Ever since birth, Sophie Hatter had been destined for something that was quite out of her reach to change—her future, her success, they were measured only by the folklore and general understanding that surrounded the country of Ingary. Actually, one could argue whether it was Sophie's birth that had decided the whole matter of her well-being. Instead, it was probably the birth of her younger sisters that led the way to spell disaster for poor Sophie.
Her father owned a modest hat shop in a dowdy but still fairly interesting town called Market Chipping. Unlike the capital, Kingsbury, this town might be overlooked by some foreign tourists, but overall, Market Chipping could boast several things.
While normally, a view of the mountainsides and hills that were the Wastes wasn't much to declare, the people of Market Chipping were righteously self important knowing that they were one of the few who saw the great and terrible magician Howl's Moving Castle. That was quite a sight, when the great looming hulk could be seen through the misty white clouds, clanking away down the rolling pastures of the lonesome Waste.
Horrible Howl was known far and wide to be a mysterious and intriguing figure. It was said that he ate beautiful girls' hearts, and most people half believed it, although they fancied themselves never to meet Howl on a normal day anyhow. Wizards and witches and such weren't supposed to roam just on any days, but this was Ingary, and people still had to keep a watch out for such things.
Sophie Hatter, however, had her own life to worry about. It wasn't that she was doomed…no, nothing so horribly doomful or otherwise exciting like a curse or a dangerous quest. Instead, she was destined to live a life that was moderately and relatively un-superb. When her mother died, leaving Sophie and her sister Lettie with their kindly father, the two girls had been curious to soon have a stepmother come into the family when their father remarried with a nice lady named Honey. A third child came along, and she was named Martha. It was Martha's fault, in the end, that Sophie should be destined as she was. Sophie would never very much succeed in life, while Lettie would fare only a little better than her elder sister, leaving Martha, as the rightful third child, to be the one who would seek her fortune one day to splendid results.
Sophie was used to all that by the time she had been in petty school a few years. Being the most studious, she'd read plenty of books and tales to tell her she had not the same chance in life as the other girls in her school. Usually, parents in Ingary stopped on their second child, but if that method did not work, they promptly had a fourth. Being the eldest of four is so much better than being the eldest of three.
Alas, the three girls' father passed away soon after Martha started school, and Fanny had not remarried since. The future looked bleak for poor Sophie, but the eighteen year old girl plugged on with her life as cheerfully as she could, without expecting too much from it in return.
She was quite deft with the needle, and had taken to spending more and more hours in her father's shop since her 16th birthday. She felt it her duty to her father as the eldest to keep the Hatter shop alive.
Lettie, however, being strong-willed as she was, soon lost interest in the hat shop, and had declared to be put into an apprenticeship where she could seek as much fortune, and more, she promised those who would listen, as Martha. Martha had tired of the shop too, and wanted to get away from her mother as soon as possible.
Honey had put Lettie with the famous bakery in town, Cesari's, and Martha with a nice old witch who would teach her what she would need to know as the third child to seek her fortune one day. However, Martha and Lettie, both being so strong willed, had argued so that, in the end, Honey gave up and let them go seek whatever profession they wanted, as long as it was respectable, of course. Martha ended up at Cesari's because, although she had wanted to be far from her mother, she had not totally been able to let herself leave home quite so far as another town. Lettie had gone to the old witch, Mrs. Fairfax, and asked politely and in her charming Lettie way for an apprenticeship. She was not denied.
Sophie had stayed in the shop, sewing the seams and cutting out material for extra lace. She was quite deft with the needle, and one could see that the hats she did were charming beyond what a little hat shop in a little town should usually produce. However, when Honey spent more and more time away from the shop as well, business declined, as the usual gossips, who were friends with Honey, came less.
It wasn't that the hats weren't satisfactory—far from it, in fact. Poor Sophie had become even more skilled in the business without the extra help from her stepmother. Soon, seeing the business the hat shop was not getting, Honey told Sophie she was going away for a while to Kingsbury, supposedly to find a new location where they could start fresh, making hats there or starting a new profession altogether.
