by Eildon Rhymer
"One day, she was painting cobwebs onto the ceiling, when in came her master's minions, carrying an unconscious young man in a red and silver suit…"
I didn't set out to write an almost-sequel to "Seventh Son," but people asked, and the idea came. "Seventh Son" was the story of poor Cedric, who was destined to save the world, but gave up in disarray following a bewildering encounter with Howl, some beer, a nervous fire demon, and a vengeful Sophie. I call this story an almost-sequel because it introduces a new original character, who will encounter Howl and Sophie shortly after Cedric left them.
You don't have to have read the first story to understand this one, since they both feature different original characters.
Phyllis had never intended to be wicked. For most of her life, she had actually laboured under the misapprehension that she was, in fact, quite good.
Her early childhood had been as happy as a childhood could be in Ingary, when curses and unexpected orphanings and unscheduled animal transformations were as common as colds, and slightly less convenient.
True, her father died when she was ten, but such things were normal where she lived. In fact, she had spent the previous year peering anxiously at her parents, worrying that they were going to break all the rules and stick around forever. She liked rules, but she did cry quite a bit when her father died. She missed him, too. She also wished that he had been killed by a dragon or by wild beasts of aspect horrible, like her best friend's father. Falling off a weathercock seemed quite tedious in comparison.
When she was fourteen, she started to notice boys. Boys started to notice her, too, and kept inviting her to go with them behind the haystacks, where they sang bad poetry in squeaky voices, or regaled her with tales of how they planned to save the world. She simpered and gushed, because that was the correct thing to do. Buxom Rose told her that sometimes rather different things happened behind the haystacks, but Phyllis said that she was a good girl, thank you very much, and would stick to poetry until she was married.
When she was sixteen, her mother married a minor baron who lived in a crumbling mansion. People talked, saying that she had only married him for his money and title, which was stupid, because he had no money left, and, as everyone knows, most people with titles were wicked, anyway, and liable to get their just deserts served to them by humble heroes, pure of heart.
No, it was a love match. Phyllis looked at her mother's blooming cheeks, and was glad. The only confusing thing was her new step-sister. On her first day in her new home, Phyllis came across the girl sitting crying in a dusty hearth. Phyllis grabbed a broom. "Oh, you poor thing, let me…"
She was not allowed to get any further. The weeping girl snatched the broom from Phyllis' hands. "I will slave for you, oh cruel and ugly step-sister," she snapped, rather hurtfully. She proceeded to sweep the entire kitchen, before cooking dinner for thirty, even though there were only four of them in the house. Then, after refusing all offers to help with the washing-up, she gave Phyllis all her clothes, her bedroom, her pet hamster, all her dolls, and a claim on the heart of her boyfriend.
Phyllis tried to protest that she did not want them, but it made no difference. "You have taken everything, cruel and ugly so-called sister," said the girl, with a horrid martyr's whine in her voice. "I will sleep in the ashes, where you have forced me to live. But one day, if I am patient, I will be rewarded, and you will suffer only woe and pain."
Phyllis found it all quite confusing, and rather upsetting, especially since all the boys started to shun her now, calling her ugly and wicked. She studied herself in the mirror, but seemed no different. She looked exactly the same as she had looked when the boys had liked her.
Maybe the mirror was faulty, she thought, and saved up her pennies to buy a new one, which she set up in her room. "Am I ugly?" she asked it.
"No, you are still beautiful and wonderful, oh cruel and mighty Queen," the mirror replied, which took her back a little, to say the least. "Snow White is more beautiful, though. Shall we rip out her heart and feed it to the rabbits?"
"I… Er… I…" She was still stammering when an embarrassed delivery boy knocked on the door, claiming that he had delivered the wrong mirror to the wrong house. The mirror he replaced it with never talked of hearts, which was a comfort, but it never called her beautiful, either, which was somewhat depressing.
In time, she grew up, and was able to leave home. Everyone still insisted on calling her ugly and wicked, so she moved to a new town, where no-one knew that she was step-sister. For a few years, she reigned there as a beauty, loved by all because she was as kind and generous as she was beautiful. This ended when she married a local merchant, after a thrilling courtship involving hundreds of roses, a white charger, and a talking otter, wearing boots.
