/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Inkworld

Inkdeath

Cornelia Funke


INKDEATH

CORNELIA FUNKE

Translated from the

German by Anthea Bell

To Rolf, always – it was the best of things to be married to Dustfinger.

To Ileen, who knows all about loss and was always there to understand and ease the pain.

To Andrew, Angie, Antonia, Cam and James, Caroline, Elinor, and last but for sure not least, Lionel and Oliver, who all brought so much light, warmth and true friendship to dark days.

And to the city of angels, which fed me with beauty and wilderness and with the feeling that I had found my Inkworld.

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Chapter 1: Nothing But a Dog and a Sheet of Paper

Chapter 2: Only a Village

Chapter 3: Written Silver

Chapter 4: Ink-Clothes

Chapter 5: Fenoglio Feels Sorry for Himself

Chapter 6: Sad Ombra

Chapter 7: A Dangerous Visit

Chapter 8: Roxane’s Pain

Chapter 9: A Giveaway

Chapter 10: As If Nothing Had Happened

Chapter 11: Sick with Longing

Chapter 12: Back in the Service of Orpheus

Chapter 13: A Knife through the Heart

Chapter 14: News from Ombra

Chapter 15: Loud Words, Soft Words

Chapter 16: The Piper’s Offer

Chapter 17: The Wrong Fear

Chapter 18: A Dangerous Ally

Chapter 19: Soldiers’ Hands

Chapter 20: A Sleepless Night

Chapter 21: Sharp Words

Chapter 22: Taking the Bait

Chapter 23: The Graveyard of the Strolling Players

Chapter 24: To Blame

Chapter 25: The End and the Beginning

Chapter 26: A Familiar Voice

Chapter 27: Lost and Back Again

Chapter 28: A New Song

Chapter 29: A Visitor to Orpheus’s Cellar

Chapter 30: Sootbird’s Fire

Chapter 31: The Bluejay’s Answer

Chapter 32: At Last

Chapter 33: Herbs for Her Ugliness

Chapter 34: Burnt Words

Chapter 35: The Next Verse

Chapter 36: A Surprising Visitor

Chapter 37: Only a Magpie

Chapter 38: A Greeting to the Piper

Chapter 39: Stolen Children

Chapter 40: A New Cage

Chapter 41: Pictures from the Ashes

Chapter 42: An Audience with the Adderhead

Chapter 43: Four Berries

Chapter 44: The Hand of Death

Chapter 45: Written and Unwritten

Chapter 46: The Castle in the Lake

Chapter 47: The Role of Women

Chapter 48: Waiting

Chapter 49: Masters New and Old

Chapter 50: Lazy Old Man

Chapter 51: The Wrong Helpers

Chapter 52: The Dead Men in the Forest

Chapter 53: Human Nests

Chapter 54: The White Whispering

Chapter 55: The Wrong Time

Chapter 56: Fire and Darkness

Chapter 57: Too Late

Chapter 58: Help from Mountains Far Away

Chapter 59: The Bluejay’s Angels

Chapter 60: Mother and Son

Chapter 61: Clothed and Unclothed

Chapter 62: Black

Chapter 63: Ah, Fenoglio

Chapter 64: Light

Chapter 65: Made Visible

Chapter 66: Love Disguised as Hate

Chapter 67: The Other Name

Chapter 68: Back

Chapter 69: In the Adderhead’s Bedchamber

Chapter 70: Burning Words

Chapter 71: The Bookbinder

Chapter 72: So Many Tears

Chapter 73: The Night-Mare

Chapter 74: The Other Side

Chapter 75: The Box

Chapter 76: White Night

Chapter 77: Over

Chapter 78: Staked on the Wrong Card

Chapter 79: Leaving

Chapter 80: Ombra

Chapter 81: Later

An A–Z of the Inkworld

Acknowledgments

A note from the author:

Praise for INKHEART

Copyright

Inkheart

Mortimer Folchart (Mo), a bookbinder, has such a beautiful voice that it can bring characters out of books when he reads aloud. He discovered his dangerous gift by accident when he was reading a story called Inkheart to his wife Resa and daughter Meggie. Several characters, including the evil Capricorn and some of his followers, came out of it into our world – and Resa vanished into the world of the book. Meggie, only three at the time, can’t even remember her mother.

Nine years later the fire-eater Dustfinger, one of the Inkheart characters and desperately homesick for his own world, visits Mo and Meggie (now twelve years old) to warn them that Capricorn is looking for all copies of the book to destroy them, so that no one can ever move between the two worlds again by reading from it. He is after the copy that Mo still has, and he also wants to force Mo to read treasure out of books for him.

Capricorn and his criminal gang have made an Italian village their headquarters, and when Dustfinger treacherously tells them where to find Mo, he is kidnapped and taken there. Meggie, her great-aunt Elinor (a book collector with a fine library) and the repentant Dustfinger join forces to rescue him. But they no longer have the book that might help Dustfinger to get home and Mo to find his wife at last. With a new friend – Farid, a boy read accidentally out of the Arabian Nights by Mo – they track down the author of Inkheart, old Fenoglio, but his own copies have also been stolen. Although a single copy is left, it is in the hands of Capricorn and his witch-like mother Mortola. After many more perilous adventures, Fenoglio and Meggie end up as captives back in Capricorn’s village. Meggie, who has inherited her father’s unusual talent, is to be made to read Capricorn’s ally, a terrible creature known as the Shadow, out of the remaining copy of Inkheart. But with the help of Fenoglio, who writes new words to add to the story, she and Mo turn the tables and Capricorn falls dead. Fenoglio himself disappears into the Inkworld in exchange for the Shadow. With Dustfinger’s help Resa, who spent years in the Inkworld serving Capricorn and Mortola and lost her voice in passing between the two worlds, is found again. Reunited, the Folcharts all go home to Elinor’s house.

Inkspell

At the end of Inkheart, Dustfinger went away with the only existing copy of Fenoglio’s story – and with Farid, who wants to learn to be a fire-eater. Now, in Inkspell, Dustfinger has finally found someone to read him back to his own world: a petty criminal calling himself Orpheus who has a wonder-working voice like Mo’s. Orpheus wants the book for himself, and reads Dustfinger into the Inkworld, but not his devoted apprentice Farid, who is left holding the book. Farid takes refuge with the Folcharts in Elinor’s house. Meggie, longing to see the Inkworld too, discovers that she can read herself and Farid there. It is a place of marvels – fairies, water-nymphs, brownies – and when they meet a band of strolling players whose leader is known as the Black Prince, they are taken to the city of Ombra, capital of Lombrica, and find Fenoglio there. Ombra is in mourning for its ruling prince’s son, Cosimo the Fair, killed by a gang of fire-raisers led by Firefox, one of Capricorn’s men. And it is threatened by the ruler of the country of Argenta, known as the Adderhead, whose daughter Violante is Cosimo’s widow. Near Ombra Dustfinger has been reunited with his wife Roxane, once a minstrel woman and now wise in herbal healing lore. But his daughter Brianna, Violante’s maid, is hostile to him.

Back in our own world Orpheus has allies: Capricorn’s mother Mortola and his henchman Basta, who turn up at Elinor’s house. Orpheus is to read them – and Mo – into the Inkworld, where Mortola believes her son will still be alive. In her fury at finding that he is dead there too, she shoots and wounds Mo, to the horror of Resa, who grabbed his hand at the last moment and came into the Inkworld too. Resa nurses her husband devotedly, keeping away the White Women who visit those close to death. They meet the strolling players, who take Mo for a famous robber known as the Bluejay. Left behind in our world, Elinor and her friend Darius, formerly reader to Capricorn, are still imprisoned in Elinor’s house, while Orpheus lords it in her library.

Once again, Fenoglio and Meggie combine their talents for writing and reading aloud, this time in order to bring Cosimo the Fair back to life. But Cosimo’s campaign against the Adderhead’s forces ends in a disastrous defeat and many deaths. Fenoglio has lost control of his story, which now seems to be telling itself. Full of remorse, he vows never to write again. Mo and Resa have been captured and taken to the Castle of Night in Argenta, where Mo, with Meggie’s help, is forced to bind a magic book to keep the Adderhead alive for ever. In return the Adderhead releases them, as agreed, but he sends soldiers after them and their friends: Dustfinger, the Black Prince and his men. Basta kills Farid in the fighting, and is killed himself by Mo. Dustfinger bargains with the White Women, daughters of Death, to take Farid’s place and dies instead. Farid, alive again but distraught, persuades Fenoglio to write words for Meggie to read aloud that will bring Orpheus to the Inkworld, hoping that if he read Dustfinger home he can also read him back to life. And Orpheus arrives, clutching the single remaining copy of Inkheart. But was it safe to bring him here? And will Orpheus do what Farid wants …?

Inkspell ends on this note of suspense. Now you can find out what happens to all the characters next in Inkdeath.

An A–Z of characters is at the back of the book.

1

Nothing But a Dog and a Sheet of Paper

Hark, the footsteps of the night

Fade in silence long.

Quiet chirps my reading light

Like a cricket’s song.

Books inviting us to read

On the bookshelves stand.

Piers for bridges that will lead

Into fairyland.

Rilke,

Sacrifice to the Lares, from Vigils III

Moonlight fell on Elinor’s dressing gown, her nightdress, her bare feet, and the dog lying in front of them. Orpheus’s dog. Oh, the way he looked at her with his eternally sad eyes! As if asking himself why, in the name of all the exciting smells in the world, she was sitting in her library in the middle of the night, surrounded by silent books, just staring into space.

‘Why?’ said Elinor in the silence. ‘Because I can’t sleep, you stupid animal.’ But she patted his head all the same. This is what you’ve come to, Elinor, she thought as she hauled herself out of her armchair. Spending your nights talking to a dog. You don’t even like dogs, least of all this one, with his heavy breathing that always reminds you of his appalling master!

Still, she had kept the dog in spite of the painful memories he brought back. She’d kept the chair too, even though the Magpie had sat in it. Mortola … how often Elinor thought she heard the old woman’s voice when she went into the quiet library, how often she seemed to see Mortimer and Resa standing among the bookshelves, or Meggie sitting by the window with a book on her lap, face hidden behind her smooth, bright hair …

Memories. They were all she had left. No more tangible than the pictures conjured up by books. But what would be left if she lost those memories too? Then she’d be alone again for ever – with the silence and the emptiness in her heart. And an ugly dog.

Her feet looked so old in the pale moonlight. Moonlight! she thought, wiggling her toes in it. In many stories moonlight had magical powers. All lies. Her whole head was full of printed lies. She couldn’t even look at the moon with eyes unclouded by veils of letters. Couldn’t she wipe all those words out of her head and heart, and see the world through her own eyes again, at least once?

Heavens, Elinor, what a fabulous mood you’re in, she thought as she made her way over to the glass case where she kept everything that Orpheus had left behind, apart from his dog. Wallowing in self-pity, like that stupid dog rolling over in every puddle.

The sheet of paper that lay behind the glass looked nothing special, just an ordinary piece of lined paper densely written in pale-blue ink. Not to be compared with the magnificently illuminated books in the other display cases – even though the tracing of every letter showed how very impressed Orpheus was with himself. I hope the fire-elves have burnt that self-satisfied smile off his lips, thought Elinor as she opened the glass case. I hope the men-at-arms have skewered him – or, even better, I hope he’s starved to death in the Wayless Wood, miserably and very, very slowly. It wasn’t the first time she had pictured Orpheus’s wretched end in the Inkworld to herself. These images gave her lonely heart more pleasure than almost anything.

The sheet of paper was already yellowing. To add insult to injury, it was cheap stuff. And the words on it really didn’t look as though they could have spirited their writer away to another world right before Elinor’s eyes. Three photographs lay beside the sheet of paper – one of Meggie and two of Resa – a photo of her as a child and another taken only a few months ago, with Mortimer beside her, both of them smiling so happily! Hardly a night went by when Elinor didn’t look at those photographs. By now, at least, the tears had stopped running down her cheeks when she did so, but they were still there in her heart. Bitter tears. Her heart was full to the brim with them, a horrible feeling.

Lost.

Meggie.

Resa.

Mortimer.

Almost three months had passed since their disappearance. In fact, Meggie had even been gone a few days longer than her parents …

The dog stretched and came trotting drowsily over to her. He pushed his nose into her dressing-gown pocket, knowing there were always a few dog biscuits in it for him.

‘Yes, all right, all right,’ she murmured, shoving one of the smelly little things into his broad muzzle. ‘Where’s your master, then?’ She held the sheet of paper in front of his nose, and the stupid creature sniffed it as if he really could catch Orpheus’s scent behind the words on the page.

Elinor stared at the words, shaping them with her lips. In the streets of Ombra … She’d stood here so often over the last few weeks, surrounded by books that meant nothing to her; now she was once again alone with them. They didn’t speak to her, just as if they knew that she’d have exchanged them all on the spot for the three people she had lost. Lost in a book.

‘I will learn how, damn it!’ Her voice sounded defiant, like a child’s. ‘I’ll learn how to read them so that they’ll swallow me up too, I will, I will!’

The dog was looking at her as if he believed every word of it, but Elinor didn’t, not a single one. No, she was no Silvertongue. Even if she tried for a dozen years or more, the words wouldn’t make music when she spoke them. She’d loved words so much all her life. Although they didn’t sing for her the way they sang for Meggie or Mortimer – or Orpheus, damn him three times over.

The piece of paper shook in her fingers as she started to cry. Here came the tears again. She’d held them back for so long, all the tears in her heart, until it was simply overflowing with them. Elinor’s sobs were so loud that the dog cowered in alarm. How ridiculous that water ran out of your eyes when your heart hurt. Tragic heroines in books tended to be amazingly beautiful. Not a word about swollen eyes or a red nose. Crying always gives me a red nose, thought Elinor. I expect that’s why I’ll never be in any book.

‘Elinor?’

She spun round, hastily wiping her tears away.

Darius stood in the open doorway, wearing the dressing gown that she had given him for his last birthday. It was much too large for him.

‘What is it?’ she snapped. Where had that handkerchief gone this time? Sniffing, she pulled it from her sleeve and blew her nose. ‘Three months, they’ve been gone three months now, Darius! Isn’t that a good reason to cry? Yes, it is. Don’t look at me so pityingly with your owlish eyes. Never mind how many books we buy,’ she said, with a wide sweep of her arm towards her well-filled shelves, ‘never mind how many we get at auctions, swap or steal – not one of them tells me what I want to know! Thousands of pages, and not a word on any of them with news of the only people I want to know about. Why would I be interested in anything else? Theirs is the only story I want to hear! How is Meggie now, do you think? How are Resa and Mortimer? Are they happy, Darius? Are they still alive? Will I ever see them again?’

Darius looked along the books, as if the answer might after all be found in one of them. But then, like all those printed pages, he gave her no answer.

‘I’ll make you some hot milk and honey,’ he said at last, disappearing into the kitchen.

And Elinor was alone again with the books, the moonlight and Orpheus’s ugly dog.

2

Only a Village

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding –

Riding – riding –

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Alfred Noyes,

The Highwayman

The fairies were already beginning to dance among the trees, swarms of tiny blue bodies. Their wings caught the starlight, and Mo saw the Black Prince glancing anxiously at the sky. It was still as dark as the hills all around, but the fairies were never wrong. On a cold night like this, only the coming of dawn could lure them from their nests, and the village whose harvest the robbers were trying to save this time lay dangerously close to Ombra. As soon as daybreak came they must be gone.

A village like many others: only a dozen poor huts, a few barren, stony fields, and a wall that would hardly keep out a child, let alone a soldier. Thirty women without their menfolk, three dozen fatherless children. Two days ago the new governor’s men had carried off almost the entire harvest of the neighbouring village. The robbers had reached the place too late, but something could still be salvaged here. They’d spent hours digging, showing the women how to hide livestock and provisions underground …

The Strong Man was carrying the last hastily-dug sackful of potatoes, his rough-hewn face red with effort. It went the same colour when he was fighting or drunk. Between them all, they lowered the sack into the hiding place they had made just beyond the fields, and Mo covered the entrance with a network of twigs to hide the storage pit from soldiers and tax gatherers. By now, toads were croaking in the surrounding hills, as if to entice the day out, and the men on watch among the huts were getting restless. They’d seen the fairies too. High time to get away, back into the forest where a hiding place could always be found, even though the new governor was sending more and more patrols out to the hills. The Milksop, the widows of Ombra called him. A good nickname for the Adderhead’s puny brother-in-law. But the Milksop’s greed for what few possessions his new subjects had was insatiable.

Mo rubbed his eyes. Heavens, he was tired. He’d hardly slept for days. There were just too many villages that they might yet be able to reach ahead of the soldiers.

‘You look worn out,’ Resa had said only yesterday when she woke up beside him, unaware that he hadn’t come to bed beside her until the first light of dawn. He had said something about bad dreams, told her he’d been passing the sleepless hours by working on the book he was binding, a collection of her drawings of fairies and glass men. He hoped Resa and Meggie would be asleep again now when he came back to the lonely farmhouse that the Black Prince had found for them. It was east of Ombra, an hour’s journey from the city on foot, and far from the land where the Adderhead still ruled, made immortal by a book that Mo had bound with his own hands.

Soon, thought Mo. Soon the book won’t protect him any more. But how often had he told himself that before? And the Adderhead was still immortal.

A girl hesitantly approached Mo. How old would she be? Six? Seven? Her hair was as blonde as Meggie’s, but it was a long time since Meggie had been so small. Shyly, she stopped a pace away from him.

Snapper emerged from the darkness and went over to the child. ‘Yes, go on, take a good look!’ he whispered to the little girl. ‘That’s really him – the Bluejay! He eats children like you for supper.’

Snapper loved such jokes. Mo bit back the words on the tip of his tongue. ‘Don’t believe a word he says!’ he said, in a low voice. ‘Why aren’t you asleep like everyone else?’

The child looked at him. Then she pushed up his sleeve with her small hands until the scar showed. The scar of which the songs told tales …

She looked at him, wide-eyed, with the same mixture of awe and fear he had now seen in so many faces. The Bluejay. The girl ran back to her mother, and Mo straightened up. Whenever his chest hurt where Mortola had wounded him, it felt as if he had slipped in there to join him – the robber to whom Fenoglio had given Mo’s face and voice. Or had the Bluejay always been a part of him, merely sleeping until Fenoglio’s world brought him to life?

Sometimes when they were taking meat to one of the starving villages, or a few sacks of grain stolen from the Milksop’s bailiffs, women would come up to him and kiss his hand. ‘Go and thank the Black Prince, not me,’ he always told them, but the Prince just laughed. ‘Get yourself a bear,’ he said. ‘Then they’ll leave you alone.’

A child began crying in one of the huts. A tinge of red was showing in the night sky, and Mo thought he heard hoof beats. Horsemen, at least a dozen of them, maybe more. How fast the ears learnt to tell what sounds meant, much faster than it took the eyes to decipher written words.

The fairies scattered. Women cried out, and ran to the huts where their children slept. Mo’s hand drew his sword as if of its own accord. As if it had never done anything else. It was the sword he had taken from the Castle of Night, the sword that once belonged to Firefox.

The first light of dawn.

Wasn’t it said that they always came at first light because they loved the red of the sky? With any luck they’d be drunk after one of their master’s endless banquets.

The Prince signalled to the robbers to take up their positions surrounding the village. It was only a couple of courses of flat stones, and the huts wouldn’t offer much protection either. The bear was snorting and grunting, and here they came now out of the darkness: horsemen, more than a dozen of them with the new crest of Ombra on their breasts, a basilisk on a red background. They had not, of course, been expecting to find men here. Weeping women, crying children, yes, but not men, and armed men at that. Taken aback, they reined in their horses. They were drunk. Good – that would slow them down.

They didn’t hesitate for long, seeing at once that they were far better armed than the ragged robbers. And they had horses.

Fools. They’d die before they realized that weapons and horses weren’t all that counted.

‘Every last one of them!’ Snapper whispered hoarsely to Mo. ‘We have to kill them all, Bluejay. I hope your soft heart understands that. If a single man gets back to Ombra, this village will burn tomorrow.’

Mo merely nodded. As if he didn’t know.

The horses neighed shrilly as their riders urged them towards the robbers, and Mo felt it again, just as he had on Mount Adder when he had killed Basta – that coldness of the blood. Cold as the hoarfrost at his feet. The only fear he felt was fear of himself.

But then came the screams. The groans. The blood. His own heartbeat, loud and much too fast. Striking and thrusting, pulling his sword out of the bodies of strangers, the blood of strangers wet on his clothes, faces distorted by hatred – or was it fear? Fortunately you couldn’t see much under their helmets. They were so young! Smashed limbs, smashed human beings. Careful, watch out behind you. Kill. Fast. Not one of them must get away.

‘Bluejay.’

One of the soldiers whispered the name before Mo struck him down. Perhaps he had been thinking, with his last breath, of all the silver he’d get for bringing the Bluejay’s body back to Ombra Castle – more silver than he could ever take as loot in a whole lifetime as a soldier. Mo pulled his sword out of the man’s chest. They had come without their body armour. Who needed armour against women and children? How cold killing made you, very cold, although your own skin was burning and your blood was flowing fever-hot.

They did indeed kill them all. It was quiet in the huts as they threw the bodies over the precipice. Two were their own men, whose bones would now mingle with those of their enemies. There was no time to bury them.

The Black Prince had a nasty cut on his shoulder. Mo bandaged it as best he could. The bear sat beside them, looking anxious. The child came out of one of the huts, the little girl who had pushed his sleeve up. From a distance she really did look like Meggie. Meggie, Resa … he hoped they’d still be asleep when he got back. How was he going to explain all the blood if they weren’t? So much blood …

Sometime, Mortimer, he thought, the nights will overshadow the days. Nights of blood. Peaceful days – days when Meggie showed him everything she had only been able to tell him about in the tower of the Castle of Night. Nymphs with scaly skins dwelling in blossom-covered pools, footprints of giants long gone, flowers that whispered when you touched them, trees growing right up to the sky, moss-women who appeared between their roots as if they had peeled away from the bark … Peaceful days. Nights of blood.

They did what they could to cover up the traces of the fight and left, taking the horses with them. There was a note of fear in the stammered thanks of the village women as they left. They’d seen with their own eyes that their allies knew as much about killing as their enemies did.

Snapper rode back to the robbers’ camp with the horses and most of the men. The camp was moved almost daily. At present it was in a dark ravine that became hardly any lighter even by day. They would send for Roxane to tend the wounded, while Mo went back to where Resa and Meggie were sleeping at the deserted farm. The Prince had found it for them, because Resa didn’t want to stay in the robbers’ camp and Meggie too longed for a house to live in after all those homeless weeks.

The Black Prince accompanied Mo, as he so often did. ‘Of course. The Bluejay never travels without a retinue,’ mocked Snapper before they parted company. Mo, whose heart was still racing from all the killing, could have dragged him off his horse for that, but the Prince restrained him.

They travelled on foot. It meant a painfully long walk for their tired limbs, but their footprints were harder to follow than a trail left by horses’ hooves. And the farm must be kept safe, for everything Mo loved was waiting there.

The house, and the dilapidated farm buildings, always appeared among the trees as unexpectedly as if someone had dropped and lost them there. There was no trace now of the fields where food for the farm had once been grown, and the path that used to lead to the nearest village had disappeared long ago. The forest had swallowed everything up. Here it was no longer called the Wayless Wood, the name it bore south of Ombra. Here the forest had as many names as there were local villages: the Fairy Forest, the Dark Wood, the Moss-Women’s Wood. If the Strong Man was to be believed, the place where the Bluejay’s hide-out lay was called Larkwood. ‘Larkwood? Nonsense,’ was Meggie’s response to that. ‘The Strong Man calls everything after birds! He even gives birds’ names to the fairies, although they can’t stand the birds. Battista says it’s called the Wood of Lights, which suits it much better. Did you ever see so many glow-worms and fire-elves in a wood? And all those fireflies that sit in the treetops at night …’

Whatever the name of the wood, Mo was always captivated afresh by the peace and quiet under its trees. It reminded him that this, too, was a part of the Inkworld, as much a part of it as the Milksop’s soldiers. The first of the morning sun was filtering through the branches, dappling the trees with pale gold, and the fairies were dancing as if intoxicated in the cold autumn sunlight. They fluttered into the bear’s furry face until he hit out at them, and the Black Prince held one of the little creatures to his ear, smiling as if he could understand what its cross, shrill little voice was saying.

Had the other world been like this? Why could he hardly remember? Had life there been the same beguiling mixture of darkness and light, cruelty and beauty … so much beauty that it sometimes almost made you drunk?

The Black Prince had the farm guarded by his men day and night.

Gecko was one of the guards today. As Mo and the Prince came through the trees he emerged from the ruined pigsty, a morose expression on his face. Gecko was always on the move. He was a small man whose slightly protuberant eyes had earned him his name. One of his tame crows was perched on his shoulder. The Prince used the crows as messengers, but most of the time they stole for Gecko from the markets; the amount they could carry away in their beaks always amazed Mo.

When he saw the blood on their clothes Gecko turned pale. But the shadows of the Inkworld had obviously left the isolated farm untouched again last night.

Mo almost fell over his own feet with weariness as he walked towards the well. The Prince reached for his arm, although he too was swaying with exhaustion.

‘It was a close shave this time,’ he said quietly, as if the peace were an illusion that could be shattered by his voice. ‘If we’re not more careful the soldiers will be waiting for us in the next village. The price the Adderhead has set on your head is high enough to buy all of Ombra. I can hardly trust my own men any more, and by this time even the children recognize you in the villages. Perhaps you ought to lie low here for a while.’

Mo shooed away the fairies whirring in the air above the well, then let the wooden bucket down. ‘Nonsense. They recognize you too.’

The water in the depths below shone as if the moon were hiding from morning there. Like the well outside Merlin’s cottage, thought Mo, as he cooled his face with the clear water and cleaned the cut that a soldier had given him on his forearm. All we need now is for Archimedes to fly up on my shoulder, while Wart comes stumbling out of the wood …

‘What are you smiling at?’ The Black Prince leant on the edge of the well beside Mo, while his bear lumbered around, snuffling, on ground that was wet with dew.

‘A story I once read.’ Mo put the bucket of water down for the bear. ‘I’ll tell it to you sometime. It’s a good story, even though it has a sad ending.’

But the Prince shook his head, and passed his hand over his tired face. ‘If it ends sadly I don’t want to hear it.’

Gecko wasn’t the only man who had been guarding the sleeping farm. Mo smiled when Battista stepped out of the tumbledown barn. Battista had no great opinion of fighting, but Mo liked him and the Strong Man best of all the robbers, and he found it easier to go out at night if one of them was watching over Resa and Meggie. Battista still did his clown act at fairs, even when his audience had hardly a penny to spare. ‘We don’t want them forgetting how to laugh altogether!’ he said when Snapper mocked him for it. He liked to hide his pockmarked face behind the masks he made for himself: laughing masks, weeping masks, whatever he felt like at the time. But when he joined Mo at the well he handed him not a mask, but a bundle of black clothes.

‘A very good morning to you, Bluejay,’ he said, with the same deep bow that he made to his audience. ‘Sorry I took rather a long time with your order, but I ran out of thread. Like everything else, it’s hard to get in Ombra. But luckily Gecko here,’ he added, bowing in the man’s direction, ‘sent one of his black-feathered friends off to steal me a few reels from one of the market traders. Thanks to our new governor, they’re still rich.’

‘Black clothes?’ The Prince looked enquiringly at Mo. ‘What for?’

‘A bookbinder’s garments. Binding books is still my trade, or have you forgotten? What’s more, black is good camouflage by night. As for this,’ said Mo, stripping off his bloodstained shirt, ‘I’d better dye it black too, or I can’t very well wear it again.’

The Prince looked at him thoughtfully. ‘I’ll say it again, even though you don’t want to listen. Lie low here for a few days. Forget the outside world, just as the world has forgotten this farm.’

The anxiety in his dark face touched Mo, and for a moment he was almost tempted to give the bundle back to Battista. But only almost.

When the Prince had gone, Mo hid the shirt and his bloodstained trousers in the former bakehouse, now converted into his workshop, and put on the black clothes. They fitted perfectly, and he was wearing them as he slipped back into the house just as the morning made its way in through the unglazed windows.

Meggie and Resa were still asleep. A fairy had lost her way in the gloom of Meggie’s room. Mo lured her to his hand with a few quiet words. ‘Will you look at that?’ Snapper always used to say. ‘Even the damn fairies love his voice. Looks like I’m the only person not to fall under its spell.’

Mo carried the fairy over to the window and let her flutter out. He pulled Meggie’s blanket up over her shoulders, the way he used to on all those nights when he and she had only each other, and he glanced at her face. How young she still looked when she was asleep. Awake, she seemed so much more grown-up. She whispered a name in her sleep. Farid. Was it when you fell in love for the first time that you grew up?

‘Where have you been?’

Mo spun round. Resa was standing in the open doorway, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

‘Watching the fairies’ morning dance. The nights are getting colder now. Soon they’ll hardly leave their nests at all.’

It wasn’t exactly a lie. And the sleeves of the black tunic were long enough to hide the cut on his forearm. ‘Come with me, or we’ll wake this big daughter of ours.’

He drew her with him into the bedroom where they slept.

‘What kind of clothes are those?’

‘A bookbinder’s outfit. Battista made them for me. Black as ink. Suitable, don’t you think? I’ve asked him to make you and Meggie something too. You’ll be needing another dress soon.’

He put his hand on her belly. You couldn’t see it yet. A new child brought with them from the old world, although they had found out only in this one. It was barely a week since Resa had told him. ‘Which would you like,’ she’d asked, ‘a daughter or a son?’

‘Can I choose?’ he had replied, trying to imagine what it would be like to hold tiny fingers in his hand again, so tiny that they could scarcely grasp his thumb. It was just the right time – before Meggie was so grown-up that he could hardly call her a child at all.

‘The sickness is getting worse. I’ll ride over to see Roxane tomorrow. She’s sure to know what to do for it.’

‘Yes, she’s sure to know.’ Mo took her in his arms.

Peaceful days. Nights of blood.

3

Written Silver

To what was sombre he was most disposed

When, in his bare room with its shutters closed,

High-ceilinged, blue, he read his story, thinking,

And in his mind’s eye picturing forests sinking

Under the water, seeing ochre skies,

Fleshy flowers in woods of stars before his eyes …

Arthur Rimbaud,

The Poet at Seven Years Old

Of course Orpheus did none of the digging himself. He stood there in his fine clothes watching Farid sweat. He had made him dig in two places already, and the hole Farid was excavating now was already deep enough to come up to his chest. The earth was moist and heavy. It had rained a great deal these last few days, and the spade was useless. In addition, there was a hanged man dangling right above Farid’s head. The cold wind swung the body back and forth on its rotting rope. Suppose it fell, and buried him under its decaying bones?

Three more sombre figures swung from the gallows on Farid’s right. Milksop, the new governor, liked hanging people. Folk said that he had his wigs made from the hair of executed men and women – and the widows in Ombra whispered that this was the reason why so many women had been condemned to hang.

‘How much longer are you going to take? It’s getting light! Go on, dig faster!’ Orpheus snapped, kicking a skull down into the pit. Skulls lay beneath the gallows like terrible fruits.

It was true that day was beginning to dawn. Damn that Cheeseface! He’d had Farid digging almost all night long. If only he could wring the man’s pale neck!

‘Faster? Get your fine bodyguard to do some digging for a change!’ Farid shouted up to him. ‘Then his muscles would at least be some use!’

The Chunk folded his bulky arms and smiled down with derision. Orpheus had found the giant working for a physician in the marketplace, holding down the man’s customers while he pulled out their rotten teeth. ‘What on earth are you going on about now?’ was all Orpheus had said, condescendingly, when Farid asked why he needed another servant. ‘Even the rag-and-bone men in Ombra have bodyguards to protect them from the riffraff roaming the streets. And I’m a good deal richer than they are!’ In this he was certainly right – and as Orpheus offered better pay than the physician, and the Chunk’s ears hurt from listening to all those screams of agony, he went with them without a word. He called himself Oss, a very short name for such a large fellow, but it suited a man who spoke so seldom that at first Farid could have sworn he had no tongue in his ugly mouth. However, that mouth worked overtime at eating, and more and more frequently the Chunk would devour what Orpheus’s maids put in front of Farid too. At first Farid had complained, but after Oss lay in wait for him on the cellar steps one night he preferred to sleep on an empty stomach, or steal something from the marketplace. The Chunk had made life in Orpheus’s service even worse. A handful of pieces of broken glass inside Farid’s straw mattress, a leg stuck out to trip him up at the bottom of a staircase, a sudden rough hand grasping his hair … he had to be on his guard against Oss all the time. There was no peace from him except at night, when the man slept outside Orpheus’s bedroom, docile as a dog.

‘Bodyguards don’t dig!’ Orpheus explained in a weary tone, pacing impatiently up and down between the holes Farid had dug. ‘And if you go on dawdling like that we really will need a bodyguard. They’re bringing two poachers here to hang before noon!’

‘Well, there you are, then! I keep telling you: let’s just look for buried treasure behind your house!’ The hills where gallows stood, graveyards, burnt-out farms … Orpheus loved places that sent a shiver down Farid’s spine. Cheeseface certainly wasn’t afraid of ghosts, you had to give him that. Farid wiped the sweat out of his eyes. ‘You might at least write a more detailed description of which damn gallows the treasure’s under. And why does it have to be buried so deep, for heaven’s sake?’

‘Why buried so deep? Why not behind my house?’ Orpheus pursed his girlishly soft lips scornfully. ‘What an original idea! Does that sound as if it belongs in this story? Even Fenoglio wouldn’t fall for such nonsense. But why do I bother to keep explaining? You wouldn’t understand anyway.’

‘Oh no?’ Farid drove his spade so deep into the damp soil that it stuck. ‘Well, there’s one thing I understand very well. While you’re writing yourself treasure after treasure, acting the rich merchant and chasing every maid in Ombra, Dustfinger still lies among the dead!’

Farid felt tears come to his eyes yet again. The pain was as fresh now as it had been on the night when Dustfinger died for him. If he could only forget that still face! If he could only remember Dustfinger as he was in life! But he kept seeing him lying in the disused mine, cold and silent, his heart frozen.

‘I’m sick and tired of being your servant!’ he shouted up at Orpheus. In his fury he even forgot the hanged men, whose ghosts certainly wouldn’t like so much shouting in the place where they had died. ‘You haven’t kept your side of the bargain! Instead of bringing him back, you’ve made yourself as comfortable in this world as a maggot in a side of bacon. You’ve buried him, like all the others! Fenoglio’s right, you’re about as much use as a perfumed pig’s bladder! I’m going to tell Meggie to send you back again. And she’ll do it, just you wait and see!’

Oss looked enquiringly at Orpheus, his eyes asking permission to seize Farid and beat him black and blue, but Orpheus ignored him. ‘Ah, so we’re back to that subject!’ he said, barely able to control his voice. ‘The amazing, wonderful Meggie, daughter of an equally fabulous father who answers to the name of a bird these days, hiding out in the forest with a band of verminous robbers while ragged minstrels make up song after song about him.’

Orpheus adjusted his glasses and looked up at the sky, as if complaining to the powers above of Mo’s unearned fame. He liked the nickname those glasses had earned him: Four-Eyes. It was whispered with fear and horror in Ombra, which pleased Orpheus even more. And the glasses were regarded as evidence that all the lies he told about his origins were the plain truth: he came from beyond the sea, he said, from a distant land ruled by princes who all had two sets of eyes, which allowed them to read their subjects’ thoughts. He claimed to be a son of the king of that country, born out of wedlock, and said he’d had to flee after his own brother’s wife had fallen madly in love with him. ‘By the god of books, what a wretched story!’ Fenoglio had cried, when Farid told Minerva’s children about it. ‘The slushy notions churning around in that fellow’s mind! He hasn’t a single fresh idea in his slimy brain – all he can do is mess about with other people’s stories!’

But while Fenoglio was spending his days and nights feeling sorry for himself, Orpheus had leisure to put his own stamp on this story – and he seemed to know more about it than the man who had originally made it up.

‘When you love a book so much that you read it again and again, do you know what it makes you wish?’ Orpheus had asked Farid, as they had stood outside the city gate of Ombra for the first time. ‘No, of course you don’t. How could you? I’m sure a book only makes you think how well it would burn on a cold night. But I’ll tell you the answer all the same: you want to be in the book yourself. Although certainly not as a poor court poet. I’m happy to leave that role to Fenoglio – though even there he cuts a sorry figure!’

Orpheus had set to work the third night after he arrived, in a dirty inn near the city walls. He had told Farid to steal him some wine and a candle, and had produced a grubby piece of paper and a pencil from under his cloak – and the book, the thrice-accursed book, Inkheart. His fingers had wandered over the pages collecting words, more and more words, like magpies in search of glittering baubles. And Farid had been fool enough to believe that the words Orpheus was so busily writing on his sheet of paper would heal the pain in his heart and bring Dustfinger back.

But Orpheus had very different ideas in mind. He sent Farid away before reading aloud what he had written, and before dawn the next morning ordered him to dig up his first treasure from the soil of Ombra, in the graveyard just beyond the infirmary. The sight of the coins had made Orpheus as happy as a child. But Farid had stared at the graves, tasting his own tears in his mouth.

Orpheus had spent the silver on new clothes for himself, hired two maids and a cook, and bought a silk merchant’s magnificent house. Its previous owner had gone away in search of his son, who had ridden with Cosimo to Argenta and never came back.

Orpheus made out that he himself was a merchant, one who sold the granting of unusual wishes – and soon it had reached the Milksop’s ears that this stranger with the thin fair hair and skin as pale as a prince’s could supply bizarre things: spotted brownies, fairies as brightly coloured as butterflies, jewellery made of fire-elves’ wings, belts set with the scales of river-nymphs, gold and white piebald horses to draw princely coaches, and other creatures previously known in Ombra only from fairy tales. The right words for all sorts of things could be found in Fenoglio’s original book of Inkheart – Orpheus just had to fit them together in a slightly different way. Now and then one of his creations would die after taking only a few breaths, or would turn out vicious (the Chunk often had bandaged hands), but that didn’t bother Orpheus. Why would he mind if a few dozen fire-elves died of starvation in the forest because they had no wings, or a handful of river-nymphs drifted dead in the water without their scales? He pulled thread after thread out of the fine fabric that Fenoglio had spun and wove patterns of his own, adding them to the old man’s tapestry like brightly coloured patches, and growing rich on what his voice could entice out of another man’s words.

Curses on him. A thousand and one curses. This was too much.

‘I won’t do anything for you any more! I won’t do anything at all!’ Farid wiped the moist earth from his hands and tried to climb out of the hole, but at a gesture from Orpheus Oss pushed him roughly back again.

‘Dig!’ he grunted.

‘Dig yourself!’ Farid was trembling in his sweaty tunic, though whether with cold or rage he couldn’t have said. ‘Your fine master is just a fraud! He’s already been in jail for his lies, and that’s where he’ll end up again!’

Orpheus narrowed his eyes. He didn’t like to have that chapter in his life mentioned at all.

‘I bet you were the sort who cons money out of old ladies’ pockets. And here you are all puffed up like a bullfrog, just because your lies are suddenly coming true. You suck up to the Milksop, because he’s Adderhead’s brother-in-law, and think yourself cleverer than anyone else! But what can you really do? Write fairies here who look like they’ve fallen into a vat of dye, chests full of treasure, and jewellery made of elves’ wings for him. But you can’t do what we brought you here for, you can’t do that. Dustfinger is dead. He’s dead. He – is – still – dead!’

And now here came those wretched tears again. Farid wiped them away with his dirty fingers, while the Chunk stared down at him as blankly as only someone can who doesn’t understand a word of what’s being said. And how could he? What did Oss know about the words Orpheus was collecting on the sly, what did he know about the book and Orpheus’s voice?

‘No one brought me here for anything!’ Orpheus leant over the edge of the pit as if to spit the words into Farid’s face. ‘And I certainly don’t have to listen to any lectures about Dustfinger from the boy who caused his death! Have you forgotten how he sacrificed himself for you? Why, I knew his name before you were even born, and I and no one else will bring him back, after you so drastically removed him from this story … but how and when I do it will be my own decision. Now dig. Or do you think, you brilliant example of the wisdom of Arabia –’ Farid thought he felt the words slicing through him – ‘do you think I’ll be more likely to write if I can’t pay my maids and I have to wash my own clothes?’

Damn him. Damn him to hell. Farid bowed his head so that Orpheus wouldn’t see his tears. The boy who caused his death …

‘Tell me why I keep paying minstrels good silver for their pitiful songs. Because I’ve forgotten Dustfinger? No. It’s because you still haven’t managed to find out how and where in this world I can speak to the White Women who have him now! So I go on listening to bad songs, I stand beside dying beggars, I bribe the healers in the infirmaries to call me when a patient is at death’s door. Of course, it would be much easier if you could summon the White Women with fire, like your master, but we’ve tried that often enough and got nowhere, right? If at least they’d visit you, as it seems they like to visit those they’ve touched once with death already – but no! The fresh chicken blood I put outside the door was no use either, and nor were the children’s bones I bought from a gravedigger for a bag of silver after the guards at the gate told you that was sure to raise a dozen White Women at once!’

Yes, yes! Farid wanted to put his hands over his ears. Orpheus was right. They’d tried everything, but the White Women simply didn’t appear to them, and who else was to tell Orpheus how to bring Dustfinger back from the dead?

Without a word, Farid pulled his spade out of the ground and began digging again.

He had blisters on his hands by the time he finally struck wood. The chest he pulled out of the ground wasn’t very large, but like the last one it was filled to the brim with silver coins. Farid had been listening when Orpheus read it there: Under the gallows on the Dark Hill, long before the Prince of Sighs had the oaks there felled for his son’s coffin, a band of highwaymen had buried a casket of silver in the ground. Then they killed each other in a quarrel, but the silver still lay there in the earth with their bones bleaching above it.

The wood of the chest was rotten and, as with the other treasures he had dug up, Farid wondered whether the silver might not have been lying under the gallows even before Orpheus wrote his words. If asked such questions Cheeseface would only smile knowingly, but Farid doubted whether he really knew the answer.

‘There you are! Now who’s talking? That ought to last another month.’ Orpheus’s smile was so self-satisfied that Farid would have liked to wipe it off his face with a spadeful of earth. Another month! The silver he and the Chunk were putting into leather bags would have filled the hungry bellies of everyone in Ombra for months to come.

‘How much longer is this going to take? The hangman’s probably already on his way with fresh gallows fodder.’ When Orpheus was nervous his voice sounded less impressive.

Without a word Farid tied up another bag full to bursting, kicked the empty chest back into the pit, and gave the hanged men one last glance. There had been a gallows on the Dark Hill before, but it was the Milksop who had declared it the main place of execution again. The stink of corpses drifted up to the castle too often from the gallows outside the city gate, and the stench didn’t go well with the fine dishes that the Adderhead’s brother-in-law ate while Ombra went hungry.

‘Have you found me some minstrels for this afternoon?’

Farid just nodded as he followed Orpheus, carrying the heavy bags.

‘The one you got me yesterday was ugly as sin!’ Orpheus got Oss to help him up on to his horse. ‘Like a scarecrow come to life! And most of what came out of his toothless mouth was the usual old stuff: beautiful princess loves poor strolling player, tralalala, handsome prince’s son falls in love with peasant’s daughter, tralalalee … not a word about the White Women for me to use.’

Farid was only half listening. He didn’t think much of the strolling players any more. Most of them sang and danced for the Milksop these days, and they had voted the Black Prince out of his position as their king because he was openly hostile to the occupying army.

‘All the same,’ Orpheus went on, ‘the scarecrow did know a couple of new songs about the Bluejay. It cost me a pretty penny to worm them out of him, and he sang them as quietly as if the Milksop in person were standing under my window, but one of them I’d really never heard before. Are you still sure Fenoglio isn’t writing again?’