While Honey was gone from town, custom declined even more. The hired help at the shop quit one by one, and soon, Sophie was left quite alone in the now dreary little hat shop. Honey had not been heard of in three months, and Sophie was the sole person still keeping the hat shop in business, if it could be called business.
Not many came to shop nowadays. Occasionally, Martha would come in to cheer Sophie up with a fine cream cake from Cesari's, but that grew rarer as the days went by and Cesari's grew increasingly popular, leaving Martha less time to visit.
Sophie had sworn to herself that she would keep the shop running, no matter what. It became harder and harder to do, however, when girls that used to attend grammar school with Sophie caught her on the streets buying groceries or behind the counter sewing would come up to Sophie and sneer at her. It was the especially prissy type, who were either the only daughters of woodcutters or just had a good omen determined at their birth. Their favorite subject to bring up with Sophie was always how she was the eldest of three…and how 'dear, poor Sophie' would probably never get out of the hat shop in order to seek her fortune—which would result in disaster, anyhow.
By and by, Sophie grew more and more reserved. She was rather practical and shy to begin with, so the extra hours in the shop by herself and the occasions when her peers would tease her were only added tortures to her nature. Her life settled into the routine of doing the shopping each morning, opening the hat store, sewing more hats or gazing at the passerby when they didn't come in, and trying to ignore the peevish comments and gossips that still crowded outside the door, talking just loud enough so Sophie could hear their nasty, 'whispered' comments.
It was on one of these days, a rather sunny, clear morning, that are story begins. And fateful encounters, which often take place in Ingary as often as not, just happened to drop in on Sophie Hatter, eldest daughter of three.
The sun was well into the sky by the time Sophie got out of the shop that morning. The house behind the shop led to the courtyard, which led to the door of the shop—and that was the route Sophie took to get out of the store's front door and down the busy streets of Market Chipping in time to buy groceries each day. She hadn't much money, now that the hats weren't selling very well, but it didn't take a lot to feed just herself nowadays.
Sophie brushed ginger hair out of her face as she walked up to the produce stands. Maybe she'd by some lettuce so she could make a sandwich today at lunch. Helping herself to the open crates, she picked out a smaller plant under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper. The morning air was fresh and carried wisps of smells from baking bread, boxes of soap, sweat from working hands, and whatever else the people of Market Chipping were up to that morning.
"How much?" Sophie's voice was rarely used these days, but it always had a certain soft lilt to it that made shopkeepers regard her warmly.
"Oh…about a two-pence, miss." The man brushed his great brown moustache as he accepted the money and smiled at Sophie before turning the other way to another customer.
Sophie dropped her purchase in the basket and hurried on. She still needed to buy bread, and Sophie could have gone to the plain bread bakery that was down the lane, but she felt like doing something a little more than usual today—maybe it was because she was tired of the monotonous drawl of days and weeks, rolled into an endless ball full of hollowness.
It occurred to her that she hadn't had one of Cesari's cakes in a while. Maybe she would buy herself a small one, and take it home to finish between breakfast, lunch, and supper.
With measured steps, careful not to get stepped on by the large crowd in front of Cesari's, she approached. Martha would be glad to see her. However, before she had the chance to traverse the large crowd idling in the front of the shop, three young ladies dressed in fine costumes with full skirts and trains stood in front of Sophie. The bright colors of their dresses made Sophie wince inwardly at the gray drabness of her own dress.
"Well, well, well…good day, Sophie."
Lissy, the silversmith's second daughter, turned her dainty mouth upwards at the ends when catching Sophie's silence at her remark.
Melissa, behind her, the girl with an obnoxious upturned nose, had clearly decided that, by bullying Sophie some, she would gain the favor of Lissy, who was by far prettier and smarter (one had to admit) than Melissa. Gwen, the third one, crouched behind Lissy, her lank hair worn down, although it was an interesting shade of blue-black.
Mel smiled at Sophie. "Sophie Hatter, I did not know you left the hat shop at all these days." Gwen cracked a beaver-toothed smile.
Sophie ignored her, her mind desperately searching for an escape from the three worst people she should have run into right now.
