me was not the castle in its entirety. In fact, what he was able to show me was only a mere fraction of the castle its self. There used to be dozens upon dozens of rooms, enough to house a village, but now the castle boasted only four useable bedrooms. He claimed the staircases climbed to dizzying heights, so much so that they enchanted doors to get them to the top floor. It was hard to picture it in my mind, but Markel assured me that the castle was indeed an impressive structure in its prime.

When I inquired as to why the castle had shrunken in size, Markel gave me a vague half answer about how Howl lacked the ability he needed to maintain the size of the castle. Unfortunately, when I pressed further on the matter, he met my questions with silence.

He showed me to the second floor of the castle where I would be staying. Mainly, it was a massive hallway lined with the doors to the four bedrooms. Markel's to the right side just off the landing of the stairwell; Howls was further down. He made it clear that I should avoid entering Howls room, that is unless I wanted to make him angry. I made a mental note about it and carried on.

My quarters, as Markel pointed out, was across the hall from Howls on the lefthand side. It was a small sort of room, with no pictures on the wall or any decorations. It did, however, feature a small bed and a solid looking armoire. At the very least I had a tidy place to store my clothing and a place to sleep. Off in the corner of my room, to my dismay, was another floor length mirror. I gathered that Howl was fond of them, given the ten other mirrors I had already seen on my tour.

He was a little vain, that man.

"Well that's pretty much it," Markel spun around after showing me everything he could, concluding the tour. "There's another bathroom at the end of the hallway that you can use and please, whatever you need, just ask okay?"

"Thank you, Markel," my voice cracked. "This means a lot to me after everything that's happened."

He crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame. "Shame you can't talk about it though, it would make things a lot easier for us if you could."

I sighed and just nodded. Markel had no idea.

"Can you give me hints at all? Or is that impossible?" he looked hopeful.

I tried to formulate the words, but my mind went fuzzy. It was as if there was some disconnect between my mind and my voice. No matter what I tried, I just couldn't say anything at all about the curse.

"I want to, but I can't." I frowned.

He rubbed my shoulder to lighten the mood.

"Well, no matter. It won't be long until the master is back from his trip anyways," he said brightly.

I wanted to ask him how long that would be, but when it came to Howl's whereabouts, Markel's voice was under lock and key. It bothered me that anything regarding Howl was either a secret or prohibited. Privacy, it seemed, was Howls number one priority.

Why do I even care? Once he breaks my curse, it won't matter what his business is, I reminded myself. It was a shame Markel couldn't fix me himself, I mean he did say he was a wizard's apprentice. Did that not qualify him to help me? Or was he just not experienced enough with curses?

"Have you ever been c--," my voice caught, and I couldn't get the last word out.

"Cursed? Nothing nasty like what you've got going on but I've had some prank curses cast on me. Some wizards can be childish." he chuckled.

"Are they all similar?"

Markel looked cross. "What, curses?"

I nodded.

"Most of them affect the physical body so I'd agree that they're similar in that respect. For instance, I once had a curse placed on me where I developed awful pustules all over my body," Markel rolled up his sleeve, exposing a few tiny pock-like scars above his forearm.

I pulled a face. "That's awful! Who would do such a thing?"

"Wizards who are bored and have too much time on their hands," he shrugged. "Anyways, to answer your question, they're similar because they enact a change in your body, but curses not created equal. Some of the worst curses out are so bad that they affect the soul instead of the body."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"I knew someone that was cursed that way," he said quietly.

"Howl?" I guessed.

He said nothing, which was as good as confirming it.

"What happened to him?" I pressed on.

Markel held out his hand to stop me. "Please don't ask me that, I'm begging you. I've already said too much on the matter."

Was it that wrong to be curious?

"I'm sorry Markel. I didn't realize it was a touchy subject. I guess I'd just like to know more about him, that's all." I rubbed my arm self consciously.

"It's better the master tells you himself; it's not my story to tell. I'll leave you to it then, I've got to go tend to my shop," he replied walking past me to return to the first floor. I waited with bated breath until I heard the front door close, signalling that Markel had left.

My eyes darted to the door to Howls room, and my curiosity boiled over. His constant refusal to tell me about Howl made the trip over to his bedroom door even more tantalizing.

I debated with myself about opening the door for what seemed like a decade, reaching for the handle and then releasing it before I could commit. What horrible things could be beyond that Markel had to tell me explicitly not to enter? But more importantly, was it worth it to satisfy my curiosity by ignoring Markel's request and going in any way?

"No. You're better than this," I told myself and turned away from the door.

"Or maybe I'm not," I spun around again and grabbed the knob. Still, I hesitated.

Why couldn't I do it? I was alone in this place right now. All it would take is a little peek, and he'd be none the wiser. So why not just do it? I thumped my forehead against the door and sighed.

I knew exactly why. If I did, it made me an intruder. No better than the witch of the waste.

I didn't deserve their kindness, but still, they gave it freely. Realizing how irrational my behaviour was allowed me to let go of the handle. I moved away from the door before I could convince myself to do something stupid and went to my room instead.

In my room, Markel had left my clothes on the bed plus a few other things that I needed. I hung the luxurious housecoat over the mirror so I could avoid seeing my reflection every time I walked past it. The towels he provided for me I tucked away into the armoire alongside a few extra bed sheets found within.

I pulled the thread and needles out of my pocket and perched myself on the corner of the bed, gathering one of the dresses into my lap. These dresses needed repair before I could consider doing anything else.

The dresses had seen better days, but for my purposes, they'd be just fine. Although they were a little threadbare and they probably wouldn't keep me all that warm, it was better than nothing.

Securing a few pins to the dress in my lap, I made quick work of the areas that were coming apart at the seams from constant wear and tear. I fixed a couple of minor holes in the elbows and a large one at the waist. With tight stitches and a practiced hand, I could hardly see the repairs once I had finished. Satisfied with my handiwork, I hung the dress and moved into the next one.

The light outside my window dimmed, and before I knew it, the moon was out, cascading its light onto the floor of my room. My stomach growled in protest reminding me how long I'd been sitting here sewing but judging by the darkness outside; it was too late to get something to eat. Instead, I resigned myself to an early night and settled into bed.

Even though I told myself to get some rest, it didn't stop my mind from wandering. So many things had happened today, and I was still struggling to wrap my head around it all. I pulled my hair out of its braid and combed my fingers through the wavy strands as I digested my day.

I was cursed by the witch of the waste who did so only because she wanted Howls heart. I struggled to understand what she meant by that. Did it mean she wanted him dead? I mean, how else would a person take another person's heart?

No matter what she meant by it, casting a curse on me would never be enough to convince me to do such a thing. Howl might be a complicated man to be around sometimes, but that didn't mean he deserved to die.

I erased the unpleasant thought from my mind, already angry that I was letting her affect me this way. I needed to focus more on what Howl wanted me to do. He wanted me to think about my memories and emotions. I still had to figure out which one was the strongest one I had.

It's funny though, how at the very moment I needed to think about my memories, they just wouldn't come to me. I couldn't recall specific events in my life. What I was able to do was think about the people I'd known throughout my life and the impact they'd had on me.

For instance, I'd experienced so many emotional events with Lettie, so when I thought of my memories of her, they seemed strong. My parents, on the other hand. . . Well, I just didn't like to think about it honestly, so I pushed that thought from my mind.

I sighed into my pillow. It seemed like it was going to be a lot more difficult than I'd first imagined.

I rolled onto my side and re-tucked the pillow into my shoulder. Staring down my fingertips, I spied the spool of thread on the nightstand. Howl made this look so easy. I flicked my fingers the way I had seen him do earlier but, unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Well, I'm not sure what I expected really, it's not as if I was suddenly blessed by some unknown power.

That didn't mean I couldn't try. I sat up with more determination this time. Howl did say that I could use magic. . . So why couldn't I use magic?

I focussed on the spool again, imagining in my mind's eye that it could float above the nightstand and I flicked my wrist once again. If wardrobes could speak, it was probably laughing its guts out right now. I looked like a twit waving my hands in the air like this.

I rubbed the frustration out of my forehead and settled back into my pillow with a huff.

"This is stupid," I said to myself. "I'm waving my hands around like a lunatic pretending to be Howl. Hell, I wouldn't be this way if it wasn't for that witch! She just waved her hands and poof!" I threw up my middle fingers in a display that lacked the dignity of a lady. If she could see me at this moment, Lettie would have made a face.

I sighed and let my arms drop, feeling the effects of the day taking its toll on me. I rolled over to blow out the candle, and something caught my attention. The spool of thread hovered just slightly over my nightstand, and I could hardly contain myself. I stuck my hand under it to confirm I hadn't only imagined the whole thing. To my delight, it was indeed levitating over my palm. I felt a goofy little smile tug at my lips.

"Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks?" With a quick puff, I blew out the candle and settled into bed, eager to relay my new found skill to Markel in the morning. Maybe it was too soon to imagine it, but this plan might work.

Chapter Text

I gathered the messy wet tangles of my hair and pulled them into a bun, wiping my hands on my smock. My body hadn't improved overnight, but my outlook this morning seemed decidedly brighter. Howl wasn't home, I hadn't heard him come in last night, so I would just have to settle with doing as was requested of me in the meantime.

Markel, however, had an early start this morning. I knew this because the constant banging of his mallet against the kitchen counter woke me out of a dead sleep.

At first, I thought something had exploded on the main floor, but after racing down the stairs only to find the culprit was Markel hammering something to death, I was more or less tempted to take the mallet and chuck it out the window.

"Good morning, Allison!" Markel said cheerfully, adjusting the knobs on a funny looking apparatus he'd set up in the kitchen.

I reached for an orange in a bowl on the kitchen counter. Letting my curiosity get the best of me, I nodded to the little torture device he continued to twist.

"What exactly is that thing?" I asked, peeling the orange.

"This is a press," he said proudly. "It's used to extract juices from plants that are used in the ointments and tinctures in my shop."

I inhaled the dense flower scent emanating from the press. Hints of purple and pink stuck out from the sides of the apparatus, confirming my guess.

"It smells a lot like lavender," I remarked.

Markel wiped his hands on the front of his apron and chuckled. "That would be because it is lavender, silly."

I picked up one of the bottles he had set out that already contained the fragrance of the press. The bottle was a darkish brown, making it difficult to see the liquid.

"That's odd, I thought lavender was very hard to come by in Ingary? How are you able to acquire so much of it?"

He laughed once, grabbing the oil from my hands to cork it. "Didn't you learn anything yesterday? I can go elsewhere to get my ingredients." He nodded in the direction of the entrance.

I looked over my shoulder at the ruby red door. "Oh, right. Pretend I didn't just ask that." I popped an orange slice into my mouth, savouring its citrus burst.

"Save the peels for me," he stopped my hand from discarding the peel into the wastebasket.

"Why? There are more oranges on the counter if you want one."

"No that's quite alright," he smiled.

I pulled a face. "Do like eating the rinds or something?"

Markel rolled his eyes, "no, I make oils from the rinds, that's why I put them there."

I held my hands up for a truce. "Alright, if you say so."

I walked over to the massive vase of flowers in the centre of the dining room table and leaned in to get a better look. Cala lilies, babies breath, crocuses and a few other colourful flowers poured over the edge of the vase.

"Are these for the press as well?" I asked, inhaling the delicate fragrance of the arrangement.

Markel frowned at me. "No, of course not. Those are for Lettie, I'm seeing her tonight."

"She would hate these," I said under my breath.

"No she wouldn't," he replied, startling me by leaning in as well.

I crossed my arms and leaned against the table. "Trust me when I say this; Lettie doesn't like over the top gestures. If she did she would have accepted the first rich man that walked into the hat shop."

I pushed away from the table, picking away at the rind on my breakfast until I had another piece to pop into my mouth. For some reason, the room seemed very quiet. I turned around to find Markel staring at me in disbelief.

"How could you possibly know that?" he challenged me.

I scrambled for an answer I could actually tell him, "I knew Lettie's parents."

"Friend of the family then?" he eyed me questioningly.

"Something like that."

He rubbed his cheek, looking back at the flowers in the vase.

"and you're sure she won't like these?"

"Go with something simple, like daisies," I assured him.

"Okay but. . . what about my clothes then? I was planning to borrow something of Howls but now I don't know!"

I could see him beginning to spiral out of control, so I silenced him with a finger. Quickly, I looked him over before giving my thoughts. He had on a similar pair of tweed pants, the same as yesterday, complete with suspenders and a white button-down shirt. Although he was wearing an apron, I imagined he was removing it before his date.

"Do you have a jacket to go with that?" I pointed to his ensemble. He showed a green jacket that he'd hung in the entrance. There was something sweet about the way he dressed, it wasn't too flashy or overstated. In fact, he didn't know it yet, but it was precisely the kind of outfit my sister would like.

"I think that's perfect. Don't wear a fancy suit; it would probably overwhelm Lettie. Besides, I think that green jacket brings out that lovely red hair of yours."

His cheeks betrayed the smallest hint of pink and I knew I'd embarrassed him. He ran his fingers through his messy red hair self-consciously. "You think so? I've never liked the colour of my hair," he admitted.

"I'll let you in on a little secret. Lettie has a thing for redheads," I tossed him a wink, and he had to turn away to hide the goofy smile on his face.

Well, I actually had no idea what my sister preferred, but the poor guy needed a confidence boost. I hadn't realized how much I loved my hair colour until I no longer had it, so it was only fair that Markel learned to appreciate his.

"Lettie's mother doesn't seem to like it, though. She doesn't like anything about me," he sighed.

The orange slice in my hand popped. "First of all, Gerta is Lettie's stepmother, and secondly, she can go pound salt," I said flatly.

Markel put down a bottle and looked at me in astonishment. "Where did that come from?"

I had the decency to look embarrassed. "Sorry, that was out of the blue. Gerta's opinion is worth less than the dirt on the bottom of your shoes, so don't anything she says to heart. She's a nasty woman," I grumbled.

"Aye, Lettie mentioned that her sister doesn't care much for her stepmom either," he agreed.

My heart squeezed uncomfortably, and I had to look away.

"Do you know much about her?" I asked carefully.

"The stepmom? Nah, I've only met her the one time."

"No, I mean. . . the sister," I tossed the remainder of my orange onto the countertop, no longer hungry.

He shook his head. "I've never met her, no. Lettie's worried sick about her, says she hasn't been home for over a day."

"What do you suppose happened?" I asked, hoping he might say something that would allow me to lead him in the right direction.

"Who knows? Ran away from home, maybe?"

"Or. . . maybe she got mixed up with the wrong people?" I hinted.

He mulled it over and nodded. "Perhaps, or perhaps she left because of her stepmom. I think that would be it, more likely."

"Or maybe she's living somewhere's else because she has no choice thanks to an evil witch," I leaned over the counter and stared at him meaningfully.

He waved me off with his hand, laying out little squares of parchment paper on the counter. "Well a witch is one word I'd use for Gerta, I'll give you that. But I'll bet you that Lettie hears from her sister soon, and everything will be just fine."

There was no point arguing with him about it; it seemed like he didn't understand me anyway.

I watched silently as he dipped a quill into the inkwell and scribed the words lavender oil on each of the little pieces of parchment. After they had dried sufficiently, he opened a bottle that infused the air with a pungent odour and brushed it on the backs of the papers.

I took up a bottle in my hands and, following his direction, affixed the little label to the front exactly as he did. I gathered up the bottles for him and placed them in a basket while he cleaned up the area.

He grabbed the basket from me and beckoned me to follow.

Next to the stairs was a door that Markel had left out of his tour the night before. It was red, just like the entrance was, and when Markel opened it, I found myself in a very dark, ancient-looking room.

The floors, the walls, the shelves, quite everything, in fact, was made of richly stained wood. Every bit of available shelving housed jars, bottles, and containers with all manner of things stored within.

Markel's neat handwriting appeared on all the vessels making them easy to identify. I picked up one bottle that contained dark dried little berries with a label that said bilberry, and under that, it read treats cold hands and feet. Another held dried yellow petals that reminded me of dandelions. This one was named calendula and it claimed to heal wounds and soothe the throat. I continued on in this fashion, picking up bottles, reading their uses and found my curiosity growing more and more. Feverfew, ginger root, lemon balm, garlic, catnip only to name a few. I was so engrossed in my exploration that I had forgotten where I was.

"Fascinating, isn't it?" Markel smiled, placing the new bottles out on a shelf.

"I never knew so many plants existed in the world! I mean look at this!" I picked up the bottle I had just been reading. "Echinacea, used for--,"

"runny noses and sore throats, yes I know," he smiled. "I know about all the plants and herbs I stock here."

I marvelled at the enormity of his collection. "So you harvested everything that's on these shelves?"

"Down to the last mint leave," he agreed.

I couldn't help but be impressed. What skill it must have taken to extract all those oils, dry all those leaves, and crush at those herbs for his shop.

He chuckled as he watched me dart from bottle to bottle. "If you think that's impressive, you should see Lettie's shop when it's fully stocked. She told me that her sister never takes a break, always working on a new hat."

I placed the bottle down and shrugged. "She probably just loves what she does."

A tiny bell attached above the front door chimed, and a boy walked in, looking not much older than twelve. He was dressed similarly to Markel and had on a flat cap that covered his long, straight brown hair. He gave me an odd look as made his way over to Markel who provided him with an apron. I looked to Markel for an introduction.

Markel cleared his throat, taking the boys hat. "Allison, this is my assistant, Simon. He helps maintain the shop."

I said hello, but Simon looked over at Markel with a confused look. I, too, felt confused. Something seemed off about this little boy.

"Who's she?" the young boy inquired.

"Allison is a guest at the master's house, she came to see our shop this morning." Markel supplied for him.

He gave me a look over and quickly looked away. "Is she your girlfriend? I thought your girlfriend was a pretty lady."

Markel's ears turned a scarlet red and cuffed Simon upside the head whispering manners under his breath.

I was painfully aware of how strange it looked to others that such an old woman was seen in the company of a young man. It made me want to hide away all the more.

"Goodness no, I've seen his lady, and there's no comparison. No, I'm just a guest," I smiled brightly, but that didn't mean I wasn't affected by what he said.

Simon stared at me for a moment and nodded, apparently satisfied with my answer. He pulled out a rag and began wiping down bottles while Markel finished laying out his products.

"Why did you employ Simon to work here?" I asked, just a little above a whisper, as I stood next to him.

"Wasn't my idea, it was Howls," he said quietly back.

"What, Howl supports child labour?" I snorted, looking at another bottle.

Markel tossed the rag on the till and fixed me with a stern look.

"Do you take issue with everything Howl does? Did he offend you at any point?"

"No," I answered back, surprised by his reaction.

Markel was fuming. "Then why are you always taking jabs at him? You should be thankful he wants to help you at all. As it stands, he's got enough on his plate already."

He hit the button on the till and it flew open with a bang. Counting out a few silver, he added them to a leather satchel and handed it to me.

"What is this?" I turned the bag over, completely baffled.

"The master asked me to give you some coin for supplies, given that you'll be mending our clothes. Use the money as you see fit. Go find some perspective; it seems you lack it," he took up his rag again and turned his back to me, terminating the conversation.

His comments stung, but then again, hadn't I been talking about Howl in the same manner? If I couldn't handle the criticism then maybe I shouldn't be the critical one in the first place. I could almost hear my mother telling me, you reap what you sow.

Markel wasn't interested in conversing anymore, and Simon did nothing but stare at me in a peculiar manner. Choosing to save myself from further embarrassment, I did as he asked and left the shop.

Chapter Text

I don't know who it was that invented the quill, but at this moment I despised them. Sure it was the only way I could write anything on paper, but nothing is worse than being a left-handed seamstress who has to write anything at all on paper. My hands always smeared the ink all over the paper, making the writing entirely and utterly illegible. It was so sorry looking that at one point, my sister insisted on teaching me right-handed by making me hold an apple in my left hand. It was a sound plan in theory, but after two hours of writing and destroying my dress, the table, and over a dozen sheets of parchment, my sister concluded that I was a lost cause. Anytime we had to send a letter, it was Lettie and not I, who wrote it.

This predicament is where I currently found myself. My fingers were covered in stains all the way to my wrists, and no amount of scrubbing could remove the ink from my hands. I'd finally written a decent letter to my sister, but that was after I'd ruined roughly five pages of parchment. After giving up on cleaning my hands, I settled on reading over the letter to her:

Dear Lettie,

I'm so sorry that I left home without any notice, but I had little time to tell you. I can assure you that I am safe, so please don't worry. Continue to run the shop in my stead and promise me you won't let Gerta get to you. I know she can be trying at times, but your will is stronger than hers. I'll try to write regularly, but my schedule is unknown at this time. I promise to do my best to come home as soon as I can.

All my love,

S

I hoped this letter conveyed enough information to keep Lettie from doing anything irrational. My only concern was Gerta finding the message before Lettie, but I made sure to avoid such a scenario by writing the return address as a fake supply merchant. I knew that although Gerta enjoyed the wealth our business provided her, she wanted nothing to do with actually running it.

Satisfied with my handiwork, I folded it neatly and tied it with a spare piece of rope from the spool Markel had left out. It was the best I could do without a proper wax seal to use at any rate. I gathered my things, making sure I had the money Markel had given me earlier. First, I needed to make sure my sister got the letter, and then I'd stop by the supply shop to get whatever else I needed.

***

Delivering the message wasn't tricky; seeing my sister through the window pane, however, hurt in a way I couldn't possibly explain. Her hair was pulled into a severe bun, her dress was covered in dirt, and the waltz in her step was there no longer. A huge part of me wanted to burst through the doorways and tell her I was okay, but I knew that was impossible..

Seeing her like this convinced me that she needed the letter now rather than later. I slipped into the hat shop, which was still busy despite my absence, grabbing a shawl from a nearby rack. I wrapped it neatly so that all that was visible was my nose and mouth and slipped into the crowd.

The cacophony of patrons made it difficult to hear anything at all, but I could have sworn I could hear my sisters voice above the noise. I worked my way through the crowd, but a second voice made me freeze before I could take another step. Hastily, I ducked out of the way before either of them could spot me.

"Won't you at least consider it?" Howl pleaded with my sister.

"Will it bring her back?" her voice cracked as she buried her face in her palms. "I just want her to come home, please just do what you need to and find her."

I peered over at Howl, who's attention was fixed solely on my sister. It was the first time I'd ever seen him look less than perfect. He had on a pinstriped suit that seemed less than fresh; his hair was a bit messy, and his eyes betrayed the fatigue he was under.

His lips pressed into a thin line as he considered her request. "This spell can be used to locate individuals who are lost, but I'm not sure it will work," he admitted.

"Have you tried it already?" she asked.

"No, for this spell to work, I need a personal item of hers," he said with an outstretched hand.

"Oh, o-of course," she reached into her dress pocket and produced a small thimble that I recognized as mine, and dropped it into his waiting palm.

The room went eerily quiet, and several patrons turned their attention to Howl. He closed his palm, squeezing the thimble tightly. At once, he tossed the thimble into the air and it hovered over the room, emitting a yellowish white light. It quivered in place for a moment and dropped straight to the ground. Howl grabbed the thimble before it was lost in the crowd and handed it back to my sister.

"What does this mean? Did it work or not?" she asked desperately.

Howl rubbed his neck, and it seemed like he was deciding his words as he looked at the floor. "There are a few things I can tell you based on the spell. First of all, we know that she's alive. Otherwise, the thimble would have dropped like a normal object when I threw it."

"--if she's alive then why didn't it show us where she is?" Lettie cut in.

"That's the thing. This spell only shows the location of people who want to be found," his expression was pained, and he had to look away from her.

My heart threatened to beat out of my chest. What on earth did Howl mean by that? I wanted to be found more than anything. Maybe I was afraid of my sister seeing me the way I looked right now, but in my heart, I knew I just wanted to be home.

Lettie's eyes welled up with tears. "What do you mean she doesn't want to be found! Why would she do that?"

Howls jaw clenched, the stress was evident. "I'm afraid that is entirely my fault. I upset Sophie, and that may have caused her sudden disappearance."

Although Lettie looked exhausted, with her cheeks red from crying, she did something then that I did not expect. With a resounding crack, she slapped Howl.

He didn't react other than to assess his cheek gingerly for tenderness. He reached for his hat and gloves and bowed to my sister, who was quietly fuming before him. Quickly, he escaped from the prying eyes of the patrons.

My heart ached for them both. I didn't like seeing my sister like this and I hated that Howl was taking the blame for it. I held the letter to my chest, hoping with all my heart that it might help mend the sorrow that was so plainly evident in my sister. I approached her with the shawl pulled down over my eyes and coughed loudly.

"Excuse me miss?" I opted for a shaky sound in my voice.

Lettie spun around and the pain in her expression faded.

"Can I help you?" she asked, not unkindly.

"I believe I've mistaken some of your mail for mine," I handed her the letter.

She read the address on the front with a puzzled expression, but before I could let her ask anything more, I edged my way through the crowd and out the door. From the window, I watched as she examined it closer and then worked the twine off it.

With a heavy heart, I put distance between my sister and I.

***

Further down one of the side streets, not far from the shop was my favourite notion shop. Its convenient location was one of the reasons I liked it, that and selection they had always kept me coming back.

The door chimed when I opened it, and a salesperson greeted me in no time. The lady smiled and offered to show me around, but I knew what I was searching for, so I politely declined her assistance.

The walls lined with fabrics on bolts in all manner of colours and materials that made me excited in a way no one would ever understand. I let my hands slide across the silky textures, the familiar feeling of inspiration flowing back into my mind.

I loved this; these were the materials that gave birth to creativity.

Further in, a display filled with an array of coloured threads caught my attention. I picked out a few I was sure I'd need for my work and placed them on the counter.

I found a pair of scissors and tested the sharpness with the edge of my thumb. Satisfied with its edge, I set them down with the threads and went for the needles next. An excellent seamstress always carried a few sharps, darning needles and embroidery needles, so the choice for me was simple.

As I placed the rest of my purchase on the counter, I spied a box full of thread that I'd never seen before.

"What is this?" I grabbed one of the spools from the box and was surprised to find the thread had a glossy smooth texture.

"Silk thread," the lady smiled. "Very popular in the southern isles I've heard. We just got our first shipment in last week, from that very place, actually."

Silk, huh?

"What's so special about it?" I unraveled a length of thread and rolled it between my thumb and forefinger. I'd never worked with silk before.

"It's strong and has great versatility." The lady walked over and grabbed the second spool, demonstrating by pulling on the thread.

"Some seamstresses may disagree with you on that," I remarked. "A good thread needs to have a bit of give in it. Otherwise, it doesn't stretch with the material, and it ends up tearing it instead."

She nodded in agreement. "I thought the same thing, but I've heard that healers use it to mend wounds. That's what makes it so versatile."

My eyebrows arched. "Mending wounds you say?"

"Apparently you can sew skin together just like fabric with silk," she agreed.

I had to show this to Markel. With all the remedies he carried in his shop, combined with his clientele of healers it might be a proper consideration to stock the shelves with supplies such as this.

"Well, I hadn't planned to sew body parts, but I'll buy one anyway," I added the spool to the pile.

"Of course it does have other uses, I just thought that one was the most interesting," she replied.

The lady came around and tallied up my purchase. I counted out the silver, breathing a sigh of relief that I hadn't entirely used up the amount I was given. The sooner I could repay Markel, the happier I'd be.

After a successful shopping trip, I decided I could no longer ignore my hunger. A single orange this morning wasn't enough to satiate my appetite so, in no time, I was searching for the nearest tavern.

The barmaid greeted me with a smile as she polished a mug in her hand. As I found a table near the window, laughter rang out from somewhere near the back of the room, and it took a great deal of effort not to eavesdrop on their conversation.

With a resounding thud, the barmaid set a down a heavy wooden mug of mead in front of me, followed by a plate of meats and cheeses. Not my idea of food, but it was better than nothing. When she turned to leave, another round of laughter echoed throughout the tavern, and this time I couldn't help but be nosy.

Looking in the direction the sound had come from I wished I'd had something I could hide behind it. Surrounded by a group of people and laughing with the rest of them, was Howl.

Chapter Text

I scrambled to cover my face with the free end of the scarf before Howl could recognize me. Even though it was purely a coincidence that I'd picked the same tavern, it felt as though I was intruding on his private affairs. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't stick my nose where it didn't belong, especially after Markel put me in my place back at his shop.

But at this moment, I was feeling nosy.

Howl was seated at a table near the back in the company of two gorgeous women. The clothes he was wearing were different than the suit I remembered seeing him in this morning. Instead of the black pinstriped jacket, he had on an alarmingly green satin dress shirt and white slacks. Perhaps he'd used magic to change his outfit, or he'd bought a new one but whatever the reason, I thought his new ensemble was strange.

His easy smile told me that he was completely unaffected by the fight he'd had this morning with my sister, and for some reason, it bothered me more than the scene I was currently witnessing. Whatever it was Howl was talking about at this moment, it was enough to make the ladies squeal with delight. I shifted in my seat until I was hidden well enough from view, but that didn't stop me from listening.

"You've flown on the back of a dragon?" one of the ladies gasped, clutching her napkin to her lips. She tossed her long blonde locks over her shoulder, exposing her neck to fan it with her other hand.

"What a laugh, I refuse to believe you Howl! Dragons do not exist! If they did, I know I would have seen one by now," the other one admonished him, biting her lower lip with a pout.

The atmosphere they were creating was beginning to make the other patrons stare; some had even stopped their meal to gawk at the scene they were making. The way the women were acting was almost too much to watch.

"Seriously, I have! It was a great big brute of a beast with razor-sharp claws and a wingspan larger than a house!" He spread his arms wide, emphasizing his claim.

The blonde one looked on in awe. "How could you possibly ride something that size?"

"With magic, love," he winked. "After a long fight with the dragon, I tamed the beast and flew it into battle just in time to save the King's army from the jaws of defeat. But of course, that was much before your time," he took up his glass and tilted the amber liquid to his lips, finishing it in one go.

"I've never heard of such a battle," the brunette argued, sitting back, "and I have most certainly never heard of a dragon sighting in Ingary. I think you're having a lark," she eyed him suspiciously.

He rested his arms on the backs of their chairs and chuckled. "You say I'm a liar and yet you're still here, listening to my ridiculous stories."

Was this Howl I was seeing? This morning he looked so tired and worn out-- upset even, but he was proving me wrong on all accounts at the moment. How could Markel be able to look up to someone as arrogant as him?

I squeezed my eyes shut, blocking out the view before me. Markel was insistent that Howl was a good person, so much so that he got angry with me when I suggested otherwise. It hurt my heart to see that Markel's trust was wrongly placed in him; I truly wanted Markel to be right about him, but he wasn't.

Instead, I was faced with the fact that the rumours surrounding Howl were all true. The business that was so urgent that he had to leave on such short notice, was just an excuse to chase women. I took a deep breath and fanned the warmth from my cheeks before I could walk over and say something I'd regret.

I looked up and unexpectedly locked eyes with Howl. His eyes froze me on the spot and I couldn't look away. The brunette followed Howl's gaze and locked eyes with me as well. Her lips puckered sourly as she pulled Howl's shirt.

"Why is that old bat staring at you?" she whispered too loudly.

Though he did not look away, his expression was an odd one. He did not indicate that he recognized me.

"Just ignore her, some people don't know how to mind their own business," he scoffed, turning away from me.

His words forced me to look away shamefully. Luckily, the barmaid had returned, saving me from further embarrassment.

"Is there something else I can get you? You haven't touched your food," she pointed out.

I popped a piece of cheese in my mouth and smiled politely. "This is just fine, thank you," I said quickly. The barmaid nodded and carried on with her work, leaving me to my meal. After only a few bites I set the food down pushed it away. With the constant knots forming in my stomach, my appetite was ruined.

I scrambled to find the leather pouch that Markel had given me and hastily dug out a few silver. Dropping two coins down, I pushed away from the table swiftly. It was too much money for what I'd eaten, but I needed to leave. I gathered my things and made a quick retreat out of the tavern, but as the door closed behind me, all I could hear was their laughter.

***

It was quiet in the castle when I returned, so it was safe to assume that Markel must still have been out. I would have to ask him about Lettie later. That letter weighed heavily on my mind and I needed to know she would be okay.

It wasn't long before I found myself staring at the boxes in the living room, debating whether I should start working on them. I was mad at Howl but we had a deal, and that meant upholding my end of the bargain.

I sifted through the jackets and trousers, searching for the worst of the lot. Most of the repairs seemed simple enough; a few loose seams here and there, a minor tear in a cuff, a couple of lost buttons, but nothing wildly out of my skill set. Gauging the general condition of the clothes, I knew I could have most of the sewing done within the day. Most of the outfits had threadbare patches around the elbows and knees, but I knew exactly how to fix that.

I pushed one of the full boxes over to my chair, turning it into a makeshift table, and set out all the threads and needles I required. Stoking the fireplace would have been lovely for I was chilled to the bone at the moment, but I was more concerned about embers catching fire on the clothes as I worked.

I looked through my inventory again, selecting the first one to repair and checked its label out of curiosity. I had assumed that Howl wore only the best suits, the kind of outfits that highly sought after seamstresses put outrageous prices on; the sort of suits that a man of his calibre would be expected to wear, but these were average at best. I recognized the labels of a particular seamstress, she was a local whose work I admired, but her suits were by no means expensive. I tossed the jacket back into the box and closed it over.

Before I could get comfortable, I ran through a mental list of materials. I had my thread, I had a decent pair of scissors, and I had an ample supply of needles and, judging by the amount of work needed to be done, those needles would be used up in no time.

My father once told me that the best needles should be sharp enough to pierce the fabric with ease but as soon as I had to fight with it, it was no longer any good. In my experience, it usually meant a sharp needle would last about two hours, and I had a feeling that I was going to need much more than a few hours.

Which gave me an idea.

Thinking about my father reminded me of something I'd always wanted to try out. I went to the kitchen in search of a vessel. Thankfully, Markel had left an array of jars on the counter from this morning. I grabbed a shallow looking one with a wide opening and made for the front door. I hesitated for a moment, but a voice popped into my head.

Remember Sophie, think of where you want to go.

The cool breeze greeted me as I stepped out of the doorway and felt the earthy ground between my toes. There was something wonderfully ethereal about Rosebay the drew me back here once again. Although I wanted to stay longer than I was planning to, I required only what the lake could provide me.

I took my time wandering through the trees, memorizing the sound the birds made as I passed beneath their nests. The rough, moist ground gave way to the sandy beach, and I had to travel a little further to find the cleanest area of sand. Kneeling over, I scooped the dry sand into the jar, making sure to pick out the twigs and leaves. Satisfied with its quality, I returned to the house.

Taking a deep breath to savour the crisp fragrance of the pine trees, I made a silent promise to come back and shut the door behind me.

I surrounded myself with clothing and placed the jar on top of my makeshift table. One by one, I stuck each needle points down into the sand. I would be the first to admit that when I saw my father do this, I thought it was strange, but he explained that the abrasive nature of the sand kept needle tips sharp.

Now that I had everything ready to go, it was time to get started. The first set I pulled out of the box was a simple fix; a few stitches on the right shoulder and a few on a loose pocket and then it was as good as new. The second jacket required a little more work, but nothing that required extraordinary effort.

My work continued in this fashion; one suit needed a bit of trimming on the frayed ends of a hole followed by a row of neat stitches, whereas another was missing a button that I had to procure elsewhere. One pair of trousers made me giggle. I passed my hand through the hole in the buttocks area of the pants and imagined what it would have been like to see Howl walking around, unaware that his breeches were showing.

Although my work was scattered all over the living room, there was a method to my madness, and having the castle all to myself, I had no one around to ruin my system. Repaired suits hung from the bookshelf and across the backs of three chairs and the soon-to-be-fixed suits piled in the box by my chair. Those beyond repair were laid on the floor all around me. These were sacrificed as scrap material for patches and spare buttons.

After a decent length of time, I rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead, surveying my work. I'd made a lot of headway, but I still had two boxes to get through. I wanted to stay focused to get everything completed quickly, but the events of the day played on repeat in my head, and I caught myself looking over at the stairwell more than once.

Markel may have warned me to stay away from Howl's room but my mind began to wander.

Knock it off Sophie, I told myself.

For a while, I was able to keep myself distracted, but I knew I wasn't fooling myself. I was going to have to satisfy my curiosity one way or another.

I tossed my work aside and eased myself out of the chair. My body rudely reminded me of how hard it was to do even the simplest things like sitting.

I climbed the stairs two at a time and hurried down the hallway, all the while looking over my shoulder as if someone might show up at any moment and stop me.

I had to be quick if I was going to do this. I had no idea what would happen if Markel caught me sneaking into Howl's room, but if I had to guess, it wasn't going to go over well with him. Regardless, the choice was mine to make and I had to be ready to live with it.

With another glance over my shoulder, I turned the knob and slipped into Howl's room.

Chapter Text

Lettie once told me that my creative genius stems from a well-developed imagination. One time, when I heard a noise in the middle of the night, I had imagined that there was a raving madman in our shop who was either destroying our displays or stealing our hats or possibly dancing on our counters. In a panic, I woke up Lettie and begged her to find out what had caused the noise, only to find that a stray cat had found its way into the pantry and knocked over the waste pail. She flicked my forehead and told me to give my imagination a rest once and a while.

Her advice would have helped at this moment. I'm not sure what I had expected when I entered Howl's room. . . Maybe a brothel, or a torture chamber, or a gateway to another world, but I could never have imagined his room to look so intensely. . . Plain.

His bed was made neatly with crisp white sheets and a worn beige quilt that betrayed no signs of use in the last little while. The furniture was much like the set in my room; there was a simple solid wood armoire which no doubt contained his suits, a mirror in the corner of the room that I did my best to avoid, and a long desk that had a few items laid out in a neat and orderly fashion.

At first, I told myself I wasn't going to raid his belongings, but now that I stood here, I couldn't stop myself. Three things occupied the desk: a top hat which I recognized as my creation, a pair of glasses, and a picture in a frame. I picked up the top hat and felt along the inside seam until I found my label and my heart lifted. If there was any chance I could tell him who I was, I had to show him this label.

I picked up his glasses, put them on and learned something quite quickly; Howl was blind as a bat. Honestly, I could see better through a dinner plate than these awful things; how he could manage without them was the real mystery here. I rubbed the smudge on the lens with the hem of my dress and set them down where I found them and carried on.

The picture gave me pause, and for a moment I wondered how he could have possibly taken it. I held it in my hands and sat on the corner of the bed trying my best to remember how I came to be in this photo.

***

A short time after our father passed away, Lettie had thrown herself into the community, volunteering us for every little thing the town needed. If the animal shelter required dog walkers, we were there holding the leashes, if the church needed cooks for their Friday community dinners, we wielded the ladles and donned our aprons. So naturally, when there were whispers of a community play, Lettie volunteered instantly, throwing my hand up along with hers.

For the most part, I was reluctant to get involved, but when Lettie insisted my role was to design and create costumes rather than act, I was more willing to help.

In no time my room was covered in designs for the play, and I was lining up the actors inside our shop to take measurements. I had an ample budget, and with the amount of time I was spending at the fabric shop, I may as well have packed my bags and moved in permanently.

With her natural beauty, Lettie was the first and only choice for the leading lady. Her charm and charisma won over the scriptwriters before they could announce a formal casting call. I read over her script and agreed that it suited her well and before I knew it, I was helping her practice her part of Scarlett O'Hara.

I had taken a few of the mannequins from the shop and moved them into the spare room at the back of the store so I could work uninterrupted on the costumes of the cast. With my book smarts, I'd memorized everyone's scripts and helped Lettie prepare for her role.

I bit down on a needle as I attempted to pin multiple layers of fabric while Lettie reviewed her lines. I snatched the pin and stuck it in the layers, securing the ruching in place. Turning on my stool, I fixed her with a stern look.

"How many times do I have to repeat the line, Lettie? You're supposed to grab the mans arm, look into his eyes desperately and say 'where shall I go? What shall I do?' Then the male lead says 'frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.' It's simple."

I turned my attention back to the ruching I was creating on Lettie's costume. It was a beautiful floor-length red gown that had a small slit up the side complete with ruffles that started at the opening in the front and moved outward in waves. With Lettie wearing it, there wasn't a man in Ingary who wouldn't watch the play.

She flopped onto the chair beside me and threw her script on the table, scattering my pins in the process. I tossed her an unimpressed look and leaned back.

"How is it that you got all the smarts and I didn't?" she pouted, rubbing the fabric of her new dress absently.

"How is it that you got all the beauty and I didn't?" I countered. "Afterall, isn't that what men are looking for in a wife? You'll be married before long, and I will end up a spinster with ten cats with all the smarts I have."

I picked up another pin and pulled at the ruching on the dress, tacking it in place. For some reason, Lettie was unusually quiet. I felt her hand grasp mine, and she squeezed it.

"I think you're beautiful Sophie, don't let anyone think otherwise. With your talent and skills, everything you touch is brilliant! Any man would be lucky to have you," she reached over and grabbed my cheek, moving my head so I would look at her.

"Do you think men come to our shop to see me?" I laughed humourlessly. "Lettie if you could see yourself from my eyes, you'd know what a presence you are when you're in a room. I mean, this play is going to be so popular just because you're in it!"

"You need to give yourself more credit Sophie. If you didn't make our hats, we wouldn't have a shop. All the ladies that come through our doors are buying our merchandise, and that's thanks to your hard work, not mine! And besides that, I wanted you to have a part in the play, but you refused to try out. I still think you should be in it, look at how quickly you memorized the play, the entire play! That's insane, Sophie, especially for someone who isn't in it. It's not too late; I'm sure I could convince the writers to give you a role." She held my hand in hers like a vice grip and peered up into my eyes with her Lettie charm.

I groaned. She knew I was weak to her charm. "Fine. If they need me, and I mean only if they need me, I would consider a small role, but you owe me."

Lettie flashed her winning smile and danced around the mannequin, kicking up the fabric with the twirling of her skirt. I shooed her away before she could do any damage to the dress.

In the following weeks, Lettie continued to practice in the room with me while I continued to work away on the costumes. Each cast member stopped by to try on their dress or suit for a final fitting before I made the finishing touches. I made sure all the dresses were vibrant, matching the colours with the characters personalities. Not only that, I took pride in the suits as well. They were some of my best work, and I hoped that once the play was over, they'd still get the use they deserved.

Lettie pleaded the writers to give me a part in the play, but they insisted the cast was set and there was nothing they could do about it. I would never admit to her that I was perfectly okay with being a stagehand but when she told me I didn't have a part, a little piece of me was relieved.

I was in the backstage setting up costumes the night of the first show when one of the writers approached me in a panic.

"Cornel, what's the matter?" I hung the garment in my hand quickly and turned my attention to him.

"It's bad! No, it's horrible! Your sister just informed us that she cannot perform tonight, can you please talk some sense into her? She's our leading lady, we need her!" his face was flustered, and his voice was shaking.

"What do you mean she can't perform?" I cocked an eyebrow. This was news to me, Lettie was fine this morning when I talked to her about her costume.

"Just come with me please," Cornel urged, pulling me along by my elbow.

Cornel pulled back the curtain on Lettie's dressing room, revealing her sprawled on the floor with a pack of ice on her ankle. Another stagehand held it in place, but Lettie was making quite a racket.

"Oh dear it hurts," she wiped a wrist across her brow, her voice sounding faint.

I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall, sizing her up. I'd seen this play before. Lettie's acting was always compelling.

"How bad is it?" I kicked the ice bag, and it rewarded me with a dark look from Lettie.

"Bad enough that I can't walk on it," she said between clenched teeth.

"This is terrible, what will we do?" Cornel pulled at his hair, utterly oblivious to the act my sister was putting on.

"We should bind it, give her shoes and hope for the best. Worst case scenario, we chop it off with one of the hacksaws in the backstage," I patted Cornels shoulder for good luck and exited the dressing room.

He reached for my hand before I could escape and pulled me back in. "Wait just a moment we still haven't figured what to do with your sister; she can't act in this state!"

I groaned quietly and rolled my eyes in Lettie's direction.

She batted her eyelashes and let out an exaggerated moan when the stagehand moved the ice pack.

"What am I doing?" I sighed.

"You've memorized my lines, and we're practically the same dress size, so I want you to take the lead for tonight's performance," she said immediately.

My face must have turned several shades of green because the writer took one look at me and jumped.

"Good heavens no!" Cornel thundered.

For some reason that cured me of my previous ailment.

"Why not?" my sister and I said in unison.

The writer looked at her and then to me and started tripping over his words. "Well, the thing is, most of our audience is hoping to see Lettie tonight night, and it's too late to tell them about the change in cast."

"She's my sister, and that's just as good as coming to see me," Lettie stated as a matter of fact.

"Yes exactly," I agreed with her. "Are you implying that I'm incapable of acting?" I asked darkly, fixing my glare on him.

The writer backtracked. "N-no, I never said anything of the sort! If you think you're a-able to fill in for your sister, then I won't argue!"

"Good," I snatched the script from his hands, "I'll be in my room rehearsing if you need me."

"Um, you don't. . . have a room," he corrected me.

Before I could feel embarrassed about it, Lettie answered for me. "Then get her one! She's the leading lady for goodness sakes!"

"Oh uh, yes of course," he bowed quickly and set off to find me a room.

Lettie erupted into a fit of giggles and shooed the stagehand away, removing the ice pack from her ankle. To my surprise, there was some bruising around her foot. She pulled her self into a seated position and beamed at me, ignoring her injury.

"What are you smiling at?" I grumbled, reading over my lines, feeling awful that I'd kicked her sprained ankle earlier.

"Oh nothing, I just can't wait to watch you on stage, that's all," she hummed.

"You owe me big time," I muttered over the pages.

"Oh enough of that, I know I owe you one. Just come over here so I can do your makeup okay?" She waved me over with her little makeup bag.

I could see the joy this was giving her, and I reminded myself that the whole purpose of our involvement in the community was to provide ourselves with a bit of happiness. I slid down the wall next to her and read my lines as she plucked and preened my face for the show. She hummed away quietly, calming my nerves as I prepared myself to do something I'd never dreamed of doing before.

If I was taking Lettie's role, I had to do this right.

 

It was the final scene. The leading man playing the role of Rhett Butler stood over me casting his gaze over my delicate form. The wind pulled at the tendrils of hair that had come loose from my bun, and I gathered my skirts around me to preserve my modesty.

Rhett set his lips in a firm line as I grabbed his arm and pulled him into me.

"Where shall I go?" I asked tearfully, "what shall I do?" I searched his eyes with desperation, determined to find an answer there.

He pulled away from my grasp and straightened the creases in his suit. With cold, steely eyes, he answered my query.

"frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," he turned away before I could say anymore and walked off stage.

I fell back on the stairwell. Pulling the handkerchief from my bosom, I wept freely into my open palms. Slowly, I pulled my face away and wiped my tears, staring off in the direction Rhett had left, filled with the determination to find him again someday.

The curtains fell over the stage, hiding me from the audience but I didn't miss the sound they made as they erupted into cheers. I felt a smile tug on my lips, and I let myself grin. This feeling was like nothing I had ever felt before. The exhilaration of having a live audience watch my every move, captivating them through the depth of my emotions; this indeed was a fantastic feeling.

The leading man reached for my hand and pulled me back onto the stage so we could take our formal bows, and all the while I couldn't stop smiling.

Roses and wildflowers littered the stage from where we stood, each person taking a bow as their name was called. I heard the master of ceremonies say my name and my smile deepened. I found Lettie in the crowd, crying and cheering, and I knew at that moment why she wanted me to do this instead of her. Standing on the stage, surrounded by the cast members and wearing the most vibrant dress I had ever worn, I felt incredible, and for once, it was hard to be the wallflower that I'd always been.

 

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I looked back at the picture of me, smiling to the audience at the end of our performance. That night was the only time I'd ever performed, and yet, somehow Howl had captured the moment perfectly.

I placed the picture back carefully and backed out of the room. There was no point going through any more of Howl's things; I had invaded his privacy long enough.

Chapter Text

The sun warmed the nap of my neck, and I moved my hair over my shoulder to give it better access to my skin. From where I currently sat, the patio was the perfect place to be on this lovely morning. I loved watching the hustle and bustle of downtown; it meant our town was thriving and when the town was thriving, so was my hat shop.

I sampled my tea for strength and pulled the bag out. Pressing the bag against the cup with my spoon, I set it on the saucer and wrapped my chilled hands around the hot vessel. The relaxing atmosphere of the patio was a welcome reprieve from my daily stress and, as I leaned back in my chair, I let the sun work its magic on my skin while the tea worked its magic on my soul.

A waitress walked past me to attend to another patron at the other end of the patio. The lazy affect the sun was having on me made my eyes slowly close and I let it whisk me away. I heard the waitress conversing with the other patron, and when I listened to the sound of his voice, I almost fell backward in my chair.

He sat directly across from me, flashing his brilliant smile as the waitress took his order. He had no one else accompanying him, and he looked relaxed. He had on a simple white button-down shirt and slacks. His shirt sleeves were rolled up, exposing his sunkissed skin.

If it weren't for the staring, I would have run away by now because the panic was starting to set in.

He's going to see me again, and he's going to think I'm a stalker.

He handed the menu back to the waitress with a secret wink and leaned back in his chair. The bright light of midday picked up the golden hue of his hair.

What are you doing, Sophie? Get up and get out of there. Now. I repeated this command a few times, but for some reason, my body ignored me, and all I could do was sit there, dumbstruck.

Howl turned his head, and his eyes met mine with a look of surprise.

In a panic, I looked for something to cover my face, but he was out of his chair, making his way towards me before I could stop him.

I shoved away from the table, scattering my dishes in my haste to get away from him. Howl reached for my hand, but I pushed him back, looking for an escape.

Dashing from the patio, I ran as quickly as my legs would allow. My heart hammered in my ears and my lungs fought to keep up with me. I dodged people left and right, shoving those who wouldn't move out of the way. I refused to look back, willing myself to keep moving forward. I made an immediate left turn and found myself in a narrow alley, far enough away from the bustling streets for anyone to notice me. My chest felt like a little bird was loose inside it as I held my hand on it, forcing myself to breathe evenly.

My hair had come undone in my haste to get away. I pulled at the knot that had formed and finally managed to remove the ribbon from the mess of hair. I worked my fingers through the knots, cursing my luck. A few strands of hair fell in front my vision as I tried to collect it all into a bun. My hands froze and the hair I'd gathered fell in tangles around my shoulders. I reached for a section of hair that drooped past my forehead, barely able to contain my nervous energy.

It was brown!

This miraculous change had me at a loss for words. Eagerly, I rolled up my sleeves and examined my arms. The bumps, moles, and wrinkles that marred my hands were there no longer.

Brimming with anticipation, I raced around the next corner to find a place where I could see my reflection, and I ran smack into Howl.

His hands steadied me before I could lose my balance. With shaking hands, I placed my palms on his chest, giving myself the space I needed to think.

"I. . ." I couldn't find my voice.

He lifted my chin with his thumb and searched my eyes.

"It really is you," he breathed.

He ran his thumb across my cheek, pulling me into his embrace. He breathed my name into my ear and held me close. With my cheek against his chest, I felt the warmth of body and heard the peaceful sound of his heartbeat.

He leaned back just enough to get another look at me. Howl tilted my chin ever so slightly, and I could see the deep emerald smouldering in his eyes. He leaned in, closing the distance between us. . .

 

"Son of a witch!"

Someone's terrible screeching pulled me out of my deep sleep. I sat bolt upright in the rocking chair, searching the room for the culprit.

Markel was a short distance away from me, clutching his hand and wailing like a mad fool.

I grumbled, trying to pull myself into a better position. I must have made the mistake of falling asleep at my workstation because I was certainly feeling it now. I removed the quilt off my lap and pushed myself out of the chair, grumbling.

Markel looked up at me with surprise. I must have looked horrid this morning if that's the sort of look he was giving me.

"What's the matter?" I asked, making my way around the mess of clothing I had created on the floor the night before.

Markel clutched his hand by the wrist, and I could see a needle embedded in his palm. I held his hand in both of mine an assessed the damage. With a deft hand, I plucked the needle out before he could protest and I was rewarded with yet another screech. He jerked his hand away and sucked on the wound, eyeing me like a villain.

"Relax you big baby. It's just a little needle poke." I made my way over to the kitchen and soaked a cloth under the tap. Returning to him, I handed it over.

"What on earth was that noise?" Howl made his way downstairs with a towel covering his head. "Was someone skinning a cat the living room?" he dried his hair and draped the towel across his shoulders.

At first, I didn't know what it was I was seeing; maybe my eyes were getting worse or perhaps I was still dreaming, but something was different about Howl. I cocked my head and stared at him, unabashed. Howl cocked his head as well when he caught me staring. He looked over at Markel for an explanation, probably because neither of us answered him and I was staring at him like he'd grown a second head.

Howls hair was no longer long and blonde. Instead, it was now jet black and cropped short to his head. He squinted at us and pulled his glasses out of his pants pocket. He rubbed the lenses and pushed them up the bridge of his nose, tossing the towel over the railing.

"Are you alright Allison? You look a little flush," Markel asked, seeming very vexed by my complexion.

"I— err, must not have slept well." My cheeks felt like they were on fire. I had to look away from Howl before I could burst into flames.

Markel's face was etched with concern. "I'm sorry I woke you so abruptly, I had no idea you were sleeping there," he said.

The quilt on the floor caught my eye momentarily. It was a faded beige piece that I'd seen before.

"My apologies for not waking you last night," Howl interrupted, "but I did not wish to disturb you after all the work you had done. I must admit I was surprised to see you'd completed it so quickly. Tomorrow, if you would like, we can begin working on your curse." He pulled a glass from the cupboard and filled it in the sink. Leaning against the counter, he waited for my response.

