CHAPTER ONE: MASTER PENDRAGON
Sophie stood on the front step for some time before gathering enough courage to ring the bell. The tinkling sound that followed was not unlike the one that she had heard so many times in her father's hat shop. She would miss it, true, but her father had long since passed, and her sweet sisters had taken up apprenticeships elsewhere. Without their company, she found her work increasingly difficult to bear, and Sophie had grown so weary of trying to talk to her stepmother about her wages. She was a proper woman now at eighteen, and if she meant to make a life for herself in the world she would need to bring in some form of income. But talking to Fanny about anything other than the latest fashions or future marriage prospects proved utterly impossible these days. So Sophie, at the encouragement of her sister, Lettie, had decided to move on from the hat shop.
It was this decision that had led her to the gloomy manor that now cast a growing shadow over her. She hadn't much to offer to the world aside from her skills as a hatter, but she did know how to clean, and keeping an eye on her flighty stepmother had been practice enough for babysitting. So, when she had seen the advertisement in the paper for a cleaning lady who could also cook from time to time and attend to a young pupil when necessary, she had taken the boldest step of her timid little life and applied for the position by way of letter. The Master of the house had seemed pleased enough with her experience and reference and sent a telegram for her at once with the promise of a small, but livable wage and board within the home.
Frowning down at the worn leather of her boots, Sophie was beginning to wonder if this once grand mansion was even occupied anymore. Had she taken down the wrong address? It was a several mile walk back to the nearest town and she could smell rain in the clouds that rolled overhead. Fidgeting from foot to foot, Sophie began to turn on her heel when she finally heard the oaken doors give way with a shuddering groan.
"Oh!" Her gaze dropped down to meet the eyes of a young boy. His copper mop sat wildly askew upon his brow, which was furrowed in curiosity.
"Your hair is the color of an old gray mouse!" He exclaimed almost at once.
"Well! That's no way to greet someone you've only just met." Sophie scolded. But it was true; her mouse brown hair was starting to show premature signs of graying. Even so, Sophie was unable to hide the small smile that played at her lips as she crouched down to his level. "At least I've brushed mine once or twice in my life, hmmm?" she pointed out, her eyes twinkling as they drifted back up to his tangled locks.
The boy turned the slightest shade of pink. "Allow me to take your bag inside for you, Ma'am."
"Now that's more like it. It's been a very long journey and I thank you…..."
"Markl." The boy grunted as he took her heavy carpet bag.
"Pleased to meet you, Markl. My name is Sophie. Sophie Hatter."
She stood up straight once more as Markl moved aside to let her pass through the great oak doors. Just as she had cleared the threshold, a steady rain began to fall.
Sophie nearly choked as the doors shut behind her. The air was intolerably thick with dust. When her eyes had adjusted properly, she could see that she stood in a sizeable entryway fitted with two ornate couches and end-tables, upon which stood tall vases containing the most depressing arrangements of deceased plant life. Everything that she could make out the dimly lit hall had lost all luster to years of grime and neglect.
"This way, Sophie, err- Miss."
Sophie started at Markl's voice. She turned to see him beckoning her through a door that stood just to the left of a tall staircase leading up into complete darkness.
I wonder if the second floor has been kept as poorly? I'll have my work cut out for me in this room alone. Sophie mused before following after the boy.
"Just Sophie, Markl. Sophie will do just fine."
As she passed into the next room, her eyes welcomed the light of a small fire, crackling from the fireplace of what appeared to be a large study. Its warmth did not help with the choking stuffiness of the manor, but it brought relief from the gloom, at least.
"Master How- err, Pendragon- will be in shortly to go over your duties here, Miss."
"Sophie." Markl echoed.
"Thank you, Markl, I will be quite comfortable until then, I'm sure."
She smiled as he hurried from her sight, leaving the door slightly ajar. Sophie liked children. They didn't intimidate her like other people did. At least she might enjoy passing some of her days in his company. The house, however, felt like a tomb and she a small, frightened mouse trapped among it's ghosts.
Sophie sat for a long while, fighting off the sleep that a long day's travel and a warm fire demanded. Her eyes began to play tricks, and before long she had even convinced herself that she had seen a crude face within the fire, peering back at her. Keep your wits about you, Sophie.
She stood up and stretched her weary limbs, rubbing her eyes before she glanced into the fireplace again. Just a fire, see?
Bored and a little curious, Sophie moved toward one of the tall shelves that lined the walls of the study. Every inch of space was packed to the brim with books, and not neatly so. Parchment stuck out from among the tomes in rolls, wads, and crudely folded bits. Many volumes also littered the floor in precariously leaning stacks, how they remained standing, she did not know. She wove her way through them to examine some of the titles along the wall nearest the firelight. "You're the best thing about this place so far, Fire." She said aloud as she pulled a leather-bound work from it's place. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but the flames seemed to grow in intensity as she folded her dress beneath her and sat down closer to the hearth to examine her find.
"The Art of Evasion: Advanced Spells and Incantations Volume IV." Sophie mumbled to herself.
