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In Which An Old Woman Appears

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"Calm down a bit on the beer, eh, Howell?" Gavin clapped a hand on Howl's back. "You're only small!" Howl held up a finger at his Lock position friend and finished off the pint. It went down smoothly, and he stood dramatically, holding his hands out to his friends.

"Shots!" He grinned, and Jones, at least, cheered in approval.

"Yes, Howell!" The Rugby Club Reunion was a pleasant diversion. When he'd refreshed his hair dye before leaving he'd tried to ignore that the blond seemed to keep lightening with each application, and that his nearly totally white hair was now undeniably full white and gleaming.

When the lads had made jokes, he'd simply grinned and gotten the first round in, but as the night progressed he was finding it harder and harder to remain standing.

He staggered to the bar, with Dafydd steadying him as he stumbled. "The rest of the lads are in for London next year, are you?”

Howl very much hoped so, and pretended to mishear. “No, we’ll get tequila instead.” He waved the bartender over.

It was about 9, and Howl was keeping up with the larger boys as best he could; he needed as much dutch courage as he could muster and the bravado in the room was bolstering. The reunions were in a state of change, however, and Howl wasn’t entirely sure when his friends had gone from spending their nights checking into hotels with strangers to checking in with their partners and children at home.

“Look, I love being a dad.” Jones grinned to him when they sat together a little while later. “And I love Jan, but they drive me fucking nuts half the time.” He laughed. Howl nodded loosely.

“Tell me about it, I’ve got this cleaner- housemate, Sophie, and half the time I want to just have a bit of a cwtch, and half the time I think she’s trying to make me as angry as possible.” He scowled and Jones shrugged.

“Women, eh?”

“Well, I suppose she could be viewed as a woman.” Howl slurred. “I rather think she’s a curse.”

Howl did his best to keep an eye out for the Witch’s fire demon, but Miss Angorian was nowhere to be found as far as he could see. She was probably laying low and conserving energy for Midsummer’s Day.

Howl, obviously, was playing something of a waiting game, and who was to tell whether it would pay off.

“I hear you’ve got a new woman Howell.” Dafydd smiled genially, red in the face and beer-breathed.

Howl scoffed. “I do not thank you very much.” He leaned heavily on the table, ignoring the stickiness his elbow landed in. “I have a Sophie.”

An awkward realisation was quietly simmering away inside him, however, and he tried not to dwell on it. The knowledge did no one any good.

When last orders rang, Howl was driven home in a loud taxi full of Sosban Fach and bawdy drinking songs, and dropped off at Megan’s house. “Shhh!” Howl giggled, as he got out of the taxi. “You’ll wake Megan!”

“Shhhh!” His friends giggled back, and began to sing again. Howl foggily hoped that Megan would assume it was a neighbour coming home late, as he stumbled into the castle through Megan’s front door.

He sang along cheerily, as the castle twisted and distorted. He couldn’t seem to find the stairs to him room anymore. He found himself in the back yard, and had to turn back on himself. He staggered back past the broom cupboard and promptly tripped over a waylaid step.

“What’s the matter?” Sophie poked her head out, concern hidden in irritation and her face swimming in a blurry haze.

“Rugby Club Reunion.” Howl managed to slur. “Didn’t know I used to fly up the wing for my university, did you, Mrs Nose?”

Sophie same out a little further, arms crossed haughtily. “If you were trying to fly, you must have forgotten how.” Sophie frowned.

Howl kept back a chuckle at the misunderstanding. “I was born to strange sights.” He murmured. “Things invisible to see, and I was just on my way to bed when you interrupted me.” He struggled to stand. “I know where all past years are, and who cleft the Devil’s foot.”

“Go to bed, you fool.” Calcifer’s voice grumbled through the castle. “You’re drunk.”

“Who, me?” Howl cried. “I assure you my friends, I am cone sold sober.” He pulled himself upstairs, one hand braced against the wall, and chuckled. “What a lie that was!” He remarked as he walked into the wall. “My shining dishonesty will be the salvation of me.”

