It was Sophie’s day of the week for teaching. Morgan had finished his breakfast and Sophie was doing the washing up in the sink. Howl was off on official business today. She’d woken up to a Howl-sized space in the bed when Morgan had come running in, loudly excited for no other reason than that it was another day and he was awake.
There was a polite knock at the castle door. Sophie swung around enquiringly to the hearth.
Calcifer surged up a little, blazing half-heartedly into the room. “Market Chipping door,” he called.
Sophie spun the four-sided door knob yellow-down. Calcifer sank back down low among the logs. She opened the door to a quiet mid-morning street in Market Chipping. There was a small ginger-haired boy with freckles standing on her doorstoop, looking up at her urgently.
“Please Mrs. Pendragon,” said the boy, “I’m Toby.”
“Yes, Toby,” said Sohpie, smiling and a bit mystified. He was a pleasant-looking if rather skinny boy with a carefully darned patch on the collar of his jacket.
The boy took a deep breath and scowled a little, concentrating hard. Clearly trying to get it just right, he said very fast, “Mrs. Fisher says Mr. Fisher is away today and can you take my lesson for him thank you ever so much.”
Sophie felt illuminated. Michael and she had a standing arrangement to cover lessons for each other if one of them couldn’t teach for some reason.
“Of course it’s fine Toby. Please come in!”
Sophie smiled at Toby warmly while showing him inside. He looked relieved. Sophie and Michael usually tried to warn each other if they knew they’d be sending over students, but she’d had no warning this time. Where was Michael off to today?
Sophie had barely seated Toby at the workbench with one of her raisin cookies and a glass of milk, Morgan playing with his wooden blocks in the hearth, when there was a second knock at the door.
“Mansion door,” flickered Calcifer without any enthusiasm. Sophie looked at him with concern. Instead of a steady, energetic crackling, his blue-green flames were giving off a sad hissing like a forlorn tea kettle. He’d been like this for the last while now. He’d fallen madly in love with a flighty will ‘o the wisp who had been a wild and exciting companion for a short time, before she ran off with an air elemental instead. Calcifer was heart-broken. Sophie was doing her best to cheer him up.
Sophie spun the doorknob orange-down and opened it to the long, winding mansion drive and a sunny day in the Folding Valley. Her students were waiting outside. Shane and Shelley were brother and sister, the children of industrious weavers. She welcomed them in and introduced them to Toby, who looked a little overwhelmed. Shane and Shelley were very comfortable, dropping their satchels by the workbench and heading immediately for the hearth.
“Hello, Master Calcifer!” they chorused.
The curly green flames on the top of Calcifer’s head started to perk up, dancing and waving a little.
“You two again,” he said in a grumpy sort of way. His orange eyes glinted wickedly.
Shelley started to giggle. Shane fished in his pocket and brought out a lump of uncombed, undyed wool. It was very knotted and frazzled. “Look!” he said. “I brought you this to eat.”
“It’s his carding,” said Shelley. “He did it wrong again. I had to fix the whole basket for him.”
“Did NOT,” said Shane, shoving the lump of wool more deeply into his fist and looking stubborn.
“Did TOO,” said Shelley, with loud patience.
“DID NOT,” said Shane, red-faced. He scuffed at the floor with his shoe. He tossed the carding at Calcifer, who promptly ate it with loud snappings and gobblings.
“Quite tasty,” Calcifer said. “Nice texture. Thank you.”
Shane’s face wore a small smile. Shelley looked fascinated. “What else do you like to eat?” she asked.
“Oh, many things,” said Calcifer, running a thoughtful orange tongue over his purple teeth.
“Do you like to eat starched collars?” said Shane cunningly. “The really uncomfortable kind?”
Sophie cut in. “You have to ask your Mom or Dad first if it’s all right before you can bring anything for Calcifer to eat,” she said. “Now come over here you two, and get set up.” She finished tying a white smock around Toby’s neck for him and went to answer the knock at the castle door that she’d been listening for.
She spun the doorknob yellow-down and, sure enough, Libby was standing in the street in Market Chipping, her bushy fair curls already escaping from two plaits above her ears and a smear of flour along her cheek, no doubt from helping her Mum in the Bakery. “Hallo, Mrs. Pendragon,” she said cheerfully.
“Hallo, Libby. Do come in. We’ve got a new student with us today.”
