“I refuse to get married twice,” Sophie snapped. “Why can’t your sister and the children come here and watch us get married?”
“Because,” said Howl, from where he was draped in front of Calcifer, steaming slightly, “they don’t know Ingary exists.”
“Tell them, then.” Sophie eyed Howl. He had managed to position himself rather elegantly; it was a shame, she reflected, that he hadn’t noticed the pondweed in his hair when he had dragged himself out of the pond in the garden.
“They wouldn’t believe me,” he said. “Ingary is a storybook world to them. They don’t believe in magic - or other worlds you can get to by walking through a door.”
“Nor did I before you took me to Wales,” Sophie said. “Bring them here and they’ll believe in us soon enough.”
Howl laughed. “Tempting,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be good for them.”
“Huh,” said Sophie in disgust. “We live here. All my family is here, and all our friends. Just tell Megan and Mari and Neil and – whatsisname.”
“Gareth.” Howl made a face and rolled onto his stomach. “I know,” he said, entreatingly. “It’s a bother. Please?”
Sophie grumbled. Howl leapt up, dusted himself off and knelt in front of her, with his best pleading face. “I’ll make all the arrangements,” he assured her. “You can do the Ingary wedding, and I’ll do the Wales wedding.”
“That’ll be the day,” said Sophie. “But if we must, we must. Are you really going to kiss me when you’re all wet like that – Howl –” Oh, well, she thought, it’ll wash out, and wound her arms around Howl’s neck.
As Sophie expected, and despite his promises, Howl was unable to keep his nose out of the Ingary wedding. “We must invite the king,” he said. “It’s about my dignity. And I’ll be Howl Pendragon, of course.”
“What if I want to be Sophie Jenkins?”
“You can if you want,” said Howl, generously. “But I’ll be Pendragon, thank you. I’ve got to be Howell Jenkins in Wales anyway.”
“I suppose,” said Sophie, who in fact was quite sure that she’d rather be Pendragon than Jenkins; if she wanted a plain, unmagical name, she had Hatter to be going on with. “Well, all right then, you can be Howl Pendragon, and we can invite the king; but we’ll have it in Market Chipping, if you please.”
“Not in the hall,” said Howl. “My complexion will look awful against that stone.”
“But mine looks quite nice against it,” Sophie said. “And it’s the biggest building in the village. If you’re inviting the king we’d better make sure we have space for him.”
“We can build a new one,” said Howl. “Temporary, on the green. Is Martha making the wedding cake?”
“Oh yes,” said Sophie. “Should I ask her to make the cake for Wales, too?”
Howl sighed. “Probably not. We’ll have to get people to make the food for the wedding, and they may as well do the cake too.”
“Who will be doing it? Not Megan,” said Sophie.
“Oh, no. I don’t know who - there’ll usually be someone in the village who does it. Although I might go a little further afield,” he said, looking slippery.
Sophie narrowed her eyes at him. “Why?”
“Well, it might be a somewhat bigger wedding than usual,” said Howl, airily.
“Howl,” said Sophie, “how can it be a big wedding? Isn’t it supposed to be just us and your family?”
“And the Rugby Club,” said Howl. “And Megan will expect the cousins. And there are a few others.”
Sophie tutted. “And none of my family or friends will be there? That’s too bad of you, Howl. They’ll think I’m friendless.”
“We’ll just tell them you come from – oh, America, or Russia, or New Zealand, or something,” said Howl. “They’ll understand. And I thought Martha and Lettie and Fanny would be interested in coming. And Michael. And Calcifer, of course.”
Calcifer, who had been snoring gently in the fireplace, sparked up a bit and said, “I want to see more of Wales than just your sister’s back garden.”
“There you go,” said Howl. “Plenty of friends.”
“Martha and Lettie and Fanny won’t want to come to two weddings,” Sophie predicted, but she was wrong.
“Of course we want to come,” said Lettie, sinking her teeth into a cream bun. “Thass wha - mmph,” she said through cream and cake, before swallowing. “That’s where Ben comes from too.”
“And I want to see a whole different world.” Martha, perched on a bench in the Cesari’s kitchen, swung her legs back and forth. “Michael’s been before. I think it’ll be fun. Fanny will be excited too.”
