Howl's Moving Castle Fan Fiction ❯ The Daemon Wars ❯ Chapter 11: Betrayal ( Chapter 11 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

The Daemon Wars: Part IV of the Wallmaker Saga
Chapter 11: Betrayal
Barimus always found flying soothing.
There was something about the way the green and brown patch-worked cloth of the countryside went whisking underneath the airship that put his mind at ease. His sharp golden eyes easily picked out the scattered tiny homes and people, who looked like tiny dolls in the distance. Perhaps it was looking at the world from on high that made everything, even his troubles, look small. Even the muffled hum of the gigantic metal craft in which they sliced through the morning sky felt calming. With magic he could make the trip to Market Chipping from the capital in about the same time as could a sky kyak. However, the huge metal airships, powered by steam and locomotive magic, could make the same trip in a quarter of the time.
Normally the Royal Wizard would have preferred feathers.
But he was still weak in both body and mind, barely able to walk long without experiencing excruciating pain. True, his infirmities would mean little in the air, but it was landing that would be the problem. Shifting his gaze to the crisp blue sky, the immense azure firmament arched overhead, dusted with great cotton clouds and crowned by a brilliant white sun. The brisk wind felt good in his hair and the air smell sweet and clean. For the first time in a long while the red wizard no longer felt crushed by his obligations. Leaning further out of the window at which he was seated, the blond man felt alive again.
“I'm surprised your wings aren't itching, Lord Councilor.” Dieter suddenly spoke at his elbow.
The twin wizard's own bright emerald eyes fixed on the sky outside.
“Kettle calling the pot black,” Barimus quipped back, flashing a wry grin at his friend.
Reluctantly, the tall sorcerer turned his attention away from one of the many large glass paned windows that lined the side the richly furnished office. All manner of overstuffed chairs and large cushy couches were strategically placed about the room, all facing the impressive red-varnished oak desk at the head of the chamber. A sumptuously embroidered tapestry of the Ingarian arms was prominently displayed behind the table, reminding all of who would sit there even in his absence. Gilded lions feet finished the legs of the writing surface, which was strew with half rolled maps and charting equipment in the same manner a child's toys clutter their play area. The papers fluttered lazily in the wind, like multicolored butterflies open and closing their wings to the sun. They seemed harmless enough, but the blond man was no longer sure.
King Ferdinand had shut them up in the office all morning, talking about his plans before leaving on a grand tour of the airship. Due to the fragile condition of his legs, Barimus was not able to accompany them. But he did not mind, it gave him time to think about what the allied monarchs had decided. Groups of belled soldiers led by a mirror armed Wizard Guard would make sweeps of Market Chipping and the surrounding countryside in order to ferret out any remnants of the Dark. Communication would be handled by the Guards, who had also been fitted with medallions that had been enchanted with a message spell. However, the range of the medals was as limited as the bells, thus long distance communiqués would be coordinated by the twins. Like poor dear Cyanine, Peoter and Deiter were capable of mindspeech at any distance, but could only speak to one another. As such, similar hunting parties would be deployed as necessary depending on the direction the tainted spirits moved.
The red wizard could not find any fault in the plan, nor could Prince Justin and King Walden. It sounded like an excellent idea in conversation, but what worried him, was that it did not take into account the human element. Many of the soldiers, including the Wizard Guards, were terrified by recent events in the capital and the village. It was essential that the seeking parties remain observant about their findings. Not ever magical entity or object was touched by the Dark, and Barimus did not want a repeat of the cleansing fires that had robbed Kingsbury of most of its enchanted objects. However, such level headed thinking was not easy to maintain by such young and inexperienced soldiers. Many died in the Daemon Queen's assault on the capital, especially in the ranks of the Wizard's Guard. The new crop was young and barely out of their apprenticeships; as such, was it likely they might overreact and misinterpret the bells. That was the one limitation was that they responded to all magic, not just the tainted kind. The fact that stories spread like wildfire about the cursed guard, the death of one of his comrades, and the madness of the other did not help either. Seran's knowledge of the daemon would be invaluable, albeit painfully given. In spite of his recent ordeal, the prematurely aged magi had accompanied them in a secure but separate room, to prevent any harm from coming to his comrades. The blond sorcerer had not yet met the man, and planned to do so as soon as they landed.
