In which Howl falls into a fountain
He woke up wet. Water was intruding very strongly on his consciousness, splashing on his face and flowing around his body, nasty and slithery and cold. His head hurt. He could taste alcohol, and a dark sky full of stars was whirling madly around his head. When he tried to move his hands, he found that he couldn't.
I seem to be drunk, he thought. I wonder how that happened. He had no memory of sitting down with that first drink, gleaming amber and promising more. He had no memory of songs. He had no memory of staggering home with friends, and he had no idea at all why he might have chosen to go to sleep in a river. Sleeping in a river was never sensible.
He closed his eyes. Maybe that would make things go away.
His head swam. Sickness burnt the back of his throat. He opened his eyes again, and nothing had changed.
Someone approached him, an impassive face blanking out the sky. "We know you're awake. We are on guard."
They were speaking Welsh. He tried to speak, but his tongue would not co-operate. This is all a dream, he told himself. Yes, he would believe that. This was a dream. Nothing was real. If he closed his eyes for long enough, he would wake up in his own bed, with Sophie beside him.
Sophie… There was something… He bit his lip, trying to think, trying to push past the alcohol and the horrid, infuriating noise of trickling water, and the pain in his head, and the cold hardness at his wrists, and…
"You took her!" he gasped, thrashing in the water, trying to sit up. "What have you done to Sophie?"
"If you mean the girl you had enchanted, we have done nothing," the man said. "She had suffered enough, coerced by your foul magic to love you. She is a victim, and will be treated as such, as will the child. But of course," it said dispassionately, "you do not care. You have never cared about anyone but yourself."
"Idiot!" Howl shouted. "That's just how it seemed. Of course I care…" The pain in his head turned into searing coals. When he thrashed, water flowed into his mouth, almost choking him.
"Your reign of terror is over," the man informed him. "Your strange behaviour in the garden last week showed us that you are mortal. This, my lord, is called a coup - we have looked it up in books. You will tyrannise over us no longer."
The words were too hard to process. He thought of Sophie. All he thought of was Sophie, and the water in his mouth, and the ruin of his good suit.
"You cannot use your foul magic against us," the man told him. "You are bound with iron, and placed in running water. You are wounded, and we fed you with metheglin while you slept."
"Iron doesn't stop magic, you fool," Howl spluttered, but his magic slithered away from him as soon as he tried to reach for it, sliding away like an eel, or flittering away like a butterfly, and slithering away like runny syrup, or smooth, golden beer… beer… Beer was good. There was nothing like having another beer after having several more already. Such a thing was sensible.
"I…" He snapped his mouth shut, struggling to remember where he was. Oh yes. Prisoner in a strange other world, chained up a… He twisted around, trying to peer upwards. In a fountain, lavishly drenched with water issuing from a stone nymph with ridiculously well-formed buttocks and strangely muscular legs and… No, probably not a nymph at all, but…
He dragged his thoughts back to whatever it was that really mattered. Beer. No, not beer. Chains at his wrist. Chains… Ah yes! Sophie! "I…"
The man rudely interrupted him. In fact, he was a very poor host, forcing his guest to stay in a fountain, and…
I was drugged, he thought quiet clearly. Some of my thoughts might not be entirely sensible. Got to remember that. Got to get away. Got to save Sophie. And that girl. Won't bother saving that horrid girl, except… No, it's noble to save people, even nasty ones. It's petty not to, and I think I'm noble. As long as nobility doesn't involve me getting hurt or ruining my clothes and…
"We will hold you here," the man said, "where you cannot do us any harm. Whether by iron or water, wound or metheglin, your powers are gone. You are impotent. You are gelded."
Howl gasped out loud, then gurgled as water got into his mouth. He could not check the truth of the statement, because his hands were bound. "You're speaking meta… metaphor… metaphysically?" he pleaded.
"The king has been dominated for you by too long," the man said. "He is no longer fit to rule. But his son… Where is the missing heir, Lord Llewellyn? Tell us, and then we will kill you."
"I don't think that's the proper way to negotiate," Howl said, forming the words carefully. "I think you need to look at your book again."
The man rose up to his full height. It was not very impressive. He wore ancient robes over a modern military uniform, and wore flowers in the place of medals. "Then stay here forever, bound between life and death, kept from your powers by iron and water."
"And alcohol," Howl said sadly, swallowing some of the water that issued from a part of the not-nymph that he was glad he could not see. It tasted nasty, and he spat it out, spluttering.
"Even nature rebels against you," the man said smugly. "This garden had cowered under your yoke for too many years. It, too, longs for your overthrow."
Howl let his head fall back into the water. This really isn't fair. Then someone screamed from far away, and someone shouted, and everything faded away, and he was floundering in white, smothering in softness, drowning in light…
A long way on the other side of the whiteness, a woman's voice was speaking. "It's all right. You're back. You're safe."
Howl flailed with his hands – his wonderfully unbound hands – and found that he was in a large bed piled high with white eiderdowns and far too many pillows. The person talking to him was Millie, Chrestomanci's wife. "Sophie!" Howl gasped. "Where's Sophie?"
"She went outside to get some air," Millie said. "You've been asleep for a few hours, Howl. Someone gave you quite a thump on the head, and there was a nasty cut across your chest. The doctor says you'll be right as rain in a day or two, but…"
"I want Sophie." He sounded like a pathetic child, and he did not care in the slightest.