‘Perfectly sure.’ Farid slung his rucksack on his back and whistled softly through his teeth, as Dustfinger always used to. Jink shot out from under the gallows with a dead mouse in his jaws. Only the younger marten had stayed with Farid. Gwin was with Roxane, Dustfinger’s wife – as if he wanted to be where his master was most likely to go if Death’s pale fingers really did give him up.

‘Just why are you so sure?’ Orpheus twisted his mouth in distaste as Jink jumped up on Farid’s shoulder and disappeared inside the rucksack. Cheeseface disliked the marten, but tolerated him, presumably because he had once belonged to Dustfinger.

‘Rosenquartz says he isn’t writing any more, and as Fenoglio’s glass man he should know, right?’

In fact, Rosenquartz was always complaining of his hard life now that Fenoglio was back in Minerva’s attic room, and Farid himself cursed the steep wooden staircase every time Orpheus sent him to question Fenoglio about things that Orpheus couldn’t find in his original book. What lands lay south of the sea bordering Argenta? Is the prince who rules northern Lombrica related to the Adderhead’s wife? Where exactly do the giants live, or have they died out now? Do the predatory fish in the rivers eat river-nymphs?

Sometimes Fenoglio wouldn’t even let Farid in after he’d toiled up all those stairs, but now and then he would have drunk so much that he was in a talkative mood. On those days the old man overwhelmed him with such a torrent of information that Farid’s head was spinning by the time he came back to Orpheus – who then questioned him all over again. It was enough to drive you crazy. But every time Orpheus and Fenoglio tried communicating with each other directly they started to quarrel within a few minutes.

‘Good. Excellent! It would complicate matters if the old man took to liking words better than wine again! His last notions led to nothing but hopeless confusion …’ Orpheus picked up the reins and looked at the sky. It was going to be another rainy day, grey and dismal as the faces of the people of Ombra. ‘Masked robbers, books of immortality, a prince returning from the dead!’ Shaking his head, he rode his horse towards the path to Ombra. ‘Who knows what he’d have thought up next! Better for Fenoglio to drink away what few wits he has left. I’ll see to his story myself. After all, I understand it a great deal better than he does.’

Farid had stopped listening as he dragged his donkey out of the bushes. Let Cheeseface talk away. Farid didn’t care who wrote the words to bring Dustfinger back, just so long as he did come back in the end! Even if the whole wretched story went to hell in the process.

As usual, the donkey tried to bite Farid when he swung himself up on to its bony back. Cheeseface was riding one of the finest horses in Ombra. Despite his podgy figure, he was a good horseman – but of course, mean as he was, he’d bought only a donkey for Farid, a vicious animal so old that its head was bald. Even two donkeys couldn’t have carried the Chunk, so Oss trotted along beside Orpheus like an overgrown dog, his face sweating with the effort of running up and down the narrow paths through the hills around Ombra.

‘Good. So Fenoglio isn’t writing any more.’ Orpheus liked to think out loud. It sometimes seemed as if he couldn’t put his ideas in order unless he heard his own voice at the same time. ‘But where do all the stories about the Bluejay come from, then? The widows he protects, silver left on poor folk’s doorsteps, poached meat on the plates of fatherless children … is all that really Mo’s own doing, or did Fenoglio write a few words by way of giving him a helping hand?’

A cart came towards them. Cursing, Orpheus turned his horse towards the thorny bushes, and the Chunk stared up with a silly grin at the two boys kneeling in the cart, hands tied behind their backs, faces pinched with fear. One of them had eyes even brighter than Meggie’s, and neither of them was older than Farid. Of course not. If they’d been older they would have gone with Cosimo on the disastrous expedition against the Adderhead that got all the men killed, and they’d be dead by now too. But presumably that was no comfort to them this morning. Their bodies would be visible from Ombra, a dreadful example to all who were tempted by hunger to go poaching.

Did people die on the gallows too quickly for the White Women to come? Farid instinctively put his hand to his back, where Basta’s knife had gone in. They hadn’t come to him, had they? He didn’t remember. He didn’t even remember the pain, only Meggie’s face when he regained consciousness, and how he had turned to see Dustfinger lying there … ‘Why don’t you just write that they come and take me away instead of him?’ he had asked Orpheus, who merely laughed out loud. ‘You? Do you seriously think the White Women would exchange the Fire-Dancer for a rascally thief like you? No, we’ll have to offer them tastier bait than that.’

The bags of silver jogged up and down beside Orpheus’s saddle as he spurred his horse on, and Oss’s face was so red with effort that it looked as if it would explode on his fleshy neck any moment now.

Curses on Cheeseface! Yes, Meggie had better send him back to his own world, thought Farid as he dug his heels into the donkey’s sides. And the sooner the better! But who was going to write the words for her? And who but Orpheus could bring Dustfinger back from the dead?

He’ll never come back, a voice whispered inside him. Dustfinger is dead, Farid. Dead.

So? he snapped back at the quiet voice. What does that mean in this world? I came back, didn’t I?

If only he could remember the way.

4

Ink-Clothes

It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light.

If you cut me I would shine.

But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,

I skin my knees. I bleed.

Billy Collins,

On Turning Ten

A new morning woke Meggie, with pale light that fell on her face, and air as fresh as if no one had ever breathed it before. The fairies were twittering outside her window like birds that had learned to talk, and a bluejay screeched somewhere – if it really was a bluejay. The Strong Man could imitate any bird’s call so well that it sounded as if the real thing were nesting in his broad chest. And they all answered him: larks, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, nightingales, and Gecko’s tame crows.

Mo was awake too. She heard his voice outside – and her mother’s. Could Farid have come at last? She quickly rose from the straw mattress she slept on (what had sleeping in a bed felt like? She could hardly remember) and went to the window. She’d been waiting for Farid for days. He had promised to come. However, she saw no one out in the yard but her parents and the Strong Man, who smiled at her when he saw her standing at the window.

Mo was helping Resa to saddle one of the horses that had been waiting in the stables when they first came here. The horses were so beautiful that they must once have belonged to one of the Milksop’s high-born friends, but as with many of the things the Black Prince brought, Meggie tried not to think too much about how they fell into the robbers’ hands. She loved the Black Prince, Battista and the Strong Man, but some of the others sent a shudder down her spine. Men like Snapper and Gecko, for instance, although the same men had rescued her and her parents on Mount Adder. ‘Robbers are robbers, Meggie,’ Farid often said. ‘The Prince does what he does for other people, but several of his men just want to fill their pockets without having to toil in the fields or in a workshop.’ Farid … she missed him so much that she felt ashamed of it.

Her mother was looking pale. Resa had often been sick over the last few days. That must be why she wanted to ride over and see Roxane. No one knew what to do in such cases better than Dustfinger’s widow, except perhaps for the Barn Owl, but he himself hadn’t been particularly well since the death of Dustfinger, and especially since the Adderhead had burnt down the infirmary he’d run for so many years on the other side of the forest. No one knew what had become of Bella and all the other healers there.

A mouse, horned like Dustfinger’s marten, scurried past as Meggie went outside, and a fairy whirred towards her and snatched at her hair, but by now Meggie knew just how to shoo them away. The colder the weather, the fewer fairies ventured out of their nests, but they were still on the hunt for human hair. ‘Nothing keeps them warmer,’ Battista always said. ‘Except for bears’ hair, and it’s dangerous to pull that out.’

The morning was so cool that Meggie wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. The clothes the robbers had found for them weren’t as warm as the sweaters she’d have worn on a day like this in the other world, and she thought almost wistfully of the warm socks waiting for her in Elinor’s cupboards.

Mo turned and smiled as she came towards him. He looked tired but happy to see her. He wasn’t sleeping much. Often he would work late into the night in his makeshift workshop, using the few tools that Fenoglio had found him. And he was always going out into the forest, either alone or with the Prince. He thought Meggie didn’t know, but several times when she had been standing by the window unable to sleep, waiting for Farid, she had seen the robbers come for him. They called to Mo with the bluejay’s cry. Meggie heard it almost every night.

‘Are you feeling any better?’ She looked at her mother anxiously. ‘Perhaps it was those mushrooms we found the other day.’

‘No, it definitely wasn’t the mushrooms.’ Resa looked at Mo and smiled. ‘Roxane is sure to know a herb that will help. Would you like to come with me? Brianna might be there, she doesn’t work for Orpheus every day.’

Brianna. Why would Meggie want to see her? Because they were almost the same age? After Cosimo’s death and the massacre of Ombra’s menfolk, Her Ugliness had thrown Brianna out as a belated punishment for having favoured Cosimo’s company over hers. So Brianna had come home to help Roxane in the fields at first, but now she was working for Orpheus. Just like Farid. By this time Orpheus had half a dozen maids. Farid said sarcastically that Cheeseface didn’t even have to comb his own thin hair any more. Orpheus hired only beautiful girls, and Brianna was very beautiful, so beautiful that beside her Meggie felt like a duck next to a swan. To make it even worse, Brianna was Dustfinger’s daughter. ‘So? I don’t even speak to her,’ Farid had said when Meggie asked about her. ‘She hates me, just like her mother.’ Still, he saw Brianna almost every day … and all the others. And it was almost two weeks since he had been to see Meggie.

‘Well, are you coming with me?’ Resa was still looking enquiringly at her, and Meggie felt herself blushing as if her mother had overheard all her thoughts.

‘No,’ she said, ‘no, I think I’d rather stay here. The Strong Man will be riding with you, won’t he?’

‘Of course.’ The Strong Man had made it his business to protect Meggie and Resa. Meggie wasn’t sure whether Mo had asked him to, or whether he simply did it to show his devotion to the Bluejay.

Resa let him help her up on to the horse. She often complained of the difficulty of riding in a dress, and how much rather she’d have worn men’s clothes in this world. ‘I’ll be back before dark,’ she told Mo. ‘And maybe Roxane will have something to help you sleep better at night, too.’

Then she disappeared among the trees with the Strong Man, and Meggie was alone with Mo, just as she had been in the old days when there were only the two of them.

‘She really isn’t well!’

‘Don’t worry, Roxane will know what to do.’ Mo glanced at the old bakehouse that he had made into his workshop. What were those black clothes he was wearing? Meggie wondered. ‘I have to go out myself, but I’ll be back this evening. Gecko and Battista are in the stables, and the Prince is going to send Woodenfoot to be here too while the Strong Man’s gone. Those three will look after you better than I can.’

What was it she heard in his voice? A lie? He’d changed since Mortola all but killed him. He was more reserved, and often as abstracted as if part of him had been left behind in the cave where he almost died, or in the tower prison in the Castle of Night.

‘Where are you going? I’ll come with you.’ Meggie felt him start nervously as she put her arm through his. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing, nothing at all.’ He picked at his black sleeve and avoided her eyes.

‘You’ve been out with the Prince again. I saw him in the farmyard last night. What happened?’

‘It’s nothing, Meggie. Really it isn’t.’ He stroked her hair, an absent expression on his face, then turned and made for the bakehouse.

‘Nothing at all?’ Meggie followed him. The doorway was so low that Mo had to bend his head. ‘Where did you get those black clothes?’

‘It’s a bookbinder’s outfit. Battista made it for me.’

He went over to the table where he worked. Some leather lay on it, a few sheets of parchment, some thread, a knife, and the slim volume into which he had bound Resa’s drawings over the last few weeks: pictures of fairies, fire-elves and glass men, of the Black Prince and the Strong Man, Battista and Roxane. There was one of Farid too. The book was tied up as if Mo were taking it with him. The book, the black clothes …

Oh, she knew him so well.

‘No, Mo!’ Meggie snatched the book away and hid it behind her back. He might be able to deceive Resa but he couldn’t deceive her.

‘What is it?’ He was trying really hard to look as if he had no idea what she meant. He was better at pretending than he used to be.

‘You’re planning to go to Ombra to see Balbulus. Are you out of your mind? It’s far too dangerous!’

For a moment Mo actually considered telling her more lies, but then he sighed. ‘All right, I still can’t fool you! I thought it might be easier now you’re almost grown up. Stupid of me.’

He put his arms round her and gently removed the book from her hands. ‘Yes, I want to see Balbulus. Before the books you’ve told me so much about are sold. Fenoglio will smuggle me into the castle as a bookbinder. How many casks of wine do you think the Milksop can buy for a book? They say half the library’s gone already to pay for his banquets!’

‘Mo, it’s too dangerous! Suppose someone recognizes you?’

‘Who? No one in Ombra has ever seen me.’

‘One of the soldiers could remember you from the dungeon in the Castle of Night. And they say Sootbird’s in Ombra too! A few black clothes aren’t likely to deceive him.’

‘Oh, come on! When Sootbird last saw me I was half dead. And another encounter with me will be the worse for him.’ His face, more familiar to her than any other, suddenly became the face of a stranger – and not for the first time. Cold, chilly.

‘Don’t look at me like that!’ he said, smiling the chill away. But the smile didn’t linger. ‘Do you know, my own hands seem strange to me, Meggie.’ He held them out to her as if she could see the change in them. ‘They do things I didn’t even know they could do – and they do those things well.’

Meggie looked at his hands as if they were another man’s. She had so often seen them cutting paper, stitching pages together, stretching leather – or putting a plaster on her knee when she had cut it. But she knew only too well what Mo meant. She’d watched him often enough practising behind the farm outbuildings with Battista or the Strong Man – with the sword he had carried ever since they were in the Castle of Night. Firefox’s sword. Now he could make it dance as if his hands knew it as well as a paperknife or a bone folder for the pages in a book.

The Bluejay.

‘I think I ought to remind my hands of their real trade, Meggie. I’d like to remind myself of it too. Fenoglio has told Balbulus that he’s found someone to repair and present his books as they deserve. But Balbulus wants to see this bookbinder before entrusting his works to him. That’s why I’m going to ride to the castle and prove that I know my craft as well as he knows his. It’s your own fault I can’t wait to see his workshop with my own eyes at last! Do you remember all you told me about Balbulus and his brushes and pens, up in the tower of the Castle of Night?’ He imitated her voice. He’s an illuminator, Mo! In Ombra Castle! The best of them all. You should see his brushes, and his paints.

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Yes, I remember.’ She even remembered what he had replied: I’d really like to see those brushes. But she also remembered how afraid she had been for him back then.

‘Does Resa know where you’re going?’ She put her hand on his chest, where there was only a scar now as a reminder that he had almost died.

He didn’t need to answer. His guilty look said clearly enough that he hadn’t told her mother anything about his plans. Meggie looked at the tools lying on the table. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was time to remind his hands of their trade. Maybe he could also play that part in this world, the part that he’d loved so much in the other one, even if it was said that the Milksop considered books even more unnecessary than boils on the face. But Ombra belonged to the Adderhead. His soldiers were everywhere. Suppose one of them recognized the man who had been their dark lord’s prisoner a few months ago?

‘Mo …’ The words were on the tip of Meggie’s tongue. She had often thought them over these last few days but never ventured to speak them aloud, because she wasn’t sure whether she really meant them. ‘Don’t you sometimes think we ought to go back? I do. Back to Elinor and Darius. I know I persuaded you to stay, but … but the Adderhead is still looking for you, and you go out at night with the robbers. Maybe Resa doesn’t notice, but I do! We’ve seen it all, the fairies and nymphs, the Wayless Wood and the glass men …’ It was so difficult to find the right words, words which could also explain to her what she herself was feeling. ‘Perhaps … perhaps it’s time. I know Fenoglio isn’t writing any more, but we could ask Orpheus. He’s jealous of you anyway. I’m sure he’d be glad if we went away and left him the only reader in this story!’

Mo just looked at her, and Meggie knew his answer. They had changed places. Now he was the one who didn’t want to go back. On the table, with the coarsely-made paper and the knives provided by Fenoglio, lay a bluejay’s tail feather.

‘Come here!’ Mo perched on the edge of the table and drew her to his side, the way he had done countless times when she was a little girl. That was long ago, so long ago! As if it were in another story, and the Meggie in it was a different Meggie. But when Mo put his arm around her shoulders she was back in that story for a moment, feeling safe, protected, without the longing that now felt as if it had always lived in her heart … the longing for a boy with black hair and soot on his fingers.

‘I know why you want to go back,’ said Mo quietly. He might have changed, but he could still read her thoughts as easily as his own. ‘How long since Farid was last here? Five days? Six?’

‘Twelve,’ said Meggie in a miserable voice, and buried her face against his shoulder.

‘Twelve? What a faithless fellow. Shall we ask the Strong Man to tie a few knots in his skinny arms?’

Meggie had to laugh. What would she do if someday Mo wasn’t there any more to make her laugh?

‘I haven’t seen it all yet, Meggie,’ he said. ‘I still haven’t seen Balbulus’s books, and they matter the most. Handwritten books, Meggie, illuminated books, not stained by the dust of endless years, not yellowing and trimmed again and again … no, the paint has only just dried on their pages, the bindings are supple. Who knows, maybe Balbulus will even let me watch him at work for a while. Imagine it! I’ve so often wished that I could see one of those tiny faces being painted on the parchment, just once, and the tendrils beginning to twine around an initial, and …’

Meggie couldn’t help it, she had to smile. ‘All right, all right,’ she said, and put her hand over his mouth. ‘All right,’ she repeated. ‘We’ll ride to see Balbulus, but together.’

As we used to, she added in her thoughts. Just you and me. And when Mo was about to protest she closed his mouth again. ‘You said it yourself! Back in the disused mine.’ The mine where Dustfinger had died … Meggie repeated Mo’s words in a soft voice. She seemed to remember every word that had been spoken in those days, as if someone had written them on her heart. ‘Show me the fairies, Meggie. And the water-nymphs. And the book illuminator in Ombra Castle. Let’s find out how fine his brushes really are.’

Mo straightened up and began sorting out the tools lying on the table, as he always used to in his workshop in Elinor’s garden.

‘Yes. Yes, I expect those were my words,’ he said, without looking at her. ‘But the Adderhead’s brother-in-law rules Ombra now. What do you think your mother would say if I put you in such danger?’

Her mother. Yes …

‘Resa doesn’t have to know. Please, Mo! You must take me with you! Or … or I’ll tell Gecko to tell the Black Prince what you’re planning. Then you’ll never get to Ombra!’

He turned his face away, but Meggie heard him laughing softly. ‘That’s blackmail. Did I teach you how to be a blackmailer?’

With a sigh, he turned back and looked at her for a long time. ‘Oh, very well,’ he said at last. ‘Let’s go to see the pens and brushes together. After all, we were together in the Adderhead’s Castle of Night. Ombra Castle can’t be so very dark by comparison, can it – although his brother-in-law rules it now?’

He stroked his black sleeve. ‘I’m glad bookbinders here don’t wear a costume as yellow as glue,’ he said, as he put the book of Resa’s drawings into a saddlebag. ‘As for your mother – I’ll fetch her from Roxane’s after we’ve been to the castle, but don’t tell her anything about our expedition. I expect you’ve guessed why she feels sick in the mornings, haven’t you?’

Meggie looked at him blankly – and then suddenly seemed to herself very, very stupid.

‘A brother or a sister? Which would you rather have?’ Mo looked so happy. ‘Poor Elinor. Did you know she’s been waiting for that news ever since we moved in with her? And now we’ve taken the baby away to another world with us.’

A brother or a sister. For a while, when Meggie was little, she had pretended she had an invisible sister. She used to make her daisy tea and bake sand cakes.

‘But … how long have you two known?’

‘The baby comes from the same story as you do, if that’s what you mean. From Elinor’s house, to be precise. A flesh and blood child, not made of words, not made of ink and paper. Although … who knows? Perhaps we’ve only slipped out of one story and into another. What do you think?’

Meggie looked around, saw the table, the tools, the feather – and Mo’s black clothes. Wasn’t all this made of words? Fenoglio’s words. The house, the farmyard, the sky above them, the trees, the rocks, the rain, the sun and the moon. Yes, what about us? Meggie thought. What are we made of? Resa, me, Mo and the baby on its way. She didn’t know the answer any more. Had she ever known it?

It seemed as if the things around her were whispering of all that would be and all that had been, and when Meggie looked at her hands she felt as if she could read letters there, letters saying: and then a new child was born.

5

Fenoglio Feels Sorry for Himself

‘What is it?’ Harry asked shakily.

‘This? This is called a Pensieve,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.’

J.K. Rowling,

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Fenoglio was lying in bed, as he had so often in these last few weeks. Or was it months? It didn’t matter. Morosely, he looked up at the fairies’ nests above his head. They had all been abandoned except one, which poured out a constant stream of chattering and giggling. It shimmered in iridescent colours like a patch of oil on water. Orpheus’s doing! The fairies in this world were blue, for heaven’s sake! It said so in black and white in his book. What did that idiot think he was doing, creating fairies in all the colours of the rainbow? And to make it even worse, the rainbow-coloured fairies drove away the blue ones wherever they went. Rainbow-coloured fairies, spotted brownies, and apparently there were some four-armed glass men around the place too. Fenoglio’s head ached at the mere thought of it. And not an hour passed when he didn’t think of it, and wonder what Orpheus was writing now in his fine big house, where he held court as if he were the most important man in Ombra!

Fenoglio sent Rosenquartz to spy on the place almost every day, but it couldn’t be said that the glass man showed much talent for the job. Far from it. Fenoglio also suspected that Rosenquartz sometimes stole off to Seamstresses’ Alley to chase glass women instead of going to Orpheus’s house. Your fault, Fenoglio, he told himself grumpily, you should have written a little more sense of duty into their glass heads. Which is not, I am afraid, the only thing you omitted to do …

He was reaching for the jug of red wine standing by his bed to comfort himself for this depressing fact when a small, rather breathless figure appeared at the skylight above. At last. Rosenquartz’s limbs, usually pale pink, had turned carmine. Glass men couldn’t sweat. They just changed colour if they’d been making a strenuous effort, another rule that Fenoglio himself had made, although with the best will in the world he couldn’t now say why. But what did the foolish fellow think he was doing, clambering over the roof tops like that, with limbs that would smash if the stupid creature so much as fell off a table? A glass man certainly wasn’t the ideal spy, but then again their small size made them very inconspicuous – and, fragile as their limbs were, their transparency undoubtedly came in useful on secret reconnaissance missions.

‘Well, what’s he writing? Come on, out with it!’ Fenoglio picked up the jug and made his way over to the glass man barefoot. Rosenquartz demanded a thimbleful of red wine in return for his spying activities, which – as he never tired of emphasizing– were not among the standard duties of a glass man, and thus called for extra payment. The thimble of wine wasn’t too high a price, Fenoglio had to admit, but then so far Rosenquartz hadn’t found out very much, and in addition the wine disagreed with him. It made him even more contrary than usual – and had him belching for hours on end.

‘Can’t I even get my breath back before making my report?’ he snapped.

That was Rosenquartz for you: contrary. And always so quick to take offence!

‘You’re breathing now, aren’t you? And you can obviously talk as well!’ Fenoglio plucked the glass man off the thread that he had fastened to the skylight so that Rosenquartz could let himself down from it, and carried him over to the table. He’d exchanged his writing desk for it in the marketplace.

‘I repeat,’ he said, giving Rosenquartz his thimbleful from the wine jug, ‘what is he writing?’

Rosenquartz sniffed the wine and wrinkled his nose, which was now dark red. ‘Your wine is getting worse and worse!’ he observed in injured tones. ‘I ought to ask for some other kind of fee!’

Annoyed, Fenoglio removed the thimble from his glass hands. ‘You haven’t even earned this one yet!’ he thundered. ‘Admit it, once again you haven’t found anything out. Not the least little thing.’

The glass man folded his arms. ‘Oh, haven’t I?’

It was enough to drive a man crazy. And you couldn’t even shake him for fear of breaking off an arm, or even his head.

Looking grim, Fenoglio put the thimble back on the table.

Rosenquartz dipped his finger in and licked the wine off it. ‘He’s written himself another treasure.’

‘What, yet again? For heaven’s sake, he gets through more silver than the Milksop!’ It always annoyed Fenoglio that he hadn’t thought of that idea himself. On the other hand, he’d have needed someone to read his words aloud and turn them into jingling coins, and he wasn’t sure whether Meggie or her father would have lent their tongues to something so prosaic. ‘Right. A treasure. What else?’

‘Oh, he’s certainly writing something, but he doesn’t seem very pleased with it. Did I tell you before that he has two glass men working for him now? You remember the four-armed one he was boasting of all over town?’ Rosenquartz lowered his voice as if his next words were too terrible to be spoken. ‘They say he threw him at the wall in a rage! Everyone in Ombra’s heard about it, but Orpheus pays well –’ Fenoglio ignored the glass man’s reproachful gaze as he made this remark – ‘so now he has these two brothers working for him, Jasper and Ironstone. The elder brother’s a monster! He—’

‘Two? What does that fool want two glass men for? Is he so busy mucking about with my story that one isn’t enough to sharpen his quills for him?’ Fenoglio felt anger turning his stomach, although it was good news that the four-armed glass man had come to grief. Perhaps it was beginning to dawn on Orpheus that his creations weren’t worth the paper he wrote them on.

‘Good. Tell me more.’

Rosenquartz said nothing. He had folded his arms with an injured expression. He didn’t like being interrupted.

‘Good God, don’t be so coy about it!’ Fenoglio pushed the wine a little closer to him. ‘What else is he writing? Exotic new prey for the Milksop to hunt? Horned lapdogs for the ladies at court? Or maybe he’s decided my world could do with some spotted dwarves?’

Rosenquartz dipped his finger in the wine again. ‘You’ll have to buy me new trousers,’ he remarked. ‘I tore these with all that horrible climbing about. They’re worn out anyway. It’s all right for you to go around however you please, but I didn’t come to live with humans just to be worse dressed than my cousins in the forest.’

There were days when Fenoglio would gladly have snapped the glass man in half. ‘Trousers? Why would I be interested in your trousers?’ he asked tartly.

Rosenquartz took a deep draught from the thimble – and spat the wine out on to his glass feet. ‘Pure vinegar!’ he said crossly. ‘Did I get bones thrown at me for this? Did I make my way through pigeon droppings and over broken tiles for this? Don’t look so sceptical. That Ironstone threw chicken bones at me when he caught me looking at Orpheus’s papers! He tried to push me out of the window!’

Sighing, he wiped the wine off his feet. ‘Very well. There was something about horned wild boar, but I could hardly decipher it, and then something else about singing fish – pretty silly stuff, if you ask me – and quite a lot about the White Women. Four-Eyes is obviously collecting everything the strolling players sing about them …’

‘Yes, yes, all Ombra knows! Did it take you so long just to find that out?’ Fenoglio buried his face in his hands. The wine really wasn’t much good. His head seemed heavier every day. Damn it!

Rosenquartz took another mouthful, even though he made a face as he swallowed it. That glass idiot! He’d have another bellyache by tomorrow, if not sooner. ‘Well, never mind that. This is my last report!’ he announced between belches. ‘I’m never going spying again! Not as long as that Ironstone works there. He’s as strong as a brownie, and they say he’s already broken the arms off at least two glass men!’

‘Yes, yes, all right. You’re a terrible spy anyway,’ muttered Fenoglio as he staggered back to his bed. ‘Admit it, you’re far keener to chase the glass women in Seamstresses’ Alley. Just don’t think I don’t know about it!’

With a groan, he lay down on his straw mattress and stared up at the empty fairies’ nests. Was there any more wretched existence than the life of a writer who had run out of words? Was there a worse fate than having to watch someone else twist your own words, adding colourful touches – in very bad taste – to the world you’d made? No room in the castle for him now as court poet, no chest full of fine clothes, no horse of his own – no, he was back in the little room in Minerva’s attic. And it was a marvel that she’d taken him in again, considering that his words and songs had made sure she had no husband now, and no father for her children. All Ombra knew what part Fenoglio had played in Cosimo’s war. It was amazing they hadn’t hauled him out of bed yet and killed him, but no doubt the women of Ombra had their hands too full keeping starvation at bay. ‘Where else would you go?’ was all Minerva had said when she opened her door to find him standing there. ‘They don’t need a poet up at the castle now. I suppose they’ll be singing the Piper’s songs in future.’ And there, of course, she was right. The Milksop loved the silver-nosed man’s bloodthirsty verses – when he wasn’t composing a few poorly rhymed lines himself, all about his hunting prowess.

Luckily, at least Violante sent for Fenoglio now and then, never guessing, of course, that he brought her words stolen from poets in another world. But Her Ugliness didn’t pay particularly well. The Adderhead’s own daughter was poorer than the new governor’s court ladies, so Fenoglio also worked as a scribe in the marketplace, which naturally had Rosenquartz telling anyone who would listen how low his master had sunk. But who paid any attention to a glass man’s chirping little voice? Let the silly transparent fellow talk! Fenoglio had forsworn words for ever, no matter how invitingly Rosenquartz laid a blank piece of parchment on the table every evening. He was never going to write a single word again – except those he stole from others, and the dry, bloodless twaddle he had to put down on paper or parchment for wills, sales agreements and similar stuff. The time for living words was over. They were deceitful, murderous, bloodsucking monsters black as ink and bringing nothing but misfortune. He wasn’t going to help them do it any more, not he. A walk through the streets of Ombra, empty of men these days, and he needed a whole jug of wine to keep off the gloom that had deprived him of any zest for life since Cosimo’s defeat.

Beardless boys, decrepit old men, cripples and beggars, travelling merchants who hadn’t yet heard that there wasn’t a copper coin to be made in Ombra now, or who did business with those leeches up in the castle – that was what you saw these days in the once lively streets. Women with eyes reddened from weeping, fatherless children, men from beyond the forest hoping to find a young widow or an abandoned workshop here … and soldiers. Yes, there were plenty of soldiers in Ombra. They took what they wanted, day after day, night after night. No house was safe from them. They called it compensation for war crimes, and they had a point. After all, Cosimo had been the attacker – Cosimo, his most beautiful and innocent creation (or so, at least, Fenoglio had thought). Now he lay dead in a sarcophagus in the crypt beneath the castle. Minerva claimed that Violante went down there every day, officially to mourn her dead husband but really – so people whispered – to meet her informers. They said Her Ugliness didn’t even have to pay her spies. Hatred of the Milksop brought them to her by the dozen. Of course. You had only to look at the fellow – that perfumed, pigeon-breasted hangman, governor only by the grace of his brother-in-law, the Adderhead. If you painted a face on an egg it would bear a striking resemblance to him. And no, Fenoglio hadn’t made him up. Once again, the story had produced the Milksop entirely by itself.

As his first official act, he had ordered a document to be hung up by the castle gates, listing the punishments that would be meted out in Ombra for various crimes from now on – with pictures, so that those who couldn’t read would know what threatened them too. The loss of an eye for this offence, the loss of a hand for that one, whippings, the pillory, branding, blinding. Fenoglio looked away whenever he passed that notice, and when he was out with Minerva’s children he put his hand over their eyes if they had to cross the marketplace, where most of the punishments were inflicted (although Ivo always wanted to peek). Of course they could still hear the screams.

Luckily there weren’t too many offenders left to be punished in this city without men. Many of the women had left with their children, travelling far away from the Wayless Wood that no longer protected them from the prince who ruled on the other side of it, the immortal Adderhead.

And yes, Fenoglio thought, that had undoubtedly been his idea. But more and more rumours were being heard all the time, whispering that the Adderhead took little pleasure in his immortality.

There was a knock at the door. Who could that be? Oh, the devil, was he forgetting everything these days? Of course! Where was the damn note that crow had brought yesterday evening? Rosenquartz had been scared to death when he’d suddenly seen the bird perching on the skylight. Mortimer was coming to Ombra. Today! And wasn’t he, Fenoglio, supposed to meet him outside the castle gates? This visit was a reckless notion. There were ‘Wanted’ posters up for the Bluejay on every street corner. Luckily the picture on them wasn’t in the least like Mortimer, but all the same … Another knock.

Rosenquartz stayed where he was, beside his thimble. A glass man wasn’t even any good at opening doors! Fenoglio felt sure Orpheus didn’t have to open his door for himself. Apparently his new bodyguard was so large he could hardly get through the city gate. Bodyguard! If I ever do write again, thought Fenoglio, I’ll get Meggie to read me a giant here, and we’ll see what the calf’s-head has to say about that.

The knocking was getting rather impatient.

‘Coming, coming!’ Fenoglio stumbled over an empty wine jug as he looked for his trousers. Laboriously he climbed into them. How his bones ached! The hell with old age. Why hadn’t he written a story in which people were young for ever? Because it would be boring, he thought as he hopped over to the door, one leg in the scratchy trousers. Deadly boring.

‘Sorry, Mortimer!’ he called. ‘The glass man forgot to wake me up at the right time!’

Behind him, Rosenquartz began protesting, but the voice that replied to him outside wasn’t Mortimer’s – even if it was almost as beautiful as his. Orpheus. Talk of the devil! What did he want here? Come to complain that Rosenquartz had been in his house spying? If anyone has a reason to complain, I do, thought Fenoglio. After all, it’s my story he’s plundering and distorting! Miserable calf’s-head, milkface, bullfrog, whippersnapper … Fenoglio had many names for Orpheus, none of them flattering.

Wasn’t it bad enough that he kept sending Farid to bother him? Did he have to come himself? He was sure to ask thousands of stupid questions again. Your own fault, Fenoglio! How often he’d cursed himself for the words he’d written in the mine at Meggie’s urging: So he called on another, younger man, Orpheus by name – skilled in letters, even if he could not yet handle them with the mastery of Fenoglio himself – and decided to instruct him in his art, as every master does at some time. For a while Orpheus should play with words in his place, seduce and lie with them, create and destroy, banish and restore – while Fenoglio waited for his weariness to pass, for his pleasure in words to reawaken, and then he would send Orpheus back to the world from which he had summoned him, to keep his story alive with new words never used before.

‘I ought to write him back where he came from!’ Fenoglio growled as he kicked the empty jug out of his way. ‘Right now!’

‘Write? Did I hear you say write?’ Rosenquartz asked ironically behind him. He was back to his normal colour. Fenoglio threw a dry crust of bread at him, but it missed Rosenquartz’s pale pink head by more than a hand’s breadth, and the glass man gave a sympathetic sigh.

‘Fenoglio? Fenoglio, I know you’re in there! Open the door.’ God, how he hated that voice. Planting words in his story like weeds. His own words!

‘No, I’m not here!’ growled Fenoglio. ‘Not for you, calf’s-head!’

Fenoglio, is Death a man or a woman? Were the White Women once living human beings? Fenoglio, how am I to bring Dustfinger back if you can’t even tell me the simplest rules of this world? Enough of his questions. For God’s sake, who had asked him to bring Dustfinger back? If everything had gone the way Fenoglio had originally written it, the man would have been dead long ago in any case. And as for ‘the simplest rules’, since when, might he ask, were life and death simple? Hang it all (and there was more than enough hanging in Ombra these days anyway), how was he supposed to know how everything worked, in this or any other world? He’d never thought much about death, or what came after it. Why bother? While you were alive, why would death interest you? And once you were dead – well, presumably you weren’t interested in anything any more.

‘Of course he’s there! Fenoglio?’ That was Minerva’s voice. Damn it, the calf’s-head had roped her in to help him. Cunning. At least Orpheus was far from stupid.

Fenoglio hid the empty wine jugs under the bed, forced his other leg into his trousers, and unbolted the door.

‘So there you are!’ Minerva inspected him disapprovingly from his uncombed head to his bare feet. ‘I told your visitor you were at home.’ How sad she looked. Weary too. These days she was working in the castle kitchen, where Fenoglio had asked Violante to find her a job. But the Milksop had a preference for feasting by night, so Minerva often didn’t get home until the early hours of the morning. Very likely she’d drop dead of exhaustion some day and leave her poor children orphans. It was a wretched situation. What had become of his wonderful Ombra?

‘Fenoglio!’ Orpheus pushed past Minerva with that ghastly, innocent smile he always had ready as camouflage. Of course he’d brought notes with him again, notes full of questions. How did he pay for the fine clothes he wore? Fenoglio himself had never worn such clothes, not even in his days of glory as court poet. Ah, he thought, but you forgot the treasures he’s writing for himself, didn’t you, Fenoglio?

Without a word Minerva went down the steep staircase again, and a man made his way through Fenoglio’s door behind Orpheus. Even ducking his head, he almost got stuck in the doorway. Aha, the legendary bodyguard. There was even less space in Fenoglio’s modest little room with this huge meatball inside it.

Farid, on the other hand, didn’t take up much space, although so far he had played a big part in the story. Farid, Dustfinger’s angel of death … he followed his new master through the door hesitantly, as if ashamed to be keeping such company.

‘Well now, Fenoglio, I’m truly sorry,’ said Orpheus, his supercilious smile giving the lie to his words, ‘but I’m afraid I’ve found a few more inconsistencies.’

Inconsistencies!

‘I’ve sent Farid here before with my questions, but you gave him some very strange answers.’ Looking portentous, he straightened his glasses and brought the book out from under his heavy velvet coat. Yes, that calf’s-head had brought Fenoglio’s book with him into the world of the story it told: the very last copy of Inkheart. But had he given it back to him, the author? Oh no. ‘I’m sorry, Fenoglio,’ was all he had said, with the arrogant expression that he had mastered so perfectly. (Orpheus had been quick to abandon the mask of a diligent student.) ‘I’m sorry, but this book is mine. Or do you seriously claim that an author is the rightful owner of every copy of his books?’ Puffed-up, milk-faced young upstart! What a way to speak to him, Fenoglio, the creator of everything around Orpheus himself, even the air he breathed!

‘Are you after me again for information on death?’ Fenoglio squeezed his feet into his worn old boots. ‘Why? So that you can go telling this poor boy you’ll bring Dustfinger back from the White Women, just to keep him in your service?’

Farid tightened his lips. Dustfinger’s marten blinked sleepily on his shoulder – or was this a different animal?

‘What nonsense you talk!’ Orpheus sounded distinctly peeved – he took offence very easily. ‘Do I look as if I have any trouble finding servants? I have six maids, a bodyguard, a cook and the boy. You know very well it’s not just for the boy I want to bring Dustfinger back. He belongs in this story. It’s not half as good without him, it’s a flower without petals, a night without stars—’

‘A forest without trees?’ Fenoglio muttered.

Orpheus turned as red as beetroot. It was so amusing to make fun of the arrogant fop – one of the few pleasures Fenoglio still had left.

‘You’re drunk, old man!’ Orpheus spat. His voice could sound very unpleasant.

‘Drunk or not, I still know a hundred times more about words than you do. You trade at second-hand. You unravel whatever you can find and knit it up again as if a story were a pair of old socks! So don’t you tell me what part Dustfinger ought to play in this one. Perhaps you remember I had him dead once already, before he decided to go with the White Women! What do you think you’re doing, coming here to lecture me about my own story? Take a look at that, why don’t you?’ Furiously, he pointed to the shimmering fairies’ nest above his bed. ‘Rainbow-coloured fairies! Ever since they built their horrible nest up there I’ve had the most appalling dreams! And they steal the blue fairies’ stocks of winter provisions!’

‘So?’ Orpheus shrugged his plump shoulders. ‘They look pretty, all the same, don’t they? I thought it was so tedious for all fairies to be blue.’

‘Did you, indeed?’ Fenoglio’s voice rose to such volume that one of the colourful fairies interrupted her constant chatter and peered out of her gaudy nest. ‘Then write your own world! This one’s mine, understand? Mine! I’m sick and tired of your meddling with it. I admit I’ve made some mistakes in my life, but writing you here was far and away the worst of them!’

Bored, Orpheus inspected his fingernails. They were bitten to the quick. ‘I’m not listening to any more of this!’ he said in a menacingly soft voice. ‘All that stuff about “you wrote me here”, “she read me here” – nonsense! I’m the one who does the reading and writing around here now. The only one. The words don’t obey you any more, old man, it’s a long time since they did, and you know it!’

‘They’ll obey me again! And the first thing I’ll write will be a return ticket for you!’

‘Oh yes? And who’s going to read these fabulous words? As far as I’m aware, you need someone to read them aloud for you. Unlike me.’

‘Well?’ Fenoglio came so close that Orpheus’s long-sighted eyes blinked at him in annoyance. ‘I’ll ask Mortimer! They don’t call him Silvertongue for nothing, even if he goes by another name these days. Ask the boy! If it weren’t for Mortimer, he’d still be in the desert shovelling camel dung.’

‘Mortimer!’ Orpheus produced a derisive smile, although with some difficulty. ‘Is your head buried so deep in your wine jug that you don’t know what’s going on in this world of yours? He’s not doing any reading now. The bookbinder prefers to play the outlaw these days – the role you created especially for him.’

The bodyguard uttered a grunt, probably meant to be something like laughter. What a ghastly fellow! Had Fenoglio himself written him into the story, or had Orpheus? Fenoglio scrutinized the muscleman for a moment, irritated, and then turned back to his master.

‘I did not make it especially for him!’ he said. ‘It’s the other way round: I used Mortimer as my pattern for the character … and from all I hear, he plays his part well. But that doesn’t mean the Bluejay no longer has a silver tongue. Not to mention his gifted daughter.’

‘Oh yes? And do you know where he is?’ Orpheus asked almost casually. He was staring at his fingernails again, while his bodyguard had set to work on what was left of Fenoglio’s breakfast.

‘Indeed I do. He’s coming—’ Fenoglio fell abruptly silent as the boy suddenly came up and clapped his hand over the old man’s mouth. Why did he keep forgetting the lad’s name? Because you’re going senile, Fenoglio, he said to himself, that’s why.

‘No one knows where the Bluejay is!’ How reproachfully Farid’s black eyes were looking at Fenoglio! ‘No one!’

Of course. Damn drunken old fool that he was! How could he have forgotten that Orpheus turned green with jealousy whenever he heard Mortimer’s name, or that he went in and out of the Milksop’s castle all the time? Fenoglio could have bitten his tongue off.

But Orpheus smiled. ‘Don’t look so alarmed, old man! So the bookbinder’s coming here. Bold of him. Does he want to make the songs that sing of his daring come true before they hang him? Because that’s how he’ll meet his end, like all heroes. We both know that, don’t we? Don’t worry, I don’t intend to hand him over ripe for the gallows. Others will do that. No, I just want to talk to him about the White Women. There aren’t many who have survived a meeting with them, that’s why I really would like a word with him. There are some very interesting rumours about such survivors.’

‘I’ll tell him if I see him,’ replied Fenoglio brusquely. ‘But I can’t think that he will want to talk to you. After all, I don’t suppose he’d ever have met the White Women at all if you hadn’t been so willing to read him here for Mortola. Rosenquartz!’ He strode to the door with as much dignity as was possible in his shabby boots. ‘I have some errands to run. See our guests out, and mind you keep away from that marten!’

Fenoglio stumbled down the staircase to the yard almost as fast as he had on the day when Basta had paid him a visit. Mortimer would be waiting outside the castle gates already! Suppose Orpheus found him there when he went to the castle to tell the Milksop what he had heard? The Bluejay was the Governor’s mortal enemy.

The boy caught up with him halfway downstairs. Farid. Yes, that was the name. Of course. Going senile, for sure

‘Is Silvertongue really coming here?’ he whispered breathlessly. ‘Don’t worry, Orpheus won’t give him away. Not yet! But Ombra is far too dangerous for him! Is he bringing Meggie with him?’

‘Farid!’ Orpheus was looking down at them from the top of the stairs as if he were the king of the Inkworld. ‘If the old fool doesn’t tell Mortimer I want to speak to him, then you do it. Understand?’

Old fool, thought Fenoglio. Oh, ye gods of words, give them back to me so that I can get this damned calf’s-head out of my story!

He wanted to give Orpheus a suitably cutting answer, but not even his tongue could find the right words now, and the boy impatiently hauled him away.

6

Sad Ombra

My courtiers called me the happy prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery in the city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.

