How we think the fight will go
It was a quiet Thursday when Sophie Hatter returned from Market Chipping, closed the door to the flower shop, and looked around for her fiancé. “Where is that Howl?” she said crossly to Calcifer, who was snoozing in the castle fireplace. “He promised we could have a quiet night at home for once. This latest business for the king has been taking too much time.”
The fire demon opened one drowsy eye. “He was here. But then there was a letter delivered and he read it and grabbed some flowers and ran right back out. I figured he was off to meet you.”
Sophie was on the alert. She didn’t really think Howl was off to romance some girl, but she hadn’t quite recovered from the time when that was all he did, either. “Where is this note?”
Calcifer shrugged his fire in a way that looked remarkably like shoulders, and gestured toward the castle’s one bathroom. Sophie dropped her string bag of vegetables and dashed into the ever-messy room. The large shelf over the sink was covered in a pile of Howl’s fragrant creams and gloppy lotions. The corner of a cream-colored card was poking out from underneath several silver tubes of blonde and blue hair dye. Sophie picked the card up. It had lain in the soap and was both damp and strongly lavender-scented.
She took the card out to Calcifer, who was now looking quite concerned, and read:
Sing then, O Muse,
of these two great terrors of the ocean–
the first lives in a vast mountain, lost in the clouds.
There, inside a cave, Scylla sits
and though she howls like a little lost pup
she has six giant heads, and six necks besides
and huge mouthfuls of teeth–
nom nom nom–
and when a ship sails down that watery strait
out reach the necks
(and the heads! O do not forget the chompy heads)
and the mouths pluck six bodies from the ship
and send them down the six necks.
“Is that it?” said Calcifer.
Sophie flipped the card over. “Yes,” she said. As a love-note it left something to be desired. But she didn’t like the alternative.
“I seem to remember hearing of this Scylla,” Calcifer said thoughtfully. “But I thought she had a partner in crime.”
“It does say ‘two great terrors,’” said Sophie.
Just then there was a tremendous thump from the direction of the bathroom. It shook the tiny castle so hard that plaster rained down from the ceiling. Sophie ran to one of the small windows and peered out. But where she should see Market Chipping—or one of the three other locations of the moving castle—she saw no land at all. “Calcifer,” she shouted. “Did you put us on an ocean?”
Calcifer’s flames looked pale. “Water tends to disagree with me,” he said.
There was a nasty pit in Sophie’s stomach, and not just from the castle, which was now rocking back and forth. “I think that poem was some sort of spell,” she said in a small voice to Calcifer. “Like that ‘go and catch a falling star’ one the Witch of the Waste used on Howl once.”
The doorknob turned, the door burst open, and Howl came through, minus the bouquet of flowers but clutching a sheet of dirty notepaper. Behind him Sophie could see the dingy street of his sister’s house in Wales.
“Did you read it aloud?” shouted Howl over the sound of the waves. “Honestly, Sophie, I thought putting the spell in the middle of my hair cream would dissuade you from snooping!”
“If you ever left directions about what you’re going to do instead of just going off and doing it—” shot back Sophie, “then some of us wouldn’t have to guess—”
“Howl, you’re bullying her,” said Calcifer.
Howl snorted. “As if Sophie could be bullied.”
“That spell started to work from the moment you read it out loud.”
Howl drew himself up snootily. “I never—”
“I heard you mumbling it in the bathroom,” said Calcifer. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind, please figure out how we’re going to get this castle out of the ocean before I get extinguished.”
The rocking of the castle grew stronger. Sophie grabbed onto one of the sconces, praying it wouldn’t rip out of the plaster. Calcifer looked seasick.
Howl lurched to the front window. He measured and pulled and suddenly the window was a much larger, round porthole. Sophie could plainly see that the castle was shooting rapidly down a wide, vast river, with great mountains rising up on either side. They were nearing a mountain on the right. It was smooth, and so tall that the top disappeared in the clouds.