“Shouldn't you be watching over our King?” Barimus asked with playful peevishness, turning his attention back to the curly haired man who was still lovingly gazing at the sky. The twins were as much bird as they were wizard; however, they never seemed to need wings. The two men were the fastest fliers without feathers the Royal Sorcerer had ever met.
“I beg your pardon, my Lord, but I think it is you that could use my company at the moment. Besides, the Kings have a large escort and I really could care less about steam powered pistons and greased gears.”
“Martha put you up to this, didn't she?”
“Indeed she did, my Lord,” the freckle faced man replied with a grin.
At least he was honest.
Bitterly, Barimus brooded on the fact that he could not say the same for himself. Turning his mind elsewhere, he wistfully recalled his wife's large green eyes and the stubborn set of her jaw. Martha had tried to accompany him early that morning, but the red wizard managed to convince her to stay for Markl's sake. It had been too difficult for the blond man to visit his nephew in the pale grey dawn; just the thought of him lying unconscious and beyond their help nearly sent him to pieces. But he had stood outside the boy's room in his wife's arms as the herbalist towered up around him, giving him strength he so desperately needed. She had promised to help him in any way she could, thus she was with the Wallmaker's apprentice when he could not be there in her place.
Barimus dreaded arriving in Market Chipping because he knew he must visit his brother and speak of many things the Wallmaker would not want to hear. The keeper of the balance lived in a world very different from the reality the Royal Wizard faced every day. But the Wallmaker was the most powerful sorcerer alive because he was forced to exist between the two worlds. Barimus would not have been able to stand the solitary life his brother was compelled to live. He would have gone mad dwelling so close to the Dull Wall and the powerful magic that permeated every inch of the green hills, soaking into the very fabric of his life. As a result of this revelation, the red wizard was no longer jealous of the fact that his brother was capable of things he would never in his entire life be able to reach. But he accepted this because he understood that in all things there was a price.
Howl, however, was not very perceptive when angry.
Barimus was sure that the blue-eyed wizard would not understand why he was forced to do what he had done. The Wallmaker was all feeling and little thought; he often took things personally when they were simply circumstantial. If he was not already, he would be furious with the way King Ferdinand had handled the aftermath of the Daemon Queen's attack on Kingsbury. Furthermore, the moors were steeped in old magic, which was the perfect hiding place for fleeing tainted spirits. However, the Wallmaker would demand that the troops leave the wastes at once because of his personal connection to the wild stretch of uninhabited land. And then there was the issue of the fallen shield, for which Barimus could do nothing. Would Howl be able to repair it? Or would he shirk the burden onto someone else?
The Royal Wizard's greatest talent was for working with people; as a sorcerer his magic was great but nothing compared to his brother's. However, Howl had the infuriating ability to bring out the worst in him. Yesterday's visit was a perfect example of how easy it was for Barimus to loose his temper with his brother. The Wallmaker often made decisions that made no sense; like letting the daemon queen go free. Furthermore, Councilor Raia's prophecy had gone missing and the blond sorcerer had a good idea who might have nicked it.
With a jolt the Royal Sorcerer remembered the truth Howl had divulged to him about the connection between his daughter and the cold former healer. That could explain the recent outbreak of daemon attacks and the monster Theresa and Markl encountered in the palace late last night. But unlike Howl, who would do anything for his family, Barimus did not agree that the bonds of kinship excused everything. Begrudgingly, he often thought Howl forgot that the world went on beyond the walls of his castle and that the consequences of his actions reached far beyond his family. People were dying, and it was the Wallmaker's duty to protect Ingary even from his own family if necessary!
And then there was Markl.