The wedding was everything she had dreamed of. For half an hour, she was blissfully happy, until she went back to his house, and met his daughter by his previous marriage. "Are you wicked?" the little girl asked. "You must be wicked. You're a step-mother."
"Of course I'm not wicked," Phyllis protested, but it did no good. It was like her teenage years all over again. The girl told everyone she met that Phyllis was wicked, and very soon Phyllis' husband started to believe it, too. He turned to drink, lost all his money, sold his soul to a demon, and drowned in a goblet, because he had not read the small print in his contract.
Phyllis was now a widow. "Widows aren't wicked," she tried to protest to the townsfolk, when they edged away from her. "They're poor and honest and thrifty, and good fairies reward them for their kindness."
They did not believe her.
A stray cat adopted her, and used to sit purring on her lap in front of the fire. "See," she told them. "Furry animals like me. I must be good." But they just recoiled, and muttered, "Witch."
She started baking, and made lots of cakes and sweets for all the local children. "I have a whole house full of gingerbread," she told two passing orphans, skinny and half-starved. "Come home with me and I'll feed you up. When you're nice and full, I'll take you to the oven and show you how to…"
She did not understand why they ran away screaming, or why people came with pitch-forks and torches that night and burned her out of house and home.
All she had left after that episode was the clothes she had been wearing when it had happened, which were her nightclothes, complete with frilly hat. Fortunately, it was summer, and the nights were quite pleasant in the forest. Still, it did begin to hurt a little bit by the time the hundredth person had run screaming from her, shouting that she was a big, bad wolf, with great big teeth and great big eyes.
"I'm not a wolf," she took to muttering incessantly. "I'm not a witch. I'm not wicked. I'm good."
It was no use. No-one believed her. In the end, one dreadful night, she sat on a tuffet, and thought long and hard about her future. I can fight it, she thought, or I can give in to the inevitable.
The spider stared at her with its many eyes, but offered no sage advice.
It did no good, protesting that she was good. Why was that? Was the world at fault, or was it her? Merely asking the question brought her the answer. What was more likely to be at fault: one little old lady, or the entire population of Ingary? The answer was obvious. It's me, she thought. I've been wicked all along. Why on earth have I fought it? Why have I been so blind and foolish?
Her decision made, she stood up from the tuffet. She tried to stamp on the spider as she did so, as her first deliberate act of wickedness, but it darted away. Never mind, she thought. There will be many more.
She stole clothes from a washing line, leaving money to pay for them on the grass, and blackmailed a dishonest tailor into dyeing them black. She practiced wicked looks in a pool, and plaited a birds' nest into her hair. She sneered at kittens, and stuck her tongue out at babies. She told lies, and did not even cross her fingers behind her back while doing so!
All in all, she was most wicked indeed, but something was missing. I haven't got magic, she thought, so I can't be a witch. I can't be an evil enchantress. There seemed to be very limited opportunities for a free-lance evil-doer. I know, she thought. I'll have to become a minion.
She advertised in any place she could find that had the odour of wickedness about it. "Wicked old woman seeks employer," she wrote. "No job to small or too wicked. Can cook and sew. No experience with cackling, knitting or torture, but willing to learn."
And thus it was that, several weeks later, she was painting cobwebs into the ceiling of a corridor in a mansion in Kingsbury, when four men in black pushed past her, carrying a semi-conscious man between them.
Phyllis paused mid-cobweb. The prisoner was a handsome enough young man, with jet-black hair, and a suit that had once been silver and red, but seemed to have lost an argument with some beer and a puddle. His trailing sleeves dragged in the dirt, putting nasty smears of cleanness in the dust she had carefully applied just a few minutes before.
"Careful where you put those sleeves, young man," she berated him.
"Can't help it," he slurred drunkenly. "Not much choice, being upside-down." His eyes fluttered open, then closed again.
Phyllis pressed her lips together in disapproval. Only very wicked young men let themselves get as drunk as this. Then she remembered that she was wicked now, so she was supposed to approve of such things. But this man was clearly the prisoner of her employer, which probably meant that he was good.
She sighed. It was a very confusing thing, being wicked.
