It was a well-known fact in the land of Ingary that the more powerful the wizard, the worse his penmanship. Howl Pendragon’s exceptional innate knack for spell-casting aside, Mrs. Pentstemmon once told a colleague she would have had to accept him as her final student on the difficulty of reading his handwriting alone. "There sits a powerful wizard,” she confided to the Witch of Montalbino in the years before she died. “No one can read a thing he writes.”
It was an equally well-known fact in the land of Wales that there was no such thing as magic. Sophie, however, begged to differ.
* In Which Howl Develops a Penchant for Penmanship *
At an impressionable age, Howell Jenkins learned that in his family’s home, to write something down was unwise. It almost always meant a future dressing-down from his elder sister Megan, who despised him for being less respectable than someone attending university ought to be. That he also played rugby did nothing to endear himself to his prim, proper sister, so he got in the habit of hiding away his schoolwork. Since he was already the least respectful member of the Jenkins family, it would never do for Megan to find his thesis and have another thing to hold over his head. He wished he might have practiced some of those spells and charms on his dissertation—simple concealment spells, coupled with misdirection—so his hard work would never be discovered, but magic was only something he studied, not something he knew how to put into practice.
Even if she had found his thesis, Megan never would have been able to decipher it. This had less to do with magic than it did with some of the worst penmanship Wales had ever seen. Since the time it had got him out of that mess with their flanker’s sister when Howell managed to convince her (and her menacingly stronger brother) that she’d misread a promise of his, he’d taken utmost pride in illegibility. It was as good as magic and in Wales, that counted for a lot.
* In Which Sophie and Howl Make an Agreement *
Sophie had only been to the place called Wales one time, and it terrified her. Now that she wasn’t an old lady any more she wondered if she ought to be less, or perhaps even more, terrified by the prospect of another visit. It wasn’t the inch-thick nothingness the door opened onto, or the horrifying pink-and-yellow carpeting or the dizzying horseless carriage that gnawed at her thoughts. No, what made her reluctant to take Howl’s hand and walk through the door with him to Wales was that she knew, much like her new husband, that they would both have to face Megan Parry.
“I did manage to stand fairly well for myself against the Witch of the Waste,” Sophie told herself. “And freed Calcifer, and gave Howl back his heart.” A heart that beat quite strongly, she now knew, in her direction. Oh, he was still the same slitherer-outer she’d always known, but his eyes no longer had that glassy, distracted look, and both his laughter and disdain came more quickly and felt far more genuine. Then again, she had never given away her heart—at least not physically—and had no intention of entering into any sort of contract with a fire demon. “If I could do that, I can certainly spend some time with Howl’s family in Wales. Besides, they treat him rather awfully, for all that he’s still Royal Wizard.” She wondered if Megan would treat Howl differently, knowing all her brother had done for Ingary. But she was under strict instructions not to try to clear his name with his sister.
“Look what a job you did of blackening my name to the King,” he reminded her gently. “Megan’s far more imposing than he is.”
“Don’t I know it,” Sophie muttered darkly, and agreed not to try to convince Megan that Howl was actually a good person. Vain, a spendthrift, far too concerned with his looks, proud as a peacock…but he had a good heart. She’d held it in her hands and knew the truth of it.
She was no longer old, not quite as blunt as she’d been at age ninety. She was no longer poor apprentice Sophie Hatter. She was Sophie Hatter Jenkins Pendragon, or Mrs. Royal Wizard, or even Mrs. Howl to the people of Market Chipping. For better or worse she’d taken a vow to stand by her husband through thick and through thin. There wasn’t a single obstacle she or Howl couldn’t work past in any part of Ingary, because together they were an unstoppable team. The dust and bones of the Witch of the Waste could attest to that.
So why did the very idea of Wales frighten her to the bones?
“Nothing ventured, most definitely nothing gained,” she reminded herself. “Life is an adventure, and one to be lived. Not one to be hidden away from, like the little grey mouse you used to be.”
She took Howl’s hand. “I do miss my walking stick,” she told him. “I wish it hadn’t burst into flames.”
Howl gave her his most grave and serious look. “What a shame that it did. It would undoubtedly have come in handy around my sister.” Opening the door, knob turned down to black, they stepped together through the mist into a vaguely familiar drizzly street, where all the yellow houses looked like children’s blocks and the air smelled nothing like the cheerful logs burning happily in the castle's hearth.