I was still trying to adjust to his appearance. It wasn't that he looked awful, in fact, it was the complete opposite. Something about his messy short black hair and thick-rimmed glasses made him look very genuine.

Howl adjusted the fit of his glasses and cleared his throat. "That is if you still want to break your curse?"

I nodded vigorously, trying to find my words.

"Allison?" Markel asked when I hadn't responded to Howl's offer.

"I'm sorry," I managed, finally finding my voice. "It's just a little strange, seeing you like this Howl."

Howl leaned to the left and cocked an eyebrow at Markel, who had been standing behind me the whole time.

"She means your hair, I think," Markel supplied for me.

Howl ran his hand through his hair, his cheeks turning slightly pink.

"Enchanting my hair takes a lot of work, so I usually don't do it at home," he explained.

"Why enchant it at all?" I asked.

"People like it better that way," Howl shrugged.

"You might not believe it," Markel chipped in a little too loudly, "but the master is a little self-conscious about his looks."

I gawked at Howl in disbelief. I happened to prefer the way he looked now. Even though I'd never known him any other way, something about him seemed very natural now.

"It must be exhausting enchanting your hair every day. You should consider leaving your hair this way for a while. You might grow to like it," I suggested. Howls cheeks got even redder.

Markel snorted. "Masters' hair isn't the worst part. It's his eyes that take the most work." He leaned in and whispered loudly, "have you seen how thick his glasses are?"

From behind his thick-rimmed frames, Howl glared at Markel.

I held up a hand for parlay before the men could have an all-out war in the dining room.

"Well, I for one, think you look rather nice with glasses. You should stop working so hard to impress everyone. The only people worth having in your life will like you for the way you are, not what they think you should look like."

"I've been saying this for years," Markel added.

I glanced over my shoulder and shot Markel a look. "The same goes for you. Stop trying to impress your girlfriend with flashy suits. I don't know what it is with you two and your wardrobe choices, but you need to reign it in."

Markel looked wounded by my remarks. "If Lettie's stepmother would stop judging me every time I went to see her, I wouldn't have to change my suits!"

"Well, it's a good thing your not trying to romance her now is it?"

Howl chuckled and I spun around, pointing a finger at him.

"Why are you laughing? What on earth was with that god awful green shirt you wore yesterday?" The minute the question left my lips I cringed.

Howl froze with his glass halfway to his lips. He lowered it to the counter and furrowed his brow.

"What green shirt?" He asked.

"You don't remember? It was hard to look at that ghastly looking colour, especially with the white pants, really Howl," I shook my head.

"Green shirt? White pants? I've never worn those, are you sure it was me you saw?" he looked sincere.

I was starting to feel angry. Either Howl didn't want to admit in front of Markel that he'd been fooling around or he was embarrassed that I'd caught him.

"Where were you yesterday?" I asked.

He gave me a confused look. "I had an errand to run downtown in Market Chipping yesterday morning, but after that, I was in Kingsbury. Why?"

I threw my hands in the air, punctuating my frustration. "You know I saw you at the cafe yesterday. Why are you pretending like you didn't?"

"Because I wasn't there," he said slowly. Removing his glasses, he rubbed the knot that was forming between his eyes. When he put them back on, his expression was far more serious. "Did you hear me talk about anything important when you saw me at the cafe?"

What Howl just said created a paradox in my mind. How could he say he wasn't there and then ask me what I had overheard him say?

"What exactly is going on?" I asked them both, waiting to see if one of them would provide me with a sane explanation.

Howl moved around the island and looked me square in the eyes.

"Please just tell me what you heard. Did I say anything about travel plans, or where I was lodging that night? Did you happen to see where I went to after the cafe?" His eyes looked desperate.

It was my turn to look flustered; this conversation was beginning to sound ridiculous. "I didn't hear you say anything of the sort. You were flirting and going on about flying on the back of a dragon! It was complete nonsense."

Markel stifled a laugh, but Howl silenced him with a frosty look. He turned his attention back to me. "Have you seen me since then?" he asked, completely serious.

I wasn't even sure how to answer his line of questioning. "Other than here this morning. . . no?" I hoped this was that answer he wanted.

Howl cursed under his breath and snapped his fingers. "Markel get me a jacket," he ordered while he retrieved his shoes. He was dressed in short order, keeping his glasses and hair the way they were. Before I could ask him what was going on, he opened the red door and was gone.

I stared at the doorway in disbelief. "What in Gods name was that all about?"

Markel avoided eye contact, choosing instead to clean up the mess I had made from sewing. He gathered the scraps and put them into one of the empty boxes.

I grabbed the box he was using an moved it out of reach. I tapped my foot, waiting for him to answer me.

He dropped the bundle of scraps and sighed.

"I shouldn't be telling you this," he began.

"Tell me what?" my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I found a chair and sat down, upon Markel's request.

He chewed on the inside of his cheek, finally coming to a decision.

"That man you saw yesterday. . . Wasn't master."

I cocked an eyebrow. "Then who was it?"

"The man you saw, the man who looked like the master? That was Calcifer."

Chapter Text

I looked at Markel with bewilderment. I wasn't sure what surprised me more, the fact that he'd just given me insight into Howl's secret life or that it appeared that Howl has a twin brother.

"Calcifer? Who is he?" I asked for the thousandth time. Every time I attempted to make eye contact with Markel, he would strangely look away. He busied himself with grabbing one of the boxes to clean up my sewing, and my patience was starting to fray. I pulled the box away from his reach and gave him a knowing look.

"He's. . . Err," Markel rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. He sighed after receiving a particularly severe look from me, tossing aside a shirt in his hands. "I'm sorry I just can't say. Believe me, if I could, I would tell you. There are just some things that are better left unsaid; this is one of those cases."

I gaped at him. "What do you mean you can't say? You just told me his name was Calcifer! You can't just tell me that and then not elaborate!"

Markel grimaced, avoiding my glare. "It was a slip of the tongue; I shouldn't have told you that in the first place. This is the Master's business and, after all, I'm not supposed to get involved with his affairs. Neither should you."

The rope that had been restraining my patience snapped, and I became unhinged. "What's with all this secrecy? Should I be concerned about this Calcifer person? Is Howl hiding something about him because he's dangerous?"

Markel shook his head animatedly, waving his hands to calm me down. "It's nothing like that, I promise."

A knot formed in my throat. "Should we be worried about Howl then? I mean could Calcifer hurt him?"

Markel's features softened. "No doubt worry about that, he can handle Calcifer. The Master's been after him for years. Chasing down a lead on Calcifer is nothing new, Howl does this from time to time."

His reassuring tone did little to calm my nerves, but I tried my best to listen to him. So Howl was searching for this Calcifer person. I wanted to know why and I also wanted to know why he looked so much like Howl, but it appeared that Markel wasn't going to give up any more information. Besides that, if I pressed my luck any further, Howl might rescind his agreement to help me with my curse. That was more important to me than pushing for information at this point. If he said Howl could handle this on his own, there was no point in me arguing in opposition.

Markel had returned to sifting through the suits, putting them away neatly in the boxes. He held up the mangled bits of scrap from a suit I had cut into pieces for patches and cocked an eyebrow at me. I knelt down beside him and gathered the bits and pieces of material into a pile to discard in the kitchen wastebin.

"So you aren't going to help Howl?" I asked after we'd spent a fair amount of time cleaning my mess up.

He stopped sifting through some of the formal wear. "As I said, the Master tends to his affairs. If he wanted help, he would have asked," he said.

I closed the last box and leaned against it for support. "Would he, though?"

"If he wanted help, then yes he would ask." He picked up a black suit, complete with a bowtie and held it to his chest, changing the subject. "What do you think, does this suit me? "

"Why?" I asked incredulously. "What's wrong with what you're wearing?"

He tossed the suit on top of the box and with a deep sigh, he slumped into the armchair next to me. "It's Lettie's stepmother," he began.

I felt a twinge of bitterness. I swear that woman was determined to destroy Lettie's happiness. "What did she do this time?" I asked in a measured tone.

"She humiliated me yesterday. The holes in my jacket were pointed out by her the minute I walked into Lettie's shop. She made a point of comparing me to another man right in front of Lettie, and I was never given a chance to defend myself. As a result, they got into a huge fight and Lettie was inconsolable. I just don't know what to do. She's right; I haven't the money or good fortune the other suitors have."

I didn't need to see the hurt in his eyes to know he was upset, the sad tone of his voice gave it away. My heart hurt for him. I wish I could tell him how right he was for my sister. I wish I could explain that no matter what Gerta says, she'll never dictate who my sister loves.

"Have you considered Lettie's feelings on the subject?" I asked, gauging his reaction.

He slumped back in his chair. "No, but it's fairly obvious that she could do much better than me."

I could tell Gerta had done a number on his self-esteem; it wasn't going to be easy to reassure him in his current state. If anything, I'd need to find another way to boost his confidence.

"I feel a need to go to Kingsbury this morning, would you accompany me?" I smiled brightly, coming up with a plan.

"Kingsbury? Why do you need to go there?" he scratched his head, messing up his curly red locks.

"There's somewhere I'd like to go, but I might need assistance because of my old back," I made a point of exaggerating a stretch in my lower back, which cracked alarmingly loud.

"Well. . . Simon's watching the shop at the moment so I should probably get back over there soon," he hesitated.

I tapped my lip thoughtfully, walking about the room. "I tend to talk a lot when I have company, and I know a lot about Lettie and her family so. . ." I winked at Markel so he would catch my drift.

His face lit up instantly.

"So, Kingsbury then?" he agreed.

***

Markel waited while I changed my outfit. I may be old, but there's no need for me to feel dirty and old. I wet a comb and brushed it through my hair, taming the knotted mess it had become thanks to my dozing off in the living room. My back ached something fierce, and I had to stretch for a long time to work the stiffness from my joints. I riffled through the small assortment of dresses I had, finding a dark grey one that had less wear than the rest, and put it on. Adding the blue shawl I obtained yesterday, I hoped was dressed well enough for whatever weather we might encounter.

Once finished, Markel lead us through the door to his apothecary.

"Good morning Simon," Markel chirped, ruffling Simon's hair.

The young boy batted his hand away from his head and fixed his eyes on me. Markel cleared his throat, bringing Simons attention back to him.

"Hi," Simon replied, his eyes drifting over to me again. He cocked his head but said nothing further.

Markel opened up the till to check the float quickly. Once he'd finished, he grabbed Simon's attention again. "How have things been this morning? Steady?"

Simon nodded, pulling a piece of paper out of his apron pocket to hand to him. "There's a lady looking for a tincture that's out of stock. I wrote it down for you, told her you'd be back later today."

Markel took the piece of paper from Simon and read it over briefly. "Ah, yes, miss Jocelyn asked me to make this for her a few days ago, I'd almost forgot. I'll be back later, so if she comes in and I'm not here, tell her it will be ready for her to pick up tomorrow morning." He tucked the paper away, patting Simon's shoulder.

Simon nodded but continued to stare at me peculiarly. His bright blue eyes and dusty brown hair gave him boyish features, but I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that something was off about him. Even though he appeared to be very young, he didn't act the way I would expect a boy of his age to act; rather than being loud and rambunctious, he was stoic and calm. It was a little unnerving, and I found myself averting my eyes as he continued to stare at me.

"Where are you from?" I asked, trying to cut the tension in the room while Markel was busy sorting out his affairs.

Simon immediately looked at Markel instead of me. Oddly enough, it was Markel, and not him, who answered me. "Simon's not from around here," he said without elaborating.

Although this piqued my curiosity, there was only so much digging I could do before Markel lost his patience with me. I probably reached the limit by asking about Calcifer, so I let it be. Wrapping my shawl tighter around my shoulders, I smiled at Simon.

"It was nice seeing you again," I piped up.

While the two men hammered out the details of their work day, I decided to get some fresh air out of the streets of Kingsbury, which happened to be where Markel's apothecary was located.

I had only ever been to Kingsbury a handful of times because it was a little too far to walk from Market Chipping. Besides that, paying for a carriage just to travel all the way to Kingsbury for a day wasn't very economical.

The few times that I did get the chance to go to Kingsbury, however, I was overwhelmed with its enormity.

The buildings, for instance, were taller than any structure we had back home. Three and four-story businesses were a common theme here. People took advantage of their height by running clotheslines out their windows and across the busy marketplace, hanging linens that fluttered in the wind over the hustle and bustle of downtown. Even at this very moment, I could see a lady hanging out the window, drawing the line out laden with garments and an assortment of towels to hang in the sunshine.

Horse-drawn carriages were another daily occurrence that I wasn't accustomed to and it was a constant challenge to dodge them in the busy streets here in Kingsbury. I'd always thought of horses as a messy sort of creature, and one look at the dirty cobblestone streets of Kingsbury proved my point.

Lettie and I used to save up some coin to buy ourselves a trip to Kingsbury as a sort of vacation. It was ironic given the fact that our town was the vacation destination for the city folk, but sometimes we needed to get away from the troubles of daily life. I remember there being a few places my sister loved to go when we came here, so it was for this reason I had to bring Markel here today.

Markel appeared beside me, tapping me on the shoulder lightly to get my attention.

"Where is it you want to go?" he asked.

I looked at our surroundings to get my bearings. Markel's shop was in the centre of downtown Kingsbury; it was one of the many stores that faced in towards a large open area that featured an immense fountain. Crowds of people moved around the fountain, heading in one of the four directions that one could take from this area.

The city was already in full swing for the day, and I had to move out of the way several times to avoid being trampled by horses and people alike.

"Which direction is Hickory Street?" I asked Markel, as I tried my best to peer over the heads of the busy crowd.

He looked around briefly and pointed to the overhanging sign further down the street, indicating its route.

"Perfect, then that's where we're headed," I set off, weaving through the crowds while making sure Markel was still following close behind.

"What is on Hickory Street?"

"You'll see," I said over my shoulder with a smile.

Chapter Text

The shop was just as I had remembered it; teal coloured walls, rich mahogany displays, glossy marble floors and chocolate as far as the eye could see. I knew the instant we walked in that Markel approved because he was giddy with excitement. I found it funny that his reaction was so similar to Lettie's the first time we came here.

I had brought Markel to our favourite patisserie, Silk. Esmerelda was the chef of this patisserie. She was a tall, lithe woman with dark wild hair braided helter-skelter with bits of colourful silk weaved throughout. Her bright hair mimicked her clothes and aprons, making her a hard to miss.

If I could describe her in a word, it would be mighty. To spend each and everyday pulverizing cocoa seeds and transforming them into chocolate was an impressive feat.

Esmerelda imported some of the finest chocolate in the world and shaped it into works of art. I wondered if I could even bring myself to eat such a delicate masterpiece after all she put into it. Her dedication to perfection was something I truly admired, and often when we came for a visit, we'd sit in her shop and watch her work magic.

The owner of the shop didn't acknowledge our presence at first. She was elbows deep into a massive copper bowl of white chocolate, scraping it out onto a metal sheet. I checked on Markel to make sure he wasn't drooling on the marble floors as we watched her spread the mixture into a smooth, thin layer of sugary delight.

I walked up and down the displays, admiring her work. Little cakes filled the first screen, each with its own elegantly carved chocolate flowers methodically placed in the corners. In another display, she had an assortment of truffles, drizzled individually with a rich raspberry coolie and white chocolate ganache.

"How could anyone possibly choose? Everything looks so delicious!" Markel exclaimed, pressing his face to one of the displays.

I raised my eyebrows. "Have you never been to Lady Esmereldas before?"

He pushed away from the glass and jammed his hands in his pockets. "I'm too busy with the apothecary to venture outside," he shrugged.

"Well, you're in for quite a treat then. I'm almost certain I've sampled everything there is to try in here, and I can honestly say almost everything is delicious."

Markel pressed his hands on another glass display, drooling over its contents of chocolate dipped fruits. Esmerelda appeared out of nowhere and swatted him with her dish towel. Rubbing the fingerprints off the glass, she pointed with two fingers and shook her head at Markel.

Markel's cheeks turned bright red. "My apologies, ma'am. It's just that everything looks so yummy!"

Lady Esmerelda waved her hand in the air, tapping her chin and then her elbow. I smiled and looked at her directly. It had been a while since the last time I'd been here and the few signs I did know I'd almost forgotten. I reviewed the motions quickly in my head before speaking.

"I'm sorry I'm a little rusty," I tapped my wrist and curved my hand into a fist, "can you read my lips?" I asked her. Markel gave me a funny look.

She nodded and spread her arm outward, gesturing for me to explain what I wanted.

I tapped my palm and pointed to Markel. "Would you do a reading for him? He's never been here before," I explained, pointing my finger at him. I spelled his name in the air for her as she watched the movements I made with my hands. "His name is Markel," I said out loud, more for Markel's benefit than for hers.

Esmerelda nodded again, reaching across the counter for Markel's hand.

He shrank away from her reach, holding his hands protectively. "What does she want with my hands?" he eyed her strangely, waiting for an explanation.

"She's going to do a reading for you, just trust me," I coaxed him gently forward.

"What's with all this arm waving you two are doing?" He continued, still not convinced.

A sudden realization hit me. "Oh, you mean this," I made the same gesture with my hands. "Esmerelda is deaf; she uses sign language to talk. That's what those movements meant," I clarified.

Markel's shoulders visibly relaxed. "Well, that's a relief. You both looked like a bunch of monkeys just now waving your hands around like that. I thought you'd lost your marbles."

Esmerelda stifled a giggle.

"Well no, she can't hear you say it, but she can read lips," I admitted.

Markel had the decency to look embarrassed. "I err, didn't mean that. I how do I say sorry to her," Markel shouted, mimicking my movements.

I cringed and covered my ears. "You don't have to shout, Markel, she can't hear you no matter how loud you are."

"Oh," he lowered his voice, now barely above a whisper.

"It's alright," I laughed. I turned to face Esmerelda so she could see my lips. "This is my friend Markel; he's never had a reading before."

Esmerelda nodded, ushering him to come forward. She opened her palms, face up, urging him to do the same.

"Just follow her lead," I encouraged him.

As he showed her his hands, she ran her fingers over the surface of his palms, tracing the fine lines on each one. He looked over his shoulder for an explanation.

I answered while she continued to examine his hands. "Esmerelda has a knack for knowing what emotions people are expressing just from reading their palms. Somehow, just from knowing that, she can tell which dessert will be your favourite."

"And what if I don't like what she picks out for me?" he asked.

I shook my head. "I don't think that's possible. I've heard she's never been wrong before."

Esmerelda released Markel and clapped her hands together in delight. She made her way over to the furthest display and took out a small box. Setting it out on the counter, she invited Markel to try it.

"Go on," I insisted when he didn't take it right away.

He took the little box from the counter and reached in, producing a small piece of chocolate brittle. The chocolate dotted with dried cranberries, pistachios and orange peel. He made a face but popped it into his mouth just the same. His eyes rolled back in delight, and he gave her a thumbs up. "This is fantastic," he said a little too loudly again.

Esmerelda smiled and leaned on the counter.

"Does she want to read my palm again?" he pointed at her outstretched hand.

"No," I tried not to laugh. "She wants you to pay. It's not free you know."

Forgetting himself for a moment, Markel scrambled to get out his payment. "Oh yes, of course, that was stupid of me. Would you like something?" he offered, pointing at the display case. He dropped the coins into her awaiting hand and stepped back.

Esmerelda tossed the coins into a jar behind the counter and reached for my hands. Having been here on numerous occasions, it seemed pointless to have her read my palm. I already knew what it would be, a warm hot chocolate with a thick serving of whipped cream and caramel. After all, it was my favourite.

She rubbed my palm slowly, taking her time to really examine my hand. When she released it, she went over to the counter and reached for another tiny box, depositing it into my hand.

"What's this?" I asked, surprised at her selection.

She indicated to me that I should open it, but I felt confused. Every time Lettie and I came here; it was the same selection, so why was it different now? I thought the only that had changed about me was my appearance.

I opened the little box and emptied its contents into my hand. It was a tiny round orb of white chocolate that was a rather dull looking item. I popped it into my mouth and bit down, my mouth filling with the tart flavour of raspberry. I'd never pick something like this on my own, but I was surprised by how much I loved it.

"Do you mind if we get one more thing, while we're here?" I asked Markel.

Lady Esmerelda offered her hand, and Markel gave her two more silver.

"Why not?" he shrugged.

I leaned in and asked for something in particular, and she went right to work. Esmerelda reached for a small copper pot and set it out on the stove behind her. She added water to the pot and placed a metal bowl over the top, dropping chunks of chocolate from a box into the bowl. Adding a dash of cream and a couple of other ingredients, Esmerelda stirred it until all the ingredients blended perfectly together. Taking out a paper cup, she whisked the silky contents into it, adding a scoop of freshly whipped cream on top.

Markel and I thanked her. With a look of delight, he took a long sip of the drink. I waited for his reaction with anticipation and was rewarded when he turned around immediately, gagging.

"It's so bitter," he grimaced. He tried sampling it again, but his face turned sour.

I had to agree with him; this was one of the few items on her menu I didn't like.

"It's pure cocoa," I smiled. "Don't you like it?"

He made another attempt at drinking it but failed. "I liked the other chocolate much better."

"So what you're saying is you don't like it?" I asked.

"Don't get me wrong, the other chocolate was delicious, but that's just too bitter. Who on earth likes something this bitter?"

"Lettie does," I said simply.

"Why would she drink something so bitter when there's an entire shop full of sweets that taste better?" he screwed up his face in confusion.

I tapped my chin thoughtfully. "Imagine that all the sweets in this shop are like the men that Lettie's stepmother approves of," I said.

"Is that supposed to make me feel any better?" he frowned.

"But Lettie doesn't like any of these sweets," I reminded him. "Lettie likes stuff like this," I pointed to the drink. "She doesn't have to explain why she likes it, she just does. So quit comparing yourself to others, you're the one she likes."

"So. . . what you're saying is I'm the bitter chocolate. . . right?" Markel knit his brows together, working it out in his head.

"Yes exactly!" I grinned.

"But there is one thing I have to admit," he said sheepishly.

"What's that?"

"This chocolate really is dreadful, I don't think I can finish it," he made his best effort to sip it again, but there was no hiding his distaste.

I grabbed his cup, saving him from the last mouthful. Smiling to Lady Esmerelda, I thanked her for the drink and followed Markel outside.

The moment the door closed behind us, drums boomed down the street, pulling our attention towards the central market.

"What was that?" I looked at Markel.

He seemed just as bewildered as I was.

Reaching for my hand, he steered us through the gathering crowd. "I don't know, but we should go find out."

Chapter Text

Markel and I weaved ourselves through the crowds of people that were now assembling at the end of the street close to his shop. We managed to maneuver around the mass until we had a clear view of the scene ahead.

There, on a raised platform, dressed in royal colours of gold and red, stood two drummers, and trumpeter and an announcer holding a scroll in his hands. It was a rare sight to have the royal quartet in downtown Kingsbury; the King wasn't big on royal decrees. In fact, I'd only ever seen the royal colours once when I was much younger, and it was just to announce the birth of a new royal. Whatever the occasion was, it had to be significant if it was garnering this much attention.

Several ladies next to me giggled amongst themselves, gossiping about the announcement. I heard one of them mention a name that sounded vaguely familiar; it was Solana Sulliman. Where had I heard that name before?

The usually busy market had halted as hundreds upon hundreds of people gathered around the announcers, tightly packed, shoulder to shoulder. All eyes were on the men, every man, woman, and child, waiting on in silence for them to address the assembly.

Red banners fixed with gold tassels that had the mark of the king emblazoned on the front fluttered in the wind as we held our breaths in anticipation. They hung from every window and light post, covering the market in a sea of red.

A trumpet glimmered in the noontide sun, direct our eyes to the trumpeter, who pressed the mouthpiece to his lips and let forth a tune that commanded our attention. With a flourish, he tucked the instrument under his arm and saluted the announcer smartly.

The older man in charge of the scroll unfurled the message with a flick of his wrist. He pulled a tiny pair of glasses out of the breast pocket of his tunic and affixed them on the bridge of his nose. Finally, he cleared his throat and read the contents aloud.

"On this day, April the twenty-first, at eleven in the morning, our King, Edwin Marcus Flambert, has decreed that there shall be a ball held at the palace. As you may well know, this coincides with the centennial anniversary of the battle of the Western Ocean. On this day, we celebrate the mighty victory the First Enchantress claimed on behalf of the people of Ingary."

"Is that what they're calling it," Markel mumbled under his breath from beside me. His mouth fixed into a hard line and I could see his fists clenching. Before I could ask him about his displeasure, the announcer continued with his directive.

"The King has declared that all citizens of Ingary are welcome to attend, provided they follow formal etiquette while in the palace. Should any individual wish for more information, they need only to ask at the castle gates. The palace will open doors at six in the evening on May fifteenth. That is all." The announcer rolled the scroll up quickly and tucked it into his long coat.

Without delay, the drummers played a steady tune and led the group away from the centre stage, parting the crowds on their way back to the palace.

"What perfect timing!" I smiled at Markel.

He gave me a look that told me he didn't catch my meaning.

"Perfect timing for what?" he asked.

I pushed his shoulder playfully. "The ball of course! You couldn't ask for a better opportunity than this! I'm sure Lettie would love to go with you, and you wouldn't have to deal with her stepmother. It's a win-win situation, the way I see it!" I grinned.

Markel chewed on the inside of his cheek, debating it. Finally, he sighed.

"I can't do it."

"Why on earth not?" I asked, flustered by his sudden refusal.

"Of all the events I could attend, this is one I simply can't go to," he said, tired and despondent.

"Can't or won't?" I asked.

"For the Master's sake I just. . . Can't."

He was vague again; it seemed like a growing trend with both him and Howl.

"And why not? Does Howl have something against them?" I said, tiring to keep the anger from my voice.

Markel looked over at a couple who had stopped walking and were now eavesdropping on our conversation. He gave them a look, and they quickly scurried away.

"Let's take this conversation elsewhere, shall we?" He said, directing me back towards his shop.

***

In the apothecary, Markel gave Simon some silver and set him out on a task so that we could have a bit of privacy. Once Simon was out the door, Markel turned his attention to me. He rubbed his face and sighed, struggling with he wanted to say. I waited as Markel made to say something, but then he stopped himself. Markel picked up a random jar and juggled it in his hands.

"Do you know what this celebration is about?" He finally asked.

I folded my arms and leaned over the desk, thinking back to what the announcer said in the decree. "The battle of the Western Ocean right?"

"Right," he nodded slowly, "but do you know what happened in that battle?"

I remembered learning about the battle briefly in grade school, but like most things I'd learned, I didn't retain them well after I left. "In school, we were taught that the battle of the Western Ocean was famous because it only lasted one day, with no casualties on our side." The moment I said that the name I had heard earlier finally clicked. "Oh wait a moment! Didn't that battle involve the First Enchantress Solana Sulliman?"

Markel's face was unreadable. "How much do you know about the First Enchantress?"

I scratched at a splinter of wood on the counter, recalling my school studies on the history of Ingary. "I remember learning that she was a famous enchantress who ended wars before they even started. She was so powerful that the King had her command his armies and gave her the title of First Enchantress. Under her leadership, the King never lost a soldier in battle. To this day, no one knows how she did it; she's an inspiration for us all," I said.

When I looked up at Markel, he had a knot in his face. "Did you know that the Master was her protege?"

I leaned further over the table, gaping at him in astonishment.

"Seriously? That's amazing!" I laughed. "No wonder Howl is such a powerful wizard; I had no idea his teacher was Solana."

"Was his teacher," Markel added emphasis on the was. "What did you learn in school about the outcome of the battle of the Western Ocean?" He waited intentively, leaning with his palms face down on the counter.

Again, my knowledge from history class was a little rusty. "I remember learning that a massive fleet of ships set sail for war against Ingary, but before they could reach the shores, all the men aboard the ships were dead."

Markel nodded, but he didn't look happy. "That's true. What else do you remember learning?"

From the manner of his behaviour, something had happened that apparently upset him. Howl was Solana's apprentice, and according to history, it was the last battle she ever fought. Come to think of it, didn't that announcer mention something about a sacrifice? Then that means,

"Solana died that day," I said, more as a statement than as a question. The way Markel grimaced at my response confirmed my theory. If Howl didn't want anything to do with a celebration honouring his teacher, then there must have been something more to the story. But why wouldn't Howl be okay with Markel attending a ball?

Markel let a long sigh. "I really shouldn't be telling you this, so please keep this to yourself understood?"

"yes of course," I nodded enthusiastically.

"The day of that battle, the Master lost everything he held dear. His heart was broken so much so that I thought he might never recover. He's only just recently started acting like his old self again, and I can't risk seeing him the way he was back then. I'll give you a bit of friendly advice, if you do not wish to insight his fury, avoid the subject of Solana with him. It's for this reason that I can't attend the ball. It was a nice thought, but I'll have to think of some other way to spend time with Lettie." Markel pushed away from the counter, grabbing a box full of jars to set out on the shelves.

It appeared that he didn't want to discuss the matter any further, and I didn't want to push my luck. A nagging feeling my made heart squeeze uncomfortably and at once, I was at war with my emotions. It was not hard to guess that from what he told me Howl had loved her, and I could only imagine what her death must have done to him emotionally.

Maybe it was for this reason that I couldn't bring myself to ask him more about it, or perhaps it was the painful squeezing I felt in my chest every time I thought of Howl hurting but I just couldn't bring myself to talk about it anymore. What I did want to know was more about Howl. Not his past. Not his secrets. I just want to know more about him as a person, after all. . . I barely knew anything about him.

"How long have you been with Howl?" I asked. Taking up a rag, I began dusting off some of the bottles near the counter to feel useful.

Markel set the empty box down, thinking it over for a moment.

"Since we were boys. I guess you could say we grew up together," he divulged, straightening the bottles, so the labels faced forward.

I was surprised by this admission. If Howl and Markel grew up together, then that meant they were a similar age. It made me look at Markel in a different light, and I suppose now that I took the time to look at him, he seemed to be a similar age to Howl. It must have been the boyish curly hair that made him appear a bit younger than Howl, well that and their choice of wardrobe were so completely different.

"If you grew up together, why do you call him Master?"

Markel fumbled with a bottle and caught it before it could shatter on the floor. "I've always called him that, it's just how it's always been between us. I have great admiration and respect for him, so this is how I express it, " he said.

"Does he ever ask you not to call him that?" I wondered.

"All the time actually," Markel smirked.

"Maybe you should listen to him," I suggested.

"Why?"

"It's just a guess, but he probably sees you as a friend more than a servant and you calling him Master all the time creates a gap in your relationship,"

He stared at one of the bottles, lost in thought for a moment before answering me. "You may have a point, but it would be weird for me to just call him by his . . . Name," he murmured. The door chimed, and a customer entered, breaking up our conversation. "Anyways, enough talk of that. I've got work to do here so why don't you head back inside and wait for Master. . . I mean Howl to come back. He shouldn't be long," Markel said quickly, turning his attention to the customer to greet them properly.

I had almost forgotten Howls offer to me this morning; he was going to help me break my curse tomorrow morning. Eagerly, I hurried over to the red door leading back to the castle and opened it. I looked over my shoulder and grinned at Markel.

"As you wish Master," I winked, leaving him to his work.

Chapter Text

My enthusiasm wore off as quickly as it had come on. Waiting for Howl to come back seemed like a losing battle after only a few short hours. I did many things to combat my boredom; I tidied my room and made my bed; I moved the boxes from the living room to the second floor, much to the protest of my aching back and creaking knees. I even made tea and biscuits but, sadly, I finished them all too quickly. After that was said and done, I was faced with the inevitable monotony that accompanies waiting.

I sank into one of the chairs in the living room with a groan. To my left, the books on the shelf looked more tantalizing now that I had nothing else to do. I selected a slightly hefty tome and set it on the table next to me. Before I could get too comfortable with my new found literature, I decided to do something I'd wanted to do all day.

I carefully constructed a tent of wood in the centre of the hearth, leaving room for enough air to keep the tinder lit until the wood caught fire. I fumbled with my hands over the mantel until I found the matches, striking one against the bottom of the box. With a hiss, the match ignited as I popped it into the middle of the tinder. The flame came to life with a flicker of bright light, and I nursed it little by little until it licked its way up the sticks. Satisfied with my handiwork, I added a few thicker pieces to the fire and settled into the rocker with the massive volume.

The book, now nestled in my lap, gave no clue as to its contents; there was no title to be found. Instead, it had on it a symbol on the front cover that appeared to be in the shape of a heart. I flipped through the first few pages and found them covered in indecipherable scribbles and sketches.

Was it written in a foreign language? I'd never seen markings quite like this before, and not only that, there didn't appear to be a repeating pattern of letters that might indicate an alphabet. The pictures were so very curious, and from what I could make out, they depicted what I could only assume were instructions.

Some pictures showed a tree growing from a seedling after applying a tonic; another illustrated a person drawing circles on a floor, creating a hole to jump in. Even more unusual was the immense amount of detailed pictures of gemstones with yet more indecipherable scribbles beneath them.

Rain beat against the windows around me, drowning out my thoughts. I didn't know where the storm was occurring because the windows didn't overlook any landscape I recognized. I would have thought the windows in the castle looked out into the forest near Market Chipping, but then again, the castle wasn't actually in the forest. So where was this storm at then? I peered out of the window closest to me and saw only rolling hills of thick green grass and dense clouds on the horizon. Where ever this view was, I was glad to be indoors, warm and dry next to the fire, not out in that dreary weather. I closed the book and left it on my lap, letting the warmth of the hearth lull me to sleep.

The gentle click of oxfords stopped next to my chair, and I felt the book removed from my lap. My heart skipped a little bit as I slowly let my eyes open to see Howl standing over me, curiously looking over the tome. Howl's jacket had a small tear in it, and his clothes looked a little rumpled.

"What kind of book have you been reading?" Howl asked.

"I wasn't reading any of it," I argued. "It's honestly just a bunch of jibberish to me."

"That's because you lack the skill to read it," he knelt by the bookshelf, replacing the tome. Howl selected a smaller battered book and handed it to me. "This book would be closer to your ability to understand."

I turned the book over in my hands warily. Opening it to a random section, I read the words inscribed on the page. "Well this is different, it's written in English," I said, handing the book back to him.

"The other one is as well; you just can't grasp the knowledge in it yet. Markel was the same when I first started working with him," he smiled, his expression was thoughtful.

"I don't understand, how can something be written in English and yet I can't read it?"

He sank into the chair next to me, pulling off his gloves with a sigh. "Some knowledge takes a certain level of magical ability to comprehend. You'll get there someday."

Howl fixed his attention on the fire, holding his palms out to the flames. His glasses reflected from the hearth, which was the only thing illuminating the room now that the storm had taken hold outside.

It was peaceful, the silence that settled over us, and it was only interrupted by the pop of hot wood in the hearth. Howl winced and rubbed his right arm, leaning back into the chair. I wanted to ask him about it, but for some reason, my nerves got the better of me.

He removed his jacket and draped it over the arm of his chair, unfastening the top two buttons of his shirt in the process. My cheeks felt hot to the touch, and I felt the mad flutter of butterflies in my stomach each time he moved or made a sound of any kind. I would have laughed at myself if I hadn't felt so completely overwhelmed by him.

"How far do you think you can walk?" Howl asked, pulling me from my thoughts. He fixed his green eyes on me, while he rubbed the faint hint of stubble on his chin.

"I. . .Uhh," my thoughts scrambled to catch up with my lips, but I kept fumbling in my search for actual words.

Howl continued, unaware of my current state of panic. "Tomorrow we're going to take a hike up to an area I haven't been in a very long time. In fact, I haven't been up that way since I took Markel when he became my apprentice. What do you think, would that be alright with you?"

"Err y-yes," I coughed to cover up my stutter. I kept searching for the right words, but my mouth wouldn't cooperate.

"Allison, are you alright?" Howl asked. God help him, he looked genuinely concerned for my wellbeing.

I covered my fevered cheeks with my cold hands, hoping it would also calm my nerves. I'd never felt so silly in all my life, why on earth was I feeling this way?

"I'm alright, thank you." I stopped his hand before he could check my forehead. If he touched me now, I'm sure I would burst into flames. "I'm just a little flush is all. I'll go where ever you take me if it means you'll help me and for that matter, where are we going, exactly?"

A secret smile played on his lips. "You'll see in the morning. I left some clothing upstairs in your room; they're for tomorrow."

"What's wrong with the clothes I have now?" I found myself asking automatically.

"Where we'll be going, it will be very cold. The clothes I've left for you are made for the type of climate we'll be facing. Based on what I've seen you wear so far, I gather you don't own anything warm, correct?" Howl looked at my dress briefly. I pulled at the fabric, wishing he would look elsewhere.

I agreed reluctantly. Most of the clothes I had were threadbare and provided little in the way of warmth. "Thank you, but you didn't have to buy me anything," I said quietly.

"I didn't. I happened to have some items that looked like they might fit you, so it just makes sense to let you borrow them," he shrugged.

"Why would you just happen to have dresses?" I asked before thinking it through. It didn't occur to me that the dresses probably belonged to a particular person I wasn't supposed to talk about with him.

The muscles in his jaw clenched, but his expression remained stoic.

"They belonged to someone else once, but they would serve more purpose being worn than being stored."

"I am so sorry, that wasn't my place to ask," I stammered and bowed my head, unsure of what to say next.

"What on earth are you doing?" he stared at me strangely.

"I'm not sure how to say thank you," I rubbed the back of my neck awkwardly, I had to have looked like a real nutter just now.

Brilliant Sophie.

"Just wear the clothes tomorrow. That'll be thanks enough," Howl waved it off casually.

I wasn't handling this very well. Markel told me specifically to avoid talking about Howl's teacher, and here I was already fanning the flames. I had to steer this conversation in a different direction.

"So about tomorrow, what exactly is your plan? You haven't explained what we're doing." I straightened up in my chair.

Howl got up and went back over to the bookshelf, selecting another small book from between to older looking tomes. He blew the dust off of it, handing it over to me.

"Tonight I would like you to go over this in its entirety. I want you to know it better than you know yourself." When I raised an eyebrow, he raised his hand to finish. "It will all make sense tomorrow, this I promise you. The information contained in that book will set the foundation for what I have planned for us tomorrow." He crossed one leg over the other and watched me as I studied the book.

I ran my fingers over the little book, its edges worn and frayed from its age, which was also evident from its crinkly yellowed pages. Individual pages in the book had the corners folded in, just the way I always marked a place in my book when I wanted to remember where I had stopped reading. It was a beginners guide to magic, and the more I looked it over, the more I was itching to delve into it.

"So you want me to read this book for tomorrow? That's all?"

"Yes, but it will probably take you all night," he remarked.

"Well I do love a good book," I beamed, curling up into the chair. I tucked my feet under me and opened the book in my lap to the first chapter a dove into it.

Howl stifled a laugh. "How old are you again?" he asked, pointing at the odd way I was sitting.

Slowly, I sat upright and straightened my legs out from under me. I forgot that old ladies didn't sit this way. Sophie does. . . I mean I do when I'm reading, but I wasn't me at the moment. I was old, and old people didn't act like this.

"Sorry--," I began.

"stop apologizing," he said quickly. "Sit however you like, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. You just reminded me of someone, that's all. You do things that are very out of character for a woman of your age."

"I'm younger than I look," I replied, giving him the only answer I could manage.

He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and nodded slowly, wincing when he used his right arm. I wanted to know if he was alright, but I knew better than to risk asking about his whereabouts from this morning. He didn't know that I was aware of his doppelganger Calcifer, and I needed to keep it that way.

Howl got up to stoke the fire, retrieving his jacket and gloves. "I have some matters to attend to before we leave tomorrow. I will leave you with your studies so if you have any questions, ask Markel when he gets back."

"I'll do my best!" I replied, situating my legs under me again. Howl shook his head and chuckled as he made his way up to the second floor.

I set the book in my lap and opened it to the first chapter, taking a deep breath.

The nervous energy I felt ever since the moment Howl walked into the room reached a breaking point, and I felt a stray tear fall down my cheek.

This was it, I felt it in my heart.

Tomorrow, Howl was going to help me break my curse.

The strangest thing was that I wanted him, more than anyone, to be there when I did it.

Chapter Text

Howl had left a rather large cedar trunk at the foot of the bed the night before, and after raiding it out of sheer curiosity, I found the dress he had mentioned. I ran my hands along the perfectly spaced stitches in the bodice, down the panels on either side and around the back, feeling the texture of the luxurious wool.

This dress was a dress I'd never find in a shop in Ingary. Our dresses were made of light, cotton based materials that consisted of floral prints, pastels and shades of beige. This material, however, was made of fine wool, weaved in a plaid pattern. It was strikingly similar to the green jacket that Markel was so fond of wearing, so much so that I wondered if they were purchased from the same shop. Instead of the deep forest green that Markel's jacket had, this dress was made of navy blue homespun wool interrupted with rows of black, grey, white and brown running parallel and perpendicular to each other.

The bodice was tied in the front by a long strip of silk that laced up at the top. Pinned at the waist on the right-hand side was a brooch. It was slightly tarnished from years of storage, but I liked it all the same, so I left it alone.

The cedar chest also contained a dark grey woollen cloak, and a pair of leather boots and gloves, both of which fit me well enough. I put on the dress, which was heavier than I had first imagined. Once I adjusted it, I instantly knew Howl was right about it. The wool was surprisingly soft, not itchy like most wool I had handled before. Not only that, the dress itself provided some much-needed warmth.

I removed the housecoat from the mirror in the corner of the room to get a better look at my outfit. Without a doubt, it was a beautiful piece, and I thought it seemed a shame that it had been stored away for so long. The rich navy blue fabric tapered out from the edges of the bodice, cascading down until it covered the toe of my boots.

I tucked the gloves away in one of the cleverly hidden pockets of the dress. Spying my needles on the nightstand, I decided it might be a good idea to keep one or two on hand. The silk thread I bought only a few days ago would be perfect if I needed to mend the dress, so I quickly tucked it away along with the needles. A seamstress is always prepared.

I smoothed out my hair, tying it in a tight braid over my shoulder. Using a scrap of navy fabric that I had left over from my sewing projects, I wrapped my braid into a bun and tied it off using the material as a fastener. I then draped the cloak over my shoulders and was now ready for whatever Howl had in store for us today.

***

Howl was already waiting for me on the main floor when I decided the staircase. He wore a tailcoat fashioned out of the same navy wool that as my dress. It was completed with a pair of tan breeches and knee-high leather boots that made him appear even taller than he was.

I pulled the cloak around my shoulders and made my way over to him, taking a few calmer breaths. My excitement was starting to get the better of me, and I was feeling it even more now that I saw him waiting for me. Howl looked up from his book and blinked at me as though he'd seen something strange.

"Is everything alright?" I asked, startled by his reaction.

"Yes, it's just. . . Been awhile since I've seen that dress worn by anyone," Howls expression turned sombre, but quickly he fixed it with a smile.

My heart hurt for him; seeing another person wear the dress of a person he loved must be a hard burden to bear, but I wanted him to know how much I truly appreciated his kindness. I smoothed the creases in the dress and curtsied. "It's a beautiful dress Howl. I promise I'll take better care of it than I do with my dresses."

He seemed like he wanted to say something, but thought better of it. Instead, he made his way over to the far wall of the kitchen and removed the picture from the wall. Setting it aside, he took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and gestured for me to come over to him.

"First," he said, fixing me with a stern look, "we need to lay out some ground rules before we go anywhere."

I nodded eagerly. At this point, Howl could have me agree to anything if it meant lifting my curse.

"Okay."

"For starters, our destination is outside of Porthaven, which is in Dunbeath. Have you ever been to the country of Dunbeath before?" he asked.

"No, I haven't," I admitted.

He sighed deeply, rubbing the knot out of his forehead. "The people of Dunbeath dislike outsiders, especially Ingarians, so under no circumstances are you to tell anyone you're from Ingary, understood?"

My eyebrows knit together in confusion. "They don't? Why not? I thought Dunbeath was a peaceful country."

"That's what you've been told here in Ingary, but over there, it's a different story. I'm telling you from first-hand experience they're not friendly to outsiders. If anyone asks you where you're from, tell them you're a travelling seer, and I'm your assistant; they like that sort of thing."

I gaped at him in disbelief. "But I'm not a seer! What if they ask for a vision?"

He shrugged. "Just make something up. We won't be there long enough for them to out you as a fraud, but it'd be far better than them finding out you're from Ingary. Trust me."

Howl tossed the chalk up in the air a caught it with his other hand, winking at me. He stood in front of the wall and drew an arch on it, starting and ending on the floor. I wanted to ask him what he was doing, but I was just so shocked that he'd just doodled on the wall. He tapped the centre of the arch with two fingers and the area within the chalk line transformed into a shimmering iridescent light; it was almost too bright to look at properly.

"What on earth did you do?" I shouted, covering my eyes from the offending gleam.

"This, my dear Allison, is magic," Howl said earnestly.

He took my hand and led me through the gateway where everything around us transformed into a blur of bright light and colours, distorting our reality. Howl held my hand tight, guiding me through the maze of colour and sound until I could see an opening up ahead. I pushed forward, reaching out with my free hand and walked straight through.

Howl quickly released my hand like a person might do when they touch a hot pot on a stove. I knew he didn't like to touch other people, but somehow I felt a little hurt that he didn't trust me. I reminded myself that this wasn't important; what was important was where we were going next, so I surveyed the land before us.

The first thing I noticed about our new landscape was how wet and green everything was. A steady drizzle of rain covered the rocky ground beneath my feet and everywhere I looked, thick grass carpeted the rolling hills around us. There appeared to be a small village behind us that I could just barely make out thanks to the onslaught of rain.

It didn't take long for the rain to affect me; it clung to my cloak, creating dew drops that collected and dripped down my sleeves, my neck and my chest. Even Howl wasn't immune to the dreary weather. His glasses had misted over, making it difficult for him to see properly.

"If you'll notice, there's a trail here that leads us down that hill towards the shore below," he pointed to the rocky trail we were on, which did indeed slope down to a shore where the ocean met a steep shale cliff. A small area of rocky beach divided the sea from the cliffside, and based on where Howl was pointing, this was where we were headed.

The leather boots were my saving grace; I couldn't imagine traversing the steep rocky trail without them at this point. I slipped so many times that Howl had to run down the beach and fashion a cane out of a beached log for me to use. I hated the fact that I needed one, I hated my body for betraying me like this, but Howl didn't seem to mind the slightest bit. In fact, he was being more than patient with me even though my progress was painfully slow.

Howl went on ahead in search of an opening in the cliff.

My hair and my cloak had gone stiff from the salty spray from the waves of the ocean crashing against the rocks. Everywhere I stepped, I had to avoid the slimy stones that the sea spat out onto its shores. I kept close to the cliff so I wouldn't get pulled into the turbulent waters, keeping my cloak wrapped tightly around me.

"Over here!" Howl called out to me over the noise of the wind and the rain.

I ducked through the opening that Howl had entered through, thankful to be out of the elements. Once we were well enough away from the storm, he stopped me.

The rain collected on the tip of his nose, dripping onto his already wet coat. Howl held his palms out and up, instructing me to do the same. I removed my gloves and followed suit, even though it confused me.

A little burst of flame appeared out of nowhere in his hands. I stumbled and fell backwards, startled by his trick. Howl quickly reached for my hand and pulled me up while still holding the little ball of fire in the other.

"How did you do that?" I asked, staring in awe of the flame.

"Hold out your hands and take this," he instructed.

"Why? Won't that burn me?" I eyed him suspiciously.

"No," he laughed, juggling the flame from one hand to the other. "Does it look like it's burning me?"

"I suppose it isn't. . . "I said slowly, warily offering my hands to him.

Howl held one of my hands and tipped the flame into the other. In an instant, the glow warmed my clothes, my skin, my hair; it warded off the dampness of the cave and the chill that had settled in my body from the wind and the rain. I rubbed my cloak between my fingers and realized that it was dry and almost crisp to the touch, like a laundry left out on the line in the summer. I touched my hair and found that it too was dry.

"This is incredible," I poured the flame from one hand into another, watching it form and reform into a perfect sphere in my palm.

Howl's smile mirrored my own. "It is, isn't it? This is the way magic should be, I think. Keep holding onto that light; we've still got a little way to go."

Howl effortlessly created another ball of light and used it to direct our travel inward. I didn't think I could find my way through the winding tunnels, but somehow, Howl was able to determine the right direction just from examining the markings on the walls. The further we went into the cave, the darker and quieter it seemed until the only things I could see was our twin balls of light, guiding our footsteps forward. It was so eerily quiet within the cave that the rhythm of my breathing magnified to the point that I couldn't even hear myself think.

Howl stopped at the end of the tunnel and rubbed his palm over the surface of the damp slate that blocked our path. He knelt down an ran his hand up the fissure in the rock, searching for something.

"A dead end," I sighed, coming to a stop beside him. It made me wonder if he knew which way to go all along, or if we had been walking around aimlessly this whole time.

"You would think that, but no," he felt around the wall until he found something and smiled triumphantly. I held my light up to his hand and saw that he had grabbed a small piece of rope which was cleverly tucked into the natural crevasse of the stone. With a rough tug, the rock groaned and rolled out the way, exposing a new entrance.

"Did you make this?" I stared in wonder at the complicated contraption that helped the rock move. A series of pulleys and levers had been created around the giant piece of slate which, in turn, rolled along a set of logs that moved it into another hole on the opposite side of the tunnel.

"I didn't create it. I'm not as inventive as Markel when it comes to devices like this," Howl said, slipping through the gap in the rock, beckoning me to follow.

"He's brilliant," I remarked, still marvelling at the complexity of his work.

"That's nothing but simple mathematics. If you want to be impressed by something, let us focus on today's lesson. What you're about to witness might be beyond your comprehension, but I promise you it's better than Markel's little gimmick," he smirked.

Howl stood still; shoulders set square. He reached over for my flame, which I offered readily, and he held it in his hand. Clapping his hands together, he fused the two flames together with a burst of bright light. With a twinkle in his eyes, he leaned in.

"Are you ready?" he whispered.

The shiver that radiated through my body just now had nothing to do with the cold outside.

Oh yes,

I was ready.

Chapter Text

Howl thrust the blinding light through the air, illuminating the entirety of the cavern before us. The ball of flames struck a brazier in the centre of the chamber, igniting it and in an instant, the cavern came to life with light. The flicker of flames reflected off the crystal-encrusted walls around us, enchanting the room with its glimmering light. I moved closer to inspect one of the thousands of crystals embedded in the wall, wondering what kind of gemstone they were.

"Those crystals are heartstone," Howl guessed my thoughts. "You should have read about them in your book last night," he commented, pulling out a pocket knife. He pried one of the gemstones loose and showed it to me.

I did remember reading about them; a heartstone was a rare and powerful object sought after by even the most accomplished of wizards. It was a priceless gem that, when used in the right application, amplified a person's magic. Strangely the book also mentioned there only being about a dozen or so of these stones in existence.

So why then were there so many here?

"These are supposed to be incredibly rare," I remarked, circling the glimmering cavern. I touched one of the stones with the tip of my finger, and it turned red. When I removed my finger, it faded back to an iridescent crystal.

Howl tucked the knife into his boot and watched me as I walked about the room. "Have you ever wondered where magic came from? Why it exists in our world?"

I contemplated my answer. "I had never given any real thought to the origins of magic before. To me, it feels the same as asking myself where do trees come from? Why do birds fly and why do fish breathe underwater?"

"Spoken like a true scholar," Howl observed, following my footsteps. "Magic, like all living things in this world, came from the earth. When we draw upon that power, we are asking the earth to lend us its energy. There are, however, limitations to the earth's power."

"Limitations?" I said, surprised by this admission. I had always thought magic was a limitless source, like the water in the ocean.

"Absolutely," he replied. "Tell me, do you think it's fair for any one person to hold more power over another just because they can wield magic?"

"Not at all!" I blurted out. In fact, one of the reasons I disliked magic so much was because to me it felt like an unfair advantage; anyone with the ability to use magic posed a threat to those who couldn't.

After all, I was proof of such an instance.

"I agree. No one should feel subjugated because of magic. It's a tool to better peoples lives, not ruin them," he frowned. It seemed like he shared my feelings on the subject.

"If that's the case, then why do curses exist?"

He continued to wall around the room, needing the space to think. "Some magicians bend the rules of nature and they abuse power they were given. Magic was never intended to be used on living beings, but curses do just that. If your arm were to be cut off, magic wouldn't bring it back; if someone you loved died, you couldn't resurrect them. Trying to do these things goes against the laws of nature and that is where curses come from."

"So how are witches and wizards able to use curses then?" I challenged.

"With these," he flicked the heartstone in the air and caught it deftly in his hand. "Heartstones can be used for a multitude of applications, one of which is for curses. Magicians can take energy from the earth, from themselves, or even from other people and place it in this stone, twisting it into something unnatural. They then use it for their selfish purposes."

"Such as curses," I added.

"Or worse," Howls hand clenched around the heartstone.

"If these stones cause so much sorrow, then why bring me here? Wouldn't it be better if they were all destroyed?" I asked.

Howl blinked as if noticing my presence for the first time. "Not every magician who uses these stones turns evil. Markel and I have both used them; it's how we learned to develop our magic."

"So how will it help me then?" I wondered.

"It's better if I show you. The first day we met, I asked you to come up with a memory. Do you remember it?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Good, now hold out your hands," he instructed.

As I did what I was told, he placed the heartstone in my hands. A warmth came from it as I held it in my palms. Starting from its core, it radiated out until it filled entirely with a dull red glow.

