The boy shut the door. Then he picked up Sophie’s stick and politely leaned it against the chair for her. Sophie realized that there was now no sign at all that the castle was moving across the hillside: not even the ghost of a rumble or the tiniest shaking. How odd! “Tell Wizard Howl,” she said to the boy, “that this castle’s going to come apart round his ears if it travels much further.”
“The castle’s bespelled to hold together,” the boy said. “But I’m afraid Howl’s not here just at the moment.”
This was good news to Sophie. “When will he be back?” she asked a little nervously.
“Probably not till tomorrow now,” the boy said. “What do you want? Can I help you instead? I’m Howl’s apprentice, Michael.”
This was better news than ever. “I’m afraid only the Wizard can possibly help me,” Sophie said quickly and firmly. It was probably true too. “I’ll wait, if you don’t mind.” It was clear Michael did mind. He hovered over her a little helplessly. To make it plain to him that she had no intention of being turned out by a mere boy apprentice, Sophie closed her eyes and pretended to go to sleep. “Tell him the name’s Sophie,” she murmured. “Old Sophie,” she added, to be on the safe side.
“That will probably mean waiting all night,” Michael said. Since this was exactly what Sophie wanted, she pretended not to hear. In fact, she almost certainly fell into a swift doze. She was so tired from all that walking. After a moment Michael gave her up and went back to the work he was doing at the workbench where the lamp stood.
So she would have a whole night’s shelter, even if it was on slightly false pretenses, Sophie thought drowsily. Since Howl was such a wicked man, it probably served him right to be imposed upon. But she intended to be well away from here by the time Howl came back and raised objections. She looked sleepily and slyly across at the apprentice. It rather surprised her to find him such a nice, polite boy. After all, she had forced her way in quite rudely and Michael had not complained at all. Perhaps Howl kept him in abject servility. But Michael did not look servile. He was a tall, dark boy with a pleasant, open sort of face, and he was most respectably dressed. In fact, if Sophie had not seen him at that moment carefully pouring green fluid out of a crooked flask onto black powder in a bent glass jar, she would have taken him for the son of a prosperous farmer. How odd!
Still, things were bound to be odd where wizards were concerned, Sophie thought. And this kitchen, or workshop, was beautifully cozy and very peaceful. Sophie went properly to sleep and snored. She did not wake up when there came a flash and a muted bang from the workbench, followed by a hurriedly bitten-off swear word from Michael. She did not wake when Michael, sucking his burned fingers, put the spell aside for the night and fetched bread and cheese out of the closet. She did not stir when Michael knocked her stick down with a clatter, reaching over her for a log to put on the fire, or when Michael, looking down into Sophie’s open mouth, remarked to the fireplace, “She’s got all her teeth. She’s not the Witch of the Waste, is she?”
“I wouldn’t have let her come in if she was,” the fireplace retorted.
Michael shrugged and picked Sophie’s stick politely up again. Then he put a log on the fire with equal politeness and went away to bed somewhere overhead.
In the middle of the night Sophie was woken by someone snoring. She jumped upright, rather irritated to discover that she was the one who had been snoring. It seemed to her that she had only dropped off for a second or so, but Michael seemed to have vanished in those seconds, taking the light with him. No doubt a wizard’s apprentice learned to do that kind of thing in his first week. And he had left the fire very low. It was giving out irritating hissings and poppings. A cold draft blew on Sophie’s back. Sophie recalled that she was in a wizard’s castle, and also, with unpleasant distinctness, that there was a human skull on a workbench somewhere behind her.
She shivered and cranked her stiff old neck around, but there was only darkness behind her. “Let’s have a bit more light, shall we?” she said. Her cracked little voice seemed to make no more noise than the crackling of the fire. Sophie was surprised. She had expected it to echo through the vaults of the castle. Still, there was a basket of logs beside her. She stretched out a creaking arm and heaved a log on the fire, which sent a spray of green and blue sparks flying up the chimney. She heaved on a second log and sat back, not without a nervous look or so behind her, where blue-purple light from the fire was dancing over the polished brown bone of the skull. The room was quite small. There was no one in it but Sophie and the skull.