Although he would never in a thousand years admit it, this was the one place where the blond man was truly envious of his brother. The myths of origin marked the magi as a cursed race and the red sorcerer considered sardonically that there was some truth to that story. Witches and wizards were always dying due to the perils of magic and the Dark; as such there were as many orphans as there were childless parents. With bitter remorse the red wizard recalled the child he and his wife had lost six years ago. Partly due to his deep-seated guilt over that loss, he had not yet taken a student in spite of the fact it was an oath of duty he and Martha had sworn when he became the Royal Sorcerer and Lord Councilor. It was not that he was unhappy with what he had; quite the contrary. A wizard's family was often formed by taking on apprentices and now he had a wife and a daughter. Perhaps this is what caused him to speak an untruth so rashly to King Ferdinand. His brother's russet-haired apprentice was everything the blond man could have hoped for in a son. And Barimus was terrified Howl would never forgive him for the lie longing had forced him to tell.
Suddenly Deiter, who had been silently keeping his Lord company, swayed on his feet as he uttered a pained gasp.
“Deiter! What is it!?” Barimus exclaimed in surprise, wincing himself as he hastily tried to rise but failed. Reaching out, he grabbed the freckled-faced man's elbow, keeping him from falling. The twin's face was white and his eyes pale; instantly the Lord Councilor knew he was communicating with Peoter, who was all the way back in Kingsbury. The distance made mindspeech painful, because they two men were literally forced to mentally shout at one another.
“The water witch… Merra,” The curly haired man gasped, his eyes nearly white, “She found the daemon Queen…”
Theresa was roused from sleep by the sound of squabbling voices.
“I don't see what the problem is, Nally?”
“I told you not to call me that!” A familiar voice spat angrily.
“My, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed,” the smile that was apparent in the words was as visible in her mind as though the person stood right in front of her.
“I don't see the Herbalist anywhere which means she must be somewhere else in the palace so why don't we go in I mean Markl's our friend and we have a right to see him.” As a girl spoke somewhere outside her words rushed from beyond the cracked door in the same way water hurries to find lower ground from a height.
“I agree with, Trissa. Stop being such a coward, Nalir. I want to see Markl!”
Theresa immediately recognized the voice of the blonde girl who had been draped over the Wallmaker's apprentice in the hallway last night. With that she realized who must be standing outside the russet-haired boy's room and the revelation shook her wide awake. The curly-haired girl had fallen fast asleep at the foot of her friend's bed. Much to her dismay she realized she had been drooling and there were sheet marks on her cheek. Quickly straightening her appearance as best she could, the freckle faced girl snatched up her garden hoe. Stalked forward with the intent of chasing off anyone that might even consider disturbing the golden-eyed boy, she was brought to a stand-still with her hand on the doorknob.
“How dare you insult me, Hedera! I am not a coward. Have you any idea how rude it is to go barreling into a sick room without so much as knocking? Besides, she might be in there.”
“Who? You mean the freckled girl with the leaves in her hair from last night that you're afraid of?” Again the words rushed from the other girl. Theresa remembered her now, she was thin and horsy with a sallow complexion further accentuated by the hideous teal velvet she wore.
“I'm not afraid of her! And just for your information I learned from my mother that the girl, as you so lightly call her, is Lady Martha's apprentice, the one with the enchanted garden hoe who helped save the Capital. She's the one that held the daemon off until the Herbalist arrived.”
“Please!” Hedera sneered incredulously, “Are you telling me that common girl fought off one of the Tainted?”
Theresa decided she had heard enough and yanked open the door, pulling it closed behind her as she briskly existed the room. Standing in front of the door, the freckle-faced girl planted one hand on her hip, holding her hoe in the other as she had seen Sophie wield Suliman's staff. Fixing the startled visitors with her best baleful Martha stare, the herbalist's apprentice straightened and towered upwards.
The group of magi apprentices actually shrank from her. Theresa indulged herself in a moment of smugness as Nalir retreated behind the tall-dun colored boy.
