Chapter Nine: In Which Destiny Leads One Nowhere

By the time the Wizard Pendragon and Mr Pruitt reached her garret, Sophie had climbed down the rain pipe. She picked up her suitcase and put on the seven-league boots. Taking a step, she zipped and zoomed in an untold direction, landing quite ungracefully in someone's vegetable garden. She hurriedly removed the boots and dropped down on the sweet-smelling grass. The evening air cooled her flushed face and her dear friend the wind played with her hair. Sophie was gloating deliriously.

She escaped him again. That proves that she, a little hat maker from Market Chipping, outsmarted the world's most greedy and lecherous sorcerer. Showed him that she was better, beating him at his own game of slithering- outing. But the euphoria faded away as the stars grew brighter. Sophie was alone again. She had her first bouts with solitude in the hat shop but now she was even more alone.

Then she grew angry at Howl again. Why did he have to show up and ruin everything? It was going wonderfully with Tom and he had to make her lose her new life. Damnation, he was always bothering her and breaking her dreams! Throwing some pebbles over the white fence made her calmer and soon she was feeling much better and tranquil enough to doze off among the radishes.

A hand gently hitting her cheeks awakened Sophie. When she blinked her sleep away, she saw it was a woman dressed in bright clothes with colourful scarves draping here and there. Oh my, what large sliver hoop earrings she wore! Sophie had always wanted a pair but Fanny though it most uncouth. The gipsy-lady, as she was, smiled and helped her up.

'Hello, dove, what are you doing in my vegetable patch?' Sophie was about to beg forgiveness when the dark-haired woman picked up the suitcase and pointed to a beautifully painted caravan close by. 'You shall stay with me instead, in my lovely home.'

'Why- why thank you very much Mistress-?' she said elatedly. The gypsy replied, 'Ford, my name is just Ford.'

It was morning and the sun's light revealed what had been covered in night's darkness. The fenced garden was at the edge of a green forest and a yellow caravan stood not more than a few yards away. When they entered, Sophie was amazed by the amount of wonderful things stashed into such a small space. She remarked on how divine Mistress Ford's home was. The lady was pleased and set about to heating a kettle of milk on the stove.

'Well dear girl, tell Ford why you ended up here and who you were running away from?' she said shrewdly. Sophie lied through her teeth just as Howl that berk would have done, smoothly and charmingly. 'I'm Martha and I just got lost on my way to Kingsbury. You know how it is, the travellers taking up the road especially now that there's a grand forum with the King... I am dreadfully sorry for trespassing but I was so tired. I wasn't running from anything at all!'

To her surprise, Ford only laughed. 'Now don't you lie to me, I can see in your aura that you have told me a pack of lies. Dove, I don't want to hurt you. Tell me the truth, and on my word I shall never reveal your secrets.' She gave a flick of her hand and Sophie knew that she owed it at least to be honest.

'All right, I was lying except perhaps about being tired. That usually happens once one is chased by a nasty magician...' she found herself giving Ford the entire story, right from the very beginning on that May Day a whole year ago. Ford on her part sat across her, listening attentively and occasionally refilling their cups with milk. When she concluded her tale, Ford smiled benevolently and rose from the table. It was apparent that she was going to say something important.

'Sophie-dove, please try and understand the things I shall say to you. I will not allow you stay here with me for more than a week. Aside from the fact that this Howl person shall be searching long and hard, getting into all sorts of messes to find you-' at this Sophie gave a loud snort but was shushed by the gypsy. 'This is not your destiny, you know in your heart that this is not what you're looking for. No, I shall only let you remain until you realize where the truths and lies really do lie. Is that clear?'

Sophie nodded her head, crestfallen but determined to make the best of it. Ford grinned and hugged her before showing her where she was to stay and what she was to do. All the while Sophie thought, Destiny doesn't get you anywhere after all.

Life by the Forest was quite wonderful with its shady groves and sweet-smelling pines. Animals were so tame they would eat from a person's hand. The atmosphere was very peaceful and though it left her alone with her thoughts too much, Sophie enjoyed it a lot. On the third day of her stay in Ford's caravan, she set out to look for a certain herb that could cure the cold that the old lady just caught. The search for the vigna radiata took her deeper and deeper into the Forest. After she realized she passes a rock formation in the shape of a cauldron twice, Sophie realized she was very lost indeed.