He managed to make his way into his room and promptly passed out, fully clothes, atop the bedsheets.

.

“…owl… HOWL!” Calcifer’s echoing cry woke Howl rather rudely from his sleep, and the light streaming in through the window shot daggers into his eyes painfully. “Howell Jenkins, the Witch has found your sister’s family!”

Howl crashed downstairs, blindly, and wild eyed. There seemed to be a rather significant audience for him downstairs, and some cries of horror.

“Got me by my weak flank, blast her!” He cried, heading for the door. “I was afraid she would! Thanks, Calcifer!” He shoved a startled Fanny aside and threw himself through the door.

The door to Megan’s house was wide open and he entered silently. He could hear Mari crying, and Megan shouting curses, and he flew through to the garden where the Witch stood with long, flowing red hair.

It gave him a start, but then he saw her face and the shock faded. It wasn’t the girl from May Day.

Mari and Neil were both looking scared and tearful, being shuffled slowly towards the Witch, with Megan behind, shouting and raging and screaming but shuffling forwards all the same. Howl wasted no time and lunged right for the Witch, who made a grab for Mari but, thankfully, she was still too far away to be caught and Howl chased the Witch over the fence and out to the street.

Magic was a little harder in Wales, without Calcifer to help fuel it, but Howl still managed to catch up to the Witch and catch her by the hair. He didn’t quite have the mental presence to conjure a spell but he pulled harshly backward and she slammed against him.

They went down in a tangle of limbs, the Witch shrieking in fury and rolling over, kicking and beating at him.

Something was wrong, though, and he couldn’t put his finger on it. His headache was blinding and he was so, so close to finally getting the Witch. Her neck was under his hands and he was so, so close to finishing her off.

She’d come after Megan and the children, she’d attacked his family, she’d destroyed the lives of so many people and she was smirking even as she coughed and spluttered.

And his fingers passed right through.

Fuck.

Fuck.

How had he missed the fact he was facing a decoy?

He held his head in his hands, trying to block out the mid-morning sun to little avail. He had to think. Why would she send a decoy?

He’d been so bloody drunk last night, and it had been strange not seeing Miss Angorian, who had been lurking in the background nearly every time he was in Wales recently. Perhaps she was laying low? Waiting for the curse to take hold before she made her move?

What if she was going after his family while he was out here sat in a stupid field?

Howl scrambled to his feet and fled back to the house, where he found Megan hugging both Mari and Neil close. When Howl clambered indelicately over the fence she looked up at him, seeming furious.

“Howell, what on God’s earth was that?” She demanded. Neil straightened away from his mother self consciously but Mari cuddled closer, eyeing Howl suspiciously. “And what are you wearing? You look ridiculous.”

Belatedly, Howl realised he’d not bothered to change clothes while saving their lives.

“Sorry, Megan.” Howl went to run a hand through his hair but his fingers caught on tangles and he felt rather sick, resisting the urge to look at his reflection in Megan’s kitchen window. “There’s something I’m involved with and I’ll try to explain it later.”

Megan narrowed her eyes. “Who was that woman? Where is she now?”

Howl glanced up at the window he shared with Megan and sighed, wondering the same thing. “Megan, where’s Gareth? Is he safe?”

“He’s in Cardiff for a conference.” Megan said. “What do you mean safe?”

“Can you get there?” Howl asked. “Can you check into a hotel for tonight- just tonight.” He said quickly. His original plan had failed, and he needed them somewhere safe while he tried to figure out the Witch’s plan. She was a step ahead of him, and he needed to regroup at the castle.

“Yes, we have the car.” Megan said.

It was testament to how frightening the Witch was that Megan didn’t protest. Nor did she question much when Howl bewitched the car to look like an old van, or when he produced three disguise cloaks for them. “Keep these on until you reach Cardiff service station. And don’t come home until tomorrow.”