Libby clomped happily inside with the oversized boots she loved and enthusiastic swinging elbows. She greeted Shelley with a cry of delight, and the two immediately had their heads together, whispering. They were great friends. Shane rolled his eyes and went back to showing Toby his latest project, a peashooter of some sort. Before they had the chance to try it out, Sophie introduced Libby and Toby to one another and started the lesson.
“Here now,” she said, pulling two copies of a simple mending spell out of the workbench drawer. “See what you make of this one. Work on it together while I find us something to mend.”
Libby took one copy. She and Shelley immediately set to reading and discussing it in excited whispers. Sophie handed Toby the other copy, which he shared readily with Shane.
Sophie placed her least favourite mixing bowl in the sink and grabbed Howl’s hammer from where she’d stowed it on the shelf. Carefully, she raised the hammer and brought it down as hard as she could on the pottery. A large crack appeared. Toby yelped. Oh dear! Michael’s lessons must be much more civilized, she thought.
Sophie quickly hammered the bowl again and again, until it was in four or five large pieces, and a dozen smaller ones. She put the hammer back on the shelf, gathered up all the pieces of bowl into her apron, and dumped them out onto the workbench.
Her students looked rather impressed.
“A simple mending spell,” Sophie said, “to repair a rip, tear, crack or chip. What comes first?”
“Mix the ingredients in a bowl,” said Libby. “Then sprinkle them over the pieces and say the words.”
“That’s right,” said Sophie. “Take the ingredients you need from the workbench.”
Sophie quite liked teaching. After the initial terror of not knowing the proper way to teach children to do magic, and getting confusing advice from Howl and even more confusing advice from Ben, she’d jumped in and muddled along her own way. She collected simple spells from Lettie, Michael, Howl and Ben, and went through them in what seemed like a natural progression with her students. It was working out well.
Sophie started pulling down jars, crockery and bits of odds and ends from the shelves and setting them out on the workbench. She turned to Morgan, who was watching the older children from the hearth with outright fascination. “Do you want to try the lesson too?”
Morgan nodded right away and stood up, wooden blocks tumbling from his lap to the floor. He walked over to Sophie on sturdy legs, babbling “Mum, Mum, lesson, LESSON!” Sohpie caught him up into a quick hug and a cuddle, and then had to pull the packet of snakewort from his hand. “No Morgan. Leave that alone.” She sat him down on his special stool at the end of the workbench that had a cushion, a back and sides. She took the stool next to his and surveyed the table.
Shelley and Libby were carefully measuring things out one at a time and stirring them with a big wooden spoon. Shane was using the mortar and pestle to mash the ingredients together with some relish, as Toby searched hesitantly through the things on the workbench.
“Don’t forget the binding agent,” Sophie told them.
“Oh!” Shelley said. Shelley and Libby ending up choosing a jar of treacle. After Shane and Toby had conferred for a while in serious whispers, Toby took an empty jar outside, and came back with it full of mud. “Good thinking,” said Sophie.
Sophie helped Morgan to mix up a small bowl of his own, and added one large cobweb gathered from the ceiling beams with her broom. Morgan pounded the ingredients with the back of his spoon with enthusiasm.
There proceeded to be a very messy time, where everyone painted the sticky stuff in their bowls along the cracked edges of the pieces of mixing bowl, with butter knives or with their fingers. Then they held two adjacent fragments together with goopy hands and said the spell. Sophie helped Morgan with his words, sounding them out in short bits that he could repeat.
There was a smoky bang followed strongly by the smell of treacle.
“Sophie, our piece crumbled away,” said Libby. Shelley’s face was scrunched up in dismay.
“That looks dreadful,” Calcifer said. “What on earth did the bowl do to deserve such a terrible fate?”
Shelley and Libby started to giggle. They loved it when Calcifer insulted them.
Sophie and Calcifer shared a quick glance full of amusement. Sophie was very happy to realize that Calcifer had stopped sounding forlorn. She went to sort out Shelley and Libby, leaving Morgan repeating the last three words of the spell again and again.
Sophie pointed out to Shelley and Libby where they’d let some dried scorching powder on the table get caught up in their spell. Calcifer began to take them through it again while Sophie paused to admire the single, neat join that Shane and Toby had made on what was now nearly half a mixing bowl. She had them try again on the many little fragments left while she looked at Morgan’s spell.
