One of the courtiers hastened up to her and bowed. “Madam Sorceress! Can I be of assistance?”
He was an undersized young man, rather red-eyed. Sophie stared at him. “Oh, good gracious!” she said. “So the spell worked!”
“It did indeed,” said the small courtier a little ruefully. “I disarmed him while he was sneezing and he is now suing me. But the important thing”—his face spread into a happy smile—“is that my dear Jane has come back to me! Now, what can I do for you? I feel responsible for your happiness.”
“I’m not sure that it mightn’t be the other way round,” Sophie said. “Are you by any chance the Count of Catterack?”
“At your service,” said the small courtier, bowing.
Jane Farrier must be a good foot taller than he is! Sophie thought. It is all definitely my fault. “Yes, you can help me,” she said, and explained about Michael.
The Count of Catterack assured her that Michael would be fetched and brought down to the entrance hall to meet her. It was no trouble at all. He took Sophie to a gloved attendant himself and handed her over with much bowing and smiling. Sophie was handed to another attendant, then another, just as before, and eventually hobbled her way down to the stairs guarded by the soldiers.
Michael was not there. Nor was Howl, but that was small relief to Sophie. She thought she might have guessed it would be like this! The Count of Catterack was obviously a person who never got a thing right, and she was another herself. It was probably lucky she had even found the way out. By now she was so tired and hot and dejected that she decided not to wait for Michael. She wanted to sit down in the fireside chair and tell Calcifer the mess she had made of things.
She hobbled down the grand staircase. She hobbled down a grand avenue. She stumped along another, where spires and towers and gilded roofs circled around in giddy profusion. And she realized it was worse than she had thought. She was lost. She had absolutely no idea how to find the disguised stable where the castle entrance was. She turned up another handsome thoroughfare at random, but she did not recognize that either. By now she did not even know the way back to the Palace. She tried asking people she met. Most of them seemed as hot and tired as she was. “Wizard Pendragon?” they said. “Who is he?”
Sophie hobbled on hopelessly. She was near giving up and sitting on the next doorstep for the night, when she passed the end of the narrow street where Mrs. Pentstemmon’s house was. Ah! she thought. I can go and ask the footman. He and Howl were so friendly that he must know where Howl lives. So she turned down the street.
The Witch of the Waste was coming up it toward her.
How Sophie recognized the Witch would be hard to say. Her face was different. Her hair, instead of being orderly chestnut curls, was a rippling mass of red, hanging almost to her waist, and she was dressed in floating flutters of auburn and pale yellow. Very cool and lovely she looked. Sophie knew her at once. She almost stopped, but not quite.
There’s no reason she should remember me, Sophie thought. I must be just one of hundreds of people she’s enchanted. And Sophie stumped boldly on, thumping her stick on the cobbles and reminding herself, in case of trouble, that Mrs. Pentstemmon had said that same stick had become a powerful object.
That was another mistake. The Witch came floating up the little street, smiling, twirling her parasol, followed by two sulky-looking page boys in orange velvet. When she came level with Sophie, she stopped, and tawny perfume filled Sophie’s nose. “Why, it’s Miss Hatter!” the Witch said, laughing. “I never forget a face, particularly if I’ve made it myself! What are you doing here, dressed up all so fine? If you’re thinking of calling on that Mrs. Pentstemmon, you can save yourself the trouble. The old biddy’s dead.”
“Dead?” said Sophie. She had a silly impulse to add. But she was alive an hour ago! And she stopped herself, because death is like that: people are alive until they die.
“Yes. Dead,” said the Witch. “She refused to tell me where someone was that I want to find. She said, ‘Over my dead body!’ so I took her at her word.”
She’s looking for Howl! Sophie thought. Now what do I do? If she had not been so very hot and tired, Sophie would have been almost too scared to think. For a witch who could kill Mrs. Pentstemmon would have no trouble with Sophie, stick or no stick. And if she suspected for a moment that Sophie knew where Howl was, that could be the end of Sophie. Perhaps it was just as well Sophie could not remember where the castle entrance was.
“I don’t know who this person is that you’ve killed,” she said, “but that makes you a wicked murderess.”
But the Witch did seem to suspect anyway. She said, “But I thought you said you were going to call on Mrs. Pentstemmon?”
“No,” said Sophie. “It was you said that. I don’t have to know her to call you wicked for killing her.”
“Then where were you going?” said the Witch.
Sophie was tempted to tell the Witch to mind her own business. But that was asking for trouble. So she said the only other thing she could think of. “I’m going to see the King,” she said.
The Witch laughed disbelievingly. “But will the King see you?”
“Yes, of course,” Sophie declared, trembling with terror and anger. “I made an appointment. I’m—going to petition him for better conditions for hatters. I keep going, you see, even after what you did to me.”
“Then you’re going in the wrong direction,” said the Witch. “The Palace is behind you.”
“Oh? Is it?” said Sophie. She did not have to pretend to be surprised. “Then I must have got turned around. I’ve been a little vague about directions ever since you made me like this.”
The Witch laughed heartily and did not believe a word of it. “Then come with me,” she said, “and I’ll show you the way to the Palace.”
There seemed nothing Sophie could do but turn round and stump beside the Witch, with the two page boys trudging sullenly behind them both. Anger and hopelessness settled over Sophie. She looked at the Witch floating gracefully beside her and remembered Mrs. Pentstemmon had said the Witch was an old woman really. It’s not fair! Sophie thought, but there was nothing she could do about it.
“Why did you make me like this?” she demanded as they went up a grand thoroughfare with a fountain at the top of it.
“You were preventing me getting some information I needed,” the Witch said. “I got it in the end, of course.” Sophie was quite mystified by this. She was wondering whether it would do any good to say there must be some mistake, when the Witch added, “Though I daresay you had no idea you were,” and laughed, as if that was the funniest part of it. “Have you heard of a land called Wales?” she asked.