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It was such hard work setting it up in the first place.  But it seems I don’t have a choice.  The themes have all been upgraded.  Any readers I may have left: are you seeing ads with this?

Still here — I had a computer crisis and now have a new Mac.  It should be excellent for photo and graphic work (and the Wacom tablet just hums on it, tripleguess!)  I am scrambling around getting files transferred, particularly text files, as I have been a WordPerfect user forever and will have to do some converting, not to mention learning a new platform.  Please stand by….

[I turned in my final grades today.  Class over, Christmas obligations over, sprained foot much  better, slight cold and exhaustion all that remains.  There is a bit more of this small story remaining to which I need to make some small adjustments.  Hope you enjoy this brief installment.  I hope to post the rest of it tomorrow.]

Somehow Howell got himself pulled together, then it was Megan’s turn to start blubbering and she ended up having to borrow Howell’s silk handkerchief.  After that couldn’t have told you how long they stood there, their arms around each other, wordlessly trying in that short space of time to clean up the dog’s breakfast their lives had been ever since Mam died.

A light tap at the door brought them back.  “Ten minutes, Wizard Howl.”

“Thank you, Justin.” Howell said.

“I guess that’s it, then,” Megan said.

“Wait,” Howell said.  “Your highness?”

“Yes, Wizard Howl?”

“Would you be so kind as to show Mrs. Parry the way to the garden?”

A tall man, just this side of middle-aged, popped round the door.  He had crisp blue eyes and grey-flecked hair, and he was dressed every bit as splendidly as the King. Resembled him too, though Justin was as lean as the King was plump.

“My pleasure,” he said, bowing gallantly and offering an arm to Megan.

“Wish me luck, Meggie,” Howell said.

She stood on tiptoes to give him a sisterly peck on one cheek.  “Pob lwc!” she said.  “You’ll be fine.  I’ll see you on the other side.”

—o—

In the ten minutes it took him to say good-bye to Megan, put the final touches both physical and magical on his appearance, and make his way down and through the back of the house and out to the vast garden, now all garlanded and beribboned, Howell went from nervousness to apprehension to anxiety to despair to a kind of galvanised fatalism.

There was no way Sophie was ever going to show up for this charade.  No way in hell.

Plenty of other people had, however.  Hundreds of them, in fact:  customers of the Sophie’s family’s hat shop and Howell’s magic shops and the flower shop; fisher-folk from Porthaven who’d put on their best faded clothes and made the long trek down to Vale’s End by carrier, some of them leaving the northern coast for the first time in generations; overdressed, heavily perfumed nobs from Kingsbury; cheerful burghers and farmers of Market Chipping and its surrounds. Sophie’s old friend Bessie was there with her new husband, and Jane née Farrier, Countess of Catterack, was there with hers: Jane, not-so-plain any more, positively dripped jewels as she towered over her adoring Count.  There was a chattering youthful bevy of Sophie’s old school chums, together with a more mature yet still chattering bevy of Mrs. Fanny Smith’s old school chums.  Annabel Fairfax had brought several daughters and sons-in-law and a flock of grandchildren, together with a veritable herd of her clients from over in the Folding Valley.  Also there were a handful of Mrs. Pentstemmon’s tall and thrawn elderly relatives, all that remained of that great lady’s noble family; and Ben’s extended famly from Wales, who, being magic users, seemed utterly at home in Ingary; and many others whom Howell had never seen before but took to be associates of Mr. Sacheverell Smith.   Half the Court was there, dancing attendance on the King was also there with the Queen and Valeria and Valeria’s nurse and the extensive retinue of each.  And, seated just up front and looking as if they might be starting to relax a little, were the Parrys.  Howell saw Megan sliding into the seat between Gareth and Neil and taking Mari in her lap, while Justin slipped back to join the Royals.

Good Lord, this had turned into the be-there-or-be-square society wedding of the century!  All of which would make his humiliation all the greater, when Sophie failed to appear.  And then—and then—the goddesses would have their revenge.

Oh, what precious nonsense, said a voice in his head:  the voice of Mrs. Pentstemmon.  Man up, you silly fool.

All right, he would try.  But he wished with all his heart that that great lady could have been here today to see him joined to Sophie, Sophie to whom with joy and great relief she had bequeathed her tender care for Howell and his moral and magical well-being.  He wished with all his heart that his dear old teacher had lived to witness his victory over fire demons and the vicious temptation to power and immortality they offered, and to sit in a place of high honour at his wedding banquet….

All was prepared.  The Royal String Orchestra was in the midst of a delightful Mozartian prelude.  A few last-moment arrivals were hastily taking their seats.