"I sent a maid to find her as soon as you started waking up," Millie said. "She'll be here soon."
An orange glow started up in a corner of the room, hurting his eyes. He turned away, but it grew brighter. "I would have rescued you," Calcifer said, darting around Howl's hands. "They called me your familiar! But it was all under control. I was biding my time, awaiting my moment…"
"Laughing at me."
Howl sparked with a bad attempt at dignified anger. "I don't see what's supposed to be funny about you lying under a incredibly well-endowed satyr, drunk on barbaric alcohol, unable to do a thing about it. And the look on your face when you thought they'd chopped off your…"
"Calcifer!" Howl roared. Calcifer retreated just a little bit. "You were scared," Howl accused him. Underneath the bedding, his hand snaked down, inch by inch by inch. "You were afraid of getting wet." His hand found what it was seeking. It was still there.
He relaxed into the pillows. Suddenly anger did not seem so necessary. "What happened…?"
The door burst open, and Sophie was there, all warm arms, and worry. Howl let her hug him. He let his head rest against her shoulder, and he allowed himself to be held for a while, just because it made her better, of course, and for no other reason. His face was still wet from the fountain, which was why water was trickling down his cheeks, tickling him.
"I was so worried," she told him, releasing him, but not going far. "No, don't look like that, all vengeful. They didn't hurt me one bit. They…"
But then Chrestomanci was there too, looking weary and as rumpled as a man like him could ever look. Howl tore himself away from Sophie. "I was a match for you!" he cried. "My evil twin defeated you."
"He almost did." Chrestomanci subsided onto the nearest chair, and wiped his brow with a perfect handkerchief. "He has strong magic. You have strong magic, but his was cold and merciless. It was a hard battle, but I had allies, and he did not. I'm afraid he was lying on the floor quite unconscious when the change happened and he went back to wherever he came from."
"Apparently my double makes hats." Sophie looked somewhat dejected.
"We got our Janet back for a while," Millie said brightly, then sighed. "Gwendolen's back now. She's still three."
"Who was I?" Calcifer surged forward, sparking excitedly. "Who was my evil twin?"
"A star." Chrestomanci winced. "A luminary, to be precise. At least it veiled itself in time, but the ceiling in the drawing room is a little singed, and several servants have gone to bed with the vapours."
"A star." Calcifer looked a smug as a disembodied flame could look. "I could have been a star. You really should treat me better." He flounced off, disappearing up the chimney with a triumphant cry.
Howl wanted to carry on questioning Chrestomanci, but Sophie was too close, and his concern for her was too present. "Are you sure you're all right?"
She nodded. "They treated me as if I was your victim. Said they were rescuing me. Your evil twin sounds quite horrid. Chief advisor to the King, or something like that, but soon started dominating the King and ruling as a tyrant."
"Ah, the standard Evil Grand Vizier." Chrestomanci flapped his hand.
"But I did beat you," Howl reminded him. "I mean, he beat you. He's hardly standard, then. Unless beating you is standard. Unless…"
"In fact," Sophie said, interrupting him firmly, "they talked as if you were the sort of person who went around and stole young girls' hearts with your foul magic. They thought you'd stolen mine." She turned to Millie, and smiled sweetly. "Howl used to do that, you know. He came to my quiet little town in a great looming castle, dark and forbidding, and he used to prowl around and steal girls' hearts. I never found out what he did with them. I used to look in all the cupboards and drawers in case they were hiding there."
"What?" Howl protested, but Millie was already speaking.
"Really?" Millie patted Sophie's hand. "My poor dear. You should have seen Christopher when I first met him. He was a little boy, but he was already working for his evil uncle, helping him smuggle unmentionable things between the worlds."
"What?" Chrestomanci's cry was exactly the same as Howl's had been.
"Wicked and vain," Sophie said, quiet happily. "He once filled the castle with green slime just because there was a mistake with his hair dye."
"Christopher has made dozens of servants cry," Millie chimed in. "He once set a hundred highly-paid government officers to searching for a missing neck tie."
"That's nothing," Sophie began, with evident glee.
"Now, I really don't think this is fair," Howl and Chrestomanci said in unison, but Howl caught the wink that was exchanged between the two women.
"That's what you get is you start bickering," Sophie whispered. "If you start playing 'I'm a better wizard than you,' we will start playing 'my husband is worse than yours.'" She tapped him on the nose. "And you don't want that to happen, do you?"
Howl threw himself back onto the cushions. "I think I want to go to sleep now," he said sulkily.
"But don't sleep for long." Chrestomanci stood up, dusting down his clothes with his hands. "The barriers between the worlds are breaking down, and it's only going to get worse, but…"
He paused for effect, but Howl refused to beg him to continue, to turn oh so eagerly towards him, with a, 'Oh, Chrestomanci, do tell us.' Sophie squeezed Howl's hand. Millie just sat there placidly and patiently, but Howl thought she rolled her eyes just a little bit, meaning it just for Sophie.
These women had become allies. He did not like it. It made him feel left out.
Chrestomanci pressed his hands together dramatically. "The barriers between worlds are breaking down, but I know the source of the problem. I know where we need to go next."
Howl refused to ask him where. Instead, he sank into the pillows, and slept.
On to next chapter