Calcifer peeked out from his hearth as best he could, a suspicious eye bent toward the hodgepodge of items on the table. Sophie had gathered everything from cupboards in the kitchen he wasn’t wholly sure had existed until she’d gone looking for them.
A single, long-handled spoon poked out of a pair of nested ceramic bowls, beside which preened a teacup and an assortment of tea spoons, none matching. A whole sack of flour leaned against another, smaller burlap folded down to reveal pale golden sugar. A crock of butter, freshly churned, sat beside a glass of creamy milk and an apronful of eggs, and gathered before the lot were an array of small pots and jars whose sharp, spiced scents tickled the nose.
“What are those ?” he demanded as Sophie whisked her way back in, a salt cellar and a jar of molasses tucked together into the crook of her arm, a great mangy old book balanced, open, on the other.
Setting the salt cellar down and flipping the page, Sophie glanced up at him and smiled. “Baking!” she announced. “Howl had this book of recipes in his library, so I’m going to give it a try.”
“Howl’s out for the day—and he’s let you into his library?”
But Sophie hmm ed and didn’t answer him properly, squinting down at the handwriting. She could do this, she was sure of it. After all, hadn’t she spoken another ten centuries of life into a fire demon? Hadn’t she put a man’s near-lifeless heart back into his chest and made it beat, through sheer will and determination? Nothing to a little bit of baking, then. As long as she didn’t talk to it—magic hats were one thing, but magic pastry struck her as something else entirely. Sophie shuddered to clear her mind of the thought, and set to the task at hand.
Right . Though she was sure Martha would disapprove, being quite firm in her opinion that baking is more science than art, Sophie dipped an imprecise teacup into the flour and turned it out into the smaller bowl. Another and another, and a fourth for luck, then two spoonfuls of the raising powder. A pinch of salt from the cellar. She considered the spices she’d assembled, conferring quietly with the recipe in the book and comparing the differing sizes of spoons with a critical eye as she measured out ingredients. Would it be worth her while to clean out the mortar and pestle for a nail trimming’s worth of cardamom seeds?
Leaving the question of the cardamom aside for the moment, she turned to the second bowl. Here she creamed together her butter and sugar, beating madly round the bowl with the wooden spoon until it became fluffy and pale yellow, then beating madly round the bowl again to properly mix in the gooey molasses and eggs. The next bit came a little easier: adding the mixture of flour, salt, and spices required no less stirring, but at least speed mattered little, so Sophie could take her time. Still, the dough seemed quite thick and unyielding. She added a bit of milk, and then another little bit, until it came together better into a dough soft and richly-colored.
Sophie winced and shook out her arm, sore from the strain of so much mixing. It’s a good thing I’m not ninety any longer. She’d rolled out the dough and cut out the biscuits using a sharp paring knife and a stencil drawn by hand, loosely following the pattern in the book, before she realized she needed a favor.
Furrowing her brow at the recipe book, she called, “Calcifer, these want cooking in an oven, not over an open hearth. Would you mind terribly, tending the oven for the day?”
“But it’s so cramped in there,” he said, emerging from a nap in the embers with a plaintive yawn and a grimace.
“I’ll give you these off-cuts,” she said, and brought him a scrap of the dough. He sniffed at it, then devoured it, instantly enamoured of the overwhelming amount of warming spices: ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, even a touch of black pepper. With a self-satisfied smirk, he declared them a fit trade and settled himself comfortably into the oven. Sophie shut the oven door to let it warm while she chilled the little ginger folk in the cooling cupboard and set to work tidying up after herself.
She’d just set the tray of biscuits in the warmed oven, finished cleaning the last of the flour from the table, and set the bowls to dry beside the sink when the door opened, and in came Howl, eyes alight as he spotted Sophie. “You haven’t been my cleaning lady for quite some time, you know,” he teased, leaning in to press a kiss to her cheek. “Or is this part of our happily ever after?”
“At least one of us has to have learned to clean as we go,” she said lightly, winking. “Your library’s a disaster.”
“Can’t imagine what you were doing in there to begin with. Is that where you found this awful rotted thing?”
Sophie turned to find Howl thumbing his way through the book of recipes, and she shooed him away from it. “If it’s rotted, you’ve probably only yourself to blame. You oughtn’t brew potions in there, the steam is terrible on those poor books, and they’ve done nothing to deserve it.”
“You’re covered all over with flour,” Howl observed instead of making a proper reply, and moved to brush it from her apron.