With vengeful unhappy thoughts in her head, the eldest Hatter turned to the left and walked steadily on. In a few minutes, she came to a clearing and decided to take a rest there before trying to find her way back. The beams of light penetrated through the canopy and reflected onto the surface of a spring. Even in her state of unrest, Sophie appreciated the beauty of the little grove. She strode over to the edge and cupped her hands to catch the cool water. The taste of that liquid was heavenly sweet and the girl felt refreshed immediately.

Then she noticed there was something wrong.

Getting up on her feet, Sophie grasped that this section of the Forest was silent. There was not a sound, not a movement, not a word from anywhere. Until that moment, the rush of a brook, the chirp of the squirrels, and the piping melody of the red cardinal had accompanied her. Yet the second, she entered that enchanting clearing, there was nothing. An instinct from inside of her told her that something marvellous at the same time terrible was going to happen.

The spring! It had something to do with the spring! Her thoughts flowed and ebbed, compelling her to move towards the clear spring that was at the centre of the clearing. She had almost reached the edge when her boot hit something hidden in the grass. Sophie bent down and picked the object up. It was a sign with an elaborate design carved on it and though moss had grown over it, the etchings on it were legible.

Gaze into the forest's mirror but take heed

Destiny is merely the end of the journey.

Towards the prize and the golden deed,

Both curses and rewards you shall reap

For in your heart lies Truth's seed.

As she finished reading it, bubbles began to rise from the spring's surface. Not knowing why, Sophie rushed towards the edge of the spring and dropped the wooden sign into the frothing waters. To her surprise, a silvery hand caught it. Glancing up, she saw that a shimmering being had formed from the spring waters. The nymph-like creature smiled and hid the sign inside its crystal robes and held its hand to Sophie who began to back away.

'Do not be afraid, little one. I will not hurt you.' It said with a voice that flowed like water or bubbled like a brook. Sophie immediately obeyed. The being continued, 'I am Melopheme, the Keeper of the Forest. I heard you calling out, and I am here to give assistance.'

Sophie's spirits soared. She could find a way out of the maze-like Forest! She babbled, 'That's wonderful! I really don't know how to get out of here. Ford will be waiting for me. I don't recall yelling out for help but it doesn't matter. Perhaps you have that sort of intuitive psychic powers given to most deities? I don't think my magic could help since-'

'I have not come to direct you out of the forest,' interrupted Melopheme. The girl in front of her paled and stuttered. 'You're not? Then, er, perhaps I should be going then. Don't want to interrupt your, er, lunch, or anything!' The Keeper of the Forest silenced Sophie with a wave of her delicate hand.

'I have no plans of having you for dinner, child. I am here merely to show you the way. Your heart has been calling out to me; it is lonely and waiting. Your soul is confused and weary. I am to clear your mind and help you, perhaps, to rediscover your destiny then to send you back on your journey.'

All fear left Sophie and doubt came crashing in instead. The redhead returned to her natural colour and an eyebrow rose. Sophie almost laughed out. 'What? Rediscover my destiny? I don't think I've even gained any knowledge of my destiny. How can a heart call out and a soul be confused? What I really want to know is the way out of this forest!'

Melopheme shook her head, sending droplets of dew all over. 'One most not bother with the details. You shall return to the sun and the caravan in due time. But you must listen to me and do as I say. Come, little one, and gaze at the forest's mirror.' She gestured at the spring below her and beckoned Sophie to come. Seeing that it was death by starvation or following, the girl approached the water's surface and looked.

There was nothing, just the spring water rippling and creating circles. Sophie commented dryly to the Keeper. 'Am I supposed to be finding the meaning to my Life now? If I am, then you better find a translator, I don't understand the language of ripples.' Melopheme gave a stern hush and told Sophie took look into the mirror as if it was her window into someone's heart.

'I don't understand-' Sophie began angrily but fell quiet as the ripples began to change colour and the bubbles formed images. All she could do was gaze earnestly at the story the spring seemed to be telling. At first it was merely a swirling crowd of colours and shapes then it settled to a picture of Martha and Michael on one of the hills outside Market Chipping. They were kissing in the midst of this festive celebration and everyone was cheering them on. Sophie gasped. They weren't getting married, were they?

'What is this? Is this all happening now? Or has it happened already?' The Keeper of the Forest only replied with a question, 'What do you see now, child? Tell me and I may help.'

Sophie could barely keep up with the flurry of pictures but tried to memorize everything she saw. She kept a running commentary of the events and images being depicted. 'It's gone but there's the Inn. Tom- Tom is showing a girl one of his card tricks.' She choked, 'He just kissed her on the head, and she's blushing like mad. Oh! It's Lettie now. She's working hard on a spell with Calcifer. Dear me, she's so pale! Is she sick, Melopheme?'