“He’s got both feet in the grave and I’ve only got one,” she consoled herself. She turned back to the fire, which was now flaring up into blue and green flames. “Must be salt in that wood,” Sophie murmured. She settled herself more comfortably, putting her knobby feet on the fender and her head into a corner of the chair, where she could stare into the colored flames, and began dreamily considering what she ought to do in the morning. But she was sidetracked a little by imagining a face in the flames. “It would be a thin blue face,” she murmured, “very long and thin, with a thin blue nose. But those curly green flames on top are most definitely your hair. Suppose I didn’t go until Howl gets back? Wizards can lift spells, I suppose. And those purple flames near the bottom make the mouth—you have savage teeth, my friend. You have two green tufts of flame for eyebrows…” Curiously enough, the only orange flames in the fire were under the green eyebrow flames, just like eyes, and they each had a little purple glint in the middle that Sophie could almost imagine was looking at her, like the pupil of an eye. “On the other hand,” Sophie continued, looking into the orange flames, “if the spell was off, I’d have my heart eaten before I could turn around.”
“Don’t you want your heart eaten?” asked the fire.
It was definitely the fire that spoke. Sophie saw its purple mouth move as the words came. Its voice was nearly as cracked as her own, full of the spitting and whining of burning wood. “Naturally I don’t,” Sophie answered. “What are you?”
“A fire demon,” answered the purple mouth. There was more whine than spit to its voice as it said, “I’m bound to this hearth by contract. I can’t move from this spot.” Then its voice became brisk and crackling. “And what are you?” it asked, “I can see you’re under a spell.”
This roused Sophie from her dreamlike state, “You see!” she exclaimed. “Can you take the spell off?”
There was a poppling, blazing silence while the orange eyes in the demon’s wavering blue face traveled up and down Sophie. “It’s a strong spell,” it said at length. “It feels like one of the Witch of the Waste’s to me.”
“It is,” said Sophie.
“But it seems more than that,” crackled the demon. “I detect two layers. And of course you won’t be able to tell anyone about it unless they know already.” It gazed at Sophie a moment longer. “I shall have to study it,” it said.
“How long will that take?” Sophie asked.
“It may take a while,” said the demon. And it added in a soft, persuasive flicker, “How about making a bargain with me? I’ll break your spell if you agree to break this contract I’m under.”
Sophie looked warily at the demon’s thin blue face. It had a distinctly cunning look as it made this proposal. Everything she had read showed the extreme danger of making a bargain with a demon. And there was no doubt that this one did look extraordinarily evil. Those long purple teeth. “Are you sure you’re being quite honest?” she said.
“Not completely,” admitted the demon. “But do you want to stay like that till you die? That spell has shortened your life by about sixty years, if I am any judge of such things.”
This was a nasty thought, and one which Sophie had tried not to think about up to now. It made quite a difference. “This contract you’re under,” she said. “It’s with Wizard Howl, is it?”
“Of course,” said the demon. Its voice took on a bit of a whine again. “I’m fastened to this hearth an
d I can’t stir so much as a foot away. I’m forced to do most of the magic around here. I have to maintain the castle and keep it moving and do all the special effects that scare people off, as well as anything else Howl wants. Howl’s quite heartless, you know.”
Sophie did not need telling that Howl was heartless. On the other hand, the demon was probably quite as wicked. “Don’t you get anything out of this contract at all?” she said.
“I wouldn’t have entered into it if I didn’t,” said the demon, flickering sadly. “But I wouldn’t have done if I’d known what it would be like. I’m being exploited.”
In spite of her caution, Sophie felt a good deal of sympathy for the demon. She thought of herself making hats for Fanny while Fanny went gadding. “All right,” she said. “What are the terms of the contract? How do I break it?”