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[fanfiction] A Woman True and Fair - Chapter 24

Happy Christmas to those who observe it.
I hope to update more frequently from now on.


Characters this chapter: Howl, Calcifer, Lettie, Mrs. Fairfax
Rating: PG

A Woman True and Fair

Chapter 24:
In which everyone surprisingly knows things


Howell was not sure how long he’d been asleep when he was awakened by a violent banging against the far wall of his bedroom. Throwing back the dusty bedspread he sat up, trying to rouse himself for battle, should it be necessary. In a few moments, Howell was awake enough to realise what the source of the noise was, and relaxed somewhat.

Through the wall, he could clearly hear Michael crying out in his sleep. “No! No! Go ‘way! Don’t! Get…!” Then his dream-inspired babbling degraded to unintelligibility once more. Howell’s apprentice did not have nightmares often, or at least he hadn’t done in the last two years. But when he’d first come to live at the castle, Calcifer had told him how Michael tossed and turned in his sleep. The boy himself, rambling in that anxious way he used to do when he assumed the wizard was not listening, had told Howell he often had horrible nightmares of the sea as it consumed his family. Now he wondered if the stress of the day might not have caused Michael’s psyche to regress to less pleasant times.

From beyond the wall, Michael was at it once more. “No! Howl! She’s coming!” Though he knew his apprentice was dreaming, the words chilled his blood. There was no doubt who Michael’s nightmare featured. Howell climbed out of bed and padded in his sock feet round the corner to his apprentice’s bedroom. When he got there, he saw his apprentice tossing and turning, kicking the wall, even slamming his head against it now and again – which Howell would have thought should have awakened him. He walked quietly into the room and cast the calming spell he’d invented to soothe Michael out of those old nightmares of the sea, part old wives’ remedy, part sleep spell. The young man moaned in distress a few times before quieting down, finally ceasing his thrashing about.

After that, Howell knew he wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep. Though, if he was honest with himself—and he rarely was--he likely had got enough, considering he’d gone to bed in the middle of the afternoon. Feeling lethargic and somewhat disturbed by Michael’s nightmare, Howell plodded downstairs, not quite sure what to do with himself once he got there. He thought perhaps a bath might be nice, but he couldn’t quite summon the energy to get himself there, drifting listlessly about the room instead. He glanced thoughtfully at the curtains to Sophie’s cubbyhole, wondering whether he wanted her to wake or not.

“You’re up early.” Calcifer peered up out of his logs, having been asleep, too. Howell shrugged, feeling unusually non-verbose. “Feeling any better?” the fire demon asked. It was just out of politeness, Howell supposed. Calcifer knew better than he did what the wizard felt most of the time.

Speaking of which, he had to stop and think about his answer. “No.”

“Come here, cabbage-head.” Howell wandered over to the hearth and lowered himself to sit in the ashes. “Speak,” the fire demon ordered.

Howell sighed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Mrs. Pentstemmon is dead. The Witch nearly got Sophie. And Michael is having night terrors about it all. You know how I hate to take blame, but it can hardly be laid anywhere else.” His expression turned tragic as Howell came to the root of the problem. “I didn’t get to say good-bye, Calcifer.”

“Death is like that,” the fire demon said baldly. Sympathy never came out quite right from between sharp purple teeth. Perhaps he was thinking of his own brush with it five years ago. After a moment, Calcifer asked regretfully, “You’re really going to go to the funeral, aren’t you?” When Howell nodded, the fire demon sighed in a shower of sparks. “I suppose we might construct a sort of misdirection spell focused on attention to go with your disguise…”

Howell smiled a little. “Thank you, Calcifer.” He sat quietly, thinking over the events of yesterday. “Thank gods Sophie’s all right,” he said softly.

“Sophie can hold her own against the witch,” Calcifer said. “She’s near as powerful, and that being untrained. With a little help, one day…”

Howell’s gaze turned immediately intense, then accusing. “What did you say?”