Through a fog of doubt Howell made his way to the appointed spot, just to the right of the rose-draped table they had rigged as an altar.  Michael appeared at Howell’s right hand, and Ben at Michael’s.  So far so good.  Calcifer hovered nearby.  Silly vain fop of a fire demon, he had done himself up for the occasion in a glittering purple glamour that clashed, rather amfully, with the softer colours of the wedding party.  The Royal Chaplain, on the other hand, was all in sedate black as took his place behind the altar.

The prelude ended with three graceful chords.

The assembled dearly-beloveds caught their breath.

The musicians began a march, delicate and stately.

Howell’s heart flopped like a fish.

For all you fans of Diana Wynne Jones, here’s my 2007 Howl’s Moving Castle/Dr. Seuss crossover.  (It’s based on the novel, not the anime.)

Everybody in Ingary
Liked Christmas a lot.
But the Witch,
Who’d been kicked out of Ingary,
Did not.

The Witch hated Christmas!
The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why.
No one quite knows the reason:
It could be her head
Wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be they got
Her last face-lift too tight.
But I think the
Likeliest reason, by far:
She had given her heart
To a cruel fallen star.

But whatever the reason,
Her heart or her face,
The Witch hated the annual
Yuletide rat-race,
Staring out from the Waste
With a sour Witchy frown
At the warm lighted windows
In every town.

“They’re hanging their stockings!”
She snarled with a sneer.
“Tomorrow is Christmas!
It’s practically here!”

With her long sharp red fingernails
Nervously clacking,
Said she, “I’ll find some way
To send Christmas packing!”

Then, “I’ve got it!” she cried.

“With this illusion spell,
I’ll create a disguise
So that no one can tell
That I’m not Mrs. Claus;
Sneak in quietly, very,
And steal every present.
Make Christmas un-merry!”

So she conjured a elf-hat,
Coat, and mini-skirt, red,
All trimmed in white fur.
Then she conjured a sled.

“All I need is a reindeer.”
The Witch looked around;
There were none in that world
So no reindeer was found.

Did that stop the old Witch?
Dear, no.  Don’t be silly.
She tied big fuzzy antlers
On her fire demon, Lily.

Lily felt quite exploited,
Being hitched to a sled.
“I am so going to
Get her for this,” Lily said.

Then the Witch said, “Giddap!”
Up the slope gently slipping,
They rode to the heath
Just above Market Chipping.

The village was dark.
Quiet snow filled the air
As they came to the house
Just beyond Market Square,
Where the three Hatter girls
Dreamed sweet dreams without care.

“This is stop number one!”
The fake Witchy-Claus hissed.
And she climbed to the roof,
Evil spells in her fist.

She got stuck in the chimney—
Too tight for the Witch.
Muttered Lily, “Why don’t you lose
Thirty pounds, b- – – -?”

She got all the way down,
Though her face had turned blue.
Then she stuck her head
Out of the fireplace flue
Where the Hatter girls’ stockings
All hung in a row.
“These stockings,” she said,
“Are the first things to go.”

Then she slithered and slunk
With a smile most unpleasant,
Around the whole room,
And took every present!

There was perfume for Lettie,
New combs for her hair,
A sparkling gold necklace,
A new frock to wear.

For Sophie, new scissors,
And needles and thread,
Three novels, two histories,
And a quilt for her bed.

For Martha, the youngest,
With a fortune to seek,
Cotton aprons and undies
For each day of the week.

The Witch made them all vanish!
Then, quick as a wink,
Hit the closets—she even
Took Fanny’s faux mink!

Then she transported up
Through the chimney with glee,
Pausing only to hijack
The wreath and the tree!

It was quarter past dawn
When the Witch, in great haste,
With Lily the reindeer
Returned to the Waste.

But she’d left off a listening-in spell
At Chez Hatter,
Eager to hear the girls’
Christmas hopes shatter.

“They’ll wail and they’ll weep,
They’ll shriek at the sight,”
She told Lily. “They’ll get in
A juicy cat-fight!
And that is a sound
That I really must hear!”
She added.

Then, putting a hand to her ear,
She listened in horror
As there came, clear and bright,
The three lovely Hatter girls’
Squeals of delight,
The crinkling of gift-wrap,
The crackling Yule fire
(Which, had she but seen it,
Was blue and quite jolly,
Munching pungent pine needles
And crunchy bright holly),
And old carols sung
By an impromptu choir—
Four warbling Hatters,
A tenor, a bass,
And one other
Who wandered
All over the place.