Morgan had half a dozen small fragments and one large one stuck together in a haphazard heap. They were held together with such strength that it was impossible to pry them apart. “Mum,” said Morgan plaintively.
Sophie looked at it thoughtfully for a bit. “Really,” she remarked to the heap. “You’re completely out of order. Just let go again and we’ll sort you out. Come on now.”
When nothing happened, Sophie said very firmly, “Let. Go.” It fell apart all at once. The goopy stuff had turned into a thin greyish broth and run all over the table. This had turned into one of her messier lessons, Sophie decided. Next time they would do a less gooey spell.
By the end of the hour, they had all got the hang of it and Toby seemed on the way to becoming as comfortable at the lesson as the other three. Shane especially seemed to like mending things. He did more than his fair share of the small fragments. Sophie had them clean their hands thoroughly in the sink and then saw them off. Libby and Toby left first, walking into Market Chipping together, Libby chatting in a friendly way and Toby listening.
Shelley and Shane left next. On her way out, Shelley handed Sophie a basket that she’d been keeping underneath the workbench. When Sophie pulled back the cloth covering, she saw bunches and skeins of dyed thread in all the colours of the rainbow.
Sophie was delighted. “Tell your Mother and Father Thank you very much!” she said to Shane and Shelley. “This is exactly what I needed! There’s no need for them to pay for next week’s lesson --This is payment enough.”
With a “Goodbye, Mrs. Pendragon, Goodbye Master Calcifer!” Shane and Shelley headed off down the Mansion drive.
Sophie spent quite a while after the students were gone scrubbing away the four different kinds of goop off the workbench and the mixing bowls and putting everything away.
“Well,” she turned to Morgan. “All done. Would you like to help me in the garden?”
They went out one of the four low doors around the castle room into the yard. Calcifer followed them out, hovering over their heads, whirling off and coming back again. Sophie had her garden along the back wall, while the rest was taken up with Howl’s projects.
Morgan loved helping. Sophie used the large watering can while Morgan carried his small one. Sophie pulled the odd weed that had crept in and picked ripe red tomatoes, tall leeks, and handfuls of leafy parsley.
Morgan was checking on his very own green beans, which they’d planted together early this summer. “GROW,” he bawled at it. The delicate young shoots promptly wilted sideways as though hit by a gale. Oh dear!
Sophie went over to Morgan. “Morgan,” she said, turning him to face her, “Plants are very sensitive. You need to speak to them in a kind and gentle voice for them to grow healthy and strong. If you yell at them or say hard things to them, they get sick.”
Morgan thought very hard about this. He touched the plant with one finger. “Sorry,” he said, sounding very contrite.
“Why don’t you say some kind things to the plant,” said Sophie, giving Morgan a kiss on his forehead.
Morgan said experimentally, “Good plant.”
All of a sudden, Calcifer gave a great cry of dismay. He hovered over the sundial in the middle of the yard, flames so dark they were nearly black whipping this way and that. Sophie leapt to her feet.
“Calcifer!” she cried.
“This was the sundial She liked to rest on when we spent quiet evenings together,” Calcifer said in misery.
Sophie’s heart went out to him. She stroked a reassuring hand along Morgan’s back. He was watching Calcifer with alarm. “Look after your plant,” she suggested gently.
Sophie went to Calcifer. “I loved her so much. Why did she leave me?” he said plaintively. The air around him was hazy with smoke.
Sometimes Sophie really wished that you could give a fire demon a hug.
“Oh, Calcifer,” she said. “You’ll find someone who loves you back just as much as you love them. I know it! In the mean time,” Sophie added quietly, “I love you very much.”
Calcifer bobbed up and down a tiny bit. He was slowly becoming blue again.
“Me too,” Calcifer crackled, very softly.
Sophie waited by the sundial, just standing quietly. Calcifer bobbed out of view, and then Sophie heard soft fizzing just behind her head. Calcifer was hovering there, not close enough to burn her, just so that Sophie felt a gentle warmth on her cheek.
They stayed like that a moment, while Morgan said in his most gentle voice, “GOOD plant. GOOD plant,” over and over again. Sophie could see the thin green stalks slowly righting themselves and stretching up again towards the sun.
“He’ll be wanting lunch,” Calcifer flickered at her, sounding somewhat more like his usual self.
