“Calcifer, where is this?” Sophie demanded, frowning at the forest.
“Beats me,” the fire demon muttered, bobbing along at her ear. “The thing ran out the door, I tried to send it someplace where it wouldn’t cause trouble. Apparently that ended up being here.”
“There’s a lot of magic around here, certainly,” Howl said, gesturing with one hand and wrapping his other arm around Sophie’s waist, as if he needed to distract everyone else to do it. Sophie rolled her eyes and leaned into him, smiling for a moment before she returned her attention to the woods.
“It looks like something was crashing about over there,” she said, pointing towards a clump of slightly squashed bushes. “Shall we look?”
They’d gone less than a hundred feet when Howl frowned and rubbed at his head.
“Calcifer, what are you doing back there?” he demanded, letting go of Sophie to twist around and glare at him. “Moving the castle someplace?”
“I’m not doing anything,” Calcifer protested. “I thought you were.”
“I most certainly am not. Sophie?”
“Not me,” she said, scowling. “What’s – oh, that feels peculiar.”
“Someone’s doing something big, moving something around –”
“It’s the forest,” Sophie realized, and smacked the nearest tree trunk as hard as she could. “Stop that this instant!”
The strange sea-sick feeling at the back of her head stopped rather abruptly.
“Thank you, Sophie,” Howl said, kissing her hand with most of his usual elegance. She reclaimed her fingers somewhat reluctantly, still concerned with what exactly had just happened.
“Er.” Calcifer drifted as close to their heads as he safely could, crackling anxiously. “There’s a bit of a problem.”
“What do you mean?” Sophie asked.
“The doorway isn’t where we left it.”
“What?” Howl and Sophie both squawked.
“Yes. Someone moved it.”
“But that looked like the doorway to a cave!” Sophie protested. “You said you didn’t even know how you hooked the castle doorway into there. And now somebody’s – made off with it?”
“It feels like the entire clearing isn’t there anymore,” Calcifer said.
There may have been some swearing at this point.
Suddenly the dizzy seasick feeling was back, stronger than ever, and the entire forest felt rather unreliable for a lot of land. “Oh no you don’t!” Sophie snarled, digging her heels into the moss and gesturing indignantly at the surrounding greenery; for a moment she felt rather as if she were pulling very, very hard on a giant piece of elastic, and then there was a loud pop as it felt like everything shook and went solid at once. She stumbled backward, arms windmilling; next to her, Howl half sat down and half fell over.
It was at this point that Sophie realized that someone else had appeared: a young woman – no, exactly young, around forty; Sophie had been her proper age for nearly six months, but she still sometimes got a bit vague about relative ages – with mostly-black hair, sturdy russet trousers, and a distinctly queasy expression.
“Good heavens,” she gasped, bracing herself against a tree. “It’s never done that before.” She glanced at them, eyes widening when she saw Calcifer. “Who are you?”
“Er.” Sophie paused. “I’m Sophie Hatter, and this is my, um, fiancé, the Wizard Howl –”
“Argelfraster!” There was another, different sense of strong magic going past, and then a strong smell of lemon as soap and water exploded all over Howl, who squawked incoherently. The woman frowned.
“What on earth are you doing?” Sophie demanded. “I assure you, he was perfectly clean.”
“It wasn’t supposed to do that,” the woman protested.
“Well, what was it supposed to do, irritate me to death?” Howl demanded, wringing out his sleeves.
“Hold on. If you’re a wizard, where’s your staff?”
“I don’t have one. They just get in the way.”
“For goodness’ – how are you a wizard if you don’t have a staff?”
“Since when do we have to have a staff?”
The woman looked at him as if he were very stupid indeed. “Every wizard I have ever met, in the Society or not, has had a staff. How do you do your magic without one?”
“The same way every other wizard, sorcerer, or magician in the –”
“Those are three entirely different things,” she protested. “If it weren’t for the forest, I’d think you weren’t really magic at all.”
Sophie was beginning to get a rather nasty feeling. “Calcifer,” she asked again, “where exactly have you brought us?”
Calcifer’s flames flickered sheepishly. “Er. I think it may be another world.”
Everyone blinked at this.
“Perhaps we had better start again,” the woman said at last. “I’m Cimorene. Sophie, Howl, and –”
“That’s Calcifer,” Sophie explained. “He’s a fire demon – oh, don’t worry, he’s quite harmless. Mostly.”
“Care to explain why you melt wizards on sight?” Howl huffed, still wringing out his hair.
“Ah. Well. We’ve been at war with them for some time, you see, and they’ve caused us… quite a bit of trouble.” Cimorene shut her eyes for a moment. “Anyway, I’m very pleased to meet you, and I’m sorry about the melting. And, for reference, your, er, fire demon has landed you in the Enchanted Forest.”
“What fool went and enchanted an entire forest?” Howl muttered, fiddling with his shirt.
“Nobody did. It just – grows this way. It’s a bit complicated. And usually it doesn’t let people in, particularly not powerfully magical people – it seems quite upset about finding you here.”
“It moved our door,” Calcifer grumbled. “If that was it.”
“It probably was. It does things like that. Listen, you three had better come back to the palace with me – Mendanbar will definitely want to meet you, and he can probably help you find your door again, too.”
“Who’s Mendanbar?” Sophie asked, pulling Howl to his feet.
Cimorene smiled. “My husband. He’s also the king of the forest, which is why –”
“King? Ah –” Sophie fumbled quickly for her skirts, wishing she’d been a bit more polite. Cimorene flapped a hand at her impatiently.
“Oh, don’t waste time with any of that nonsense. Yes, technically I’m the queen, but nobody makes much of a fuss about it here.”
“Oh. Well then.” Sophie straightened up and followed Cimorene, feeling a bit foolish and more than a bit unsettled. Howl and Calcifer followed.
“Why exactly did you end up here, anyway?” Cimorene asked conversationally as they walked.
“We had a bit of an accident with a rather vicious flying pig,” Howl said before Sophie could answer. Cimorene blinked.
“What sort of accident?”
“We got one, for a start,” Howl grumped.
“And then it got loose,” Calcifer supplied. “And went out the enchanted door – I’m in charge of the door. I sent it the first place I could think of that it wouldn’t cause any riots, and then we had to chase it.”
“I see. Well, I don’t think it will cause too much trouble around here.”
“Here seems to be, at the very least, interesting,” Howl said, poking at a nearby vine shimmered oddly and felt entirely magical. Cimorene smiled.
“Interesting is the least of it. And if that thing isn’t trying to bite you, then I think you’ll fit in beautifully while you’re here.”
Sophie smiled back, finding, to her surprise, that she wanted to know more about this odd queen and her forest.