Howl rubbed his chin with a frown on his face, apparently unhappy with the result.

"What's wrong?" My heart jumped into my throat.

"I was expecting a little more from you. Anyone, even a person without magical ability, can coax the stone to turn red, that's why it's called a heartstone. But this," he looked it over, shaking his head, "I can't work with this."

"You can't help me?" my voice cracked.

"If it were in my power to help you, believe me, I would. But the only way this was ever going to work is if you showed the right amount of potential. This stone is telling me your ability is no different than the average person. I'm sorry Allison, I truly am," Howl offered me an apologetic look.

I stepped back, holding my hand to my chest, fighting to breathe evenly.

This can't be happening now.

Not after coming all this way.

A knot formed in my stomach and sheer panic crawled its way up into my throat, threatening to burst forth. Was this it? Was this the end for me? Would I be stuck in this form until my body withered away into nothingness? The blood drained from my face, and I had to sit down before my legs gave out.

I would never be able to go home.

I would never see my sister again.

I would never get to live my life the way I wanted to.

Anger surged through me. This wouldn't have happened if the Witch of the Waste had just left me alone. I mean, what kind of horrible person would do such a thing to another human being? I'd done nothing in my life to deserve this, but she forced this upon me.

I squeezed the stone so hard I thought it might shatter. A blinding light emitted around my fingers and the stone went instantly hot. I reacted by throwing it before it could burn my hands. Howl caught it before it could hit the wall.

He stared blankly at me, and then to the blindingly bright light in his hand. A slow smile spread across his face. "Now this, we can work with."

"I-I don't understand what happened," I stammered.

The stone, now in Howl's hand, turned a deep red once again. "It doesn't matter how it happened, reactions like that aren't accidental."

"So you're saying I still have a chance?" I dared to hope.

"You wouldn't have created that light if you didn't have the potential and that's all that matters," he assured me. "Now, shall we get started?"

***

Over the next several hours Howl instructed me on the basics of magic. He started with the raw elements: fire, water and wind.

The first was my favourite; there was something so comforting about a fire that I couldn't explain. The fact that I could hold it without harming myself was an incredible feeling in its self.

Howl placed three pieces of wood on the ground and instructed me to light them. I focussed and refocussed my concentration on the logs, but I just couldn't figure out what I needed to do to light them.

"What on earth are you doing?" he gave me an odd look. "What is this thing you're doing with your face?" he mimicked what I imagined my face must have looked like, and I burst out laughing.

"I'm trying to concentrate," I said, attempting to regain my serious demeanour.

"Well it looks like you're trying to pop a blood vessel in your head," he teased, walking over to my side. "Try and remember what the book said; imagine the action you want to perform and just do it," his eyes darted to the wood, instantly lighting them on fire. He flicked his wrist, and the fire went out completing his demonstration. "Keep practicing," he patted my shoulder, moving out of the line of fire.

I practiced again and again until not only could I ignite the wood, but I could pick which one I wanted to set aflame as well. I expected to receive some praise from Howl, but instead, he moved onto the next task.

Water was a slippery beast and not nearly as easy to work with than fire. Howl fashioned a bowl out of his hat and instructed me to fill it with water. I walked about the room, looking for a water source that would do, but the cavern was too far away from the rain outside to have collected any of the runoff.

"What are you waiting for?" he asked.

"I'm honestly stumped. How am I supposed to fill a hat with water if there isn't any water to be found?" I punctuated my frustration by waving my hands in the air.

"Isn't there?" he wondered, tapping the hat with his finger.

I walked over to the hat he'd set on a rock and put my hand in to prove a point. "See there's no--," my head snapped up, and I gave him an incredulous look. "How did you do that?" I wiped my wet hand on my cloak.

"It's simple really," he reached for his hat and turned it upside down. I thought he would dump water on us both, but to my surprise, it was now empty.

"It's gone!" I gaped at him.

Howl grinned, clearly enjoying my delight. "Have you ever noticed water cling to the outside of your glass in the summer? Or the mist on the inside of a window on a rainy day?"

"Yes, but how does that explain a hat full of water?" I knit my brows together in confusion.

"That source you're looking for? It's in the air around us," he stated as if it should have been evident from the start.

"Right, because that's so plainly evident that even a child would know it," I retorted, pulling my sleeves up to my elbows. "I just literally have to pull water out of thin air."

Howl covered his mouth with a cough, hiding his laughter as he watched my ridiculous attempt at apparating water out of nowhere. I tried over and over, but still, nothing happened.

"I don't understand! What am I doing wrong?" I looked at Howl after what seemed like the hundredth attempt.

He combed his fingers through his hair, smoothing the mess it had become. "Don't be too hard on yourself. I didn't expect you to get this on your first try. In my opinion, you've already made remarkable progress. It took Markel months just to set a log on fire rather than himself."

I stifled a giggle. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh, but that would have been funny to see."

"It was," he grinned. "Anyways, let's forget the water for now and move onto the wind," he set the heartstone down on the ground and stepped back.

"What am I supposed to do?" I asked when he provided no further explanation.

"I want you to lift that stone," he said quite simply.

I knew I had to ask the obvious question. "With my hands?"

His stare told me that was the wrong answer. "No, lift it using only your mind," he replied, urging me to give it a go.

I closed my eyes, determined to get this right on the first try. I imagined the heartstones exact shape and weight. Holding that at the forefront of my mind, I envisioned lifting it up into the air.

Howl clapped his hands together, and my eyes snapped open. He walked around the now levitating heartstone and stopped behind it.

"Good, now place it in here," he commanded, holding out his hat.

Again, I closed my eyes and imagined it dropping into Howls hat.

"Excellent!" he praised, pulling the stone out. "I wouldn't have thought this element would be the easiest to grasp, but you've handled it well."

At first, I was surprised at how quickly I had done it, but then it occurred to me that I had done this before. "This isn't my first time doing this," I admitted. "The first night that I was at your castle, I was able to lift a spool of thread without too much effort."

"How did you manage that?" he asked.

"Was thinking about how you moved objects with ease, like when you made the soup that day, and all of a sudden the spool was floating in the air."

"That's a good way to practice," Howl said, fitting his hat back on.

Practice was what I needed, but I failed to see how it would help me with current predicament.

"When will I be able to reverse my. . ." curse, I wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come out.

"Your curse?" he supplied. "Not today, but you've made great progress. If we can get you to master water manipulation, you'll be well on your way to getting rid of that curse on your own, I promise."

Howl was trying to cheer me up, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I had failed. I thought for sure if I worked hard enough, it would pay off today, but here I stood, still stuck in this frail body.

"How long do you think it will take me?" I could barely bring my voice above a whisper.

Howl rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "That I can't say for sure. It could be a week, or it could be a year. It all depends on you, Allison."

"I see," was all I could manage.

Silence fell between us, and there was nothing he or I could say that would make me feel any better about the situation. Howl pulled the fire from the brazier and divided it into two balls of light, handing one to me.

"How about we head into town? By my estimation, it's getting late. We need to eat and get some rest if we want to get more practice in tomorrow." He sounded nonchalant about the idea, but I think he wanted to cheer me up.

I took the ball of light eagerly from him. "You mean you'll still help me?" I smiled, peering up into his eyes.

Howl pulled at the rim of his hat, avoiding my stare. "Well, it would be rude not to, I think. Who knows what tomorrow may bring."

I held the flame close to my heart, willing his words to kindle the faith I needed to continue.

I had to work harder.

The rest of my life depended on it.

Chapter Text

The stale, musty mildew that had settled in my chest all day was removed by the crisp cool air of the outdoors as we made our way out of the cavern. The storm had abated, leaving the skies awash with shades of purple and pink and as we backtracked up the hills and away from the ocean. The sun had already fallen below the horizon and we raced against the fading light of day to make it into town.

The tiny lights of Port Haven served as our guidepost against the setting sun. The lights dotted the landscape, giving it the appearance of hundreds of little fireflies, but not at all a town. We walked over the rolling hills of thick green grass and down into wet areas overgrown with bulrushes. The frogs and the crickets, along with the soft rustle of the trees in the background, gave everything about Dunbeath an enchanting feel to it.

We made our way out of the hilly region and onto the rocky path which led us straight into town. All the lights I had seen from afar were, in fact, oil lanterns that hung from each and every house we passed by. Save for our footsteps, it was quiet through the streets and I gathered from the lack of people around, the businesses must have been long since closed for the day.

A few people poked their heads through their curtains, watching us silently as we passed through. A few times, I found myself staring at the curious townsfolk, but Howl kept us moving along before I could say anything. He didn't talk much about the town, but he did tell me that the locals were a friendly sort, so I kept that in mind every time I caught them staring at us.

"Just a bit further I believe," he murmured, checking the street signs at each corner we passed.

"It's getting rather late, are you sure we'll be able to find a place to stay?" I asked.

Howl nodded and wiped the water from his glasses so he could get a better look at the street sign he was standing next to. "Evergreen Terrace, I think this is the one. It's been far too many years since the last time I came to Porthaven so I had to ask Markel about the town before we came. He said there's a decent inn down this way so this is our best bet for tonight."

A short distance down the road we came upon a massive timber-framed hall house that looked more like a private residence than an inn, yet the hand craved sign swinging above the entrance indicated that it was in fact, an inn. Howl opened the door and ushered us into the hall.

It was an immense open area with vaulted ceilings and staircases on either side of the room leading up the bedrooms on the second floor. The massive common area had tables surrounded a central hearth where pots of stew bubbled away under a fire. At the back of the room was a small bar behind which were doors that led most likely to a kitchen or a pantry. People were seated at all of the tables and I wondered if was even possible to get a seat, let alone a room tonight.

A tiny, portly little innkeeper manned the hearth, standing on a footstool while stirring a gigantic pot of soup on the fire. She looked up from her work and gave us a toothy grin. Hopping down from her stool, she wiped her hands on her dusty apron and greeted us both.

"Good evening to ye! I'm sure ye can see it be a busy night tonight, what with half the town in here for supper but there be two extra seats if'n ye need a spot of food."

Howl took my cloak and gloves, tipping his hat politely to the innkeeper. "Thank you, ma'am, that would be perfect. Would you happen to have two rooms to spare for the evening as well?"

"The name's Maggie deary," she corrected him. "I've got rooms to spare for you and your grandmum."

"Grandmother?! Who are you calling old?" I blurted out. Howl's eyebrows disappeared under his hat as he gave me an incredulous look. I smoothed out a non-existent wrinkle in my dress sheepishly.

Maggie's face screwed up into a knot. "So ya need only one room then? Yer a bit of an odd pair I admit but--,"

"--no no, you've got it all wrong. We're not. . . I mean I'm not. . . er," I wanted to explain, but I didn't have a clue how to say it right.

Howl slipped into the conversation before I could trip over more words. "We're travelling together as partners and I am her assistant. It would be easier if we both had our own rooms for the evening."

Maggie nodded her head slowly, looking from Howl and then to me. Her eyes roamed over our clothing for a long time before she responded.

"So," she pointed back and forth to our matching clothes, "yer related then?"

Howl looked at my dress as if he just realized what I was wearing for the first time.

"Oh yes, in a manner of speaking," he said.

I cocked my head, suddenly interested in his answer.

"We are most certainly not--," I started to say, but Howl quickly covered my mouth with a hand. I glared at him but he pleaded silently with me to stay quiet.

Maggie watched our exchange with a curious look.

"As you can see we're both very tired. If you don't mind, we just need a place to stay tonight," he smiled, turning back to Maggie. Howl reached into his pocket for his bag of coins, producing a few silver. He gave her our dues and we proceeded to find a spot to sit down.

Maggie stopped Howl before he could get away. "The room fee is fourpence a night, laddie."

He closed her hand around the coins and shook his head. "All we ask is that we have some amount of privacy, ye keen lass?" he said in a similar accent to hers.

Maggie pocketed the coins and tapped the side of the apron. "Aye that we can do, thank ye. Hamish!" She looked over her shoulder as she shouted to the bald man behind the bar counter, "give these here travellers two room keys, they be needing a place to sleep tonight."

The older man reached for two keys that hung on the wall behind him and made his way over. With a grunt, he thrust them into Howl's hands.

"I think it be about time we set up the stage," Maggie said to Hamish as he walked by, pointing at an open area near the bar.

I happened to notice an empty table next to where she pointed so we manoeuvred ourselves through the crowds of people and settled in. In no time, Maggie had dished us each a bowl of soup and set them out along with two full mugs. I made a face when I got a whiff of the drink, I'd never had ale before and judging by its smell, I wasn't going to like it either. Howl didn't seem to mind, he took a long sip of his drink and settled back with a contented sigh.

"Here, you can have mine," I offered.

Howl took the mug from me and set it next to his.

"Not big on ale?" he asked.

I made a face when he took another sip. "It smells like wet socks. How can you drink something like that?"

He pondered over his drink and shrugged. "I guess you could say it's nostalgic for me. You get the taste for it after awhile."

"Well you can always have my share, I don't think I could ever enjoy a drink the smells like mouldy clothes thank you," I took up my spoon instead, sampling the soup. To my relief, it was far better than the drink.

Hamish walked behind us with a few things tucked under his massive arm. As I watched him set the items out near our table, my curiosity piqued. Hamish had propped an instrument up on a chair and set out an upturned flat cap on the floor. There was a sign nailed to the wall that said,

Fiddling, 2 Pence

Howl followed my gaze and saw the sign as well. With a groan, he turned away from it and covered his face with his palms.

"Well this was poor timing," he sighed, rubbing the knot out of his forehead.

"Why would you say that?" I asked.

"For one thing, most the people in here are three sheets to the wind if you catch my meaning," Howl leaned in and nudged my shoulder.

As if to prove his point, one of the men drinking near our table slipped off his chair and doused himself with ale. His friends pointed and laughed uproariously until they too fell off their chairs.

"It could be a lot of fun. Who knows, someone might play really well on that fiddle," I offered.

The grimace he made when I said that told me he wasn't convinced. Howl sat back with a groan, reaching for his drink in the process.

"That's a violin, not a fiddle," he sighed into his drink.

"What's the difference?" I squinted my eyes to get a good look at the instrument propped up on the chair. It looked very much like a fiddle to me, but then again I'd never actually seen a violin in person before.

"I'm guessing you've never played one before. Violins have a higher bridge than a fiddle does; if you look at the strings, the higher bridge makes it easier to change the notes which means that that instrument over there is a violin, not a fiddle. Unless the person is incredibly skilled, it's going to sound dreadful, I guarantee it."

Howl cast a glance over his shoulder and groaned under his breath. Needing little encouragement from his friends, the man that had fallen over pushed up off the floor and stumbled over to the stage. He tossed two copper coins into the upturned hat and took up the worn out violin. Holding the bow in a death grip, he sawed on the violin strings like he hated it, producing the most ungodly sound I'd ever heard. Most of the patron clutched their ears much little Howl and I were doing and only after the man had finished, did we safely remove our hands.

Much to Howls chagrin, another brave soul stood up to tackle the musical beast. It continued on in this manner for a while, one after another butchering the violin's potential by creating an inhumane screeching with a bow that seemed damaged beyond all repair. I thought Howl might pull his hair out from the frustration of it all but he managed to withstand it. After the fourth person sat down, however, Howl looked to be at his wit's end.

"Coming here was a mistake," he grumbled to me. "We'll be here all night listening to this instrument being tortured to death by drunkards."

"I'm sure they won't all be that bad!" I said with more confidence than I felt.

Howl winced as another person took the stage, this one looking a little more soused than the others. He tapped on the lip of his mug and pushed it away with a disgusted look.

"I wish I had your enthusiasm, Allison but I think it's a hopeless case. There isn't anyone else here who could attempt to play that violin halfway decent." He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and crossed his arms as he sat back.

"No one. . . except you perhaps?" My face lit up with a secret smile.

"What makes you think that?" he asked.

"Just a hunch," I said, propping my chin on my hand as I gauged his reaction.

"You're wrong about that," he tried to sound nonchalant.

"Mmm but I don't think that I am," I disagreed, smiling.

Howl looked over at me as I was grinning like a cat that caught a canary and relented.

"I used to play the violin when I was much younger," he stated simply. When I kept on staring, he sighed and continued explaining. "My parents had hired a very strict tutor to teach me how to perform. He demanded a lot of me and I devoted a lot of my youth to music. My tutor was extremely talented in his own right, commanding respect in the musical community. However, he was a very meticulous and severe mentor. I can't say I enjoyed being under his tutelage; I did learn to play quite well but it was at the expense of any pleasure I might have had playing it. When I finally convinced my parents to stop paying for him for his services, I quit playing altogether. I haven't picked up a violin since." He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away from me.

I wanted to tell him I thought it was sad that he learned to play such a beautiful instrument from a man who found no joy in it.

"So you hate music because of that man?" I asked.

Howl coughed on his drink and gave me a look of bewilderment.

"Of course not, I love the violin."

"Then why don't you play anymore?"

Howl turned in his chair so that I couldn't look at him straight on. "I just haven't felt like playing in a long time," he responded quietly, gazing over at the violin.

I chewed on the inside of my cheek until I was struck with an idea. Reaching over the table, I grabbed one of the coins out of Howls pouch and took a large swig of his drink; I needed the extra bravado for this plan. Making my way over to the violin, I dropped the coin neatly into the hat and grabbed it. I held it out to Howl, waiting for him to take it from me.

"I for one would love to hear you play again," I said to encourage him, still holding the violin in my hands.

Howl's face went a ghostly shade of white and I instantly regretted my rash decision.

Two men seated closest to me started to point and chuckle, and I felt the urge to get off the stage. I knew what the were saying because their whispers were too loud thanks to their drunken state.

They were mocking me.

I'd never felt so foolish in my life. Even though I had the attention of the entire room, Howl's reluctance to move made me put the violin back. Without looking at him, I covered my face with my hand sank back into my chair, wishing that a hole would open up and swallow me entirely. The whispering rose to a level that drowned out my thoughts. I wished fervently to leave before I could make more of an idiot out of myself.

A chair scraped across the floor, silencing the room.

I uncovered my face to see that Howl had stood up. He tossed his jacket on the table, taking another large swig of his drink as he rolled up his sleeves. Howl winked at me as made his way onto the stage, with all eyes on him.

He set the violin aside, choosing instead to focus on the bow in his hands. Several strands of hair had detached from the bow, rendering it useless. Howl frowned, rubbing his fingers along the bow, possibly trying to figure out how he would use it in its current state. He held the end of the bow between his thumb and forefinger and with a light tap against his hand, the hairs rearranged themselves like new. I wasn't the only one staring in awe of his little trick, the entire room was now incredibly silent. We waited with bated breath for him to begin.

With the ease of a seasoned musician, Howl tucked the violin under his chin, adjusting the little knobs as his let the bow glide over each note, furrowing his brow when the sound wasn't to his liking and nodding slightly when it was tuned the way he wanted it. As I watched him twist the knobs over and over, something else seemed different about the violin; the scuffs and marks seemed to have disappeared from its surface. Instead, the violin had a perfectly varnished coat that showcased its natural beauty. Finally satisfied with his tuning, Howl held the bow in one hand and bowed deeply to the crowd.

The leather rest caressed his chin as he leaned into the violin and let the bow hum across the strings one by one. His fingers found the notes with ease as he massaged them into a sweet symphony that sent shivers up my spine. He closed his eyes, focusing on the sound the instrument released from the bow he held delicately in his hand.

The music had a sweetness to it which turned into a sharp tone that cut into my chest, filling me with an overwhelming sorrow in a way only he could express through sound. I had never heard such a beautiful piece of music before, but Howl played it as though it had always been a part of him. The bow transformed into an extension of his being; his music spoke a language of love and heartache that surrounded me with comfort and made me quiver with loneliness.

I brushed a tear from the corner of my eye quickly. As I watched him slide the bow skillfully across each string, he created a sound that made me feel as though he understood the sadness I felt in my own heart. The kind of music he created told me more about him than words ever could. He felt the same void in his heart that I felt in mine, the void only the loss of loved ones could create in us.

Howl must have loved Solana with all his heart. Maybe she was the reason he didn't play anymore. After losing her, and in battle no less, how could he want to? And having a ball to mark her death? I knew now why he couldn't bring himself to go. The loss I felt in his music told me everything.

With a long hum from the bow as moved it slowly down the string, Howl pulled the note gently with his finger until it went silent. He crossed the bow over his chest and bowed again, quickly setting the violin down before anyone could clap. That was the strangest thing though.

No one clapped.

No one spoke.

In fact, the entire audience sat quietly dumbstruck in awe of Howl. Some looked entranced by his performance, while others were overcome with silent emotion.

There was one person, though, who wasn't enchanted by it. A man stood up and complained at once.

"That weren't fiddlin'!" He shouted, crossing his arms triumphantly. The man pointed to the hat filled with coins stating, "ye forfeit yer right to the winnings."

Maggie cuffed the man upside his head silencing him.

"Ack ye dinna know what fiddlin' is yerself," she said.

"Nay, t'was fiddlin' I did," he argued, rubbing the back of his head.

"Well, what in blue blazes were ye playin' earlier eh? T'was worse than listenin' to a half-drowned cat in the middle of a pond!" Maggie said, much to the guffaws of the other patrons.

Howl took his seat quietly as the two of them continued to bicker. He offered me a weak smile as he took a swig of his drink, wincing when he tried to use his right arm. I went to reach for it to see what was the matter, but he shooed me away. Instead, he leaned and whispered, "was that okay? No one said anything afterwards. I thought that I played alright, considering I hadn't performed in such a long time. . . I mean I missed a few notes and I could have adjusted the strings a little tighter. . ."

I stared at Howl in disbelief. His face had gone beet red, almost as if he was. . .

"You're shy!" I said, more like a statement than a question.

"I'm not, I've just never. . . played in front of other people before."

The idea that Howl could play so beautifully and no one ever listened to him perform hurt my heart a little.

"Never?" I stared at him.

"No. I never really had the chance to before. . ." he looked away from me, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. "Well, it doesn't matter why I couldn't. I never realized people didn't like this sort of music," he said, noting that Maggie and the other man were still arguing.

I gripped the table so hard I thought I might splinter wood.

"If you think for a second that that performance was anything less than incredible then you're an idiot," I said a little too loudly. Several people turned around to see what the fuss was about and I sat down slowly.

Howl looked completely astonished by my reaction.

"You really think so?" he blinked. When I saw how honestly he was asking for my opinion, my shoulders relaxed.

"I have never heard anything more beautiful in my entire life Howl. You should let people hear you perform more, you have a gift! I don't think there was a single person who wasn't staring at you in awe while you played. I would listen to you for hours on end if I could," I smiled at him.

Maggie interrupted our conversation, standing at our table with her hands on her hips.

"Well, the only person here who can give away the winners pot is Hamish," she pointed to her husband, standing behind the bar counter with a look on his face that could curdle milk.

Hamish nodded with a grunt and set down the glass he was rubbing. He waddled over to the table and sat down beside Howl. At first, I thought he might actually say something to Howl, but as the minutes ticked by, all Hamish did was stare at him.

Howl looked to me for an answer, but I was as confused as he was about it. Hamish propped an elbow on the table and leaned in closer, scrutinizing every little detail about Howl.

He leaned in a gave Howl a good look over before retrieving the violin from the chair. Adjusting the knobs on the instrument, Hamish held it to his chin at a different angle than the way Howl had it. He began tapping his foot on the ground to develop a rhythm that had everyone following along with a constant tap tap tap. Like lightning, he struck each string with the bow creating a diddy that had people out of their seats, clapping and dancing before long.

Howl observed the music for a short time and got out of the chair quickly. Holding his hand out, he flicked his wrist and produced a shiny red fiddle out of thin air. He stood facing Harold, holding the fiddle in a similar manner, tapping his foot in time to the beat. Hamish played a few notes to Howl who repeated them back with a few of his own. Not to be outdone, Hamish quickened his pace, handing his music off to Howl who would repeat it back and better. Soon, the men were in a war of music, playing so quickly that it made it almost impossible for us to keep the rhythm with our feet.

The sweat started to bead on the top of Hamish’s head as he played on, determination to defeat his opponent evident in his skill. Howl matched Harold note for note, only stopping to wipe the sweat from his eyes while dancing around them, clapping their hands and cheering them on.

In an instant, Hamish’s bow caught on a string and the bow gave out, hair tangling in the instrument. He set it down with a grunt and watched as Howl continued to play on without him. Tables were shoved into the corners of the room but Howl found one closest to him and hopped up on to it, clearing the dishes with a swipe of his foot.

My cheeks ached from smiling as I watched Howl transform into a person I'd never seen before. He tapped his feet to the beat while giving the patrons a tune they could dance to. Maggie and Hamish joined the others, dancing a jig that looked like so much fun if only I had the stamina to follow along. People hooted and hollered, trading cheers for drinks as Howl kept the music going.

But the best part of it all? It wasn't that Howl won the winner's pot after a standing ovation from Hamish; it wasn't that the drinks were free or that we danced all night long.

It was that, for rest of the night, Howl looked genuinely happy.

Chapter Text

Drops of water tickled my cheek as they rolled down the side of my face and dripped from the end of my ear. I reached out blindly swiping the air to stop the water from hitting my face again. I groaned in protest as another drop hit my cheek with a plop.

Why couldn't I just sleep in peace?

"Wake up sleepy head!" A familiar voice sang into my ear as she flicked more water on my face.

Lettie. . ? What was she doing here?

As I pulled myself into a seated position and rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I realized two things very quickly. First, I remember distinctly going to sleep in my room in the inn, which was in Porthaven I might add, and second, I was no longer in the said inn, or even in Porthaven, for that matter.

It didn't seem to bother me one way or another because the sun was working wonders on my body. I dug my feet into the sun-warmed sand and gazed up at the underside of the trees from my vantage point on the beach. Lettie leaned over me and blocked my view. She flicked more water at me, but it did little convince me to move.

"Earth to Sophie! Are you going to get up? Or do I have to get Markel over here to pick you up?" Lettie pouted, standing over me with her hands on her hips. She had on a swimsuit that I hadn't seen her wear in years.

"Markel?" I squinted, shading my eyes from the sun, to get a better look down the beach. I could see Markel waving to us in the distance, and he too was wearing a swimsuit.

Lettie pulled me up off the ground which gave me a chance to get a better look at my surroundings. Everything had a familiar feel to it, from the sand smoothed pebbles on the beach to the little island in the middle of the lake, there was no mistaking it. I was back in Ingary.

I followed my sister as she made her way over to Markel. She spoke to me, but I couldn't hear her because my mind was at war with its self. Last night I was dancing in Porthaven, I distinctly remember that happening. Howl had won a competition and had drunk so much ale that Hamish had to put him to bed. Maggie showed me to my room, and it was a lovely room at that. I remember that I had undressed down to my underwear so I could slip under the cozy goose down comforter.

So what was I doing here?

My hands instinctively touched my body, and I was terrified that I might still be in my undergarments. To my everlasting relief, I was still wearing the dress Howl had given me the day before. Although it wasn't an ideal choice of clothing; I felt out of place next to Lettie and Markel.

As Lettie pulled me along by the hand, I saw that Markel was standing next to two canoes. They had been pulled far enough up the shore that they weren't likely to move, but they looked ready to be launched. He flashed me a brilliant smile when he noticed me staring.

"Sophie! You've made it! We thought you wouldn't show," he said, lifting the last of his supplies into their boat. Kissing Lettie on the cheek, he held her hand as she stepped into the canoe.

"I don't understand, what's going on? What am I doing here?" I asked, entirely vexed by the situation.

Markel straightened up from his work and dusted the sand from his hands.

"Howl told us you needed help, so that's why we're here," he said, gesturing to the lake with open arms.

"Why would he say that?" I argued. "--and what exactly do you think I need help with?"

"You're supposed to know the answer to that, not us," he shrugged.

"Howl said you would understand once we brought you here, so it's up to you now," Lettie hummed. Her legs dangled off the edge of the canoe as she leaned back, letting the sun bathe her skin.

Their answers didn't make any sense. In fact, none of this made any sense at all. Something seemed very. . . Off.

I pointed an accusatory finger at my sister. "You're calling me Sophie, why?"

She blinked as if I had sprouted a second head.

"That's because it's your name," she said slowly, emphasizing each word.

I shook vehemently. "No that's not what I mean. Why are you calling me Sophie? I don't even look like myself," I said, showing her my hair. "See my hair is. . ." white, I wanted to say, but it wasn't.

"Brown, like it's always been? I know Sophie, I do have eyes in case you were wondering," Lettie giggled, kicking water at me.

"Stop it, you know I don't like water Lettie," I glared at her. I took a few steps back, far enough that she couldn't reach me and tried to clear the confusion I was feeling.

Lettie and Markel exchanged glances.

"We'll explain if you come with us," Markel said quickly. Lettie hopped out of the canoe and ran towards me. She wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me along with her to the canoes.

Markel hurried over to the other canoe and offered his hand. With Lettie holding me tightly, I had no choice but to take his hand. He hoisted into the vessel, and just as I was getting myself seated, he suddenly pushed the canoe out onto the open water.

"M-Markel?! What are you d-doing?!" I panicked and slipped on the floor. I scrambled to get out before he could push me out too far from shore, but he was too quick.

I kicked one leg over the edge, preparing myself to jump into the water, but my foot tangled around something slimy. I jerked my leg away and tumbled backwards into the bottom of the boat. I took a deep breath to stop the hammering in my chest and checked to make sure the offending slime wasn't still attached to my foot. When I peeked over the edge of the canoe, all I could see was the bright green tips of pondweed that went down, down, down into the murky depths of the lake. Far enough down that my feet would not reach the bottom, where the unknown lurked in its the depths. My mind started to create the possibilities, and what it came up with terrified me.

This wasn't a dream.

This was a nightmare.

The wind picked up from out of nowhere, carrying me away from land and far enough out that I could no longer see Lettie or Markel on the shore. I searched every inch of the canoe for a paddle, but it was empty. With no other options, I used my hands as a makeshift paddle and scooped the icy cold water until my fingers were raw from the numbness. I sank back into the bottom of the boat and covered my face with my hands, quelling the panic that was welling up inside of me. The idea that the only thing surrounding me now was miles of water both around and below me terrified me.

"It's a dream Sophie," I breathed in, letting the words cover me like a shield. "I just need to wait this out and then I'll wake up. That's easy, right? I will just sit here and ignore the fact that I'm stranded in the middle of a lake, and it'll be fine."

I leaned back and kept my eyes closed, repeating this mantra in my head for a while. Time moved on, and nothing seemed to happen despite my patience. The bony points in my shoulders dug into the wood, and I had to shift my weight from time to time to work out the pain. Even sitting on the bottom of the canoe proved to be a difficult task and soon I found myself seated on one of the benches after convincing myself that it was safe to do so.

The breeze refused to die down, but the warmth of my wool dress kept the chill at bay. It didn't prevent it from doing other things, however. As I peered out over the choppy water, I could see the encroaching darkness, the sky filled with dense clouds, creeping its way across the water towards me.

Water crashed into the side of the boat as the weather turned sour, rocking it so violently that I had to hug the bench to keep from going overboard. The lake took on a life of its own, transforming the white caps into swells that threatened to swallow me whole. I struggled to hold onto the bench, but I was already fighting with numbness that had set into my hands which made it worse. My fingers slipped from the glossy varnish of the bench just as a swell pulled my vessel into its grasp. I held on for dear life as the swell lifted the boat up almost to its peak. Risking a glance over the edge, I saw another swell moving across the surface like a creature from the deep. A shriek caught in my throat and before I could shut my eyes, the swells rolled into two enormous waves that crashed together, engulfing me and my vessel in their murky depths.

I tumbled through the water kicking my legs and arms in a useless attempt to break the surface. Even with my eyes open, there was no sunlight guide me. Hysteria set in and my hands struck out in every direction, clawing away at the water in a futile attempt to escape it.

Like an anchor, my dress pulled me away from the air I so desperately needed. It wrapped around my legs and tangled them in a snare that I couldn't escape, try as I might.

The edges of my vision faded as the strength left my body and my arms quickly lost the will to fight. As I was pulled further down into the depths, the pain in my chest burned like wildfire, screaming out for a breath of fresh air that I just couldn't reach.

I shut my eyes, willing myself to relax.

It’s simple really, Howl’s voice echoed in my head.

Wait. . . Howl?

I focused on his voice like a beacon and like magic, a vision of him popped into my mind. We were in the cavern again, and Howl was teaching me the elements. He was holding his hat, about to dump water on me. I had flinched, expecting to be soaked through, but I didn't because it had vanished just like. . .

What are you waiting for? He whispered.

Letting my body relax, I focused on the water that surrounded me. I thought of the water that pulled at my dress, that tangled my hair, that chilled my body to the bone, and that robbed me of my very breath. I had to overcome this, I feared the water for so long. Holding these images in my mind, I forced my will upon the lake.

In an instant, the pressure of the depths vanished and I sucked in the sweet taste of the air, gasping and coughing up lake water. My eyes flew open, revealing the surreal landscape before me. The lake swirled in a maelstrom around me, lifting high into the air until I couldn’t see the sky above. Its movement seemed almost like the very lake itself refused to touch me. I reached out to touch the maelstrom, but the closer I got to it, the further it moved away from me.

I felt weightless, but even more strangely, I noticed for the first time that my feet weren’t touching solid ground. I stumbled in a panic to find my footing and fell backwards. Some kind of invisible force gave way and I dropped like a stone down a well. Squeezing my eyes shut, I clenched my fists, waiting for the impact.

Down. . .

Down. . .

Down. . .

I hit the ground with a nasty thump. Fighting my way out of a tangle of sheets and pillows, I jumped up triumphantly, tossing the pillow at the wall for effect. I blew the tangles off my face and, to my embarrassment, realized I had an audience.

Maggie stood stalk still in the corner of my room, holding a metal jug in both hands. I must have startled her with my graceful exit out of bed because she took one look at me and dropped her jug on the floor. She left the spill alone and chose, instead, to stare at me with the most peculiar expression.

I grabbed the blanket from my bed and rushed over to the puddle on the floor, sopping the water up as best as I could. Still, she continued to stare at me.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” I said, doing my best to clean the mess, but at this point, I was just pushing water around on the floor. Alarmed at the sound of my voice, I cleared my throat with a cough.

Something felt. . . different.

Maggie blinked and bent down to help, assessing me in a strange way.

“You accompanied a young lad wit’ black hair an’ glasses last night, dinna ye?” She asked, fixing me with a queer stare.

“Yes. I did,” I said slowly, matching her strange looks with some of my own. The way she asked me had me concerned about Howl. “Is he alright? The man I was with, I mean?”

Forgetting herself for a moment, Maggie stood up quickly. “Oh, he’s doin’ just fine. I dinna mean ta worry ye none. He asked me to check up on ye, seein’ as ye slept in past noon. I thought to bring ye fresh water from the well, but I went an’ dumped the lot on the floor,” she grumbled.

“Noon?” I asked, startled by the time.

“Aye, slept like a wee babe, ye did lass. Well, t'was before ye fell out of bed like demon child summoned from hells gates, anyway,” she muttered under her breath.

I raced over to the curtains and threw them wide. The sun was already high in the sky and the streets below were bustling with busy townsfolk.

“Oh Lord I am so sorry, I’ll be quick, I promise. Please tell Howl I’ll be down shortly,” I stammered, reaching for my dress on the nightstand. As I pulled it over my head, I heard my door shut.

I reached around the back of my dress and buttoned up the waist. It surprised me at how easily I could reach the buttons this morning. Yesterday, my shoulders weren't nearly as flexible. No matter, it's probably thanks to all the free air I'm getting anyways.

I smoothed out the wool on the front fluffing the lace in the sleeves. I adjusted the white cotton singlet under the dress and tied the bodice with a tight bow. It seems that I have a little extra slack in the bodice today too, I thought.

I dropped to the floor in search of my boots and found them kicked deep under the bed. Lying flat out, I sucked in my stomach and crawled underneath, yanking on the laces of the boots to bring them within my reach. After extracting myself from under the bed, I set the boots out next to me.

Now that I was seated on the floor, I saw the extent of the mess water had made. Rather than leaving it alone for Maggie to clean up, I had a brilliant idea. I couldn't know for certain if it would work as well in real life as it did in my dream, but I had to give it a try.

Closing my eyes, I imagined the water drawing itself back into the jug. I heard the faint sound of trickling water and grinned at my success. Pulling on my boots, I stood up and grabbed the blanket off the floor, confirming that it was completely dry. I peered down into the jug and tapped it with my boot. It sloshed with a fullness that could only mean one thing.

It worked!

I covered my mouth with the blanket and muffled my scream of joy. I wondered if my smile looked as goofy as I felt so I grabbed the jug of water. Walking over to the basin that Maggie had set out in front of a mirror, I looked at my reflection. Before I could pour the water, it slipped from my hands and splashed all over the floor. I gasped, but it wasn't the spill that shocked me most.

I reached out and touched the mirror to make sure what I was seeing wasn't some kind of illusion. The person I saw in my reflection wasn’t the decrepit old woman I had grown accustomed to being. As I touched the soft skin of my cheeks, traced the smooth angle of my jaw, and marvelled at the deep brown eyes that I had missed, nothing else in the world mattered at this point.

I was me again.

Chapter Text

I wiped the mirror with the corner of my sleeve to make sure what I was seeing was real and not just remnants of my dream. As my lips curved into a smile, I no longer saw the ancient woman who had lost all faith in ever going home. It wasn't an accurate reflection of my former self though, not entirely. My hair still betrayed the effects of the curse, but where it was dull before, it had taken on a healthy sheen.

But this had me wondering, what if it meant other parts of me hadn't changed back?

Quickly, I pulled the hem of my dress, exposing my thighs in a decidedly unladylike manner. To my relief, my legs looked fuller now and much less like a sack of loose skin attached to my bones. I hiked up my sleeves as far as they would go, scrutinizing my skin. The dark spots no longer covered the tops of my hands, and my skin was considerably less transparent. Apart from the usual cuts and scrapes from sewing, my hands looked very much like my own once again. It was as if new life was breathed into every part of me overnight.

Dunbeath truly was a magical place!

But this got me to thinking, it was no wonder Maggie looked so flustered around me just now. I would have been startled as well if I had come upstairs to wake an elderly lady only to find a woman less than half her age sleeping in the bed! Even though my hair was still as white as ever, there was little argument to be made in my defence. I look like a completely different person.

I leaned against the windowsill and chewed on the inside of my cheek as I watched the busy townsfolk below, wondering how I was going to explain this to her.

Should I explain to her it was magic?

Would she even believe me if I told her I was the same person?

It seemed like a fruitless effort to worry about the innkeeper when there was another person more important than her waiting for me downstairs at this very moment.

Howl.

Would he recognize me. . . Or rather, did I want him to recognize me? How was I going to explain everything to him? Afterall, I made it very clear that last time we spoke when I was still myself, that I didn't want anything to do with him. That had to make me a hypocrite, didn't it? I slept in his home, ate his food willingly, and took advantage of his offer to help me. How was I going to explain this all to him? If I told him about the Witch of the Waste and how she wanted me to take his heart, he would never forgive me. Of that, I was entirely sure.

After cleaning up the second spill, I dipped a brush into the basin and combed the knots out of my hair, giving my nerves a chance to relax. I had gotten used to the straw-like feel my hair had taken on, but as I smoothed my hands through it, I was surprised that it had a feel to it that reminded me of silk fabric. I braided it as best I could, but the glossy texture of my hair made it impossible for it to keep its shape. I tucked the ribbon in my pocket, choosing to leave it down, which was an oddly foreign concept to me. I never liked my hair down.

As I adjusted my bodice and skirt, there was one detail I had picked up from last night that I felt I needed to fix. It didn't escape my notice that Maggie and the other women all wore dresses that closely resembled mine. In fact, they were made of similar homespun wool with a wide variety of colours and weaves. This is where I found the error in my outfit. The brooch that came with my dress was pinned at my waist, which I quickly discovered was the wrong way to wear it. Instead, all of the local townsfolk, whether man or woman, wore their brooches over their heart.

I unfastened the brooch from my waist to get a better look at it. The metal was tarnished, but as I rubbed it with the corner of my dress, it glistened in the light. There was a winged creature that formed a circle around an arrangement of flowers. From the tiny details of its scales to the curls of smoke carved at its snout, there was no doubt that the brooch was a dragon. Little flecks of paint remained on bits of the brooch, giving it an aged effect. I gathered that this was meant to be a crest, and the delicate details on it seemed to indicate just that. As I refastened the brooch over my heart, mimicking the way the townsfolk wore theirs, I began to understand why Howl wanted me to wear this. This was a part of the culture of the town, and by dressing according to their customs, we blended in rather well.

I checked the room to make sure I hadn't missed anything. But, if I was honest with myself, I was stalling. I wasn't ready for the fallout. The thought of who was waiting for me just down a flight of stairs set my heart aflutter.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

A loud knock startled me, and I tripped on the hem of my dress as I clambered for the door, smacking into it head first. Picking my dignity off the floor, I straightened my skirts and opened the door. Maggie stood in the hallway, waiting with her arms crossed under her massive chest.

"I'm sorry, but I gotta give ye the boot lass. I need ta clean the room for tonight's guests. We got a busy evenin' ahead of us, and I cannae let ye stay any longer." Maggie edged her way past me, kicking me out into the hall in the process. The door slammed shut before I could protest, and I found myself alone.

Well, it's now, or never, I told myself.

Taking a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and made my way down the narrow staircase that brought me into the open hall on the main floor.

Hamish was kneeling over the hearth, shovelling out the previous days' ashes with a hand trowel. He wedged the spade into a gap in the bricks and pulled a flask from his vest. Taking a swig, Hamish nodded in my direction. A young boy tried to slip past me, catching me completely unawares. I moved out of the way and gave him the room he needed to carry his arm full of logs over to the hearth. Once he had unburdened himself of the load, the boy skipped by with a wink, tipping his hat to me. I couldn't explain why, but he reminded me of Simon a great deal.

Hamish looked up from his work, smearing some of the soot on his forehead as he wiped the sweat from his eyes. At first, he watched as the boy went back out the front door, but quickly he looked over at me. He grunted in his usual manner and pointed over to an empty table; I assumed to offer me a seat. I politely shook my head and hurried out of his way.

I walked a slow turn about the room, keeping to the outside wall. I watched as the townspeople poured into the hall and filled the tables one by one. As I watched them from a distance, I picked out the different brooches each person wore. I saw one with a tree encircled with a rope, another had a stag in the centre crossed with arrows, and yet another one depicted a bird overtaking a lion. As I observed the different brooches, I detected a theme; each brooch had it's own corresponding clothing colours. The townsfolk with the stag brooch wore patterns of brown and yellow, whereas the men wearing a brooch depicting a rose covered in thorns wore plaids of white and red.

What I found even more interesting was that no one shared the same colour combination that I wore, and no one had a brooch that looked anything like the one pinned on my dress. There were plaids made of greens and browns, whites and browns and reds, yellows and greens, and any other combination I could think of but oddly, not blue. The only other person who shared the navy blue in his clothes was Howl, and it was at that moment that I found him from across the room, seated by the window in the front of the hall.

I found myself pinching my sides to keep myself from bolting out of the room. If I wanted the perfect opportunity to run, now was my chance. Howl was turned away from me, looking out the window rubbing his arm absently. He glasses had been folded up and set next to a book on the table. He reached for his teacup, and his hand shook as he took a sip. I watched as he blew out a long breath and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Howl didn't look well, and it was for that reason that I weaved quickly through the tables to get to him.

"Howl? Are you alright?" I kneeled in front of him.

"Allison?" Howl leaned in, squinting at me. Spying his glasses on the table, I quietly moved them out of arms reach.

"That's right," I said, trying to add the gravely sound to my voice that I used to have. Reaching up, I pressed the back of my hand against his forehead, confirming what I saw. "Lord you're burning up Howl! What on earth did you do?"

He pushed my hand away, but I could tell by his effort that he had very little strength to resist me.

"I'm alright. I have a little headache, but I'll survive," he said defensively, turning away from me. He patted the table, searching for his glasses which I safely deposited in my pocket. I wasn't ready yet.

"You are most certainly not okay Howl; you need to rest. We should stay here another day and get that fever down," I argued. I felt his cheeks with my hands again and was alarmed by how warm he was.This time, Howl didn't make any attempt to move my hands from his face. He closed his eyes and let his cheeks rest in my cold hands. When did this start? Was he like this yesterday? I went over the previous days' events, trying to see if I had missed any of the signs when I noticed that he was holding his right arm.

"What happened to your arm?" I asked, removing his hand so I could get a better look.

"Nothing serious," he said, feigning interest.

"You injured it, didn't you? I noticed something was up the other day, after you went after--," I stopped right before I could say Calcifer's name.

"I'm fine," he insisted, but the pallor of his skin told me otherwise. I grabbed the front of his jacket before he could stop me and started to unbutton it.

"What are you doing?" he stopped my progress, holding both my hands easily in one of his.

"Please, just let me see your arm Howl," I pleaded with him, no longer able to hide the frustration from my voice.

Releasing my hands in an instant, he gave me a look of apprehension.

"You're not Allison."

I tried searching for the right words, but I didn't know what to say to him.

Howl flicked his wrist like I'd see him do so many times before and his glasses appeared in his hands. I panicked, clutching my empty pocket where they had been. I reached out to take them from him, but I stopped myself before I could commit.

This was it. I knew I had to face the music at some point.

As Howl's eyes focused on me, he did something that surprised me. His expression changed from that of confusion to something very sweet and tender. He reached out and brushed the hair from my eyes.

"Sophie," he whispered.

I closed my eyes and held his hand to my cheek, too frightened to say anything at all. His thumb brushed my skin so gently that it soothed my overwrought nerves.

"Howl," I smiled into his hand, releasing it from my grasp.

"Your hair looks like starlight," he murmured, a little quieter than before. His fingers found a strand of hair that had escaped the rest and tucked it neatly behind my ear.

I peeked up at Howl and found him smiling down at me, but something seemed wrong. Howl's eyes glazed over and before I could assess the situation correctly, he fell forward into my arms. With his weight bearing down on me, I could hardly breathe, let alone move him. Maggie had just descended the stairwell as reached out to her with my free hand.

"Help, please!" I yelled at her.

Chapter Text

Hamish got to his feet with the grace of a man half his size and lifted Howl off me with little effort, allowing me a second to catch my breath. As I let Hamish prop Howl back up in his chair, I reached up and held his red cheeks in my hands.

"Howl? Howl can you hear me?" my voice shook nearly as badly as my hands did, but he gave no response. Howls head lolled forward, eyes shut. His cheeks felt dreadfully warm, and as I touched his forehead with the back of my hand, I could feel the sweat beading off his fevered skin.

Maggie appeared by my side, the laundry basket she had hitched on her hip tossed to the wayside. She covered Howls forehead with her palm and clicked her tongue, cursing colourfully under her breath.

"He's got a fever," she sighed. Using her thumbs, she opened his eyelids and scrutinized them. "Was he like this before?"

I stared at her blankly. Did Howl seem unwell yesterday? I wouldn't have thought so, not the way he acted last night anyway. He looked normal-- happy even, but certainly not ill. My eyes drifted to his right arm, a thought forming.

"He's been favouring that arm for the last few days," I admitted, "but I haven't a clue what happened."

Maggie shot a quick look at Hamish ushering him over to prop Howl up while she removed his jacket. The arm of his white shirt was completely stained with a brownish tinge, and I knew by the collective look on Maggie and Hamish's faces, it wasn't a good sign.

"Hamish, I'm gonna need ye ta carry the young man upstairs and set him up in one of the empty rooms," Maggie said quickly, fussing over her apron.

Spotting the young boy who had been helping Hamish earlier, Maggie waved him over. She unpinned her brooch and twisted it until it changed into a different shape, almost like a key of some sort. Pressing it into the boy's hand, she barked out more orders.

"Colin, go out to the storeroom behind the inn and get some of the old linens and a bucket of hot water. Meet us upstairs once ye've got the lot."

"Yes ma'am," he replied. Clutching the brooch in his hand, Colin saluted smartly and dashed out the front door.

"Old linens?" I asked, bewildered. "Why would he need those? He's hot, not cold."

"My dear," Maggie gave me a grave look, "with a wound that size, he'll need fresh bandages."

My heart hammered in my ears, drowning out her voice. He was injured that badly? Why had he never said anything?

I looked up to see Maggie retrieve a bottle of spirits from behind the bar. She reached the staircase and beckoned me to follow, but my nerves got the best of me. My legs had turned into lead weights that wouldn't budge, and I had a faint buzzing sound in my ears that was beginning to make me feel queasy. Maggie's warm hand on my back guided me to a chair to sit, offering me a comforting smile.

"I know how you feel lass. It's not easy seeing someone that you care about hurt, but let's focus on one person at a time aye? I can't be taking care of the both of ye at once," Maggie cast me a stern, if not motherly look of concern.

"You're right," I breathed deeply. "It's just-- I'm not sure what to do in this situation."

She pulled the cork off the bottle with her teeth and thrust it into my hands. "I usually am and don't you worry, we'll be takin' care o' that arm in a jiffy. Here, have a swig of that and ye'll be right as rain."

I took a whiff of the bottle and felt it burn the back of my throat. I cast Maggie a wary glance, pinched my nose and pressed the bottle to my mouth. It burned as bad as I expected. I gagged and coughed the mouthful down, thrusting the offending bottle in Maggie's awaiting hands.

If I ever needed to pull the varnish off a ship, this concoction would surely do the trick.

"There ye see? Warms the belly, it does," Maggie slapped my back heartily. She took a rather healthy quaff herself and licked her lips in delight. "Nothing like a spot o' whiskey to keep ye in good spirits! Now, let's go take care of that young man of yours," she smiled, pulling me along beside her.

"M-mine? H-he's not--," I sputtered, but Maggie wasn't interested in my response. She turned around and fixed me with a stern look that shut me up in a split second. Spying Colin in the doorway, she released me and hurried over to help him carry the supplies up the stairs.

I found Howl's jacket, abandoned on the floor and grabbed it. Holding it close, I followed in Maggies wake.

***

By the time I found the room, Maggie and Hamish were fighting off a bewildered looking Howl. Try as she might, Maggie wasn't gaining any headway. Howl kept refusing her, pushing her hands away every chance he got. After seeing how pale and weak he was downstairs, I wouldn't have thought he had the strength in him, but it seemed he still had some fight left in him.

"I'm fine, please don't touch me," he mumbled, wincing as he pushed himself to sit up.

"If'n ye stopped squirming we wouldn't have ta fight with ye so hard," Maggie grumbled, tossing a wet towel in the basin with a wet slap.

That seemed to light a fire in Howls eyes.

"If you stopped pinning me down, I wouldn't have to fight," he shot back.

"Well, there's a large gash in your arm laddybuck so you're not in the position to fight us right now! Not unless yer lookin' to bleed to death. In that case, go right ahead!" Maggie tossed her arms in the air in frustration, casting me a look of desperation. She jerked her chin at Howl, urging me into the room.

I edged my way around Hamish, removing my overcoat and tying my hair up in the process. With a steady breath, I set Howl's jacket on the floor beside me. The moment he caught my eye, Howl stopped struggling.

"Sophie," he breathed, ignoring the others attempts to restrain him now.

I hesitated for a moment, but when I saw the soiled bandage sticking to his arm, I found myself moving automatically. There was a stool by the wash basin that I set down next to Howl's bed, being mindful of basket of linens on the floor beside me. Seating myself, I attempted to remove the bandage but the weight of Maggie's and Hamish's stares bore a hole in the back of my head.

I cleared my throat in a dignified manner, never once taking my eyes off my task. "It might be easier on him if I took care of this-- if that's okay with you," I said carefully.

"Oh yes, yes of course," Maggie agreed.

They did not move.

Howl cleared his throat uncomfortably as he watched my hands move gently over the bandage.

My hands stilled at the knot in the dressing. "I--er, what I mean is we need a little privacy," I tried to explain again, rubbing the back of my neck awkwardly.

Maggie blinked, seeming to forget herself. She offered a polite apology and whisked them both from the room.

She popped her head back in briefly. "I'll be just out here if ye need me lass," she smiled brightly, closing the door gently.

Now alone with Howl, I felt an uncomfortable silence settle between us. How was I going to explain my appearance to him? I wasn't ready for this conversation, not yet.

The silence seemed to answer for me; if I didn't ask him about his arm, he wouldn't ask me about my body, and I was happy to leave it like that. For now.

"Will you let me look at it?" I asked even as I begun unwrapping the sticky mess of cloth from his arm. He seemed to forget his injury momentarily as he watched me with a peculiar expression, the only indication of his approval the slight shifting of his body to give me better access.

I could feel his eyes on me as I worked on removing the soiled bandage, but he supplied no conversation to fill the void between us. Perhaps he was waiting for me to say something more?

It seemed a miracle that the makeshift bandage lasted as long as it did. Howl had done a poor job wrapping it; there were knots upon knots and tangled bits of linen, all of which were soaked through from his wound. Pulling at the dried knots made my fingers raw, and I found that I needed a break every few minutes to massage the cramps from my hands.

An idea struck me and I looked over at the nightstand. Rummaging through it, I found a pair of scissors smiled triumphantly. Carefully, so as not to hurt him further, I eased the scissors around each layer, one by one, cutting away the soiled cloth. Each layer I cut away became more and more saturated with blood, until the final layer came free.

Howl, why didn't you tell me?

"Was it you this whole time?" his voice broke my concentration, the scissors slipping from my hands. I put them aside before I could do any damage and ignored his query, choosing instead to grab the basin from the opposite side of the room.