Oscar Wilde,

The Happy Prince

Farid had told Meggie how difficult it was to get into Ombra now, and she had passed on everything he said to Mo. ‘The guards aren’t the harmless fools who used to stand there. If they ask you what you are doing in Ombra, think hard before you answer. Whatever they demand, you must stay humble and submissive. They don’t search many people. Sometimes you may even be lucky and they’ll just wave you through!’

They weren’t lucky. The guards stopped them, and Meggie felt like clinging to Mo when one of the soldiers gestured to him to dismount and brusquely asked to see a sample of his craft. While the guard looked at the book of her mother’s drawings, Meggie wondered in alarm whether she already knew the face under the open helmet from her imprisonment in the Castle of Night, and whether he would find the knife hidden in Mo’s belt. They might kill him just for that knife. No one was allowed to carry weapons except the occupiers from Argenta, but Battista had made the belt so well that even the suspicious hands of the guard at the gate could find nothing wrong with it.

Meggie was glad Mo had the knife with him as they rode through the ironbound gates, past the lances of the guards, and into the city that now belonged to the Adderhead.

She hadn’t been in Ombra since she and Dustfinger first set out for the secret camp of the Motley Folk. It seemed an eternity ago that she had run through the streets with Resa’s letter telling her that Mortola had shot her father. For a moment she pressed her face against Mo’s back, so happy that he was back with her, alive and well. At last she would be able to show him what she’d told him so much about: Balbulus’s workshop and the Laughing Prince’s books. For one precious moment she forgot all her fears, and it seemed as if the Inkworld belonged only to him and her.

Mo liked Ombra. Meggie could see it in his face, from the way he looked around, reining in his horse again and again to look down the streets. Although it was impossible to ignore the mark left on the city by the occupying forces, Ombra was still what the stonemasons had made of it when they first carved its gates, columns and arches. Their works of art couldn’t be carried away and broken up – for then they’d be worth no more than the paving stones in the street. So stone flowers still grew under the windows and balconies of Ombra, tendrils twined around columns and cornices, and faces stuck tongues out of grotesquely distorted mouths from the sand-coloured walls, weeping stony tears. But the Laughing Prince’s coat of arms was defaced everywhere, and you could recognize the lion on it only from what was left of its mane.

‘The street on the right leads to the marketplace!’ Meggie whispered to Mo, and he nodded like a sleepwalker. Very likely he was hearing, in his mind, the words that had once told him about the scene now surrounding him as he rode on. Meggie had heard about the Inkworld only from her mother, but Mo had read Fenoglio’s book countless times as he tried again and again to find Resa among the words.

‘Is it the way you imagined it?’ she asked him quietly.

‘Yes,’ Mo whispered back. ‘Yes – and no.’

There was a crowd of people in the marketplace, just as if the peace-loving Laughing Prince still ruled Ombra – except that there were hardly any men to be seen, and you could stop and watch entertainers again. For the Milksop allowed strolling players into the city, although only – it was whispered – if they were prepared to spy for him. Mo rode his horse past a crowd of children. There were many children in Ombra, even though their fathers were dead. Meggie saw a torch whirling through the air above the small heads – two, three, four torches – and sparks fading and going out in the cold air. Farid? she wondered, although she knew he’d done no more fire-eating since Dustfinger’s death. But Mo suddenly pulled his hood down over his forehead, and then she too saw the familiar well-oiled face with its constant smile.

Sootbird.

Meggie’s fingers closed on Mo’s cloak, but her father rode on, as if the man who had betrayed him once already wasn’t there at all. More than a dozen strolling players had lost their lives because Sootbird had revealed the whereabouts of the secret camp, and Mo himself had almost been among the dead. Everyone in Lombrica knew that Sootbird went in and out of the Castle of Night, that he’d been paid for his treachery in silver by the Piper himself and was now also on excellent terms with the Milksop, yet there he stood in Ombra marketplace, smiling, unrivalled now that Dustfinger was dead and Farid had lost his enthusiasm for fire-eating.

Oh yes, Ombra certainly had new masters. Nothing could have made that clearer to Meggie than Sootbird’s smug, masklike face. It was said that the Adderhead’s alchemists had taught him certain things, and that what he played with now was dark fire, wily and deadly like the powders he used to tame it. The Strong Man had told Meggie that its smoke beguiled the senses, making Sootbird’s spectators think they were watching the greatest fire-eater on earth.

Whatever the truth of that was, the children of Ombra clapped. The torches didn’t fly half as high in the air as they had for Dustfinger or Farid, but for a while the show made them forget their sad mothers, and the work waiting at home.

‘Mo, please!’ Meggie quickly turned her face away as Sootbird looked in her direction. ‘Let’s turn back! Suppose he recognizes you?’

They were going to close the gates, then the two of them would be hunted through the streets like rats in a trap!

But Mo just shook his head very slightly as he reined in his horse behind one of the market stalls. ‘Don’t worry, Sootbird is far too busy keeping the fire away from his pretty face!’ he whispered to Meggie. ‘But let’s dismount. We won’t be so conspicuous on foot.’

The horse shied when Mo led it into the crowd, but he soothed it in a quiet voice. Meggie saw a juggler who had once followed the Black Prince among the stalls. Many of the strolling players had changed sides now that the Milksop was filling their pockets. These were not bad times for them, and the market traders did good business too. The women of Ombra couldn’t afford any of the wares for sale, but with the money they had extorted the Milksop and his friends bought costly fabrics, jewellery, weapons, and delicacies with names that Fenoglio himself might not know. You could even buy horses here.

Mo looked around at the bustling, colourful throng as if he didn’t want to miss a single face or any of the wares offered for sale, but finally his gaze turned to the towers rising high above the tiled roof tops, and lingered there. Meggie’s heart constricted. He was still determined to go to the castle, and she cursed herself for ever telling him about Balbulus and his art.

She almost stopped breathing when they passed a ‘Wanted’ poster for the Bluejay, but Mo just cast a glance of amusement at the picture and ran his hand through his dark hair, which he now wore short like a peasant. Perhaps he thought his carefree attitude would soothe Meggie, but it didn’t. It frightened her. When he acted like that he was the Bluejay, a stranger with her father’s face.

Suppose one of the soldiers who had guarded him in the Castle of Night was here? Wasn’t that one staring at them? And the minstrel woman over there – didn’t she look like one of the women who had gone out through the gates of the Castle of Night with them? Move away, Mo! she thought, willing him to walk on with her through one of the arches, into a street – any street – just to be out of sight of all those eyes. Two children clutched her skirt and held out their dirty hands, begging. Meggie smiled at them helplessly. She didn’t have any money, not a coin. How hungry they looked! A soldier made his way through the crush and roughly pushed the beggar children aside. If only we were in there with Balbulus, thought Meggie – and stumbled into Mo as he abruptly stopped.

Beside the stall of a physician who was praising his miracle medicine at the top of his voice, a few boys were standing around a pillory. There was a woman in it, her hands and head wedged in the wood, helpless as a doll. Rotting vegetables stuck to her face and hands, fresh dung, anything the children could find among the stalls.

Meggie had seen such things before, in Fenoglio’s company, but Mo stood there as if he had forgotten what he’d come to Ombra for. He was almost as pale as the woman, whose tears mingled with the dirt on her face, and for a moment Meggie was afraid he was going to reach for the knife hidden in his belt.

‘Mo!’ She took his arm and quickly led him on, away from the gawping children who were already turning to look at him, and into the street going up to the castle.

‘Have you seen anything like that before?’ The way he was looking at her! As if he couldn’t believe she had been able to control herself so well at such a sight.

His glance made Meggie feel ashamed. ‘Yes,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Yes, a few times. They put people in the pillory during the Laughing Prince’s rule too.’

Mo was still looking at her. ‘Don’t tell me you can get used to such sights.’

Meggie bent her head. The answer was yes. Yes, you could.

Mo took a deep breath, as if he had forgotten about breathing when he saw the weeping woman. Then he walked on in silence. He didn’t say a word until they reached the castle forecourt.

There was another pillory right beside the castle gates, with a boy in it. Fire-elves had settled on his bare skin. Mo handed Meggie the horse’s reins before she could stop him, and went over to the boy. Ignoring the guards at the gateway, who were staring at him, and the women passing by who turned their heads away in alarm, he shooed the fire-elves off the boy’s skinny arms. The boy just looked at him incredulously. There was nothing to be seen on his face but fear, fear and shame. And Meggie remembered a story that Farid had told her, of how Dustfinger and the Black Prince had once been in the pillory together, side by side, when they were not much older than the lad now looking at his protector in such alarm.

‘Mortimer!’

Meggie recognized the old man dragging Mo away from the pillory only after a second glance. Fenoglio’s grey hair came almost down to his shoulders; his eyes were bloodshot, his face unshaven. He looked old – Meggie had never considered Fenoglio old before, but now it was all she could think of.

‘Are you out of your mind?’ he snapped at her father in a low voice. ‘Hello, Meggie,’ he added abstractedly, and Meggie felt the blood shoot into her face as Farid appeared behind him.

Farid.

Keep very cool, she thought, but a smile had already stolen to her lips. Make it go away! But how, when it was so good to see his face? Jink was sitting on his shoulder, and sleepily flicked his tail when he saw her.

‘Hello, Meggie. How are you?’ Farid stroked the marten’s bushy coat.

Twelve days. Not a sign of life from him for twelve whole days. Hadn’t she firmly resolved not to say a word when she saw him again? But she just couldn’t be angry with him. He still looked so sad. Not a sign of the laughter that once used to be as much a part of his face as his black eyes. The smile he gave her now was only a sad shadow of it.

‘I’ve been wanting to come and see you so often, but Orpheus just wouldn’t let me go out!’ He was hardly listening to his own words. He had eyes only for Meggie’s father. The Bluejay.

Farid had led Mo away with him – away from the pillory, away from the soldiers. Meggie followed them. The horse was restless, but Farid calmed it. Dustfinger had taught him how to talk to animals. He was close beside Meggie, so near and yet so far away.

‘What was the idea of that?’ Fenoglio was still holding Mo firmly, as if afraid he might go back to the pillory. ‘Do you want to put your own head in that thing too? Or – no, very likely they’d impale it on a pike right away!’

‘Those are fire-elves, Fenoglio! They’ll burn his skin.’ Mo’s voice was husky with rage.

‘You think I don’t know that? I invented the little brutes. The boy will survive. I imagine he’s a thief. I don’t want to know any more.’

Mo moved away, turning his back on Fenoglio as abruptly as if to keep himself from striking the old man. He scrutinized the guards and their weapons, the castle walls and the pillory, as if trying to think of a way to make them all disappear. Don’t look at the guards, Mo! Meggie thought. That was the first thing Fenoglio had taught her in this world: not to look any soldier in the eye – any soldier, any nobleman – anyone who was allowed to carry a weapon.

‘Shall I spoil their appetite for his skin, Silvertongue?’ Farid came up between Mo and Fenoglio.

Jink spat at the old man, as if detecting him as the cause of all that was wrong in his world. Without waiting for Mo’s answer Farid went up to the pillory, where the elves had settled on the boy’s skin again. With a snap of his fingers he sent sparks flying to singe their shimmering wings and send them swirling through the air and away, with an angry buzz. One of the guards picked up his lance, but before he could move Farid painted a fiery basilisk on the castle wall with his finger, bowed to the guards – who were staring incredulously at their master’s burning emblem – and strolled back casually to Mo’s side.

‘Very audacious, dear boy!’ growled Fenoglio disapprovingly, but Farid took no notice of him.

‘Why did you come here, Silvertongue?’ he asked, lowering his voice. ‘This is dangerous!’ But his eyes were shining. Farid loved dangerous ventures, and he loved Mo for being the Bluejay.

‘I want to look at some books.’

‘Books?’ Farid was so bewildered that Mo couldn’t help smiling.

‘Yes, books. Very special books.’ He looked up at the tallest of the castle towers. Meggie had told him exactly where Balbulus had his workshop.

‘What’s Orpheus up to?’ Mo glanced at the guards. At this moment they were searching a butcher’s deliveries – though what for they didn’t seem to know. ‘I’ve heard he’s growing richer and richer.’

‘Yes, he is.’ Farid’s hand stroked Meggie’s back. When Mo was with them he always confined himself to caresses that weren’t too obvious. Farid felt great respect for fathers. But Meggie’s rosy blush certainly didn’t escape Mo’s attention. ‘He’s growing richer, but he hasn’t written anything to rescue Dustfinger yet! He thinks of nothing but his treasures, and what he can sell to the Milksop: wild boar with horns, golden lapdogs, spider moths, leaf men, anything else he can dream up.’

‘Spider moths? Leaf men?’ Fenoglio looked at Farid in alarm, but Farid didn’t seem to notice.

‘Orpheus wants to talk to you!’ he whispered to Mo. ‘About the White Women. Please do meet him! Maybe you know something that could help him to bring Dustfinger back!’

Meggie saw the pity in Mo’s face. He didn’t believe Dustfinger would ever come back, any more than she did. ‘Nonsense,’ he said as his hand instinctively went to the place where Mortola had wounded him. ‘I don’t know anything. Anything more than everyone knows.’

The guards had let the butcher pass, and one of them was staring at Mo again. The basilisk painted by Farid on the stones was still burning on the castle walls.

Mo turned his back on the soldier. ‘Listen!’ he whispered to Meggie. ‘I ought not to have brought you here. Suppose you stay with Farid while I go to see Balbulus? He can take you to Roxane’s, and I’ll meet you and Resa there.’

Farid put his arm round Meggie’s shoulders. ‘Yes, you go. I’ll look after her.’

But Meggie pushed his arm roughly away. She didn’t like the idea of Mo going on his own – although she had to admit she’d have been only too happy to stay with Farid. She’d missed his face so much.

‘Look after me? You don’t have to look after me!’ she snapped at him, more sharply than she had intended. Being in love made you so stupid!

‘She’s right about that. No one has to look after Meggie.’ Mo gently took the horse’s reins from her hand. ‘Now that I come to think of it, she’s looked after me more often than the other way round. I’ll soon be back,’ he told her. ‘I promise. And not a word to your mother, all right?’

Meggie just nodded.

‘Stop looking at me so anxiously!’ Mo whispered in a conspiratorial tone. ‘Don’t the songs say the Bluejay hardly ever does anything without his beautiful daughter? So I’m much less of a suspicious character without you!’

‘Yes, but the songs are lying,’ Meggie whispered back. ‘The Bluejay doesn’t have a daughter at all. He’s not my father, he’s a robber.’

Mo looked at her for a long moment. Then he kissed her on the forehead as if obliterating what she had said, and went slowly towards the castle with Fenoglio.

Meggie never took her eyes off him as he reached the guards and stopped. In his black clothes he really did look like a stranger – the bookbinder from a foreign land who had come all this way to see the famous Balbulus’s pictures and give them proper clothes to wear at last. Who cared that he’d also become a robber on his long journey?

Farid took Meggie’s hand as soon as Mo had turned his back to them. ‘Your father’s as brave as a lion,’ he whispered to her, ‘but a little crazy too, if you ask me. If I were the Bluejay I’d never go through that gate, certainly not to see a few books!’

‘You don’t understand,’ replied Meggie quietly. ‘He wouldn’t do it for anything except the books.’

She was wrong about that, but she wouldn’t know it until later.

The soldiers let the writer and the bookbinder pass. Mo looked back at Meggie once more before he disappeared through the great gateway with its pointed iron portcullis. Ever since the Milksop had come to the castle it was lowered as soon as darkness fell, or whenever an alarm bell rang inside the building. Meggie had heard the sound once, and she instinctively expected to hear it again as Mo disappeared inside those mighty walls: the ringing of bells, the rattle of chains as the portcullis dropped, the sound of the iron spikes meeting the ground …

‘Meggie?’ Farid put one hand under her chin and turned her face to his. ‘You must believe me – I’d have come to see you ages ago, but Orpheus makes me work hard all day, and at night I steal out to Roxane’s farm. I know she goes to the place where she’s hidden Dustfinger almost every night! But she always catches me before I can follow her. Her stupid goose lets me bribe it with raisin bread, but if the linchetto in her stable doesn’t bite me then Gwin gives me away. Roxane even lets him into the house now, though she always used to throw stones at him before!’

What was he going on about? She didn’t want to talk about Dustfinger or Gwin. If you really missed me, she kept thinking, then why didn’t you come to see me at least once instead of going to Roxane’s? Just once. There was only one answer: because he hadn’t been missing her half as much as she’d missed him. He loved Dustfinger more than her. He would always love Dustfinger, even now he was dead. All the same, she let him kiss her, only a few paces from where the boy was still in the pillory with fire-elves on his skin. Don’t tell me you can get used to such sights

Meggie didn’t see Sootbird until he had reached the guards.

‘What is it?’ Farid asked, as she stared over his shoulder. ‘Ah, Sootbird. Yes. He’s always going in and out of the castle. Whenever I see him I feel I could slit his throat!’

‘We must warn Mo!’

The guards let the fire-eater pass through like an old acquaintance. Meggie took a step towards them, but Farid kept her back.

‘Where do you think you’re going? Don’t worry, he won’t see your father! The castle is large, and Silvertongue is going to see Balbulus. Sootbird won’t lose his way and end up there too, you can bet! He has three lovers among the court ladies, he’s off to see them – if Jacopo doesn’t nab him first. He has to perform for the boy twice a day, and he’s still a terrible fire-eater in spite of all they say about him. Miserable informer! I really wonder why the Black Prince hasn’t killed him yet – or your father. Why are you looking at me like that?’ he added, seeing Meggie’s horrified expression. ‘Silvertongue killed Basta, didn’t he? Not that I saw it.’ Farid glanced quickly down, as he always did in speaking of the hours when he had been dead.

Meggie stared at the castle gates. She thought she could hear Mo’s voice talking about Sootbird. And if he does … last time he saw me I was half dead. And another encounter will be the worse for him.

The Bluejay. Stop thinking of him by that name, Meggie thought. Stop it!

‘Come on!’ Farid took her hand. ‘Silvertongue said I was to take you to Roxane. Won’t she just be glad to see me! But I expect she’ll put on a friendly act if you’re there too.’

‘No.’ Meggie freed her hand from his, good as it felt to be holding hands with him again at last. ‘I’m staying here. I’m staying right here until Mo comes out again.’

Farid sighed and rolled his eyes, but he knew her well enough not to argue with her.

‘Oh, wonderful!’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘If I know Silvertongue he’s sure to spend forever looking at those wretched books. So at least let me kiss you, or the guards will soon be wondering why we’re still standing around.’

7

A Dangerous Visit

The question, given God’s omniscient view,

Is: must what he foresees perforce come true?

Or is free choice of action granted me

To do a thing or else to let it be?

Geoffrey Chaucer,

The Canterbury Tales (modernized)

Humble. Humility and servility. He wasn’t good at it. Did you ever notice that in the other world, Mortimer? he asked himself. Bow your head, don’t stand too straight, let them look down on you even if you’re taller than they are. Act as if you think it’s perfectly natural for them to rule and everyone else to work.

It was so hard.

‘Ah, you’re the bookbinder Balbulus is expecting,’ one of the guards had said, glancing at his black clothes. ‘What was all that with the boy just now? Don’t you like our pillory?’

Head lower, Mortimer! Go on. Pretend to be afraid. Forget your anger, forget the boy and his whimpering. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘Exactly! He … he comes from far away,’ Fenoglio was quick to add. ‘He has yet to get used to our new governor’s rule. But if you’ll allow us … Balbulus can be very impatient.’ Then he had bowed and hastily drew Mo on with him.

Ombra Castle … it was difficult not to forget everything else when he stepped into the great courtyard. He remembered so many of the scenes from Fenoglio’s book set here.

‘Heavens above, that was a close thing!’ whispered Fenoglio as they led the horse to the stables. ‘I don’t want to have to remind you again: you’re here as a bookbinder! Play the Bluejay just once more and you’re a dead man! Damn it, Mortimer, I ought never to have agreed to bring you here. Look at all those soldiers. It’s like being in the Castle of Night!’

‘Oh no, I assure you there’s a difference,’ Mo replied quietly, trying not to look up at the heads impaled on pikes that adorned the walls. Two belonged to a couple of the Black Prince’s men, although he wouldn’t have recognized them if the Strong Man hadn’t told him about their fate. ‘Although I didn’t imagine the castle quite like this from your original description in Inkheart,’ he whispered to Fenoglio.

‘You’re telling me?’ Fenoglio murmured. ‘First Cosimo had it all rebuilt, now the Milksop’s leaving his mark on the place. He’s had the gold-mockers’ nests torn down, and look at all the shacks they’ve put up to hoard their loot! I wonder if the Adderhead’s noticed yet how little of it ever reaches the Castle of Night. If he has, his brother-in-law will soon be in trouble.’

‘Yes, the Milksop is pretty brazen about it.’ Mo lowered his head as a couple of grooms came towards them. Even they were armed. His knife wouldn’t be much use if anyone actually did recognize him. ‘We stopped a few convoys intended for the Castle of Night,’ he continued quietly when they had passed, ‘and the contents of the chests always proved rather disappointing.’

Fenoglio stared at him. ‘You’re really doing it?’

‘Doing what?’

The old man looked nervously around, but no one seemed to be taking any notice of them. ‘Well, all the things they sing about!’ he whispered. ‘I mean … most of the songs are poor stuff, badly written, but the Bluejay is still my character, so … what does it feel like? What does it feel like, playing him?’

A maid carried two slaughtered geese past them. The birds’ blood dripped on to the courtyard paving stones. Mo turned his head away. ‘Playing? Is that what it still feels like to you – some kind of game?’ His reply sounded touchier than he had intended.

Sometimes he’d really have given anything to read the thoughts in Fenoglio’s head. And, who knew, maybe he would indeed read them some day in black and white, and find himself there on the page with words spun around him, like a fly caught in an old spider’s web.

‘I admit it’s turned into a dangerous game, but I’m really glad you took the part! Because wasn’t I right? This world needs the Blue—’

Mo interrupted Fenoglio – and put his fingers to his lips. A troop of soldiers passed them, and Fenoglio bit back the name he had first written down on a piece of parchment not so long ago. But the smile with which he watched the soldiers pass was the smile of a man who had planted an explosive device in his enemies’ house, and was enjoying mingling with them knowing they had no idea he had laid that bomb.

Wicked old man.

Mo realized that the Inner Castle didn’t look as Fenoglio had described it any more, either. He quietly repeated the words he had once read: The Laughing Prince’s wife had laid out the garden because she was tired of the grey stones all around her. She planted flowers from foreign lands, and when they came into bloom they made her dream of distant seas, strange cities and mountains where dragons lived. She allowed gold-breasted birds to breed, birds that perched in the trees like feathered fruits, and planted a seedling from the Wayless Wood, a tree with leaves that could talk to the moon.

Fenoglio looked at him in surprise.

‘Oh, I know your book by heart,’ said Mo. ‘Have you forgotten how often I read aloud from it after your words had swallowed up my wife?’

The gold-breasted birds had left the Inner Courtyard too. The Milksop’s statue was reflected in a stone basin, and if the tree that talked to the moon ever existed then it had been felled. Dog-pens stood where there had once been a garden, and the new lord of Ombra’s hounds pressed their noses to the silvered wire fencing. It’s a long time since this was your story, old man, thought Mo as he and Fenoglio walked towards the Inner Castle. But, then, who was telling it now? Orpheus, maybe? Or had the Adderhead taken over as narrator, using blood and iron instead of pen and ink?

Tullio took them to Balbulus, Tullio the furry-faced servant said in Fenoglio’s book to be the offspring of a brownie father and a moss-woman mother.

‘How are you?’ Fenoglio asked him as Tullio led them down the corridors. As if it had ever interested him how his creations were doing.

Tullio answered with a shrug of his shoulders. ‘They hunt me,’ he said, his voice barely audible. ‘Our new master’s friends – and he has a lot of them. They chase me along the passages and shut me in with the hounds, but Violante protects me. She protects me even though her son is one of the worst of them.’

‘Her son?’ Mo asked.

‘Yes, didn’t Meggie tell you about him?’ Fenoglio whispered back. ‘Jacopo, a real little devil. His grandfather in miniature, although he’s getting to look more like his father every day. Not that he ever shed a tear for Cosimo. Far from it. They say he daubed Cosimo’s bust in the crypt with Balbulus’s paints, and in the evenings he sits beside the Milksop or on Sootbird’s lap instead of keeping his mother company. It’s said he even spies on her for his grandfather the Adderhead.’

Mo had read nothing in Fenoglio’s book about the door outside which Tullio finally stopped, rather breathless after climbing so many steep flights of stairs. He instinctively put out his hand to stroke the letters that covered it. ‘They’re so beautiful, Mo,’ Meggie had murmured as the two of them sat high in their prison in the Castle of Night. ‘Intertwined as if someone had written them on the wood in liquid silver.’

Tullio raised his small, furry fist and knocked. The voice calling them in could belong to no one but Balbulus. Cold, self-satisfied, arrogant … the words Meggie had used to describe the best illuminator in this world were not nice ones. Tullio stood on tiptoe, took hold of the door handle – and then let go of it again in alarm.

‘Tullio!’ The voice echoing up the staircase sounded very young, but it seemed used to giving orders. ‘Where are you, Tullio? You must come and hold the torches for Sootbird.’

‘Jacopo!’ Tullio breathed the word as if it were the name of an infectious illness. He ducked and instinctively tried to shelter behind Mo’s back.

A boy of perhaps six or seven came running upstairs. Mo had never seen Cosimo the Fair. The Milksop had had all his statues smashed, but Battista still had a few coins with his picture on them. A face almost too beautiful to be real, that was how everyone described him. His son had obviously inherited that beauty, although as yet it was only developing on his still round, childish face. But it was not an endearing face. The boy’s eyes were watchful, and his mouth was as sullen as an old man’s. His black tunic had an embroidered pattern showing his grandfather’s emblematic adder with its flickering tongue, and even his belt was set with silver snakes, but around his neck dangled a silver nose – the Piper’s trademark.

Fenoglio cast Mo a glance of alarm and stood in front of him, as if that would hide him from the boy.

You must come and hold the torches for Sootbird. Now what, Mo? He instinctively glanced down the stairs, but Jacopo had come alone, and this castle was large. His hand went to his belt all the same.

‘Who’s that?’ Only the defiance in the clear voice sounded like a little boy’s. Jacopo was breathing heavily from all that stair-climbing.

‘He’s … er … he’s the new bookbinder, my Prince!’ replied Fenoglio, bowing. ‘I’m sure you remember how often Balbulus has complained of the clumsiness of our local bookbinders!’

‘And this one’s better?’ Jacopo folded his little arms. ‘He doesn’t look like a bookbinder. Bookbinders are old, and all pale because they sit indoors the whole time.’

‘Oh, we go out now and then too,’ replied Mo. ‘We go out to buy the best leather, new stamps, good knives, or to dry parchment in the sun if it’s damp …’

He found it difficult to feel afraid of the boy, although he had heard so much that was bad about him. Cosimo’s son reminded him of a boy he had known at school who was unlucky enough to be the headmaster’s son. He used to stalk around the school yard like a copy of his father – and he was afraid of everything and everyone in the world. That’s all very well, Mortimer, Mo told himself, but he was only a headmaster’s son. This is the grandson of the Adderhead, so take care.

Jacopo frowned and looked disapprovingly at him. Obviously he didn’t like the fact that Mo was so much taller than he was. ‘You didn’t bow! You have to bow to me.’

Mo felt Fenoglio’s warning glance and bowed his head. ‘My Prince.’

It was difficult. He would rather have chased Jacopo along the castle corridors in fun, the way he used to chase Meggie in Elinor’s house, just to see if the child in him would emerge, carefully hidden as it was behind his grandfather’s mannerisms.

Jacopo acknowledged his bow with a magnanimous nod, and Mo bowed his head again so that the boy wouldn’t see his smile.

‘My grandfather is having trouble with a book,’ remarked Jacopo in his arrogant voice. ‘A lot of trouble. Perhaps you can help him.’

Trouble with a book. Mo felt his heart miss a beat. In his mind’s eye he saw the book before him again, felt the paper between his fingers. All those blank pages.

‘My grandfather has had lots of bookbinders hanged already because of that book.’ Jacopo looked at Mo as if working out the size of the noose to fit his neck. ‘He even had one flayed because the man had promised he could make the book better. Will you try all the same? But you’d have to ride to the Castle of Night with me so that my grandfather can see I was the one who found you, not the Milksop.’

Mo managed to get out of answering that as the door covered with letters opened and a man came out, an expression of annoyance on his face.

‘What’s all this?’ he snapped at Tullio. ‘First there’s a knock but no one comes in, then so much talk that my brush slips. So, as you all clearly have not come to see me, I would be greatly obliged if you’d continue your conversation somewhere else. There are more than enough rooms in this castle where no real work is done.’

Balbulus … Meggie had described him very well. The slight lisp, the short nose and plump cheeks, the dark brown hair already receding from his forehead, although he was still quite a young man. An illuminator – and from what Mo had seen of his work, one of the best there had ever been, in either this world or his own. Mo forgot Jacopo and Fenoglio, he forgot the pillory and the boy in it, the soldiers down in the courtyard and even Sootbird. All he wanted was to go through that door. Even the glimpse of the workshop that he caught over Balbulus’s shoulder made his heart beat as fast as a schoolboy’s. He felt the same excitement as when he first held a book illustrated by Balbulus in his hand, when he was a prisoner threatened with death in the Castle of Night. This man’s work had made him forget all that. Letters flowing as easily as if there were no more natural occupation for the human hand than writing, and then the pictures. Living, breathing parchment!

‘I’ll talk to people where and when I like! I’m the Adderhead’s grandson!’ Jacopo’s voice was shrill. ‘I’m going to tell my uncle how impertinent you’ve been again. I’m going to tell him this minute! I’ll say he ought to take all your brushes away from you!’ With one last glance at Balbulus he turned. ‘Come on, Tullio. Or I’ll shut you in with the hounds!’

The little servant went to Jacopo’s side, head hunched between his shoulders, and the Adderhead’s grandson inspected Mo again from head to foot before turning and hurrying down the stairs again – suddenly just a child after all, in a hurry to see a show.

‘We ought to get out, Mortimer!’ Fenoglio whispered to him. ‘You should never have come to this place! Sootbird is here. It’s not good, not good at all.’

But Balbulus was already impatiently beckoning the new bookbinder into his workshop. What did Mo care about Sootbird? He could think of nothing but what awaited him behind the door with the silver letters all over it.

He had spent so many hours of his life poring over the art of illumination, bending close to stained pages until his back ached, following every brush stroke with a magnifying glass, and wondering how such marvels could be captured on parchment. All the tiny faces, all the fantastic creatures, landscapes, flowers, miniature dragons, insects, so real that they seemed to be crawling off the pages. Letters as artfully entwined as if their lines had begun to grow only on that parchment.

Was all that waiting for him on the desks in there?

Maybe. But Balbulus stood in front of his work as if he were its guardian, and his eyes were so expressionless that Mo wondered how a man who bent so cold a gaze on the world could paint such pictures. Pictures so full of strength and fire …

‘Inkweaver.’ Balbulus nodded to Fenoglio with a look that seemed to sum him up: the unshaven chin, the bloodshot eyes, the weariness in the old man’s heart. And what, Mo wondered, will he see in me?

‘So you’re the bookbinder?’ Balbulus inspected him as thoroughly as if he planned to capture him on parchment. ‘Fenoglio tells me truly wonderful things about your skill.’

‘Oh, does he?’ Mo couldn’t help sounding distracted. He wanted to see those pictures at long last, but once again the illuminator barred his way as if by chance. What did this mean? Let me see your work, thought Mo. You ought to feel flattered that I’ve risked my neck to come here for its sake. Good heavens, those brushes really were incredibly fine. And then there were the paints …

Fenoglio dug a warning elbow into his ribs, and Mo reluctantly tore himself away from the sight of all these wonders and looked into Balbulus’s expressionless eyes.

‘I’m sorry. Yes, I’m a bookbinder, and I am sure you will want to see a sample of my work. I didn’t have particularly good materials available, but …’ He put his hand under the cloak that Battista had made (stealing so much black fabric couldn’t have been easy), but Balbulus shook his head.

‘You don’t have to show me any evidence of what you can do,’ he said, never taking his eyes off Mo. ‘Taddeo, the librarian in the Castle of Night, has told me at length how impressively you proved your abilities there.’

Lost.

He was lost.

Mo sensed Fenoglio’s appalled glance on him. Yes, look at me, he thought. Are the words ‘reckless idiot’ written as black as ink on my forehead?

However, Balbulus smiled. His smile was as hard to fathom as his eyes.

‘Yes, Taddeo has told me about you at length.’ Meggie had given a good imitation of the way his tongue touched his teeth as he spoke. ‘Usually he is rather a reserved man, but he positively sung your praises to me in writing. After all, there aren’t many of your trade who can bind death itself in a book, are there?’

Fenoglio gripped his arm so hard that Mo could feel the old man’s fear. Did he think they could simply turn and walk out of the door? A guard would surely have been posted outside some time ago, and even if not, there were soldiers waiting at the bottom of the stairs. How quickly you got used to the way they could appear at any moment, armed with the power to take a man away, imprison him or kill him with impunity … how Balbulus’s colours glowed! Vermilion, sienna, burnt umber … how beautiful they were. Beauty that had lured him into a trap. Most birds were trapped with bread and a few tasty seeds, but the Bluejay could be caught by words and pictures.

‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about, highly esteemed Balbulus!’ stammered Fenoglio. His fingers were still clutching Mo’s arm. ‘The … er … librarian at the Castle of Night? No. No, Mortimer’s never worked on the other side of the forest. He comes from … from the north, yes, that’s it.’

What a terrible liar the old man was. You’d have thought someone who made up stories could tell better lies.

However that might be, Mo himself was no good at lying either, so he kept quiet, silently cursing his curiosity, his impatience, his recklessness, while Balbulus went on staring at him. What had made him think he could simply discard the part he was expected to play in this world by putting on a few black clothes? What had made him think he could go back to being Mortimer the bookbinder for a few hours here in Ombra Castle?

‘Oh, be quiet, Inkweaver!’ Balbulus snapped at Fenoglio. ‘Just how much of a fool do you think I am? Of course I knew who he was the moment you mentioned him. “A true master of his art.” Isn’t that how you put it? Words can be very treacherous, as you really should know by now.’

Fenoglio did not reply. Mo felt for the knife that the Black Prince had given him when they set out from Mount Adder. ‘From now on you must always have it with you,’ the Prince had told him, ‘even when you lie down to sleep.’ Mo had followed his advice, but what use would a knife be to him here? He’d be dead before he reached the foot of the stairs. For all he knew, maybe Jacopo himself had immediately realized who was standing in front of him and had raised the alarm too. Come quick, the Bluejay’s flown into the cage of his own free will!

I’m sorry, Meggie, thought Mo. Your father is an idiot. You rescued him from the Castle of Night only for him to get himself captured in another castle. Why hadn’t he listened to her when she saw Sootbird in the marketplace?

Had Fenoglio ever written a song about the Bluejay’s fear? The fear didn’t come when he had to fight, not then. It came when he thought of fetters, chains and dungeons, and desperation behind barred doors. Like now. He tasted fear on his tongue, felt it in his guts and his knees. At least an illuminator’s workshop is the right place for a bookbinder to die, he thought. But the Bluejay was back now, cursing the bookbinder for being so reckless.

‘Do you know what particularly impressed Taddeo?’ Balbulus flicked a little powdered paint off his sleeve. Yellow as pollen, it clung to the dark blue velvet. ‘Your hands. He thought it astonishing that hands which knew so much about killing could treat the pages of a book with such care. And you do have beautiful hands. Look at mine, now!’ Balbulus spread his fingers and examined them with distaste. ‘A peasant’s hands. Large and coarse. Would you like to see what they can do all the same?’

And at last he stood aside and waved them over, like a conjuror raising the curtain on his show. Fenoglio tried to hold Mo back, but if he’d fallen into the trap, then he meant at least to taste the bait that would cost him his life.

There they were. Illuminated pages even better than those he had seen in the Castle of Night. Balbulus had adorned one of them with nothing but his own initial. The B spread right across the parchment, clad in gold and dark green and sheltering a nest full of fire-elves. On the page beside it, flowers and leaves twined around a picture hardly the size of a playing card. Mo followed the tendrils with his eyes, discovered seed-heads, fire-elves, strange fruits, tiny creatures that he couldn’t name. The picture so skilfully framed showed two men surrounded by fairies. They were standing outside a village, with a crowd of ragged men behind them. One of the two was black and had a bear by his side. The other wore a bird mask, and the knife in his hand was a bookbinder’s knife.

‘The Black Hand and the White Hand of Justice. The Prince and the Bluejay.’ Balbulus looked at his work with barely concealed pride. ‘I’ll probably have to make some changes. You’re even taller than I thought, and your bearing … but what am I talking about? I’m sure you’re not anxious for this picture to resemble you too much – although of course it’s meant only for Violante’s eyes. Our new governor will never see it, because luckily there’s no reason for him to toil up all the stairs to my workshop. To the Milksop’s way of thinking, the value of a book is defined by the amount of wine it will buy. And if Violante doesn’t hide it well, he’ll soon have exchanged it – like all the other books my hands have made – for wine, or for a new silver-powdered wig. He can think himself truly lucky that I’m Balbulus the illuminator and not the Bluejay, or I’d be making parchment of his perfumed skin.’

The hatred in Balbulus’s voice was black as the night painted in his pictures, and for a moment Mo saw in those expressionless eyes a flash of the fire that made the illuminator such a master of his art.

Footsteps resounded on the stairs, heavy and regular, footsteps of a kind that Mo had heard only too often in the Castle of Night. Soldiers’ footsteps.

‘What a pity. I really would have liked a longer chat!’ Balbulus heaved a regretful sigh as the door was pushed open. ‘But I’m afraid there are persons of much higher rank in this castle who want to talk to you.’

Three soldiers took Mo between them. Fenoglio watched in dismay as they tied his hands.

‘You can go, Inkweaver!’ said Balbulus.

‘But this – this is all a terrible misunderstanding!’ Fenoglio was trying really hard not to let his voice betray his fear, but even Mo wasn’t deceived.

‘Perhaps you shouldn’t have described him in such detail in your songs,’ Balbulus observed wearily. ‘To the best of my knowledge that’s been his undoing once before. By way of contrast, look at my pictures. I always show him with his mask on!’

Mo heard Fenoglio still protesting as the soldiers pushed him down the stairs. Resa! No, this time he didn’t have to fear for her. She was safe with Roxane at the moment, and the Strong Man was with her. But what about Meggie? Had Farid taken her to Roxane’s farm yet? The Black Prince would look after both of them. He’d promised that often enough. And, who knew, perhaps they’d find their way back – back to Elinor in the old house crammed with books right up to the roof, back to the world where flesh and blood wasn’t made of letters.

Mo tried not to think of where he would be by then. He knew just one thing: the Bluejay and the bookbinder would die the same death.

8

Roxane’s Pain

‘Hope,’ said Sleet bitterly. ‘I’ve learned to live without it.’

Paul Stewart,

Midnight Over Sanctaphrax

Resa often rode over to see Roxane, although it was a long way and the roads around Ombra grew more perilous with every passing day. But the Strong Man was a good bodyguard, and Mo let her go because he knew how many years she had lived in this world already, surviving even without him and the Strong Man.

Resa and Roxane had made friends tending the wounded together in the mine below Mount Adder, and their long journey through the Wayless Wood with a dead man had only deepened their friendship. Roxane never asked why Resa had wept almost as much as she did on the night when Dustfinger struck his bargain with the White Women. They had become friends not through talking, but by sharing experiences for which there were no words.

It was Resa who had gone to Roxane by night when she heard her sobbing under the trees far from the rest of the company, Resa who had embraced and comforted her, although she knew there was no comfort for the other woman’s sorrow. She did not tell Roxane about the day when Mortola shot Mo, leaving her alone with the fear that she had lost him for ever. Through all those many days and nights when she sat in a dark cave cooling his hot, feverish brow, she had only imagined how it would feel never to see him again, never to touch him again, never to hear his voice again. But the fear of pain was quite different from pain itself. Mo was alive. He talked to her, slept at her side, put his arms around her. Whereas Dustfinger would never put his arms around Roxane again. Not in this life. Roxane had nothing but memories left, and perhaps memories were sometimes worse than nothing.

And she knew that Roxane was feeling that pain for the second time. The first time, so the Black Prince had told Resa, the fire didn’t even leave Roxane her dead husband’s body. Perhaps that was why she guarded Dustfinger’s body so jealously. No one knew the place where she had taken him, to visit him when longing wouldn’t let her sleep.

It was when Mo’s fever kept returning at night, and he was sleeping badly, that Resa first rode to Roxane’s farm. She herself had often had to gather plants when she was in Mortola’s service, but only plants that killed. Roxane had taught her to find their healing sisters. She told her which leaves were good for sleeplessness, which roots relieved the pain of an old wound, and that in this world it was wise to leave a dish of milk or an egg if you picked something from a tree, to please the wood-elves living in it. Many of the plants were strange to Resa, with unfamiliar odours that made her dizzy. Others she had often seen in Elinor’s garden without guessing what power lay hidden in their inconspicuous stems and leaves. The Inkworld had taught her to see her own world more clearly and reminded her of something Mo had said long ago: ‘I think we should sometimes read stories where everything’s different from our world, don’t you agree? There’s nothing like it for teaching us to wonder why trees are green and not red, and why we have five fingers rather than six.’

Of course Roxane knew a remedy for Resa’s sickness. She was just telling her what herbs would help the flow of her milk later on when Fenoglio, with Meggie and Farid, rode into the yard. Resa asked herself why the old man and her daughter wore such a guilty look on their faces. Of course she didn’t guess the reason.

Roxane put her arms around Resa as Fenoglio, his voice faltering, told them what had happened. But Resa didn’t know what to feel. Fear? Despair? Anger? Yes, anger. That was what she felt first of all. She was angry with Mo for being so reckless.

‘How could you have let him go?’ she snapped at Meggie, so sharply that the Strong Man jumped. The words were out before she could regret them. But her anger stayed with her: because Mo had gone to the castle even though he knew it was dangerous. And because he had done it behind her back. His daughter had been allowed to come with him, but to his wife he hadn’t said a word.

Roxane stroked Resa’s hair as she began to sob. Tears of rage, tears of fear. She was tired of feeling afraid.

Afraid of knowing Roxane’s pain.

9

A Giveaway

‘You’re going to stop cruelty?’ she asked. ‘And greediness, and all those things? I don’t think you could. You’re very clever, but, oh no, you couldn’t do anything like that.’

Mervyn Peake,

Titus Groan

A dungeon awaited him, what else? And then? Mo remembered the death that the Adderhead had promised him only too clearly. It could take days, many days and nights. The fearlessness that had been his constant companion over the last few weeks, the cold calm that hatred and the White Women had implanted in him – they were gone as if he had never felt them. Since meeting the White Women he no longer feared death itself. It seemed to him familiar and at times even desirable. But dying was another matter, and so was imprisonment, which he feared almost more. He remembered, only too well, the despair waiting behind barred doors and the silence where even your own breath was painfully loud, every thought a torment, and where every hour tempted you simply to beat your head against the wall until you no longer heard and felt anything.

Mo had been unable to bear closed doors and windows since the days he had spent in the tower of the Castle of Night. Meggie seemed to have shed the fear of confinement like a dragonfly shedding its skin, but Resa felt as he did, and whenever fear woke one of them, they could find sleep again only in each other’s arms.

Please, not a dungeon again.

That was what made fighting so easy – you could always choose death rather than captivity.

