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

Inkheart

Cornelia Funke


INKHEART CORNELIA FUNKE

Translated from the

German by Anthea Bell

For Anna, who even put The Lord of the Rings aside

for a while to read this book. Could anyone ask more

of a daughter?

And for Elinor, who lent me her name, although I

didn’t use it for an elf queen.

Contents

Cover

Title Page

1 A Stranger in the Night

2 Secrets

3 Going South

4 A House Full of Books

5 Only a Picture

6 Fire and Stars

7 What the Night Hides

8 Alone

9 A Poor Exchange

10 The Lion’s Den

11 A Coward

12 Going Further South

13 Capricorn’s Village

14 A Mission Accomplished

15 Good Luck and Bad Luck

16 Once Upon a Time

17 The Betrayer Betrayed

18 Treasure Island

19 Gloomy Prospects

20 Snakes and Thorns

21 Basta

22 In Safety

23 A Night Full of Words

24 Fenoglio

25 The Wrong Ending

26 Shivers Down the Spine and a Foreboding

27 A Good Place To Stay

28 Going Home

29 Only an Idea

30 Talkative Pippo

31 In the Hills

32 Back Again

33 Capricorn’s Maid

34 Capricorn’s Secrets

35 Different Aims

36 In Capricorn’s House

37 Carelessness

38 A Quiet Voice

39 The Punishment for Traitors

40 The Black Horse of the Night

41 Farid

42 A Furry Face on the Windowsill

43 A Dark Place

44 Farid’s Report

45 Telling Lies to Basta

46 Woken in the Dead of Night

47 Alone

48 The Magpie

49 Basta’s Pride and Dustfinger’s Cunning

50 No Luck for Elinor

51 A Narrow Escape

52 A Fragile Little Thing

53 The Right Words

54 Fire

55 Treachery, Loose Talk, and Stupidity

56 The Shadow

57 A Deserted Village

58 Homesickness

59 Going Home

Copyright

1

A Stranger in the Night

The moon shone in the rocking horse’s eye, and in the mouse’s eye, too, when Tolly fetched it out from under his pillow to see. The clock went tick-tock, and in the stillness he thought he heard little bare feet running across the floor, then laughter and whispering, and a sound like the pages of a big book being turned over.

L.M. Boston,

The Children of Green Knowe

Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain. Many years later, Meggie had only to close her eyes and she could still hear it, like tiny fingers tapping on the windowpane. A dog barked somewhere in the darkness, and however often she tossed and turned Meggie couldn’t get to sleep.

The book she had been reading was under her pillow, pressing its cover against her ear as if to lure her back into its printed pages. ‘I’m sure it must be very comfortable sleeping with a hard, rectangular thing like that under your head,’ her father had teased, the first time he found a book under her pillow. ‘Go on, admit it, the book whispers its story to you at night.’

‘Sometimes, yes,’ Meggie had said. ‘But it only works for children.’ Which made Mo tweak her nose. Mo. Meggie had never called her father anything else.

That night – when so much began and so many things changed for ever – Meggie had one of her favourite books under her pillow, and since the rain wouldn’t let her sleep she sat up, rubbed the drowsiness from her eyes, and took it out. Its pages rustled promisingly when she opened it. Meggie thought this first whisper sounded a little different from one book to another, depending on whether or not she already knew the story it was going to tell her. But she needed light. She had a box of matches hidden in the drawer of her bedside table. Mo had forbidden her to light candles at night. He didn’t like fire. ‘Fire devours books,’ he always said, but she was twelve years old, she could surely be trusted to keep an eye on a couple of candle flames. Meggie loved to read by candlelight. She had five candlesticks on the windowsill, and she was just holding the lighted match to one of the black wicks when she heard footsteps outside. She blew out the match in alarm – oh, how well she remembered it, even many years later – and knelt to look out of the window, which was wet with rain. Then she saw him.

The rain cast a kind of pallor on the darkness, and the stranger was little more than a shadow. Only his face gleamed white as he looked up at Meggie. His hair clung to his wet forehead. The rain was falling on him, but he ignored it. He stood there motionless, arms crossed over his chest as if that might at least warm him a little. And he kept on staring at the house.

I must go and wake Mo, thought Meggie. But she stayed put, her heart thudding, and went on gazing out into the night as if the stranger’s stillness had infected her. Suddenly, he turned his head, and Meggie felt as if he were looking straight into her eyes. She shot off the bed so fast the open book fell to the floor, and she ran barefoot out into the dark corridor. This was the end of May, but it was chilly in the old house.

There was still a light on in Mo’s room. He often stayed up reading late into the night. Meggie had inherited her love of books from her father. When she took refuge from a bad dream with him, nothing could lull her to sleep better than Mo’s calm breathing beside her and the sound of the pages turning. Nothing chased nightmares away faster than the rustle of printed paper.

But the figure outside the house was no dream.

The book Mo was reading that night was bound in pale blue linen. Later, Meggie remembered that too. What unimportant little details stick in the memory.

‘Mo, there’s someone out in the yard!’

Her father raised his head and looked at her with the usual absent expression he wore when she interrupted his reading. It always took him a few moments to find his way out of that other world, the labyrinth of printed letters.

‘Someone out in the yard? Are you sure?’

‘Yes. He’s staring at our house.’

Mo put down his book. ‘So what were you reading before you went to sleep? Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?’

Meggie frowned. ‘Please, Mo! Come and look.’

He didn’t believe her, but he went anyway. Meggie tugged him along the corridor so impatiently that he stubbed his toe on a pile of books, which was hardly surprising. Stacks of books were piled high all over the house – not just arranged in neat rows on bookshelves, the way other people kept them, oh no! The books in Mo and Meggie’s house were stacked under tables, on chairs, in the corners of the rooms. There were books in the kitchen and books in the lavatory. Books on the TV set and in the wardrobe, small piles of books, tall piles of books, books thick and thin, books old and new. They welcomed Meggie down to breakfast with invitingly opened pages, they kept boredom at bay when the weather was bad. And sometimes you fell over them.

‘He’s just standing there!’ whispered Meggie, leading Mo into her room.

‘Has he got a hairy face? If so, he could be a werewolf.’

‘Oh, stop it!’ Meggie looked at him sternly, although his jokes made her feel less scared. Already, she hardly believed any more in the figure standing in the rain – until she knelt down again at the window. ‘There! Do you see him?’ she whispered.

Mo looked out through the raindrops running down the pane, and said nothing.

‘Didn’t you promise burglars would never break into our house because there’s nothing here to steal?’ whispered Meggie.

‘He’s not a burglar,’ replied Mo, but as he stepped back from the window his face was so grave that Meggie’s heart thudded faster than ever. ‘Go back to bed, Meggie,’ he said. ‘This visitor has come to see me.’

He left the room before Meggie could ask what kind of visitor, for goodness’ sake, turned up in the middle of the night? She followed him anxiously. As she crept down the corridor she heard her father taking the chain off the front door, and when she reached the hall she saw him standing in the open doorway. The night came in, dark and damp, and the rushing of the rain sounded loud and threatening.

‘Dustfinger!’ called Mo into the darkness. ‘Is that you?’

Dustfinger? What kind of a name was that? Meggie couldn’t remember ever hearing it before, yet it sounded familiar, like a distant memory that wouldn’t take shape properly.

At first, all seemed still outside except for the rain falling, murmuring as if the night had found its voice. But then footsteps approached the house, and the man emerged from the darkness of the yard, his long coat so wet with rain that it clung to his legs. For a split second, as the stranger stepped into the light spilling out of the house, Meggie thought she saw a small furry head over his shoulder, snuffling as it looked out of his rucksack and then quickly disappearing back into it.

Dustfinger wiped his wet face with his sleeve and offered Mo his hand.

‘How are you, Silvertongue?’ he asked. ‘It’s been a long time.’

Hesitantly, Mo took the outstretched hand. ‘A very long time,’ he said, looking past his visitor as if he expected to see another figure emerge from the night. ‘Come in, you’ll catch your death. Meggie says you’ve been standing out there for some time.’

‘Meggie? Ah yes, of course.’ Dustfinger let Mo lead him into the house. He scrutinised Meggie so thoroughly that she felt quite embarrassed and didn’t know where to look. In the end she just stared back.

‘She’s grown.’

‘You remember her?’

‘Of course.’

Meggie noticed that Mo double-locked the door.

‘How old is she now?’ Dustfinger smiled at her. It was a strange smile. Meggie couldn’t decide whether it was mocking, supercilious, or just awkward. She didn’t smile back. ‘Twelve,’ said Mo.

‘Twelve? My word!’ Dustfinger pushed his dripping hair back from his forehead. It reached almost to his shoulders. Meggie wondered what colour it was when it was dry. The stubble round his narrow-lipped mouth was gingery, like the fur of the stray cat Meggie sometimes fed with a saucer of milk outside the door. Ginger hair sprouted on his cheeks, too, sparse as a boy’s first beard but not long enough to hide three long, pale scars. They made Dustfinger’s face look as if it had been smashed and stuck back together again. ‘Twelve,’ he repeated. ‘Of course. She was … let’s see, she was three then, wasn’t she?’

Mo nodded. ‘Come on, I’ll find you some dry clothes.’ Impatiently, as if he were suddenly in a hurry to hide the man from Meggie, he led his visitor across the hall. ‘And Meggie,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘you go back to sleep.’ Then, without another word, he closed his workshop door.

Meggie stood there rubbing her cold feet together. Go back to sleep. Sometimes, when they’d stayed up late yet again, Mo would toss her down on her bed like a bag of walnuts. Sometimes he chased her round the house after supper until she escaped into her room, breathless with laughter. And sometimes he was so tired he lay down on the sofa and she made him a cup of coffee before she went to bed. But he had never ever sent her off to her room so brusquely.

A foreboding, clammy and fearful, came into her heart as if, along with the visitor whose name was so strange yet somehow familiar, some menace had slipped into her life. And she wished – so hard it frightened her – that she had never fetched Mo, and Dustfinger had stayed outside until the rain washed him away.

When the door of the workshop opened again she jumped.

‘Still there, I see,’ said Mo. ‘Go to bed, Meggie. Please.’ He had that little frown over his nose that appeared only when something was really worrying him, and he seemed to look straight through her as if his thoughts were somewhere else entirely. The foreboding in Meggie’s heart grew, spreading black wings.

‘Send him away, Mo!’ she said as he gently propelled her towards her room. ‘Please! Send him away. I don’t like him.’

Mo leaned in her open doorway. ‘He’ll be gone when you get up in the morning. Word of honour.’

‘Word of honour – no crossed fingers?’ Meggie looked him straight in the eye. She could always tell when Mo was lying, however hard he tried to hide it from her.

‘No crossed fingers,’ he said, holding both hands out to show her.

Then he closed her door, even though he knew she didn’t like that. Meggie put her ear to it, listening. She could hear the clink of china. So the man with the sandy beard was getting a nice cup of tea to warm him up. I hope he catches pneumonia, thought Meggie … though he needn’t necessarily die of it. Meggie heard the kettle whistling in the kitchen, and Mo carrying a tray of clattering crockery back to the workshop. When that door closed she forced herself to wait a few more seconds, just to be on the safe side. Then she crept back out into the passage.

There was a notice hanging on the door of Mo’s workshop, a small metal plaque. Meggie knew the words on it by heart. When she was five she had often practised reading the old-fashioned, spindly lettering:

Some books should be tasted

some devoured,

but only a few

should be chewed and digested thoroughly.

Back then, when she still had to climb on a box to read the plaque, she had thought the chewing and digesting were meant literally and wondered, horrified, why Mo had hung on his workshop door the words of someone who vandalised books. Now, she knew what the plaque really meant, but tonight she wasn’t interested in written words. Spoken words were what she wanted to hear, the words being exchanged in soft, almost inaudible whispers by the two men on the other side of the door.

‘Don’t underestimate him!’ she heard Dustfinger say. His voice was so different from Mo’s. No one else in the world had a voice like her father’s. Mo could paint pictures in the empty air with his voice alone.

‘He’d do anything to get hold of it.’ That was Dustfinger again. ‘And when I say anything, I can assure you I mean anything.’

‘I’ll never let him have it.’ That was Mo.

‘He’ll still get his hands on it, one way or another! I tell you, they’re on your trail.’

‘It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve always managed to shake them off before.’

‘Oh yes? And for how much longer, do you think? What about your daughter? Are you telling me she actually likes moving around the whole time? Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.’

It was so quiet behind the door that Meggie scarcely dared breathe in case the two men heard her.

Finally her father spoke again, hesitantly, as if his tongue found it difficult to form the words. ‘Then what do you think I ought to do?’

‘Come with me. I’ll take you to them.’ A cup clinked. The sound of a spoon against china. How loud small noises sound in a silence. ‘You know how much Capricorn thinks of your talents. He’d be glad if you took it to him of your own free will, I’m sure he would. The man he found to replace you is useless.’

Capricorn. Another peculiar name. Dustfinger had uttered it as if the mere sound might scorch his tongue. Meggie wriggled her chilly toes and wrinkled her cold nose. She didn’t understand much of what the two men were saying, but she tried to memorise every single word of it.

It was quiet again in the workshop.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Mo at last. He sounded so weary that it tore at Meggie’s heart. ‘I’ll have to think about it. When do you think his men will get here?’

‘Soon!’

The word dropped like a stone into the silence.

‘Soon,’ repeated Mo. ‘Very well. I’ll have made up my mind by tomorrow. Do you have somewhere to sleep?’

‘Oh, I can always find a place,’ replied Dustfinger. ‘I’m managing quite well these days, although it’s still all much too fast for me.’ His laugh was not a happy one. ‘But I’d like to know what you decide. May I come back tomorrow? About midday?’

‘Yes, of course. I’ll be picking Meggie up from school at one-thirty. Come after that.’

Meggie heard a chair being pushed back, and scurried back to her room. When the door of the workshop opened she was just closing her bedroom door behind her. Pulling the covers up to her chin, she lay there listening as her father said goodbye to Dustfinger.

‘And thank you for the warning anyway,’ she heard him add as Dustfinger’s footsteps moved away, slowly and uncertainly as if he were reluctant to leave, as if he hadn’t said everything he’d wanted to say. But at last he was gone, and only the rain kept drumming its wet fingers on Meggie’s window.

When Mo opened the door of her room she quickly closed her eyes and tried to breathe as slowly as you do in a deep, innocent sleep. But Mo wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was sometimes terribly clever.

‘Meggie, put one of your feet out of bed,’ he told her. Reluctantly, she stuck her toes out from under the blanket and laid them in Mo’s warm hand. They were still cold.

‘I knew it!’ he said. ‘You’ve been spying. Can’t you do as I tell you, just for once?’ Sighing, he tucked her foot back underneath the nice warm blankets. Then he sat down on her bed, passed his hands over his tired face and looked out of the window. His hair was as dark as moleskin. Meggie had fair hair like her mother, who she knew only from a few faded photographs. ‘You should be glad you look more like her than me,’ Mo always said. ‘My head wouldn’t look at all good on a girl’s neck.’ But Meggie wished she did look more like him. There wasn’t a face in the world she loved more.

‘I didn’t hear what you were saying anyway,’ she murmured.

‘Good.’ Mo stared out of the window as if Dustfinger were still standing in the yard. Then he rose and went to the door. ‘Try to get some sleep,’ he said.

But Meggie didn’t want to sleep. ‘Dustfinger! What sort of a name is that?’ she asked. ‘And why does he call you Silvertongue?’

Mo did not reply.

‘And this person who’s looking for you – I heard what Dustfinger called him. Capricorn. Who is he?’

‘No one you want to meet.’ Her father didn’t turn round. ‘I thought you didn’t hear anything. Goodnight, Meggie.’

This time he left her door open. The light from the passage fell on her bed, mingling with the darkness of the night that seeped in through the window, and Meggie lay there waiting for the dark to disappear and take her fear of some evil menace away with it. Only later did she understand that the evil had not appeared for the first time that night. It had just slunk back in again.

2

Secrets

‘What do these children do without storybooks?’ Naftali asked.

And Reb Zebulun replied: ‘They have to make do. Storybooks aren’t bread. You can live without them.’

‘I couldn’t live without them,’ Naftali said.

Isaac Bashevis Singer,

Naftali the Storyteller and his Horse Sus

It was early dawn when Meggie woke up. Night was fading over the fields as if the rain had washed the darkness out of the hem of its garment. The alarm clock said just before five, and Meggie was going to turn over and go back to sleep when she suddenly sensed someone else in the room. Startled, she sat up and saw Mo standing by her open wardrobe.

‘Hello,’ he said, putting her favourite sweater in a case. ‘I’m sorry, I know it’s very early, but we have to leave. How about cocoa for breakfast?’

Still drowsy with sleep, Meggie nodded. Outside, the birds were twittering loudly as if they’d been awake for hours. Mo put two more pairs of jeans in her case, closed it and carried it to the door. ‘Wear something warm,’ he said. ‘It’s chilly outside.’

‘Where are we going?’ asked Meggie, but he had already disappeared. She looked out of the window, feeling confused. She almost expected to see Dustfinger, but there was only a blackbird in the yard hopping over the stones, which were wet after the rain. Meggie put on her jeans and stumbled into the kitchen. Two suitcases, a travelling bag and Mo’s toolbox stood out in the hall.

Her father was sitting at the kitchen table making sandwiches for the journey. When she came into the kitchen he looked up briefly and smiled at her, but Meggie could see he was worried about something. ‘Mo, we can’t go away now!’ she said. ‘The school holidays don’t start for another week!’

‘Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve had to go away on business in your term-time.’

He was right about that. In fact, he went away quite often, whenever an antique dealer, a book collector or a library needed a bookbinder and commissioned Mo to restore a few valuable old books, freeing them of dust and mould or dressing them in new clothes, as he put it. Meggie didn’t think the word ‘bookbinder’ described Mo’s work particularly well, and a few years ago she had made him a notice to hang on his workshop door saying ‘Mortimer Folchart, Book Doctor’. And the book doctor never called on his patients without taking his daughter too. They had always done that and they always would, never mind what Meggie’s teachers said.

‘How about chicken-pox? Have I used that excuse already?’

‘Yes, last time. When we had to go and see that dreary man with the Bibles.’ Meggie scrutinised her father’s face. ‘Mo. Is it … is it because of last night we have to leave?’

For a moment she thought he was going to tell her everything – whatever there was to tell. But then he shook his head. ‘No, of course not,’ he said, putting the sandwiches he had made in a plastic bag. ‘Your mother has an aunt called Elinor. We visited her once, when you were very small. She’s been wanting me to come and put her books in order for a long time. She lives beside a lake in the north of Italy, I always forget which lake, but it’s a lovely place, a day’s drive away.’ He did not look at her as he spoke.

Meggie wanted to ask: but why do we have to go now? But she didn’t. Nor did she ask if he had forgotten that he was meeting someone at midday. She was too afraid of the answers – and she didn’t want Mo to lie to her again.

‘Is this aunt as peculiar as the others?’ was all she said. Mo had already taken her to visit various relations. Both he and Meggie’s mother had large families whose homes, so far as Meggie could see, were scattered over half of Europe.

Mo smiled. ‘Yes, she is a bit peculiar, but you’ll get on with her all right. She has some really wonderful books.’

‘So how long are we going to be away?’

‘It could be quite some time.’

Meggie sipped her cocoa. It was so hot that she burned her lips, and had to quickly press the cold blade of a knife to her mouth.

Mo pushed his chair back. ‘I have to pack a few more things from the workshop,’ he said. ‘It won’t take long. You must be very tired, but you can sleep once we’re in the van.’

Meggie just nodded and looked out of the kitchen window. It was a grey morning. Mist drifted over the fields at the foot of the nearby hills, and Meggie felt as if the shadows of the night were still hiding among the trees.

‘Pack up the food and take plenty to read!’ Mo called from the hall. As if she didn’t always! Years ago he had made her a box to hold her favourite books on all their journeys, short and long, near and far. ‘It’s a good idea to have your own books with you in a strange place,’ Mo always said. He himself always took at least a dozen.

Mo had painted the box poppy-red. Poppies were Meggie’s favourite flower. They pressed well between the pages of a book, and you could stamp a star-shaped pattern on your skin with their pepper-pot seed capsules. He had decorated the box and painted Meggie’s Treasure Chest in lovely curly lettering on the lid. The box was lined with shiny black taffeta, but you could hardly see any of the fabric because Meggie had a great many favourite books, and she always added another whenever they travelled anywhere. ‘If you take a book with you on a journey,’ Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, ‘an odd thing happens: the book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice-cream you ate while you were reading it … yes, books are like flypapers. Memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.’

He was probably right, but there was another reason why Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange – familiar voices, friends that never quarrelled with her, clever, powerful friends, daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventurers who had travelled far and wide. Her books cheered her up when she was sad, and kept her from being bored while Mo cut leather and fabric to the right size, and re-stitched old pages that over countless years had grown fragile from the many fingers leafing through them.

Some of her books always went away with Meggie. Others were left at home because they weren’t right for where she was going, or to make room for new, unknown stories that she hadn’t yet read.

Meggie stroked their curved spines. Which books should she take this time? Which stories would help to drive away the fear that had crept into the house last night? I know, thought Meggie, why not a story about telling lies? Mo told her lies. He told terrible lies, even though he knew that every time he told one she looked hard at his nose. Pinocchio, thought Meggie. No, too sinister. And too sad. But she wanted something exciting, a story to drive all other thoughts out of her head, even the darkest. The Witches, yes. She’d take the bald-headed witches who turn children into mice – and The Odyssey, with the Cyclops and the enchantress who transforms his warriors into pigs. Her journey could hardly be more dangerous than his, could it?

On the left-hand side of the box there were two picture books that Meggie had used when she was teaching herself to read – five years old, she’d been, and you could still see where her tiny forefinger had moved over the pages – and right at the bottom, hidden under all the others, were the books Meggie had made herself. She had spent days sticking them together and cutting up the paper, she had painted picture after picture, and Mo had to write what they were underneath them. An Angel With a Happy Face, from Meggi for Mo. She had written her name herself, although back then she always left the ‘e’ off the end. Meggie looked at the clumsy lettering and put the little book back in the box. Mo had helped her with the binding, of course. He had bound all her home-made books in brightly patterned paper, and he had given her a stamp for the others so that she could print her name and the head of a unicorn on the title page, sometimes in black ink and sometimes in red, depending how she felt. But Mo had never read aloud to her from her books. Not once.

He had tossed Meggie up in the air, he had carried her round the house on his shoulders, he had taught her how to make a bookmark of blackbird’s feathers. But he had never read aloud to her. Never once, not a single word, however often she put books on his lap. Meggie just had to teach herself how to decipher the black marks and open the treasure chest.

She straightened up. There was still a little room in the box. Perhaps Mo had a new book she could take, a specially big, fat, wonderful book …

The door to his workshop was closed.

‘Mo?’ Meggie pressed the handle down. The long table where he worked had been swept clean, with not a stamp, nor a knife in sight. Mo had packed everything. Had he been lying after all?

Meggie went into the workshop and looked around. The door to the Treasury was open. The Treasury was really just a lumber-room, but Meggie had given the little cubby-hole that name because it was where her father stored his most precious materials: the finest leather, the most beautiful fabrics, marbled paper, stamps to print patterns in gold on soft leather … Meggie put her head round the open door and saw Mo covering a book with brown paper. It was not a particularly large book, and not especially fat. The green linen binding looked worn, but that was all Meggie could see, because Mo quickly hid the book behind his back as soon as he noticed her.

‘What are you doing here?’ he snapped.

‘I—’ For a moment Meggie was speechless with shock, Mo’s face was so dark. ‘I only wanted to ask if you had a new book for me. I’ve read all the ones in my room, and …’

Mo passed his hand over his face. ‘Yes, of course. I’m sure I can find something,’ he said, but his eyes were still saying: go away, go away, Meggie. And the brown paper crackled behind his back. ‘I’ll be with you in a moment,’ he said. ‘I have a few more things to pack. OK?’

A little later he brought her three books, but the one he had been covering with brown paper wasn’t one of them.

An hour later, they were taking everything out into the yard. Meggie shivered when she stepped out of doors. It was a chilly morning after the night’s rain, and the sun hung in the sky like a pale coin lost by someone high up in the clouds.

They had been living in the old farmhouse for just under a year. Meggie liked the view of the surrounding hills, the swallows’ nests under the roof, the dried-up well that yawned darkly as if it went straight down to the Earth’s core. The house itself had always been too big and draughty for her liking, with all those empty rooms full of fat spiders, but the rent was low and Mo had enough space for his books and his workshop. There was a hen-house outside, and the barn, which now housed only their old camper van, would have been perfect for a couple of cows or a horse. ‘Cows have to be milked, Meggie,’ Mo had said when she suggested keeping a couple. ‘Very, very early in the morning. Every day.’

‘Well, what about a horse?’ she had asked. ‘Even Pippi Longstocking has a horse, and she doesn’t have a stable.’

She’d have been happy with a few chickens or a goat, but they too had to be fed every day, and she and Mo went away too often for that. So Meggie had only the ginger cat who sometimes came visiting when it couldn’t be bothered to compete with the dogs on the farm next door. The grumpy old farmer who lived there was their only neighbour. Sometimes his dogs howled so pitifully that Meggie put her hands over her ears. It was twenty minutes by bike to the nearest village, where she went to school and where two of her friends lived, but Mo usually took her in the van because it was a lonely ride along a narrow road that wound past nothing but fields and dark trees.

‘What on earth have you packed in here? Bricks?’ asked Mo as he carried Meggie’s book-box out of the house.

‘You’re the one who says books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them,’ said Meggie, making him laugh for the first time that morning.

The camper van, standing in the abandoned barn like a solid, multicoloured animal, was more familiar to Meggie than any of the houses where she and Mo had lived. She never slept more deeply and soundly than in the bed he had made in it for her. There was a table too, of course, a kitchen tucked into a corner and a bench to sit on. When you lifted the seat of the bench there were travel guides, road maps and well-worn paperbacks under it.

Yes, Meggie was fond of the van, but this morning she hesitated to get in. When Mo finally went back to the house to lock the door, she suddenly felt that they would never come back here, that this journey was going to be different from any other, that they would drive further and further away, in flight from something that had no name. Or at least none that Mo was about to tell her.

‘Very well, off we go south,’ was all he said as he got behind the steering wheel. And so they set off, without saying goodbye to anyone, on a morning that still seemed much too early and smelled of rain.

But Dustfinger was waiting for them at the gate.

3

Going South

‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wild World,’ said the Rat. ‘And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or to me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’

Kenneth Grahame,

The Wind in the Willows

Dustfinger must have been waiting in the road beyond the wall. Meggie had picked her precarious way along the top of that wall hundreds of times, up to the rusty hinges of the gate and back again, eyes tightly closed so that she could get a clearer view of the tiger she’d imagined waiting in the bamboo at the foot of the wall, his eyes yellow as amber, or the foaming rapids to her right and her left.

Only Dustfinger was there now, but no other sight could have made Meggie’s heart beat faster. He appeared so suddenly that Mo almost ran him down. He wore only a sweater, and he was shivering, with his arms folded over his chest. His coat was probably still damp from last night’s rain, but his hair was dry now – a ruffled, sandy mop above his scarred face.

Mo swore under his breath, switched off the engine and got out of the van.

Smiling his strange smile, Dustfinger leaned back against the wall. ‘Where are you going in such a hurry, Silvertongue? Didn’t we have a date?’ he asked. ‘You stood me up like this once before, remember?’

‘You know why I’m in a hurry,’ replied Mo. ‘For the same reason as last time.’ He was still standing by the open door of the van, looking tense, as if he couldn’t wait for Dustfinger to get out of the way. But Dustfinger pretended not to notice Mo’s impatience.

‘Then may I know where you’re going?’ he enquired. ‘It took me four years to find you last time, and if luck hadn’t been on your side Capricorn’s men would have got to you first.’ When he glanced at Meggie she stared back icily.

Mo was silent for a while. ‘Capricorn is in the north,’ he answered at last. ‘So we’re going south. Or has he taken up residence somewhere else now?’

Dustfinger looked down the road. Last night’s rain shone in the potholes. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘No, he’s still in the north. Or so I hear, and since you’ve obviously made up your mind to go on refusing him what he wants I’d better go south myself as fast as I can. Heaven knows I don’t want to be the one to give Capricorn’s men the bad news. So, if you’d give me a lift part of the way? … I’m ready to leave.’ The two bags he picked up from where they stood by the wall looked as if they’d been all round the world a dozen times. Apart from the bags, Dustfinger had nothing but his rucksack with him.

Meggie compressed her lips.

No, Mo, she thought, no, let’s not take him! But she had only to look at her father to know that his answer would be different.

‘Oh, come on, Silvertongue!’ said Dustfinger. ‘What am I going to tell Capricorn’s men if I fall into their hands?’

He looked lost, standing there like a stray dog. And hard as Meggie tried to see something sinister about him she couldn’t, not in the pale morning light. All the same, she didn’t want him to go with them. Her face showed that very clearly, but neither of the two men took any notice of her.

‘Believe me, I couldn’t keep the fact that I’ve seen you from them for very long,’ Dustfinger continued. ‘And anyway …’ he hesitated before completing his sentence, ‘you still owe me, don’t you?’

Mo bowed his head. Meggie saw his hand closing more firmly round the open door of the van. ‘If you want to look at it like that,’ he said, ‘yes, I suppose I do still owe you.’

The relief was plain to see on Dustfinger’s scarred face. He quickly hoisted his rucksack over his shoulders and came over to the van with his bags.

‘Wait a minute!’ cried Meggie, as Mo moved to help him. ‘If he’s coming with us then I want to know why we’re running away. Who is this man called Capricorn?’

Mo turned to her. ‘Meggie,’ he began in the tone she knew only too well: Meggie, don’t be so silly, it meant. Come along now, Meggie.

She opened the van door and jumped out.

‘Meggie, for heaven’s sake! Get back in! We have to leave!’

‘I’m not getting back in until you tell me.’

Mo came towards her but Meggie slipped away, and ran through the gate into the road.

‘Why won’t you tell me?’ she cried.

The road was deserted, as if there were no other human beings in the world. A slight breeze had risen, caressing Meggie’s face and rustling in the leaves of the lime tree that grew by the roadside. The sky was still wan and grey, and refused to clear.

‘I want to know what’s going on!’ cried Meggie. ‘I want to know why we had to get up at five o’clock, and why I don’t have to go to school. I want to know if we’re ever coming back, and I want to know who this Capricorn is!’

When she spoke the name Mo looked round as if the man with the strange name, the man he and Dustfinger obviously feared so much, might step out of the empty barn next moment as suddenly as Dustfinger had emerged from behind the wall. But the yard was empty, and Meggie was too furious to feel frightened of someone when she knew nothing about him other than his name. ‘You’ve always told me everything!’ she shouted at her father. ‘Always.’

But Mo was still silent. ‘Everyone has a few secrets, Meggie,’ he said at last. ‘Now, come along, do get in. We have to leave.’

Dustfinger looked first at Mo, then at Meggie, with an expression of incredulity on his face. ‘You haven’t told her?’ Meggie heard him ask in a low voice.

Mo shook his head.

‘But you have to tell her something! It’s dangerous for her not to know. She’s not a baby any more.’

‘It’s dangerous for her to know too,’ said Mo. ‘And it wouldn’t change anything.’

Meggie was still standing in the road.

‘I heard all that!’ she cried. ‘What’s dangerous? I’m not getting in until you tell me.’

Mo still said nothing.

Dustfinger looked at him, uncertain for a moment, then put down his bags. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll tell her about Capricorn myself.’

He came slowly towards Meggie, who involuntarily stepped back.

‘You met him once,’ said Dustfinger. ‘It’s a long time ago, you won’t remember, you were so little.’ He held his hand at knee-height in the air. ‘How can I explain what he’s like? If you were to see a cat eating a young bird I expect you’d cry, wouldn’t you? Or try to help the bird. Capricorn would feed the bird to the cat on purpose, just to watch it being torn apart, and the little creature’s screeching and struggling would be as sweet as honey to him.’

Meggie took another step backwards, but Dustfinger kept advancing towards her.

‘I don’t suppose you’d get any fun from terrifying people until their knees were so weak they could hardly stand?’ he asked. ‘Nothing gives Capricorn more pleasure. And I don’t suppose you think you can just help yourself to anything you want, never mind what or where. Capricorn does. Unfortunately, your father has something Capricorn has set his heart on.’

Meggie glanced at Mo, but he just stood there looking at her.

‘Capricorn can’t bind books like your father,’ Dustfinger went on. ‘In fact, he’s not much good at anything except terrifying people. But he’s a master of that art. It’s his whole life. I doubt if he himself has any idea what it’s like to be so paralysed by fear that you feel small and insignificant. But he knows just how to arouse that fear and spread it, in people’s homes and their beds, in their heads and their hearts. His men spread fear abroad like the Black Death, they push it under doors and through letterboxes, they paint it on walls and stable doors until it infects everything around it of its own accord, silent and stinking like a plague.’ Dustfinger was very close to Meggie now. ‘Capricorn has many men,’ he said softly. ‘Most have been with him since they were children, and if Capricorn were to order one of them to cut off your nose or one of your ears he’d do it without batting an eyelid. They like to dress in black like rooks – only their leader wears a white shirt under his black jacket – and should you ever meet any of them then make yourself small, very small, and hope they don’t notice you. Understand?’

Meggie nodded. Her heart was pounding so hard that she could scarcely breathe.

‘I can see why your father has never told you about Capricorn,’ said Dustfinger, looking at Mo. ‘If I had children I’d rather tell them about nice people too.’

‘I know the world’s not just full of nice people!’ Meggie couldn’t keep her voice from shaking with anger, and more than a touch of fear.

‘Oh yes? How do you know that?’ There it was again, that mysterious smile, sad and supercilious at the same time. ‘Have you ever had anything to do with a real villain?’

‘I’ve read about them.’

Dustfinger laughed aloud. ‘Yes, of course that almost comes to the same thing!’ he said. His mockery hurt like stinging nettles. He bent down to Meggie and looked her in the face. ‘All the same, I hope reading about them is as close as you ever get,’ he said quietly.

Mo was stowing Dustfinger’s bags in the back of the van.

‘I hope there’s nothing in there that might come flying round our heads,’ he said as Dustfinger got in the back seat behind Meggie. ‘With your trade I wouldn’t be surprised.’

Before Meggie could ask what trade that was, Dustfinger opened his rucksack and carefully lifted out an animal. It was blinking sleepily. ‘Since we obviously have quite a long journey ahead of us,’ he told Mo, ‘I’d like to introduce someone to your daughter.’

The creature was almost the size of a rabbit, but much thinner, with a bushy tail now draped over Dustfinger’s chest like a fur collar. It dug its slender claws into his sleeve while inspecting Meggie with its gleaming beady black eyes, and when it yawned it bared teeth as sharp as needles.

‘This is Gwin,’ said Dustfinger. ‘You can tickle him behind the ears if you like. He’s very sleepy at the moment, so he won’t bite.’

‘Does he usually?’ asked Meggie.

‘Yes,’ said Mo, getting back behind the wheel. ‘If I were you I’d keep my fingers away from that little brute.’

But Meggie couldn’t keep her hands off any animal, however sharp its teeth. ‘He’s a marten or something like that, right?’ she asked.

‘Something of that nature.’ Dustfinger put his hand in his trouser pocket and gave Gwin a piece of dry bread. Meggie stroked his little head as he chewed – and her fingertips found something hard under the silky fur: tiny horns growing beside his ears. Surprised, she took her hand away. ‘Do martens have horns?’

Dustfinger winked at her and let Gwin climb back into the rucksack. ‘This one does,’ he said.

Bewildered, Meggie watched him do up the straps. She felt as if she were still touching Gwin’s little horns. ‘Mo, did you know that martens have horns?’ she asked.

‘Oh, Dustfinger stuck them on that sharp-toothed little devil of his. For his performances.’

‘What kind of performances?’ Meggie looked enquiringly, first at Mo, then at Dustfinger, but Mo just started the engine and Dustfinger, who seemed to have come far, judging by his bags, took off his boots and stretched out on Mo’s bed in the van with a deep sigh. ‘Don’t give me away, Silvertongue,’ he said before he closed his eyes. ‘I have my own secrets, you know. And for those I need darkness.’

They must have driven fifty kilometres, and Meggie was still trying to work out what he could possibly have meant.

‘Mo?’ she asked, when Dustfinger began snoring behind them. ‘What does this Capricorn want from you?’ She lowered her voice before she spoke the name, as if that might remove some of the menace from it.

‘A book,’ replied Mo, without taking his eyes off the road.

‘A book? Then why not give it to him?’

‘I can’t. I’ll explain soon, but not now, all right?’

Meggie looked out of the van window. The world they were passing outside already looked unfamiliar – unfamiliar houses, unfamiliar roads, unfamiliar fields, even the trees and the sky looked unfamiliar – but Meggie was used to that. She had never really felt at home anywhere. Mo was her home, Mo and her books, and perhaps the camper van that carried them from one place to the next.

‘This aunt we’re going to see,’ she said, as they drove through an endless tunnel. ‘Does she have any children?’

‘No,’ said Mo, ‘and I’m afraid she doesn’t particularly like children either. But as I said, I’m sure you’ll get on well with her.’

Meggie sighed. She could remember several aunts, and she hadn’t ‘got on’ particularly well with any of them.

They were driving through mountains now, the slopes on both sides of the road rose ever more steeply, and there came a point where the houses looked not just unfamiliar but really different. Meggie tried to pass the time by counting tunnels, but when the ninth swallowed them up and the darkness went on and on she fell asleep. She dreamed of martens in black jackets and a book in a brown-paper cover.