Lissy tittered quietly with Mel before turning back to Sophie. "Have you heard the latest gossip, dear Sophie?" Sophie could see they were trying to string her on.
"No. What is it, then?" She spoke softly, but deliberately.
"Come now, take a guess."
Sophie racked her head for clues. They clearly wouldn't leave her alone until she'd thought of something satisfactory. The crowded streets and people pushing and shoving into her space upset her terribly. Maybe she was spending too much time in the hat shop. Sophie tugged her shawl closer to her, and sighed softly as she answered.
"I …don't know…"
This caused Mel to crow at the top of her lungs. "Of course you don't know! You're the simpleton—eldest of three. I should have known you wouldn't know about Georgina Rice." Lissy frowned at Mel's outburst, but flashed a sugar coated smile at Sophie.
"Well, dearie Sophie, everyone knows that just two days ago, Georgina dear was accosted by a wizard."
"-Howl" added Mel, flipping her locks over to one side of her round face.
Lissy nodded slowly. "They say she's had her heart stolen. Poor Georgina, she's locked herself in her room, you know. I went to see her." Lissy added with great importance. "The dear wouldn't accept any visitors, but I've heard her ranting about how handsome and sweet he was to her."
Lissy laughed lightly again, and Sophie felt a pang of sympathy for Georgina, although that girl had always been a little too bubble-headed for her own good. Sophie tried to sidestep the group of girls politely now, but Mel spoke up after her.
"Sophie Hatter, you'd better watch out for the roaming wizards nowadays. Maybe, if Howl stole Georgina's heart, he'll come after you next! Lord knows wizards have taste!"
Sophie ignored the comment best she could, walking away at a brisk pace as she turned from Cesari's to walk along the alleyway walls as to not bump into people. Why those girls were always so interested in gossip never seemed to reach Sophie's head in clear understanding. Georgina probably didn't even meet a wizard. It was probably just a regular fellow, one of those tavern men who drank ten gallons a day and sought women everywhere…the kind Honey had warned her, Lettie, and Martha about. Georgina was just the type to get heartbroken by such a brute.
Caught up in her own thoughts and rush to get home to open shop (it was fairly late already), Sophie barely noticed when someone brushed by her in a hurry and dodged into the dark alley that, Sophie knew, led to a dead end. She caught a whiff of hyacinths as the figure walked/ran by. The smell was really quite subtle and sophisticated, too.
Sophie, curious that it got the best of her prudent nature, peered into the alley to try and find the person going at posthaste speed. A flicker of movement in the darker lane caught her eye, and she walked up to the opening of two walls, shopping basket clutched tightly in one hand.
She caught her breath in a rush when a pair of strikingly blue eyes blinked back at her. The figure stepped forward from leaning against the wall, enough so that she could see a vague outline of him. Sophie had the urge to run away… in case the strange young man was dangerous, you know, but, even in the poor lighting, she could see he was such a dashing specimen that Sophie couldn't bring herself to move from his mesmerizing, blue-eyed gaze.
The man brought a finger to his lips. Sophie gulped, and turned away from him hastily when the figure smiled at her and leaned back against the wall, as if hiding from something. Even after she turned her face away, that image of glassy, bright blue eyes still dazzled her a bit. Sophie's heart began pounding in her chest, and she clutched her hand against her fluttering heart as she turned back to the bustling street way.
"You there! Miss!"
Sophie flinched noticeably when a gruff voice shocked her senses. She turned to find a pompously dressed sergeant and his crew marching up to her. Their marching, rhythmic step on the cobblestones of Market Chipping was loud and the passerby parted a little to give way. Sophie's heart raced even faster when the bearded sergeant asked her a question in his loud, booming voice.
"Have you seen an overdressed young fellow in a blue and silver suit that matches his eyes rush by here?"
Sophie immediately thought to the man in the alley, and his clear blue eyes. She hadn't seen what he was wearing, but Sophie had remembered the finger he'd put to his lips to signify silence. And the way he'd smiled to reassure her.