And the Witch and her fire demon
Stood in the Waste,
Looks of sour disappointment
On each ravaged face.

“Wait a minute!” cried Lily.
“I thought I heard men!”

Yes, those three manly wizards,
Howl, Michael, and Ben,
Had magicked the egg nog,
The wreath and the tree,
The gifts they had brought
For the fair sisters three,
The gifts that the girls bought
For Fanny, their mother
(Or step-), and the things
They all got for each other—
Right back down the chimney.
They’d re-hung the wreath
And put back the tree,
With the presents beneath.

While the Witch of the Waste
And her fire demon Lily,
Were doomed to a Christmas
Both bitter and chilly.

But our three noble wizards
Remembered the pair,
And gifts soon came winging
Through the dry Waste-y air:
Lily got Chicken Soup
For the Fire Demon Soul,
But the Witch got a stocking
All full of Welsh coal.

And in fair Market Chipping,
Old and young, short and tall,
Raise a glass to your health:
“Merry Christmas to All!”

“Wizards,” Megan said stupidly.

“That’s right,” Ben said.

“Wizards.”

“We are.  I am the senior, Hywel is the recently appointed junior Royal Wizard.  He’s a thousand times the mage and spellcaster that I am, though.  He’s good, don’t you know?”

“I don’t,” Megan said.

“I suppose not,” Ben said, with a twinkle that let Megan know that Howell had gone and aired more of their family’s dirty laundry than he ought.

“Well, I don’t.   About any of that, I mean,” Megan said.

But she knew there was a reason she had liked Ben Sullivan from the start.

“Mrs. Parry,” he said kindly, “I hope it will please you to know that not two months ago, with the help of the young lady who is about to become his wife, your brother saved my life and the life of the King’s brother.  He saved our entire country, if the truth were told.  Needless to say, he is held in high honour in this place.  So is she.”

Mari said, “Ooh!”

Neil said, “Cool!”

Gareth said, “I’ll be damned.”

Megan said nothing.  She was afraid she was either going to find the nearest thing she could throw, or cry.

Mari said, “Uncle Howell told me he wanted to marry Sophie that day when they came to our house.  Don’t you remember, Mam?”

“I remember, yeah,” Megan replied sullenly.  She supposed she should stop tuning out whenever Mari and Howell got going in Welsh, and start tuning in.  But she’d left it too late.

“He said he was trying to help her get well again,” Mari said.  “I asked him, ‘Uncle Howell, does Sophie love you?’  He said he didn’t know for sure but he thought if she didn’t then she’d have already kicked him to Rashpuht and back again.”

“Quiet now, Mari!  I want to ask Ben something.  Who is this girl, anyway?”

“Mam, you already met her,” Mari insisted.

“Mari, hush!”

“Sophie Hatter,” Ben said.

That name sounded familiar, all right.

“Lovely girl, very good family,” Ben said, then added sheepishly, “I’ve set my cap for her younger sister, if you must know.”

“Excellent!” Neil said.

—o—

The coach passed through a gate like you might see at a palace, all ivy-covered stone walls and iron curlicues with pink and white roses climbing all over everything.  Beyond it was a garden with fountains and statues and big box trees in rows.  And beyond that was a big, ornate, stately house of grey stone, with a sweeping staircase and rank on rank of gleaming windows and gargoyled chimneys.  It was just as grand as you please, and it seemed to fit perfectly here, in this place—whatever it was—and in this time—whenever it was.

A woman rushed up to them in a cloud of perfume, a very grand woman in a turquoise gown who looked like a Victorian painting come to life: she had mounds of yellow hair, an immense fancy hat with roses all under the brim, and a complexion like an advertisement for soap.

She looked them all up and down, said she was Mrs. Smith, mother of the bride, that she couldn’t stop just then but that she was so delighted they had come, and that she looked forward to good a chat with them later.  In the meantime they were honoured guests and were welcome to wander the house and grounds and to please consider themselves at home.  She produced from somewhere a dark-haired young man called Michael and told them that Michael and Ben would look after them until time for the wedding.

Mrs. Smith departed graciously, but more coaches were pulling up at the garden gate.  People all in period costume got out of them, only it wasn’t period costume.  This was confusing.  Even Ben looked different; Megan hadn’t noticed his hair being particularly long before, but now it was done back in a sort of pigtail like they wore two hundred years ago, or was it three?.  His suit jacket had become an elegant frock-coat of brown velvet brocaded with copper, and—this for sure he wasn’t wearing before—he had a fancy cravat of ivory lace.