Maggie had left a basket of old linens and the bottle of whiskey next to the nightstand, so I set the basin down and kept my attention on his arm. Before I could remove the last strip of cloth, Howl stopped my hand.

"Sophie, please. Look at me," he begged, squeezing my hand. Reluctantly, I let myself look away from his injury, but the anger I had anticipated wasn't there. Instead, his expression was full of awe and wonder. My heart squeezed painfully.

Would he look at me this way if he knew that the Witch was using me?

"I need to take care of your arm," I reminded him, breaking his gaze. Obediently, Howl leaned back against the headboard and let his hand rest on my knee.

The last bandage seemed glued in place, and it took some considerable work to get it off, but once I peeled it from the wound, I got a good look at the full extent of the damage. A angry jagged gash ran from his shoulder to his elbow. It was a wonder how he was able to function these past few days with such an injury. It infuriated me that he never said a word.

I tore up a piece of linen and dipped in the basin, commencing the arduous task of cleaning the wound as best I could. It was dark, crusted and sticky in some areas, and as I washed the grime away, fresh blood oozed from the torn flesh. In a panic, I grabbed another strip of linen and slapped it against his arm.

"Hold this," I ordered him as I began tearing up more linen. He gave me a lop-sided grin but it only served to make me more angry. Nothing was funny about this situation.

"Yes ma'am," he chuckled, keeping the cloth in place.

I shot him a withering glare that sobered him quickly.

"This isn't a laughing matter Howl. Do you realize how bad this is? This isn't a little cut, it's gigantic. And you've got a fever which means its badly infected. What if you had passed out somewhere far from town? We were lucky that it happened here, in front of me and Maggie." I bit down on the traitorous quiver of my lip. "You should have told me."

His fixed his lips in a hard line and turned away from me to stare out the window. Alone with my work, I tore all the strips I needed and laid them on my lap along with another sheet to protect my dress. With a sigh, I took over holding the cloth on his arm.

"I didn't mean to lash out," I admitted, "but you really should take better care of yourself. I would have been alright waiting another day to come here so that you could seek treatment for this. I just wish you trusted me more to tell me."

I continued my work in silence, soaking the rag in the basin and dabbing the wound at the edges gently.

"It's difficult for me. . . to let others in," Howl admitted, peeking over at me, "but I do trust you, Sophie."

I stopped momentarily and collected myself. Wringing out a cloth, I poured a small amount of whiskey onto it.

"This is going to sting, badly." I warned him.

Howl reached out for the bottle.

"Then at least let me have a drink first," he teased, taking a swig.

I watched him swallow a few mouthfuls and felt a lurch in my stomach. "I don't know how you can handle that."

"Whiskey? It tastes like home," he winked, taking another sip.

"Well I'm not sure about you, but to me home doesn't taste like that," I scoffed. I held his arm and dabbed the wound with the whiskey, taking care to not touch too much of it at once. Howl handled it surprisingly well, only clenching his fist a few times. I frowned at the bright red blood beading at the edges of the wound. The more I wiped, the worse it bled. I staunched the bleeding as best I could, using as much spare linen as I had available, but it refused to stop.

Noticing my panicked face, Howl aimed for distraction.

"What reminds you of home?"

"Tea and warm milk," I responded quickly, more concerned about the constant bleed in his arm than his questions.

"That sounds nice, but a whiskey will warm you quicker than any other drink on a cold winters night."

"Well, tea is a better option when you're up late at night fabricating hats. Whiskey would be a terrible in that regard," I offered back.

"I'd love to see what you could create after half a bottle of whiskey," he chuckled. I had to wait for him to stop before I could continue to assess his arm, but he continued talking.

"Howl," I turned his cheek so he would look at me as I tried to convey the seriousness of the situation, "I need to stop the bleeding in your arm. We can chat all day long about the effects of whiskey or whatever after I'm done, okay?"

He looked down at the wound as if noticing it for the first time. "It's rather large, isn't it?" he turned it to get a better look and winced.

If he wasn't already in so much pain, I would have smacked him for acting so nonchalant about it.

It was large though, too large for my capabilities. I was a seamstress, not a healer.

"Maggie!" I yelled over my shoulder.

As if she had her ear to the door, Maggie was in the room an second later.

"Aye, what do ye need, lass?" She asked, peeping through the doorway.

"Does this town have a healer?"

Maggie pursed her lips. "We do, but he's in another town over, and I don't expect he'll be back anytime soon."

A groan escaped my lips before I could stop it. "I don't think wrapping this will help him," I said, gesturing to the linen I was holding against his arm that had already soaked through with blood.

She stepped over the piles of soiled linens and took a long look at Howl's arm. "Aye that needs mending to be sure," she nodded sagely.

"Mending?" I balked. "But what do we do if there isn't a healer here? It's not like we have the tools or ability to fix this ourselves!"

"Well, what I know fer sure is that he can't let that wound bleed forever, he's looking pale as it is. I could go and see if I still have me sewing kit downstairs," she offered.

Howl was as white as a sheet and my heart begin to race. I supposed sewing was an option, if not a great one. He needed to be fixed now. I reached into my pocket and gripped the little spool of silk thread tightly. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined using my skills in this manner, but desperate times and all. . .

I summoned up my courage and pulled the spool out my pocket, showing it to them.

"What if I do it?"

Maggie was startled, but Howl approved immediately.

"Why not?" he agreed.

"It might be his best option," Maggie chewed a nail nervously, "but are you sure you're up for it?"

I didn't have choice, it was his only option. "I can do this," I said, steeling my resolve.

I felt Howl's hand on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "I've never met a more talented seamstress than you, Sophie. Just think of it like fixing a tear in a suit," he gave me a secret wink.

"If you were a suit, I would have thrown you out and bought a new one," I laughed nervously.

Howl's answering laugh was weak.

"I'm ready when you are, but I'd rather you not throw me out if you can help it."

I wanted to roll my eyes or say something witty, but my nerves got the best of me. I set the needle and thread out, reminding myself that I needed to focus.

Maggie squeezed my shoulder and left the room to give us some privacy. I reached for the bottle of whiskey and poured some on the needle and then, before setting it down, I took an adventurous swig for good luck. Howl's hand reached out for the bottle. This was going to hurt. A lot.

"Okay, you might want to bite down on something," I said, only half joking.

"I trust you but I'll keep that in mind," he squeezed his eyes shut.

I breathed in, with the needle at the ready and went for it. Howl's fist clenched the moment I pierced skin, but then he calmed. I hated that I was hurting him but I knew this had to be done. Using a stitch that had served me well in the past, I worked quickly, imagining that I was just mending a different type of fabric.

Well, a flesh type of fabric I supposed. A bleeding, flesh type fabric.

My hands slipped on hot sticky mess of his arm. I tried to wipe it away constantly but the oozing wound made my work almost impossible to see. The cloth I used for mopping the blood was useless at this point, so I switched to using my right hand to clean and my left hand to stitch. In no time I was working my way down the wound, and little by little, the bleeding stopped. I pulled the edges of his wound together gently, mindful not to tear the stitches, and tied it off neatly.

I sat back with a sigh and wiped the back of my wrist across my forehead. Howl's eyes were closed, but I could see the gentle rise and fall of his chest, which allowed me a moment to relax. I let my hands soak in the basin until I could no longer feel the stickiness and I used the rest of the old linens to clean Howl's wound and dress it. I pressed my hand to his arm with its newly covered bandage and smiled at my handiwork.

Soon after I had finished cleaning up, I was struggling to keep my eyes open. The emotional turmoil of the day drained me completely and I found the quilt in Howls lap inviting. I reached over and pulled a corner over me, resting my head next to Howl, letting my troubles go in the meantime.

***

Was I out for ten minutes or a few hours? I couldn't tell, but someone's footsteps stirred me from my sleep. Maggie was leaning over me, feeling Howl's forehead. When she saw that I was awake, she stepped away with a smile.

"That was some lovely work ye did there lass," she said, admiring my tidy work.

"I guess when you've been sewing most of your life, it just comes naturally."

I never wanted to do that again.

"Aye, well take the credit where ye've earned it. But for now, let the young man rest, I think he's had enough excitement for one day." She pulled the quilt up over his shoulders, leaving only his wounded arm exposed.

"Will he be alright?" I asked, holding his hand.

"Aye, with time he'll be just fine," she reassured me brightly.

"That's a relief," I smiled, fixing his hair as he slept. "I don't mean to impose on your hospitality, but I think we may need to stay here for a little while longer."

"Aye, that won't be a problem. Come now, follow me to the hall, there's something I need to speak with ye about," her voice became stern.

"What about?" I hesitated, concerned about the change in her tone.

"I think we both know what it's about young lady," she said with a cocked eyebrow. She produced my cloak and gave me a knowing look.

Oh, that.

Chapter Text

For privacy reasons, Maggie led me into the kitchen away from prying ears and seated me at a small table in the back corner. She sat across from me with her arms folded and a look on her face that reminded me strongly of my mother. I clasped my hands together in my lap and looked anywhere but at Maggie.

I found Hamish standing at the counter on the opposite end of the room, cleaving the meat off a leg of lamb. The way he watched us as he sliced each piece off the bone was a bit unsettling, and I flinched when I heard the knife hit bone, but as I watched the young boy package the carved meat, I reminded myself that not everyone who wields a sharp looking cleaver is a murderous lunatic.

I suppose sometimes my imagination gets away from me.

Maggie cleared her throat and pulled my attention away from Hamish's cleaver. Her look told me that she knew something, but she was waiting for me to fess up before she did. I knew what Maggie wanted me to explain, after all, I gave her quite a shock this morning thanks to the drastic change in my appearance. But the question was, what exactly did she want me to say? It's not like magic would be a foreign concept to Maggie; Howl told me earlier on that magic originated here on this island, so why did she need me to explain myself?

Not only that but what if she realizes that I'm originally from Ingary? Howl made it clear that I wasn't to divulge that information to anyone. He said something about the locals hating Ingarians.

Wait! Was that it? Did she know that I'm from Ingary? That seemed like a bit of a stretch to me, given that I'd only had a brief conversation with her and it had nothing to do with me. No, she fixed her attention on the cloak I wore last night, so it had to be about my appearance.

I thought up a few ridiculous scenarios that might explain my situation, but nothing seemed to fit. Howl had already given me a cover, so I guess I had no choice but to use it.

"Right," Maggie leaned in and gave me a severe look, "I'm going to give ye one chance to tell me the truth, lass. I won't be angry; I promise ye that."

Hamish's cleaver struck the lamb's carcass again, causing me to flinch unconsciously. "W-we're travellers, Howl and I," I started, hoping I sounded believable. "I am a seer you see, and he's my assistant. . ."

She listened to me spin my tale of how we moved from country to country, offering our services, the details of which I was somewhat vague about. The more I talked about it, the more I realized I sounded absurd, and I had a nagging feeling that she thought the same, because nothing I said seemed to impress her.

After relaying my tale to her, Maggie got up and walked over to a cask and filled two mugs with the amber liquid that she poured from the tap. Sliding one over to me, she kicked her feet up on an empty chair and balanced her mug on her bosom. "That's a pretty tale yer telling me lass," she smiled sweetly, "but not a word of that's true, is it?"

My palms felt sweaty as I gripped the mug tightly. "O-of course it's true! If you go and ask Howl, he'll tell you the same story, I promise!"

"Oh, I have no doubt he would, but I want the truth, not the story ye both planned out beforehand."

There wasn't any way I could explain myself that would help our situation. I couldn't tell Maggie that I was from Ingary, and I most certainly couldn't tell her about my real problem; if Maggie was at all superstitious, then saying to her I'd been cursed by a witch would be a surefire way to get us both kicked out.

Every time I wanted to start talking, my lips refused to cooperate, and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't tell her the truth; Howl needed to stay and rest, and I needed to find a way to get us home while he did so.

Maggie let out a long sigh, reached across the table, and surprised me by holding my hand.

"Listen, I think it's plain to see what's going on here," she said, not unkindly.

The laugh escaped me before I could tamp it down.

"It isn't."

Maggie shook her head and took up her mug again. "Well let me tell ye how I see's it, and ye can tell me if I'm wrong. Ye both show up in the middle of the night wearing the same tartan and crest, yer disguised as a hag and he's got an injury that needed treating. Am I missing anything?"

"Erm, no?" I said, still unsure where this conversation was going, but now I was mildly curious.

"I dinna think folks eloped nowadays but I suppose when yer young and in love," Maggie sighed.

"Pardon me?" I just about fell off my chair from shock.

"Oh, there's no need ta be bashful, lass, I'll not pass judgement on either of ye. Tell me, was it because you're a foreigner?"

"I think you've misread our situation. . ." I said slowly.

Maggie waved me off with a flick of her wrist. "Ye can stop pretending ye dinna understand me," she scoffed. "Let me guess, that young man of yours professed his love to ye, but his clan dinna approve of ye being an outsider. So ye took off together, but not before he was injured and so ye took up refuge here at my inn. Tell me, have I got that right?"

My cheeks flamed red, and Maggie mistook my embarrassment as confirmation of her suspicion. Did we seem that way last night? Howl was in an unusually good mood, and I had to admit that listening to him play was the most fun I'd had in ages, but how on earth did Maggie take that to mean we were something more?

Part of me wanted to deny it altogether; I'd never been given enough time to think about how I felt about Howl, let alone pretend to be his. . . his what? His beau? His fiancee? His. . .lover? I felt a strange shiver run through my body at the thought and at once, I tamped it down.

Instead, I focussed on what I knew. Even though Maggie had entirely misread our situation, I had a feeling it might work out in our favour. I couldn't let Howl move in his current condition, and I had no way of getting us back to Ingary; considering I was an outsider here, playing the part of a young woman crossed in love wasn't the worst idea.

"I suppose that's what it looks like, doesn't it?" I said, quietly, doing my best to convince her that she'd caught me red-handed.

"Aye, it does, but don't worry yer pretty little face, I'll not judge ye for falling in love," she winked.

Again, I felt my face flush, but I took a sip of the grog and blamed it on the liquor instead. Maggie grinned at me as if she had some big secret to tell. She finished her drink in one giant gulp and set it on the table.

"Then that settles it, the two of ye will stay here. Keep the room ye have now; it's big enough for ye both."

For the two of us? Oh no. . .

"Just the one room? Surely you can spare a second room for the time being? I'm willing to pay for both," I insisted. Howl had won all that money last night so we could certainly afford it.

"Two rooms? Whoever heard of such a thing? Don't worry that pretty little face of yours lass, I won't dream of separating you after coming all this way," Maggie winked at me.

I balked. "T-thank you, but t-that's not necessary! Howl and I don't mind sleeping apart! You could set me up in one of the rooms next to him, or any room for that matter!"

Maggie clicked her tongue. "I only had the one room lass. If ye need two rooms, you'll have ta look elsewhere. I'm the only inn in for miles, so unless ye can find another place that'll take ye both, ye should consider my offer."

I needed Howl to stay here and get better, moving him wasn't an option, but staying in the same room was.

"We'll be okay in just the one room, thank you, Maggie."

Hamish set his cleaver down with a thud, signalling to Maggie. She spoke to him in a dialectic I didn't recognize, but whatever it was she said, he complied and started grabbing wood from a stack by the stove. Turning her attention to me, she smiled brightly.

"I've just sent Hamish to get a fire going in the hearth up in your room."

"A fire? Isn't it rather warm out already?"

"Aye, ye need to sweat a fever if ye want to get rid of it, that's what me ole mum used to say."

I felt nervous about this idea. The last time I checked, Howl was too warm, I thought. If anything he needed to cool down, but how?

Think, Sophie. . .

I remembered seeing a bottle at Markel's apothecary, and that gave me an idea.

"Maybe we could hold off on the fire?" I said quickly, stopping Hamish before he could take his armful of wood upstairs. "I-I don't want to refuse your advice, but perhaps I could try one of my remedies first?"

"--and what's that?" Maggie asked.

It frustrated me that at the moment I needed to recall the herbs name, I couldn't remember it. It seemed like a painfully simple sort of name. . .

"OH!" I blurted out, startling the two of them. I hadn't meant to yell it out loud, but it came to me so suddenly. "I need to find a specific herb. A friend of mine runs an apothecary, and I saw it at his shop once, perhaps you've heard of it? It's called feverfew," I explained.

Maggie looked up at Hamish, who merely grunted in response.

"Never heard of it," Maggie translated for him.

"Is there an apothecary in town?" I asked.

They both shook their heads, but I wasn't discouraged. I had a reasonably good memory, and from what I could recall, feverfew was a flower that looked a lot like daisies, just smaller. I felt determined now that I had a task to keep my mind busy, so I said my thanks and grabbed my cloak, but before I could leave, Maggie stopped me.

"We don't have an apothecary, but we do have pirate Davies," she suggested.

Pirate Davies? What sort of name was that?

"I feel a bit strange for asking this, but how could a pirate possibly know a great deal about plants? Wouldn't he be more of an expert on fish or map charting?"

"He's. . . different, but he knows more about this town than anyone else," Maggie said.

"Okay, where would I find this. . . pirate Davies?" I felt silly just saying the name, and my imagination began thinking up ridiculous images of what a man with such a name might look like.

Maggie burst out laughing, startling me momentarily. I laughed awkwardly along with her but only in the hopes that she might share what it was that was so funny.

"Did I say something wrong?" I asked.

"Oh, no lass it's just-- well ye've no idea how funny that question is! Ye can't miss him! Tell me, did ye not see his property on yer way in last night?"

"I'm afraid we arrived well past dark, so I haven't seen the town in its entirety," I explained.

Maggie nodded sagely. "Aye, I keen what ye mean. This is your first time in Port Haven, so I'll have Colin here take ye up to his place if ye like," Maggie said.

Having listened in on our conversation, Colin pulled off his apron and joined us.

He was younger than I was but I thought he seemed too old to be Maggie and Hamish's son. His dusty brown hair covered his forehead like a wavy mop, and at once I thought he looked nothing like his parents. His body was lithe, like a dancers body would be, and he came up to my height, which wasn't very tall at all.

Something about him told me he was different. Adding to that theory was that he didn't wear the same style of clothing that everyone else wore. Instead, he had on a simple pair of tan trousers and a green knit shirt that tied in the front with a tassel. His style was oddly similar to the clothes that Simon wore at Markel's shop.

"Pleasure to meet you, Sophie!" Colin beamed at me. Taking my hand enthusiastically, he shook it and pulled me along behind him. Maggie waved us off and followed Hamish back into the storeroom.

***

I could have sworn that the sun had been out earlier, but I would never have guessed it based on the current weather. A fog had descended upon the town, blanketing everything with a dense mist that Colin and I had to cut our way through. Without a clear view of any roads, I was thankful for the guide and Colin seemed content to help me at any rate.

The mist clung to my cloak, fusing into droplets that rolled off my shoulders and onto the already wet ground. I had never seen fog this intense before, and if my clothes weren't so waterlogged and I wasn't struggling to breathe, I might have even liked it. There was something so very ethereal about the fog; it reminded me of the descriptions I had read in some of my favourite books.

Colin didn't seem to mind the blinding mist, for he skipped alongside me without a care in the world. He had no outer protection to speak of, but although his clothes were soaked, he wasn't affected. Water dripped from the tendrils of his wet hair, but still, Colin skipped along beside me.

"Aren't you freezing?" I asked, reflexively shivering at the sight of his wet clothes.

"Me? Nah, the weather doesn't bother me much," Colin smiled, clasping his hands behind his head.

"It might bother you if you catch a cold," I warned him, but I found myself smiling in spite of myself. For a girl who was trying to convince herself she wasn't an old woman, I sounded a lot like one.

I heard him scoff at me.

"I suppose that would be a problem if I could catch a cold, but I've never had one and I never will," he said over his shoulder confidently.

"Tell me that when we get back, and you're fighting a fever," I said under my breath. Was that me talking, or my mother?

I followed Colin through the town until we reached a bend in the road where the houses began to peter out. The road turned into a steep hill that was so abrupt, my legs burned as tried to keep pace with him. I fixed my eyes on the gravel road out of fear that I would lose my footing, so when we reached the top, instead of watching where I was going, I walked right into Colin. He quickly reached out and grabbed my arm before I could tumble back, pulling me up to my feet.

"I'm so sorry, I really should look where I'm going, but with all this fog I can't see a thing!" I grabbed my knees and tried to catch my breath. Colin tapped me on the shoulder, and as I looked up, I got a better view of where he had taken me.

There wasn't nearly as much fog up here, and I could see the sun peeking through, reflecting on the mist, turning it into bits of shimmering light. Ahead of us was a very odd shaped building the stretched from one end of the hill to the other. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed what I was seeing.

There was no question about it; this had to be where pirate Davies lived.

"Colin, is that what I think it is?" I cocked an eyebrow, staring at the unusual structure. I turned my head upside down to confirm it for myself, and I was positive this had to be the place.

"Aye, it is."

I walked from stern to bow, taking in the lacquered timber planks, aged by the sun and by years it spent out of the ocean. Stopping in front of a single door that was added to the hull, I spun around and looked Colin in the eye.

"But how did it get here?"

Colin hid a smile as he walked past me and reached for the door.

"You should ask him, he's the one who put it here in the first place."

"Who in their right mind would put a ship on top of a hill?" I asked.

Colin held the door with his foot and ushered me inside.

"Pirate Davies, of course," he winked.

Chapter Text

I can proudly boast that I am well read. Anything that helps spark my creative mind is worth my devotion to reading it, so naturally, stories became my muse. I wouldn't say that I read all manner of books, in fact, historical books gave me little pleasure. But fiction, the fantastical sort of stories that allowed me to disappear into a world so very different from my own for hours at a time, well, that was where my creativity made a home. I'd read stories of characters who lived in caves in desolate mountains, in treetops high above the ground, or on islands beneath the canopy of palm trees.

But never could I have imagined a location quite like this.

To say this place was magnificent wouldn't scratch the surface of my admiration for its structure. Whoever lived here dedicated a great deal of time modifying this ship into a home, if a home was even the right word for it, because it felt like so much more than just a place to live.

The entire interior was gutted so that all that remained was an enormously open room, not unlike a hall in a castle. My footsteps echoed on the wood plank floor, magnifying the immensity of the place. What was once the hull of the ship, now made up the walls and ceiling of this place.

Even if this ship could be righted, it would never be seaworthy again; several planks in the ceiling had been ripped away at some point in its life, possibly from normal weathering, but the open spaces had been craftily fitted with custom stain glass skylights. The effect of the sunlight cascading through the blue, red, yellow and green stained glass was rather pretty inside the old vessel.

All across the back wall, from one end of the ship to the other, were shelves upon shelves filled to the brim with books that would have put any library to shame. Three massive tables occupied the center of the hall, covered in all manner of things; books, herbs, food and the lot.

There was a single closed off area at the bow of the ship that I could only assume was the pirates private quarters, but apart from that, the ship served as a huge library.

Colin waved me farewell and closed the door behind him, leaving me alone to greet this so-called pirate Davies on my own. As I walked past the endless shelves of tomes, I couldn't help but wonder how one person could amass such a collection. As I reached for a book labelled Ingary in the 13th Century, someone stopped me.

"Can I help you?" the man asked, blocking the book from my reach. His voice had a soft tone, but it filled the room with a commanding presence.

As I looked him over, I noticed that, although he had soft features and an even warmer smile, he looked nothing like a pirate. He was slightly shorter than I and built very much like Colin. He wore a brown three-piece suit fitted with a monocle in his breast pocket, not at all the scimitars and tattered clothes I had envisioned. In fact, I found his attire somewhat dull in appearance; it lacked the bright colours that the other townsfolk displayed in their jackets and dresses. He wasn't even wearing a brooch for that matter.

Perhaps that's what Maggie meant by him being a little different?

He eyes shared the same brown hue as my own and he wore his soft mousy brown hair slicked back behind his ear, giving him a smart appearance. Certainly not a pirate. Still though, something about him felt . . . familiar.

"Are you. . . the pirate Davies?" I said slowly, blushing when I realized how idiotic I sounded.

What exactly was I expecting anyway? A peg-legged ruffian with an eye patch?

He displayed his brilliant white teeth in a grin, stifling his laughter with a polite cough.

"Is that what the locals call me nowadays?" the man mused.

"I am so sorry!" I slapped my forehead, looking everywhere but at him. "Please, just pretend I didn't ask that."

He looked up at the ceiling and smirked. "It's quite alright. I've had a few nicknames over the years, but pirate Davies is a good one. There is some irony in it."

I stuck out my hand in an attempt to fix my introduction. "I'm new around here, so I honestly didn't know what to call you. What is your name, if you don't mind me asking?"

He took my hand and shook it firmly. "It's Alexander, but I would prefer it if you call me Alex, and you are--?"

For some reason, I hesitated just as I was about to say my name. Perhaps announcing who I was wasn't the best course of action around here. . . At least that's what my conscience was telling me.

Alex's interest moved elsewhere and, kneeling down, he inspected my dress with a look of extreme fascination. He stroked his chin thoughtfully.

"I can't remember the last time I saw a tartan quite like yours. Blue isn't a colour they use in the weaving process nowadays, the dye is too expensive to import."

I stared blankly at him.

Tartan?

Alex retrieved a pencil and a knife from the table, grabbing a stool in the process. Situating himself in front of me, he cut away that the tip of the pencil until it was needle sharp and licked it with his tongue. He stuck his thumb out with one eye closed and commenced scribbling on the parchment.

"Tell me, what clan are you married into?" Alex asked as if this should be the natural flow of our conversation. Glancing at my dress and then to his sketch, he drew more, adding colour from the other pencils in the box as needed.

"What makes you think I'm married?" I laughed nervously, only because Alex had a look of complete seriousness.

"Given that your accent is clearly Ingarian and you said you were new to this area, I assumed you married into one of the clans, due to your lack of understanding of this culture," he eyed me suspiciously.

"Why w-would you assume such a thing?" I stammered.

Alex looked up from his work momentarily. "That's easily explained. An outsider, like a lady such as yourself, wouldn't be permitted to wear a clan's colours. Unless, of course, you are married to a clansman."

"But this dress was given to me by a friend," I insisted.

He raised an eyebrow and stopped sketching long enough to look up at me. "I should hope that is not the case. Wearing clan colours is a punishable offence, miss. Are you saying you're an impostor then?"

"No, I never--!" I stammered, but the smirk he gave me told me he was teasing.

"You haven't a clue what I'm on about, do you?" Alex asked.

"No," I admitted. "Tartan, clans, these brooches everyone wears," I showed him the one I was wearing, ". . . All of this was new to me as of two days ago. My friend gave this dress to me, but before he could explain everything, he became . . . er, indisposed."

Alex nodded knowingly. "Then I will explain a few things to you. A tartan is a pattern, like the one on your dress. I'm sure by now you've noticed that all of the locals wear them."

"I did, but what about the brooches?"

"They're called crests, and it denotes what clan a person belongs to."

"and what exactly is a clan?"

Alex pulled out another pencil and continued his work without looking up.

"You're from Ingary, correct?"

"Yes," although I was surprised at how quickly Alex had guessed it. Was my accent that obvious?

"So then you have a surname?" he interrupted my thoughts.

"Of course, everyone does, even the King," I stopped myself before I could do something rude like roll my eyes.

He must have detected my sarcasm because he smirked once again. "Fair enough. Instead of surnames, the people who live here in Dunbeath have clans to identify which family they come from."

I digested this information for a little bit while Alex continued to sketch, but more questions kept coming.

"I saw Maggie take her pin and turn it into some sort of key, do all the crests have that function?"

Alex pushed himself up and walked over to the table to put the box away. Rather than answer me directly, he posed a different question. "In Ingary, you buy and sell the houses that you live in, right? But here in Dunbeath, certain houses belong to specific clans. No one buys or sells houses here, and if a house goes vacant, it stays vacant until a clansman takes it over. The crests are just a complicated master key to that particular clan's home."

I clutched the brooch Howl had given me. Did this mean that Howl also had a home here in Dunbeath?

Alex flicked his wrist, and a book from one of the upper shelves shot out and flew around the room, landing neatly in the palm of his hand. He licked his thumb and leafed through the pages with a look of complete concentration.

I blinked. "You can do magic?"

"I thought that was obvious at this point," Alex mumbled without looking up from his work.

"Not to me it wasn't."

He snapped the book shut and tossed it on a pile of other rejects. Flicking his wrist again, another three other books flew off their shelves obediently.

He looked over his shoulder as he walked over to the table where the books had landed. "Considering this ship didn't end up on this hill by its self, and upside down no less, how could it not be obvious? A great deal of magic was needed for that extraction, I can tell you that much," Alex chuckled.

Pirate Davies. He may not look like a pirate, but I was beginning to appreciate the nickname. Who else was mad enough to drag a ship up a hill and turn it into their own personal library?

"But why a ship?" I asked finally, my curiosity getting the best of me.

Alex gestured to the vast shelves of books, filling every inch of available wall space as if the answer was plain to see. As I turned around in a full circle, I couldn't help but be impressed by his collection. How many years could it take a person to amass such a library? I'd never been to the royal library in Kingsbury, but I felt confident that no collection could rival this one.

"You're a librarian?" I guessed, admiring his collection.

His sour look told me I was very much wrong.

"Historian, if you please. Librarians are merely the keeper of books, but I, on the other hand, have scribed or copied nearly every book in here. You see, I used to keep my collection in several places, but things got a bit confusing when I went searching for references, so I thought to myself 'why not turn a ship into a home?' It had the right framework, I just needed to gut the interior and patch up the holes."

"What you've accomplished here is truly incredible," I agreed, circling around the room with him.

"Aye, when you have lived as long as I have, you find creative ways to solve problems."

As he flipped through the pages of a different tome, I leaned over to see what sort of book he had grabbed. Strangely, I couldn't read the writing on the spine. Alex took the drawing and held it next to one of the pages, comparing the two. He chewed on the inside of his cheek and looked over at me curiously.

"What is it?" I asked.

"What is your companion's name? The one who gave you that tartan."

I hesitated. Even though I wanted to know more about this tartan as well, I wasn't prepared to bring Howl into this.

"I can't say," I said slowly, but I felt the need to elaborate. "He's just an intensely private person, that's all."

I willed my heart to calm down. If the Witch of the Waste was after Howl, who knew how many other witches and wizards might also be looking for him. In his condition, there was no way he could defend himself if something were to happen. Although Alex seemed kind enough, it only took me being burned once to learn my lesson about trust.

Alex smiled politely, shrugging off the question at once, and went back to his books. I picked up the drawing he discarded and noticed that he had made a perfect sketch of my dress, right down to the colours and pattern of the fabric.

"What is it you want to know, exactly?" I asked.

Alex took the sketch from me and tucked it into the book. He went over my dress again, and it was at this point I was starting to lose my patience with the curious man. Sensing my irritation, Alex sat on one of the stools and gestured for me to sit with him. He interlaced his fingers and propped his elbows on the table, eyeing me intensely.

"How much do you know about me?"

I aimed for a safe joke. "Ten minutes ago, I thought you were a pirate."

"Well you have a point there," he smirked. "I said before that I am a historian and I love to catalogue anything and everything I come across. So when you walked in here, wearing such an unusual tartan, I wanted to research it. Though, I apologize if I made you uncomfortable," he added.

"Were you able to find anything about it?"

"Your tartan? No, unfortunately my memory only goes back so far, difficult to retain things these days, hence the library. It will require more digging before I figure it out. Would be a lot easier if you told me more about your companion," he suggested.

"I really can't--,"

Alex held up a hand for peace. "I know. You don't need to explain it again, you have your reasons I'm sure, though you have yet to tell me why you have come to my humble abode."

"My companion--," I started.

"--the intensely private one? Go on, I'm dying to know more about this mysterious person," Alex leaned in, propping his chin in his hand.

"He isn't well, and I was looking for a specific herb to help calm his fever. That's why I'm here, it was Maggie who sent me to you."

Alex tapped his cheek thoughtfully. "As it happens, I do have the most comprehensive library in the world, so there's an excellent chance you'll find the information you're looking for here. What was the name of that herb?" Alex pushed away from the table and turned away from me. With one movement of his hand, the books came flying off the shelves from halfway down the hall, landing and stacking themselves neatly on the table right in front of me.

"Actually," I hesitated, pushing the stack away, "I just thought of a better idea. If you can wield magic, would you be able to heal a person's wound?"

"These are a few of the books I have on herbs in Dunbeath, but that depends on whether or not what you're looking for even grows here," he explained, ignoring my last comment. He leaned over my shoulder and opened the first book to the index. "Which herb are you looking for, exactly?" he asked again.

I turned in my seat, so I could get a better look at him. "Didn't you hear what I just said? I asked if there was a chance you knew how to mend wounds using magic. If it's possible, could you teach me how to do it?"

"I heard you, but I won't do it," his voice was cold as he closed the book with a slam. Alex pointed to a spot on the shelf, and a book pulled its self out and flew into his hand. He handed it to me as he explained. "Everything you need to know about healing is in this book, from suturing to splinting, to lancing, and binding. That should cover what you need."

"--but surely with such a vast collection, you must have a book about healing with magic?"

He crossed his arms and glared at me, no longer the polite and friendly man I met a few minutes ago.

"How long have you been using magic?" he asked.

I looked down at the book in my lap to avoid his stare. "About a month," I admitted.

"So you don't have a true grasp on how magic works then," his voice softened ever so slightly. He leaned back with a sigh and rubbed his eyelids. "It seems that I have become a teacher today. How odd, I haven't been a teacher in such a very long time. Tell me, why do you think death and disease still exist in this world when we have access to magic?"

I had never put much thought into this question, but now that Alex was asking me, I hadn't a clue.

"I don't know, why?" I leaned in closer, eager to learn.

Alex unfastened his cufflink and rolled up his sleeve, revealing a tangle of scars that marred his arm from wrist to elbow. I reached out to touch it but pulled my hand back. He moved his arm closer, offering it to me. I let my fingers run along the tightened skin. It felt worn like leather but thin in other areas, so thin that I could almost see the underlying structures in his arm.

"To answer that question, it is because using magic on the human body creates disastrous results. What you see here is what the healer was able to do to help me after I attempted to use magic to heal a cut; I will spare you the details of what it looked like before the healer got to it though," his smile was tight.

"Is this what happens every time someone tries to use magic on the body?"

"More or less," he agreed. "There are worse effects though. I see you are suffering from them yourself," he nodded, gesturing to my hair.

I pulled at it self-consciously, unsure of how to answer him.

"The Witch of the Waste did that to you, didn't she?" he guessed, eyebrow cocked.

My heart started racing like she was somehow in the room with us.

"How did you know--?"

"Blood magic is her trademark," he shrugged. "It is very rare to find anyone who uses it these days, aside from her."

"I have never met a more vile person," I spat.

Alex only nodded, letting me stew. "To be fair, her practice isn't without its own set of consequences. I'm sure you've noticed how decrepit and ancient she looks, given that you've had a run in with her yourself."

"Isn't that because she's been alive for such a long time?"

He shook his head. "By those standards, I should be dust by now. No, every time she uses blood magic, it withers her body little by little. You see, it affects the victim as much as it affects the caster."

"Then why would she do such a thing if she knew it was slowly killing her?"

"The more important question is, why would anyone use blood magic? It is vile and evil and does no good to anyone, and yet, the Witch of the Waste still practices it. So why then did she curse you?" Alex pondered.

"I-- well, you see--," I tried, but each time my mouth refused to cooperate.

"Ahh, you cannot say, can you? That is another trademark of hers," he sighed. "No matter, let us move onto why you have come here, you mentioned a herb?"

The way Alex so fluidly moved from subject to subject gave me a headache. I was still digesting the fact that my curse wasn't truly broken yet, but he shrugged it off like old news. Oblivious to my current state of panic, Alex flipped through the pages of a book labelled medicinal herbalism and tapped his finger on the page.

"There are a few herbs listed in here that mitigate fevers, which one are you looking for exactly?"

Taking a deep breath to quash my nervous energy, I looked over at the list. I found feverfew and pointed to it.

"It's this one," I said.

"Hmm," he rubbed his cheek, "It would appear that this particular herb doesn't thrive here in Dunbeath. Not to worry though, I have an idea, come with me," he ordered, hopping out of his chair.

Making an about turn, he set off to the opposite end of the hall and grabbed a potted plant off the table. He thrust the clay pot into my hands, wordlessly asking me to hold it. Without warning, he yanked the plant out of the pot and tossed it on the floor in a shower of damp soil. Dusting off his hands, he pressed one palm flat on the remaining soil and closed his eyes, concentrating on the pot. I could scarcely believe my own eyes, but as I watched him lift his hand, a cluster of tiny white flowers pulled themselves out of the earth.

I had watched Howl levitate dishes, light candles, and move water, all of which I knew was magic, but for some reason, this felt like something so much more.

I gasped, delighted by the new growths in the pot.

Alex's serious demeanor cracked as he saw me smiling at the little plant. "Take that with you and as you cut what you need, more will grow back," Alex said, pulling a handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe his hands.

"This is incredible!" I smiled, hugging the flower pot close.

"If you think this sort of trick is incredible, you haven't witnessed true magic. This is a gimmick compared to the kind of magic I am accustomed to," Alex murmured.

"Even if you call it a gimmick, this small bit of magic will help my friend. Thank you," I turned to leave with my newly acquired plant, but Alex grabbed me by the shoulder.

"Before you go running off, there is still a matter of your payment," he cleared his throat.

"Oh, I hadn't realized there was one, err how much is it?" I shifted the plant to one arm so I could fish out the small purse of money in my pocket.

"No need for money," Alex stopped my hand, pointing instead to the brooch I was wearing. "I prefer knowledge over material goods. Would you be willing to lend me your brooch? I will return it to you when I am finished, promise."

I clasped the little metal pin in one hand, wavering in my decision to give it to him or not.

"Why do you need it?"

"Simply for research, it's about the only thing I do nowadays," he admitted, leaning in, "but I promise my intentions are good, anything to help me complete my research on clans in Dunbeath is worth more than a few silver."

Instinct told me not to, but I knew if I couldn't bring Howl's fever down, it wouldn't matter who I gave the brooch to. Instead, I tried to consider what Howl might do in this situation. Alex seemed genuine enough, and more than willing to help me, so what harm could lending him a pin do?

"If you allow me to borrow that book over there, the one about healing, as well as this plant, then we have a deal," I said before I could change my mind.

"Done," he smiled, holding his hand out. The book flew across the room and hovered in the air next to me as I gave him the brooch and grabbed it in return.

"Just one more thing," I stopped Alex before he could return to his books.

"Yes?" Alex watched me curiously.

"How do you know so much about the Witch of the Waste. . . about her curses I mean?"

There was a glint of anger in his expression when he replied.

"A long time ago before she was given the infamous title of the Witch of the Waste. . ."

"Yes?" I leaned in eagerly.

". . . she was my apprentice."

Chapter Text

The book I borrowed from Alex proved to be a treasure trove of information. Through it, I was able to compare the suturing method used in the book to the stitching I had performed on Howls arm. Of course, my stitching wasn't nearly as nice as the pictures in the book, and the more I looked at his arm, the more I saw the flaws in it, but that being said, I was happy to know I had the foundations of a good healer.

That certainly didn't mean I wanted to sew anyone up anytime soon. No, once was more than enough for this lady.

The book helped me understand suturing and it outlined a few markers to pay attention to; redness, swelling and discharge from the wound was bad, but warm pink and dry was good.

As I flipped through the pages, I kept a careful watch over Howls condition. To my relief, it looked like my hard work had paid off. Messy stitching aside, I couldn't see any swelling or discharge, but that didn't mean we were out of the woods just yet. I touched Howls forehead which still felt dreadfully warm. I couldn't wake him up to give him the remedy so all I could do was wait. And that got me to thinking about my other problem.

Alexander Davies. Who was he exactly?

My initial impression was that he was a curious and intelligent man who found joy in finding new information and who reveled in the art of conversation. Try as I might, I liked the man, but I just couldn't understand how such an intelligent person could have that Witch for a student.

***

At one point during the afternoon, Maggie came to check on us. With all of her motherly concern, Maggie had me striped of my clothes in an instant so that she could wash them. It all happened so quickly that I thanked the Lord that Howl was asleep. The thought of him seeing me in a shift and nothing else, mortified me.

To replace the clothes she pilfered, Maggie gave me one of her spare muslin nightgowns. It was thoughtful, but the issue was-- well-- it just wasn't wearable. The fabric was soft, but if I held it up to the light, I could see straight through it. To remedy it, I snatched one of the robes off of the door and double knotted the sash before anyone could see me.

Immune to my struggle for modesty, Maggie left a muslin shirt for Howl and instructed me to change out his clothes so she could wash them. Howl was no a small man and when I asked if she would help, she insisted that the only person she was inclined to disrobe was her husband, and left me alone to ponder my current predicament.

Most of Howl's shirt was removed from when I had fixed his arm earlier, so all it took was a few tugs to get his other arm out. Getting the spare shirt on him, on the other hand, proved to be no easy task.

Anytime I had seen Howl, he wore a suit, so I never noticed how broad his shoulders were, or realized how tall he was, until I was this close to him. At last, when I finally wrestled the shirt on him, I discovered that it fit a bit too tight across his chest. Because of this, I opted not to button it up all the way and tucked half of the shirt under his injured arm.

As I fastened the remaining buttons, my eyes caught a glimpse of something unusual on Howl's skin, and when I pulled the shirt down, I found a rather large scar that marked his chest. I covered it soon after, reminding myself that I had more important things to tend to, like his fever which still hadn't abated.

I covered his forehead with my hand and felt the warmth radiating from his damp skin. If I didn't bring down his fever soon, all of my hard work would be for naught.

I clipped away a few of the little white buds from the feverfew plant and dropped them in the kettle by the hearth, taking care not to burn my hands on the cast iron. Using the metal poker, I pushed the kettle back on the flames and waited.

Howl mumbled something quietly and turned unconsciously on his injured arm. Without warning, his eyes flew open, and he sat bolt upright.

Forgetting the kettle, I rushed over and stopped Howl before he could move his arm too aggressively. Ignoring his protests, I pulled gently on the bandage to get a better look at the stitches. I squeezed his fingers to see if the circulation was still okay and once I was happy with that, I moved on to check his forehead.

"What?" My hand stopped short when I found Howl staring at me.

"How long was I out for?"

"A few hours?" I glanced over my shoulder and looked out of the now very dark window. "Well, the sun is down so I guess I would say a little longer than that." I shifted on the bed so I could get a better look at his arm, but he continued to watch me quietly with a ghost of a smile playing on his lips.

"There's something different about you," he observed.

"It's the hair, isn't it?" I quipped, reaching around his shoulders to give the sling a little tug.

He broke out into a grin that had me smiling in spite of myself.

"Listen," he cleared his throat, "I wanted to ask you something--,"

The kettle whistled, drowning him out before he could finish.

I hadn't realized how close we had gotten until I stood up to check the kettle, but I was grateful for the chance to put some distance between us.

Pouring the tea into a mug, I added a scoop of honey and returned to Howl's side, fixing my attention on the cup rather than on him. I mixed the lump of crystalized honey until the spoon came out clean and offered it to Howl, but he pushed it away.

"Before that awful whistle blew and interrupted me, I was going to ask how you were doing," Howl said.

I rolled the mug in my hands, searching for something to say. "H-how am I?" I laughed sardonically. "That's the first thing you ask me after all that you just went through? I should be asking you the same question. Why didn't you tell me about your arm earlier?"

"You're right, I should have told you," he agreed instantly.

I let out a sigh and looked up at the ceiling. "Then why didn't you tell me?"

Howl took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, avoiding eye contact.

"I didn't tell you because you didn't need to know."

"I didn't need to know? If Maggie and I hadn't found you and taken care of it, who knows how bad this would have gotten. I think I have a right to know about what happened!"

Howl refused to budge. "I can't talk about it."

No matter how hard I tried, he wouldn't look at me or say anything on the subject. His guard was up, and he kept playing with his glasses in a weak attempt at avoiding me. The nervousness of his behaviour set me on edge.

The Howl I knew was confident and self-assured; a man who knew what he wanted and went for it. But as I sat there, watching him fidget with his glasses like a lost child, I felt like I was in a room with an entirely different person.

"I'm only asking because I care about you, you know that, right? You passed out in my arms Howl, and It frightened me."

With a deep breath, Howl gripped his glasses and looked up at me.

"Why did you stay this time?"

"That seems like an obvious question. You were injured and there was no way I was leaving you here alone like this,"

"But before that. . . Why did you decide to come to me for help? You were so adamant that you wanted nothing to do with me the last time we spoke. I thought for sure I'd never see you again, but here you've been, right under my nose this whole time."

The memory of how I believed the rumours so completely about him made me feel guilty.

"I trust you," I said honestly. Maybe I didn't know it at the time, but I suppose I trusted him even at the very beginning. "It was Markel who brought me to your home at first but after that, I felt like I knew you would help me with--," I gestured to myself, hoping he would fill in the rest.

"Your curse? Regardless of who you were, I would never let anyone suffer like that. It angers me that there are people left in this world who would use magic in such a terrible way. Who did this to you?" His fist clenched in the sling.

I desperately wanted to avoid this topic. "It doesn't matter now."

"Doesn't it, though? That's a nasty curse for anyone to cast Sophie, aren't you upset? I would think you'd be a bit more mad about it, considering what you've suffered."

Upset wasn't the right word to describe how I felt but I didn't want to get into it now. "What happened to me isn't even close to the top of my priority list right now. Let's just focus on getting you better, okay?"

Howl looked confused. "Why are you avoiding this? Is there something else I should know?"

"No of course not!"

"You're sure?" he cast me a wary glance.

"completely," I agreed.

His expression softened. "If you know who did this to you, please don't hide it. You might think it was a prank, but anyone who is willing to cast a curse on another person is dangerous. I care about you Sophie, and I don't want to see you get hurt."

I nodded and quietly set the mug down. I reached over and checked the sling, making sure the knot was secure, positioning myself so he couldn't see my face. But I knew he was still looking.

"How does it feel?" I asked, tugging on the muslin until his arm looked level.

"It's sore, but thanks to your efforts, I think may yet live," he teased.

"I hope so, I'm not using to stitching on a living canvas. I know it's far from perfect and the book I've been reading says so, but I wanted to make sure I stopped the bleeding you see and I--,"

Howl closed my lips with his, effectively silencing me. With his pain temporarily forgotten, he freed his arm from the sling and pulled me in, caressing my cheeks with his rough hands. Something warm began to build deep in my chest and I found myself leaving my chair to get closer to him. His lips were soft and his arms moved slowly down to my waist, pulling me onto his lap. I felt his teeth nibble my lip and I lost all sense of reason.

Howl had me so completely twisted up in his arms that I didn't see the door open until it was too late. Without warning, Maggie bustled in with a tray laden with food, utterly oblivious of our presence. I pushed away from Howl so quickly that I lost my balance and tumbled off the bed.

"OH goodness!" Maggie clapped a hand over her mouth. "I thought ye might be needin' a bit o' food, but I can see that I was mistaken! I'll--err, leave the tray just outside," she squealed, shutting the door quickly.

I dusted my housecoat and glanced up at Howl only to find him looking very thoughtful.

Sitting back on the stool, I reached for the forgotten mug and added a scoop of honey. Oh dear, I'd already done that, hadn't I? What if it was too sweet now? Should I try and pour it out and get him a new mug? Where would I even pour it if I could?

I hadn't noticed how aggressively I was stirring it until I felt Howl's hand cover mine.

"I think it's mixed well enough, don't you?" he chuckled softly.

I tamped down my frazzled nerves and tried to breathe normally. "I just wanted to make sure the honey hadn't settled on the bottom, but then I went and added another scoop. I made this for your fever but I when I tasted it, I thought it was too bitter and I was worried you wouldn't drink it so I asked Maggie if I could use some of her honey and well--,"

Howl took the mug and finished it in one go. He set it down and licked his lip approvingly. "I happen to love honey. Now, where were we?" Howl's lips curved into a secretive smile.

He slipped his arm around my waist, guiding my body back to him with a gentle hand on the small of my back. Reluctantly, I pressed my hands against his chest and pushed away.

His eyes flew open in surprise. Releasing me, he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "If I somehow misread the situation. . . please understand that wasn't my intention."

"It's nothing like that," I promised, staying close to him. "I just have never done anything like this before."

"What, kissing someone or falling off a bed?" Howl winked mischievously.

"You know what I meant," I admonished him. "At any rate, you'll wreck all of my hard work by moving your arm like that," I nodded, noting that he'd taken his arm right out of the sling.

"Fair enough," he dropped his arm obediently, allowing me to fix his brace.

With his shirt unbuttoned, I could still see hints of the mark I'd found earlier. As I fastened a few of the buttons, my hands stopped over the thick scar resting just above his heart. He closed his eyes, letting me touch the long jagged line that marred his chest, but a question hung in the air.

"Will you tell me about this one?"

After a long silent pause, he ran his fingers through his hair and patted the bed beside him. Obediently, I crawled on top of the sheets and settled in next to him, grabbing a pillow to hold.

"A long time ago, long before I had a castle and the reputation to go with it, I had a very different life. Like you, I had a loving family that I lived with, here in Dunbeath. We weren't extravagantly wealthy, but thanks to my magical ability, we were able to make ends meet.

People began to notice how gifted I was, and soon word spread about a boy prodigy," he said the last word with a grimace, "and that's how I met her."

"Who?" I inched closer to him.

"Solana Sulliman, of course. When I received the summons that I was to sail to Ingary to meet the fabled First Enchantress, I was speechless. Solana was a household name, even here in Dunbeath; she was the First Enchantress after all and I had a personal invitation to meet with her."

"That must have been a dream come true."

He nodded, tracing circles on my shoulder absently. "Yes it was, but you have to understand, to have Solana as a teacher was an incredible honour, but to have her request you to become her apprentice, well, that was next to impossible.

There were some who said that Solana had enough power to overthrow the King, but it was her respect for the crown kept her from mutiny. The entire country adored Solana so it seemed appropriate to give her a position that would make the people happy, so it was that she was given full command of the King's military."

"That doesn't seem right, how does a person gain so much power?" I asked, peering up at him.

Howl rubbed his chin. "She made an irresistible deal with the King, that's how. She promised she could win any fight brought by a foreign land and do so without ever losing an Ingarian soldier. In return, she wanted a position of power and the ability to conduct her own research regarding magic."

"But how could she keep a promise like that? There's always death with war."

"You aren't much of a historian, are you?" Howl chuckled.

"Not really," I admitted. "I prefer stories with happy endings. History isn't generally written that way."

"Well, if you read the Ingarian history books, you'd know that Solana was true to her word. Not a single Ingarian soldier was ever killed in combat. She won wars before they even started.

The King kept his part of the bargain and happily gave Solana free reign to do as she pleased. She took on many apprentices, all of them lining up eagerly to learn her methods, but it was I she chose to take on.

For many years, she taught me things about magic I would never have thought possible. Yes, I confess I had a great admiration for Solana. I was her apprentice during a time of peace. I never knew how she used her magic to stop wars.

But one day, that all changed; rumours spread throughout Ingary that the Western Isles wanted to declare war on Ingary."

"The battle of the Western Ocean."

Howl raised an eyebrow. "So you do know a little about history."

"Erm--sort of. Markel and I were in Kingsbury when they announced the ball to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the battle. I remember bits about it from school and Markel filled me in on the rest."

Howl's jaw tightened. "So that means you know about Solana, then?"

I reached for Howls hand and squeezed it gently. "If it hurts to talk about her, you don't have to tell me."

Howl shook his head. "No, it's alright, it happened such a long time ago. I lost a great deal that day, and in my anger, I did something foolish that I now regret. Since then, I've been trying to fix the mistake I made."

I propped myself up on my elbow and reached out hesitantly, tracing the line on his chest. "So that's where the scar comes from?"

His hand encircled mine, holding it close his heart. "It's a painful reminder of what happened that day."

I hated seeing him like this, and for a moment, I wondered what would it take to make him happy. I felt like I would do anything to see him smile more.

"What's with that look?" Howl cocked his head.

"I was just. . . thinking I need to recheck your bandages."

He tested his arm and gave me a thumbs up. "I'm happy to report that I'm still in one piece. Do you want to check?"

"How do you know that for sure? Your forehead is so hot you could fry an egg on it! For all you know, this entire day was all a dream fueled by that terrible fever of yours," I teased, reaching across his chest. I pulled at the dressing so I could get a better look and felt his hand slip around my waist.

"If what you're saying is true," he dipped down, so our lips were almost touching, "then I'd rather not wake up."

Howl's fingers moved expertly through my hair, pulling me into a soft kiss that had me wishing for the very same thing.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, when I'm feeling especially curious, I sit awake a night contemplating at what point I might fall asleep. It's the silliest thing, determining the exact moment a person slips from consciousness, but I find it oddly cathartic. And falling asleep in Howl's arms. . . Well, that was an entirely better experience.

Being in his arms afforded me comfort that I hadn't felt in a long time. Slowly, the familiar calm washed over me, relaxing each part of my body until my eyes began to feel like lead weights and surrounded by Howl's warmth, I felt secure enough to let myself drift into oblivion.

***
Searing hot pain bloomed from my chest jerking me from sleep. I doubled over from the intensity of it, gasping for air as another round of white-hot pain coursed through my body. I clutched my drenched nightshirt and grit my teeth, willing the barrage of pain to stop. As if I had willed it to do just that, the intense waves dissipated.

I forced my eyes open, wondering if I had woken Howl with my fit but the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest told me he was still very much asleep.