4

A House Full of Books

There is a sort of busy worm,

That will the fairest book deform.

Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint

The poet, patriot, sage or saint,

Nor sparing wit nor learning.

Now, if you’d know the reason why,

The best of reasons I’ll supply:

’Tis bread to the poor vermin.

J. Doraston, quoted by W. Blades

Meggie woke up because it was so quiet. The regular sound of the engine that had lulled her to sleep had stopped. The driver’s seat beside her was empty. It took Meggie a little while to remember why she wasn’t in bed at home. Tiny dead flies were stuck to the windscreen, and the van was parked outside an iron gate. It looked alarming, with sharp ashen-grey spikes, a gate made of spearheads just waiting to impale anyone who tried to clamber over. It reminded Meggie of one of her favourite stories, the tale of the Selfish Giant who wouldn’t let children into his garden. This was exactly how she had imagined his garden gate.

Mo was standing in the road with Dustfinger. Meggie got out and went over to them. On the right of the road a densely wooded slope fell steeply to the bank of a wide lake. The hills on the other side rose from the lake like giants emerging from the depths. The water was almost black, and pale twilight, darkly reflected in the waves, was already spreading across the sky. The first lights were coming on in the houses on the bank, looking like glow-worms or fallen stars.

‘A lovely place, isn’t it?’ Mo put his arm round Meggie’s shoulders. ‘I know you like stories about robbers. See that ruined castle? A notorious robber band once lived there. I must ask Elinor about them. She knows everything about this lake.’

Meggie just nodded and rested her head against his shoulder. She was so tired that she felt quite dizzy, but for the first time since they had set off Mo’s face wasn’t looking grim with anxiety. ‘Where does she live, then?’ asked Meggie, stifling a yawn. ‘Not behind that spiky gate?’

‘Actually, yes. This is the entrance to her property. Not very inviting, is it?’ Mo laughed and led Meggie across the road. ‘Elinor is very proud of this gate. She had it specially made. It’s copied from a picture in a book.’

‘A picture of the Selfish Giant’s garden?’ murmured Meggie, peering through the intricately twining iron bars.

‘The Selfish Giant?’ Mo laughed. ‘No, I think it was another story. Although that one would suit Elinor pretty well.’

Tall hedges grew on both sides of the gate, their thorny branches hiding any view of what lay beyond. But even through the iron bars Meggie could see nothing promising except for tall rhododendron bushes and a broad gravel drive that soon disappeared between them.

‘Looks like you have rich relations,’ Dustfinger whispered in her ear.

‘Yes, Elinor is quite rich,’ said Mo, drawing Meggie away from the gate. ‘But she’ll probably end up poor as a church mouse because she spends so much money on books. I think she’d sell her soul to the Devil without thinking twice if he offered her the right book for it.’ He pushed the heavy gate open with a single movement.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Meggie in alarm. ‘We can’t just drive in.’ For there was a notice beside the door, still clearly legible even if some of the letters were partly hidden by the leaves of the hedge:

PRIVATE PROPERTY.

NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY.

Meggie didn’t think it sounded very inviting.

Mo, however, only laughed. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, opening the gate wider. ‘The only thing Elinor guards with a burglar alarm is her library. She couldn’t care less who walks through this gate. She’s not what you’d call a nervous woman, and she doesn’t have many visitors anyway.’

‘What about dogs?’ Dustfinger peered anxiously into the strange garden. ‘That gate suggests at least three ferocious dogs to me. Big ones, the size of calves.’

But Mo just shook his head. ‘Elinor hates dogs,’ he said, going back to the van. ‘Right, get in.’

Elinor’s grounds were more like a wood than a garden. Once they were through the gateway the drive curved, as if taking a deep breath before going on up the slope, then lost itself among dark firs and chestnut trees which grew so close together that their branches made a tunnel. Meggie was just thinking it would never end when the trees suddenly receded, and the drive brought them to an open space covered with gravel and surrounded by carefully tended rose beds.

A grey estate car stood on the gravel in front of a house that was bigger than the school Meggie had been attending for the last year. She tried to count the windows, but soon gave up. It was a very beautiful house but looked just as uninviting as the iron gate. Perhaps it was only the evening twilight that made the ochre-yellow of the plaster look so dirty. And perhaps the green shutters were closed only because night was already falling over the surrounding mountains. Perhaps. But Meggie would have bet her last book they were seldom open even in the daytime.

The dark wooden front door looked as forbidding as a tightly closed mouth, and Meggie involuntarily reached for Mo’s hand as they approached it.

Dustfinger followed warily, with his battered rucksack over his shoulder. Gwin was probably still asleep inside it. When Mo and Meggie went up to the door he kept a couple of steps behind them, looking uneasily at the closed shutters as if he suspected that the mistress of the house was watching them from one of the windows.

There was a small barred window beside the front door, the only one not hidden behind green shutters. Below it was another notice:

IF YOU INTEND TO WASTE MY TIME

ON TRIVIA, YOU’D BETTER GO AWAY NOW!

Meggie cast Mo an anxious glance, but he only made an encouraging face at her and pressed the bell.

Meggie heard it ringing inside the big house, but nothing happened for quite a while. A magpie fluttered out of one of the rhododendron bushes growing near the house, and a couple of fat sparrows pecked busily at invisible insects in the gravel, but that was all. Meggie was just throwing them the breadcrumbs she had found in her jacket pocket – left over from a picnic on some long-forgotten day – when the door suddenly opened.

The woman who came out was older than Mo, quite a lot older – although Meggie could never be quite sure how old grown-ups were. Her face reminded Meggie of a bulldog, but perhaps that was more her ferocious expression than its features. She wore a mouse-grey sweater and an ash-grey skirt, with a pearl necklace round her short neck and felt slippers on her feet, the kind of slippers Meggie had once had to wear when she and Mo had visited an historic castle. Elinor’s hair was grey too. She had pinned it up, but strands were hanging down everywhere as if she had done it impatiently and in a hurry. She didn’t look as if she spent much time in front of a mirror.

‘Good heavens, Mortimer! What a surprise!’ she said, without wasting time on further greetings. ‘Where did you spring from?’ Her voice sounded brusque, but her face couldn’t entirely hide the fact that she was pleased to see Mo.

‘Hello, Elinor,’ said Mo, putting his hand on Meggie’s shoulder. ‘Do you remember Meggie? As you can see, she’s grown up quite a bit now.’

Elinor cast Meggie a brief, irritated glance. ‘Yes, so I see,’ she said. ‘It’s only natural for children to grow, wouldn’t you say? As far as I remember, it’s been some years since I last set eyes on either you or your daughter, so to what do I owe the unexpected honour of your visit today? Are you finally going to take pity on my poor books?’

‘That’s right.’ Mo nodded. ‘One of my library commissions has been postponed – you know how libraries are always short of money.’

Meggie looked at him uneasily. She hadn’t realised he could lie quite so convincingly.

‘And because it was so sudden,’ Mo continued, ‘I couldn’t find anywhere for Meggie to go, so I brought her with me. I know you don’t like children, but Meggie won’t leave jam on your books or tear out pages to wrap up dead frogs.’

Elinor muttered something suspicious, and scrutinised Meggie as if she thought her capable of any kind of disgraceful conduct, whatever her father might say. ‘When you last brought her we could at least put her in a playpen,’ she remarked coldly. ‘I don’t suppose that would do now.’ Once again, she looked Meggie up and down as if she were being asked to admit a dangerous animal to her house.

Meggie felt her anger make the blood rise to her face. She wanted to go home, or get back in the camper van and go somewhere else, anywhere, so long as she didn’t have to stay with this horrible woman whose cold pebble eyes were boring holes in her face.

Elinor’s gaze moved from Meggie to Dustfinger, who was still standing in the background looking awkward. ‘And who’s this?’ She looked enquiringly at Mo. ‘Do I know him?’

‘This is Dustfinger, a … a friend of mine.’ Perhaps only Meggie noticed Mo’s hesitation. ‘He wants to go on south, but maybe you could put him up for a night in one of your many rooms?’

Elinor folded her arms. ‘Only on condition his name has nothing to do with the way he treats books,’ she said. ‘And he’ll have to put up with rather Spartan accommodation in the attic, because my library has grown a great deal over the last few years. Nearly all my guest bedrooms are full of books.’

‘How many books do you have?’ asked Meggie. She had grown up among piles of books, but even she couldn’t imagine there were books behind all the windows of this huge house.

Elinor inspected her again, this time with unconcealed contempt. ‘How many?’ she repeated. ‘Do you think I count them like buttons or peas? A very, very great many. There are probably more books in every single room of this house than you will ever read – and some of them are so valuable that I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you if you dared touch them. But as you’re a clever girl, or so your father assures me, you wouldn’t do that anyway, would you?’

Meggie didn’t reply. Instead, she imagined standing on tiptoe and spitting three times into this old witch’s face.

However, Mo just laughed. ‘You haven’t changed, Elinor,’ he remarked. ‘A tongue as sharp as a paper-knife. But I warn you, if you harm Meggie I’ll do the same to your beloved books.’

Elinor’s lips curled in a tiny smile. ‘Well said,’ she answered, stepping aside. ‘You obviously haven’t changed either. Come in. I’ll show you the books that need your help, and a few others as well.’

Meggie had always thought Mo had a lot of books. She never thought so again, not after setting foot in Elinor’s house.

There were no haphazard piles lying around as they did at home. Every book obviously had its place. But where other people have wallpaper, pictures, or just an empty wall, Elinor had bookshelves. The shelves were white and went right up to the ceiling in the entrance hall through which she had first led them, but in the next room and the corridor beyond it the shelves were as black as the tiles on the floor.

‘These books,’ announced Elinor with a dismissive gesture as they passed the closely-ranked spines, ‘have accumulated over the years. They’re not particularly valuable, mostly of mediocre quality, nothing out of the ordinary. Should certain fingers be unable to control themselves and take one off the shelf now and then,’ she added, casting a brief glance at Meggie, ‘I don’t suppose the consequences would be too serious. Just so long as once those fingers have satisfied their curiosity they put every book back in its right place again and don’t leave any unappetising bookmarks inside.’ Here, Elinor turned to Mo. ‘Believe it or not,’ she said, ‘I actually found a dried-up slice of salami used as a bookmark in one of the last books I bought, a wonderful nineteenth-century first edition.’

Meggie couldn’t help giggling, which naturally earned her another stern look. ‘It’s nothing to laugh about, young lady,’ said Elinor. ‘Some of the most wonderful books ever printed were lost because some fool of a fishmonger tore out their pages to wrap his stinking fish. In the Middle Ages, thousands of books were destroyed when people cut up their bindings to make soles for shoes or to heat steam baths with their paper.’ The thought of such incredible abominations, even if they had occurred centuries ago, made Elinor gasp for air. ‘Well, let’s forget about that,’ she said, ‘or I shall get overexcited. My blood pressure’s much too high as it is.’

She had stopped in front of a door which had an anchor with a dolphin coiled around it painted on the white wood. ‘This is a famous printer’s special sign,’ explained Elinor, stroking the dolphin’s pointed nose with one finger. ‘Just the thing for a library door, eh?’

‘I know,’ said Meggie. ‘Aldus Manutius. He lived in Venice and printed books the right size to fit into his customers’ saddlebags.’

‘Really?’ Elinor wrinkled her brow, intrigued. ‘I didn’t know that. In any case, I am the fortunate owner of a book that he printed with his own hands in the year 1503.’

‘You mean it’s from his workshop,’ Meggie corrected her.

‘Of course that’s what I mean.’ Elinor cleared her throat and gave Mo a reproachful glance, as if it could only be his fault that his daughter was precocious enough to know such things. Then she put her hand on the door handle. ‘No child,’ she said, as she pressed the handle down with almost solemn reverence, ‘has ever before passed through this door, but as I assume your father has taught you a certain respect for books I’ll make an exception today. However, only on condition you keep at least three paces away from the shelves. Is that agreed?’

For a moment Meggie felt like saying no, it wasn’t. She would have loved to surprise Elinor by showing contempt for her precious books, but she couldn’t do it. Her curiosity was too much for her. She felt almost as if she could hear the books whispering on the other side of the half-open door. They were promising her a thousand unknown stories, a thousand doors into worlds she had never seen before. The temptation was stronger than Meggie’s pride.

‘Agreed,’ she murmured, clasping her hands behind her back. ‘Three paces.’ Her fingers were itching with desire.

‘Sensible child,’ said Elinor, so condescendingly that Meggie almost went back on her decision. But then they entered Elinor’s holy of holies.

‘You’ve had the place renovated,’ Meggie heard Mo say. He added something else, but she wasn’t listening any more. She was just staring at the books. The shelves on which they stood smelled of freshly sawn wood. They went all the way up to a sky-blue ceiling with tiny lights in it, hanging there like stars. Narrow wooden stepladders on castors stood by the shelves, ready to help any reader up to the top shelves. There were reading desks with books lying open on them, held in place by brass chains that shone like gold. There were glass display cases containing books with pages stained by age but showing the most wonderful pictures. Meggie couldn’t resist moving closer. One step forward, a quick glance at Elinor, who luckily had her back turned, and she was right beside the display case. She bent lower and lower over the glass until her nose was touching it.

Prickly leaves twined around pale brown letters. A tiny red dragon’s head was spitting out flowers over the stained paper. Riders on white horses looked at Meggie as if scarcely a day had passed since someone painted them with tiny marten-hair brushes. A man and woman stood beside them, perhaps a bridal couple. A man with a bright red hat was looking angrily at them.

‘You call that three paces?’

Meggie spun round in alarm, but Elinor didn’t seem too angry. ‘Yes, the art of illumination,’ she said. ‘Once only rich people could read, so the pictures painted round the letters were to help the poor to understand the stories too. Of course no one planned to give them pleasure – the poor were put into the world to work, not to have a nice time or look at pretty pictures. That kind of thing was only for the rich. No, the idea was to instruct the poor. Usually the stories came from the Bible and everyone knew them anyway. The books were put in churches, and a page was turned every day to show a new picture.’

‘What about this book?’ asked Meggie.

‘I shouldn’t think this one was ever in a church,’ replied Elinor. ‘More likely it was made for a very rich man to enjoy. It’s almost six hundred years old.’ There was no missing the pride in her voice. ‘People have committed murder for such a book. Luckily, I only had to buy it.’

As she spoke these last words she turned abruptly and looked at Dustfinger, who had followed them into the library, soundless as a prowling cat. For a moment Meggie thought Elinor would send him back into the corridor, but Dustfinger stood in front of the shelves looking so impressed, with his hands behind his back, that he gave her no reason to turn him out, so she just cast him a final distrustful glance and turned back to Mo.

He was standing at one of the reading desks with a book in his hand. Its spine hung only by a couple of threads. He held it very carefully, like a bird with a broken wing.

‘Well?’ asked Elinor anxiously. ‘Can you save it? I know it’s in terrible shape, and I’m afraid the others aren’t in a much better way, but …’

‘Oh, that can all be put right.’ Mo put the book down and inspected another. ‘But I think it will take me at least two weeks. If I don’t have to get hold of more materials, which could mean I need more time. Will you put up with us that long?’

‘Of course.’ Elinor nodded, but Meggie noticed the glance she cast at Dustfinger. He was still standing beside the shelves near the door and seemed entirely absorbed in looking at the books, but Meggie sensed that he had missed none of what was said behind his back.

There were no books in Elinor’s kitchen, not one, but they ate an excellent supper there at a wooden table that came, so Elinor assured them, from the scriptorium of an Italian monastery. Meggie doubted it. As far as she knew, the monks had worked at desks with sloping tops in the scriptoria of their monasteries, but she kept this information to herself. Instead, she took another slice of bread, and was just wondering how nice the cheese standing on the supposed scriptorium table would be when she noticed Mo whispering something to Elinor. Since Elinor’s eyes widened greedily, Meggie concluded that they could only be discussing a book, and she immediately thought of brown paper, a pale green linen binding, and the anger in Mo’s voice.

Beside her, Dustfinger surreptitiously slipped a slice of ham into his rucksack for Gwin’s supper. Meggie saw a round nose emerge from the rucksack, snuffling in the hope of more delicacies. Dustfinger smiled at Meggie when he noticed her looking at him and gave Gwin some more ham. He didn’t seem to find anything odd about Mo and Elinor’s whispering, but Meggie was sure the two of them were planning something secret.

After a short time Mo rose from the table and went out. Meggie asked Elinor where the bathroom was – and followed him.

It was a strange feeling to be spying on Mo. She couldn’t remember ever doing it before – except last night, when Dustfinger had arrived. And the time when she had tried to find out whether Mo was Father Christmas. She was ashamed of stealing after him like this, but it was his own fault. Why was he hiding the book from her? And now he might be going to give it to this Elinor – a book Meggie wasn’t allowed to see! Ever since Mo had hurriedly hidden it behind his back, Meggie hadn’t been able to get it out of her head. She had even looked for it in Mo’s bag before he loaded his things into the van, but she couldn’t find it.

She just had to see it before it disappeared, maybe into one of Elinor’s display cases! She had to know why it meant so much to Mo that, for its sake, he would drag her all the way here.

He looked round once more in the entrance hall before leaving the house, but Meggie ducked down behind a chest just in time. The chest smelled of mothballs and lavender. She decided to stay in hiding there until Mo came back. He’d be sure to see her if she went out of doors. Time passed painfully slowly, as it always does when you’re waiting for something with your heart thumping hard. The books in the white bookcases seemed to be watching Meggie, but they said nothing to her, as if they sensed that there was only one book Meggie could think about just now.

Finally, Mo came back carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. Perhaps he’s just going to hide it here, thought Meggie. Where could you hide a book better than among ten thousand others? Yes, Mo was going to leave it here and then they’d drive home again. But I would like to see it, thought Meggie, just once, before it’s put on one of those shelves I’m supposed to stay three paces away from.

Mo passed her so close that she could have touched him, but he didn’t notice her. ‘Meggie, don’t look at me like that!’ he sometimes told her. ‘You’re reading my thoughts again.’

Now he looked anxious – as if he wasn’t quite sure he was doing the right thing. Meggie counted slowly to three before following her father, but a couple of times Mo stopped so suddenly that Meggie almost ran into him. He didn’t return to the kitchen but went straight to the library. Without looking back once, he opened the door with the Venetian printer’s mark on it, and closed it quietly behind him.

So, there stood Meggie among all the silent books, wondering whether to follow him and ask him to show her the book. Would he be very angry? She was just about to summon up all her courage and go after him when she heard footsteps – rapid, firm footsteps, quick and impatient. That could only be Elinor. Now what?

Meggie opened the nearest door and slipped through it. A four-poster bed, a wardrobe, silver-framed photographs, a pile of books on the bedside table, a catalogue lying open on the rug, its pages full of pictures of old books. She was in Elinor’s bedroom. Heart thudding, she listened for noises outside; she could hear Elinor’s energetic footsteps and then the sound of the library door closing for the second time. Cautiously, she slipped out into the corridor again. She was still standing outside the library, undecided, when she felt a hand suddenly laid on her shoulder from behind. Another hand stifled her cry of alarm.

‘It’s only me!’ breathed Dustfinger into her ear. ‘Keep quiet or we’re both in trouble, understand?’

Meggie nodded, and Dustfinger slowly took his hand away from her mouth. ‘Your father’s going to give the old witch that book, right?’ he whispered. ‘Has he taken it out of the van? Tell me. He did have it with him, didn’t he?’

Meggie pushed him away. ‘I don’t know!’ she snapped. ‘Anyway, what business is it of yours?’

‘What business is it of mine?’ Dustfinger laughed quietly. ‘Well, perhaps I’ll tell you some time. But just now all I want to know is whether you’ve seen it.’

Meggie shook her head. She didn’t know herself why she was lying to Dustfinger. Perhaps because he had pressed his hand over her mouth a little too hard.

‘Meggie, listen to me!’ Dustfinger looked at her intently. His scars were like pale lines that someone had drawn on his cheeks: two slightly curved marks on the left cheek, a third and longer line on the right cheek running from ear to nostril. ‘Capricorn will kill your father if he doesn’t get that book!’ hissed Dustfinger. ‘Kill him, do you understand? Didn’t I tell you what he’s like? He wants the book, and he always gets what he wants. It’s ridiculous to believe it will be safe from him here.’

‘Mo doesn’t think so!’

Dustfinger straightened up and stared at the library door. ‘Yes, I know,’ he murmured. ‘That’s the trouble. And so,’ he said, putting both hands on Meggie’s shoulders and propelling her towards the closed door, ‘so now you’re going to go in there, the picture of innocence, and find out what the pair of them are planning to do with that book. OK?’

Meggie was about to protest, but before she knew it Dustfinger had opened the door and pushed her into the library.

5

Only a Picture

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him.

Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to this agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails … and when at last he goeth to his last punishment, let the flames of hell consume him for ever.

Curse on book thieves,

from the monastery of San Pedro,

Barcelona, Spain

They had unwrapped the book. Meggie saw the brown paper lying on a chair. Neither of them noticed that she had come in; Elinor was bending over one of the reading desks with Mo beside her. They both had their backs to the door.

‘Amazing. I thought there wasn’t a single copy left,’ Elinor was saying. ‘There are strange stories about this book going around. A second-hand dealer from whom I buy quite often told me that three copies were stolen from him a few years ago. All on the same day too. And I’ve heard much the same story from two other booksellers.’

‘Really? Yes, very strange,’ said Mo, but Meggie knew his voice well enough to know that he was only pretending to be surprised. ‘Well, anyway, even if this wasn’t a rare book it means a lot to me, and I’d like to be sure it’s in safe hands for a while. Just till I come back for it.’

‘All books are in safe hands with me,’ replied Elinor, sounding cross. ‘You know that. They’re my children, my inky children, and I look after them well. I keep the sunlight away from their pages, I dust them and protect them from hungry bookworms and grubby human fingers. This one shall have a place of honour, and no one will see it until you want it back. I don’t really welcome visitors to my library. They just leave fingerprints and stray hairs in my poor books. Anyway, as you know, I have a very expensive burglar alarm system.’

‘Yes, that’s extremely reassuring!’ Mo’s voice sounded relieved. ‘Thank you, Elinor! I really am most grateful. And if anyone comes knocking at your door in the near future asking about the book, please will you make out you’ve never heard of it, all right?’

‘Of course. I’d do anything for a good bookbinder, and anyway you’re my niece’s husband. I really do miss her sometimes, you know. I expect you feel the same. Your daughter seems to be getting on all right without her, though.’

‘She hardly remembers her mother,’ said Mo quietly.

‘Well, that’s a blessing, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes it’s a good thing we don’t remember things half as well as books do. But for them we probably wouldn’t know anything for very long. It would all be forgotten: the Trojan War, Columbus, Marco Polo, Shakespeare, all the amazing kings and gods of the past …’ Elinor turned round – and froze.

‘Did I fail to hear you knock?’ she asked, staring so angrily that Meggie had to summon up all her courage not to turn round and slip quickly back out into the passage.

‘How long have you been there, Meggie?’ asked Mo.

Meggie stuck her chin out. ‘She can see it, but you hide it away from me!’ she said. Attack, she knew, is the best form of defence. ‘You never hid any book from me before! What’s so special about this one? Will I go blind if I read it? Will it bite my fingers off? What terrible secrets are there in it that I mustn’t know?’

‘I have my reasons for not showing it to you,’ replied Mo. He looked very pale. Without another word he went over and tried to lead her to the door, but Meggie tore herself away.

‘Pig-headed, isn’t she?’ remarked Elinor. ‘It almost makes me like her! Her mother was just the same, I remember. Come here.’ She stepped aside and beckoned Meggie over. ‘Look, you can see there’s nothing very exciting about this book, at least not to you. But see for yourself. We’re always most likely to believe the evidence of our own eyes. Or doesn’t your father agree?’ She cast Mo an enquiring glance.

Mo hesitated, then resigned himself and nodded.

The book was lying open on the reading desk. It didn’t seem particularly old. Meggie knew what really old books looked like. She had seen books in Mo’s workshop with their pages spotted like leopard-skin and almost as yellow. She remembered one with a binding that had been attacked by woodworm. The traces of their jaws had looked like tiny bullet holes, and Mo had got out his book block, carefully fixed the pages back together, and then, as he put it, gave them a new dress. Such a dress could be made of leather or linen, it might be plain, or Mo might imprint a pattern on it with his tiny decorative stamps.

This book was bound in linen, silvery green like willow leaves. The edges of the pages were slightly roughened, and the paper was still so pale that every letter stood out clear and black. A narrow red bookmark lay between the open pages. The right-hand page had an illustration on it, showing women in magnificent dresses, a fire-eater, acrobats, and a man who looked like a king. Meggie turned the pages. There weren’t many illustrations, but the first letter of each chapter was itself a little decorative picture. Animals sat on some of these initial letters, plants twined round others, one ‘F’ burned bright as fire. The flames looked so real that Meggie touched them with one finger to make sure they weren’t hot. The next chapter began with an ‘N’. An animal with a furry tail sat perched in the angle between the second and third strokes of the letter. No one saw him slip out of town, read Meggie, but before she could get any further with the story Elinor closed the book in her face.

‘I think that’ll do,’ she said, tucking it under her arm. ‘Your father’s asked me to put this book somewhere safe for him, and so I will.’

Mo took Meggie’s hand again, and this time she followed him. ‘Please forget that book, Meggie!’ he whispered. ‘It’s an unlucky story. I’ll get you a hundred others.’

Meggie just nodded. Before Mo closed the door behind them, she caught a last glance of Elinor standing there looking at the book lovingly, the way Mo sometimes looked at her when he put her to bed in the evening.

Then the door was closed.

‘Where will she put it?’ asked Meggie as she followed Mo down the corridor.

‘Oh, she has some very good hiding-places for such things,’ replied Mo evasively. ‘But they’re secret, as hiding-places ought to be. Suppose I show you your room now?’ He was trying to sound carefree, and not succeeding particularly well. ‘It’s like a room in an expensive hotel. No, much better.’

‘Sounds good,’ murmured Meggie, looking round, but there was no sign of Dustfinger. Where had he gone? She had to ask him something. At once. That was all she could think of while Mo was showing her the room and telling her that everything was all right now; he just had to do his bookbinding work, then they’d go home. Meggie nodded and pretended to be listening, but her mind was full of the question she wanted to ask Dustfinger. It burned on her lips so fiercely that she was surprised Mo didn’t see it there.

When Mo left her to go and fetch their bags from the camper van Meggie went into the kitchen, but Dustfinger wasn’t there either. She even looked for him in Elinor’s bedroom, but however many doors in the huge house she opened there was no sign of him. Finally, she was too tired to go on searching. Mo had gone to bed long ago, and Elinor had disappeared into her own bedroom. So Meggie went to her room and lay down in the big bed. She felt very lost in it, like a dwarf, as if she had shrunk. Like Alice in Wonderland, she thought, patting the flowered bed linen. Otherwise she liked the room. It was full of books and pictures, and there was even a fireplace, although it looked as if no one had used it for at least a hundred years. Meggie swung her legs out of bed again and went over to the window. Outside, night had fallen long ago, and when she pushed the window shutters open a cool breeze blew on her face. The only thing she could make out in the dark was the gravel forecourt in front of the house. A lamp cast pale light over the grey and white pebbles. Mo’s stripey van stood beside Elinor’s grey estate car like a zebra lost in a horse’s stable. Meggie thought of the house they had left in such a hurry, and her room there, and school, where her desk would have been empty today. She wasn’t sure whether she felt homesick or not.

She left the shutters open when she went back to bed. Mo had put her book-box beside her. Wearily, she took a book out and tried to make herself a nice nest in its familiar words, but it was no good. Again and again the thought of that other book blurred the words, again and again Meggie saw the big initial letters before her – large, colourful letters surrounded by figures whose story she didn’t know because the book hadn’t had time to tell it to her.

I must find Dustfinger, she thought sleepily. He must be here somewhere. But then the book slipped from her fingers and she fell asleep.

The sun woke her next morning. The air was still cool from the night before, but the sky was cloudless, and when Meggie leaned out of the window she could see the lake gleaming in the distance beyond the branches of the trees. The room Elinor had given her was on the first floor. Mo was sleeping only two doors further along, but Dustfinger had to make do with an attic room. Meggie had seen it when she was looking for him yesterday. It held nothing but a narrow bed surrounded by crates of books towering up to the rafters.

Mo was already sitting at the table with Elinor when Meggie came down to the kitchen for breakfast, but Dustfinger wasn’t there. ‘Oh, he’s had breakfast already,’ said Elinor sharply, when Meggie asked about him. ‘Along with some animal like a Pomeranian dog. It was sitting on the table and it spat at me when I came into the kitchen. I wasn’t expecting anything like that. I made it clear to your peculiar friend that flies are the only animals I’ll allow anywhere near my kitchen table, and so he took the furry creature outside.’

‘What do you want him for?’ asked Mo.

‘Oh, nothing special. I – I just wanted to ask him something,’ said Meggie. She hastily ate half a slice of bread, drank some of the horribly bitter cocoa Elinor had made, and went out.

She found Dustfinger behind the house, standing on a lawn of short, rather rough grass where a solitary deckchair stood next to a plaster angel. There was no sign of Gwin. A few birds were quarrelling among the red flowers of the rhododendron, and there stood Dustfinger looking lost to the world, and juggling. Meggie tried to count the coloured balls – four, six, eight. He plucked them out of the air so swiftly that it made her dizzy to watch him. He stood on one leg to catch them, casually, as if he didn’t even have to look. Only when he spotted Meggie did a ball escape his fingers and roll at her feet. Meggie picked it up and threw it back.

‘Where did you learn to do that?’ she asked. ‘It looked – well, wonderful.’

Dustfinger made her a mocking bow. There was that strange smile of his again. ‘It’s how I earn my living,’ he said. ‘With the juggling and a few other things.’

‘How can you earn a living that way?’

‘At markets and fairs. At children’s birthday parties. Did you ever go to one of those fairs where people pretend they’re still living in Medieval times?’

Meggie nodded. Yes, she had once been to a fair like that with Mo. There had been wonderful things there, so strange that they might have come from another world, not just another time. Mo had bought her a box decorated with brightly coloured stones, and a little fish made of shiny green and gold metal, with its mouth wide open and a jingle in its hollow body that rang like a little bell when you shook it. The air had smelled of freshly baked bread, smoke and damp clothes, and Meggie had watched a smith making a sword, and had hidden behind Mo’s back from a woman in witch’s costume.

Dustfinger picked up his juggling balls and put them back in his bag which was standing open on the grass behind him. Meggie went over to it and looked inside. She saw some bottles, some white cotton wool and a carton of milk, but before she could see any more Dustfinger closed the bag.

‘Sorry, trade secrets,’ he said. ‘Your father’s given the book to this Elinor, hasn’t he?’

Meggie shrugged her shoulders.

‘It’s all right, you can tell me. I know anyway. I was listening. He’s mad to leave it here, but what can I do?’ Dustfinger sat down on the deckchair. His rucksack was on the grass next to him, with a bushy tail spilling out of it.

‘I saw Gwin,’ said Meggie.

‘Did you?’ Dustfinger leaned back, closing his eyes. His hair looked even paler in the sunlight. ‘So did I. He’s in the rucksack. It’s the time of day when he sleeps.’

‘I mean I saw him in the book.’ Meggie didn’t take her eyes off Dustfinger’s face as she said this, but it didn’t move a muscle. His thoughts couldn’t be read on his brow, in the same way as she could read Mo’s. Dustfinger’s face was a closed book, and Meggie had the feeling that if anyone tried reading it he would rap their knuckles. ‘He was sitting on a letter,’ she went on. ‘On a capital N. I saw his horns.’

‘Really?’ Dustfinger didn’t even open his eyes. ‘And do you know which of her thousands of shelves that book-mad woman put it on?’

Meggie ignored his question. ‘Why does Gwin look like the animal in the book?’ she asked. ‘Did you really stick those horns on him?’

Dustfinger opened his eyes and blinked up at the sun.

‘Hm, did I?’ he enquired, looking at the sky. A few clouds were drifting over Elinor’s house. The sun disappeared behind one of them, and its shadow fell across the green grass like an ugly mark.

‘Does your father often read aloud to you, Meggie?’ asked Dustfinger.

Meggie looked at him suspiciously. Then she knelt down beside the rucksack and stroked Gwin’s silky tail. ‘No,’ she said. ‘But he taught me to read when I was five.’

‘Ask him why he doesn’t read aloud to you,’ said Dustfinger. ‘And don’t let him put you off with excuses.’

‘What do you mean?’ Meggie straightened up, feeling cross. ‘He doesn’t like reading aloud, that’s all.’

Dustfinger smiled. Leaning out of the deckchair, he put one hand into the rucksack. ‘Ah, that feels like a nice full stomach,’ he commented. ‘I think Gwin had good hunting last night. I hope he’s not been plundering a nest again. Perhaps it’s just Elinor’s rolls and eggs.’ Gwin’s tail twitched back and forth almost like a cat’s.

Meggie looked at the rucksack with distaste. She was glad she couldn’t see Gwin’s muzzle. There might still be blood on it.

Dustfinger leaned back in Elinor’s deckchair. ‘Shall I give you a performance this evening – show you what the bottles, the cotton wool and all the other mysterious things in my bag are for?’ he asked without looking at her. ‘It has to be dark for that, pitch dark. Are you scared to be out of doors in the middle of the night?’

‘Of course not!’ said Meggie, offended, although really she was not at all happy to be out in the dark. ‘But first, tell me why you stuck those horns on Gwin! And tell me what you know about the book.’

Dustfinger folded his arms behind his head. ‘Oh, I know a lot about that book,’ he said. ‘And perhaps I’ll tell you some time, but first the two of us have a date. Here at eleven o’clock tonight. OK?’

Meggie looked up at a blackbird singing its heart out on Elinor’s rooftop. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Eleven o’clock tonight.’ Then she went back to the house.

Elinor had suggested that Mo set up his workshop next door to the library. There was a little room where she kept her collection of old books about animals and plants (for there seemed to be no kind of book that Elinor didn’t collect). She kept this collection on shelves of pale, honey-coloured wood. On some of the shelves the books were propping up glass display cases of beetles pinned to cardboard, which only made Meggie dislike Elinor all the more. By the only window was a handsome table with turned legs, but it was barely half as long as the one Mo had in his workshop at home. Perhaps that was why he was swearing quietly to himself when Meggie put her head round the door.

‘Look at this table!’ he said. ‘You could sort a stamp collection on it but not bind books. This whole room is too small. Where am I going to put the press and my tools? Last time I worked up in the attics, but now they’re filled with crates of books too.’

Meggie stroked the spines of the books crammed close together on the shelves. ‘Just tell her you need a bigger table.’ Carefully, she took a book off the shelf. It contained pictures of the strangest of insects: beetles with horns, beetles with probosces, one even had a proper nose. Meggie passed her forefinger over the pastel-coloured pictures. ‘Mo, why haven’t you ever read aloud to me?’

Her father turned round so abruptly that the book almost fell from her hand. ‘Why do you ask me that? You’ve been talking to Dustfinger, haven’t you? What did he tell you?’

‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’ Meggie herself didn’t know why she was lying. She put the beetle book back in its place. It felt almost as if someone were spinning a very fine web around the two of them, a web of secrets and lies closing in on them all the time. ‘I think it’s a good question, though,’ she said as she took out another book. It was called Masters of Disguise. The creatures in it looked like live twigs or dry leaves.

Mo turned his back to her again. He began laying out his implements on the table, even though it was too small: his folding tool on the left, then the round-headed hammer he used to tap the spines of books into shape, the sharp paper-knife … He usually whistled under his breath as he worked, but now he was perfectly quiet. Meggie sensed that his thoughts were far away. But where?

Finally, he sat on the side of the table and looked at her. ‘I just don’t like reading aloud,’ he said, as if it was the most uninteresting subject in the world. ‘You know I don’t. That’s all.’

‘But why not? I mean, you make up stories. You tell wonderful stories. You can do all the voices, and make it exciting and then funny …’

Mo crossed his arms over his chest as if hiding behind them.

‘You could read me Tom Sawyer,’ suggested Meggie ‘or How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.’ That was one of Mo’s favourite stories. When she was smaller they sometimes played at having crumbs in their clothes, like the crumbs in the rhino’s skin.

‘Yes, an excellent story,’ murmured Mo, turning his back to her again. He picked up the folder in which he kept his endpapers and leafed absent-mindedly through them. ‘Every book should begin with attractive endpapers,’ he had once told Meggie. ‘Preferably in a dark colour: dark red or dark blue, depending on the binding. When you open the book it’s like going to the theatre. First you see the curtain. Then it’s pulled aside and the show begins.’

‘Meggie, I really do have to work now,’ he said without turning round. ‘The sooner I’m through with Elinor’s books the sooner we can go home again.’

Meggie put the book about creatures who were masters of disguise back in its place. ‘Suppose he didn’t stick the horns on?’ she asked.

‘What?’

‘Gwin’s horns. Suppose Dustfinger didn’t stick them on?’ ‘Well, he did.’ Mo drew a chair up to the table that was not long enough for him. ‘By the way, Elinor’s gone shopping. If you feel faint with hunger before she gets back, just make yourself a couple of pancakes, OK?’

‘OK,’ murmured Meggie. For a moment she wondered whether to tell him about her date with Dustfinger that night, but then she decided against it. ‘Do you think I can take some of these books to my room?’ she asked instead.

‘I’m sure you can. So long as they don’t disappear into your box.’

‘Like that book thief you once told me about?’ Meggie put three books under her left arm and four under her right arm. ‘How many was it he stole? Thirty thousand?’