Megan began to feel quite out of her element here.  Never thought I’d have to worry about Howell being ashamed of me, she thought in dismay.

“Where is my brother?” she whispered to Ben.  “Where is Howell?  I want to speak to him before this wedding gets started, if I could—”

“Certainly,” Ben said.  “I’ll take you to him.  And they’ll be fine,” he added, noticing her uneasy backward glances at her family.

Neil and the boy Michael, who was a bit older, had found something to talk about and were scuffling along together.  Michael was richly dressed in a coat much like Ben’s, only in dark green.  Meanwhile Gareth, holding Mari, was talking to a gorgeously-dressed, somewhat stout man who had approached them, along with his plump, equally gorgeously-dressed wife.  The man held his own little daughter, barely a toddler but all done up in a pale blue frock that was to die for.  The little girl was making happy friendly faces at Mari, who was returning them like mad.

“Who were those people?” Megan whispered to Ben as he led her, wobbling a little in her high-heels, round one wing of the mansion, through another gate and down a flower-lined path to a side door that opened into its own miniature garden.

“They are our king and queen,” Ben said.

Panic time.

“We’re rather less formal here,” Ben added.

“Aren’t we, though?” Megan said.  “Any more surprises and I’ll fall right through the ground.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Ben said, laughing.

—o—

What a place!  The house went on forever, up stairs and down corridors, and how Ben knew which door was the right one to leave her off, Megan had no idea.

“He’s in there, dressing.  He’ll be expecting you.  And here, I’m afraid, I shall have to leave you, Mrs. Parry.”

He bowed grandly.  Megan, not sure if she should nod, curtsey, or bow in return, stood there with her teeth in her mouth.  Ben merely smiled and departed.

It was a big oak door with brass fittings, slightly ajar.  It took her a good five minutes just to get up the courage to give it a light knock.  “Howell,” she ventured, “are you decent?”

“I’m never decent.  Come in, Meggie.”

He was decent, all right; in fact he looked not bad at all, standing straightening his lapels in front of an enormous mirror.  Not that Megan got a very good look at him before he turned and threw his arms around her.

“I’m so glad you came,” he said.

“Couldn’t miss my own little brother’s wedding, now could I?” she said, with a tentative pat on his back.

“No, no, you couldn’t, thank goodness,” he said.  “So.  What do you think?  Is it all right?  Will I do?”  He held out his arms and turned round slowly for her to admire his finery.  And truth to tell, he really did look good, in an elegant frock coat of midnight-blue brocaded velvet, very fine and rich, with a froth of white lace at his collar and cuffs.

“You, and this place, this style of thing, all go very well together,” she said.

“Yes they do, thanks,” Howell said.  “It seems to agree with me.  Even better, I seem to agree with it.” He grinned.

“It’s all a bit Doctor Who, if you ask me,” Megan said.

“It is.  The Doctor sent his regrets, by the way,” Howell said.

Megan glared, then realised that Howell just might not be joking.

“But I shouldn’t mention that to Neil and Mari,” Howell went on.  “They will be so disappointed they missed him.  I know the Princess Valeria was when she found out.  Screamed for days.”

Ugh.

The silence that followed was the kind that made you want to put a bin liner over your head and throw yourself in.

“So,” Megan said.  “I’m dying to see this girl.  They say she’s something amazing.”

“Amazing isn’t the half of it,” Howell said.

“And you are deeply, madly, totally in love with her, yeah?”

“You seem unconvinced, Megan dear.”

“I know you, Howell.  But I don’t know her,” Megan said.  “I assume she’s beautiful.  Brides always are, at least until the honeymoon dries up and reality rears its ugly head.”

All at once he started to cry.  “Oh, Meggie,” he said.   “She’s seen me at my absolute worst, and she still wants me.”

Good lord!  What on earth to do?  With all his saucing and joking, Howell always made you forget that he had feelings just like other people.

“That’s why they call it lurve, you know,” Megan said, trying and miserably failing to make it light.  And then she did something she knew she should have done more of, all along:  she reached up and hugged him close, at the same time groping one-handed in her handbag for a tissue to dry his tears.

She’d forgot to bring any.  To a wedding, no less.

“Oh, hell,” she said.  “Now don’t cry.  You’re looking wonderful today.  Just wonderful.  But you’ll only mess it up if you cry.”