Calcifer glared back. “I’m talking about her magic. It’s quite strong. Why do you think I let her into the castle to start with? I was hoping she could break our contract.”

Howell had to take a moment to get his initial reaction—which was to explode in a fit of temper and betrayal--under control. Finally, he managed to swallow it down and took a deep breath. “Calcifer.” The fire demon looked back at him apprehensively. “When did you think you might enlighten me about this?”

“Well, I didn’t want to tell you about the contract. I knew you’d get over-excited and start dropping her unsubtle hints. You’d have spoiled it.” The sour face the fire demon pulled would have been comical at any other time.

“But don’t you think I had a right to know there was a witch moving into my house?” Howell demanded.

Calcifer stared at him blankly for a moment. “You didn’t know?” One green eyebrow quirked derisively. “How could you not know? Just look at the sorts of things she’s done!”

Howell knew he was going to lose his temper at this rate. “Admittedly,” he ground out between clenched teeth. “I’ve been a bit distracted since she’s come to live with us.”

Calcifer snorted and the fire popped. “How can you not have noticed something so obvious? And you call yourself a wizard!”

“It’s your job to tell me these things, Calcifer!” Howell was swiftly losing the battle not to shout. “I don’t always notice everything, you know! We’re a team! We’re supposed to work together!

“Keep your voice down!” Calcifer hissed.

Howell’s response was to cast a bubble of silence over Sophie’s sleeping cubby. There was no stopping the argument now. “That was important, Calcifer! I would have appreciated knowing that information earlier, say perhaps two weeks ago!”

“Well how was I to know you didn’t?” Now the fire demon looked indignant as well as patronizing. “It’s only obvious!”

“And you knew from the beginning?” Howell could not believe this information had been withheld from him for so long.

“You knew about the curse. Why didn’t you know she was a witch?” Calcifer demanded, as if both were equally obvious.

“Does SHE know she’s a witch?” Howell protested to illustrate his point.

“Of course not.”

“Then how was I to know?”

Suddenly Calcifer was at his most acerbic. “What? The only information you have is what you get from her head?”

Howell began to rise lest their discussion come to blows. At this point, he was sorely tempted to summon some water. “I’m not going to quarrel about this, Calcifer.”

“Too late.”

“Damnit.” There were times when his friend just asked for it. “I’m going to take a bath.”

“Why don’t you soak your head while you’re at it?” Calcifer snapped.

“Sod off!” Howell stormed into the bathroom where he drew the hottest bath imaginable and climbed into it, hoping it would leech some of his aggravation away. It didn’t, but he did finally relax enough to fall asleep. When the water had cooled enough to wake him, Howell saw the sun was just coming up outside the window. He needed to get out of the house, he decided., to go DO something. The nervous energy building at his helplessness in all of this, his irritation at having made one miscalculation after another, would not let him rest. The trouble was, there were so many things in his current life about which he could do nothing, Howell had a difficult time sifting through them all to find an activity that would keep him away from Calcifer until such time as he might consider forgiving the fire demon.

Finally, he hit on something. But he couldn’t go to Wales immediately. The only one likely to be awake at this hour in the Parry household was Gareth, and Howell was hardly ready for that confrontation. What had Mari said? Gareth was going to ‘give him a piece?’ Howell thought he could do without that, regardless of whether it was a piece of his brother-in-law’s fist or his mind. So what else was there?

Then he remembered the promise he’d made to Michael the night before. And as unenthused as he was to see Lettie and Mrs. Fairfax again anytime soon, Howell desperately needed something to occupy his time. He promised himself it would be a very brief visit, no matter how things went, and then he would dash off to Wales to give Neil that charm before school began.