The four men passed out of sight around a corner. A door screamed open, and clanged shut. Three sets of footsteps proceeded upstairs, towards the master's principle lair, otherwise known as the parlour. Another one stayed, presumably guarding the door. Phyllis could hear him whistling wicked tunes, involving sweethearts and dungeons and toads.
I wonder what they're going to do to that poor young man, Phyllis thought. She imagined foul torments, and shuddered, then remembered that she was wicked through and through, so tried to cackle. She was still not very good at it. It sounded more like a simpering giggle.
She returned to the cobwebs, peering short-sightedly into the gloom. Her employer did not like normal lights like boring, good people had, only dying flames that pulsed with an unearthly blood-red glow. It did make cleaning rather tricky, and had resulted in some memorable mistakes when she had been cooking dinner. Newts and asparagus looked quite similar in a doom-laden gloom, after all.
"I know I shouldn't be thinking this," she said, "being wicked, and all, but a bit more light would be very welcome."
Light came. Phyllis dropped her bag of cobwebs, scattering them all over the floor, thick with the dust of centuries of evil-doing and neglect (painted on by her half an hour previously.) "Was that me?" she wondered aloud. "Am I a witch after all?"
"Of course not, you fool," said the flame. It had settled in one of the rusty torches, and was flickering in a nervous blue and orange. "I'm a fire demon. I was once a star."
"Oh." She swallowed. "Have I seen you in anything?"
The flame darkened in irritation. "Not that sort of star, stupid. I'm looking for a man. A vain layabout of a man. A slippery rogue. Never gives anyone a decent word of thanks even though they bend their head over to make bacon, although they don't have to, not any more. They could be off doing something really impressive, like warming a king's toes, or feeding the furnaces in a Dark Lord's fortress, but they chose to stay, though, really, I have no idea why, when all they get is insults and that terror of a woman threatening to put them out just because of one tiny little mistake, and how was I suppose to know it would end up getting Howl kidnapped by some architect of doom? I really don't think anyone can blame me."
"Um…" Phyllis bent to pick up her scattered cobwebs. It seemed easier than thinking about what the flame had just said. I expect I can only see it because I'm wicked now, she thought, it being a demon, and all. "Do you want my heart or soul?" she asked.
"Been there, done that, didn't like it." The flame grew taller. "Now, have you seen a drunk man with ridiculous clothes? Answer me, woman."
"I have." Phyllis pointed vaguely along the corridor.
"Then why didn't you say so before?" snapped the flame. "Every minute only makes her fury worse. I'm going to be put out for sure."
The flame vanished. Phyllis scrabbled for her cobwebs. It seemed much darker now the flame was gone, and something was hurting inside her, where she had once thought she had a heart. It's because I'm old, she thought. A wicked old woman.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and she knew that her master had descended from his lair, and was going to interrogate the prisoner, and doubtless inflict foul tortures upon him. Perhaps she would be asked to join in. She was wicked, and would enjoy such things. Of course she would.
The door opened, and shut again. She heard her master's voice, shouting questions, and exclaiming in gloating triumph. She heard the prisoner's drunken slur, too, but he did not seem to be answering the questions, or screaming, either. Instead, he seemed to be singing about the charms of naked ladies in a place called Whales, or maybe Wails. It sounded like quite a rude song, but fortunately it took him three or four attempts to arrive at each word.
Eventually the prisoner fell silent. "Passed out again," said Phyllis' master in disgust. "We'll get nothing out of him today. Chain him up in the deeper dungeon – the violet one, underneath the conservatory."
Phyllis heard the sounds of the order being carried out, and soon all was silent again. With a resigned sigh, Phyllis returned to her work, and tried to replace the dust of centuries, scattered by her fellow minions and the prisoner's alarming sleeves.
"Where is he?" demanded a female voice.
Phyllis whirled around, once again dropping her cobwebs. It was a young woman with reddish hair, and a pretty face, though now it was all drawn up in righteous outrage.
"Where is Howl?" she demanded. "Calcifer says he's here. If he's lying to me in an attempt to save his… whatever passes for skin, I will… I will… Well, it will be something terrible, you just wait and see."
"You mean the prisoner," Phyllis offered. "He's in the deep dungeon. They haven't hurt him, though. He's too drunk."