Perhaps he could seize a sword from one of the soldiers in one of the dark corridors, far from the other guards on duty. For guards stood everywhere with the Milksop’s emblem on their chests. He had to clench his fists to keep his fingers from putting that idea into practice. Not yet, Mortimer, he told himself. Another flight of steps, burning torches on both sides. Of course, they were leading him down into the depths of the castle. Dungeons always lay high above or far below. Resa had told him about the cells in the Castle of Night, so deep in the mountainside that she had often thought she wouldn’t be able to breathe in them. They weren’t pushing and hitting him yet as the soldiers there had done. Would they be more civil when it came to torturing and quartering him too? Down and down they went, step by step. One in front of him, two behind him, breathing on the back of his neck. Now, Mortimer! Try it now! There are only three of them! Their faces were so young – children’s faces, beardless, frightened under their assumed ferocity. Since when had children been allowed to play soldiers? Always, he answered himself. They make the best soldiers because they still think they’re immortal.

Only three of them. But even if he killed them quickly they would shout, bringing more men down on him.

The stairs ended at a door. The soldier in front of him opened it. Now! What are you waiting for? Mo flexed his fingers, getting ready. His heart was beating a little faster, as if to set the pace for him.

‘Bluejay.’ The soldier turned to him, bowed, and left. There was a look of embarrassment on his face. In surprise, Mo scrutinized the other two. Admiration, fear, respect. The same mixture that he had met with so often, the result not of anything he had done himself, but of Fenoglio’s songs. Hesitantly, he went through the open doorway – and only then did he realize where they had brought him.

The vault of the Princes of Ombra. Mo had read about that too. Fenoglio had found fine words for this place of the dead, words that sounded as if the old man dreamt of lying in such a vault himself some day. But in Fenoglio’s book the most magnificent sarcophagus of all hadn’t yet been there. Candles burnt at Cosimo’s feet, tall, honey-coloured candles. Their perfume sweetened the air, and his stone image, lying on a bed of alabaster roses, was smiling as if in a happy dream.

Beside the sarcophagus, very erect as if to compensate for the lack of light, stood a young woman in black, her hair drawn severely back.

The soldiers bowed their heads to her and murmured her name.

Violante. The Adderhead’s daughter. She was still known as Her Ugliness, although the birthmark that had earned her the name was only a faint shadow on her cheek now – it had begun to fade, people said, on the day when Cosimo came back from the dead. Only to return there soon.

Her Ugliness.

What a nickname. How did she live with it? But Violante’s subjects used it with affection. Rumour had it that she secretly had leftovers from the princely kitchen taken to the starving villages by night, and fed those in need in Ombra by selling silverware and horses from the princely stables, even when the Milksop punished her for it by shutting her up in her rooms for days on end. She spoke up for those condemned to death and taken off to the gallows, and for those who vanished into dungeons – even though no one listened to her. Violante was powerless in her own castle, as the Black Prince had told Mo often enough. Even her son didn’t do as she told him, but the Milksop was afraid of her all the same, for she was still his immortal brother-in-law’s daughter.

Why had they brought him to her, here in the place where her dead husband lay at rest? Did she want to earn the price put on the Bluejay’s head before the Milksop could claim it?

‘Does he have the scar?’ She didn’t take her eyes off his face.

One of the soldiers took an awkward step towards Mo, but he pushed up his sleeve, just as the little girl had the night before. The scar left by the teeth of Basta’s dogs long ago, in another life – Fenoglio had made a story out of it, and sometimes Mo felt as if the old man had drawn the scar on his skin with his own hands, in pale ink.

Violante came up to him. The heavy fabric of her dress trailed on the stone floor. She was really small, a good deal smaller than Meggie. When she put her hand to the embroidered pouch at her belt Mo expected to see the beryl that Meggie had told him about, but Violante took out a pair of glasses. Ground glass lenses, a silver frame – Orpheus’s glasses must have been the model for this pair. It couldn’t have been easy to find a master capable of grinding such lenses.

‘Yes, indeed. The famous scar. A giveaway.’ The glasses enlarged Violante’s eyes. They were not like her father’s. ‘So Balbulus was right. Do you know that my father has raised the price on your head yet again?’

Mo hid the scar under his sleeve once more. ‘Yes, I heard about that.’

‘But you came here to see Balbulus’s pictures all the same. I like that. Obviously what the songs say about you is true: you don’t know what fear is, maybe you even love danger.’

She looked him up and down as thoroughly as if she were comparing him with the man in the pictures. But when he returned her glance she blushed – whether out of embarrassment or anger because he ventured to look her in the face, Mo couldn’t have said. She turned abruptly, went over to her husband’s tomb and ran her fingers over the stone roses as delicately as if she were trying to bring them to life.

‘I would have done exactly the same in your place. I’ve always thought we were like each other. Ever since I heard the first song about you from the strolling players. This world breeds misfortune like a pond breeding midges, but it’s possible to fight back. We both know that. I was already stealing gold from the taxes in the treasury before anyone sang those songs about you. For a new infirmary, a beggars’ refuge, or somewhere for orphans to go … I just made sure that one of the administrators was suspected of stealing the gold. They all deserve to hang anyway.’

How defiantly she tilted her chin as she turned back to him. Almost the way Meggie sometimes did. She seemed very old and very young at the same time. What was she planning? Would she hand him over to her father, to feed the poor with the price on his head, or so that she could buy enough parchment and paints for Balbulus at last? Everyone knew that she had even pawned her wedding ring to buy him brushes. Well, what could be more suitable? thought Mo. A bookbinder’s skin, sold for new books.

One of the soldiers was still standing right behind him. The other two were guarding the door, obviously the only way out of the vault. Three. There were only three of them.

‘I know all the songs about you. I had them written down.’ The eyes behind the lenses in her glasses were grey and curiously light. As if you could see that they weren’t very strong. They certainly didn’t resemble the Adderhead’s lizard-like eyes. She must have inherited them from her mother. The book in which death was held captive had been bound in the room where she and her ugly little daughter used to live after they fell into disfavour. Did Violante still remember that room? Surely she did.

‘The new songs aren’t very good,’ she went on, ‘but Balbulus makes up for that with his pictures. Now that my father’s made the Milksop lord of this castle he usually works on them at night, and I keep the books with me so that they don’t get sold like all the others. I read them when the Milksop is making merry in the great hall. I read them out loud so that the words will drown out all that noise: the drunken bawling, the silly laughter, Tullio crying when they’ve been chasing him again … and every word fills my heart with hope, the hope that you will stand there in the hall some day, with the Black Prince at your side, and kill them all. One by one. While I stand beside you with my feet in their blood.’

Violante’s soldiers didn’t move a muscle. They seemed to be used to hearing such words in their mistress’s mouth.

She took a step towards him. ‘I’ve had people searching for you ever since I heard from my father’s men that you were in hiding on this side of the forest. I wanted to find you before they did, but you’re good at staying out of sight. No doubt the fairies and brownies hide you, as the songs say, and the moss-women heal your wounds …’

Mo couldn’t help it. He had to smile. For a moment Violante’s face had reminded him so much of Meggie’s when she was telling one of her favourite stories.

‘Why do you smile?’ Violante frowned, and for a moment he glimpsed the Adderhead in her light eyes. Careful, Mortimer.

‘Oh, I know. You’re thinking: she’s only a woman, hardly more than a girl, she has no power, no husband, no soldiers. You’re right, most of my soldiers lie dead in the forest because my husband was in too much of a hurry to go to war against my father. But I’m not so stupid! “Balbulus,” I said, “spread word that you’re looking for a new bookbinder. Perhaps we’ll find the Bluejay that way. If what Taddeo said is true, he’ll come just to see your pictures. And then, when he’s in my castle, my prisoner, just as he was once a prisoner in the Castle of Night, I’ll ask him to help me kill my immortal father.”’

Violante’s lips smiled in amusement as Mo looked sideways at her soldiers. ‘Don’t look so anxious! My soldiers are devoted to me. My father’s men killed their brothers and fathers in the Wayless Wood!’

‘Your father won’t be immortal for very much longer.’ The words came from Mo’s lips unthinkingly; he hadn’t meant to speak them aloud. Idiot, he told himself. Have you forgotten who this is facing you, just because something about her reminds you of your daughter?

But Violante smiled. ‘Then what my father’s librarian told me is indeed true,’ she said, as softly as if the dead could overhear her. ‘When my father began feeling unwell he thought at first that one of his maids had poisoned him.’

‘Mortola.’ Whenever Mo said her name he pictured her raising her gun.

‘You know her?’ Violante seemed as reluctant as he was to utter that name. ‘My father had her tortured to make her say what poison she’d given him, and when she didn’t confess she was thrown into a dungeon under the Castle of Night, but she disappeared one day. I hope she’s dead. They say she poisoned my mother.’ Violante stroked the black fabric of her dress as if she had been speaking of the quality of the silk and not her mother’s death. ‘Whether or not that’s true, my father knows by now who’s to blame for the way his flesh is rotting on his bones. Soon after your flight Taddeo noticed that the book was beginning to smell strange. And the pages were swelling. The clasps concealed it for a while, which presumably was your intention, but now they can hardly hold the wooden covers together. Poor Taddeo almost died of fear when he saw the state the book was in. Apart from my father himself, he was the only one who was permitted to touch it, and who knew where it was hidden … he even knows the three words that would have to be written in it! My father would have killed anyone else for possessing that knowledge. But he trusts the old man more than anyone else in the world, perhaps because Taddeo was his tutor for many years, and often protected him from my grandfather when he was a child. Who knows? Of course, Taddeo didn’t tell my father what state the book was in. He’d have hung even his old tutor on the spot for bringing him such bad news. No, Taddeo secretly summoned every bookbinder between the Wayless Wood and the sea to the Castle of Night, and when none of them could help him, he took Balbulus’s advice to bind a second book looking just like the first, which he showed my father when he asked for it. But meanwhile my father was feeling worse every day. Everyone knows about it by now. His breath stinks like stagnant pond water, and he’s freezing, as if the White Women’s breath is already wrapping him in their deadly cold. What a revenge, Bluejay! Endless life with endless suffering. That doesn’t sound like the doing of an angel, more like the work of a very clever devil. Which of the two are you?’

Mo didn’t answer. Don’t trust her, a voice inside him said. But his heart, strangely enough, told him something else.

‘As I said, it was a long time before my father suspected anyone but Mortola,’ Violante went on. ‘His suspicions even made him forget his search for you. But a day came when one of the bookbinders Taddeo had summoned to his aid told him what was wrong with the book, presumably hoping to be rewarded with silver for the news. My father had him killed – after all, no one must know about the threat to his immortality – but word soon spread. Now there’s hardly a bookbinder left alive in Argenta. Every one of them who couldn’t cure the book went to the gallows. And Taddeo has been thrown into the dungeons under the Castle of Night. “So that your flesh will rot away slowly like mine,” my father’s supposed to have said. I don’t know if Taddeo is still alive. He’s old, and the dungeons of the Castle of Night are enough to kill much younger men.’

Mo felt sick, just as he had in the Castle of Night when he was binding the White Book to save Resa, Meggie and himself. Even then he had guessed that he was buying their lives at the cost of many others. Poor, timid Taddeo. Mo saw him in his mind’s eye, crouching in one of those windowless dungeons. And he saw the bookbinders, he saw them very clearly, desolate figures swaying back and forth high in the air … He closed his eyes.

‘Well, imagine that. Just as it says in the songs,’ he heard Violante say. ‘A heart more full of pity than any other beats in the Bluejay’s breast. You’re really sorry that other people had to die for what you did. Don’t be foolish. My father loves killing. If it hadn’t been the bookbinders he’d have hung someone else! And in the end it wasn’t a bookbinder, but an alchemist, who found a way to preserve the book. It’s rumoured to be a very unappetizing way, and it couldn’t reverse the harm you’d already done, but at least the book isn’t rotting any more – and my father is looking for you harder than ever, because he still thinks only you can lift the curse you hid so skilfully between the empty pages. Don’t wait for him to find you! Steal a march on him! Ally yourself with me. You and I, Bluejay – his daughter and the robber who has already tricked him once. We can be his downfall! Help me to kill him. Together we can do it easily!’

How she was looking at him – expectant as a child who has just told her dearest wish. Come with me, Bluejay, let’s kill my father! What does a man have to do to his daughter, wondered Mo, to make her want something like that?

‘Not all daughters love their fathers, Bluejay,’ said Violante, as if she had read his thoughts, just as Meggie so often did. ‘They say your daughter loves you dearly – and you love her. But my father will kill them, your daughter, your wife, everyone you love, and last of all he’ll kill you too. He won’t let you go on making him a laughing stock to his subjects. He’ll find you even if you go on hiding as cleverly as a fox in its earth, because with every breath he draws, his own body reminds him of what you’ve done to him. Sunlight hurts his skin, his limbs are so bloated that he can’t ride any more. He finds even walking difficult. Day and night he pictures what he wants to do to you and yours. He’s made the Piper write songs about your death, such terrible songs that anyone who hears them can’t sleep, or so they say, and soon he’ll send the silver-nosed man to sing them here as well – and to hunt you down. The Piper has been waiting a long time for that order, and he’ll find you. His bait will be your pity for the poor. He’ll kill so many of them that their blood will lure you out of the forest at last. But if I help you—’

A voice interrupted Violante, a childish voice that was clearly used to getting a hearing from adults. It echoed down the endless stairway leading to the vault.

‘He’s bound to be with her, you just wait and see!’ How excited Jacopo sounded! ‘Balbulus is a very good liar, especially when he’s lying for my mother. But when he does it he plucks at his sleeves and looks even more pleased with himself than usual. My grandfather’s taught me to notice that kind of thing.’

The soldiers at the door looked enquiringly at their mistress, but Violante took no notice of them. She was listening to Jacopo outside the door, when another voice was heard and Mo saw, for the first time, a trace of fear in her fearless eyes. He knew the voice himself, and his hand went to the knife at his belt. Sootbird sounded as if the fire that he played with so clumsily had singed his vocal cords. ‘His voice is like a warning,’ Resa had once said of him, ‘a warning to be on guard against his pretty face and the eternal smile on it.’

‘What a clever lad you are, Jacopo!’ Did the boy hear the sarcasm in his voice? ‘But why don’t we go to your mother’s rooms?’

‘Because she wouldn’t be stupid enough to have him taken there. My mother is clever too, much cleverer than any of you!’

Violante went up to Mo and took his arm. ‘Put the knife away!’ she whispered. ‘The Bluejay won’t die in this castle. I refuse to hear that song. Come with me.’

She beckoned to the soldier standing behind Mo – a tall, broad-shouldered young man who held his sword as if he hadn’t used it very often – and made her purposeful way past the stone coffins, as if this wasn’t the first time she had had to hide someone from her son. More than a dozen tombs stood in the vault. Sleeping stone figures lay on top of most of them, with swords on their breasts, dogs at their feet, pillows of marble or granite under their heads. Violante hurried past them without a glance until she stopped by a coffin with a plain stone lid cracked right down the middle, as if the dead man inside had once pushed it open.

‘If the Bluejay isn’t here we’ll go and scare Balbulus a bit, shall we?’ There was jealousy in Jacopo’s voice when he uttered Balbulus’s name, as if he were talking about an older brother whom his mother preferred to him. ‘We’ll go back, and you can make fire lick around those books of his!’

The soldier’s young face flushed red with effort as he heaved the lower part of the coffin lid aside. Mo kept his knife in his hand as he climbed into the sarcophagus. There was no dead body in it, but all the same Mo felt he could hardly breathe as he stretched out in the cold, cramped space. The coffin had clearly been made for a smaller man. Had Violante thrown his bones away so that she could hide her spies inside it? The darkness was almost total when the soldier pushed the cracked lid back into place. A little light and air came in through a few holes forming a flower pattern. Breathe steadily, Mo, breathe calmly, he told himself. He still had the knife in his hand; it was a pity none of the stone swords the dead were holding would be any use. ‘Do you really think it’s worth risking your own skin for a few painted goatskins?’ Battista had enquired when he asked him to make the clothes and the belt. What a fool you are, Mortimer. Hasn’t this world done enough to show you how dangerous it is? But Balbulus’s painted goatskins had been very beautiful.

A knock. A bolt was pushed back. The voices came to his ears more distinctly now. Footsteps. Mo tried to peer through the holes, but he could see only another coffin, and the black hem of Violante’s dress disappearing as she walked quickly away. His eyes weren’t going to help him. He let his head sink back on to the cold stone and listened. How loud his breathing was. Could there be any sound more suspicious here among the dead?

Suppose it isn’t just by chance that Sootbird has turned up now, something inside him whispered. Suppose Violante was only setting a trap for you? Not all daughters love their fathers. Suppose Her Ugliness was planning to give her father a very special present all the same? ‘Look who I’ve caught for you. The Bluejay. He was disguised as a crow. I wonder who he thought he’d fool that way?’

‘Your Highness!’ Sootbird’s voice echoed through the vault as if he were standing right beside the coffin where Mo lay. ‘Forgive us for disturbing you in your grief, but your son wants me to meet a visitor you received today. He insists on it. He thinks the man is an old and very dangerous acquaintance of mine.’

‘A visitor?’ Violante’s voice sounded as cool as the stone beneath Mo’s head. ‘The only visitor down here is death, and it’s not much use warning anyone against death, is it?’

Sootbird laughed uneasily. ‘No, certainly not, but Jacopo was talking about a flesh-and-blood visitor, a bookbinder, tall, dark hair …’

‘Balbulus was interviewing a bookbinder today,’ Violante replied. ‘He’s been looking for one for a long time now. Someone who knows his trade better than the bookbinders of Ombra.’

What was that noise? Of course. Jacopo hopping about on the flagstones. Obviously he sometimes acted like any other child after all. The hopping came closer. The temptation simply to stand up instead of lying there was very strong. It was difficult to keep your body as still as a corpse while you were still breathing. Mo closed his eyes so as not to see the stone around him. Keep your breath as shallow as you can, he told himself, breathe as quietly as the fairies.

The hopping stopped right beside him.

‘You’ve hidden him!’ Jacopo’s voice reached Mo inside the sarcophagus as if he were speaking the words for Mo’s ears alone. ‘Shall we look in the coffins, Sootbird?’

The boy seemed to find the notion very enticing, but Sootbird laughed nervously. ‘Oh, I’m sure that won’t be necessary, if we tell your mother who she’s dealing with. This bookbinder could be the very man your father is looking for so desperately, Highness.’

‘The Bluejay? The Bluejay, here in the castle?’ Violante’s voice sounded so incredulous that even Mo believed she was taken by surprise. ‘Of course! I’ve told my father time and again: one day that robber’s own daring will be his downfall. You’re not to say a word of this to the Milksop. I want to catch the Bluejay myself, and then at last my father will realize who ought to be on the throne of Ombra! Have you reinforced the guards at the gates? Have you sent soldiers to Balbulus’s workshop?’

‘Er … no.’ Sootbird was obviously confused. ‘I mean … he isn’t with Balbulus any more, he …’

‘What? You fool!’ Violante’s voice was as sharp as her father’s. ‘Lower the portcullis over the gateway. At once! If my father hears that the Bluejay was in this castle, in my library, and simply rode away again …’ How menacing she made those words sound in the chilly air! She was indeed clever; her son was right.

‘Sandro!’ That must be one of her soldiers. ‘Tell the guards at the main gates to let the portcullis down. No one is to leave the castle. No one, do you hear? I only hope it’s not too late already! Jacopo!’

‘Yes?’ There was fear and defiance in the high voice – and a trace of distrust.

‘If he finds the gates closed, where could the Bluejay hide? You know every hiding place in this castle, don’t you?’

‘Of course!’ Now Jacopo sounded flattered. ‘I can show you all of them.’

‘Good. Take three of the guards from outside the throne-room upstairs and post them at the most likely hiding places you know. I’ll go and talk to Balbulus. The Bluejay! In my castle!’

Sootbird stammered something. Violante brusquely interrupted him, ordering him to go with her. Their footsteps and voices moved away, but Mo thought he could still hear them for some time on the endless stairs leading up and away from the dead, back to the world of the living, to the daylight where you could breathe easily …

Even when all was perfectly still again he lay there for a few more agonizing moments, listening until he felt as if he could hear the dead themselves breathing. Then he braced his hands against the stone lid – and hastily reached for his knife when he heard footsteps again.

‘Bluejay!’

It was no more than a whisper. The cracked lid was pushed aside, and the soldier who had helped him into his hiding place reached out a hand to him.

‘We must hurry!’ he whispered. ‘The Milksop has raised the alarm. There are guards everywhere, but Violante knows ways out of this castle that even Jacopo hasn’t found yet. I hope,’ he added.

As Mo clambered out of the sarcophagus, legs stiff from lying in its cramped space, he still had the knife in his hand.

The boy stared at it. ‘How many have you killed?’ His voice sounded almost awestruck. As if killing were a high art, like the painting of Balbulus. How old would the lad be? Fourteen? Fifteen? He looked younger than Farid.

How many? What was he to say to that? Only a few months ago the answer would have been so simple. Perhaps he’d even have laughed out loud at such a ridiculous question. Now he just said, ‘Not as many as those who lie here,’ although he wasn’t sure that he was telling the truth.

The boy looked along the rows of the dead as if counting them. ‘Is it easy?’

Judging by the curiosity in his eyes, he really didn’t seem to know the answer, despite the sword at his side and his shirt of chain mail.

Yes, thought Mo. Yes, it’s easy … if you have a second heart beating in your breast, cold and sharp-edged as the sword you carry. A certain amount of hatred and anger, a few weeks of fear and helpless rage, and you’ll have a heart like that. It beats time for you when you come to kill, a wild, fast rhythm. And only later do you feel your other heart again, soft and warm. It shudders in time with the other one at the thought of what you did. It trembles and feels pain … but that’s only afterwards.

The boy was still looking at him.

‘Killing is too easy,’ said Mo. ‘Dying is harder.’

Although Cosimo’s stony smile claimed otherwise.

‘Didn’t you say we must hurry?’

The boy turned red under his shiny polished helmet. ‘Yes … yes, of course.’

A stone lion kept watch in front of a niche behind the coffins, the emblem of Ombra on its breast – presumably the only example of the old coat of arms that the Milksop hadn’t had smashed. The soldier put his sword between the lion’s bared teeth, and the wall of the vault opened just far enough for a grown man to squeeze through it. Hadn’t Fenoglio described this entrance? Words that Mo had read long ago came back to his mind, about one of Cosimo’s ancestors who had escaped his enemies several times along the passage beyond. And words will save the Bluejay again, he thought. Well, why not? He’s made of them. All the same, his fingers passed over the stone as if they needed to reassure themselves that the walls of the vault weren’t just made of paper.

‘The passage comes out above the castle,’ the boy whispered to him. ‘Violante couldn’t get your horse from the stables. It would have attracted too much attention, but there’ll be another waiting there. The forest will be swarming with soldiers, so be careful! And I’m to give you these.’

Mo put his hand into the saddlebags that the boy handed him.

Books.

‘Violante says I’m to tell you they’re a present for you, made in the hope that you will accept the alliance she offers you.’

The passage was endless, almost as oppressively narrow as the sarcophagus, and Mo was glad when at last he saw the light of day again. The way out was little more than a crack between a couple of rocks. The horse was waiting under the trees, and he saw Ombra Castle, the guards on the walls, the soldiers pouring out of the gates like a swarm of locusts. Yes, he would have to be very careful. All the same, he undid the saddlebags, hid among the rocks – and opened one of the books.

10

As If Nothing Had Happened

How cruel the earth, the willows shimmering,

the birches bending and sighing.

How cruel, how profoundly tender.

Louise Glück,

Lament

Farid was holding Meggie’s hand. He let her bury her face in his shirt while he kept whispering that everything would be all right. But the Black Prince still wasn’t back, and the crow sent out by Gecko brought the same news as Doria, the Strong Man’s younger brother, who had been spying for the robbers ever since Snapper had saved him and his friend from hanging. The alarm had been raised at the castle. The portcullis was lowered, and the guards at the gate were boasting that the Bluejay’s head would soon be looking down on Ombra from the castle battlements.

The Strong Man had taken Meggie and Resa to the robbers’ camp, although they would both have preferred to go back to Ombra. ‘That’s what the Bluejay would want,’ was all he had said, and the Black Prince set off with Battista to the farm they’d called home for the last few weeks – such happy weeks, so deceptively peaceful in the turmoil of Fenoglio’s world. ‘We’ll bring you your things,’ was all the Prince had said, when Resa asked him what he was going there for. ‘You can’t go back.’ Neither Resa nor Meggie asked why. They both knew the answer – because the Milksop would have the Bluejay questioned, and no one could be sure that a time wouldn’t come when Mo might reveal where he had been hiding during those recent weeks.

The robbers themselves moved camp only a few hours after hearing of Mo’s arrest. ‘The Milksop has some very talented torturers,’ Snapper remarked, and Resa sank down under the trees away from the others and buried her face in her arms.

Fenoglio had stayed in Ombra. ‘Perhaps they’ll let me see Violante. And Minerva’s working in the castle kitchen tonight, maybe she’ll find out something there. I’ll do everything I can, Meggie!’ he had promised as he said goodbye.

‘Like getting into bed and drinking two jugs of wine!’ was all Farid said to that, but he kept remorsefully silent when Meggie began to cry.

Why had she let Mo ride to Ombra? If only she’d at least gone to the castle with him, but she’d wanted to be with Farid so much. She saw the same accusation in her mother’s eyes: you could have stopped him, Meggie, no one else but you could have done it.

When darkness began to fall Woodenfoot brought them something to eat. His stiff leg had earned him his name. Although not the fastest of the robbers, he was a good cook, but neither Meggie nor Resa could swallow a morsel. It was bitterly cold, and Farid tried to persuade Meggie to sit by the fire with him, but she just shook her head. She wanted to be alone with herself in the dark. The Strong Man brought her a blanket. His brother was with him, Doria. ‘Not much good at poaching, but he’s a first-class spy,’ the Strong Man had whispered to her when he introduced them. The two brothers were not very much alike, although they had the same thick brown hair and Doria was already strong for his age (something that filled Farid with envy). He wasn’t very tall. Doria only just came up to his elder brother’s shoulder, and his eyes were as blue as the skin of Fenoglio’s fairies, while the Strong Man’s eyes were acorn-brown. ‘We have different fathers,’ the Strong Man had explained when Meggie expressed her surprise at the difference between them. ‘Not that either of them’s worth a lot.’

‘You mustn’t worry.’ Doria’s voice sounded very grown-up.

Meggie raised her head.

He put the blanket around her shoulders, and stepped shyly back when she looked up at him, but he did not avoid her eyes. Doria looked everyone in the face, even Snapper – and most people looked away from Snapper.

‘Your father will be all right, believe me. He’ll outwit them all: the Milksop, the Adderhead, the Piper …’

‘After they’ve hanged him?’ asked Meggie. She sounded as bitter as she felt, but Doria just shrugged his shoulders.

‘Nonsense. They were going to hang me too,’ he said. ‘He’s the Bluejay! He and the Black Prince will save us all, you wait and see.’ He made it sound as if it couldn’t turn out any other way. As if he, Doria, were the only one who had read to the end of Fenoglio’s story.

But Snapper, sitting under the trees with Gecko only a little way off, laughed hoarsely. ‘Your brother’s as big a fool as you!’ he called over to the Strong Man. ‘It’s his bad luck he doesn’t have your muscles, so I guess he won’t live to be very old. The Bluejay is finished! And what does he leave behind as his legacy? The immortal Adderhead!’

The Strong Man clenched his fists and was about to go for Snapper, but Doria pulled him back when Gecko drew his knife and rose to his feet. The two of them often quarrelled, but suddenly they both raised their heads and listened. A jay was calling in the oak above them.

‘He’s back! Meggie, he’s back!’ Farid climbed down from his lookout post so fast that he almost lost his balance.

The fire had burnt low; only the stars shone down into the dark ravine where the robbers had pitched their new camp, and Meggie didn’t see Mo until Woodenfoot limped over to him with a torch. Battista and the Black Prince were with him. They all seemed unharmed. Doria turned to her. Well, Bluejay’s daughter, his smile seemed to be saying, what did I tell you?

Resa jumped up in such haste that she stumbled over her blanket. She made her way through the crowd of robbers standing around Mo and the Prince. As if in a dream, Meggie followed her. It was too good not to be a dream.

Mo was still wearing the black clothes that Battista had made him. He looked tired, but he did indeed seem to be uninjured.

‘It’s all right. Everything’s all right,’ Meggie heard him say as he kissed the tears from her mother’s face, and when Meggie was there in front of him he smiled at her as if this were their old life, and he had only been on a short journey to cure a few sick books, not from a castle where people wanted to kill him.

‘I’ve brought you something,’ he whispered to her, and only the way he hugged her so tight and for so long told her that he had been as frightened as she was.

‘Leave him alone, will you?’ the Black Prince told his men as they crowded around Mo, wanting to know how the Bluejay had escaped from Ombra Castle as well as the Castle of Night. ‘You’ll hear the story soon enough. And now, double the guard.’

They reluctantly obeyed, sat around the dying fire grumbling, or disappeared into the tents that had been patched together out of pieces of fabric and old clothes, offering only scant shelter from nights that were growing colder all the time. But Mo beckoned Meggie and Resa over to his horse and delved into the saddlebags. He brought out two books, handling them as carefully as if they were living creatures. He gave one to Resa and one to Meggie – and laughed when Meggie snatched hers so quickly that she almost dropped it.

‘It’s a long time since the two of us had a book in our hands, right?’ he whispered to her with an almost conspiratorial smile. ‘Open it. I promise you, you never saw a more beautiful book.’

Resa had taken her book too, but she didn’t even look at it. ‘Fenoglio said that illuminator was the bait for you,’ she said in an expressionless voice. ‘He told us they arrested you in his workshop.’

‘It wasn’t exactly what it seemed. As you can see, no harm came of it. Or I wouldn’t be here, would I?’

Mo said no more, and Resa asked no further questions. She didn’t say a word when Mo sat down on the short grass in front of the horses and drew Meggie down beside him.

‘Farid?’ he said, and Farid left Battista, whom he was obviously trying to question about events in Ombra, and went over to Mo with the same awe on his face that Meggie had seen on Doria’s.

‘Can you make some light for us?’ Mo asked, and Farid knelt down between them and made fire dance on his hands, although Meggie could clearly see that he didn’t understand how the Bluejay could sit there right after his narrow escape from the Milksop’s soldiers, showing his daughter a book before he did anything else.

‘Did you ever see anything so beautiful, Meggie?’ Mo whispered as she caressed one of the gilded pictures with her finger. ‘Apart from the fairies, of course,’ he added with a smile as one of them, pale blue like the sky Balbulus painted, settled drowsily on the pages.

Mo shooed the fairy away as Dustfinger had always done, by blowing gently between her shimmering wings, and Meggie, beside him, bent her head over the pages and forgot her fears for him. She forgot Snapper, she even forgot Farid, who didn’t so much as glance at what she couldn’t tear her own eyes away from: lettering in sepia brown, as airy as if Balbulus had breathed it on to the parchment, dragons, birds stretching their long necks at the heads of the pages, initials heavy with gold leaf like shining buttons among the lines. The words danced with the pictures and the pictures sang for the words, singing their colourful song.

‘Is that Her Ugliness?’ Meggie laid a finger on the finely drawn figure of a woman. There she stood, slender beside the written lines, her face barely half the size of Meggie’s little fingernail, yet you could see the pale birthmark on her cheek.

‘Yes. And Balbulus made sure she’ll still be recognized many hundreds of years from now.’ Mo pointed to the name that the illuminator had written in dark-blue ink, clearly visible above the tiny head: Violante. The V had gold edging as fine as a hair. ‘I met her today. I don’t think she deserves her nickname,’ Mo went on. ‘She’s rather too pale, and I think she could bear a grudge for a long time, but she fears nothing.’

A leaf landed on the open book. Mo flicked it away, but it clung to his finger with thin, spidery arms. ‘Well, how about this!’ he said, holding it up to his eyes. ‘Is it one of Orpheus’s leaf-men? His creations obviously spread fast.’

‘And they’re seldom very nice,’ said Farid. ‘Watch out. Those creatures spit.’

‘Really?’ Mo laughed softly and let the leaf-man fly away just as it was pursing its lips.

Resa watched the strange creature go, and abruptly straightened up. ‘It’s all lies,’ she said. Her voice shook on every word. ‘This beauty is only a lie. It’s just meant to take our minds off the darkness, all the misfortune – and all the death.’

Mo put the book on Meggie’s lap and got to his feet, but Resa stepped back.

‘This isn’t our story!’ she said, in a voice loud enough for some of the robbers to turn and look at her. ‘It’s draining our hearts with all its magic. I want to go home. I want to forget all these horrors and not remember them until I’m back on Elinor’s sofa!’

Gecko had turned too. He stared curiously at them while one of his crows tried to snatch a piece of meat from his hand. Snapper was listening as well.

‘We can’t go back, Resa,’ said Mo, lowering his voice. ‘Fenoglio isn’t writing any more, remember? And we can’t trust Orpheus.’

‘Fenoglio will try to write us back if you ask. He owes it to you. Please, Mo! There can’t be any happy ending here!’

Mo looked at Meggie, who was still kneeling beside Farid with Balbulus’s book on her lap. What was he hoping for? Did he want her to contradict her mother?

Farid glared at Resa and let the fire between his fingers go out. ‘Silvertongue?’

Mo looked at him. Yes, he had many names now. What had it been like when he was only Mo? Probably Meggie couldn’t remember either.

‘I must go back to Ombra. What am I to say to Orpheus?’ Farid looked at him almost pleadingly. ‘Will you tell him about the White Women?’ There it was again, like fire burning on his face – his foolish hope.

‘There’s nothing to tell. I’ve said so before,’ replied Mo, and Farid bowed his head and looked at his sooty hands as if Mo had snatched hope itself from his fingers.

He stood up. He still went barefoot, even though there was sometimes frost at night now. ‘Good luck, Meggie,’ he murmured, giving her a quick kiss. Then he turned without another word. Meggie was already missing him as he swung himself up on to his donkey.

Yes. Perhaps they really ought to go back …

She jumped when Mo put his hand on her shoulder.

‘Keep the book wrapped in a cloth when you’re not looking at it,’ he said. ‘The nights are damp.’ Then he made his way past her mother and went over to the robbers, who were sitting around the embers of their dying fire as silently as if they were waiting for him.

But Resa stood there, staring at the book in her hands as if it were another book, the one that had swallowed her up entirely over ten years ago. Then she looked at Meggie.

‘What about you?’ she asked. ‘Do you want to stay here, like your father? Don’t you miss your friends, and Elinor and Darius? And your warm bed without any lice in it, the café down by the lake, the peaceful roads?’

Meggie wished so much she could give the answer that Resa wanted to hear, but she couldn’t.

‘I don’t know,’ she said quietly.

And that was the truth.

11

Sick with Longing

I lost a world the other day.

Has anybody found?

You’ll know it by the row of stars

Around its forehead bound.

A rich man might not notice it;

Yet to my frugal eye

Of more esteem than ducats.

Oh, find it, sir, for me!

Emily Dickinson,

Collected Poems

Elinor had read countless stories in which the main characters fell sick at some point because they were so unhappy. She had always thought that a very romantic idea, but she’d dismissed it as a pure invention of the world of books. All those wilting heroes and heroines who suddenly gave up the ghost just because of unrequited love, or longing for something they’d lost! Elinor had always enjoyed their sufferings – as a reader will. After all, that was what you wanted from books: great emotions you’d never felt yourself, pain you could leave behind by closing the book if it got too bad. Death and destruction felt deliciously real conjured up with the right words, and you could leave them behind between the pages as you pleased, at no cost or risk to yourself.

Elinor had wallowed in misery on the printed page, but she’d never thought that in real life, grey and uneventful as hers had been for many years, such pain could enter her own heart. You’re paying the price now, Elinor, she often told herself these days. Paying the price for the happiness of those last months. Didn’t books say that too: that there’s always a price to pay for happiness? How could she ever have thought she would simply find it and be allowed to keep it? Stupid. Stupid Elinor.

When she didn’t feel like getting up in the morning, when her heart faltered more and more frequently for no apparent reason, as if it were too tired to beat steadily, when she had no appetite even at breakfast time (although she had always preached that breakfast was the most important meal of the day), when Darius kept asking how she was with that anxious, owlish expression on his face, she began wondering whether becoming ill with longing was more than just a literary invention after all. Didn’t she feel, deep down inside, that her longing was sapping her strength and her appetite, even her pleasure in her books? Longing.

Darius suggested going away to auctions of rare books, or famous book shops that she hadn’t visited for a long time. He drew up lists of volumes not yet in her library, lists that would have filled Elinor with delighted excitement only a year ago. But now her eyes passed over the titles with as little interest as if she were reading a shopping list for cleaning products. What had become of her love for printed pages and precious bindings, words on parchment and paper? She missed the tug at her heart that she used to feel at the sight of her books, the need to stroke their spines tenderly, open them, lose herself in them. But it seemed as if all of a sudden her heart couldn’t enjoy or feel anything, as if the pain had numbed it to everything but her longing for Meggie and her parents. Because by now Elinor had understood this too: a longing for books was nothing compared to what you could feel for human beings. The books told you about that feeling. The books spoke of love, and it was wonderful to listen to them, but they were no substitute for love itself. They couldn’t kiss her like Meggie, they couldn’t hug her like Resa, they couldn’t laugh like Mortimer. Poor books, poor Elinor.

She began spending days on end in bed. She ate too little and then too much. Her stomach hurt, her head ached, her heart fluttered inside her. She was cross and absent-minded, and began crying like a crocodile over the most sentimental stories – because of course she went on reading. What else was there for her to do? She read and read and read, but she was stuffing herself with the letters on the page like an unhappy child stuffing itself with chocolates. They didn’t taste bad, but she was still unhappy. And Orpheus’s ugly dog lay beside her bed, slobbering on her carpet and staring at her with his sad eyes as if he were the only creature in the world who understood her sorrows.

Well, perhaps that wasn’t quite fair. Presumably Darius, too, knew just how wretched she was feeling. ‘Elinor, won’t you go for a little walk?’ he would ask when he had brought her breakfast in bed yet again, and she still hadn’t appeared in the kitchen by twelve noon. ‘Elinor, I found this wonderful edition of Ivanhoe in one of your catalogues. Why don’t we go and take a look at it? The place isn’t far away.’ Or, as he had said only a few days ago, ‘Please, Elinor, go and see the doctor! This can’t go on!’

‘The doctor?’ she snapped at the poor man. ‘And what do you expect me to say to him? “Well, doctor, it seems to be my heart. It feels this ridiculous yearning for three people who disappeared into a book. Do you have any pills for that kind of thing?”’

Of course Darius had had no answer. Without a word, he had just put down her tea – tea with honey and lemon, her favourite – beside the bed among the mountains of books piled on her bedside table, and gone downstairs again looking so sad that Elinor had a shockingly guilty conscience. All the same, she didn’t get up.

She stayed in bed for three more days, and when she dragged herself into her library on the fourth day, still in her nightdress and dressing gown, to get something else to read, she found Darius holding the sheet of paper. The one that had taken Orpheus to the place where Elinor supposed Resa, Meggie and Mortimer still were.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ she asked, horrified. ‘No one touches that piece of paper, understand? No one!’

Darius put the sheet back in its place and wiped a speck off the glass case with his sleeve. ‘I was only looking at it,’ he said in his gentle voice. ‘Orpheus really doesn’t write badly, does he? Although it sounds very much like Fenoglio.’

‘Which is why it can hardly be described as Orpheus’s writing,’ said Elinor scornfully. ‘He’s a parasite. A louse preying on other writers – except that he feeds on their words, not their blood. Even his name is stolen from another poet! Orpheus!’

‘Yes, I expect you’re right,’ said Darius as he carefully closed the glass case again. ‘But perhaps you should call him a forger instead. He copies Fenoglio’s style so perfectly that at first glance you can’t tell the difference. It would be interesting to see how he writes when he has to work without a model. Can he paint pictures of his own? Pictures that don’t look like someone else’s?’ Darius looked at the words under the glass lid as if they could answer his question.

‘Why would I be interested in that? I hope he’s dead and gone. Trodden underfoot.’ Grim-faced, Elinor went up to the shelves and took out half a dozen books, supplies for another cheerless day in bed. ‘Yes, trodden underfoot! By a giant. Or – no, wait! Even better – I hope his clever tongue is blue and sticking out of his mouth because they’ve hanged him!’

That brought a smile to Darius’s owlish face.

‘Elinor, Elinor!’ he said. ‘I think you could teach the Adderhead himself the meaning of fear.’

‘Of course I could!’ replied Elinor. ‘Compared to me, the White Women are a bunch of sisters of mercy! But I’m stuck for the rest of my life in a story where there’s no part for me but the role of a batty old woman!’

Darius didn’t reply to that. However, when Elinor came downstairs again that evening to find another book, he was standing in front of the glass case once more, looking at the words Orpheus had written on the sheet of paper.

12

Back in the Service of Orpheus

Come close and consider the words.

With a plain face hiding thousands of other faces

and with no interest in your response,

whether weak or strong,

each word asks:

Did you bring the key?

Carlos Drummond de Andrade,

Looking for Poetry

Of course, the city gates of Ombra were closed when Farid finally rode his stubborn donkey around the last bend in the road. A thin crescent moon shone down on the castle towers, and the guards were passing the time by throwing stones at the bones dangling from the gallows outside the city walls. The Milksop had left some skeletons hanging there, though, to spare his sensitive nose, the gallows were no longer in use. Presumably he thought that gallows left empty were too reassuring a sight for his subjects.

‘Well, well, who comes here?’ grunted one of the guards, a tall thin fellow propping himself on his spear as if his legs alone wouldn’t carry him. ‘Take a look at this laddie!’ he added, roughly seizing Farid’s reins. ‘Riding around all on his own in the middle of the night! Aren’t you afraid the Bluejay will steal that donkey from under your skinny behind? After all, he had to leave his horse up at the castle today, so he could do with your donkey. And you he’ll feed to the Black Prince’s bear!’

‘I’ve heard the bear eats nothing but men-at-arms because they crunch so nicely in his jaws.’ As a precaution, Farid’s hand went to his knife. He felt too tired to be humble – and perhaps it made him lightly reckless to know that the Bluejay had managed to get out of the Milksop’s castle safe and sound. Yes, he too found himself calling Silvertongue by that name more and more often, although Meggie was always cross if she heard him.

‘Ho, ho, hark at the lad, will you, Rizzo?’ called the guard to the other man on duty. ‘Maybe he stole the donkey himself to sell to the sausage-maker in Butchers’ Alley before the poor beast drops dead under him!’

Rizzo came closer, smiling unpleasantly, and raised his lance until the ugly spearhead was pointing straight at Farid’s chest. ‘I know this fellow,’ he said. He had two missing front teeth, which made him hiss like a snake. ‘Saw him breathing fire once or twice in the marketplace. Aren’t you the one they say learnt his trade from the Fire-Dancer?’

‘Yes. What about it?’ Farid’s stomach muscles contracted. They always did when Dustfinger was mentioned.

‘What about it?’ Rizzo prodded him with the spearhead. ‘Get off your decrepit donkey and give us a bit of a show. Maybe we’ll let you into the city afterwards.’

They did finally open the gates – after he had turned night into day for almost an hour for their pleasure, making the fire grow flowers as he had learnt to do from Dustfinger. Farid still loved the flames, even though the crackling of their voices reminded him only too painfully of the man who had taught him all about them. But he no longer made them dance in public; he did it only for himself. The flames were all that was left to him of Dustfinger, and sometimes, when he missed him so much that his heart was numb with longing, he wrote his name in fire on a wall somewhere in Ombra and stared at the letters until they went out, leaving him alone, just as Dustfinger had left him alone.

Now that Ombra had lost its menfolk, it was usually as quiet as a city of the dead by night. Tonight, however, Farid ran into several troops of soldiers. The Bluejay had stirred them up like a wasps’ nest and they were still buzzing around, as if that would bring the bold intruder back. Lowering his head, Farid dragged the donkey past them, and was glad when he finally reached Orpheus’s house.