Her companion did not reply and Sophie looked back at the spring frantically. 'Look! It's Fanny and she's crying with Mrs Fairfax over something in the papers. Sweet dears, they always had a soft spot for the troubles of others! Its changing again- Michael smiling, Martha cooking, The King playing with the princess, the old hat shop, and- and my father's waving to me. But ah! He looks so young! Then it becomes the flower shop. But why is it decorated in black? Oh no, Lettie's fainted! Thank Circe- Wizard Suliman caught her! Michael and Martha are crying... Calcifer's wet and moaning. Porthaven's in black, Kingsbury is too. There's a parade in the street but no one's happy. What's wrong? Has something bad happened?'

Turning wretchedly towards Melopheme, Sophie's face was filled with emotion. She saw a tear roll down the Keeper's cheek and could not take it anymore. Sophie took Melopheme's shoulders and shook her. 'What is it? Tell me now! I don't want to play games! What could be so bad that the entire Ingary's torn up about it?' She glowered into the nymph's sparkling eyes, demanding an answer. 'You told me you were supposed to help me. Make things clear and explain to me what this all means?' she shouted.

Melopheme took Sophie's face into her cold hands, and her touch immediately calmed the girl down. In barely a whisper, the Keeper urged her companion to keep gazing into the spring. 'Look, and you will find the answer. Do not worry, love, it is only part of the way to your Destiny. Look again, dear, look.'

Sophie glanced once again at the now-cursed surface of the spring and saw that the water had clouded and only a mist could be seen. Tears brimming in her eyes, she was moved by all the emotion brought by the images true or not. Sophie hailed a wind that blew the vapour away, allowing the forest's mirror to be seen. What she saw made her give a startled sigh.

It was Howl.

At first, she was surprised at his appearance in the spring's surface but then she continued watching silently. He looked exhausted as he searched through his magic books. His normally neat hair was mussed and the roots were a much lighter blond that the ends. So he really is a towhead, Sophie thought absently before she noticed his usually impeccable clothes were torn and muddy. What was he looking for? She watched as he got up to seemingly answer the door and saw the panic that was in his emerald eyes. Then the picture change and Howl was knocking on doors, holding up a piece of paper and asking questions. Sophie wondered what he was doing as he kept casting spells that went beyond this world. Didn't he realize that his magic would be drained? When she got her hands on him, she'd give him a lecture he's never forget. Then the colours faded again before finally settling to a single scene.

Howl was arguing with Marina. They were at RIVENDELL in Wales and seemed to be in the middle of a crowd. Sophie hoped he wasn't making a scene at his sister's wedding then stopped breathing when she saw them mouthing her name. Suddenly, it was as if the silence was lifted and sound thundered down into her ears.

'Tell me where she is, Marina!' Howl was shouting. His sister put her hands on her hips and shouted back at him. 'How can I? I don't know where she is! The last time I saw Sophie was when the both of you came almost a year ago!'

This did not stop Howl from hollering, 'But she's gone! She's nowhere to be found in her world! It's as if she never existed. I've tried every single locator spell and they've all gone haywire. There's only three possible reasons for that; a) she's on another world b) an enchanter is hiding her so that it could be you or Chant-'

At that, a deep voice from behind Marina said, 'Hey! I had nothing to do with this.' The two Jenkins siblings screamed at the same time at the poor fellow. 'Shut up, Cat!' before continuing their row.

'Or c) she's dead and in a thousand pieces- and I refuse to believe that Sophie could get herself killed! So that leaves the first two choices and they all link back to you!' yelled the wizard.

Marina glared and motioned with her hands. 'You have the nerve to march up to me on my WEDDING DAY to accuse me of hiding some poor girl who you've been toying with? I wish I really were hiding Sophie! This is really teaching you a lesson, Howl, that women have feelings too and are not mindless objects! And do you mind? There are a hundred people here who have just discovered Cat, you, and I are enchanters! Can you imagine the number of Memory Charms we're going to have to perform? Why do you want to find her anyway, you have treated the girl most awfully!'

Howl was turning extremely red and said through gritted teeth, 'I have not been toying with Sophie. And damn the whole bloody lot of non- magicfolk! I want to know where she is now! Her family's filled with panic. They're worried sick about her!'