Knowing he would be going home this morning, Howell gave in to a temporary insanity to dress comfortably. When he climbed out of the bath, he waded to the very back of his closet to dig out an old pair of black jeans and a rumpled brown Oxford. He loved his finery, but there was something very soothing about clothes from his own world and his old life that were comforting to Howell just now. After pulling them on, he didn’t take much care with the rest of his appearance either, not feeling up to it today. Tying his hair back in a messy ponytail, Howell put on a few cosmetics to hide the bags under his eyes and the redness in them, but that was all.

Calcifer gave him a curious look when he came back downstairs looking as he did. “Going somewhere?”

“Out,” was all the reply Howell would give, not wishing to exchange enough words to get into another argument with his friend.

“But where?” the fire demon pressed him. “Playing with fire today?”

“No,” Howell said, knowing Calcifer meant Miss Angorian. “Just out.”

He heard the fire demon grumbling unhappily behind him as he pulled the door open on the rolling countryside of the castle door. “Go back to sleep, Calcifer. And make sure the door is opened to no one until I return.”

“…teach your grandmother to suck eggs.” Howell didn’t catch all of Calcifer’s cranky muttering, but he thought that was just as well. “Just go on, then. ‘Out.’”

Howell sighed and jumped down onto the heath without saying good-bye. He had to walk most of the way to upper folding in order to get his nerve up to go through with the visit. Howell also thought his apology could hardly go over well if he arrived so early that he woke them. So he took his time, hoping they would be properly awake when he reached Upper Folding.

By the time Howell arrived, the sun was well up, and he could see the household servants moving about the grounds on their daily chores. They looked at him strangely--Howell hoped because of his unusual attire--before returning to their tasks. He was nearly to the house when he heard some excited barking from the back yard and a grey blur came tearing round the front of the house toward him. Howell paused in apprehension, thinking it might be that terror of a collie again, but it was not. Apparently, the greyhound Lettie had first adopted so many weeks ago had returned home. This was the only one of her dogs which had not attempted to bite him, so Howell, relieved, knelt down in welcome. “Hullo, boy! You came back.” He paused, thoughtful, reaching out to pet it. “As did I, I suppose. We are coincidental compatriots.” Howell stroked the dog’s sleek skull and pulled playfully at its ears as he gave them a good scratching. The dog rolled all over the grass in its excitement, and he had to smile in spite of his dark mood.

“What are you doing here?” At Lettie’s warm welcome, Howell looked up. She was standing at the corner of the house, holding her basketful of freshly harvested honey as if she were seriously considering dropping it in favour of striking him with a few more bolts of magic. Minding his manners, Howell stood and bowed.

“Miss Hatter. I don’t mean to disturb your schedule, but I felt I owed you a visit after the other day…”

“’Miss Hatter?!’” Lettie cried, indignant. “Well isn’t this a change!” Howell did his best to look innocent about the formality. “No more of your acting and pretty words, Howl,” she told him, witch fire flaring up in the cerulean of her eyes. “They never worked on me anyway. And as I have no reason to be polite to you now, I demand that you be honest.”

Howell winced. He was the least honest when it was demanded of him, a combination of habit and nature. But he was saved just then by Mrs. Fairfax wandering out of the house. In spite of the fact she was wearing a cheerful pink cooking apron and caked with flour up to her elbows, she did not look her usual energetic self. Howell could not help noticing her eyes were red from crying. “Oh, Lettie dear, you’re back. I need your help to—“ She suddenly realized something was wrong, and following her apprentice’s angry gaze to Howell. “Wizard Howl!” Mrs. Fairfax exclaimed. “Now this is a surprise.” At first when she came toward him, he felt certain an attack was imminent. But when she reached him, Mrs. Fairfax surprised him, merely putting a hand out and grasping his arm with a look of sympathy. “Oh, my dear! Such terrible news! You have heard about Mrs. Pentstemmon?”

Howell’s face fell, and he nodded. Lettie, however, was outraged at this show of commiseration with the enemy. “Aunt Anabel!” she cried. “How can you speak to him so normally, after what he-?!”