“That’s the mountain in the spell,” shrieked Sophie. “With the creature that eats six people.”
Howl was pulling a pair of small oars from the jumble in the broom closet. “We don’t even have six people,” he panted. “It’ll be eating each of us twice.” He dumped the oars at Sophie’s feet with a clatter and said, “Here, work your magic on those while I find the powder to make them bigger.”
Sophie grabbed an oar in each hand. “You are strong, sturdy oars,” she told them. “Sensible, too. You do not want us to be eaten by a six-headed snake-creature, because then the castle would crack up and you would be lost at the bottom of the ocean and covered in barnacles.” She could sense the oars agreeing with her. They were not interested in barnacles.
Howl hurried back with the powder and begin sprinkling it on the oars while Sophie coaxed them. “You are so smart you could probably steer yourselves. Just a little guidance from us is all you need.” She felt them puff up with pride, even as they grew.
Howl hurriedly poked one oar out the bathroom window and one out a window opposite. He and Sophie each held onto an end as the oars started to pull the castle, ever so slowly, away from the cliff. Good thing, too. With the windows open, Sophie could hear the mournful, dog-like howling of the Scylla creature, wailing over the crash and roar of the rushing water. “It’s working!” shouted Sophie. “We’ll get away from it.”
“Good thing,” said Howl. “The saltwater is bad for my hair.”
But there was something else in the ocean. “Is that a rock in the middle of the passage?” said Sophie. “Oars, don’t let us run aground on it.” But the oars were very pleased with themselves for steering clear of Scylla, who was now howling and waving her six vast necks from her cavern, and they were not particularly listening.
In the fireplace Calcifer was crackling anxiously about this mention of a second rock. “Two great terrors?” he was saying. “Sophie, didn’t you read something about two great terrors?”
Howl looked startled. From his pocket he pulled out the crumpled notepaper he had been carrying when he burst in. “Stupid, stupid,” he muttered. “There’s always a second verse. If I hadn’t been so distracted by the waves . . . .”
“Don’t read it,” shouted Sophie.
Howl nodded at the second rock. “Too late now, I think.” And he read:
Across the watery rift lies Charybdis,
a whirlpool, yes,
a whirlpool the way a bathtub frightens a toddler,
who screams WE WILL ALL GO DOWN
and so you shall.
This ocean-tub is emptied thrice daily,
and you had better hug up to that chompy Scylla
for if Charybdis opens her swirling disposal-maw
she takes you all,
and not just six.
“Oars!” shrieked Calcifer.
“That whirlpool will eat you too, you know,” shouted Sophie to the oars. “Pull back, pull back!”
The oars began desperately pulling the other direction. But the whirlpool was strong.
“Put your back into it, Howl!” The lines of his face were creased and she was really worried then because he didn’t even have the heart to answer with a sharp retort. She pulled, and he pulled, and with a sharp cr-ACK! Howl’s oar splintered into a dozen shards. He rolled backward just as Sophie’s oar gave one last desperate push and turned them from the whirlpool.
The castle lurched as it swept back toward Scylla. Howl fetched up right into the dustpan in the corner where Sophie had been tidying up earlier that day. He came up with his fair-tinted hair covered in cobwebs, trying to recover his dignity. “I had thought those spiders might enjoy being left to their own devices on my ceiling,” he said, “and not rolled up in a dustpan and deposited on my head.”
He wore his most put-upon expression, which exasperated Sophie no end. “I’ll let you sweep out the seaweed after we’re safe, shall I?”
From the fireplace Calcifer shrieked something about six necks, and Howl dashed over to the stair closet. “Heads,” he shouted at Sophie. “Find some heads.”
Right, she thought. Scylla takes six. But maybe they don’t have to be real people . . . .
Sophie upended her shopping bag from the market and out spilled three turnip heads and two cabbages. “You were going to make a good soup,” Sophie muttered at them. Howl flung everything remotely sticklike at her from the closet—the broom, the mop, one old ski.