“So he will,” Sophie smiled. She went to Morgan, gathering up Morgan’s hand and her basket of fresh vegetables. They headed back inside the castle, Calcifer bobbing gently ahead of them.
Morgan and Sophie had bread and cheese from the food closet for lunch with fresh sliced tomatoes from the garden. Calcifer found the parsley very bland but enjoyed the leeks, and ate them with satisfied hissings and spittings. The room began to smell a bit like soup. It was quite nice, Sophie thought.
Sophie cleared away lunch and set out her sewing basket and the basket of coloured thread from the weavers by the hearth. Then she went to the broom cupboard and looked inside.
She saw two velvet cloaks hanging inside, her broom and bucket, and a pair of rather old and battered seven league boots. There was nothing else in the small space.
“Oh, well done!” exclaimed Sophie, really pleased. She reached into the cupboard and felt around until finally, in the shadowy back corner, her hand touched wool. She tugged until she pulled out a shadow-coloured wool cloak. It had been invisible to the eye.
Sophie sat down in the chair by the hearth with the cloak draped over her lap. Morgan came over to sit by her, pulling scraps out of her sewing basket and tossing them around the hearth as a game.
Sophie dug around in her sewing basket until she came up with scissors and a needle. Then she started to rummage through the basket of coloured thread. By the time she came up with a bright shade of blue, like the sky over the Folding Valley, the cloak on her lap had become a practical colour of brown with a band of forest green along the bottom.
It looked, in fact, exactly like the brown apron on Sophie’s lap with the skirt of her green dress hanging down beneath.
“You’re really getting the hang of this!” Sophie told the cloak in her lap, running a hand over its surface. “If we keep at it, there won’t be anything you can’t copy soon!”
The cloak in Sophie’s lap was, of course, a Cloak of Invisibility.
There were many Cloaks of Invisibility in Ingary which worked perfectly well. They hid the wearer from most observers as they were meant to. But they were useless for hiding from any witch, wizard or magical creature. It wasn’t that you saw the person or the cloak, as Sophie knew from experience. It was that you saw nothing at all. Suddenly discovering a patch of nothingness in the air was extremely disconcerting--it was so clearly not meant to be there. When Sophie spotted someone wearing a Cloak of Invisibility, she found it impossible to look away. She felt compelled to keep track of the nothingness.
A Cloak of Invisibility that was undetectable by magical beings would be extremely useful. But Sophie had thought nothing of it for a long time.
One day the idea came to her. She’d been noticing in her garden how clever some of the moths were at hiding from the birds that wanted to eat them. They could look exactly like bark, or twigs, or dry dead leaves, or moulding and rotting leaves. You would never guess that they were there unless your face was right in front of one--and perhaps not even then. Sophie was stuck by the idea of a cloak that could do the same--mimic its surroundings so closely that it would be invisible to the person staring at it.
Sophie was teaching the cloak how to copy its surroundings by giving it different colours and fabric types, as many as she could think of.
“You can stop now,” she told the cloak. “Be yourself.” After a minute or so, the cloak took on its actual form. It was a plain brown wool cloak that was networked and crisscrossed with a multitude of threads and fabrics of many different colours and patterns and materials. It was certainly not a beautiful garment. But it was a remarkable one.
Sophie got to work. She braided blue threads of seven different shades into a long strand and tied it off. Then she took pale brown thread and sewed the long braid to the skirt of the coat. “It’s like The Valley during Harvest,” she told the cloak as she worked. “The fields of wheat with the sky overhead. All the skies--morning, midday, afternoon and evening. Of course dawn has pinks and oranges, and twilight has reds and golds and violets, while night has indigos and blacks and greys.”
Sophie was telling the cloak about stars, and Morgan as leaning against her knees, listening, when there was a loud knocking.
“Market Chipping door,” blazed Calcifer.
Sophie left the cloak and got the door.
It was a thin man of middle years carrying a fiddle. He wanted a spell to stop his strings going out of tune.
Sophie took the fiddle over to the shelves beyond the workbench. The man was watching from the door. Sophie picked a harmless powder at random from the shelf. She sprinkled a pinch over the fiddle. Then she smartly tapped each of the four tuning pegs in turn.
“You’re to stay in tune, you hear me?” she said. “None of this loosening up and sliding about. Stay in tune.”