Mrs. Fairfax turned to her with a patient, kind expression. “Lettie dear, in times like these we hardly need make enemies of one another. The Witch of the Waste is on the loose, kidnapping our friends and killing our loved ones. She’s as much a threat to Wizard Howl as she is to us. Have some tolerance.”

Lettie made a choking noise of outrage which Howell noted was very like those he’d heard Sophie make on many an occasion before storming off. The dog managed to look worried and chased after her. “Such a shock,” Mrs. Fairfax continued. “That the Witch would be so bold as to go to Kingsbury and attack her directly. In her own home! It’s really quite unthinkable.”

“You shouldn’t put anything past her,” Howell replied darkly, bitter. “There’s no human kindness left in her. She’s capable of any cruelty or offense. It’s only a matter of what she feels best serves her purposes at the moment.”

Mrs. Fairfax looked at him quietly. He could see she was struggling to phrase her next statement as politically as possible. “You seem to have a bit of insight on that dubious lady.”

“She and I were once intimately acquainted,” Howell answered simply, surprising himself at how distanced he felt from the words. There was no chagrin or shame now, it was merely a fact. It was in the past.

Mrs. Fairfax’s eyebrows rose. “I see.” She looked around and then took his arm. “Well, now that Lettie has gone for one of her sulks, I’m afraid I shall have to enlist your help in the kitchen. Baking is my way of coping with grief, Mr. Pendragon, and I have been most aggrieved at the news I received last night. My oven can hardly bear it, and I have hardly enough hands to handle the task alone.”

She did not give him a chance to object, slowly towing Howell toward the house as she continued her depressed prattle. In the kitchen, which truly was an explosion of desperate grief if what she had said was true, Howell was appointed an apron and made to run back and forth with ingredients and finished product, improvising cooling racks and forced to find more and more space for everything. He thought Mrs. Fairfax could have stocked Cesari’s with everything she had going.

In a strange way, helping in the kitchen really was comforting. Howell’s mum had not been much of a baker, but he had dangled from her apron strings as she had cooked many a meal for the Jenkins household. It was how he had learnt to cook. In a way, it was automatic for Howell to help a woman in the kitchen, and Mrs. Fairfax chatted idly to him between giving instructions. It was homey somehow, like spending the morning with one’s gran.

“But that’s enough of that.” Mrs. Fairfax finally took a break from her own chatter. “I’m sure you’re quite bored to hear about all of these mundanities. Tell me, Mr. Pendragon. How are things at home for you these days?”

“You mean to ask about Sophie.” Howell cut to the chase.

Mrs. Fairfax answered honestly, quite unashamed. “She is one thing I’ve meant to hear about, yes.”

“She’s quite well, I assure you,” he answered, sounding as moody as he felt.

She looked at him, and there was a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Do you take very good care of your captives, Wizard Howl?”

Howell huffed a tired laugh. “As you may know from the Hatter temperament, it’s difficult to keep one captive.”

Mrs. Fairfax discreetly went back to kneading dough. “I thought that must be a fib on your part. Sophie was always the most stubborn of the three.”

Howell snorted. “I am not in the least surprised to hear it.”

“A man would have to be genuinely fond of a woman to put up with a certain strong-mindedness like that.” She continued to work the dough, looking at him knowingly out of the corner of her eye.

“I’m afraid I’ve always been frightfully well-disposed toward strong-minded women,” Howell admitted.

Mrs. Fairfax smiled, her eyes back on her work. “I told Lettie there was nothing to worry about. But she seems convinced you’re the worst kind of scoundrel.”

“Oh, but I am,” Howell said, balancing a tray of muffins precariously on top of the breadbox. “She’s quite right, you know.”

Mrs. Fairfax took up her rolling pin, replying sagely, “Even the worst kind of scoundrel can be made humble before the right kind of woman.”

“So it seems,” he replied, having both the Witch’s curse and Sophie in mind.