He saw them off with a glum wave and stepped back inside the castle.

He was suddenly faced with what seemed to be a whole household of women looking right at him, expectantly. Self consciously, he tried to run a hand through his hair again.

“Hello Hatter ladies.” He smiled. Sophie wasn’t present. She was likely making tea or taking the opportunity to clean his room. The castle certainly seemed to be gleaming, and the Hatter women looked kitted out for work too.

No doubt Sophie had enlisted an army to battle Howl’s poor spiders.

Howl headed over to Calcifer. “The plan failed, old friend. She only pretended to go for my weak flank, and now I’m completely at a loss as to how I can outwit her now, when I have no inkling of her plans.”

“Um.” Calcifer crackled nervously. “I wouldn’t be so sure she hasn’t caught your weak flank after all Howl.”

Howl looked to Calcifer confused.

He looked at the pinched, pale faces around him and realised what he’d thought was expectation was nervous anticipation and fear. “Where’s Sophie?”

“She went to the Witch of the Waste.” Michael said, his voice pitched rather high and tight as he stood shoulder to shoulder with his Lettie. “The scarecrow returned and told us the Witch had captured Miss Angorian, and Sophie went to rescue her for you.”

“Miss Angorian?” Howl asked, confused. “But she’s the Witch’s demon. What on earth would-?”

“She’s not is she?” Michael asked, aghast.

Things fell rather painfully into place, and Howl felt a horrid sinking feeling that caused Calcifer to shout out in warning.

Howl swore.

“Damn that Sophie! Damn her to hell.” He turned the doorknob again. “Fly, Calcifer- speed is of the essence!”

When he arrived at the Witch’s castle there was already a fight happening. The Witch seemed to be battling the scarecrow in a cloud above it, and Howl paused, regarding the situation carefully before lifting his arms and summoned a roll of thunder, tearing at the connection between the Witch and her fire demon.

He could feel their connection, and as he tugged at it, the Witch seemed to crumple and collapse. She was very, very old, and as the last tendrils came away she fell to dust and bones.

Behind him, Sophie freed herself from a cocoon of the Witch’s orange goop and began walking over to a throne, where what looked like the headless body of Prince Justin sat very still. Howl was relieved Sophie was alright, he couldn’t deny that now, and the way she seemed to ignore him was actually rather hurtful.

Resolving to ignore these pains as best he could, Howl watched the scarecrow hop over to the Witch’s skeleton and begin to push the bones around. “No, my friend.” Howl said gently to what he was fairly sure was at least a small part of Wizard Suliman’s magic. “No, you won’t find her heart here. Her fire demon will have got that. I think it’s had the upper hand of her for a long time now.”He sighed, morose. “Sad, really.” He looked over to the headless body, which Sophie had draped her shawl over, carefully. “I think the rest of what you were looking for is over here.” He walked over to Sophie and the body.

Sophie was resolutely ignoring him, it seemed.

Howl stood beside her and huffed. “Typical! I break my neck to get here, and I find you peacefully tidying up!” He said in a low voice. Sophie turned slowly, taking in his appearance with a sad, critical eye.

Perhaps she might love him as much as he loved her, he thought, not making any attempt to change his appearance or run a hand through his hair. She may as well see his flaws properly.

“I came for Miss Angorian.” She said quietly.

“And I thought if I arranged for your family to visit you, it would keep you quiet for once!” Howl said disgustedly. “But no-!”

Howl was rather rudely interrupted by the scarecrow, which hopped between them decisively. “I was sent by Wizard Suliman.” It said in its mushy voice. “I was guarding his bushes from the birds in the Waste when the Witch caught him. He cast all of his magic that he could spare on me, and ordered me to come to his rescue. But the Witch had taken him to pieces by then and the pieces were in various places.”

It seemed to be talking only to Sophie, Howl realised, and he felt rather put out.

“It has been a hard task. If you had not come and talked me to life again, I would have failed.”

