Miss Angorian was astonished. She stared at Howl. “He’s faking,” she said.
“No he’s not!” Calcifer screamed, twisted into a writhing spiral shape. “His heart’s really quite soft! Let go!”
Sophie raised her stick, slowly and gently. This time she thought for an instant before she acted. “Stick,” she muttered. “Beat Miss Angorian, but don’t hurt anyone else.” Then she swung the stick and hit Miss Angorian’s tight knuckles the biggest crack she could.
Miss Angorian let out a squealing hiss like a wet log burning and dropped Calcifer. Poor Calcifer rolled helplessly on the floor, flaming sideways across the flagstones and roaring huskily with terror. Miss Angorian raised a foot to stamp on him. Sophie had to let go of her stick and dive to rescue Calcifer. Her stick, to her surprise, hit Miss Angorian again on its own, and again, and again. But of course it would! Sophie thought. She had talked life into that stick. Mrs. Pentstemmon had told her so.
Miss Angorian hissed and staggered. Sophie stood up holding Calcifer, to find her stick drubbing away at Miss Angorian and smoking with the heat of her. By contrast, Calcifer did not seem very hot. He was milky blue with shock. Sophie could feel that the dark lump of Howl’s heart was only beating very faintly between her fingers. It had to be Howl’s heart she was holding. He had given it away to Calcifer as his part of the contract, to keep Calcifer alive. He must have been sorry for Calcifer, but, all the same, what a silly thing to do!
Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax hurried through the door from the stairs, carrying brooms. The sight of them seemed to convince Miss Angorian that she had failed. She ran for the door, with Sophie’s stick hovering over her, still clouting at her.
“Stop her!” Sophie shouted. “Don’t let her get out! Guard all the doors!”
Everyone raced to obey. Mrs. Fairfax put herself in the broom cupboard with her broom raised. Fanny stood on the stairs. Lettie jumped up and guarded the door to the yard and Martha stood by the bathroom. Michael ran for the castle door. But Percival leaped up off the bed and ran for the door too. His face was white and his eyes were shut, but he ran even faster than Michael. He got there first, and he opened the door.
With Calcifer so helpless, the castle had stopped moving. Miss Angorian saw the bushes standing still in the haze outside and raced for the door with inhuman speed. Before she reached it, it was blocked by the scarecrow, looming up with Prince Justin hung across its shoulders, still draped in Sophie’s lace shawl. It spread its stick arms across the door, barring the way. Miss Angorian backed away from it.
The stick beating at her was on fire now. Its metal end was glowing. Sophie realized it could not last much longer. Luckily, Miss Angorian hated it so much that she seized hold of Michael and dragged him in its way. The stick had been told not to hurt Michael. It hovered, flaming. Martha dashed up and tried to pull Michael away. The stick had to avoid her too. Sophie had got it wrong as usual.
There was no time to waste.
“Calcifer,” Sophie said, “I shall have to break your contract. Will it kill you?”
“It would if anyone else broke it,” Calcifer said hoarsely. “That’s why I asked you to do it. I could tell you could talk life into things. Look what you did for the scarecrow and the skull.”
“Then have another thousand years!” Sophie said, and willed very hard as she said it, in case just talking was not enough. This had been worrying her very much. She took hold of Calcifer and carefully nipped him off the black lump, just as she would nip a dead bud off a stalk. Calcifer whirled loose and hovered by her shoulder as a blue teardrop.
“I feel so light!” he said. Then it dawned on him what had happened. “I’m free!” he shouted. He whirled to the chimney and plunged up it, out of sight. “I’m free!” Sophie heard him shout overhead faintly as he came out through the chimney pot of the hat shop.
Sophie turned to Howl with the almost-dead black lump, feeling doubtful in spite of her hurry. She had to get this right, and she was not sure how you did. “Well, here goes,” she said. Kneeling down beside Howl, she carefully put the black lump on his chest in the leftish sort of place she had felt hers in when it troubled her, and pushed. “Go in,” she told it. “Get in there and work!” And she pushed and pushed. The heart began to sink in, and to beat more strongly as it went. Sophie tried to ignore the flames and scuffles by the door and to keep up a steady, firm pressure. Her hair kept getting in her way. It fell across her face in reddish fair hanks, but she tried to ignore that too. She pushed.
The heart went in. As soon as it had disappeared, Howl stirred about. He gave a loud groan and rolled over onto his face, “Hell’s teeth!” he said. “I’ve got a hangover!”
“No, you hit your head on the floor,” Sophie said.
Howl rose up on his hands and knees with a scramble. “I can’t stay,” he said. “I’ve got to rescue that fool Sophie.”
“I’m here!” Sophie said, shaking his shoulder. “But so is Miss Angorian! Get up and do something about her! Quickly!”
The stick was entirely flames by now. Martha’s hair was frizzling. And it had dawned on Miss Angorian that the scarecrow would burn. She was maneuvering to get the hovering stick into the doorway. As usual, Sophie thought, I didn’t think it through!
Howl only needed to take one look. He stood up in a hurry. He held out one hand and spoke a sentence of those words that lost themselves in claps of thunder. Plaster fell from the ceiling. Everything trembled. But the stick vanished and Howl stepped back with a small, hard, black thing in his hand. It could have been a lump of cinder, except that it was the same shape as the thing Sophie had just pushed into Howl’s chest. Miss Angorian whined like a wet fire and held out her arms imploringly.
“I’m afraid not,” Howl said. “You’ve had your time. By the look of this, you were trying to get a new heart too. You were going to take my heart and let Calcifer die, weren’t you?” He held the black thing between both palms and pushed his hands together. The Witch’s old heart crumbled into black sand, and soot, and nothing. Miss Angorian faded away as it crumbled. As Howl opened his hands empty, the doorway was empty of Miss Angorian too.
Another thing happened as well. The moment Miss Angorian was gone, the scarecrow was no longer there either. If Sophie had cared to look, she would have seen
two tall men standing in the doorway, smiling at one another. The one with the craggy face had ginger hair. The one with a green uniform had vaguer features and a lace shawl draped round the shoulders of his uniform. But Howl turned to Sophie just then. “Gray doesn’t really suit you,” he said. “I thought that when I first saw you.”
“Calcifer’s gone,” Sophie said. “I had to break your contract.”
Howl looked a little sad, but he said, “We were both hoping you would. Neither of us wanted to end up like the Witch and Miss Angorian. Would you call your hair ginger?”
“Red gold,” Sophie said. Not much had changed about Howl that she could see, now he had his heart back, except maybe that his eyes seemed a deeper color—more like eyes and less like glass marbles. “Unlike some people’s,” she said, “it’s natural.”
“I’ve never seen why people put such value on things being natural,” Howl said, and Sophie knew then that he was scarcely changed at all.
If Sophie had had any attention to spare, she would have seen Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman shaking hands and clapping one another delightedly on the back. “I’d better get back to my royal brother,” Prince Justin said. He walked up to Fanny, as the most likely person, and made her a deep, courtly bow. “Am I addressing the lady of this house?”