“I only want to catch you,” Michael explained. “I won’t hurt you.”
“No! No!” the star crackled desperately. “That’s wrong! I’m supposed to die!”
“But I could save you if you’d let me catch you,” Michael told it gently.
“No!” cried the star. “I’d rather die!” It dived away from Michael’s fingers. Michael plunged for it, but it was too quick for him. It swooped for the nearest marsh pool, and the black water leaped into a blaze of whiteness for just an instant. Then there was a small, dying sizzle. When Sophie hobbled over, Michael was standing watching the last light fade out of a little round lump under the dark water.
“That was sad,” Sophie said.
Michael sighed. “Yes. My heart sort of went out to it. Let’s go home. I’m sick of this spell.”
It took them twenty minutes to find the boots. Sophie thought it was a miracle they found them at all.
“You know,” Michael said, as they trudged dejectedly through the dark streets of Porthaven, “I can tell I’ll never be able to do this spell. It’s too advanced for me. I shall have to ask Howl. I hate giving in, but at least I’ll get some sense out of Howl now this Lettie Hatter’s given in to him.”
This did not
cheer Sophie up at all.
In which Calcifer promises Sophie a hint.
Howl must have come back while Sophie and Michael were out. He came out of the bathroom while Sophie was frying breakfast on Calcifer, and sat gracefully in the chair, groomed and glowing and smelling of honeysuckle.
“Dear Sophie,” he said. “Always busy. You were hard at work yesterday, weren’t you, in spite of my advice? Why have you made a jigsaw puzzle of my best suit? Just a friendly inquiry, you know.”
“You jellied it the other day,” said Sophie. “I’m making it over.”
“I can do that,” said Howl. “I thought I showed you. I can also make you a pair of seven-league boots of your own if you give me your size. Something practical in brown calf, perhaps. It’s amazing the way one can take a step ten and a half miles long and still always land in a cowpat.”
“It may have been a bullpat,” said Sophie. “I daresay you found mud from the marshes on them too. A person my age needs a lot of exercise.”
“You were even busier than I realized, then,” said Howl. “Because when I happened to tear my eyes from Lettie’s lovely face for an instant yesterday, I could have sworn I saw your long nose poking round the corner of the house.”
“Mrs. Fairfax is a family friend,” said Sophie. “How was I to know you would be there too?”
“You have an instinct, Sophie, that’s how,” said Howl. “Nothing is safe from you. If I were to court a girl who lived on an iceberg in the middle of an ocean, sooner or later—probably sooner—I’d look up to see you swooping overhead on a broomstick. In fact, by now I’d be disappointed in you if I didn’t see you.”
“Are you off to the iceberg today?” Sophie retorted. “From the look on Lettie’s face yesterday, there’s nothing that need keep you there!”
“You wrong me, Sophie,” Howl said. He sounded deeply injured. Sophie looked suspiciously sideways. Beyond the red jewel swinging in Howl’s ear, his profile looked sad and noble. “Long years will pass before I leave Lettie,” he said. “And in fact I’m off to see the King again today. Satisfied, Mrs. Nose?”
Sophie was not sure she believed a word of this, though it was certainly to Kingsbury, with the doorknob red-down, that Howl departed after breakfast, waving Michael aside when Michael tried to consult him about the perplexing spell. Michael, since he had nothing to do, left too. He said he might as well go to Cesari’s.
Sophie was left alone. She still did not truly believe what Howl had said about Lettie, but she had been wrong about him before, and she had only Michael and Calcifer’s word for Howl’s behavior, after all. She collected up all the little blue triangles of cloth and began guiltily sewing them back into the silver fishing net which was all that was left of the suit. When someone knocked at the door, she started violently, thinking it was the scarecrow again.
“Porthaven door,” Calcifer said, flickering a purple grin at her.
That should be all right, then. Sophie hobbled over and opened it, blue-down. There was a cart horse outside. The young fellow of fifty who was leading it wondered if Mrs. Witch had something which might stop it casting shoes all the time.
“I’ll see,” said Sophie. She hobbled over to the grate. “What shall I do?” she whispered.
“Yellow powder, fourth jar along on the second shelf,” Calcifer whispered back. “Those spells are mostly belief. Don’t look uncertain when you give it to him.”
So Sophie poured yellow powder into a square of paper as she had seen Michael do, twisted it smartly, and hobbled to the door with it. “There you are, my boy,” she said. “That’ll stick the shoes on harder than any hundred nails. Do you hear me, horse? You won’t need a smith for the next year. That’ll be a penny, thank you.”
It was quite a busy day. Sophie had to put down her sewing and sell, with Calcifer’s help, a spell to unblock drains, another to fetch goats, and something to make good beer. The only one that gave her any trouble was the customer who pounded on the door in Kingsbury. Sophie opened it red-down to find a richly dressed boy not much older than Michael, white-faced and sweating, wringing his hands on the doorstep.