In which Howl gets into trouble at home.
Howl started running. He wanted Sophie very badly. He wanted to be in his own house, even if Sophie was shouting at him, even if the children were screaming, even if Calcifer was sulking, even if the apprentices were burning things and filling the whole place with the acrid stink of magic gone wrong.
No-one chased him. No-one paid him any attention at all. He saw one woman shrug as he passed, and roll her eyes, as if she was saying, "There he goes again." He might have protested, but the need to get home was too strong, and soon he was there, at his own familiar door. He opened it with the touch of magic that served for a key, and he found himself attacked, struck violently on the side of the face, sent sprawling to the floor.
"I told you to go away," Sophie shouted. "Go away, and stay away."
He felt the compulsion of her magic pushing at his mind, trying to persuade him that there was nothing better in the world than to leave town and set up house in a damp hedgerow somewhere, far away from Sophie and her children.
He pushed it away. "It's me." He tried to sit up, but her glare pushed him down again. "You hit me," he whined, bringing his fingers up to his throbbing cheek. They were trembling, which was not good.
"And I'll hit you again if…" Sophie let out a breath, visibly relaxing. "Oh, it is you. No-one else would have the nerve to dress like that, even if they were trying to impersonate you."
She let him stand up. "I really don't think it's fair," he complained, brushing his clothes down, "to complain about my clothes. After all, you made them. And to hit me, after the day I've had. A proper wife…"
"You know full well that you wouldn't want a proper wife," Sophie blazed. "You said so once."
"Well, maybe I would after all."
It felt good to argue, as if everything was rapidly being pushed back into its normal channels. It stilled the trembling, and it drove away the last vestiges of fear. It was the same with Sophie, he realised. Her hands were trembling; her hair was disarranged. Something had disturbed her, and she was hiding it in bickering.
"What is it?" All anger fell away. He tried to move towards her, but she backed away almost imperceptibly. "What happened?"
"Someone came," she said quietly. "I thought he was you at first, but then I could tell that he wasn't. He looked like you, but… Howl, he was evil. His eyes were so cold, and his smile…"
"Did he hurt you?" He touched her cheek; took her hand. "Did he…?"
"No." She shook her head. "I used the magic you taught me. I said the words, and your spell…" She sighed. "He went, Howl. And then when the door opened, I thought it was him coming back. I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"It's nothing." He tried for bravery. He then tried to tell his story, though he did miss out certain unimportant details, such as the fact that he had been fleeing from pursuit, and the slave girl with hardly any clothes on, and the fact that he had been afraid. "It was me," he concluded, when the story had been told. "An evil version of me from another universe. We must have swapped places somehow. I found a way into his world, and he came here."
Sophie had gone very still. "And that's the whole story, is it?"
He nodded eagerly. He felt her magic lap around him, suggesting to him that a full confession would be a very good idea indeed, but he was nothing if not an expert at wriggling out of suggestions like that. "That's it," he said. "I realised the danger, and I broke free. They tried to stop me, but of course nothing can hold me against my will. I am the Wizard Howl, after all."
"Oh," Sophie said, very quiet and very cold. "In that case, I'm going to put the children to bed, then go to bed myself. You," she said firmly, "can work on protecting the house from any other stray evil twins of yours that feel like coming to visit."
She strode off, proud and dignified. Howl wondered what he had said wrong. His cheek hurt, and he rubbed it gingerly with his hand. When he brought the hand down again, he saw the lipstick on it. He wrinkled his nose, and realised that he still reeked of the half-naked girl's perfume.
He cursed under his breath, and headed to his work bench, for a long evening of magic, alone.
Sophie was still angry at breakfast.
"I liked him," Calcifer said unhelpfully, as he danced around the bacon, singeing bits of it black, while leaving the rest completely uncooked. "He had style."
"I have style." Howl drew himself up haughtily.
"You look as if you were dressed by a three-year old," Calcifer said. "He was wearing black all over, and his hair was like a raven's wing. He didn't dye his hair, at least."
Sophie strolled forward, carrying a large bowl of water oh so casually under her arm. Morgan's eyes gleamed with mingled fear and excitement.
"He was the sort of wizard any fire demon would be proud to serve." Calcifer flared up around the bacon, then cowered down in the ashes. "Don't let her put me out."
"She won't." Howl put himself between Sophie and the fire. "And you don't serve me anyway, so that's enough of this nonsense. Now, are you going to let me salvage this sorry attempt at bacon, or not?"