“You like things messy,” Sophie said, laughing and batting his hands away as she bent to peer into the oven and check on her work. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you slithering right out of how you treat those books.”
“This is why you aren’t meant to be permitted in the library,” Howl said mournfully, and wrinkled his nose. “Such judgement.”
“Says the pot to the kettle who called his own book rotted! Go off now, away—I thought you’d gone for the day anyway, and how can I surprise you with gingerbread when you’ve come home early?”
“I’d forgot how quickly night falls this time of year in Wales,” Howl said with a shrug, “and I didn’t want to brave the cold and wet alone, even to go to Rivendell. Much better to be home by my own hearth and my own Sophie, who has apparently made me gingerbread and convinced Calcifer to take up in the oven. I’m honestly not sure by which I ought to be more impressed!”
There came a muffled sort of chastisement from the oven, which sounded vaguely like “I am a free fire demon and I do as I please,” but might equally have been escaped steam from butter gone melted out of the dough, or some other awful baking disaster.
“Oh hello, what’s this great smell?” The door opened again, revealing Michael in his traveling cloak, though it was difficult to tell for certain given the near-to-toppling tower of paper-wrapped packages he carried in his arms. He closed the door behind him and took a deep, appreciative sniff before stomping the snow and muck from his boots.
“Sophie’s made gingerbread!” Howl said. Sophie occupied herself with clearing a space on the table, that she might have someplace to cool her baked gingerbread, and turned back to the oven to coax Calcifer to part with the tray. He conceded, and removed himself to the hearth again with an entire plate of off-cuts for his trouble.
Meanwhile, Michael and his precarious presentation navigated their way to the table with an overabundance of caution, which might yet have been comical had it not led to his setting down his packages in exactly the place Sophie had hoped to set down her tray. The tray still hot from the oven in her hands meant that Sophie could not put hands to hips to scold his retreating back properly. She still scowled something fierce—the steam rising off the fresh bake would have worked in her favor, here, had he not already gone back to the entryway to remove his weather-sodden things—and said sharply, “Michael, I’ve just cleared that for my own use! Budge over.”
Of course it was Howl, ever a busybody and dramatic to boot, who responded, and his smile was mischievous. “Dear Sophie, what’s the magic word?”
Michael, freshly peeled out of his wet cloak and shod of his wet, muddy boots, only rolled his eyes at their banter and moved to reach for his packages. And perhaps there puddled, unseen, a bit of melted snow, or perhaps what came next is simply the way of beginning stories in Ingary, for Michael’s foot slid out from under him as he stepped.
And things went pear-shaped then, in that agonizing way where normal sounds fade to a distant whine and everything moves at the speed of a flood of molasses. Michael’s fall arrested by his hands slapping upon the table, the shock of it vibrating the package tower into quaking, collapsing. Howl’s ungraceful dive to protect the tray of gingerbread. A bright flare of pain, hot aluminum striking Sophie’s chin as Howl’s dive upsets her entire applecart. The tumbling thump-thump-thud of falling parcels, crushing crumble of cookies thrown every which way, sharp tang of cinnamon and ginger broken into the air. The final crash of the pan on the stone floor, ringing.
A brief moment of silence, then Sophie’s voice, tight and flat:
“Will all of you please get out. Go.”
Howl had already sorted himself and stood with that infuriating, catlike combination of vulnerability and smug I-meant-to-do-that on his face. “Now Sophie, be reasonable, we can—”
And Howl, knowing himself to be defeated, turned to go; and Michael, knowing better than to argue, turned to go. And all the little ginger folk that had fallen and scattered onto the stone floor—all two dozen of them—stood and they, too, turned to go, except they did it with rather more force and exuberance, leaping up and running for any door jamb they spied. Being rather small and quite unexpected, Howl and Michael had both reached and thrown open the door to Market Chipping before anyone correctly grasped the connection between the pitter-patter of tiny ginger biscuit feet and the three-inch figures streaking a mad dash for the wintry air beyond.
Michael yelped, Howl swore colorfully, and Sophie gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth, immediately chagrined. Calcifer outright cackled, and shouted gleefully that they’d better catch them, hadn’t they, before they caused trouble? And indeed, one ginger man who’d ended up on the table had already overturned the salt cellar and then gotten himself stuck headfirst in the molasses jar.
Sophie could hear another rustling around beneath the fallen parcels. She lifted them to the table one and two at a time until she found the culprit, which wriggled in her grasp. “That’s enough now,” she said firmly. “You’re a biscuit, now act like it.”