* In Which Sophie Discovers an Everyday Sort of Magic *
“Always appearing out of nowhere, showing up without warning. Putting my children in danger. I can’t approve, Howell.”
“There's a fine greeting,” Sophie whispered to Howl.
“She runs on the same track no matter what,” Howl assured her. Clearing his throat, he stepped forward, his hand firm around Sophie’s. “I can promise you, Megan, the danger is past. Sophie saw to that.”
“Yes, you and your promises. And another thing, I—“ Megan stopped mid-sentence, her mouth agape. “Just who is this? First you bring a young boy and someone’s grandmother, then that horrible red-headed woman struts around my yard as if she owns it, and now… honestly, what sort of life are you leading? You will never grow up.”
Being an old woman had taught Sophie a few things, and she hadn’t left them all behind just because the curse was lifted. She reached forward, shaking Megan’s hand fiercely. “I’m Sophie, the one Howl was just talking about. You needn’t worry about the…” She almost said Witch, but wasn’t certain they should be talking about her in this place. “Her. At any rate, as Howl says, the danger is past and you can rest easy.”
Eyes narrowed, Megan gave Sophie a half-hearted handshake before turning back to her brother. “Sophie? Wasn’t that the name of the old lady you brought?”
“My old aunt,” Sophie said quickly. "My family has a habit of naming us after one another."
Megan’s brow arched. With a laugh, Howl pushed past her into the house. “This Sophie is my wife. I thought she ought to get to know the family." He waved to Mari, who squealed with delight. "Hullo, cariad!”
Howl’s sister certainly didn’t seem like the sort of person who would ever be at a loss for words. They eluded her now, though, for a few long uncomfortable moments before she stepped aside, gestured to the living room—the one with the magic box playing images and sounds—and closed the door behind them. “Well,” she said finally, looking Sophie up and down the same way the custom at the hat shop used to peer at the goods, and Sophie knew she was being assessed. “That’s a fine how-do-you-do. Howell, you could have told us.”
“He just did.” Sophie grinned, and watched as little Mari leapt into Howl’s arms. The two of them began a quick and animated conversation in that same language as Calcifer’s saucepan song.
“I’m going to have to learn that language,” Sophie reminded herself.
“My no-good lazy brother finally married. I suppose he thinks it will bring him some respectability at last. Good luck with that. He'll never settle down.” Megan shook her head. “Since you’re here, you’d better come in and sit down. Gareth isn't home.” She turned to Mari. “Enough, Mari. Turn off the telly and go tell your brother to get down here.” Folding aside an afghan—obviously hand-knitted and nicely done—she gestured Sophie onto the sofa and sat beside her, still looking her up and down. Sophie imagined Megan trying to decipher why anyone in their right mind would deign to marry her low-life brother, and she felt an unexpected sting of pride. She was the one who’d been caught up by that silver and scarlet suit, by a spell of her own making. As she did with Mrs. Fairfax, she waited for an opening in Megan’s litany of complaints about Howl.
“Layabout, thinks I’m a storage unit for all his belongings, spoils the children, never lets us know when he’ll be here, goes off and gets married without so much as a by-your-leave, and if he doesn’t get the car out of the shed I’ll—“
Sophie rather wished she’d been standing at the door. That way, she might have been able to make a getaway. She didn’t know this place called Wales, but her visit to old age had taught her to be resourceful. Her hand met the blanket, feeling the comfortable friendship of fine woolen yarn. “Did you make this, Megan?”
Megan stopped once again with her mouth ajar. “Why…why yes, I did.”
“It’s lovely. Look at the needlework.”
“Sophie’s an absolute terror with a needle, I can assure you,” Howl said.
Megan shot him a look overflowing with daggers. “Be quiet, Howell. I’m talking with Sophie here.”
“Uncle Howell!” Mari’s voice boomed from the top of the stair. “Neil says he needs help with that game you gave him last time.”
“Always tempting him with computer games,” Megan said severely. “I suppose there’s nothing a parent can do to stop her children's uncle from doting. Go help him. Do something useful while I talk to Sophie. Off with you.” She waved Howl away, dismissive.
Sophie caught his glance, but nodded with her hand firmly on the afghan. She smiled at Howl so he knew she’d be all right with his wretch of a sister, and watched him disappear up the pink-and-yellow carpet.