Calcifer glowered sulkily. Sophie stalked forward with the water, then stopped. "I just remembered I'm cross with him." She tossed her head. "Say what you like, Calcifer. Take him apart."
"He's not worth it." Calcifer glowed with self-righteousness. "I want the other one to come back. Let this one go back to the girl with the perfume."
"I don't want the other one to come back," Sophie said quietly. She moved to Howl's side, and grabbed the pan of bacon from him. "I think you want to let us cook our breakfast now, Calcifer."
It was said with quiet menace, and Calcifer obeyed. He shot pleading little sparks in Howl's direction, as if suggesting that they ally against Sophie, but Howl would have none of it. From the way Sophie was standing beside him, he guessed that he was forgiven. If Calcifer had to become their common enemy, in order to get Sophie to smile at him, then he had no complaints.
When it came to serving the bacon, however, he only got one charred piece, while Sophie got all the best bits. He almost commented about it, then decided not to.
He had not quite finished his breakfast when there was a knock at the door. Morgan answered it before either Sophie or Howl could move. "Daddy!" he shouted. "There's soldiers here to 'rest you again."
Again, Howl echoed. It occurred to him that this was not something that a five year old ought to be able to say to his father. He stood up slowly, the chair scraping on the floor behind him. Perhaps he could climb out of the window, or maybe turn into a fly and vanish up the chimney.
"Are you going to turn them into spiders, daddy?" Morgan clapped his hands with excitement. "Or cats, like last time?"
"Morgan!" Sophie hurried him away, but his chatter was audible for far too long, as he gleefully suggested awful things that Howl could do to the King's soldiers – some of which Howl had already done in the past, and hoped no-one would ever know about.
Howl tried not to blush. A King's wizard did not blush. The soldiers, he noticed, had turned a little pale, and none of them seemed keen to be on the front row. Six of them jostled to be inconspicuous at the back. The one who had evidently drawn the short straw was small and mousy-haired, with protruding ears.
"Ah… Wizard Howl…" He cleared his throat. "There are some… ah… statues, and it looks like that… well, they used to be men. Men who were… ah… chasing you – that's what people say, at least, and it's them who's saying it, not us. And we wouldn't… I mean, the boss said… It's just that their wives are complaining, and they look so uncomfortable-like, and they're blocking the thoroughfare and scaring the horses and…"
"It wasn't me," Howl said wearily. He already knew that he would not be believed. He felt stupid for not anticipating this. Of course he would get the blame for the things his double had done. "It wasn't me," he said again, standing as nobly and as tall as he could, "but I will undo the foul thing this man has done."
He hoped he could carry it off. He followed them as proudly as he could, trying to ignore all the whisperings and pointing fingers. He would run away if he had to, he decided. He concentrated on working out his escape plan. He would go back and get Sophie and the children, sweet-talk Calcifer into making their house a moving one again… Or Wales. Perhaps he would run away to Wales.
"There they are," the leading soldier declared. He spoiled it a little by trembling the final word into a near-mumble.
Howl felt a little trembly himself at the sight of the innocent garden gate, and the memory of what had lain beyond it, but he tried not to show it. He was a self-confessed coward, but at least he had some pride. "I will undo this foul magic," he declared.
It was difficult. He proclaimed the required words, but the other man's magic still clung to the frozen men, like something thick and black and noxious. It seemed to anticipate anything he did. It was like fencing with an enemy who knew your every move. It was like fighting with someone who was inside your brain.
It was like trying to defeat yourself, trying to conquer yourself, trying to kill yourself.
It made him shudder. He wanted to fall to his knees and cough up his breakfast. He wasn't me! he wanted to scream. This stranger's magic was so different from his own, yet so utterly, intimately the same. Howl had never frozen a man into an agonised statue, but he could have done so, if he had tried. He could have done so, and now he knew how to. He had the spell on his lips and at his fingertips. It was dark and familiar, and if anyone provoked him, he could…
"No!" he cried, tearing the magic apart with a great gesture of denial. The freed men collapsed to the ground, and one of them, the biggest and toughest of them all, started sobbing.
"It wasn't me." Howl crawled towards them. "It wasn't me."
"It looked like you." The huge man's voice was broken.
"No," said another. "Look at his eyes. Different."
"But the same now."
Howl walked away, sick at heart. He hated this. He did not like to feel like this. He did not normally feel like this. He could always keep things at bay with a witty word or a cutting put-down. He was a coward, but he was not weak.