“It’s not really very different,” Sophie said, “except for the horseless carriages, which are horrible. But the people are just the same. It’s very disappointing.”
“They’re not all like Howl?” said Martha.
“Not at all,” Sophie said. “Which is probably a good thing.”
“What’s Howl’s family like? They must be nice if he wants to have a wedding just for them.”
“His parents are dead,” said Sophie. “And even old Mrs Pentstemmon is dead, so neither of us shall have parents at all - except Fanny, of course.” Dear old Fanny; but since Sophie had been cursed into being an old woman and then gotten herself uncursed, she hadn’t quite managed to see fashionable newlywed Fanny as a mother figure again.
“His niece is very sweet,” Sophie went on, “and his nephew is just – you know – like a boy. But his sister is awfully proper. I suppose you would be if you had Howl for a brother, and I think their parents died quite young so you can see how it would be frustrating, but she doesn’t really approve of him. She’s only met me as old woman Sophie, but I’m not sure we shall get along.”
“Oh well,” said Lettie philosophically and, it turned out, completely incorrectly, “at least you won’t have to see her that often.”
“Sophie,” shouted Howl from his room, “I want you.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” shouted Sophie back up the stairs. “Come down if you want me, I’m busy.” She poked at the bouquet she was arranging in the sink. “Now then,” she addressed it. “This is for Fanny to take to her friend Mrs Carter, who’s sick in bed. You’ve got yarrow in for health and orange blossom for fertility – and I’ve been telling you all week to bring good luck – so you’re just going to make her feel better, is that clear?”
“They’re fairly brimming with health spells,” said Howl, coming up behind her. “They have been for days. They’re bound to help. Now come along, will you?”
“What for? And where?” Sophie set the vase down in the sink with a thump.
“To try on a wedding dress; Wales,” said Howl. “I need to be fitted for a suit.”
“Oh, no. Can’t I wear the same one I’ll wear in Market Chipping? Or can’t I magic it to look right in Wales?”
“No,” said Howl. “It wouldn’t do. You have to be married in real clothes or it isn’t a real wedding.”
“So I’ll be seeing your real hair colour, then?”
Howl sniffed. “Utterly different. Cosmetic only. But a wedding dress is important.”
Sophie narrowed her eyes at him, but said, “Fine. Michael’s managing the shop today anyway. I’ll just feed Calcifer.”
Calcifer, who had burned low overnight, flickered up when Sophie dumped a log on his head. “Ouch,” he said.
“Get up earlier,” said Sophie unrepentantly. “Howl and I are going to Wales to look at clothes for the wedding. Do you want to come or not?”
“Yes!” Calcifer said, blazing up in excitement.
“Hang on,” said Howl. “You’ll cause a panic if you bring a portable fire with you to Wales.”
“I can make myself look like something else,” said Calcifer. “Your hat, Sophie.”
“Sophie’s not going to wear a hat,” Howl said. “I’d only have to magic it invisible. You can be my scarf, if you like.” He flapped the trailing end of the thin silk scarf draped pointlessly but elegantly over his shoulders.
Calcifer eyed it, then leapt up out of the hearth and wrapped himself around Howl’s neck, sinking into the fabric. “This is a good view.”
“Just don’t forget yourself and burn me, will you,” said Howl. “I can’t have burns at my wedding.”
“Speaking of,” said Sophie suddenly, “Where did that singed bunch of flowers come from? I had to throw them away yesterday. They smelt terrible.”
Howl raised his eyebrows. “No idea what you’re talking about,” he said, sounding sincere.
“They didn’t come out of my shop.” Sophie was quite certain of it. “You must have brought them back with you from somewhere. They were quite nasty – and peculiar. Rhododendrons, trefoil, irises, and all withered up.”
“Not me,” said Howl. “They must have come through the door from somewhere.”
“Hmm,” said Sophie, a bit uneasily.
“No time now, but I’ll have a look when we come back, if you like,” said Howl. “We’ll be late if we don’t go now, though, and my sister doesn’t like to wait.”
“Now,” said Howl, as he strode up the path. Sophie trailed behind him, looking down in bewilderment at the stovepipe-shaped blue things that covered her legs and the strange flowered blouse that her flowered dress had turned into.