It was a magnificent building, one of the finest in Ombra, and the only one on this unrestful night with candlelight still shining through the windows. Torches burnt at the entrance – Orpheus lived in constant terror of thieves – and their flickering light brought the stone gargoyles above the gate to life. Farid always shuddered to see them stare down with their bulging eyes, their mouths wide open, their nostrils distended, looking as if they were about to snort in his face. He tried to put the torches to sleep with a whisper, as Dustfinger often did, but the fire wasn’t listening to him. That happened more and more often now – as if to remind him that a pupil whose master was dead was a pupil for ever.

He was so tired. The dogs barked at him as he led the donkey across the yard to its stable. Back again. Back in the service of Orpheus. He would so much rather have rested his head in Meggie’s lap, or sat by the fire with Silvertongue and the Black Prince. But for Dustfinger’s sake he always came back here. Again and again.

Farid let Jink climb out of the rucksack on to his shoulder, and looked up at the stars as if he could find Dustfinger’s scarred face there. Why didn’t he appear to him in a dream and tell him how to bring him back? Didn’t the dead sometimes do that for those they loved? Or did Dustfinger come only to Roxane, as he had promised, and to his daughter? No, if Brianna was visited by any dead man it was Cosimo. The other maids said she whispered his name in her sleep and sometimes put out her hand to him, as if he were lying beside her.

Perhaps he doesn’t appear to me in my dreams because he knows I’m afraid of ghosts, thought Farid as he climbed the steps to the back door. The main entrance of the house, which led straight out into the square, was of course reserved for Orpheus himself and his fine customers. Servants, strolling players and delivery men had to plough through the muck in the yard and ring the bell at the modest little door hidden at the back of the house.

Farid rang three times, but nothing stirred. By all the demons of the desert, where was that Chunk? He had nothing to do but open a door now and then. Or was he snoring away like a dog outside Orpheus’s bedroom door again?

However, when the bolt was finally pushed aside it wasn’t Oss who let him in but Brianna. Dustfinger’s daughter had been working for Orpheus for two weeks now, but presumably Cheeseface had no idea whose daughter was doing his laundry and scrubbing his pots. Orpheus was so blind.

Without a word, Brianna held the door open, and Farid was equally silent as he passed her. There were no words between them except those that went unspoken: My father died for you. He left us alone for you, only for you. Brianna blamed him for every tear her mother shed. She had told him so in a low voice after their first day together in the service of Orpheus. ‘For every single tear!’ Yet again, he thought he felt her glance on the back of his neck like a curse when he turned his back to her.

‘Where’ve you been all this time?’ Oss seized him as he was stealing away to the place in the cellar where he slept. Jink hissed and ran off. Last time Oss kicked the marten he had almost broken Jink’s ribs. ‘He’s been asking for you a hundred times over! Made me search every damn alleyway. I haven’t had a wink of sleep all night because of you!’

‘So? You sleep enough as it is!’

The Chunk hit him in the face. ‘Less of your cheek! Go on, your master’s waiting for you.’

One of the maids came towards them on the stairs. She blushed as she made her way past Farid. What was her name? Dana? A nice girl, she’d often slipped him a delicious piece of meat when Oss had stolen his food, and Farid had kissed her in the kitchen a few times for that. But she wasn’t half as beautiful as Meggie. Or Brianna.

‘I just hope he’ll let me give you a good hiding!’ Oss whispered before knocking on the door of Orpheus’s study.

That was what Orpheus called the room, although he spent far less time studying in it than groping under one of the maids’ skirts, or stuffing himself with the lavish dishes his cook had to prepare for him at any time of day or night. Tonight, however, he really was sitting at his desk, head bent over a sheet of paper, while his two glass men were arguing under their breath over whether it was better to stir ink to the left or the right. They were brothers called Jasper and Ironstone, and as different as day and night. Ironstone, the elder, loved lecturing his younger brother and ordering him about. Farid often wanted to wring his glass neck. He himself had two older brothers; they’d been one of the reasons why he had run away from home and joined a band of robbers.

‘Shut up!’ Orpheus snapped at the quarrelling glass men. ‘What ridiculous creatures you are! Stir to the left, stir to the right – just make sure you don’t spatter my whole desk with ink again while you’re stirring.’

Ironstone looked accusingly at Jasper – of course! If anyone had spattered Orpheus’s desk with ink, it had to be his little brother. But he preserved a grim silence as Orpheus put pen to paper again.

‘Farid, you really must learn to read!’ How often Meggie had told him that. And, with some difficulty, she had taught him a few letters of the alphabet. B for bear, R for robber (‘look, Farid, there’s a letter R in your name too’), M for Meggie, F for fire (wasn’t it wonderful that his name began with the same letter?), and D … D for Dustfinger. He always got the rest mixed up. How were you supposed to remember those funny little things with their scrawled lines stretching all whichways? AOUIMTNP … it gave him a headache just to look at them. But yes, he must learn to read, he must. How else was he ever to find out whether Orpheus was really trying to write Dustfinger back?

‘Snippets, nothing but snippets!’ Orpheus pushed Jasper aside with a curse as the glass man came up to sprinkle sand over the fresh ink. Grimly, he tore the sheet of paper he had been writing on into tiny scraps. Farid was used to that sight. Orpheus was seldom satisfied with what he put down on paper. He crumpled up what he had written, tore it in pieces, threw it on the fire with a curse, bullied the glass men and drank too much. But when he succeeded he was even more unbearable. He puffed himself up like a bullfrog, stalked proudly through Ombra like a newly-crowned king, kissed the maids with his moist, complacent lips, and let everyone know he had no equal. ‘Let them call the old man Inkweaver!’ he shouted, loudly enough to be heard all over the house. ‘It suits him. He’s nothing but a craftsman, while I … I am an enchanter! Ink-Enchanter, that’s what they ought to call me. That’s what they will call me someday!’

But tonight, yet again, the enchantment didn’t seem to be working. ‘Toad-twaddle! Goose-cackle! Leaden words!’ he said angrily without raising his head. ‘Just a mush of words, that’s what you’re smearing the paper with today, Orpheus: a watery, unseasoned, tasteless, slimy mush of words!’

The two glass men hastily scrambled down the legs of the desk and began picking up the shreds of paper.

‘My lord, the boy is back.’ No one could sound more servile than Oss. His voice bowed to Orpheus as readily as his massive body, but his fingers held the nape of Farid’s neck in a steely grip.

Orpheus turned, his face like thunder, and stared at Farid as if he had finally pin-pointed the reason for his failure. ‘Where the devil have you been? With Fenoglio all this time? Or helping your girlfriend’s father to steal into the castle and out again? Oh yes, I’ve heard about his latest exploit. Presumably they’ll be singing the first bad songs about it tomorrow. That fool of a bookbinder really does play the ridiculous part the old man wrote him with touching enthusiasm.’ Envy and contempt mingled in Orpheus’s voice, as they so often did when he spoke of Silvertongue.

‘He’s not playing a part. He is the Bluejay.’ Farid trod on Oss’s foot hard enough to make him let go of his neck, and when the man tried to grab it again he pushed him away. With a grunt, the Chunk raised his big fist, but a glance from Orpheus halted him.

‘Oh, really? Have you joined the ranks of his admirers too?’ He put a clean sheet of paper on his desk and stared at it, as though that could fill it with the right words. ‘Jasper, what are you doing down there?’ he snapped at the glass man. ‘How often do I have to tell you two that the maids can sweep up scraps of paper? Sharpen me another pen!’

Farid picked Jasper up, put him on the desk and earned a grateful smile. The younger glass man had to do all the unpleasant jobs – that was how his brother had fixed it – and sharpening pens was the most unpleasant of all, because the tiny blade they used slipped very easily. Only a few days ago it had cut deeply into Jasper’s matchstick-thin arm, and Farid had discovered that glass men bleed like humans. Jasper’s blood was transparent, of course. It had dripped on to Orpheus’s paper like liquid glass, and Ironstone had slapped his little brother’s face and called him a clumsy fool. For that, Farid had mixed some beer with the sand Ironstone ate. Since then Ironstone’s limbs, usually clear as water (and he had been very proud of that), had been as yellow as horse’s piss.

Orpheus went to the window. ‘If you stay out and about so long again,’ he said to Farid over his shoulder, ‘I’ll tell Oss to beat you like a dog.’

The Chunk smiled, and Farid cursed silently as he contemplated them both. But Orpheus was still looking up at the black night sky with a morose expression. ‘Would you believe it?’ he said. ‘That old fool Fenoglio didn’t even go to the trouble of naming the stars in this world. No wonder I keep running out of words! What’s the moon called here? You’d think his senile old brain might at least have bothered about that, but no! He just called it “the moon”, as if it were the same moon we saw from our windows in the other world.’

‘Perhaps it really is the same moon. It was in my story too,’ said Farid.

‘Rubbish, of course it was different!’ Orpheus turned to the window again, as if he had to explain to the entire world out there how badly made it was. ‘“Fenoglio,” I ask him,’ he went on in the self-satisfied voice that Ironstone always listened to devoutly, as if it were announcing truths never heard before, ‘“is Death a woman or a man in this world? Or is it perhaps just a door through which you pass into quite a different story, one that you yourself unfortunately omitted to write?” “How do I know?” he says. How does he know? Who else knows if he doesn’t? He doesn’t tell us in his book, anyway.’

In his book … Ironstone, who had climbed up to join Orpheus on the windowsill, cast a reverent glance at the desk where the last copy of Inkheart lay beside the sheet of paper on which Orpheus was writing. Farid wasn’t sure whether the glass man really understood that his entire world, himself included, had presumably slipped out of that same book. It usually lay there open, for when Orpheus was writing he kept leafing through it with restless fingers in search of the right words. He never used a single word that couldn’t be found in Inkheart, for he was firmly convinced that only words from Fenoglio’s story could learn to breathe in this world. Others were just ink on paper.

‘“Fenoglio,” I ask, “are the White Women only servants?”’ Orpheus went on, as Ironstone hung on every word from his soft – over-soft – lips. ‘“Do the dead stay with them, or do the White Women take them somewhere else?” “I expect so,” the old fool replies. “I once told Minerva’s children about a castle made of bones to comfort them for Cloud-Dancer’s death, but I was only talking off the cuff.” Off the cuff! Huh!’

‘The old fool!’ repeated Ironstone like an echo, but in his reedy, glass man’s voice it was not a very impressive sound.

Orpheus turned and went back to his desk. ‘With all your roaming around, I hope at least you didn’t forget to tell Mortimer I want to talk to him? Or was he too busy playing the hero?’

‘He says there’s nothing to talk about. He says he doesn’t know anything about the White Women except what everyone knows.’

‘Oh, wonderful!’ Orpheus reached for one of the pens that Jasper had sharpened so laboriously and snapped it in two. ‘Did you at least ask whether he still sees them sometimes?’

‘I’m sure he does.’ Jasper’s voice was as delicate as his limbs. ‘Once the White Women have touched someone they never let him go. Or so the moss-women say.’

‘I know that!’ said Orpheus impatiently. ‘I tried questioning a moss-woman about that rumour, but the nasty creature wouldn’t talk about it. She just stared at me with her mousy eyes and said I eat too much rich food and drink too much wine!’

‘They talk to the fairies,’ Jasper said. ‘And fairies talk to glass men. Although not all of them,’ he added with a sidelong glance at his brother. ‘I’ve heard that the moss-women tell another tale of the White Women too. They say they can be summoned by anyone whose heart they’ve already touched with their cold fingers.’

‘Oh, indeed?’ Orpheus looked thoughtfully at the glass man. ‘I hadn’t heard that one before.’

‘And it’s not true! I’ve tried summoning them!’ said Farid. ‘Again and again!’

‘You! How often do I have to explain that you died much too quickly?’ Orpheus snapped contemptuously at him. ‘You were in a great hurry to die, and just as great a hurry to come back. What’s more, you’re such a poor catch that I’d assume they don’t even remember you! No, you’re not the person to do it.’ He went to the window again. ‘Go and make me some tea!’ he told Farid without turning. ‘I have to think.’

‘What kind of tea?’

Farid put Jasper on his shoulder. He took the little man with him whenever he could, to keep him safe from his big brother. Sometimes, when Orpheus didn’t need either of them because he was taking his pleasure with one of the maids, or seeing his tailor for yet another fitting of some new clothes – which could last hours – Farid took Jasper with him to Seamstresses’ Alley, where the glass women helped to thread the dressmakers’ needles, tread seams smooth with their tiny feet, and tack lace to costly silk. For Farid had now also learnt that glass men don’t just bleed, they fall in love too, and Jasper was head over heels in love with a girl who had pale yellow limbs. He was only too fond of watching her in secret through her mistress’s workshop window.

‘What kind of tea? How should I know? Something good for stomach-ache,’ replied Orpheus crossly. ‘I’ve had a pain in my belly all day as if there were stag beetles in it. How am I supposed to get anything sensible down on paper in that state?’

Of course. Orpheus always complained of stomach-ache or a headache when his writing wasn’t going well. I hope his belly torments him all night, thought Farid as he closed the study door behind him. I hope it plagues him until he writes something for Dustfinger at last.

13

A Knife through the Heart

So far as he was concerned, as yet, there might never have been such a thing as a single particle of sorrow on the gay, sweet surface of the dew-glittering world.

T.H. White,

The Once and Future King

‘At least he didn’t tell you to go for the physician!’ Jasper was doing his best to cheer Farid up as he carried him down the steep stairs to the kitchen. Yes indeed, the physician who lived beyond the city gate. Orpheus had sent Farid there only a few days ago. If you went to fetch him at night he threw logs of wood at you, or came to the door brandishing one of the pairs of pincers he used to draw teeth.

‘Stomach-ache! Headache!’ said Farid crossly. ‘Cheeseface has been over-eating again, that’s all!’

‘Three roast gold-mockers filled with chocolate, fairy-nuts roasted in honey, and half a sucking pig stuffed with chestnuts,’ said Jasper, counting it up. Then he ducked in alarm as he saw Jink by the kitchen door. The marten made Jasper nervous, even though Farid kept assuring him that while martens did like to chase glass men, they never, ever ate them.

There was only one maid still in the kitchen. Farid stopped in the doorway when he saw it was Brianna. That was all he needed. She was scrubbing the pots and pans from supper, her beautiful face grey with exhaustion. The working day began for Orpheus’s maids before sunrise and often didn’t end until the moon was high in the sky. Orpheus himself made a tour of inspection of the whole house every morning, looking for cobwebs and dust, a speck on one of the mirrors that hung everywhere, a tarnished silver spoon, or a shirt that still showed a dirty mark after laundering. If he found anything he would deduct a sum from all the maids’ paltry wages on the spot. And he almost always did find something.

‘What do you want?’ Brianna turned, wiping her wet hands on her apron.

‘Orpheus has stomach-ache,’ muttered Farid, without looking at her. ‘I’m to make him some tea.’

Brianna went to one of the kitchen dressers and took an earthenware jar off the top shelf. Farid didn’t know which way to look as she poured hot water on the herbs. Her hair was the same colour as her father’s, but wavy, and it shone in the candlelight like the red gold rings that the governor liked to wear on his thin fingers. The strolling players sang songs about Dustfinger’s daughter and her broken heart.

‘Why are you staring like that?’ She took a sudden step towards him. Her voice was so cutting that Farid instinctively flinched back. ‘Yes, I look like him, don’t I?’

It was as if, all through the silence of the last few weeks, she had been sharpening her words until they were knives that she could thrust through his heart.

‘You don’t look in the least like him. I keep telling my mother so. You’re only some good-for-nothing layabout who made out that he was my father’s son, keeping the pretence up so long that in the end my father thought he had to die for you!’

Every word a knife, and Farid felt them piercing his heart.

Brianna’s eyes were not like her father’s. She had her mother’s eyes, and they looked at Farid with the same hostility as Roxane’s. He wanted to hit her to silence her beautiful mouth. But she resembled Dustfinger too much.

‘You’re a demon, an evil spirit bringing nothing but bad luck.’ She handed him the ready-brewed tea. ‘There, take Orpheus that. And tell him his stomach would feel better if he didn’t eat so much.’

Farid’s hands trembled as he took the mug.

‘You don’t know anything about it!’ he said hoarsely. ‘Nothing at all. I didn’t want him to bring me back. Being dead felt much better.’

But Brianna only looked at him with her mother’s eyes. And her father’s face.

And Farid stumbled back up to Orpheus’s room with the hot tea, while Jasper stroked his hair with his tiny glass hand, full of pity.

14

News from Ombra

And leafing through old books we sometimes find

A dark, oracular phrase is underlined.

You once were here, but in time out of mind.

Rainer Maria Rilke,

Improvisations from Capri in Winter III

Meggie liked it in the robbers’ camp. Sometimes it almost seemed to Resa as if her daughter had always dreamt of living in shabby tents. She watched Battista making himself a new mask, asked the Strong Man to teach her how to speak to the larks, and accepted the wild flowers that his younger brother brought her with a smile. It was good to see Meggie smiling again more often, although Farid was still with Orpheus. But Resa missed the farm they had left behind. She missed the silence and seclusion, and the sense of being alone with Mo and Meggie after all the weeks when they had been apart. Weeks, months, years …

Sometimes, when she saw the two of them sitting by the fire with the robbers, she felt almost as if she were watching them at a game they had played all through the years when she hadn’t been with them. Come on, Mo, let’s play robbers.

The Black Prince had advised Mo not to go outside the camp for the time being, and for a few days he took that advice. But on the third night he disappeared into the forest once more, all alone, as if to go in search of himself. And on the fourth night he went out with the robbers again.

Battista had sung Resa the songs that were going around Ombra after Mo’s venture into the city. The Bluejay had flown away, said the songs, escaping on the back of the Milksop’s best horse. It was said that he had killed ten guards, imprisoned Sootbird in the vault and stolen Balbulus’s finest books. ‘How much of it is true?’ she had asked Mo. He laughed. ‘I’m afraid I can’t be said to have flown!’ he had whispered, caressing her belly in which their child was slowly growing. And then he had gone out with the Black Prince again. And she lay there night after night, listening to the songs Battista sang outside the tent, terrified for her husband.

The Black Prince had had two tents pitched for them right beside his own. They were patched together from old clothes that the robbers had dyed with oak bark so that they wouldn’t show up too much among the surrounding trees: one tent for Meggie, one for the Bluejay and his wife. The mats of dried moss on which they slept were damp, and when Mo went out at night Resa shared the tent with her daughter for warmth. One day the grass was so white with hoarfrost in the morning that you could see the glass men’s tracks in it. ‘This will be a hard winter,’ said the Strong Man, not for the first time.

One could still find giants’ footsteps in the ravine where the camp lay. The rain of the last few weeks had turned them into ponds where gold-spotted frogs swam. The trees on the slopes of the ravine rose to the sky, almost as tall as the trees in the Wayless Wood. Their withering leaves covered the ground, which was cool now in autumn, with gold and flaming red, and fairies’ nests hung among the branches like overripe fruit. If you looked south you could see a village in the distance, its walls showing pale as mushrooms between the trees, but it was such a poor village that even the Milksop’s greedy tax-gatherers didn’t bother to come this way. Wolves howled by night in the surrounding woods, pale grey owls like little ghosts flew over the shabby tents, and horned squirrels stole what food there was to steal among the camp fires.

There were a good fifty men living in the camp, sometimes more. The youngest were the two boys saved from hanging by Snapper, and now they both went spying for the Prince: Doria, the Strong Man’s brother, who brought Meggie wild flowers, and his orphaned friend Luc. Luc helped Gecko to tame his crows. Six women cooked and mended for the robbers, but none of them went out at night with the men. Resa drew portraits of almost all of them, boys, men and women. Battista had found paper and chalk for her; where, he didn’t say. She wondered, as she portrayed every face, if the lines on them had indeed been drawn by Fenoglio’s words alone, or whether they weren’t perhaps, after all, living their own lives in this world independently of the old man.

The women did not even join the men when they sat together talking. Resa always sensed the disapproving looks when she and Meggie sat down quite naturally with Mo and the Black Prince. Sometimes she returned those glances, staring Snapper in the face, and Gecko, and all the others who tolerated women in the camp only to cook food and mend clothes. She cursed the nausea that kept coming back and prevented her from at least going with Mo when he and the Prince walked in the surrounding hills, looking for a place offering better shelter for the winter.

They had been in the camp that Meggie called the Camp of Lost Giants for five days and five nights when Doria and Luc returned from Ombra about midday with news. It was obviously such bad news that Doria didn’t even tell it to his brother, but went straight to the Black Prince’s tent. A little later the Prince sent for Mo, and Battista assembled the men.

Doria glanced at his strong brother before stepping into the circle of robbers, as if drawing courage from him to tell his news. But his voice was clear and firm when he began to speak. He sounded so much older than he was.

‘The Piper came out of the Wayless Wood yesterday,’ he began. ‘He took the road that approaches Ombra from the west, burning and looting as he went, letting it be known everywhere that the Milksop hasn’t sent enough taxes to the Castle of Night, and he’s here to collect more.’

‘How many men-at-arms are there with him?’ As usual, Snapper sounded brusque. Resa didn’t like his voice. She didn’t like anything about him.

Doria seemed to like the man who had saved his life no better than she did, judging by the look he gave him. ‘A great many. More than us. Far more,’ he added. ‘I don’t know the exact figure. The peasants whose houses they burnt didn’t have time to count them.’

‘Even if they had had time it wouldn’t have been much use, would it?’ replied Snapper. ‘Everyone knows peasants can’t count.’

Gecko laughed, and with him some of the robbers who were always to be found near Snapper: Swindler, Grabber, the Charcoal-Burner, Elfbane, and several more.

Doria’s lips tightened. He and the Strong Man were peasant-born, and Snapper knew it. His own father, apparently, had been a mercenary soldier.

‘Tell them what else you heard, Doria.’ The Black Prince’s voice sounded weary as Resa had seldom heard it before.

The boy glanced at his brother once more. ‘They’re taking a head-count of the children,’ he said. ‘The Piper is drawing up lists of all of them over six years old and no more than five feet tall.’

A murmur rose among the robbers, and Resa saw Mo leaning over to the Prince to whisper something to him. How close to each other they seemed, and how naturally Mo sat there with the ragged robbers. As if he belonged to them as much as to her and Meggie.

The Black Prince straightened up. His hair wasn’t long now, as it had been when Resa had first met him. Three days after Dustfinger’s death he had shaved his head, the custom in this world after the death of a friend. For on the third day, it was said, the souls of the dead entered the realm from which there was no return.

‘We knew the Piper would be coming sometime,’ said the Black Prince. ‘The Adder could hardly have failed to notice that his brother-in-law was keeping most of the taxes he collects for himself. But as you’ve heard, the taxes aren’t the only reason why he’s coming. We all know only too well what they use children for in Argenta.’

‘What do they use them for?’ Meggie’s voice sounded so clear among the voices of all the men. You couldn’t tell from the sound of it that it had already changed this world several times by reading a few sentences.

‘What for? The tunnels in the silver mines are narrow, Bluejay’s daughter,’ replied Snapper. ‘Be glad you’re too large to be any use down there yourself.’

The mines. Resa’s hand went instinctively to the place where her unborn child was growing, and Mo glanced at her as if the same thought had struck him too.

‘Of course. The Adderhead has sent far too many children to the mines already. His peasants are beginning to resist. It seems the Piper has only just put down a revolt.’ Battista’s voice sounded as weary as the Prince’s. There were too few of them to right all these wrongs. ‘The children die quickly down there,’ Battista went on. ‘It’s a marvel the Adder hasn’t thought of taking ours before. Children with no fathers, only defenceless unarmed mothers.’

‘Then we’ll have to hide them!’ Doria sounded as fearless as only a boy of fifteen can. ‘The way you hid the harvest!’

Resa saw a smile appear on Meggie’s lips.

‘Hide them, oh yes, of course!’ Snapper laughed with derision. ‘A fabulous idea. Gecko, tell this greenhorn how many children there are in Ombra alone. He’s a peasant’s son, you know, can’t count.’

The Strong Man was rising to his feet, but Doria cast him a warning glance, and his brother sat down again. ‘I can pick my little brother up with one hand,’ the Strong Man often said, ‘but he’s a hundred times cleverer than me.’

Gecko obviously had not the faintest notion how many children there were in Ombra, quite apart from the fact that he wasn’t too good at counting himself. ‘Well, there are a lot,’ he faltered, while the crow on his shoulder pecked at his hair, presumably hoping to find a few lice. ‘Flies and children — that’s the only two things still in plentiful supply in Ombra.’

No one laughed.

The Black Prince remained silent, and so did everyone else. If the Piper wanted those children, then he would take them.

A fire-elf settled on Resa’s arm. She shook it off, and found herself longing for Elinor’s house so much that her heart hurt as if the elf had burnt it. She longed for the kitchen, always full of the humming of the outsize fridge, for Mo’s workshop in the garden, and the armchair in the library where you could sit and visit strange worlds without getting lost in them.

‘Perhaps it’s just bait!’ said Battista, breaking the silence. ‘You know how the Piper likes to leave bait lying around – and he knows very well that we can’t simply let him take the children. Perhaps,’ he added, glancing at Mo, ‘perhaps he’s hoping to catch the Bluejay that way at last!’

Resa saw Meggie instinctively moving closer to Mo. But his face remained unmoved, as if the Bluejay were someone else entirely.

‘Violante’s already told me the Piper would soon be coming here,’ said Mo. ‘But she said nothing about children.’

The Bluejay’s voice … the voice that had fooled the Adderhead and beguiled the fairies. It did nothing of the kind to Snapper. It merely reminded him that he had once sat where the Bluejay was sitting now – at the Black Prince’s side.

‘You’ve been talking to Her Ugliness? Fancy that! So that’s what took you to Ombra Castle. The Bluejay in conversation with the Adder’s daughter.’ Snapper twisted his coarse face into a grimace. ‘Of course she didn’t tell you anything about the children! Why would she? Quite apart from the fact that we can assume she doesn’t even know about it! Her Ugliness has no more say than a kitchen maid about what goes on at the castle. That’s how it always was, and that’s how it always will be.’

‘I’ve told you often enough, Snapper.’ The Black Prince spoke more sharply than usual. ‘Violante has more power than you think. And more men, too – even if they’re all very young.’ He nodded to Mo. ‘Tell them what happened at the castle. It’s time they knew.’

Resa looked at Mo. What did the Black Prince know that she didn’t?

‘Yes, come on, Bluejay, tell us how you got away unscathed this time!’ Snapper’s voice was so openly hostile now that some of the robbers exchanged uneasy glances. ‘It really does sound like enchantment! First they let you out of the Castle of Night scot-free, now you’re out of Ombra Castle as well. Don’t say you made the Milksop immortal too in order to get away!’

Some of the robbers laughed, but their laughter sounded uncomfortable. Resa was sure that many of them really did take Mo for some kind of enchanter, one of those men whose names were best spoken only in whispers, because they were said to know dark arts and could bewitch ordinary mortals with no more than a glance. How else was it possible for a man who had arrived as if from nowhere to be able to handle a sword better than most of them? And he could read and write as well.

‘Folk say the Adderhead’s immortality doesn’t bring him much joy!’ objected the Strong Man.

Doria sat down beside him, his eyes fixed darkly on Snapper. No, the boy certainly didn’t like his rescuer much. His friend Luc, on the other hand, followed Snapper and Gecko like a dog.

‘So how does that help us? The Piper is looting and murdering worse than ever.’ Snapper spat. ‘The Adder is immortal. The Milksop, his brother-in-law, hangs at least one of us almost every day. And the Bluejay rides to Ombra and comes back unharmed.’

All was very, very quiet once more. Many of the robbers felt that the deal the Bluejay had done with the Adderhead in the Castle of Night was more than uncanny, even if ultimately Mo had tricked the Silver Prince. But the Adderhead was immortal all the same. Again and again he enjoyed giving a sword to some man the Piper had captured and making him thrust it through his body – only to follow that up by wounding the attacker with the same sword and giving him enough time to die to attract the White Women. That was the Adderhead’s way of proclaiming that he no longer feared the daughters of Death, although it was also said that he still avoided getting too close to them. ‘Death Serves the Adder’ was the inscription he had had placed in silver lettering above the gates of the Castle of Night.

‘No. I was not required to make the Milksop immortal.’ Mo’s voice sounded cold as he replied to Snapper, very cold. ‘It was Violante who got me safely out of the castle. After asking me to help her kill her father.’

Resa placed her hand on her belly as if to keep the words away from her unborn child. But in her mind there was room for only one thought: he’s told the Black Prince what happened in the castle, but he didn’t tell me. He didn’t tell me

She remembered how hurt Meggie had sounded when Mo finally told them what he had done to the White Book before giving it to the Adderhead. ‘You moistened every tenth page? But you can’t have done! I was with you the whole time! Why didn’t you say anything?’ Although Mo had kept her mother’s whereabouts a secret from her all those years, Meggie still believed that in the last resort he couldn’t really have any secrets from her. Resa had never felt that. All the same, it hurt that he had told the Black Prince more than he told her. It hurt badly.

‘Her Ugliness wants to kill her father?’ Battista sounded incredulous.

‘What’s so surprising about that?’ Snapper raised his voice as if to speak for them all. ‘She’s the Adder’s spawn. What reply did you give her, Bluejay? Did you say you must wait until your damn book doesn’t protect him from death any more?’

He hates Mo, thought Resa. He really hates him! But the look that Mo turned on Snapper was just as hostile, and Resa wondered, not for the first time, whether she simply used to overlook the anger in him, or whether it was as new as the scar on his chest.

‘The Book will protect Violante’s father for a long time yet.’ Mo sounded bitter. ‘The Adderhead has found a way to save it.’

Yet again there was murmuring among the robbers. Only the Black Prince didn’t seem surprised. So Mo had told him that too. Had told him, and not her. He’s turning into a different man, thought Resa. The words are changing him. This life is changing him. Even if it’s only a game. If it’s a game at all …

‘But that’s impossible. If you left the pages damp it will go mouldy, and you’ve always said yourself that mould kills books as certainly as fire.’

Meggie sounded so reproachful. Secrets … nothing eats away at love faster.

Mo looked at his daughter. That was in another world, Meggie, said his eyes. But his mouth said something else. ‘Well, the Adderhead has taught me better. The Book will go on protecting him from death – only if its pages stay blank.’

No, thought Resa. She knew what was coming next, and she felt like putting her hands over her ears, although she loved nothing in the world more than Mo’s voice. She had almost forgotten his face in all those years in Mortola’s service, but she had always remembered his voice. Now, however, it no longer sounded like her husband’s. It was the voice of the Bluejay.

‘It doesn’t take long to write three words.’ Mo did not speak loudly, but the whole Inkworld seemed full of his voice. It seemed to have belonged here for ever – among the tall, towering trees, the ragged men, the drowsy fairies in their nests. ‘The Adderhead still believes that only I can save the Book. He’ll give it to me if I go to him promising to cure it, and then … some ink, a pen, it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to write three words. Suppose Violante can gain those few seconds for me?’

His voice painted the scene in the air, and the robbers listened as if they could see the whole thing before their eyes. Until Snapper broke the spell.

‘You’re out of your mind! Totally out of your mind!’ he said hoarsely. ‘I suppose by now you believe everything the songs say about you – how you’re invulnerable! The invincible Bluejay! Her Ugliness will sell you, and her father will skin you alive if he gets his hands on you again. That won’t take him much more than a few seconds! But your liking for playing the hero will cost all the rest of us our lives too!’

Resa saw Mo’s fingers close around the hilt of his sword, but the Black Prince laid a hand on his arm. ‘Maybe he’d have to play the hero less frequently if you and your friends did it more often, Snapper,’ he said.

Snapper rose to his feet menacingly slowly, but before he could say anything the Strong Man spoke up, quick as a child trying to settle his parents’ quarrel. ‘Suppose the Bluejay is right? Perhaps Her Ugliness really does want to help. She’s always been good to us strolling players! She even used to come and visit our camp. And she feeds the poor and sends for the Barn Owl to come to the castle when the Milksop’s had some unfortunate fellow’s hand or foot chopped off!’

‘Yes, very generous of her, isn’t it?’ Gecko made a mocking face, as he so often did when the Strong Man said anything, and the crow on his shoulder uttered a croak of derision. ‘What’s so generous about giving away kitchen scraps and clothes no one wants any more? Does Her Ugliness go around in rags like my mother and my sisters? No! I expect Balbulus has run out of parchment, and she wants to buy more with the price on the Bluejay’s head!’

Once again some of the robbers laughed. As for the Strong Man, he looked uncertainly at the Black Prince. His brother whispered something to him, and scowled at Gecko. Please, Prince! thought Resa. Tell Mo to forget what Violante said. He’ll listen to you. And help him to forget the Book he bound for her father! Please!

The Black Prince glanced at her as if he had heard her silent pleading. But his dark face remained inscrutable. She often found Mo’s face impossible to read these days.

‘Doria!’ the Prince said. ‘Do you think you can get past the castle guards and ask around among Violante’s soldiers? One of them may have heard more about what the Piper is here for.’

The Strong Man opened his mouth as if to protest. He loved his brother and did all he could to protect him, but Doria was at an age when a boy doesn’t want protection any more.

‘Of course. Easy,’ he said with a smile that showed how happy he was to do as the Prince asked. ‘I’ve known some of them ever since I could walk. Mostly they aren’t much older than me.’

‘Good.’ The Black Prince stood up. His next words were for Mo, although he didn’t look at him. ‘As for Violante’s offer, I agree with Gecko and Snapper. Violante may have a soft spot for strolling players and feel sorry for her subjects, but she’s still her father’s daughter, and we ought not to trust her.’

All eyes went to the Bluejay.

But Mo said nothing.

To Resa, that silence spoke louder than words. She knew it, just as Meggie did. Resa saw the fear on her daughter’s face as she began talking earnestly to Mo. Yes, by now Meggie too probably felt what a hold this story had taken on her father. The letters were drawing him deeper and deeper down, like a whirlpool made of ink, and once again the terrible thought that had haunted Resa with increasing frequency these last few weeks came to her: that on the day when Mo had lain wounded in Capricorn’s burnt-out fortress, close to death, perhaps the White Women really did take a part of him away with them to the place where Dustfinger had gone, and she would see that part of him again only there. In the place where all stories end.

15

Loud Words, Soft Words

When you go, space closes over like water behind you,

Do not look back: there is nothing outside you,

Space is only time visible in a different way,

Places we love we can never leave.

Ivan V. Lalic,

Places We Love

‘Please, Mo! Ask him!’

At first Meggie thought she had heard her mother’s voice only in a dream, one of the dark dreams that sometimes came to her out of the past. Resa sounded so desperate. But when Meggie opened her eyes she could still hear her voice. And when she looked out of the tent she saw her parents standing among the trees only a short way off, little more than two shadows in the night. The oak against which Mo was leaning was huge, an oak such as Meggie had never seen outside the Inkworld, and Resa was clutching his arm as if to force him to listen to her.

‘Isn’t that what we’ve always done? When one of us didn’t like a story any more, we closed the book! Mo, have you forgotten how many books there are? Let’s find another to tell us its story, a book with words that will stay words and not make us a part of them!’

Meggie glanced at the robbers lying under the trees only a little way off. Many of them were sleeping in the open, although the nights were already very cold, but her mother’s despairing voice didn’t seem to have woken any of them.

‘If I remember correctly, I was the one who wanted to close this book long ago.’ Mo’s voice sounded as cool as the air making its way in through the tent’s ragged fabric. ‘But you and Meggie wouldn’t hear of another one.’

‘How was I to know what this story would turn you into?’ Resa’s voice sounded as if she hardly knew how to hold back her tears.

Go back to sleep, Meggie told herself. Leave the two of them alone. But she stayed where she was, freezing in the cold night air.

‘What are you talking about? What’s it supposed to have made me into?’

Mo spoke softly, as if he didn’t want to disturb the silence of the night, but Resa seemed to have forgotten where she was.

‘What’s it made you into?’ Her voice was rising with every word. ‘You wear a sword at your belt! You hardly sleep, you’re out all night. Do you think I can’t tell the cry of a real bluejay from a human imitation? I know how often Battista or the Strong Man came to fetch you when we were at the farm … and the worst of it is, I know how happy you are to go with them. You’ve found you have a taste for danger! You went to Ombra although the Prince warned you not to. And now you come back, after they almost caught you, and act as if it were all a game!’

‘What else is it?’ Mo was still speaking so softly that Meggie could hardly hear him. ‘Have you forgotten what this world is made of?’

‘I couldn’t care less what it’s made of. You can die in it, Mo. You know that better than I do. Or have you forgotten the White Women? No, you even talk about them in your sleep. Sometimes I almost think you miss them.’

Mo did not reply, but Meggie knew Resa was right. Mo had talked to her about the White Women only once. ‘They’re made of nothing but longing, Meggie,’ he had said. ‘They fill your heart to the brim with longing, until you just want to go with them, wherever they take you.’

‘Please, Mo!’ Resa’s voice was shaking. ‘Ask Fenoglio to write us back again! He’ll try to do it for you. He owes you that!’

One of the robbers coughed in his sleep, another moved closer to the fire … and Mo said nothing. When at last he did reply he sounded as if he were talking to a child. Even to Meggie he didn’t speak like that. ‘Fenoglio isn’t writing at all these days, Resa. I’m not even sure whether he still can.’

‘Then go to Orpheus! You’ve heard what Farid says. Orpheus has written rainbow-coloured fairies into this world, and unicorns and—’

‘So? Maybe Orpheus can add something to Fenoglio’s story here and there. But he’d have to write something of his own to take us back to Elinor. I doubt if he can do that. And even if he can – from all Farid says, he’s not interested in anything but making himself the richest man in Ombra. Do you have the money to pay him for his words?’

This time it was Resa who remained silent – for so long that she might have been mute again, as she was when she left her voice behind in the Inkworld.

It was Mo who finally broke the silence.

‘Resa!’ he said. ‘If we go back now I’ll be sitting in Elinor’s house doing nothing but wondering how this story goes on, day in, day out. And no book in the world will be able to tell me that!’

‘You don’t just want to know how it goes on.’ Now it was Resa’s voice that sounded cool. ‘You want to decide what happens. You want to be part of it! But who knows whether you’ll ever find your way out of the letters on the page again, if you tangle yourself up in them even more?’

‘Even more? What do you mean? I’ve seen Death here, Resa – and I have a new life.’

‘If you won’t do it for me,’ – Meggie could hear how hard it was for her mother to go on – ‘then go back for Meggie … and for our second child. I want my baby to have a father, I want the baby’s father to be alive when it’s born – and I want him to be the same man who brought its sister up.’

Once more Meggie had to wait a long time for Mo’s answer. A tawny owl hooted. Gecko’s crows cawed sleepily in the tree where they roosted at night. Fenoglio’s world seemed so peaceful. And Mo stroked the bark of the tree against which he was leaning, as tenderly as he usually caressed the spine of a book.

‘How do you know Meggie doesn’t want to stay? She’s almost grown up. And in love. Do you think she wants to go back while Farid stays here? Because stay he will.’

In love. Meggie’s face was burning. She didn’t want Mo to say what she herself had never put into words. In love – it sounded like a sickness without any cure, and wasn’t that just how it sometimes felt? Yes, Farid would stay. She had so often told herself that, when she felt a wish to go back: Farid will stay even if Dustfinger doesn’t return from the dead. He’ll go on looking for him and longing for him, much more than he longs for you, Meggie. But how would it feel never to see him again? Would she leave her heart here and go around with an empty hole in her breast ever after? Would she stay alone – like Elinor – and only read about being in love in books?

‘She’ll get over it!’ she heard Resa say. ‘She’ll fall in love with someone else.’

What was her mother talking about? She doesn’t know me! thought Meggie. She never knew me. How could she? She was never there with us.

‘What about your second child?’ Resa went on. ‘Do you want the baby born in this world?’

Mo looked round him, and once more Meggie felt something she had long known: by now her father loved this world as much as she and Resa had once done. Perhaps he even loved it more.

‘Why not?’ he retorted. ‘Do you want it born in a world where what it longs for can be found only in books?’

Resa’s voice shook when she replied, but now it was with anger. ‘How can you say such a thing? Everything you find here was born in our world. Where else did Fenoglio get it all from?’

‘How should I know? Do you really still think there’s only one real world, and the others are just pale offshoots?’

Somewhere a wolf howled and two others responded. One of the guards came through the trees and put wood on the dying fire. His name was Wayfarer. None of the robbers went by the names they had been born with. He moved away again, after casting a curious glance at Mo and Resa.

‘I don’t want to go back, Resa. Not now!’ Mo’s voice sounded determined, but at the same time Meggie could tell he was trying to win her mother over, as if he still hoped to convince her that they were in the right place. ‘It will be months yet before the baby’s born, and maybe we’ll all be back in Elinor’s house by then. But right now, this is where I want to be.’

He kissed Resa on the forehead. Then he went away, over to the men standing on guard among the trees at the far end of the camp. And Resa dropped into the grass where she stood and buried her face in her hands. Meggie wanted to go to her and comfort her, but what could she say? I want to stay with Farid, Resa. I don’t want to find someone else. No, that would hardly be much comfort to her mother. And Mo didn’t come back either.

16

The Piper’s Offer

The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave it to him.

Graham Greene,

Advice to Writers

At last. Here they came. Trumpets rang out in a fanfare from the city gates, an arrogant metallic sound. Just like the man it announced, Fenoglio thought. The Milksop – the common people always found the most suitable names. He couldn’t have thought of a better one himself, but then he hadn’t invented this pallid upstart either! Not even the Adderhead had his arrival announced by long-stemmed trumpets, but his pigeon-chested brother-in-law had only to ride around the castle and they struck up.

Fenoglio drew Minerva’s children closer to his side. Despina didn’t mind at all, but her brother wriggled out of Fenoglio’s grasp and climbed up, nimble as a squirrel, to a ledge on the wall where he would have a view down the street along which they’d soon be coming. The Milksop and his retinue, also known to the townsfolk as his pack of hounds. Had the Adder’s brother-in-law already been told that almost all the women of Ombra were waiting for him at the castle gate? Yes, surely.

Why is the Piper counting our children? That was the question that had brought them here. They had already called it out to the guards, whose faces were unmoved and who had merely lowered their spears in the direction of the angry women. But the women hadn’t gone home, all the same.

It was Friday, the day when the hunt rode out, and the crowd had been waiting hours for the return of their new master, who had set about killing all the game in the Wayless Wood from the moment of his arrival. Once again his servants would be carrying dozens of bloodstained partridges, wild boar, deer and hares through the streets of starving Ombra, past women who hardly knew where to find food for the next day. That was why Fenoglio hardly ever went out of doors, and even less on Fridays than on any other day of the week, but curiosity had brought him here today. Curiosity – a tiresome feeling!

‘Fenoglio,’ Minerva had said, ‘can you look after Despina and Ivo? I have to go to the castle. We’re all going. We want to make them tell us why the Piper is counting our children.’

You know why, Fenoglio wanted to say. But the desperation on Minerva’s face silenced him. Let them hope their children weren’t wanted for the silver mines, he told himself. Leave it to the Milksop and the Piper to take their hope away.

Oh, how tired he was of all this! He’d tried his hand at writing again yesterday, roused to anger by the arrogant smile with which the Piper rode into Ombra. He had picked up one of the sharpened pens that the glass man still placed encouragingly in front of him, sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper, and after an hour of waiting in vain told Rosenquartz off for buying paper that anyone could see was made of old trousers.

Ah, Fenoglio, he wondered, how many more stupid excuses will you think up for the way you’ve turned into an old man with no power over words any more?

Yes, he admitted it. He wanted to be master of this story, strongly as he had denied it after Cosimo’s death. More and more often these days he set to work with pen and ink in search of the old magic – usually while the glass man was snoring in his fairy nest, because it was too embarrassing to have Rosenquartz as a witness of his failure. He tried it when Minerva had to give the children soup tasting little better than dishwater, when the horrible rainbow-coloured fairies jabbered away in their nest at the tops of their voices, keeping him awake, or when one of his creations – like the Piper yesterday – reminded him of the days when he had woven this world out of letters, intoxicated by his own skill with words.

