Howl’s first castle didn’t move.
It was not that it wasn’t meant to, but its wheels dug deep into the dark ooze of the old dockyard, and all of his spells and Calcifer’s power couldn’t shift it. After what felt like a year but was really only a minute or two, what should have been his magic castle cracked open under the strain and turned back into junk, with a shower of bolts.
‘I was lord of a celestial sphere for a million years,’ said Calcifer, not for the first time, ‘and now you’ve got me assembling parts in a junkyard!’
Howl kicked the rusting shell of the motor carriage he’d taken the wheels from. It was hard being a Great Wizard when your fourteenth birthday was only a few months past. ‘It’s a dockyard, not a junkyard,’ was all he said out loud.
The truth was murkier, almost as murky as the mud of Porthaven’s Naval Dockyard. The place hadn’t been used for its official purpose since the new royal warships had grown so big. The HMS Triumphant was the last vessel to be built there, three years back when Howl was still a school kid and Calcifer a heavenly deity. When they’d tried to launch her she’d stuck, half on land, half in the harbour, and no amount of shoving at one end and dredging at the other had enticed her to float. She’d been abandoned in the end, too costly to salvage. Her name had been scraped off, though you could still make out the letters, and given to an even bigger battleship built at Southaven, twelve miles down the coast. A shoal of pickers, many of them once dockhands, had stripped her of anything small enough to be strapped to a back or tied to a cart. Howl had taken one of her gun turrets for his castle. Though he hated guns, he thought her name might bring him luck. Now the thing lay half submerged in the mud, like the severed breast of a giantess.
Howl knew just how the shipyard’s Chief Wizard must have felt. The unfortunate man had a cell to himself in Kingsbury awaiting the king’s pleasure. Howl would be joining him, no doubt, just as soon as Madame Suliman caught up with him. That woman had spies everywhere. One of them had even snooped on him as he’d made his illicit pact with a falling star.
‘Hey, was that a spot of rain?’ went the star-that-was. ‘Howl! Don’t walk off and leave me here! It’s raining! You’ve got to do something! Howl!’
Howl’s second castle didn’t move much either. This one had caterpillar tracks from one of the new tanks Madame Suliman had invented for the army. They worked on Porthaven’s cobbles, just about, but out in the marshes the castle stopped dead and started to sink. It would have been less humiliating if it hadn’t been for the gaggle of Porthaven shopkeepers who’d objected to their streets being cluttered up by something as disreputable as a wizard’s castle – especially one as ugly as this – and had trailed it out of town, armed with brooms and coal shovels and umbrellas, to make sure it went somewhere else.
Ugly was one way of putting it. Calcifer had chalked up their previous failure to a pitiful excuse for a chimney in the first castle, so the second one had three. There was a smart brass flue from the motor carriage that’d lent its wheels to their first attempt, and a fatter iron funnel from what was left of the steamboat Lucky Lady after she’d collided with Jetty No. 3. And then there was a great bulbous brick kiln chimney from the Pilkerton pottery works on the edge of town, which had gone bankrupt after the dockyard closed and hardly anyone could afford to buy fancy bone china any more.
The three chimneys heaved and sagged as Calcifer puffed and panted in the kiln, trying to make the treads bite in the mud. ‘It’s no good,’ he said. ‘Don’t think I haven’t noticed that’s the last bit of firewood you’ve got there.’
Howl wasn’t much good at failure. He was still only fourteen, after all. ‘What’re you going to blame it on this time?’ he enquired. ‘Too many chimneys?’
‘At least this one hasn’t torn itself apart! And why is everything always my fault? If you’d managed to get those lightening charms of yours to work properly, we’d be doing great.’
There was some truth in that, and it was unlucky that the silence that followed was broken by a big burst of laughter from the Porthaven burghers outside. ‘What’s up, wizard?’ they went. ‘Run out of steam?’ And they started to pelt the castle with something that could have been lumps of coal. It was hard to see from the inside.
Howl hated being laughed at more than anything, so that was the end of the whole moving castle business for a long while.