The young woman was evidently incredibly relieved to hear this. Phyllis suddenly remembered that she was wicked, and added an almost-passable cackle. "But they will hurt him tomorrow," she said. "Very much. They have…" She realised that she had no idea what sort of things people used in torture. "Cushions," she said, "and knitting needles and… and… cabbages. You don't want to know what they can do with cabbages. It is the stuff of nightmares."
"Where is the deep dungeon?" the young woman demanded.
Phyllis thrust out her chin. "I don't see why I should tell you, young lady. I am wicked, you know. My master's minions will capture you and you will join this Howl of yours in death."
Even as she said it, she felt a little doubtful. Her master's front door was guarded with half a dozen minions, but clearly they had not stopped the woman from getting this far. "How did you get here?" she could not stop herself from asking, genuinely interested.
The woman did not answer. Running footsteps sounded from behind her, and several minions hurried up, armed with swords and stones and shouting threats. They all looked somewhat rumpled, and their weapons looked old, as if they had mislaid their usual ones, and had hastily grabbed new ones from storage.
The woman turned to face them. "Oh dear, sword," she said, conversationally. "I don't think you want to be sharp and pointy like that, do you? You'll find it far more interesting if you bend yourself backwards, or even into a spiral. Do you think you can do that? Good."
One minion gasped, and dropped the twisty thing that could no longer be called a sword.
"And, breeches, I really think you would be better placed if you were on the floor, rather than in such close proximity to a nasty, smelly man like this."
Another minion squawked as his breeches fell to his ankles, then fell over. He scrabbled up again, and tried to raise his breeches, but they refused to come. Red-faced, he turned and fled.
"What handsome cobwebs you are," the woman told the bag in Phyllis' limp hand. "I'm sure you'd love an adventure. Why don't you go and tickle that unfortunate-looking man over there. Then he'll run away and you'll get to see the world. You'll like it. It's very nice, with lots of spiders."
The last minion fled, squirming and shrieking. The corridor seemed very quiet. "Those were my cobwebs," Phyllis said, because she had to say something.
"And Howl's my husband," the young woman said. "I think that's more important, don't you?"
"You're a witch," Phyllis said. "You must be even more wicked than I am."
"It seems that I am a witch," the woman said, "but I'm only new to it. It only worked so well just now because I'm so worried about Howl. I'm not wicked, though. Howl seems wicked sometimes, but really he isn't. That's why he keeps getting into these scrapes."
Phyllis drew herself up. "I'm wicked," she said. "I'm a wicked old lady, and I'm going to stop you saving Howl."
The woman's eyes narrowed. "I don't think you are," she said, in that chilling conversational tone of hers. "And, skirt, you're going to…" She paused, frowning. "Old lady?" she exclaimed. "You're not old." She peered at Phyllis in the gloom. "And I could swear that you're not wicked, either. Believe me, I've seen wicked. I know. You haven't got the eyes for it."
Phyllis' hands rose to her cheeks. "Not old? Of course I'm old. I'm a widow. I'm twenty-four. Isn't that…?"
"I was eighty last year," the young woman said confusingly, "and Howl was both heartless and wicked. I don't think you're either. Now, are you going to come between me and my husband, or are you…?"
Phyllis didn't hear any more. Not wicked, she thought. I'm not wicked. It was a wonderful relief. "No," she said, smiling. It was hard at first, because her face had forgotten how to do it. She unplaited the birds' nest from her hair, and smoothed out the wrinkles she had forced into her face. "You run along and rescue your man, my dear. And afterwards…" She smiled shyly. "Do you think we can be friends?"
The woman did not answer. She had already gone on alone, heading for the deepest dungeon, where her husband lay, with minions on the door, and an evil master above, who knew everything, and saw everything.
I'm not wicked.
Phyllis stumbled to the front door, and out into the street. The sun was shining, and birds sang in every tree. People stared at her, but when she smiled at them, most of them smiled back.
She would get some new clothes, Phyllis thought, in pink or yellow or something pretty. She would get a job, and save up to buy a little cottage covered with flowers, where she would live with a loyal red setter called Poppet. She would help real old ladies, and rescue mice caught in snares. Perhaps she would marry, and perhaps she would not, but, really, it did not matter.
"You see," she shouted at the world, and everyone in it. "I always told you I was good."
And this time, they listened.