I want to go home, he thought, and forget this…
The next thing he knew, he was tumbling head-first into a ditch.
He reacted as quickly as he could, but it was not quick enough. He landed in soft mud, and his hands sank into it up to his wrist, and his face – no, not my face! – impacted with the dark and stinking slime. Spitting with disgust, he tried to clamber up again, but thorns reached for him, tangling his clothes… and tore them! A huge rip appeared in his sleeve, at least half an inch long! Horrified, he tugged at the thorn, but, out of spite, it tore across his palm, drawing blood.
"This really is too much." He managed to stand up, spiteful little thorns snagging his clothes. Dark slime dripped from his eyebrows and his chin, landing on the filthy rag that was his third-best suit.
"Quick!" a woman's voice shouted. "Get out of there at once."
"It's hardly my fault." Howl planted his stinking hands on his hips. "There I was…"
"They're coming!" She sounded quite terrified. She was a pretty enough thing, he saw, with fair hair and pink cheeks, but all of that was marred by the fact that she was shouting at him "We have to run."
He tried to climb out of the ditch, but the thorns prevented him. He considered fighting them, but feared they would win. "Let them come, then," he declared airily. "I'm good at talking my way out of things."
"Idiot!" she screeched. "You can't talk your way out of this one, Pierre Morgan. The Emperor himself swore to have your head if you practiced magic again, and what do you do? You turn a hundred gendarmes' batons into baguettes!"
"It wasn't my fault," he protested.
"Fool!" she shrieked. It was strange hearing Welsh spoken with such a strong French accent. "You have to get to Fishguard. Take a ferry to Ireland and…" She threw her hands up in horror. "And what on earth are you wearing under that slime, Pierre Morgan?"
Howl fluttered his hand uselessly. "A disguise?"
"A disguise?" Her face melted. "Still the charming, childish, idiot man I married."
She came towards him as if to help him out of the ditch. That part of it was good. What was more worrying was the fact that she was wearing lipstick, and her perfume was discernible even over the stench of the mud.
"Fishguard," he gasped. He hauled himself out of the ditch, howling silently inside whenever he heard another rip. "No time to waste. Got to run."
Two steps later, and the ground was pulled away from under his feet. He tumbled forward, and hit something hard, slamming into it with his shoulder. He rolled and came up again, only to find Sophie looking down at him.
"At least it's only mud this time." She wrinkled her nose. "You can wash it off yourself, though."
"My shoulder hurts." He knew he was whining, but didn't care. "My clothes are torn."
Sophie acted as if she had not heard him. "Still, this one was far nicer than the last. Positively charming, actually. I liked him. Morgan liked him even more. Didn't you, Morgan?"
"This daddy's yucky." Morgan made a face of eloquent disgust. "He's dirty and he smells. I want the other one back. He's going to take me riding on a proper Welsh dragon," he informed Howl helpfully, as if that explained everything.
"That's it." Howl stood up, as dignified as anyone could be who suddenly found themselves sprawled on the ground in the middle of Kingsbury, covered in Welsh mud. "This has to stop."
"How are you going to stop it?" Sophie asked.
Her cheeks were flushed. Bet she doesn't want me to stop it at all, Howl thought darkly. Charming indeed! "I am a magician," he told her loftily. "I can do anything. Sometimes my magic is too complicated for ordinary people to understand."
"You're going to ask Chrestomanci," Sophie declared.
Howl kept his face impassive. She was right, of course. The filthy clothes and the half-naked girls had been distracting, but he was not so easily distracted as all that. He knew that he had been flitting between worlds, and Chrestomanci – much as Howl hated to admit it – was an expert at such things. It wasn't as if he was stronger wizard than Howl – of course he wasn't! – but he had had more opportunity to practice such things. It would do no harm to ask him his opinion, equal to equal.
"You are!" Sophie smiled triumphantly.
"If you want me to." Howl said it with the long-suffering resignation of a husband who would do anything for his wife's little whims. "I doubt he'll know anything, though."
"He was charming, too," Sophie added, as they set off back home. "I would like to see him again."
Howl decided that he would keep Chrestomanci and Sophie apart. He would think of a justification later. "Why were you out?" he asked her, trying to change the subject.
Sophie hooked her arm through his, despite the mud that promptly slimed all over her dress. "Why, I was coming to rescue you, of course."
And Howl suddenly had nothing left to say. He kissed her, and she smiled up at him, cheeks rosy beneath the mask of green-tinged mud.