"Well," Chrestomanci exclaimed, as they walked away from the villains' hideout, each step making the leader's outraged cries a little less ear-splitting. "That was an interesting tale."
Howl listened to a stream of swear words that even the rugby players did not know. "Perhaps he was lying."
"Oh no." Chrestomanci shook his head. "It was true."
"You used a truth spell?" Howl clenched and unclenched his hands nervously. He had never tried a truth spell. There was too much of a risk that it would spill over onto him, and it would be so unfair if he had to tell the truth all the time.
"No magic," Chrestomanci said smugly. "I made him tell the truth by sheer force of personality. At least," he added, with only a token expression of modesty, "that's what people often tell me."
"You should try it," Chrestomanci said. "I can see that you have an incredibly strong personality yourself, although for some reason you keep trying to pretend that you haven’t. I cannot think why. Unless that's what you mean when you say you're a slitherer-outer?"
Howl did not dignify it with a reply. Instead he muttered the words that released the villains from his part of the spell. So what if it was earlier than they had planned. It would serve Chrestomanci right if they came charging up and stabbed him in the back with pointy silver knives. Howl would be safe. Howl didn't have a stupid inability to do magic with silver.
He was, however, rather relieved when no-one emerged from the hideout.
They walked on. "Because, really," Chrestomanci observed, "there seems to be nothing better to do." The landscape continued to vary alarmingly around them, veering from rocky chasms to rolling meadows in the space of a few hundred yards. They saw no further signs of habitation, but Howl thought he glimpsed a giant, strolling aimlessly on a hillside far away. Another hillside was topped with a dark ruin, that looked deserted, but you never could tell.
"It looks like a film set," Howl said out loud. "Moving pictures," he explained, in case Chrestomanci came from a place without films. He hoped he did.
"So you come from that Wales," Chrestomanci exclaimed. "And I do know what films are, as it happens. I have a ward who comes from your England. She has taken it upon herself to educate me in the ways of her world. She calls it broadening my horizons." He said it a way that made Howl quite glad that he did not have to meet this ward.
"Well, it does," Howl persisted. "Everywhere's dramatic, as if it's a stage for big events."
Chrestomanci stopped walking. "You could be on to something there. But maybe not a film. A dream, perhaps." He pressed his fingers together. "Yes, a dream… I once met a girl with a whose dreams tended to the dramatic like this. Yes, I could imagine those villains appearing in her cast of thousands… Though I doubt we are in a dream. I suspect we would know about it if we were."
Howl thought it could be interesting to be in a dream. But, then, he supposed he already was. Lots of lovely young ladies doubtless dreamed about him already. He imagined himself as they would see him - teeth gleaming, hair shining in the sun, on a pedestal like a god, bathed in the pink light of love. Puppy dogs and chocolate… Ribbons and hearts… 'Oh, Howl, you are my hero…'
"… worth pursuing, anyway."
Howl blinked. Probably nothing worth hearing, anyway. He strode on, before suddenly realising that he was still clutching the first silver knife. How far did it go, this curious inability of Chrestomanci to work magic on silver? He wondered what would happen if he subtly dropped it in Chrestomanci's pocket. Ten years of stealing tokens from ladies had made him excellent at sleight of hand, even without bringing magic into the mix.
He transferred the knife into the other hand. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the blade. Not good. He winced, and brought the blade up, using it as a mirror as he tried to arrange his hair into some semblance of artful abandon…
His hand fell to his side, his hair remaining tragically unstyled. The knife… The hand that wielded it… The face that snarled above the hand…
"I've seen them before," he gasped. "I didn't recognise them at first because they look different in real life. They was those sort of illustrations."
"Those black-and-white line drawings that look like a few scribbles, but everyone says how wonderful they are, so full of life and atmosphere, and they keep winning prizes, even though they don't really look like people at all."
Chrestomanci looked quite at a loss. Howl knew he would replay his look lovingly in his mind for ever more.