Sophie charged the man four coppers and he went away happily.
Sophie got back to work on the cloak. She sewed on a white scrap of cloth with dusting of pink freckles, using a thin grey thread. She was telling Morgan and the cloak about sparrow eggs and cobwebs and spring when there was another knock at the door.
Sophie sold the farmwife from the Folding Valley a spell to keep mice out of her pantry. She told the cloak and Morgan about sunlight playing over a stream, while sewing on a silky white scrap with a sheen to the cloth.
The knocking at the door was persistent.
“This one wants in quite badly,” said Calcifer.
Sophie had to go get rid of a peddler who wanted to sell her what he swore were magic beans, when the beans were quite small and plain and not in the least magical.
It was quite difficult. Every time Sophie said no, the peddler thought of another reason why she should, or wanted to know what her reasons were for saying no, so that he could explain why her reasons were wrong. It was maddening. There seemed to be no polite way to get him to leave. Sophie saw no point in telling him the truth, which was that she had no interest at all in his perfectly ordinary beans. Morgan had grown far nicer ones in their yard. Sophie finally lost her patience said, “Out.”
The man immediately opened his mouth to tell her why he shouldn’t leave.
“No, Out!” Sophie said crossly. “OUT.” She was quite fierce about it. The man was surprsied enough that he actually did step back through the door. Sophie quickly closed the door on him. She was thoroughly annoyed. She was tempted to throw a hex after him, but that would have been unkind. He had to make a living too, she supposed.
Sophie had spent so much time getting rid of the peddler that she had to put the cloak away in the broom cupboard for the day. It was time to get Morgan to take his afternoon nap.
Martha showed up for a visit soon after Sophie put Morgan down for the nap, protesting the whole time that he didn’t need a nap. He was asleep within seconds of being tucked under his quilt.
“Market Chipping door, Sophie,” called Calcifer, but quietly.
Martha flung her arms around Sophie with a glad cry. Behind them, the brewer’s green wagon rolled down the street, pulled by two plodding carthorses.
Martha looked beautiful, glowing with happiness. Marriage agreed with her. She and Michael had finally gotten married on May Day. Cesari’s had baked them the most magnificent cake, seven tiers tall, each one a different flavour.
“Sophie,” said Martha. “Lettie should be coming by any minute. We arranged it.”
As if answering Martha, there was another knock at the door. Sophie spun the doorknob purple-down.
“This one’s a bit odd,” warned Calcifer. He sounded puzzled.
Sophie opened the door. The castle was moving slowly over the wide plains and around the rocky hills that lay well outside Kingsbury. Sophie poked her head out and looked around, but there was nobody there. There was no sign of Lettie and Ben’s polite bay gelding and blue cart. Sophie turned to Martha.
Martha looked baffled. “She said she’d be here.”
Calcifer was tilted a little to one side, his blue face stretched up high, listening intently. “There’s definitely something--someone--out there,” he said.
Sophie scanned the long grass, the hills, the horizon. Something just on the edge of her vision caught her attention. “Look up!” she told Martha. Martha’s head jerked up so that she could peer at the clear blue sky like Sophie, where a black dot was swooping closer in a wide circle, growing larger as it came on, becoming the oddest shape. It was a kind of black bird with a very long, straight wingspan, and a lumpy, awkward body with two things dangling underneath. It was approaching at a very fast rate.
“Calcifer?” Sophie said uncertainly.
“It’s flesh and blood,” said Calcifer. “It doesn’t feel like it means any harm. Quite the opposite.”
Martha gripped Sophie’s arm tightly. The wind brought a faint high-pitched sound to their ears, which quickly became the sound of screaming. The black bird, now very large and close indeed, turned out to be Lettie. She was crouching over and hanging on to something very long and narrow as she swooped towards them unsupported through the sky, her black sleeves and skirt billowing around her and her stockinged legs and boots hanging down. Just when it looked as though she must crash into the castle, she sat up, leaned way back, and slowed into a hasty and graceless landing that ended with her on her feet in a cloud of dust, whooping with excitement and brandishing the long thing in triumph.
Sophie and Martha exchanged speaking looks and remembered how to breathe again. They ran out to hug her and give her heck.
