A tale of too many worlds
In which Howl stumbles into a garden full of terrified flowers, and cannot find his way out.
Not again, Howl sighed, as he ducked behind a fragrant pile of rotting vegetables. This really is going too far.
A potato peeling slithered into the top of his boot. He hoped that the thing squelching beneath his foot was just a tomato, but decided not to look. A fly tried to investigate his nose, but Howl's glare caused it to remember an urgent appointment elsewhere.
"No," he grumbled out loud, as he left the vegetables, and headed into a noxious alley, "this really isn't fair. What have I done to deserve this?"
There had been no time to work out exactly who was chasing him. They were taller than him, and broader than him, and their shouts of, "There he is!" and, "Stop!" had not sounded remotely friendly. That had been enough to set him running. Their sharp and shining weapons had been enough to make sure that his running was fast.
Their livery was dark blue. They were not the King's guard, then, which was a relief. Running from the King always caused all sorts of unpleasant grovelling and inconvenient hard work. Perhaps they served one of the city's noblemen or merchants, who would keep on taking offence at the things Howl said to them, or the way they imagined he was looking at their wives.
"Not that it's my fault," he panted, as he slithered through the arches of a bridge. "I say perfectly reasonable things. It's not my fault that they're ridiculously sensitive. They should be more reasonable, like me."
They were still bellowing behind him. He heard them appeal to the bystanders, and a chorus of voices respond to say that, yes, they had seen him, all covered with slime, he was, and heading that way, just there, yes, and you've only just missed him, but if you run a bit faster...
Treacherous and ungrateful, he grumbled. What had he ever done to the common citizens of Kingsbury, to merit this betrayal? He was going to pay all those outstanding debts in the taverns tomorrow, honest, and it had been an accident when he had caused a stinking green cloud to descend on the city for three weeks – everyone knew that. All those aunts and grandmothers were completely wrong when they said he was trying to ruin their innocent little girls, because he was a married man now, and they weren't half as innocent as their scary chaperones said, and it had only been a tiny little smile and the faintest hint of a blown kiss and nothing at all, really.
"Misunderstood," he sniffed. "That's what I am. Misunderstood."
Actually, he thought, as he splashed through the filth-stained river, it felt quite heroic being misunderstood. He could almost enjoy it, if it wasn't for the fact that it tended to ruin his clothes. The noble and wise wizard, labouring at things that were beyond mortal ken, despised, sneered at, dismissed by all who knew him. But history would judge who was truly great. In a hundred years, people would queue for hours to see one of his suits on display in a museum, and his magical workings would be studied in universities across all the worlds, and lauded as works of genius ahead of their time.
Something splashed into the water beside him. He told himself it was a duck. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw one of his muscled pursuers leaning over the parapet of the bridge, taking aim with a bow. Just a duck, he told himself quite firmly, when another splash sounded, closer than the last one. A whole family of ducks, having a party. He tried to laugh, but the sound came out closer to the bleating of a dying sheep.
He made for the bank and pulled himself up, as another invisible duck thudded into the mud just behind him. If this goes on, he told himself, I might have to use magic. It never seemed quite sporting to use magic against ordinary people, and Sophie did nag so. "If I have to open the door one more time to find some poor, traumatised citizen, complaining that you turned him into a dormouse in order to avoid paying a bill…" she threatened. "I've paid out a fortune in compensation, and I tell you this, Howl, it's not coming out of my money. Let's see how you like it, going without new clothes for a week."
And now his second-best suit was all slimy and ruined, and he wouldn't get any sympathy at all at home, just hands on hips, and a sigh, and a "Who have you provoked this time?" It would be worse if she thought he had provoked it by flirting with a girl. He wished he could remember if he had.
Another duck hit the ground beside him, sounding faintly metallic. He scrambled into an alley, and from there into a dark doorway. Footsteps sounded in the lane, multiplying and echoing until they sounded like the footsteps of the forces of Hell, beating down on him. He pressed himself backwards against the door, hands scrabbling madly behind him. They closed around the ring of a door handle, and it moved, it turned…
He scrambled inside, and closed the door, leaning on it, gasping. No footsteps sounded outside. They stopped as abruptly as if someone had switched off a radio. Inside the door was only silence, and the beating of his heart. He did not like it. If the footsteps had stopped, that meant that his pursuers had found him. They were sniffing around the outside of the door, preparing to enter.