The third castle wasn’t even meant to move. Howl had discovered girls by then, and he built it to impress a pretty young witch with a castle of her own out in the wastes. Her castle was all curves. It was bursting with arches and round windows and gilded domes that sparkled in the sun, and its garden was so stuffed with roses and lilies and peonies and azaleas, all blooming at once, that you could hardly breathe for fragrance. His castle was tall and angular, with bricks the colour of soot, lancet windows, lots of long lean turrets, and a clock tower. There wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, unless you counted the spiny vines among all that spike-capped ironwork, and if you wanted fragrance—well, most of the long lean turrets doubled as chimneys and coughed out a thick black smoke. Howl had learned a darkness spell since his trials in Porthaven Marshes, and his new castle gobbled up the light. It couldn’t have shrieked Dark Wizard any louder if it’d been carved between the gargoyles flanking the portcullis.
‘Are you sure this is a good move?’ Calcifer kept asking. ‘Whatever happened to hiding from Madame Suliman?’
‘That old hag?’ Howl flicked his newly blond hair out of his eyes with a tinkle of jet earrings. ‘She’s no match for the Witch of the Waste. Between us we’ve got her beaten hollow.’
That wasn’t quite how it went, of course. So it was a good thing Howl’s fourth castle moved just fine.
It was touch and go for a time, though. Howl hadn’t stacked all his coals in the Witch of the Waste’s scuttle, not quite. As it turned out, hair potions and Kingsbury fashions weren’t the only things he’d been studying. Round the side from the grand gatehouse with the portcullis and the gargoyles, the tall angular castle had a plain wooden door that led straight to his uncle’s house a hundred leagues away in Porthaven. The place was Howl’s now. His uncle had died the winter before, leaving him the house and the sorcery business that went with it. Sorcerer Jenkins had been no Great Wizard, dealing mainly in caulking spells and fair weather charms, but he was a clever fellow who’d loved nothing more than to reminisce about his years at the Royal Sorcery Academy, and who spent most of his profits on lore books. Howl hadn’t had much time for the old man’s passion while he’d been alive. Now he dumped Calcifer in the fireplace and spread his entire library out across the floor.
‘Camouflage,’ he coughed, riffling through the leaves of the Cyclopaedia of Advanced Spells, Vol. 1, and raising clouds of dust. It didn’t look like the book was one his uncle consulted much. ‘Concealment. Confusion. Disguise.’
Calcifer settled comfortably into the hearth, which was as spacious as if Howl’s old uncle had kept a fire demon of his own. ‘If you ask me,’ he said, when Howl got started on the second volume, ‘what you need is a moving castle. One that actually moves.’
‘Don’t bother me now, Calcifer. Can’t you see I’m busy?’ Howl tucked his hair behind his ears. It made him look a lot younger, even younger than his seventeen years. ‘Invisibility. That might work.’
‘You realise all of those spells together will only put off that girl friend of yours for a couple of days, if she’s as powerful as you say she is. A week tops. And what about Madame Suliman? Forgotten her, have you?’
‘You’re right. I’m doomed. Two old hags after me.’ Howl shuddered. It was theatrical, yes, but there was real horror in there too. ‘Might as well go and throw myself off the pier. Get it over with.’ He slumped down over the heap of books.
Calcifer reared up in the fireplace, casting his warm glow into the shadows. It just made the clots of creeping darkness clearer. ‘Give yourself up to Suliman,’ he said. ‘Tell her I forced you into it. You were only a child back then! She’ll get your heart back for you, no trouble, and all will be forgiven, you’ll see.’
‘But you’d die.’
‘Yes, but it’s your only chance, Howl! That, or getting a moving castle to work.’
Five minutes later and Howl was up on his feet, practising binding spells and lightening charms on his uncle’s crockery cabinet.
‘Have you thought about legs?’ went the fire demon. ‘Your race had been getting around on them okay for millennia before anyone bothered inventing the wheel, let alone those dratted butterfly tracks.’