‘Forty thousand,’ said Mo. ‘But at least he didn’t kill the owners.’

‘No, that was the Spanish monk whose name I’ve forgotten.’ Meggie went over to the door and opened it with her toe. ‘Dustfinger says Capricorn would kill you to get hold of that book.’ She tried to make her voice sound casual. ‘Would he, Mo?’

‘Meggie!’ Mo turned round with the paper-knife, pretending to point it at her threateningly. ‘Go and lie in the sun or bury your pretty nose in those books, but please let me get some work done. And tell Dustfinger I shall carve him into very thin slices with this knife if he goes on telling you such nonsense.’

‘That wasn’t a proper answer!’ said Meggie, making her way out into the passage with an armful of books.

Once in her room, she spread the books out on the huge bed and began to read. She read about beetles who moved into empty snail-shells as we might move into an empty house, about frogs shaped like leaves and caterpillars with brightly coloured spines on their backs, white-bearded monkeys, stripy anteaters, and cats that dig in the ground for sweet potatoes. There seemed to be everything here, every creature Meggie could imagine, and even more that she could never have dreamed existed at all. But none of Elinor’s clever books said a word about martens with horns.

6

Fire and Stars

So along they came with dancing bears, dogs and goats, monkeys and marmots, walking the tightrope, turning somersaults both backwards and forwards, throwing daggers and knives and suffering no injury when they fell on their points and blades, swallowing fire and chewing stones, doing tricks with magic goblets and chains under cover of cloak and hat, making puppets fence with each other, trilling like nightingales, screaming like peacocks, calling like deer, wrestling and dancing to the sound of the double flute …

Herzt,

Book of Minstrelsy

The day passed slowly. Meggie saw Mo only in the afternoon, when Elinor came back from doing her shopping and half an hour later gave them spaghetti with some kind of ready-made sauce. ‘I’m afraid I’ve no patience with toiling over a stove,’ she said as she put the dishes on the table. ‘Perhaps our friend with the furry animal can cook?’

Dustfinger merely shrugged his shoulders apologetically. ‘Sorry, I’m no use to you that way.’

‘Mo cooks very well,’ said Meggie, stirring the thin, watery sauce into her spaghetti.

‘Mo’s here to restore my books, not to cook for us,’ replied Elinor sharply. ‘What about you, though?’

Meggie shrugged. ‘I can make pancakes,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you get some cookery books? You have books of every other kind. I’m sure you’d find cookery books a help.’

Elinor didn’t even deign to reply to this suggestion.

‘And by the way, there’s a rule for night-time,’ she said, when they had all been eating in silence for a while. ‘I won’t have candlelight in my house. Fire makes me nervous. It’s far too greedy for paper.’

Meggie gulped. She felt caught in the act, for of course she had brought candles with her. They were on her bedside table upstairs, where Elinor must have seen them. However, Elinor was looking not at Meggie but at Dustfinger, who was playing with a box of matches.

‘I hope you’ll take that rule to heart,’ she said to him. ‘Since we’re obviously going to have the pleasure of your company for another night.’

‘Yes, if I may impose on your hospitality a little longer. I’ll be off first thing in the morning, I promise.’ Dustfinger was still holding the matches. He didn’t seem bothered by Elinor’s distrustful gaze. ‘I’d say someone here has the wrong idea about fire,’ he added. ‘It bites like a fierce little animal, admittedly, but you can tame it.’ And with these words he took a match out of the box, struck it, and popped the flame into his open mouth.

Meggie held her breath as his lips closed around the burning matchstick. Dustfinger opened his mouth again, took out the spent match, smiled and left it on his empty plate.

‘You see, Elinor?’ he said. ‘It didn’t bite me. It’s easier to tame than a kitten and almost as easy as a dog.’

Elinor just wrinkled her nose, but Meggie was so amazed that she could hardly take her eyes off Dustfinger’s scarred face. She looked at Mo. The little trick with the burning match didn’t seem to have surprised him. He shot a warning glance at Dustfinger, who meekly put the box of matches away in his trouser pocket.

‘But of course I’ll keep the no-candles rule,’ he was quick to say. ‘That’s no problem. Really.’

Elinor nodded. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘And one more thing: if you go out again as soon as it’s dark this evening, the way you did last night, you’d better not be back too late, because I switch the burglar alarm on at nine-thirty on the dot.’

‘Ah, then I was in luck yesterday evening.’ Dustfinger slipped some spaghetti into his bag. Elinor didn’t notice, but Meggie did. ‘Yes, I do enjoy walking at night. The world’s more to my liking then, not so loud, not so fast, not so crowded and a good deal more mysterious. But I wasn’t planning to walk this evening. I have other plans for tonight, and I’ll have to ask you to switch this wonderful system of yours on a bit later than usual.’

‘Oh, indeed. And why, may I ask?’

Dustfinger winked at Meggie. ‘Well, I’ve promised to put on a little show for this young lady,’ he said. ‘It begins about an hour before midnight.’

‘Oh yes?’ Elinor dabbed some sauce off her lips with her napkin. ‘A little show. Why not in daylight? After all, the young lady’s only twelve years old. She should be in bed at eight o’clock.’

Meggie tightened her lips. She hadn’t been to bed as early as eight since her fifth birthday, but she wasn’t going to the trouble of explaining that to Elinor. Instead, she admired the casual way Dustfinger reacted to Elinor’s hostile gaze.

‘Ah, but you see the tricks I want to show Meggie wouldn’t look so good by day,’ he said, leaning back in his chair. ‘I’m afraid I need the black cloak of night. Why don’t you come and watch too? Then you’ll understand why it all has to be done in the dark.’

‘Go on, accept his offer, Elinor!’ said Mo. ‘You’ll enjoy the show. And then perhaps you won’t think fire’s so sinister.’

‘It’s not that I think it’s sinister. I don’t like it, that’s all,’ remarked Elinor, unmoved.

‘He can juggle!’ Meggie burst out. ‘With eight balls.’

‘Eleven,’ Dustfinger corrected her. ‘But juggling is more of a daylight skill.’

Elinor retrieved a string of spaghetti from the tablecloth and glanced first at Meggie and then at Mo. She looked cross. ‘Oh, very well. I don’t want to be a spoilsport,’ she said. ‘I shall go to bed with a book at nine-thirty as usual and put the alarm on first, but when Meggie tells me she’s going out for this private performance I’ll switch it off again for an hour. Will that be time enough?’

‘Ample time,’ said Dustfinger, bowing so low to her that the tip of his nose collided with the rim of his plate.

Meggie bit back her laughter.

It was five to eleven when she knocked at Elinor’s bedroom door.

‘Come in!’ she heard Elinor call, and when she put her head round the door she saw her aunt sitting up in bed, poring over a catalogue as thick as a telephone directory. ‘Oh, too expensive, too expensive!’ she murmured. ‘Take my advice, Meggie: never develop a passion you can’t afford. It’ll eat your heart away like a bookworm. Take this book here, for instance.’ Elinor tapped her finger on the left-hand page of her catalogue so hard that it wouldn’t have surprised Meggie if she had bored a hole in it. ‘What a fine edition – and in such good condition too! I’ve been wanting it for fifteen years, but it just costs too much money. Far too much.’

Sighing, she closed her catalogue, dropped it on the rug and swung her legs out of bed. To Meggie’s surprise, she was wearing a long, flowered nightdress. She looked younger in it, almost like a girl who has woken up one morning to find her face wrinkled. ‘Ah, well, you’ll probably never be as crazy as I am!’ she muttered, putting a thick pair of socks on her bare feet. ‘Your father’s not inclined to be crazy, and your mother never was either. Quite the opposite – I never knew anyone with a cooler head. My father, on the other hand, was at least as mad as me. I inherited over half my books from him, and what good did they do him? Did they keep him alive? Far from it. He died of a stroke at a book auction. Isn’t that ridiculous?’

With the best will in the world, Meggie didn’t know what to say to that. ‘My mother?’ she asked, instead. ‘Did you know her well?’

Elinor snorted as if she had asked a silly question. ‘Of course I did. It was here that your father met her. Didn’t he ever tell you?’

Meggie shook her head. ‘He doesn’t talk about her much.’ ‘Well, probably better not. Why probe old wounds? And you’re not particularly like her. She painted that sign on the library door. Come on, then, or you’ll miss this show of yours.’

Meggie followed Elinor down the unlit corridor. For a moment she had the odd feeling that her mother might step out of one of the many doors, smiling at her. There was hardly a light on in the whole vast house, and once or twice Meggie bumped her knee on a chair or a little table that she hadn’t seen in the gloom. ‘Why is it so dark everywhere here?’ she asked as Elinor felt around for the light switch in the entrance hall.

‘Because I’d rather spend my money on books than unnecessary electricity,’ replied Elinor, looking at the light she had turned on as if she thought the stupid thing should go easy on the power. Then she made her way over to a metal box fixed to the wall near the front door and hidden behind a thick, dusty curtain. ‘I hope you switched your light off before you knocked on my door?’ she asked, as she opened the box.

‘Of course,’ said Meggie, although it wasn’t true.

‘Turn round!’ Elinor told her before setting to work on the alarm system. She frowned. ‘Heavens, all these knobs! I hope I haven’t done something wrong again. Tell me as soon as the show’s over – and don’t even think of seizing your chance to slink into the library and take a book off the shelves. Remember that I sleep right next door, and my hearing is keener than a bat’s.’

Meggie bit back the answer on the tip of her tongue. Elinor opened the front door. Without a word, Meggie pushed past her and went outside. It was a mild night, full of strange scents and the chirping of crickets. ‘Were you always as nice as this to my mother?’ she asked as Elinor was about to close the door behind her.

Elinor looked at her for a moment as if turned to stone. ‘Oh yes, I think so,’ she said. ‘Yes, I’m sure I was. And she was always as cheeky as you, too! Have fun with your fire-eater!’ Then she shut the door.

As Meggie was going through the dark garden behind the house she suddenly heard unexpected music. It filled the night air as if it had been only waiting for Meggie’s footsteps: strange music, a carnival mixture of bells, pipes and drums, both boisterous and sad. Meggie wouldn’t have been surprised to find a whole troop of fairground entertainers waiting for her on the lawn behind Elinor’s house, but only Dustfinger stood there.

He was waiting where Meggie had found him that afternoon. The music came from a cassette recorder on the grass beside the wooden deckchair. Dustfinger had placed a garden bench on the edge of the lawn for his audience. Lighted torches were stuck into the ground to the right and left of it, and two more were burning on the lawn, casting quivering shadows in the night. The shadows danced across the grass like servants conjured up by Dustfinger from some dark world for this occasion. He himself stood there bare-chested, his skin as pale as the moon, which was hanging in the sky right above Elinor’s house as if it too had turned up especially for Dustfinger’s show.

When Meggie emerged from the darkness Dustfinger bowed to her. ‘Sit down, pretty lady!’ he called over the music. ‘We were all just waiting for you.’

Shyly, Meggie sat down on the bench and looked around her. The two dark glass bottles she had seen in Dustfinger’s bag were standing on the deckchair. Something whitish shimmered in the bottle on the left, as if Dustfinger had filled it with moonlight. A dozen torches with white wadding heads were wedged between the wooden rungs of the chair, and beside the cassette recorder stood a bucket and a large, big-bellied vase, which if Meggie remembered correctly came from Elinor’s entrance hall.

For a moment, she let her eyes wander to the windows of the house. There was no light in Mo’s bedroom – he was probably still working – but one floor below Meggie saw Elinor standing at her lighted window. The moment Meggie looked her way she drew the curtain, as if she had felt Meggie watching her, but she still stayed at the window. Her shadow was a dark outline against the pale yellow curtain.

‘Do you hear how quiet it is?’ Dustfinger switched the recorder off. The silence of the night fell on Meggie’s ears, muffled as if by cotton wool. Not a leaf moved; there was nothing to be heard but the torches crackling and the chirping of the crickets.

Dustfinger switched the music back on. ‘I had a private word with the wind,’ he said. ‘There’s one thing you should know: if the wind takes it into its head to play with fire then even I can’t tame the blaze. But it gave me its word of honour to keep still tonight and not spoil our fun.’

So saying, he picked up one of the torches from Elinor’s deckchair. He sipped from the bottle with the moonlight in it and spat something whitish out into the big vase. Then he dipped the torch he was holding into the bucket, took it out again, and held its dripping head of wadding to one of its burning sisters. The fire flared up so suddenly it made Meggie jump. However, Dustfinger put the second bottle to his lips, filling his mouth until his scarred cheeks were bulging. Then he took a deep, deep breath, arched his body like a bow, and spat whatever was in his mouth out into the air above the burning torch.

A fireball hung over Elinor’s lawn, a bright, blazing globe of fire. It ate away at the darkness like a living thing. And it was so big, Meggie felt sure everything around it would go up in flames: the grass, the deckchair, and Dustfinger himself. But he just spun round and round on the spot, exuberant as a dancing child, breathing out more fire. He made the fire climb high in the air, as if to set the stars alight. Then he lit a second torch and ran its flame over his bare arms. He looked as happy as a child playing with a pet animal. The fire licked his skin like something living, a darting, burning creature that he had befriended, a creature that caressed him and danced for him and drove the night away. He threw the torch high in the air where the fireball had just been blazing, caught it as it came down, lit more, juggled with three, four, five torches. Their fire whirled around him, danced with him but never hurt him: Dustfinger the tamer of flames, the man who breathed sparks, the friend of fire. He made the torches disappear as if the darkness had devoured them, bowed to the speechless Meggie with a smile, before once more spitting fire out into the night’s black face.

Afterwards, she could never say what had distracted her attention from the whirling torches and the showers of sparks, making her look up once more at the house and its windows. Perhaps you feel the presence of evil on your skin like sudden heat or cold … or perhaps it was just that the light now seeping through the library shutters caught her eye, the light falling on the rhododendron bushes where their leaves pressed close to the wood. Perhaps.

She thought she heard voices rising above Dustfinger’s music, men’s voices, and a terrible fear rose inside her, as dark and strange as the terror she had felt on the night when she first saw Dustfinger standing out in the yard. As she jumped up, a burning torch slipped from his hands and fell on the grass. He quickly trod the fire out before it could spread any further, then followed the direction of Meggie’s eyes, and he too looked at the house without a word.

Meggie began to run. Gravel crunched under her feet as she raced towards the house. The front door stood ajar, there was no light in the entrance hall, but Meggie heard loud voices echoing down the corridor that led to the library. ‘Mo?’ she called, and there was the fear back again, digging its curved beak into her heart, taking her breath away.

The library door was open too. Meggie was about to rush in when two strong hands grasped her by the shoulders.

‘Quiet!’ breathed Elinor, pulling her into her bedroom. Meggie saw that her fingers were shaking as she locked the door.

‘Don’t!’ Meggie dragged Elinor’s hand away, and tried to turn the key. She wanted to shout that she must help her father, but Elinor put a hand over her mouth and pulled her away from the door, hard as Meggie struggled, hitting and kicking. Elinor was strong, much stronger than Meggie.

‘There are too many of them!’ Elinor whispered as Meggie tried to bite her fingers. ‘About four or five, big strong men, and they’re armed.’ She hauled the struggling Meggie over to the wall by the bed. ‘I’ve told myself a hundred times – oh, a thousand times! – I ought to buy a revolver!’ she muttered, pressing her ear to the wall.

‘Of course it’s here!’ The voice carried through the wall without Meggie’s having to strain to hear it, rasping like a cat’s tongue. ‘Shall we fetch your little daughter from the garden to show us just where? Or would you rather find it for us yourself?’

Meggie tried to pull Elinor’s hand away from her mouth. ‘Stop it, for goodness’ sake!’ Elinor hissed in her ear. ‘You’ll only put him in more danger, do you understand?’

‘My daughter! What do you know about my daughter?’ That was Mo’s voice.

Meggie sobbed aloud, and Elinor’s fingers were instantly back over her face. ‘I tried to call the police,’ she whispered in Meggie’s ear. ‘But the lines are all down.’

‘Oh, we know all we need to know.’ The other voice again. ‘So where’s the book?’

‘I’ll give it to you!’ Mo’s voice sounded weary. ‘But I’m going with you, because I want that book back as soon as Capricorn has finished with it.’

Going with them? What did he mean? He couldn’t leave just like that! Meggie tried making for the door again, but Elinor held her fast. Meggie did her best to push her away, but Elinor simply wrapped her strong arms around her and pressed her fingers to Meggie’s lips once more.

‘All the better. We were told to bring you anyway,’ said a second voice. It had a broad, coarse accent. ‘You’ve no idea how Capricorn longs to hear your voice. He’s got great faith in your abilities, Capricorn has.’

‘That’s right – the replacement Capricorn found for you makes a terrible hash of it.’ The rasping voice again. ‘Look at Cockerell there.’ Meggie heard feet scraping on the floor. ‘He’s limping, and Flatnose’s face has seen better days. Not that he was ever much of a beauty.’

‘Don’t just stand there talking, Basta, we haven’t got for ever. How about it – do we take the kid as well?’ Another voice. That one sounded as if the speaker’s nose were being pinched.

‘No!’ Mo snapped at him. ‘My daughter stays here or I won’t give you the book!’

One of the men laughed. ‘Oh yes, Silvertongue, you’d give it to us all right, but don’t worry. We weren’t told to bring her. A child would just slow us down, and Capricorn’s been waiting for you long enough already. So where’s that book?’

Meggie pressed her ear against the wall so hard that it hurt. She heard footsteps, and then a sound like something being pushed aside. Elinor, beside her, held her breath.

‘Not a bad hiding-place!’ said the cat-like voice. ‘Wrap it up, Cockerell, and take good care of it. After you, Silvertongue. Let’s go.’

They left the library. Meggie tried desperately to wriggle out of Elinor’s arms. She heard the sound of the library door closing, and then steps moving away, getting fainter and fainter. After that, all was still. Quite suddenly, Elinor let go of her. Meggie rushed to the door, unlocked it, sobbing, and ran down the corridor to the library. It was deserted. No Mo. The books stood ranged tidily on their shelves, except in one place where there was a wide, dark gap. Meggie thought she saw a hinged flap, well hidden, standing open among the books.

‘Incredible!’ she heard Elinor saying behind her. ‘They really were after just that one book.’ But Meggie pushed her aside and ran along the corridor.

‘Meggie!’ Elinor called after her. ‘Wait!’

But what was there to wait for? For the strangers to take her father away? She heard Elinor running after her. Elinor’s arms might be stronger, but Meggie’s legs were faster.

There was still no light in the entrance hall. The front door stood wide open, and a cold wind blew in Meggie’s face as she stumbled breathlessly out into the night.

‘Mo!’ she shouted.

She thought she saw car headlights come on where the drive disappeared into the trees, and an engine started. Meggie ran that way. She tripped and fell, grazing her knee on the gravel, which was wet with dew. Warm blood trickled down her leg, but she took no notice. She ran on and on, limping and sobbing, until she had reached the big wrought iron gate. The road beyond it was empty. Mo was gone.

7

What the Night Hides

A thousand enemies outside the house

are better than one within.

Arab proverb

Dustfinger was hiding behind a chestnut tree when Meggie ran past him. He saw her stop at the gate and look down the road. He heard her calling her father’s name in a desperate voice. Her cries, as faint as the chirping of a cricket in the vast black night, were lost in the darkness. And when she gave up it was suddenly very quiet, and Dustfinger saw Meggie’s slim figure standing there as if she would never move again. All her strength seemed to have forsaken her, as if the next gust of wind might blow her away.

She stood there so long that Dustfinger eventually closed his eyes so as not to have to look at her, but then he heard her weeping and his face turned hot with shame. He stood there without a sound, his back to the tree trunk, waiting for Meggie to go back to the house. But still she didn’t move. At last, when his legs were quite numb, she turned like a marionette with some of its strings cut and went back towards the house. She was no longer crying as she passed Dustfinger, but she was wiping the tears from her eyes, and for a terrible moment he felt an urge to go to her, comfort her, and explain why he had told Capricorn everything. But Meggie had already passed him, and had quickened her pace as if her strength were returning. Faster and faster she walked, until she had disappeared among the black trees.

Only then did Dustfinger come out from behind the tree, put his rucksack on his back, pick up the two bags containing all his worldly goods, and stride off towards the gate, which was still open.

The night swallowed him up like a thieving fox.

8

Alone

‘My darling,’ she said at last, ‘are you sure you don’t mind being a mouse for the rest of your life?’

‘I don’t mind at all,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.’

Roald Dahl,

The Witches

Elinor was standing in the brightly lit doorway of the house when Meggie came back. She had put a coat on over her nightdress. The night was warm, but a cold wind was blowing from the lake. How desperate the child looked – and lost. Elinor remembered the feeling. There was nothing worse.

‘They’ve taken him away!’ Meggie’s voice almost choked in her helpless rage. She glared angrily at Elinor. ‘Why did you hold me back? We could have helped him!’ Her fists were clenched as if she wanted to hit out blindly.

Elinor remembered that feeling too. Sometimes you wanted to lash out at the whole world, but it did no good, none at all. The grief remained. ‘Don’t talk such nonsense!’ she said bluntly. ‘How could we have helped him? They’d just have taken you too, and how would your father have liked that? Would it have done him any good? No. So don’t stand around out here any longer – come indoors.’

But Meggie didn’t move. ‘They’re taking him to Capricorn!’ she whispered, so softly that Elinor could hardly make out what she was saying.

‘Taking him where?’

Meggie just shook her head and wiped her sleeve over her tear-stained face.

‘The police will be here any minute,’ said Elinor. ‘I called them on your father’s mobile. I never wanted one of those, but now I think I’d better get one after all. They simply cut my phone line.’

Meggie still hadn’t moved. She was trembling. ‘They’ll be well away by now anyway,’ she said.

‘Good heavens, I’m sure no harm will come to him!’ Elinor wrapped her coat more closely around her. The wind was getting up. There would be rain soon, she felt sure.

‘How do you know?’ Meggie’s voice was trembling with anger.

Heavens, thought Elinor, if looks could kill I’d be pushing up the daisies. ‘Because he went with them of his own free will,’ she said crossly. ‘You heard him too, didn’t you?’

Meggie bowed her head. Of course she’d heard him.

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘He was more worried about the book than me.’

Elinor had no answer to that. Her own father had been firmly convinced that books deserved more attention than children, and when he suddenly died she and her two sisters had barely noticed his absence. It was as if he was just sitting in the library as usual, dusting his books. But Meggie’s father wasn’t like that.

‘Nonsense, of course he was worried about you!’ she said. ‘I don’t know any father who’s more besotted with his daughter than yours. You wait and see, he’ll soon be back. Now, do come in!’ She reached out her hand to Meggie. ‘I’ll make you some hot milk with honey. Isn’t that what children get when they’re really miserable?’

But Meggie ignored the hand. She turned suddenly and ran away as if something had occurred to her.

‘Here, wait a minute!’ Muttering crossly, Elinor slipped her feet into her gardening shoes and stumbled after her. The silly girl was running round behind the house to the place where the fire-eater had given his performance. But of course there was no one on the lawn now, just the burnt-out torches still stuck in the ground.

‘Well, well, so Master Matchstick-Swallower seems to be gone too,’ said Elinor. ‘At least, he’s not in the house.’

‘Perhaps he followed them!’ The girl went up to one of the burnt-out torches and touched its charred head. ‘That’s it! He saw what happened and followed them!’ She looked hopefully at Elinor.

‘Of course. That’s what must have happened.’ Elinor really did try hard not to sound sarcastic. How do you think he followed them she added silently in her mind. On foot? But instead of saying so out loud she put a hand on Meggie’s shoulder. Heavens above, the girl was still shaking. ‘Come on!’ she said. ‘The police will soon be here, and there’s nothing we can do just now. Your father will surely turn up again in a few days’ time, and perhaps your fire-breathing friend will be with him. You’ll just have to put up with me in the meantime.’

Meggie merely nodded, and unresistingly let Elinor lead her back to the house.

‘On one condition, though,’ said Elinor, as they reached the front door.

Meggie looked at her suspiciously.

‘While we’re here on our own, do you think you could stop looking at me as if you wanted to poison me all the time? Could that be arranged?’

A small, sad little smile stole over Meggie’s face. ‘I should think so,’ she said.

The two policemen whose car drew up on the gravel forecourt a little later asked a lot of questions, to which neither Elinor nor Meggie had many answers. No, they had never seen the men before. No, they hadn’t stolen money or anything else of value, just a book. The two men exchanged amused glances when Elinor said that. She immediately gave them an angry lecture on the value of rare books, but that only made things worse. When Meggie finally said they’d be sure to find her father if they tracked down a bad man called Capricorn, they looked at each other as if she had seriously claimed that Mo had been carried off by the big bad wolf. Then they drove away again, and Elinor took Meggie to her room. The silly child had tears in her eyes once more, and Elinor hadn’t the faintest idea how you set about comforting a girl of twelve, so she just told her, ‘Your mother always slept in this room,’ which was probably the worst thing she could have said. She quickly added, ‘Read a story if you can’t get to sleep,’ cleared her throat twice, and then went back through the dark, empty house to her own room.

Why did it suddenly strike her as so big and so empty? In all the years she had lived alone here it had never troubled her to know that only her books awaited her behind all the doors. It was a long time since she and her sisters had played hide-and-seek in the many rooms. How quietly they always had to slip past the library door …

Outside, the wind rattled the shutters of the windows. Heavens, I won’t be able to sleep a wink, thought Elinor. And then she thought of the book waiting beside her bed, and with a mixture of anticipation and a very guilty conscience she disappeared into her bedroom.

9

A Poor Exchange

A strong and bitter book-sickness floods one’s soul. How ignominious to be strapped to this ponderous mass of paper, print and dead man’s sentiment. Would it not be better, finer, braver to leave the rubbish where it lies and walk out into the world a free untrammelled illiterate Superman?

Solomon Eagle

Meggie didn’t sleep in her own bed that night. As soon as Elinor’s footsteps had died away she ran to Mo’s room. He hadn’t unpacked yet, and his bag stood open beside the bed. Only his books were on the bedside table, and a partly eaten chocolate bar. Mo loved chocolate. Even the mustiest old chocolate Santa Claus wasn’t safe from him. Meggie broke a square off the bar and put it in her mouth, but it tasted of nothing. Nothing but sadness.

Mo’s quilt was cold when she crept under it, and the pillow didn’t yet smell of him either, only of washing powder. Meggie put her hand under the pillow. Yes, there it was: not a book, a photograph. Meggie drew it out. It was a picture of her mother; Mo always kept it under his pillow. When she was little she believed that Mo had simply invented a mother for her one day because he thought she’d have liked to have one. He told wonderful stories about her. ‘Did I like her?’ Meggie always asked. ‘Yes, very much.’ – ‘Where is she?’ – ‘She had to go away when you were just three.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘She just had to go away.’ – ‘A long way away?’ – ‘Yes, a very long way.’ – ‘Is she dead?’ – ‘No, I’m sure she isn’t.’ Meggie was used to the strange answers Mo gave to many of her questions. By the time she was ten she no longer believed in a mother made up by Mo, she believed in one who had simply gone away. These things happened. And as long as Mo was there she hadn’t particularly missed having a mother.

But now he was gone, and she was alone with Elinor and Elinor’s pebble eyes.

She took Mo’s sweater out of his bag and buried her face in it. It’s the book’s fault, she kept thinking. It’s all that book’s fault. Why didn’t he give it to Dustfinger? Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry. But then the tears came back again all the same, and Meggie fell asleep with the salty taste of them on her lips.

When she woke all of a sudden, her heart pounding and her hair damp with sweat, it all came back to her: the men, Mo’s voice, the empty road. I’ll go and look for him, thought Meggie. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Outside the sky was just turning red. Not long now and the sun would rise. It would be better if she was gone before it got really light. Mo’s jacket was hanging over the chair under the window, as if he’d only just taken it off. Meggie took his wallet out of it – she’d need the money. Then she crept back to her room to pack a few things, only the essentials: a change of clothing and a photograph of herself and Mo, so that she could ask people if they’d seen him. Of course she couldn’t take her book-box. She thought of hiding it under the bed, but she decided to write Elinor a note instead:

Dear Elinor, she wrote, although she didn’t really think that was the correct way to address an aunt. I have to go and look for my father, she went on. Don’t worry about me. Well, Elinor wasn’t likely to do that anyway. And please don’t tell the police I’ve gone or they’ll be sure to bring me back. My favourite books are in my box. I’m afraid I can’t take them with me. Please look after them. I’ll come and fetch them as soon as I’ve found my father. Thank you. Meggie.

P.S.: I know exactly how many books there are in the box.

She crossed out that last sentence. It would only annoy Elinor, and who knew what she might do with the books then? Sell them, probably. After all, Mo had given them all particularly nice bindings. None of them was bound in leather, because Meggie didn’t like to think of a calf or a pig losing its skin for her books. Luckily, Mo understood how she felt. Many hundreds of years ago, he had once told Meggie, people made the bindings for particularly valuable books from the skin of unborn calves, charta virginea non nata, a pretty name for a terrible thing. ‘And those books,’ Mo had told her, ‘were full of the most wonderful words about love and kindness and mercy.’

While Meggie was packing her bag she did her best not to think, because if she did she knew she’d have to ask herself where she was going to search for Mo. She kept pushing the thought away, but all the same her hands slowed down, and at last she was standing beside her packed bag, no longer able to ignore the cruel little voice inside her. ‘Well then, where are you going to look, Meggie?’ it whispered. ‘Are you going to turn left or right when you reach the road? You don’t even know that. How far do you think you’ll get before the police pick you up? A twelve-year-old girl carrying a bag, with a wild story about a father who’s disappeared, and no mother they can take her back to.’

Meggie put her hands over her ears, but what use was that when the voice was inside her head? She stood like that for quite a long time. Then she shook her head until the voice stopped, and dragged her bag out into the corridor. It was heavy. Much too heavy. Meggie opened it again and put almost everything back in her room. She kept only a sweater, a book (she had to have at least one), the photo and Mo’s wallet. Now she could carry the bag as far as she had to.

She slipped quietly downstairs with the bag in one hand and the note for Elinor in the other. The morning sunlight was already filtering through the cracks of the shutters, but it was as silent in the big house as if even the books on the shelves were sleeping. Only the sound of quiet snoring came through Elinor’s bedroom door. Meggie really meant to push the note under the door, but it wouldn’t fit. She hesitated for a moment and then pressed the door-handle down. It was light in Elinor’s bedroom, even though the shutters were closed. The bedside lamp was switched on, so obviously Elinor had gone to sleep while she was reading. She was lying on her back with her mouth slightly open, snoring at the plaster angel on the ceiling above her. And she was clutching a book to her chest. Meggie recognised it at once.

She was beside the bed in an instant. ‘Where did you get that?’ she shouted, tugging the book out of Elinor’s arms, which were heavy with sleep. ‘That’s my father’s!’

Elinor woke as suddenly as if Meggie had tipped cold water over her face.

‘You stole it!’ cried Meggie, beside herself with rage. ‘And you brought those men here, yes, that’s what happened. You and that Capricorn are in this together! You had my father taken away, and who knows what you did with poor Dustfinger? You wanted that book from the start! I saw the way you looked at it – like something alive! It’s probably worth a million – or two million or three million …’

Elinor was sitting up in bed, staring at the flowers on her nightdress and saying not a word. She didn’t move until Meggie was struggling to get her breath back.

‘Finished?’ she asked. ‘Or are you planning to stand there yelling your head off until you drop dead?’ Her voice sounded as brusque as usual, but it had another note in it too – a touch of guilt.

‘I’m going to tell the police!’ cried Meggie. ‘I’ll tell them you stole the book and they ought to ask you where my father is.’

‘I saved you – and this book!’

Elinor swung her legs out of bed, went over to the window and opened the shutters.

‘Oh yes? And what about Mo?’ Meggie’s voice was rising again. ‘What’s going to happen when they realise he gave them the wrong book? It’s all your fault if they hurt him. Dustfinger said Capricorn would kill him if he didn’t hand over the book. He’ll kill him!’

Elinor put her head out of the window and took a deep breath. Then she turned round again. ‘What nonsense!’ she said crossly. ‘You think far too much of what that matchstick-eater says. And you’ve obviously read too many bad adventure stories. Kill your father? Heavens above, he’s not a secret agent or anything dangerous like that! He restores old books! It’s not exactly a life-threatening profession! I just wanted to take a look at the book in peace. That’s the only reason I swapped it round. How could I guess those villains would come here in the middle of the night to take your father away along with their precious book? All he told me was that some crazy collector had been badgering him for that book for years. How was I to know this collector wouldn’t shrink from breaking and entering, not to mention kidnapping? Even I wouldn’t think up an idea like that. Well, maybe for just one or two books in the world I might.’

‘But that’s what Dustfinger said. He said Capricorn would kill him!’ Meggie was clutching the book tightly, as if that were the only way of preventing yet more misfortunes from creeping out of it. It was as if she suddenly remembered Dustfinger’s voice again. ‘And the little creature’s screeching and struggling,’ she whispered, ‘would be as sweet as honey to him.’

‘What? Who are you talking about now?’ Elinor perched on the edge of the bed and made Meggie sit down beside her. ‘You’d better tell me everything you know about this business. Begin at the beginning.’

Meggie opened the book and leafed through the pages until she found the big ‘N’ with the animal that looked so like Gwin sitting on it.

‘Meggie! I’m talking to you!’ Elinor shook her roughly by the shoulders. ‘Who were you talking about just now?’

‘Capricorn.’ Meggie just whispered the name. Danger seemed to cling to it – to every single letter of it.

‘Capricorn. Go on. I’ve heard you mention that name a couple of times before. But who, for goodness’ sake, is this Capricorn?’

Meggie closed the book, stroked the binding, and looked at it from all sides. ‘It doesn’t give the title on the cover,’ she murmured.

‘No, not on the cover or inside.’ Elinor rose and went to her wardrobe. ‘There are a good many books where you can’t find the title straight away. After all, it’s a relatively modern habit to put it on the cover. When books were still bound so that the spines curved inwards the title might be on the side, if anywhere, but in most cases you found it out only when you opened the book. It wasn’t until bookbinders learned to make rounded spines that the title moved to the front of the book.’

‘Yes, I know!’ said Meggie impatiently. ‘But this isn’t an old book. I know what old books look like.’

Elinor looked at her ironically. ‘Oh, I apologise! I was forgetting you’re a real little expert. But you’re right, yes, this book isn’t very old. It was published almost exactly thirty-eight years ago. Ridiculously young for a book!’ She disappeared behind her open wardrobe door. ‘But of course it has a title all the same. It’s called Inkheart. I suspect your father intentionally bound it so that no one could identify it just from looking at the cover. You don’t even find the title on the first page, and when you look carefully you see that he’s removed it – the title page.’

Elinor’s nightdress landed on the carpet, and Meggie saw a pair of tights being put on over her bare legs.

‘We have to go to the police again,’ said Meggie.

‘What for?’ Elinor threw a sweater over the wardrobe door. ‘What are you going to tell them? Didn’t you notice the way those two policemen looked at us last night?’ Elinor imitated them: ‘“Oh yes, what was that again, Signora Loredan? Someone broke into your house after you’d been kind enough to switch off the burglar alarm? And then this amazingly cunning burglar stole just one book, although there are books worth millions in your library, and they took this girl’s father away after he’d offered to go with them in any case? Yes, very interesting. And it seems that these men were working for a man called Capricorn. Doesn’t that mean goat or something?” Heavens above, child!’ Elinor emerged from behind the wardrobe door. She was wearing an unattractive check skirt and a caramel-coloured sweater that made her look as pale as dough. ‘Everyone living around this lake thinks I’m crazy, and if we go back to the police with this story, then the news that Elinor Loredan has finally flipped will be all over the place. Which just goes to show that a passion for books is extremely unhealthy.’

‘You dress like an old granny,’ said Meggie.

Elinor looked down at herself. ‘Thank you very much,’ she said, ‘but comments on my appearance are uncalled-for. Anyway, I could be your granny. With a little stretch of the imagination.’

‘Have you ever been married?’

‘No, why would I want to? And could you now kindly stop making personal remarks? Hasn’t your father ever taught you that it’s bad manners?’

Meggie did not reply. She wasn’t sure herself why she had asked the question. ‘This book is very valuable, isn’t it?’ she asked.

‘What, Inkheart?’ Elinor took it from Meggie’s hand, stroked the binding and then gave it back. ‘I think so. Although you won’t find a single copy in any of the catalogues or lists of valuable books. But I’m sure that many collectors would offer your father a very great deal of money if word got around that he has what may be the only copy. Actually, I found out quite a lot about it, and I believe it’s not just a rare book but a good one too. I can’t give an opinion on that. I scarcely managed a dozen pages last night. When the first fairy appeared I fell asleep. I never was particularly keen on stories full of fairies and dwarves and all that stuff.’

Elinor went round behind the wardrobe door again, obviously to look at herself in a mirror. Meggie’s comment on her clothes seemed to be bothering her after all. ‘Yes, I think it is very valuable,’ she repeated thoughtfully. ‘Although it’s almost forgotten now. Hardly anyone seems to remember what it’s about, hardly anyone seems to have read it. You can’t even find it in libraries. But now and then these strange stories about it do crop up: they say it’s been forgotten only because all the copies that still existed were stolen. I expect that’s nonsense. Although it’s not just plants and animals that die out, so do books. Quite often, I’m sorry to say. I’m sure you could fill a hundred houses like this one to the roof with all the books that have disappeared for ever.’ Elinor closed the wardrobe door again, and pinned up her hair with clumsy fingers. ‘As far as I know the author’s still alive, but obviously he’s never done anything about getting his book reprinted – which strikes me as odd. I mean, you write a story so that people will read it, don’t you? Well, perhaps he doesn’t like his own story any more, or perhaps it just sold so badly that no publisher was willing to bring it out again. How would I know?’

