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a heartbeat at my feet

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In Howl’s defense, it was all Sophie’s fault.

In Sophie’s defense, Morgan--following his stay in High Norland and his encounter with its Elfgift--had come away from the experience with a monomaniacal fixation on puppies, specifically one of his own. Sophie said anything was preferable to plaintive shouts for Dinkle, and Howl was inclined to agree, only--well. Did it have to be dogs ?

“Dreadful creatures,” said Howl with a dramatic shudder. “All fur and stink. And think of the fleas!”

“Flea?” Morgan placed a fist in his mouth, clearly calculating whether he ought to be demanding one of those instead. “What flea?”

“No sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,” said Howl solemnly, and Morgan having decided this was an explanation academic enough to deserve no further attention, he turned back to Sophie, who shone at her most hard-hearted. 

“Percival hadn’t any fleas, and neither should this one. Besides,” she said, as though she hadn't once confessed of being terrified of canines as a girl, “I think it’s a marvelous idea for Morgan to keep a pet. It’ll teach him responsibility, as others haven’t.”

What nonsense. Tad hadn’t permitted him or Megan any beasties about the house, no matter how they had begged, and it hadn’t seemed to do them any harm. They had both grown up to be perfectly psychologically normal and productive members of society. He tried sharing this opinion with Sophie, only to be met with a snort that spoke volumes. 

He folded his hands on his heart--even now reveling in its steady beat--and did his best to affect a wounded expression. “There’s Calcifer,” he offered, with the desperation of a man driven to his last resort.

Naturally old Blue-face would come hissing down from the ceiling at that very instant. “I am not a pet ,” Calcifer snarled, hissing in offense. “I am a foul and dangerous demon, eons old. You ought to cower and hide your boy safely away from me.”

“Of course we will,” said Sophie soothingly, “right after you sing him to sleep, Calcifer. He’s been asking ever so long to hear your saucepan song.”

“Well, then,” said Calcifer, mollified, and darted off to start shooing Morgan upstairs. Along the way, he crimped a hank of Howl’s carefully arranged hair, only to prove he could, and laughed at the result.

No more sympathy might he expect from Sophie, who went an admittedly attractive pink with suppressed laughter, and only said: “Now that we’re all agreed—”

“There’s small choice in rotten apples”, retorted Howl with dignity, and went to go wash his hair.

 By the next morning Howl had managed to convince Sophie that the finest in canine quality was to be found in Wales. This was fortunate. All too well Howl knew that Ingary could be reliably counted upon to serve up a dog that was somewhat enchanted, endangered, or otherwise trouble. Better a bit of boredom in its place.

Better still the opportunity produced to recruit Mari and, by extension, Megan into their quest. This had the appealing side effect of allowing Howl to slither out of accompanying the other four to the municipal pound and to slither into a rugby club reunion. Morgan would have his pup, Sophie her way, and Howl a few hours of freedom: a perfect solution.

So Howl thought until Megan phoned the pub to inform him that Sophie, who had somehow gotten the impression that a pound was a sort of spectacularly cruel animal prison--which might possibly have its origin in several ill-considered jokes Howl had made earlier that morning-- had talked all the gates of the cages into opening, and a horde of unwashed masses into swarming free. Needless to say the animal-keeper had not been pleased, and the expedition returned home empty-handed. 

From the sounds of it, Megan and Sophie were having a spectacular row over who was more to blame. Howl shuddered, held the receiver gingerly away from his ear, and resolved not to return until he had a few more pints in him.

In fact it turned out to be nearly midnight by the time Howl found himself weaving down the drizzling lane that led home. The one advantage was that Morgan and Sophie must have surely fled Megan’s abode, which meant he would have to listen to only one tirade about his truancy. With Sophie, he might at least hope to charm his way to a soft warm bed and a blessed aspirin. Tomorrow would bring a new day, and the accompanying hangover, and the question of Morgan’s dog to be solved. “Damnation,” he swore, almost idly.

That was when he stumbled--nearly trod, to be precise--across the puppy.