Lettie flung her arms around them both, holding the long object, which was an ordinary broom with silver and gold symbols painted along the wood, so as not to bang them with the handle. “Did you see!” she exclaimed, quite undented by their scolding. “It works!” Lettie was flushed and ecstatic, beaming from ear to ear. Her glossy brown curls and black dress were in wild disarray from the wind. She looked very beautiful. It was hard to be mad at her.
“That was marvellous,” Sophie said, meaning it. “Thanks!”said Lettie with great pride. “It worked!” Martha looked like she wanted to yell at Lettie some more, but with an effort she held her tongue.
They trooped into the castle and settled themselves around the workbench for a joyous chat and some tea, hugely glad to see one another.
Lettie was still elated about the successful test flight of her broom. “I’ve been working on it for weeks!” she said.
“Ben must be impressed,” said Sophie.
“I offered to make him one as well, but he declined,” said Lettie with a good bit of amusement.
Oh poor Ben! thought Sophie. Sophie was not fond of flying or great heights either.
Martha was full of excitement about her upcoming trip to MontAlbino with Michael. It was to be their honeymoon voyage. They’d moved right in to their house in Market Chipping after the wedding, putting off the honeymoon trip for a few months so that they could plan a big one together.
“Do you know,” Martha said to Sophie, “I’ve never been outside of Ingary before. We can’t all live in a moving castle!” she laughed. Lettie grinned and Sophie couldn’t help smiling a little.
“But here’s the best part,” Martha said, large grey eyes sparkling. “We’re going to travel entirely by foot, and take only what we can carry with us in rucksacks. We’ll see everything there is to see between here and there, and meet loads of people, and have all sorts of stories to tell. It will be marvellous!”
Sophie was very pleased for Martha. She and Michael would no doubt have many wonderful adventures.
“If I get my husband back, that is,” said Martha playfully. “Yours has stolen him again.”
“I know!” said Sophie. “I figured, when Toby showed up for his lesson today.”
“I’m glad that Howl and Michael have got this one,” Lettie said. “Ben’s in the middle of writing his book, and not even the King of Ingary can pull him away from it!” Lettie looked confident that she could do better than the King. “I left Rosemary with him today,” she said. “Rosie’s good at getting his attention. She takes after me!” Lettie grinned.
Sophie and Martha exchanged a look full of amusement at Lettie being Lettie.
Sophie remembered what she’d meant to ask her sisters. “Morgan’s turning three next weekend and we’re having a birthday party for him. A picnic in the Folding Valley. You and Ben and Rosemary are invited,” she told Lettie, “and Fanny and Annabel Fairfax and,” she turned to Martha, “you and Michael, if you’re still here.”
“That sounds lovely,” said Martha. “We won’t be off and away before then. Count us in!”
“Us too,” smiled Lettie. “Rosie will be very excited. She’ll be three soon too!”
“Marvellous!” said Sophie. She was looking forward to it. Morgan was big enough that this would be a birthday that he’d remember. She wanted to make it a good day. He’d be excited to have his cousin Rosemary there and his Grandma. Hopefully it would be a sunny day. Calcifer would do some small fireworks that would delight Morgan and alarm the farm animals in The Valley. Howl would make meatballs in a tangy sauce, and warm peach halves, and cold deviled eggs. He was a very good cook, throwing together food in a very fast and slapdash kind of way, and yet it nearly always turned out delicious. Sophie would make strawberry lemonade and a yellow lemon cake with a sweet white glaze that melted like snow on the tongue.
Sophie said goodbye to her sisters after the tea was gone, happy in the knowledge that she’d be spending more time with them soon.
Later that evening, Howl still wasn’t home. Sophie and Morgan had cleared away dinner and it was nearly time for Morgan to go to bed. Sophie sat in front of the the hearth, chatting with Calcifer. Morgan lay on his belly on a woven rug next to her, playing with his animal figures by the cheerful glow of Calcifer’s flames. He stretched out an arm along the floor, curved like a cat’s paw to draw a wooden dragon to him. Morgan swooped the dragon back and forth in the air and yawned hugely, lazy pink tongue hovering over white teeth.
The castle door opened of it’s own accord, knob purple-down, and Howl walked in wearing a big wool cloak, stamping his boots. “Home at last!” he said.
“DAD, DAD, DAD,” screamed Morgan, pelting over in a flash.
“Morgan!” yelled Howl, scooping him up in a bear hug. He swooped Morgan around in big circles. Morgan squealed in delight. “Been a good boy, then?”