‘All the same, I don’t think they stole it just because it’s valuable,’ muttered Meggie.

‘You don’t?’ Elinor laughed out loud. ‘My word, you really are your father’s daughter! Mortimer could never imagine people doing something bad for money, because money has never meant much to him. Do you have any idea what a book can be worth?’

Meggie looked at her crossly. ‘Yes, I do. But I still don’t think that’s the reason.’

‘I do. And Sherlock Holmes would think so too. Have you ever read those books, by the way? Wonderful stuff. Specially on rainy days.’ Elinor slipped her shoes on. She had strangely small feet for such a sturdily built woman.

‘Perhaps there’s some kind of secret in it,’ murmured Meggie, thoughtfully caressing the close-printed pages.

‘You mean something like invisible messages written in lemon juice, or a map hidden in one of the pictures showing where to find treasure?’ Elinor sounded so sarcastic that Meggie felt like wringing her short neck.

‘Why not?’ Meggie closed the book again and put it firmly under her arm. ‘Why else would they take Mo too? The book would have been enough.’

Elinor shrugged her shoulders.

Of course she can’t admit she never thought of that, Meggie told herself scornfully. She always has to be right!

Elinor looked at Meggie as if she had guessed her thoughts. ‘Listen, I tell you what, why don’t you read it?’ she said. ‘You really might find something that you don’t think belongs in the story. A few extra words here, a couple of unnecessary letters there – and there’s your secret message. The signpost pointing to the treasure. Who knows how long it will be before your father comes back? You’ll have to do something to pass the time here.’

Before Meggie could answer that one, Elinor bent to pick up a piece of paper lying on the carpet beside her bed. It was Meggie’s goodbye note. She must have dropped it when she saw the book in Elinor’s arms.

‘What on earth’s this?’ asked Elinor, when she had read it, frowning. ‘You were planning to go and look for your father? Where, for heaven’s sake? You’re even more foolish than I thought.’

Meggie pressed Inkheart close to her. ‘Who else is going to look for him?’ she said. Her lips began to tremble, and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.

‘Well then, we’ll just have to go and look for him together!’ replied Elinor, sounding annoyed. ‘But first let’s give him a chance to come back. Do you think he’ll be pleased to get back here only to find you’ve disappeared, gone looking for him in the big wide world?’

Meggie shook her head. Elinor’s carpet was swimming before her eyes. A tear ran down her nose.

‘Right, that’s all settled, then,’ growled Elinor, offering Meggie a cotton handkerchief. ‘Blow your nose and then we’ll have breakfast.’

She wouldn’t let Meggie out of the house before she had eaten a roll and swallowed a glass of milk.

‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ she announced, buttering her own third slice of bread. ‘And what’s more, when your father gets back I don’t want you telling him I’ve been starving you. Like the wicked stepmother in the fairy tale, you know.’

An answer sprang to the tip of Meggie’s tongue, but she swallowed it along with the last of her roll, and took the book outside.

10

The Lion’s Den

Look. (Grown-ups skip this paragraph.) I’m not about to tell you this book has a tragic ending, I already said in the very first line how it was my favourite in all the world. But there’s a lot of bad stuff coming.

William Goldman,

The Princess Bride

Meggie sat on the bench behind the house. Dustfinger’s burnt-out torches were still stuck in the ground beside it. She didn’t usually hesitate so long before opening a book, but she was afraid of what was waiting for her inside this one. That was a brand-new feeling. She had never before been afraid of what a book would tell her. Far from it. Usually, she was so eager to let it lead her into an undiscovered world, one she had never been to before, that she often started to read at the most unsuitable moments. Both she and Mo often read at breakfast and, as a result, he had more than once taken her to school late. And she used to read under the desk at school too, and late at night in bed until Mo pulled back the covers and threatened to take all the books out of her room so that she’d get enough sleep for once. Of course he would never have done such a thing, and he knew she knew he wouldn’t, but for a few days after such a threat she would put her book under her pillow around nine in the evening and let it go on whispering to her in her dreams, so that Mo could feel he was being a really good father.

She wouldn’t have put this book under her pillow, for fear of what it might whisper to her. For the very first time in her life Meggie wasn’t sure that she wanted to enter the world waiting for her between the covers of a book. All the bad things that had happened over the last three days seemed to have come out of this book, and perhaps they were only a faint reflection of what still awaited her inside it.

All the same, she had to begin. Where else was she to look for Mo? Elinor was right; there was no point in simply running off at random. She had to look for Mo’s trail among the printed letters in Inkheart. But she had hardly opened it at the first page when she heard footsteps behind her.

‘You’ll get sunstroke if you carry on sitting in the full sunlight,’ said a familiar voice. Meggie spun round.

Dustfinger made her a bow. Of course his face wore its usual smile. ‘Well, what a surprise!’ he said, leaning over her shoulder and looking at the open book on her lap. ‘So it’s here after all. You’ve got it.’

Meggie was still looking uncomprehendingly at his scarred face. How could he stand there acting as if nothing had happened? ‘Where’ve you been?’ she snapped. ‘Didn’t they take you too? And where’s Mo? Where have they taken him?’ She couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

But Dustfinger took his time over answering. He examined the bushes all around as if he had never seen anything like them before. He was wearing his coat, although the day was so hot that perspiration stood out in gleaming little beads on his forehead. ‘No, they didn’t take me too,’ he said at last, turning to face Meggie again. ‘But I saw them drive off with your father. I ran after them, right through the undergrowth, a couple of times I thought I’d break my neck going down that wretched slope, but I got to the gate just in time to see them driving off south. Naturally I recognised them at once. Capricorn had sent his best men. Even Basta was with them.’

Meggie was staring at his lips as if she could make the words come out of them faster. ‘Do you know where they’ve taken Mo?’ Her voice shook with impatience.

‘To Capricorn’s village, I think. But I wanted to be sure,’ said Dustfinger, taking off his coat and draping it over the bench, ‘so I ran after them. I know it sounds silly to run after a car,’ he added, when Meggie frowned in disbelief, ‘but I was so furious. It had all been for nothing – me warning you, the three of us coming here … Well, I managed to hitch a lift to the next village. They’d filled up the fuel tank there, four men in black, not very friendly. And they hadn’t been gone long. So I … er … borrowed a moped and tried to go on after them. Don’t look at me like that – you can set your mind at rest – I took the moped back later. It wasn’t particularly fast, but luckily the roads are very, very winding here, and I eventually saw them again far down in the valley, while I was still making my way round the bends above them. Then I was sure they were taking your father to Capricorn’s headquarters. Not to one of his hideouts further north, but straight to the lion’s den.’

‘The lion’s den,’ Meggie repeated. ‘Where is it?’

‘About three hundred kilometres south of here, I’d say.’ Dustfinger sat down on the bench beside her and blinked as he peered at the sun. ‘Not far from the coast.’ Once again, he looked at the book still lying on Meggie’s lap. ‘Capricorn’s not going to be pleased when his men bring him the wrong book,’ he said. ‘I only hope he doesn’t take his disappointment out on your father.’

‘But Mo didn’t know it was the wrong book! Elinor swapped them round in secret.’ There they came again, those infuriating tears! Meggie wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Dustfinger wrinkled his brow, looking at her as if he wasn’t sure whether to believe her.

‘She says she just wanted to look at it! She had it in her bedroom. Mo knew the secret place where she’d hidden it, and because the book they took was wrapped in brown paper he never noticed it was the wrong one! And Capricorn’s men didn’t check either.’

‘Of course not. How could they?’ Dustfinger’s voice was full of scorn. ‘They can’t read. One book is much like any other to them, just printed paper. Anyway, they’re used to being given anything they want.’

Meggie’s voice was shrill with fear. ‘You must take me to that village! Please!’ She looked pleadingly at Dustfinger. ‘I’ll explain everything to Capricorn, and give him the book, and then he’ll let Mo go. All right?’

Dustfinger blinked up at the sun again. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said, without looking at Meggie. ‘That’s probably the only solution …’

But before he could say any more they heard Elinor’s voice calling from the house. ‘Well, well, what have we here?’ she cried, leaning out of her open window. Its pale yellow curtain flapped in the wind as if a ghost were caught in it. ‘If it isn’t our friend the matchstick-swallower!’

Meggie jumped up and ran over the lawn towards her. ‘Elinor, he knows where Mo is!’ she cried.

‘Does he indeed?’ Elinor leaned on the windowsill and scrutinised Dustfinger through narrowed eyes. ‘Put that book down!’ she snapped at him. ‘Meggie, take the book away from him.’

Taken aback, Meggie turned round. Dustfinger really was holding Inkheart, but when Meggie looked at him he quickly put it back down on the bench. Then, with a nasty glance in Elinor’s direction, he beckoned her over. Hesitantly, Meggie went to him.

‘Yes, all right, I’ll take you to your father, even though it may be dangerous for me,’ whispered Dustfinger when she was beside him. ‘But she stays here, understand?’ He slyly nodded his head in Elinor’s direction.

Meggie looked uncertainly at the house.

‘Like me to guess what he whispered to you?’ called Elinor across the lawn.

Dustfinger cast Meggie a warning glance, but she ignored it. ‘He’s going to take me to Mo!’ she called back.

‘A good idea,’ called Elinor, ‘but I’m coming too. Even if the pair of you might prefer to do without my company!’

‘We certainly might!’ muttered Dustfinger, smiling guilelessly at Elinor. ‘But who knows, perhaps we can swap her for your father? I dare say Capricorn could do with another maidservant. I know she’s no good at cooking, but perhaps she can do the laundry – even if that’s not something you learn from books.’

Meggie had to laugh – although she couldn’t tell from Dustfinger’s face if he was joking or meant it seriously.

11

A Coward

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.

Kenneth Grahame,

The Wind in the Willows

Dustfinger did not steal into Meggie’s room until he was quite sure she was asleep. She had locked her door. Undoubtedly Elinor had persuaded her to do that, because she didn’t trust him and because Meggie had refused to give Inkheart back to her. Dustfinger couldn’t help smiling as he inserted the thin wire into the lock. What a stupid woman she was, in spite of all those books she’d read! Did she really think such an ordinary lock was any obstacle? ‘Well, perhaps it might be for fat fingers like yours, Elinor!’ he whispered to himself as he opened the door. ‘But my fingers play with fire, and it’s made them quick and skilful.’

His liking for Silvertongue’s daughter was a more serious obstacle, and his guilty conscience didn’t make matters any easier. Yes, Dustfinger did have a guilty conscience as he crept into Meggie’s room, although he hadn’t come to steal the book. Naturally Capricorn still wanted it – the book and Silvertongue’s daughter too, those were his new orders. But that must wait. Tonight, Dustfinger was there for a different reason. Tonight, something that had been gnawing at his heart for years drove him to Meggie’s room.

He stood thoughtfully beside the bed, looking at the sleeping girl. Betraying her father to Capricorn had not been particularly difficult, but with her it would be different. Her face reminded Dustfinger of another one, although no grief had yet left dark shadows on Meggie’s childish features. Strange, every time the girl looked at him he felt a wish to show her that he didn’t deserve the distrust he always saw in her eyes, even when she was smiling at him. She looked at her father in a very different way – as if he could protect her from all the dark and evil in the world. What a stupid, stupid idea! No one would be able to protect her from that.

Dustfinger stroked the scars on his face and frowned. Enough of such useless thoughts. He would take Capricorn what he wanted: the girl and the book. But not tonight.

Gwin moved on his shoulder, trying to wriggle out of his collar, which he liked as little as he liked the dog’s leash Dustfinger always carried with him. He wanted to go hunting, but Dustfinger wasn’t letting him out. Last night the marten had run away from him while he was talking to Basta. The furry little devil was still afraid of Basta. Dustfinger couldn’t blame him.

Meggie was sleeping soundly, her face buried in a grey sweater, probably her father’s. She murmured something in her sleep but Dustfinger couldn’t make out what. Once again his guilty conscience stirred, but he pushed the tiresome feeling away. He couldn’t do with that kind of thing, not now and not later. The girl was nothing to do with him, and he was quits with her father now. Yes, quits. He had no reason to feel like a miserable double-dealing villain.

He looked round the dark room, in search of something. Where would Meggie put the book? There was a red box beside her bed. Dustfinger lifted the lid. Gwin’s chain clinked softly as he leaned forward.

The box was full of books – wonderful books. Dustfinger took out the torch from under his coat and shone it on them. ‘Look at that!’ he murmured. ‘What beauties! Like a party of ladies dressed in their best to go to a prince’s ball.’ Silvertongue had probably rebound them after Meggie’s little fingers had worn out the old bindings. Yes, of course, there was his sign, the unicorn’s head. Each book bore it, and each was bound in a different colour. All the hues of the rainbow were gathered together in that box.

The book Dustfinger was looking for was right at the bottom. With its silvery green binding it looked plain, a poor thing among all the other grand and lordly volumes.

It didn’t surprise Dustfinger that Silvertongue had given this book such a plain dress to wear. Very likely Meggie’s father hated it as much as he loved it. Dustfinger carefully extracted it from the other books. It was almost nine years since he last had it in his hands. At the time it had still had a cardboard binding and a torn paper dust-jacket.

Dustfinger raised his head. Meggie sighed, and moved until her sleeping face was turned his way. How unhappy she looked. She must be having a nightmare. Her lips quivered, and her hands clutched the sweater as if she were looking for something – or someone – to give her security. But you are usually alone in nightmares, dreadfully alone. Dustfinger remembered many of his own bad dreams and, for a moment, he was tempted to put out his hand and wake Meggie. What a soft-hearted fool he was!

He turned his back to the bed. Out of sight, out of mind. Then he opened the book hastily before he could think better of it. His breathing was heavy – as if he had filled his mouth with liquid in preparation for breathing fire. He leafed through the first few pages, and began to read, slowly turning page after page after page. But with every page his fingers hesitated a little longer, until suddenly he closed the book. Moonlight was seeping through the cracks in the shutters. He had no idea how long he had been standing there, his eyes lost in the labyrinth of letters. He had always been a very slow reader …

‘Coward!’ he whispered. ‘Oh, what a coward you are, Dustfinger!’ He bit his lips until they hurt. ‘Come on!’ he told himself. ‘This may be your last chance, you fool! Once Capricorn has the book he’ll never let you look at it again.’ Once more, he opened the book, leafed rapidly through to about the middle – and closed it again, with a sound loud enough to make Meggie give a little start in her sleep and bury her head under the covers. Dustfinger waited motionless beside the bed until she was breathing regularly again, then leaned over her treasure chest with a deep sigh and put the book back under the others.

Soundlessly, he closed the lid.

‘Did you see that, Gwin?’ he whispered to the marten. ‘I just dare not look. Wouldn’t you rather find a braver master? Think it over.’ Gwin chattered softly in his ear, but if that was an answer Dustfinger didn’t understand it.

For a moment he went on listening to Meggie’s quiet breathing, then stole back to the door. ‘Well, what does it matter?’ he muttered when he was out in the corridor. ‘Who wants to know the end of a story in advance?’

He climbed up to the attic bedroom Elinor had given him and lay down on the narrow bed with the crates of books towering around it. But he could not sleep until morning came.

12

Going Further South

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with weary feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

After breakfast next morning Elinor spread a crumpled road map out on the kitchen table. ‘Right, three hundred kilometres south of here,’ she said with a wary glance at Dustfinger. ‘So show us exactly where we have to look for Meggie’s father.’

Meggie looked at Dustfinger, her heart thudding. There were dark shadows round his eyes, as if he had slept very badly. Hesitantly, he came over to the table, rubbing his stubbly chin. He bent over the map, scrutinised it for what seemed an eternity, and finally pointed with his finger.

‘There,’ he said. ‘Capricorn’s village is just there.’

Elinor looked over his shoulder. ‘Liguria,’ she said. ‘Aha. And what is the name of this village, if I may ask? Capricornia?’ She was examining Dustfinger’s face as if tracing his scars with her eyes.

‘It doesn’t have a name.’ Dustfinger responded to her gaze with unconcealed dislike. ‘I expect it had one once, but the name was already forgotten before Capricorn settled there. You won’t find it on this map, or any other either. To the rest of the world the village is just a collection of tumbledown houses reached along what can hardly be called a road.’

‘Hmm.’ Elinor bent closer to the map. ‘I’ve never been in that region. I was in Genoa once. I bought a very fine edition of Alice in Wonderland there, in good condition and for half what it was worth.’ She looked enquiringly at Meggie. ‘Do you like Alice in Wonderland?’

‘Not particularly,’ said Meggie, staring at the map. Elinor shook her head at such childish folly, and turned back to Dustfinger.

‘What does this Capricorn do when he’s not stealing books and abducting people’s fathers?’ she asked. ‘If I understand Meggie correctly, you know him pretty well.’

Dustfinger avoided her eyes and ran his finger along a blue river winding its way through the green and pale brown of the map. ‘We come from the same place,’ he said. ‘But apart from that we don’t have much in common.’

Elinor looked at him so penetratingly that Meggie would not have been surprised to see a hole suddenly appear in his forehead. ‘There’s one thing that strikes me as strange,’ she said. ‘Meggie’s father wanted to keep Inkheart safe from this Capricorn. So why bring the book here to me? He was practically running into Capricorn’s arms!’

Dustfinger shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well, perhaps he just thought your library would be the safest hiding-place.’

A memory stirred in Meggie’s mind. At first, she couldn’t identify it, but then it all came flooding back to her, perfectly clearly, as vivid as a picture in a book. She saw Dustfinger standing beside their camper van at the gate of the farmhouse, and it was almost as if she heard his voice again …

She looked at him in horror. ‘You told Mo that Capricorn was in the north!’ she said. ‘He specially asked, and you said you were sure of it.’

Dustfinger examined his fingernails.

‘Well, yes … yes, that’s right,’ he admitted, without looking at Meggie or Elinor. He just went on staring at his nails. Finally, he rubbed them on his sweater as if to remove an ugly mark. ‘You don’t trust me,’ he said hoarsely, still without looking at them. ‘Neither of you trust me. I—I can understand that, but I wasn’t lying. Capricorn has two main headquarters, and several smaller hideouts in case things get too hot for him, or one of his men needs to disappear for a while. He usually spends the summer months in the north and doesn’t come south until October, but this year he’s obviously spending the summer down in the south. How would I know why? Perhaps he had trouble with the police in the north? Perhaps he has business of some kind in the south and wants to see to it personally?’ His voice sounded injured, like the voice of a child unjustly accused. ‘In any case, his men drove south with Meggie’s father, I saw them go myself, and when Capricorn is in the south he always does anything of importance in that village. He feels safe in it, safer than anywhere else. He’s never had any trouble with the police there, he can act like a king, as if the whole world belonged to him. He makes the laws, he decides what happens, he can do or not do anything he likes. His men take care of that. Believe you me, I understand these things.’ Dustfinger smiled. It was a bitter smile. It seemed to be saying: if only you knew! But you don’t know anything. You don’t understand anything.

Meggie felt unease spread through her again. It was not caused by what Dustfinger said, but by what he wasn’t saying. Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.

Elinor seemed to be feeling the same. ‘For heaven’s sake, don’t make such a mystery of it!’ she snapped. ‘I’m asking you again, what does this Capricorn do? How does he earn his money?’

Dustfinger crossed his arms. ‘You won’t get any more information out of me. Ask him yourself. Even taking you to his village could cost me dear, so am I going to tell you about Capricorn’s business? Not likely!’ He shook his head. ‘I warned Meggie’s father. I advised him to take Capricorn the book of his own free will, but he wouldn’t listen. If I hadn’t warned him, Capricorn’s men would have found him much sooner. Ask Meggie! She was there when I warned him. Right, I didn’t tell him everything I knew. So what? I talk about Capricorn as little as possible, I try not even to think of him, and you take my word for it, once you know him you’ll feel the same.’

Elinor wrinkled her nose as if such an idea were too ridiculous for her to waste a single word on it. ‘So I assume you can’t tell me why he’s so keen to get hold of this book?’ she asked, folding up the road map. ‘Is he some kind of collector?’

Dustfinger ran his finger along the edge of the table. ‘All I’m going to tell you is that he wants this book. And that’s why you’d better give it to him. I once knew his men to stand outside a man’s house for four nights running just because Capricorn took a fancy to the man’s dog.’

‘Did he get the dog?’ asked Meggie quietly.

‘Of course,’ replied Dustfinger, looking at her thoughtfully. ‘Believe me, no one sleeps soundly with Capricorn’s men standing outside the door looking up at their window – or their children’s window. Capricorn usually gets what he wants within a couple of days, maximum.’

‘Disgusting!’ said Elinor. ‘He wouldn’t have got my dog.’

Dustfinger examined his fingernails again, smiling.

‘Stop grinning like that!’ snapped Elinor. And, turning to Meggie, she added, ‘You’d better pack a few things! We set off within the hour. It’s about time you got your father back. Even if I don’t like having to leave the book with this Capri-what’s-his-name. I hate to see books fall into the wrong hands.’

They were going in Elinor’s estate car, although Dustfinger would have preferred to travel in Mo’s camper van.

‘Nonsense, I’ve never driven anything like that,’ said Elinor, dumping in Dustfinger’s arms a cardboard box full of provisions for the journey. ‘Anyway, Mortimer’s locked the van.’

Meggie saw that Dustfinger had an answer on the tip of his tongue, but chose to keep it to himself. ‘Suppose we have to spend the night somewhere?’ he asked, carrying the box over to Elinor’s car.

‘Heavens above, who said anything about that? I intend to be back here tomorrow morning at the latest. I hate leaving my books on their own for more than a day.’

Dustfinger rolled his eyes up at the sky, as if more sense might be expected there than in Elinor’s head, and began clambering into the back seat, but Elinor stopped him. ‘No, wait, you’d better drive,’ she said, handing him her car keys. ‘You’re the one who knows where we’re going.’

But Dustfinger gave her back the keys. ‘I can’t drive,’ he said. ‘It’s bad enough sitting in a car, never mind driving it.’

Elinor got behind the steering wheel, shaking her head. ‘Well, you’re an oddity and no mistake!’ she said as Meggie climbed into the passenger seat beside her. ‘And I hope you really do know where Meggie’s father is, or you’ll find out that this Capricorn of yours isn’t the only person to be frightened of around here!’

Meggie wound down her window as Elinor started the engine. She looked back at Mo’s van. It felt bad leaving it behind here, worse than leaving a house, even this one. Strange as a place might be, the camper van meant that Mo and she always had a bit of home with them. Now that was gone too, and nothing was familiar any more except the clothes in her travelling bag in the boot of the estate car. She had also packed a few things for Mo – and two of her books.

‘Interesting choice!’ Elinor had commented when she lent Meggie a bag for the books, an old-fashioned one made of dark leather that you could sling over your shoulder. ‘These stories about the ill-made knight, and people with hairy feet going on a long journey to dark places. Have you read them both?’

Meggie had nodded. ‘Lots of times,’ she smiled at Elinor’s descriptions, stroking the bindings before she put the books in the bag. She could remember every detail of the day when Mo had rebound them.

‘Oh dear, don’t look so dismal!’ Elinor had said, looking at her with concern. ‘You just wait – our journey isn’t going to be half as bad as those hairy-footed people’s quest. It will be much shorter too.’

Meggie would have been glad to feel as sure of that herself. The book that was the reason for their own journey was in the boot, under the spare tyre. Elinor had put it in a plastic bag. ‘Don’t let Dustfinger see where it is!’ she urged Meggie, before putting it into her hands. ‘I still don’t trust him.’

But Meggie had decided to trust Dustfinger. She wanted to trust him. She needed to trust him. Who else could lead her to Mo?

13

Capricorn’s Village

‘But to the last question,’ Zelig replied, ‘he probably flew to beyond the Dark Regions, where people don’t go and cattle don’t stray, where the sky is copper, the earth iron, and where the evil forces live under roofs of petrified toadstools and in tunnels abandoned by moles.’

Isaac Bashevis Singer,

Naftali the Storyteller

The sun was already high in the cloudless sky when they set off. Soon the air was so hot and muggy in Elinor’s car that Meggie’s T-shirt was sticking to her skin with sweat. Elinor opened her window and passed a bottle of water round. She herself was wearing a knitted jacket buttoned up to her chin, and when Meggie wasn’t thinking of Mo or Capricorn she wondered whether Elinor might melt away inside it.

Dustfinger sat on the back seat, so silent that you could almost have forgotten he was there. He had put Gwin on his lap. The marten slept while Dustfinger’s hands restlessly stroked his fur, passing over it again and again. Now and then Meggie turned to look at him. He was usually gazing out of the window indifferently, as if he were looking straight through the mountains and trees, houses and rocky slopes passing by outside. His expression seemed perfectly empty, as if he were thinking of something far away, and once, when Meggie glanced round, there was such sadness on his scarred face that she quickly turned to look out of the windscreen ahead of her.

She would have liked to have an animal on her own lap during this long, long journey. Perhaps it would have driven away the dark thoughts that insisted on coming into her mind. Outside, the world was a place of gently unfolding mountains rising higher and higher. Sometimes it seemed as if they would crush the road between their grey and rocky sides. But worse than the mountains were the tunnels. Pictures seemed to lurk in them that not even Gwin’s warm body could have kept at bay. They seemed to be hiding there in the darkness, waiting for Meggie: pictures of Mo in some dark, cold place, and of Capricorn … Meggie knew it must be Capricorn, although his face was different every time.

She tried reading for a while, but soon noticed that she wasn’t taking in a word of what she read, so she gave it up and stared out of the window like Dustfinger. Elinor chose minor roads without much traffic on them. ‘Otherwise the driving gets so boring,’ she said. It made no difference to Meggie. She just wanted to arrive. She looked impatiently at the mountains, and the houses where other people lived. Sometimes, through the window of a car coming the other way, she caught a glimpse of a stranger’s face, and then it was gone, like a book you open then close at once. When they were driving through one village she saw a man by the roadside sticking a plaster on the grazed knee of a tearful little girl. He was stroking her hair comfortingly, and Meggie couldn’t help remembering how often Mo had done that for her, how he sometimes chased all round the house, cursing when he couldn’t find a plaster in time. The memory brought tears to her eyes.

‘Heavens above, it’s quieter in here than in a Pharaoh’s burial chamber!’ said Elinor at some point. (Meggie thought she said ‘Heavens above’ rather a lot.) ‘Couldn’t one of you at least say something now and then? “Oh, what a lovely landscape!”, for instance, or, “That’s a very fine castle!” If you keep as deathly quiet as this I’ll be falling asleep at the wheel any minute now.’ She still hadn’t undone a single button of her knitted jacket.

‘I don’t see any castle,’ muttered Meggie, but it wasn’t long before Elinor spotted one. ‘Sixteenth century,’ she announced as the ruined walls appeared on a mountainside. ‘Tragic story. Forbidden love, pursuit, death, grief and pain.’ And as they passed between the strong and silent rock walls Elinor told the tale of a battle that had raged in this very place over six hundred years ago. ‘To this day, if you dig among the stones you’ll still find bones and dented helmets.’ She seemed to know a story about every church tower. Some were so unlikely that Meggie wrinkled her brow in disbelief, and Elinor, without taking her eyes off the road, always responded, ‘No, really, that’s just what happened!’ She seemed to be particularly fond of bloodthirsty stories: tales of the beheading of unhappy lovers, or princes walled up alive. ‘Yes, everything looks very peaceful now,’ she remarked when Meggie turned a little pale at one of these stories. ‘But I can tell you there’s always a sad story somewhere. Ah, well, times were more exciting a few hundred years ago.’

Meggie didn’t know what was so exciting about times when, if Elinor was to be believed, your only choice was between dying of the plague or getting slaughtered by invading soldiers. But Elinor’s cheeks glowed pink with excitement at the sight of some burnt-out old castle, and whenever she told tales of the warrior princes and greedy bishops who had once spread terror and death abroad in the very mountains through which they themselves were now driving on modern paved roads, a romantic gleam lit her usually chilly pebble eyes.

‘My dear Elinor, you were obviously born into the wrong story,’ said Dustfinger at last. These were the first words he had spoken since they set out.

‘The wrong story? The wrong period, you mean. Yes, I’ve often thought so myself.’

‘Call it what you like,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Anyway, you should get on well with Capricorn. He likes the same kinds of stories as you.’

‘Is that supposed to be an insult?’ asked Elinor, offended. The comparison seemed to trouble her, for after that she kept quiet for almost an hour, which left Meggie with nothing to distract her from her miserable thoughts and the frightening pictures they conjured up for her in every tunnel.

Twilight was beginning to fall when the mountains drew back from the road and the sea suddenly appeared beyond green hills, a sea as wide as another sky. The sinking sun made it glisten like the skin of a beautiful snake. It was a long time since Meggie had seen the sea, and then it had been a cold sea, slate-grey and pale from the wind. This sea looked different, very different.

It warmed Meggie’s heart just to see it, but all too often it disappeared behind the tall, ugly buildings covering the narrow strip of land that lay between the water and the encroaching hills. Sometimes, the hills reached all the way down to the sea, and in the light of the setting sun they looked as if they were giant waves that had rolled up on to the land.

As they followed the winding coastal road Elinor began telling stories again: tales of the Romans who, she said, had built the road they were on, and how they feared the savage inhabitants of this narrow strip of land. Meggie was only half listening. Palm trees grew beside the road, their fronds dusty and sharp-edged. Giant agaves flowered among the palms, looking like spiders squatting there with their long spiny leaves. The light behind them turned pink and lemon-yellow as the sun sank further down towards the sea, and dark blue trickled down from the sky like ink flowing into water. It was so beautiful a sight that it almost hurt to look at it. Meggie had thought the place where Capricorn lived would be quite different. Beauty and fear make uneasy companions.

They drove through a small town, past houses as bright as if a child had painted them. They were colour-washed orange and pink, red and yellow. A great many were yellow: pale yellow, brownish yellow, sandy yellow, dirty yellow, and they had green shutters and red-brown roofs. Even the gathering twilight couldn’t drain them of their brightness.

‘It doesn’t seem so very dangerous here,’ remarked Meggie, as they drove past another pink house.

‘That’s because you keep looking to your left,’ said Dustfinger behind her. ‘But there’s always a light side and a dark side. Look to your right for a change.’

Meggie did as he said. At first she saw nothing but the brightly coloured houses there too. They crowded close to the roadside, leaning against each other as if they were arm in arm. But then the houses were suddenly left behind, and steep hills with the night already settling among their folds lined the road instead. Yes, Dustfinger was right. It looked sinister over there, and the few houses left seemed to be drowning in the gathering dusk.

It quickly grew darker, for night falls fast in the south, and Meggie was glad that Elinor was driving along the well lit coastal road. But all too soon Dustfinger told her to turn off along a minor road leading away from the coast, away from the sea and the brightly coloured houses, and into the dark.

The road wound further and further into the hills, going up and down as the slopes by the roadside grew steeper and steeper. The light of the headlamps fell on gorse, on vines run wild, and olive trees crouching like bent old men beside the road.

Only twice did they meet another vehicle coming towards them. Now and then the lights of a village emerged from the darkness. But the roads along which Dustfinger guided Elinor led away from the lights and deeper and deeper into the night. Several times the beam of the headlights fell on ruined houses, but Elinor didn’t know stories about any of them. No princes had lived in those wretched hovels, no red-robed bishops, only farmers and labourers whose stories no one had written down, and now they were lost, buried under wild thyme and fast-growing gorse.

‘Are we still going the right way?’ asked Elinor in a muted voice, as if the world around her were too quiet for anyone to speak out loud. ‘Where on earth do we find a village in this God-forsaken wilderness? We’ve probably taken at least two wrong turnings already.’

But Dustfinger only shook his head. ‘We’re going the right way,’ he replied. ‘Once we’re over that hill you’ll be able to see the houses.’

‘I certainly hope so!’ muttered Elinor. ‘I can hardly make out the road. Heavens above, I had no idea anywhere in the world was still so dark. Couldn’t you have told me what a long way it was? Then I’d have filled up the tank again. I don’t even know if we have enough fuel to make it back to the coast.’

‘So whose car is this?’ Dustfinger snapped back. ‘Mine? I told you I don’t know the first thing about cars. Now, keep your eyes on the road. We’ll be coming to the bridge any moment.’

‘Bridge?’ Elinor drove round the next bend and suddenly stamped on the brake. Right across the road, lit by two builders’ lamps, was a metal barrier. It looked rusty, as if it had stood there for years.

‘There!’ said Elinor, clapping her hands on the steering wheel. ‘We have gone the wrong way. I told you so.’

‘No, we haven’t.’ Dustfinger took Gwin off his shoulder and got out of the car. He looked round, listening intently as he approached the barrier, then dragged it over to the side of the road.

Elinor’s look of disbelief almost made Meggie laugh out loud. ‘Has the man gone right out of his mind?’ she whispered. ‘He doesn’t think I’m going to drive down a closed road in this darkness, does he?’

All the same, she started the engine when Dustfinger impatiently waved her on. As soon as she was past him he pulled the barrier back across the road.

‘No need to look at me like that!’ he said, climbing back into the car. ‘The barrier’s always there. Capricorn had it put up to keep unwanted visitors away. Not that people often venture up here. Capricorn spreads stories about the village that keep most of them at a distance, but—’

‘What sort of stories?’ Meggie interrupted him, although she didn’t think she really wanted to know.

‘Blood-curdling stories,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Like most folk, the locals round here are superstitious. The most common tale is that the Devil himself lives on the far side of that hill.’

Meggie was cross with herself for being scared, but now she just couldn’t take her eyes off the dark hilltop. ‘Mo says human beings invented the Devil,’ she said.

‘Well, maybe.’ Dustfinger’s mysterious smile was hovering round his mouth again. ‘But you wanted to know about the stories. They say no bullet can kill the men who live in that village, they can walk through walls, they kidnap three boys every month when the moon is new, and Capricorn teaches them to commit theft, arson and murder.’

‘Good heavens, who thought all that up? The folk of these parts or this man Capricorn himself?’ Elinor was leaning right over the steering wheel. The road was full of potholes, and she had to drive very slowly so as not to get stuck.

‘Both.’ Dustfinger leaned back and let Gwin nibble his fingers. ‘Capricorn rewards people who think up new stories. The one man who never joins in that game is Basta. He’s so superstitious himself he even goes out of his way to avoid black cats.’

Basta. Meggie remembered the name, but before she could ask any more questions Dustfinger was speaking again. He seemed to enjoy telling these tales. ‘Oh yes, I almost forgot!

Of course everyone living in the village of the damned has the Evil Eye, even the women.’

‘The Evil Eye?’ Meggie looked at him.

‘That’s right. One glance and you fall mortally ill. Three days after that, at the latest, and you’re dead as a doornail.’

‘Who’d believe a thing like that?’ murmured Meggie, turning to look ahead of her again.

‘Idiots would.’ Elinor stamped on the brake again. The car skidded over gravel on the road. The bridge Dustfinger had mentioned lay ahead, its grey stone pale in the headlights.

‘Go on, go on!’ said Dustfinger impatiently. ‘It’ll hold, though you might not think so.’

‘It looks as if the ancient Romans built it,’ muttered Elinor. ‘But for donkeys, not cars.’

All the same, Elinor drove on. Meggie squeezed her eyes tight shut, and didn’t open them until she could hear the gravel under the car tyres once more.

‘Capricorn likes this bridge a lot,’ said Dustfinger quietly. ‘A single well-armed man is enough to make it impassable. But luckily he doesn’t post a guard here every night.’

‘Dustfinger.’ Meggie turned hesitantly to look at him as Elinor’s car laboured up the last hill. ‘What are we going to say when they ask us how we found the village? I mean, it’s not going to be a good idea for Capricorn to know that you showed us the way, is it?’

‘No, you’re right,’ muttered Dustfinger, avoiding Meggie’s eyes. ‘Although we are bringing him the book.’ He picked up Gwin, who was clambering around the back seat, held him so that he couldn’t snap, and then lured him into the rucksack with a piece of bread. The marten had been restless ever since darkness fell. He wanted to go hunting.

They had reached the top of the hill. The world around them had disappeared from view, swallowed up by the night, but not far away a few pale rectangles glowed in the dark. Lighted windows.

‘There it is,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Capricorn’s village. Or the Devil’s village, if you prefer.’ He laughed softly.

Elinor turned to him crossly. ‘For heaven’s sake, will you stop that!’ she snapped at him. ‘You really seem to like these stories. Who knows, perhaps they’re all your own invention, and this Capricorn is just a rather eccentric book collector!’

Dustfinger made no reply, but only looked out of the window with the strange smile that Meggie sometimes wanted to wipe off his face. Yet again it seemed to be saying: how stupid you two are!

Elinor had switched off the engine. The silence surrounding them was so absolute that Meggie hardly dared to breathe. She looked down at the lighted windows. Usually, she thought brightly lit windows were an inviting sight in the dark, but these seemed far more menacing than the darkness all around.

‘Does this village have any normal inhabitants?’ asked Elinor. ‘Harmless old grannies, children, people who don’t have anything to do with Capricorn?’

‘No. Nobody lives there but Capricorn and his men,’ whispered Dustfinger, ‘and the women who cook and clean and so on for them.’

‘“And so on” … oh, wonderful!’ Elinor snorted with distaste. ‘I like the sound of this Capricorn less and less! Right, let’s get this over and done with. I want to go home to my books, proper electric light and a nice cup of coffee.’

‘Really? I thought you were longing for a little adventure?’