“I thought Martha was right to trust that apprentice of yours,” she went on. “Sweet boy, from the sound of it. Of course I argued on your behalf, in spite of that deplorable behaviour you showed on your last visit.”

“I really must apologise for that,” Howell turned to face her. “In fact, that was half the reason I came today.”

“I know,” she said. “I could see it in your face. But I’m afraid Lettie really isn’t prepared for apologies at this point. It will take time.”

“Well, I have three weeks, at least,” Howell said, half to himself.

Mrs. Fairfax looked up at him. “You’ve already set the wedding date?”

Howell nearly fell down from shock. “If I had, it would have been without Sophie’s knowledge!” he finally managed to choke out. “We are not precisely to that point in our…acquaintance.”

"As I once told Mr. Fairfax, there's no time to waste with this sort of thing." Mrs. Fairfax smiled maternally at him. "’Carpe diem,’ I always say." Howell pondered Sophie's reaction should he 'carpe diem' as Mrs. Fairfax was suggesting. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or tremble in fear.

Their conversation was interrupted just then by Lettie's entrance into it. "You are not marrying my sister," she said firmly. "You are a dishonest, despicable, disgusting man, and I forbid it - even should you get that far. Let's face it: we all know you're not the marrying kind."

Howell had calmed enough in Mrs. Fairfax's kitchen to have a bit of fun with her. "You say such nice things, Miss Hatter. One would wonder at your being an in-law."

"Stop it!" Lettie shouted. "Stop it right now! Don't even joke about marrying Sophie!"

Mrs. Fairfax approached and extended flour-covered arms as a peace offering. "Lettie, dear, do calm down."

"Aunt Anabel, you're almost as bad as he is! Don't encourage him!" She whirled on Howell. "Give me back my sister!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that just now," he answered calmly, drizzling icing on some fresh-baked scones.

Lettie smacked them onto the floor. "You can't, or you won't?" she demanded.

Howell looked up at her, utterly unaffected by her ill-temper. He could not believe he'd once thought himself in love with this shrew. "If Sophie left my house right now, she would be in grave danger,” he explained slowly. “If I were the sort of man you think I am, I could let her go. But I'm not. And I won't. Does that answer your question?"

Lettie growled in helpless fury. "I hate you! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!" She struck him a blow with every exclamation. "You're lying! You just don't want to give her back! This is your revenge on me for not falling in love with you!" She collapsed into a chair, weeping. Howell had to respect the utter self-centeredness that allowed her to make this situation all about herself.

If he knew anything, it was when to make an exit. "Mrs. Fairfax, it's been delightful.” Howell moved swiftly to the sink to wash his hands. “I'm sure I shall see you at the funeral tomorrow - but you will not see me. I must go in disguise in order to avoid the Witch of the Waste.” Drying on an almost flour-free dish towel, Howell finished with a warning. “Do take care, because she's sure to come."

Mrs. Fairfax's eyes grew round in fear, and she nodded. "If there's anything I might do to help, Mr. Pendragon..."

Just then Lettie screamed and cried harder because no one was paying attention to her. Mrs. Fairfax was forced to go over and pat her soothingly on the back. For his part, Howell ignored it. "Thank you, Mrs. Fairfax, no. I shall be fine."

In the doorway preparing to take his leave, he focused on Lettie briefly. "I realise you have no proof of what I tell you but my words. When I can, I shall make Sophie available to answer your questions herself." He looked up at Mrs. Fairfax. "An invitation to tea, perhaps. I'll let you know when the opportunity arises. Until then, ladies..." Howell bowed and showed himself out as Mrs. Fairfax was still busy attending to Lettie, whose selfish tears had not abated one bit.

~~~

Author’s Note: An entire chapter without having to steal DWJ’s dialog! Less work and less guilt both. Things are getting increasingly bad for Howl, and the funeral won’t occur for a few more chapters yet. The next will feature an out-of-book conversation with Miss Angorian.
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