‘Caterpillar tracks,’ said Howl. He’d been played, and he knew it, but he was too tired to care.
The old dockyard was looking even more like a junkyard these days. Its deep black mud spattered Howl’s posh new suit, and that floral scent he’d taken to splashing all over himself didn’t seem to have dulled his sense of smell. So the fourth castle had a random assortment of things Howl picked up in hurry all mixed in with a bunch of bits recycled from the first two. (Number three was almost all magic, and had just drifted away like smoke in a breeze as soon as Calcifer had gone out the door.)
If the first three castles were ugly, this one was monstrous. It had capstans and propellers, fly wheels and cog wheels and gear wheels, tram flues, carriage flues and steamer funnels, tank bodies, gun turrets and a huge great bomb launcher, rusty iron boilers, fat copper whisky stills, squat pottery kilns, tall factory chimneys and a couple of workers’ cottages. There were crane arms to both sides and an airship rudder at the rear for balance, and a crow’s nest perched right on top for no reason at all that either of them could remember afterwards. You couldn’t even get to it from anywhere! Calcifer liked his new hearth so much that Howl gutted his uncle’s house for the inside. It was the legs that gave them the most trouble. They were mainly cobbled together from articulated wings. (It was lucky that Madame Suliman’s earliest airship designs had a tendency to crash.) And then the whole lot was bolted together with binding spells. Howl even borrowed his uncle’s caulking charm to stop the rain seeping in.
After that there were no new castles. Not for a long time, anyway. Which is not to say the castle stayed the same. For a start, they swallowed up anything disused they passed. And then Howl complained the bipedal version made his bathwater splosh all over the bathroom floor, and Calcifer never quite got the hang of six legs: they would keep on crossing. So they settled on four.
They were nearing the end of their Beetle Phase, as Calcifer called it, before Howl mentioned the Witch of the Waste again. He was working on a cushioning charm that would make it less of a disaster if the castle fell over the next time its legs got crossed. ‘The Witch of the Waste had a neat spell for this when we were flying together,’ he said. ‘She always hated bumpy landings.’ He glanced across at the hearth. Calcifer was snoozing, just a dull orange glow in the ashes beneath the blackened logs. ‘You must get a lot of practice at cushioning spells when your castle’s made of solid gold,’ he said to himself. ‘I wonder where she got it all from? Great big treasure chests for the foundation stones, gold ingots for bricks, stacks of sovereigns everywhere for beading…’
‘I knew you couldn’t get anything quite that shiny just with magic,’ went a little voice from the fireplace.
‘Calcifer? I thought you were just pretending to be asleep.’
There was a crackle and a pop, and the fire demon flared up like a struck match. ‘What did go down between the pair of you?’ he asked. ‘One minute she’s your dream ticket. The next minute I wake up to find you prodding me with the fire shovel, yelling something about needing to escape.’
Howl picked up a pine log from the basket and started peeling the bark from it with his fingernails. ‘I saw her as she really is,’ he said, his eyes fixed on the log in his hands. ‘All that gold around the place was peculiar enough, but when I started to unbutton her—’
‘That’s quite enough!’ Calcifer was glowing a deep orange, nearly red, almost as if he were blushing. ‘If I’d wanted to know how you flesh creatures started new ones I’d have asked.’
‘How do stars do it?’ Howl was genuinely curious. The fire demon didn’t talk much about his former life these days.
‘We don’t. Not if we can help it. There’s only space for a fixed number of stars in the firmament, you see. But sometimes new stars just seem to get born.’
‘Is that what happened to you?’
‘Retired. Retired! A million years of celestial service and I get shoved out like an old shoe. Give me that log before you worry it to kindling!’
Howl dropped the log onto the fire and began worrying at the dirt under his nails instead. ‘You know there’ll always be a place for you here in my hearth,’ he said.
‘Humph,’ went Calcifer, with a shower of sparks. ‘You just want a slave to heat up your bathwater.’
And with a creak and a groan, the castle stalked on through the rain, leaving behind a long plume of smoke.