“I picked a few ideas out at the shop for you and they’re in Megan’s upstairs. You choose one and Megan will be able to fit it for you and send the rest back.”
Sophie stopped craning her neck to try to see her back and hurried after him. “Howl!” she said. “Your sister doesn’t like me, remember?”
“She won’t know you’re the same person,” Howl said. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Wales. Or at least, it doesn’t to people like Megan.”
“What, no magic? What in the world does she think you do?”
“She doesn’t,” Howl said easily. “She thinks I’m a layabout who picks up odd jobs.”
Sophie stopped dead with the gate half-open. “Not still?”
“Still. I don’t mind,” Howl said, although it was obvious he did.
Just then the door banged open and a little girl came running out. “Uncle Howell!” she shrieked, and flung herself at Howl. He scooped her up and swung her round, ending up facing Sophie with the girl on his hip. “Now, Mari,” he said, “this is Sophie. Sophie and I are getting married next weekend.”
“I know,” Mari said importantly. “Mum said you wanted me to be the flower girl.”
“That’s right,” said Howl.
“And I get a new dress.”
“Just so,” said Howl.
“Mum says she doesn’t know how you’re paying for it.”
“Mum should mind her own business,” said Howl, hoisting Mari a little higher on his hip and extending his hand to Sophie. She made a face at him, but took it and allowed Howl to lead her up the path to the front door.
“Megan,” he said as they entered, swinging Mari down to the floor, “I’ve brought Sophie along to have a look at the dresses.”
Megan appeared at the top of the stairs; Sophie, looking up, realised that Megan wasn’t quite as tall as she had appeared to old woman Sophie. But the firm set of her mouth and the crease between her brows was just as she remembered.
“Hello, Sophie,” she said, and Sophie recollected herself and managed to smile.
“Hello,” she said. “It’s very nice to meet you at last. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“I can’t say the same,” Megan said. “Howell doesn’t bother to visit very often, as you probably know.”
“All right,” said Howl, letting Mari down. “I’ll just go and try on suits so you can blacken my name without me intruding, shall I?” He tossed his Calcifer-scarf around his neck and said to Mari, “Now, don’t let them say terrible things without defending me, will you, darling?”
Mari shook her head, and Megan said, “Don’t be such a martyr, Howell.” Sophie, conflicted, rolled her eyes at Howl; he was being dramatic, but she knew perfectly well that scolding him about it was utterly pointless.
“Off you go then,” Sophie said. Howl used their still-joined hands to tug her towards him, kissing her while Megan made a tutting noise.
“I won’t be long,” he assured her.
“You had better not be,” Sophie said, and let him pull away. He headed out the doorway with a languid wave; Sophie turned back to look at Megan, now frowning down at her.
“Well,” said Megan, “I wouldn’t have thought he could ever find someone so sensible-seeming. But perhaps that’s the attraction.”
Sophie bristled a little. “He’s very reliable if you need him,” she informed Megan.
“I wouldn’t know,” Megan replied. “You had better come and try on these dresses. Who knows if he got your size right, but he does have an eye for clothes. I expect they’ll look well on you.”
“Can I come and look?” said Mari.
“Of course,” said Sophie, and held out a hand. Mari took it with slightly sticky fingers and began to tug Sophie up the stairs.
“They’re not all white,” Mari said. “I want to wear white when I get married, but maybe you don’t? And they’re not frilly at all.”
“That’s a relief,” Sophie said.
“They’re very pretty though,” Mari assured her, clearly dubious, and Sophie smiled down at her. If she was honest, she was quite looking forward to the dresses Howl had picked out; she wondered if they would be much like the dress she’d bought with Fanny for what she was stubbornly thinking of as her real wedding.
“I think it’s funny letting the groom pick the dress,” Megan said as Sophie entered, “but I have to admit he has good taste.”
Sophie looked around the room and felt compelled to agree, despite a strong urge to be contrary just for the sake of it that Megan somehow brought out in her. There weren’t, to her relief, too many options: just four dresses, hanging on a rack, and a tall mirror. Her eyes darted from dress to dress. Two caught her eye: the first, a white silk dress that draped around the bust and fell in a long line to the floor; and the second, a cream dress covered in red embroidered flowers, strapless (Sophie blushed a little) with a fitted bust and a long, simple skirt. All the dresses were rather different to her Market Chipping dress. They had far fewer petticoats, and shorter sleeves or no sleeves at all. But Sophie could tell from what she was wearing and what Megan was wearing that clothes were awfully different in Wales; and, she thought to herself with a smile, there was no chance Howl would have picked anything that he didn’t think would make Sophie look wonderful standing next to him. The thought was rather reassuring.