But the paper stayed blank – as if all the words had stolen away to Orpheus, just because he took them and savoured them on his tongue. Had life ever tasted so bitter before?

In Fenoglio’s gloomy mood he had even played with the idea of going back to that village in the other world, such a peaceful, well-fed place, so wonderfully free of fairies and stirring events, back to his grandchildren, who must be missing his stories. (And what fabulous stories he’d be able to tell them now!) But where could the words be found that would take him back? Certainly not in his empty old head, and he could hardly ask Orpheus to write them for him. He hadn’t sunk as low as that yet.

Despina tugged at his sleeve. Cosimo had given him the tunic he was wearing, but it too was moth-eaten now, and as dusty as his brain that wouldn’t think. What was he doing here outside this damn castle? The sight of it depressed him. Why wasn’t he lying in bed?

‘Fenoglio? Is it true that when people dig silver out of the ground they spit blood on it?’ Despina’s voice still reminded him of a little bird’s. ‘Ivo says I’m just the right size for the tunnels where they find most of the silver.’

Damn the boy! Why did he tell his little sister such stories?

‘How often have I told you not to believe a word your brother says?’ Fenoglio tucked Despina’s thick black hair back behind her ears, and looked accusingly at Ivo. Poor fatherless little thing.

‘Why shouldn’t I tell her? She asked me!’ Ivo was at the age when you despise even comforting lies. ‘I don’t expect they’ll take you,’ he said, leaning down to his sister. ‘Girls die too quickly. But they’ll take me and Beppo and Lino, and even Mungus, although he limps. The Piper will take us all. And then they’ll bring us back dead just like our—’

Despina put her hand over his mouth quickly, as if her father might come back to life if only her brother didn’t speak the bad word. Fenoglio could happily have seized and shaken the boy, but Despina would only have burst into tears on the spot. Did all little sisters adore their brothers?

‘That’s enough! Stop upsetting your sister!’ he snapped at Ivo. ‘The Piper’s here to catch the Bluejay. Not for anything else. And to ask the Milksop why he isn’t sending more silver to the Castle of Night.’

‘Oh yes? Then why are they counting us?’ The boy had grown up in the last few weeks. As if grief had wiped away the childishness on his face. At the tender age of ten, Ivo was now the man of the family – even if Fenoglio sometimes tried to lift the burden of that responsibility off his thin shoulders. The boy worked with the dyers, helped to pull wet fabric through the stinking vats day in, day out, and brought the smell home with him in the evening. But he earned more with that work than Fenoglio did as a scribe in the marketplace.

‘They’re going to kill us all!’ he went on unmoved, his eyes fixed on the guards, who were still pointing their spears at the waiting women. ‘And they’ll tear the Bluejay to pieces, like they did last week with the strolling player who threw rotten vegetables at the governor. They fed the pieces to the hounds.’

‘Ivo!’ This was too much. Fenoglio tried to grab him by the ears, but the boy was too quick for him and ran away before he could get a hold. However, his sister stood there squeezing Fenoglio’s hand as tightly as if there were nothing else for her to cling to in this shattered world.

‘They won’t catch him, will they?’ Despina’s little voice was so timid that Fenoglio had to bend down to hear what she was saying. ‘The bear protects the Bluejay now as well as the Black Prince, doesn’t he?’

‘Of course!’ Fenoglio stroked her jet-black hair again. The sound of hoof beats was coming up the street, echoing among the houses, with voices chatting as casually as if they scorned the silence of the women waiting there, while the sun sank behind the surrounding hills and turned the roofs of Ombra red. The noble lords were late coming back from the pleasures of the hunt today, their silver-embroidered garments spattered with blood, their bored hearts comfortably aroused by killing. Death could indeed be a great entertainer – when it was someone else’s death.

The women crowded closer together. The guards drove them back from the gates, but they stayed outside the castle walls: old women, young women, mothers, daughters, grandmothers. Minerva was one of those in front. She had grown thin in the last few weeks. Fenoglio’s story, that man-eating monster, was eating her alive. But Minerva had smiled when she heard that the Bluejay had gone to see some books in the castle and ridden away unscathed.

‘He will save us!’ she had whispered. In the evenings she sang, low-voiced, the songs going around Ombra, and very bad songs they were. About the White Hand and the Black Hand of Justice, the Jay and the Prince … a bookbinder and a knife-thrower against the Piper and his army of fire-raising men-at-arms. But why not? After all, didn’t that sound like a good story?

Fenoglio picked Despina up as the soldiers escorting the hunting party rode by. Strolling players followed them down the street: pipers, drummers, jugglers, brownie-tamers, and of course Sootbird, who wasn’t going to miss any fun, even if – so they said – he felt ill at the sight of people being blinded and quartered. Then came the hounds, dappled like the light in the Wayless Wood, with the kennel-boys who made sure the dogs were hungry on the day of the hunt, and finally the hunters, led by the Milksop, a skinny figure on a horse much too large for him. He was as ugly as his sister was said to be beautiful, with a pointed nose that seemed too short for his face and a wide, pinched mouth. No one knew why the Adderhead had made him, of all men, lord of Ombra. Perhaps it had been at the request of his sister who, after all, had given the Silver Prince his first son. But Fenoglio suspected it was more likely that the Adderhead had chosen his puny brother-in-law because he could be sure the Milksop would never rise against him.

What a feeble character, thought Fenoglio scornfully as the Milksop rode by with a supercilious expression on his face. Obviously this story was now filling even leading roles with cheap supporting actors.

As expected, the fine ladies and gentlemen had brought back plenty of game: partridges dangling from the poles to which the grooms had tied them like fruit that had just fallen, half a dozen of the deer he had thought up especially for this world, with reddish-brown coats that were still as dappled as a fawn’s even in old age (not that these animals had been particularly old), hares, stags, wild boar …

The women of Ombra stared at the slaughtered game expressionlessly. Many put a telltale hand to their empty stomachs, or glanced at their ever-hungry children waiting in doorways for their mothers.

And then – then they carried the unicorn past.

Damn that Cheeseface!

There were no unicorns in Fenoglio’s world, but Orpheus had written one here just so that the Milksop could kill it. Fenoglio quickly put his hand over Despina’s eyes when they carried it by, its white coat pierced and bloodstained. Rosenquartz had told him not quite a week ago about the Milksop’s commission. The fee for it had been high, and all Ombra had wondered what distant country Four-Eyes had brought that fairy-tale creature from.

A unicorn! What stories could have been told about it! But the Milksop wasn’t paying for stories, quite apart from the fact that Orpheus couldn’t have written them. He did it with my words, thought Fenoglio. With my words! He felt fury clenched like a stone in his belly. If he only had the money to hire a couple of thieves to steal the book which supplied that parasite with words! His own book! Or if, at least, he could have written a few treasures for himself! But he couldn’t manage even that – he, Fenoglio, formerly court poet to Cosimo the Fair and creator of this once-magnificent world! Tears of self-pity came to his eyes, and he imagined them carrying Orpheus past, stabbed and bloodstained like the unicorn. Oh, yes!

‘Why are you counting our children? We want you to stop it!’

Minerva’s voice brought Fenoglio out of his vengeful daydreams. When she saw her mother step in front of the horses Despina wound her thin little arms so tightly around his neck that he could hardly breathe. Had Minerva lost her wits? Did she want her children to be not just fatherless but motherless too?

A woman riding just behind the Milksop pointed her gloved finger at Minerva with her bare feet and shabby dress. The guards moved towards her with their spears.

For heaven’s sake, Minerva! Fenoglio’s heart was in his mouth. Despina began crying, but it wasn’t her sobs that made Minerva stumble back. Unnoticed, the Piper had appeared on the battlements above the gateway.

‘You ask why we’re counting your children?’ he called down to the women.

As always, he was magnificently dressed. Even the Milksop looked like a mere valet by comparison. He stood on the battlements shimmering like a peacock with four crossbow-men beside him. Perhaps he had been up there for some time, watching to see how his master’s brother-in-law would deal with the women waiting for him. His hoarse voice carried a long way in the silence that suddenly fell on Ombra.

‘We count everything that’s ours!’ he cried. ‘Sheep, cows, chickens, women, children, men – not that you have many of those left – fields, barns, stables, houses. We count every tree in your forest. After all, the Adderhead likes to know what he’s ruling over.’

His silver nose still looked like a beak in the middle of his face. There were tales saying that the Adderhead had ordered a silver heart to be made for his herald too, but Fenoglio felt sure there was still a human heart beating in the Piper’s breast. Nothing was more cruel than a heart made of flesh and blood, because it knew what gives pain.

‘You don’t want them for the mines?’ The woman who spoke up this time did not step forward like Minerva, but hid among the others. The Piper did not answer at once. He examined his fingernails. The Piper was proud of his pink nails. They were as well manicured as a woman’s, just as Fenoglio had described them. In spite of everything, it was still exciting to see his characters acting exactly as he had imagined.

You soak them in rosewater every evening, you villain, thought Fenoglio, as Despina stared at the Piper like a bird staring at the cat that wants to eat it. And you wear them as long as the nails of the ladies who keep the Milksop company.

‘For the mines? What a delightful idea!’

It was so quiet now that the silver-nosed man didn’t even have to raise his voice. In the setting sun his shadow fell over the women, long and black. Very effective, Fenoglio thought. And how stupid the Milksop looked. The Piper was keeping him waiting outside his own gates like a servant. What a scene. But this one wasn’t his own invention …

‘Ah, I understand! You think that’s why the Adderhead sent me here!’ The Piper leant his hands on the wall and looked down from the battlements, like a beast of prey wondering whether the Milksop or one of the women would taste better. ‘No, no. I’m here to catch a bird, and you all know the colour of its feathers. Although, as I hear, he was black as a raven during his last impudent exploit. As soon as that bird is caught, I’ll be riding back to the other side of the forest. Isn’t that so, Governor?’

The Milksop looked up at him and adjusted his sword, still bloodstained from the hunt. ‘If you say so!’ he called in a voice that he could control only with difficulty. He glanced angrily at the women outside the gates, as if he’d never seen anything like them before.

‘I do say so.’ The Piper smiled condescendingly down on the Milksop. ‘But on the other hand,’ he said, and the pause before he continued seemed endless, ‘if this bird should escape capture once more …’ He paused again, for a long time, as if he wanted to inspect each of the waiting women thoroughly. ‘If any of those present here should go so far as to give him shelter and a roof over his head, warn him of our patrols, sing songs of how he pulls the wool over our eyes …’ The sigh he heaved came from the depths of his breast. ‘Well, in that case, no doubt I’d have to take your children with me in his place, for after all, I can’t go back to the Castle of Night empty-handed, can I?’

Oh, the confounded silver-nosed bastard.

Why didn’t you make him more stupid, Fenoglio? Because stupid villains are so boring, he answered himself, and was ashamed of it when he saw the despair on the women’s faces.

‘So you see, it’s entirely up to you!’ The strained voice still had something of the slushy sweetness for which Capricorn had loved it so much. ‘Help me to catch the bird that the Adderhead longs to hear singing in his castle, and you can keep your children. Otherwise …’ He wearily signed to the guards, and the Milksop, his face rigid with fury, rode towards the gates as they opened. ‘Otherwise, I am afraid I’ll have to remember that there is indeed always a need for small hands in our silver mines.’

The women were still staring at him with faces as empty of emotion as if there simply were no room in them for yet more despair.

‘What are you still standing there for?’ called the Piper as the servants carried the Milksop’s dead game through the gateway below. ‘Go away! Or I’ll have boiling water poured over you. Not a bad idea at all, since I’m sure you could all do with a bath.’

As if numbed, the women moved back, looking up at the battlements as though the cauldrons were already heating up.

The last time Fenoglio’s heart had raced like this was when the soldiers had appeared in Balbulus’s workshop to take Mortimer away with them. He examined the faces of the women, the beggars crouching beside the pillory outside the castle walls, the frightened children, and fear spread through him. All the rewards set on Mortimer’s head had not yet been able to buy the Silver Prince an informer in Ombra, but what now? What mother would not betray the Bluejay for her own child’s sake?

A beggar pushed his way through the crowd of women, and as he limped past Fenoglio recognized him as one of the Black Prince’s spies. Good, he thought. Mortimer will soon know about the deal the Piper has offered the women of Ombra. But then what?

The Milksop’s hunting party was moving on through the open castle gates, and the women set off for home, heads lowered, as if already ashamed of the act of betrayal the Piper had demanded of them.

‘Fenoglio?’ A woman stopped in front of him. He didn’t know who she was until she pushed back the scarf that she had tied over her pinned-up hair like a peasant woman.

‘Resa? What are you doing here?’ Fenoglio instinctively looked round in alarm, but Mortimer’s wife had obviously come without her husband.

‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere!’

Despina clung around Fenoglio’s neck and stared curiously at the strange woman. ‘That lady looks like Meggie,’ she whispered to him.

‘Yes, because she’s Meggie’s mother.’ Fenoglio put Despina down as Minerva came towards him. She was walking slowly, as if she felt dizzy, and Ivo ran to her and put his arm protectively around her.

‘Fenoglio!’ Resa took his arm. ‘I have to speak to you!’

What about? It couldn’t be anything good.

‘Minerva, you go ahead,’ he said. ‘It will be all right, wait and see,’ he added, but Minerva just looked at him as if he were one of her children. Then she took Despina’s hand and followed her son, who was running on ahead. She walked as unsteadily as if the Piper’s words were splinters of glass under her feet.

‘Tell me your husband is hidden deep, deep in the forest and not planning any more idiocy like that visit to Balbulus!’ Fenoglio whispered to Resa as he led her away with him into Bakers’ Alley. It still smelt of fresh bread and cake there, a tormenting aroma for most of the people of Ombra, who hadn’t been able to afford such delicacies for a long time.

Resa covered her hair with the scarf again, and looked round as if she were afraid the Piper had come down from the battlements and was following her, but only a thin cat slunk past. Once there had been a great many pigs in the streets too, but they had been eaten long ago, most of them up at the castle.

‘I need your help!’ Good God, how desperate she sounded! ‘You must write us home again. You owe us that! It’s your songs that have put Mo in danger, and it’s getting worse every day! You heard what the Piper said!’

‘Stop, stop, stop!’ He blamed himself often enough these days, but Fenoglio still didn’t like to be blamed by others. And this accusation really was surely unjust. ‘I never brought Mortimer here, Orpheus did. I really couldn’t foresee that my inspiration for the Bluejay would suddenly be walking around here in flesh and blood!’

‘But it happened!’ One of the night watchmen who lit the lanterns was coming down the street. Darkness fell fast in Ombra. Another banquet would soon be beginning in the castle, and Sootbird’s fire would stink to high heaven.

‘If you won’t do it for me,’ said Resa, doing her best to sound composed, but Fenoglio could see the tears in her eyes, ‘then do it for Meggie … and the brother or sister she’s soon going to have.’

Another child? Fenoglio instinctively glanced at Resa’s belly as if he could already see a new character in the story there. Was there no end to its complications?

‘Fenoglio, please!’

What was he to say in reply? Should he tell her about the sheet of paper still lying blank on his table – or even admit that he liked the way her husband played the part he had written for him, that the Bluejay was his sole comfort in these dark days, the only one of his ideas that worked really well? No, better not.

‘Did Mortimer send you?’

She avoided his eyes.

‘Resa, does he want to leave too?’ Leave this world of mine? he added in his thoughts. My world, still fabulous even if it’s in a certain amount of turmoil at the moment? For, yes, Fenoglio knew only too well that he himself still loved it, despite its darkness. Perhaps because of its darkness. No. No, that wasn’t why … or was it?

‘He must leave! Can’t you see that?’ The last of the daylight was fading from the streets. The buildings stood very close together, and it was cold, and as still as if all Ombra were thinking of the Piper’s threat. Shivering, Resa drew her cloak around her. ‘Your words … they’re changing him!’

‘Oh, come on. Words don’t change anyone!’ Fenoglio’s voice sounded louder than he had intended. ‘Maybe my words have taught your husband things about himself he never knew before, but they were there all the time, and if he likes them now you can hardly call it my fault! Ride back, tell him what the Piper offered, say he’d better avoid anything like that visit to Balbulus in the near future, and for God’s sake don’t worry. He’s playing his part very well! He plays it better than any of the other characters I made up, except maybe the Black Prince. Your husband is a hero in this world! What man wouldn’t wish for that?’

The way she was looking at him, as if he were an old fool who didn’t know what he was talking about! ‘You know very well how heroes end up,’ she said, carefully controlling her voice. ‘They don’t have wives or children, and they don’t grow old. Find yourself another man to play the hero in your story, but leave my husband out of it! You must write us all back! Tonight!’

He hardly knew where to look. Her gaze was so clear – just like her daughter’s. Meggie had always looked at him like that. A candle flared into life in the window above them. His world was sinking into darkness. Night was falling – close the curtains, tomorrow the story will go on …

‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. I’ll never be able to write again. It brings nothing but misfortune, and there’s enough of that here already.’

What a coward he was. Too cowardly for the truth. Why didn’t he tell her that the words had abandoned him, that she was asking the wrong man? But Resa seemed to know it anyway. He saw so many emotions mingled on her face: anger, disappointment, fear – and defiance. Like her daughter, thought Fenoglio again. So uncompromising, so strong. Women were different, no doubt about it. Men broke so much more quickly. Grief didn’t break women. Instead it wore them down, it hollowed them out, very slowly. That was what it was doing to Minerva …

‘Very well.’ Resa was in control of her voice, although it shook. ‘Then I’ll go to Orpheus. He can write unicorns into this world, he brought us all here. Why shouldn’t he be able to send us home again too?’

If you can pay him, thought Fenoglio, but he didn’t say it aloud. Orpheus would send her packing. He saved his words for the ladies and gentlemen in the castle who paid for his expensive clothes and his maids. No, she’d have to stay, and so would Mortimer and Meggie – and a good thing too, because who else was going to read his words, supposing they did obey him again some day. And who was to kill the Adderhead if not the Bluejay?

Yes, they had to stay. It was better that way.

‘Off you go to Orpheus, then,’ he said. ‘And I wish you luck with him.’ He turned his back to her, so that he wouldn’t have to see the despair in her eyes any longer. Did he detect a trace of contempt there too? ‘But you’d better not ride back in the dark,’ he added. ‘The roads are more dangerous every day.’

Then he left her. Minerva would be waiting with supper. He didn’t turn back. He knew only too well how Resa would be gazing after him. Exactly like her daughter …

17

The Wrong Fear

You wish for something you don’t really want, the dream says.

Bad dream. Punish him. Chase him from the house.

Tie him to the horses, let him run with them.

Hang him. He deserves it.

Feed him mushrooms. Poisonous ones.

Paavo Haavikko,

The Trees Breathe Gently

Mo had spent two whole days and nights with Battista and the Black Prince looking for a place where a hundred or more children could be hidden. With the bear’s help, they had finally found a cave. But it was a long way off. The mountainside where the cave lay concealed was steep and almost impassable, especially for children’s feet, and a pack of wolves roamed the ravine next to it, but there was some hope that neither the Milksop’s hounds nor the Piper would find them there. Not a great deal of hope, but for the first time in many days Mo’s heart felt a little lighter.

Hope. Nothing is more intoxicating. And hardly any hope was sweeter than the prospect of giving the Piper an unpleasant surprise and humiliating him in front of his immortal master.

They wouldn’t have to hide all the children, of course, but many, very many of them must be hidden. If all went according to plan, Ombra would soon be not just without men but almost entirely without children, and the Piper would have to go from one remote farm to another if he wanted to steal any, hoping the Black Prince’s men hadn’t been there ahead of him helping the women to hide their little ones.

Yes, much would be gained if they succeeded in getting the children of Ombra to safety, and Mo was almost in high spirits as they returned to the camp. But when Meggie came to meet him with anxiety on her face, that mood was gone at once. Obviously there was more bad news.

Meggie’s voice shook as she told him about the deal the Piper had offered the women of Ombra. The Bluejay in exchange for your children. The Black Prince didn’t have to tell Mo what that meant. Instead of helping to hide the children, he himself would have to hide from every woman who had a child of the right age.

‘You’d better take to living in the trees!’ hiccupped Gecko. He was drunk, presumably on the wine they had stolen only last week from a couple of the Milksop’s friends out hunting. ‘After all, you can fly up there. Don’t folk say that’s how you escaped from Balbulus’s workshop?’

Mo would happily have punched his drunken mouth, but Meggie reached for his hand, and the anger that sprang up in him so quickly these days ebbed away when he saw the fear on his daughter’s face.

‘What will you do now, Mo?’ she whispered.

What indeed? He didn’t know the answer. All he knew was that he would rather ride to the Castle of Night and surrender than hide. He quickly turned away so that Meggie wouldn’t read his thoughts on his face, but she knew him so well. Too well.

‘Perhaps Resa’s right after all!’ she whispered to him, while Gecko stared at them with bloodshot eyes, and even the Black Prince couldn’t conceal his anxiety. ‘Perhaps,’ she added, almost inaudibly, ‘we really ought to go back home to Elinor, Mo!’

She’d heard him and Resa quarrelling.

Involuntarily, he looked round for Resa, but he couldn’t see her anywhere.

What will you do now, Mo?

Yes, what indeed? How was the last song about the Bluejay to go? But they never caught the Jay, however hard they looked for him. He disappeared without trace, as if he had never been. However, he left the Book behind, the White Book that he had bound for the Adderhead, and with it the Adder’s immortal tyranny. No, that must not be the last song. No? What, then? But one day a mother, fearing for her children, gave the Bluejay away. And he died the worst of all deaths ever suffered by any man in the Castle of Night. Was that a better end to the story? Was there any better end at all?

‘Come along!’ Battista put an arm around his shoulders. ‘I suggest we get drunk to drown this news. If the others have left any of the Milksop’s wine, that is. Forget the Piper, forget the Adderhead, drown them all in good red wine.’

But Mo didn’t feel like drinking, even if the wine silenced the voice he kept hearing inside himself since his quarrel with Resa. I don’t want to go back, it said. No, not yet

Gecko staggered back to the fire and pushed in between Snapper and Elfbane. They’d soon start fighting again; they always did when they were drunk.

‘I’m going to get some sleep. That clears the head better than wine,’ said the Black Prince. ‘We’ll talk tomorrow.’

The bear lay down outside his master’s tent and looked at Mo.

Tomorrow.

What now, Mortimer?

It was getting colder every day. His breath was white vapour hanging in the air as he looked around for Resa again. Where was she? He’d picked her a flower with a shallow cup, pale blue, a species she hadn’t yet drawn. Fairyglass, people called it, because it collected so much morning dew in its soft petals that the fairies used it as a mirror.

‘Meggie, have you seen your mother?’ he asked.

But Meggie didn’t reply. Doria had brought her some of the wild boar that was roasting over the fire. It looked like a particularly good piece of meat. The boy whispered something to her. Was it his imagination, or had a rosy flush just risen to his daughter’s face? In any case, she hadn’t heard his question.

‘Meggie, do you know where Resa is?’ Mo repeated, taking great care not to smile when Doria cast him a quick and rather anxious glance. He was a good-looking lad, a little smaller than Farid, but stronger. Presumably he was wondering whether the songs about the Bluejay told the truth when they said he guarded his daughter like the apple of his eye. No, more like the finest of all books, thought Mo, and I sincerely hope you’re not going to give her as much grief as Farid, because if you do the Bluejay will feed you to the Prince’s bear without the slightest hesitation!

Luckily Meggie hadn’t read his thoughts this time. ‘Resa?’ She tasted the roast meat and thanked Doria with a smile. ‘She rode over to see Roxane.’

‘Roxane? But Roxane is here.’ Mo glanced at the tent used as an infirmary for the sick. One of the robbers was in there, curled up in pain – probably from eating poisonous fungi – and Roxane stood outside the tent talking to two women who were nursing him.

Meggie looked at her, bewildered. ‘But Resa said she’d arranged to meet Roxane.’

Mo pinned the flower that had been meant for her mother to Meggie’s dress. ‘How long has she been gone?’ He did his best to sound casual, but Meggie was not to be deceived. Not by him.

‘She set out around midday! If she’s not with Roxane, then where is she?’

She was looking at him in bewilderment. No, she really had no idea. He kept forgetting that she didn’t know Resa nearly as well as she knew him. A year was not a particularly long time to get acquainted with your own mother.

Have you forgotten our quarrel? he wanted to reply. She’s gone to see Fenoglio. But he bit back the words. Fear made his chest feel tight, and he’d only too gladly have believed it was fear for Resa. But he was as bad at lying to himself as to anyone else. He was not afraid for his wife, although he had reason to be. He feared that, somewhere in Ombra, the words were already being read aloud that would take him back to his old world, like a fish caught in a river and flung back into the pond it came from … Don’t be stupid, Mortimer, he thought angrily. Who is going to read the words, even if Fenoglio really did write them for Resa? Well, a voice inside him whispered, who do you think?

Orpheus.

Meggie was still looking at him in concern, while Doria stood beside her hesitantly, unable to take his eyes off her face.

Mo turned. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ he said.

‘Where are you going? Mo!’

Meggie hurried after him when she saw him go over to the horses, but he did not turn again.

Why in such a hurry, Mortimer? the voice inside him mocked. Do you think you can ride faster than Orpheus can speak the words with his oily tongue? Darkness was falling from the sky like a scarf, a dark scarf smothering everything, the colours, the birdsong … Resa. Where was she? Still in Ombra, or on her way back already? And suddenly he felt the other fear – as bad as the fear of those words. The fear of footpads and nocturnal spirits, the memory of women they had found dead in the bushes. Had she at least taken the Strong Man with her? Mo uttered a quiet curse. No, of course not. He was sitting there with Battista and Wayfarer by the fire, and he had already drunk so much that he was beginning to sing.

He ought to have known. Resa had been very quiet since their quarrel. Had he forgotten what that meant? He knew that silence of hers. But he had gone off with the Black Prince instead of talking to her again about what made her so silent – almost as silent as in the days when she had lost her voice.

‘Mo, what are you doing?’ Meggie’s voice sounded faint with fear. Doria had followed them. Meggie whispered something to him, and he set off towards the Prince’s tent.

‘Damn it, Meggie, what’s the idea of that?’ Mo tightened the horse’s girth. He wished his fingers weren’t shaking so much.

‘Where are you going to look for her? You can’t leave this camp! Have you forgotten the Piper?’

She clung to him. Then Doria came back with the Prince. Mo cursed and put the horse’s reins over its head.

‘What are you doing?’ The Black Prince stopped behind him, the bear at his side.

‘I have to go to Ombra.’

‘Ombra?’ The Prince gently moved Meggie aside and reached for the reins.

What was he to say to him? Prince, my wife wants Fenoglio to write words that will make me disappear before your eyes, words that will turn the Bluejay back to what he once was – nothing but an old man’s invention, vanishing as suddenly as he appeared?

‘This is suicide. You’re not immortal, whatever the songs say. This is real life. Don’t forget that.’

Real life. What’s that, Prince?

‘Resa has ridden to Ombra. She set out hours ago. She’s alone, and it’s night. I must go after her.’

and find out if the words have already been written. Written and read aloud.

‘But the Piper’s there. Are you going to make him a present of yourself? Let me send some men after her.’

‘Which men? They’re all drunk.’

Mo listened to the night air. He thought he could already hear the words that would send him back – words as powerful as those that had once protected him from the White Women. Above him the withering foliage rustled in the wind, and the drunken voices of the robbers by the fire came to him. The air smelt of resin, autumn leaves and the fragrant moss that grew in Fenoglio’s forest. Even in winter it was still covered with tiny white flowers that tasted like honey if you crushed them in your fingers. I don’t want to go back, Resa.

A wolf howled in the mountains. Meggie turned her head in alarm. She was afraid of wolves, like her mother. I hope she stayed in Ombra, thought Mo. Even if that means I have to pass the guards. Let’s go back, Mo. Please!

He swung himself up on the horse. Before he could stop her, Meggie was up there too, sitting behind him. As determined as her mother … she put her arms around him so firmly that he didn’t even try to persuade her to stay behind.

‘Do you see that, bear?’ asked the Prince. ‘Do you know what it means? It means there’ll soon be a new song – about the Bluejay’s sheer pig-headedness, and how the Black Prince sometimes has to protect him from himself.’

There were still two men sober enough to ride. Doria came too, getting up behind the Prince on his horse without a word. He wore a sword that was too large for him, but he could handle it well, and he was as fearless as Farid. They would be in Ombra before it was light, although the moon now stood high in the sky.

But words were so much faster than any horse.

18

A Dangerous Ally

All day long he was docile, intelligent, good

Though sometimes changing to a darker mood

He seemed hypocritical, could tell bitter lies,

In the dark he saw dots of colour behind closed eyes,

Clenched his fists, put his tongue out at his elder brother …

Arthur Rimbaud,

The Poet at Seven Years Old

When Resa arrived Farid had just taken Orpheus his second bottle of wine. Cheeseface was celebrating. He was drinking to himself and his genius, as he called it. ‘A unicorn! A perfect unicorn, snorting, pawing the ground with its hooves, ready to put its silly head in a virgin’s lap any time! Why do you think there weren’t any unicorns in this world, Oss? Because Fenoglio couldn’t write them! Fluttering fairies, hairy brownies, glass men, yes, but no unicorns.’

Farid would happily have tipped the wine over Orpheus’s white shirt to make it as red as the coat of the unicorn. The unicorn brought into this world by Orpheus only for the Milksop to kill it. Farid had seen it. He had been on the way to Orpheus’s tailor to get yet another pair of trousers that had become too tight for Cheeseface altered. When they carried the unicorn by, he had felt so sick at the sight of those dull eyes that he had to sit down in a doorway. Murderer. Farid had been listening when Orpheus read the words that had brought it to life, such beautiful words that he had stood as if rooted to the spot outside the study door. It came through the trees, white as wild jasmine flowers. And the fairies danced around it in dense swarms, as if they had been waiting, full of longing, for its arrival.

Orpheus’s voice had shown Farid the horn, the waving mane, had made him hear the unicorn snorting and scraping at the frozen grass with its hooves. For three whole days he had actually thought it might have been a good idea after all to bring Orpheus here. Three days, if he had counted them correctly – that was as long as the unicorn lived before the Milksop’s hounds chased it onto the huntsmen’s spears. Or was the tale Brianna told down in the kitchen the true version: that one of Sootbird’s lovers had lured it to them with her smile?

Oss opened the door to Resa. When Farid looked past him, wondering who was knocking at such a late hour, he thought at first that the pale face emerging from the darkness was Meggie’s. She looked so like her mother now.

‘Is Orpheus at home?’

Resa spoke in a low voice, as if ashamed of every word she said, and when she saw Farid behind the Chunk she lowered her head like a child caught in the act of doing something forbidden.

What did she want with Cheeseface?

‘Please tell him that Silvertongue’s wife has to speak to him.’

When Oss showed her into the entrance hall Resa gave Farid a fleeting smile, but she avoided looking directly at him. Without a word, the Chunk indicated that she was to wait there, and stomped up the stairs. Resa’s averted face told Farid that she wasn’t going to tell him the reason for her visit, so he followed Oss, hoping to hear more in Orpheus’s room.

Cheeseface was not alone when his bodyguard told him about his late-night visitor. There were three girls with Orpheus, none of them much older than Meggie, and they had been cooing at him for hours, telling him how clever, important and irresistible he was. The oldest was sitting on his plump knees, and Orpheus was kissing and fondling her so grossly that Farid would have liked to strike his fingers away. He was always being sent out to bring Orpheus the prettiest girls in Ombra. ‘What are you making such a fuss about?’ he had snapped, when Farid had at first refused to serve him in such a way. ‘They inspire me. Haven’t you ever heard of Muses? Off you go, or I’ll never find the words you want so much!’ So Farid obeyed him and took the girls who looked at him in the streets and the marketplace to Orpheus’s house. And many of them did look at Farid; after all, nearly all the older boys in Ombra were either dead or served Violante. Most of them would go anywhere Farid took them for a few coins. They all had hungry brothers and sisters and mothers who needed the money. Some just wanted to be able to buy a new dress again.

‘Silvertongue’s wife?’ You could tell from Orpheus’s voice that he had already put away a whole bottle of heavy red wine, but his eyes still looked surprisingly clear through his thick glasses. One of the girls touched the glasses with her finger, as cautiously as if she were afraid that doing so might turn her into glass herself on the spot.

‘Interesting. Bring her in. And you three, be off with you.’

Orpheus pushed the girl off his knees and smoothed his clothes down. Conceited bullfrog! Farid thought, pretending to have difficulty with the cork in the new wine bottle so that Orpheus wouldn’t send him out of the room.

When Oss showed Resa in, the three girls hurried past her as if their mothers had caught them on Orpheus’s lap.

‘Well, what a surprise! Do sit down!’ Orpheus waved to one of the chairs that had been specially made with his initials on them, and raised his eyebrows to express his surprise even further. He had rehearsed this little move, and that wasn’t the only one. Farid had often found Orpheus practising facial expressions in front of his mirror.

Oss closed the door, and Resa sat down hesitantly, as if not sure whether she really wanted to stay.

‘I hope you didn’t come alone!’ Orpheus sat down at his desk and observed his guest like a spider studying a fly. ‘Ombra isn’t the safest place by night, particularly not for a woman.’

‘I have to speak to you.’ Resa still kept her voice very low. ‘Alone,’ she added, with a sideways glance at Farid.

‘Farid!’ said Orpheus, without looking at him. ‘Get out. And take Jasper with you. He’s spattered himself with ink again. Wash him.’

Farid bit back the curse that was on the tip of his tongue, put the glass man on his shoulder and went to the door. Resa lowered her head as he passed her, and he saw that her fingers were shaking as she smoothed out her plain skirt. What was she doing here?

As usual, Oss tried to trip him up outside the door, but Farid was used to such practical jokes now. He had even found a way to get his revenge for them. A smile from him, and the maids in the kitchen would see to it that the Chunk’s next meal disagreed with him. Farid’s smile was so much more attractive than Oss’s.

All the same, he had to abandon any hope of listening at the door. Oss planted himself in front of it with a nasty smile. But Farid knew another place where the goings-on in Orpheus’s study could be overheard. The maids said the wife of the previous owner of the house had liked to spy on her husband from this vantage point.

Jasper glanced at Farid in alarm when, instead of taking him down to the kitchen, he made for the stairs to the next floor. However, Oss suspected nothing, since Farid often had to fetch Orpheus a clean shirt or polish his boots. Orpheus’s clothes had a room of their own, right beside his bedroom, and the spyhole was under the rails where his shirts hung. They smelt so strongly of roses and violets that Farid felt quite sick when he knelt down under them. One of the maids had shown him the hole in the floor when she had enticed him into the dressing room for a kiss. It was no bigger than a coin, but put your ear to it and you could hear every word spoken in the study downstairs, while if you looked through it with one eye you could see Orpheus’s desk.

‘Can I do it?’ Orpheus was laughing as if he had never heard a more absurd question. ‘There’s no doubt about that! But my words have their price, and they don’t come cheap.’

‘I know.’ Resa’s voice still faltered as if she hated every word she spoke. ‘I don’t have silver like the Milksop, but I can work for you.’

‘Work? Oh no, thank you very much, I’m not short of maidservants.’

‘Do you want my wedding ring? It must be worth something. Gold is rare in Ombra.’

‘No, keep it. I’m not short of gold and silver either. But there’s something else …’ Orpheus gave a little laugh. Farid knew that laugh. It boded no good.

‘It really is quite amazing how things sometimes turn out!’ Orpheus went on. ‘It certainly is. I might say you’re the very person I need.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Of course not. Forgive me. I’ll put it more clearly. Your husband – I don’t know just what name to give him, he has such a vast number of them, but however that may be,’ laughed Orpheus again as if he had made a joke that only he could appreciate, ‘your husband met the White Women not so long ago, and I confess I had something to do with that. It’s said he has felt their fingers on his heart already, but unfortunately he won’t talk to me about this remarkable experience.’

‘What does that have to do with my request?’

It struck Farid for the first time how like Meggie’s voice her mother’s was. The same pride, the same vulnerability carefully hidden behind it.

‘Well, I’m sure you remember that scarcely two months ago, on Mount Adder, I swore to bring a mutual friend of ours back from the dead.’

Farid’s heart began to beat so violently that he was afraid Orpheus might hear it.

‘I’m still determined to keep my promise, but unfortunately I’ve discovered that it’s as difficult to find out what game Death is playing in this world as in ours. No one knows anything, no one’s saying anything, and the White Women themselves – no doubt rightly called the daughters of Death – won’t appear to me, wherever I look for them. Obviously they don’t talk to any reasonably healthy mortal, even one with such extraordinary abilities as mine! I’m sure you’ve heard about the unicorn, haven’t you?’

‘Oh yes. In fact, I saw it.’ Did Orpheus hear the abhorrence in Resa’s voice? If so, even that probably made him feel flattered.

Farid felt Jasper nervously digging his glass fingers into his shoulder. He’d almost forgotten the glass man. Jasper was scared to death of Orpheus, even more scared than he was of his big brother. Farid put him down on the dusty floor and laid a warning finger on his lips.

‘It was immaculate,’ Orpheus went on in self-satisfied tones, ‘absolutely immaculate … well, anyway, to return to the daughters of Death. It’s said that they don’t take it kindly when someone slips through their fingers. They follow such mortals into their dreams, wake them from sleep by whispering to them, even appear to them when they’re awake. Has Mortimer been sleeping badly since he escaped the White Women?’

‘What’s the point of all these questions?’ Resa sounded annoyed – and afraid.

‘Is he sleeping badly?’ Orpheus repeated. ‘Yes.’ Her reply was barely audible.

‘Good! Very good! What am I saying? Excellent!’ Orpheus’s voice was so loud that Farid involuntarily took his ear away from the hole in the floor. He hastily pressed it in place again. ‘In that case, then perhaps what I heard only recently about those pale ladies is true – and we come to the matter of my fee!’

Orpheus sounded very excited, but this time it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the prospect of silver.

‘There’s a rumour – and rumours, as I am sure you know, often contain a kernel of truth in both this and any other world,’ said Orpheus, speaking in a velvety voice, as if to make it easy for Resa to swallow every word, ‘there’s a rumour that those whose hearts the White Women have touched,’ – here he inserted a little pause for effect – ‘can summon them at any time. No fire is needed, such as Dustfinger used, no fear of death, only a voice that’s familiar to them, a heartbeat known to their fingers … and they’ll appear! I expect by now you can guess what payment I want? In return for the words I write you, I want your husband to call the White Women for me. So that I can ask them about Dustfinger.’

Farid held his breath. It was as if he had heard the Devil in person bargaining. He didn’t know what to think or feel. Indignation, hope, fear, joy … he felt them all at once. But in the end one idea blotted out all the others: Orpheus wants to bring him back! He really is trying to bring Dustfinger back!

Down in the study there was such deathly silence that finally Farid put his eye, rather than his ear, to the spyhole. But all he could see was the careful parting in Orpheus’s pale fair hair. Jasper knelt beside him, looking anxious.

‘The best place for him to try it is probably a graveyard.’ Orpheus sounded as confident as if Resa had already agreed to the deal. ‘If the White Women really do show themselves, they’ll attract less attention there – and the strolling players could make up a very moving song about this latest Bluejay adventure.’

‘You’re abominable, just as abominable as Mo says!’ Resa’s voice was trembling.

‘Ah, does he indeed? Well, I take that as a compliment. And do you know what? I think he’ll be glad to summon them! As I was saying, a fine heroic song could be written about it all. A song praising his courage to the skies, celebrating the magic of his voice.’

‘Call them yourself if you want to talk to them.’

‘Sad to say, that’s what I can’t do. I thought I’d made that clear enough, so …’

Farid heard the door slam. Resa was going! He picked up Jasper, made his way out through Orpheus’s clothes, and ran downstairs. Oss was so surprised when he shot past that he even forgot to put out a leg to trip him. Resa was already in the hall. Brianna was just giving her her cloak.

‘Please!’ Farid barred Resa’s way to the door, ignoring both Brianna’s hostile glance and Jasper’s cry of alarm as he almost slipped off the boy’s shoulder. ‘Please! Perhaps Silvertongue really can summon them. Just get him to call them up, and then Orpheus can ask them how to get Dustfinger back! You want him to come back too, don’t you? He protected you from Capricorn. He stole into the dungeons of the Castle of Night for you. His fire saved you all when Basta was lying in wait for you on Mount Adder!’

Basta … on Mount Adder … for a moment the recollection silenced Farid as if Death had laid hands on him again. But then he went on, faltering, although Resa’s face remained as cold as ice. ‘Please! I mean, it’s not like when Silvertongue was wounded … and even then they couldn’t do him any harm! He is the Bluejay!’

Brianna was staring at Farid as if he had lost his mind. Like everyone else, she thought Dustfinger was gone for ever. Farid could have hit them all for thinking so!

‘It was wrong of me to come here.’ Resa tried to push him aside, but Farid thrust her hands away.

‘He only has to call them up!’ he shouted at her. ‘Ask him!’

But Resa pushed him out of her way again, so roughly this time that he stumbled against the wall and the glass man clung to his shirt. ‘If you tell Mo I was here,’ she said, ‘I’ll swear you were lying!’

She was already in the doorway when Orpheus’s voice halted her. No doubt he had been standing at the top of the stairs for some time, waiting to see what would come of the quarrel. Oss stood behind him with the stolid expression that he always wore when he didn’t understand what was going on.

‘Let her go. She very obviously doesn’t want to let anyone help her.’ Every word Orpheus spoke dripped contempt. ‘Your husband will die in this story. You know that, or you wouldn’t have come here. Maybe Fenoglio even wrote the right song about it himself before he ran out of words. “The Bluejay’s Death”, touching and very dramatic, heroic as befits such a character, but it certainly won’t end with and they lived happily ever after. Be that as it may – the Piper struck up the first verse of the real song today. And, clever as he is, he wove a noose out of maternal love to put around your high-minded robber’s neck. Is there any deadlier rope? Your husband will certainly walk straight into the trap in the most heroic way imaginable; he’s playing the part Fenoglio created for him so enthusiastically, and his death will be the subject of another very impressive song. But I hope that when his head’s on a spike above the castle gates you’ll remember I could have kept him alive.’

The voice in which Orpheus said this conjured up the picture he described so clearly that Farid thought he could see Silvertongue’s blood trickling down the castle walls while Resa stood in the doorway with her head bent, as if Orpheus’s words had broken her own neck.

For a moment Fenoglio’s whole story seemed to hold its breath again.

Then Resa raised her head and looked at Orpheus.

‘Curse you!’ she said. ‘I wish I could call up the White Women myself and get them to take you away, here and now.’

She went down the steps outside the door unsteadily, as if her knees were trembling, but she did not turn back again.

‘Close the door, it’s cold!’ ordered Orpheus, and Brianna obeyed. But Orpheus himself remained standing there at the top of the stairs, staring at the closed door.

Farid looked uncertainly up at him. ‘Do you really believe Silvertongue can summon the White Women?’

‘Ah, so you were eavesdropping. Good.’

Good? What did that mean?

Orpheus stroked back his pale hair. ‘I’m sure you know where Mortimer is hiding at the moment, don’t you?’

‘Of course not! No one—’

‘Spare me the lies!’ snapped Orpheus. ‘Go to him. Tell him why his wife came to see me, and ask if he’s prepared to pay the price I demand for my words. And if you want to see Dustfinger again, the answer you bring me back had better be yes. Understand?’

‘The Fire-Dancer’s dead!’ Nothing in Brianna’s voice showed that she was speaking of her father.

Orpheus gave a little laugh. ‘Well, so was Farid, my beauty, but the White Women were ready to do a deal. Why wouldn’t they do the same thing again? It just has to be made attractive to them, and I think I now know how. It’s like fishing. You only need the right bait.’

