“I’d almost rather have green slime!” Sophie said. “I hope those weren’t real boys.”
“Only emanations,” said the Witch.
“Let me go,” said Sophie.
“No,” said the Witch. She turned away and seemed to lose interest in Sophie entirely.
Sophie began to fear that, as usual, she had made a mess of things. The sticky stuff seemed to be getting harder and more elastic every second. When she tried to move, it snapped her back against the pottery pillar. “Where’s Miss Angorian?” she said.
“You will not find her,” said the Witch. “We will wait until Howl comes.”
“He’s not coming,” said Sophie. “He’s got more sense. And your curse hasn’t all worked anyway.”
“It will,” said the Witch, smiling slightly. “Now that you have fallen for our deception and come here. Howl will have to be honest for once.” She made another gesture, toward the murky flames this time, and a sort of throne trundled out from between two pillars and stopped in front of the Witch. There was a man sitting in it, wearing a green uniform and long, shiny boots. Sophie thought he was asleep at first, with his head out of sight sideways. But the Witch gestured again. The man sat up straight. And he had no head on his shoulders at all. Sophie realized she was looking at all that was left of Prince Justin.
“If I was Fanny,” Sophie said, “I’d threaten to faint. Put his head back on at once! He looks terrible like that!”
“I disposed of both heads months ago,” said the Witch. “I sold Wizard Suliman’s skull when I sold his guitar. Prince Justin’s head is walking around somewhere with the other leftover parts. This body is a perfect mixture of Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman. It is waiting for Howl’s head, to make it our perfect human. When we have Howl’s head, we shall have the new King of Ingary, and I shall rule as Queen.”
“You’re mad!” Sophie said. “You’ve no right to make jigsaws of people! And I shouldn’t think Howl’s head will do a thing you want. It’ll slither out somehow.”
“Howl will do exactly as we say,” the Witch said with a sly, secretive smile. “We shall control his fire demon.”
Sophie realized she was very scared indeed. She knew she had made a mess of things now. “Where is Miss Angorian?” she said, waving her stick.
The Witch did not like Sophie to wave her stick. She stepped backward. “I am very tired,” she said. “You people keep spoiling my plans. First Wizard Suliman would not come near the Waste, so that I had to threaten Princess Valeria in order to make the King order him out here. Then, when he came, he grew trees. Then the King would not let Prince Justin follow Suliman for months, and when he did follow, the silly fool went up north somewhere for some reason, and I had to use all my arts to get him here. Howl has caused me even more trouble. He got away once. I’ve had to use a curse to bring him in, and while I was finding out enough about him to lay the curse, you got into what was left of Suliman’s brain and caused me more trouble. And now when I bring you here, you wave your stick and argue. I have worked very hard for this moment, and I am not to be argued with.” She turned away and wandered off into the murk.
Sophie stared after the tall white figure moving among the dim flames. I think her age has caught up with her! she thought. She’s crazy! I must ge
t loose and rescue Miss Angorian from her somehow! Remembering that the orange stuff had avoided her stick, just as the Witch had, Sophie reached back over her shoulders with her stick and wagged it back and forth where the sticky stuff met the pottery pillar. “Get out of it!” she said. “Let me go!” Her hair dragged painfully, but stringy orange bits began to fly away sideways. Sophie wagged the stick harder.
She had worked her head and shoulders loose when there came a dull booming sound. The pale flames wavered and the pillar behind Sophie shook. Then, with a crash like a thousand tea sets falling downstairs, a piece of the fortress wall blew out. Light blinded in through a long, jagged hole, and a figure came leaping in through the opening. Sophie turned eagerly, hoping it was Howl. But the black outline had only one leg. It was the scarecrow again.
The Witch gave a yowl of rage and rushed toward it with her fair pigtail flying and her bony arms stretched out. The scarecrow leaped at her. There was another violent bang and the two of them were wrapped in a magic cloud, like the cloud over Porthaven when Howl and the Witch had fought. The cloud battered this way and that, filling the dusty air with shrieks and booms. Sophie’s hair frizzed. The cloud was only yards away, going this way and that among pottery pillars.
And the break in the wall was quite near too. As Sophie had thought, the fortress was really not big. Every time the cloud moved across the blinding white gap, she could see through it, and see the two skinny figures battling in its midst. She stared, and kept wagging her stick behind her back.
She was loose all except her legs when the cloud screamed across in front of the light one more time. Sophie saw another person leap through the gap behind it. This one had flying black sleeves. It was Howl. Sophie could see the outline of him clearly, standing with his arms folded, watching the battle. For a moment it looked as if he was going to let the Witch and the scarecrow get on with it. Then the long sleeves flapped as Howl raised his arms. Above the screaming and booming, Howl’s voice shouted one strange, long word, and a long roll of thunder came with it. The scarecrow and the Witch both jolted. Claps of sound rang round the pottery pillars, echo after echo, and each echo carried some of the cloud of magic away with it. It vanished in wisps and swirled away in murky eddies. When it had become the thinnest white haze, the tall figure with the pigtail began to totter. The Witch seemed to fold in on herself, thinner and whiter than ever. Finally, as the haze faded clean away, she fell in a heap with a small clatter. As the million soft echoes died, Howl and the scarecrow were left thoughtfully facing one another across a pile of bones.
Good! thought Sophie. She slashed her legs free and went across to the headless figure in the throne. It was getting on her nerves.
“No, my friend,” Howl said to the scarecrow. The scarecrow had hopped right among the bones and was pushing them this way and that with its leg. “No, you won’t find her heart here. Her fire demon will have got that. I think it’s had the upper hand of her for a long time now. Sad, really.” As Sophie took off her shawl and arranged it decently across Prince Justin’s headless shoulders, Howl said, “I think the rest of what you were looking for is over here.” He walked toward the throne, with the scarecrow hopping beside him. “Typical!” he said to Sophie. “I break my neck to get here, and I find you peacefully tidying up!”
Sophie looked up at him. As she had feared, the hard black-and-white daylight coming through the broken wall showed her that Howl had not bothered to shave or tidy his hair. His eyes were still red-rimmed and his black sleeves were torn in several places. There was not much to choose between Howl and the scarecrow. Oh, dear! Sophie thought. He must love Miss Angorian very much, “I came for Miss Angorian,” she explained.
“And I thought if I arranged for your family to visit you, it would keep you quiet for once!” Howl said disgustedly. “But no—”
Here the scarecrow hopped in front of Sophie. “I was sent by Wizard Suliman,” it said in its mushy voice. “I was guarding his bushes from the birds in the Waste when the Witch caught him. He cast all of his magic that he could spare on me, and ordered me to come to his rescue. But the Witch had taken him to pieces by then and the pieces were in various places. It has been a hard task. If you had not come and talked me to life again, I would have failed.”
It was answering the questions Sophie had asked it before they both rushed off.
“So when Prince Justin ordered finding spells, they must have kept pointing to you,” she said, “Why was that?”
“To me or to his skull,” said the scarecrow. “Between us, we are the best part of him.”
“And Percival is made of Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin?” Sophie said. She was not sure Lettie was going to like this.
The scarecrow nodded its craggy turnip face. “Both parts told me that the Witch and her fire demon were no longer together and I could defeat the Witch on her own,” it said. “I thank you for giving me ten times my former speed.”