Second August dawned wet and dreary, with more of the same predicted all week for South Wales and beyond.  With no nagging and hardly any prompting from Megan, strangely believe it, Gareth and Neil got themselves properly done up—polished shoes, clean fingernails, neckties and all.  For herself Megan chose a pale lime green chiffon thing she’d worn only once, to someone else’s wedding.  Mari still fit in her fluffy pink frock from Easter.  That was good.  There would be no need to go out and spend money on another fancy dress for what surely was going to turn out to be some kind of joke.

Mother and daughter almost got into a real hair-puller when Mari insisted on adding a silly pretend tiara, left over from Halloween, because “I might meet a princess.  It could happen.  No, Mam, really.” Extracting it at this late date would mean re-doing Mari’s hair, and anyway Megan was sick of arguing with her.

Megan doubted Howell would mind, anyway; he wasn’t one to be put off by a pink and white tiara, not even at his own wedding (probably be wearing one himself, she thought, rolling her eyes)—if “wedding” what this really turned out to be.  The entire affair was probably going to be all hippies and riff-raff, anyway.  Oh, why had she fallen for this?  Why did he always have to go and drag them into some—

The doorbell rang.  Noon sharp.  It was time.  Neil, already restless in his good clothes, rushed to get it.  From their separate corners of the house, Gareth, Megan, and Mari all appeared.

“Hallo there!  The Parrys, I believe?”  A tall and quite large fellow with grey-tinged reddish hair came striding in.  Though Megan couldn’t have told you later what he was wearing, he seemed very well-dressed.  He made her think of a grown-up version of that handsome youngster Ioan Gruffudd she’d seen on the television and hadn’t been able to forget.

He was shaking hands with Gareth and with Neil like they were old mates from school.  Then he took Megan’s hand and bowed over it.  “Benjamin Sullivan,” he said.  “Honoured to meet you.”

Seriously?  Megan thought.  “Me too, I mean you too,” she stammered.

Lastly he took Mari’s hand, and as he bent over it Mari curtseyed prettily. “Prynhawn dda, syr,” she said.

“Prynhawn dda, Mari,” Sullivan replied with exaggerated politeness.  “Sut dych chi?”

“Iawn, syr, diolch.  Braf cwrdd â chi.”

“Braf cwrdd â chi hefyd, Mari.”

Megan was about to stamp her foot with impatience, but Ben snapped out of it just in time.  “Well, then,” he said.  “I have a car waiting out front.  Once we’re tucked in I’ll attempt to explain where we’re going.”

With Ben and the driver holding umbrellas over them, they hurried out to what turned out to be a limo, a black Bentley that stretched from here to there and back.  Inside was all grey leather, and there were beer taps and spigots and gleaming bar glasses in rows like ships at sea.

“Phwar!” Neil gasped.

“Yes, well, we have time, I think, for a toast to the bride and groom,” Ben said, and after Megan had said a few words about not spilling anything on the car or their clothes on pain of death, they all got quite merry:  the kids on ginger beer, Ben and Gareth on what Gareth said was some excellent ale, Megan herself on Tanqueray.

Though Megan couldn’t have told you how long it took to get there, the car drew up at Caerphilly Castle sooner than later, just as a brief spate of sunshine broke out and a brilliant great rainbow appeared off over Cardiff and the Channel.  Mari, gazing out the window, giggled and clapped her hands.  “That’s where we’re going!” she said.

Megan hoped Mari was talking about the Castle and not the rainbow, but Megan was beginning to have doubts.  Big doubts.

But she couldn’t deny she was feeling very important as the driver came round and let them all out at the head of the car park.  Ben led them over the causeway, then turned—not toward the green but the other way, straight at the ramparts frowning sheer over the water.  Just when Megan thought they’d all end up in the moat, Ben slipped through a narrow slot in the stone wall, and they followed him into some kind of cargo lift.

Megan, who’d been to the Castle dozens of times, didn’t remember this part of it.  She didn’t think they let the public in back here.  Ben must have connexions at the National Trust.

Silently, the lift door slid shut.  The interior was richly panelled in dark wood.   On one wall  there was a bank of glowing orange buttons.  How Ben knew which one to press was beyond Megan, because there were no numbers or marks of any kind.

The lift began to move.  Megan could have sworn they were going sideways.  This was disturbing.  And it was dark, so dark she couldn’t see Ben, or Neil or Gareth or Mari—oh, God, where had Mari got to?

Just then she felt Mari’s small hand sliding into hers.  “We’re almost there, Mam,” Mari whispered.  Oh, the relief!  “Thank you, luv,” Megan said., pulling her close.

Once again, Megan couldn’t have told you how long it took that sideways lift to get there, except that they way was much farther and longer than going down those mine shafts on the colliery tours.