To which his sister replied, 'Bullshit, Howell, and you know it. You can stop lying to yourself! And a tantrum is not going to solve anything.'

'What do you want me to say, Marina?' snapped Howl. 'Do you want me to say I love her? Fine then, I. LOVE. SOPHIE. I love her! I've finally been caught in my own snare and I've fallen madly in love with some wench from another world. I love her so much I'd give up my magic, my castle, my hair colour to see her one last time! Hear that, Marina? I've said I love her now tell me where she is!'

Ingary's most powerful wizard ended his plea with desperation and collapsed into a chair. His sister dropped to her knees and held his hand. 'Oh, I'm sorry, Howell. Oh dear dear brother, I'm so sorry.' She kissed Howl's forehead and said, 'We don't know where she is.'

A low hammering voice cackled from the background. The pair looked up and saw Louisa the window lady holding something metal in her hands. Marina demanded, 'What is that, Louisa? Louisa, is that a gun? Put it down!'

'No, I don't think so Mrs Chant. You see, I'm here to speak to your brother.' She nodded her head in Howl's direction. 'Today was the day when he would proclaim his love for me. Then we could all get married and we'd be sisters like I planned from the start. Wouldn't that be wonderful, Marina?'

In his shock, Howl could only mutter, 'You're mad.'

'I suppose so. But I'm the winner here today since that pretty little doll from last year is gone. She's zilch, nothing.' Louisa had a terrifying smile on her face as she turned towards Howl. 'You made it so difficult for me, Howell. First you dumped me after our third date, then you disappeared to some godforsaken place that seems to have been another world, and lastly, you fall in love with some redheaded chit who is almost ten years younger than you. Pfft! I'm glad I prevented you from making a mistake like her.' She cackled.

'What have you done to Sophie?' the sorcerer bellowed, getting up. Marina told her brother to stop being a fool and sit down or at least for Merlin's sake cast a spell. But her cry went unheeded as Howl began to march towards the mental woman. Louisa was surprised but raised the gun, the onlookers who had only come for the cake gasped in terror.

'Stop Howell, don't move any further.' She shrieked but he began to make passes in the air. Then it seemed as if something was bearing down on the woman's arms. The gun began to point itself away. Louisa panicked and tried to fight against the invisible force. 'No. No! I've worked too hard on this!' It seemed like she was going to fail when a loud sharp blast rang out. The crowd screamed, horrified. Tables were knocked over and chairs were overturned, as there was a mad dash to get away.

Howl Jenkins stood over the crumpled form of Louisa. He was able to subdue her and she was under a Ricor Mortis spell, waiting to be released when the police would arrive. Marina got up from her spot on the floor beside Cat Chant. She was shaken and had to be supported by her husband. She walked over to her brother and tapped him on the shoulder.

' Howell, Howell,' she struggled for air as he turned to her. His face was pale and ashen but he managed to say, 'Marina, find her and- and tell her- I love her.' Before collapsing to the ground. As his sister fainted and her husband tried to help them both, the Wizard Howl lay on the grass in his beloved Wales, blood pooling beneath him.

In the clearing inside the dark Forest, Sophie Hatter screamed. The spring burst in waves, drenching her in the cool liquid, but it did not matter to her. She got up, tears streaming down her face, and began to back away. She was shouted at Melopheme who too was crying by the spring. 'That's a lie! That isn't true! Your forest's mirror has gone wonky- you should have it fixed! People might take what they see to heart!'

'Sophie, dear Sophie, you've seen the truth of the matter. There's nothing-' the Keeper of the Forest murmured.

The girl whose heart, mind, and soul seemed to be torn to pieces and flung to the corners of the universe shook her head rapidly, and roared back, 'No! Howl can't be dead! He's our greatest wizard! No weapon can kill him unless he wanted it too! No, no, no, no, no, it's all lies! Howl's not dead, you hear me? He can't die! He's too wicked, too sneaky, too vain, too proud to be given the easy way out. No! He has to get through me and- and Calcifer- and Michael- and ME before he could go anywhere! He isn't dead, I tell you. No, no, no, no, no. He can't be!'

Sophie fell to the ground, sobbing. She wept for the longest time; her whole body was wracked with sobs and wails. She uttered curses and snivelled out her tears. Oh, how she cried and cried and cried. The sadness ebbed out of her soul, sending messages of sorrow in all directions. Melopheme stoked her red hair and tried to comfort her too no avail. It was only till Sophie Hatter was so overcome with grief that she fell in a deep sleep and the Forest was silent once more.