I combed my wet bangs away from my eyes, wiping away the cold sweat from my brow. What just happened? Was I dreaming just now? My legs swung out and down, touching the cool planks of oak which helped me get my bearings. Padding quietly over to the basin, I felt an ache settle into my breastbone where the pain had once been.

Leaning over the ceramic bowl, I took a moment to examine my reflection. My hair was wild and knotted and sweat trickled down the back of my neck. Cupping the water with a free hand, I splashed it over my face, my neck, my arms, cleansing the stress from my fevered skin.

Slowly, the pain I had felt moments ago subsided. I splashed water up my arms and over my face again, watching the water drip from my nose back into the basin.

As I took a deep cleansing breath in, I reached for a towel and my arm froze. The overwhelming fumes of a freshly lit cigarette invaded my nostrils and I broke out in a cold sweat. I had enough courage to turn my head and view the intruder before my nerves got the best of me.

From her perch on the stool by Howl's head, the golden embers from her cigarette illuminated her bony features. The moon cast an offensive light on the witch of the waste, giving her a severely gaunt appearance. Her sunken cheeks and angular jaw only served to make her look more skeletal than human.

My hands gripped the basin.

She threw back her head and guffawed. "You don't really plan to hit me with that, do you? I thought you learned your lesson the last time, you know when I turned you into an old bat?" The tip of the cigarette glowed in the darkness. "Or would you prefer I did something to him instead?" Licking her finger, she smoothed over a stray hair that had escaped from her severe bun. Twisting in her seat, she clutched Howls cheeks in her talons and turned him from side to side, examining him like an object. Releasing him, she slid her fingers down his shirt, loosening the buttons one by one.

My nails dug into my palms; I needed to do something quick.

"You can't do this," I stepped forward, giving her the full effect of my anger.

The Witch's laugh was short and curt. "Spare me your declarations, Sophie. If you had the power to stop me, you would have done so by now."

I reacted instantly, running headlong into the Witch. Damn the consequences, I wasn't going to stand by and watch her hurt him, but by knocking her off the stool, I momentarily let my guard down. Before I could get up, the Witch had me by the throat, lifting me with ease.

I gasped desperately for air, clawing her hand helplessly, but the Witch held me firmly in her grip. Drawing her face up close, so close that I could no longer avoid the putrid fumes of her breath, she challenged me with a withering look. Releasing me, she flicked her finger and hoisted me into the air like a rag doll.

With one last smirk in my direction, daring me to try and stop her, she turned her attention back to Howl. Her spider-like fingers slipped between the buttons of Howl's shirt, unfastening each one with ease. I tried everything I could to wrench free from her invisible grasp, but all I could do was watch on helplessly. The witch was going to take Howls heart.

"HOWL please wake up!" I choked out. The Witch cut the sound from my voice with a flick of her wrist. I tried over and over to make the words come out, but nothing worked.

Worse than that, I realized that nothing that had happened thus far had roused him. Howl slept on, oblivious to the events happening around him. Why was he still asleep?

As if to answer my silent question, the Witch slapped his cheek. When that did not rouse him, she snapped her fingers by his ear to drive the point home. He wasn't waking up because she made sure he wouldn't. Reaching for the clay pot on the bedside table, she gave it a sniff. "Doubtful he'll be anytime soon my dear. I put enough sleeping draught in this honey to knock out a horse." She set it down with a thump, chuckling to her self. The Witch snapped her fingers and the invisible hold on my voice let go.

"But how? I got that honey from Maggie just this afternoon. How could you possibly have known we would use that--,"

She shrugged. "I didn't, I just put the draught in everything. Odds were in my favour that you'd eat something at the inn, almost everyone has. You'll find that no one will hear you tonight, no matter how loudly you call for help."

I felt the panic set in. No one was going to stop her from getting what she wanted this time. Not me. Not Howl. "Please don't hurt him," I begged.

The Witch whipped her head around, her expression a mixture of frustration and anger.

"NO. You don't get to call the shots here Sophie," she seethed. "I gave you more than enough time to do as I asked, but what did you do? You squandered it-- no worse than that, you completely disregarded my commands. What, was the curse not enough of a warning for you? You thought that my threat wasn't serious?" The Witches face twisted in anger as she directed her anger at Howl. Pulling a long thin dagger from her sleeve, she sliced the remaining buttons from Howl's shirt. "I don't care if you beg like a petulant child, I will have what is mine."

Leaning back on her heels, the Witch removed a stone from her pocket. It's faint pinkish glow pulsated in her palm.

A heartstone.

I balked. "Where did you get that?"

The witch rolled the smooth stone between her gnarled hands, tossing me a wink.

"As luck would have it, right in this very room. Can you imagine? I've been searching decades for one of these little beauties, but somehow I found one right in this very room. How very fortunate for me."

My stomach dropped. "Why? What are you going to do with it?"

"Don't pretend to be ignorant," she hissed. "Howl should have told you how these work. You know what happens next."

I squeezed my eyes shut, blinking away the unshed tears that threatened to take a hold of me. Howl had told me a little about the heartstones; I knew that they could be used to harness energy, but I also knew that in the wrong hands, they could become a dangerous weapon.

When I finally found my voice, it cracked.

"You're going to take his heart now, aren't you?"

"Only because you refused to do it yourself, my dear Sophie," replied, taking one last drag of her cigarette. I watched on helplessly as she held the stone above him, uttering an incantation that couldn't understand. I expected a bright flash of light, or a loud sound, or something that would indicate that she'd completed her ritual, but nothing happened. The Witch paused momentarily to expose Howl's chest and cursed angrily. Tracing her fingers along the silvery scar that lined Howl's chest, she spun around and stroked her chin.

"I should have known he would go and do something like this. Must have hidden it," she folded her arms, speaking to herself. Midway through her pacing, she turned her head and glared at me. "Where is it?" she growled.

"I-I don't know," I shook my head vehemently. It's true, I didn't know where it was, I didn't even know it was missing in the first place.

The Witch must have come to the same conclusion I had because she gave no rebuttal. Instead, she continued pacing the length of the room, ignoring my general existence.

"He confides in you, that much is true," she rambled.

"I-I don't know about that..," I tried to brush it off.

"He brought you here, that's proof enough," she said dismissively. The Witch examined the heartstone glowing faintly in her hand and nodded, pocketing the precious gem in her coat with a gentle pat. "At least this wasn't a complete waste of my time," she smiled sweetly. Snatching the bottle of honey in one hand, the Witch wrenched the lid off, tossing it to the side. With a bony finger, she jammed it into the mix and stirred. Pulling her finger out of the sticky mixture, she tossed the jar and, with her now free hand, forced my cheeks open with a painful squeeze. I was powerless to resist, immobilized by her magic, as she smeared the honey onto my tongue.

"You can continue you're little--," she waves her filthy finger in the air, searching for a word, "--well whatever it is you're doing with Howl. I'm done with you," she said simply.

The Witch released me and I fell forward, cracking my knees off the hardwood floors. The honey stuck to my tongue like glue and I felt the powerful draught, undiluted by tea, pull me under.

"you're heartless," I bit out, fighting the pull of sleep.

Her feet stopped within inches of my face. Crouching down, the Witch tucked a stray hair behind my ear and laughed. I found it queer that such a vile woman could have such a childish laugh.

The last thing I remember before my eyes closed shut were her words.

"Not anymore, Sophie. Not anymore."

Chapter Text

Howl had already left by the time I awoke the next morning, but it was strange that he left no note to indicate where he was going or when he planned to return. After the previous night's events, I was concerned that the Witch might somehow be involved. I knew it wouldn't help my situation to worry but never the less I spent the better half of the morning pacing the room, going over the events of last night.

I could have fooled myself into believing that it was just a dream, but as I stared at my reflection while I removed my nightgown, the raw red scar that traced above my breast was a glaring reminder of what she did to me.

The Witch had stolen my heart.

Howl and I had been careless and we let our guard down. We never should have taken that heartstone out of the cave. We made it too easy for the Witch. I didn't know what upset me worse; that the Witch was able to sneak in under our noses or that I let myself believe she'd never come for me. It was foolish of me to think that I could have been happy after that kiss.

No. It wasn't meant to be, the Witch made sure of that.

The door flew open and I had little time to cover myself before the industrious innkeeper Maggie burst through with a dress in her arms. She was too busy fluffing out the dress on my bed to notice the angry tears I brushed away, or that my voice cracked when I greeted her.

Instead, Maggie cheerfully helped me out of my nightgown and into the dress she insisted I take. She reasoned that my blue dress, or rather the dress Howl gave me, was still too damp to be worn.

Maggie fussed about how damp clothes caused dreadfully fatal fevers as she fastened the strings in the back of the bodice, smoothing out the ruffles as she carried on about the weather outside, too busy to notice me until I was hugging her tightly around the middle.

I whispered thank you because they were the only words I could safely say without completely breaking down in front of her and by the time I was able to let go, she gave me a bright smile and hurried me out of the room with promises of a warm breakfast.

***

"Howl? Can't say that I've seen him since earlier this mornin'. He was quick to be off so he dinna stay for breakfast, which is sayin' something--," Maggie leaned across the bar, knocking a plate sideways with her chest, "plenty o' men line up for miles to get some of Maggie McGregor's home cooking, ye keen?"

I offered a weak smile, but her remarks did little to ease my nerves. I had to find Howl and figure out my next move and so sitting here, waiting for food that I had no appetite for, set me on edge.

Howl needed to know about what happened last night. I hadn't the first clue what the Witch had planned for me, but I knew we were both in danger.

"Is everything alright, lass?" Maggie asked, stopping midway through pouring a cup of tea.

I took the cup she offered, passing it between my chilled hands.

"Did Howl seem off at all this morning?"

"Off? How'd ye mean?" she reached for a jar of honey, scooping out a glob for my cup. I all but threw it across my room in my haste to stop her before the spoon reached my drink.

This earned me a tremendous eyebrow cock from the innkeeper. I tried to smooth things over by keeping the conversation going.

"Well I thought maybe he might seem, you know. . ." I waved my hand aimlessly in the air as if the word might magically appear.

Maggie considered it seriously for a moment before shaking her head.

"If'n ye worried about his arm, he seemed well enough this mornin'."

I rubbed below my collarbone where my shawl covered the angry new scar on my chest and considered my next question carefully.

"What about me? Do I seem . . . different to you?" Was I different now that the Witch had my heart? Would Howl notice?

Maggie fixed me with a confused look, waiting to see if I would explain. I had the decency to blush under her intense stare, embarrassed that I'd even asked such a silly question but a slow smile spread across her face. She leaned in closer, pushing my tea cup out of the way.

"Oh lass, do ye mean to tell me that last night was your first night together?"

I wasn't comprehending her meaning. . . or rather, I didn't want to understand where this woman's strange little mind was wandering at that moment.

"Yes. . ?" I answered slowly, gauging her reaction. Maggie lit up like a candle and, before I could get out of her reach, she clutched my hands and squeezed them until I was sure they had turned an angry shade of blue.

Her boisterous laughter drew the attention of onlookers. "Well of course ye'd feel different eh? You're a woman now! Oh but fear not lass, I won't be tellin' no one about it, your secret is safe with me!"

"Excuse me?" I jerked my hands out of her grip. "I think you mistake my meaning, Howl and I haven't . . . I mean it's not like that," I grabbed the nearest glass of water before I could make an idiot out of myself. I thanked the stars above that Howl wasn't present for this conversation.

But Maggie wasn't to be so easily placated. She tried every angle she could think of in an attempt to coax a story out of me but in the end I couldn't supply her with any real information to continue her interrogation. I could tell that Maggie loved idle gossip, for she was more than willing to share other peoples stories, but I just couldn't share my own.

After a little persuading, Maggie was able to give me a general idea of where Howl was going and roughly about what time he left had the inn. She equipped me with a small parcel of food and a gourd that tucked nicely into the pockets of my dress. I was offered the services of Colin if I needed him, but I reasoned that the day was too beautiful to waste guiding me around town. Well that and I wanted to see the Highlands on my own.

Maybe if I had enough space to think, I could figure a way out of this mess.

I was told that Howl was seen travelling eastbound which led Maggie to believe he might be headed to old Port Haven. The way her face screwed up when she mentioned the town told me she didn't like the area. When I pressed her about it, she couldn't. . . or wouldn't answer me. Cursed, that was the only word she used to describe it before launching into a lecture about staying far away from the place. I assured her that I would only travel so far as to find Howl but no further. I knew better than to mess with curses.

With a promise to return quickly, I left Maggie and the Inn behind, in search of Howl. I was thankful for the change in weather; with the sun providing a warmth that I desperately needed and the blue skies washing away the thick fog that had blanketed the town for too long, exposing all the little details of Port Haven I had missed on my route yesterday.

Alex's home sat prominently on the hill overlooking the town and it made me laugh to think I ever could have missed it before. From his vantage point, he would have the lay of the land. It made me appreciate his choice of location even more.

Port Haven. . . or rather new Port Haven I supposed, thanks to Maggie's admission, was a truly breathtaking little town. The cobblestone streets that paved the way through the center of Port Haven had been worn to a brilliant polish that, when my heels struck it, made a sharp click. It was almost as though the houses were tethered to this wide open road for most of the houses connected to it one way or another.

As I followed the main avenue through town, it opened up abruptly into a giant circle of cobblestones that I assumed was the town square. People bustled about, carrying on with their daily schedules and every so often, a glance came my way. I smiled politely, sometimes even curtsying, albeit awkwardly, but hurried along before anyone could stop to ask me questions. Howl never really explained why they disliked foreigners so much and I was not keen to find out.

Maggie assured me that if I followed the main road into town, it would eventually take me east through the farmers lands where they herded sheep. She explained that at one point, the farmers had orchards further east but the land was no longer suitable for crops. Cursed was the only word she used. It seemed that it was her only way to explain things she'd rather not talk about.

As the cobblestone transitioned into an uneven gravel path with fewer houses and more open land, I delighted in the quietness of my surroundings. In a strange way, it reminded me of the lake I loved to visit, where the leaves rustled together harmoniously inviting peace, only now it was the sound of a gentle breeze weaving its way through the tendrils of grass, like a wave in a sea of green.

The further I walked away from town and into the fields, the closer I came to the edge of open land where a wall of trees blocked my passage. Having not found Howl thus far, I ventured forward into the mossy green tangle of trees.

The trees grew up and up into the sky so high that I thought they might touch the stars. I would never know, because their branches obscured my view of the sky and instead, filtered the light through the moss laden branches with shades of green and gold. Dry russet needles blanketing the earth below, crunching under my feet as I ventured forth. I wondered at the age of the forest, given that some tree trunks were so large that I don't think ten men could wrap their arms around them completely. Yet for all the warnings Maggie gave me, this place felt more enchanting than it did cursed.

The road, although partially covered in pine needles, continued to wind through the forest, so I stayed the course, reasoning that it would be easier to find my way back when I finally decided to turn around. I wasn't in a rush. I needed this time to think and the quiet calm that the woods provided helped a great deal.

I walked through the forest for what seemed like an hour without a hint of a break in the trees, but after navigating through a particularly dense part, where the branches hung low and heavy with moss to bar my path, I was able to finally see a clearing. Brushing away the spidery bits of moss that clung to my dress, I stepped out into the sunlight and the open valley that lay before me. There was something about it that felt familiar, like an old memory returning to me.

I used to visit the apple orchard just on the outskirts of Market Chipping frequently as a child, so I knew the layout well. There were rows upon rows of short little trees and ladders propped against the trunks with baskets at the base, ready for picking.

Our particular orchard was another tourist attraction that had taken over our local economy and the farmer that owned it reaped the benefits of a wealthy crowd obsessed with small town life. The farmer called it a u-pick and charged twice as much to have the tourists pick their own apples. My father used to call it killing two birds with one stone.

Lettie had convinced me to go once, and although the orchard was inviting and apples sweet, I still couldn't grasp the idea of paying so much more for fruit and hard labor. But that was the whole point, Lettie had told me, people didn't pay the price for the apples, they paid for the experience, so I supposed it made sense. It was nice to spend an afternoon walking among the rows of apple trees, ripe with fruit and ready for the picking, I just refused to pay is all.

So it alarmed me that as I looked out to the grove before me, I saw no neat rows of trees, no lush green leaves and flowering buds. Perhaps at one point it would have been an immense orchard, but what I saw now paled in comparison of what it might have been.

What remained of this so-called grove were a few very dead, very dried up fruit trees that dotted the landscape in a haphazard manner. Where the trees no longer stood were, instead, neatly placed stones, like markers on the landscape. As I followed the tidy rows of stones, I found a lone figure standing in the distance.

Howl.

I stepped forward, eagerly waving my arms so that he might see me. A strange sensation, like an invisible blanket covering me in its weight, washed over my body and my arms began to feel too heavy to hold up. Alarmed, I spun around and found . . .

"Alex?!" I gasped, stumbling to a halt before I could crash into him.

In his three-piece brown suit, it was hard to mistake him. He walked past me, ignoring my earlier reaction. Wordlessly, I followed him until we were standing shoulder to shoulder. Without looking at me, he answered.

"You didn't tell me the Howl Pendragon was your companion," he remarked quietly.

"It wasn't relevant at the time," I rebutted.

Alex paused, giving me a sidelong stare.

"Perhaps, but it certainly explains why misfortune likes to follow you, Sophie Hatter,"

"How do you know my name?"

Rather than answer me, Alex offered his arm so that we might walk together. He looked at the ground pensively before answering me. "I know a great deal about a lot of things, miss Hatter."

"That still doesn't answer my question."

Alex stopped and knit his brows together. "You've had another encounter with the Witch of the Waste, haven't you?"

I felt a sharp jab in my stomach. How stupid could I have been? Alex was her teacher. He knew who I was and where I was staying last night. I released his arm quickly, reeling from the possibility.

"Are you the reason she showed up last night?"

He looked hurt by my accusation, but was it so unreasonable for me to believe that he was still in contact with that evil woman?

Alex took a step forward, but I followed with a step back. He jammed his hands in his pockets, searching for the right words. "I had no idea she was in town. Believe me, I would have stopped her if I had known."

I felt a knot stick in my throat. Shaking my head, I backed away, edging my way closer to Howl.

"Well, what does it matter right?" I laughed humorlessly, removing the scarf to display the angry red scar that she had made, "she took it, she took it away from me, my . . ." I couldn't get the words out, so instead, I held my sides before the tears could come.

A pair of perfectly polished shoes stopped in front of me and Alex pulled the scarf out of my hands. As I looked up, he wrapped the fabric carefully around my shoulders, draping it over the scar once again. He paused, letting his arms drop to his sides.

"I know," he said quietly, "I can't express how sorry I am that that happened to you, Sophie."

"She's never going to stop," I whispered.

"No, I know her too well. She's not going to stop until she gets what she wants."

"Howl's. . ." I couldn't bring myself to say it. Not here, not when Howl was so close by.

Alex looked over my head at Howl, who hadn't noticed our presence yet.

"That's why I'm here," he said solemnly.

I folded my arms. "Do you have some sort of plan in mind?"

"If by a plan you mean to leave, then yes, that is the plan. Sophie, I'm asking you to walk away."

I stared at him blankly.

"Why would I do that?"

"because you care about Howl. The Witch will continue to use you until she gets what she wants, but she can't do that if you stay away."

I threw my hands in the air and laughed. What a joke! What else could the Witch of the Waste possibly do to me that she hasn't done already? She took my youth and my heart. She took everything from me.

Ignoring Alex's warning, I set off towards Howl. His back faced me and as I approached, I saw that he was staring at a pair of stones. Howl didn't turn to acknowledge me, so I spoke instead.

"Howl, we need to talk," I said hesitantly, holding my breath to calm myself. I thought he might turn around, or say something, but Howl was silent. I watched him place a hand in his pocket and lean to one side, but he continued to look at the stones quietly. I knelt down and looked up at his face so that he might see me but still he gave no reaction. Even when I waved my hand in front of his face it was as if I wasn't even there.

I directed my anger at Alex, who had annoyingly followed me.

"What did you do?" I seethed.

"It's just so that we might have some privacy."

"Privacy? For what?"

"So that we could talk."

"Why? What could the man, who taught that evil Witch to use magic in the first place, want to talk about? Are you here to apologize that she's such a monster? No thanks, I don't need your pity. What I need is to fix all of this," I gestured to myself. "Can you do something about that?"

Alex shook his head. "I can't remove your curse."

I folded my arms in defiance. "Then what is there to talk about?"

He looked as though he was struggling to say the right thing as he paced. "Now that I know who you are, I feel compelled to protect you," Alex stopped and looked intently at me.

I glanced over at Howl and took a few steps to get some distance.

"Why?" I whispered angrily. "Why now? What changed?"

Removing his hat, he rubbed his palm across his forehead. "Your father and I were close once, a long time ago. I didn't know that he had a daughter, but now that I know you exist, I want to help you."

"--and this brings me back to my first question, how do you know about me?"

"When you've lived as long as I have, you get to see a lot of faces. You look so much like your father."

I felt at a loss for words. "You really knew my father?"

"Best Hatter I ever had the pleasure of knowing," he smiled, removing his hat.

I reached out and took the hat from his outstretched hand. The feel was all too familiar. The seams were lined with my father's signature stitches, complete with his label tucked away in the interior rim. Finding something of his, all the way out here brought so many memories back. Memories of days gone by, before I lost my parents. Before I lost myself.

Alex removed a handkerchief and slipped it into my hand as he took the hat back, allowing me a moment of grieving. Adjusting the fit with his palm, he offered me his hand.

"Come with me and I'll tell you a lot more than just that."

Behind me, I knew Howl was still standing among the stones, unaware of our conversation taking place. I felt an ache deep in my chest that I couldn't explain.

"I can't," was all I could say, tucking my hands in my pockets.

"Sophie, this is what's best for both of you. If the Witch comes at you again, I can't promise your safety. She will hurt you. You must come with me," he pleaded.

"She already has, Alex. She has this," I pressed my hand to my chest, tears welling in my eyes. Taking a deep breath I willed myself to smile. " Thank you for the offer, but I have my own path to take."

He was silent for a while but then he walked over so that we were side by side once again. We watched as Howl knelt by the two stones like a quiet sentinel. He brushed the moss from one stone revealing a name scrawled on its surface.

Alex broke the silence with a sigh and patted my shoulder.

"Know that if you need my help, you only have to ask and I'll be there," he said, crouching down to select a smooth pebble. Squeezing it in his palm, he whispered words that made it glow brightly in his palm. Reaching for my hand, he deposited it, closing my fingers around the warm object.

"What is this?" I asked, rolling it over and over in my hand.

"It's a hearthstone-- not to be confused with the heartstones wizards use. It is an ancient tool we once used in the highlands to find our way back home. Should you need it, just whisper my name to the stone and it'll bring you back to the Highlands."

"I can't accept this," I tried to give it back, but Alex wouldn't hear of it.

"Please, it's just a stone. It won't hurt you but it will give me peace of mind knowing you have it."

"Alright then, if it's just a stone," I shrugged, dropping it into my pocket. I could get rid of it later when he wasn't looking anyways.

"Good. We should both head back into town, you can see Howl once he's finished his visit," Alex said, turning back.

"I need to speak to Howl first," I corrected him.

"I would advise against it, Sophie," Alex cautioned, leveling a look that said this wasn't up for debate.

"--and why not? Does it bother you that Howl and I travelling together? Are you going to tell me it's not safe to be around him?"

Alex frowned. "No Sophie, you misunderstand me. By rights, you and I shouldn't be here right now. This is a place of mourning."

"Mourning?"

"Yes, that's why I cloaked us in the first place."

"I don't understand. . ." I looked all around us, searching for something that would explain what he meant, but to me, this place was just a stony grove, barren of trees and fruit.

Alex's voice dropped to a mere whisper. "Sophie," he said, stepping aside so I could get a better look at the stone behind him. The name scrawled across its surface was unfamiliar, but the dates below told me exactly what this place was and one look at the stones at Howl's feet made my chest squeeze painfully.

Eloise Pendragon. Gerald Pendragon.

These were Howl's parents.

Maggie warned me that this place was cursed. As walked away from Howl, I look over the stones to my left and to my right, all with different names, but the date carved at the bottom remained the same.

1801.

A shiver ran through my body. I didn't need Alex to answer for me. I knew exactly what this place was.

This wasn't a grove. This was a graveyard.

Chapter Text

Neither of us chose to speak as we made our way back into town. Alex knew full well that I had questions for him, but he was determined not to answer unless I agreed to stay with him. That was his caveat, stay away from Howl. I knew in my heart that I couldn't say yes, so silence was our company for the rest of the trip.

This frustrated me greatly. I could say yes and stay here with Alex, but that wouldn't help my predicament. So long as the Witch hunted Howl, I couldn't go home, which meant I would never see Lettie or my shop again. Furthermore, I would have to leave Howl, forget that I ever knew him and hope that by staying away, he would be safe.

I just couldn't bring myself to do that, which meant that I would have to accept that I'd never get the answers I sought from Alex because I chose Howl over him.

As we approached the outskirts of town, something caught Alex's attention. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared straight ahead. I followed his gaze to the market, expecting to find whatever it was that alarmed him, but nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary.

I cocked an eyebrow, waiting to see if he would explain his reaction.

He jerked his thumb over his shoulder hastily. "I just forgot that I was supposed to check on something back that way."

"Check on what exactly?"

Alex fixed his eyes elsewhere when he answered.

"Crops."

"Crops? What are you, a librarian or a farmer?" I jeered.

"I am a bit of everything," he said, his voice distant.

"Alex what did you see just now?" I asked, but my question was met with silence. Alex was already gone.

***

Port Haven was much the same as I had left it a few hours ago, only this time I was determined to figure out what it was that Alex saw to make him leave so suddenly. Sure there were some merchants selling questionably fresh fish, judging by the excessive amount of flies, but that couldn't have been the reason.

I had a nagging feeling that it was someone, rather than something that Alex saw that made him leave. Maybe the Witch was still here. I shuddered at the thought and erased the image of the Witch before she could take residence in my thoughts. After all, there was no way Alex would have seen her in public in broad daylight.

I took a deep breath and focused on my immediate surroundings. The people of Port Haven seemed like a busy bunch, always moving with purpose. Unlike Market Chipping, there wasn't a rich crowd roaming the streets in their carriages and buggies with money to waste. No one here was looking to please potential customers with a random assortment of baubles and their merchandise reflected just that. Only the essentials like food and wares were available to purchase.

Walking through the busy streets, I searched high and low for a place to sit so that I could watch for Howl's return. Spying a collection of crates near the alleyway, I considered that it was as good a prospect as any, so finding a discarded newspaper, I perched on the edge of a smaller crate and did my best to look busy. As I scouted over the yellowed edges of the newspaper, two voices caught my attention. Shifting ever so slightly on the crate, I got a better look at the men who were arguing nearby.

The first was a grey-haired older man, whose skin was so dirty it soiled his once white undershirt. His disheveled appearance was dwarfed only by the product he was pedaling, which I was certain was some sort of manure given its pungent smell. I hopped off the crate and found a safer area in which to observe the two men.

The old man had upended one of the crates, dumping its contents onto the ground, which he then shoveled into mason jars. Capping them, he set them out on a table.

I could see the back of the second, much younger, red-haired man with his hands hitched on his hips, clearly not impressed with the other man's product.

"You can't be serious!" the young man exclaimed, shaking his head. "There is no evidence to suggest that horse manure has healing properties. Sure, the herbs the horses ate before becoming excrement may have had medicinal purposes, but horse manure? That's utter nonsense!" The man was frustrated, combing his fingers through his mess of orange hair to try and make sense of it all.

He turned his head to look away and that's when I caught a glimpse of his freckled cheeks and distinct blue eyes. I felt myself grinning uncontrollably. It had only been a few days, but so much had happened and I hadn't realized how much I had missed seeing him. I all but ran over before I could stop myself, eager to see Markel.

"Hi!" I beamed, grabbing his arm to get his attention. Momentarily startled by my interruption, he removed his arm from my grasp and gave me a queer look.

"As I was saying," Markel cleared his throat, averting his gaze, "three silver is an obscene price to charge a person for a product that simply doesn't work."

"Ye should be tellin' that to the townsfolk, they're the one's buyin'," the old man chuckled, holding out his grubby hand to collect payment from a passing customer.

"What exactly do people do with it? They don't eat it, right?" I inquired, shrugging off Markel's rude manners. Markel rolled his eyes with a heavy sigh.

The old man rubbed a dirty rag over one of the glass bottles and set it on the table before me. I politely pushed it back before he could get the wrong idea about my question.

"Aye, ye can eat it, wash with it, drink it, whatever suits yer fancy lass," he grinned, displaying his yellow stained teeth.

I politely excused myself before he could continue, realizing the mistake I had made.

"It'll put hair on a man's chest!" the man shouted, as if that could convince me to buy it.

I waved him off, trying to keep up with Markel's large stride as I noticed he was quickly disappearing from my sight. His hostile reaction to me stung, but I was determined to talk to him none the less.

I found myself running to keep up with him as he moved through the crowds of people with ease. His direction took us back to the edge of town, right before the cobblestone turned to gravel. He spun around so quickly that I lost my footing and slipped.

"Is there a reason you're following me?" he asked without a hint of friendliness in his tone.

"I was just surprised to see you here Markel. How did you know where to find us?" I smiled tentatively, picking myself up off the ground. It seemed like something was bothering him because he'd never acted this strangely before.

"How do you know my name?" he asked, keeping his distance.

My hand flew to my mouth. Of course! How could I have forgotten? Markel had his guard up because he didn't recognize me.

"It's me, A-Allison. You know, the old hag who slept at the castle for a few nights, fixed some clothes, ate some food. . ." I said, hoping to coax some sort of response out of him.

Markel's appeared curious at first, but when he finally met my eyes, there was something about the way he looked at me that made me feel uncomfortable.

After a long and uncomfortable pause, he asked, "why do you look like that?"

"Howl taught me a few things about magic, and it changed me," I supplied. It was an oversimplification at best, but it was the only way I could explain it.

Markel chewed the inside of his cheek with a frown, clearly disappointed with my answer.

"and where is Howl now?" he asked hesitantly.

"He went East earlier this morning, but I'm sure he will be back soon," I offered quickly.

Without so much as a thank you, Markel turned his back to me and walked away. Part of me was beginning to lose my patience with him, but I tamped it down and followed quietly behind him.

It wasn't long before we spotted Howl making his way back to Port Haven. He had his hands jammed in his pockets and with his eyes cast down, he didn't see us approach until we were almost in front of him. He looked up from his walk and the sweet smile he gave me unleashed a mass of butterflies in my stomach. I found myself walking towards him without thinking.

"Sophie," he breathed, stepping forward so that he could pull me into his embrace. His hand found the small of my back and stayed there as he turned his attention to Markel.

"How convenient that you came looking for us," Howl smiled, "I had meant to get a hold of you, but things got a little. . ."

"Strange," Markel said automatically.

"Well, I suppose that's one way to put it. But Sophie was able to patch me up well enough and--,"

"Why do you keep calling her that?" Markel cut him off.

I felt his hand tense. "Calling her by what? Her name?"

Markel crossed his arms. "I thought her name was Allison. Or at least, that's what she said it was back in town, or am I mistaken?" he looked purposefully at me.

Howl chuckled beside me. "That's nonsense. This is Sophie."

Markel was furious.

"How do you know that?" he spoke slowly.

Howl's smile faltered, but his warm hand did not move from my back.

"It is me," I placed a hand on my chest, stepping forward.

Markel refused to acknowledge me. He repeated his question a second time, but this time there was an edge to his voice.

"How do you know it's her?" he gave Howl a meaningful look.

"Markel," Howl stepped forward, reaching for my hand, "what's gotten into you?"

He saw our interlocked fingers and pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket. Marching back up the road, he found the nearest house and drew a wide arch along the brick wall. As the portal shimmered around him, he beckoned us to follow.

"Howl, there's something I think you should see and. . . well, you'd best bring her along."

***

I stepped out of the portal and into the dark streets of Market Chipping. Howl kept his hand firmly in mine, tracing small circles on the back of my palm. We exchanged glances as we watched Markel disappear into the market, only to stop and wave at us to keep up. It wasn't like I needed a guide in Market Chipping, I'd lived there all my life, so I knew where we were heading before Markel rounded the corner to my shop.

The sun had already dipped below the horizon, but it wasn't quite dark enough for the lanterns to light.

Standing in the dark, peering into my hat shop through the window, I watched as Markel entered without us. I wasn't prepared for this moment. Standing here made me realize that I wasn't ready to be home. My feet refused to move when Howl suggested we follow Markel. As I let my eyes adjust to the bright light of shops interior, I felt Howl's hand leave mine. I looked up into his eyes and froze.

"Howl what's wrong?" I reached out, only to have him step away from me.

"What's going on, Sophie?" his voice was barely a whisper.

I forced myself to look away from him to see what it was he that he saw and I felt the air leave my chest. I braced myself on the old wooden frame of my store window, unable to look away from what I saw.

Markel was conversing quietly with my sister in the corner of the room. He spared a frosty look my way before giving his attention back to her.

In the back of the room, seated on my stool next to my unfinished projects, was a woman in tattered clothes. Her hair was unkempt, having been pulled out of a braid at some point, but I recognized the soft brown colour in the shop light. My hands unconsciously moved to my white hair as I tried in vain to sort out my confusion.

Two men dressed in royal fatigues stood over the woman, writing vigorous notes onto scrap parchment. The woman pulled the blanket around her shoulders and shivered uncontrollably, wiping tears from her reddened cheeks.

Gerta appeared from the back room holding a mug that she placed in the woman's hands, planting a kiss on her forehead in an odd display of matronly affection. As the woman took a sip from the steaming mug, her eyes met mine through the glass. She paused with the mug halfway to her lips and a secretive smile spread across her face.

"Who are you?" Howl said, jerking my attention away from the window.

"NO, please Howl," I waved my hands frantically, "what you see in there is an illusion, don't believe it, don't believe her, I'm begging you!" I took a few steps toward him, but Howl reached out, throwing up a barrier between us. Losing my balance, I stumbled backwards, striking the ground hard with my outstretched hands in an attempt to catch myself. A sickeningly sharp pain lanced through my arm and I yelped, but Howl wouldn't move to help.

"Give me one good reason why I should believe you," Howl frowned, his hands still outstretched, forming a barrier between us that was quickly breaking my heart.

Clutching my injured hand to my middle, I wrenched the scarf from my neck, displaying all the evidence I hoped he would need to understand me. For a moment, Howls hands began to lower, but one more glance through the window steeled his resolve.

"Get up," he ordered, walking around me until I had no choice but to pull myself up and enter the shop.

The chime of the door forced everyone to turn and look at Howl and I. The woman let out a blood-curdling shriek the moment she laid eyes on me. In the ensuing chaos, the guards drew their swords with a flourish and braced themselves for a fight. I held up my hands in defense, locking eyes with the wolf in sheep's clothing. It was like staring in a mirror, only this time, my reflection was possessed by a hateful, evil woman. I knew now why she needed my heart. She was going to take Howl away from me. Arming herself with more fake tears, I knew she was about to put on a performance.

"Please, don't let her take me away, I c-can't go back there!" The Witch pleaded, clutching Gerta's arm like a lifeline. "T-this is the woman I told you about Gerta, the one who wanted the hat that day you sent me out. She's the one who h-hurt me and locked me up! All I wanted was to do my job, but she made it p-personal."

I watched out of the corner of my eye as Markel pulled up his sleeves and cracked his knuckles, stepping in front of Lettie as if he was expecting me to hurt her, my sister.

"You're a liar," I growled, "you're a liar, and a terrible fake and you know it, you witch."

The Witch held a hand to her chest in mock horror.

"That's it! I remember it now! She said something a-a-about a witch. I couldn't stay awake long enough to hear everything she said, but I think this woman was working with someone. . ." she cast the bait in Howl's direction.

I had to stop her before she could do more damage.

"Howl please," I pulled the scarf again, hoping to drive the point home, "don't trust a word she's saying. Believe me. Trust me."

I watched as he wavered between the two of us and finally lowered his hands. His voice was barely above a whisper when he finally spoke, but his eye pleaded with me to be truthful. "You had me convinced that you were the girl I fell in love with, but now I see only a stranger. I told you things I've never told anyone else. Did I make a mistake, trusting you?"

"No! No of course not, I would never betray you!" I pleaded.

"She's lying, I heard her say that she was after something of yours Howl," the impostor cut in.

Howls shoulders stiffened, and his voice became unfathomable.

"What?"

Howls hands were back up, and there was a fury in his eyes that hadn't been there before. The Witch was smug as she watched Howl turn on me.

"No please, it wasn't me! The Witch can do her worst to me," I snapped, giving her the full effect of my anger, "but I would never take your heart, Howl."

Markel's hands dropped at the same time as Howl's. They exchanged a look for a second, and when Howl finally looked up at me, the man I had fallen for was gone.

"Sophie never mentioned anything about a heart," Howl corrected me, calling the Witch by my name.

It was at this moment that I knew it was over. The Witch had won.

"Please Howl, I'm not the bad guy here," my voice cracked.

Howl took one step back, then another, every step taking him closer to the Witch and farther from me. The look of contempt he gave me hurt far worse than any words could.

"Who are you?" he managed through clenched teeth.

"I'm. . . I'm. . ." I tried through the blinding tears.

I'm Sophie, I wanted to say so badly, but the cry caught in my throat, ripping its way back down into my chest where it buried itself along with my unbroken curse.

It was too late. There was no way I could convince them now.

So I ran.

I slammed into the door, thrusting it open so hard the glass shattered into glittering pieces against the wall. But before I could think too long on it, I found the closest side road and raced away from my pursuers. The lanterns were still out, but Howl was quick to light them with a flick of his wrist. I scrambled to make a sharp turn into the first alley before the lanterns could betray my position. I weaved through the piles of trash discarded in the alleyway, so as not to knock them over and reveal my location.

Distant shouts told me that they had split up and as I drew closer to the end of the alley, I could see their shadows near the exit. I ducked into an alcove that housed a back entrance, praying they hadn't seen me. A stack of cardboard boxes leaned against the wall by the nook, and I quickly dragged them into a position that blocked my hiding spot. I leaned back against the brick wall and held my breath.

The quiet click of Howl's boots drew closer, and as I peered through a small opening between the wall and the boxes, I could see his face illuminated by a small orb of fire balanced in the palm of his hand. He barely gave the boxes any notice, so I remained well hidden. His footsteps would stop for a moment while he scanned the alley, then pick up again as he moved along. I waited until I could no longer see the light in his hand before I allowed myself to breathe.

For now, I was secure in this little alcove, so long as the homeowners did not open their back door to find a stranger hiding out in their alleyway. I could not detect any light coming from under the door, so I had to assume that I was safe.

I pulled my scarf tighter, acutely aware of the nip in the air. I didn't have a plan, but I needed to get away from here before Markel, Howl, or the King's guard could find me. I could wait it out, hope that they think I'd left town and abandon the search, but I did not know how long I could manage the biting cold with my hand the way it was. I couldn't see it in the darkness, but I knew it wasn't good. I needed help.

I shifted on the cold stone, feeling the dampness of the ground seep into my dress. There was a clack of something striking pavement as I moved. I searched around blindly until my hands found the stone that had fallen out of my pocket. Holding it aloft in my good hand, it glowed to life.

Alex.

If there were a time I could have kissed the man, it would have been right now. I could hear the distant voices of Howl and Markel drawing closer, and I knew at once that they were searching my alley again. Holding the stone close to my chest, I whispered the name to the stone before it was too late.

As I felt myself being spirited away from my home and from the people I loved, I realized for the first time since I had been cursed that this was what it felt like to be well and truly alone.

And the question remained, what was I going to do now?

Chapter Text

It was difficult to put into words the sensation I experienced, being taken from one place and landing in another. There was a weightlessness like the ground had been taken out from under me and then I was hurtled through the air at such an alarming speed that I thought I might faint. As I clutched the stone to my chest, I closed my eyes in the hopes that it would make the process a little easier. I had barely enough time to register what was happening before everything stopped and I landed with a painful thud on the ground.

Chancing a quick glance, I found myself surrounded by the familiar greenery of Dunbeath. The rich dark earth seeped into my dress, soiling the white slip as I lay there, taking in my surroundings. By my estimation, I couldn't have been too far from town, that is if the stone Alex gave me had worked the way it was supposed to have.

Cloud cover had settled in, obscuring the suns light and along with it, its warmth. As I sat beneath the ancient cedar trees, I took the time to assess my injuries. My fingers were swollen and tight, but luckily, I could bend them a bit. My wrist was much worse; it was angry, purple and dreadfully hot to the touch, with an ache that was both constant and incredibly sore. I needed help.

The memory of how I had got it invaded my thoughts, and had I push the events of the last hour out of my head before I could let them overwhelm me. I wasn't ready to accept what happened, not while I was lost with what I was certain was a broken wrist. I needed my wits about me if I had any hope of finding my way back to Alex's library.

First things first, I had to figure out which direction would take me to town. Using a nearby cedar as leverage, I pulled myself off the ground and brushed the sticky needles off my dress.

Without the road, I had no bearings, which was my first problem. The last thing I needed was to become hopelessly lost on top of being injured.

If I had had a knife, I could have used my father's old trick to keep myself from getting lost. His method involved marking the back of the trees with an X so when he looked back, he could track his progress. It was an effective way to prevent him from walking in circles for hours, but the trouble was that I didn't have a knife or any object sharp enough to do the same.

Or did I?

Pulling at the hem of my dress, I rubbed the soft fabric between my fingers. If this plan worked, I could be out of the forest well before nightfall. Maggie would be upset that I had ruined the dress she'd lent me, but I had no other options and the day wasn't getting any longer.

Finding the seam at the edge of the dress, I pulled it apart quickly, ripping it neatly up the side to my knee. I changed directions and tore the fabric straight across so that I had enough fabric to rip into ribbons. My wrist throbbed from the movement, so I used my teeth to tear the rest of it up neatly.

My now bare legs felt the bite of the harsh wind that had kicked up, urging me to get going. Draping the ribbons over my bad arm, I picked a direction that looked promising and set out.

One by one I tied a piece of my dress to the low hanging branches, just far enough apart that I could see this distance I was covering by looking behind me. The forest thinned out slowly, but by the time I was able to see the clearing, I was disheartened to find myself back at the stony grove, the complete opposite direction I had wanted to go. As frustrated as I was about wasting daylight, I knew that following the ribbons back would put me in the right direction to town.

One by one, I counted each of my ribbons as I followed them backwards, stopping only briefly to rub the cold chill out of my mottled legs. Maybe tearing up my dress wasn't the greatest idea, but the cold breeze was just a temporary setback that spurred me onward.

I found the spot where I had begun tying the ribbons and pulled the remaining ones from my pocket. Reaching for a branch, I knotted one off. A high-pitched squeak from somewhere behind me startled me from my task. Peering over my shoulder, I realized I wasn't alone.

By its stature alone I could see it was small, far too little to be a wolf, but much too large to be a fox. Its fur had a greyish hue, and its snout was tinged with a reddish-brown stain. It seemed curious by nature, taking its time to watch me as I tied my ribbons, following once I had stepped far enough away.

The little critter didn't seem to mind me at all. In fact, I thought it was trying to help me by guiding me through the forest. It would take a few steps, bark its oddly high-pitched sound, and wait patiently as I tied my ribbon. The routine continued on like that for quite some time. The critter would bark, wait as I tied the ribbon and then move on to the next tree, ushering me along.

As I went to take yet another ribbon from my pocket, something in the distance caught my eye. Peering into the distance, past the low hanging branches that obscured most of my view, I could see the faint outline of a structure nestled on the hillside. Alex's library. It had to be.

I abandoned the ribbons and ran flat out, eager to get out of the forest and out of the cold.

A shrill bark cut through the air, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. I turned to see the animal sitting quietly, observing me with its brown eyes. Had I just imagined that sound?

"What? Do you not want me to go?" I laughed at myself. Had I resorted to talking with animals?

It let out another high-pitched bark and turned in a circle as if to answer me. Distracted by its odd behaviour, I didn't see the danger until the pack surrounded me. One by one, they materialized from the dense undergrowth, heads low, teeth bared, circling slowly.

I should never have let curiosity get the best of me. I should have left that forest behind but instead, I fell for the bait.

One of the animals launched itself from the ground, latching onto the meat of my leg with its razor-sharp teeth. I shrieked in pain, kicking my leg out reflexively. The momentum forced the animal to release its hold on my leg as it flew through the air and connected with a tree.

The sickening crunch stunned the pack momentarily, and I saw my opening. I couldn't keep my feet under me as I bolted from the scene, forcing myself to go faster. The pain in my calf lanced through to the bone, but it was nothing compared to the fear I felt if that pack caught up to me.

I ran until my lungs split. I ran until I tasted copper in my mouth and the sweat dripped into my eyes, threatening to blind me. If the villagers looked out into the fields, they would have seen a raving mad woman, but I didn't care. I was running for my life. I hadn't come this far just to be taken out by a mob of woodland animals.

Not today mother nature.

Between sharp painful breaths, I could see the hill rising ahead of me closing in at a rapid rate. Everything I had left in me drove me onward and upwards. I could no longer feel my legs powering me up the hill, only the numb sensation of my feet pounding the dirt over and over. That wasn't going to stop me.

With one last burst of energy, I powered my way up the hill and collided with the front door, jarring my wrist in the process. The pain didn't matter; I needed to get in, to get away from the ensuing mob. In a fury of pain and panic, I hammered the door mercilessly with both my hands. It gave way mid-swing and my hand slapped Alex's thigh before I could stop it.

With my hand still firmly on his thigh, I looked up at Alex and clutched his shirt, pulling myself to my feet. I kicked the door shut with my foot without a second thought and found myself struggling to stay upright as another wave of pain lanced through my leg. Alex steadied me with his strong arms, frowning as he took in my appearance. His eyes traveled over my torn dress to my bruised wrist and he froze.

"Sophie, what on earth happened to you?"

I looked over at the doorway and collapsed against the cold wood floor, unable to fight the fatigue any longer.

"I was being chased--," I pointed accusingly at the door, "by some of your charming wildlife," I chocked out between breaths.

"Wildlife?" he cocked his head to the side, giving me another once over. His eyes grew wide as he got a better look at my muddy knees and tattered dress. "Wait, have you been out in the forest this whole time?"

I merely nodded, breathing through my nose to slow it down. "A couple of hours, give or take," I speculated, gauging by the dim light outside the window.

"but I thought that you had gone back into town in search of Howl—did he not come back?" he asked as he knelt beside me, taking my injured hand between his and turning it gently.

"It's a long story--," I pulled my hand away suddenly, startling both him and myself. For some reason, his touch made me feel inexplicably shy. Finding a handhold on the wall behind me, I pulled myself up and put some distance between us. It wasn't that I didn't trust him, it was just strange to have such intimate contact with another person.

Pain lanced through my leg causing my knee to give out, and I became unbalanced. Without hesitation, Alex reached out and caught me deftly, steadying me as I limped my way over to a chair in the far corner of the room.

Once I was comfortably seated, he jammed his hands in his pockets and chewed the corner of his lip.

"Did the Witch have something to do with this?" he asked. This time I didn't hesitate as he reached out to examine my wrist. With a tiny snap of his fingers, Alex produced a small ball of light that danced in his hand. He held it up to my wrist, inspecting the purplish swollen skin.

I bit down on my quivering lip. Crying wasn't going to help me out of this mess.

"She's taken everything from me," I whispered. I slumped back in the chair, feeling resigned to my fate. The Witch had complete control over me now. She had my heart, she had my life, and now she had Howl. The view from where I sat was rather bleak.

His mouth turned down at the corners.

"Tell me about it."

I covered his hand with my own and squeezed it, tasting blood as I bit down harder on my lip. If it weren't for the curse, I would have gladly told him everything. I was desperate for a friend that I could confide in, especially now that everything had gone to hell.

I watched as Alex's puzzled expression transformed into a look of understanding. His brown eyes flashed in the dim light as he released my arm with a gentle pat. Cracking his knuckles, he removed his jacket with a flourish and pushed his sleeves to his elbows, eyes alight with purpose. His hands shone with a warm dazzling light as he knelled before me, reaching out to touch the side of my neck gently. I moved away involuntarily, but Alex simply closed his eyes, coaxing me to do the same. Suddenly, I could feel the warmth emanating from the tips of his fingers, caressing my skin softly. The was a release and the stranglehold around my throat was there no longer. I followed his fingers to my neck and stared back at him, confused by what he had just done.

"What did you do?" I asked, still touching the spot where his hand had been moments before.

Alex sat down heavily in a chair beside me and let out a long sigh.

"I was able to remove the effects of your curse temporarily, but you haven't much time, so now is your chance to talk."

"I-I don't understand. I thought the only person who could remove the curse was the person who cast it?"

"Although that is generally true, you could say I am an exception to that rule," he answered, his voice becoming stern, "but we're not discussing me, we're discussing how you managed to become a target of the Witch's wrath."

I pulled my injured arm into me and cast him a wary glance.

"How do I know I can trust you?"

He held his hands up in defense. "We can have that argument another day, I'm just trying to help you Sophie. Now, tell me what happened."

Alex was hiding something from me, something big. The fact that the Witch was his apprentice should have been enough warning for me to stay away from him, but foolishly, here I was, asking for his help. I pushed up from my chair and steadied myself on my one good leg, putting some distance between us.

"Why do you want to help me? You barely even know me," I challenged.

I chanced a quick glance at the doorway, judging whether I could make it if I made a run for it. I felt warmth ooze down the back of my leg from the angry bite. My foot was slick blood. If I tried to run with it, I was bound to slip.

Alex, too, was distracted by the grizzly wound on my leg, but he seemed more alarmed by it than anything else. I shifted ever so slightly, giving myself a better angle for escape.

"I told you before, I knew your father," Alex said, still staring at my leg.

I shifted a little more, obscuring his view as I gauged the distance to the door.

"Please Sophie, you're hurt," he pleaded so sincerely that I hesitated for a moment.

But hadn't I learned a lesson back in the woods? I couldn't trust my instincts anymore.

Alex took a step forward and I stumbled back, clutching my chair between us like a shield. The sudden movement caused the room to spin and I closed my eyes to steady myself, but then the ringing started. I released the chair and covered my ears in an attempt to stop the invading noise, but it persisted. A wave of nausea washed over me and instantly, I lost the ability to stand upright. Alex was beside me in two strides, reaching out before I could hit the floor.

His hand hovered over my arm, the same glow returning to his palm. He kept his eyes fixed on mine as he moved his hand down, brushing gently over my skin. I heard the crack a split second before I felt it. I grit my teeth, waiting for the pain to come, but it never did.

I tried to fight him off, but he held my elbow in a firm grip, giving me no other choice but to follow him back where he forced me to sit quietly. Alex pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the mess from my calf with a look of complete concentration. The same familiar warmth emanated from his touch, and I watched as the fibers in my leg knit themselves back together.

Just like that, I was transfixed. My thoughts became a jumbled mess of questions that I couldn't formulate into words.

I moved my wrist slowly, testing its range. The bruising was gone and with it, the pain. I carefully flexed my toes, turning my leg this way and that. Still no pain. I gave him a queer look.

"You healed me."

"Yes."

"--but that shouldn't be possible. You told me yourself that when I asked before. You showed me your scarred arm. You said you got it from trying to heal your wounds."

Alex pulled his chair close and sat on the edge, propping his elbows on his knees. With a heavy sigh, he nodded, looking me in the eye.

"What I told you before wasn't entirely wrong, although I'll admit that this scar had nothing to do with my magic. Humans can't perform magic on the living, that's a fact. They cannot save lives; they cannot make things grow, they cannot heal their wounds--,"

"--then why can you do it if other people can't?"

He fixed his attention on his tented fingers as if they could provide the answer. His brown eyes caught mine in the waning light, sending a chill down my spine.

"That is because . . . I'm not human, Sophie."

Chapter Text

A laugh escaped my lips before I could stifle it. Alex had to be joking. How could he not be human?

I took a moment to really look at him. His soft brown hair and matching brown eyes mirrored my own; the sharp angle of his jaw framed his otherwise delicate features. Apart from the thick scar on his forearm, his skin was flawless. If he wasn't human, then what was he? I wanted to make sense of it all, but my mind couldn't process the idea. To me, Alex looked very much human, through and through.

If this was his attempt to lighten the mood, I wasn't laughing.

"You need to start making sense Alex. I've had a horrible day and you're not helping the situation by making jokes."

Leaning forward, he reached for my hand and held it firmly.

"I can assure you that I am quite serious."

A chill ran up my spine. At first, I thought it was a draft and I pulled uselessly at the tattered remains of my dress to cover my bare legs. But that wasn't it. The unnerving feeling I experienced was a warning from within. Alex was dangerous.

"Just a second," Alex said quickly, holding up a finger. He dashed out of the room, returning with his arms full of an old worn blanket. Shaking it out, he draped it with a flourish over my shoulders.

"Thank you," I said quietly, pulling the edges of the blanket close. His returning smile was so genuinely sweet that I didn't want to believe he was bad. The blanket wasn't much, in fact, it was rather thin and threadbare in places, but the gesture touched me deeply. So why was I feeling so uneasy?

"Tell me, Sophie, now that your curse has been lifted temporarily, why did the Witch target you?" He cocked his head as he studied me thoughtfully.

I'd asked myself this question so many times before. Why me? Why not curse some other girl? I wasn't the prettiest girl in Market Chipping, not by a long shot. Before that fateful day, the day I walked straight into her trap, my life was simple and predictable. But on that day, my life turned upside down. Simple and predictable no longer.

"Did you anger her in some way?"