If Gwin could speak, thought Meggie, he’d do so in Dustfinger’s voice.

‘I prefer adventures in the sunlight,’ replied Elinor curtly. ‘Heavens, how I hate this darkness! Still, if we sit around here until dawn my books will be mildewed before Mortimer can do anything about them. Meggie, go round to the back of the car and fetch that bag. You know the one.’

Meggie nodded, and was just about to open the passenger door when a glaring light blinded her. Someone whose face she couldn’t make out was standing beside the driver’s door, shining a torch into the car. He tapped it commandingly against the pane.

Elinor jumped in such alarm she hit her knee on the steering wheel, but she quickly pulled herself together. Cursing, she rubbed her hurt leg and opened the window.

‘What’s the idea?’ she snapped at the stranger. ‘Do you have to frighten us to death? A person could easily get run over, skulking about in the dark like that.’

By way of answer the stranger pushed the barrel of a shotgun through the open window. ‘This is private property!’ he said. Meggie thought she recognised the rasping cat’s-tongue voice from Elinor’s library. ‘And a person can very easily get shot trespassing on private property at night.’

‘I can explain.’ Dustfinger leaned over Elinor’s shoulder.

‘Well, well, who have we here? If it isn’t Dustfinger!’ The man withdrew the barrel of his gun. ‘Do you have to turn up in the middle of the night?’

Elinor turned and cast Dustfinger a glance that was more than suspicious. ‘I’d no idea you were on such friendly terms with these people!’ she commented. ‘You called them devils!’

But Dustfinger was already out of the car. And Meggie didn’t like the familiar way the two men were talking. She remembered exactly what Dustfinger had said to her about Capricorn’s men. How could he talk to one of them like this? However hard Meggie strained her ears, she couldn’t make out what the pair were saying. She caught only one thing. Dustfinger called the stranger Basta.

‘I don’t like this!’ whispered Elinor. ‘Look at the pair of them. They’re talking to each other as if our matchstick-eating friend can come and go here as he likes!’

‘He probably knows they won’t hurt him because we’re bringing them the book!’ Meggie whispered back, never taking her eyes off the two men. The stranger had a couple of dogs with him. German shepherds. They were sniffing Dustfinger’s hands and nuzzling him in the ribs, wagging their tails.

‘See that?’ hissed Elinor. ‘Even those dogs treat him as an old friend. Suppose—’

But before she could say any more Basta opened the driver’s door. ‘Get out, both of you,’ he ordered.

Reluctantly, Elinor swung her legs out of the car. Meggie got out too and stood beside her. Her heart was thudding. She had never seen a man with a gun before. Well, on TV she had, but not in real life.

‘Look, I don’t like your tone!’ Elinor informed Basta. ‘We’ve had a strenuous drive, and we only came to this God-forsaken spot to bring your boss or whatever you call him something he’s been wanting for a long time. So let’s have a little more civility.’

Basta cast her such a scornful glance that Elinor drew in a sharp breath, and Meggie involuntarily squeezed her hand.

‘Where did you pick her up?’ enquired Basta, turning back to Dustfinger, who was standing there looking as unmoved as if none of this had anything at all to do with him.

‘She owns that house – you know the one I mean.’ Dustfinger had lowered his voice. but Meggie heard him all the same. ‘I didn’t want to bring her, but she insisted.’

‘I can imagine that.’ Basta scrutinised Elinor once again, then turned to Meggie. ‘So this is Silvertongue’s little daughter? Doesn’t look much like him.’

‘Where’s my father?’ asked Meggie. ‘How is he?’ These were the first words she had managed to utter. Her voice was hoarse, as if she hadn’t used it for a long time.

‘Oh, he’s fine,’ replied Basta, glancing at Dustfinger. ‘Although he’s saying so little at the moment that Leaden-tongue would be more like it.’

Meggie bit her lip. ‘We’ve come for him,’ she said. Now her voice was high and thin, although she was trying as hard as she could to sound grown-up. ‘We have the book, but we won’t give it to Capricorn unless he lets my father go.’

Basta turned to Dustfinger again. ‘Something about her does remind me of her father after all. See her lips tighten? And that look! Oh yes, anyone can see they’re related.’ His voice sounded as if he were joking, but there was nothing funny about his face when he looked at Meggie again. It was thin, sharply angular, with close-set eyes. He narrowed them slightly as if he could see better that way. Basta was not a tall man, and his shoulders were almost as narrow as a boy’s, but Meggie held her breath when he took a step towards her. She was afraid of him. She had never been so afraid of anyone before, and it wasn’t because of the shotgun in his hand. He had an aura of fury about him, of something keen and biting—

‘Meggie, get the bag out of the boot.’ As Basta was about to grab Meggie, Elinor pushed herself between them. ‘There’s nothing dangerous in it,’ she said crossly. ‘Just what we came here to hand over.’

By way of answer, Basta pulled the dogs aside, pulling so harshly on their leashes that they yelped out loud.

‘Meggie, listen to me!’ whispered Elinor, as they left the car and followed Basta down a steep pathway leading to the lighted windows. ‘Don’t hand over the book until they let us see your father, understand?’

Meggie nodded, clutching the plastic bag firmly to her chest. How stupid did Elinor think she was? On the other hand, how was she going to hang on to the book if Basta decided to take it away from her? She preferred not to follow this line of thinking through to its conclusion.

It was a hot, sultry night. The sky above the black hills was sprinkled with stars. The path down which Basta was leading them was stony, and so dark that Meggie could hardly see her own feet, but whenever she stumbled there was a hand to catch her. The hand belonged either to Elinor, walking beside her, or to Dustfinger, who was following as silently as if he were her shadow. Gwin was still in his rucksack, and Basta’s dogs kept raising their noses and sniffing, as if they had picked up the sharp scent of the marten.

Slowly, they came closer to the lighted windows. Meggie saw old houses of grey, rough-hewn stone, with a pale church tower rising above the rooftops. Many of the houses looked empty as they passed, going down alleys so narrow that Meggie felt they could close in on her. Some of the houses had no roofs, others were little more than a couple of walls partly fallen in. It was dark in Capricorn’s village. Only a few lamps were on in the streets, hanging from masonry arches above the alleyways. At last they reached a small square. The church with the tower they had seen from a distance stood on one side of the square, and not far away, divided from it by a narrow passage, there was a large, two-storey house which did not look at all derelict. This square was better lit than the rest of the village, with four lanterns casting menacing shadows on the paving stones. Basta led them straight to the big house, where more light showed behind three windows on the upper floor. Was Mo in there? Meggie listened to herself as if she could find the answer there, but all her heart would tell her was a tale of fear. Fear and grief.

14

A Mission Accomplished

‘The reason there’s no use looking,’ said Mr Beaver, ‘is that we know already where he’s gone!’ Everyone stared in amazement.

‘Don’t you understand?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘He’s gone to her, to the White Witch. He has betrayed us all.’

C.S. Lewis,

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Hundreds of times since Dustfinger had first told her about him, Meggie had tried to picture Capricorn’s face. She’d thought about it on the way to Elinor’s house when Mo was sitting beside her in the van, and in the huge bed there, and finally on the drive here. Hundreds of times? No, she had tried to imagine it thousands of times, drawing on her ideas of all the villains she had ever read about in books: Captain Hook, crooked-nosed and thin; Long John Silver, a false smile always on his lips; Injun Joe, who had haunted so many of her bad dreams with his knife and his greasy black hair … But Capricorn looked quite different. Meggie soon gave up counting the doors they passed before Basta finally stopped outside one. But she did count the black-clad men. Four of them were standing in the corridors, looking bored. Each man had a shotgun propped against the whitewashed wall beside him. Dustfinger had been right: in their close-fitting black suits they really did look like rooks. Only Basta wore a snow-white shirt, just as Dustfinger had said, with a red flower in the buttonhole of his jacket, a red flower like a warning.

Capricorn’s dressing gown was red too. He was seated in an armchair when Basta entered the room with the three new arrivals, and a woman was kneeling in front of him cutting his toenails. The chair seemed too small for him. Capricorn was a tall man, and gaunt, as if the skin had been stretched too tight over his bones. His skin was pale as parchment, his hair cut short and bristly. Meggie couldn’t have said if it was grey or very fair.

He raised his head when Basta opened the door. His eyes were almost as pale as the rest of him, as if the colour had drained out of them, but bright as silver coins. The woman at his feet glanced up when they came in, then bent over to resume her work.

‘Excuse me, but the visitors we were expecting have arrived,’ said Basta. ‘I thought you might want to speak to them at once.’

Capricorn leaned back in his chair and cast a brief glance at Dustfinger. Then his expressionless eyes moved to Meggie. She was clutching the plastic bag containing the book to her chest, her arms firmly wrapped around it. Capricorn stared at the bag as if he knew what was in it. He made a sign to the woman at his feet. Reluctantly, she straightened up, smoothed down her black dress, and glared at Elinor and Meggie. She looked like an old magpie, with her grey hair scraped back and a pointed nose that didn’t seem to fit her small, wrinkled face. Nodding to Capricorn, she left the room.

It was a large room, only sparsely furnished: a long table with eight chairs, a cupboard and a heavy sideboard. There were no lamps in the room, only candles, dozens of them in heavy silver candlesticks. It seemed to Meggie that they filled the room with shadows rather than light.

‘Where is it?’ asked Capricorn. When he scraped back his chair Meggie flinched involuntarily. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve only brought the girl this time.’ His voice was more impressive than his face. It was dark and heavy, and the moment she heard him speak Meggie hated it.

‘She’s got it with her. In that bag,’ replied Dustfinger before Meggie could say so herself. His eyes wandered restlessly from candle to candle as he spoke, as if only their dancing flames interested him. ‘Her father really didn’t know he had the wrong book. This woman who says she’s a friend of his,’ added Dustfinger, pointing to Elinor, ‘changed the books round without telling him. She’s a real bookworm. I think she lives on print. Her whole house is full of books – looks as if she likes them better than human company.’ The words came spilling out of Dustfinger’s mouth as if he wanted to be rid of them. ‘I didn’t like her from the first, but you know our friend Silvertongue. He always thinks the best of everyone. He’d trust the Devil himself if Old Nick gave him a friendly smile.’

Meggie looked at Elinor. She was standing there as if tongue-tied. Anyone could see she had a guilty conscience.

Capricorn merely nodded at Dustfinger’s explanations. He tightened the belt of his dressing gown, clasped his hands behind his back, and came slowly over to Meggie. She did her best not to flinch, to look firmly and undaunted into those colourless eyes, but fear constricted her throat. What a coward she was after all! She tried to think of some hero out of one of her books, someone whose skin she could slip into, to make her feel stronger, bigger, braver. Why could she remember nothing but stories of frightened people when Capricorn looked at her? She usually found it so easy to escape somewhere else, to get right inside the minds of people and animals who existed only on paper, so why not now? Because she was afraid. ‘Because fear kills everything,’ Mo had once told her. ‘Your mind, your heart, your imagination.’

Mo … where was he? Meggie bit her lip to stop herself shaking, but she knew the fear showed in her eyes, and she knew that Capricorn saw it. She wished she had a heart of ice and a clever smile, not the trembling lips of a child whose father had been stolen away.

Now Capricorn was very close to her. He scrutinised her. No one had ever looked at her like that. She felt like a fly stuck to a flypaper just waiting to die.

‘How old is she?’ Capricorn looked at Dustfinger as if he didn’t trust Meggie to know the answer herself.

‘Twelve!’ she said in a loud voice. It wasn’t easy to speak with her lips quivering so hard. ‘I’m twelve. And I want to know where my father is.’

Capricorn acted as if he hadn’t heard the last sentence. ‘Twelve?’ he repeated in the dark voice that weighed so heavily on Meggie’s ears, ‘Three or four more years and she’ll be a pretty little thing, useful to have around the place. We’ll have to feed her up a bit, though.’ He felt her arm with his long fingers. He wore gold rings on them, three on each hand. Meggie tried to pull away, but Capricorn was gripping her tightly as his pale eyes examined her. Just as he might have looked at a fish. A poor little fish wriggling on a hook.

‘Let the girl go!’ For the first time Meggie was glad Elinor’s voice could sound so sharp. And Capricorn actually did let go of her arm.

Elinor stepped up behind Meggie and put her hands protectively on her shoulders. ‘I don’t know what’s going on here,’ she snapped at Capricorn. ‘I don’t know who you are, or what you and all these men with guns are doing in this God-forsaken village, and I don’t want to know either. I’m here to see that this girl gets her father back. We’ll leave you the book you’re so keen to have – although that’s enough to give me heart-ache, but you’ll get it as soon as Meggie’s father is safe in my car. And if for any reason he wants to stay here we’d like to hear it from his own lips.’

Capricorn turned his back to her without a word. ‘Why did you bring this woman?’ he asked Dustfinger. ‘Bring the girl and the book, I said. Why would I want the woman?’

Meggie looked at Dustfinger.

The girl and the book. The words kept repeating inside her head, like an echo. The girl and the book, I said. Meggie tried to look Dustfinger in the eye, but he avoided her gaze as if it would burn him. It hurt to feel so stupid. So terribly, terribly stupid.

Dustfinger perched on the edge of the table and pinched out one of the candles, gently and slowly as if waiting for the pain, the sharp little stab of the candle flame. ‘I’ve told Basta already: our dear friend Elinor couldn’t be persuaded to stay behind,’ he said. ‘She didn’t want to let the girl go with me alone, and she was very reluctant to give up the book.’

‘And wasn’t I right?’ Elinor’s voice rose to such a pitch that Meggie jumped. ‘Listen to him, Meggie, listen to that fork-tongued matchstick-eater! I ought to have called the police when he turned up again. He came back for the book; that was the only reason.’

And for me, thought Meggie. The girl and the book.

Dustfinger pretended to be preoccupied with pulling a loose thread from his coat-sleeve. But his hands, usually so skilful, were shaking.

‘And as for you!’ said Elinor, jabbing Capricorn in the chest with her forefinger. Basta took a step forward, but Capricorn waved him away. ‘I’ve had a lot of experience with books. I myself have had a number of books stolen from me, and I can’t claim that all the books on my shelves got there exactly as they should have done – perhaps you know the saying that all book collectors are vultures and hunters? But you really seem to be the craziest of us all. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of you before. Where’s your collection?’ She looked enquiringly round the big room. ‘I don’t see a single book.’

Capricorn put his hands in his dressing-gown pockets and signed to Basta. Before Meggie knew what was happening, Basta had snatched the plastic bag from her hands. He opened it, peered inside suspiciously as if he thought it could contain a snake or something else that might bite, then reached in and brought out the book.

Capricorn took it from him. Meggie couldn’t see on his face any of the tenderness with which Elinor and Mo looked at books. No, there was nothing but dislike on Capricorn’s face – dislike and relief. That was all.

‘These two know nothing?’ Capricorn opened the book, leafed through it, then closed it again. It was the right book. Meggie could tell from his face. It was exactly the book he had been looking for.

‘No, they know nothing. Even the girl doesn’t know.’ Dustfinger was looking out of the window very intently, as if there were more to be seen there than the pitch dark. ‘Her father hasn’t told her, so why should I?’

Capricorn nodded. ‘Take these two round behind the house,’ he told Basta, who was still standing there holding the empty bag.

‘What do you mean?’ Elinor began, but Basta was already hauling her and Meggie away.

‘It means we’re going to shut you two pretty birds in one of our cages overnight,’ said Basta, prodding them roughly in the back with his shotgun.

‘Where’s my father?’ shouted Meggie. Her own voice was shrill in her ears. ‘You’ve got the book now! What more do you want of him?’

Capricorn strolled over to the candle that Dustfinger had pinched out, passed his forefinger over the wick and looked at the soot on his fingertip. ‘What do I want of your father?’ he said, without turning to look at Meggie. ‘I want to keep him here, what else? You don’t seem to know about his extraordinary talent. Up to now he’s been unwilling to use it in my service, hard as Basta has tried to persuade him. But now Dustfinger has brought you here he’ll do anything I want. I’m confident of that.’

Meggie tried to push Basta’s hands away when he reached for her, but he took her by the back of the head like a chicken whose neck he was going to wring. Elinor tried coming to her aid, but he casually pointed the shotgun at her chest and forced Meggie over to the door.

When Meggie turned round again she saw Dustfinger still leaning against the big table. He was watching her, but this time he wasn’t smiling. Forgive me, his eyes seemed to say. I had to do it. I can explain everything! But Meggie didn’t want to know, and she certainly wasn’t about to forgive him. ‘I hope you drop dead!’ she screamed as Basta hauled her out of the room. ‘I hope you burn to death! I hope you suffocate in your own smoke!’

Basta laughed as he closed the door. ‘Just listen to this little wildcat!’ he said. ‘I think I’ll have to watch my step with you around!’

15

Good Luck and Bad Luck

It was the middle of the night, and Bingo couldn’t sleep. The ground was hard, but he was used to that … His blanket was dirty and smelled disgusting, but he was used to that too. A tune kept going through his head, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. It was the Wendels’ victory song.

Michael de Larrabeiti,

The Borribles Go for Broke

The cages, as Basta had called them, kept ready by Capricorn for unwelcome guests were behind the church, in a paved area where rubbish containers stood next to mountains of building rubble. There was a slight smell of petrol in the air, and even the glow-worms whirling aimlessly through the night didn’t seem to know what had brought them to this place. A row of tumbledown houses stood behind the bins and the rubble. The windows were just holes in the grey walls, and a couple of rotten shutters hung from their hinges at such an angle they looked as if a sudden gust of wind would blow them right off. Only the doors on the ground floor had obviously been given a fresh coat of paint fairly recently, in a dull brown shade with numbers painted on them clumsily, as if by a child, one for each door. As far as Meggie could see in the dark the last door had a number 7 on it. Basta propelled her and Elinor towards number 4. For a moment Meggie was relieved that he hadn’t really meant a cage, although the door in the blank wall looked anything but inviting.

‘This is ridiculous!’ said Elinor furiously, as Basta unlocked and unbolted the door. He had brought reinforcements with him from the house in the form of a skinny lad who wore the same black uniform as the grown men in Capricorn’s village, and who obviously liked to menace Elinor by pointing his gun at her whenever she opened her mouth. But that didn’t keep her quiet for long.

‘What do you think you’re playing at?’ she said angrily, without taking her eyes off the muzzle of the gun. ‘I’ve heard that these mountains were always a paradise for robbers, but for heaven’s sake, we’re living in the twenty-first century! These days people don’t go pushing visitors around at gunpoint – certainly not a youngster like him.’

‘As far as I’m aware people in this fine century of yours still do exactly as they always did,’ replied Basta. ‘And that youngster is just the right age to be apprenticed to us. I was even younger when I joined.’ He pushed the door open. The darkness inside was blacker than night itself. Basta shoved first Meggie, then Elinor in, and slammed the door behind them.

Meggie heard the key turn in the lock, then Basta saying something which made the boy laugh, and the sound of their footsteps retreating. She reached her hands out until her fingertips touched a wall. Her eyes were useless; she might as well have been blind, she couldn’t even see where Elinor was. But she heard her muttering, letting off steam somewhere over to her left.

‘Isn’t there at least a bloody light switch somewhere in this hole? Oh, to hell with it, I feel as if I’ve fallen into some farfetched adventure story where the villains wear black eye-patches and throw knives. Damn, damn, damn!’ Meggie had already noticed that Elinor swore a lot, and the more upset she was the worse her language became.

‘Elinor?’ The voice came from somewhere in the darkness, and that one word expressed delight, horror and surprise.

Meggie spun round so suddenly she almost fell over her own feet. ‘Mo?’

‘Oh no! Meggie, not you too! How did you get here?’

‘Mo!’ Meggie stumbled through the darkness towards Mo’s voice. A hand took her arm and fingers felt her face.

‘Ah, at last!’ A naked electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling came on, and Elinor, looking pleased with herself, took her finger off a dusty switch. ‘Electric light is a wonderful invention!’ she said. ‘That at least is an improvement on past centuries, don’t you agree?’

‘What are you two doing here, Elinor?’ demanded Mo, holding Meggie very close. ‘I trusted you to look after her at least as well as your books! How could you let them bring her here?’

‘How could I let them?’ Elinor’s indignant voice almost cracked. ‘I never asked to baby-sit your daughter! I know how to look after books, but children are something else, dammit! And she was worried about you – wanted to go looking for you. So what does stupid Elinor do instead of staying comfortably at home? I mean, I couldn’t let the child go off on her own, I told myself. And what do I get for my noble conduct? Insults, a gun held to my chest, and now I’m here in this hole with you carrying on at me too!’

‘All right, all right!’ Mo held Meggie at arm’s length and looked her up and down.

‘I’m fine, Mo!’ said Meggie, although her voice shook just a little. ‘Honestly.’

Mo nodded and glanced at Elinor. ‘You brought Capricorn the book?’

‘Of course! You’d have given it to him yourself if I hadn’t …’ said Elinor, going red and looking down at her dusty shoes.

‘If you hadn’t swapped them round,’ Meggie ended her sentence for her. She reached for Mo’s hand and held it very tightly. She couldn’t believe he was back with her, apparently perfectly all right except for the scratch on his forehead, almost hidden by his dark hair. ‘Did they hit you?’ She felt the dried blood anxiously with her forefinger.

Mo had to smile, although he couldn’t have been feeling much like it. ‘That’s nothing. I’m fine too. Don’t worry.’

Meggie didn’t think that was really much of an answer, but she asked no more questions.

‘So how did you come here?’ asked Mo. ‘Did Capricorn send his men back again?’

Elinor shook her head. ‘No need for that,’ she said bitterly. ‘Your slimy-tongued friend fixed it. A nice kind of snake you brought to my house, I must say. First he gives you away, then he serves up the book and your daughter to this man Capricorn. “Bring the girl and the book.” We heard Capricorn say so himself. That was our little matchstick-eater’s mission, and he carried it out to his master’s complete satisfaction.’

Meggie put Mo’s arm round her shoulders and buried her face against him.

‘The girl and the book?’ Mo held Meggie close again. ‘Of course. Now Capricorn can be sure I’ll do what he wants.’ He turned round and went over to the pile of straw lying on the floor in a corner of the room. Sighing, he sat down on it, leaned his back against the wall, and closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Well, now we’re quits, Dustfinger and I,’ he said. ‘Although I wonder how Capricorn is going to pay him for his treachery. Because what Dustfinger wants is something Capricorn can’t give him.’

‘Quits? What do you mean?’ Meggie sat down beside him. ‘And what are you supposed to do for Capricorn? What does he want you for, Mo?’ The straw was damp, not a good place to sleep, but still better than the bare stone floor.

Mo said nothing for what seemed an eternity. He stared at the bare walls, the locked door, the dirty floor.

‘I think it’s time I told you the whole story,’ he said at last. ‘Although I would rather not have had to tell you in a grim place like this, and not until you’re a little older.’

‘Mo, I’m twelve!’ Why do grown-ups think it’s easier for children to bear secrets than the truth? Don’t they know about the horror stories we imagine to explain the secrets?

‘Sit down, Elinor,’ said Mo, making space. ‘It’s quite a long story.’

Elinor sighed, and sat down unceremoniously on the damp straw. ‘This can’t be happening!’ she murmured. ‘This really can’t be happening!’

‘That’s what I thought for nine years, Elinor,’ said Mo. And then he began his story.

16

Once Upon a Time

He held up the book then. ‘I’m reading it to you for relax.’

‘Has it got any sports in it?’

‘Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders … Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.’

‘Sounds okay,’ I said, and I kind of closed my eyes.

William Goldman,

The Princess Bride

You were just three years old, Meggie,’ Mo began. ‘I remember how we celebrated your birthday. We gave you a picture book – you know, the one about the sea-serpent with toothache winding itself round the lighthouse …’

Meggie nodded. It was still in her book-box – Mo had twice given it a new dress. ‘We?’ she asked.

‘Your mother and I …’ Mo picked some straw off his trousers. ‘I could never pass by a bookshop. The house where we lived was very small – we called it our shoebox, our mouse-hole, we had all sorts of names for it – and that very day I’d bought yet another crate full of books from a second-hand bookseller. Elinor would have liked some of them,’ he added, glancing at her and smiling. ‘Capricorn’s book was there too.’

‘You mean it belonged to him?’ Meggie looked at Mo in surprise, but he shook his head.

‘No, but … well, let’s take it all in order. Your mother sighed when she saw all those new books and asked where we were going to put them, but then of course she helped me to unpack the crate. I always used to read aloud to her in the evenings—’

‘You? You read aloud?’

‘Yes, every evening. Your mother enjoyed it. That evening she chose Inkheart. She always did like tales of adventure – stories full of brightness and darkness. She could tell you the names of all King Arthur’s knights, and she knew everything about Beowulf and Grendel, the ancient gods and the not-quite-so ancient heroes. She liked pirate stories too, but most of all she loved books which had at least a knight or a dragon or a fairy in them. She was always on the dragon’s side, by the way. There didn’t seem to be any of them in Inkheart, but there was any amount of brightness and darkness, fairies and brownies. Your mother liked brownies as well: hobgoblins, bugaboos, the Fenoderee, the folletti with their butterfly wings, she knew them all. So we gave you a pile of picture books, sat down on the rug beside you, and I began to read.’

Meggie leaned her head against Mo’s shoulder and stared at the blank wall. She saw herself against its dirty white background as she had looked in old photos: small, with plump legs, very fair hair (it had darkened a little since then), her little fingers turning the pages of big picture books.

‘We enjoyed the story,’ her father went on. ‘It was exciting, well written, and full of all sorts of amazing creatures. Your mother loved a book to lead her into an unknown land, and the world into which Inkheart led her was exactly what she liked. Sometimes the story took a very dark turn, and whenever the suspense got too much, your mother put a finger to her lips, and I read more quietly, although we were sure you were too busy with your own books to listen to a sinister story which you wouldn’t have understood anyway. I remember it as if it were yesterday; night had fallen long ago. It was autumn, with draughts coming in through the windows. We had lit a fire – there was no central heating in our shoebox of a house, but it had a stove in every room – and I began reading the seventh chapter. That’s when it happened—’

Mo stopped. He stared ahead of him as if lost in his own thoughts.

‘What?’ whispered Meggie. ‘What happened, Mo?’

Her father looked at her. ‘They came out,’ he said. ‘There they were, all of a sudden, standing in the doorway to the corridor outside the room, as if they’d just come in from out of doors. There was a crackling noise when they turned to us – like someone slowly unfolding a piece of paper. I still had their names on my lips: Basta, Dustfinger, Capricorn. Basta was holding Dustfinger by the collar, as if he were shaking a puppy for doing something forbidden. Capricorn liked to wear red even then, but he was nine years younger and not quite as gaunt as he is today. He wore a sword, something I’d never seen at close quarters before. Basta had one hanging from his belt too, while Dustfinger …’ Here Mo shook his head. ‘Well, of course the poor fellow had nothing but the horned marten whose tricks earned him a living. I don’t think any of the three of them realised what had happened. Indeed, I didn’t understand it myself until much later. My voice had brought them slipping out of their story like a bookmark forgotten by some reader between the pages. How could they understand what had happened? Basta pushed Dustfinger away so roughly that he fell down, then he tried to draw his sword, but his hands were white as paper and they obviously didn’t yet have the strength for it. The sword slipped from his fingers and fell on the rug. Its blade looked as if there were dried blood on it, but perhaps it was only the reflection of the fire. Capricorn stood there, looking round. He seemed dizzy; he was staggering on the spot like a dancing bear that has been made to turn round too often. And that may well have saved us, or so Dustfinger has always claimed. If Basta and his master had been in full command of their powers, they’d probably have killed us outright, but they hadn’t fully arrived in this world yet, and I picked up the terrible sword lying on the rug among my books. It was heavy, much heavier than I’d expected. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous holding the thing. I probably clutched it like a vacuum cleaner or a walking stick, but when Capricorn staggered towards me and I held the blade between us he stopped. I stammered something, tried to explain what had happened, not that I understood it myself, but Capricorn just stared at me with those pale eyes, the colour of water; while Basta stood beside him with a hand on the hilt of his dagger. He seemed to be waiting for his master to tell him to cut all our throats.’

‘And what about Dustfinger?’ Elinor’s voice sounded hoarse too.

‘He was still where he’d fallen on the rug, sitting there as if paralysed, not making a sound. I didn’t stop to think about Dustfinger. If you open a basket and see two snakes and a lizard crawl out, you’re going to deal with the snakes first, right?’

‘What about my mother?’ Meggie could only whisper. She wasn’t used to saying that word.

Mo looked at her. ‘I couldn’t see her anywhere. You were still kneeling among your books, staring wide-eyed at the strange men standing there with their heavy boots and their weapons. I was terrified for you, but to my relief both Basta and Capricorn ignored you. “That’s enough talk,” Capricorn said finally, as I became more and more entangled in my own words. “Never mind how we arrived in this miserable place, just send us back at once, you accursed magician, or Basta here will cut the talkative tongue out of your mouth.” Which didn’t sound exactly reassuring, and I’d read enough about those two in the first chapters of the book to know that Capricorn meant what he said. I was wondering so desperately how to end the nightmare that I felt quite dizzy. I picked up the book. Perhaps if I read the same passage again, I thought … I tried. I stumbled over the words while Capricorn glared at me and Basta drew the knife from his belt. Nothing happened. The two of them just stood there in my house, showing no sign of going back into their story. And suddenly I knew for certain that they meant to kill us. I put down the fatal book and picked up the sword I’d dropped on the rug. Basta tried to get to it before me, but I moved faster. I had to hold the wretched thing with both hands; I still remember how cold the hilt felt. Don’t ask me how I did it, but I managed to drive Basta and Capricorn out into the passage. There were several breakages because I was brandishing the sword so clumsily. You began to cry, and I wanted to turn round and tell you it was all just a bad dream, but I was fully occupied keeping Basta’s knife away from me with Capricorn’s sword. So it’s happened, I kept thinking, you’re in the middle of a story exactly as you’ve always wanted, and it’s horrible. Fear tastes quite different when you’re not just reading about it, Meggie, and playing hero wasn’t half as much fun as I’d expected. The two of them would certainly have killed me if they hadn’t still been rather weak at the knees. Capricorn cursed me, his eyes almost bursting out of his head with fury. Basta swore and threatened, giving me a nasty cut on my upper arm, but then, suddenly, the front door was thrown open and they both disappeared into the night, still reeling like drunks. My hands were trembling so much I could scarcely manage to bolt the door. I leaned against it and listened for sounds outside, but all I heard was my own racing heart. Then I heard you crying in the living room, and remembered that there had been a third man. I staggered back, still holding the sword, and there stood Dustfinger in the middle of the room. He had no weapon, just the marten sitting on his shoulders. He flinched, face white as a sheet, when I came towards him. I must have been a terrible sight with the blood running down my arm, and I was shaking all over, whether from fear or anger I couldn’t have said. “Please,” he kept whispering, “don’t kill me! I’m nothing to do with those two. I’m only a juggler, just a harmless fire-eater. I can show you.” And I said, “Yes, yes, all right, I know who you are, you’re Dustfinger – I even know your name, you see.” At which he cowered in awe before me – a magician, he thought, who seemed to know all about him and who had plucked him out of his world as easily as picking an apple off a tree. The marten scampered along his arm, jumped down on the carpet and ran towards you. You stopped crying and put out your hand. “Careful, he bites,” said Dustfinger, shooing him away from you. I took no notice. I suddenly realised how quiet the room was, that was all. How quiet and how empty. I saw the book lying open on the carpet where I had dropped it, and I saw the cushion where your mother had been sitting. And she wasn’t there. Where was she? I called her name again and again, I ran from room to room. But she had gone.’

Elinor was sitting bolt upright, staring at him in horror. ‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer, what are you saying?’ she cried. ‘You told me she went away on some stupid adventure holiday and never came back!’

Mo leaned his head against the wall. ‘I had to think up something, Elinor,’ he said. ‘I mean, I could hardly tell the truth, could I?’

Meggie stroked his arm where his shirt hid the long, pale scar. ‘You always told me you’d cut your arm climbing through a broken window.’

‘Yes, I know. The truth would have sounded too crazy, don’t you think?’

Meggie nodded. He was right; she would just have thought it was another of his stories. ‘So she never came back?’ she whispered, although she knew the answer already.

‘No,’ replied Mo softly. ‘Basta, Capricorn and Dustfinger came out of the book and she went into it, along with our two cats who were curled up on her lap as usual while I read aloud. I expect some creature from here changed places with Gwin too, maybe a spider or a fly or a bird that happened to be flying round the house. Oh, I don’t know …’ Mo fell silent.

Sometimes, when he had made up such a good story that Meggie thought it was true, he would suddenly smile and say, ‘You fell for that one, Meggie!’ Like the time on her seventh birthday when he told her he’d seen fairies among the crocuses in the garden. But the smile didn’t come this time.

‘I searched the whole house for your mother. No sign of her,’ he went on, ‘and when I came back to the living room, Dustfinger had vanished and so had his friend with the horns. But the sword was still there, and it felt so real that I decided not to doubt my sanity. I put you to bed – I think I told you your mother had already gone to sleep – and then I began reading Inkheart out loud again. I read the whole damn book until I was hoarse and the sun was rising, but nothing came out of it except a bat and a silken cloak, which I used later to line your book-box. I tried again and again during the days and nights that followed, until my eyes were burning and the letters danced drunkenly on the page. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I kept making up different stories for you to explain where your mother was, and I took good care you were never in the room with me when I was reading aloud, in case you disappeared too. I wasn’t worried about myself. Oddly enough, I had a feeling that the person reading the book ran no risk of slipping into its pages. I still don’t know whether I was right.’ Mo flicked a midge off his hand. ‘I read until I couldn’t hear my own voice any more,’ he went on, ‘but your mother didn’t come back, Meggie. Instead, a strange little man as transparent as if he were made of glass appeared in my living room on the fifth day, and the postman disappeared just as he was putting the mail into our letterbox. I found his bike out in the yard. After that I knew that neither walls nor locked doors would keep you safe – you or anybody else. So I decided never to read aloud from a book again. Not from Inkheart or from any other book.’

‘What happened to the little glass man?’ asked Meggie.

Mo sighed. ‘He broke into pieces only a few days later when a heavy truck drove past the house. Obviously, very few creatures move easily from one world to another. We both know what fun it can be to get right into a book and live there for a while, but falling out of a story and suddenly finding yourself in this world doesn’t seem to be much fun at all. It broke Dustfinger’s heart.’

‘Oh, he has a heart, does he?’ enquired Elinor bitterly.

‘It would be better for him if he didn’t,’ replied Mo. ‘More than a week passed before he was back at my door again. It was night, of course. He prefers night to day. I was just packing. I’d decided it was safer to leave, since I didn’t want to be driving Basta and Capricorn out of my house at sword-point again. Dustfinger’s reappearance showed that I was right to feel anxious. It was well after midnight when he turned up, but I couldn’t sleep anyway.’ Mo stroked Meggie’s hair. ‘You weren’t sleeping well then either. You had bad dreams, however much I tried to keep them away with my stories. I was just packing the tools in my workshop when there was a knock on the front door, a very soft, almost furtive knock. Dustfinger emerged from the dark as suddenly as he did when he came to our house four days ago – heavens, was it really only four days? Well, when he came back that first time he looked as if it had been too long since he’d eaten. He was thin as a stray cat and his eyes were dull. “Send me back,” he begged, “send me back! This world will be the death of me. It’s too fast, too crowded, too noisy. If I don’t die of homesickness I shall starve to death. I don’t know how to make a living. I don’t know anything. I’m like a fish out of water,” he said. And he refused to believe that I couldn’t do it. He wanted to see the book and try for himself, even though he could scarcely read, but there was no way I could let him have it. It would have been like giving away the very last part I still had of your mother. Luckily, I’d hidden it well. I let Dustfinger sleep on the sofa, and came down next morning to find him still searching the bookshelves. Over the next few years he kept on turning up, following us wherever we went, until I got sick and tired of it and made off with you in secret like a thief in the night. After that I saw no more of him for five years. Until four days ago.’

Meggie looked at him. ‘You still feel sorry for him,’ she said.

Mo was silent. At last, he said, ‘Sometimes.’

Elinor’s comment on that was a snort of contempt. ‘You’re even crazier than I thought,’ she said. ‘It’s that idiot’s fault we’re in this hole, it’s his fault if they cut our throats, and you still feel sorry for him?’

Mo shrugged his shoulders and looked up at the ceiling, where a few moths were fluttering around the naked light bulb. ‘No doubt Capricorn has promised to take him back,’ he said. ‘Unlike me, he realised that Dustfinger would do anything in return for such a promise. All he wants is to go back to his own world. He doesn’t even stop to ask if his story there has a happy ending!’

‘Well, that’s no different from real life,’ remarked Elinor gloomily. ‘You never know if things will turn out well. Just now our own story looks like coming to a bad end.’

Meggie sat with her arms clasped round her legs, her chin on her knees, staring at the dirty white walls. In her mind’s eye she saw the ‘N’ in front of her, the ‘N’ with the horned marten sitting on it, and felt as if her mother were looking out from beyond the big capital letter, her mother as she was in the faded photograph under Mo’s pillow. So she hadn’t run away after all. Did she like it in that other world? Did she still remember her daughter? Or were Meggie and Mo just a fading picture for her too? Did she long to be back in her own world, just as Dustfinger did?

And did Capricorn long to be back in his own world as well? Was that what he wanted – for Mo to read him back again? What would happen when Capricorn realised that Mo simply couldn’t do it? Meggie shuddered.