What kind of bait did he mean? What was more desirable to the White Women than the Fire-Dancer? Farid didn’t want to know the answer. All he wanted was to think that all might yet end well. That bringing Orpheus here had been right after all …

‘What are you standing around for?’ Orpheus shouted down at him. ‘Get moving! And you,’ he added to Brianna, ‘bring me something to eat. I think it’s time for a new Bluejay song. And this time I, Orpheus, will write it!’

Farid heard him humming to himself as he returned to his study.

19

Soldiers’ Hands

Does the walker choose the path or the path the walker?

Garth Nix,

Sabriel

Ombra seemed more than ever like a city of the dead as Resa went back to the stable where she had left her horse. In the silence among the buildings she kept hearing Orpheus saying the same words over and over again, as clearly as if he were walking behind her: But I hope that when his head’s on a spike above the castle gates you’ll remember I could have kept him alive. Her tears almost blinded her as she stumbled through the night. What was she to do? Oh, what was she to do? Go back? No. Never.

She stopped.

Where was she? Ombra was a labyrinth of stone, and the years when she had known her way around its narrow streets were long gone.

Her own footsteps echoed in her ears as she walked on. She was still wearing the boots she had on when Orpheus read Mo and her here. He had almost killed Mo once already. Had she forgotten that?

A hiss overhead made her jump. It was followed by a dull crackling, and above the castle the night turned as scarlet as if the sky had caught fire. Sootbird was entertaining the Milksop and his guests by feeding the flames with alchemical poisons and menace until they writhed, instead of dancing as they used to dance for Dustfinger.

Dustfinger. Yes, she wanted him to come back too, and her heart froze when she imagined him lying among the dead. But it froze even more when she thought of the White Women reaching their hands out to Mo for a second time. Yet wouldn’t they come for him anyway, if he stayed in this world? Your husband will die in this story

What was she to do?

The sky above her turned sulphurous green; Sootbird’s fire had many colours. The street down which she was walking, faster all the time, ended in a square she had never seen before. Dilapidated houses stood here. A dead cat lay in one doorway. At a loss, she went over to the well in the middle of the square – and spun around when she heard footsteps behind her. Three men moved out of the shadows among the buildings. Soldiers wearing the Adderhead’s colours.

Now what, she wondered? She had a knife with her, but what use was that against three swords? One of the men had a crossbow too. She had seen only too often what bolts from such a weapon could do. You should have worn men’s clothes, she told herself. Hasn’t Roxane told you often enough that no woman in Ombra goes out after dark, for fear of the Milksop’s men?

‘Well? I suppose your man’s as dead as all the rest, right?’

The soldier facing her was not much taller than she was, but the other two towered more than a head above her.

Resa looked up at the houses, but who was going to come to her aid? Fenoglio lived on the other side of Ombra, and Orpheus – well, even if he could hear her from here, would he and his gigantic servant help her after she’d refused to do a deal with him? Try it, Resa. Scream! Perhaps Farid at least will come and help you. But her voice failed her, as it had when she’d lost it in this world for the first time …

Only one window showed a light in the surrounding houses. An old woman put her head out, and hastily retreated when she saw the soldiers. Resa seemed to hear Mo saying, ‘Have you forgotten what this world is made of?’ So if it really consisted only of words, what would those words say about her? But there was a woman there who was lost twice in the Inkworld, and the second time she never found her way back again.

Two of the soldiers were now right behind her. One of them put his hands on her hips. Resa felt as if she had read about what was now happening already somewhere, sometime … stop trembling, she told herself. Hit him, claw at his eyes! Hadn’t Meggie told her how to defend herself if something like this ever happened?

The smallest of the three men came close to her, a dirty, expectant smile on his narrow lips. What did it feel like to get pleasure out of other people’s fear?

‘Leave me alone!’ At least her voice was obeying her again. But no doubt such voices were often heard in Ombra by night.

‘Why would we want to do that?’ The soldier behind her smelt of Sootbird’s fire. His hands reached out for her. The others laughed. Their laughter was almost the worst thing of all. Through the sound of it, however, Resa thought she heard something else. Footsteps – light, quick footsteps. Farid?

‘Take your hands off me!’ This time she shouted it as loud as she could, but it wasn’t her voice that made the men spin round.

‘Let her go. At once.’

Meggie’s voice sounded so grown-up that at first Resa didn’t realize it was her daughter’s. She walked out from among the houses holding herself very upright, just as she had walked into the arena that was the scene of Capricorn’s festivities.

The soldier holding Resa dropped his hands like a boy caught doing something wrong, but when he saw no one but a girl step out of the darkness he made a grab for his victim again.

‘Another one?’ The smaller man turned and sized Meggie up. ‘All the better. See that, you two? What did I tell you about Ombra? It’s a place full of women, so it is!’

Stupid words, and they were his last. The knife thrown by the Black Prince hit him in the back. Like shadows coming to life, the Prince and Mo emerged from the night. The soldier holding Resa pushed her away and drew his sword. He shouted a warning to the other man, but Mo killed them both so quickly that Resa felt she hadn’t even had time to draw breath. Her knees gave way, and she had to lean against the nearest wall. Meggie ran to her, asking anxiously if she was injured. But Mo just looked at her.

‘Well? Is Fenoglio writing again?’ That was all he said.

He knew why she had ridden here. Of course.

‘No!’ she whispered. ‘No, and he won’t write anything either. Nor will Orpheus.’

The way he was looking at her! As if he didn’t know whether he could believe what she said. He’d never looked at her like that before. Then he turned without a word, and helped the Prince to haul the dead men away into a side street.

‘We’re going back through the dyers’ stream!’ Meggie whispered to her. ‘Mo and the Prince have killed the guards there.’

So many men dead, Resa. Just because you want to go home. There was blood all over the paving stones, and when Mo dragged away the soldier who had been holding her, the man’s eyes still seemed to stare at her. Was she sorry for him? No. But it sent a shiver down her spine to hear her daughter, too, speak so casually of killing. And what did Mo feel about it? Did he feel anything any more? She saw him wiping the blood off his sword with one of the dead men’s cloaks, and looking her way. Why couldn’t she read his thoughts in his eyes now, as she used to?

Because it was the Bluejay she saw there. And this time she had summoned him herself.

The walk to the dye works seemed endless. Sootbird’s fire was still lighting up the sky, and they twice had to hide from a troop of drunken soldiers, but finally the acrid smell of the dyers’ vats rose to their nostrils. Resa covered her mouth and nose with her sleeve when they came to the stream that carried the effluent away to the river through a grating in the city wall, and as she followed Mo into the stinking liquid she felt so sick that she could hardly take a deep enough breath to plunge down under the grating herself.

As the Black Prince helped her to the bank she saw one of the dead guards lying among the bushes. The blood on his chest looked like ink in the starless night, and Resa began crying. She couldn’t stop, not even when they finally reached the river and washed the stinking water out of their hair and clothes as best they could.

Two robbers were waiting with horses further along the bank, at the place where the river-nymphs swam and the women of Ombra dried their washing on the flat rocks by the waterside. Doria was there too, without his brother the Strong Man. He put his shabby cloak around Meggie’s shoulders when he saw how wet she was. Mo helped Resa into the saddle, but still said not a word. His silence made her shiver more than her wet clothes, and it was the Black Prince and not Mo who brought her a blanket. Had Mo told the Prince what she had gone to do in Ombra? No, surely not. How could he have explained without telling him what power words had in this world?

Meggie knew why she had ridden to Ombra too. Resa saw it in her eyes. They were watchful – as if her daughter were wondering uneasily what she would do next. Suppose Meggie learnt that she’d even asked Orpheus for help? Would she understand that the only reason had been Resa’s fears for her father?

It was beginning to rain as they set off. The wind drove the icy raindrops into their faces, and above the castle the sky glowed dark red, as if Sootbird were sending a warning after them. Doria fell behind on the Prince’s orders, to obliterate their tracks, and Mo rode ahead in silence. When he looked round once his glance was for Meggie, not her, and Resa was thankful for the rain on her face that kept anyone from seeing her tears.

20

A Sleepless Night

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry,

The Peace of Wild Things

‘I’m sorry.’ Resa meant it.

I’m sorry. Two words. She whispered them again and again, but Mo sensed what she was really thinking behind her words: she was a captive again. Capricorn’s fortress, his village in the mountains, the dungeons, the Castle of Night … so many prisons. Now a book was keeping her prisoner, the same book that had imprisoned her once before. And when she’d tried to escape, he had brought her back.

‘I’m sorry too,’ he said. He said it as often as she did – and knew that she was waiting to hear very different words. Very well, let’s go back, Resa. We’ll find a way somehow! But he didn’t say it, and the unspoken words gave rise to a silence they had never known, even when Resa was mute.

At last they lay down to sleep, although the sky was growing lighter outside, exhausted by the fear they had both felt and by what they didn’t say to each other. Resa fell asleep quickly, and as he looked at her sleeping face he remembered all the years when he had longed to see her asleep beside him. But even that idea brought him no peace – and at last he left Resa alone with her dreams.

He stepped out into the waning night, passed the guards, who ribbed him about the stench of the dye works that still clung to his clothes, and walked through the narrow ravine where they had set up camp, as though, if he only strained his ears hard enough, the Inkworld would whisper to him and tell him what to do.

He knew, only too well, what he wanted to do …

Finally he sat down by one of the ponds that had once been a giant’s footprint, and watched the dragonflies whirring above the cloudy water. In this world they really did look like tiny winged dragons, and Mo loved sitting there, following their strange shapes with his eyes and imagining how huge the giant who had left such a footprint must have been. Only a few days ago he and Meggie had waded into one of the ponds to find out how deep the footprints were. The memory made him smile, although he was not in any smiling mood. He could still feel the shuddering sensation that killing left behind it. Did the Black Prince feel it too, even after all these years?

Morning came hesitantly, like ink mingling with milk, and Mo couldn’t say how long he had been sitting there, waiting for Fenoglio’s world to tell him what ought to be done next, when a familiar voice quietly spoke his name.

‘You shouldn’t be here on your own,’ said Meggie, sitting down beside him on the grass. It was white with frost. ‘It’s dangerous to be so far away from the guards.’

‘What about you? I ought to be a stricter father, and forbid you to take a step outside the camp without me.’

She gave him an understanding smile and wrapped her arms around her knees. ‘Nonsense. I always have a knife with me. Farid taught me how to use it.’ She looked so grown-up. He was a fool, still wanting to protect her.

‘Have you made it up with Resa?’

Her anxious expression made him feel awkward. Sometimes it had been so much easier to be alone with her.

‘Yes, of course.’ He put out a finger, and one of the dragonflies settled on it. It looked as if it were made of blue-green glass.

‘And?’ Meggie looked inquiringly at him. ‘She asked them both, didn’t she? Fenoglio and Orpheus.’

‘Yes. But she says she didn’t come to an agreement with either of them.’ The dragonfly arched its slender body. It was covered with tiny scales.

‘Of course not. What did she expect? Fenoglio isn’t writing any more, and Orpheus is expensive.’ Meggie frowned.

He stroked it with a smile. ‘Watch out, or those lines will stay, and it’s rather too early for that, don’t you think?’ How he loved her face. He loved it so much. And he wanted it to look happy. There was nothing in the world he wanted more.

‘Tell me one thing, Meggie. Be honest with me – perfectly honest.’ She was a far better liar than he was. ‘Do you want to go back too?’

She bent her head and tucked her smooth hair back behind her ears.

‘Meggie?’

She still didn’t look at him.

‘I don’t know,’ she said at last, quietly. ‘Maybe. It’s a strain, feeling afraid so often. Afraid for you and Resa, afraid for Farid, for the Black Prince and Battista, for the Strong Man …’ She raised her head and looked at him. ‘You know Fenoglio likes sad stories. Maybe that’s where all the unhappiness comes from. It’s just that sort of story …’

That sort of story, yes. But who was telling it? Not Fenoglio. Mo looked at the frost on his fingers. Cold and white. Like the White Women … sometimes he woke from sleep with a start because he thought he heard them whispering. Sometimes he still felt their cold fingers on his heart, and sometimes – yes – sometimes he almost wanted to see them again.

He looked up at the trees, away from all the whiteness below. The sun was breaking through the morning mist, and the last few leaves shone pale gold on branches that were now almost bare. ‘What about Farid? Isn’t he a reason to stay?’

Meggie lowered her head again. She was taking great care to sound casual. ‘Farid doesn’t mind whether I’m here or not. He thinks only of Dustfinger. It’s been even worse since he died.’

Poor Meggie. She’d fallen in love with the wrong boy. But when did love ever bother about that?

She tried very hard to hide her sadness when she looked at him again. ‘What do you think, Mo? Is Elinor missing us?’

‘You and your mother certainly. I’m not so sure about me.’ He imitated Elinor’s voice. ‘Mortimer! You’ve put that Dickens back in the wrong place. And why do I have to tell a bookbinder not to eat jam sandwiches in a library?’

Meggie laughed. Well, that was something. It was getting harder every day to make her laugh. But next moment her face was grave again. ‘I do miss Elinor very much. I miss her house, and the library, and the café by the lake where she always took me for an ice cream. I miss your workshop, and you driving me to school in the morning and imitating Elinor and Darius quarrelling, and my friends always wanting to come and visit us because you make them laugh. I’d love to tell them everything that’s happened to us, not that they’d believe a word of it. Although – perhaps I could take a glass man back with me as proof.’

For a moment she seemed to be far, far away, taken back to her old world, not by the words of Fenoglio or Orpheus, but by her own. But they were still sitting beside a pond in the hills around Ombra, and a fairy fluttered into Meggie’s hair and pulled so hard that she shrieked, and Mo was quick to shoo the little creature away. It was one of the rainbow-coloured fairies, Orpheus’s creations, and Mo thought he detected something of her maker’s malice in the tiny face. Giggling happily, she carried her pale blonde plunder up to her nest, which shimmered in as many colours as the fairy herself. Unlike the blue fairies, those made by Orpheus didn’t seem to grow drowsy as winter came on. The Strong Man even claimed that they stole from the blue fairies too as they slept in their nests.

A tear hung on Meggie’s lashes. Perhaps the fairy had caused it, or perhaps not. Mo gently wiped it away.

‘I see. So you do want to go back.’

‘No! I tell you, I don’t know!’ She was looking at him so unhappily. ‘What will become of Fenoglio if we simply disappear? And what would the Black Prince think, and the Strong Man, and Battista? What will become of them? And Minerva and her children, and Roxane … and Farid?’

‘Yes, what?’ said Mo. ‘How would the story go on without the Bluejay? The Piper will take the children, because even the desperate mothers won’t be able to find the Bluejay for him. Of course the Black Prince will try to save them – he’ll be the true hero of this story, and he’ll play the part well. But he’s already played the hero too long, he’s tired – and he doesn’t have enough men. So the men-at-arms will kill him and all his followers one by one: the Prince, Battista, the Strong Man and Doria, Gecko and Snapper – well, perhaps those two will be no great loss. Then the Piper will probably chase the Milksop out and rule Ombra himself for a while. Orpheus will read unicorns here for him, or a few war machines … yes, I’m sure the Piper would rather like those. Fenoglio will drown his sorrows in wine and drink himself to death. And the Adderhead will be immortal. Some day he’ll reign over a nation of the dead. I think the end of the story would go something like that, don’t you?’

Meggie looked at him. In the light of the new morning her hair looked like spun gold. Resa’s hair had been just the same colour when he had first seen her, in Elinor’s house.

‘Yes. Perhaps,’ said Meggie quietly. ‘But would the story really end so very differently if the Bluejay stayed? How could he give it a happy ending all by himself?’

‘Bluejay?’ A couple of toads jumped into the water in alarm as the Strong Man ploughed his way through the undergrowth.

Mo straightened up. ‘Maybe you’d better not call that name quite so loud in the forest,’ he said, lowering his own voice.

The Strong Man looked as horrified as if men-at-arms were already standing among the trees. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered. ‘My head doesn’t work well so early in the morning, and all that wine last night … it’s the boy. You know, the one who works for Orpheus, the one that Meggie—’ He stopped short at the sight of Meggie’s expression. ‘Oh, whatever I say sounds stupid!’ he groaned, pressing his hand to his round face. ‘Plain stupid! But that’s how the words come out of my mouth. I can’t help it!’

‘Farid. His name is Farid. Where is he?’ Meggie’s face lit up, although she was making a great effort to look indifferent.

‘Farid, of course. Funny sort of name. Like something out of a song, eh? He’s in the camp. But he wants to speak to your father.’

Meggie’s smile was extinguished as quickly as it had come to her lips. Mo put his arm around her shoulder, but a father’s hug was no use to a lovesick girl. Damn the boy.

‘He’s all worked up. He must have ridden here so fast his donkey can hardly stand. He woke the whole camp, asking: “Where’s the Bluejay? I have to speak to him!” No one could get anything else out of him!’

‘The Bluejay!’ Mo had never heard Meggie sound so bitter before. ‘I’ve told him a thousand times already not to call you that. How can he be so stupid?’

The wrong boy. But what did the heart care about that?

21

Sharp Words

Oh, please! he felt his heart say to him. Oh, please, let me leave!

John Irving,

The Cider House Rules

‘Darius!’ Elinor couldn’t bear the sound of her own voice any more. It was horrible – grouchy, irritable, impatient. She hadn’t sounded like that in the old days, had she?

Darius almost dropped the books he was bringing in, and the dog raised his head from the rug she had bought to keep him from ruining her wonderful wooden floor with his slimy slobber. Quite apart from the fact that you were always slipping on it.

‘Where’s the Dickens we bought last week? For goodness’ sake, how long does it take you to put a book back in its proper place? Am I paying you to sit in my armchair reading? That’s what you do when I’m not here, admit it!’

Oh, Elinor. How she hated the words coming out of her mouth, and yet there was no keeping them back: bitter and venomous, spat out by her unhappy heart.

Darius bowed his head, as he always did when he was trying not to show her how hurt he was. ‘It’s where it belongs, Elinor,’ he said in his gentle voice, which only infuriated her more than ever. She’d been able to have magnificent quarrels with Mortimer, and Meggie had been a real little fighter. But Darius! Even Resa, mute as she was, used to stand up to Elinor better.

Owl-faced coward. Why didn’t he call her names? Why didn’t he throw the books at her feet instead of clutching them so lovingly to his scrawny chest, as if he had to protect them from her?

‘Where it belongs?’ she repeated. ‘Do you think I can’t even read these days?’

How anxiously the stupid dog was looking at her. Then he let his massive head sink to the rug again with a grunt.

Darius put the stack of books he was carrying down on the nearest glass case, went up to the shelf where Dickens made himself at home, taking up a lot of space in between Defoe and Dumas (the man had written just too many books, that was his trouble), went straight to the volume she wanted and took it out. Without a word, he gave it to Elinor. Then he set about sorting the books he had brought into the library.

She felt so stupid, and Elinor hated to feel stupid. It was almost worse than feeling sad.

‘It’s dirty!’

Stop it, Elinor, she told herself. But she couldn’t. The words simply came out of her mouth. ‘When did you last dust the books? Do I have to do that for myself too?’

Darius kept his thin back turned to her. He took the words without flinching, like an undeserved beating.

‘What’s the matter? Has your stuttering tongue finally given up? Sometimes I wonder whether you have a tongue at all! Mortola ought to have taken you with her instead of Resa – even when she was mute, Resa was more talkative than you.’

Darius put the last book on the shelf, straightened another, and marched towards the door, holding himself very straight.

‘Darius! Come back!’

He didn’t even turn.

Damn. Elinor hurried after him, holding the Dickens which, she had to admit, really wasn’t so very dusty. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t dusty in the least. Of course it’s not, Elinor! she told herself. As if you didn’t know how devotedly Darius removes the tiniest speck of dust from the books every Tuesday and Friday. Her cleaning lady always laughed at the fine brush he used for the purpose.

‘Darius! For heaven’s sake, don’t make such a big deal of it!’

No reply.

The dog overtook her on the stairs, and looked down at her from the top step with his tongue hanging out.

‘Darius!’

By that stupid dog’s slobber – where was he?

His room was right next to the one Mortimer had used as an office. The door was open, and so was his suitcase, lying on the bed. It was the case she had bought him for their first trip together. Buying books with Darius had always been a pleasure (and she had to admit that he’d kept her from making many silly mistakes).

‘What …?’ How heavy her sharp tongue suddenly felt. ‘What the devil are you doing?’

Well, what did she think? Very obviously, he was packing the few clothes he possessed.

‘Darius!’

He put the drawing of Meggie that Resa had given him on to the bed, with the notebook Mortimer had bound for him, and the bookmark that Meggie had made him from a bluejay’s feathers.

‘The dressing gown,’ he said hesitantly, as he put the photograph of his parents in the case, the one that always stood by his bed. ‘Do you mind if I take it with me?’

‘Don’t ask such silly questions! Of course not! It was a present, for heaven’s sake. But where are you going?’

Cerberus trotted into the room and went to the bedside cupboard. Darius always kept a few biscuits in the drawer.

‘I don’t know yet …’

He folded the dressing gown just as carefully as his other clothes (it was much too large for him, but how would she have known his size?), put the drawing, the notebook and the bookmark in the case and closed it. Of course, he couldn’t manage to close the catches. He was so clumsy sometimes!

‘Unpack that again! At once! This is silly.’

But Darius shook his head.

‘Heavens above, you can’t go as well and leave me all alone!’ Elinor herself was frightened by the despair in her voice.

‘You’re alone even when I’m here, Elinor,’ said Darius, in a strained voice. ‘You’re so unhappy! I can’t stand it any more!’

The stupid dog gave up snuffling around the bedside table and stood in front of her, looking sad. He’s right, said his watering doggy eyes.

As if she didn’t know! She couldn’t stand herself any more either. Had she been like this long ago? Before Meggie, Mortimer and Resa came to live with her? Maybe. But then there’d only been the books around, and they weren’t complaining. Although, to be honest, she’d never been as hard on the books as she was on Darius.

‘All right, you go, then!’ Her voice began shaking in the most ridiculous way. ‘Leave me alone. You’re right. Why would you want to watch me getting more insufferable every day, always waiting for some miracle to bring them back? Perhaps I ought to shoot myself or drown myself in the lake, instead of perishing slowly in this miserable way. Writers sometimes do that, and it sounds good in stories.’

Oh, the way he was looking at her with his long-sighted eyes! (She really ought to have bought him new glasses long ago. His present pair looked just too silly.) Then he opened the case again and stared at his possessions. He took out Meggie’s bookmark and stroked the boldly-patterned blue feathers. Bluejay feathers. Meggie had glued them to a strip of pale yellow card. It looked very pretty.

Darius cleared his throat. He cleared it three times.

‘Oh, very well!’ he said at last, in a voice that he carefully kept level. ‘You win, Elinor. I’ll try it. Fetch me that sheet of paper. Or you probably will go and shoot yourself someday.’

What? What was he saying? Elinor’s heart began to race, as if hurrying on ahead of her into the Inkworld to see the fairies, the glass men, and the people she loved so much more than she loved any book.

‘You mean …?’

Darius nodded, resigned, like a warrior who has fought too many battles. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, Elinor.’

‘I’ll get it!’ Elinor turned on her heel. Everything that had made her heart so heavy these last few weeks, turning her limbs to an old woman’s – it was all gone! Vanished without trace.

But Darius called her back. ‘Elinor! We ought to take some of Meggie’s notebooks too – and some practical things, like … like a lighter, for instance.’

‘And a knife!’ Elinor added. After all, Basta was where they were going, and she had sworn that when next she met him she’d have a knife in her own hand.

She almost fell down the stairs, she was in such a hurry to get back to the library. Cerberus bounded after her, panting with excitement. Did he guess, in some corner of his doggy heart, that they were following his old master to the place where he’d gone when he had disappeared?

He’s going to try it! He’s going to try it! Elinor couldn’t think of anything else. She didn’t think of Resa’s lost voice, Cockerell’s stiff leg or Flatnose’s mutilated face. Everything’s going to be all right, that was all she thought as, with trembling fingers, she took the words that Orpheus had written out of the glass case. This time there won’t be any Capricorn to frighten Darius. This time he’ll read beautifully. Oh, dear God, Elinor, you’re going to see them again!

22

Taking the Bait

If Jim had been able to read he might now have noticed a remarkable circumstance … but the fact was that Jim couldn’t read.

Michael Ende,

Jim Knopf and the Wild 13

A dwarf about twice the size of a glass man. Definitely not furry like Tullio – no, the dwarf was to have skin as white as alabaster, a head too big for it, and bandy legs. At least the Milksop always knew just what he wanted, even if his orders had come noticeably less often since the Piper arrived in the city. Orpheus was just wondering whether to give the dwarf red hair or the white hair of an albino when Oss knocked, and at his master’s grunt of ‘Enter’ put his head around the door. Oss had revolting table manners, and was not much given to washing himself, but he never forgot to knock.

‘There’s another letter for you, my lord!’

Ah, how good it made him feel being called that! My lord

Oss came in, bowed his bald head (he sometimes overdid the servility) and handed Orpheus a sealed piece of paper. Paper? That was strange. The fine gentlemen usually sent their orders written on parchment, and the seal didn’t look familiar either. Well, never mind that. This would be the third order today; business was good. The Piper’s arrival had made no difference to that. This world could have been made for him! Hadn’t he always known it, ever since he first opened Fenoglio’s book with his sweaty schoolboy fingers? His accomplished lies didn’t get him jailed as a forger or con man here; they valued his talents at their true worth in this world – and all Ombra bowed to him when he crossed the marketplace in his fine clothes. Fabulous.

‘Who’s the letter from?’

Oss shrugged his ridiculously broad shoulders. ‘Dunno, my lord. Farid gave it to me.’

‘Farid?’ Orpheus sat up straight. ‘Why didn’t you say so at once?’ He quickly snatched the letter from Oss’s clumsy fingers.

Orpheus – of course he didn’t begin ‘Dear Orpheus’. Even in the salutation of a letter the Bluejay told no lies! – Farid has told me what you want in return for the words my wife has asked you for. I agree.

Orpheus read the words three times, four, five times, and yes, there it was in black and white.

I agree.

The bookbinder had taken the bait! Could it really be that easy?

Yes, why not? Heroes are fools. Hadn’t he always said so? The Bluejay had fallen into the trap, and all he had to do was snap it shut. With a pen, some ink … and his tongue.

‘Go away! I want to be alone!’ he snarled at Oss, who was standing there looking bored and throwing nuts at the two glass men. ‘And take Jasper with you!’ Orpheus liked talking to himself out loud when he was writing his ideas down, so the glass man had better be out of the room. Jasper sat on Farid’s shoulder far too often, and on no account must the boy learn what Orpheus was planning to write now. It was true that the stupid boy wanted Dustfinger back even more fervently than he did, but Orpheus wasn’t so sure that he would sacrifice his girlfriend’s father in return. No, by now Farid worshipped the Bluejay as much as everyone else here did.

Ironstone gave his brother a gleefully malicious glance as Oss picked Jasper up from the desk with fleshy fingers.

‘Parchment!’ Orpheus ordered, as soon as the door had closed behind the two of them, and Ironstone busily spread the best sheet they had on the desk.

Orpheus, however, went to the window and looked out at the hills from which, presumably, the Bluejay’s letter had come. Silvertongue, Bluejay … fine names they’d given him, and yes, Mortimer was certainly very much braver and more noble than Orpheus himself was, but such a paragon couldn’t compete with him in cunning. The good are stupid.

You have his wife to thank for this, Orpheus, he told himself as he began pacing up and down (nothing helped him to think better). If his wife wasn’t so afraid of losing him, you might never have found the bait you need!

Oh, it would be fantastic! His greatest triumph! Unicorns, dwarves, rainbow-coloured fairies … not bad at all, but as nothing compared to what he’d do now! He would bring the Fire-Dancer back from the dead. Orpheus. Had the name he had taken ever suited him better? But he would be wilier than the singer whose name he had stolen. He would indeed. He would send another man into the realm of Death in the Fire-Dancer’s place – and he’d make sure that he didn’t come back.

‘Do you hear me, Dustfinger, in the cold land where you are now?’ whispered Orpheus, while Ironstone busily stirred the ink. ‘I’ve caught the bait to buy your freedom, the most wonderful bait of all, decked out with the finest pale-blue feathers!’

He began humming, as he always did when he was pleased with himself, and picked up Mortimer’s letter again. What else had the Bluejay written?

It will be as you require. By the Devil’s cloven hoof, he was writing in the style of public proclamations, like the robbers of the old days. I will try to call up the White Women, and in return you will write words to take my wife and daughter back to Elinor’s house. But all you are to say about me is that I will follow them later.

Well, well. What was this?

Surprised, Orpheus lowered the sheet of paper. Mortimer wanted to stay? Why? Because his noble and heroic heart wouldn’t let him steal away now that the Piper had made his threat? Or did he just like playing the part of a robber too much?

‘Well, never mind which, noble Bluejay,’ said Orpheus softly (oh, how he liked the sound of his own voice!). ‘It won’t turn out the way you think it will. Because I have plans of my own for you!’

High-minded idiot! Hadn’t Mortimer ever read any tale of robbers right through? No happy ending for Robin Hood, for Angelo Duca, for Dick Turpin and all the rest of them. Why would there be a happy ending for the Bluejay? No, he was going to play just one part: the bait on the hook, a tasty bait – and one condemned to certain death.

And I will write the last song about him! thought Orpheus as he strode up and down with a spring in his step, as if he already felt the right words inside him all the way down to his toes. Good people, hear the amazing tale of the Bluejay who brought the Fire-Dancer back from the dead but then, sad to say, lost his own life. Heart-rending. Like Robin Hood’s death at the hands of the treacherous nun, or Angelo Duca’s end on the gallows beside his dead friend, with the hangman riding him to death on his shoulders. Yes, every hero needs a death like that. Even Fenoglio wouldn’t write it in any other way.

Ah, but he hadn’t finished reading the letter yet! What else did that most noble of robbers have to say? Hang a piece of blue cloth in the window when you have written the words. (How romantic! A real robber’s idea. He really did seem to be turning more and more into the character made by Fenoglio in his image!) I will meet you at the graveyard of the strolling players on the following night. Farid knows where it is. Come alone, bringing one servant at the most. I know you are on friendly terms with the new governor, and I will not show myself until I am certain that none of his men is with you. Mortimer. (Well, well, so he actually still signed his old name. Who did he think he was fooling?)

Come alone? Oh yes, I’ll come alone, thought Orpheus. And you won’t be able to see the words I’ve sent on ahead of you!

He rolled up the letter and slid it under his desk.

‘Everything ready, Ironstone? A dozen sharpened pens, ink stirred slowly while you take sixty-five breaths, a sheet of the best parchment?’

‘A dozen pens. Sixty-five breaths. The very best parchment.’

‘What about this list of words?’ Orpheus looked at his bitten fingernails. He had recently taken to bathing them in rosewater every morning, but unfortunately that just made them tastier. ‘Your useless brother left his footprints all over the words beginning with B.’

The list. The list of all the words used by Fenoglio in Inkheart, arranged in alphabetical order. He had only recently told Jasper to prepare it – his brother had terrible handwriting. But unfortunately the glass man had only just reached the letter D, so Orpheus still had to look everything up in Fenoglio’s book if he wanted to be sure that any words he used were in Inkheart too. It was a nuisance, but it had to be done, and so far his method had proved its merits.

‘All ready!’ Ironstone nodded eagerly.

Good! The words were already coming. Orpheus sensed them like a tingling of his scalp. As soon as he picked up the pen he could hardly dip it in the ink fast enough. Dustfinger … the tears still came to his eyes when he remembered seeing him lying dead in the mine. Certainly one of the worst moments of his life.

And how the promise he’d given Roxane had come to haunt him, even if she had never believed a word of it! He had given it with the dead man at his feet, ‘I’ll find words as precious and intoxicating as the scent of a lily, words to beguile Death and open the cold fingers he has closed around Dustfinger’s warm heart!’ He had been looking for those words ever since he arrived in this world – even if Farid and Fenoglio thought he did nothing but write unicorns and rainbow-coloured fairies into it. But after his first failed attempts he had accepted the bitter fact that beauty of sound alone was not enough in this case. Words like lilies would never bring Dustfinger back. Death demanded a more substantial price – a price paid in flesh and blood.

Incredible that he hadn’t hit upon the idea of Mortimer before – the man who had made Death a laughing stock to the living when he had bound an empty book to make the Adderhead immortal!

So away with him! This world needed only one silver tongue, and it was his. Once he had fed Mortimer to Death, and Fenoglio’s brain was wrecked by the drink, only he would go on telling this story, on and on – with a suitable part in it for Dustfinger and a not inconsiderable part for himself.

‘Yes, call up the White Women for me, Mortimer!’ whispered Orpheus as he filled the parchment with word after word in his elegant script. ‘You’ll never know what I’ve whispered into their pale ears first! “Look what I’ve brought you! The Bluejay. Take him to your cold lord with greetings from Orpheus, and give me the fire-eater in exchange.” Ah, Orpheus, Orpheus, they can say many things about you, but they can never call you stupid.’

He dipped his pen in the ink with a soft laugh – and spun round when the door opened behind him. Farid came in. Damn it, where was Oss? ‘What do you want?’ he snapped at the boy. ‘How often do I have to tell you to knock before coming in? Next time I’ll throw the inkwell at your stupid head. Bring me wine! The best we have.’

How the lad looked at him as he closed the door. He hates me, thought Orpheus.

He liked that idea. In his experience only the powerful were hated, and that was what he meant to be in this world.

Powerful.

23

The Graveyard of the Strolling Players

He sits down on a hill and sings. They are songs of magic, strong enough to wake the dead to life. Softly, cautiously, his song rises, then it grows louder and more insistent, until the turf opens up and the cold earth cracks.

Tor Age Bringsværd,

The Wild Gods

The strolling players’ graveyard lay above a deserted village. Carandrella. It had kept its name, although the inhabitants had left long ago. Why and where they went no one knew now – an epidemic, some said, while others spoke of famine, and others again of two warring clans who had slaughtered one another and driven any survivors out. Whichever story was true, it wasn’t in Fenoglio’s book, and nor was this graveyard where the peasants had buried their dead among the Motley Folk, so that now they slept side by side for ever.

A narrow, stony path wound its way from the abandoned cottages up the furze-grown slope, and ended on a rocky headland. Standing there you could look far south over the tree-tops of the Wayless Wood towards Argenta, where the sea lay somewhere beyond the hills. The dead of Carandrella, they said in Lombrica, have the best view in the country.

A crumbling wall surrounded the graves. The gravestones were of the pale stone that was also used to build houses here. Stones for the living, stones for the dead. Names were incised on some of them, scratched clumsily as if whoever wrote them had learned the letters only to preserve the sound of a beloved name, rescuing it from the silence of death.

Meggie felt as if the stones were whispering those names to her as she walked past the graves – Farina, Rosa, Lucio, Renzo. Those stones that bore no names seemed like closed mouths, sad mouths that had forgotten how to speak. But perhaps the dead didn’t mind what their names had once been?

Mo was still talking to Orpheus. The Strong Man was sizing up his bodyguard Oss as if wondering which of them had the broader chest.

Mo. Don’t do it! Please.

Meggie looked at her mother, and abruptly turned her face away when Resa returned her glance. She was so angry with her. It was all because of Resa’s tears, and because she had ridden off to see Orpheus, that Mo was here now.

The Black Prince had come with them as well as the Strong Man – and Doria, although his brother had told him to stay behind. Like Meggie, he was standing among the graves, looking around him at the things lying in front of the gravestones: faded flowers, a wooden toy, a shoe, a whistle. A fresh flower lay on one grave. Doria picked it up. The flower was white, like the beings they were waiting for. When he saw Meggie looking at him he came over to her. He really wasn’t at all like his brother. The Strong Man wore his brown hair short, but Doria’s was wavy and shoulder-length. Sometimes Meggie felt as if he had come out of one of the old fairy-tale books that Mo gave her when she had just learnt to read. The pictures in the books had been yellow with age, but Meggie used to look at them for hours, firmly convinced that the fairies who featured in some of the tales had painted them with their tiny hands.

‘Can you read the letters on the stones?’ Doria was still holding the white flower as he stopped in front of her. Two fingers of his left hand were stiff. His father had broken them long ago in a drunken rage when Doria tried to protect his sister from him. At least, that was how the Strong Man told the story.

‘Yes, of course.’ Meggie looked her father’s way again. Fenoglio had sent him a message, delivered by Battista. You can’t trust Orpheus, Mortimer! All useless.

Don’t do it, Mo. Please!

‘I’m looking for a name.’ Doria sounded shyer than usual. ‘But I can’t … I can’t read. It’s my sister’s name.’

‘What was she called?’

If the Strong Man was right, Doria had been fifteen on the very day when the Milksop was going to hang him. Meggie thought he looked older. ‘Ah, well,’ the Strong Man had said. ‘Could be he’s older. My mother’s not that good at counting. She can’t even remember my birthday.’

‘Her name was Susa.’ Doria looked at the graves as if the name alone could conjure up his sister. ‘My brother says she’s supposed to be buried here, only he can’t remember just where.’

They found the gravestone. It was overgrown with ivy, but the name was still clearly legible. Doria bent down and moved the ivy leaves aside. ‘She had hair as bright as yours,’ he said. ‘Lazaro says my mother turned her out because she wanted to go and live with the strolling players. He never forgave her for that.’

‘Lazaro?’

‘My brother. You call him the Strong Man.’ Doria traced the letters with his finger. They looked as if someone had scratched them into the stone with a knife. The first S was overgrown with moss.

Mo was still talking to Orpheus. Orpheus handed him a sheet of paper: the words he had written at Resa’s request. Was Mo going to read them this very night, if the White Women really did appear? Would they all be back in Elinor’s house before it was day? Meggie didn’t know whether the idea made her feel sad or relieved. She didn’t want to think about it, either. All she wanted was for Mo to get on his horse and ride away again, and for her mother’s tears never to have brought him here.

Farid was standing a little way off with Jink on his shoulder. At the sight of him, Meggie’s heart felt the same chill as when she looked at Resa. Farid had taken Orpheus’s demand to Mo knowing what danger it could mean for her father, knowing too that if the deal went through they might never see each other again. But all that meant nothing to Farid. He cared for only one person, and that was Dustfinger.

‘They say you come from far away, you and the Bluejay.’ Doria had drawn the knife from his belt and was scratching the moss away from his sister’s name. ‘Is it different there?’

What could she say to that? ‘Yes,’ she murmured at last. ‘Very different.’

‘Really? Farid says there are coaches that can drive without horses, and music that comes out of a tiny black box.’

Meggie couldn’t help smiling. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she said quietly.

Doria placed the white flower on his sister’s grave and stood up. ‘Is it true that there are flying machines in that country too?’ How curious he was! ‘I once tried making myself wings. I even flew a little way with them, but not very far.’

‘Yes, there are flying machines there as well,’ replied Meggie distractedly. ‘Resa can draw them for you.’

Mo folded the sheet of paper that Orpheus had given him. Her mother went over to him and began talking to him urgently. Why bother? He wouldn’t listen to her. ‘There’s no other way, Meggie,’ was all he had said, when she herself had begged him not to agree to the offer made by Orpheus. ‘Your mother is right. It’s time to go back. This is getting more dangerous every day.’ And what could she say to that? The robbers had moved camp three times over the last few days because of the Piper’s patrols, and they had heard that women were going to Ombra Castle all the time, claiming to have seen the Bluejay, in the hope of saving their children.

Oh, Mo.

‘He’ll come to no harm,’ said Doria behind her. ‘You wait and see, even the White Women love his voice.’

Nonsense. Nothing but poetic nonsense!

When Meggie went over to Mo her boots left traces in the hoarfrost as if a ghost had been walking over the graveyard. Mo’s face was so serious. Was he afraid? Well, what do you think, Meggie? she asked herself. He wants to call the White Women. They’re made of nothing but longing, Meggie.

Farid looked awkwardly away as she passed him.

‘Please! You don’t have to do it!’ Resa’s voice sounded far too loud among all the dead, and Mo gently laid his hand on her lips.

‘I want to,’ he said. ‘And you mustn’t be afraid. I know the White Women better than you think.’ He tucked the folded sheet of paper into her belt. ‘There. Take good care of it. If for any reason I’m unable to read it, then Meggie will do it.’

If for any reason I’m unable to read it … if they kill me with their cold white hands, the way they killed Dustfinger. Meggie opened her mouth – and shut it again when Mo looked at her. She knew that look. No arguing. Forget it, Meggie.

‘Good. Very well, then. I’ve done my part of the bargain. I … er, I don’t think we should wait any longer!’ Orpheus was visibly impatient. He was stepping from foot to foot, with an unctuous smile on his lips. ‘They’re said to like it when the moon is shining, before it disappears behind the clouds …’

Mo just nodded and signalled to the Strong Man, who gently led Resa and Meggie away from the graves to an oak growing at the side of the graveyard. At a gesture from his brother, Doria joined them under the tree.

Orpheus too took a couple of steps back, as if it were too dangerous to stand beside Mo now.

Mo exchanged a glance with the Black Prince. What had he told him? That he was going to try calling the White Women only for Dustfinger’s sake? Or did the Prince know about the words that act would buy the Bluejay? No, surely not.

Side by side, the two of them walked among the graves. The bear trotted after them. As for Orpheus, he and his bodyguard hurried over to the oak where Meggie and Resa were standing. Only Farid stayed put as if rooted to the spot, on his face both fear of the beings whom Mo was about to summon, and longing for the man they had taken away with them.

A light wind blew over the graveyard, cool as the breath of those they were waiting for, and Resa instinctively took a step forward, but the Strong Man drew her back.

‘No,’ he said quietly, and Resa stood still in the shade of the branches and stared, like Meggie, at the two men who had now stopped in the middle of the graveyard.

‘Show yourselves, daughters of Death!’

Mo’s voice sounded as calm as if he had called on them many times before. ‘You remember me, don’t you? You remember Capricorn’s fortress, you remember following me into the cave, and how faintly my heart beat against your white fingers. The Bluejay wants to ask you about a friend. Where are you?’

Resa put a hand to her heart. It must be beating as fast as Meggie’s.

The first White Woman appeared right beside the gravestone where Mo was standing. She had only to reach out her arm to touch him, and she did touch him, as gently as if she were greeting a friend.

The bear moaned and lowered his head. Then he retreated step by step, and did something he had never done before. He left his master’s side. But the Black Prince stood his ground next to Mo, although his dark face showed fear such as Meggie had never seen on it before.

Mo’s face, however, gave nothing away when the pale fingers caressed his arm. The second White Woman appeared to his right. She put her hand to his breast, to the place where his heart was beating. Resa cried out and took another step forward, but the Strong Man held her back again.

‘They won’t harm him. Watch!’ he whispered to her.

Another White Woman appeared, then a fourth, and a fifth. They surrounded Mo and the Black Prince until Meggie saw the two men only as shadows among those misty figures. They were so beautiful – and so terrible – and for a moment Meggie wished Fenoglio could see them too. She knew how proud he would have been of the sight, proud of the flightless angels he had created.

More and more kept coming. They seemed to form from the white vapour that Mo and the Prince exhaled into the air. Why were there so many? Meggie saw the same enchantment that she felt on Resa’s face too, even on Farid’s, although he was so frightened of ghosts.

But then the whispering began, in voices that seemed as ethereal as the pale women themselves. It grew louder and louder, and enchantment turned to fear. Mo’s outline blurred, as if he were dissolving in all the whiteness. Doria looked at his brother in alarm. Resa called Mo’s name. The Strong Man tried to hold her back once more, but she tore herself away and began to run. Meggie ran after her, plunging into the mist of translucent bodies. Faces turned to her, as pale as the stones over which she stumbled. Where was her father?