But her magic was in enchanting things to animation and life, not disenchantment to objecthood, and so the wriggling did not stop but instead intensified. Sophie glanced about her, counting the little ginger figures escaping in every direction: the one in the molasses jar, two attempting to wrest open one of the lower cupboards, three disappearing down the hallway, another three working together to hoist one another up the steps. Her count was interrupted by a sharp prick to the web of her thumb, which made her shriek, “It’s bit me!”
“Bite it back,” was Michael’s suggestion as he reached down to pluck up two attempting to climb over his boots. He snapped one of them in two and stuffed it into his mouth, and gave Sophie a huge grin and a thumbs-up. “They’re delicious! Bet they’d be great with tea, or cocoa.”
Howl plucked the other out of Michael’s hand and bit off its head, the savage. “Absolutely snapping, Sophie, well done. And they go back to biscuits if you just treat them like biscuits.”
Sophie shook her head. “There’s two dozen at least, less these. How ever are we going to round them all up? Did any get out into the street?”
“I didn’t see,” Michael admitted. “I think so, though. I’ll round up the ones in the house if you don’t mind—all my things are still drying, and I can put those gifts away properly.”
Sophie nodded. “I’ll go out then,” she said, and strode over to the door where Howl at once donned his winter cloak to join her. He helped her into her own cloak and gloves once she’d pulled on her traveling boots, and offered her his arm as they stepped out of the castle and onto the street.
The chill of the night air near froze the breath in her lungs, but Sophie still couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of it. All of Market Chipping bristled with festive decor for the fast-approaching Marché de Noël festival. The scent of pine lay heavy in the crisp air as they passed wreath after ornamented wreath, the gas lamps garlanded in spirals of velvety red ribbon, the half-timbered, storeyed buildings draped in yet more pine boughs, candles aflame in every window and an icy halo round the moon. She could hear carolers, probably at the market square where the Yule bonfire would burn every night through solstice eve.
Not that she had time to appreciate any of it. Her eyes swept the ground restlessly in search of her runaway gingerbread folk as she and Howl walked together.
“This is probably why the Welsh make their gingerbread into loaves,” Howl remarked, eyes on the twinkling stars just visible beyond the crowded rooftops. “If you’d made a loaf, we could be enjoying an evening stroll, rather than hunting your bolted biscuits.”
Sophie huffed out a frustrated breath which condensed into a puff of cloud before her. When the cloud had faded, and she still hadn’t said anything, Howl added, “Though, this is quite a fun game you’ve invented. A loaf wouldn’t have presented half so much a challenge. No legs, you see.”
That did startle a laugh out of her, and Sophie felt some of the tension fall away from her mouth and shoulders. “I can’t imagine Megan chasing even a gingerbread loaf.”
Howl chuckled. “No, I can’t either. Nor Neil, but perhaps Mari—wait, are those...?”
And there, inside the picture window of the charcuterie, whole smoked hams and ropes of sausages dangling above them, stood a quartet of gingerbread folk, drawing obscene things on the glass pane with a pastry bag supported between them.
“That is the strangest sight I’ve ever seen,” Howl said, after a moment. “Do you suppose that’s anatomically correct?”
Blushing furiously, Sophie marched in through the door, grabbed up the renegade confections, and snapped them back to biscuits, which she offered most apologetically to the bemused butcher in recompense for his desecrated window. “They must take after your sense of humour,” she grumbled to Howl, once she returned. “And where did they even get that piping bag?”
“Perhaps Cesari’s?” Howl suggested.
Indeed, they found another trio in her sister’s bakery, getting up to no good in the pastry case to the complete consternation of the shophands: all the flavors of macaron mixed up together, the hand-calligraphed labels written over with absurd mustaches and improper titles, the glaze nibbled off the tartlets and leaving them looking strangely naked. A suspicious trail of icing, barely visible beneath the press of the crowd vying for the ever-popular, seasonal bûches de Noël, led from the kitchen to the front door.
Sophie marched herself behind the counter while Howl guarded the door, and spent long enough chasing the miscreants that eventually she had to call for assistance. Martha’s eyes fair twinkled with mirth as she listened to Sophie’s tale of baking woe, the two of them working together to entrap the biscuit folk with minimum damage to the rest of the cakes and pastries.
“It’s a good bake though,” Martha said after she’d bit into one, and added cheekily, “if a bit unorthodox style of delivery! What’ll be next, girls on flying broomsticks?”