It was rather the ugliest puppy Howl had ever seen: it had a lump on either side of its neck, so that the altogether effect was that of an animated cauliflower, and its hindquarters and whip-like tail were covered in what appeared a most dry and unpleasant rash. Still--it was cold and wet and whined. Howl’s heart softened, even as his gut roiled.  

Anything to soften Sophie’s temper, he thought, and picked the stray up.

Morgan, predictably, was delighted.

“What will you call him?” Howl asked, having  let Calcifer determine that it was in fact, a him . Howl did not want to bring his face any closer to the mongrel than he must, and Calcifer had for once obliged with no more than the usual disparaging cackle. Personally Howl favored Caball or Huan but in a pinch, he would even settle for Gelert. One must make concessions for Sophie’s unpoetical genes. 

Morgan screwed up his face in concentration, as though listening to something only he could hear. “Spot,” he pronounced at last. Howl blinked and studied the puppy’s coat, unmarred by so much as a freckle.

“Spot,” he repeated, dubiously. “Of course.” 

Sophie, just as predictably, was less delighted. “And what if he belongs to someone already?” she wanted to know, worrying her lip. “Ought we really to steal him away?”

“No fear of that,” Howl said, waving his hand about. “I tell you the poor fellow was out in the rain. We’ve taken him in; what more could anyone ask but that?”

“Mm,” said Sophie, in the tone that suggested she did not quite agree, but she settled down to teach Morgan how to hold him properly, and Howl suspected that was the closest thing to thanks he might expect.

“If you piddle on my toes,” Howl said with feeling, “I shall turn you into a toad.” Toads, after all, were so convenient: they made very little mess, and stayed where you left them. If only Morgan had set his heart on one of those instead.

The puppy nodded, with every sign of comprehension, and a week later presented him with a pair of gently gnawed boots instead. Morgan, standing nearby, chortled with all the shameless glee of a co-conspirator. For an instant, Howl considered histrionics and green slime--but Morgan’s dimples had emerged, and the puppy hunkered down in an apologetic bow, and he found he did not have the heart to do anything but scoop them both up, one under each arm, and announce, “Off to the millpond with you!” 

Neither boy nor dog suffered from the following adventure, though Howl did discover that wet fur made for an unpleasant evening, and Sophie, when he tried to complain to her, only wrinkled her nose and told him to bathe Spot and Morgan both before they stepped on her nice clean floors. The injustice was palpable, as was the mud dripping upon his sleeves.  

“And Howl,” Sophie called back, “don’t forget to do something about that mange!”

The joys, he thought wearily, of domesticity.

And yet, as things always did in the moving castle, a grudging routine developed. Howl even relented to split his morning shower into two parts, so that he might take Spot for a quick walk in the garden after the first. No one seemed inclined to praise this sacrifice, but that was all right. Howl was accustomed to suffering in silence. 

It was after one of these walks that a knock came at the door. It was rather the oddest thing: though Howl, as a general rule, fled back into the bathroom immediately afterwards, even if the King of Ingary himself demanded his presence, he did not quite seem capable of doing so. In fact he found himself moving towards the door to open it, without even checking which side of the knob was down. 

A man stood on the front step, all peaky complexion and black drooping mustache. The suit he wore was shockingly expensive, if rather gloomy. The landscape behind was unfamiliar, and the knob, when Howl’s eyes darted to investigate it, spun madly round and round. The hairs on the back of Howl’s neck prickled, and he began to place a Word of Power gingerly upon his tongue. One couldn’t, after all, be too careful. 

“I think,” said the stranger, “you are in possession of something that belongs to me.”

For heaven’s sake! Howl thought, exasperated. It was entirely too early for someone to be trying to steal the moving castle, as they seemed to every few months. One would think it had been made entirely for their pleasure. 

But this rude stranger did not let his eyes linger on the castle itself, or even the spells scattered on the workbench. Instead he was staring intently at Spot, who had come up about Howl’s feet.

“I’m prepared to offer recompense,” said the man, “but I’m afraid I must insist. Recovering the beast is necessary before I return home.”