“What do you want?” She intoned ominously, mimicking her mistress' most flinty tone. Hedera was the first to recover, her cheeks flaming brightly to match her silk magenta robes.
“We demand to see Markl!” The little witch spoke as she flipped her curly blond hair haughtily. She planted her hands on her curvy hips in an attempt to match Theresa's posture.
The motion was unsuccessful.
In a perfect mime of her mistress' sternest stance, Theresa first cast her eyes to the plump girl. Slowly, she then turned her face and body so that the full power of her icy gaze built to a piercing crescendo. Indeed, after an embattled moment, the pretty blonde faltered and looked away, fidgeting uncomfortably.
“Don't be such a snob, Hedera,” Trissa scolded as she sent a sheepish smile toward the herbalist's apprentice. Her pink robed friend cast a malicious scowl in the sallow girl's direction before turning her nose up with a huff. Ryden laughed at them as Nalir emerged from behind his friend.
“Can we see Markl… please?” The last words that escaped the diminutive red-haired boy were begrudged, but as Theresa turned to glare at him, her fierceness melted slightly. There was a desperate sincerity in his green eyes that was uncomfortably familiar to the young woman. She realized Nalir was actually worried about Markl. Casting her eyes about for a second she understood that they all were.
“He's still unconscious,” She replied as evenly as she could, although her voice quavered slightly.
“Is he alright?” Ryden asked with uncharacteristic solemnity. Theresa didn't trust herself to reply and the heavy silence that followed was answer enough for all of them.
“Has Master Yewin been summoned to see him?” Nalir demanded so harshly that the herbalist's apprentice had to restrain herself from whacking him with her garden hoe.
“He has not,” Theresa grated between her teeth.
“And why not!? He's one of the most skilled healer magi that Marda has to offer. Wasn't he called here just to see Lord Councilor Barimus?”
Nalir was disguising his furiousness very poorly and was speaking to her as though she knew nothing of healing. That fact alone nearly burned the tentative bridge that had begun to be built between her and the magi apprentices. Coloring as red as her hair, Theresa was about to release a tirade on the young wizard when a harried page came tearing around the corner of the hallway. The thin servant nearly expired from fright and weariness as soon as he drew near to the black-robed young man.
“Lady Merra requests her son's presence,” he gasped out.
Turning white as a sheet, the green-eyed young man turned on his heel and went tearing off down the hallway.
“What's all that about?” Ryden asked the man cheerfully, and the page gave a start as he had to peer upwards at the young wizard.
“The Water Witch located the Daemon Queen,” The man stumbled over the cold woman's name as though the very act of speaking it would summon the creature.
“They found Mrs. Danna?! Where!?” Theresa demanded, forgetting everything that had previously vexed her.
“Porthaven; the wizard's guard are already on their way,” the man managed to say as he wilted visibly.
The healer in the curly-haired girl went into action. She took the servant by the elbow and forced him to sit in a nearby chair. Disappearing back into Markl's room for a moment, she poured a cup of stout tea from the pot on the brazier and carried it out to the man who thanked her profusely. Turning, the herbalist's apprentice found the hallway empty and the door she had left open a crack wide open. Storming into the room, the angry words that gathered turned to nothing as she caught sight of the apprentices. They were gathered at the foot of the Markl's bed, the two girls tucked against Ryden who encircled them with his long arms. Their sniffling was very loud in her ears as she set aside the garden hoe and tried to find something to keep her hands busy lest she begin crying herself.
“Tea?” She spoke half-madly into the silence that filled the room, as it was the only thing she could think to say.
No one answered.
Just then Hedera fled the chamber with her face in her hands and a worried Trissa chased after her. The dun-colored wizard looked over his shoulder at the doorway with a grave expression, his big brown eyes shiny in the mid-day light. The reedy apprentice turned, flashing a half-hearted smile before he left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Howl left the castle without eating any breakfast.