All at once they stopped moving.  Then they had to turn right around, because the lift door slid silently open opposite the side they came in on.

It was so bloody bright out there they all were blinking like owls.

But Ben was at hand, helpful and reassuring.  “As soon as your eyes have got used to the light, we’ll proceed,” he said.  “I should mention that you will find some things a bit changed here.”

“And just where is here?” Megan said.

—o—

They’re not coming, Howell thought.  This whole thing—the wedding, his family, all of it—was worse than the worst stage-fright ever.  He’d spent an hour trying cosmetic spell he could think of to get rid of the ghastly bags under his eyes—he’d not slept a wink the night before, or the night before that, or the night before that—until he’d had to give it up.  With the way his hands were shaking he knew he’d better quit before he turned his eyelids into frogs, or worse.

A stiff drink would have been bloody helpful—all he had to do was ring, and anything in Mr. Sacheverell Smith’s extensive liquor cabinet was his for the asking—but to seek courage in a bottle on the day of your own wedding was idiotic.  Talk about missing out on the moment—!

Assuming the moment ever came.  Assuming the bride arrived at his side at the appointed time.  Assuming the bride wasn’t halfway to Rashpuht by now.  Which is where he would have been, in her place.

Oh, God, what had he done, inviting all these people here, throwing Mr. Smith’s formerly placid estate into an uproar, planning all this party-dinner-and-dance business just to be left standing at the altar, humiliated?

“Such drama,” Calcifer remarked, breezing in through the open window of the bedroom where Howell was dressing.  “And such delectable irony.  Sophie’s at the other end of the house, with her mother, her sisters, and Annabel Fairfax having fits all around her.  Yet she is utterly serene, while here you are, having got yourself in a royal twist all unaided.”

“Sophie’s here?  In the house?”

“Of course she is.  Where else would she be?”

“High Norland, of course.  Or Alberia.  Or even Tsapfan; who knows?”

“Silly fool.  You think Sophie’s going to stand you up, don’t you?”

“Isn’t she?”

Calcifer’s laughter was a flurry of sparks and purple teeth.  “Not a bit of it.  In fact, she’s already hired the entire constabularies of the Chipping and Folding Valleys, the Royal Inglish Army and Navy, and a gang of pirates led by some bloke named Roberts to go after you when you don’t show up.”

“Sophie really believes I’d slither out at this late date?”

“Well, she knows you better than anybody, including me.”

“Oh, that hurts, Calcifer.  That really hurts.”

Calcifer hooted with derision, then flew off out the window.

—o—

Her eyes ought to be used to the brightness by now, but Megan didn’t want to open them.  She was no fool.  She wasn’t born yesterday.  She was beginning to figure things out.

And oh lord, the things she was figuring out.  Howell Jenkins, what have you got us into this time?  What have you—

“It’s all right, Mam,” Mari said.  “You can look now.”

They all stood looking out through the doorway of a castle, but it wasn’t Caerphilly.  Beyond it stretched a sweet rolling countryside of copses, fields, and hedgerows.  The sky was blue and fair, the clouds brilliant, the sunshine warm.

And before her was a golden coach with six white horses and a jaunty driver up top, who touched his plumed hat to her.

They were all settled in the rose-coloured velvet seats when the coach started up.  Mari crawled over Gareth and pulled herself up on her knees, gazing out the round window.  Her little face was filled with wonder and delight, as if all the stories Howell had ever told her were true.

Oh, God.  What if they were?

It certainly looked like they were in something out of a book, with thatched cottages off here and there, and glorious gardens, and everywhere butterflies and birds, and not a car nor a telegraph pole in sight.  Megan looked questioningly at Ben.  Gareth and Neil did the same.  Only Mari, happy and content, went on gazing out at the fairy-tale going by.

“Quantum theory,” Ben began.  “Perhaps you’ve read about it?”

Gareth looked as puzzled as Megan felt, but Neil instantly brightened up.  “Yes!” he cried, triumphantly pumping his fist.  He’d actually learned something at school—would wonders never cease?  “Split-off universes,” he said.  “Parallel worlds.  Right?”

“Right,” Ben said.  “Your Uncle Hywel always said you were a smart lad.”

“He did?” Neil exclaimed, as gobsmacked to hear it as were Megan and Gareth.

“He did.  This universe and our own parted ways either at the end of the last Ice Age or during the first few centuries after Rome fell, possibly both.  Scholars disagree on the why and on the exact when.  We only know that this one went off in one direction, our home universe in another.”

“Brilliant!”  Neil cried.