She picked up the white dress, held it in front of herself, and turned to the mirror. Her face above it looked uncertain. Megan, behind her, said, “Well, let’s try them on, shall we?”
An hour later, Sophie had gotten in and out of all four dresses, stood herself in front of the mirror, twirled in them so Mari could applaud, pulled faces at herself, and tried to detect Megan’s opinion. Mari eventually became bored and wandered away. Megan, however, remained determinedly difficult to read. At last, Sophie turned to her and said, “What do you think?”
“I think you’ll look beautiful in all of them,” said Megan, and Sophie sighed.
“Thank you,” she said dutifully, and turned to face the mirror again. She was wearing the white dress and admiring its clean lines in the mirror, tilting her head to one side. She caught a glimpse of Megan’s reflection pursing her lips, and in exasperation whirled around. “Tell me, why don’t you!” she said. “I need someone else’s opinion, I don’t know what Howl will be wearing and you’re here.”
Megan sighed. “That one’s lovely,” she said, “but I don’t think you’re tall enough for it. I think the flower one suits you, and there aren’t many people it would suit.”
“True,” Sophie said. She knew well that the most decorated hats were often the least suited to most faces. “It is beautiful. And I do love flowers.”
“What do you do, anyway?” Megan asked. “You can’t just follow Howell around; I can’t see how he could possibly support you. And you are planning on having children, I assume, since Howell obviously adores them.”
“I sell flowers, actually. But Howl can certainly support us,” Sophie said. She narrowed her eyes at Megan in the mirror. “He’s very talented.”
Megan scoffed. “Maybe. But he wriggles out of his responsibilities like anything.”
“Not to me,” Sophie said. “Not at all.”
“We’ll see,” said Megan. “Well, come on and put the flowered one back on and we’ll see if you like that one or this one better.”
Sophie clambered out of the white dress and into the flowered one. She looked at herself in the mirror, and had to admit that she liked what she saw.
“Lovely,” said Megan behind her, apparently sincerely. “And it needs hardly any alterations to fit. Howell has a good eye.”
“He certainly does,” said Sophie. “Thank you very much for doing the fitting.”
“It’s no trouble,” said Megan. “I’ll be glad to see Howell safely married, and I do a lot of dress fitting anyway; it brings a little extra money in. So I’m good at it. I think you just want to take this in a bit at the bust, and out a tad at the waist.” She demonstrated in the mirror, pinching at the fabric, and Sophie nodded.
“You should still be able to move in it,” said Megan, picking up a box of pins. “Thank goodness Howell isn’t going to insist on being overly traditional, though.”
“Oh, you know - well no, you’re not Welsh, are you?” Megan said around the pins in her mouth. “Well, first the bride is disguised as an old woman, and tracked down by the groom in her father’s house. Then, as they leave for the church, the bride is kidnapped away by her family, and has to be chased down again and retrieved by the groom and his family just before the wedding.” As she spoke, she took pins out of her mouth and tucked them into the dress around the folds she was making in the dress.
Sophie blinked in surprise. But half of that happened already. Hopefully that’s why Howl doesn’t care about the rest of it, even though ... “Being Welsh is quite important to Howl, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, he goes in for the language and all, but he hasn’t seemed interested in that particular tradition. Luckily, because it’s just the sort of thing he might think was romantic.” Megan rolled her eyes.
“He probably knows I wouldn’t be amused,” said Sophie. “Besides, only my sisters and stepmother are coming, and they’re not local.”
“So much the better,” said Megan.
Downstairs, the door opened and closed with a bang, and Howl’s voice rang clearly up the stairs. “Sophie! Where are you?”
“Doh,” said Sophie and Megan simultaneously. “I’m nearly ready,” Sophie called. “Be patient a minute, why don’t you?”