Granny witch sat in her chair by the fireplace, nattering away about summer and gossip as the handsome snow-haired man sat on the couch near her. He was patiently listening with gentle humor glinting in his violet eyes, obviously not understanding a word she said. But he held a skein of yarn aloft between his hands and the faded old woman was rolling it into a ball. Every so often the daemon-man would cast a curious look down at the fat furry creature that sat on his feet and Heen would thump his tail apologetically. Sophie's husband had said very little once they had come downstairs, although the irritated glare the wizard shot at Nox was not missed on her. Apparently Howl was not as welcoming as she when it came to the star daemon's presence in their home. Calcifer also seemed ill at ease in the star's presence, and he followed the silver sorceress around the kitchen like a lost puppy as she got breakfast together.
Right before he left, the raven-haired man gently took Sophie by the shoulders and fixed her with such an intense she was startled.
“No one goes into the workshop, including you. Alright?”
Sophie opened her mouth to speak but Howl silenced her by raising one of his hands, bringing hot exasperation into the little woman's cheeks. True she rarely used her gifts, but the silver haired woman was beginning to resent being coddled in the ways of magic. She knew the strength of her power and could feel the ripples of magic in this world and the next. Was she not a witch? But the brown-eyed woman softened as the Wallmaker smiled down at her, his sapphire eyes luminous with the love which showed plainly in his face. Her wizard kissed her so quickly she barely had time to kiss back before he breezed past her and snatched up his great sleeved coat. The sorcerer wiped his hand across the surface of the door. Drowsily at first, a circle appeared. It flickered a deep purple for a moment and Howl frowned before it melted to a brilliant cerulean. Suddenly, he yanked open the door and disappeared into the beyond before she could see where he had gone.
Sophie stared solemnly at the door for a while, absently holding out her hands to Calcifer as he settled in her palms.
The fire daemon was an anxious teal this morning, all eyes as he looked up at his best friend's wife. She knew why the living flame was being so clingy that morning, the witchy woman felt with a wild sprout of fear the distant ice of the premonition that clung to the back of her mind like a long shadow in the light. No doubt Calcifer and Howl felt it too: something was about to happen. Suddenly she realized that Nox was staring at her, his amethyst eyes unnervingly brilliant. She stared back at him with a peevish expression, sick and tired of being ogled portentously by ethereal beings. Why couldn't anyone in this family just talk to one another? But the mother of the castle was distracted from the tirade she planned to unleash on the unsuspecting star when the man-daemon turned humorous eyes towards the ceiling. In the distance there was a muffled splash and a high-pitched shriek.
“I said take a bath, not drown each other!” Sophie called up the stairs in a displeased tone that did not match the smirk on her face. Apparently the water ballet upstairs must have come to a close because silence filtered down from the bathroom. However, with it came a steady dribble of water, which dripped like a migrating stream down the front stairs. The silver haired wilted with a gusty sigh of exasperation.
Now she had to do laundry and mop again.
Rolling up her sleeves and winding her braid about her head, the mother witch made quick work of the river running down the stairs. Soon the sooty sheets were soaking in the kitchen basin as the kettle heated against Calcifer's flames. Oatmeal would have to suffice for breakfast that morning, there had not been enough time yesterday to get to the market. Sophie settled herself next to Nox and attempted to mend the shirt Deirdre had been wearing the previous day. Apparently she had managed to select and shred one of Howl's favorites. Perhaps Martha would be willing to let her borrow a few of her green dresses? Her youngest sister was the tallest in all of her family, taking after her father the strongest.
Suddenly the wet slap of bare feet on the stairs announced the arrival of her youngest son, who skidded to a halt on the landing. Sophie dropped her needle. The boy was dripping wet and naked as a newly hatched chick except for the sapphire necklace she used to wear. Her son never took it off.
With dismay she noticed the growing puddle beneath his feet.
“I'm clean, mother! See?” He crowed triumphantly as if the very fact was the most important news that had ever graced the earth. Throwing out his arms, the little boy spun in place with the shameless flair of a true exhibitionist.
