(Or, more accurately, A Tale of One Wizard and One Enchanter)
Part two: In which Howl and Chrestomanci have a boundary dispute in a den of villainy.
"Interesting terrain," Chrestomanci observed, when they had been walking for a few minutes.
Howl blinked, wincing from his headache. "I noticed that," he said, and of course he had.
He blinked again. Of course he had noticed the small volcano that lurked beyond the field of daffodils, smoking contentedly like an old man in a pub. Of course he had noticed the claw-like roots that waved excitedly on the edge of the path. Of course had noticed the skeletal trees, and the blossom that fell from the sky, like splashes of blood.
Howl rubbed his eyes. It really was unfair. He could ease someone else's aches and pains, but his own magic stubbornly refused to do anything about a headache.
"Well," said Chrestomanci, "I think we can be confident of one thing, at least. We aren't in Wales."
Howl decided to ignore his headache. This infuriating man thought he was a fool, and he refused to stand for it. After all, he almost had a doctorate from Swansea University. Yes, so he had disappeared into Ingary before actually writing his thesis, but he was sure he would have dazzled. His supervisor was a woman, after all, and there was no woman alive that he could not charm. No woman worth charming, that is.
They walked a bit further. Howl jostled for the lead, taking a savage delight in brushing against Chrestomanci as he passed. He smiled to himself as he heard Chrestomanci suck in a breath, and imagining him brushing the stain from his impeccable cuff.
The sky above them did interesting things with colour, and swifts flew overhead on leathery wings.
"Do you have a destination in mind, my dear Howl?" Chrestomanci asked.
"Yes," Howl grunted. "Those…" Woods, he was going to say, pointing to a snug cluster of pale green trees ahead of them, but suddenly movement caught his eye. There were dark things among the trees. They looked like… He frowned, remembering films he had sneaked into as a child. Yes, they were definitely ninja, lying in wait for them in a way that lacked in stealth, but made up for it in quantity of sharp swords.
"I saw smoke over there," he said instead, diverting his next step a little bit to the right. "It could be a house. We should investigate."
"I see no smoke."
"Well, it's there. I am a wizard, you know. We know these things." Howl strode on, muttering under his breath. Apparently people like Chrestomanci made him act like a sulky child. He hated Chrestomanci for that. Look what you made me do, he wanted to say. Instead he contented himself with imagining Chrestomanci falling flat on his face in a puddle.
"Well, I do declare that there is smoke after all," Chrestomanci exclaimed. "And a chimney beneath it. And beneath that, I sincerely hope, will be people."
"Of course there's smoke." Howl covered his surprise like a professional.
"Then I must beg your pardon for doubting you," Chrestomanci said. "I can see that you are a mighty wizard indeed, while I am merely a nine-lived enchanter."
Howl replayed the words in his mind. "Nine lives?"
"Oh yes." Chrestomanci looked a little sheepish. "Although actually I only have two left now. I lost them at an alarming rate when I was a boy."
"Even two would be useful," Howl said. "It's always good to have a spare of anything." Of course, that usually applied to clothes, and bottles of hair dye, but it could be even better with lives.
He let himself drift into a daydream. One Howl, courting a lady. The other Howl striding around in the town, letting himself be seen. 'Oh no, it wasn't me,' he could tell the irate aunts and outraged guardians. 'I was somewhere else entirely. You don't believe me? Oh, really? Are you saying that the king is a liar, then, for I exchanged several words with him at just the time you mention…'
The daydream ended, as abruptly as if Sophie was standing in front of him, holding a bucket that had until very recently contained cold water. Oh yes. He was married now. There were no ladies, not even the smallest, tiniest, most innocent little flirt.
"It doesn't work quite the way you are doubtless imagining," Chrestomanci said. "Still, it has its uses. Stopped me shuffling off this mortal coil before my time, anyway."
Howl realised that his daydream had brought him close enough to the smoke to see the house beneath it. It was a strange, crooked affair, dark and crumbling and squat. It reminded him of something, but he could not place it.
"Quite a den of villainy, don't you think?" Chrestomanci observed.
"Definitely," Howl agreed. Suddenly going forward didn't seem like such a good idea after all, but Chrestomanci was on the point of overtaking him, and Howl refused to let him take the lead.
"Not quite a stronghold," Chrestomanci said, as they drew closer. "A lair, perhaps?"
"Hideout," Howl said.
They walked into the yard. Dirty hens wandered around in a depressed fashion, and a dog glowered at them in a half-hearted attempt to look threatening. Someone had tried to plant a flowerbed near the door, by scattering random seeds and hoping for the best, but the results were wilting and dying in a random profusion of tired colour. Howl could not see any people.