Her own voice small and wispy in comparison to the sergeants, she replied slowly, "I…I think he might have gone that way." Fingers tingling a little, Sophie felt almost not herself as she daringly pointed towards the big crowd at Cesari's and lied to the officer. "Towards that crowd of people, sir."
The sergeant didn't seem to doubt her word. Sophie almost felt inclined to tell the man that the soldiers were far too naive and quite bad at their jobs these days, but thought better of it. The mentioned sergeant barked a command at the people behind him, and the group marched back up the cobblestones. The crowd on the street filled in again as people went back to doing what they were doing earlier on.
Sophie stood there, frozen in place by what had just happened, wringing her hands dramatically. 'It's okay, Sophie…he won't come back here and question you, nor arrest you when he finds out you lied to him… ah! Sophie, he will definitely not find out you lied to him… all to save that man in the alley too… oh dear…" Sophie had taken to speaking subconsciously to herself in the past few months. Not that one could blame her that much. Having nothing but hats for company for a great deal of time does make one rather lonely, whether they would admit it or not.
For the second time, she barely noticed when a figure came up behind her and put a warm hand on her shoulder. Sophie flinched underneath the firm, reassuring pressure.
"Ha, ha. No need to be afraid…"
Sophie really did jump a mile this time. The soothing voice behind her seemed to chuckle lightly every time she grew shocked. Brain racing, Sophie turned around to face whoever was at her back.
She first caught sight of the scalloped, trimmed sleeves of the arm attached to the hand on her shoulder. The silver filigree and silky blue fabric put to shame anything the other people in the square were wearing at the moment, and Sophie felt positively bare wearing her plain gray dress. It wasn't even May Day yet, for heaven's sake.
Her eyes trailed upward into the smiling face of a young man that looked about twenty. His fair, golden hair fell loosely to brush his shoulders. Sure enough, striking blue orbs twinkled with a hint of mischief in a sophisticated face, so finely sculpted that Sophie had to let out a despairingly scarlet blush. What's more, the man grinned at her embarrassment, too, a full smile that held dazzling white teeth. Sophie had a feeling the king and prince of Ingary would kill for the charm in that smile. It quite nearly bowled poor Sophie over.
"Ah…" Sophie's mouth felt dry at the sheer close proximity of the clearly advanced man. As if sensing her discomfort, he removed his hand from her shoulder. Sophie felt a sudden pang of loss, but scolded herself for being as weak as to swoon like any little schoolgirl.
When silence pervaded the space between the two, the suave voice the man possessed spoke up again. Sophie felt herself melting again, much to her own disapproval.
"You really saved me back there. I was in a lot of trouble with those men." He smiled down at her, and Sophie felt as if she knew how a seedling would near die when the force of a noon sun shone down with unmatched force.
Sophie nodded, looking down at her feet. Since she couldn't string any coherent words together at the moment, she had to resort to drastic measures such as sign language.
The young man only laughed lightly again, causing silken strands of hair to fall into his eyes. "Don't be scared, you little mouse. I'm only trying to escort you to where you're going." He paused, and looked around the square at the crowds of people that rushed by. "So, where to?"
Sophie shook a little, eyes averted to not look at the figure beside her. Normally, not looking at someone, trying to not hear them…willing those to remain anonymous to her did the job. However, everything about this man demanded attention. His voice… his appearance…and were those earbobs peaking from the golden fan of his hair? The smell of the hyacinth flower traveled up her nose and made Sophie quite unnerved. She took a deep breath, but before she could make herself release it slowly, it came out in one, big, quivering rush.
"It's really alright!"
Sophie stood there, shocked stiff at her outburst, shoulders hunched over as a cringed at what might have been a rebuke from the princely figure next to me. Taking a raspy breath, she let the words out in short syllables as her face burned with what she knew was shame.
"I mean… You…don't…have…to," she explained in a small voice. "I'll be okay by myself…"
Letting her clenched fists slowly unfurl, Sophie reminded herself of her duty at the hat shop. Yes…she would walk home from here, and it would take less than five minutes. The last five minutes of her little escapade from the dull monotony of her eldest-daughter life. She willed herself to be composed, and gain the sensibleness that was her greatest companion since childhood.