I thought about the events that transpired that day.

"I hit her over the head with a lamp," I admitted sheepishly.

A hint of a smirk played on Alex's lips.

"Remind me to hide my furniture when you're around," he quipped.

"I'll have you know I had an excellent reason for doing that," I declared.

He brushed off my statement with another sarcastic reply.

"Is there ever a good enough reason to bludgeon a person?"

I should have laughed at his remark. After all, the idea that I had the gall to take on the Witch armed with nothing but a lamp was ludicrous, but I could not. I folded my hands in my lap and looked studiously elsewhere.

"She wants Howl's heart and she expected me to get it for her."

His sigh was heavy with frustration.

"After all this time, she's still trying to get that? A shame really. She still hasn't realized he removed it a long time ago."

I turned my head and met his eye, surprised that he knew that much.

"How could you possibly know that? I only found out the other night--," my cheeks flamed red at the memory of our kiss, but I shook my head.

Alex scratched his chin where a hint of dark stubble grew in.

"That's easy to explain. I removed it for him."

I balked. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"He asked me to."

The questions kept pouring from my mouth.

"But why would he want that?"

Alex sat back, propping his leg against the opposite knee, contemplating his answer.

"You don't know much about the feud between Howl and the Witch, do you?" he guessed.

I shook my head.

"Well, it has much to do with my people, so I suppose I should explain myself first. Have you ever heard of the stories surrounding the history of the Dunbeath Highlands?"

I tried to recollect what Howl had told me that day he took me to the cavern. We had talked a little about the history of magic, but nothing substantial.

"We were in a cavern here in Dunbeath where he taught me how to use magic. He mentioned something about magic originating here."

"He is correct, but do you know where the magic came from?"

I knit my brows together in confusion. Howl said magic came from Dunbeath, how much more specific did we need to go? I assumed that some people were just born with the ability to use magic and that some people were not. I said as much to him.

Alex gave an uncharacteristic eye roll.

"You don't seriously believe that. People are just born lucky?"

"I don't know Alex! You tell me, where does magic come from? I mean for goodness sake, I've only recently learned to control magic, but I haven't a clue where it came from!"

Alex resumed pacing, turning his attention to the fireplace at the far end. He leaned his elbow on the mantle and produced a ball of fire in his palm, tossing it into the hearth.

Keeping the blanket secure around my shoulders, I made my way over to him. Rolling another ball of fire between his hands, he stared into the hearth pensively, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

"Humans aren't born with the ability to wield magic; they inherit that ability from us."

As the night cloaked us in darkness, the fire outlined the features of his face that I hadn't noticed up until now. His cheeks seemed sharper and more angular in the light. His features took on a sort of ethereal beauty that felt inhuman.

Alex looked up from the fire and furrowed his brow. He'd caught me staring.

"Have you ever heard of the fair folk?"

"Err, sure I have. Most of the books I've read are deeply entrenched in fantasy worlds that talk of faeries and demons and other beings, why? Are you saying you're some kind of mythical creature?"

"I wouldn't go so far as to categorize myself as a creature of myth, per se; that would imply that my existence is determined by whether or not humans believe in me. I exist because I was created in this world, the same as you. I am no more a myth than the birds in the sky, or the fish in the sea. Just because you have never met one of my kind, does not mean we do not exist."

My smile faltered.

"You weren't asking if I knew about the fair folk out of sheer curiosity."

He shook his head, hiding a smile.

"No, I wasn't."

"--but I had no idea faeries actually existed."

His lips turned down at the corners. Jamming his hands in his pockets, he turned away to avoid my questioning look.

"You wouldn't have known. It's one of the Highlands most closely guarded secrets."

"So, you're telling me that you're a faerie?" I asked slowly.

Every fantasy book I had ever read described faeries with such feminine features that I always imagined them to be females. In my mind, all faeries wore elegant silks with hair flowing down their backs, with shimmering wings and pointed toes.

Alex had none of those things; a dusty librarian with the fashion sense of a senior was more like it. As if to prove my point, Alex pulled out a pocket watch to check the time.

"That's exactly what I'm saying."

And so he began to fill in the blanks about the little-known secret of Dunbeath.

Faeries, as he explained it, existed long before humans inhabited the Highlands. They lived on through stories told around campfires by the first settlers of Dunbeath, but the settlers never put much stock into the idea that faeries existed, let alone that they lived their lives so closely in tandem with humans.

After centuries of seclusion in the forests of Dunbeath, some of the fair folk became curious about their human counterparts. One by one, they began integrating into society, choosing to live among humans. By their own volition, these faeries gave up their former lives in favour of their human ones.

Their curiosity formed other emotions, emotions that were foreign to the fair folk but enticed them to learn more. These faeries, the ones that were driven by their curiosity, began to laugh and to grieve, to hate and to love. And it was love that changed them over time.

"Humans were never meant to wield magic, Sophie. It goes against the very laws of nature. When the fair folk began to fall in love with humans, just as it happened with your parents, they started having families. Human families. And to keep their families, those faeries gave up the very part of them that connected them to Dunbeath, to the magic, in favour of their human lives."

I stopped him before he could move on.

"You mean to tell me that that's how you knew my father?"

A ghost of a smile played on his lips.

"We were well antiquated once. I knew your father long before he decided to move away from Dunbeath to live as a human in Ingary. Didn't you ever stop and wonder why your surname was Hatter, considering your father owned a hat shop? Oddly convenient wouldn't you say?"

"I hadn't thought about it that way."

"It's a quirk I'll admit, we never had human surnames, so we make them up."

"so that means--,"

"your father wasn't human, Sophie."

"How can that be? Not once in my life have I ever seen my father use magic. Everything he made, the shop, his hats, our home, everything was made with his two hands."

"That may be, but that doesn't change who he was."

"But if what you're saying is true, why didn't he ever use his magic? You were able to heal me using magic, so why couldn't he? He could have saved my mother--," my voice cracked. None of this was making any sense.

Alex reached over and dispelled the tension with a reassuring squeeze of my shoulder.

"It's like I said before, your father gave it up, all of it, for his human life. You, on the other hand, inherited the ability to use magic. It's not quite the same as what I can wield, but you can do a great deal."

"How does it differ?"

"You can't heal people, you can't make things grow, but you can harness the other elements, just the same as Howl."

I was at a loss for words. Was this the reason I could use magic? How could my father have kept such a huge secret from his family for so long?

And not only that, how many people had I met on my travels that harbored the very same secret?

"There aren't very many of the fair folk left in the world, but a few of us still exist. Most of us keep to ourselves, observing people from a distance, but we usually wont come close enough to get too attached."

"Why do you act like the idea of love is such a bad thing?" I asked quietly.

"--because it is," he said curtly. "For us, human emotions can be an overwhelming experience. Some know how to handle their emotions, while others cannot. A faerie that cannot control their human emotions is a dangerous being indeed."

I decided to test the waters with a question.

"The Witch is one of those faeries, isn't she?"

Alex bit his lip.

"Oh no, she's very much human, I can assure you. But I can see why you would think that. The Witch is powerful, but she's incapable of the type of magic I can conjure."

I felt the colour drain from my face.

"So there are worse people than her?"

He nodded solemnly. "Some faeries feel lust and greed rather than love. They lose their ability to control their impulses. Those are the ones you should watch out for, for there's nothing more dangerous than a faerie driven by sin, wielding the kind of magic that could wipe out entire cities."

"and are there faeries like that? In Ingary?"

Alex paused momentarily to think on it. "We've subdued many faeries that had gotten out of hand over the years, yes. Generally, we strip them of their powers before they can unleash devastation."

"But surely they didn't mean to cause anyone real harm?"

Alex set his lip in a thin line.

"That is the problem with them. They are unpredictable, their minds are clouded with greed and they lose control. Sometimes it means those faeries are beyond help."

"What happens when they lose control?"

"Many things. Once, not that long ago, we attempted to strip the powers from a faerie who became blinded by lust. We had discovered that he was stealing the hearts of young women, but before we could completely strip him of his powers, he escaped."

My stomach turned.

"He stole the hearts of young women?" I repeated.

He inclined his head slightly.

"It makes me angry to think about it. I searched all over the continent, but I was never able to find him. It's been a century since I last saw or heard tell of his whereabouts, so I didn't see the point of pursuing it further."

A man who stole women's hearts.

I knew this story all too well for I had heard it whispered by the ladies at my shop. At the time, they had claimed it was Howl who was responsible for the devious behaviour they had accused him of, but I knew better. Sure the man may have looked like Howl, but he was nothing like him.

"You're talking about Calcifer," I answered automatically.

Behind Alex's deep brown eyes, a passionate fire ignited. He stood over me before I could think to move, gripping my arms almost too tight for comfort.

"Where did you hear that name?" he demanded.

His hold on me was unrelenting in his search for an answer. Alex had become a man unhinged, and I had accidentally lit the fuse. I clutched his arms, removing his hands so that I could put some distance between us. His eyes followed me as I moved around the room. I had to chose my next words carefully.

"What if I told you that the reason you never found him was that Calcifer was impersonating someone else?"

Alex's silence pushed me to continue.

"I saw someone a little while back when I was in Ingary. I confused them for someone else at the time, but he was acting very strange--,"

"--how do you know for sure it was Calcifer?" Alex cut in.

"I'm getting to that. I was convinced that Calcifer looked like someone I knew, but his behaviour was off and I couldn't explain why. That's when I had heard a rumour spreading around Market Chipping about a man stealing women's hearts. Sounds familiar, right?"

Alex stared at me with wide eyes. I had his attention.

"What did this man look like?"

"Howl. He looks exactly like Howl," I said slowly, watching his expression darken.

"How is that possible?" he asked.

"My guess? He got his hands on Howl's heart. How he got it is beyond me, but what I do know is that Howl is trying to take it back."

"What makes you think Calcifer has Howl's heart? Perhaps the man you saw was Howl, and you were seeing a different side of him?"

I shook my head vehemently. "No, I'm certain that the man I saw wasn't Howl. Someone told me that Howl had been pursuing a man named Calcifer, and thanks to the Witch, I know now that a person can take the form of another by using their heart. I'm positive that's who I saw."

"So what do you propose we do about it?"

"What? We?" I stumbled back.

"Yes, we, as in plural, as in you and me. I'm assuming there was a point to your bringing this up all of a sudden. What is your plan?"

He was right. I needed a plan. The Witch had assumed my identity, forcing me to flee from my home. Without my realizing it, by getting close to Howl, I had laid down the perfect framework for her to get what she wanted. The problem was that by mistaking her for me, Howl would undoubtedly confide in her, and that worried me. If he told her about Calcifer, about the fact that he was in possession of his heart, Howl would be in grave danger.

There was only one solution. I had to get it first.

But to do that, it was imperative that I had Alex on my side.

I looked over at Alex and clutched my blanket tightly. "You told me once that if I needed your help, I only had to ask."

He took a few steps forward until he was standing right in front of me.

"Without question."

I rubbed my hands for warmth as I began formulating a plan in my head.

These were the things I knew to be true.

Calcifer had Howl's heart.

Howl has . . . had feelings for me.

Would that mean that by holding his heart, Calcifer might feel the same?

I hesitated for a moment.

"It might sound a little crazy, but I think I do have a plan. Will you help?"

"I am at your disposal, Sophie," Alex smiled sincerely.

I took a deep breath and pulled him over to the chairs. Once seated, I launched into my plan.

"First off, do you know of any spells to locate Howl's heart?"

"Yes," he answered confidently.

I was startled by the surety of his reply, but I didn't let that stop me.

"Okay, perfect. Secondly, we're going to need some good disguises . . ."

I continued laying out my ideas well into the night. The Witch may have taken Howl away from me, but I wasn't going to let her near his heart.

Chapter Text

The plan was set. All through the night Alex and I sifted through ideas until we came to an agreement on our current plan. It was simple really, but for it to work, I needed Alex's help.

I'd been there the day that Howl demonstrated a locator spell in front of my sister and all the patrons of our boutique in the hopes that they might find me. Unfortunately for them, it never worked, but Alex theorized that it was because of my curse and not because I didn't want to be found. So for that reason Alex was certain that our plan would work, we just needed to tweak the spell a little bit.

To begin with, we had to get our hands on an object the Alex could use for the locator spell. We weren't using the locator spell to find Howl, rather, we were using it to find his heart, therefore Alex was adamant it needed to be something that belonged to Howl.

Something that he cherished deeply.

Something that he loved.

I was at a loss for ideas as to what that object might be, so I suggested that we sneak into Howls castle and take the top hat he had bought from my shop. Alex dismissed the idea immediately, pointing out that recent events would make it impossible for me to gain entrance to the castle.

I tried not to let it bother me but knowing that I was an enemy in Howls eyes hurt deeply. I needed to fix this.

Alex gave me no time to dwell on that fact. Instead, he offered another way to get our hands on one of Howls belongings. He seemed certain that he knew a place here in Dunbeath where we would find a usable object for our locator spell. Beyond that he would not elaborate.

Like a mad man on a mission, Alex was quick to flesh out the rest of our plan, running this way and that gathering supplies he would need, all the while going through the rest of the plan with me. Once we activated our spell, as he explained, we would find Calcifer and, if luck was on our side, take Howl's heart back before the Witch even knew of its location.

After that, it was up to me to safe guard it.

It seemed so simple and straightforward that we felt nothing could possibly go wrong. That was foolish thinking, for I knew how dangerous the man was who coveted it. Calcifer. Thanks to Markels omission, I knew Howl had been actively searching for him and after putting two and two together, it didn't take long for me to guess how Howl had been injured. This man was dangerous and he did not want to be found. Two strikes against us.

The third strike was because of me. Me and my distinctly silver hair.

Our plan to seek out and find Calcifer put us at risk of crossing paths with Howl. We were bound to run into him at some point. So if we wanted to succeed, I had to avoid being identified by Howl.

Disguising ourselves was the obvious solution, but where my creativity usually took over, I felt only nerves. I couldn't think past the fear of failure. After watching me stare at a blank page for almost an hour with no sketched disguises, Alex gently nudged me off the stool and ordered me to take what little remained of the night to rest.

***

Colorful rays of light danced across the bedspread as I propped myself up on my elbows. I looked down the tip of my nose at the lump of clothes left for me at the foot of Alex's bed. My disguise, I guessed. I recalled us both staying up well past bedtime so I wondered at what point had he found the time to procure these clothes.

Had Alex slept at all last night?

I pulled on the threadbare clothes, careful not to tear larger holes in the already damaged material. With a sidelong glance, I cringed at my appearance in the mirror. The brown tweed pants I had been given were too short, coming barely to my knees in length, displaying the ghastly mismatched mustard and burnt orange knee-high socks I had just pulled up to cover my bare legs. As if that wasn't horrendous enough, the ensemble had a matching vest covered with home stitched patches. About the only thing that wasn't offensive was the simple white button-down shirt I wore under the scratchy vest.

The outfit was shapeless, tattered and frumpy. Apart from my long silver hair, I hardly recognized myself. But I supposed in the end, that was the point. I grabbed the remaining piece of my disguise, a thin brown tie hanging from the bed post, and slung it around my neck. After several fruitless attempts to knot it, I'd given up on the idea of wearing it properly and left it loose like a scarf.

It wasn't a mystery as to what Alex had disguised me as, for a quick check in the mirror confirmed my suspicion. I looked every bit like a paper boy, minus the paper.

I wasn't surprised to find Alex already clad in his own tattered outfit in the main room. It was oddly like looking into a mirror. With his small frame, short stature and warm brown eyes, we looked so similar that I could have mistaken him for a long-lost brother.

Wordlessly, Alex pulled at the ends of my tie, knotting it with ease. He adjusted it until it felt uncomfortably snug against my throat and nodded approvingly.

"That's much better. We don't want to attract any unwanted attention," he remarked, handing me a matching flat cap.

I balanced the cap on one finger, giving Alex a reproachful look.

"You don't seriously expect me to wear this, do you? It smells like a moldy rag."

Alex sniffed the offending item and shrugged, seeing no issue with the odoriferous item. "Unless you want to stand out, this is the best option I have for you at present."

Dusting off the cap, I fitted it on my head, fighting the urge to make a face. I don't know what dreadful creature died in it, it was criminal to wear it. The ladies at my hat shop would have fainted at the sight of it.

Alex stepped back to get a better look at me.

"Mmm no, it's not quite right," he chewed on his finger, scrutinizing my disguise. With a decisive flick over his shoulder, a knife embedded in a wooden table began to wiggle its way out. It shot through the air with a hum, landing flat in his palm.

"What are you planning to do with that?" I held up my hands, taking a slow step back.

He looked at the knife in his hand, pondering something.

"Do you trust me?" He asked, balancing the blade on his finger.

I looked from the knife to his eyes, searching for malicious intent, but could find none. I had to myself that if I couldn't trust Alex now, I was going to be alone in this fight. I gave a curt nod.

His fingers brushed the side of my neck and I flinched. I willed myself to relax as I felt him gather up my hair in his hand. Instinctively I grabbed his wrist sharply, removing it from my hair.

"You were going to cut my hair!"

"I was about to, yes," he admitted.

My mouth fell open. "Are you insane? Did you hit your head or something?"

"If there was another option, I'd gladly take it, but that hair of yours is as good as a beacon Sophie."

"But this is my hair we're talking about. My hair! It may be silver, but it's still mine!" I argued.

"I understand your attachment to it, but even with that hat on you're way too noticeable. How many young women of your acquaintance have long silver hair?" he folded his arms.

"Well . . . we can't just cut it off!"

"You must understand, it is but a temporary measure. After all, hair does grow back you know."

"--well that's easy for you to say, you're not the one getting a haircut with a knife!"

"Have you ever looked in the mirror, Sophie? Your hair practically glows in the dark. We couldn't have asked for a more conspicuous colour even if we tried. It is such an alarming shade, Fisherman could use it to warn ships away from shore on a stormy night. As a matter of fact, I could use it for--,"

"Okay, okay I get your point. I know it's bad,--"

"bad is an understatement," he added dryly.

I pulled my fingers through the soft strands of hair. I had never thought I'd become so attached to it but here I was, panicking at the thought of losing it. It may not have been the warm chestnut brown that it once was, but it was still part of my identity. I'd already changed so much. Would I lose more of myself, lose more of my identity if we cut it all away?

"I can't . ."

Alex placed his hands lightly on my arms and gave them a firm squeeze. "I know this may seem like too much, but you are stronger than this. Remember that this is just a small price to pay to ensure that our plan is successful. We cannot lose sight of what is important."

"We can't lose sight," I agreed quietly.

"and what is important?" he queried.

"Stopping the Witch. Saving Howl."

"what about you?"

I gave him a confused look. "What about me?"

"You cannot be so selfless, Sophie. What is important here is your safety. I cannot, in good conscious, go along with this plan unless I have taken every available measure to ensure your well-being. I owe that much to your father. I promise you, it will grow back."

I released my hair and let if fall over my shoulder. Taking a deep cleansing breath to stop the knot that was forming in my throat, I gave Alex permission.

"Do what you need to," I murmured.

Without hesitation Alex stepped forward. Brandishing the knife with one hand, he gathered my hair in the other. His eyes told me how sorry he was as he sheared my hair with a quick stroke. Locks of silver fell from my shoulders to litter the ground below as I felt the weight of my hair disappear. I ducked my head to fix my cap, fighting the tears I knew would come.

"Remember what is important," Alex said softly, opening a portal beside us. Squaring my shoulders, I wiped an offending tear and followed him into the shimmering light.

Chapter Text

We stepped out of the swirling light and into the boggy mists of what appeared to be a town. I say this because although it looked very much like the Port Haven I had grown to love, it was completely desolate. As we walked the old cobblestone paths through the town, two things became very clear to me very quickly.

For starters, at one point this may have been a flourishing town, but I could find no signs that anyone still resided here. The houses lining the ancient streets had all but collapsed in on themselves from years of harsh elements and neglect. Where years of abandonment should have given way to the vegetation of the land, there was none.

As we searched, what we discovered was nothing but a petrified wasteland that lacked the natural order of things; any trees that should have flourished had rotted to stumps; the flora that should have overtaken the cobblestone streets over the years was non-existent; even the birds were decidedly absent.

It was strangely . . . odd.

The second thing I noticed as we made our way through the barren town was the overwhelming sense of dread that settled in my chest. It felt like something horrible had happened here. I knew it was just a feeling, but it was a strong one.

Alex must have sensed it as well for I could see the grim expression he was wearing as we walked. The silence was stifling, and Alex was not forthcoming with any information about our whereabouts. I was beginning to worry.

"Alex . . . where exactly are we?" I finally plucked up the courage to ask after turning onto a secondary street.

He looked over his shoulder in a curious way, as if I should have known.

"Old Port Haven," he replied without stopping, nonchalantly pointing to a rotted sign in the distance.

Old Port Haven? That meant we were still in Dunbeath. If my memory served me correctly, this place was just beyond the Stony Grove, the place where Howl's parents were buried.

Not to mention that Maggie had warned me to stay away from this place. It was cursed.

"Why here?"

"you'll know soon enough," was his only response, as if it could calm my unease.

Instinctively, I moved closer to Alex as we walked through the streets, keeping a watchful eye on the abandoned homes. My imagination had a way of running wild with speculation, so I did my best to convince myself that this place wasn't as haunted as it felt. The dense fog, however, did little to help my suspicions.

In the distance, I could faintly hear the violent waves crashing and rolling off the rocks. I imagined that it was somewhere beyond the town limits, which meant we couldn't have been more than a mile away from the ocean. If Market Chipping had been settled this close to an ocean, we would have had far better prospects in terms of money than only the tourism we had. So why would a town like this, with access to the ocean so nearby, be abandoned?

"I don't understand it, is there no one living in this town?" I asked as we passed more vacant houses.

His laugh was gruff and short. "You would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to live here after what happened to this place," Alex replied over his shoulder, adjusting the satchel on his shoulder.

"So what happened?" I pressed on, annoyed with his cloak and dagger responses.

"Everyone in Dunbeath knows the story of old Port Haven. It is, after all, the reason we're not fond of Ingarians," he said as a matter of fact, dropping the conversation once again.

If he thought this would silence me, he was sorely mistaken. I was determined to get my answer.

"You know that reminds me! Howl mentioned that the locals didn't like Ingarians just before we came to Dunbeath, but he never explained why that was the case. Perhaps you could enlighten me?" I looked over to gauge Alex's expression, but his was a mask of indifference.

"Do you know nothing about feud between Howl and the Witch?" was his response.

His words stung. Had he forgotten that it was thanks to their feud that I was mixed up in all of this? "The Witch wants Howls heart."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Alex let out an exasperated sigh.

"So you truly know nothing."

I reproached him with a scoff. "What is that supposed to mean? It might surprise you to know that the Witch wasn't exactly inclined to tell me her whole life story, so no, I don't know much about their feud. I may have a theory about what might have happened between Howl and the Witch, but that's it. Howl never told me. The Witch never told me. So that's all I have. A theory."

"Let's hear it then," his pace quickened.

"Howl told me that he used to be a student of the First Enchantress--," I began.

"Solana," he frowned at the name and cleared his throat, urging me to continue.

"Yes, Solana. Anyways, I think that at some point Howl fell in love with her and it made the Witch of the Waste jealous. So on the night of the battle of the Western Ocean, the Witch killed Solana along with the fleet of soldiers bound for Ingary as a cover-up for her murder. It explains why they never found anyone alive on those ships when they washed up on Ingarian shores."

"That is a very narrow-minded theory," Alex objected.

"Narrow-minded?" I shot back.

"Yes, narrow-minded, short-sighted, petty, parochial, take your pick. A slighted woman taking her revenge? Preposterous."

He avoided my scathing look and instead took a sharp right that lead to a path of stone stairs. I followed the stairs up until I saw what looked like the outline of a house in the distance. The slow burning rage within me kept me following him at a close distance as we continued our ascent.

Alex stopped on the landing and sat on the edge, patting a spot next to him. Curiosity won me over and I obliged, taking a spot beside him, but not without giving him the full effect of my withering glare. Our argument wasn't over yet, not by a long shot.

He dug around his satchel and procured a small metal object the I recognized immediately as the brooch I had lent him only a few days earlier. I'd completely forgotten that I had traded it with him in the first place. I reached for it but stopped myself when I realized he wasn't offering it.

He turned it over in his hands pensively. "Solana. The Witch of the Waste. The battle of the Western Ocean. Do you know what they all have in common?"

I shook my head.

With his eyes fixed down the hill towards town, he inclined his head.

"Old Port Haven." From our vantage point at the top of the landing, we could see most of what remained of Old Port Haven, engulfed in a dense fog that blanketed the ground below. "In some ways, you weren't wrong. The battle of the Western Ocean was a cover up, but for far worse reasons."

"So, explain it to me then."

"Very well. You knew that Solana was the First Enchantress, correct? History states that while she was the First Enchantress, Ingary never lost a soldier to war. But how was that possible? How could anyone make such a promise and keep it?"

"I'm not sure," I shook my head, "but she did, so I guess she had a way."

"She most certainly did, by human sacrifice."

A high-pitched sound escaped my lips.

"You do not believe me," he guessed.

I laughed inadvertently which only made him frown more. "I-It's not that I don't believe you, it's just that the history books never said anything about . . . that. You would think there would have been mention of something as major as mass murder."

"Wasn't there, though?" his brown eyes bore into me, urging me to make the connections.

My heart plummeted as the realization set in and the words came tumbling out of my mouth. "She never lost a war because the other armies never made it to our shores. There was always something that stopped war from reaching us. It was either disease, natural disasters, mutiny, or sunken ships, but no soldiers ever got out alive. . . are you saying Solana murdered them all?" I shook my head, refusing it to be true. People worshiped her for this. Howl had loved her. To me, it just didn't seem possible.

"You have only read Ingarian history books, so you may think that what she did was just because they spun the stories to make her look like a hero, but our books tell a much different story."

I clutched my sides tightly. "What are you saying?"

His expression turned dark. "Solana is a very smart woman. Though history claims she saved Ingary from threats of war coming from neighboring countries, what she did was far worse. You see, there are humans out there that are afraid of my people, afraid of our magical abilities. They think we are dangerous, that we pose a threat to their livelihood. Solana is one of those people. She convinced the people of Ingary that she was protecting the country, all the while tracking down and systematically wiping out my people under the guise of 'war'. She can call it what she likes but to us it was a massacre."

I gripped my knees to stop my hands from shaking but something about his speech wasn't sitting right with me, so I gave myself no time to consider my next question.

"Why do you keep referring to Solana in the present tense?"

I could see him chewing on the inside of his cheek. Something was making him uncomfortable.

"You talk as though the Witch of the Waste and Solana are two entirely separate people," he remarked.

"well they are," I shot him a queer look.

Alex cast his eyes to the horizon to avoid my pointed look.

"No Sophie, they aren't. Solana is the Witch of the Waste."

I shot up from my seat and in my haste my foot slipped off the stone stair, causing me to fall backwards. If it weren't for Alex's quick actions, I would have been seriously injured. With a vice-like grip on my arm, Alex pulled me back onto the landing.

I couldn't meet his eyes for I desperately did not want to know what I would find if I did.

Solana was . . . or rather is the Witch of the Waste.

She was Howl's teacher and my enemy.

With a calming breath, I stared at Alex's chest. "How did Solana, the First Enchantress of Ingary, beloved by the people, become the maleficent Witch of the Waste?"

Alex spoke but one word.

"Howl."

I finally met his eyes, but all I could find there was sorrow.

"but I thought Howl was in love with Solana," I argued.

His voice was quiet. "Perhaps he was at one time, but Howl was no fool. He was quick to discover her true intentions, just not quickly enough."

I could scarcely breathe. "How did she do it, how did she know where to find the fair folk?"

"Through her apprentices. They were human. Most did not know about their faerie relations and so unknowingly they exposed the location of their families and friends. Once she had all the information she needed, she took her apprentices aside, stole their hearts and wiped out their villages. Howl's case was no different." His eyes moved to the house and as I followed his gaze, my hands dropped to my sides.

There, above the little red doorway, so very much like the door I had used to gain entrance to Howl's castle, was an engraved wooden placard that read Pendragon in an elegant script. I thought about the stone monuments in the Stony Grove where I had seen Howl. His parents' names were etched in stone. Eloise and Gerald Pendragon.

"What happened that night, Alex?"

Alex walked over to the red door and slid down until he was comfortably seated against it. "First, you must understand that Ingary is, and has always been, a wasteland. No country was ever going to start a war over it. It had no viable resources worth fighting over. I am sure you yourself know this, having lived there your whole life."

"I had never really thought of it but now that you mention it, we do import a lot of our goods."

"Quite right. It was only when Solana stepped in as First Enchantress that things started to change. Suddenly the threat of war was constantly on Ingary's doorstep and Solana was there to protect the kingdom from foreign invaders. She was cunning. She had the people of Ingary convinced that she was saving them from outsiders, all the while covering up her tracks."

"But how did she get that way? Surely no one is that evil by nature," I cut in.

"She wasn't always like that. As you already know, she was my apprentice once. She was a bright woman, very keen and eager to learn all that I could teach her.

Long ago, in the village where I lived, it was known by all the villagers that I had great magical abilities. Back then we did not hide that fact from humans. I frequently took on apprentices if only to teach them the basics of magic. It was a task I enjoyed with great vigor; when you have lived as long as I have, you learn to do things to keep your mind busy.

One day, she arrived at my doorstep, bruised, battered and entirely frightened. She told me that she was part of a travelling caravan that had been over taken by bandits. In her distress, her magical abilities manifested. She used her new-found abilities to fight back and was able to escape her captors in search of a village where she could hide. She told me she was frightened of her magic and needed help.

It did not take me long to understand that this woman needed me, so I made her my apprentice. She was a brilliant student, able to form magic better than most faeries. I came to admire Solana and her enthusiasm, she stayed on as my apprentice far longer than any of my other pupils. In that time, I told her stories of my people and brought her to Dunbeath to show her where I came from. I wanted her to know the true meaning magic, to be one with the earth, not to be one with ones self. This is where our paths divided.

Her view of magic became a bone of contention between us, often igniting fights that lasted for days. We challenged each other to duels to release the tension from those fights but it was also my way of proving my point. She was never able to surpass me, for she always chose to wield her magic selfishly.

Over time, something changed in her and Solana became more closed off. She chose self study over my tutelage and demanded we duel more frequently. Every time she lost, her anger was increasingly provoked. It came to a point that I refused her request for duels, citing her anger as the reason I could help her no longer. She ended things soon after and was gone before I could change her mind.

I heard tell of an Enchantress in Ingary but did not know it was Solana until the stories of her "feats" reached my village. I will not deny that I ignored the warning signs for a long time until Howl became her apprentice. I took a vested interest in him for I knew his mother well; we had been childhood friends. After visiting with Eloise and listening to her concerns, I began investigating Solana."

"What happened to them?" my voice cracked.

Alex leaned his head back with a thump and closed his eyes. "One night, as I was pouring over my books, Eloise appeared in my house. She held a note in her hand addressed by her son that explained everything. Howl had learned of Solana's plans to kill his family after discovering the fates of his predecessors. We did not know how she intended to do it, but it was clear that we had to get everyone safely out of Port Haven.

We unloaded a few merchant boats of their cargo and rounded up all the townspeople. Our goal was to travel down the coastline to a neighboring town that could harbor us until we could find a way to stop Solana.

With Howl at the Helm, we pulled out of port immediately, but it was too late. Like a harbinger of death, Solana appeared before us and unleashed her fury. Howl and I fought like mad men, but Solana had grown too powerful. She kept with her the hearts of her apprentices, wielding them with deadly force. I was certain we had lost but it was Howl's quick thinking that saved us both.

He realized that the only way to stop her was to remove the source of her power, so he charged at her with a wooden beam, swinging it with his left arm. Solana was so distracted by it that she did not see his right hand until he pressed the heartstone against her chest. A bolt of lightning lit the sky as Howl took her heart and cast it over the side of the ship, rendering her powerless.

We were able to subdue her, but as we surveyed the damage, we discovered weren't quick enough. The lightning we saw the moment before Howl could take her heart was Solana's last act as the First Enchantress. It killed everyone on board.

In his grief, Howl cursed Solana to bear the weight of her depravity; she would live with her sins, if only to have her suffer as Howl did, her body decaying with every malicious act she committed. To complete his vengeance, Howl had me remove his heart and hid it away so that Solana could never break her curse."

My legs had gone numb with cold, but I could barely move. The weight of Alex's story was too heavy to bare. My heart broke for Howl, it broke for the man who lost his family. The sorrowful music of his violin echoed in my head and at once I understood why it was so full of mourning.

Alex pressed a handkerchief into my open palm and rubbed my shoulder. "Please understand that I did not tell you this to pity Howl. I told you his story so that you know who we are up against."

I looked out over the hillside and down to the deserted town with the burden of knowing the fate of its inhabitants.

"The battle of the Western Ocean wasn't a battle at all. It was the night Howl lost everything." Hearing me say the words didn't make it any easier. My heart ached to be with Howl now more than ever, to protect him from the evil Witch, but we had a task to complete. I turned to Alex with renewed determination. "We need to get his heart back and stop the Witch once and for all."

"I couldn't agree with you more," Alex smiled, twisting the brooch in his hand until it became a key. He offered it to me with a nod and pushed away from the door.

I reached for the tarnished handle and slipped the key into the lock, tossing one last look at Alex.

"Are we ready for this?"

Chapter Text

The door protested with a groan as the weight of it swung inward, granting us access inside the home that was once Howls. Almost as soon as we stepped foot inside, I could tell that something about this place felt unnatural. Although the air felt stagnant, I could find no evidence that this place had been effected by the burden of time. For a home that had stood for over a century, I expected, at best, a great deal of cobwebs and dust, or at worst, rot and decay. But this was not the case.

As we passed through the front foyer, I noticed a coat seemingly discarded across the bench next to a newspaper that indicated the day's date. May 14, 1801. Next to that I found two hastily packed suitcases that never made it past the front door. It was like walking into a scene that had yet to play its self out, but I already knew the ending.

I left the front foyer in favor of the living room. It was then that I realized something peculiar. Howls family home was laid out almost identically to his castle and yet, where Howls castle was all white walls and ebony floors, this place displayed dark walls, rich mahogany, and furniture clad in damask silks that gave it a sort of timeless elegance.

There were a few extra walls dividing the kitchen and dining area from the rest of the home, but I found myself unable to move from the living room to discover them. I could not, for I was fixated on a painting that hung on the back wall. It was set high above the fireplace, showcased by two sconces that had long since lost their wicks. It did not need their light, however, for the vibrant colours on the canvas illuminated the room without assistance.

The canvas depicted a younger version of Howl, standing between his mother and father, each of them smiling to an unknown audience. This was a much different version of the Howl I knew, sharing the same unruly raven hair as his mothers, but with the piercing green eyes of his father. Howl's father gripped his sons shoulder proudly, with his mother holding him cheek to cheek. In the center was little Howl, holding his shiny red violin. This was once a family.

I reached out to touch the rough surface, tracing the pattern of their matching outfits. I recognized his mothers dress at once, for it was the same one he had lent to me only a few days ago.

"Sophie?" Alex asked, interrupting my thoughts.

"Yes?" I removed my hand from the painting, remembering that there was a reason to my being here.

"I believe there is an extensive library upstairs. If it is intact, I recall that the late Mr. Pendragon had some rare manuscripts by an early 14th century scholar that I am eager to examine. I would be most obliged if you would let me investigate this matter, unless you require my assistance?" He cleared his throat politely and gave me a look that said he wanted nothing more than to be engrossed in his scholarly pursuit.

I dusted my hands on my pants and gave him a thumbs up. "I don't see why not. Why don't you search the library for me, while you're up there?"

I'm sure Alex would have responded, but he was already climbing the stairs before I could finish my sentence. I suppressed a smile and turned my attention back to the task at hand.

Finding an object that Howl loved.

Alex seemed confident that I could find something here that fit that description, but as I stood in the vacant living room, I wasn't feeling as hopeful. Did I know Howl well enough to find something that might work?

I erased the worry from my mind and began my search, starting with the living room. It was a tidy space, with a few pieces of furniture that all turned towards the fireplace. Nothing at first caught my eye as I went through the drawers and searched the shelves, finding only little odds and ends that bore no meaning to me. It seemed to me that the Pendragons kept a tidy household, which made my job all the more difficult.

If only I could have found a letter, or perhaps an engraved trinket that belonged to Howl, but the Pendragons seemed not to be the sentimental type. I pushed the ottoman out of my way and scanned the room for another option. If I had any chance of finding this item, I had to start thinking like Howl.

So, where would a young boy store his most prized possessions?

I looked across the room, back to the hallway where Alex had run off in search of his library, and felt a slow smile spread across my face. There, built into the side of the staircase, was a closet. But not just any closet, by my estimation, because if Howl was anything like my sister and I when we were young, he would have used the closet as a secret room. Nothing was more thrilling than having a place that grown-ups were forbidden to enter. With my fingers crossed firmly behind my back, I gripped the door knob and wrenched the door open.

Without proper lighting, I ducked under the short door frame and crawled into the space to give my eyes time to adjust to the darkness. I wasn't in the closet for more than a minute before I heard a pair of voices. My entire body froze as I realized they were approaching the front door and I had but a moment to shut myself in before the front door swung open with a resounding BANG.

I fumbled around in the darkness until my hands found the metal doorknob with the key still firmly lodged in the lock. Ever so gently, I turned the key and removed it from the handle, kneeling down so that I could get a better look at the intruders.

"Are you certain, master?" the first voice asked. There was something familiar about his manner of speaking and as I pressed my eye to the keyhole, I caught a glimpse of his bright red hair.

Markel.

But that meant that. . .

"Markel, I placed incantations over this place a century ago. No one should be able to gain entry, not even her. I don't know what the design or purpose of this break in was, but we need to get to the bottom of this," The other man snapped, marching down the hall to stop in front of my closet.

Despite changing his appearance, I knew the voice to be Howls. But the man I saw through the keyhole, wasn't the man I remembered. Gone were the casual clothes and button-down shirts; Howl was back to wearing his polished oxfords and three-piece ensembles. His once soft and tousled black hair was now a perfectly oiled blonde facade. Even his glasses had been removed.

I didn't like it. It felt like an act. This wasn't the Howl I knew, the man who climbed bar tables and drank mead, who challenged men to a musical battle, who traversed caves and taught an played with magic. This wasn't the Howl I held close at night, who kissed me so tenderly that I gave my heart and my soul willingly.

No. This wasn't him at all. This was a man hiding behind a wall.

Markel's voice dropped to barely a whisper. "So you think it's her, then?"

Howl fixed him with a glare. "Who else would want to gain entry to this place? The locals have taken to calling this place cursed so I doubt that they had reason to venture this far."

Markel leaned against the far wall and folded his arms. "She's never going to stop, is she?"

"With the ball only a few days away? I'm not surprised that she's getting desperate. It's my fault, this is my punishment for not ending things when I should have," Howl exhaled.

"The centennial ball? Do you think she means to make a move then?"

"She will. Solana used to be cool and calculated, and she never left anything to chance. Lately, her actions have become increasingly reckless and that has me worried. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before she discovers the truth and breaks her curse."

"I would rather not think about it," Markel grumbled. "But even if what you say is true, I still think it's impossible. You and I both know her heart her lies at the bottom of the ocean."

Howl exhaled sharply and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Perhaps at one point it was, but I have it on good authority that it resides elsewhere."

"You've seen it?!" Markel squeaked. "H-how is that even possible?"

Howl rubbed the back of his neck, searching for the right words. "It could have washed up on shore, or been picked up by a fisherman's net, I'm not sure to be honest. But after a century under the sea, it's not impossible to think that it wouldn't turn up at some point. Solana must have thought the same--,"

"--which explains why she's been acting out lately," Markel groaned.

Howl tossed him a knowing look. "It should never have come to this. I could have ended it that night but I hesitated. Not this time. No, this time I'm not leaving anything to chance. Search the house, leave nothing unchecked. Find her."

"Aye, Master," Markel saluted, pushing his sleeves to his elbows. Without further conversation, he made his way towards the kitchen, leaving Howl alone in the hall.

I could still make out Howl as he made his way into the living room. He paused in front of the painting and reached out to touch it. My hand slipped from the doorknob and raked the wood noisily. Howls head whipped around and for a moment, I thought he could see me through the keyhole. I stumbled back instinctively and I felt my hand connect with something wooden. It would have clattered to the floor if I had moved further back, so I grabbed it and clutched it to my body as I listened for footsteps.

Carefully, I peeked through the keyhole and saw what I thought was Howl's hand reach for the knob. I clasped a hand over my mouth to muffle my ragged breathing, but it was my heart hammering relentlessly in my chest that threatened to give me away.

I held my breath as I watched Howl's hand move closer and closer to the handle. My fingers wrapped tightly around the object as I prepared for the fallout. With my eyes squeezed shut, I held the object over my head, ready to swing if I had to.

"Master, would you come here for a second? I think I may have found something," Markel shouted in the distance.

I waited for one breath, then two breaths, then three breaths before peeking through the keyhole one last time. To my relief, he was gone. Using every muscle available to me, I eased the door open ever so carefully. Craning my neck, I confirmed that the coast was clear. With my heart hammering in my chest, I searched frantically for a way to escape.

Alex and I had to get out of here and with him still occupied upstairs, I needed a distraction. I forced my legs to move even though my nerves refused. If I wanted to avoid detection, my only option was to keep Howl and Markel away from us until we could escape. Wielding the object in my left hand, I ran to the front door and kicked it shut with a force that sent a sharp pain through my leg.

As I doubled back and fumbled my way up the staircase, I heard Howl and Markel shouting from the back of the house. I spun around at the last second on the top stair and clasped my hand over my mouth as I watched the two men race out the front door.

I climbed the last of the stairs and rounded the corner to the first room on the left. The door swung open unexpectedly and Alex caught me off guard. I all but tumbled into the room in my haste. Pulling me to my feet, Alex locked the door and wedged a book under the gap.

"Use one of your spells," I whispered frantically, "like that time in the grove."

His frown answered for me. "It won't work in here. Cloaking spells only works if the person isn't aware of your presence. Howl will know the moment we use it."

"So what do we do now? I haven't found anything yet, I need more time!"

Alex seemed surprised by my statement. "Didn't you, though?" he asked, indicating to the object in my hand.

"What do you mean?" I followed his gaze to the wooden object in my hand. It was a case of some sort, emblazoned with Howl's on a tiny brass placard. I made my way over to a table and set the case down, releasing the brass clasps that sealed it shut. The first thing that caught my eye was its glossy red sheen covered in elegant gold filigree markings that highlighted its delicate form. Quickly, I came to realize what it was I had found. Nestled carefully within the velvet lined box was Howl's violin.

If there was ever an object that he loved dearly, this had to be it.

"I had no idea Howl was still in possession of this instrument," Alex marveled, smoothing his hand over the polished surface. Picking it up, he turned it over in his hands methodically. "It is a masterfully crafted piece, given to Howl by his mother as I recall, but I'm not sure if this will work. Howl played with great proficiency but I do not believe he loved it a great deal."

I shook my head in disagreement as I took the violin from him. "You've never heard him play the way that I have. It wasn't just with great proficiency that he played; his music was filled with emotion. It may not have felt like love, but I believe Howl cherishes his ability."

Alex unfastened his satchel and produced a folded piece of parchment. As he set it on the floor and smoothed out its creases, I recognized it at once as a thoroughly detailed map. He reached for the violin and set it on top of the parchment.

"There is only one way to find out if it works," he said, getting back to his feet.

The door rattled viciously, startling us both.

"Master, come quickly! There's a door locked up here and I thought I could hear voices!"

Without a moment to spare, I ran headlong at the door, throwing my weight against it.

"Do it now!" I yelled over my shoulder.

Gathering the map and the violin in his arms, Alex threw open the window and cast them over the side. With his palms facing out, he uttered an incantation under his breath.

"Get ready to jump, Sophie!" Alex yelled as a green light erupted outside.

The battering stopped at once.

"Sophie?" Howl asked, "why are you here?"

"It isn't her, it can't be," Markel whispered loudly. The onslaught continued without warning.

I braced myself against the door, resting my palm on the splintering wood grain. "It is me, Howl! Please stop, I'm only trying to help you!"

Once again, the battering stopped.

His voice came out strangled. "Why would you break into my home like this?"

I clenched my hand into a fist, biting my lip to stop it from quivering. "You gave me no choice Howl! You let the Witch come between us."

"I would never let that happen," he argued. "I drove her away that night back at the hat shop, don't you remember?"

"That was me!" I cried, striking the wood with my fist. "It was me you drove away!" Again, I struck the wood in anger. "How could you let her fool you like that? Didn't our time together mean anything to you? Or was it all a lie? You say you want to stop Solana and yet you didn't even notice her slip right past your defenses. So to answer your question, that's why I'm here, Howl, to fix things before it's too late."

Alex waved frantically at me, gesturing me to come to him but I wasn't ready, I needed to say my piece. I held up a finger to indicate that I needed another minute and turned back to Howl. "I know that at this moment, there isn't a thing I can do or say to convince you to change your mind but I want you to know that everything we've been through together, from the first day you walked into my little hat shop, to our last night together. . . to me, that was real, Howl, and it changed my world. So just please, give me time. I will make things right."

All was quiet on the other side of the door.

"What are you waiting for? We need to go, NOW." Alex shouted, pulling himself up onto the windowsill.

The swirling green vortex flickered just beyond the window, beckoning me forward. I removed my weight from the door and rushed over to the window.

The swirling green light grew darker, pulling the air from the room with it. Standing on the windowsill, Alex leaned out the window, crossing his arms over his chest. "It should close once you jump through, so just keep your arms in and jump, okay?" I will see you on the other side," he winked, leaping over the edge of the window and down into the swirling vortex below.

As I grasped the wood frame and pulled myself up onto the ledge, the door splintered inwards. Howl stepped over the mess of splintered wood, dusting his sleeves. He saw me standing at the edge of the window and his eyes grew wide. I pulled my cap down and used the collar of my jacket to conceal my face and, with a quick glance over my shoulder, confirmed that the portal was still open.

"Don't do it," he pleaded, taking a few steps towards me.

"I'm sorry Howl. I didn't mean to hurt you--," I whispered, stepping backwards. My foot slipped and I lost all sense of balance. Seeing the panic in my eyes, Howl ran towards me. The last thing I remember as I fell through the portal was Howls hand reaching out to mine as he shouted my name.

"Sophie!"

Chapter Text

Falling through space felt nothing like I imagined it would. I was weightless and heavy all at once as I plummeted through the unknown. As I dropped into the chasm of swirling light, the image of Howls hand reaching out to mine burned into my memory.

But a question lingered.

Had I reached out and took the hand he offered, what would have happened?

The ground appeared out of nowhere and before I could answer that very question, the force of the impact knocked the wind clean out of me. It took me a moment to get my bearings before I could attempt to move but something grumbled beneath me that made me jump.

"It's a good thing I happened to be standing here," Alex groaned as I scrambled to get off him. Dusting off his jacket, he moved his neck from side to side, giving it an experimental crack.

"You should have considered moving then," I replied indignantly, adjusting my jacket so that it hid most of my features.

It was hard to say where it was that we were, for aside from the climbing brick walls surrounding us, there was nothing else that could tell me our location. All I knew was that if Alex's spell had truly worked, then Calcifer had to be close by.

"Perish the thought, Sophie. Who knows what kind of damage you might have caused to the pavement," Alex's lip quirked. Rummaging around his satchel, he produced a flask and took a long swig. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he offered the rest to me.

"So, where are we?" I asked, taking the tiny metal container from him. One whiff was all I needed to identify the strong odor. Whiskey, I shuddered, handing the offending drink back.

"Not a fan, I take it?" he guessed, taking another healthy quaff.

I pulled a face and turned away. "I don't take pleasure in drinking something that smells like it could pull the varnish off a table. Howl seems to enjoy that sort of thing as well, but I can't possibly figure out why."

"You could say that it is a Highland tradition," he replied, tucking the flask away. Sifting through a small pile of trash by out feet, Alex straightened out a newspaper and held it at arm's length. He pulled out a pair of spectacles and perched them on the bridge of his nose. "Aha, to answer your earlier question, it would appear that we are not far from Kingsbury."

"Kingsbury?" I said in disbelief, reaching for the paper. Alex peered over my shoulder as I tried to interpret the smeared ink blots on the dirty paper.

"Yes, see here?" he pointed to a smaller heading that had the words Kingsbury Herald inscribed in barely legible ink.

I peeked around the corner of what I now gathered to be an alley to get a better look at our surroundings. The roads were spotless, with few street vendors to be found. As for people, there were plenty. Not the market place that I remember going with Markel then.

"It looks like the richer side of Kingsbury," I remarked, watching a pretty woman step out of a carriage, her cream chiffon gown flowing behind her like a cloak.

Everywhere I looked, men and women were dressed so elegantly that I tugged at my tattered outfit nervously. Our disguises weren't going to work with these people; we stood out for all the wrong reasons. I hoped that Alex had a plan because at this point I wasn't feeling entirely confident we could get anything accomplished looking the way we did.

"Sophie, he's here," Alex said quietly, ducking out of view. He inched forward, pulling me with him. I followed his gaze across the road and found myself gripping his arm for support.

It didn't take me long to identify who it was that caught Alex's attention. Neatly combed into a soft wave, his oiled hair gleamed in the midday sun like a beacon. His clean-shaven, sharp jaw displayed a perpetual smirk as he played with a coin in his hands, giving a nod to the ladies as he passed them by. But it was more than that that had me staring like a lovesick girl. It was that he looked so alarmingly like Howl that my breath caught.

He's not Howl, I had to remind myself sagely and put it out of my mind.

But it was seeing him, walking with such an arrogant confidence for a man living a lie, that made me angry.

"That's him alright," I hissed, pulling us out of view. My hands gripped Alex's arm harder than was necessary, but I needed something to hold onto. My reaction was so visceral that it surprised me.

"He looks just like him," Alex remarked quietly beside me.

I sighed inwardly. "It fooled me too, the first time I encountered him, that is. I was completely convinced it was Howl."

"I can see how you would make that mistake. Their resemblance is uncanny."

"Yes, well, give him five minutes and you'll know the difference. He may look like Howl, but he's nothing like him. I don't intend on making that mistake ever again," I grumbled. Centering myself, I turned to Alex. "So, what do you suggest we do? I never thought we would make it this far. Finding Howl's violin was a shot in the dark, really."

He considered my question carefully. "That's what I'm afraid of. We can't go back and get another item, Howl will have that house locked up tight. No, the time to act is now, Calcifer is right in front of us. This might be our only chance and I don't want us to lose this opportunity. It'll be our only shot," Alex reminded me.

One shot to take back Howl's heart.

Fixing my tie, I steeled my resolve and looked over at Alex. "How do we get his attention?"

"With that," he pointed across the street.

Opposite from our position, set up beside a tailors shop, was a portable shoe shine. Manned by a young boy, the stall included all the necessities to repair and polish leather.

My brow furrowed in confusion. "The shoe shine? I'm not sure I follow your logic."

"There is no need to, just follow my lead," he said quickly, already crossing the busy road.

Alex reached for my hand and pulled me alongside him, dodging carriages and pedestrians at every turn. I chanced a quick look over my shoulder to see how far away Calcifer was; it was only a few blocks from our position. He had stopped now, fully engrossed in conversation with a woman as we reached the stall.

"How much?" Alex asked to the little boy.

"For a shine? You're daft, you are! I can't polish those," he laughed, pointing at our mangled leather boots. He waved his blackened rag, dismissing us at once.

"No, not for a shine boy. Your booth, for let's say one hour? Surely you could take a break?" Alex offered, fishing out a coin purse from his satchel.

The boy slapped his knee with laughter. "You really are daft. Do you know how much money I could lose if I took an hour off around here?"

Alex opened the little leather pouch, producing two silver. The boy's eyes lit with greedy delight.

"Three silver," he bartered.

Another quick look over our shoulders confirmed that Calcifer was back on the move, closing the distance at a fast pace.

Alex produced two more silver. "Four should keep you busy," he said, dropping them into the boy's outstretched hand. Before he could take off, Alex reminded the boy to be gone for an hour.

"You drive a hard bargain," I chimed in sardonically.

"When you have lived as long as I, money is of no consequence," he shrugged. "But never mind that, get into your position, quickly."

I caught a glimpse of Calcifer out of the corner of my eye and stumbled over a can of oil. "W-what should I do?" I stammered.

Alex snapped his fingers and indicated to the stool by my feet. "I want you to sit there and act like you know how to polish a shoe."

"but I don't know how to polish a shoe," I corrected him.

"Surely you've seen someone do it before? Just use the black polish and the rag by your feet. Keep your head down and let me do the talking."

Calcifer was nearly upon us at this point, so Alex rubbed his fingers in the polish and smeared it across his face. Pulling out a handkerchief, he concealed his mouth and nose. I followed his lead and concealed my face as well, just as Calcifer stopped in front of us.

"Good morning, sir!" Alex turned to greet him brightly.

Calcifer cocked his head in the most peculiar manner, as if he was deciding whether we were worth acknowledging.

"It's the middle of the afternoon," he said slowly, letting his eyes roam over me. My hands flew to the mask on my face, reminding me that he couldn't see me completely. I was grateful for the disguise for his stare was a cold one. I cast a nervous glance at Alex.

"Err, right, how silly of us! We must have lost the time! You see, we've been so busy offering our expert shoe shines that we've barely had time to breathe today," Alex added, stepping between us.