The dog growled again. "Oh, you will, will you?" Chrestomanci said. "Why?"
Howl frowned in irritation. "I didn't say anything." He said it in a whisper, for the door into the hideout was slightly open, and anybody could be inside.
The dog stood its ground for a moment, then backed away, as if it had suddenly remembered something urgent it needed to do elsewhere.
"You were speaking to the dog," Howl realised. "You understand dogs?"
"Oh no." Chrestomanci looked smug and serene. "Cats, sometimes, if they're special ones. Cats are so much more satisfying than dogs, don't you think? They take far better care of their appearance."
"Cats put fur all over your clothes," Howl pointed out.
"True." Chrestomanci winced. "But dogs jump up and put mud all over you, and they slobber all over your shoes."
Howl shuddered. He thought Chrestomanci was doing the same.
"It is just a matter of bluff, my dear Howl." Chrestomanci recovered himself first. "Always act as if you understand everything. It confuses them. The results can be… gratifying, as you saw. Well…" He picked some dust from the back of his glove. "Shall we enter this hideout of yours? I expect it is positively bristling with villains."
Howl suspected it was, too. He knew he was a coward. He had proclaimed it often and loudly, usually as a way to stop thinking about something nasty. He had once arranged for Sophie to blacken his name to this king. He knew that the only sensible thing to do was to turn and run away. Let Chrestomanci get butchered by villains if he wanted to, but Howl would be running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
Chrestomanci looked at him, and raised one eyebrow.
Howl glowered. He was going to have to go in. How he hated Chrestomanci! He goaded so. And it turned out that Howl had some pride after all. He refused to be beaten by a man like this.
"Fine," he said. He prepared some useful magics in his mind, just in case knives and guns featured strongly in the near-future. It wouldn't seem like cowardice if he snatched them both out of harm's way, would it? He could say he was doing it for Chrestomanci's sake. He would have stayed and fought, of course, had be been by himself, but he had to get Chrestomanci to a place of safety. After all, he couldn't stand by and watch him get his clothes dirty, could he?
He pushed open the door. Five pairs of eyes turned towards him. Five villainous mouths smiled, showing blackened teeth.
"Come in!" the most terrifying villain exclaimed. "Look what we have here, lads. Two travelling players to join in our game. A jester, by the looks of him, and a lord."
Howl spluttered. Chrestomanci pressed a brief warning touch on his arm.
The villains were sitting around a table playing cards. By the mess in the small room, it looked as if they had been playing cards for a very long time. Every one of them looked like a child's worse nightmare of villainy, though Howl could not see any weapons. They were probably hidden under the table.
"Forgive us for intruding, gentlemen," Chrestomanci said, "but we appear to have strayed into your… fair land by mistake. We were wondering…"
"By mistake? Hear that, lads?" The leader laughed, and the others copied him. "There was no mistake. There are no mistakes here."
Howl saw it out of the corner of his eye. A knife, a hand, and Chrestomanci oblivious… Howl snapped out a word of power, as loud as thunder. The man clattered to the ground, as the man holding it turned into a tree. Another word, quieter, brought the knife into Howl's hand.
"My most sincere thanks," Chrestomanci said. He looked quite shocked. "I think you just prevented me from losing another life."
The men around the table were scrambling to their feet, bringing out weapons from unexpected places, bristling with menace.
"You take the left, and I take the right?" Chrestomanci suggested. "Maybe not a tree this time, though. I don't think there's room for that many branches."
Howl uttered more thunderous words of power, and made his three men as heavy stone. Bet you can't do that, he thought, for Chrestomanci was standing completely still, making no visible signs of magic at all. Howl felt it, though, whatever it was he did. With a stern look and a quiet word, Chrestomanci turned his men into spirits, turned their bodies to air.
Howl did not like it. It reminded him of his time as a genie. It had been a curious and unpleasant thing to ooze, and to feel you were going to fall apart in a breeze.
"Interesting," Chrestomanci observed. "You favour the thunder effect, I see. Do you find that works well for you?"
"Makes me a bit queasy," Howl admitted. It was not good for the stomach to have the power of a thunderstorm echoing in your voice. It was a bit like being on a rollercoaster, plunging into a freefall that never stopped.
"I imagine it would," Chrestomanci said consideringly. "Some forces were not meant to be contained by the human body. But it was quite hair-raising. I take my hat off to you." He suited the action to the words. "Personally, I gain the best effects from a chilly voice and a steely gaze. Softness works well, too. But maybe I will try the thunder one day. After all, it did look very impressive." He looked at the tree with a wrinkle of distaste, swatting away a branch that was exploring his hair. "Effective, too."