Morgan started to tell Howl about his day, gabbling loudly, Howl nodding away.
“You talked to the garden with your Mum today? Growing us some lovely vegetables are you! And you learned a mending spell with Mum’s students! You’re going to be the finest wizard in Ingary! Let me say hello to the others now,” Howl said, putting Morgan down. “Hello Calcifer,” he called.
Howl crossed the room. He pulled Sophie to her feet and wrapped his arms around her, smelling of the cold night, and still handsome enough to make her knees uncertain. “Hello, Old Lady.”
Sophie’s knees firmed up again. She aimed a swat at his grinning head, but missed because she was shaking with laughter.
Howl’s profile looked very wounded and noble in the firelight. “I work hard all day, traveling hither and yon on business for the King, and this is the welcome I get!”
Sophie was not fooled for one second by the act. “Did you go drinking with Michael?”
“I’ll have you know, Mrs. Pendragon, that we were far too busy investigating a matter of great importance for the realm to drink.”
“Did you find them then?” Calcifer was a curious blue slant, leaning out over the grate to peer at them better.
“Nearly,” said Howl. “Though it’s been a devil of a time tracking them down. While Michael searched for clues among the fishing villages up on The Strand, I went and talked to the whales. Annoying creatures! They think they know everything.” Howl made a long-suffering face. “I was only allowed to ask one question, because I was ‘so young,’ but they say that the Selkies know something about it.”
“Selkies!” exclaimed Sophie. “What could they possibly want with the missing ships in the Royal Navy?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Howl, “but I’d better find out! How’s your Selkie, Sophie? Want to help me talk sense into some Selkie privateers? I can promise you a pleasant ocean voyage at least.”
“That depends,” said Sophie. She was sorely tempted. She’d never spent any time along the coast of Ingary or at sea. Neither had she met a Selkie. “Are we going in disguise or as ourselves?”
“Sophie!” said Howl in his most persuasive way “A good disguise is an important precaution when on a job. I’m sure you can appreciate the advantages.” He picked up a lock of her red-blond hair and wound it around and around his finger, gazing meltingly at her.
Sophie refused to be melted. Well, mostly refused. She met his earnest look with a pointed one of her own. “Twinkle,” she growled. She didn’t have to work very hard to muster up a decent glare.
Howl cowered a little. “Calcifer?” he pleaded.
“Forget it!” spat Calcifer. “I’m not going to sea. There’s all that water!” He sent a shower of emphatic green sparks up the chimney.
“I’m quite sure we water-proofed the castle adequately after getting it back from the djinn. Who knew clouds were so damp? It should float, don’t you agree?” said Howl airily.
“Not a chance, Howl,” Calcifer snarled, bristling bright blue flames all over.
“Fine, fine, we’ll take a fishing boat.” Howl threw up his hands. Sophie knew he hadn’t really expected Calcifer to agree.
“Well then, it’s settled,” said Sophie. “Tomorrow, Calcifer will do as he pleases while Howl, Morgan and I go on a fishing boat as ourselves to meet the Selkies.”
“Lovely,” said Howl. “I’m sure the King’s sailors will be deeply relieved when we find them.”
“Dad, what’s a Selkie?” said Morgan.
“A Selkie, Morgan,” said Howl, “is a creature that spends part of the time as a seal and part of the time as a human. Some of them live along the northern coast of Ingary. They’re very gentle beings who like fishing and song circles. And apparently also pinching people’s ships! I’d love to know who--or what--could make them want to do that.” he said quietly to Sophie.
It was a worrying thought. She looked over at Calcifer, who slanted a green eyebrow back in what, in a human, would have been a shrug. “I don’t pay much attention to what happens in the water,” he said. “But I’ll keep an eye and an ear out for you tomorrow,” he said.
“Thanks, Calcifer,” said Howl. “I’ll feel better once I know what we’re up against.”
“But off to bed with you!” Howl told Morgan, sweeping him up. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow. You need to rest up your sea legs.”
“Goodnight, Calcifer,” called Sophie.
“Goodnight,” Calcifer replied.
They headed upstairs, Howl holding Sophie's hand, and Morgan kicking his legs in a testing sort of way, while Calcifer settled down among the coals for the night, thoughtfully dimming the castle lights.