Howl should have known Sophie was behind the scarecrow in some way. No one else had that much power over things that should rightly stay put.

“So when Prince Justin ordered finding spells, they must have kept pointing to you… Why was that?” Sophie asked.

“To me or to his skull.” The scarecrow nodded- sort of. “Between us, we are the best part of him.”

“And Percival is made up of Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin!” Sophie looked dismayed.

The scarecrow nodded again. “Both parts told me that the Witch and her fire demon were no longer together and I could defeat the Witch on her own. I thank you for giving me ten times my former speed.”

Amused, Howl raised his eyebrows at Sophie. She really was coming into her own as a Witch, and with no tutelage at all. Imagine what she could do with some proper guidance…

But, back to the matter at hand. There was still rather a lot to do, even with the Witch gone. “Bring that body with you to the castle.” Howl said, waving the scarecrow towards the prince’s remains. “I’ll sort you out there. Sophie and I have to get back before that fire demon finds a way of getting inside my defences.” He reached out and went to take Sophie’s hand, but with the height difference was only able to catch her wrist. “Come on. Where are those seven-league boots?”

Sophie hung back. “But Miss Angorian-!”

Howl dragged her towards the largest pile of rubble, hoping the boots would be found near the cloak he could see trapped beneath a wooden beam. “Miss Angorian is the fire demon. If it gets inside the castle, then Calcifer’s had it and so have I!”

Sophie pulled her hand from his and Howl wheeled around to face her, irritated. The look on Sophie’s face made his blood run cold. She had both hands over her mouth and was staring at him, wide eyed and horrified.

“I knew I’d made a mess of it! It’s been in twice already. But she- it went out.”

“Oh, lord!” Howl cried, equally horrified. “Did it touch anything?”

“The guitar.”

“Then it’s still in there.” Howl realised. “Come on!” He regained his hold of Sophie and pulled her to the smashed wall. “Follow us carefully.” He instructed the scarecrow. “I’m going to have to raise a wind! No time to look for those boots.” He said to Sophie as they climbed over the ruined wall. “Just run. And keep running, or I won’t be able to move you.”

Sophie and Howl ran, helped by Howl’s wind and soon they were moving at a good pace.

“It’s not Calcifer’s fault!” Sophie shouted, over the noise of the wind. “I told him not to say!”

“He wouldn’t anyway.” Howl shouted back. “I knew he’d never give away a fellow fire demon. He was always my weakest flank.”“I thought Wales was!”

“No!” Howl shook his head. “I left that deliberately! I knew I’d be angry enough to stop her if she tried anything there. I had to leave her an opening, see? The only chance I had of coming at Price Justin was to use the curse she’d put on me to get near her.”

Sophie squinted at him. “So you were going to rescue the Prince! Why did you pretend to run away? To deceive the Witch?”

“Not likely!” Howl laughed bitterly. “I’m a coward. Only way I can do something this frightening is to tell myself I’m not doing it!” The words weighed heavily between them, and Sophie seemed to falter. Howl gripped her even tighter, terrified. “Keep running!” He reminded her urgently. “You’ll get hurt at this speed!”

Sophie gasped, and looked down at her feet, forcing them to move properly. It occurred to Howl that if he was going to die this may be the last opportunity to get a few things off his chest.

“All my flanks were weak!” He shouted and Sophie looked back up at him, she seemed very concerned about him and he felt rather pleased in spite of the pressing danger they were currently running towards. “I was relying on Suliman being alive. Then when all that seemed to be left of him was Percival, I was so scared I had to go out and get drunk.” He grimaced at her. “And then you go and play right into the Witch’s hands!”

“I’m the eldest!” Sophie cried miserably. “I’m a failure!” Howl had heard this particular bit of Ingary folklore before, and was floored that Sophie had seemed to take it to heart.