She tried to push the white figures aside, but she only reached into a void again and again, until suddenly she touched the Black Prince. There he stood, his face ashen, his sword in his trembling hand, looking around him as if he had forgotten where he was. But the White Women were no longer whispering. They dissolved like smoke blowing in the wind. The night seemed darker when they were gone. So dark. And so terribly cold.

Resa called Mo’s name again and again, and the Prince looked round desperately, his useless sword in his hand.

But Mo was not there.

24

To Blame

Time, let me vanish. Then what we separate by our very own presence can come together.

Audrey Niffenegger,

The Time Traveller’s Wife

Resa waited among the graves until day began to dawn, but Mo did not come back.

She felt Roxane’s pain now, except that she didn’t even have a dead man to mourn. Mo was gone as if he had never existed. The story had swallowed him up, and she was to blame.

Meggie was crying. The Strong Man held her in his arms while tears ran down his own broad face.

‘It’s your fault!’ Meggie had kept shouting, pushing Resa and Farid away, not even letting the Prince comfort her. ‘You two persuaded him! Why did I save him after Mortola shot him, if they were going to take him now?’

‘I’m so sorry. I really am so very sorry.’

Orpheus’s voice still clung to Resa’s skin like something venomously sweet. When the White Women disappeared, he had stood there as if waiting for something, making an effort to hide the smile that kept returning to his lips. But Resa had seen it. Indeed she had … and so had Farid.

‘What have you done?’ He had seized Orpheus by his fine clothes and hammered at the man’s chest with his fists. Orpheus’s bodyguard tried to grab Farid, but the Strong Man held him off.

‘You filthy liar!’ Farid had cried, sobbing. ‘You double-tongued snake! Why didn’t you ask them anything? You were never going to ask them anything, were you? You just wanted them to take Silvertongue! Ask him! Ask him what else he wrote! He didn’t just write the words he promised Silvertongue – there was a second sheet too! He thinks I don’t know what he gets up to because I can’t read – but I can count. There were two sheets – and his glass man says he was reading out loud last night.’

He’s right, a voice whispered inside Resa. Oh God, Farid is right!

Orpheus, however, had taken great pains to look genuinely indignant. ‘What’s all this stupid talk?’ he had cried. ‘Do you think I’m not disappointed myself? How can I help it if they took him away with them? I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain! I wrote exactly what Mortimer asked for! But did I get a chance to ask them about Dustfinger? No! All the same, I won’t ask for my words back. I hope it’s clear to all of you here,’ and he looked at the Black Prince, who still had his sword in his hand, ‘that I’m the one who gets nothing out of this deal!’

The words he had written were still tucked into Resa’s belt. She had been going to throw them after him when he rode away, but then she had kept them after all. The words that were to take them back … she hadn’t even looked to see what they said. They had been bought at too high a price. Mo was gone, and Meggie would never forgive her. She had lost them both, again, for the sake of those words.

Resa leant her forehead against the gravestone beside her. It was a child’s grave; a tiny shirt lay on it. I’m so sorry. Once again she remembered Orpheus’s deep, soft voice mingled with her daughter’s sobbing. Farid was right. Orpheus was a liar. He had written what was to happen, and his voice made it come true. He had got rid of Mo because he was jealous of him, as Meggie had always said – and she had helped him to do it.

With trembling fingers she unfolded the paper that Mo had tucked into her belt. It was damp with dew, and Orpheus’s coat of arms stood above the words, lavish as a prince’s. Farid had told them how he had commissioned it from a designer of crests in Ombra – a crown for the lie that he came from a royal family, a pair of palm trees for the foreign land he claimed to come from, and a unicorn, its winding horn black with ink.

Mo’s own bookbinder’s mark was a unicorn too. Resa felt tears coming again. The words blurred before her eyes as she began to read them. The description of Elinor’s house was a little stilted. But Orpheus had found the right words for her homesickness and her fear that this story could make her husband into someone else … how did he know so well what went on in her heart? From you yourself, Resa, she thought bitterly. You took all your despair to him. She read on – and stopped short.

And mother and daughter went away, back to the house full of books, but the Bluejay stayed – promising to follow them when the time came and he had played his part

I wrote exactly what Mortimer asked for! she heard Orpheus saying, his voice full of injured innocence.

No. It couldn’t be true! Mo had wanted to go with her and Meggie … hadn’t he?

You’ll never know the answer, she told herself, bent double over the little grave from the pain in her heart. She thought she heard the child inside her weeping too.

‘Let’s go, Resa!’ The Black Prince was there beside her, offering her his hand. His face showed no reproach, although it was sad, very sad. Nor did he ask about the words that Orpheus had written. Perhaps he believed the Bluejay had really been an enchanter after all. The Black Prince and the Bluejay, the two hands of justice – one black, the other white. Now there was only the Prince again.

Resa took his hand and rose to her feet with difficulty. Go? Go where? she felt like asking. Back to the camp, where an empty tent is waiting and your men will look at me with more hostility than ever?

Doria brought her horse. The Strong Man was still standing with Meggie, his big face as tearstained as her daughter’s. He avoided her eyes. So he too blamed her for what had happened.

Go where? Back?

Resa was still holding the sheet of paper with Orpheus’s words on it. Elinor’s house. How would it feel to go back there without Mo? If Meggie would agree to read the words at all. Elinor, I’ve lost Mo. I wanted to protect him, but … no, she didn’t want to have to tell that story. There was no going back. There was nothing any more.

‘Come along, Meggie.’ The Black Prince beckoned Meggie over. He was about to put her up with Resa on her horse, but Meggie recoiled.

‘No. I’ll ride with Doria,’ she said.

Doria brought his horse to her side. Farid gave the other boy a scowl when he lifted Meggie up behind him.

‘And why are you still here?’ Meggie snapped at him. ‘Still hoping to see Dustfinger suddenly materialize in front of you? He won’t come back, any more than my father will – but I’m sure Orpheus will take you in again, after all you’ve done for him!’

Farid flinched like a beaten dog at every word. Then he turned in silence and went to his donkey. He called for the marten, but Jink didn’t come, and Farid rode away without him.

Meggie didn’t watch him go.

She turned to Resa. ‘You needn’t think I’m going back with you!’ she said sharply. ‘If you need a reader for your precious words, go to Orpheus, like you did before!’

Again, the Black Prince didn’t ask what Meggie was talking about, although Resa saw the question on his weary face. He stayed at Resa’s side as they rode the long way back. The sun claimed hill after hill for its own, but Resa knew that night would not end for her. It would live in her heart from now on. The same night, for ever and ever. Black and white at the same time, like the women who had taken Mo away with them.

25

The End and the Beginning

HERE IS A SMALL FACT. You are going to die.

Markus Zusak,

The Book Thief

They brought it all back: the memory of pain and fear, of the burning fever and their cold hands on his heart. But this time everything was different. The White Women touched Mo and he did not fear them. They whispered the name that they thought was his, and it sounded like a welcome. Yes, they were welcoming him in their soft voices, heavy with longing, the voices he heard so often in his dreams – as if he were a friend who had been away for a long time, but had come back to them at last.

There were many of them, so many. Their pale faces surrounded him like mist, and everything else disappeared beyond it: Orpheus, Resa, Meggie, the Black Prince, who had been standing beside him only a moment ago. Even the stars vanished, and so did the ground beneath his feet. Suddenly he was standing on rotting leaves. Their fragrance hung sweet and heavy in the cold air. Bones lay among the leaves, pale and polished. Skulls. Arm bones and leg bones. Where was he?

They’ve taken you away with them, Mortimer, he thought. Just as they took Dustfinger.

Why didn’t the idea make him afraid?

He heard birds above him, many birds, and when the White Women withdrew he saw air-roots overhead, hanging from a dark height like cobwebs. He was inside a tree as hollow as an organ pipe and as tall as the castle towers of Ombra. Fungi grew from its wooden sides, casting a pale green light on the nests of birds and fairies. Mo put out his hand to the roots to see if his fingers still had any feeling in them. Yes, they did. He ran them over his face, felt his own skin, the same as ever, warm. What did that mean? Wasn’t this death, after all?

If not, what was it? A dream?

He turned, still as if he were asleep, and saw beds of moss. Moss-women slept on them, their wrinkled faces as ageless in death as in life. But on the last mossy bed lay a familiar figure, his face as still as when Mo had last seen it. Dustfinger.

Roxane had kept the promise she made in the old mine. And he will look as if he were only sleeping long after my hair is white, for I know from Nettle how you go about preserving the body even when the soul is long gone.

Hesitantly, Mo approached the motionless figure. Without a word, the White Women made way for him.

Where are you, Mortimer, he wondered? Is this still the world of the living, even though the dead sleep here?

Dustfinger did indeed look as if he were sleeping. A peaceful, dreamless sleep. Was this where Roxane visited him? Presumably it was. But how did he himself come to be here?

‘Because this is the friend you wanted to ask about, isn’t he?’ The voice came from above, and when Mo looked up into the darkness he saw a bird sitting among the web of roots, a bird with gold plumage and a red mark on its breast. It was staring down at him from a bird’s round eyes, but the voice that came from its beak was the voice of a woman.

‘Your friend is a welcome guest here. He has brought us fire, the only element that does not obey me. And my daughters would gladly bring you here too, because they love your voice, but they know that voice needs the breath of living flesh. And when I ordered them to bring you here all the same, as your penalty for binding the White Book, they persuaded me to spare you, telling me you have a plan which will appease me.’

‘And what might that be?’ It was strange to hear his own voice in this place.

‘Don’t you know? Even though you’re ready to part with everything you love for it? You are going to bring me the man you took from me. Bring me the Adderhead, Bluejay.’

‘Who are you?’ Mo looked at the White Women. Then he looked at Dustfinger’s still face.

‘Guess.’ The bird ruffled up its golden feathers, and Mo saw that the mark on its breast was blood.

‘You are Death.’ Mo felt the word heavy on his tongue. Could any word be heavier?

‘Yes, so they call me, although I might be called by so many other names!’ The bird shook itself, and golden feathers covered the leaves at Mo’s feet. They fell on his hair and shoulders, and when he looked up again there was only the skeleton of a bird sitting among the roots. ‘I am the end and the beginning.’ Fur sprouted from the bones. Pointed ears grew on the bare skull. A squirrel was looking down at Mo, clutching the roots with tiny paws, and the voice with which the bird had spoken now came from its little mouth.

‘The Great Shape-Changer, that’s the name I like!’ The squirrel shook itself in its own turn, lost its fur, tail and ears and became a butterfly, a caterpillar at his feet, a big cat with a coat as dappled as the light in the Wayless Wood – and finally a marten that jumped on to the bed of moss where Dustfinger lay, and curled up at the dead man’s feet.

‘I am the beginning of all stories, and their end,’ it said in the voice of the bird, in the voice of the squirrel. ‘I am transience and renewal. Without me nothing is born, because without me nothing dies. But you have interfered with my work, Bluejay, by binding the Book that ties my hands. I was very angry with you for that, terribly angry.’

The marten bared its teeth, and Mo felt the White Women coming close to him again. Was he about to die now? His chest felt tight, he was breathing with difficulty, as he had when he felt them near him before.

‘Yes, I was angry,’ whispered the marten, and its voice was the voice of a woman, but it suddenly sounded old. ‘However, my daughters calmed my rage. They love your heart as much as your voice. They say it is a great heart, very great, and it would be a pity to break it now.’

The marten fell silent, and suddenly the whispering that Mo had never forgotten came again. It surrounded him; it was everywhere. ‘Be on your guard! Be on your guard, Bluejay!’

Be on his guard against what? The pale faces were looking at him. They were beautiful, but they blurred as soon as he tried to see them more distinctly.

‘Orpheus!’ whispered the pale lips.

And suddenly Mo heard Orpheus’s voice. Its melodious sound filled the hollow tree like a cloyingly sweet fragrance. ‘Hear me, Master of the Cold,’ said the poet. ‘Hear me, Master of Silence. I offer you a bargain. I send you the Bluejay, who has made mock of you. He will believe that he has only to call on your pale daughters, but I am offering him to you as the price for the Fire-Dancer. Take him, and in return send Dustfinger back to the land of the living, for his tale is not yet told to its end. But the Bluejay’s story lacks only one chapter, and your White Women shall write it.’ So the poet wrote and so he read, and as always his words came true. The Bluejay, presumptuous as he was, summoned the White Women, and Death did not let him go again. But the Fire-Dancer came back, and his story had a new beginning.

Be on your guard …

It was a few moments before Mo really understood. Then he cursed his stupidity in trusting the man who had nearly killed him once already. He desperately tried to remember the words Orpheus had written for Resa. Suppose he was trying to make an end of Meggie and Resa as well? Remember, Mo! What else did he write?

‘Yes, you were indeed stupid,’ Death’s voice mocked him. ‘But he was even more stupid than you. He thinks I can be bound with words, I who rule the land where there are no words, although all words come from it. Nothing can bind me, only the White Book, because you have filled its pages with white silence. Almost daily, the man it protects sends me a poor wretch he has killed as a messenger of his mockery. I would happily melt the flesh from your bones for that! But my daughters read your heart like a book, and they assure me that you will not rest until the man whom the Book protects is mine again. Is that true, Bluejay?’

The marten lay down on Dustfinger’s unmoving breast.

‘Yes!’ whispered Mo.

‘Good. Then go back and rid the world of that Book. Fill it with words before spring comes, or winter will never end for you. And I will take not only your life for the Adderhead’s, but your daughter’s too, because she helped you to bind the Book. Do you understand, Bluejay?’

‘Why two?’ asked Mo hoarsely. ‘How can you ask for two lives in return for one? Take mine, that’s enough.’

But the marten only stared at him. ‘I fix the price,’ it said. ‘All you have to do is pay it.’

Meggie. No. No. Go back, Resa, Mo thought. Get Meggie to read what Orpheus wrote and go back! Anything is better than this. Go back! Quickly!

But the marten laughed. And once again it sounded like an old woman’s laughter.

‘All stories end with me, Bluejay,’ Death said. ‘You will find me everywhere.’ And as if to prove it, the marten turned into the one-eared cat that liked to steal into Elinor’s garden to hunt her birds. The cat jumped nimbly off Dustfinger’s breast and rubbed around Mo’s legs. ‘Well, what do you say, Bluejay? Do you accept my conditions?’

And I will take not only your life for the Adderhead’s but your daughter’s too.

Mo glanced at Dustfinger. His face looked so much more peaceful in death than it had in life. Had he met his younger daughter on the other side, and Cosimo, and Roxane’s first husband? Were all the dead in the same place?

The cat sat down in front of him and stared at him.

‘I accept,’ said Mo, so hoarsely that he could hardly make out his own words. ‘But I make a condition too: give me the Fire-Dancer to go with me. My voice stole ten years of his life. Let me give them back to him. And there’s another thing … don’t the songs say that the Adderhead’s death will come out of the fire?’

The cat crouched down. Fur fell red on the rotting leaves. Bones covered themselves with flesh and feathers again, and the gold-mocker with its bloodstained breast fluttered up to settle on Mo’s shoulder.

‘You like to make what the songs say come true, do you?’ the bird whispered to him. ‘Very well, I will give him to you. Let the Fire-Dancer live again. But if spring comes and the Adderhead is still immortal, his heart will stop beating at the same time as yours – and your daughter’s.’

Mo felt dizzy. He wanted to seize the bird and wring its golden neck to silence that voice, so old and pitiless, with irony in every word. Meggie. He almost stumbled as he went to Dustfinger’s side once more.

This time the White Women were reluctant to make way for him.

‘As you see, my daughters don’t like to let him go,’ said the old woman’s voice. ‘Even though they know he will come back.’

Mo looked at the motionless body. The face was indeed so much more tranquil than it had been in life, and all of a sudden he wasn’t sure whether he was really doing Dustfinger a favour by calling him back.

The bird was still on his shoulder, so light in weight, so sharp of claw.

‘What are you waiting for?’ asked Death. ‘Call him!’

And Mo obeyed.

26

A Familiar Voice

What remains to him? Tall Time wonders. What thoughts and smells, what names? Or are there only sensations and a clutter of incompatible words?

Barbara Gowdy,

The White Bone

They had gone. Had left him alone with all the blue that clashed with the red of the fire. Blue as the evening sky, blue as cranesbill flowers, blue as the lips of drowned men and the heart of a blaze burning with too hot a flame. Yes, sometimes it was hot in this world too. Hot and cold, light and dark, terrible and beautiful, it was everything all at once. It wasn’t true that you felt nothing in the land of Death. You felt and heard and smelt and saw, but your heart remained strangely calm, as if it were resting before the dance began again.

Peace. Was that the word?

Did the guardians of this world feel it too, or did they long for something else? The pain they didn’t know, the flesh they didn’t dwell in. Perhaps. Or perhaps not. He couldn’t tell from their faces. He saw both there: peace and longing, joy and pain. As if they knew about everything in this world and the other, just as they themselves were made of every colour at once, all the colours of the rainbow merging into white light. They told him that the land of Death had other places too, darker than the one where they had brought him and where no one stayed for long – except for him. Because he called up fire for them.

The White Women both feared and loved fire. They warmed their pale hands at it, laughing like children when he made it dance for them. They were children, young and old at the same time, so old. They made him form trees and flowers of fire, a fiery sun and moon, but for himself he made the fire paint faces, the faces he saw when the White Women took him with them to the river where they washed the hearts of the dead. Look into it, they whispered to him. Look into it, then those who love you will see you in their dreams. And he leant over the clear blue water and looked at the boy and the woman and the girl whose names he had forgotten, and saw them smiling in their sleep.

Why don’t I know their names any more? he asked.

Because we’ve washed your heart, they said. Because we’ve washed it in the blue water that parts this world from the other one. It makes you forget.

Yes. He supposed it did. For whenever he tried to remember he saw nothing but the blue, cool and caressing. It was only when he called up fire and its red glow spread that the pictures came again, the same pictures that he saw in the water. But his longing for them fell asleep before it had woken fully.

What was my name? he sometimes asked, and then they laughed. Fire-Dancer, they whispered, that was your name and always will be, because you’ll stay with us for all eternity and never go away like all the others, away to another life …

Sometimes they brought him a girl, a little girl. She stroked his face and smiled like the woman he saw in the water and the flames. Who’s that? he asked. She’s been here and went away again, they said she was your daughter.

Daughter … the word sounded like pain, but his heart merely remembered and did not feel it. It felt only love, nothing but love. There was nothing else any more.

Where were they? They had never before left him alone, not once since he had come here … wherever here was.

He had grown so used to the pale faces, to their beauty and their soft voices.

But suddenly he heard another voice, very different from theirs. He knew it. And he knew the name it was calling.

Dustfinger.

He hated that voice … or did he love it? He didn’t know. He knew only one thing: it brought back everything he had forgotten – like a violent pain suddenly jolting his still heart into beating again. Hadn’t that voice caused him pain once before, so much pain that it almost broke his heart? Yes, he remembered! He pressed his hands to his ears, but in the world of the dead you don’t hear with your ears alone, and the voice made its way right inside him like fresh blood flowing into veins that had frozen long ago.

‘Wake up, Dustfinger!’ it said. ‘Come back. The story isn’t over yet.’

The story … he felt the blue pushing him away, he felt firm flesh surrounding him again, and a heart beating in a chest far too small for it.

Silvertongue, he thought. It’s Silvertongue’s voice. And suddenly all the names came back to him: Roxane, Brianna, Farid … and the pain was back again, and time, and longing too.

27

Lost and Back Again

For it so happens that I have never been able to convince myself that the dead are utterly dead.

Saul Bellow,

Henderson the Rain King

It was dark when Gwin woke Roxane. She still didn’t like the marten, but she couldn’t bring herself to chase him away. She had seen him sitting on Dustfinger’s shoulder too often. Sometimes she thought she still felt the warmth of his hands on Gwin’s brown coat. Since his master’s death the marten had allowed Roxane to stroke him. He never used to let her do that before. But he also used to kill her chickens before, and now he spared them, as if that were part of their unspoken agreement – his thanks for her letting him, and no other living creature, follow her when she went to his master. Only Gwin shared her secret and kept her company when she sat beside the dead man for an hour, sometimes two, losing herself in the sight of his still face.

He’s back! said Gwin’s bristling coat as he jumped up on her breast, but Roxane didn’t understand. She pushed the marten away when she saw how dark it still was outside, but he persisted, hissing at her and scratching at the door. Of course she thought at once of the patrols that the Milksop was only too likely to send to isolated farms at night. Heart thudding, she reached for the knife that lay under her pillow and threw on her dress, while the marten pawed more and more impatiently at the door. Luckily he hadn’t yet woken Jehan. Her son was fast asleep. Her goose wasn’t giving the alarm either … which was strange.

Barefoot, she went to the door, knife in hand, and listened, but there was nothing to be heard outside, and when she cautiously went out into the open air she felt as if she heard the night itself breathing deeply and regularly, like someone asleep. The stars shone down on her like flowers made of light, and their beauty hurt her weary heart.

‘Roxane …’

The marten shot past her.

It couldn’t be true. The dead did not come back, even when they had promised they would. But the figure emerging from the shadows near the stable was so very familiar.

Gwin hissed when he saw the other marten sitting on his master’s shoulder.

‘Roxane.’ He spoke her name as if he wanted to savour it on his tongue, like something he hadn’t tasted for a long time.

It was a dream, one of the dreams she had almost every night. Dreams in which she saw his face so clearly that she touched it in her sleep, and next day her fingers still remembered his skin. Even when he put his arms around her, carefully, as if he wasn’t sure whether he had forgotten how to hold her, she didn’t move – because her hands did not believe they would really feel him, her arms did not believe they could hold him again. But her eyes could see him. Her ears heard him breathing. Her skin felt his, as warm as if the fire were inside him, after he had been so terribly cold.

He had kept his promise. And even if he was coming to her only in a dream it was better than nothing … so much better.

‘Roxane! Look at me. Look at me.’ He took her face between his hands, caressed her cheek, wiped away the tears she so often felt on her skin when she woke. And only then did she draw him close to her, let her hands tell her that she wasn’t just embracing a ghost. It couldn’t be true. She wept as she pressed her face to his. She wanted to hit him for having left her for the boy’s sake, for all the pain she had already felt on his account, so much pain, but her heart gave her away, as it had the first time he came back. It always gave her away.

‘What is it?’ He kissed her once more.

The scars. They were gone, as if the White Women had washed them away before sending him back to life.

She took his hands and laid them against his cheeks.

‘Well, who’d have thought it!’ he said, stroking his own skin with his fingers as if it were a stranger’s. ‘They’ve really gone! Basta wouldn’t like that at all.’

Why had they let him go? Who had paid the price for him, as he had paid it for the boy?

Why did she ask? He was back. That was all that mattered, back from the place from which there was no return. Where all the others were. Her daughter, the father of her son, Cosimo … so many dead. But he had come back. Even if she saw in his eyes that, this time, he had been so far away that something of him was still left there.

‘How long will you stay this time?’ she whispered.

He did not answer at once. Gwin rubbed his head against his neck and looked at him, as if he too wanted to know the answer.

‘As long as Death allows,’ he replied at last, and placed her hand on his beating heart.

‘What does that mean?’ she whispered. But he closed her mouth with a kiss.

28

A New Song

Bright hope arises from the dark

And makes the mighty tremble.

Princes can’t fail to see his mark,

Nor can they now dissemble.

With hair like moleskin smooth and black,

And mask of bluejay feathers,

He vows wrongdoers to attack,

Strikes princes in all weathers.

Fenoglio,

The Bluejay Songs

‘The Bluejay’s come back from the dead!’ It was Doria who brought the Black Prince the news. The boy stumbled into his tent just before dawn, so breathless that he could hardly get the words out. ‘A moss-woman saw him. By the Hollow Trees where the healers bury their dead. She says he’s brought the Fire-Dancer back too. Please! May I tell Meggie?’

Incredible words. Far too wonderful to be true. All the same, the Black Prince set off at once for the place where the Hollow Trees grew – after making Doria promise not to tell anyone else what he had told him: neither Meggie nor her mother, neither Snapper nor any of the other robbers, not even his own brother, who was lying outside by the fire, fast asleep.

‘But they say the Piper’s heard about it too!’ the boy faltered.

‘That’s unfortunate,’ replied the Prince. ‘Let’s hope I find him before the Piper does.’

He rode fast, so fast that the bear was soon snorting with disapproval as he trotted along beside him. Why such haste? For a foolish hope? Why did his heart always insist on believing that there was a light in all the darkness? Where did he keep getting new hope from, after he had been disappointed countless times? You have the heart of a child, Prince. Hadn’t Dustfinger always told him so? And he’s brought the Fire-Dancer back too. It couldn’t be true. Such things happened only in songs, and in the stories that mothers told their children in the evening to drive away night-time fears.

Hope can make you careless, he should have known that too. The Black Prince didn’t see the soldiers until they emerged ahead of him through the trees. A good number of them. He counted ten. They had a moss-woman with them, her thin neck already rubbed sore by the rope on which they were pulling her along. Presumably they had caught her to make her lead them to the Hollow Trees, for hardly anyone knew the place where the healers buried their dead. They themselves, so rumour said, made sure that all the paths to it were hidden by undergrowth. But after helping Roxane to take Dustfinger there, the Black Prince knew the way.

It was a sacred place, but in her fear the moss-woman had indeed led the men-at-arms the right way. The crowns of the dead trees could already be seen in the distance. They rose, as grey as if morning had stripped them bare, among the oaks, which were still autumnal gold, and the Prince prayed the Bluejay wasn’t there. Better to be with the White Women than in the Piper’s hands.

Three men-at-arms came up on him from behind, swords in their hands. The moss-woman sank to her knees as her captors drew their own swords and turned to their new quarry. The bear reared up on his hind legs and bared his teeth. The horses shied, and two of the soldiers retreated, but there were still a great many of them – too many for a knife and a pair of claws.

‘Well, guess what! Obviously the Piper’s not the only one stupid enough to believe moss-women’s gossip!’ Their leader was almost as pale as the White Women, and his face was sprinkled with freckles. ‘The Black Prince, none other! There was I cursing my luck, sent riding into this damn forest to catch a ghost, and who should stumble into my path but his black brother! The price on your head isn’t as high as the price for the Bluejay, but it’ll make us all rich men!’

‘You’re wrong there. Touch him and you’ll be dead men instead.’

And his voice wakens the dead from sleep and makes the wolf lie down with the lamb … The Bluejay stepped out from behind a beech tree as naturally as if he had been waiting for the soldiers there. Don’t call me Bluejay – it’s only a name from the songs! He had said that to the Prince so often, but what else was he to call him?

Bluejay. They were whispering his name, their voices hoarse with terror. Who was he? The Prince had often wondered. Did he really come from the land where Dustfinger had spent so many years? And what kind of country was it? A land where songs came true?

Bluejay.

The bear roared him a welcome that made the horses rear, and the Jay drew his sword very slowly, as he always did, the sword that had once belonged to Firefox and had killed so many of the Black Prince’s men. The face beneath the dark hair seemed paler than usual, but the Prince could see no fear in it. Presumably you forgot what fear was once you visited Death.

‘Yes, as you see, I’m really back from the dead. Even if I still feel Death’s claws in me.’ He spoke dreamily, as if a part of him were still with the White Women. ‘I’m willing to show you the way if you want. It’s entirely up to you. But if you do prefer to live a little longer,’ he added, flourishing his sword in the air as if he were writing their names, ‘then let him go. Him and the bear.’

They just stared at him, and their hands, resting on their swords, trembled as if they were reaching out for their own deaths. Nothing is more terrifying than fearlessness, and the Black Prince went to the Bluejay’s side and felt that the words were like a shield for them, the words sung quietly up and down the country … all about the White Hand and the Black Hand of Justice.

There’ll be a new song now, thought the Prince as he drew his sword, and his heart felt so foolishly young that he could have fought a thousand men. As for the Piper’s soldiers, they wrenched their horses’ heads round and fled – from just two men. And the words.

When they had gone the Bluejay went over to the moss-woman, who was still kneeling in the grass with her hands pressed to her bark-brown face, and undid the rope from her neck.

‘A few months ago one of you tended a bad wound I had,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t you, was it?’

The moss-woman let him help her up, but she looked at him suspiciously. ‘What do you mean by that? That we all look the same to human eyes?’ she snapped. ‘Well, we feel the same about you. So how am I supposed to know if I ever set eyes on you before?’

And she limped away without another look at her rescuer, who stood there watching her go as if he had forgotten where he was.

‘How long have I been away?’ he asked when the Black Prince joined him.

‘Over three days.’

‘As long as that?’ Yes, he had been far away, very far away. ‘Of course. Time runs differently when you meet Death, isn’t that what they say?’

‘You know more about it than I do now,’ replied the Prince.

The Bluejay made no comment on that.

‘Have you heard who I brought with me?’ he asked at last.

‘It’s difficult for me to believe such good news,’ said the Black Prince huskily, but the Bluejay smiled and ran a hand over the Prince’s short hair.

‘You can let it grow again,’ he said. ‘The man you shaved it for is breathing again. He’s left his scars with the dead, that’s all.’

It couldn’t be true.

‘Where is he?’ His heart still ached from the night when he had kept watch with Roxane at Dustfinger’s side.

‘No doubt with Roxane. I didn’t ask him where he was going. We were neither of us particularly talkative. The White Women leave silence behind them, Prince, not words.’

‘Silence?’ the Black Prince laughed, and embraced him. ‘What are you talking about? They’ve left joy behind, pure joy! And hope, hope again at last! I feel younger than I’ve felt for years! As if I could tear up trees by the roots – well, maybe not that beech, but many others. By this evening, everyone will be singing that the Bluejay fears Death so little that he seeks it out, and the Piper will tear the silver nose off his face in a rage …’

The Bluejay smiled again, but his look was still grave – very grave for a man who has just come back from the dead unscathed. And the Black Prince realized that there was bad news behind the good news, a shadow behind all the light. But they didn’t speak of that. Not yet.

‘What about my wife and my daughter?’ asked the Bluejay. ‘Have they … have they already gone?’

‘Gone?’ The Black Prince looked at him in surprise. ‘No. Where would they go?’

Relief and worry were mingled equally in the other man’s face.

‘Sometime I’ll explain all that to you too,’ he said. ‘Sometime. But it’s a long story.’

29

A Visitor to Orpheus’s Cellar

So many lives,

So many things to remember!

I was a stone in Tibet

A tongue of bark

At the heart of Africa

Growing darker and darker …

Derek Mahon,

Lives

When Oss, gripping Farid firmly by the back of his neck, told him that Orpheus wanted to see him in his study at once, he took two bottles of wine with him. Cheeseface had been drinking like a fish ever since their return from the graveyard of the strolling players, but the wine didn’t make Orpheus talkative like Fenoglio, just extremely malicious and unpredictable.

As so often, he was by the window when Farid entered the study. He was swaying slightly, and staring at the sheet of paper that he’d studied over and over again these last few days, cursing, crumpling it up and then smoothing it out again.

‘There it is in black and white, every letter perfect as a picture, and it sounds good too, it sounds damn good!’ he said thickly as his finger kept tapping the words. ‘So why, by all the infernal spirits, did the bookbinder come back again too?’

What was Cheeseface talking about? Farid put the wine bottles on the table and stood there waiting. ‘Oss says you want to speak to me?’ he asked.

Jasper was sitting beside the jug of pens, making frantic signals, but Farid couldn’t work out what they meant.

‘Ah yes, Dustfinger’s angel of death.’ Orpheus put the paper down on his desk and turned to him with a nasty smile.

Why on earth did you come back to him? Farid asked himself, but he had only to think of the hatred on Meggie’s face in the graveyard to answer his own question. Because you didn’t know where else to go.

‘Yes, I sent for you.’ Orpheus looked at the door. Oss had followed Farid into the room, more silently than you would have thought possible for a man of his size, and before Farid had time to realize why Jasper was waving to him so frantically, Oss’s meaty hands had seized him.

‘So you haven’t heard the news yet!’ said Orpheus. ‘Of course not. If you had I’m sure you’d have gone chasing straight off to him.’

Off to who? Farid tried to wriggle free, but Oss pulled his hair so hard that tears of pain came to his eyes.

‘He really doesn’t know. How touching.’ Orpheus came so close to him that the smell of the wine on his breath made Farid feel sick.

‘Dustfinger,’ said Orpheus in his velvety voice. ‘Dustfinger is back.’

Farid immediately forgot all about Oss’s rough fingers and Orpheus’s unpleasant smile. There was nothing in him but joy, like a violent pain, too much for his heart to bear.

‘Yes, he’s back,’ Orpheus went on. ‘Thanks to my words – but the rabble out there are saying the Bluejay brought him back!’ he added, with a dismissive gesture to the window. ‘Curse them. May the Piper make maggot-flesh of them all!’

Farid wasn’t listening. His own blood was roaring in his ears. Dustfinger was back! Back!

‘Let go of me, Chunk!’ Farid drove his elbows into Oss’s stomach and tugged at his hands. ‘Dustfinger will turn his fire on you!’ he shouted. ‘That’s what he’ll do, the moment he hears you two didn’t let me go to him at once!’

‘Really?’ Orpheus blew wine-laden breath into his face again. ‘I’m more inclined to think he’ll be grateful to me – or do you suppose he’d like you to bring him to his death again, you ill-omened brat? I warned him about you once before. He wouldn’t listen to me then, but he’ll have learnt better now, believe you me. If I had the book you came from here, I’d have read you back into your own story long ago, but sad to say it’s out of print in this world.’

Orpheus laughed. He liked to laugh at his own jokes. ‘Lock him in the cellar,’ he told the Chunk, ‘and as soon as it’s dark you can take him out to the hill where the gallows stand, and wring his neck. No one will notice a few bones more or less up there.’

Jasper put his hands over his eyes when Oss picked Farid up and threw him over his shoulder. Farid shouted and kicked, but the Chunk hit him in the face so hard that he almost lost consciousness.

‘The Bluejay! The Bluejay! I sent him to the White Women! I did it!’ he heard Orpheus’s voice ringing down the stairs after them. ‘So why, by the devil’s tail, didn’t Death keep him? Didn’t I make that high-minded idiot sound tempting enough with the finest words I could write?’

At the bottom of the stairs Farid made another attempt to free himself, but Oss hit him in the face again so hard that blood ran from his nose, and then shifted him to his other shoulder. A maid, alarmed, stuck her face out of the kitchen doorway as he carried Farid past – it was the little brown-haired girl who was always making up to him, but she didn’t help him. How could she?

‘Get out!’ was all Oss growled at her before dragging Farid down to the cellar. He tied him to one of the pillars supporting Orpheus’s house, stuffed a dirty rag into his mouth, and left him alone, but not without giving him another vigorous kick first.

‘See you later, when it’s dark!’ he grunted before trudging back upstairs, and Farid was left behind with the cold stone at his back and the taste of his own tears in his mouth.

It hurt so much to know that Dustfinger was back, and all the same he would never see him again. But that’s how it will be, Farid, he told himself. And, who knows, maybe Cheeseface is right. Perhaps you’d only bring him to his death again!

His tears burnt his face, so sore from Oss’s blows. If only he could have called up fire to consume Orpheus, complete with his house and the Chunk, even if it meant that he too would burn! But he couldn’t move his hands, and his tongue could not conjure up a word of fire, so he just crouched there sobbing, as he had sobbed on the night of Dustfinger’s death, waiting for evening to come and Oss to fetch him and wring his neck, under the same gallows where he had dug up silver for Orpheus.

Luckily the marten had gone. Oss would certainly have killed him too. But presumably Jink had found his way to Dustfinger long ago. The marten would have sensed that he was back. Why didn’t you sense it yourself, Farid? he wondered. Never mind, at least Jink was safe. But what would become of Jasper if he couldn’t protect him any more? Orpheus had often shut the glass man up in a drawer without any light or sand, just for cutting paper clumsily or splashing ink on his master’s sleeve!

‘Dustfinger!’ It did him good to at least try to whisper the name and know he was alive. How often Farid had imagined what it would be like to see him again. Longing made him tremble as if he were shaken by a fever. Which of the martens had jumped on Dustfinger’s shoulder first to lick his scarred face, he wondered, Gwin or Jink?

The hours went by, and after a while Farid managed to spit out the gag. He tried gnawing through the rope that Oss had used to tie him up, but even a mouse could have done better. Would they look for him when he was lying dead and buried on the gallows hill? Dustfinger, Silvertongue, Meggie … oh, Meggie. He would never kiss her again. Not that he’d done that so very often recently. All the same … that bastard Cheeseface! Farid called down every curse he could remember on him – curses from this world, his own world, and the one where he had met Dustfinger. He shouted them all out loud, because that was the only way they worked – and fell silent in alarm when he heard the cellar door above him opening.

Was it evening already? Probably. How could anyone tell in this damp, mouldy hole? Would Oss break his neck like a rabbit’s or simply press his fat hands down over his mouth until he couldn’t breathe any more? Don’t think about it, Farid, you’ll find out soon enough. He pressed his back against the pillar. Perhaps he could at least kick Oss’s nose in. A well-aimed kick at that stupid face when he was taking off Farid’s bonds, and it would break like a dry twig. He desperately braced himself against the rough rope, but unfortunately Oss was good at tying people up. Meggie! Can’t you send a few words to save me as you did for your father? Fear was making his arms and legs weak. He listened to the footsteps coming down the stairs. They were surprisingly quiet for the Chunk. And suddenly two martens scurried towards him.

‘By all the fairies, that moon-faced fellow really has been making money,’ a voice whispered in the darkness. ‘What a grand house!’ A flame began dancing, then a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth … five flames, just bright enough to light up Dustfinger’s face – and Jasper sitting on his shoulder with a shy smile.

Dustfinger.

Farid’s heart felt so light that he wouldn’t have been surprised if it had simply floated out of him. But what had happened to Dustfinger’s face? It looked different. As if all the years had been washed away, all the sad, lonely years, and—

‘Your scars – they’re gone!’

Farid could only whisper. Happiness muted his words like cotton wool. Jink jumped up to him and licked his bound hands.

‘Yes, and would you believe it – I think Roxane misses them.’ Dustfinger reached the bottom step of the stairs and knelt down beside him. From above, agitated voices came down to them.

Drawing a knife from his belt, Dustfinger cut through Farid’s bonds. ‘Hear that? I’m afraid Orpheus is about to find out he has a visitor.’

Farid rubbed his numb wrists. He couldn’t take his eyes off Dustfinger. Suppose he was only a ghost after all – or even worse, nothing but a dream? But then would Farid have felt his warmth, and the beating of his heart when he leant over him? No more of the dreadful silence that had surrounded Dustfinger in the mine. And he smelt of fire.

The Bluejay had brought him back. Yes, it must have been him. Whatever Orpheus said. Oh, he’d write his name in fire on the city walls of Ombra – Silvertongue, Bluejay, whichever name he liked! Farid put out his hand and timidly touched Dustfinger’s face, so familiar and yet so strange.

Dustfinger laughed quietly and raised him to his feet. ‘What is it? Do you want to make sure I’m not a ghost? I expect you’re still afraid of them, aren’t you? Suppose I was a ghost?’

By way of answer Farid flung his arms around him so impetuously that Jasper, with a sharp little scream, slid off Dustfinger’s shoulder. Luckily he caught the glass man before Gwin did.

‘Careful, careful!’ whispered Dustfinger, putting Jasper on to Farid’s shoulder. ‘You’re still as clumsy as a young calf. You have your glass friend to thank for my being here. He told Brianna what Orpheus was planning to do to you, and she rode to Roxane.’

‘Brianna?’ The glass man blushed when Farid put him on his arm. ‘Thank you, Jasper!’

Then he spun round. Orpheus’s voice came ringing down the cellar stairs. ‘A stranger? What are you talking about? How did he get past you?’

‘It’s the maid’s fault!’ Farid heard Oss protesting. ‘The red-haired maid let him in through the back door!’

Dustfinger listened to the sounds above, smiling the old mocking smile that Farid had missed so much. Sparks were dancing on his shoulders and his hair. They seemed to be shining even under his skin, and Farid’s own skin was hot, as if the fire had been licking it since he touched Dustfinger.

‘The fire …’ he whispered. ‘Is it in you?’

‘Maybe,’ Dustfinger whispered back. ‘I’m probably not entirely what I was, but I can do a few interesting new things.’

‘New things?’

Farid looked at him, eyes wide, but the voice of Orpheus came down again from above. ‘Smells of fire, does he? Let me past, you human rhinoceros! Is his face scarred?’

‘No. Why?’ Oss sounded offended.

And footsteps came down the stairs again, heavy and uncertain footsteps this time. Orpheus hated climbing either up or down stairs, and Farid heard him cursing.

‘Meggie read Orpheus here!’ he whispered as he pressed close to Dustfinger’s side. ‘I asked her to do it because I thought he could bring you back!’

‘Orpheus?’ Dustfinger laughed again. ‘No, it was only Silvertongue’s voice I heard.’

‘His voice perhaps, but it was my words that brought you back!’ Orpheus stumbled down the last few steps, his face red from the wine. ‘Dustfinger. It really is you!’ There was genuine delight in his voice.

Oss appeared behind Orpheus, fear and rage on his coarse face. ‘Look at him, my lord!’ he managed to get out. ‘He’s not human. He’s a demon, or a spirit of the night. See those sparks on his hair? When I tried to hold on to him I almost burnt my fingers – as if the executioner had put red-hot coals in my hands!’

‘Yes, yes,’ was all Orpheus said. ‘He comes from far away, very far away. Such a journey can change a man.’ He was staring at Dustfinger as if afraid he might dissolve into thin air at any moment – or, more likely, into a few lifeless words on a sheet of paper.

‘I’m so glad you’re back!’ he stammered, his voice awkward with longing. ‘And your scars have gone! How amazing. I didn’t write that. Well, anyway … you’re back! This world is worth only half as much without you, but now it will all be as wonderful as it was when I first read about you in Inkheart. It was always the best of all stories, but now you’ll be its hero – you alone, thanks to my art that took you home and now has even brought you back from the realm of Death!’

‘Your art? More likely Silvertongue’s courage.’ Dustfinger made a flame dance on his hand. It took on the shape of a White Woman so distinctly that Oss cowered against the cellar wall in terror.

‘Nonsense!’ For a moment Orpheus sounded like a boy with hurt feelings, but he soon had himself in hand again. ‘Nonsense!’ he repeated, with more self-control this time, although his tongue was still rather thick from the wine. ‘Whatever he told you, it isn’t true. I did it all.’

‘He didn’t tell me anything. He didn’t have to. He was there, he and his voice.’

‘But I had the idea – and I wrote the words! He was only my tool.’ Orpheus spluttered the last word as furiously as if he were spitting it into Silvertongue’s face.

‘Ah yes … your words! Very cunning words, according to all I’ve heard from him.’ The image of the White Woman was still burning on Dustfinger’s hand. ‘Maybe I ought to take those words to Silvertongue so that he can read them once more and find out what kind of part you intended him to play in all this.’

Orpheus stood up very straight. ‘I wrote them like that for you, only for you!’ he cried in an injured voice. ‘That was all I cared about – for you to come back. Why would that bookbinder interest me? After all, I had to offer Death something!’

Dustfinger blew gently into the flame burning on his hand. ‘Oh, I understand you very well!’ he said quietly, while the fire formed the shape of a bird, a golden bird with a red breast. ‘I understand a good deal now that I’ve been on the other side, and I know two things for sure: Death obeys no words, and Silvertongue – not you – went to the White Women.’

‘He was the only one who could call them. What was I supposed to do?’ cried Orpheus. ‘And he did it for his wife! Not for you!’

‘Well now, I’d call that a good reason.’ The fiery bird fell apart in Dustfinger’s hand. ‘And as for the words … to be honest, I like his voice so much better than yours, even if the sound of it didn’t always make me happy. Silvertongue’s voice is full of love. Yours speaks only of yourself. Quite apart from the fact that you’re much too fond of reading words no one knows about, or forgetting a few you promised to read. Isn’t that so, Farid?’

Farid just stared at Orpheus, his face rigid with hate.