‘It seems Capricorn has someone else to read aloud to him now,’ Mo went on, as if he had guessed her thoughts. ‘Basta told me about the man, probably to show me I’m not by any means indispensable. Apparently he’s read several useful assistants for Capricorn out of a book already.’

‘Oh yes? Then why does he want you?’ Elinor sat up, rubbing her behind and groaning. ‘I don’t understand any of this. I just hope it’s all a bad dream, the kind you wake up from with a stiff neck and a bad taste in your mouth.’

Meggie doubted whether Elinor really had any such hope. The damp straw felt too real, and so did the cold wall behind them. She leaned against Mo’s shoulder again and closed her eyes. She was very sorry she had scarcely read a line of Inkheart. She knew nothing at all about the story into which her mother had disappeared. All she knew was Mo’s other stories, about the fabulous exploits that had kept her mother away, tales of the adventures she was having in distant lands, of fearsome enemies who kept preventing her from coming home, and of a box she was filling for Meggie, putting something new and wonderful in it at every enchanted place she visited.

‘Mo,’ she asked, ‘do you think she likes being in that story?’

It took Mo quite a long time to answer. ‘She’d certainly like the fairies,’ he said at last, ‘although they’re deceitful little things. And if I know her she’ll be putting out bowls of milk for the brownies. Yes, I think she’d like that part of it …’

‘So … so what wouldn’t she like?’ Meggie looked at him anxiously.

Mo hesitated. ‘The evil in it,’ he finally said. ‘So many bad things happen in that book, and she never found out that it all ends reasonably well – after all, I never finished reading her the whole story. That’s what she wouldn’t like.’

‘No, of course not,’ said Elinor. ‘But how do you know the story hasn’t changed anyway? After you read Capricorn and his friend out of it. And now we’re lumbered with them here.’

‘Yes,’ said Mo, ‘but they’re still in the book too. Believe me, I’ve read it often enough since they came out of it, and the story’s still about them: Dustfinger, Basta and Capricorn. Doesn’t that mean everything is still the way it was? Capricorn is still there, and we’re only up against a shadow of him in this world.’

‘He’s pretty frightening for a shadow,’ said Elinor.

‘Yes, you’re right,’ agreed Mo. ‘Perhaps things have changed there after all. Perhaps there’s another, much larger story behind the printed one, a story that changes just as our own world does. And the letters on the page tell us only as much as we’d see peering through a keyhole. Perhaps the story in the book is just the lid on a pan; it always stays the same, but underneath there’s a whole world that goes on developing and changing like our own.’

Elinor groaned. ‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer!’ she said. ‘Stop it, do. You’re giving me a headache.’

‘It made my own head feel like bursting when I tried to make sense of it all,’ replied Mo gloomily.

After that they said nothing for quite a long time, all three of them absorbed in their own thoughts. Elinor was the first to speak again, although it sounded almost as if she were talking to herself. ‘Heavens above,’ she murmured, taking off her shoes. ‘To think of all the times I’ve wished I could slip right into one of my favourite books. But that’s the advantage of reading – you can shut the book whenever you want.’

Groaning, she wriggled her toes and began walking up and down. Meggie had to suppress a giggle. Elinor looked so funny hobbling from the wall to the door and back again with her aching feet, back and forth like a clockwork toy.

‘Elinor, you’re driving me bonkers! Do sit down again,’ said Mo.

‘No, I won’t!’ she snapped back. ‘I’ll go mad myself if I stay sitting down.’

Mo made a face and put his arm round Meggie’s shoulders. ‘All right, let’s leave her to it!’ he whispered. ‘By the time she’s covered ten kilometres she’ll fall down exhausted. But you ought to get some sleep now. You can have my bed. It’s not as bad as it looks. If you close your eyes very tight you can imagine you’re Wilbur the pig sleeping comfortably in his sty …’

‘Or Wart sleeping in the grass with the wild geese.’ Meggie couldn’t help yawning. How often she and Mo had played this game! ‘Which book can you think of? Which part have we forgotten? Oh yes, that one! It’s ages since I thought about that story …!’ Wearily, she lay down on the prickly straw.

Mo pulled his sweater off over his head and covered her up with it. ‘You need a blanket all the same,’ he said. ‘Even if you’re a pig or a goose.’

‘But you’ll freeze.’

‘Nonsense.’

‘And where will you and Elinor sleep?’ Meggie yawned again. She hadn’t realised how tired she was.

Elinor was still pacing from wall to wall. ‘What’s all this about sleeping?’ she said. ‘We’re going to keep watch, of course.’

‘All right,’ murmured Meggie, burying her nose in Mo’s sweater. He’s back with me, she thought, as drowsiness weighed down her eyelids. Nothing else matters. And then she thought: Oh, if only I could read some more of that book! But Inkheart was in Capricorn’s hands – and she didn’t want to think of him now, or she would never get to sleep. Never …

Later, she didn’t know how long she had slept. Perhaps her cold feet woke her, or the itchy straw under her head. Her watch said four o’clock. There was nothing in the windowless room to tell her whether it was night or day, but Meggie couldn’t imagine that the night was over yet. Mo was sitting near the door with Elinor. They both looked tired and anxious, and they were talking in low voices.

‘Yes, they still think I’m a magician,’ Mo was saying. ‘They gave me that ridiculous name – Silvertongue. And Capricorn is firmly convinced I can repeat the trick any time, with any book at all.’

‘And … and can you?’ asked Elinor. ‘You weren’t telling us the whole story earlier, were you?’

Mo didn’t answer for a long time. ‘No,’ he said at last. ‘Because I don’t want Meggie thinking I’m some kind of a magician too.’

‘So you’ve – well, read things out of a book quite often?’

Mo nodded. ‘I always liked reading aloud, even as a boy, and one day, when I was reading Tom Sawyer to a friend, a dead cat suddenly appeared on the carpet, lying there stiff as a board. I only noticed later that one of my soft toys had vanished. I think both our hearts missed a beat, and my friend and I swore to each other, sealing the oath with blood like Tom and Huck, that we’d never tell anyone about the cat. After that, of course, I kept trying again in secret, without any witnesses, but it never seemed to happen when I wanted. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any rules at all, except that it only happened with stories I liked. Of course I kept everything that came out of books, except for the snozzcumber I got out of the book about the friendly giant. It stank too much. When Meggie was still very small, things sometimes came out of her picture books: a feather, a tiny shoe. We put them in her book-box, without telling her where they came from, otherwise she’d never have picked up a book again for fear the giant serpent with toothache or some other alarming creature might appear! But I’d never, never managed to bring anything living out of a book, Elinor. Until that night.’ Mo looked at the palms of his hands, as if seeing there all the things his voice had lured out of books. ‘Why couldn’t it have been some nice creature if it had to happen? Something like – oh, Babar the elephant. Meggie would have been enchanted.’

Yes, I certainly would, thought Meggie. She remembered the little shoe, and the feather as well. It had been emerald green, like the plumage of Dr Dolittle’s parrot Polynesia.

‘Well, it could have been worse.’ Typical Elinor! As if it wasn’t bad enough to be locked up in a tumbledown house far away from ordinary life, surrounded by black-clad men with faces like birds of prey and knives in their belts. But obviously Elinor really could imagine something worse. ‘Suppose Long John Silver had suddenly appeared in your living room, striking out with his wooden crutch?’ she whispered. ‘I think I prefer this Capricorn after all. You know what? When we’re home again – in my house, I mean – I’ll give you a really nice book. Winnie the Pooh, for instance, or maybe Where the Wild Things Are. I really wouldn’t mind one of those monsters. I’ll sit you down in my most comfortable armchair, make you a coffee, and then you can read aloud. How about it?’

Mo laughed quietly, and for a moment his face didn’t look quite so careworn. ‘No, Elinor, I shall do no such thing. Although it sounds very tempting. But I swore never to read aloud again. Who knows who might disappear next time? And perhaps there’s some unpleasant character we never noticed even in the Pooh books. Or suppose I read Pooh himself out of his book? What would he do here without his friends and the Thousand-Acre-Wood? His poor little heart would break, like Dustfinger’s.’

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ Elinor impatiently dismissed this idea. ‘How often do I have to tell you that fool has no heart? Very well, then. Let me ask you another question, because I’d very much like to know the answer.’ Elinor lowered her voice, and Meggie had to strain her ears to make out what she was saying. ‘Who was this Capricorn in his own story? The villain of the piece, I suppose, but can you tell me any more about him?’

Meggie would have liked to know more about Capricorn too, but Mo was suddenly not very forthcoming. All he would say was, ‘The less you know about him, the better.’ Then he fell silent. Elinor kept on at him for a while, but Mo evaded all her questions. He simply did not seem to want to talk about Capricorn. Meggie could see from his face that his thoughts were somewhere else entirely. At some point Elinor nodded off, curled up on the cold floor as if trying to keep herself warm with her own body. But Mo went on sitting there with his back against the wall.

As Meggie felt herself drift off to sleep again, Mo’s face stayed with her in her slumbers. It emerged in her dreams like a dark moon with figures leaping from its mouth, living creatures – fat, thin, large, small, they hopped out and ran away in a long line. A woman, scarcely more than a shadow, was dancing on the moon’s nose – and suddenly the moon smiled.

17

The Betrayer Betrayed

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed … He wanted … to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls, and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Ray Bradbury,

Fahrenheit 451

Some time near daybreak the feeble light from the electric bulb that had helped them through the night flickered out. Mo and Elinor were asleep near the locked door, but Meggie lay in the dark with her eyes open, feeling fear ooze out of the cold walls. She listened to Elinor’s breathing, and her father’s, and more than anything wished for a candle – and a book to keep the fear away. It seemed to be everywhere, a malicious, disembodied creature that had just been waiting for the light to go out so that it could steal close to her in the darkness and take her in its cold arms. Meggie sat up, fought for breath, and crawled over to Mo on all fours. She curled up in a ball beside him the way she used to when she was little, and waited for the light of dawn to come in under the door.

With the light came two of Capricorn’s men. Mo had only just sat up, wearily, and Elinor was rubbing her aching back and muttering crossly when they heard the footsteps.

They weren’t Basta’s footsteps. One of the two men, a great tall beanpole, looked as if a giant had pressed his face flat with his thumb. The other was small and thin, with a goatee beard on his receding chin. He kept fiddling with his shotgun, and glowered unpleasantly at the three of them, as if he felt like shooting them on the spot.

‘Come on, then. Get a move on!’ he snapped as they stumbled out into the bright light of day, blinking. Meggie tried to remember whether his voice was one of those she had heard in Elinor’s library, but she wasn’t sure. Capricorn had many men.

It was a fine, warm morning. The sky arched blue and cloudless above Capricorn’s village, and a couple of finches were twittering in a rose bush growing wild among the old houses, as if there were no danger in the world but a hungry cat or two. Mo took Meggie’s arm as they stepped outside. Elinor had to get her shoes on first, and when the man with the goatee tried hauling her roughly out because she didn’t move fast enough for him, she pushed his hands away and fired a volley of bad language at him. That simply made the two men laugh, whereupon Elinor tightened her lips and confined herself to hostile glances.

Capricorn’s men were in a hurry. They led Mo, Meggie and Elinor back the way Basta had brought them the night before. The flat-faced man went ahead of them and the man with the goatee brought up the rear, shotgun at the ready. He dragged one leg as he walked, but nonetheless he kept urging them on, as if to prove that he could move faster than they could even though he limped.

Even by day Capricorn’s village appeared curiously deserted, and not just because of the many empty houses, which looked even more dismal in the sunlight. There was hardly anyone to be seen in the narrow alleys, only a few of the Black Jackets, as Meggie had secretly baptised them, with skinny boys following them like puppies. Meggie only twice saw a woman passing in a hurry. She could see no children playing or running after their mothers, only cats: black, white, ginger, tortoiseshell, tabby cats, lying in the warm sun on top of walls, in doorways, on lintels. It was deathly quiet among the houses of Capricorn’s village, and everything that went on seemed to be done in secret. Only the men with the guns didn’t hide. They hung around together in gateways and at the corners of buildings, leaning lovingly on their weapons as they talked. There were no flowers outside the houses, like the flowers Meggie had seen in the towns and villages all along the coast, instead roofs had fallen in and wild bushes were in bloom, growing out through glassless windows. Some were so heavy with scent that they made Meggie feel dizzy.

When they reached the square outside the church, Meggie thought the two men were taking them to Capricorn’s house again, but they passed it on their left and went straight to the big church door. The tower of the church looked as if wind and weather had been wearing the masonry down for a dangerously long time. A rusty bell hung under the pointed roof, and scarcely a metre lower down a seed carried by the wind had grown into a stunted tree that now clung to the sand-coloured stone.

There were eyes painted on the church door, narrow red eyes, and ugly stone demons the height of a man stood on either side of the entrance, their teeth bared like savage dogs.

‘Welcome to the Devil’s house!’ said the bearded man with a mocking bow before opening the heavy door.

‘Don’t do that, Cockerell!’ the flat-faced man snapped at him, spitting three times on the dusty paving stones at his feet. ‘It’s bad luck.’

The man with the goatee just laughed and patted the fat belly of one of the stone figures. ‘Oh, come on, Flatnose. You’re almost as bad as Basta. Carry on like this and you’ll be hanging a stinking rabbit’s foot round your own neck too.’

‘I like to be on the safe side,’ growled Flatnose. ‘You hear strange tales.’

‘Yes, and who made them up? We did, you fool.’

‘Some of them date from before our time.’

‘Whatever happens,’ Mo whispered to Elinor and Meggie as the two men argued, ‘leave the talking to me. A sharp tongue can be dangerous here, believe me. Basta is quick to draw his knife, and he’ll use it too.’

‘Basta’s not the only one here with a knife, Silvertongue!’ said Cockerell, pushing Mo into the dark church. Meggie hurried after him.

It was dim and chilly inside the church. The morning light made its way in only through a few windows, painting pale patches high up on the walls and columns. No doubt these had once been grey like the flagstone floor, but now there was only one colour in Capricorn’s church. Everything was red. The walls, the columns, even the ceiling, were vermilion, the colour of raw meat or dried blood. For a moment, Meggie felt as if she had stepped into the belly of some monster.

In a corner near the entrance stood the statue of an angel. A wing was broken off, and the black jacket of one of Capricorn’s men had been hung over the other wing while someone had stuck a pair of fancy dress horns on its head, the kind children wear to parties. Its halo was still there between them. The angel had probably once stood on the stone plinth in front of the first column, now it had had to give way to another statue, whose gaunt, waxen face seemed to look down at Meggie with a supercilious expression. Whoever had carved it wasn’t very good at his trade; its features were painted like the face of a plastic doll, with oddly red lips and blue eyes that held none of the cold detachment the colourless eyes of the real Capricorn turned on the world. But, to make up for that, the statue was at least twice the height of its living model, and all who passed it had to tilt their head back to look up at its pale face.

‘Is that allowed, Mo?’ asked Meggie quietly. ‘Putting up a statue of yourself in a church?’

‘Oh, it’s a very old custom!’ Elinor whispered back. ‘Statues in churches aren’t often the statues of saints. Most saints couldn’t have paid the sculptor. In the cathedral of—’

Cockerell prodded her in the back so roughly that she stumbled forward. ‘Get a move on!’ he growled. ‘And bow next time you pass him, understand?’

‘Bow!’ Elinor was going to stand her ground, but Mo quickly made her go on. ‘Who on earth can take this circus seriously?’ she said crossly.

‘If you don’t keep your mouth shut,’ Mo told her in a whisper, ‘you’ll soon find out how seriously they take everything here.’

Elinor looked at the scratch on his forehead, and said no more.

Capricorn’s church contained no pews of the kind Meggie had seen in other churches, just two long wooden tables with benches, one on each side of the nave. There were dirty plates on them, coffee-stained mugs, wooden boards where cheese rinds lay, knives, sausages, empty bread baskets. Several women were busy clearing all this away. Without pausing in their work, they glanced up as Cockerell and Flatnose passed with their three captives. Meggie thought they looked like birds hunching their heads down beneath their wings in case someone might strike them off.

Not only were the pews missing from Capricorn’s church, but the altar had gone too. In its place there now stood a massive chair, upholstered in red and with designs carved thickly into its legs and arms. Leading up to it were four shallow steps, carpeted in black. Meggie wasn’t sure why she counted them. And crouching on the top step just a few paces away from the chair, his sandy hair ruffled as usual, was Dustfinger, apparently lost in thought as he let Gwin run up and down his outstretched arm.

As Meggie came down the nave with Mo and Elinor, Dustfinger raised his head briefly. Gwin climbed up to his shoulder, baring his tiny teeth, sharp as splinters of glass, as if he had recognised the hatred in Meggie’s eyes as they rested on his master. Now she knew why the marten had horns, and why his twin was shown on the page of a book. She understood it all: why Dustfinger thought the world too fast and too noisy, why he didn’t understand cars and often looked as if he were somewhere else entirely. But she felt none of the sympathy Mo had shown for him. His scarred face only reminded her of the lies he had told to lure her out to him, like the Pied Piper in the story. He had played with her as he played with fire, with his brightly coloured juggler’s balls: come along, Meggie; this way, Meggie; trust me, Meggie. She felt like running up the steps and striking his lying mouth.

Dustfinger must have guessed her thoughts, and was avoiding her eyes. Not looking at Mo and Elinor either, he put a hand in his trouser pocket and brought out a matchbox. As if unconscious of what he was doing, he took out a match, lit it, and gazed at the flame, lost in thought as he passed a finger through it almost caressingly until it singed his fingertip.

Meggie looked away. She didn’t want to see him; she wanted to forget he was there. To her left, at the foot of the steps, stood two drum-shaped iron braziers, rusty brown, with wood heaped up in them: pale, freshly cut firewood, log upon log. Meggie was just wondering what the wood was for when more steps echoed through the church. Basta was walking down the nave with a petrol can in his hand. Reluctantly, Cockerell and Flatnose gave way as he pushed past them.

‘Ah, so Dustfinger’s playing with his best friend again,’ he sneered as he climbed the shallow steps. Dustfinger lowered the matchstick and straightened up. ‘Here you are,’ said Basta, putting the petrol can down at his feet. ‘Another toy for you. Light us a fire; that’s what you like best.’

Dustfinger threw away the spent match and lit another. ‘So how about you?’ he asked quietly, raising the burning match to Basta’s face. ‘Still afraid of fire, are you?’

Basta knocked the match out of his hand.

‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that!’ said Dustfinger. ‘It means bad luck. You know how quickly fire takes offence.’

For a moment Meggie thought Basta was going to hit him, and she wasn’t the only one. All eyes were turned on the two men. But something seemed to protect Dustfinger. Perhaps it really was the fire.

‘You’re lucky I’ve only just cleaned my knife!’ spat Basta. ‘One more trick like that, though, and I’ll carve a few nice new patterns on your ugly face. And make myself a fur collar out of your marten.’

Gwin uttered a soft, threatening snarl, and wrapped himself around Dustfinger’s neck. Dustfinger bent, picked up the spent matches, and put them back in the matchbox. ‘Yes, I’m sure you’d enjoy that,’ he said, still without looking at Basta. ‘But why would I want to light a fire just now, I wonder?’

‘Never you mind that, just do it. Then the rest of us can keep it fed. But make sure it’s a large, hungry blaze, not one of the tame little fires you like to play with.’

Dustfinger picked up the petrol can and slowly climbed down the steps. He was standing beside the rusty braziers when the church door opened for the second time.

Meggie turned at the sound of the heavy wooden door creaking, and saw Capricorn appear between the red columns. He glanced at his statue, as if to make sure it still gave a flattering enough image of him, then strode quickly down the nave. He was wearing a suit as red as the church walls. Only the shirt beneath it was black, and he had a black feather in his buttonhole. A good half-dozen of his men were following him, like crows following a peacock. Their steps seemed to echo all the way up to the ceiling. Meggie reached for Mo’s hand.

‘Ah, so our guests are here already,’ said Capricorn, stopping in front of them. ‘Did you sleep well, Silvertongue?’ He had curiously soft, curving, almost feminine lips, and as he spoke he kept running his little finger along them as if to retrace them. They were as bloodless as the rest of his face. ‘Wasn’t it kind of me to reunite you with your little girl last night? At first I meant it to be a surprise present for you today, but then I thought: Capricorn, you really owe that child something for bringing you what you’ve wanted so long, and of her own free will too.’

He was holding Inkheart. Meggie saw Mo’s gaze linger on the book. Capricorn was a tall man, but Mo stood a few centimetres taller, which obviously displeased Capricorn. He stood very upright, as if that would make up for the difference.

‘Let Elinor take my daughter home with her,’ said Mo. ‘Let them go and I’ll try to read you back again. I’ll read you anything you like, but let the two of them go first.’

What was he talking about? Meggie looked at him in horror. ‘No!’ she said. ‘No, Mo, I don’t want to go away.’ But no one was paying any attention to her.

‘Let them go?’ Capricorn turned to his men. ‘Hear that? Why would I do such a crazy thing now they’re here?’ The men laughed. But Capricorn turned to Mo again. ‘You know as well as I do that from now on you’ll do whatever I want,’ he said. ‘Now that she’s here, I’m sure you won’t go on denying us a demonstration of your skill.’

Mo squeezed Meggie’s hand so hard her fingers hurt.

‘And as for this book,’ said Capricorn, looking at Inkheart with as much dislike as if it had bitten his pale fingers, ‘this extremely tedious, stupid and extraordinarily long-winded book, I can assure you I have no intention of ever again letting myself be spellbound by its story. All those troublesome creatures, those fluttering fairies with their twittering voices, the swarming, scrabbling stupid beasts everywhere, the smell of fur and dung. All through this book you kept falling over bandy-legged brownies in the market-place, and when you went hunting the giants scared the game away with their huge feet. Talking trees, whispering pools – was there anything in that world that didn’t have the power of speech? And then those endless muddy roads to the nearest town, if town it could be called – that pack of well-born, finely dressed princes in their castles, those stinking peasants, so poor there was nothing to be got out of them, and the vagabonds and beggars with vermin dropping from their hair – oh, how sick I was of them all.’

Capricorn made a sign, and one of his men brought in a large cardboard box. You could see from the way he carried it that it was very heavy. The man put it down on the grey flagstones in front of Capricorn with a sigh of relief. Capricorn handed Cockerell, who was standing beside him, the book that Mo had kept from him so long, and bent to open the box. It was full to the brim with books.

‘It’s been a great deal of trouble finding them all,’ said Capricorn as he reached into the box and took out two books. ‘They may look different, but the contents are the same. The fact that the story has been printed in several languages made the search even more difficult – a particularly useless feature of this world, all those different languages. It was simpler in our own world, wasn’t it, Dustfinger?’

Dustfinger made no answer. He stood there holding the petrol can and staring at the box. Capricorn strolled over to him and threw the two books into one of the braziers.

‘What are you doing?’ Dustfinger tried to snatch them out, but Basta pushed him away.

‘Those stay where they are,’ he growled.

Dustfinger stepped back, holding the can behind his back, but Basta grabbed it from his hands. ‘Why, it looks as if our fire-eater would rather let someone else light the fire today,’ he mocked.

Dustfinger cast him a glance full of hatred. Face rigid, he watched Capricorn’s men throw more and more books into the braziers. In the end there were over two dozen copies of Inkheart on the piles of firewood, their pages crumpled, their bindings wrenched apart like broken wings.

‘You know what always got me down back in our old world, Dustfinger?’ asked Capricorn as he took the petrol can from Basta’s hand. ‘The difficulty of lighting a fire. It wasn’t any problem to you, of course – you could even talk to fire, very likely one of those grunting brownies taught you how – but it was a tedious business for the rest of us. The wood was always damp, or the wind blew down the chimney. I know you long for the good old days, you miss all your chirping, fluttering friends, but I don’t shed a tear for any of that. This world is far better equipped than the one we had to be content with for so many long years.’

Dustfinger did not seem to hear a word of what Capricorn was saying. He just stared at the petrol and smelled its fumes as it was poured over the books. The pages sucked it up as greedily as if they were welcoming their own end.

‘Where did they all come from?’ he stammered. ‘You always told me there was just one copy left – Silvertongue’s.’

‘Yes, yes, I told you all kinds of things.’ Capricorn put his hand in his trouser pocket. ‘You’re such a gullible fellow, Dustfinger. It’s fun to tell you lies. Your innocence always amazed me – after all, you lie very cleverly yourself. But you’re too ready to believe what you want to believe, that’s your trouble. Well, you can safely believe me now. These,’ he said, tapping the petrol-soaked pile of books, ‘these really are the last copies of our ink-black home. It’s taken Basta and the others years to track them all down in shabby lending libraries and second-hand bookshops.’

Dustfinger looked longingly at the books, as a man dying of thirst might look at the last glass of water in existence. ‘But you can’t burn them!’ he stammered. ‘You promised to send me back if I found you Silvertongue’s book. That’s why I told you where he was. That’s why I brought you his daughter.’

Capricorn merely shrugged his shoulders and took the book from Cockerell’s hands – the book with the green binding that Meggie and Elinor had been so eager to give him, the book for which he had made his men bring Mo all this way, the book for which Dustfinger had betrayed them all.

‘I’d have promised to fetch you down the moon from the sky if that would have done me any good,’ said Capricorn, looking bored as he flung the last copy of Inkheart on to the pile with its companions. ‘I’m happy to make promises, especially promises I can’t keep.’ Then he took a lighter from his trouser pocket. Dustfinger was about to leap at him to strike it out of his hand, but Capricorn made a sign to Flatnose.

Flatnose was so tall and broad that beside him Dustfinger looked almost like a child, and indeed the man took hold of him as if he were a badly behaved little boy. Fur bristling, Gwin leaped off Dustfinger’s shoulder. One of Capricorn’s men kicked out as the marten shot past his legs, but Gwin got away and disappeared behind one of the red columns. The other men stood there laughing at Dustfinger’s desperate attempts to free himself from Flatnose’s iron grasp. Flatnose thought it greatly amusing to let Dustfinger get just close enough to the petrol-soaked books to touch the top volumes with his fingers.

Such cruelty made Meggie feel quite ill. Mo took a step forward as if to go to Dustfinger’s aid, but Basta barred his way, a knife in his hand. Its blade, narrow and shiny, looked terribly sharp held against Mo’s throat.

Elinor screamed, and directed a torrent of curses at Basta that Meggie had never even heard before, but she herself could not move. She just stood there, in numb and silent terror, staring at the blade against Mo’s bare throat.

‘Let me have one of them, Capricorn, just one!’ Mo cried, and only then did Meggie realize that he had not been going to help Dustfinger but was thinking of the book. ‘I promise never to read aloud a line of it that mentions your name.’

‘You! Are you mad? You’re the last man I’d give one to,’ replied Capricorn. ‘One day you might be unable to control your tongue after all, and I’d land back in that ridiculous story again. No thank you very much!’

‘Nonsense!’ cried Mo. ‘I couldn’t read you back into it even if I wanted to – how often do I have to tell you that? Ask Dustfinger. I’ve explained it to him a thousand times. I myself don’t understand how or when these things happen. For heaven’s sake, believe me!’

With a chilling smirk, Capricorn answered merely with a smile, ‘I’m sorry, Silvertongue, but the fact is I don’t believe anyone. You ought to know that by now. We’re all liars when it serves our purpose.’ And with those words he flicked the lighter and held its flame to one of the books. The petrol had made the pages almost transparent, like parchment, and they flared up at once. Even the stout cloth bindings caught light immediately, the linen turning black as the flames licked round it.

When the third book caught fire, Dustfinger kicked Flatnose’s kneecap so hard that the man screamed with pain and let go of him. Nimble as his marten, Dustfinger wriggled out of those powerful arms and stumbled towards the braziers. Without hesitating, he reached into the flames, but the book he plucked out was already burning like a torch. Dustfinger dropped it on the flagstone floor and reached into the fire again, with his other hand this time, but by now Flatnose had already grasped him by the collar and was shaking him so roughly that Dustfinger was gasping for air.

‘Look at the lunatic!’ sneered Basta as Dustfinger stared at his hands, his face distorted with pain. ‘Can anyone explain what he wants so much? Maybe those ugly brownie girls who thought him so wonderful when he juggled in the market-place? Or the filthy hovels where he lived with other vagabonds? They smelled even worse than the rucksack he carries that stinking marten around in.’

Capricorn’s men laughed as the books slowly crumpled into ashes. There was still a smell of petrol in the church, such an acrid smell that it made Meggie cough. Mo put a protective arm around her shoulders, as if Basta had threatened her rather than him. But who, thought Meggie, who could protect Mo?

Elinor was looking at his neck as anxiously as if she feared Basta’s knife might have left its mark there after all. ‘These fellows are out of their minds!’ she whispered. ‘You know what they say: when people start burning books they’ll soon burn human beings. Suppose we’re the next to find ourselves on a pyre?’

Basta seemed to hear what she was saying. He caught her eye, and with a twisted smile kissed the blade of his knife.

Elinor fell silent, as if she had swallowed her tongue.

Capricorn had taken a snow-white handkerchief from his pocket. He cleaned his fingers with it carefully, as if to wipe even the memory of Inkheart off his hands. ‘Well, that’s done at last,’ he remarked with a final nod at the smoking embers. Then, with a satisfied expression on his face, he climbed up to the chair that had replaced the altar. Capricorn sank into its red upholstery with a deep sigh.

‘Dustfinger, go to the kitchen and get Mortola to put something on your burns,’ he ordered in a commanding voice. ‘You’ll be no use for anything without the use of your hands.’

Dustfinger looked at Mo for a long time before obeying this order. Head bent, with unsteady steps, he walked past Capricorn’s men. The way to the church porch seemed endless. For a moment, as Dustfinger opened the door, bright sunlight shone into the building. As it closed behind him, Meggie, Mo and Elinor were left with Capricorn and his men – and the reek of petrol and burnt paper.

‘And now let’s come to you, Silvertongue!’ said Capricorn, stretching his legs. He was wearing black boots. He examined the gleaming leather with satisfaction, removing a scrap of charred paper from the toe of one boot. ‘Until now I, Basta and the unfortunate Dustfinger are the only evidence that you can conjure up extraordinary magic out of little black letters. You yourself don’t seem to trust your gift, if we’re to believe you – which, as I was saying just now, I don’t. On the contrary, I think you are a master of your craft, and I can scarcely wait for you to give us another taste of your skill at long last. Cockerell!’ His voice sounded irritated. ‘Where’s the reader? Didn’t I tell you to bring him?’

Cockerell stroked his beard nervously. ‘He was still busy choosing books,’ he stammered. ‘I’ll fetch him right away.’ And with a hasty bow, he limped off.

Capricorn began drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair. ‘No doubt you’ve already heard that I had to resort to the services of another reader while you were hiding from me so successfully,’ he said to Mo. ‘I found him by chance five years ago, but he’s useless. You only have to look at Flatnose’s face.’ Flatnose lowered his head, embarrassed, when all eyes turned on him. ‘And Cockerell owes him his limp too. As for the girls he read out of his books for me, you should have seen them. It’d give a man nightmares just to see their faces. Finally, I had him read to me only when I felt like amusing myself with his monsters, and I actually found my men in this world of yours, just by recruiting them when they were still young. There’s a lonely boy who likes to play with fire in almost every village.’ Smiling, he inspected his fingernails like a satisfied cat examining its claws. ‘I’ve told the reader to find the right books for you. At least the poor fool does know his way around books – he lives in them like one of those pale worms that feed on paper.’

‘And just what am I supposed to read out of his books for you?’ Mo’s voice sounded bitter. ‘A few monsters, a couple of human horrors to suit the present company?’ He nodded in Basta’s direction.

‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer, don’t put ideas into his head!’ whispered Elinor, with a nervous glance at Capricorn.

But Capricorn merely flicked some ash off his trousers and smiled. ‘No, thank you, Silvertongue,’ he said. ‘I have enough men, and as for the monsters, well, perhaps we’ll get around to them later. For the time being we’re doing very well with Basta’s trained dogs and the local snakes. They make excellent and deadly presents. No, Silvertongue, all I want today as a test of your skill is gold. I have such an appetite for money! My men do their best to squeeze all that can be squeezed out of this part of the country.’ At these words from Capricorn, Basta lovingly stroked his knife. ‘But it’s never enough for all the wonderful things that can be bought in this infinitely wide world of yours. A world of so many pages, Silvertongue, so very many pages, and I want to write my name on every one of them.’

‘In what kind of letters?’ enquired Mo. ‘Is Basta going to scratch them into the paper with his knife?’

‘Oh, Basta can’t write,’ replied Capricorn calmly. ‘None of my men can either read or write. I’ve forbidden them to learn. But I got one of my maidservants to teach me how to read. And when there’s something to be written the reader does it. So you see, my dear Silvertongue, I can make my mark on your world.’

The church door opened as if Cockerell had just been waiting for this cue. The man he ushered in had his head hunched between his shoulders and looked neither right nor left as he followed Cockerell. He was small and thin, and couldn’t be any older than Mo, but his back was bent like an old man’s, and his arms and legs moved awkwardly, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with them. He kept nervously adjusting his glasses. The frame was held together over the bridge of his nose with sticky tape, as if it had often been broken. He was clutching a number of books to his chest with his left arm, as if they offered some protection from the stares turned on him from all sides and the sinister place to which he had been brought.

When the two men eventually reached the foot of the steps Cockerell dug an elbow into his companion’s ribs, and the man bowed so hurriedly that two of the books fell to the floor. He was quick to snatch them up, and bowed to Capricorn a second time.

‘We’ve been waiting for you, Darius!’ said Capricorn. ‘I trust you’ve found what I wanted.’

‘Oh yes, yes!’ stammered Darius, casting an almost reverent glance at Mo. ‘Is that him?’

‘Yes. Show him the books you’ve chosen.’

Darius nodded and bowed again, this time to Mo. ‘These – these are all stories with treasure in them,’ he stammered. ‘Finding them wasn’t as easy as I had expected,’ he added, with the faintest note of reproach in his voice. ‘After all, there aren’t so many books in this village. And however often I ask no one brings me any more, or if they do the books are useless. But never mind that – here they are. I think you’ll be happy with my choice, anyway.’ He knelt down on the floor in front of Mo and began setting out the books side by side, so that Mo could read the titles.

The very first one alarmed Meggie. Treasure Island. She looked uneasily at Mo. Not that one, she thought. Not that book, Mo. But Mo had already picked up another book: Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.

‘I think this will do,’ he said. ‘There’s sure to be plenty of gold in those stories. But I’m warning you again, I don’t know what will happen. Because it never does happen when I want it to. I know you all think I’m a magician, but I’m not. The magic comes out of the books themselves, and I have no more idea than you or any of your men how it works.’

Capricorn leaned back in his chair looking expressionlessly at Mo. ‘How many more times are you going to tell me that, Silvertongue?’ he asked in bored tones. ‘You can say so as often as you like, but I don’t believe it. In the world on which we finally slammed the door today I frequently mingled with magicians, wizards and witches, and I very often had to deal with their obstinacy. I know that Basta has given you a graphic account of the way we used to break their will. But in your case, and now that your daughter is here as our guest, I’m sure such painful methods will not be necessary.’ With these words, Capricorn looked pointedly at Basta.

Mo tried to hold on to Meggie, but Basta moved faster. Pulling her towards him, he quickly put an arm around her neck and held her in a headlock.

‘From now on, Silvertongue,’ continued Capricorn, his voice still sounding as indifferent as if he was talking about the weather, ‘from now on, Basta will be your daughter’s personal shadow. This will provide her with reliable protection from snakes and fierce dogs but not, of course, from Basta himself, who will be kind to her only as long as I say so. And that in turn will depend on whether I am pleased with your services. Have I made myself clear?’

Mo looked first at him and then at Meggie. She did her best to look unafraid, so that he would think there was no need to worry about her – after all, she had always been a better liar than he was. But this time he saw through the lie. He knew that her fear was as great as the fear she saw in his own eyes.

Perhaps all this is just a story too, thought Meggie desperately. And any moment someone will close the book because it’s so horrible and scary, and Mo and I will be back at home and I’ll make him a coffee. She closed her eyes very tight, as if that would make her thoughts come true, but when she peered through her lashes Basta was still standing behind her, and Flatnose was rubbing his squashed nostrils and turning his dog-like gaze on Capricorn.

‘Very well,’ said Mo wearily into the silence. ‘I’ll read aloud to you. But Meggie and Elinor can’t stay in here.’

Meggie knew exactly what he was thinking. He was thinking of her mother, and wondering who might disappear this time.

‘Nonsense. Of course they stay here.’ Capricorn’s voice was no longer careless. ‘And you’d better get started before the book there in your hand falls to dust.’

Mo closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Very well, but tell Basta to put his knife away,’ he said hoarsely. ‘If he hurts a hair of Meggie or Elinor’s heads I promise you I’ll read the Plague out of a book to infect you and your men.’

Cockerell looked at Mo in alarm, and a shadow passed over even Basta’s face, but Capricorn just laughed.

‘Let me remind you, Silvertongue, that you’re speaking of a contagious disease,’ he said. ‘And it doesn’t stop short at little girls. So never mind the empty threats, just start reading. Now. At once. And I want to hear something out of that book first!’

He pointed to the book that Mo had just laid aside.

Treasure Island.

18

Treasure Island

Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island … I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.

Robert Louis Stevenson,

Treasure Island

And so Meggie heard her father read aloud, for the first time in nine years, in a draughty old church. Even many, many years later the smell of burnt paper would come back to her as soon as she opened one of the books from which he had read that awful morning.

It was chilly in Capricorn’s church – Meggie was to remember that later, too – although the sun must have been hot outside and high in the sky by the time Mo began to read. He simply sat down on the floor where he was, legs crossed, one book on his lap and the others beside him. Meggie quickly knelt down close to him before Basta could catch hold of her.