“Akarshan!” Drie called in consternation. Her wet braids dripping as she chased down the stairs after her brother wearing a towel that was the twin to the large cloth she held between her hands like a butterfly net. But Shan was not done parading about the castle and he ran from his sister giggling hysterically as she chased him around the kitchen table.
“Oh, what a naked little boy!” Granny witch exclaimed in surprise. At that Sophie lost her grip and began laughing uncontrollably.
“Hey! HEY!?” Calcifer crackled in annoyance from the hearth, sending up thick curls of smoke, “You're mother just mopped, you little monsters!”
Nox was not impervious either to the antics of the children, and his chuckle hummed like the deep dulcet tones of a huge brass bell. The sound made the whole room vibrate.
“Wow! Hi, Mr. Star!” Shan suddenly caught sight of Nox and was distracted from his game long enough for his sister to pounce on him. Smothering the squirming little boy in the thick towel, Drie whisked him up into her arms.
“Gotcha!” The child-woman cried as her laugh ran out like a sweet silver bell.
“Upstairs… Dry… Dressed!” The mother of the castle commanded helplessly as she managed to steal back enough breath from her mirth to speak. Laughing all the way, Drie obeyed and hauled the still wriggling Shan up the stairs.
So abruptly he frightened everyone in the room, Nox stood and walked towards the veranda. The snow-haired man-daemon peered out of the windows with such an intense expression that the silver sorceress sobered instantly.
“Airships!” Calcifer called in abject astonishment. The castle listed slightly as the fire daemon altered the course of their flight just enough to give Sophie a sense of vertigo. The silver witch scrambled past the star daemon into the green garden outside.
The moment she opened the door, a deafening synthetic hum assaulted her senses along with the acrid smell of burning fuel and the static prickle caused by friction from mechanical movement. Sophie gaped at the sky above as the huge metal machines loomed over them, blotting out the sun as they sent a dark shadow over the flying castle. There were three of the huge warships, with fleets of sky kayaks buzzing about the vessels in the way wasps swarm about their hive. The Ingarian arms were emblazoned on the hulls of the ships, which glittered in the light like the casing of a great beetle. They were exactly like the ones she had seen over Market Chipping during the Mardan War. Just the sight of them turned her blood to ice. Leaning dangerously out over the stone balustrade that encircled the backyard, she caught sight of the wastes beneath them. With a stab of panic she realized they were not far from Market Chipping.
What was the Ingarian Army doing here?!
“Wow! Look at the airships sister!” Shan's awed and excited voice filtered down to her from one of the balconies that protruded from the castle above.
“GET INSIDE! NOW!” Sophie yelled at them and Deirdre snatched her brother backwards. A door slammed overhead, not that she heard it.
Suddenly one of the air kayaks broke away from the rest, approaching closer and closer. The silver sorceress caught sight of the two scarlet clad figures seated on the contraption. The one that was standing had a head full of copper curls and the seated was a blond.
“Barimus!” Sophie screamed joyfully over the distant roar of the engines.
The insect-like sky perambulator buzzed over her head before settling its blurring wings with a great rattling sigh on the verge, overwhelming the small backyard. But the brown-eyed witch tackled her sister's husband even before he could rise. She was somewhat surprised by the vehemence with which the Lord Councilor returned her embrace. However, this was the first time Sophie had seen him since she had returned from the otherworld. As such, she did her best to crush his ribs.
“Whoa, little sister!” The red wizard coughed, his bright eyes shining with happiness, “Handle me gently, I'm still an invalid!”
“You're legs!” The small woman exclaimed in surprise as she gazed down at her brother-in-laws cast-less shins.
“Yes, yes,” The blond man waved off her concern in distraction as she caught sight of one half of the Captains of the Wizards Guard.
“You must be Dieter.”
“Peoter, Lady Sophie,” The man grinned at her with a sly sparkle in his green eyes. He bowed to her, the movement full of awe and respect inconsistent with the expression on his face.