"Expert, you say?" Calcifer sniffed. "You don't look the part at all. Your clothes are filthy and your faces are covered with dirty rags. Why are your faces covered?"

I was forever grateful for Alex's quick wit. "Well you see, we understand the importance of keeping our workplace immaculately clean. Better us filthy than our customers, wouldn't you agree? 'Tis a lovely suit you're wearing today! We wouldn't want to ruin your suit, now would we?"

Calcifer fixed us with a queer expression, stuffing a hand in his pocket. "I suppose not. How much is the shine?"

"Just one pence," Alex replied.

Calcifer cocked an eyebrow. "Really? Then why does your sign say four pence?"

Alex laughed awkwardly. "Err, that is because today we are offering a special rate as a thank you to our loyal customers."

"and yet this is the first time I've come to this establishment."

Alex's clipped tone held hints of frustration. "The first of many, we hope!"

"I doubt that," Calcifer exhaled dramatically, removing his jacket.

Calcifer sat heavily in the armchair and swung his legs over, narrowly missing my face. He set his feet on the bar before me, rudely tossing his jacket at me without so much as a please or a thank you. As I attempted to hang the expensive material off the back of the chair, Calcifer muttered something uncouth under his breath that made me want to reach around and throttle him.

A snap of his impatient fingers startled me to get to work at once. I fumbled with the black grease, using my bare hands to dig the waxy substance out. With Calcifer's attention fixed on Alex, I slathered the mixture over the glossy surface of his pristine shoes, making a complete and utter mess of them.

"So what do you do around here, Mr. . . ?"

"Pendragon," Calcifer supplied. My hands squeezed the rag.

Liar.

"Oh," Alex replied with a wink, adjusting his tone to sound more playful. "So, are you here for business or for pleasure?"

Calcifer's eyes roamed the streets, following a young woman as she walked by. "Pleasure. Always for pleasure," he purred.

"W-well I have no doubt that this is the place to do that sort of thing," Alex agreed clumsily.

His eyes never left the woman as a lazy smile spread across his face. "Oh yes, some of the finest bred women in the country are in this very city, not that you would be able to get their attention, looking like that." Propping his elbows on his knees, he leaned forward and looked me straight in the eyes. "But I will let you in on a little secret. Women like that, they taste exotic, like a forbidden fruit that's begging to be devoured."

His words made me want to crawl out of my skin. It was hard enough seeing him wear the face of the man that I-- never mind, but it was even worse watching him act in such a manner. It was no mystery as to why there were so many nasty rumours circulating about Howl. Calcifer was the catalyst, no question.

As he straightened up, something caught my attention. I thought I could see a glint of something in his breast pocket, affixed by a gold chain.

Howl's heart.

My pulse raced as I reached out instinctively to touch it, but seeing my hand extended towards him, Calcifer cleared his throat and attempted to get up.

I had to think of something and fast.

"S-sorry! I was just wondering if you had the time? I thought I saw a pocket watch," I said gruffly, a little too gruffly to be believable. His stare was unnervingly calm.

"So, you thought it would be perfectly alright to reach into my pocket and look for yourself? Tell me boy, do you think I'm an idiot?"

"He meant no offense, sir," Alex piped up, encouraging him to sit back down.

Slowly, Calcifer lowered himself back into the chair. "Well you should tell your apprentice to keep his hands to himself, unless he would like to lose them."

Our eyes connected momentarily, and I felt the icy chill of his stare. Quickly I cast my eyes down to the black tarred mess of his shoes and reapplied my attention to it with vigor. Calcifer continued where he left off with Alex, paying me no mind as I rubbed the shoe polish in.

Something told me that the lump in his pocket was Howl's heart, but I needed to get closer to him to find out. Having already messed up my chance to grab it, I was stuck. If I tried to take the item out of his pocket now, I risked blowing our cover or worse. The long angry gash in Howl's arm was a healthy reminder that Calcifer was not a faerie to be trifled with.

. . . and if it wasn't Howl's heart? Well, we would never get a chance to get this close again, that was for certain. I couldn't afford to mess this up.

Calcifer whistled to a group of ladies walking by, causing one of them to spin around and stop.

"Howl? Is that you darling?" the blonde gasped, hand to her chest, as she made her way over to us. Calcifer offered her a devilish smile and grabbed her collar, pulling her in for a passionate kiss.

Alex and I exchanged weary glances.

"Rose, my love, where have you been?" Calcifer moaned into her mouth.

The lady pushed away from him playfully but kept her hand firmly on his chest, right where the gold chain dangled out of his pocket. Slowly, she drew circles on his shirt as she perched herself in his lap.

"You know exactly where I've been. Here. Married," she chided him. His hand casually gripped her backside as he pulled her in for another heart stopping kiss.

In my mind, I knew he wasn't Howl, but my heart had other ideas about the bold display. I couldn't hide the twinge of jealously that pulled at my heart strings. I gripped his shoe even tighter, rubbing the polish in with such focus and determination that I could feel the heat under my fingertips.

"Still married, huh? When are you going to get rid of that guy?" he teased, running his fingers up the hem of her skirt.

"Depends, when are you going to make an honest woman of me?" she rebutted, stopping his hand before it could travel further.

"Darling you know better. I am a free spirit, always have been. I can't be held down by just one woman, just as I think you shouldn't tie yourself down to only one man. It isn't fair for the rest of us."

The lady pushed herself off his lap. "But my husband buys me clothes and jewelry, keeps a roof over my head and food in the pantry. He does that because he loves me. Tell me, would you do the same?"

Calcifer ignored her question and asked one of his own.

"Will you be at the hall tonight? I'm sure you've seen the posters around town, they've been up for weeks now. I would love to see you in that blue dress again," he leaned in to tuck a loose piece of hair behind her ear and whispered, "and out of it as well."

The lady had the decency act shocked. "Howl! You know I don't go to those anymore. Might I remind you again that I'm a kept woman? I can't be doing that sort of thing!"

"that never stopped you before," he grinned, pulling her in by the waist.

SLAP!

The woman ran off before Calcifer could stop her. He rubbed his reddened cheek with a mixture of chagrin and anger marring his otherwise carefully collected features.

"Women," he muttered under his breath, frowning at his shoes as he watched me working frantically. Our time was quickly running out.

"Almost finished," I lied. I hadn't a clue whether I was doing it right or not. I rubbed the shoes with more vigor than before until the muddy smears of black transformed his shoes into a glossy finish.

Calcifer, it seemed, was not as convinced. With a sigh of exasperation, he stood up abruptly.

"Expert shoe shiner? That's a laugh, these don't look any better than before," he sneered.

Once again Alex was quick to respond for me. "Apologies, sir! It appears my apprentice is a little off his game today. Perhaps I could offer you free polish?"

Calcifer held up a hand to silence him. "No thanks, you've wasted my time long enough," he grumbled, distracted by another group of women walking by, "and I've got places to be."

"—but if you would just reconsider!" Alex began, but Calcifer was already too far away to care.

"Excuse me, ladies! Does anyone have a light?" He winked, shrugging on his jacket. Like flipping a switch, his easy smile replaced once again. Several women pulled out a matchbook, eager to get closer to the handsome impostor, and just like that Calcifer was gone, swept up by the hoard of floral patterned, parasol-wielding women.

Alex and I exchanged glances. I knew exactly what he wanted to say.

Now what?

The loud thump of Alex's fist connecting with the chair startled me out of my stupor.

"DAMN IT! I'm so sorry, Sophie. We could have had him if we'd just had more time," Alex sighed.

Turning my back to the onlookers, I assessed his hand. "I disagree. If I had made any attempt to take the heartstone from him and failed, we would have lost the option of trying again. At any rate, he wasn't going to let me get close enough to try, even if I wanted to."

Alex was all astonishment. "You saw it?"

I shook my head. "Perhaps but . . . I can't be sure. There was a gold chain hanging outside of his breast pocket that he seemed to guard when I went near it."

Alex folded his arms and leaned against the wall. "So how do we proceed from here? He's probably long gone by now and there's no way we can get close enough without him eventually recognizing that we are the same shoe polishers."

As sat myself in the chair, an advertisement in the store window caught my eye. I leaned forward to get a better look and was struck with a brilliant idea.

"Maybe not shoe polishers," I pulled the handkerchief down, grinning.

"If not shoe polishers, then what? I have no other way to disguise us," he replied.

"No, not a disguise this time. I think I might have a plan, but for it to work I need to be me. Not a boy. Not a shoe polisher."

Alex eyed me with caution. "That would indeed be a very bold plan, Sophie. Might I ask what you have in mind?"

I reached for his hand and guided him over to the store window so that he could see what I had saw. "Alex?" I asked carefully, "how would you like to take me to a ball this evening?"

He removed his handkerchief and rubbed the sooty marks off his face, considering my idea. "I suppose that would depend on a number of factors. To begin with, we would need proper attire."

I directed his eyes up to the hand painted sign above us that read TAILOR in a rich bold font.

He looked over at the window next to him and smirked.

"Let us hope this time, it works."

Chapter Text

In our tattered oil stained clothes, Alex and I stuck out like a sore thumb in the immaculately clean shop. We walked up and down the rows of exquisite suits and elegant dresses, intent on finding the right look.

The poster had given no further details about the venue, apart from its location, so we were at a loss for ideas when it came to our attire. It only took Alex flashing his hefty coin purse to gain the tailors attention and he was all too eager to assist us in our search. In no time, Alex was fitted with a sharp looking tuxedo and matching glossy shoes.

I, however, was lost in a sea of chiffon and silk. The tailor showed me several dresses, but they were all too fluffy and frilly. What I needed was something that made me look older and more feminine, not young and girlish.

It took me a while to explain the kind of dress I was looking for, but eventually the tailor was able to guide me to a more sophisticated selection near the back of the room. Extravagant in both colour and price, these were the kind of dresses I only ever dreamed of wearing, but never the money to acquire. With rich tapered silk and delicate beaded bodices, each piece was more exquisite than the next.

"There is one thing that bothers me about this plan," I said, sifting through the dresses opposite of Alex. "Doesn't Calcifer know who you are? Won't he recognize you right away if you make an appearance at the ball?"

"We know of each other, but I've never met the man in person," Alex admitted, "but if you are concerned about such things, I can change my appearance."

I found him standing across the aisle and snorted. "How exactly do you plan to do that? Your hair can't get much shorter than it is," I pointed out.

"No, but I can change it," he said, removing his cap to expose his bright silver hair.

Dumbstruck, I reached out to touch it. "You can change your hair just like that?"

"Among other things, yes,"

"What kinds of things?" I asked, pressing him further.

"See for yourself," he said, pointing to the elegant floor length mirror propped against the back wall.

It was difficult to maneuver myself through the sea of dresses, but Alex had piqued my curiosity. As I stepped into the view of the mirror, I was baffled by what it was that he wanted me to see. In the mirror, I saw nothing out of the ordinary; I still had on my boyish disguise, black polish still smeared on my cheek from our earlier endeavor.

No wonder the tailor gave us such an odd look when we entered his shop, he was probably worried that we would ruin the merchandise.

"I don't see anything," I admitted, rubbing the last of the black marks off of my face. Standing behind me, Alex removed my cap with a flourish.

"And now?"

The long tendrils of my silver hair fell over my shoulders, covering the nape of my neck with warmth. I grasped long silky ends of my hair and stared in disbelief. A hint of a smile tugged at my lips in my reflection. How long had it been since I'd felt this happy about something? Overcome with emotion, I threw my arms around Alex, startling him, but he returned my embrace with a smile.

"I don't think you know how much this means to me," I laughed into his shoulder, willing my lip to stop quivering.

"I said it would grow back, didn't I?" he teased.

Tucking his hands in his pockets, Alex stepped away so that I could get a better look in the mirror.

"I swear. . . why didn't you tell me that when you cut it off in the first place?"

He simply shrugged. "Well that would have ruined the surprise now wouldn't it have?"

A familiar feeling pulled at the edges of my memory once again. It was a feeling I was beginning to recognize as I looked into Alex's soft brown eyes, eyes that look so very much like my own. Kinship. That's what it was. Something about him reminded me of my father. He was a quiet intellect that had a way with words; a man who had always put the needs of others above his own. As I watched our reflections in the mirror, I couldn't help but notice how much we truly looked alike, platinum twins who shared the same brown eyes. It was almost like . . .

"Alex. . ." I hesitated. "How well did you know my father?"

He turned slightly, keeping one hand in his pocket. Scratching his silver hair methodically, he looked away as he considered his answer. "Well enough, I suppose, although it had been a long time since I had last seen him. Why do you ask?"

"You remind me of him a little," I admitted, tearing my gaze away from the mirror to get a better look at him, "why do you think that is?"

"I think that now is not the time for that," he supplied, turning his attention to the racks of dresses with renewed interest.

His answer did little to convince me; Alex was hiding something from me and his easy dismissal confirmed it.

"When?"

He stilled his hand and looked over at me with a peculiar expression, his soft brown eyes so full of confusion. "When what?" he asked.

I sucked in a breath and let my thoughts out before I could take them back.

"When were you going to tell me that we're related?"

His hand dropped to his side and I thought at once that my question had upset him. He was quiet for a long time, so long that I was feeling uneasy in the silence between us. Why did I ask such a thing? I had just made a baseless assumption about a man that I barely knew. The long pause in our conversation made me fidget with a nervous energy and I pulled at the hem in my shirt to stop myself from saying anything more. Why was I so worried about his response?

Alex let out a long sigh and turned to face me. "It was my intention to tell you when everything was over."

I leaned back heavily with a thump and brushed the hair away from my forehead with a shaky palm.

"Hold on, y-you're not denying it?"

Alex's eyebrows knit together with confusion. "Sophie, please understand that I had never planned to hide the fact from you intentionally but I did not want to scare you away. Imagine what your reaction would have been had I told you that day in the grove, would you have believed me then?"

"No," I exhaled, "I suppose I wouldn't have believed you. But how did you find out?"

"I knew from the moment I met you; the moment you walked into my home with your questions and your curiosity. I was taken aback by how you look so very much like our father. But it was the fact that you had latent magical abilities led me to investigate more about you. I knew that there had to be a connection there, so I traveled to Ingary, to where I knew our father had put down roots, and I was surprised to learn about you and your sister there. It didn't take long for me to realize what Solana had done to you; your sister was distraught by your sudden disappearance and had mentioned Howl's involvement in the search to find you. Having found out that the brooch was that of a Pendragon and that you were suffering from a curse, I simply put two and two together. That is why I followed you that day in the grove. Knowing that you were of my blood, I wanted to protect you."

I could no longer hide the grin on my face. "I knew it! Ever since the day I met you, I knew there was something familiar about you! No person would be so willing to offer their help to a stranger the way that you did."

"Was I that obvious?" he frowned.

I reached out and grabbed his arm, eager now to know more about him. "So you're my brother then? Oh, I cannot wait to tell Lettie about this! She'll be thrilled!"
"I suppose I am . . . your brother, or half-brother rather," Alex answered, unable to hide his smile any longer.

My arms wrapped so tightly around him that I nearly knocked the wind out of both of us.

It all made sense now. The reason I felt so comfortable around him, the reason he wanted to protect me from the very beginning. It was because he knew who I was this whole time.

Alex carefully disentangled himself from my embrace, giving my shoulder a gentle squeeze.

"I will be the first to admit that I did not keep tabs on my father after he left Dunbeath. Had I known that he had had another family, I would have endeavored to meet you both. But that was in the past," he sighed, " and this is hardly the time to delve into our collective histories, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes . . . yes I suppose you're right" I agreed feeling my earlier excitement deflate so rapidly. It was hard not to want to know everything about him now that I knew the truth. "What do we do now?"

"You still need a dress for tonight," Alex replied, gesturing to the rows upon rows of dresses I had yet to look through.

"Right, the ball," I had almost forgotten about our plan. Tamping down the urge to ask Alex more questions, I spun around and marched over to the rack I had been working my way through and pulled out a piece I thought might work. Holding the dress against my body, I posed for effect.

"Are you certain about that one?" Alex coughed politely, averting his eyes.

"You don't think this one will work?" I frowned, looking down at the rich silk. I thought it was nice enough, although perhaps a little more revealing than I would have liked, but I was willing to put up with it for one night, if it did served its purpose.

"On the contrary," he said, reaching for a scarf that matched the dress perfectly, "I think it might work a little too well. If it were up to me, I would rather not fight anyone tonight on your behalf, especially not Calcifer, Sophie." He draped the scarf over the front of the dress, giving it a much more modest effect.

I pulled the scarf off and shook my head. "I need to be able to get his attention Alex. It won't work if I'm a wallflower."

"Sophie," Alex pleaded, gripping my shoulders tight, "this plan . . .we're playing with fire and I don't want to see you to get burned."

Gathering the silk in my arms, I set out to find the register. I understood full well that Alex wanted to protect me, but nothing would ever get accomplished if we did what was safe and comfortable. This was my moment to fix everything, so this plan had to go off without a hitch.

"Yes, but don't you know Alex? To win, we must fight fire with fire."

Chapter Text

Moonlight filtered through the curtains of the carriage, illuminating the royal blue silk of my gown. It shimmered like water from a deep flowing current, the weight of it cascading over my body, collecting in a pool at my feet. There was little in the way of fabric to cover my chest and I found myself crossing my arms to cover the plunging neckline that stopped just about my navel. As bold as my decision was, I regretted not keeping the scarf.

Alex crossed his legs and stared intently out the window, politely ignoring my outfit. But it seemed like my gown wasn't the only outfit that stood out; with his clean-cut silver hair and his sharp black tuxedo, Alex was making heads turn. He was too modest to admit it, but Alex was classically handsome. I had a feeling he was going to make a lot of people notice him tonight, whether he wanted the attention or not.

I gathered my hair and draped it over my shoulder, letting the loose curls fall like a curtain. The beads woven into the strands of my hair glimmered in the moonlight, highlighting the delicate waves the tailor's wife had carefully constructed for me earlier that day. I don't know when it was that my opinion had changed, but I loved my silver hair.

I rubbed my cold, numb arms reflexively, distracting myself from the coming events.

"Are you sure about this?" Alex asked, noticing my unease.

"It's a little too late for that, don't you think?" I laughed, intent on looking out the window.

He reached over and squeezed my hand. "We don't have to do this if you don't want to. You must understand that armed with Howls magic, Calcifer is a dangerous man. He could do untold things with that heart if he wanted to and you know I don't like the idea of putting you in harm's way.

I pulled my hand away. "I've already been put into harm's way, or have you forgotten about what Solana did to me?"

"I have not forgotten. I just wish there was more I could do to help you in this situation."

"We've been through this already. You have a role, tonight," I reminded him softly.

Alex nodded, but his expression was tight. "It leaves you exposed and vulnerable."

I smoothed my gown and looked out of the carriage window. If I could avoid Alex's statement, then I could convince myself everything would turn out alright.

"It's going to work. It has to work."

Alex wasn't convinced by my mantra. "What happens if you get into trouble? Sophie, Howl's heart is a weapon in his hands, do not forget that."

"It just means I need to work quickly, take it away from him before he can use it."

He cocked an eyebrow, "and if you do not take it away before he realizes your plan?"

I sighed at the window, fogging the glass. "You're just going to have to trust me, Alex."

He would not agree with me, but instead, indicated to the little stone pendant I wore around my neck.

"Promise me you will use that if you get into trouble."

I clutched the hearthstone and nodded. The little pebble gave off an iridescent glow in the darkness of the cabin. I hoped that I wouldn't need to use it, but it comforted me to know he would be there if I called to him.

The carriage stopped abruptly, signalling our arrival. Alex was quick to hop out, but as for me, not so much. The unfortunate truth about silk was that there was no stretch where I needed it the most. Sensing my distress, Alex held me by the waist and lifted me out of the carriage like I was a feather.

Once I had fixed my dress, I took his outstretched arm and looked up to get a better view of the venue. A hall was a rather odd word to describe the enormity and richness of the building before us. There was a marble staircase that gave way to two monolithic stone lions that guarded the entrance, which was at the moment, surrounded by people. Dressed in their richest attire, men and women mingled by the staircase, watching each coach that pulled up to the hall.

Gathering the silks in my hand, I kept a deathlike grip on Alex's arm to stop myself from tripping over my gown. Realizing that I must have looked ridiculous, I put on a dazzling smile as we parted the masses.

People craned their necks to get a better view of the mysterious silver-haired duo, with questions lingering in the air as we ascended the marble staircase.

Who were these two newcomers?

Where did they come from?

If I was nervous about the attention I was receiving due to the provocative nature of my dress, I wasn't about to give them the satisfaction. I let the world see my bare skin, cleverly covered by the deep fold of my dress. The cool blue silk hugged my curves with a soft caress, and as I let my hips sway with the fabric, I could see more than one man turn their head and stare.

This gown was attention by design.

Alex pulled me closer and whispered, "I think that's a bit much, don't you?" He kept an easy smile, but his arms and shoulders were stiff.

I gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I have to stand out. He needs to notice me and not all these other beautiful women. If you hadn't already noticed, we're surrounded by them."

A contingent of ladies had gathered around us, their eyes fixed on the man in my company. Alex had adjusted his bow-tie several times before I could grab his hand and stop the nervous tick. I gathered that Alex wasn't used to being the center of attention and I wished there was some way I could help him, but now wasn't the time to be anxious.

"Brother," I said loudly, giving all the ladies a chance to hear me, "don't you think it's time that you settle down with a young lady? Mother would be most pleased!" I smiled innocently as I leaned into his arm.

Alex's expression never faltered, but I knew he wasn't pleased with my antics.

"Names?" a voice interrupted us. Unknowingly, we had walked right up to a concierge standing at a podium. With a bored stare, he plucked the giant quill out of the inkwell and waited.

"Actually I--," I began, but Alex was quick to intervene.

"Davies, Alexander and Alexandra Davies," he supplied.

The concierge began pouring over the list, page by page.

I turned and gave him a confused look. "Davies?" I whispered a little too loudly into his ear, "you couldn't have used a different name?"

"Truth be told, I am terrible with aliases," he admitted sheepishly.

"I am sorry, Mr. Davies, but I do not see your name here. I am afraid I must ask you to leave."

Alex turned to face me with a wink. "Did you hear that sister? The man says he can't find our names. Whatever shall we do? We traveled all this way for some Ingarian hospitality and this is how we are greeted?"

The ladies swarmed around the concierge, pleading with him to make an exception, but the man refused to budge.

"I cannot allow strangers into the hall, it is the Master's orders," he replied gruffly.

"May I see the ledger?" Alex asked, holding out his hand.

The concierge had no choice in the matter, for one of the ladies reached across the podium and snatched it. With a fiendish smile, she offered the ledger eagerly.

Perhaps Alex's disguise was a little too effective.

With the book in his hand, Alex ran his finger down the list and tapped a spot in the middle of the page. At first, I saw nothing, just a name that bore no meaning to me, but the letters rearranged themselves soon after. It was such a subtle trick that if I wasn't looking right at it, I would never have noticed it.

"Ah! There we are, right in the middle of the page, see here?" He turned the ledger to point the mistake out to the concierge.

The man was flabbergasted. "I'm not sure how I could have missed that, my apologies Mr. Davies."

Alex dismissed him with a wave. "There's no need for that. May we enter now? My sister is looking rather chilly."

"I'm fine," I said through clenched teeth. I wasn't fine, in fact I could no longer feel my arms, but I refused to give Alex the satisfaction.

"Are you certain? You can always take my jacket," he offered, shrugging it off immediately.

I stopped him short of placing the jacket on my shoulders because if he did that, I was certain the ladies in our company wouldn't survive it.

"You're being awfully maternal Alex, stop worrying about me," I hissed quietly.

"Should I take offence to that?" he asked mockingly, pulling me along the corridor with the hoard of ladies still in tow.

I rolled my eyes in response. "I'm just asking you to give me some space so that I can do my part. We should split up and get this done."

As we turned the corner, the hallway opened into a massive room with ceilings so high, I could scarcely see them through the darkness. hundreds upon hundreds of candles were lit for the occasion; perched on tables, nestled within archways and windowsills. The effect of the collective light was nothing short of extraordinary. The flames gave the room a sort of ethereal beauty about it and as the dancers swept across the floor, the candles captured their every move, imprinting their shadows along the walls.

I held onto Alex like a lifeline as the chatter in the room began to die down. All eyes turned to us. The whispers in the background were too loud to ignore. They were curious about us. With a gentle pat on my hand, Alex guided us through the quiet crowd as they parted the way for us.

Alex reached for two glasses from a passing attendant and offered one to me with a smile. Slowly, the guests lost interest and returned to their previous activities, leaving the two of us to alone in each others company. Well, not entirely alone. Alex had garnered quite the attention from the ladies, but none were bold enough to make the first move. Even though it comforted me to have Alex so close, we had to stick to our plan, and so, reluctantly, I let go of his arm.

Alex stepped in front of me, blocking out the room. His expression was one full of brotherly concern.

"Will you be alright?"

I put on a brave face. It wasn't like I had much choice in the matter anyways.

"Positive. But you should go now, your ladies are waiting," I said teasingly.

Alex's voice was stern. "I mean it, Sophie, if anything goes wrong . . ."

"I will make sure to use the stone if anything happens," I promised, pushing him into towards the group of excited ladies.

Watching Alex disappear into the crowd, I downed the bubbly drink he gave me before it could hit my palate. Throwing caution to the wind, I deposited the empty vessel and picked up another.

"Two drinks in under a minute? Can I get in on this party?" A young man responded, grabbing a glass from the attendant. He clinked his crystal to mine and quaffed the drink without another word.

Although he was the tall, good looking sort, the man wore so much cologne that I couldn't catch my breath. Each time I tried to step away from him, he found a way to get closer to me, to the point that he was practically breathing down my neck. Without Alex to act as a buffer, I had a feeling this man was going to be trouble.

Spying a group of women near the dance floor, I ignored the man and made my way over to them.

"Pardon me, but I couldn't help but notice how lovely your dress is," I said, inserting myself into their conversation. One of the ladies looked slightly perturbed by my interruption, but the other beamed at me.

"Thank you, it took me ages to pick the right one for tonight! But yours, oh yours is just divine! Where ever did you find such a gown?" She trilled.

"Oh this? I bought it today at a tailor just down the road,"

The other woman, suddenly interested in the subject, chimed in. "The one on Baywood?"

"The very same," I grinned.

Our conversation continued on in this fashion for some time, until I was able to peer over my should and confirm that the man had lost interest. I thanked the ladies for their time and excused myself.

Grasping my silk dress in one hand once again, I walked the perimeter of the hall, taking in the scenery. Tables had been moved off to the side so that people could dance to the music played by the string quartet. Ball gowns of pink and gold, green and silver, twirled to the hum of twin violins as their partners lifted them high into the air. Their movements were so entrancing that I had a hard time looking away.

"Lovely, isn't it?" A deep and familiar voice asked. The warm wisp of his breath tickling my neck sent shivers down my spine. As I turned and peered into his sharp green eyes, I was desperate to reconcile my feelings with the impostor standing before me.

This wasn't Howl, no matter how much he looked like him.

"It is rather breathtaking," I agreed, clutching my glass close.

Unashamedly, Calcifer gave me an appreciative look over. "I might say the same of you, you are a rare flower, miss . .?"

"A-Alexandra," I supplied.

"Alexandra," he hummed as reached for my hand, planting a kiss on the back of my palm with a devilish grin. "When I first saw you, had I thought you were someone else, someone I knew, but now I can see I was pleasantly mistaken. Would you do me the honour of dancing with me?"

I tamped down the nerves that told me to run and put on a brave face. It was now or never.

"I would be delighted," I said, reaching for his outstretched hand.

With a snap of his fingers, an attendant took my glass. The dancers cleared the floor as the music went silent and all eyes turned to us. Calcifer led me out onto the floor, guiding my hands to meet his shoulders as he pulled me into his warm embrace.

The Cellist commenced a somber solo that set the pace for the dance and soon, Calcifer was leading me across the room. Several other dancers followed suit and came out with their partners.

I was beginning to sense a routine with this musical piece. Calcifer danced with elegant foot work, guiding me through the piece. With his outstretched palm, he made me twirl on the spot. By the time I stopped spinning, I found myself with another partner, and the dance repeated.

As I twirled around the new partner, something alarming caught my eye. I stopped mid-spin and looked out into the audience to confirm my suspicion.

A man was making his way quickly through the crowd and as he stepped out into the light, I recognized his alarming red hair at once.

Markel.

As my partner reached out for my hand, pulling me back into the dance, I panicked. I don't how it was possible, but they managed to find us. If Calcifer caught wind of their presence, I was certain he would vanish, ruining any chance I had of taking back Howl's heart. What I needed now was a new plan. Clutching my partners shoulder tightly, I scanned the room until my eyes found Alex, dancing toward me. I completed my twirl and reached out and grabbed his hand before his intended partner could take it.

"Is everything alright?" Alex asked quietly, as we continued to dance.

"No, it's not, but don't turn your head right now, it will look too suspicious. It's Markel, I just saw him in the crowd," I hissed.

His lips curved down into a frown. "They found us this quickly?"

"I don't know how it's possible, but yes, they did."

Alex was quick to understand our predicament. "What do you need me to do?"

"Give me enough time to get Calcifer away from here, and then make a distraction, any kind of distraction, so long as it keeps them away from us."

"Done," was all he said. With an elegant flourish, he spun me around and ducked into the crowd before I could blink.

A hand grasped mine, pulling me back onto the dance floor.

"I was wondering when I might get my partner back," Calcifer smirked. As he pulled me closer, I took the opportunity to peek over his shoulder. Markel was still weaving through the crowd, unaware of our presence for the time being.

I returned my attention to the man before me. The gold chain glittered in his breast pocket, all but shouting at me to grab it.

"Yes, well I suppose it's difficult to get to know someone when you're constantly trading partners," I sighed, letting my palm slide down his shoulder until it was firmly over the pocket.

"I couldn't agree more," he murmured into my ear as he let his hand slide down my waist.

Reluctantly, I moved my hand from the pocket and took hold of his before he could go any further. He gave me an inquisitive look that asked why I had stopped him, but I was quick to explain.

"Perhaps we should find some place a little quieter to get better acquainted?" I suggested as the music concluded.

The mischievous look Calcifer gave me was the only answer I needed. The cacophony of guests drowned out his response but even still, I took his arm and let him guide us through the sea of people.

With one last glance over my shoulder, I found Alex standing in the middle of the dance floor. One by one, the candles levitated off the tables and windowsills, collecting in the center of the room above him in a captivating display of magic. With a subtle wink, he mouthed the words good luck, just as the door closed behind me.

Chapter Text

His hand was warm yet firm as he whisked me away from the hall. Without the candles illuminating the hallway, our only guide was the moonlight that peaked through the stain-glass windows, pooling at our feet to ward off the darkness. At the end of the hall was a small staircase with two massive wooden doors that opened to a private balcony.

The light danced along Calcifer's cheek, across his shoulder, over his chest, and down his leg; half of his body bathed in light, the other obscured in the darkness. He looked so much like Howl that it was hard not to be affected by him and try as I might, my heart and mind were at war each other.

Our footsteps echoed off the marble. It was too quiet. I feared that if Calcifer listened too closely, he was sure to hear my ragged breathing and as if he could sense my thoughts, Calcifer turned his hungry eyes on me with a smirk. I fought desperately to tamp down the sudden fear that gripped me as he pulled me closer.

I was alone, alone with a dangerous man. He may have shared the same face as the man I cared for, but he wasn't Howl.

Wordlessly, I gathered my dress as we ascended the staircase, out into the night. The wind nipped at my bare shoulders, reminding me of just how much of my skin was exposed in the dress. I could all but hear Alex lecturing me in my mind. I should have worn something safer. I shoulder have thought this through.

Calcifer dropped my hand and stepped closer to the edge of the balcony and, like a moth drawn to a flame, I followed obediently. He propped an elbow on the ledge, crossing his heels as he took me in. He knit his brow together curiously. "How does a woman, as lovely as you are, find yourself in a place like this?"

I stepped closer and reached out to touch his shoulder, my eyes never leaving his as I let my fingers follow the seams of his jacket, down to the pocket on his chest. The gold chain was so close, yet I couldn't bring myself to take it.

I inclined my chin, looking up into his green eyes with what I hoped was a sultry look. "The same as everyone else who came here. I was invited," I answered softly.

His responding frown set my pulse racing.

That was the wrong answer.

"I'm sure I would have remembered inviting a lady such as yourself," he remarked as he fixed his eyes on my face. Without realizing it, I found myself trapped between him and the metal railing. A quick glance over the balcony showed me that I was too high up to survive the fall if he had a mind to send me over the edge.

This was his ball, his party. He was catching me in a lie and he knew it. I had to think quick.

"W-well t-that is to say . . . my friend, err, asked me to come in her place."

"And what is the name of your friend?" he pressed on, leaning closer and closer until there was no space between us. The sharp glint in his eye told me everything. He delighted in catching me in this lie. I had no choice.

My lips brushed his ear as I leaned in closer. "I thought we came here to get acquainted?"

With one hand firmly on the railing behind me, I gripped his collar and pulled his lips to mine. His hands released the railing and found a new spot on the small of my back as he crushed himself to me, reciprocating my movements. Broad arms lifted me away from the balcony, and as I wrapped my arms around his neck, he pressed me up against the outer wall. Rough lips crashed against mine as he pulled at the straps of my dress, exposing more of my skin. Dipping down, his teeth grazed my neck as he trailed kisses across my shoulder. His hands follow the curve of my dress, pulling me closer to him. Opening my eyes, I saw the gold chain glinting in the moonlight. While Calcifer remained focused on my neck, I reached in and grabbed the object.

My heart sank.

It was smooth, round and flat, just like a pocket watch.

"We have plenty of time my dear," he murmured as he set me down, removing my hand from his pocket. Returning to my lips, he guided my hands to his hips.

I had to stop myself from panicking. If it wasn't in his pocket, it had to be on him somewhere, I just needed to find it. His pants pockets were empty as were his jacket pockets, but there were still other layers to his outfit.

With shaky hands, I reached for the top button of his jacket and unclasped it. He responded with a moan of approval, letting his hands roam my body. I unfastened the next two with haste, exposing his vest. Calcifer was quick to shrug off the jacket and toss it aside, his eyes burning with renewed interest. He helped me remove his vest, but as I ran my hands over his chest, I could not feel the stone. Confusing my action as permission, he found the slit in my dress and ran his fingers along the inside of my thigh.

I fought the urge to slap him.

Gripping his white shirt with my hands, I tore it open, scattering buttons across the floor, my hand freezing when I found what lay hidden beneath. There, hanging from his neck, was a pendant that I recognized immediately.

Howl's heart.

Calcifer's eyes opened wide and a slow smile spread across his face. "I like a woman who takes charge. Go ahead, do what you came here to do." He closed his eyes, offering himself to me.

"Oh, I intend to," I breathed.

Starting at his cheek, I smoothed my fingers across the edge of his jaw, down to the dip in his throat, letting my fingers trail down his chest until they reached the heartstone. I clutched the stone, ready to wrench it from his neck when suddenly, his hand flew up and snatched mine. I yelped with pain as he squeezed it, but it was nothing compared to the hostility in his eyes.

"You're a sly little thing aren't you? Trying to steal a man's heart when he's exposed an vulnerable like this. It's almost laughable how predictable you women are," he growled, twisting my wrist painfully quick so that I had no choice but to release the stone.

I heard the words escape my mouth before I could stop myself. "Vulnerable? Tell me, how vulnerable was Howl when you took his heart? This isn't yours, it never was. It belongs with Howl, not you and I'm taking it back."

I fought with all my strength to take the pendant off of his neck, but Calcifer was much stronger than I was. His hand wrapped around my throat, lifting me effortlessly off the ground. I clawed uselessly at his arm to stop him, but he was far stronger than I was. His face was red with anger and his unsettling smile forced me to look away as I gasped for air. In a last-ditch effort to save myself, I grabbed the pebble from around my neck.

"Al . . ex . ." I managed between gasps, my vision blurring around the edges.

Calcifer wrenched Alex's hearthstone from out of my hand and tossed it onto the balcony. Snapping the chain from around his neck, he dangled the pendant just out of my reach and chuckled.

"What a shame, you were so close to taking this away from me," he taunted, twisting the pendant so that it reflected the moonlight.

A fist connected with Calcifer's cheek, sending him sprawling onto the balcony face first. The pendant clattered to the marble as I fell to my knees, clutching my throat in a desperate attempt to breathe in the sweet air. Stars burst across my vision, making it nearly impossible to see anything. Pawing the ground blindly, I felt the chain and pulled it to me as Calcifer got to his feet. Jamming the pendant into the folds of my dress, I scrambled to get out of the way just as Calcifer tackled the other man to the ground.

It was too dark in the hallway to make out the other man, but by his torn shirt, I was at least able to see Calcifers position. Over and over, I heard the sickening sound of fists connecting with flesh. The other man seemed to have the upper hand in the fight, forcing Calcifer to stagger back onto the balcony floor.

As my vision cleared, I looked up and saw what the real Calcifer looked like. Without out the power of the heartstone, Calcifer was much smaller than he had been before. His clothes clung to his small frame in tatters; his porcelain face marked with violence. The tangled red hair of his was set ablaze by the moonlight, revealing the anger behind his hazel eyes. Calcifer glared at me, having seen me pocket the heartstone, but it was the other man who stepped in to protect me that grabbed his attention.

"So ye finally caught me, Howl Pendragon," Calcifer smirked, wiping the trickle of blood that oozed from his lip. He displayed his bloodstained teeth in a ghoulish grin and held his arms wide, "and you had a woman do the dirty work for you. I dinna think ye had it in ye but that was a fair sneaky move, using a lass like that."

My heart picked up speed as I whipped my head around to get a better look at the other man. He had a cut above his eyebrow that bled freely down his cheek, obscuring part of his face. His suit was torn and bloody from the fight, but there was no mistaking who I saw. Howl spared a quick look at me and turned back to address Calcifer.

"I would never have agreed to this," he growled, taking a step forward, "what she did was of her own volition, I didn't ask her to do this. But you and I, on the other hand, have unfinished business. This ends tonight, Calcifer."

Something in Howl's expression had Calcifer clambering to his feet, backing away to the railing.

"Give me a break! Ye got what ya wanted in the end, dinna ye?" He pulled at the shreds of his shirt, "I don't have the pendant anymore, the lass has it! What more could ye possibly want from me?" His pleading eyes found me in the darkness, but I had no sympathy to give. I rubbed my neck and looked away before he could say any more.

"If Howl hadn't stopped you, you would have killed me." My voice was sore and raw.

Calcifers bloodied lips turned upwards into a sneer. "Aye, I couldn't help meself, ye got me all riled up fer nothin'." Seeing Howl clench his fists, he continued with a wink, "and ye tasted so sweet lass, 'tis a shame we dinna finish what we started."

Quick like lightning, Howl had Calcifer by his shirt.

"Watch your tongue. You are a snake masquerading in gentlemen's clothing, a blight on this land that needs to be removed," he uttered, towering over Calcifer, who was now bent over the railing.

Gripping the stone wall, I pulled myself up and reached out to Howl, my arms wrapping around his middle as I buried my cheek in his jacket. Enveloped in his warmth, I felt the courage to speak.

"Don't do this Howl," I pleaded. "You're better than this, I know you are."

I felt his shoulders slowly relax, but he would not release Calcifer.

"I can't leave him like this," he sighed.

Releasing him, I walked over to the discarded pebble pendant and picked it up off the ground. Holding it close, I whispered to the stone.

"I know, but let one of his own people handle this," I replied.

In a flash of brilliant light, Alex appeared before us. His eyes widened as he took me in, reaching out to touch my neck gently. He cursed under his breath and removed his jacket to cover my frozen arms, fussing over me in a matronly like manner. I cleared my throat loudly, gesturing to the other men before Alex could get too worked up.

His eyebrows disappeared as he followed my gaze, noticing the others for the first time. Cursing under his breath once again, Alex pushed up his sleeves in a fit and shoved Howl out of the way. With a well-aimed fist, Alex knocked Calcifer out cold.

"Alex!" I gasped, dropping the pebble from my hand. It bounced off the marble and off the balcony into the courtyard below.

Without so much as a response, Alex procured a length of rope from seemingly nowhere to tie Calcifer's arms and legs together. He was quiet as he worked, allowing Howl to help him secure the knots. Effortlessly, Alex hoisted Calcifer over his shoulder and finally turned to look at me.

"I have to take him back to Dunbeath. He will pose a threat to us if we leave him here," he explained, adjusting his posture to accommodate the load on his shoulder.

I reached into my pocket and rubbed Howl's heartstone between my fingers. Howl had propped himself against the railing, mopping his brow with the corner of his jacket, gingerly assessing his teeth with his other hand. He looked up momentarily, observing our exchange quietly.

"Then I will stay here," I said resolutely.

Alex seemed surprised by my declaration. "Are you sure?"

Howl looked up at me, and for a moment, I felt transported back to the night we shared together. It wasn't that long ago and yet so much had changed between us since. Would he be willing to listen to me now, where he refused to back then?

There was only one way to know for sure.

"I'm positive, Alex. We'll be here, waiting for your return."

Producing chalk from his pants pocket, Alex drew an arc into the stone wall. As he stepped into the light, he turned back to Howl.

"Take care of her, you understand?"

"Haven't I already?" he chuckled humourlessly, rubbing more of the blood off his face. When we didn't laugh with him, he cleared his throat, "I won't do anything to harm her if that is what actually mean, Mr. Davies."

Alex exchanged a knowing look with me and nodded curtly, vanishing through the portal, leaving me alone with Howl.

Chapter Text

In the silence that followed Alex's departure, I found myself unable to speak. It all happened so quickly; one minute, I had thought for sure that Calcifer was going to kill me but in the next, like a knight in shining armour, Howl appeared out of nowhere, saving me from my fate. And therein lay the question.

How did he know where to find me?

These invading thoughts swirled around my head, begging me to speak but my lips refused to cooperate. We were so close to each other and yet so far apart, and it was that invisible barrier that stopped me from telling him all the things that weighed heavy on my heart.

I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for everything that happened; that it broke my heart to hurt him the way that I did; that the Witch was still out there, somewhere, using my heart for her own selfish purposes, and that there was nothing I could do to stop her.

Solana. Even thinking of her name made my skin crawl. I glanced over my shoulder reflexively, as if the thought of her could conjure the vile woman out of thin air. I cleared my throat and smoothed the creases in my dress, hoping the gesture would coax Howl to speak first, but the stifling silence it made it impossible to say anything at all. I knew that somehow, I had to fix this before it was too late so, as I wrapped Alex's jacket around my middle, I joined Howl on the balcony for what I felt would be an awkward exchange.

The courtyard below was quiet. With all the patrons packed into the hall for the party, it was only us and the vast darkness of the night as our company. Our shadows cast long figures on the stone floor, illustrating just how far apart we truly were. I tried not to read too much into it, in fact, the separation afforded me the opportunity to observe him quietly so that I might contemplate my next move.

The cut on his brow had stopped bleeding, and although he had cleaned most of the mess, his cheek was still smeared with red. His mouth was set in a thin line but his expression softened as I came closer. Using the pocket square in Alex's jacket, I twisted it around my fingers and wiped the fresh trickle of blood, following the trail up to the small angry mark above his brow. Closing his eyes, he leaned in so that I could examine the cut with what little light the moon provided me. Covering the wound with the satin square, I held it firmly with my thumb, ignoring his flinch. With my other hand, I held his chin and turned his face so that I could get a better look at the damage. It seemed that most of the bleeding had come from the lone cut, but there was another spot that drew my attention.

"Leave it be--," he winced, pushing away my outstretched hand before I could assess his arm. It was more than obvious that he had reopened the old wound for the fresh blood had seeped through his white shirt, staining it red. I didn't need to look to know that he had ripped the stitches I had so carefully made.

A knot formed between my eyes.

"Why not? Do you not trust me anymore?"

Silence.

Howl clutched his wounded arm and looked out over the balcony with a frown. "How can I, after everything that happened between us?"

"But just now you saved my life! You could have let Calcifer kill me if you wanted to, but you didn't!"

Howls laugh was as dead as his smile. He found his discarded jacket on the floor and dusted it off.

"You think that I'm the kind of man that would stand idly by and let that kind of violence happen? You must think very little of me," he deadpanned.

"No, I didn't mean it like that. I think very highly of you, I just--,"

Shrugging on his jacket, Howl shot me a dark look. "Just what? Just decided it was a good idea to antagonize Calcifer for the hell of it? Because that was by far the most reckless stunt I have ever seen someone pull, and that includes your earlier escapade into old Port Haven. That was you, wasn't it? Standing on the windowsill like a thief inside my family's estate?"

My chest squeezed uncomfortably. "Yes, that was me, but I--,"

"Oh good," he pinched the bridge of his nose with a heavy sigh, "I had thought I was imagining things back there, but I'm pleased to know that my memory hasn't failed me."

"Howl . . ." I started reaching out but thought better of it and tucked my hands into the folds of my dress.

"How did you do it?" he asked, finally looking at me with eyes that betrayed a world of hurt.

My mouth opened and shut. As much as I wanted to voice my frustrations, I knew deep down that if I wanted anything to change between us, I had to be honest.

"the brooch . . . from the dress you gave me."

He paced the balcony, uttering curse words under his breath. "I suppose that's my fault, isn't it? I never should have trusted you in the first place."

My throat tightened. "Please don't say that."

He ignored my plea and continued the onslaught. "And why shouldn't I? You slipped in under my defences, disguised as a helpless old woman, begging me to break your curse. How could I refuse such a request? You put on such a persuasive act that and I bought it like a fool. And then, to miraculously break your own curse right at the moment I was most vulnerable? How very convenient. After that first kiss, you had me convinced I was in love with you and yet--," his look was like that of a wounded animal, "--you were working with Solana this entire time."

A cold wave of nausea hit me square in the chest. Solana had won after all. I was still the enemy in his eyes. The thought should have upset me, but it didn't.

It enraged me.

Clutching the warm stone in my pocket, I blocked the balcony exit. Let the consequences be damned, I would be defiant until the end.

"I could lie to you and tell you that I didn't want to do it, that I didn't want to break into your childhood home and take that violin, then destroy it to find Calcifer, but that would make me a liar." He opened his mouth to speak, but I silenced him with a finger. "I did it, and I would do it again because of how much I . . . well, that isn't the point right now. There are larger forces at work here and even though I desperately want to tell you about them, I can't. So I did the only thing I could do to stop her plans and protect you," I said, pulling the heartstone from my pocket. Reaching for his hand, I dropped the glimmering stone into his palm and closed his hand around it. "If that makes me your enemy, then so be it."

I squeezed my eyes shut and willed the tears to stop before I could dissolve into a hopeless mess. It was hard enough to hear him say that he didn't trust me, but to see him look at me with so much anger, it hurt even more.

But what did it matter anyway? It was all over now. Solana's plan had failed, I had ensured that. Howl's heart was back in his possession, where it would be safe from her evil intentions. To know that I had played a part in stopping her should have been enough for me, but all I felt was a strange sense of emptiness as I turned my back on him to leave.

Alex would be back at any moment, I reminded myself. He would be able to take me away from this place.

Before I could take another step, the warmth of Howls hand reached out and pulled me back. Clenching the heartstone in his hand, he gave me a quizzical look.

"Why?" he asked, searching my face for an answer, "why would you go to all this trouble?"

"Alex . . . he told me why you did this to yourself, why you removed your own heart. I can't imagine the kind of pain you went through, to make you do such a thing," I murmured, covering his hands with mine, "but you can't run from that pain forever. I think it's time for you to face that pain and defeat it, once and for all, and I-- I can't be the one to do that for you."

Slowly, I released his hand and stepped back.

This was it. I had to let him go now. Howl had everything he needed now to face the Witch and end their century-long feud.

The floor shook violently, breaking us apart. Windows shattered far below us, scattering shards of glass across the courtyard. We barely had enough time to brace ourselves when another explosion rocked the building, blowing the door off its hinges at the end of the hall. In a brilliant flash, flames burst through the opening, blinding us instantly. Howl covered me with his body, shielding me from the intense heat that followed just as a man rushed through the blazing inferno, beating his clothes furiously amid the smoke and chaos.

I peeked over his shoulder and as I squinted to get a better look at the man running towards us at breakneck speed, I gasped. In all the commotion, I thought I could see hints of his bright red hair.

Wait a second, is that . . .

"Markel?"

Chapter Text

His arms squeezed around me tightly, shielding me from most of the blast but even for Howl, the force of it was far too great. Instinctively, I squeezed my eyes shut and braced for impact, but it was Howl and not I that got the worst of it. I could scarcely hear myself think over the sound my ragged breathing, which only worsened as I opened my eyes to find Howl staring at me with the most peculiar expression.

I wanted to get away from here, I wanted him to stop looking at me with those sorrowful green eyes, I wanted not to relish in his closeness as much as I did, but even though my heart was no longer beating in my chest, it was betraying me. I inclined my chin so that my face perfectly aligned with his and then . . .

Markel's dry cough caught our attention and Howl took the chance to put distance between us.

The heavy smoke poured freely through the open doorway, filling the hallway with a stifling mixture of thick soot and fiery embers. With a wave of his hand, Markel sent a cool spray of ice across the encumbering wall of smoke, dispatching it in an instant. The blaze, however, was no match for his magic and before long, we were combating the smoke once more.

With his hands on his knees, Markel tried to regain his composure. "Master -- you need to come quickly-- there's been an incident," he managed between breaths.

Howl and I exchanged glances but he looked away too quickly. Feeling at a loss I beat down the smoldering bits of Markel's clothes to distract myself from the awkward exchange.

"What happened down there?" Howl asked. "I thought you had everything under control."

"I thought so too, but it appears that someone intentionally started a fire in the ballroom. It's spiraling out control. I was able to open a portal for a little while to help people escape but there are others still who are trapped in rooms down there."

My stomach plummeted.

Alex.

I clutched his tattered jacket tightly. "What makes you think a person started this? Did you see anyone do it?"

Markel stared at Howl and after a moment, Howl nodded in understanding.

"Only magic could be this destructive," Howl replied.

I clasped a hand over my mouth. It was Alex. Before he took Calcifer away, he had created a diversion for me. I had asked him to do it.

My knees buckled as I clutched Markels shirt in desperation. "Did you see who it was? The person who did this, did you get a look at their face?"

Markel wiped the soot from his mouth and shook his head. "There was figure blocking the exit, but I never got the chance to see who it was, the flames were so bright and with the fire spreading too quickly, I couldn't keep up with it."

"Right, well then," Howl got up quickly and before I knew it, he was leading me to the far wall. With a pained expression, he leaned in so that only I could hear him. "I know I have no right to ask this of you, given our most recent history, but you must leave this place."

Tracing a mark on the wall with a swift stroke, a portal opened before us.

I took one step back, then another, my head shaking automatically. I couldn't leave now. If this was in any way Alex's fault, I had to fix it. "I'm not going anywhere."

Resting his hands on my shoulders, his voice grew concerned. "I know that you think you can help but-,"

I clenched my fists at my sides. "I need to be here."

Howl eyes softened. "If you're concerned about our safety, you need not worry. Rest assured that Markel and I can handle this. We do not know what motive this person may have had, but what we do know is that person has shown a careless disregard for human life. It's too dangerous."

I knew he could handle this, after all, he had his heart and his magic back. But that wasn't problem; how could I possibly explain to him that I knew who started the fire -- that it was an accident?

"I-I know that you'll be alright, how could you not be? You're the most powerful wizard in the land . . . but that isn't what I'm worried about. It's the candles --"

"Candles?" he echoed.

I shook my head. "I'll explain later, once I've helped you fix this. But right now, we're wasting precious time," I said, gathering my dress in my arms.

His lips parted with words of protest, but I would not hear them.

"I can take care of myself," I reminded him softly.

For a moment, Howl was struck silent. He tucked his hands in his pockets produced the little glowing stone that held his heart.

"Yes, I suppose you can," he whispered.

Pocketing the heartstone, Howl nodded curtly to Markel.

"Alright then, let's go."

Thick plumes of smoke obscured our way forward. Howl blocked my path with his arm, indicating that I should move back. With his other hand, he pinched his thumb and forefinger together as if he were to whistle. Inhaling deeply, he blew into his pinched fingers and created frosty wisps of air that surrounded us in a protective vortex, warding off the heat as we pushed onward.

Howl enchanted us with the grace in which he wielded his new found magical abilities. The fire that had licked its way across the floors and up the walls of the stone stairwell dissipated at our feet as Howl weaved his spells like a protective shield. We descended the staircase in silence and I could see our breath crystallizing in the air as I brushed the thin film of frost from my dress. I marveled at the intricacy of Howl's movements, commanding the elements to do his bidding with nothing but a snap of his fingers.

I stole a moment to watch him as he concentrated on his task. With lips pressed into a severe line, his eyes remained locked on the fiery embers of the destruction before us as we made our way into what was left of the hall. Every footstep we took extinguished the embers in a sizzle of hot steam as he clapped his hands together, producing an icy wave that smothered the red-hot stone walls before us.

Howl put out the fires that barricaded a small room just off of the main hall. Markel ducked past the smoldering beam and into the darkness in search of survivors. Before I could follow him in, Howl reached for my hand.

I quirked an eyebrow as I caught the look on his face.

Howl pressed a finger to his lips while he assessed the room.

"Do you hear that?"

I closed my eyes and listened, but the only sound I could make out was the hiss of the dying embers.

"I hear nothing Howl. It's too quiet in here."

"Yes," he agreed, "something feels off, it's much too quiet."