“Let’s talk about your needlework,” Sophie offered Megan, and for a time, there was peace in the valley.
* In Which Sophie Learns to Accept a More Powerful Magic *
“Did you manage to help Neil?” Hand in hand, Sophie and Howl walked along the streets of the city. It looked nothing like any of the villages or towns she’d ever been to, and had they not called on Miss Angorian here one dreary wet night, Sophie knew she’d be gaping at everything twice as much as she was, although she made a great effort at looking casual.
Snooping had been much easier when she was old. People seemed to expect that of old ladies. But now she was her own age again, she was expected to be polite and demure and quiet. She wasn’t.
Fortunately, Howl didn’t seem to expect any of those things of her. Despite the strangeness of their clothes—he wore the jacket with the mysterious inscription WELSH RUGBY on the back; she wore a simple skirt and blouse with a modest sweater rather than a shawl this time—they did seem to blend in. This wasn’t home for Sophie, but it had clearly been home for Howl. He wove them through the streets, stopping in front of shops with shutterless windows larger than anything Sophie had ever imagined. There were also magic signs that blinked on and off, and lit up in strange patterns at strange moments, and music flooded the streets although there was no evidence of either instruments or musicians.
“How odd,” she thought. “Yet Howl seems to think this ordinary.”
“Neil’s not very imaginative,” Howl admitted. “He was stuck on moving the castle. He never thought to feed the fire demon.”
“And that was in the game, right? For that shiny box with the white roots coming from the wall?”
Howl laughed. “It’s called a computer, Sophie.”
Sophie shrugged. “And the contraption in the sitting room, the one with the colorful moving pictures?”
“A television set.” Howl grinned. He was obviously enjoying himself greatly, much to Sophie’s annoyance.
“You don’t have to look so smug about it,” she admonished, but he only laughed.
“Sophie,” Howl said pleadingly, “you can’t be expected to know everything about a new land straight away. You should have seen me when I first found myself flat on my back looking up at Mrs. Pentstemmon’s foyer. Everything was new and strange. I had to learn how to do things all over again.”
“I would have liked to see that." Sophie stifled a laugh at the image in her mind. "I’m not particularly keen on learning how to do everything from the start,” she admitted. “But I will make the effort.” Computers, television, the horseless carriages called automobiles, the money made from paper rather than gold or silver—it was all so strange to her. Every bit as strange as the language Howl shared with Mari, but didn’t seem to speak with anyone else in the family.
It must have been because Mari was the youngest. They always would have the advantage.
“Come.” Howl tugged at her hand. “There’s something I want to show you.”
They worked their way past exquisite candy emporiums and taverns and bakeries, shops with the strangest clothing. People walked around as if it were all so…normal. To them, she supposed, it was, and remembered to stop gaping. They stopped in front of a place with a small arched window, inset with a smaller arched cubby lined with silver.
“Two, please,” Howl said, and handed over some of his paper money in exchange for two smaller pieces of paper, which he gave to a guard standing behind a rope made of luxurious red velvet. There seemed to be a smaller sort of candy shop inside, where Howl bought her some jelly treats in a yellow box with garish bright red letters on the outside, and led her down a long hallway and into a side room with many seats attached to one another in rows. He walked her all the way to the back, to the tallest point of the room, where they squeezed into the middle two seats. The room was mostly dark, with what appeared to be a theatre at the front. At least there were strong red curtains.
“What is this?” she whispered, the fear of the unknown beginning to grip at her until she remembered that while she was in a strange city surrounded by strange people and even stranger things, she was no longer the frightened grey mouse she’d been when she and Howl first met on May Day. “How times have changed,” she thought. The thought filled her with a resolve that made her sit straighter in her seat, although she leaned in towards Howl.
His arm rested around her shoulder as the theatre filled. “It’s called a movie,” he said in a low voice so no one else might hear. “I think you’ll like it.” Leaning over, he whispered into her ear. “It’s just like magic.”
He was right, and Wales wasn’t so bad after all. Sophie could only remember feeling quite so enchanted—in a good way—one time before and like that other time, she was surrounded by many people but only had eyes for Howl.
Luckily she’d had the foresight to marry him. Sophie still couldn’t read his handwriting, but that didn't bother her in the least. Besides, everyone in Ingary knew that the worse the penmanship, the more powerful the wizard.