“Ben—” Megan said, tentatively because she was afraid she was not going to know what to do with the answer to her question, “Howell said that you and he work together.  Um, what is it that you do?”

“We are wizards, by appointment, to His Majesty the King of Ingary.”

I’m teaching online in December (yay, money!) and will be spending most of my computer time at work, but I don’t want another long posting gap if I can possibly help it.

So here is the first part of a stand-alone HMC short fic, previously unseen by human eyeballs, which I’ll update weekly as the month goes on.

As you might guess from the title, there are massive HMC book-ending spoilers.

Hope you enjoy it!

*****

On the eve of committing matrimony (a week or two before, actually, but “eve” sounded much the more dramatic, which, as he had stolen the phrase from a play to begin with, made perfect sense), Howell Jenkins decided to take a bold step and invite his sister Megan and her family to the wedding.

So bold was this step, so terrifying the prospect, that he could bear to think of it only conditionally, as a series of assumptions:

— That Martha Hatter, who was complaining of writers’ cramp after painstakingly lettering and ornamenting several hundred invitations, would be willing to make one more;

— That Ben Sullivan, who knew his way around that land of strange sights and things invisible to see (from Ingary, anyway)—namely Wales—would not mind making a quick jaunt back there to help Howell’s rellies get safely to the wedding, seeing as how Howell was bound to be too busy on the big day to go there himself;

— That said rellies would not be struck unconscious —or, God forbid, dead—when they saw where Howell really lived and what he did for work;

— That Fanny Hatter-Smith, who had planned this wedding down to the last seed pearl and satin rosebud, would not make an issue of the rellies’ funny way of dressing, which was bound to end in an uproar;

— That Sophie would not utter some pleasantry to Megan that barely concealed a withering insult (much as he secretly hoped Sophie would do that very thing), which also was bound to end in an uproar;

— That Calcifer in his enthusiasm would not set fire to the arbor, the bunting, and the tablecloths, which would be devastating for everyone;

— That Megan and Gareth might simply refuse to show, which would be devastating for Howell himself;

— That (if they did show) neither Gareth nor Neil would make any embarrassing noises of an involuntary digestive nature, particularly at the high points of the ceremony;

— That—and this was his greatest, darkest, most terrifying fear of all—

— That Sophie would not think better of the entire thing (as would any sensible girl) and leave him at the altar, high and dry.

—o—

He had changed his clothes before he was even through the portal into the Swansea city centre, this time into a tailored white shirt and black trousers, with a dark blue jacket slung over one shoulder.  Once, in a fit of adolescent defiance, he had vowed never again to submit to the noose of a necktie, and he was not wearing one now.  He hoped, however, that he’d done enough to impress Megan with a neater, more businesslike appearance than his old rugby jacket and dungarees track-suit afforded.  He had pulled back his hair and tied it; as it was going to be black for the wedding, he hoped that Megan, like Mrs. Pentstemmon, would find it a more respectable colour than bottle blonde.  As for his earring—

(Here, as the bus clattered up the long hill, he couldn’t help a sly smile at his sister’s expense. He’d got the ear piercing done back in his college days, a move intended to outrage Megan—which it had, most delightfully.  He’d got the tattoo—a small but exquisite Welsh red dragon—at about the same time.  This, sadly, was not for his sister’s benefit, as it was proudly ornamenting a part of him that Megan hadn’t seen since he was six years old.  But never mind. Would Sophie like it?  That was all that mattered.  At the thought of her blushing and going all over coy at the sight of it, he smiled happily.  Alternatively, at the thought of her yawping “What-in-the-name-of-wonder-Howell-Jenkins-have-you-done-to-yourself?” he grinned with delight.  Old Sophie and Young Sophie were in a constant state of adjustment these days, and Howell didn’t know just which, or what combination, was going to turn out to be the real Sophie.  He only knew he could not wait to spend the rest of their life together finding out.)

—his earring was a plain diamond stud, elegant but unobtrusive.  Still an earring and all, but nowhere near as flashy as the ruby-and-emerald drop number he’d been wearing at Christmas.

Just as at Christmas, he found the Parrys on their way out the front door.  From their Sunday rags and from the Bible Megan was carrying—not Doctor William Morgan’s Beibl i Cymru, but some English version or other—Howell guessed that religion was the au courant remedy the Parrys were trying in order to fix the family dysfunction.  For, although it was long past Pasg, with months to go until Nadolig, clearly they were on their way to church.

He had not been back home to Wales since the day–only a few weeks ago, though it seemed an aeon—he came bursting out of Ingary into Megan’s back garden on the heels of the Witch, who, unfazed by his sister’s screeches, was attempting to do God-knew-what to Mari and Neil.