Howl thought of Morgan’s delighted face when presented with his puppy, and gritted his teeth. “And I,” he retorted, “can’t help but wonder where you’ve been loitering all these months. Even if he is really yours.”

The stranger did nothing more than raise an eyebrow, but the rush of magic that accompanied the gesture nearly flattened Howl. More to the point, it betrayed something of its origin: Howl had a sudden impression of craggy caverns, a sturdy helmet crafted from lead, and a strong smell of pomegranate seeds. 

Oh , hell , he thought, answering his own question. 

In fact on closer examination, the two lumps on the side of Spot’s neck revealed themselves to be rudimentary, if rather ugly, heads, and the rash along his backside snake-scales. He was going to kill Calcifer, or at least sentence him to Sophie’s soap-suds for a month.

The problem was that none of this information would do anything to change Morgan’s mind. Howl was not looking forward to the tantrums that would follow, and, if he was honest with himself--wretched day!--he had grown quite fond of Spot himself. He doubted anyone who referred to him as a “beast” would keep him in the style to which he’d become accustomed, which meant, like it or not, Howl would have to do something about it.  

The dark gentleman sensed this, too, and, although with clear reluctance, rolled his fine sleeves. Hopefully the funeral would be up to Howl’s standards, and Sophie not make a hash of the eulogy. He refused to die pathetically, defending his son’s pet, and gain nothing but a grim recital of all the chores he’d left undone in return. 

This question was solved by a clatter on the stairs, and Morgan’s long nose--a gift from his mother--poking around the side of Howl’s other knee. “Spot go?” he asked, with grim suspicion.

“Morgan,” Howl ordered. “Inside.”

His son, however, only saw this as confirmation of his worst fears. “No!” he said, and stomped his foot. “No Spot!”

A fine lattice of cracks formed upon the ground before him. It did not seem that the gentleman was inclined to obey. Ye gods, Howl thought unhappily, now he’d had to clean that mess up on top of everything else, or Sophie would have his head. 

It was at this point that Spot let out a plaintive whine, not unlike the one that had first drawn Howl to him. Honestly Howl didn’t see that this would do any good, except make it certain to draw Sophie and Calcifer’s attentions so that they might bear witness to what seemed likely to be an unpleasant defeat; but again all expectations, the gentleman stilled.

He frowned for some time, punctuated by the dog’s yelps, and at least he seemed to relax. “If you are certain you’d be happier here,” he boomed, “three months below it is. It wouldn’t be my first time to come out worse from a deal.” He turned to Howl, strangely rather less alarming then he had been before. “I expect we’ll be seeing rather more of each other,” he said, “and that Cerberus won’t have any reason to change his mind or make complaints.”

“I should think not!” Howl blustered. But their acquaintance included elves, djinni, princesses--what was a god to this mad mix? Megan would be horrified. 

The gentleman, though, for his part, gave them a brisk nod of farewell, and whistled; immediately, a set of inky horses, all lashed to a fearsome chariot appeared. The whole lot of them disappeared into the earth, a production that at least interested Morgan enough that Howl was able to shepherd them back indoors with the minimum number of protests possible. This was a relief. Howl had far more pressing matters to worry about. For example: might Sophie be convinced that Welsh dogs had the curious tendency to hibernate, or at least disappear to guard the realm of the dead for months at an end? Very likely not. He could hear her protests already. 

That, though, was doubtless a problem for tomorrow. For now, Howl was going to take a shower. He felt he had rather deserved it, only Morgan stood in his way. “Dad,” he said, and stood on his tiptoes to wrap his arms around Howl’s legs. Imagine, that Morgan should look at him so, as though Howl were capable of achieving anything at all! Howl ruffled his son's hair, thinking perhaps there was something to this parenting business after all--at least until Morgan looked back up at him, eyes bright.

“Want pony? Pony nice .”

The better part of valor was discretion, Howl decided, and opted for retreat. The bathroom would only wait so long, after all, and there was always Sophie to quash a childish dream. By nightfall, Morgan could be counted upon to see sense.

(Still. The second a pegasus appeared at the door, Howl was heading for the hills.)