‘Here, get up these steps, all of you,’ Capricorn told his men. ‘And take the woman with you, Flatnose. Only Basta stays where he is.’

Elinor resisted, but Flatnose merely seized a handful of her hair and hauled her along after him. Capricorn’s men climbed the steps and sat at their master’s feet, Elinor among them like a pigeon with ruffled feathers in the middle of a mob of marauding crows. The only person who looked equally out of place was the thin reader, Darius, who was sitting at the very end of the row of black-clad men and kept fiddling with his glasses.

Mo opened the book on his lap and began leafing through it, frowning, as if searching the pages for the gold he was to read out of it for Capricorn.

‘Cockerell, you will cut out the tongue of anyone who utters the slightest sound while Silvertongue is reading,’ said Capricorn, and Cockerell drew a knife from his belt and looked along the row of men as if already selecting his first victim. All was so deathly quiet inside the red church that Meggie thought she could hear Basta breathing behind her. But perhaps it was only the sound of her own fear.

Judging by their faces, Capricorn’s men seemed to be feeling far from happy. They were looking at Mo with expressions of apprehension mingled with dislike. Meggie understood that only too well. Perhaps one of them would soon vanish into the book through which Mo was leafing so undecidedly. Had Capricorn told them that such a thing might happen? Did even he know it? What if she herself vanished, as Mo obviously feared? Or Elinor?

‘Meggie!’ Mo whispered to her, as if he had heard her thoughts. ‘Hold on to me tight any way you can.’ Meggie nodded, and clutched his sweater. As if that would be any use!

‘Yes, I think I’ve found the right place,’ said Mo into the silence. He cast a last glance at Capricorn, looked at Elinor, cleared his throat – and began to read.

Everything disappeared: the red walls of the church, the faces of Capricorn’s men, Capricorn himself sitting in his chair. There was nothing but Mo’s voice and the pictures forming in their minds from the letters on the page, like the pattern of a carpet taking shape on a loom. If Meggie could have hated Capricorn any more, she would have done so now. It was his fault that Mo had never once read aloud to her in all these years. To think of the magic he could have worked in her room with his voice, a voice that gave a different flavour to every word, made every sentence a melody! Even Cockerell had forgotten his knife and the tongues he was supposed to cut out, and was listening with a faraway expression on his face. Flatnose was staring into space, enraptured, as if a pirate ship with all sails set were truly cruising in through one of the church windows. The other men were equally entranced.

There was not a sound to be heard but Mo’s voice bringing the letters and words on the page to life.

Only one of his audience seemed immune to the magic of it. Face expressionless, pale eyes fixed on Mo, Capricorn sat there waiting: waiting for the clink of coins amidst the harmony of the words, for chests of damp wood heavy with gold and silver.

Mo did not keep him waiting long. It happened as he was reading what Jim Hawkins – a boy not much older than Meggie when he embarked on his terrifying adventure – saw in a dark cave:

… Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck – nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.

The maidservants were cleaning the last crumbs off the tables when coins suddenly came rolling over the bare wood. The women stumbled back, dropping their dish-cloths, and pressing their hands to their mouths as the coins tumbled and leaped about their feet. Gold, silver and copper coins jingled over the flagstone floor, clinking as they gathered in heaps under the benches – more and more and more of them. Some rolled as far as the steps. Capricorn’s men came to life, bent to pick up the glittering little things bouncing off their boots – but then snatched back their hands. None of them dared touch the magic money. For what else could it be? Gold made of paper and printer’s ink – and the sound of a human voice.

As the shower of gold stopped, at the very moment when Mo closed the book, Meggie saw there was a little sand among all the gleaming, glittering money. A few iridescent blue beetles scuttled away, and the head of an emerald-green lizard emerged from a heap of tiny coins. It stared around with fixed eyes, tongue flicking out of its sharp little mouth. Basta threw his knife at it, as if he could skewer not just the lizard but the cowardice that had seized them all. However, Meggie gave a warning cry, and the lizard darted away so fast that the tip of the blade struck the stones. Basta ran over to his knife, picked it up, and pointed it threateningly in Meggie’s direction.

Capricorn rose from his chair, his face still as cold and blank as if nothing worth getting excited about had happened, and clapped his ringed hands graciously. ‘Not bad for a start, Silvertongue!’ he said. ‘See that, Darius? That’s what gold looks like – not the rusty, dented metal you’ve read out of books for me. But now you’ve heard how the thing is done I hope you’ll have learnt from it. Just in case I ever require your services again.’

Darius did not reply. His eyes were fixed on Mo with such admiration in them that it wouldn’t have surprised Meggie had he flung himself at her father’s feet. When Mo straightened up, Darius approached him hesitantly.

Capricorn’s men were still gazing at the gold as if they didn’t know what to do next.

‘What are you standing there for, gaping like a lot of sheep?’ cried Capricorn. ‘Pick it up. Go on.’

‘That was wonderful!’ Darius whispered to Mo, while Capricorn’s men cautiously began shovelling the coins into bags and boxes. His eyes were gleaming behind his glasses like the eyes of a child who has just been given a much-wanted present. ‘I’ve read that book many times,’ he said, in a voice that shook, ‘but I never saw it all as vividly as I did today. And I didn’t just see it … I smelled it, the salt and the tar and the musty odour of the whole accursed island …’

‘Treasure Island! Heavens above, I was petrified!’ Elinor appeared behind Darius, pushing him impatiently aside. Flatnose had obviously forgotten her for the moment. ‘He’ll be here any minute, that’s what I kept thinking. Long John Silver will be here, lashing out at us with his crutch.’

Mo just nodded, but Meggie could see the relief on his face. ‘Here, take it!’ he told Darius, handing him the book. ‘I hope I never have to read out of it again. One shouldn’t push one’s luck.’

‘You said his name not quite right every time,’ Meggie whispered.

Mo tenderly stroked the bridge of her nose. ‘Ah, so you noticed,’ he whispered back. ‘Yes, I thought that might help. Perhaps the savage old pirate won’t feel we’re calling to him then, I told myself, and he’ll stay where he belongs. Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘Why do you think?’ said Elinor, answering instead of Meggie. ‘Why is she looking so admiringly at her father? Because no one ever read aloud like that – even apart from the money. I saw it all, the sea and the island, as clear as if I could touch it, and I don’t expect it was any different for your daughter.’

Mo had to smile. He kicked aside a few of the coins on the floor in front of him. One of Capricorn’s men picked them up and surreptitiously pocketed them. As he did so, he looked at Mo as uneasily as if he feared a word from him might turn him into a frog, or one of the beetles still crawling around among the coins.

‘They’re afraid of you, Mo!’ whispered Meggie. She could see the trepidation even on Basta’s face, although he was doing his best to hide it by assuming a particularly bored expression.

Only Capricorn seemed to be left cold by what had happened. Arms folded, he stood there watching his men pick up the last of the coins. ‘How much longer is this going to take?’ he asked finally. ‘Leave the small change where it is and sit down again. And you, Silvertongue, open the next book!’

‘The next book!’ Elinor’s voice almost cracked with indignation. ‘What on earth’s the idea of that? The gold your men are shovelling up there is enough to last you at least two lifetimes. We’re going home now!’

She was about to turn round, but Flatnose, who had finally remembered he was meant to be guarding Elinor, seized her arm roughly. Mo looked up at Capricorn.

Basta, smiling unpleasantly, laid his hand on Meggie’s shoulder. ‘Get on with it, Silvertongue!’ he said. ‘You heard. There are still plenty of books here.’

Mo looked at Meggie for a long time before bending to pick up the book he had chosen first: Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.

‘The book that goes on and on forever,’ he murmured, opening it. ‘Did you know the Arabs say no one can read it right through to the end, Meggie?’

She shook her head as she sat down beside him on the cold flagstones. Basta let her, but he planted himself right behind her. Meggie didn’t know much about The Thousand and One Nights, except that it was really a book in many volumes. The copy that Darius had given Mo could only be a small selection. Were Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it, and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp? Which story would Mo read?

Meggie thought she saw contradictory feelings on the faces of Capricorn’s men: fear of what Mo might bring to life and, at the same time, a wish, a yearning almost, to be carried away by his voice once more, transported far away to a place where they could forget everything, even themselves.

There was no smell of salt and rum when Mo began reading this time. The air in Capricorn’s church grew hot. Meggie’s eyes began to burn, and when she rubbed them she found sand sticking to her knuckles. Once again, Capricorn’s men listened to Mo’s voice with bated breath, as if they were turned to stone. Capricorn alone seemed to feel nothing of the magic. But his eyes showed that even he was spellbound. They were fixed on Mo’s face, as unmoving as the eyes of a snake. His red suit made his pupils look even more washed out, and his body seemed tense, like a dog scenting its prey. But this time Mo disappointed him.

The words offered up no riches, none of the treasure chests, pearls and swords set with precious stones that Mo’s voice conjured up, shining and sparkling, until Capricorn’s men felt as if they could pluck them from the air. Something else slipped out of the pages, though, something breathing, a creature made of flesh and blood.

A boy was suddenly standing between the still smouldering braziers where Capricorn had burned the books. Meggie was the only one to notice him. All the others were too absorbed in the story. Even Mo didn’t see him, far away as he was, somewhere in the sand and the wind as his eyes made their way through the labyrinth of letters.

The boy was some three or four years older than Meggie. The turban round his head was dirty, his eyes dark with fear in his brown face. He blinked and rubbed them as if he could wipe it all away – the wrong picture, the wrong place. He looked round the church as if he had never seen such a building before, and how could he? There wouldn’t be any churches with spires in his story, or green hills like those he would see outside. The robe he wore went down to his brown feet, and in the dim light of the church it shone blue as a patch of the sky.

Meggie wondered: what will happen when they see him? He’s certainly not what Capricorn was hoping for.

But Capricorn had already noticed the boy.

‘Stop!’ he commanded, so sharply that Mo broke off in mid-sentence and raised his head.

Abruptly, and rather unwillingly, Capricorn’s men returned to reality. Cockerell was the first on his feet. ‘Hey, where did he come from?’ he growled.

The boy ducked, looked round with a terrified expression, and ran for it, doubling back and forth like a rabbit. But he didn’t get far. Three men immediately sprang forward and caught him at the feet of Capricorn’s statue.

Mo put the book down on the flagstones beside him and buried his face in his hands.

‘Hey, Fulvio’s gone!’ cried one of Capricorn’s men. ‘Vanished into thin air!’ They all stared at Mo. There it was again, the nervousness in their faces, but this time mingled not with admiration but with anger.

‘Get rid of that boy, Silvertongue!’ ordered Capricorn angrily. ‘I have more than enough of his kind. And bring Fulvio back.’

Mo took his hands away from his face and stood up.

‘For the millionth time, I can’t bring anyone back,’ he said. ‘The fact that you don’t believe me doesn’t make that a lie. I can’t do it. I can’t decide who or what comes out of a book, nor who goes into it.’

Meggie reached for Mo’s hand. Some of Capricorn’s men came closer, two of them holding the boy. They were pulling on his arms as if to tear him in half. Eyes wide with terror, the boy stared into their unfamiliar faces.

‘Back to your places!’ Capricorn ordered the angry men. A couple of them were already dangerously close to Mo. ‘Why all this fuss? Have you forgotten how stupidly Fulvio acted on the last job? We almost had the police down on us. So it’s the right man to have gone. And who knows, perhaps this lad will turn out to have a talent for arson. All the same, I want to see pearls now. And gold and jewels. After all, they’re what this story is all about, so let’s have some!’

An uneasy murmuring rose among the men. Nonetheless, most of them returned to the steps and perched once more on the worn treads. Only three still stood in front of Mo, staring at him with intense hostility. One of them was Basta. ‘Very well, so we can dispense with Fulvio,’ he said, never taking his eyes off Mo. ‘But who is this wretched wizard going to magic into thin air next time? I don’t want to end up in some thrice-accursed desert story and find myself going around in a turban all of a sudden!’ The men standing near him nodded in agreement, and looked at Mo so darkly that Meggie almost stopped breathing.

‘Basta, I won’t tell you again.’ Capricorn’s voice sounded menacingly calm. ‘Let him go on reading, all of you. And anyone whose teeth start chattering with fear had better go outside and help the women with the laundry.’

Some of the men looked longingly at the church door, but none ventured to leave. Finally, even the two who had been standing beside Basta turned without a word and sat down with the others.

‘You’ll pay for Fulvio yet!’ Basta whispered to Mo before he stationed himself behind Meggie again. Why couldn’t he have disappeared? she thought.

The boy still hadn’t uttered a sound.

‘Lock him up. We’ll see if he can be of any use to us later,’ ordered Capricorn.

The boy did not resist as Flatnose led him away. Apparently numb, he stumbled along as if he were still expecting to wake up. When would he realise this dream was never going to end?

When the door closed behind the two of them Capricorn returned to his chair. ‘Go on reading, Silvertongue,’ he said. ‘We still have a long day ahead of us.’

But Mo looked at the books lying at his feet, and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You saw. It happened again. I’m tired. Be content with what I’ve brought you from Treasure Island. Those coins are worth a fortune. I want to go home, and I never want to set eyes on you again.’ His voice sounded rougher than usual, as if it had read too many words aloud.

Capricorn looked at Mo appraisingly before turning his eyes to the bags and chests his men had filled with coins. He seemed to be working out how long their contents would keep him in comfort.

‘Yes, you’re right,’ he said at last. ‘We’ll go on tomorrow. Otherwise we might find a stinking camel turning up here next, or another half-starved boy.’

‘Tomorrow?’ Mo took a step towards him. ‘What do you mean? Aren’t you satisfied yet? One of your men has disappeared already. Do you want to be the next?’

‘I can live with the risk,’ replied Capricorn, unimpressed. His men leaped to their feet as he rose from his chair and walked slowly down the altar steps. They stood there like schoolboys, although some of them were taller than Capricorn, hands clasped behind their backs as if at any moment he would inspect their fingernails for cleanliness. Meggie couldn’t help remembering what Basta had said – how young he himself had been when he had joined Capricorn – and she wondered whether it was out of fear or admiration that the men bowed their heads.

Capricorn had stopped beside one of the bulging moneybags. ‘Oh, I have a great many plans for you, Silvertongue, believe me,’ he said, putting his hand into the sack and running the coins through his fingers. ‘Today was just a test. After all, I had to convince myself of your talents with my own eyes and ears, right? I can certainly use all this gold, but tomorrow you’re going to read something else out of a book for me.’

He strolled over to the boxes which had contained the books that were now burnt to ashes, and reached into one. ‘Surprise!’ he announced, smiling as he held up a single book. It didn’t look at all like the copy Meggie and Elinor had brought him. It still had a brightly coloured paper dust-jacket with a picture that Meggie couldn’t make out from a distance. ‘Oh yes, I still have one!’ remarked Capricorn, scanning the uncomprehending faces with pleasure. ‘My own personal copy, you might say, and tomorrow, Silvertongue, you’re going to read to me from it. As I was saying, I like this world of yours very much indeed, but there’s a friend from the old days that I miss. I never let your substitute try his skill with my friend – I was afraid he might fetch him here without a head, or with only one leg. But now I have you, and you’re a master of your art.’

Mo was staring incredulously at the book in Capricorn’s hand as if he expected it to dissolve into thin air at any moment.

‘Have a rest, Silvertongue,’ said Capricorn. ‘Spare your precious voice. You’ll have plenty of time for that, because I have to go away, and I won’t be back till noon tomorrow. Take these three back to their quarters,’ he told his men. ‘Give them enough to eat, and some blankets for the night. Oh yes, and get Mortola to bring him tea. That kind of thing works wonders on a hoarse, tired voice. Didn’t you always swear by tea sweetened with honey, Darius?’ He turned enquiringly to his old reader, who simply nodded, and looked sympathetically at Mo.

‘Back to our quarters? Do you mean that hole where your man with the knife put us last night?’ Elinor’s cheeks were flushed red, whether in horror or indignation Meggie couldn’t guess. ‘This is wrongful detention! No, worse – abduction! That’s it, abduction. Are you aware how many years in jail you’d get for it?’

‘Abduction!’ Basta savoured the word. ‘Sounds good to me. Really good.’

Capricorn gave him a smile. Then he looked Elinor up and down as if he were seeing her for the first time. ‘Basta,’ he said. ‘Is this lady any use to us?’

‘Not that I know of,’ replied Basta, smiling like a child who has just been given permission to smash a toy. Elinor went pale, and tried to step backwards, but Cockerell barred her way and held her firmly.

‘What do we generally do with useless things, Basta?’ asked Capricorn quietly.

Basta went on smiling.

‘Stop that!’ Mo said angrily to Capricorn. ‘Stop frightening her at once, or I’m not reading you another word.’

With every appearance of indifference, Capricorn turned his back to him. And Basta kept smiling.

Meggie saw Elinor press a hand to her trembling lips, and quickly went over to stand beside her. ‘She’s not useless. She knows more about books than anyone else in the world!’ she said, holding Elinor’s other hand very tight.

Capricorn turned round. The look in his eyes made Meggie shudder, as if someone were running cold fingers down her spine. His eyelashes were pale as cobwebs.

‘Elinor definitely knows more stories with treasure in them than that spineless reader of yours!’ Meggie stammered. ‘Definitely!’

Elinor squeezed Meggie’s fingers hard. Her own hand was damp with sweat. ‘Yes. Absolutely, that’s true,’ she said huskily. ‘I’m sure I can think of several more.’

‘Well, well,’ was all Capricorn said, his curved lips tracing a smile. ‘We’ll see.’ Then he gave his men a signal, and they made Elinor, Meggie and Mo file past the tables, past Capricorn’s statue and the red columns, and out through the heavy door that groaned as they pushed it open.

Outside, beyond the shadow of the church on the village square, the sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky, and the air was filled with scents of summer. It was as if nothing unusual had happened.

19

Gloomy Prospects

The python dropped his head lightly for a moment on Mowgli’s shoulders. ‘A brave heart and a courteous tongue,’ said he. ‘They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling. But now go hence quickly with thy friends. Go and sleep, for the moon sets, and what follows it is not well that thou shouldst see.’

Rudyard Kipling,

The Jungle Book

They did indeed get enough to eat. Around noon a woman brought them bread and olives, and towards evening there was pasta smelling of fresh rosemary. But the food couldn’t cut short the endless hours, any more than full stomachs dispelled their fear of what the next day might bring. Perhaps not even a book would have done it, but there was no point thinking of that, since they had no books, only the blank walls and the locked door. At least a new light bulb was hanging from the ceiling, so they didn’t have to sit in the dark the whole time. Meggie kept looking at the crack under the door to see if night was falling yet. She imagined lizards sitting outside in the sun. She’d seen some in the square outside the church. Had the emerald-green lizard that scurried out of the heaps of coins found its way outside? And what had happened to the boy? Meggie saw his frightened expression whenever she closed her eyes.

She wondered whether the same thoughts were going through Mo’s head. He had hardly said a word since they were locked up again, but had flopped down on the pile of straw and turned his face to the wall. Elinor was no more talkative. ‘How generous!’ was all she had muttered when Cockerell had bolted the door after them. ‘Our host has graciously provided two more heaps of mouldy straw.’ Then she had sat down in a corner, legs outstretched, and begun staring gloomily at her knees, then at the grubby wall.

‘Mo,’ asked Meggie at last, when she could no longer stand the silence, ‘what do you think they’re doing to the boy? And what kind of a friend are you supposed to read out of the book for Capricorn?’

‘I don’t know, Meggie,’ was all he replied, without turning round.

So she left him alone, made herself a bed of straw beside his, then paced up and down between the bare walls. Perhaps the strange boy was the other side of one of them? She put her ear to the wall. Not a sound came through. Someone had scratched a name in the plaster: Ricardo Bentone, 19.5.96. Meggie ran her finger over the letters. A little further on there was another name, and then another. Meggie wondered what had become of them, Ricardo, Ugo and Bernardo. Perhaps I ought to scratch my name here too, she thought, just in case … but she was careful not to think her way to the end of that sentence.

Behind her, Elinor lay down on her straw bed, sighing. When Meggie turned to her, she forced a smile. ‘What wouldn’t I give for a comb!’ she said, pushing the hair back from her forehead. ‘I’d never have thought that in a situation like this I’d miss a comb so much, of all things, but I do. Heavens, I don’t even have a hairpin left. I must look like a witch, or a washing-up brush that’s seen better days.’

‘No, really, you look fine. Your hairpins were always falling out anyway,’ said Meggie. ‘Actually, I think you look younger.’

‘Younger? Hmm. Well, if you say so.’ Elinor glanced down at herself. Her mouse-grey sweater was filthy, and there were three ladders in her tights. ‘Meggie, it was very kind of you to help me back there in the church,’ she said, pulling her skirt down over her knees. My knees were like jelly, I was so scared. I don’t know what’s come over me. I feel like someone else, as if the old Elinor has driven home and left me here by myself.’ Her lips began to tremble, and Meggie thought she was going to cry, but next moment the familiar Elinor was back again. ‘Well, there we are!’ she said. ‘It’s only in an emergency that you find out what you’re truly made of. Personally, I always thought if I was a wooden statue I’d be carved out of oak, but it seems I’m more like pearwood or something else very soft. It only takes a villain like that to play with his knife in front of my nose and the wood shavings start flaking away.’

And now the tears did come, hard as Elinor tried to keep them back. Angrily, she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.

‘I think you’re doing splendidly, Elinor.’ Mo was still lying with his face to the wall. ‘You’re both doing splendidly. And I could wring my own neck for dragging you two into all this.’

‘Nonsense. If anyone around here needs his neck wrung it’s Capricorn,’ said Elinor. ‘And that man Basta. My God, I’d never have thought the idea of strangling another human being would give me such enormous satisfaction. But I’m sure if I could just get my hands round that Basta’s neck, I—’

On seeing the shock in Meggie’s eyes she fell guiltily silent, but Meggie just shrugged her shoulders.

‘I feel the same,’ she murmured, and began scratching an ‘M’ on the wall with the key of her bicycle lock. Weird to think she still had that key in her trouser pocket – like a souvenir of another life.

Elinor ran her finger down one of the ladders in her tights, and Mo turned on his back and stared up at the ceiling. ‘I’m so sorry, Meggie,’ he said suddenly. ‘I’m so sorry I let them take the book away from me.’

Meggie scratched an ‘E’ in the wall. ‘It doesn’t make any difference,’ she said, stepping back. The Gs in her name looked like nibbled Os. ‘You probably couldn’t have read her back out of it again anyway.’

‘No, probably not,’ murmured Mo, and went on staring at the ceiling.

‘It’s not your fault,’ said Meggie. She wanted to add: the main thing is you’re with me. The main thing is for Basta never to put his knife to your throat again. I mean, I hardly remember my mother. I only know her from a couple of photographs. But Meggie said none of that, for she knew it wouldn’t comfort Mo, it would probably just make him sadder than ever. For the first time, Meggie had some idea of how much he missed her mother. And for one crazy moment she felt jealous.

She scratched an ‘I’ in the plaster – that was an easy letter – then she lowered the key.

Footsteps were approaching outside. Elinor put her hand to her mouth when they stopped.

Basta pushed open the door, and there was someone behind him. Meggie recognised the old woman she had seen in Capricorn’s house. With a dour expression on her face, she pushed past Basta and put a mug and a thermos jug on the floor. ‘As if I didn’t have enough to do!’ she muttered, before going out again. ‘So now we have to feed up our fine guests too! They might at least be put to work if you have to keep them here.’

‘Tell that to Capricorn,’ was all Basta replied. Then he drew his knife, smiled at Elinor, and wiped the blade on his jacket. It was getting dark outside, and his snow-white shirt shone in the gathering twilight.

‘Enjoy your tea, Silvertongue,’ he said, relishing the discomfort on Elinor’s face. ‘Mortola’s put so much honey in the jug your mouth will probably stick up with the first sip you take, but your throat will be as good as new tomorrow.’

‘What have you done with the boy?’ asked Mo.

‘Oh, I think he’s next door to you. Capricorn hasn’t decided what’s to become of him yet. Cockerell will try him out with a little ordeal by fire tomorrow, then we’ll know if he’s any use to us.’

Mo sat up. ‘Ordeal by fire?’ he asked, his voice both bitter and mocking. ‘Well, you can’t have passed that one yourself. You’re even afraid of Dustfinger’s matches.’

‘Watch your tongue!’ Basta hissed at him. ‘One more word and I’ll cut it out, however precious it may be.’

‘Oh no, you won’t,’ said Mo, standing up. He took his time over filling the mug with steaming tea.

‘Maybe not.’ Basta lowered his voice, as if afraid of being overheard. ‘But your little daughter has a tongue too, and hers isn’t as valuable as yours.’

Mo flung the mug of hot tea at him, but Basta closed the door so quickly that the mug smashed into the wood. ‘Sweet dreams!’ he called from outside as he shot the bolts. ‘See you in the morning.’

None of them said a word when he was gone, not for a long, long time. ‘Mo, tell me a story,’ Meggie whispered at last.

‘What story do you want to hear?’ he asked, putting his arm round her shoulders.

‘Tell me the one about us being in Egypt,’ she whispered, ‘and we’re looking for treasure and surviving sandstorms and scorpions and all the scary ghosts rising from their tombs to watch over their precious grave goods.’

‘Oh, that story,’ said Mo. ‘Didn’t I make it up for your eighth birthday? It’s rather a gloomy tale, as far as I remember.’

‘Yes, very!’ said Meggie. ‘But it has a happy ending. Everything turns out all right, and we come home laden with treasure.’

‘I wouldn’t mind hearing that one myself,’ said Elinor, her voice unsteady. She was probably still thinking of Basta’s knife.

So Mo began to tell his story, without the rustle of pages, without the endless labyrinth of letters.

‘Mo, nothing ever came out of a story you were just telling, did it?’ asked Meggie at one point, suddenly feeling anxious.

‘No,’ he said. ‘For that to happen, it seems that printer’s ink is necessary and someone else needs to have made up the story.’ Then he continued, and Meggie and Elinor listened until his voice had carried them far, far away. Finally, they went to sleep.

A sound woke them all. Someone was fiddling with the lock of the door. Meggie thought she heard a muffled curse.

‘Oh no!’ breathed Elinor. She was the first on her feet. ‘They’re coming to take me away! That old woman’s persuaded them! Why feed us up? You, maybe,’ she said, looking frantically at Mo, ‘but why me?’

‘Go over to the wall, Elinor,’ said Mo as he moved Meggie behind him. ‘Both of you keep well back from the door.’

The lock sprang open with a muffled little click, and the door was pushed just far enough open for someone to squeeze through it. Dustfinger. He cast a last anxious glance outside, then pulled the door shut behind him and leaned against it.

‘So I hear you’ve done it again, Silvertongue!’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘They say the poor boy still hasn’t uttered a sound. I don’t blame him. I can tell you, it’s a horrible feeling suddenly landing in someone else’s story.’

‘What are you doing here?’ snapped Elinor. But the sight of Dustfinger had actually filled her with relief.

‘Leave him alone, Elinor,’ said Mo, moving her aside and going over to Dustfinger. ‘How are your hands?’ he asked.

Dustfinger shrugged. ‘They put cold water on them in the kitchen, but the skin’s still almost as red as the flames that licked at it.’

‘Ask him what he wants!’ hissed Elinor. ‘And if he’s just come to tell us he can’t do anything about the mess we’re in, then you might as well wring his lying neck!’

By way of answer, Dustfinger tossed her a bunch of keys. ‘Why do you think I’m here?’ he grumbled back, switching off the light. ‘Stealing the car keys from Basta wasn’t easy, and a word of thanks might not be out of place, but we can think about that later. We don’t want to hang about any longer – let’s get out of here.’ Cautiously, he opened the door and listened. ‘There’s a sentry posted up on the church tower,’ he whispered, ‘but the guards are keeping watch on the hills, not the village. The dogs are in their kennels, and even if we do have to deal with them, luckily they like me better than Basta.’

‘Why should we suddenly trust him?’ whispered Elinor to Mo. ‘Suppose there’s some other devilry behind this?’

‘I want you to take me with you. That’s my only motive!’ snapped Dustfinger. ‘There’s nothing here for me any more. Capricorn’s let me down. He’s sent the only scrap of hope I still had up in smoke! He thinks he can do what he likes with me. Dustfinger’s only a dog you can kick without fearing he may bite back, but he’s wrong there. He burned the book, so I’m taking away the reader I brought him. And as for you,’ he said, jabbing his burnt finger into Elinor’s chest, ‘you can come because you have a car. No one gets out of this village on foot, not even Capricorn’s men, not with the snakes that infest these hills. But I can’t drive, and so …’

‘I knew it!’ Elinor almost forgot to keep her voice down. ‘He just wants to save his own skin. That’s why he’s helping us! He doesn’t have a guilty conscience, oh no. Why should he?’

‘I don’t care why he’s helping us, Elinor,’ Mo interrupted her impatiently. ‘We have to get away from here, that’s what matters. But we’re going to take someone else with us too.’

‘Someone else? Who?’ Dustfinger looked at him uneasily.

‘The boy. The one I condemned yesterday to the same fate as you,’ replied Mo, making his way past Dustfinger and out of the door. ‘Basta said he’s next door to us, and a lock is no obstacle to your clever fingers.’

‘I burned those clever fingers today!’ muttered Dustfinger angrily. ‘Still, just as you please. Your soft heart will be the ruin of us yet.’

When Dustfinger knocked on the door bearing the number 5 a faint rustling could be heard on the other side of it. ‘Seems like they were going to let him live,’ he whispered as he got to work on the lock. ‘They put people condemned to death in the crypt under the church. Ever since I told Basta for a joke that a White Lady haunts the stone coffins down there, he turns white as a sheet whenever Capricorn sends him into the crypt.’ He chuckled quietly at the memory, like a schoolboy who’s just played a particularly good practical joke.

Meggie looked across at the church. ‘Do they often condemn people to death?’ she asked quietly.

Dustfinger shrugged. ‘Not as often as they used to. But it does happen.’

‘Stop telling her such stories!’ whispered Mo. He and Elinor never took their eyes off the church tower. The sentry was posted high up on the wall beside the belfry. It made Meggie dizzy just to look up there.

‘Those are no stories, Silvertongue, it’s the truth! Don’t you recognise the truth when you meet it any more? The truth’s not pretty, of course. No one likes to look it in the face.’ Dustfinger stepped back from the door and bowed. ‘After you. I’ve picked the lock, you can fetch him out.’ Even with his burnt fingers it hadn’t taken him long.

‘You go in,’ Mo whispered to Meggie. ‘He’ll be less afraid of you.’

It was pitch dark on the other side of the door, but Meggie heard a rustle as she stepped into the room, as if an animal were moving somewhere in the straw. Dustfinger put his arm through the doorway and handed her a torch. When Meggie switched it on, the beam of light fell on the boy’s dark face. The straw they had given him seemed even mouldier than the pile on which Meggie had slept, but the boy looked as if he hadn’t closed his eyes since Flatnose had locked him in anyway. His arms were tightly clasped round his legs, as if they were all he could rely on. Perhaps he was still waiting for his nightmare to end.

‘Come with us!’ whispered Meggie, reaching out a hand to him. ‘We want to help you! We’ll take you away from here!’

He didn’t move, just stared at her, his eyes narrow with distrust.

‘Hurry up, Meggie!’ breathed Mo through the door.

The boy glanced at him and retreated until his back was right up against the wall.

‘Please!’ whispered Meggie. ‘You must come! The people here will do bad things to you.’

He was still looking at her. Then he stood up, cautiously, never taking his eyes off her. He was taller than she was by almost a hand’s breadth. Suddenly, he leaped forward, making for the open door. He pushed Meggie aside so roughly that she fell over, but he couldn’t get past Mo.

‘Here, take it easy!’ Mo said under his breath. ‘We really do want to help you, but you must do as we say, understand?’

The boy glared at him with dislike. ‘You’re all devils!’ he whispered. ‘Devils or demons!’ So he did understand their language, and why not? His own story was told in every language in the world.

Meggie got up and rubbed her knee. She must have grazed it on the stone floor. ‘If you want to see some real devils then all you have to do is stay here!’ she hissed at the boy as she pushed her way past him. He flinched as if she were a witch.

Mo drew the boy to his side. ‘See that man on watch up there?’ he whispered, pointing to the church tower. ‘If he sees us they’ll kill us.’

The boy looked up at the man on guard.

Dustfinger went over to him. ‘Hurry up, will you?’ he said quietly. ‘If the lad doesn’t want to go with us then he can just stay here. And the rest of you take your shoes off,’ he added, glancing at the boy’s bare feet, ‘or you’ll make more noise than a flock of goats.’

Elinor grumbled something in a cross voice, but she obeyed, and the boy did follow them, if hesitantly. Dustfinger hurried on ahead as if trying to outstrip his own shadow. The alley down which he led them sloped so steeply that Meggie kept stumbling, and every time Elinor stubbed her toes on the bumpy cobblestones she uttered a quiet curse. It was dark between the close-set houses. Masonry arches stretched from one side of the street to the other, as if to prevent the walls from collapsing. The rusty street lights cast ghostly shadows. Every noise sounded threatening, every cat scurrying out of a doorway made Meggie jump. But Capricorn’s village was asleep. They passed only one guard, leaning on the wall in a side street and smoking. Two tom cats were fighting somewhere on the rooftops, and the guard bent to pick up a stone to throw at them. Dustfinger took advantage of the moment. Meggie was very glad he had made them take off their shoes. They slipped soundlessly past the guard whose back was still turned, but Meggie dared not breathe again until they were round the next corner. Once again, she noticed the many empty houses, the blank windows, the dilapidated doors. What had wrecked these homes? Just the course of time? Had the people who once lived here run away from Capricorn, or was the village already abandoned before he and his men took up residence? Hadn’t Dustfinger said something like that?

He had stopped. He raised his hand in a warning gesture, and put a finger to his lips. They had reached the outskirts of the village. Only the car park still lay ahead. Two street lights illuminated the surface of the cracked asphalt, and a tall wire-netting fence rose to their left. ‘The arena for Capricorn’s ceremonies and festivities is on the other side of that fence,’ whispered Dustfinger. ‘I suppose the village children once played football there, but these days it’s the scene of Capricorn’s diabolical celebrations: bonfires, brandy, a few shots fired into the air, fireworks, blackened faces – that’s their idea of fun.’

They put their shoes on before following Dustfinger into the car park. Meggie kept looking at the wire fence. Diabolical celebrations. She could almost see the bonfires, the blackened faces … ‘Come on, Meggie!’ urged Mo, leading her on. The sound of rushing water could be heard somewhere in the darkness, and Meggie remembered the bridge they had crossed on the way here. Suppose a guard was stationed there this time?

There were several cars in the car park, including Elinor’s, which was parked a little way from the others. They all kept looking around anxiously as they ran towards it. Behind them the church tower rose high above the rooftops, and there was nothing now to shield them from the sentry’s eyes. Meggie couldn’t see him at this distance, but she was sure he was still there. From such a height they must look like black beetles crawling over a table. Did he have a pair of binoculars?

‘Come on, Elinor!’ whispered Mo. It seemed to be taking her forever to unlock the car door.

‘All right, all right!’ she growled back. ‘I just don’t have such nimble hands as our light-fingered friend.’

Mo put his arm round Meggie’s shoulders as he looked around, but apart from a few stray cats he could see nothing moving in the car park or among the houses. Reassured, he made Meggie get into the back seat. The boy hesitated for a moment, examining the car as if it were some strange animal and he couldn’t be sure whether it was kindly disposed or would swallow him alive, but finally he got in too. Meggie scowled at him and moved as far away from him as possible. Her knee still hurt.

‘Where’s the matchstick-eater?’ whispered Elinor. ‘Dammit, don’t tell me the man’s disappeared again.’

Meggie was the first to spot him. He was stealing over to the other cars. Elinor clutched the steering-wheel as if resisting only with difficulty the temptation to drive off without him. ‘What’s he up to this time?’ she hissed.

None of them knew the answer. Dustfinger was gone for an excruciatingly long time, and when he came back he was closing a flick-knife.

‘What was the idea of that?’ Elinor snapped, when he squeezed into the back seat next to the boy. ‘Didn’t you say we must hurry? And what were you doing with that knife? Not cutting someone open, I hope!’

‘Is my name Basta?’ enquired Dustfinger, annoyed, as he forced his legs in behind the driver’s seat. ‘I was slitting their tyres, that’s all. Just to be on the safe side.’ He was still holding the knife.

Meggie looked at it uneasily. ‘That’s Basta’s knife,’ she said.

Dustfinger smiled as he put it in his trouser pocket. ‘Not any more. I’d like to have stolen his silly amulet too, but he wears it round his neck even at night, and that would have been too dangerous.’

Somewhere a dog began to bark. Mo wound down his window and put his head out, looking concerned.

‘Believe it or not, it’s only toads making all that racket,’ said Elinor. But what Meggie suddenly heard echoing through the night was nothing like the croaking of toads, and when she looked in alarm through the back window a man was climbing out of one of the parked vehicles, a dusty, dirty white delivery van. It was one of Capricorn’s men. Meggie had seen him in the church. He looked around him with a face still dazed by sleep.

Before Meggie could stop her, Elinor started the engine, and the man snatched a shotgun from his back and stumbled towards the car. For a moment Meggie almost felt sorry for him – he looked so sleepy and baffled. What would Capricorn do to a guard who fell asleep on duty? But then he aimed the gun and fired it. Meggie ducked her head well below the back of the seat, and Elinor pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator.

‘Damn it all!’ she shouted at Dustfinger. ‘Didn’t you see that man when you were slinking about among the cars?’