Seeing them again, seeing their painstakingly incurious demeanor at his return, Howell determined that his family had handled the strange business of that day in the same way they handled all other strange business—by pretending it never happened.

“Uncle Howell!” Mari cried, and would have jumped into Howell’s arms had Gareth not been holding her.  Megan and Neil and Gareth himself just stood there looking bristly and annoyed.

“Not to worry,” he said.  “I’ll be right off.  I can’t stay.  But I wanted to give you this.”

He drew out the splendid invitation with its gleaming golden seal and Martha’s exquisite calligraphy, in golden ink; between the King and Mrs. Fanny Sacheverell no expense had been spared on this wedding.  For a moment he held on to it.  Considering all the careful preparations—mainly psychological—he had made for this moment, he felt as great a coward as ever.  The secret of his other life—his real life—was about to come out.

Ben Sullivan had reassured him, saying, “I’ll go to Wales.  I’ll talk to them on the day.  I’ve got your back,” and Howell had known—in his heart, thank you so very much, Sophie Hatter, for returning that precious object to me—that it was true.

So.  Go on, then.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

Placing the invitation in Megan’s hand, Howell said, “I’m being married on Saturday week.  You are my family, and if you wish to come—if you decide to come—you will be welcome.”

The ensuing pregnantly gobsmacked silence lasted so long he was about to give it up and turn to leave.

“Uncle Howell?” Mari’s sweet voice broke the tension.  “Are you going to marry Sophie?”

With that, all uncertainty and anxiety dropped away.  He grinned from ear to ear, happy and relieved and suddenly bursting with pride.  “Yes, cariad,” he said. “I’m going to marry Sophie.”

“Is she well now, Uncle Howell?  Because she was sick when you brought her here before.”

“Oh, yes.  She’s well now.”

Megan, meanwhile, had broken the golden seal and withdrawn from its envelope the invitation, upon which was written, in Martha’s gorgeous hand:

Your presence
is requested
at the marriage
of Miss Sophie Hatter,
of Market Chipping,
to Mr. Howell Jenkins,
of Porthaven,
to be solemnized
Saturday, 2 August,
at two o’clock in the afternoon,
on the grounds of
the Sacheverell Smith Estate,
Vale’s End.

A banquet and dance
is to follow.

Megan read it, turned it over, inspected the back as though looking for proof it wasn’t some criminal forgery, then read it again, raising one quizzical eyebrow.  Great gods, he’d never known she could do that.

Gareth murmured, “Meg, we’re late.  Going to get there just in time for the sermon, miss all the singing if we don’t—”

Megan ignored him.  “This Vale’s End,” she said with a piercing glance at Howell.  “I never heard of it.  Where is it?”

“I think it’s over in Wiltshire,” Neil said helpfully.

“No, no,” Mari said.  “It’s over the rainbow.”

“AA motoring guide’ll sort it out,” Gareth said.  “Come on, Meg, let’s—”

“It’s Howell I’m speaking to,” Megan said, “and none of you.”

“It’s rather a long way from here, actually,” Howell said.  That heavy sense of dread he always got from being in Megan’s presence was beginning to descend.

“I’m sure it is,” Megan said dismissively, passing the invitation to Gareth, who studied it with a beetle-browed frown before passing it back to his wife.

“I thought,” Howell began hopelessly, “I mean, I supposed that, had you wanted to come, you’d need some help in getting there.  It’s rather complicated, you see.  But a colleague of mine—”

Colleague! A splendid word, connoting not merely paying work, but paying work of a professionally important sort.  It made a distinct impression on the Parrys, who at once became slightly less disinterested.

“Nice fellow, from Monmouthshire, not far from Caerleon,” Howell said.  “You’ll like him.  Name’s Ben Sullivan.  I’d come for you myself, but I will be a bit busy that day.  Ben offered to take you there, show you around before the wedding starts.  Should you decide to come, of course.”

“Ben Sullivan,” Megan repeated.

“Mam, please can we go?” Mari said eagerly.

Megan straightened, folded her arms, and fixing her steeliest I-dare-you-Howell-I-double-dog-dare-you glare on her younger brother said, “Yes.  We’ll go.  And this had better not be another one of your pranks, Howell.”

“Excellent!  Ben will call for you at noon on Saturday, second August,” Howell said.  And he turned and walked out of the Parrys’ front garden and off down the road into the warmth, sunshine, and sea-laden breeze of a fine Welsh summer afternoon.

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