A light snow began to fall as Sophie and Howl left the bakery. Sophie felt at a loss as to where to search next. The breadcrumb trail had gone cold, and she had no idea how many were even on the loose, nor how long their enchantment would last. She’d cast it in a fit of pique by mistake—surely it would wear off? After all, she hadn’t wanted Howl and Michael gone forever, just out of her kitchen til she could tidy away her feelings.
They’d come all the way to the Market Square. The public house rang out with high-spirited camaraderie. Buskers in festive silks with long trailing sleeves walked on tall stilts and turned acrobatic tricks on a tightrope strung between dueling inns. A choir of carolers gathered to the north of the bright bonfire, and next to them, an enterprising young lad squatted near an open brazier from which he offered passers-by roasted chestnuts and almonds for sale. And there were quite a lot of people still about, shop bells tinkling as patrons dipped in and out, becoming increasingly laden with bags and boxes of all sizes from tailors, chandlers, cobblers, jewelers, and of course toymakers.
A twinge of guilt pricked her conscience as she thought of Michael, coming in with his arms full of gifts just like these folks. Probably most of them were for Martha, but there might well be one for her, and for Howl, and perhaps even Calcifer, and she hadn’t even thought to ask Michael whether any had been at risk of breaking. She slipped a hand into Howl’s and squeezed, prompting a reassuring squeeze back and a kiss pressed to her forehead. She allowed herself to lean into him, enjoying his warm closeness, and she let her eyes drift shut in contentment.
Only for the moment, though, for in the next there came a yelp, followed by a shout, then a squealed “Well I never—!”
Sophie’s eyes flew open to see Michael charging into the square, practically skidding on the cobblestones as he flew round the corner and squeezing through several near-misses with lamp posts and people—all in pursuit of a single gingerbread man. It moved at a speed Sophie thought should be quite impossible for someone of its size, and as it neared the spot where she stood wrapped up with Howl, she could have sworn she heard it taunting Michael.
“Interesting,” said Howl, and waved his hand: several of the people into whom Michael had nearly knocked were at risk of dropping their parcels, and whatever spell he cast let them drift gently to the ground unharmed.
Sophie was already moving to intercept, but the gingerbread man saw her coming, and tacked left so sharply without losing speed that she felt dizzy. She might have even fallen, except there was Howl steadying her by the elbow. “Fast little fellow,” he murmured. And then, “How do you like ice skating?” Which she thought was quite an absurd question to ask, until the street felt suddenly slick under her soles and she realized that he’d magicked her boots into skates.
“Steady now, and quickly, and nevermind the lack of ice,” she said to her skates, and pushed off as Michael came even with and then streamed solidly past her. His mouth was making shouting shapes, except no sound issued forth as he grimaced and pointed toward the gingerbread man, pounding the pavement after it even as it made straight for the choir. They scattered like a startled flock of pigeons well ahead of him, a hue and cry going up at the commotion, and over it all the mocking, shrieking laughter of a deranged biscuit yelling that no one could catch it.
Sophie skated as hard and as fast as she could, crouched as low as she dared, vision narrowed down to the single darting figure ahead of her as it dodged ankles and twisted with ferocious speed down a different road. The whole world seemed to part around her as she flew like an arrow to her target, and almost before she knew it, she stood with the prize in her hand. Straightening, she glided back to where Michael stood panting and breathless and voiceless, Howl expectant at his side.
“I think a fox is more traditional,” he said, cryptic as ever. “But this will do. Sophie, I do believe you’ve got to restore Michael his voice.”
Sophie looked between the gingerbread man, which hadn’t stopped shouting, and Michael, whose mouth still moved soundlessly. “Go on,” she said to Michael’s voice in the biscuit, “you know where you belong. Get home.”
“Thank you,” Michael said, sounding only a bit like the air being let out of a balloon at having got his voice back all at once.
“Tried a spell,” he said. “Didn’t work. Oh I ought not to have eaten all those biscuits—”
“How many?” Sophie asked. “That’s the eighth we’ve caught.”
Michael groaned. “Double that, I think, at least.” He looked like he might be sick.
“Excellent!” said Howl, and clapped Michael on the back. “That’s all of them then.”
A look of relief came over Sophie’s face. “Let’s go back to the castle.” Ever the gentleman, Howl offered his arm with his trademark brilliant smile. She took it, clutching the last gingerbread man carefully in her other hand, and together they followed Michael home.