"It was in a book I read as a child," he explained. "One of my favourites." He knew he was being petty, but he decided to eke the explanation out by launching into a short nostalgic reflection. Books he thought, to kick it off. He used to read novels all the time, before he discovered girls. In Ingary, no-one read novels. What any other world would call the stuff of fiction, was plain old non-fiction in Ingary…
"Are you saying that these villains were in your book?" Chrestomanci asked patiently.
Howl reluctantly nodded. "They did something dastardly at the start of the holidays, but luckily the Tremendous Two were on hand to solve the mystery and thwart them before it was time to go back to school."
"Ah." Chrestomanci brought his finger to his lips. "Ah."
"There was a ruined castle in it, too," Howl remembered. "A bit like that one."
"So it seems that you were right after all, my dear Howl." Chrestomanci clapped him on the back. "Not a film set, perhaps, but something very similar. But we're in worse trouble than I feared. This has clearly been going on for years."
Howl felt his triumph disappear like water out of a bath. A scented bath, with bubbles and lotions and a lovely lady to…
"I may be wrong, of course," Chrestomanci said, "but here is my theory. It makes sense. It answers a few other questions that have been pestering me lately."
Howl refused to ask what the theory was. He tried to return to his bath, but the wind changed direction, bringing with it a nasty smell, like brimstone, or unemptied rubbish bins on a hot summer's day.
"I believe we have been spied on for years," Chrestomanci declared. "You, me, and our villainous friends back there. Someone has been watching us, and taking little notes. Everything we've done has been recorded… and then published in another world as children's books."
"Impossible!" Howl was outraged.
"Not so impossible," Chrestomanci told him. "In some worlds, there's quite a thriving literature trade. One world's tedious government briefing is another world's thrilling adventure. I know a world where our prime minister's dullest speeches are watched by millions, who gasp at every 'but' as if it's a sword fight, and tremble at every 'er' as if it's a duel with lions."
"Impossible," Howl repeated. He felt violated and cheapened. "A children's book. My life is not the subject of a children's book. The women! The drink! The debauchery and drugs and rock and roll! I am not suitable for children."
"I share your pain." Chrestomanci straightened his cravat and smoothed his cuffs. "I am quite wasted on children. Ragged little things, always getting their clothes dirty. Irony goes right over their head. But perhaps it comes from the whole fairy tale thing. In your world, I believe, the people are foolish enough to think that fairy tales are for children, and that anything magical is childish."
Howl wanted to defend his world, but could not. His friends had laughed at him mercilessly when he first expressed an interest in magic. 'Grow up,' they told him, so he did, and then they started telling him off for chasing their sisters.
"Well," Chrestomanci said, "leaving aside the questionable choice of audience, I think I could well be right. These last few years, I've been summoned away all the time, and almost always by giggling children. As I observed to you earlier, I have often wondered how they got hold of my name. This could be my answer. They've read about me in a book."
But at least if they read about me when they're children, Howl thought, they might have a soft spot for me when they're older. You never forget your first love, after all.
"But how does this all relate to our current situation?" Chrestomanci raised a triumphant finger. "On this, too, I have a theory. Cast your mind back to our friends in the hideout. They were about to retire from their life of crime. In other words, they were about to become boring. You can't write a good children's book about a former villain who is now retired and tending rabbits. So how do you ensure that your villains keep doing interesting things? You kidnap them and trap them in a world full of volcanoes and piles of gold and obliging children eager to solve crime. You force them to live interesting lives, and then you sit back, takes notes, and write your books."
Howl tracked down the important point at the heart of this verbiage. "I have not become boring!" he protested.
"Well, I have." Chrestomanci sighed. "Once, I had adventures that would make your hair curl. Summoned hither and thither, saving worlds left, right and centre. But the last year has been one endless round of meetings. The bureaucracy gets worse every year. I have been chairing this, and chairing that… Horrible, tedious stuff."
"Nappies," Howl lamented. "Crying in the middle of the night. Clearing up piles of baby food. Unimaginable things smeared over your clothes." He wasn't sure why he was admitting it, but it was too late to stop now. "I used to life the glamorous life. There were women. There were tales told about me. I defeated a witch, and even the djinn of heaven. I had a moving castle…"
"Really?" Chrestomanci asked. "I wish mine moved. The villagers have a pleasing rural kind of charm, but sometimes one longs for a change of scenery."
