In which Howl slithers out in every possible direction
"Slithering out," or so Chrestomanci appeared to believe, meant that ability to charm your way out of any situation.
Howl was almost offended, then decided that this was, in fact, true.
"It's something I'm poor at myself," Chrestomanci admitted. "I can charm grandmothers and great-aunts and, regrettably, teenage girls, but I cannot charm anyone who sets themselves up as a foe. If I come across anyone who is bristling with challenge, I challenge them right back. It makes my wife exceedingly exasperated. She says I go round being overbearing and arrogant, and it takes her months of gentleness and charm to undo the damage done by two minutes with me."
He said it quite cheerfully, but Howl could well believe that it was true. He thought of the king of Ingary, and his constant demands. Some had been impossible even for Howl to wriggle out of, but most had been evaded with a smile and a diversion and a hasty retreat. He could not imagine Chrestomanci doing such a thing. Chrestomanci would haughtily draw himself up, and turn it into a challenge of wills. No king could ever let himself lose such a challenge, and so Chrestomanci would end up roped into doing all manner of tiresome magics for the crown.
Howl smiled happily. Chrestomanci might act as if he ruled the world, but Howl had the better life.
It made him feel almost charitable towards Chrestomanci as the other man outlined his plan. It even made him agree to what Chrestomanci was suggesting. He didn't even grunt, or sit down with his arms folded.
"It all depends on you," Chrestomanci said, and Howl grinned, because it did. "I am helpless in your hands."
The grin faded. "Don't overdo it," Howl said, suddenly sure that he was being patronised.
"I'm not," Chrestomanci said brightly, as they started on their way. "I really am most hopeless at winning people over."
Howl decided that he was not going to be outdone. "I'm lazy," he admitted. "I'd do anything to avoid work."
"I think far too much of myself," Chrestomanci retorted.
"I am, too." Chrestomanci darted in and robbed Howl of a point. "At least, I spend far too much time making sure that my clothes are just right."
"My hair is dyed." Howl tugged at a lock.
"Mine is straightened." Chrestomanci pointed at his head, as sleek and black as obsidian. "It's naturally quite curly."
"I'm a coward." Howl thrust it like a sword in a duel. "I tremble at the thought of danger."
Chrestomanci flapped his hand. "Only a fool does not. I, on the other hand…" He drew himself up haughtily. "I never bother to remember people's names."
Howl snorted. "That's nothing. I once sold my heart to a demon."
"Really?" Chrestomanci looked impressed for a moment, then cried triumphantly, "I once betrayed my friends to my wicked uncle and nearly brought about the ruination of the world." He let out a breath. "It was an accident," he admitted. "I was tricked, and I did help to put things right afterwards."
Howl pressed his hand to his chest, where his heart beat in a reassuring steady rhythm. "I got my heart back, and the demon was hardly an evil one. It bends its head to let me cook bacon. You don't find evil demons doing that."
They walked in silence for a while. Chrestomanci had left it to Howl to choose the direction, on the grounds that he had located the villains' hideout first, so clearly had a nose for these things. Howl was not convinced, but he didn't argue. He led them across country, sometimes walking, and sometimes using magic to speed their way across the boring bits.
It was not long before they started to meet people.
Two boys came first, trudging heavily along the road with expressions of tedium on their pale faces. When questioned, they freely told their story. They had solved a few mysteries, they said, in past school holidays, but had started to grow out of it. One of them had wanted to devote more time to studying, and the other had begun to discover girls.
"And that's when it happened," the taller boy said. "We found ourselves here, trapped in an awful school, where nothing ever really happens. But the holidays are worse. We can't get home, you see. We've tried and tried, but we can't find the way. So we have to stay at school all through the holidays. And that's when the… things start to happen."
"Things?" Chrestomanci asked.
They nodded. "Footprints under the window. Secret messages. A light in the ruin on the hills. The school trophies going missing. We kept trying to ignore them, but they kept on happening, more and more… and, well…"
"It's more interesting solving yet another stupid mystery," sighed the other boy, "than sitting around school right all day with nothing to do."
"And I suppose we are catching dastardly villains and thwarting their wicked schemes," said the taller boy miserably. "That can only be good, surely?"
The boys were easily won over to Chrestomanci's plan, once Howl explained it to them. The second group was more of a challenge. It was a small group of pirates, festooned with knives, and entirely villainous in appearance. When Howl and Chrestomanci approached them, they were gathered around a tattered treasure map, busy bickering over directions, but the sudden appearance of the two wizards distracted them utterly from treasure.
Their distraction involved knives, ropes and many alarming threats, featuring planks and keels and sharks. Howl panicked, and was about to utter a spell to bring about his escape, when Chrestomanci said pointedly, "My good fellows, my friend here has a proposition for you."
Howl remembered. The plan. Yes, the plan. There was to be no escaping, and no vanquishing. He had to slither out of this with words, because Chrestomanci could not do it. His arrogant manner would only make the pirates more blood-thirsty.
He stilled his magic, forced himself to smile, to speak to them with the honeyed tongue that he used to use on young ladies, charming them to do what he wanted.