There was nothing for it. He whispered a word, locking the door with magic, and turned to see what manner of silent place he had found.
He was in a garden, laid out formally with straight paths and well-ordered flower beds, set in tasteful colours. Small plants huddled at the front of each bed, while medium-sized ones crouched behind them, and tall ones stood to attention at the back. No leaves or petals were out of place, and the soil was perfect, without any stones.
Howl started walking. The path was gravel, and he prepared himself to wince at the sound it made, but the crunching was as quiet as a whisper. After a few steps, he passed some impeccably-cut topiary, and a fountain came into view. Even that was acting strangely. The water fell silently, the droplets hanging in the air as if they were afraid to make the final plunge.
Afraid, he mused. Yes, that was it. The whole garden was afraid, terrified of stepping out of line, in case some awful punishment fell upon it. As he got deeper into the garden, he could feel the magic that was causing the fear. As pervasive as a scent, a magical presence lurked in the garden, like the eyes of some ever-watchful, ever-malevolent master.
He knew that presence. It felt at once deeply familiar, and truly strange. He knew it, and yet he had no idea what it was.
Instinct told him that he should run – run back to the known, familiar danger of the men in blue, prowling outside the darkened doorway. The part of him that knew he was a coward was shouting at him to do just that. But, as well as being a coward, he was also curious. Curiosity had caused him to find the way into Ingary in the first place, and that had brought him more dangers than he could ever have imagined, but more happiness, too.
Howl sat down on the silent fountain. Magic flowed all around him, slithering over his skin like oil. He knew this thing was impossible. It did not feel like Suleiman's magic, and he knew it was not his own, but there was no-one else – no-one else in Ingary capable of wielding magic this strong.
Footsteps sounded on the whispering gravel. Howl's head snapped up, as he readied himself to hide, but the young man who was approaching had already seen him. "I beg your pardon." The young man fell to his knees. "I didn't know anyone was… I mean, I didn't know you were here, my lord. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Howl moistened his lips. He looked over his shoulder, left and right, in case the young man was actually talking to someone else. He wasn't. "I… It's all right. I wasn't here until a moment ago. I… er… just arrived."
It sounded like a pathetic excuse. He wondered if concealed guards would leap out of bushes and drag him away. But nothing happened. The young man stayed on his kneeling, drooping with terror. Howl glanced over his shoulder again, but there was still nothing. "Er… Get up."
The young man scrambled to his feet, almost falling over in his haste to obey.
Howl dug his nails into his palm, suddenly wondering if he had been drinking, or if this was a dream. "Carry on with what you were doing," he managed.
The young man hurtled back the way he had come. Howl briefly considered the door, but remembered the blue-clad thugs outside it, and decided to stay exactly where he was, and see what happened.
Several minutes passed before he realised that the young man had been speaking Welsh.
Odd, he thought. His trembling fingers told him that it was very much more than merely odd. He let his eyes rise from the terrified plants, and finally let himself notice the majestic mountains that rose above the garden wall. A snow-topped peak stood where the centre of Kingsbury should be, and it was a peak he knew. He had seen it on postcards, and on the front cover of books called things like, "A visitor's guide to Wales." He had even tried to climb it once, he and a group of university friends, but the pub at its foot had been warm and enticing, and the mountain had looked so very cold.
He was in Wales. No, he corrected himself, remembering what the terrified young man had been wearing, he was in a Wales in which people wore long robes and pointy head-dresses, had digital watches and trainers, and had a pair of crossed sickles emblazoned in bronze on their chests.
He tried very hard to limit himself to another, "odd." He tried very hard not to run.
The gravel whispered in its usual terrified way, heralding the approach of another visitor. "Lord Llewellyn," someone said in Welsh. "Are you… well?"
Howl tried one last time – one last, desperate time – the trick of looking over his shoulder, but he already knew that no-one else was there. "I am…" He thought desperately. "A slight headache," he said in the end, since that seemed like a good excuse in case they thought he was acting strangely.
Only when he had finished speaking did he look properly at the newcomer, and his heart sank. It was a King. He was a tall man with a luxurious beard, and a crown studded with jewels.
It was too late to salvage it by adding a "your majesty." Instead, Howl mumbled a bit, and pressed his fingers to his head. It was beginning to hurt for real.
"The English prisoners are in my audience chamber," the King said. "They are awaiting my pleasure."
Strange undercurrents of meaning swirled around his words. It was too much for Howl to understand. The undercurrents peaked on the word "my." An irate grandmother would be better than this, Howl decided.