“Dieter!” Barimus growled in annoyance, struggling to rise with unguarded pain plain on his face. With a frown of concern, Sophie immediately fitted herself under his shoulder as the chastised twin followed suite on the other side. Together they managed to get the Lord Councilor down off of the flying machine.
“I can't stay long, Sophie. I came to see Howl.” Barimus' mood shifted instantaneously as he hobbled across the garden.
“He just left for Kingsbury to bring home Markl,” Sophie replied apologetically. The twist of cold worry danced cruelly in her chest as the blond wizard looked as though her words had slapped him. The red wizard sagged against them, his eyes closed for a moment as he gritted his teeth.
“Barimus!? What is it?” The brown-eyed woman spoke in dismay. All jest evaporated from Dieter's face, leaving behind a stranger who shot her staying glace, that was at once contrite and cautionary.
“I need to sit down,” Was the Lord Councilor's lame reply.
Sophie kicked the garden door, which thankfully did not shatter as it burst open. As soon as they stepped inside, the bells hanging from the two men's belts, which had gone completely unnoticed by the witch, suddenly erupted into a clatter of cacophonic clanging.
“Gah! Make it stop!” Calcifer snapped from the hearth, again making the human motion of plugging his ears in spite of the fact that he had none. With a hoarse cry, Heen jumped up and fled from the room.
“Oh, what a horrible noise!” Granny witch exclaimed in mild annoyance, dropping the ball of yarn she was winding as she placed her hands over her ears. Suddenly, the gazes of both visitors were riveted on the darkly tanned man sitting next to the old witch. Nox appeared to be affected by the bells as well, and he winced uncomfortably, in the same way an expert musician is wounded by a sour note. Suddenly, he sat aside the twine and made a cutting motion with his hand.
Abruptly, the bells silenced as the star-man beamed at the room.
At the velvet cloaked man's movement, Dieter surged forward with a small round mirror in one hand and a fist full of yellow green fire in the other.
“Wait!” Sophie cried. The silver haired witch rushed forward in front of the copper haired twin, barring his way as Calcifer shot from the hearth to hover at her shoulder.
“Ah, thank you dearie!” Granny sighed happily as she leaned over and patted the Nox's shoulder. The man smiled happily and picked up the yarn again, oblivious to the tension in the room. Barimus managed to come forward and place a restraining hand on Deiter's shoulder, in spite of the mistrust the showed through his pain. The guard's fire extinguished and the twin fetched a chair for his lord, who barely kept his feet long enough for the seat to arrive. The blond man and his companion continued to stare without apology at the snow-haired stranger.
“This is Nox,” Sophie presented the star, feeling her introduction of the brother of the mother of the magi race was rather feeble.
“The elder star,” The Lord Councilor spoke in awe. At the word star, the man-daemon looked up and flashed an ingenious smile at the two of them. He then looked away and began humming absently.
“Why is he here?” The blond man's question was soaked in trepidation.
“I don't know…” The silver sorceress replied, quite at a loss for what else to say.
“You gonna put that away?” Calcifer crackled nastily at Dieter, his eyes fixed with aversion on the banishing mirror. With a glance at Barimus, who nodded firmly, the green-eyed man stored the mirror back in his pocket and took his place behind his Lord's chair. Finally, everyone settled down. The fire daemon returned to the hearth as Sophie took seat next to Nox, much to the red wizard's consternation.
“I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you're alright, Barimus,” The silver sorceress began earnestly.
“And I you,” the red wizard responded with a gentle smile, although there was great pain in his golden eyes that had nothing to do with his injury.
“Tell me, what's all that about,” she continued in a rush, gesturing out the window, “Why are you here? You said you needed to talk to Howl.”
Barimus looked away, casting troubled eyes outside, “A Dark touched daemon was found in the village yesterday, the troops will begin making sweeps of the area until the spirit is found. You know this already because you were there, so I'm told. This morning the daemon queen was apprehended Porthaven. She is currently being transported to the encampment being set up outside of Market Chipping. I have no doubt she will be sentenced upon arrival.”