Howl wrestled his stomach back under control. He was still holding the knife, he realised. He was about to destroy it, before deciding that it would be more comforting to be holding something sharp and pointy than to be without it.
"Ah," Chrestomanci said. "We appear to have had a slight… boundary dispute, as it were."
How looked where Chrestomanci was indicating. Both of them, it seemed, had included the leader in their share. He was floating a few feet off the ground, pulled downwards by the parts of him that were stone, and pulled upwards by the bits that were air. Howl watched with interest, gratified to see that the stone was holding its own.
"We seem quite a match for each other," Chrestomanci mused. "It could be interesting to leave him like this and see how things turn out. Tempting… But no. He can't answer questions like this, and answers are what we need. You release him from your part and I'll release him from mine."
Howl did so. The leader fell heavily to the floor, just barely managing to stay on his feet, and his hand was instantly at his belt. "Take his weapons away, would you, Howl?" Chrestomanci hissed urgently, and Howl did so. These ones he destroyed. It seemed safer.
"Silver weapons," Chrestomanci explained. "Which, really, is cheating, don't you think? I can't do a thing against silver, you see. I'm as helpless against it as the next man. Still," he added, after a pause, "you could perhaps have turned them into something useful like a slice of cake or a cream bun. Dinner had not yet been served at my daughter's party, and I've eaten nothing since breakfast."
Or water, Howl thought. Clear, cold water, soothing to the head… Bacon, sizzling in the pan, and nice, fat sausages. He eyed the cauldron over the fire, and wondered what it contained.
"So, answers, then." Chrestomanci's voice turned as cold as ice. "My good man, I would like to know why you tried to kill us."
"We're villains," the leader said sulkily. "It's what we do."
"Not good enough." Chrestomanci glided forward a step. "Tell me more."
"It's true," the leader protested. "We had a nice thing going on, me and the lads. Jewel robberies, hold-ups, and the like. A bit of smuggling on the side. Threatening and menacing. Kidnapping heiresses and kittens. It was a nice little earner. Rolling in money, we were, and none of us were getting any younger. So we decided to retire. Bert here was going to open a pub. Jim was going to marry someone and go and farm rabbits. I was going to…"
"Settle down somewhere on the proceeds of your life of crime," Chrestomanci interrupted.
The leader shot a look of pure malice at Chrestomanci. "Settle down, yes, and why not? It's a hard job, being a villain. There's no security in it, and the people hate us…"
"I cannot think why." Chrestomanci arched his eyebrow. "But enough of that. Please carry on."
For a moment, it looked as if the leader was going to refuse to talk any more, but Chrestomanci made his eyes turn into gleaming stones. "You'll let the lads go?" the leader squeaked. "It does look awful uncomfortable."
Chrestomanci nodded. "If you tell us what we need to know."
The leader subsided. "Well, me and the lads decided to go on one last job, like a going-away present. A stash of loot, it was, in an unguarded warehouse. Lovely, it was, all shiny and golden. But we never got to lay our hands on it. As soon as we got near it, everything went all swirly, like a night with too much grog, and here we were, all of us. Years ago, that was. Years." He dabbed at his eyes, as if he was crying, but Howl knew it was a sham. He had feigned despair too many times himself, moping at the feet of heartless ladies.
"Where's here?" Howl demanded.
"A dreadful place," the leader moaned. Then he looked at Howl and sighed, as if he recognised that Howl was the sort of man who could see through lies, even if Chrestomanci could be tricked. "No, it's not so terrible. Awful tedious, though, for most of the year. Nothing to do but play cards and wait until the summer holidays start."
"Why do you have to wait until then?" Howl asked.
"Because that's when the nippers are around, of course." The leader looked at him as if he was stupid. "We do something dastardly at the start of their holidays. They spend the summer solving the mystery, and our sinister plans are thwarted just in time for school to start again in the autumn."
"Interesting," Chrestomanci observed. "I'd have thought that this was a reason to avoid the summer holidays. Why not commit all your dastardly acts when there's no children around to thwart you?"
"We tried that." The leader sighed tragically. "It turns out that we like the attention. It's awful boring to steal a pile of loot without anyone noticing. You can't menace a room full of nobody. At least in the summer people notice. A bit like the good old days, it is, even if we always get thwarted in the end. Better to be thwarted than ignored."
"An interesting point of view." Chrestomanci turned to Howl. "Actually, I think I can sympathise."
Howl did not like to be ignored, but being thwarted tended to end unpleasantly, such as inside a genie's bottle. Instead of responding, he demanded, "Did you ever try to go home again?"
"Of course we did." The leader glowered. "What do you take us for? We tried everything, but there's no way out. You're trapped here, mate. Best get used to it, because you're never going home."