“I’m suffering without you, Sophie,” Howl cried. “We have been too long apart. I shall expire if I don’t see you right this minute.”
“Go on then, and let us in peace,” said Sophie. “I’m all over pins.”
“Heartless,” said Howl cheerfully, and there was a thump as he apparently collapsed on the stairs.
The day of the Market Chipping wedding dawned cool and clear, and Sophie, sticking her head out the castle’s door with the orange dot facing up, noted that not a cloud had dared to appear in the sky; fortunate, since Howl’s refusal to get married in the hall had left them with an outdoor wedding on the village green.
Behind her, Michael came clumping down the stairs, wiping his face dry on a sleeve and carrying a bag. “Good morning, Sophie.”
“Good morning,” she said. “I’m going to go out into the garden and get the flowers.”
“Let me get out the Market Chipping door first,” said Michael. “I’m supposed to help Lettie and Wizard Suliman fix the chairs so there are enough.”
“Please do,” said Sophie. “It would be nice if our guests could sit.”
Michael flapped a sleeve at her. “They’ll be fine,” he said. “Wizard Suliman’s very good. Lettie and I are just there for show, really.”
“Will you be seeing Martha while you’re down there?”
Michael hefted the bag. “Yes,” he said, “I’m not planning to come back before – Martha told me Howl and I will both be kicked out so you can get ready anyway, so I’ll see you at the wedding.”
“Ask her to make sure the food is on track? Of course it will be,” Sophie said, hastily, “but I can’t quite believe anything will happen unless I’m telling it to happen, you know.”
Michael patted her arm. “Everything will be fine. Howl got the green ready last night, Martha says Cesari’s have done dozens of weddings, the mayor’s married half the village – it’s all organised. All you have to do is get flowers and put on your dress.” He swung the door open. “Tell Howl to not forget Calcifer.”
“I’ll make sure of that,” crackled Calcifer in the corner. Michael waved, and yanked the door shut behind him.
Sophie said to Calcifer, “It’s probably not going to be as exciting as you think.”
“A change is as good as a rest,” he said. “Not that I ever get any of that. Resting, that is. Howl is such a tyrant.”
Sophie laughed. “You don’t fool me. Both of you like your big experiments, even if they do leave you without enough energy to burn up a piece of paper.” She turned the knob by the door to purple-up, and gave the tubs resting by the door a kick. A couple shook themselves and sprang up to float at waist height. “Come along, then,” she told them, swinging open the door to reveal her warm, damp garden on the edge of the Waste. “Just flowers for the wedding today.”
She stepped out into the garden and sighed with pleasure. The garden was still her favourite door of any out of the castle. In the morning, dewy and dim, she could happily spend hours in it. Today she dawdled from hillock to flowerbed peacefully, collecting baby’s breath here, and long tall irises there; spiky birds of paradise in one corner and familiar, friendly gerbera daisies in another.
After a while, she became aware that someone was watching her, and turned to find Howl draped artistically on a hillock a few feet away, watching her with his chin in his hand. He was sleepy-eyed and bedraggled, still in his pyjamas, and Sophie raised an eyebrow at him.
“Good morning,” he said. “I’ve come to make sure you don’t want to elope with me after all.”
Sophie sighed. “We’ve gone to all this trouble now.”
Howl levered himself up, sauntered over and slid his arm around her waist, steering her on through the garden. “It’s true,” he said, voice cheery. “Martha’s work would be wasted. My effort setting up the green last night would be wasted. And we’re going to make a lovely picture, you know.”
Sophie laughed, and poked him in the side. “You would think of that,” she said.
“You love me even with my vanity,” Howl said loftily; and Sophie had to admit that she did. She tucked her head against his arm as they walked. At length, Howl drew back, caught one of her hands in his, and said, “Sophie, I do love you.”
“Oh, I know,” Sophie said.
This led to some rather enthusiastic kissing; and they didn’t break apart until Fanny came rushing up in her carriage with Sophie’s wedding dress, insisting on sending Howl away to get ready with Michael.
