Chapter Six: In which various worlds, which aren't supposed to affect one another, do so

(Spoiler alert: If you haven't read DWJ's "The Dark Lord of Derkholm", please read that before you read this chapter -- it's a really good book and this chapter gives away too much about how it ends.)

That evening, Howl returned from the library. Sophie met him in the hall, anxious to find out what he had been reading up on in the hope that that would give her some idea of the danger they faced. She knew that if she let him past to his room the books would be secreted there and she'd face a harder job of finding out what he was up to. Howl kissed her as he tried to sidle past, but Sophie was getting a little cynical about this manoeuvre and took the opportunity to peer over his shoulder at the books he held behind his back.

"'Worlds Within Worlds'," she read aloud from the spine of one fat paperback. "'Invisible Darkness'," she read from another. For some reason the titles did nothing to ease her mind. "Howl, please explain what's going on!"

Howl tried to laugh, but it sounded rather hollow and forced. "Sophie, stop fretting," he told her. "Everything's under control. Sort of."

"Sort of!" exclaimed Sophie in dismay. "Gareth's already been hurt. What next?"

"Yes." Howl looked grave. "I thought that was an accident. In a way, I still do."

"Howl, stop talking in riddles!" pleaded Sophie, by now feeling really alarmed. "Either it was an accident or it wasn't!"

Howl didn't speak for some time. Sophie could tell he was struggling to come up with another way of evading her questions, but she also had an inkling that he was no longer sure that evasion was the wisest course of action. She watched him doggedly. "I don't think they meant to harm Gareth," he told her at last and then added carefully: "but they certainly meant to attack someone."

He looked at Sophie. "Me," he admitted in response to her unspoken question. "And perhaps you." Sophie gasped. Howl continued: "However, they're still quite weak and I think they see us as dimly as we see them. They can't tell who's who. That puts everyone around us in danger from them."

"They!" Sophie threw up her hands in exasperation. "Who are they, anyway?"

"You saw them," said Howl softly. "At the hospital. Shadow people. Their world exists in the same space as our own. You could say they live in this world alongside us, but we're never aware of them normally and they're not aware of us. Something's happened to change that. If I'm right, someone's using magic to open the door between their reality and ours. As the spell gathers momentum, they'll have more and more power in our reality."

"What do they want from us?"

"I've been turning that over and over in my mind." Howl shrugged. "I can't see what we have that the shadow people would want. The only thing that seems plausible is that someone is using them to do their work." As if suddenly aware of the futility of continuing to keep the library books hidden behind his back, he tucked them under his arm. There was a third book, one which Sophie had been unable to see before, which Howl now held out to her. "I thought you might like to read this," he told her, and for a moment he looked almost bashful. "It'll give you an idea of where I'm taking you on our honeymoon."

Sophie took the book and flipped it open to see a map of a land she didn't recognise. Her eye immediately fell on a familiar name. "Rivendell?" she said wonderingly. "But that's..."

"Why do you think I chose that name for our house?" said Howl. "I've always longed to go there, and when I discovered there were other worlds beyond this one, I almost dared to believe..." He twiddled a strand of Sophie's hair around his finger distractedly. "It's not the real Rivendell, of course," he said wistfully. "If there is such a place. But I'd like to show you the place as I imagine it, all the same."

He let her hair fall from his fingers stepped back from her, smiling tenderly, before turning and heading briskly up the stairs to his room.

Sophie watched him go and hugged the book to herself. She was feeling warm and tingly inside. It was a full five minutes before she realised that Howl had slithered out yet again.

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The next day, being the day before the wedding, was so full of noise and bustle that Sophie scarcely had time to dwell on thoughts of the mysterious shadow people. She spent the entire morning balancing on the slippery chair, while Megan and her friends clucked and fussed until, at around midday, they were finally satisfied with the hem of her wedding dress. The afternoon was mostly taken up with sticking little plastic flowers to the tiny net bags of sugared almonds that were to be given to the guests and with testing the camcorder to make sure Megan, Sioned and Gwenno all knew how to use it properly and that the battery was fully charged.

It was while the three friends were poring over the camcorder manual that the doorbell rang. Sophie went to answer it, glad of the chance to escape for a minute or two. It was Neil's paragon of womanhood, Debbie Price, from next door. She looked as if she was dressed up to go to a party, with a smudge of sparkly pale-pink shadow on her eyelids and her dark-red hair fastened up with glittery green-gold clips. She was standing on the doorstep, nervously twiddling a ring on her little finger and shifting from foot to foot.

"Is Neil in?" she demanded, trying to look past Sophie.

"No," said Sophie, rather taken aback by the girl's abrupt manner. Determined to prove that girls from Ingary could be equally short with people when they felt like it, she made to close the door in her face, but then Debbie spoke again.