"It doesn't move any more." It was the sort of situation when only a pout would do. "Sophie said it was no place to raise a child. She wanted to settle down, to put down roots. Only until the children have finished school, she said, but that will be years. I might even be grey by then!"
"My profoundest sympathies." Chrestomanci sighed. "It was the job with me. I wasn't even fourteen. Tied down to work for the government whether I liked it or not. I wanted to be a professional cricketer, you know."
"I used to play rugby." Howl sighed even louder. "I could have been a pro."
"And then I married young. Childhood sweetheart, and such like. Then children." Chrestomanci's sigh was longer still. "They take so long to grow up. One wishes one could just accelerate time until they're properly interesting, or squirt all the knowledge that they need into their brains, to avoid the tiresome business of teaching them."
"Morgan's only three." His sigh went on and on. He recognised that it was a competition and he was determined to win. "Bethan's eight months old. And if it's not them, it's Lettie's two climbing all over me. Teaching them will be fun," he admitted. He had already started to teach Morgan how to lie to Sophie, and it would be fun to have a son following in his footsteps. "But I could do without the dirty nappies."
"I can't argue with that." The sighing game seemed to be over. Howl was fairly sure he had won. "And the boring life has its good points, of course. You don't tend to lose lives in tedious policy meetings."
"Or when playing peek-a-boo with a baby." Howl said it with feeling. He sometimes still caught himself smiling soppily at the thought of his baby girl, and he and Morgan were partners in crime. You got smiles and laughter and love back from a child. From the king, you got only danger, and your only reward was the 'privilege' of further, even more dangerous duties.
He wanted to go back home. He wanted it suddenly with an intensity that surprised him. After all, only the night before he had been so desperate for a night away from domestic duties that he had lied to his wife about the rugby club dinner, sneaked out to the pub and…
He clapped his hand to his mouth, as if Chrestomanci could hear his thoughts. He remembered telling Chrestomanci that he had got drunk in order to escape the king's demands. It sounded better to say that the king had wanted him to save the world, than the admit that his wife wanted him to do the washing-up.
"Not so boring, then," Chrestomanci said, "or so regrettable. But you can see why our interfering little spy might have considered our exploits boring. You can see why he or she wanted to intervene and put us somewhere more conducive to adventure."
"She," Howl declared with confidence. If he was going to be stalked, then it was going to be by a woman.
Chrestomanci peered critically at Howl's face, then preened himself a little. "I see what you mean," he said. "Fancy that. She's only interested in us because of our irresistible looks."
"And sense of style." Howl meant it of himself, of course, though he had to grudgingly admit that Chrestomanci wore his clothes well, if you liked that sort of thing.
"Not to mention dazzling magical powers." Chrestomanci clapped his hands together. "So we've settled on the why. I wonder when the first exciting adventure will begin."
Howl sniffed. The bad smell had grown steadily stronger during their conversation, he realised. A mist had rolled up on the far side of the path. As he stared into it, it suddenly cleared, revealing a large force of squat soldiers, led by a black-clad figure on a floating horse. Its eyes were red.
His throat went dry. "Now," he croaked.
Chrestomanci glanced over his shoulder, and grimaced. "Oh dear. Well, I suppose we can refuse to play? Be as boring as possible so she sends us back?" He shook his head, with a rueful sigh. "No, I thought not. You are no more capable of deliberately being boring than I am."
Howl swallowed. "I'd be boring if it helped me stay alive."
"True." Chrestomanci drew himself up, as the army marched ever closer through the mist. "Boring it is, then…" He frowned. "Oh, come now, this really isn't fair. Silver weapons? What sort of a fell host uses silver weapons?" He did not look anything like as dismayed as Howl felt. "This could be… interesting, my colourful friend."
Howl wanted to run, but by then the army was upon them, and a hundred spears were levelled at his throat.
end of part three