“Garbage!” He scoffed. “You just never stop to think!” He slowed, crashing through bushes and swerving with Sophie across a lake, sending spray and rainbows up into the air the midsummer sun. “And you’re too nice.” He scolded gently. “I was relying on you being too jealous to let that demon near the place.”

He didn’t dare look at her then, pulling her in a slow run up the hill and towards the castle to the door.

“Michael!” He shouted, opening the door and guiding Sophie inside.

“It wasn’t me who let her in!” Michael said guiltily. Howl let go of Sophie and immediately went for the guitar which was propped up against the wall, but it exploded before he could reach it and the fire demon appeared, smiling beguilingly next to Calcifer.

Howl froze. “Your Witch is dead.” He said. She was still holding her form without the Witch’s power even as back up. She really was so much older and more powerful than Calcifer.

“Isn’t that too bad!” She said, totally unconcerned. “Now I can make myself a new human who will be much better. The curse is fulfilled.” Howl glanced to Sophie, who was staring at Miss Angorian in stunned, furious silence. “I can lay my hands on your heart now.”

She reached into the grate and took hold of Howl’s heart, pulling it out with Calcifer still attached looking terrified.

“Nobody move.” She said warningly.

Calcifer flickered weakly. “Help!” He cried. Miss Angorian peered down at him with a smirk.

“Nobody can help you.” The demon continued. “You are going to help me control my new human. Let me show you. I only have to tighten my grip-!”

Howl had never felt pain like it. He was vaguely aware of Calcifer screaming terribly loud, so much so that it sounded like two voices crying out in pain.

His vision flashed white, and he felt his legs buckle as blackness engulfed him.

.

The first thing he was aware of was wrenching pain.

He groaned, and the noise echoed loudly around his own head, pulsing and writhing its way around behind his closed eyes. He rolled over onto his front in an attempt to block out the light.

“Hell’s teeth!” He grunted. “I’ve got a hangover!”

“No.” Someone - a young woman - said matter of factly in a way Sophie would approve of. “You hit your head on the floor.”

Sophie.

His chest bloomed with intense dread in a way he’d never felt before. Sophie.

“I can’t stay.” He muttered to the blurry woman beside him. “I’ve got to rescue that fool Sophie.”

A hand took hold of his shoulder tightly, stopping him in his tracks and shaking him mercilessly. “I’m here.” She said. “But so is Miss Angorian!” His eyes widened and he felt curiously full to the brim in a way that wasn’t comfortable at all but he had other things to attend to. “Get up and do something about her! Quickly!”

Howl looked to where Miss Angorian seemed to be getting harassed by Michael’s Lettie, the scarecrow and Sophie’s walking stick which was, he noted, on fire.

Wasting no time, Howl stood and reached out to the fire demon, casting a very old, very powerful spell that he’d used in part on the Witch earlier. He felt it take and looked down in grim satisfaction at the small, hardened black heart in his hands.

The fire demon whined wetly, and Howl shook his head. “I’m afraid not. You’ve had your time.” He lifted the heart to it and grimaced. “By the look of this, you were trying to get a new heart too. You were going to take my heart and let Calcifer die, weren’t you?”

He pressed both palms against the Witch’s heart and crushed it to dust, not watching the fire demon crumble as he did so. There was no real satisfaction to be had in doing this to one of Calcifer’s kin, but the risk was too great.

Then the hairs on the back of Howl’s neck and arms prickled, and he felt that very uncomfortably full feeling again. He turned to look at Sophie with his hands by his sides, empty and open.

She was still wearing her grey dress but her hair was long, loose and bright ginger. Her eyes were green and cheeks freckled, and she couldn’t seem to look away from him either.

“Grey doesn’t really suit you.” He said. “I thought that when I first saw you.”

“Calcifer’s gone.” Sophie said quickly. “I had to break your contract.”

Howl nodded, sadly. He was sad to lose his old friend. “We were both hoping you would. Neither of us wanted to end up like the Witch and Miss Angorian. Would you call your hair ginger?”