"Where's he gone?"

"Out," said Sophie. Then, with a twinge of sympathy that was more directed towards Neil than Debbie, she added: "He'll be back tomorrow." This time she really did close the door. She smiled to herself. Perhaps Neil's crush wasn't completely unrequited after all.

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That evening, Howl used up all the hot water again in preparation for going out on his stag night which was to start in the Ship, the pub with the gigantic magic picture screen. Not wanting to endure an evening of Megan's fussing over sausage rolls and party favours, Sophie determined to go to bed at nine o'clock -- the same time as Howl set out for the pub.

Upstairs, she hurried to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Howl heading down the street towards the Ship, but she couldn't have been quick enough. The street was empty. Sighing, she drew the curtains. An early night was a good idea. Megan had originally suggested a hen night in a local nightclub called Starlight's, but Sophie didn't think she could face an evening of the pounding music that was so popular in Howl's world. Not to mention several more hours in the company of Megan and her friends.

In bed, Sophie's attention turned to the guidebook Howl had brought her. She picked it up and flicked to the map page which she gazed at for a long time, taking in the curious names of the unknown towns and countries. At length, she turned the page and tried to start reading. However, she must have been drowsier than she thought because the guidebook didn't seem to talk about landmarks or places of interest to visit in Rivendell. Instead, it seemed to concern the birthday party of someone called Bilbo Baggins. Sophie's eyelids were heavy. She yawned and let the book slide off the bed. Reading would have to wait for another time if she wanted to be fresh and alert for her wedding day. That was her last thought as she drifted off into a sleep in which shadow people and mysterious constellations still lurked, but only at the very remotest corners of her dreams.

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Meanwhile, in a completely different world, the wizard Derk and his children were also getting ready for Sophie's honeymoon.

"I thought we'd seen the last of these Pilgrim Parties when we got rid of Mr Chesney and his demon," grumbled Blade, Derk's human son, as he dragged a paintbrush over his younger sister's wings. "Wasn't that what the Oracle said? Stop fidgeting, Elda, you're splashing me."

"I'll stop fidgeting, if you stop tickling me," retorted Elda, a beautiful golden griffin whose wings and fur were now almost completely covered with black paint. "Anyway, I don't see why I should have to go through this when we've got Kit who's already the right colour."

Their brother, Kit, another griffin, stretched his glossy black wings and yawned irritably, snapping his powerful beak shut afterwards, to show exactly what he thought of having to do another tour after everyone on their world had believed they were done with that particular nuisance forever.

"This tour's a little different," said Querida apologetically. The high chancellor of the wizards' university had spent the morning calling on local residents, checking in person that their preparations for this latest tour were under way. As public feeling was almost universally against any further tours, this had given her a lot of practice in sounding apologetic. However, a shrewd glance at Derk's family confirmed her suspicion that their experience of the Pilgrim Parties meant she would do better to appeal to their pride than their pity and her tone changed to a brisker one. "For one thing there'll only be two people, so you can scarcely call that a party. Evidently the Oracle didn't. For another, it's not one of Mr Chesney's ventures. It was requested a long time ago by one of Mr Chesney's customers, a Mr Jenkins. He contacted the university after he'd returned to his own world and asked whether we did customised tours. He was just a young lad at the time and apparently noone thought it would come to anything, but they replied telling him what information we needed from him." Her pouchy eyes almost closed up with annoyance at the incompetence of her colleagues. "I was never informed of it. Apparently the matter had bee completely forgotten until last month when his order came through."

"So now we're expected to jump to attention again," Blade observed wryly.

"It's the very last time," Querida told him. "And it's only a honeymoon couple, so we don't anticipate them causing the environmental damage of one of Mr Chesney's tours. It'll be very simple for people with your experience."

Derk's other human child, his daughter, Shona snorted with bitter scorn at this. She picked one of the three volumes of guidelines Mr Jenkins had sent them and held it up. "Seems like a complicated kind of tour to me," she said. "Have you actually read the guidelines, dad?

Derk waved a hand dismissively. "I flicked through them. Wizards, dwarfs, rings of power, dark lords and their minions -- sounds like the usual stuff to me."

Blade sighed and picked up a tall, pointed hat covered in silver stars. "I suppose I'm going to be a wizard again," he said.

"Actually, I'm going to be the wizard," Derk told him, taking the wizard's hat from him and handing him instead a sweeping black cloak with a hood. "You, son, are going to be what is called a 'Ringwraith'".

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All characters belong to Diana Wynne Jones. "Lord of the Rings" belongs to JRR Tolkien.

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Oh, Calcifersgrl, you've reminded me of another story I keep wanting to write -- all about Milly at her boarding school. It'll take me forever to get round to it though, so if anyone wants to write about that, please do!