He was right. There was something sinister about the stiffing silence that enveloped us. I could no longer hear Markel's footsteps, nor could I hear the sounds of any survivors, it was as if the darkness of the blackened hall dampened my senses.

Howl's hand slipped around my waist protectively as he pulled me in close. "Don't look, but there's someone standing by the exit."

A chill ran down spine and I fought the urge to turn and run. I reached for Howl's arm and clutched it tightly. I could feel the tension in his muscles as he stepped forward, putting distance between the stranger and I.

"Show yourself, who ever you are," Howl's voice echoed.

The stranger stepped forward out of the darkness and stood silently, watching us. I could make out his features in the fading moonlight, but who I saw only confused me.

My shoulders relaxed. "It's the concierge," I answered, "the man responsible for the guest list. He probably came back to see if everyone was alright." I came out from behind Howl and spoke a little louder, "don't worry sir, we have everything under control. Our friend is just making sure everyone made it out safely so there is no need for you to be in here!"

The man watched us silently.

"Sir?"

I felt Howls hand rest on my shoulder.

"Sophie, get behind me. Something isn't right with that man."

With his hands clasped behind his back, the man stepped forward into the pool of light that cascaded through the broken window. He was a slight man, with an unruly powdered wig singed at the ends by the fire. He looked at Howl for a long time before settling his gaze on me. His stare was cold and unfriendly but it was his outfit that alarmed me most. How could I have missed the bold red and gold uniform he wore?

This man was a part of the Kings guard.

"It would seem the culprit returned to the scene of the crime," the man observed loudly. Raising his hand, he motioned to the darkness, beckoning his men to come forth. One by one, they showed themselves, their bright red jackets illuminating the darkness as they nocked their arrows.

Howl cursed under his breath as he gripped the heartstone concealed within his pocket.

"This is just a misunderstanding! We were guests at the party, we didn't start the fire, we were escaping it just like everyone else!" I shouted.

"and yet here you are, still in the building!" the man sneered. "Your activities tonight are highly suspicious, Sophie Hatter."

I balked at the sound of my name coming from such an unfamiliar voice. The mans sneer was all the confirmation I needed; he knew I was using a fake name to gain entry into the ball and had willingly let me do it.

Who was this man? How did he know me?

The man produced a pair of iron cuffs and as he made his way through the debris with his archers arrows trained on us. It was no use, we were trapped. Deep down, a part of me hoped that Markel would come running in and stop them, but he had been gone too long now, and I was beginning to think something might have happened to him as well. Howl must have thought the same thing, for he glanced over at the doorway in search of Markel.

The iron cuffs clinked together as the man stood before us.

"By order of the King, you will be detained and taken to the castle dungeons to await sentencing for the destruction you have caused tonight." The man removed the pin from the cuffs and gestured for Howl to extend his arms.

Howl took a step back, reaching out his arm to protect me. "And what if we refuse?"

The man clicked his tongue. "It would be best to take you alive, but replacing a few wasted arrows and procuring a story about your untimely deaths wouldn't bother me in the slightest," he shrugged.

His hand raised and the archers pulled their strings taught.

"No!" Howl said quickly. He turned to me with sorrowful eyes that begged forgiveness. "We will come quietly." The man clamped the iron cuffs on Howls outstretched wrists. The metal glowed faintly, catching us both by surprise.

"It's for our protection," the man replied. "You see, we know that magic was the reason this fire broke out, and we cannot risk you escaping us using the same means. With you in these chains, you will be incapable of using magic."

As the man secured the heavy iron cuffs on my wrists, Howl grit his teeth and twisted his arms in his own to no avail. The man drew a sword from his sash and slid it under Howls chin, forcing him to extend his neck.

"I would advise against that," the man said darkly, "I am not a patient person and you are beginning to test me and I can assure you, you wouldn't want that. Anymore movements and I might be inclined to let this sword slip, understood?"

I let my arms fall in front of me, the bite of the heavy iron cutting into my wrists. A familiar sense anger coiled inside of me as the pudgy man sneered at us.

The man grabbed Howls cuffs and forced him to turn around a brace the back wall. He kicked his legs apart and began patting his clothes down. My heart stopped as the man reached into Howls pocket and produced the heartstone he had kept tucked away.

"NO!" I screamed, instinctively reaching out to stop him. An arrow whizzed past my cheek and grazed my hand. I squeezed my eyes shut as the pain lanced through me and the hot trickle of blood dripped between my fingers. I looked up only to see the look of horror written on Howls face.

"Sophie Hatter," the man said quietly, as he turned to face me. "Who would have thought you would take such an unorthodox route to finish the task I gave you," he chuckled as he examined the stone. "I will admit that I am impressed."

Oh no.

In his other hand the the delicate edges of a large ruby red pommel stone caught my eye, a stone that looked vaguely familiar, like one that once adorned an ebony cane. But the owner of that cane . . .

The man turned us both away from the prying eyes of his men and smirked. "It's been rather hard, keeping up with all these disguises," he admitted as his face morphed into that the child from the shoe shine booth I'd been to earlier that day.

"No--it's not possible," I breathed.

"Oh but it is." The young boys voice became a familiar feminine sound. Howl and I looked on in horror as we found ourselves staring into the warm eyes of Maggie. "Anything is possible when you take their hearts," her voice became brassy, like that of my stepmothers.

I closed my eyes, refusing to acknowledge the truth. The Witch had played us both and now she had Howl's heart, just as she had planned.

"Well I suppose a deal is a deal," she whispered so that only Howl and I might hear her.

My eyelids flew open. "Deal? What deal?"

Solana produced a small stone from her pocket and deposited into my open hand. With a hand on my shoulder, she pushed my against the wall next to Howl.

"You lead me to Howls heart and now it's mine. Consider your debt repaid," she cackled, her voice becoming gruff as she reverted back to the guise of the concierge.

I looked over at Howl and saw the hurt in his eyes. I wanted to explain everything, I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but it was too late. By the time the men surrounded us and locked us in the carriage, bound for the castle, Howl could no longer look at me, let alone speak to me. The damage Solana had inflicted on us ran deep, much like the trouble we now found ourselves in.

How were we going to get ourselves out of the mess?

Chapter Text

The last rays of moonlight peeked through the iron bars of the carriage, casting a dim light on our pitiful situation. I could make out the outline of Howl's face from where he sat across from me but for once I was thankful for the darkness. The silence that had settled between us spoke volumes, and I knew if looked hard enough I would see that anger and betrayal written on his face. It seemed like every time I tried to fix things between us, I just made them worse.

I twisted my hands in my restraints for a moment, but let them fall into my lap. What was the point anymore? And what was I even trying to do anyway? Even if I could remove the shackles, what then? We were locked in a moving carriage, surrounded by armed guards with no chance of escape.

Thrown forward by the force of a sudden stop, I almost slammed into the wooden bench in front of me if not for Howls quick reflexes. He said something that I couldn't quite make out, but I couldn't bring myself to look him in the eye. Instead, I let him hold me as I fought back tears. I didn't deserve his kindness, but he gave it freely. His voice was soft and full of promises as he brushed stray hair away from my face.

Too soon, we were being forcefully removed from our temporary prison by two of the guards. The cold metal of the guard's spear bit into my back as they moved us along in single file, with me in the lead. The guards set a breakneck pace that was so quick that I barely registered our surroundings.

Every so often, the guard would give me a warning jab to move faster, but it felt like an impossible demand. My legs burned with the intensity of the pace they set. Part of me wanted to protest, but an inner voice reminded me to keep silent. It wasn't worth the punishment I knew I would receive. These men were not kind, they did not care for our side of the story, despite our earlier protests. They were ordered to take us away, not to listen to us.

With my hands bound and raw, I tried to gather the warmth of Howl's jacket around me as we descended the stairwell. Slick moss-covered rocks outlined the walls and floors of what I guessed was the castle dungeon. It felt much colder than the crisp outdoors and as the dampness seeped into my skin, my body began to ache. When would this nightmare finally end?

I do not know how far we traveled underground but by the time we reached our destination, I could no longer tell day from night. Dimly lit sconces framed the dark cell that was to be our prison. No windows, or small openings, just a solid wall of wet stone that surrounded us on three sides and long metal bars that let us see outside our cell, but prevented us from escaping.

The guards removed our shackles one by one and shoved us in. Howl pulled himself up the wall and made a run for the opening, but the guards were faster, slamming the iron bars closed with a metallic clang before he could make it halfway. His hands clenched around the rusted bars as he shouted at the guards retreating in the distance.

But it was no use.

I rubbed the ache from my wrists and kicked at the stray bits of old straw that littered the floor. Bracing the wall, I let my body slump to the ground. I didn't care that the dampness would seep into my dress. It was far beyond the hope of repair at this point anyways. The silk had survived the fire because it was strong, but strength could not protect it from the soot and ash, and the once shimmering blue was ruined by the fire.

Howl's appearance was no better. His shirt was in tatters, exposing his marked skin in the candlelight. I might have blushed at the sight of him once, but I couldn't bring myself to feel that way. Not after this hellish night.

I reached for one of the iron bars and pulled myself closer to the light to get a better look at our surroundings. More stone floor, more moss, more iron bars across the hall. A small wooden chair had been placed next to our cell just beyond my field of view and if positioned my arm just so-- I could bring it closer. Not that it mattered though, the gaps between the bars made it impossible for me bring it inside our prison.

I leaned towards the sounds of the guards talking in the distance and listened to their chatter for a while until they went silent, presumably because they had carried on further down the hallway, out of my range.

Howl sat heavily on the floor across from me and covered his face with his hands. With a deep sigh, he pinched the bridge of his nose and looked up at me. I look away almost immediately, but what else could I focus my attention on but the angry man sitting right in front of me.

I rubbed the little stone that contained my heart between my fingers with nervous energy.

It was only a matter of time before Howl started asking the hard questions that I knew I wasn't prepared to answer. My heart was beating madly in my chest, painfully so. I hate this feeling of dread, the sickening roil of my stomach as I felt the gravity of the situation settle in me. My inner voice was screaming out; curse me again Solana! Give Howl back his heart, take mine, I don't want it, I beg of you!

And I truly meant every word. How could I live with the shame of knowing that I hurt the man that I love?

Having a heart . . . It's a painful burden to bear. Now I understood why Howl removed his after that night, long ago.

I released the stone from my fingers and let it tumble down my dress onto the floor with a light clink. The sound drew Howl's attention and he threw me a puzzled look.

"What's on your mind?" he asked.

"Many things," I admitted, taking a deep breath, "but I doubt you want to hear about that."

I kicked the stone across the floor and Howl stopped it with his hand. He held it like a delicate thing, turning it over in his hands in quiet contemplation.

"This is yours?" he guessed.

I let out a puff of air and focused on the wall far above his head.

"It is."

"Solana," he spat the word. "I had a feeling that was her, back there in the hall."

I worked my way past a lump in my throat. "I wish I could have warned you about her, but she made it impossible."

"Don't blame yourself--," he frowned.

"How could I not blame myself? She used me! That day, when we met for the first time in my shop, she lured me into a trap. She wanted me to steal your heart and when I refused, she cursed me, trapped me in a body that was mine but wasn't at the same time. I had no way out. Her plan was well thought out, I couldn't even speak about it, but still, I refused to give her the satisfaction. So what could I do but seek you out? I couldn't return home -- and when I met Markel, I tried so hard to tell him about the curse and I even tried to find a way to tell you too, but I couldn't do it!" Hot tears trickled down my cheeks.

Howl listened quietly, offering no response as he let me process my feelings.

I stumbled over my words to get it all out. Now that the curse had been lifted, it was now or never. "I never meant for any of this to happen, I just wanted to break my curse without the Witch getting what she wanted but she was there, hiding in plain sight, every step of the way. I thought I was finally breaking it on my own, but it was her all along! She made a fool out of me and I let her. I should have left the day I realized I'd stepped foot in your castle but I couldn't do it! You went and opened my eyes to a whole new world and it made me fall in love with you and me--,"

Howl shook his head. "I think I've heard enough."

Pushing himself off the floor, he produced a handkerchief from his back pocket and made his way over to me. Kneeling, he reached for my hand and covered the small wound with it, pressing it gently as he tied it neatly with a knot. Releasing my hand with a squeeze, he tilted my chin with his thumb until our eyes met.

"Do you regret that day?" he asked softly.

I shook my head. "Meeting you? I will never regret that."

"Good," he smiled. The tips of his fingers pulled me in and he crushed his lips to mine. I was startled at first, but the tension in my shoulders relaxed as he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in. My hands slipped beneath his shirt and as I smoothed the hard lines of his chest, I felt a deep growl emanating from him. Our movements became desperate. He pulled at my hair to gain better access to my lips and deepened the kiss. I clutched his shirt like a lifeline, pulling him closer until there was no space left between us. I had never felt anything as passionate as the way this man loved me and I never wanted it to end. It was like an all-consuming fire the burned me to my core that would forever change me and that . . . hurt my heart. Howls thumb swiped across my cheek, capturing the stray tear that had escaped.

"What's the matter? Was that too much?" he asked, searching my face an answer.

I held his hand to my cheek and smiled. "It's the complete opposite. It's silly really, I mean we are locked in a dungeon with no hope of getting out, but at this moment, I feel so incredibly happy that it's overwhelming me. I never thought happiness could make me cry this much."

"That's not silly at all," he replied, kissing the inside of my palm. "Worry not, we will find a way out of here."

"I wish I had your confidence," I sighed. "But unless you can use that stone to magic our way out of this place, I don't see another way."

The little stone shimmered in his hand. "We can't use magic in this place."

"Why not?" my brows knit together. "Some sort of rule?"

"No," he reached for the iron bars and stood up. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't use magic in here. This metal, it inhibits our abilities and, as it happens, the foundation for the castle was built with it. Whether that was by design or a coincidence, we will never know."

I pulled myself up and clutched the cold metal bars, staring out into the darkness. "So then we are trapped down here."

Howl's silence was all the confirmation I needed.

"Alex told me everything," I said quietly, avoiding his eyes. He deserved to know the truth. "About the fair folk, about Solana's past, about Old Port Haven and your family. I know that you cursed her for what she did and I know what you intend to do when you find her."

His eyes remained fixed on a point somewhere in the distance. His voice, guarded. "Has that changed your opinion of me?"

"No, but it helped me understand your situation better. I know that Solana is trying to break the curse you put on her and it has me worried that she might be able to break it now."

Howls expression was grim. "I'm worried about that too."

"It's my fault that we're in this mess," I said, picking at a loose thread in my dress until I made a large enough hole. Gripping the thick fabric, I ripped the seam open and tore a strip from the silk. Howl gaped at me as I continued to rip the dress along the seam until I had removed a sizable piece.

"What did you do that for?" he stared at me, incredulous.

I got down on my knees and stuck my arm out of the bars in an attempt to reach the chair that was just beyond my reach. Howl shook his head and knelt beside me, reaching for it with little effort. Pulling it in front of the bars, he threw me an inquisitive look.

Tasking myself with folding the silk into a long strip, I nodded to the chair. "I need you to break a leg."

"That seems a little counterproductive, don't you think?" he chuckled beside me.

I stared at him for a minute before realizing my mistake. "Not your leg," I rolled my eyes, "I need a leg off of that chair. Preferably intact, if you can manage it."

He gave me a wink and a nudge. "Right, I suppose that would make more sense. I had just assumed you had completely lost your marbles, what with all the clothes ripping and such."

I fought back a smile but failed miserably. It was hard to stay serious when he flashed me that brilliant white smile.

Howl set the chair on its side and stuck his leg out of the bars. We listened for the voices of the guards but the hallway was quiet. With one swift move, Howl kicked his foot down on the chair leg, snapping it clean off the seat. I wrapped the silk around two of the bars and tied it with a knot. Taking the wooden leg from Howl, I secured it over the knot and tied it in place. Stepping back, I examined it before ripping a second strip off my dress.

"I'll need a second leg," I said, as I fastened the silk to the two next bars. He passed me the second leg and moved over to give me the room to work.

"I think I see what you're trying to do here, but will it give us enough room? the bars are quite narrow."

I dusted my knees and stepped back. "If you twist them clockwise, you should be able to put the right amount of torsion into it to spread the bars wide enough. I will tie another knot to secure each one when it can't be twisted anymore. It should hold long enough for us to escape."

"What if the fabric tears?"

I shook my head. "It's silk so it should be strong enough to hold the tension. We just need to be quick about it."

"Alright let's give it a try then."

Taking up his position in front of the wooden leg, he began turning the wood until the silk began to tighten around the bars. Each turn became slower than the last and Howl had to readjust his grip to apply enough force, but slowly, the iron groaned under pressure and gave way. The muscles in Howl's arms bunched up as he held the wood steady while I tied another knot over top. Howl had already moved onto the second one by the time I finished securing it so I had to scramble to get the second one tied down.

The faint sound of footsteps echoed down the hallway, growing closer and closer. There was no time to assess our handiwork. I squeezed through the bars with little effort and found a dark corner in which to hide as I waited for Howl. Quickly, he broke off the two remaining chair legs and tossed one to me.

He caught my look of surprise and set his mouth in a thin line. "I don't think we have another option."

The sound became louder and louder. The faint outline of a person wearing a bright red coat appeared in the distance.

The guard was already making his rounds. Our timing couldn't have been worse.

With the wooden leg held high, I took a deep breath and readied myself for the ensuing fight.

Howl was right, it was now or never.

Chapter Text

With the wooden leg gripped tightly between my hands, I waited for Howl's signal. The man came closer, but with the torch held out in front of him, I could not make out his face.

As he grew closer, the man raised both his hands in a gesture of peace and I felt my breath catch as the torch illuminated the mans face.

Howl let out a long sigh and relaxed his shoulders. A ghost of a smile played on his lips. "How did you know where to find us?"

The man lowered his torch and tossed us a roguish wink. "Wasn't hard to follow the blazing inferno you two left behind," Alex remarked slyly.

Astonished, I let the wood fall from my hands. It echoed so loudly down the hall that it earned me an angry shush from Alex.

Alex glanced over his shoulder as if, at any moment, someone might appear behind him. "I'm trying to get you out of here alive, so it would behoove you both to keep silent. Getting down here wasn't that easy given that I had to subdue a few of the royal constabulary just to get to you."

"Quiet as a mouse, understood." I pressed my lips together and made a show of sealing them shut.

Howl suppressed a laugh and gave Alex a hearty pat on the back. Momentarily startled by the gesture, Alex tossed another glance over his shoulder before he shrugged off his satchel. Digging into its contents, he produced two balled up uniforms and tossed them to us.

"Both of you need to get changed and quickly, we haven't much time. The guards will be making their rounds within the hour and we do not want to be here when they discover a couple of their own have been bound, gagged and relieved of their garments."

I didn't need to look down at the lump of clothes in my hands to know what sort of person wore them. The fabric felt greasy like it had been sweat in and never been laundered. The pungent odor seeped through the thick material, confirming my earlier suspicions and I was forced to breathe through my mouth.

I would have burned the clothes out of mercy if I had the choice, but it seemed I had no other viable option-- that and Alex seemed eager to get moving.

Howl made no protest over the state of his own disguise. He shucked off the tattered remains of his clothing, the hard contours of his bare back glowing in the fire light. Faint lines of his scar traced their way down his chest like rivulets of melted wax. I thought of reaching out to touch the coarse lines that marred his body as a quiet chuckle pulled me from my day dream.

"Do you intend to stay in that dress then?"

"Oh-- no no," I looked down at my forgotten clothes and blushed. Avoiding Alex's pointed look, I moved out of the light of his torch. Pulling the red coat over my head, I stepped into the outrageously over-sized pants and clutched them with one hand to keep them from sliding down. Realizing my predicament, Howl removed the belt from his pants and handed it over. I cinched my waist with the worn leather to keep the pants secure, but I knew if I had to run in them it wouldn't hold for long; that small amount of leather was no match for the sailcloth swathing my legs. Discarding the dress in a pile on the cold damp floor, I stepped back into the light and awaited Alex's instructions.

Howl's lips quirked with a hint of a smile that he quickly rubbed away with a hand and polite cough.

Hitching my hands on my hips, I gave them both an incredulous look. "I hardly think I'll be convincing in the get-up, but what choice do we have?"

"I won't let anyone get close enough to notice," Howl replied, "but now that we're changed, we should probably get out of here."

"Right," Alex nodded, "so by my estimation there are too many guards stationed outside of the dungeons. I noted four of them in the entrance armed with bows and another two in the guard tower, not to count the two that I laid low just down the hall. It would be best if we avoided them altogether so we will have to slip out the way I came in; through the castle larder. There's a ladder just down the hall to the left that leads up into the back of the kitchen. It appears to be an access point for the guards to supply themselves with vittles when they are posted in the dungeon, so we should not linger lest we find ourselves in their company. Fortunately for us, it's late enough that none of the kitchen staff will awake, so we need not worry about them sounding the alarm. Once we are inside, we will exit through the kitchen and follow the hallway a small window I had left open when I came in. There should be a length of rope tied nearby, tucked into the trellis. From there it's just a quick scale down the side of the castle and we should be out in no time."

I coughed back my surprise. "A quick scale down the side of the castle? Are you mad?"

Howl, seeming content with the plan, knelt down and began sifting through the remaining pile of clothes in Alex's bag.

"It isn't that far to the ground Sophie," Alex shrugged, "it's close to the tree line so it will be easier to escape once we reach the ground."

"That's if I don't lose my footing and plummet to my untimely death!"

Alex sniffed. "Well it is far better than the other side of the castle in my opinion. On the other side there's nothing but a steep craggy cliff, a vast ocean, high winds, and most certainly a swift and painful death to greet you at the bottom."

"I choose neither of those options!" I cried. "Can't we just exit through a door somewhere?"

"Well that would be the front gate," he chimed in sarcastically, " and I don't think the guards would appreciate us waltzing out the front door."

"I just think we should--,"

"While you're both considering your options," Howl cut in, pulling a pair of shackles out of the satchel, "I'll be going elsewhere."

"You'll what?" Alex and I said in unison.

"You heard me," he pocketed the shackles. "There's something I have to do before I can leave this place."

"Solana?" Alex supplied.

Howl nodded. "She's here, I know it. Why else would she bring us to the castle? She needed a way to get in without being discovered."

Alex's expression turned dark. "Well that changes things."

Howl shook his head. "It shouldn't change anything for either of you. It's just as you said before, both of you should leave before they've realized we've escaped."

I wanted to argue with his decision, but something about what he said confused me. I was clearly missing some vital piece of information; Alex seemed to understand Howl instantly, but I did not. "What makes you think she's here right now?"

Howl continued on as if I had said nothing. "She wouldn't miss an opportunity like this. She has what she needs now to get it."

"That doesn't make any sense. Why would she be here?" I looked to Alex for an explanation.

He answered automatically. "There's a ceremony taking place in a few days. The King plans to unveil a statue commemorating the battle of the Western Ocean. Until now, Howl and I believed Solana's heart remained at the bottom of the ocean, but I have since seen the statue the King commissioned. I didn't want to believe it, but it is here."

"Solana's heart," I breathed. "She's going to break her curse."

Howl grasped my hand gently. "I can't risk you getting hurt. This is my fight, not yours, and as such, I must do this alone. I want you as far away from here as possible before I find her. I'm going to ask Alex to ensure that happens so please don't fight me on this. Even without her magic, she's a dangerous woman. You and I both know she wouldn't think twice about hurting you."

I blinked away a stray tear. "But what about you?"

Alex cleared his throat. "While I agree that Sophie should get away from the castle, I must insist on coming with you Howl. The location of the statue . . . it is in a new area of the castle. It hasn't been reinforced with iron yet."

Iron. The shackles we wore were made of the same metal. If there wasn't any iron in this new area then Solana would be free to use her magic.

I pressed my heartstone into Howl's hand. He shook his head and attempted to give it back, but I stopped him. "Please don't go in there unarmed, you and I both know that would be reckless. It isn't much . . . but it's yours. It will always be yours."

Howl's eyes softened as he let me cover my hand over his. The surety of my decision warmed me and I could feel the way his hand held my heart tenderly as he opened the breast pocket to his tunic, tucking the little stone away like a precious item.

With Alex as our guide, we made our way through the dungeons, tiptoeing around two of the guards that Alex had knocked unconscious. Both were bound and gagged and soundly asleep. I almost walked past the ladder Alex had indicated, it was tucked away so well that I couldn't understand how anyone knew it was there in the first place. Quickly, we scaled the ladder and found ourselves inside a room so dark, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. Alex's torch was a beacon in the darkness, our only saving grace.

We skirted around massive wheels of cheese and ducked past rows of hanging meats, kicking the odd sack of potatoes that blocked our path, my hand clutching the back of Howl's tunic like a lifeline. He would reach back and squeeze my hand every so often, reminding me that he was there. Alex fumbled along the wall until his hand found the door and then we were in the kitchen.

The kitchen was blissfully vacant, as Alex predicted, and only moderately more illuminated than the larder. The remnants of coals and embers glowed softly in the fireplace, down to its last dregs. The staff must have forgotten to put it out the night before. Alex pitched the torch into the coals without a second glance and the fire ignited merrily, eager to consume it. I warmed my hands briefly over the fire nest to Howl while Alex peeked through the kitchen door. He beckoned us to follow moments later, leaving the door ajar.

After escaping the dungeon, I thought I might feel relieved to be above ground, but leaving the kitchen felt like entering a trap. The hallway provided no cover for us. The moon was too bright in the sky and as is shined down through the windows, it cast its light upon our poorly made disguises. No matter. We were in this now for better or for worse. I straightened my back and adjusted the poor fit of my trousers, marching with a dignified purpose. We were going to make it. We just had to. Howl slowed his pace to walk beside me just as we reached the open window. Alex leaned out to rustle the trellis.

Observing my stiff posture, Howl turned and cupped my cheeks in his hands. "Everything is going to be okay, I will be okay, you don't need to worry."

I forced a smile, but we both knew it was fake. "Please don't make promises we both know you can't keep," my voice cracked.

Words escaped him. Instead Howl swept my hair back and pressed a kiss to my temple. We stood quietly for what seemed like a long time, but too quickly Howl released me. With a hand over his heart, he bowed. "I must take my leave now. Take care of yourself, Sophie," and with that, Howl was gone.

"Aha! It's exactly where I left it!" Alex remarked, pulling a length of rope inside. His triumph was quickly dowsed by the realization that Howl had already left. "It seems the young Master is eager to put this matter to bed."

Brushing away an angry tear, I grabbed the rope and examined it. Every few feet, Alex had knotted it to make it easier to scale down. The rope its self had leaves woven through it to help disguise it among the creeper vines that covered the stonewalls. Clever. Leaning slightly out of the window I could see that he had secured it neatly to the iron work at the peak of the gable, but if I just reached up carefully I could just . . .

"ingenious little setup, wouldn't you say?" Alex sighed happily.

"Not really," I responded. "It came off the gable too easily." I held the end of the rope to show him.

His brow furrowed. "Strange. Last I checked that was properly secured."

"it was," I agreed. I held the rope aloft outside of the window and watched the realization set in.

"You wouldn't dare," he uttered.

"I might, but I'd rather keep it as an option for escape after we help Howl."

"It's too dangerous Sophie."

"I know it is. But that's been the case for a while now, hasn't it? My life hasn't been my own for a long time. Everyday has been too dangerous, but you know what? I wouldn't be here if I didn't take risks every day. It's too great a risk to let Howl face that woman alone. You and I both know that! If Howl fails to stop her tonight, things are only to become more dangerous.

Alex's shoulders relaxed slowly. "I can't argue with that logic."

I heaved a sigh and fixed the rope back on the gable. "Thank you Alex."

A tremor shook the ground, throwing Alex and I to the floor. I kept my palms flat on the floor and cast Alex a wary glance.

"I wouldn't thank me just yet," he remarked. Pushing off the floor, he offered me his hand and we took off running. Another tremor rocked the castle, slamming us into a wall. A gush of wind buffeted us as we watched a pair of massive doors blow outwards at the end of the hallway. We pushed onward, fighting the wind every step. A high pitched shriek pierced the air and windows shattered around us. Alex raised his arm to protect us from the falling shrapnel, a blue light forming a shield above us. The glass glanced harmlessly off the blue arch and scattered across the stone floors.

Alex was able to use his magic. We had to be close.

Shouts from the guards chased at our heels, spurring us onward. With a flick of his wrist, the glass shards began to float off the ground, rearranging themselves into a barricade behind us. Alex planted his feet and turned away from the open doors, his arms raised as he focused on the magic he wielded.

"We can't stop here," I tugged on his shirt, but Alex shrugged me off.

"It doesn't appear like we have a choice in the matter. Go now and help Howl, I will hold them off for as long as I can."

The shouting grew louder and louder, and I could see the first few guards turning the corner into the hallway. I glanced over my shoulder and nodded grimly. If Alex couldn't hold them off, we had no chance of stopping Solana.

I wrapped my arms around his chest and squeezed him tightly. "Please be careful. I've only just met you, but now that I know you, I don't want to lose you."

Alex cast a tremulous grin and returned his attention to the blockade. "Likewise little sister." He chewed on the inside of his lip considering his next words. "I will tell you this now in the hopes that it might serve you well when you face Solana; keep your heart safe with Howl and whatever you do, don't take it back."

I stepped back, confused by his admission. Glass shattered and reformed over and over as the guards hacked away at it with their swords. Alex closed his eyes and redoubled his efforts.

"Go!" he said through clenched teeth.

Without a backward glance, I ran past Alex and burst through the doors that flapped uselessly on their hinges as the wind continued its onslaught into the hallway.

Two lone figures stood on either side of the cavernous room that was open to the elements along the back wall. The ocean roiled in turmoil beyond the room, breaking over the steep cliffs with a crack like thunder. A broken statue lay in the center of the room, a woman with her hands cast to the heavens, clutching a heartstone that had been wrenched from her hands.

To my left I could see Howl, holding his side and breathing hard.

To my right, a woman I had never seen before; gossamer raven hair that gathered in the folds of a deep blue cloak pinned at her delicate throat with a brooch not unlike the ones found in the Dunbeath Highlands. She wore a shimmering black floor length gown that hugged her generous curves, and had gloves of black velvet painted on her hands. In her right hand, she held aloft a ruby pommeled blade, slick with blood, Howls blood. But that's not what caught my breath.

In her right, gleaming like first light of day, was her heart.

Chapter Text

The overwhelming urge to run to Howl hit me like a blow to the chest, but I knew that couldn't act on impulse. I was playing a dangerous game with an equally dangerous Witch, and now that her curse appeared to be broken, I had no idea what she was planning. Judging by the grim look of Howls face, it wasn't good.

If we wanted any chance of stopping her, Howl needed his heart back and quickly.

I scanned the room in a desperate attempt to find the little stone. Solana wasn't holding it, that much I was sure of, but it didn't appear that Howl had it either.

The room was dark enough that I might conceal myself against the wall, so I took the risk of moving and stepped into the shadows to blend with the stonewalls. From here, I made a quick assessment of the room. The wall closest to me bore collections of armor, posed and polished to a dull gleam. Ever so slowly, I inched my way over to the nearest statue and eased the scabbard from its waist. Solana barked a laugh and my hands froze, wrapped around the leather belt.

"Do you think that I cannot see you little one?" She purred. "Take whatever weapon you wish, I'll enjoy cutting you into pieces with it."

I removed the belt and fastened the scabbard around my waist, heedless of her words. I caught Howls eye as he cast a furtive glance my way, urging me to move towards him.

"Leave her out of this," he growled, pushing himself to stand straighter with a grimace.

A muscle feathered in her jaw as she threw him a withering glare. "Or what? You are in no state to make demands of me. In fact, you're fortunate to be standing at all." She raised her sword and marveled at the gore on the edge of the blade. "Just a few inches to the left and you would have been dead."

"That's not possible and you know it," he winced.

The Witch seemed to consider it for a moment, walking slowly around the circular room, each step coming closer to me. I backed away equally as slowly, never once breaking eye contact with the Witch, moving to Howl side. Solana stopped and peered down at the heartstone in her hand.

Holding the heartstone in the palm of her hand, she pressed it to her chest. A warm light washed over her and the heartstone disappeared. "Ah," she breathed, "much better."

I took another quick glance look around the room, worry eating away at me. "Where is Howl's heart?"

She cocked her her to the side, assessing me with her cold, dead eyes. "Gone," she said simply. "But worry not, dear Sophie, I only did what your lovely Howl would have done." She turned to face the balcony with a secret smile.

I turned automatically, following her gaze to the open terrace, to the crashing waves and turbulent waters far below.

"You threw it into the ocean."

"Mmm yes I did, although now I have realized that that may not have been the right decision. Oh well," she chuckled, "I suppose we will have to wait another century before it turns up on some foreign shore. But until then--," her hands shot out, pinning Howl to the floor with a blast of dark light. I reached out grab him but the light singed my hands. Howl screamed in agony, twisting in on himself, eyes squeezed shut as he called out my name, begging me to run. His arms grew longer, fingers stretching beyond their limit, popping one by one as the settled into a new form. His head snapped back and his nose formed an arched that blackened in the moonlight. His back became too large for his shirt, black feathers bursting from the tears in the seams until his clothes fell in tatters around him. His feet curled into sharp talons and his soulful green eyes dimmed black. Towering over me, Howl stretched out his wings and let loose a horrifying shriek.

My hand quivered over the pommel of my sword. I hand no idea what I intended to do with it, but I knew I was afraid.

Howl released another earth shattering cry, not at me, but at Solana. It felt angry and mournful, like a man lost at sea. At once, my hand stilled. Reaching out, I let my fingers settle into the black downy feathers of Howls side. A quiet shudder escaped him. He was still in there.

My eyes found Solana's in the darkness and I let her feel the murderous intent behind them. "What have you done to him?"

The Witch appeared unperturbed. "I did only what was fair Sophie. A curse for a curse. Howl thought he was cunning enough to outwit me, so I gave him a body to match."

My hand gripped Howls side protectively. "Only what was fair? Are you even listening to yourself right now? You murdered innocent people in cold blood, you murdered his parents! The only way anything is going to be fair is if you pay the price, not him."

"Bold words for a little girl with a rusty sword," Solana spat. "Perhaps I should do the same to you, then you can both live in misery together," she raised her free hand and sent a bolt of dark light shooting across the room. Howls eyes went wide as he flung out a wing, absorbing the blast meant for me.

Another muscle ticked in Solana's jaw. "Still in there are you Howl? No matter," she swung her sword in a vicious arch, kicking up a blast of wind that knocked both Howl and I on our backs. She swung her sword again, giving us no time to recover, and I skidded across the floor, my shoulder reaching the edge of the terrace. My breath caught.

She intended to push us off the cliff.

Howl landed in a crash of feathers beside me, his side still bleeding from the wound Solana had inflicted earlier. His eyes seemed heavy and tired, like the wound was draining the energy right out of him. I pulled myself along his wing until I was cocooned in his chest and assessed the injury with my hands. They came back slick with bright red blood and no solution.

"It's okay," I said to myself more than him, "We're going to figure this out. Howl, do you think you can fly? Flap a wing if you can."

It was weak, but he moved his wing slowly.

"Okay. Okay," I breathed in deeply, taking a peak over the side of the balcony. Dark waters, ominous white caps and jagged rocks met me far below. The raging waters crashed against the cliff side, breaking away to expose certain death on the pointed tips of igneous rock. My mind raced at the proximity of the turbulent waters of fathomless depths. But as the waves swelling and pulled away from the cliff, I caught a glimpse of something.

Had I not looked down, I never would have seen it.

I crawled over Howls wing and leaned in closely, whispering quickly into what I hoped was his ear.

Solana appeared behind us, weapon raised for the final strike.

"I hope you know how to swim Sophie," she laughed, swinging her sword in an arch.

I had only enough time to grip the feathers on Howls back as we were carried bodily over the balcony by a burst of wind. Solanas cackle faded into the distance as we plummeted down the cliff side.

Down. . .

Down. . .

Down. . .

In our rapid decent, Howl kept his wings folded tightly to his sides as I held my breath and prayed to Gods I'd never prayed to before. We broke the surface with a resounding BOOM, the cold biting my hands and my face, shocking my body as I struggled to open my eyes. I couldn't do this blind, I needed to be able to see. Howl fought off the currents with a flap of his wings, pushing water away before it pulled us into deeper territory. Slowly, agonizingly, Howl steered us towards the cliff side.

And there it was.

I saw it. Like a beacon, I saw it. It felt like home, like warm sun and easy smiles. I saw it.

Nestled between two boulders, Howls heart gleamed in the darkness, beckoning us forward. I reached out to grab it eagerly and could swear I felt it flutter like a little bird in my hands. Try as I might though, I couldn't get it to budge. It was well and truly wedged between the rocks.

My throat felt tight and I had to fight the desperate need to breathe, but I needed just a bit more time. I let go of Howl and wrapped both of my hands around the little stone, pushing against the boulders with my feet to pry it loose. Howls beak tugged on my shirt in a panic, urging me to let go but I wasn't leaving without it. Still the stone would not budge. Time was running out. Howls beak released my shirt as I continued to struggle with the stone. The pressure in my chest was building painfully and dark spots blurred my vision as the currents buffeted me against the rocks relentlessly.

A black figure moved in my periphery, crashing into the cliff side, letting loose the stone in my hands. Clutching the little stone close, I scanned the darkness in search of Howl. My heart sank as I saw him drifting listless in the current, further and further away from my reach. He'd used himself as a battering ram, all so I could release the stone.

Bubbles escaped my lips, precious air that I needed now more than ever. My time was up. I was losing air as quickly as I was losing Howl to the currents of the ocean. How was I going to reach Howl before my lungs gave out? I didn't even know which way was up anymore. Everything was so dark, so cold. If only I could reach him in time, he could fix this. His heart was raw magic, the only thing that could save us now.

As the little stone fluttered in my hands once again, I knew what I needed to do.

For him, I knew could do this.

Pressing the stone to my chest, I willed it to become a part of me, just as I had watched Solana do not moments ago. I knew his heart like I knew my own. I could feel the lazy afternoons of summer brushing sunshine over his cheek, the crisp autumn leaves crunching beneath his feet, the cool kiss of winter nipping at his fingers as he rubbed them together for warmth. I felt the memories he cherished and the moments that haunted him settle into me like a brand. I felt joy and sorrow, hate and love all at once, and I knew I was home.

My arms flew out as I let the warmth spread through my body and envisioned the waters engulfing me.

It's simple really.

An echo of an old dream.

My body resonated with the memory of being trapped in deep waters, letting it quiet my mind, still my body. I thought of Howl and his sweet smile, of Lettie and her indomitable charm, of Markel and his unfailing loyalty, of Alex and his cunning wit.

I urged the water away from my palms.

I ordered the waves to settle.

I beckoned the rocks to move.

I commanded the wind to cease.

All at once, I felt the overwhelming calm of still waters as they pushed away from me, climbing up and up until my feet touched solid ground. I opened my eyes and found myself standing at the bottom of the ocean, a wall of water surrounding me on all sides. Kelp and small sea creatures lay scattered across the ground in pools and rivulets of water. The ground was slick, but no rocks barred my way.

As I searched the landscape, my heart squeezed painfully in my chest as I found the still form in the distance, dark and feathered, wings limp at his sides.

Howl.

My legs carried my forward before I could think, slipping on the kelp and sticky mud, but I didn't care. I needed Howl to be okay. I needed --

"That's quite enough," the Witch's voice froze me mid flight. Solana. How had I forgotten about her in all this? A quiet sort of rage settled deep within me. This woman wasn't going to stop until one of us was dead. I turned slowly, gripping the wet hilt in my hand. With a metallic shiiiing, I released the blade from its scabbard and tossed the belt aside.

"You know for once, we agree," I gripped the blade in both hands and widened my stance.

The Witch assessed me with cool indifference and stepped into a fighting pose. "Come on little girl, if you're going to fight me, then fight me."

I ran with my blade gripped tightly in both hands, ready to swing. As I closed the distance, I let the Witch connect with my sword while I fell the the ground, sliding sideways. The kelp and the mud kept my momentum as I kicked the shins out from under her, letting her fall face first into the sludge. Rolling sideways, I struck out blindly with the sword and was rewarded with a screech. We both rolled away from each other, desperate to stand before the other could gain the upper hand. Too quickly she recovered, flicking the blood from her injured hand.

"Plucky," she sneered, wiping the grime from her eyes. "But you haven't the battle experience to best me." Solana struck out with her hand like whip, lightning striking the ground behind me. My ears rang horribly from the impact, but I forced myself to ignore it. I placed a hand on my chest to calm the rush nervous energy and breathed deeply.

How would you handle this Howl? I asked myself.

Try and remember what the book said, Howls voice whispered. Imagine the action you want to perform and just do it.

In my minds eye, I pictured what I thought lightning might feel like, raw energy racing from point to point, like an arrow nocked at an archers cheek, released in an instant to strike a target in the distance. I envisioned the clouds high above, moving in a wild and chaotic flow, as the bowstring and flicked my hand.

Lightning struck the ground by Solanas feet. She sailed backwards, landing hard on her side.

"So the girl has fangs," she snarled, hefting herself up by her sword. "Did Howl teach you that one?"

I grit my teeth. "Howl is a much better teacher than you'll ever be."

Without warning she flicked her wrist again and again, and I had to jump back to avoid the bolts that shook the ground. The Witch smirked and I knew then that she had me right where she wanted me; out in the open, a lone target in the field. I zigzagged through the mud dodging the lightning as she summoned them from the skies, a relentless display of power. Raising my sword above my head, I launched myself at her, hacking and slashing with as much fury as I could muster. She wasn't going to win, I refused to let that happen.

The Witch parried my blows with ease and landed a few strikes of her own. Too soon I was feeling the wounds she had inflicted, but I could withstand them as long as it stopped her from wielding that lightning.

Dodge, parry, dodge, strike, dodge, parry. Like a poorly choreographed dance, we circled each other, striking out when the other got too close. My hands were slick with blood that leaked from the open wounds in my arms. I was beginning to feel the fatigue, but every time I looked over at Howls still form, I dug a little deeper with in myself for strength.

Solana's hand twitched, eager to summon the elements the moment I slipped up. I wouldn't give her the satisfaction.

"I could just collapse this wall of water. Drown you in the bottom of the ocean," I offered casually.

Solana's answering smile was smug. "You forget that I have a few centuries of magic training on you, girl. It would be you drowning and not I. Actually, that's not a bad idea. Howl would survive, but I think killing you would be its own special kind of torture for him, don't you think?"

Gripping my sword like a life line, I cocked an eyebrow. "You like to hear yourself talk, did you know that?"

Solana closed her eyes. "Such brave words, but are you really so confident? That little heart of yours is giving you away, Sophie. Its beating madly in your chest. You're afraid of me."

She was right, my hands were quivering from the fight and my heart felt like it had picked up speed, beating so fast that it made me dizzy. My chin jutted out defiantly, "so what if you can hear my heart beating? It's only reminding me to keep fighting you."

The Witch ran a gloved finger down the sharp point of her blade. "You should have kept your heart hidden away," she said softly, "like Howl did with his. But instead, you made things easy for me, for see, with your heart nestled back inside your body, you've made yourself vulnerable. I can kill you."

The Witch swung her blade, knocking me back with a gust of wind. A flick of the wrist and lightning struck the ground with enough force to knock the sword from my hand. I rolled to my side and reached for the sword, but Solanas lightning attacked first, missing my hand by mere inches, the force of it cleaving my sword in two.

Solanas lips split into a bloody grin as locked eyes with me.

"It's over now."

I scrambled to stand as a flash of bright light blinded me, followed by the sickening sensation of every nerve in my body firing at once. My back stiffened as the bolt passed through me, searing down my legs and out clawing its way out through my feet. I felt weightless as gravity carried me to the ocean floor with a soft thud. I couldn't recall the sound of thunder in the aftermath; only the quiet squelch Solanas footsteps growing closer. Shadows moved across my vision as it slowly came back to me. The Witch knelled over my battered body and peered into my unseeing eyes.

The feeling in my hands had returned as I felt the hilt of the sword beneath my palm. I gripped the metal tightly and waited with bated breath. Solana reached down into my chest with a peculiar expression.

"This isn't your heart--"

With one hand, I grasped Solanas cloak and pulled her to me as the other thrust ruined blade into Solanas chest. Suprise coloured her face as she crumpled in on herself and I pushed her away before she could fall on top of me. A shrill scream rent the air as Solana writhed in pain, clutching at the hilt of the sword uselessly. It didn't matter. The damage was done.

I forced myself to stand up, fighting the nausea the hit me in the back of my throat and ignoring the stars that burst across my vision from the physical effort. I kicked the ruby pommeled sword out of Solanas limp hand and watched her eyes cloud over.

This was the Witch of the Waste. A legend used to scare children at night. A name whispered in secret conversations. A vicious wraith and stealer of hearts. But she would be these things no longer. I had driven a sword through her heart.

Solana, First Enchantress of Ingary, infamously known as the Witch of the Waste, was dead.

Removing the scabbard from her waist, I sheathed the ruby pommeled sword at my hip and cast a final glance at the former First Enchantress. Closing my eyes, I called to the earth for stones, enough to cover the blight that was the Witch of the Wastes.

My sorrowful task now complete, I found myself searching for Howl.

Daylight chased the horizon, casting its rays upon us as I reached his still form. Soft dark feathers scattered to the wind, uncovering the man beneath. He was pale and wane, so cool to the touch that my heart squeezed uncomfortably. The wound in his side would not stop bleeding. IT was so much worse than I first imagined. I pulled his head into my lap and brushed the damp bits of black hair from his forehead. All around us, a fortress of water protected us as I cradled his head in my lap.

"We did it Howl," I whispered, biting back the quiver in my lip. "We beat her. Solana can't hurt you now, so please -- wake up." I let my hand rest on his chest, the other stroking his hair gently. I couldn't feel his chest rise.

And he was so cold.

I held him to me as I whispered stories into his ear, afraid to admit what I already suspected.

Howl was gone.

The Witch was dead and Howl was gone.

Chapter Text

My legs grew numb with cold, aching from lack of movement, but I couldn't bring myself to leave him. His skin had taken on a mottled grey, a stark contrast to the pinkness of my hand cradling his shoulders. I lost track of time as I knelt beside him, holding him like a broken thing as if my embrace could piece him back together again. The quiet beat of my heart was my only company, a bleak reminder that his had stopped.

Daylight peaked through the clouds, warming my cold damp skin as we lay on the bare ocean floor. The winds had died down and the wall of water held steady, as if it knew I needed to grieve. If the water came crashing down now, I was inclined to accept my fate. I couldn't leave Howl here, like this. He deserved to be buried with his family in the quiet grove across the ocean, not abandoned at the bottom of the sea.

A steady hand squeezed my shoulder but I didn't have to look up to know who it was.

I peered up into the warm brown eyes of my brother and forced a smile.

"The Witch?"

"Dead."

Alex nodded solemnly. He must have assumed as much already. "and Howl?"

Tears dripped down my cheeks freely. "I don't know," I lied. Of course I knew. Not once did I feel his chest rise in the time I sat there, waiting for him to give me some indication that he was still with me.

Alex knelt in the mud and plucked the little heartstone, my heartstone, from Howls tattered shirt. He held it out to the sun and gave it an appraising look. "He held on to this the entire time," he chuckled thoughtfully, "good."

I nodded mechanically. Nothing was good about this.

Alex seemed to consider this for a moment before stepping away. He made his way over to the pile of rocks where Solana's body laid buried beneath and laid his palms flat against the stones. He spoke quietly to the mound, placing a hand over his heart.

He had once told me that the Witch had once been his pupil long ago. They may have had their differences, but a part of him must have grieved for the loss of his student. Any loss of life, for that matter, should be mourned but I felt nothing for the Witch of the Waste. It should have scared me, but I couldn't bring myself to feel anything anymore.

Alex walked along the wall of water, running his fingers through the current in admiration.

"Howl did this?"

"No," I responded, my voice cracking.

Alex's eyebrows disappeared beneath his dusty brown hair. "You did?"

I clutched my shirt tight and nodded mutely.

Alex let out a low whistle. "I seems I have missed a great deal while I was keeping the guards busy. I'm sorry I couldn't be there, but it seems that you and Howl had everything under control. --Err, Sophie?" He caught me sniffling and knelled before me, "what is the matter?"

"Don't you see?" I stroked Howls limp hair and bit my lip to stop it from wobbling. "Howl's gone."

He knelled pointed to the space below my collarbone where my heart beat steady as a drum in my chest, a question forming on his lips.

"It is Howls," I confirmed, "--but I didn't have a choice. We would have drowned without it."

"Seems to be beating quite well," he mused, holding his other hand to Howls chest. "Howl's a little cold though, must be all of that sea water. Not good for the complexion you see."

My brows knit together. "I'm not following."

He covered my hands with his and spoke softly, "Sophie, have you ever stopped to consider why it is that Howl didn't kill Solana over the past century? He had countless opportunities to take his revenge and had he done so, it would have saved him a lot of grief, yet he did not. Has it ever made you wonder?"

"Honestly, it never crossed my mind," I said curtly.

Alex pressed on, "that's because they couldn't kill each other. You see, you can't kill a person who doesn't have a heart. Howl's made an error the night he threw her heart into the ocean. He should have ended things right then and there, but he was too upset, too emotional at the time."

A quiet inn, a warm embrace, and a soft voice tugged at the edges of my memory. In my anger, I did something foolish that I now regret . . . I've been trying to fix the mistake I made ever since.

I rubbed Howls cheek with my thumb, his voice still echoing in my head. I was transported back to the moment I had hid away in the cramped little cupboard under the stairs, afraid of being discovered by him more than anything else. This is my punishment for not ending things when I should have, he had said to Markel. He had sounded regretful and angry.

"Naturally," Alex's voice pulled me from my thoughts, "this left Howl in a vulnerable position. When I told you that I helped Howl remove his own heart, I was only telling you half the truth. Howl knew he wanted to take his revenge on Solana one day, but in order to do that, he had to survive long enough to do so,"

"so he made sure Solana couldn't kill him." I finished.

"Why do you think I warned you not to take your heart back from Howl? It was the only way I knew you would be safe."

"But if what you're saying is true then that would mean--,"

I grasped Howls face in my hands and leaned in closely, so closely that I could feel the faintest breath of air brush my cheek.

"he is very much alive," Alex said softly.

My hands flew to my shirt. "I have to give this back to him then," I stammered. "Help me give it back."

Alex tapped his lip with a finger in contemplation. "I would had I the ability to do so. If I'm being absolutely honest with you, and I am, I haven't the faintest idea how you managed to do that. I have never encountered instance such as yours, it is very . . . unique. I cannot be sure that it is reversible."

"What do I do then? Wouldn't it help him if I gave it back?"

"I believe it would improve his condition, yes, but I would need some time in my library to do the necessary research. Unless--," I pulled the stone from his pocket and held it out between us, "we try giving him yours."

"Do it," I said resolutely, easing myself up into a kneeling position.

He motioned for me to stop. "Hold on Sophie, let us think this through. As I said, I've never seen someone take in another persons heart before so we may not be able to replicate it. And I don't know what sort of harm may come to you from doing this, it is your heart after all. Consider that before you make a decision."

He was right, we didn't know what could happen, but I hadn't weighed the risks when I took Howl's heart. It never occurred to me that I might have hurt Howl when I took his heart. He'd never been given that choice, but I had already made this choice long ago. My heart was Howl's well before this moment. It was his the moment I heard his sorrowful violin pluck its first notes. It was his when he kissed me under the stars, when he poured his soul out to me in that tiny inn in Dunbeath. It was his the day he walked into my little hat shop and turned my world upside down.

And for all of that, I wouldn't change a thing.

"I think somehow I knew this moment would come," I said quietly, reaching for the stone. Alex dropped it into my waiting hand, "whatever happens, know that I did this with love in my heart."

I pressed the stone to Howls chest with Alex's hand covering mine. He gave me an approving nod and closed his eyes. I let my eyes close as well, focusing on the warm sensation radiating from the little stone that became hotter and hotter under my fingers. Howl's chest rose suddenly with a gasp and he began coughing. My eyes flew open to find Howl looking up at me, his eyes crystal clear and as deep as the ocean. He reached for my cheek and cupped it with his palm.

"Sophie," his eyebrows creased, "why are you crying?"

I choked on a sob and forced a smile. "You looked like death a moment ago and you're worrying about me?"

His smile dimmed as he wiped a stray tear from my lips. "I'm sorry about what happened," he said, "I never meant for any of this to happen."

I admonished him with scowl. "Well I'm not. I'm not sorry for any of this, Howl. Solana can't hurt anyone anymore and that's because of us, we stopped her," I jerked my head towards the pile of stones, Howl following my gaze. "And even though she is by far the worst person I have ever met, she made me realize how brave I can be, I mean," I gestured to the sword at my hip, "a few months ago I never would have dreamed I be wielding one of these, but I did, and I would do it all over again to protect the people that I love -- for the man that I love."

He turned his head slowly, looking up at me with a quiet sort of wonder.

"You do?" he asked softly.

"I do."

He reached up and pressed his hand to the little space below my collarbone, feeling the maddening beat of my heart beneath his palm.

"It's a broken little thing, fed by malice and sorrow for far too long, hidden away in the dark. It may never work the same way again, the way you want it to. It doesn't remember what it feels like to be loved, to be cherished by another."

I let my hand settle over his chest, warming his skin beneath. "Then let mine remind you of the feeling, Howl, because I love you with all my heart, all of my being, and I will never stop loving you, even after this heart stops beating."

"Always?" his eyes shimmered.

I felt the little heart in my chest chest flutter with hope.

"Always and forever. Now let's go home."

Chapter Text

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."