Sophie never did remember much of her Market Chipping wedding; just the green, covered in chairs and flowers; Lettie and Martha standing beside her in front of all their guests; the guests themselves, rather dressed up, from all sorts of places in Ingary; Howl, looking polished in a new suit but unusually pale and sick, taking her hand gently; and the mayor, in his gold chain, importantly delivering a sermon on good marriages. But she remembered sneaking away from the party – the tables groaning with Cesari’s best food and the tall wedding cake modelled on the flying castle – to walk through the dark with one hand in Howl’s and the other hand holding up her dress; and she remembered pressing Howl up against the castle door to kiss him thoroughly; and she remembered stumbling through the door, and Howl saying, “Calcifer, will you keep the door shut –” and Calcifer burning low with a hissing laugh; and she remembered pausing nervously before Howl’s door, and Howl cupping her face in his hands and saying “We don’t need to –” and kissing him to shut him up; and she remembered pretty well what came after that, too.
On the other hand, Sophie and Howl’s Welsh wedding went rather less smoothly. Sophie, Lettie, Martha and Fanny went through to Megan’s house to dress Sophie. Howl had apparently consulted with Fanny on appropriately Welsh dresses; the three of them looked, Sophie thought, rather smart, if awkwardly glancing down at their own bare calves.
Megan led them into the room where Sophie’s dress was hanging alone, pinless and practically gleaming. Bouquets in vases sat around the room; one, lying on a shelf alone, was strangely withered, and Megan said “What’s that doing here? I told Neil to get rid of it.” She picked it up and left Sophie, Martha, Lettie and Fanny alone.
They clustered around Sophie as she wriggled into her dress, then brushed out her hair until it shone and trailed artfully over her shoulders and back. “Now then,” Sophie told it, “You look lovely, and you’ll stay right there until tomorrow.”
Martha laughed. “Will that really work?”
“Oh yes,” Lettie said. “You can feel the power coming off it. Ben says Sophie must have awfully strong magic, but it doesn’t work through spells and things the way most people’s does.”
“I’m not that strong,” said Sophie. “Not compared to Howl.”
Lettie laughed. “Nobody’s strong compared to Howl - and he has Calcifer to help him, too. But you can do all sorts of things I can’t, just by telling things that that’s what they should do.”
Sophie pursed her lips, but just then Megan knocked. “Come in,” said Sophie, and Megan stuck her head around the door.
“I’ve made tea if anyone wants it,” she said.
“Oh, yes, please,” said Fanny instantly, and Lettie and Martha nodded.
“You go on,” said Sophie, “I’ll be down in a minute.”
As they left, she turned to face herself in the mirror. Self-consciously, she brushed her hair back from her face, then let it fall again and laughed. After all, as far as everyone she cared about was concerned, she and Howl were already married. Nerves were even more pointless than wedding nerves usually were.
She turned on her heel to go downstairs for a cup of tea, but the door opened and Lettie sauntered in. “Hullo,” she said, “I’m here to kidnap you. Megan said it was a tradition.”
Sophie dropped her hands to her skirt. “Not really?” she said in dismay. “I was hoping to get away without it.”
“Howl did want to get married in Wales,” Lettie pointed out. “I’m sure he wants to do the thing properly. Come on, I’ll sneak you down the back staircase. Megan can’t see us, of course, because she’s the groom’s family.”
Sophie thought about refusing; but she thought about Howl’s nervousness at their Market Chipping wedding, and the casually demanding air with which he had introduced the idea of the Wales wedding, and him speaking soft singing Welsh with Mari – and with a sigh, she followed Lettie down the staircase and out the back door. Sophie hurried ahead of Lettie down the garden path, but pulled up as she saw a gleaming red horseless carriage parked on the street. “Oh, Lettie, I can’t get in that. You don’t know how to work it!”
Lettie sighed. “I should have known you’d be difficult,” she said, and Sophie felt a thump on the back of her head and things went abruptly black.
An indeterminate time later, Sophie woke up. Dizzily, she raised a hand to her head, and a voice that was no longer at all like Lettie’s said, “Oh, good. You’re awake.”
Sophie eased herself upright, and looked around. She was on a hillside somewhere; by the sun, she guessed that an hour had passed. A female figure, in Lettie’s dress, stood to the side, looking out over a road that led down to what she guessed was the village they’d come from. The figure turned; Sophie caught sight of her profile, and gasped.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” she said.
The Witch of the Waste turned again to look directly at Sophie. “It takes more than a boy like that to kill me,” she said coldly.