The sophisticated gentleman, seemingly determined to accost her, only smiled, although Sophie detected traces of sympathy in that dazzling grin. It made her face burn in shame even more intensely.
In the months that she'd been teased, nothing seemed to compare to these few minutes (was it even 60 seconds?) spent with him.
It came out sounding like a squeak.
"I think we ought to set out, then. It's just around the corner and down that street…"
The next sentence came out better, and Sophie congratulated herself a little, feeling more confident. The young man brushed aside flaxen hair and peered down the cobbled sidewalk.
"All right then, if I must escort a lady, let me do it properly." With that declaration made, he linked a finely sleeved arm with Sophie's and marched them straight down the street.
The next moments seemed to pass like a blur to poor Sophie. The sun beat down upon the busy street, and Sophie would usually have felt lost among the loud sounds and clattering footsteps in the walkways. However, with the man's arm around her own, she suddenly felt light…floating above all the other swarming heads. It was just her and her escort beside her, who was taking sure, confident steps out into the world, occasionally flashing a white smile at the people who passed. Her heart picked up its thudding only when they came up to the front of the shop to see a group of girls already there, milling about in the front and laughing, peering inside in jostling manners.
Sophie knew they were looking for her.
Lissy wasn't in the group, but Mel was. She took one look at the dashing specimen beside Sophie and balked. Sophie's senses twitched uncomfortably. Fortunately, Mel seemed to size up the situation, and promptly decided to pick up her skirts and walk down the street posthaste towards the healer to have her eyes checked.
It was not everyday you saw such a gorgeous one with Sophie Hatter. The others twittered, milling around a second more before dispersing…some heading in the direction of Melanie, others returning to whatever business they had left unattended before.
The blonde man, who seemed basically oblivious to the hostile disbelief of the girls, glanced at Sophie questionably.
Sophie's head was spinning uncontrollably with thoughts at this point…she was faced with the dilemma of telling him about the girls, about the hat shop; about her own fate…or denying him all that and letting them remain strangers. It was undeniably the safer route, since he would probably look at her in contempt and leave if he ever found out about her standing in the family.
But if she didn't… those clear blue eyes seemed to know everything already…peering through her with that inquisitive twinkle. Sophie's throat felt dry.
Before she knew it, she had the words choked out.
"I-I am the eldest of three."
He seemed to continue to peer at her in that tranquil way, while Sophie froze on the spot for disgrace and humiliation. Finally, his words broke through her silence.
It wasn't what she'd expected. But the innocent way in which it was said offered her hope, and yet, at the same time, a big milestone in her gullet seemed to roll out of its place, and out of the hole, guilt upon guilt rushed out…sadness at being denied so much in life just because she had two sisters after her.
She wanted to tell him everything.
A desperate half-sob started the journey in which the rest of the words tumbled out. She told him about her sisters…about their apprenticeships…the switch. Sophie blubbered about what Honey had said before she left for Kingsbury…leaving her by herself to take care of her father's shop…she cried about the girls who stopped by everyday just to tease her outside her window. It seemed everything she'd been bottling up came crashing down upon this poor, handsome near-stranger.
Everything just sort of came rushing out…
At the end of it all, Sophie felt like a complete fool.
"I'm"-hic-"sorry… I must've imposed myself too much…" she gasped out.
She dared not look up at him, but the young man's tone seemed to warm and soothe her aching self as he leaned down towards her.
Sophie stood there, not daring to breathe. Her heart thudded warmly against her chest, and she felt rising warmth exude from her cheeks.
"Let me help…"
It all started out so innocently.
Sophie felt his hand brush a strand of ginger hair from her face.
"I'll make you a bargain…
Since you helped me this morning"
I never knew it would lead so far.
"I'll lend you a hand with your father's hat shop…"
His soft breath tingled by her ear.
"—for seven days"
Fate extends its hand in strange ways…
"Wait for me when you open shop…tomorrow... "
Sophie's breath caught mid-beat of her heart.
"…on the first day."
But I think he did things even more strangely.