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Lady of the Castle

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"There's a girl living in Howl's castle."

It's one of the shepherds from the land at the edge of the waist who says it first. He came to town to buy some hay, and stopped at the local inn on his way home to have a drink and exchange tales with the local barkeep.

The couple seated at a nearby table laughs at his claim, and the barkeep smiles amusedly, asking if he's sure he's only had one drink today.

"Everyone knows there ain't no girl in that castle; Howl only deals with girls as long as it takes to gobble their hearts."

The shepherd returns home several shades more irritated than when he arrived, with a glower on his face.

The second account of the girl dwelling in Howl's castle comes from two old women who went to pick flowers in one of the outer meadows. They say they saw a girl in a dark blue dress standing on the balcony of the castle as it passed them by; this assertion is put down to the wanderings of two old minds after too much time spent in the sun.

Tales of the girl continue to spread, but none are believed, and after a while the lady of the castle is given the title of Howl's Girl and rumors of her come to be treated with the same mild interest and humor with which one might treat a ghost story that one knows to be false.

It's a market day when the silver haired girl first appears in the town, dressed in a modest purple gown with a shopping basket dangling from the crook of her arm. No one knows who she is or where she comes from, and all they learn that day is that she has a sweet smile and a shrewd mind, and that she can haggle with the best of them.

She comes every week after that to buy milk and meat, and eventually someone discovers that her name is Sophie. Many people- those who claim to have seen the castle's girl with their own eyes- say that she is the selfsame girl who dwells there, but she neither confirms, nor denies such accusations, and the rest of the townsfolk roll their eyes at the idea; this girl obviously still has her heart.

Some days she brings someone with her to market, usually a little boy with red hair who carries her shopping basket and wanders cheerfully in her wake, chattering animatedly, or, sometimes, a pudgy little old lady who clings to her arm and totters along with her, mumbling strange little comments from under her hood.

Then one day, when the castle is looming close to the town on the hill, she comes to market with someone new: a young man with jet black hair falling into his eyes and glittering green stones dangling from his ears. He's a handsome youth, and he moves with a careless grace that, somehow, isn't quite human, his presence drawing the gaze of almost every young woman he passes. He and Sophie wander down market street with her hand in the crook of his arm, talking quietly, until a little girl bounces up to them, a flower clutched in her little fist. She looks up at the man with wide eyes, and he smiles, and crouches down to whisper something in the child's ear that makes her giggle. When he straightens again, taking Sophie's hand in his, the little girl holds out the flower to the him and skips away. Most eyes follow her as she goes, and when they turn back to Sophie and the stranger, both are gone, and there is nothing to be seen but the dark speck of a bird floating high in the sky above.

Several days later, the small girl's father, the inn's barkeep, finally thinks to ask the child what it was that the stranger told her. The girl's smile is angelic as she replies.

"He found his heart."

Her father stares, as does everyone else on the street where they're walking, and then they all turn to stare out at the hills where the moving castle is just visible through the fog. A little way down the street, a little old man with a grey beard and a blue cloak laughs like a young boy and vanishes through the door of the abandoned house behind him.

"They get it yet?" the fire crackles as the old man pulls off his cloak, the beard vanishing as he does so, revealing the little red haired boy beneath.

"Yeah, finally." He grins, and the fire cackles. In her workroom, Sophie, sewing contentedly, smiles slightly, and starts to hum.