“How near it still is!” Sophie told her stick in dismay. “All that walking just to get above my own rooftop!”
It got cold on the stone as the sun went down. An unpleasant wind blew whichever way Sophie turned to avoid it. Now it no longer seemed so unimportant that she would be out on the hills during the night. She found herself thinking more and more of a comfortable chair and a fireside, and also of darkness and wild animals. But if she went back to Market Chipping, it would be the middle of the night before she got there. She might just as well go on. She sighed and stood up, creaking. It was awful. She ached all over.
“I never realized before what old people had to put up with!” she panted as she labored uphill. “Still, I don’t think wolves will eat me. I must be far too dry and tough. That’s one comfort.”
Night was coming down fast now and the heathery uplands were blue-gray. The wind was sharper. Sophie’s panting and the creaking of her limbs were so loud in her ears that it took her a while to notice that some of the grinding and puffing was not coming from herself at all. She looked up blurrily.
Wizard Howl’s castle was rumbling and bumping toward her across the moorland. Black smoke was blowing up in clouds from behind its black battlements. It looked tall and thin and heavy and ugly and very sinister indeed. Sophie leaned on her stick and watched it. She was not particularly frightened. She wondered how it moved. But the main thing in her mind was that all that smoke must mean a large fireside somewhere inside those tall black walls.
“Well, why not?” she said to her stick. “Wizard Howl is not likely to want my soul for his collection. He only takes young girls.”
She raised her stick and waved it imperiously at the castle.
“Stop!” she shrieked.
The castle obediently came to a rumbling, grinding halt about fifty feet uphill from her. Sophie felt rather gratified as she hobbled toward it.
In which Sophie enters into a castle and a bargain.
There was a large black door in the black wall facing Sophie and she made for that, hobbling briskly. The castle was uglier than ever close to. It was far too tall for its height and not a very regular shape. As far as Sophie could see in the growing darkness, it was built of huge black blocks, like coal, and, like coal, the blocks were all different shapes and sizes. Chill breathed off these blocks as she got closer, but that failed to frighten Sophie at all. She just thought of chairs and firesides and stretched her hand out eagerly to the door.
Her hand could not come near it. Some invisible wall stopped her hand about a foot from the door. Sophie prodded at it with an irritable finger. When that made no difference, she prodded with her stick. The wall seemed to be all over the door from as high as her stick could reach, and right down to the heather sticking out from under the doorstep.
“Open up!” Sophie cackled at it.
That made no difference to the wall.
“Very well,” Sophie said. “I’ll find your back door.” She hobbled off to the lefthand corner of the castle, that being both nearest and slightly downhill. But she could not get round the corner. The invisible wall stopped her again as soon as she was level with the irregular black cornerstones. At this, Sophie said a word she had learned from Martha, that neither old ladies nor young girls are supposed to know, and stumped uphill and anticlockwise to the castle’s righthand corner. There was no barrier there. She turned that corner and hobbled eagerly toward the second big black door in the middle of that side of the castle.
There was a barrier over that door too.
Sophie glowered at it. “I call that very unwelcoming!” she said.
Black smoke blew down from the battlements in clouds. Sophie coughed. Now she was angry. She was old, frail, chilly, and aching all over. Night was coming on and the castle just sat and blew smoke at her. “I’ll speak to Howl about this!” she said, and set off fiercely to the next corner. There was no barrier there—evidently you had to go round the castle anticlockwise—but there, a bit sideways in the next wall, was a third door. This one was much smaller and shabbier.
“The back door at last!” Sophie said.
The castle started to move again as Sophie got near the back door. The ground shook. The wall shuddered and creaked, and the door started to travel away sideways from her.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Sophie shouted. She ran after the door and hit it violently with her stick. “Open up!” she yelled.
The door sprang open inward, still moving away sideways. Sophie, by hobbling furiously, managed to get one foot up on its doorstep. Then she hopped and scrambled and hopped again, while the great black blocks round the door jolted and crunched as the castle gathered speed over the uneven hillside. Sophie did not wonder the castle had a lopsided look. The marvel was that it did not fall apart on the spot.
“What a stupid way to treat a building!” she panted as she threw herself inside it. She had to drop her stick and hang on to the open door in order not to be jolted straight out again.
When she began to get her breath, she realized there was a person standing in front of her, holding the door too. He was a head taller than Sophie, but she could see he was the merest child
, only a little older than Martha. And he seemed to be trying to shut the door on her and push her out of the warm, lamplit, low-beamed room beyond him, into the night again.
“Don’t you have the impudence to shut the door on me, my boy!” she said.
“I wasn’t going to, but you’re keeping the door open,” he protested. “What do you want?”
Sophie looked round at what she could see beyond the boy. There were a number of probably wizardly things hanging from the beams— strings of onions, bunches of herbs, and bundles of strange roots. There were also definitely wizardly things, like leather books, crooked bottles, and an old, brown, grinning human skull. On the other side of the boy was a fireplace with a small fire burning in the grate. It was a much smaller fire than all the smoke outside suggested, but then this was obviously only a back room in the castle. Much more important to Sophie, this fire had reached the glowing rosy stage, with little blue flames dancing on the logs, and placed beside it in the warmest position was a low chair with a cushion on it.
Sophie pushed the boy aside and dived for that chair. “Ah! My fortune!” she said, settling herself comfortably in it. It was bliss. The fire warmed her aches and the chair supported her back and she knew that if anyone wanted to turn her out now, they were going to have to use extreme and violent magic to do it.