Sophie’s eyes widened. Half the Witch’s face was as aged as Sophie’s had been under the curse, while the other half was still youthful. And the face was shifting in a dreadfully fascinating way. The youthful half would sag and age, and struggle back to youth; the aged half would briefly match the other side, then return. Her hair rippled between black and grey; the Witch’s hands shook.
“You don’t look well,” said Sophie.
“I will be well enough when your adoring bridegroom gets here,” the Witch said. “He’ll find us soon enough; in time to watch his wife-to-be die. There’s nothing like a virgin sacrifice to get to a man’s power.”
Sophie’s stomach roiled, but she laughed. “That’ll be a problem, then.”
She got to her feet, dusted herself off and tossed her hair - still in its perfect coils - over her shoulder. She advanced on the Witch. “I take it you’ve been in Wales all this time?”
The Witch flung up a hand, and the air hardened around Sophie.
“Now then, don’t do that,” Sophie said. “You want to let me pass, don’t you, air? That’s right,” sha added, as she became able to step forward. “Let me through – but you can hold her for me, if you like.”
She returned her attention to the Witch, now struggling against the air. Her youthful appearance was almost entirely gone now; she could have been a happy grandmother after a long life, if it wasn’t for the hate in her eyes.
“Howl and I were married in Market Chipping last week,” Sophie said, gently. “You’ll find it quite hard to find a virgin sacrifice; this wedding is just for his family.” The witch hissed in disgust; little flowers in the grasses around her burnt and withered, and Sophie suddenly realised where her burnt bouquet had come from.
“Oh, stop struggling. I’m not going to hurt you unless you make me. Look,” Sophie said, “It’s not so bad, being old. I didn’t mind it. The only thing I minded was the life I’d missed; but you’ve had a life and a half. I think you should stay old,” she said. “Yes, you can be the age you made me; that’s younger than you really are. And you can be a hale old woman. But you can’t hurt me, or Howl, or Howl’s family; and I don’t think you really ought to do any magic ever again.”
The Witch growled and struggled again to stand, fear in her eyes, but Sophie shook her head. “You might have been strong once, but your fire demon is gone, and I’m quite strong myself, you know. And I’m in love with Howl. And it’s my wedding day. Again.” She surveyed the Witch, who was sagging against the air holding her up. “Go to sleep now,” she said. “When you wake up, you can go to – oh, not this village. But the next one, I suppose. You’ll find some kind of work if you like, but I suppose you must have some money if you’ve been supporting yourself ‘til now; you can use that. You’ll be fine. I was, after all.”
The Witch’s head drooped, and Sophie said, “Air, you can let her down now. Thank you very much.”
Suddenly tired, she looked around for something to sit on, and ended up leaning against the Witch’s red horseless carriage – car, she remembered Howl calling it. “I could start walking,” she mused to the Witch’s silent figure, “but I think that magic took quite a lot out of me, and no doubt Howl will be here any time now.”
She didn’t have to wait long. Five minutes later, as the sun dropped towards the horizon, Howl’s beat-up car raced up the road and halted with a squeal. Howl piled out, followed by Michael and a couple of tall young men in suits Sophie supposed must be members of Howl’s mysterious Rugby Club.
Howl dashed over. “Sophie!” he said, looking rather frantic. “I found Lettie and everyone unconscious in the kitchen, and I had to have Calcifer help me find you.”
Sophie nodded over to the Witch. “I took care of it,” she said calmly. “I’m not helpless, you know.”
Howl laughed, and kissed her. “I know,” he assured her. “I’m quite terrified of you half the time.”
Michael was examining the Witch, with Calcifer (in the shape of a bow tie, Sophie was amused to see) around his neck.
“I don’t see any magic on her at all,” he announced, and Calcifer concurred with a crackle.
“Whatever you’ve done looks permanent,” Calcifer said. “It looks like you stripped her of her magic and put a good-luck charm on her.”
“Good luck?” said Howl.
Sophie shrugged. “Old women need a little luck,” she told him. “I also made sure she couldn’t come near us or your family.”
“Sophie,” said Howl, laughingly, “how will I ever impress you again?”
“You’ve never impressed me,” Sophie lied. “Let’s go and get married, shall we?”