It worked. "That wasn't pleasant," Howl commented, as they walked away. He was ruefully rubbing the rope marks on his wrists, mourning the marring of his perfect skin.
"Oh, I imagine we will encounter worse," Chrestomanci said cheerfully.
The next group, however, was confusing. It consisted of a band of small mammals armed with miniature spears and swords, tramping grimly across the hills. Howl fought the urge to laugh. "Do they speak English, do you think?" he wondered out loud.
"All civilised people speak English," Chrestomanci declared. "Although, if a weasel puts on a sword, can that be seen as a sign of civilisation, or precisely the opposite? That, however, is a question for the philosophers to debate, and not us."
It was no help at all. Howl decided to act as if they could speak English, and trotted along beside them for a while, giving his explanation. They did not respond, though a hedgehog in passing gave him a jab in the ankles with a spear.
"Never mind." Chrestomanci shrugged, when Howl finally gave us. "Perhaps they understood, and perhaps they did not. On to the next?"
The next group was when it started escalating into something unexpected. It was a band of outlaws, clad in Lincoln green, but not at all merry. They listened to Howl's proposition politely enough, but then flat-out refused.
"No," their leader said, leaning on his bow. "It will be the death of us."
"You haven't been listening," Howl cried, then remembered that he was supposed to be charming. He gave them a dazzling smile instead. "Everyone's going to be doing it," he said. "We're making sure of that. We're going to track down everyone who's ever been brought here and trapped here. It won't just be you."
Chrestomanci's plan was that everyone in the world should fold their arms and refuse to play. Howl was the one who had to convince them - all the villains and pirates and terrifying bandits - that it was not in their interests to kill the two tempting wizards who had blundered into the path, but instead they should let them go, and give up their villainy and piracy and banditting for good. "Or at least until you get back home," he usually added.
"The sheriff will never agree," said the green-clad outlaw. "You say we should lay down our arms and refuse to set our sneaky traps for his men, but what about him? We'll be lambs to his slaughter."
"We'll talk to this sheriff," Howl tried to assure him. "Once he hears about the children's books and the author, he'll agree to stop playing her game. Everyone else has."
The outlaws still refused. "It has to be all of us," Howl said, growing more desperate. This, too, was part of Chrestomanci's plan. If Howl alone sat down and refused to play, the author was likely to ignore it, but if everyone did it all at once, then she would have no stories left to observe. It had to involve a prodigious amount of magic, Chrestomanci said, to keep the world maintained and its population imprisoned. Surely she would stop doing it if she was no longer getting what she wanted from it.
Either that, Howl thought darkly, or kill us, and get some wizards who are more tractable. He did not say that, though. He did not even think it very often, if he could help it.
"I have an idea," Howl declared suddenly. He thought back to his childhood in Wales, when his father used to come home talking about foremen and shop stewards and picket lines. "We'll form a Union," he declared. "Make banners. Write an anthem. Wear badges. A secret salute. If you come across any of your usual enemies, you can check to see if they're wearing the Union badges, then you'll know…"
They took a bit more persuading. Some of the words needed explaining, but Howl and Chrestomanci left them eagerly making badges, and calling each other "comrade."
"I fear you have started something here, my friend," Chrestomanci said with a grimace. "Here, it only serves our purposes, but when they go home…" He clapped Howl on the back. "I believe you have just introduced trade unions to the Middle Ages in a whole host of worlds. History will never be the same again." He did not seem at all perturbed by it. "I await the developments with interest."
Howl said nothing. They continued their journey until it was dark, and half way through the night. Howl's voice grew hoarse with too much telling, and his stomach hurt from too many close brushes with death. A dozen groups were won over, and then two dozen…
"I'm tired," he admitted at last. "And hungry."
"A world like this is bound to have an inn," Chrestomanci declared. "Many adventures start in inns, and inn-keepers always have all the gossip."
When they found one, the beer was bad, maybe because it was in a children's story. Howl wrinkled his nose over one pint, then limited himself to water. The food was good, and the barmaid was pretty. Unfortunately, the inn-keeper was quickly convinced by Howl's story, and was positively enthusiastic in his commitment not to play the author's game any longer.
This involved refusing to serve any more food, and casting Howl and Chrestomanci out into the night. "Closed," read the hastily-scrawled notice on the door. "Forever."
"Should have waited until morning," Howl berated himself.
Chrestomanci shook the dust from his clothes. "Onwards then, my friend?"
The sun rose in time. Howl and Chrestomanci traversed the land by magic, and talked to everyone they met. Once they passed close by a wagon overloaded with silver weapons, led by an incredulous peasant. Many leagues away from that, they spotted a naked and disconsolate dark lord, dragged off by a pair of old-fashioned policemen.
By the second sunset, there were union banners everywhere, and picket lines, made up of assorted outlaws, pirates, children and occasional animals. Anyone who tried to cross them was jeered at and called "scab." A cat burglar had set up a soup kitchen, dispensing steaming bowls to the strikers, and new songs of unity were being invented every minute.
"Interesting," Chrestomanci observed. "A most impressive achievement."
And it was then that their enemy appeared.