“I may faint,” Fanny announced, on the stairs.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Fairfax said, behind Fanny. “The thing’s only a magician’s golem. It has to do what it was sent to do. They’re quite harmless.”
Lettie, all the same, looked ready to faint. But the only one who did faint was Percival. He flopped to the floor, quite quietly, and lay curled up as if he were asleep. Lettie, in spite of her terror, ran toward him, only to back away as the scarecrow gave another hop and stood itself in front of Percival.
“This is one of the parts I was sent to find,” it said in its mushy voice. It swung on its stick until it was facing Sophie. “I must thank you,” it said. “My skull was far away and I ran out of strength before I reached it. I would have lain in that hedge forever if you had not come and talked life into me.” It swiveled to Mrs. Fairfax and then to Lettie. “I thank you both too,” it said.
“Who sent you? What are you supposed to do?” Sophie said.
The scarecrow swung about uncertainly. “More than this,” it said. “There are still parts missing.” Everyone waited, most of them too shaken to speak, while the scarecrow rotated this way and that, seemingly thinking.
“What is Percival a part of?” Sophie said.
“Let it collect itself,” said Calcifer. “No one’s asked it to explain itself bef—” He suddenly stopped speaking and shrank until barely a green flame showed. Michael and Sophie exchanged alarmed glances.
Then a new voice spoke, out of nowhere. It was enlarged and muffled, as if it were speaking in a box, but it was unmistakably the voice of the Witch. “Michael Fisher,” it said, “tell your master, Howl, that he fell for my decoy. I now have the woman called Lily Angorian in my fortress in the Waste. Tell him I will only let her go if he comes himself to fetch her. Is that clear, Michael Fisher?”
The scarecrow whirled round and hopped for the open door.
“Oh, no!” Michael cried out. “Stop it! The Witch must have sent it so that she could get in here!”
In which a contract is concluded before witnesses.
Most people ran after the scarecrow. Sophie ran the other way, through the broom cupboard and into the shop, grabbing her stick as she went.
“This is my fault!” she muttered. “I have a genius for doing things wrong! I could have kept Miss Angorian indoors. I only needed to talk to her politely, poor thing! Howl may have forgiven me a lot of things, but he’s not going to forgive me for this in a hurry!”
In the flower shop she hauled the seven-league boots out of the window display and emptied hibiscus, roses, and water out of them onto the floor. She unlocked the shop door and towed the wet boots out onto the crowded pavement. “Excuse me,” she said to various shoes and trailing sleeves that were walking in her way. She looked up at the sun, which was not easy to find in the cloudy gray sky. “Let’s see. Southeast. That way. Excuse me, excuse me,” she said, clearing a small space for the boots among the holiday-makers. She put them down pointing the right way. Then she stepped into them and began to stride.
Zip-zip, zip-zip, zip-zip, zip-zip, zip-zip, zip-zip, zip-zip. It was as quick as that, and even more blurred and breathless in both boots than in one. Sophie had brief glimpses between long double strides: of the mansion down at the end of the valley, gleaming between trees, with Fanny’s carriage at the door; of bracken on a hillside; of a small river racing down into a green valley; of the same river sliding in a much broader valley; of the same valley turned so wide it seemed endless and blue in the distanc
e, and a towery pile far, far off that might have been Kingsbury; of the plain narrowing toward mountains again; of a mountain which slanted so steeply under her boot that she stumbled in spite of her stick, which stumble brought her to the edge of a deep, blue-misted gorge, with the tops of trees far below, where she had to take another stride or fall in.
And she landed on crumbly yellow sand. She dug her stick in and looked carefully round. Behind her right shoulder, some miles off, a white, steamy mist almost hid the mountains she had just zipped through. Below the mist was a band of dark green. Sophie nodded. Though she could not see the moving castle this far away, she was sure the mist marked the place of flowers. She took another careful stride. Zip. It was fearsomely hot. The clay-yellow sand stretched in all directions now, shimmering in the heat. Rocks lay about in a messy way. The only growing things were occasional dismal gray bushes. The mountains looked like clouds coming up on the horizon.
“If this is the Waste,” Sophie said, with sweat running in all her wrinkles, “then I feel sorry for the Witch having to live here.”
She took another stride. The wind of it did not cool her down at all. The rocks and bushes were the same, but the sand was grayer, and the mountains seemed to have sunk down the sky. Sophie peered into the quivering gray glare ahead, where she thought she could see something rather higher than rock. She took one more stride.
Now it was like an oven. But there was a peculiar-shaped pile about a quarter of a mile off, standing on a slight rise in the rock-littered land. It was a fantastical shape of twisted little towers, rising to one main tower that pointed slightly askew, like a knotty old finger. Sophie climbed out of the boots. It was too hot to carry anything so heavy, so she trudged off to investigate with only her stick.
The thing seemed to be made of the yellow-gray grit of the Waste. At first Sophie wondered if it might be some strange kind of ants’ nest. But as she got nearer, she could see that it was as if something had fused together thousands of grainy yellow flowerpots into a tapering heap. She grinned. The moving castle had often struck her as being remarkably like the inside of a chimney. This building was really a collection of chimney pots. It had to be a fire demon’s work.
As Sophie panted up the rise, there was suddenly no doubt that this was the Witch’s fortress. Two small orange figures came out of a dark space at the bottom and stood waiting for her. She recognized the Witch’s two page boys. Hot and breathless as she was, she tried to speak to them politely, to show she had no quarrel with them. “Good afternoon,” she said.
They just gave her sulky looks. One bowed and held out his hand, pointing toward the misshapen dark archway between the bent columns of chimney pots. Sophie shrugged and followed him inside. The other page walked after her. And of course the entrance vanished as soon as she was through. Sophie shrugged again. She would have to deal with that problem when she came back.
She rearranged her lace shawl, straightened her draggled skirts, and walked forward. It was a little like going through the castle door with the knob black-down. There was a moment of nothingness, followed by murky light. The light came from greenish yellow flames that burned and flickered all round, but in a shadowy way which gave no heat and very little light either. When Sophie looked at them, the flames were never where she was looking, but always to the side. But that was the way of magic. Sophie shrugged again and followed the page this way and that among skinny pillars of the same chimney-pot kind as the rest of the building.
At length the pages led her to a sort of central den. Or maybe it was just a space between pillars. Sophie was confused by then. The fortress seemed enormous, though she suspected that it was deceptive, just as the castle was. The Witch was standing there waiting. Again, it was hard to tell how Sophie knew—except that it could be no one else. The Witch was hugely tall and skinny now and her hair was fair, in a ropelike pigtail over one bony shoulder. She wore a white dress. When Sophie walked straight up to her, brandishing her stick, the Witch backed away.
“I am not to be threatened!” the Witch said, sounding tired and frail.
“Then give me Miss Angorian and you won’t be,” said Sophie. “I’ll take her and go away.”
The Witch backed away further, gesturing with both hands. And the page boys both melted into sticky orange blobs which rose into the air and flew toward Sophie. “Yucky! Get off!” Sophie cried, beating at them with her stick. The orange blobs did not seem to care for her stick. They dodged it, and wove about, and then darted behind Sophie. She was just thinking she had got the better of them when she found herself glued to a chimney-pot pillar by them. Orange sticky stuff stranded between her ankles when she tried to move and plucked at her hair quite painfully.