"I will…" He stopped, moistening his lips. He had no idea at all what sort of an answer he was supposed to be making. "Actually," he said, "I think my headache is getting worse, your majesty." This, at least, he was good at. If anyone could wriggle out of royal expectations, it was Howl. At least, he was good at trying. Succeeding was something he was still working on.
"Perhaps I will just kill them."
The King's voice rose ever so slightly at the end, as if he was asking a question. Howl found that he was not lying about the headache at all. Was he supposed to grovel and plea for their lives? The strange thing was that the King's tone of voice almost made it sound as if Howl was expected to command.
He decided to go for humility tempered with illness. "I would rather you didn't, your majesty." He spoke it through clinging fingers, rubbing at his poor, abused head.
He dimly saw the King nod and retreat. Howl was surrounded by silence for a while, and he had just begun to start looking for an explanation for what was happening, when someone else strode along the frightened gravel path.
This one was a bard, or maybe a druid. A harp was held proudly in his long-fingered hands, but his long white hair was crowned with a wreath of mistletoe. He held his head like a king, but his eyes looked afraid. "Would you like music, my lord?" he asked. "Music to soothe away your pains?"
He looked like a stereotype, and a confused one at that. Howl wanted to tell him so, but thought it better not to. "No," he said limply. "Leave me." He thought it was probably safe to dismiss such a man, but then he remembered how powerful bards were in some worlds, and how druids sometimes ruled even kings. "Please," he added, but the bard had already gone.
Howl let out a breath. The door, he thought. I am definitely taking my chances through that door.
As he stood up, yet another person came along the whispering gravel, this one a young girl wearing very little indeed. In fact, she was wearing hardly anything except for a bronze torc, and a few wisps of fabric. Had he not been a married man, Howl might have enjoyed the view. As it was, he could not help saying, "Aren't you cold?"
"Not when I am with you, master," she purred. She twined her arms around his neck, and it seemed to him that she must have had at least ten of them, because they got everywhere. "Let me pleasure you, my lord."
It was always so much more interesting when the women played hard to get. Unattainable fruit was much more temping than the fruit in your hand, even if the fruit in your hand was quite so plump and moist and so, well, in your hand. "I'm a married man," he told her, extricating several of her hands.
"You always have been," she pouted. "It's never made a difference before. Come on, my lord. Shall I tell you what I'm going to do to you?" She pressed her lips to his ear, and he felt her scented breath whispering all sorts of things that made him blush terribly. Although he hated anyone to know it, he was quite innocent in many things. Ladies were for courting with songs and poems and the wonder of your clothing, not for doing things like that with.
"No," he squawked, his voice higher than he would have liked it. "I… er… need to do. Urgent appointment. Yes, that's it. The King. Something like that."
He fled. Abandoning any attempt at dignity, he fled along the silent gravel, past the flowers in their terrified lines, and threw himself at the gate. The door handle slithered in his hand. A storm of fury reared up behind him, dark and boiling and ready to strike. He could almost touch the soul of the furious wizard, whose magic held the garden in terrified submission, whose spells rose up to strike down anyone who dared to run.
I'm leaving! Howl screamed at him. It was a mistake. I didn't touch anything, didn't steal anything.
It never worked with the aunts and grandmothers either. The storm of furious magic came down on him, just as the door handle turned in his desperate, pawing grip. He hauled it open, as a bolt of magic singed his coat.
It's me! he realised, and the realisation almost drove him to his knees. The wizard who ruled this garden was himself. It was a dark and twisted and warped version of himself – Howl as he could have been, Howl as he might have been, if he had given his heart away to a demon and got it back burned to a cold, hard stone. It was himself, and it was horrible, but he was free, scrabbling in the dirt of the alley, turning around desperately to close the door.
It closed. It locked. He leant on it for half a second, panting, but the awful, dreadful sense of his own magic pressing down on him was gone. Instead, dimly, he could hear the sound of two young girls quarrelling, and an older woman ordering them to behave. Birds sang and cats argued. The mountains had gone, and the sky was blue.
Gone, he thought. A dream. He was suddenly sure that if he opened the door again, he would see only an ordinary Ingary garden, free from magic and fear.
He preferred not to chance it, though. Taking a deep breath, he stood up and brushed down his clothes.
It was then that he saw the bodies of the men who had been chasing him, frozen in stone, faces fixed in expressions of agony.