Sophie was floored, her brown eyes flying wide at the truth her brother-in-law just revealed to her. Finally, she found her voice, which croaked as she spoke, “What do you mean sentenced?”
“She will be banished beyond the Dull Wall, to the scorched plains,” The red wizard spoke evenly.
“That cannot be!” Sophie half screamed in horror, shooting to her feet as she gave everyone in the room a fright. All except for Nox, who continued to hum to himself and sway gently, like a man who had lost his mind.
“Sophie, I know!” Barimus' fierce voice sliced through the mother's terror and his wild golden eyes held her own. At his words all eyes in the castle were upon him, “I know about your daughter and the daemon; it's why I'm here. The daemon… it is the same one that attacked soldiers in Market Chipping yesterday. Last night it killed four more at the palace last night. It was nowhere to be found when the guards secured the daemon queen this morning. It is essential that we find the daemon lest she return to its master and undo all that we have accomplished.”
The silver sorceress was crestfallen. Howl had not told her about the daemon queen, or about the deaths last night, although that explained the blood on the other. With hot fury she considered perhaps he had known and simply refrained from telling her. But Barimus' voice drew her out of her anger, plunging her back into the present where she was adrift in a sea of turmoil.
“Martha and Theresa saw it and they described her in detail; the daemon has long silver hair and blue eyes just like Howl's. I want to help, Sophie. Perhaps I can do something to stall the king long enough to sever the connection between the two before the daemon queen is banished. But to do that I will need to see her.”
Standing, the brown-eyed mother began pacing the kitchen wildly. Nox followed her every move with a cryptic expression on his face. Even Granny witch had stopped winding as she watched the Wallmaker's wife with troubled eyes. The Royal Wizard was very clearly becoming impatient, his haggard face pale and his gold eyes bright with desperation. And so he did something unfortunate, even though he was loath to play such an underhanded card.
“She attacked Markl and Theresa last night!” The royal sorcerer blurted out in a distraught rush, “If Martha hadn't been there the daemon would have killed them both!”
“What?!” The silver sorceress cried as she spun on her heel to stare blankly at Barimus. But he continued ruthlessly in spite of the shock that showed plainly on his sister-in-law's face.
“Theresa's alright, but Markl still hasn't woken up… Martha says there's nothing we can do for him.”
“What do you mean, he hasn't woken up?” Calcifer snapped angrily from the hearth as he gave a violent chittering pop, showering the room with ash and sparks.
“I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry, Sophie,” Barimus' voice was weak with sorrow, “But she has to be stopped before she hurts someone else!”
Was this another of her husband's secrets? Was this why he had shied from speaking of her eldest son that morning? Had Howl known and kept this truth from her like so many times before? For the first time she could remember, a fracture of doubt crept across the foundation of the trust she held with Howl. How could he keep something so important as their son's wellbeing from her? And if he couldn't tell her this, what else was he keeping from her? The sheer horror of it turned her heart to ice. A vast uncertainty pressed down on her in the absence of her steadfast belief in the Wallmaker, and it felt like her insides were about to shatter.
Sophie felt something she hadn't in a very long time: betrayal.
Looking up, she stared blankly at Barimus. This was one of the horrible moments that every person is confronted with at some point in their life times. A decision must be made between two equally unacceptable choices knowing fully that down each path lies sorrow. What should she do? The creature upstairs was linked to her daughter, if it suffered so too would Deirdre. What if something went wrong? Could she trust the red wizard with the life of her daughter? Thus far the blond man had always been true to his word in spite of the fact that he was no less guilty than Howl for keeping secrets from her. But in this matter at least he had respected her enough to tell her the truth. As far as Sophie was concerned, a secret was just as bad as a lie.
And so the Silver Sorceress decided on the lesser of two evils.
“She's upstairs,” Sophie whispered after what seems like ages of tense silence as she sank to a seat on the kitchen bench, “In the workshop…”