Spells? Incantations? This was the type of book you would find in the library of a witch or wizard. One of her sisters was apprenticing under the careful eye of a relatively powerful witch to learn the art of healing and the properties and purposes of various herbs and plants. It was her hope to one day open an apothecary. Sophie envied her sometimes. So sure of herself and her dreams. At least I finally escaped the hat shop…
As she turned the pages, Sophie found that the book was written in a language she had never seen before. Some pages were reserved for elaborate designs that the reader was probably supposed to duplicate somehow when casting their spells. Unable to decipher any of it, Sophie stood back up to put the volume back in it's place. Another tome, it's cover heavily bejeweled, caught her eye.
"How lovely…" She breathed, running her fingers lightly over the cold stones that decorated the spine.
"Indeed. It is. But its contents are not half as lovely, I'm afraid. Dark magic is held within those pages."
A tall figure stepped forward and out of the shadows of the furthest corner of the study. Sophie gasped in fright, stumbling backwards and toppling into one of the freestanding stacks that littered the floor. She fell to the ground with a small oomph, landing heavily on the now scattered volumes, a cloud of dust swirling around her.
"Oh… I'm- I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to…" She was scrambling to recollect herself and the books when she felt the figure looming directly over her. A pale hand, with long, graceful fingers reached down to help her to her feet.
"Don't trouble yourself, Sophie Hatter. These books are just as useful to me scattered across the floor as they were before they met you."
Sophie turned red. She kept her eyes downward staring hard at, what she presumed to be, the Master's well-polished boots. They looked quite out of place among the dust and litter.
"Well, then. Lovely to meet you Sophie, shall we go over your duties here?" Pendragon removed a stack of ink blotted parchment from a small chair and gestured for her to sit.
Sophie cleared her throat, "Miss Hatter will do just fine. And yes, thank you, Master Pendragon."
She sat down, trembling slightly, her eyes now fixed on her hands which were clasped tightly together in her lap. A great and terrible sense of power seemed to fill the room with Pendragon's presence. Sophie swallowed hard as she braved a glance upward at her new employer.
He was sitting, now, behind a large desk, a leg thrown over the arm of his chair without care. His face was a good deal older than hers, but still youthful and remarkably handsome. His blue eyes were wise and penetrating and a small smile played constantly at his lips. She felt as if she were naked before him, entirely exposed. It was almost more than she could bear.
"Miss…. Hatter. I want you to feel at home here. If you're going to be living under my roof we must be at ease with one another." His voice was pleasant and calm and steadied her nerves.
"Of course, Master Pendragon. Forgive me, it's just that this is my first venture into the world beyond my family's business and it's been a very long day of travel."
"How rude of me. You're quite right. Allow me then to show you to your room."
Sophie had not meant to complain and began to protest against his self-accusations of rudeness, but she was startled into silence as he leapt up with a swish of his coat. Pendragon took a small candle holder from his desk, lighting the wick in the fireplace.
"Follow me, Miss Hatter."
Sophie did as he bid her. They walked back into the entrance hall, turning immediately right to climb the dark staircase. She followed closely behind, staying as near to the fluttering glow of candlelight as she could.
"You're much younger than I thought you would be."
Sophie wasn't sure how to respond to his statement. Was she a disappointment already?
"For a cleaning lady, I mean."
"I assure you, I am quite capable, Master Pendragon."
"Of course you are." He chuckled.
At the top of the stairs they turned right down a long hall. Pendragon stopped briefly in front of a door painted a dusty blue. "This is Markl's room. If you would, please make sure he eats breakfast in the mornings and keeps to his studies. He's a bit soft, but he has promise."
"Is he your apprentice then, Master Pendragon?" Sophie dared to question. "I mean, are you a- a wizard?"
Pendragon gave her an unreadable look over the glow of the candle.
"And if I were?"
Sophie dropped her gaze from his. "I didn't mean any offense, I was only-"
"Forgive me, Miss Hatter. It's quite alright. I do dabble in magic, yes. Though I wouldn't say that I am a great wizard. My talents are average, at best."
He seemed to ponder her for a long moment before turning to continue down the hall.
Sophie couldn't help but feel he wasn't being entirely truthful about himself. The surge of energy she had felt from his presence in the study continued to hit her like waves rolling off of him as she trailed after his steps.
"I'll let you see to the house and its upkeep as you wish, Miss Hatter. Just leave my room and bathroom to me, if you please."
"Of course, Master Pendragon."
"Good, as long as we understand one another, I'll leave you to our room. Rest well."
Master Pendragon inclined his head to her, leaving her before a door at the end of the hall. Sophie raised the candle he had given her as she stepped into her room.
It was lavishly furnished, she could see that much. She walked immediately over to the window and threw it open. Cool, air, wet from the rain washed over her face. "That's much better."
She found her carpet bag sitting beside the large bed and looking very small. Markl must have brought it up after they had parted ways in the study. She looked forward to seeing him in the morning. He was far less intimidating than his Master.
After visiting her bathroom, filthy as she had expected, and changing into her nightgown, Sophie collapsed into a deep sleep. She dreamed that the house was moving beneath her, traveling across field and country, but somehow staying in the same place.
**Please drop a comment, good or bad, or follow if you like the start of my story. I'm not sure if there is still a lot of interest out there for "Howl" fanfic, so I want to know if it's worth writing on. Enjoy!**