“Red gold.” Sophie corrected, looking into his eyes with a slightly wondering smile. “Unlike some people’s, it’s natural.”

Howl felt his own smile threatening to take over his whole face. “I’ve never seen why people put such value on things being natural.” He said, taking a step closer to Sophie.

If Howl had had any attention to spare, he would have seen Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman, restored to their own bodies and shaking hands in the doorway. “I’d better get back to my royal brother.” Prince Justin said, and approached a rather stunned Fanny, bowing deeply. “Am I addressing the lady of the house?

“Er- not really.” Fanny managed. “The lady of the house is Sophie.”

“Or will be shortly.” Mrs Fairfax chimed in with a smile.

Howl took Sophie’s hands in his own, unable to keep his grin down as his chest thrummed with new depth he couldn’t remember having even before he’d given up his heart. “I’ve been wondering all along if you would turn out to be that lovely girl I met on May Day. Why were you so scared then?”

Sophie simply beamed back at him, certainly not scared, and certainly very lovely.

If Howl had been attending, he would have seen Wizard Suliman go up to the other Lettie with a sense of purpose. “It seemed to be the Prince’s memory I had of you and not my own at all.” He said with a distinctive Welsh lilt.

“That’s quite alright.” Lettie said, looking up at him. “It was a mistake.”

“But it wasn’t!” Protested Wizard Suliman. “Would you let me take you on as a pupil at least?”

Howl could still see the echoes of the old woman in her face, but more in the structure, and in the sharpness of her gaze. Sophie maybe hadn’t changed much at all with the lifting of the curse, and he was very glad of it indeed.

If Howl had been paying any attention at all, he would have noticed Michael looking mightily confused as he held his Lettie’s hand. “I shall have to get used to using your real name, Martha. But why didn’t you tell me before?”

The blonde girl twiddled her thumbs nervously. “Well, Lettie never told me that her disguise had been found out, and I was worried in case you wouldn’t like me as much if I lifted the spell too quickly.”

“Martha.” Michael said very sincerely. “You’re the most wonderful person I have ever met.” And then he turned bright red and couldn’t seem to get out another word.

But Howl had no attention to spare at all.

“I think we should live happily ever after.” He grinned down at Sophie. “It should be hair-raising.”

“And you’ll exploit me.” Sophie grinned back.

“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me.” Said Howl.

So Sophie and Howl held hands and grinned at each other, blissfully unaware that the crowd in the castle were now nearly all trying to speak to one or the other of them in the wake of Miss Angorian’s demise.

Fanny, Martha and Lettie were all trying to catch Sophie’s attention and tugging gently on her dress, as Prince Justin, Wizard Suliman and Mrs Fairfax all tried to speak with Howl.

“That was the neatest use of word of power I ever saw from anyone.” Mrs Fairfax said. “I wouldn’t have known what to do with that creature. As I often say…”

“Sophie.” Said Lettie. “I need your advice.”

“Wizard Howl.” Said Wizard Suliman. “I must apologise for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

“Sophie, I think this gentleman is a prince.” Said Fanny.

“Sophie.” Said Martha. “The spell’s off you! Did you hear?”

But Sophie and Howl were holding one another’s hands and smiling and smiling and quite unable to stop.

“Don’t bother me now.” Howl grinned. “I only did it for the money.”

“Liar.” Sophie beamed.

“I said…” Michael shouted. “That Calcifer’s come back!”

That did get Howl’s attention, and Sophie’s too. They looked to the grate where, sure enough, old blueface was flickering amongst the logs.

“You didn’t need to do that.” Howl said, beaming even wider, though he wouldn’t have believed it possible.

“I don’t mind.” Calcifer said nonchalantly. “As long as I can come and go.” He peered up at Howl with smirking blue eyes. “Besides, it’s raining out there in Market Chipping.”

Howl briefly despaired at the effect the humidity would have on his hair, before realising with slow horror that he hadn’t been through the bathroom at all that day.