“Where’s the other ski?” shouted Sophie as she jammed turnips onto the first three poles. “You are alive,” she told them sternly. “You are happy to be eaten. You are positively looking forward to it.”
“Yeti got it,” Howl said mournfully. “A very pretty yeti too.”
“She would be,” grumbled Sophie.
Howl raced the first three people-proxies up to the turret of the castle. He stuck them out the very top window. They had no arms, and yet Sophie’s talking to them had imbued them with some sort of life. They swayed back and forth, bending towards the mountain. The cavern was very close now.
Scylla’s six heads reached down from the cliff. They pushed and shoved each other, fighting for prominence. Howl ducked hastily back into the window as the first head bit off a turnip-broom and the next grabbed the turnip-ski.
He hurried back into the main room as Sophie was talking to the two cabbages she had jammed onto bits of the splintered oar. “I’ll take these up,” she said grimly as she headed up the stairs. “You just find me one more thing.” She felt rather badly for the cabbage-oars as she handed them out the window to be eaten. “They were going to be eaten anyway, silly,” she told herself firmly.
Five of Scylla’s heads were satiated—if a little confused by the splintery nature of their meals—but the sixth head suddenly swung right up to the window. Sophie flung herself back into the room just as it snapped. The head poked right through the open window, snapping rows of teeth at Sophie, whose temper was rising. There was a heap of Howl’s old clothes in a basket, and she flung first the shirts at the sixth head, then battered it around the face with the wicker basket. Still the teeth came.
And then someone shouted, “Duck, Sophie,” and she did, and then a large rectangular object coated in a froth of powder and bubbles flew right over her and directly into Scylla’s sixth mouth. The object seemed to be expanding as it flew.
The great serpentine skull drew back, eyes watering, head shaking. And then it sneezed. Huge froths of lavender-scented bubbles came out of its nose.
“That did it,” crowed Sophie.
The other heads shook with the backlash of the sneezes. The waves rocked the castle. And then, with a final great sneeze, the huge beast toppled from the high cliff face.
“Hold on, everyone!” shouted Howl as he and Sophie ran back downstairs to the main room.
“I don’t have hands,” grumbled Calcifer. He grimaced as outside the castle, just barely behind them, the massive monster plunged into the ocean. The giant wave sent the whole rickety castle up on a high crest of water that shot them along, plunging faster and faster down the passage.
Sophie, holding onto the bathroom door, felt as though she would be violently ill. She squinted one eye out the window and saw the form of Scylla waving all its necks vainly as it whipped around and around the Charybdis whirlpool. “I hope the whirlpool chokes on that beast,” Sophie said spitefully.
And then suddenly the water was calm again. The howling and snorting faded in the distance. They were through.
Sophie hurried over to check on Calcifer, shaking out her cramped hands. He shuddered, but he was still burning bright.
“I looked through the spyglass and there’s a beachy spit up ahead,” said Howl. “We’ll run aground on it and then Calcifer will be able to move us back home.”
“Oh sure,” said Calcifer. “Recover immediately from the shock of almost being drowned, Calcifer. Run us right back home like a good little Calcifer, Calcifer.”
“What was that, anyway?” said Sophie. “Do you think it’s over?”
Howl shook his head. “I think that was stage one of the attack, whatever it was. We’ll see what comes next.”
Sophie looked ruefully at her empty string shopping bag. “In the meantime, tell me how I’m going to make soup without any vegetables.”
Howl drew himself up with an air of noble suffering. “My dear Sophie,” he said. “I think you mean, how am I supposed to live without my best lavender soap.”
Predicted Winner: Sophie Hatter and Howl Pendragon
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Thursday, March 10, 2016, AT 11:59 AM, EST
Editor’s Note: Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked series from Tor Teen. Ironskin, her first fantasy novel, was a Nebula finalist. Her stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Analog, and more. Her narrations have appeared all over, including Podcastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, and her website is tinaconnolly.com.
Cage Match fans: We’re looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”