‘No, I didn’t!’ Dustfinger shouted back. ‘Now, drive! Not that way! It’s over there. We must get to the road!’

Elinor wrenched the steering-wheel around. The boy was huddled down beside Meggie. At every shot he had closed his eyes tight and put his hands over his ears. Were there any guns in his story? Probably not, any more than there were cars. His and Meggie’s heads knocked together as Elinor’s car bumped over the stony track. When it finally reached the road things weren’t much better.

‘This isn’t the road we came along!’ cried Elinor. Capricorn’s village loomed over them like a fortress. The houses simply refused to get any smaller.

‘Oh yes, it is! But Basta met us further down when we arrived.’ Dustfinger was clinging to the seat with one hand and to his rucksack with the other. A furious chattering came from the bag, and the boy cast it a terrified glance.

Meggie thought she recognised the place where Basta had met them when they drove past it – it was the hill from which she had seen the village for the first time. Then the houses suddenly disappeared, engulfed by the night, as if Capricorn’s village had never existed.

There was no guard posted on the bridge, nor at the rusty barrier across the road cutting off the way to the village. Meggie looked back at it until the darkness had swallowed it up. It’s over, she thought. It really is all over.

The night was clear. Meggie had never seen so many stars. The sky stretched above the black hills like a cloth embroidered with tiny beads. The whole world seemed to consist of hills, like a cat arching its back at the face of the night – no human beings, no houses. No fear.

Mo turned round and stroked the hair back from Meggie’s forehead. ‘Everything all right?’ he asked.

She nodded and closed her eyes. Suddenly, all Meggie wanted to do was sleep – if only the pounding of her heart would let her.

‘It’s a dream,’ murmured a toneless voice beside her. ‘Only a dream. It’s just a dream. What else can it be?’

Meggie turned to the boy, who wasn’t looking at her. ‘It has to be a dream!’ he repeated, nodding vigorously as if to encourage himself. ‘Everything looks wrong, false, weird, like in dreams, and now,’ he murmured, turning his head to indicate the surroundings outside, ‘now we’re flying. Or the night is flying past us. Or something.’

Meggie could almost have smiled. She wanted to tell him it wasn’t a dream, but she was just too tired to explain the whole complicated story. She looked at Dustfinger. He was patting the fabric of his rucksack, probably trying to soothe his angry marten.

‘Don’t look at me like that!’ he said when he saw Meggie watching him. ‘You can’t expect me to explain. Your father will have to do that. After all, the poor lad’s nightmare is his fault.’

Mo’s guilty conscience showed clearly on his face when he turned to the boy. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked. ‘It wasn’t in the—’ But there he broke off.

The boy looked at him suspiciously, then bowed his head. ‘Farid,’ he said dully. ‘My name is Farid, but I believe it’s unlucky to speak in a dream. You never find your way back if you do.’ He shut his mouth tightly and stared straight ahead, as if to avoid looking at anyone, and said no more. Did he have a mother and father in his story? Meggie couldn’t remember. It had just mentioned a boy, a boy without a name who served a band of thieves.

‘It’s a dream,’ he whispered again. ‘Only a dream. The sun will rise and it will all disappear. That’s what it’ll do.’

Mo looked at him, unhappy and at a loss, like someone who has handled a young bird, knowing it can never return to the nest. Poor Mo, thought Meggie. Poor Farid. But she was thinking of something else too, and she was ashamed of herself for it. Ever since she had seen the lizard crawl out of the golden coins in Capricorn’s church she couldn’t help thinking about it. I wish I could do that, her thoughts had kept saying to her, very quietly. The wish had settled like a cuckoo in the nest of her heart, where it kept fluffing up its plumage and making itself at home, no matter how hard she tried to throw it out. I wish I could do that, it whispered. I’d like to bring them out of books, touch them, all those characters, all those wonderful characters. I want them to come out of the pages and sit beside me, I want them to smile at me, I want, I want, I want …

Outside, it was still as dark as if morning would never come.

‘I’m going to drive straight on,’ said Elinor, ‘until we reach my house.’

Far behind them, headlights showed, like fingers probing the night.

20

Snakes and Thorns

‘None of that matters now,’ said Twilight. ‘Look behind you.’

The Borribles did and there, just a little beyond the rim of the bridge, they saw a halo of harsh whiteness reflected on the underneath of the dark sky. It was the beam of a car’s headlights as it got into position on the north side of the bridge, the side the runaways had left only moments before.

Michael de Larrabeiti,

The Borribles Go For Broke

Behind them the headlights were getting closer, no matter how fast Elinor drove.

‘It could be just any old car,’ said Meggie, but she knew that was unlikely. There was only one village on the bumpy, potholed road they had been following for almost an hour, and that was Capricorn’s. Their pursuers could only have come from there.

‘Now what?’ asked Elinor. She was in such a state the car was weaving all over the road. ‘I’m not letting them lock me up in that hole again. No. No. No.’ At each ‘No’ she struck the steering-wheel with the palm of her hand. ‘Didn’t you say you’d slit their tyres?’ she snapped at Dustfinger.

‘Yes, and so I did!’ he replied angrily. ‘Obviously they’ve thought of that kind of thing. Ever heard of spare tyres? Go on, step on it! There ought to be a village quite soon. It can’t be far away now. If we can make it that far …’

‘If, yes. If is the question,’ said Elinor, tapping the fuel gauge. ‘I’ve got enough petrol for about another ten kilometres, twenty at the most.’

But they never got that far. As they swerved round a sharp bend one of the front tyres blew out. Elinor only just managed to wrench the steering-wheel round before the car skidded off the road. Meggie screamed, burying her face in her hands. For a terrible moment she thought they were going to plunge down the steep slope to their left, the bottom of which disappeared in the darkness, but the car skidded to the right, scraped its wing against the low stone wall on the other side of the road, gave a last gasp and came to a halt under the low branches of a chestnut oak that leaned over the road.

‘Oh hell, hell, bloody hell!’ swore Elinor, undoing her seat-belt. ‘Everyone all right?’

‘Now I know why I’ve never trusted cars,’ muttered Dustfinger, opening his door.

Meggie sat there trembling all over. Mo pulled her out of the car and looked anxiously at her face. ‘Are you all right?’

Meggie nodded.

Farid climbed out on Dustfinger’s side. Did he still think he was dreaming?

Dustfinger stood in the road, rucksack over his shoulder, listening. The umistakable sound of an engine came purring through the night from far away.

‘We must get the car off the road!’ he said.

‘What?’ Elinor looked at him in horror.

‘We’ll have to push it down the slope.’

‘My car!’ Elinor was almost screaming.

‘He’s right, Elinor,’ said Mo. ‘Perhaps we can shake them off that way. We’ll push the car down the slope – they may not notice it in the dark, and even if they do, they’ll think we came off the road. Then we can climb up the hill on the other side and hide among the trees.’

Elinor cast a doubtful glance at the hill on their right. ‘But it’s much too steep! And what about the snakes?’

‘I’m sure Basta has a new knife by now,’ Dustfinger reminded her.

Elinor gave him her darkest look and, without another word, went round to the back of her car to check inside the boot. ‘Where’s our luggage?’ she asked.

Dustfinger looked at her with amusement. ‘I expect Basta’s divided it out among Capricorn’s maids. He likes to ingratiate himself with them.’

Elinor looked at him as if she didn’t believe a word of it, but then quickly closed the boot, braced her arms against the car, and began to push.

They couldn’t do it.

Hard as they pushed and shoved, Elinor’s car only rolled off the road but would not slide more than a few metres down the slope. Then it stopped with its bonnet stuck in the undergrowth and refused to go any further. Meanwhile, the sound of the engine, so curiously out of place in this desolate wilderness, was getting alarmingly loud. Dustfinger gave the obstinate car a final kick, and they all clambered back up to the road, sweating. After climbing over an ancient wall on the other side they struggled on up the slope. Anything to get away from the road itself. Mo hauled Meggie along behind him whenever she got stuck, and Dustfinger helped Farid. Elinor had her work cut out getting herself up the hillside, which was criss-crossed with low walls that had been built in a laborious attempt to wrest narrow fields and orchards from the poor soil, somewhere to grow a few olive trees and grape vines, anything that would bear fruit here. But the trees had run wild, and the ground was covered with fruit that was no longer harvested, for the people who once lived here had long since left to find an easier life elsewhere.

‘Keep your heads down!’ gasped Dustfinger, ducking behind one of the ruined walls. ‘They’re coming!’ Mo pulled Meggie down under the nearest tree. The tangled thorn bushes growing among its gnarled roots were just tall enough to hide them.

‘What about the snakes?’ Elinor whispered as she stumbled after them.

‘Too cold for snakes at the moment!’ whispered Dustfinger from his hiding-place. ‘Haven’t you learnt anything from all those clever books of yours?’

Elinor was about to snap back an answer, but Mo quickly put a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. The vehicle appeared on the road below them. It was the white delivery van in which the guard had been sleeping. Without slowing down, it drove past the place where they had pushed Elinor’s estate car over the slope, and disappeared round the next bend. Relieved, Meggie was about to raise her head above the thorn bushes when Mo pushed her down again. ‘Not yet!’ he muttered, straining his ears.

The night was perfectly still. Meggie had never known one like it. It was as if she could hear the trees breathing – the trees, the grass, the night itself.

They watched the van headlights emerge on the slope of the next hill: two fingers of light groping their way along an invisible road in the dark. But suddenly they stopped moving.

‘They’re turning!’ whispered Elinor. ‘Oh God! Now what?’

She tried to stand up, but Mo held her back. ‘Are you mad?’ he hissed. ‘It’s too late to climb any further. They’d see us.’

Mo was right. The delivery van was speeding back up the road. Meggie saw it stop just a few metres from where they had pushed Elinor’s car off the road. She heard the van doors open and saw two men get out. Both had their backs to the fugitives, but when one of them turned and looked suspiciously up the slope Meggie thought she recognised Basta’s face, though it was little more than a patch of paler colour in the night.

‘There’s the car,’ said the other man.

Was that Flatnose? He was certainly tall and broad enough.

‘See if they’re in it.’

Yes, that was Basta. Meggie would have known his voice among a thousand others.

Flatnose made his way down the slope, clumsy as a bear. Meggie heard him cursing the thorns, the prickles, the darkness and the wretched riff-raff he was having to stumble after in the middle of the night. Basta was still standing in the road. His face was sharply outlined when he lit a cigarette with a lighter. The white smoke drifted up to them until Meggie thought she could almost smell it.

‘They’re not here,’ called Flatnose. ‘They must have got away on foot. Hell, do you think we have to follow them?’

Basta went over to the roadside and looked down. Then he turned and looked up at the slope where Meggie was crouching beside Mo, her heart thudding wildly. ‘They can’t have got far,’ he said. ‘But it’ll be difficult to find their trail in the dark.’

‘Exactly!’ Flatnose was panting as he appeared back on the road. ‘We’re not bloody native trackers, are we?’

Basta did not reply. He just stood there, listening and inhaling his cigarette smoke. Then he whispered something to Flatnose. Meggie’s heart almost stopped.

Flatnose looked round anxiously. ‘Nah, let’s get the dogs instead!’ Meggie heard him say. ‘Even if they’re hiding somewhere around here, how do we know whether they climbed up or down?’

Basta glanced at the trees, looked down the road, and trod out his cigarette. Then he went back to the van and took out two shotguns. ‘We’ll try going down first,’ he said, tossing Flatnose one of the guns. ‘I’m sure that fat woman would rather climb downhill.’ And without another word, he vanished into the darkness. Flatnose cast the van a longing glance, then trudged after him, grumbling.

The two were barely out of sight before Dustfinger rose to his feet, soundless as a shadow, and pointed up the slope. Meggie’s heart was beating in her throat as they followed him. They darted from tree to tree, from bush to bush, constantly looking behind them. Every time a twig cracked underfoot Meggie jumped, but luckily Basta and Flatnose were making a fair amount of noise themselves as they worked their way downhill through the undergrowth.

A time came when they couldn’t see the road any more. But their fear did not leave them, the fear that Basta might have turned back already and was now following them uphill. Yet, however often they stopped and listened, all they could hear was their own breathing.

‘They’ll soon realise they’ve gone the wrong way,’ Dustfinger whispered after a while. ‘Then they’ll go back for the dogs. We’re lucky they didn’t bring them in the first place. Basta doesn’t think much of those dogs, and he’s right. I’ve fed them cheese often enough, and cheese dulls a dog’s nose. All the same, he’ll fetch them sooner or later, because even Basta doesn’t like taking bad news back to Capricorn.’

‘Then we must just go faster,’ said Mo.

‘Go faster where?’ Elinor was still fighting for breath.

Dustfinger looked round. Meggie wondered why. She could hardly make anything out, it was so dark. ‘We must keep going south,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Towards the coast. We must hide among other people. That’s the only thing that can save us. Down there the nights are bright and nobody believes in the Devil.’

Farid was standing beside Meggie, gazing at the night sky as if he could make morning come, or find the people Dustfinger had mentioned somewhere, but there wasn’t a light to be seen in the darkness except for the tangle of stars sparkling cold and distant in the heavens. For a moment, Meggie felt as if those stars were eyes giving their presence away, and imagined she could hear them whispering, ‘Look, Basta, there they go, down there! Quick, catch them!’

They stumbled on, keeping close together so that no one would get lost. Dustfinger had taken Gwin out of his rucksack and put him on his chain before letting him run with them. The marten didn’t seem to like it. Dustfinger had to keep hauling him out of the undergrowth, away from all the promising scents that their human noses couldn’t pick up. The marten spat and snarled with annoyance, biting and tearing at the chain.

‘Curse the little brute, I’m sure to fall over it,’ said Elinor crossly. ‘Can’t you keep it away from my sore feet? I tell you one thing, the moment we’re in decent human company again I’m going to take the best hotel room money can buy and put my poor feet up on a big soft cushion.’

‘You’ve still got money on you?’ Mo sounded incredulous. ‘They took all mine first thing.’

‘Yes, Basta took my wallet too,’ said Elinor. ‘But I think ahead. I have my credit card somewhere safe.’

‘Is anywhere safe from Basta?’ Dustfinger dragged Gwin away from a tree trunk.

‘Oh yes,’ replied Elinor. ‘Men are never particularly keen to search fat old ladies. Which can be useful. That was how some of my most valuable books came into my—’ She interrupted herself abruptly, clearing her throat when her eyes fell on Meggie. But Meggie acted as if she hadn’t heard Elinor’s last remark, or at least hadn’t understood what she meant.

‘You’re not all that fat!’ Meggie said. ‘And old is a bit of an exaggeration!’ Oh, how her own feet hurt.

‘Well, thank you very much, darling!’ said Elinor. ‘I think I’ll buy you from your father so you can say nice things like that to me three times a day. How much do you want for her, Mo?’

‘I’ll have to think about it,’ replied Mo. ‘Suppose I lend her to you for a few days now and then?’

They chatted like this, voices scarcely raised above a whisper, as they struggled through the thorny growth on the hillside. It didn’t matter what they talked about, for their hushed conversation had only one purpose: to fend off the fear and exhaustion weighing down all their limbs. On and on they walked, hoping that Dustfinger knew where he was taking them. Meggie kept close behind Mo all the time. At least his back offered some protection from the thorny branches which kept catching at her clothes and scratching her face, like vicious animals with needle-sharp claws lying in wait in the dark.

At last, they came upon a footpath they could follow. It was littered with empty cartridge cases dropped by hunters who had dealt out death in this silent place. Walking was easier on the trodden earth, although Meggie was so tired she could hardly pick her feet up. When she stumbled against the back of Mo’s legs for the second time, he put her on his back and carried her as he used to do before she could keep up with his long legs. He had called her ‘Little Flea’ in those days, or ‘Feather Girl’, or ‘Tinker Bell’ after the fairy in Peter Pan. Sometimes he still called her Tinker Bell.

Wearily, Meggie rested her face against his shoulders and tried to think of Peter Pan instead of snakes, or men with knives. But this time her own story was too strong to give way to an invented one. Mo was right: fear, unfortunately, devours everything.

It was a long time since Farid had said anything. Most of the time he stumbled along after Dustfinger. He seemed to have taken a fancy to Gwin. Whenever the marten’s chain got caught up somewhere Farid would rush to free him, even if Gwin only hissed at him in return and snapped at his fingers. Once he sank his teeth into the boy’s thumb and made it bleed.

‘Well, do you still think this is a dream?’ asked Dustfinger ironically as Farid wiped the blood away.

The boy didn’t answer, just examined his sore thumb. Then he sucked it and spat. ‘What else could it be?’ he asked.

Dustfinger looked at Mo, but he seemed so deep in thought that he didn’t notice the glance. ‘How about another story?’ said Dustfinger.

Farid laughed. ‘Another story. I like that idea. I’ve always been fond of stories.’

‘Oh yes? And how do you like this one?’

‘Too many thorns, and I wish it would get light, but at least I haven’t had to work yet. That’s something.’

Meggie couldn’t help smiling.

A bird called in the distance. Gwin stopped and raised his round muzzle, sniffing the air. The night belongs to beasts of prey, and always has. It’s easy to forget that when you’re indoors, protected by light and solid walls. Night provides cover for hunters, making it easy for them to creep up and strike their prey blind. Words about the night from one of her favourite books slipped into Meggie’s mind: ‘This is the hour of pride and power, talon and tush and claw.’

She snuggled her face against Mo’s shoulder once more. Perhaps I ought to walk again, she thought. He’s been carrying me for so long. But then she nodded off to sleep still perched on his back.

21

Basta

This grove, that was now so peaceful, must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.

Robert Louis Stevenson,

Treasure Island

Meggie woke up when Mo stopped. The path had brought them almost to the crest of the hill. It was still dark, but the night was growing paler as if lifting her skirts a little way off to let the new morning appear.

‘We must take a breather, Dustfinger,’ Meggie heard Mo saying. ‘The boy can hardly keep up, Elinor’s feet must need a rest, and if you ask me this wouldn’t be a bad place for one.’

‘What feet?’ asked Elinor, sinking to the ground with a groan. ‘You mean those poor sore objects attached to my legs?’

‘That’s what I mean,’ said Mo, as he pulled her up again. ‘But they must go just a little further. We’ll rest up there.’

A good fifty metres to their left, at the very top of the hill, there was a house, if you could call it that, huddled among the olive trees. Meggie slipped off Mo’s back before they climbed up to it. The walls looked as if someone had piled up a number of stones in a hurry, the roof had collapsed, and where there must once have been a door only a black hole now gaped.

Mo had to bend low to make his way in. Broken shingles from the roof covered the floor, there was an empty sack in a corner, some broken earthenware shards, perhaps from a dish or a plate, and a few bones gnawed clean. Mo sighed.

‘Not a very comfortable place, Meggie,’ he said. ‘But try imagining you’re hiding out with the Lost Boys, or …’

‘Or in Huckleberry Finn’s tub.’ Meggie looked round. ‘I think I’d rather sleep outside, all the same.’

Elinor came in. The accommodation didn’t seem to appeal much to her either.

Mo gave Meggie a kiss and went back to the door. ‘Believe me, it’ll be safer in here,’ he said.

Meggie looked at him in concern. ‘Where are you going? You have to get some sleep too.’

‘Oh, I’m not tired.’ His face gave away his lie. ‘Go to sleep now, all right?’ Then he went out again.

Elinor pushed the broken shingles aside with her foot. ‘Come on,’ she said, taking off her jacket and spreading it on the floor. ‘Let’s try to make ourselves comfortable together. Your father’s right, we must just imagine we’re somewhere else. Why are adventures so much more fun when you read about them?’ she murmured, stretching out on the floor.

Cautiously, Meggie lay down beside her. ‘At least it isn’t raining,’ remarked Elinor, looking at the collapsed roof. ‘And we have the stars above us, even if they’re fading. Perhaps I ought to have a few holes knocked in my own roof at home.’ With an impatient nod, she told Meggie to lay her head on her arm. ‘In case any spiders try crawling into your ears while you’re asleep,’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘Oh Lord,’ Meggie heard her add in a murmur, ‘I’ll have to buy a new pair of feet, I really will. There’s no hope for these.’ With that she was asleep.

But Meggie lay with her eyes wide open, listening to the sounds outside. She heard Mo talking quietly to Dustfinger, but she couldn’t make out the words. Once she thought she heard Basta’s name. The boy Farid had stayed outside too, but he made no sound.

Elinor began snoring after only a few minutes, but hard as Meggie tried she couldn’t get to sleep, so she got up quietly and slipped outside. Mo was awake, sitting with his back against a tree, watching the morning light drive the night from the sky above the surrounding hills. Dustfinger was sitting a little further off. He raised his head only briefly when Meggie came out of the hut. Was he thinking of the fairies and the brownies? Farid lay beside him, curled up like a dog, and Gwin was sitting at his feet eating something – Meggie quickly turned her head away.

Dawn was breaking over the hills, casting light on summit after summit. Meggie saw houses in the distance, scattered like toys on the green slopes. The sea must lie somewhere beyond them. She put her head on Mo’s lap and looked up at his face.

‘They won’t find us here, will they?’ she asked.

‘No, of course not!’ he said, but his face wasn’t half as carefree as his voice. ‘Why aren’t you asleep in there with Elinor?’

‘She snores,’ murmured Meggie.

Mo smiled. Then, frowning, he looked down the hillside to the place where the path lay, hidden by rockroses, gorse and thorns.

Dustfinger never took his eyes off the path either. The sight of the two men on watch made Meggie feel better, and soon she was sleeping as deeply as Farid – as if the ground outside the tumbledown house were covered with downy feathers instead of thorns.

When Mo shook her awake, she thought at first it had all been just a bad dream – but his hand was over her mouth. He was holding a finger to his lips in warning. Meggie heard the rustle of grass and the barking of a dog. Mo pulled her to her feet and pushed her and Farid into the shelter of the dark hovel. Elinor was still snoring. She looked like a young girl with the light of dawn on her face, but as soon as Mo had woken her all her weariness, anxiety and fear came rushing back.

Mo and Dustfinger stationed themselves by the doorway, one to the left and the other to the right, their backs pressed to the wall. Men’s voices broke the quiet of the morning. Meggie thought she could hear the dogs sniffing, and wished she could dissolve into thin air, odourless and invisible air. Farid stood beside her, his eyes wide. Meggie noticed for the first time that they were almost black. She had never seen such dark eyes, and his lashes were as long as a girl’s.

Elinor was leaning against the wall opposite, biting her lips nervously. Dustfinger made a sign to Mo, and before Meggie realised what their plan was they made their way out. The olive trees where they took cover were stunted, with matted branches hanging almost to the ground, as if the weight of their leaves was too much for them. A child could easily have hidden behind them, but did they provide enough shelter for two grown men?

Meggie peered out of the doorway. Her heart was beating so fast that it almost suffocated her. Outside, the sun was rising higher and higher. Daylight crept into every valley, beneath every tree, and suddenly Meggie wished for the night again. Mo was kneeling down so that his head couldn’t be seen above the tangled branches. Dustfinger was pressed close to a crooked tree trunk, and there, terrifyingly close, twenty paces at most away from the two of them, was Basta. He was making his way up the slope through thistles and knee-high grass.

‘They’ll have reached the valley by now!’ Meggie heard a rough voice call, and next moment Flatnose appeared beside Basta. They had brought two vicious-looking dogs with them. Meggie saw the dogs’ broad skulls pushing through the grass, and heard them snuffling.

‘What, with two children and that fat woman?’ Basta shook his head and looked round. Farid peered past Meggie – and flinched back as if something had bitten him when he saw the two men.

‘Basta?’ Soundlessly, Elinor’s lips formed his name. Meggie nodded, and Elinor went even paler than she was already.

‘Damn it, Basta, how much longer are you going to trudge around here?’ Flatnose’s voice echoed a long way in the silence that lay over the hills. ‘The snakes will soon be waking up, and I’m hungry. Let’s just say they fell into the valley with the car. We’ll give it another push and no one will find out! The snakes will probably get them anyway. And if not, then they’ll lose their way, starve, get sunstroke – oh, who cares what happens? But anyway we’ll never see them again.’

‘He’s been feeding them cheese!’ Basta furiously hauled the dogs to his side. ‘That bloody little fire-eater has been feeding them cheese to ruin their noses. But nobody would believe me. No wonder they whine with joy every time they see his ugly mug.’

‘You beat them too much,’ grunted Flatnose. ‘That’s why they won’t go to any trouble for you. Dogs don’t like being beaten.’

‘Nonsense. You have to beat them or they’ll bite you! They like the fire-eater because he’s like them – he whines, he’s sly and he bites.’ One of the dogs lay down in the grass and licked its paws. Angrily, Basta kicked it in the ribs and hauled it to its feet. ‘You can go back to the village if you like!’ he spat at Flatnose. ‘But I’m going to get that fire-eater and cut off all his fingers one by one. Then we’ll see how cleverly he can juggle. I always said he couldn’t be trusted, but the boss thought his little tricks with fire were so entertaining.’

‘OK, OK. Everyone knows you can’t stand him.’ Flatnose sounded bored. ‘But he may have nothing to do with the disappearance of that lot. You know he’s always come and gone as he pleased. Maybe he’ll turn up again tomorrow knowing nothing about it.’

‘Yeah, right,’ growled Basta. He walked on. Every step brought him closer to the trees behind which Mo and Dustfinger were hiding. ‘And Silvertongue pinched the fat woman’s car key from under my pillow, did he? No. This time no excuses will do Dustfinger any good. Because he took something else too – something of mine.’

Involuntarily, Dustfinger put his hand to his belt, as if he were afraid that Basta’s knife could call out to its master. One of the dogs raised its head and tugged Basta on towards the trees.

‘He’s found something!’ Basta lowered his voice. ‘The stupid creature’s picked up a scent!’

Ten more paces, perhaps fewer, and he would be among the trees. What were they going to do? What on earth were they going to do?

Flatnose was trudging along after Basta with a sceptical expression on his face. ‘They’ve probably scented a wild boar,’ Meggie heard him say. ‘You want to be careful, they can run you right down. Oh no, I think there’s a snake there. One of those black snakes. You’ve got the antidote in the car, right?’

He stood there perfectly still, rooted to the spot and staring down at the ground in front of his feet. Basta took no notice of him. He followed the snuffling dog. A few more steps and Mo would only have to reach out a hand to touch him. Basta unslung the shotgun from his shoulder, stopped and listened. The dogs pulled to the left and jumped up at one of the tree trunks, barking.

Gwin was up there in the branches.

‘What did I say?’ called Flatnose. ‘They’ve scented a marten, that’s all. Those brutes stink so strong even I could pick up their smell!’

‘That’s no ordinary marten!’ hissed Basta. ‘Don’t you recognise him?’ His eyes were fixed on the ruined hovel.

Mo seized his opportunity. He sprang out from behind the tree, seized Basta and tried to wrench the gun from his hands.

‘Get him! Get him, you brutes!’ bellowed Basta, and obviously the dogs were willing to obey him this time. They leaped up at Mo, baring their yellow teeth. Before Meggie could run to his aid Elinor seized her, and held her tight no matter how hard she struggled, just as she had done before back in her own house. But this time there was someone else to help Mo. Before the dogs could get their teeth into him, Dustfinger had grabbed their collars. Meggie thought they would tear him apart when he dragged them off Mo, but instead they licked his hands, jumping up at him like an old friend and almost knocking him down.

But there was still Flatnose. Luckily, he wasn’t too quick on the uptake. That saved them – for a brief moment he simply stood there staring at Basta, who was still struggling in Mo’s grip.

Meanwhile, Dustfinger had hauled the dogs over to the nearest tree, and he was just winding their leashes round the cracked bark when Flatnose came out of his daze.

‘Let them go!’ he bellowed, pointing his shotgun at Mo.

With a suppressed curse, Dustfinger let the dogs loose, but the stone Farid threw moved faster than he did. It hit Flatnose in the middle of the forehead – an insignificant little stone, but the huge man collapsed in the grass at Dustfinger’s feet like a felled tree.

‘Keep the dogs off me!’ called Mo as Basta fought to get control of his gun. One of the dogs had bitten Mo’s sleeve. At least, Meggie hoped it was just his sleeve. Before Elinor could restrain her again she ran to the big dog and seized its studded collar. The dog wouldn’t let go, however hard she pulled. She saw blood on Mo’s arm, and she almost got hit on the head with the barrel of Basta’s shotgun. Dustfinger tried to call the dogs off, and at first they obeyed him, or at least they let go of Mo, but then Basta succeeded in freeing himself. ‘Get him!’ he shouted, and the dogs stood there growling, not sure whether to obey Basta or Dustfinger.

‘Bloody brutes,’ shouted Basta, pointing his shotgun at Mo’s chest, but at that very moment Elinor pressed the muzzle of Flatnose’s gun against his head. Her hands were shaking, and her face was covered with red blotches as it always was when she was worked up, but she looked more than determined to use the gun.

‘Drop it, Basta,’ she said, her voice unsteady. ‘And not another word to those dogs! I may never have used a gun before but I’m sure I can manage to pull the trigger.’

‘Sit!’ Dustfinger ordered the dogs. They looked uncertainly at Basta, but when he said nothing they lay down in the grass and let Dustfinger tie them to the tree.

Blood was trickling from Mo’s sleeve. Meggie felt herself turn faint at the sight of it. Dustfinger bound up the wound with a red silk scarf that soaked up the blood. ‘It’s not as bad as it looks,’ he assured Meggie, as she came closer, feeling weak at the knees.

‘Got anything else in your rucksack that we can use to tie him up?’ asked Mo, nodding at the still unconscious Flatnose.

‘Our friend with the knife here will need some packaging too,’ said Elinor. Basta glared at her viciously. ‘Don’t stare at me like that,’ she said, jamming the barrel of the gun into his chest. ‘I’m sure a gun like this can do as much damage as a knife, and believe you me, that gives me some very unpleasant ideas.’

Basta twisted his mouth scornfully, but he never took his eyes off Elinor’s forefinger, which was still on the trigger.

There was a length of cord in Dustfinger’s rucksack, strong if not particularly thick. ‘It won’t be enough for both of them,’ Dustfinger said.

‘Why do you want to tie them up?’ enquired Farid. ‘Why not kill them? That’s what they were going to do to us!’

Meggie looked at him in horror, but Basta laughed. ‘Well, fancy that!’ he mocked. ‘We could have used that boy after all! But who says we were going to kill you? Capricorn wants you alive. Dead men can’t read aloud.’

‘Oh, really? And weren’t you planning to cut off some of my fingers?’ asked Dustfinger, tying the cord round Flatnose’s legs.

Basta shrugged. ‘Since when does a man die of that?’

Elinor jabbed the barrel of the gun into his ribs so hard that he stumbled back. ‘Hear that? I think the boy’s right. Maybe we really ought to shoot these thugs.’

But of course they didn’t. They found a rope in the rucksack that Flatnose had brought with him, and it gave Dustfinger obvious pleasure to tie Basta up. Farid helped him. He clearly knew something about tying up prisoners.

Then they put Basta and Flatnose in the ruined house. ‘Nice of us, right? The snakes won’t find you quite so soon,’ said Dustfinger as they carried Basta through the narrow doorway. ‘Of course it’ll get pretty hot in here around midday, but maybe someone will have found you by then. We’ll let the dogs go. If they have any sense they won’t return to the village, but dogs don’t often have much sense – so the whole gang will probably be out searching for you by this afternoon at the latest.’

Flatnose did not come round until he was lying beside Basta under the ruined roof. He rolled his eyes furiously and went purple in the face, but neither he nor Basta could utter a sound because Farid had gagged them both, again very expertly.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Dustfinger, before they left the two men to their fate. ‘There’s something else – something I’ve always wanted to do.’ And to Meggie’s horror he drew Basta’s knife from his belt and went over to the prisoners.

‘What’s the idea?’ asked Mo, barring his way. Obviously the same thought had occurred to him as to Meggie, but Dustfinger only laughed.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to cut a pattern in his face the way he decorated mine,’ he said. ‘I only want to scare him a little.’

And he bent down to cut through the leather thong that Basta wore round his neck. It had a little bag tied with a red drawstring hanging from it. Dustfinger leaned over Basta and swung the bag back and forth in front of his face. ‘I’m taking your luck, Basta!’ he said softly straightening up. ‘Now there’s nothing to protect you from the Evil Eye and the ghosts and demons, black cats and all the other things you’re afraid of.’

Basta tried to kick out with his bound legs, but Dustfinger avoided him easily. ‘This is goodbye for ever, I hope, Basta!’ he said. ‘And if our paths should ever cross again, then I’ll have this.’ He tied the leather thong around his own neck. ‘I expect there’s a lock of your hair in it, right? No? Well, then perhaps I’ll take one. Doesn’t burning someone’s hair have a terrible effect on him?’

‘That’s enough!’ said Mo, urging him away. ‘Let’s get out of here. Who knows when Capricorn will realise these two are missing? By the way, did I tell you that he didn’t burn quite all the books? There’s one copy of Inkheart left.’

Dustfinger stopped as suddenly as if a snake had bitten him.

‘I thought I ought to tell you,’ said Mo. ‘Even if it does put stupid ideas in your head.’

Dustfinger just nodded. Then without a word he walked on.

‘Why don’t we take their van?’ suggested Elinor when Mo headed back to the path. ‘They must have left it on the road?’

‘Too dangerous,’ said Dustfinger. ‘How do we know who might be waiting for us down there? And going back to it would take us longer than going on to the nearest village. A van like that is easily spotted, too. Do you want to set Capricorn on our trail?’

Elinor sighed. ‘It was just a thought,’ she murmured, massaging her aching ankles. Then she followed Mo.

They kept to the path, because the snakes were already moving through the tall grass. Once a thin black snake wriggled over the yellow soil in front of them. Dustfinger pushed a stick under its scaly body and threw it back into the thorn bushes. Meggie had expected the snakes to be bigger, but Elinor assured her that the smallest were the most dangerous. Elinor was limping, but she did her best not to hold the others up. Mo too was walking more slowly than usual. He tried to hide it, but the dog-bite obviously hurt.

Meggie walked close to him, and kept looking anxiously at the red scarf Dustfinger had used to bandage the wound. At last they came to a paved road. A truck with a load of rusty gas cylinders was coming towards them. They were too tired to hide, and anyway it wasn’t coming from the direction of Capricorn’s village. Meggie saw the surprised expression of the man at the wheel as he passed them. They must look very disreputable in their dirty clothes, which were drenched with sweat and torn by all the thorn bushes.

Soon afterwards they passed the first houses. There were more and more of them on the slopes now, brightly colour-washed, with flowers growing outside their doors. Trudging on, they came to the outskirts of a fairly large town. Meggie saw multi-storey buildings, palm trees with dusty leaves and suddenly, still far away but shining silver in the sun, a glimpse of the sea.

‘Heavens, I hope they’ll let us into a bank,’ said Elinor. ‘We look as if we’d fallen among thieves.’

‘Well, so we have,’ said Mo.

22

In Safety

The slow days drifted on, and each left behind a slightly lightened weight of apprehension.

Mark Twain,

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

They did let Elinor into the bank, despite her torn tights. Before that, however, she had disappeared into the ladies’ room of the first café they came to. Meggie never did find out exactly where Elinor hid her valuables, but when she returned her face was washed, her hair not quite as tangled, and she was triumphantly waving a gold credit card in the air. Then she ordered breakfast for everyone.

It was an odd feeling to be suddenly sitting in a café having breakfast, watching perfectly ordinary people outside in the street, going to work, shopping, or just standing about chatting. Meggie could hardly believe they had spent just two nights and a day in Capricorn’s village, and that all this – the bustle of ordinary life going on outside the window – hadn’t stood still the whole time.

Nonetheless, something had changed. Ever since Meggie had seen Basta hold his knife to Mo’s throat it had seemed as if there was a stain on the world, an ugly, dark burn mark still eating its way towards them, stinking and crackling.

Even the most harmless things seemed to be casting suspicious shadows. A woman smiled at Meggie, then stood looking at the bloody display in a butcher’s window. A man pulled a child along after him so impatiently that the little boy stumbled, and cried as he rubbed his grazed knee. And why was that man’s jacket bulging over his belt? Was he carrying a knife, like Basta?

Normal life now seemed improbable, unreal. Their flight through the night and the terror she had felt in the ruined house seemed more real to Meggie than the lemonade that Elinor passed over to her.

Farid hardly touched his own glass. He sniffed its yellow contents, took a sip, and went back to looking out of the window. His eyes could hardly decide what to follow first. His head moved back and forth as if he were watching an invisible game and desperately trying to understand it rules.

After breakfast, Elinor asked at the cash desk which was the best hotel in town. While she paid the bill with her credit card, Meggie and Mo examined all the delicacies behind the glass counter. Then, to their surprise, they turned round and found that Dustfinger and Farid had disappeared. Elinor was very worried, but Mo calmed her fears. ‘You can’t tempt him with a hotel bed. He doesn’t like to sleep under any roof,’ he said, ‘and he’s always gone his own way. Perhaps he just wants to get away from here, or perhaps he’s round the next corner putting on a performance for tourists. I can assure you he won’t go back to Capricorn.’

‘What about Farid?’ Meggie couldn’t believe he had simply run off with Dustfinger.

But Mo only shrugged his shoulders. ‘He was sticking close to Dustfinger all the time,’ he pointed out. ‘Though I don’t know whether he or Gwin was the real attraction.’

The hotel recommended to Elinor by the staff in the café was on a square just off the main street that passed right through the town and was lined with palm trees and shops. Elinor took two rooms on the top floor, with balconies that had a view of the sea. It was a big hotel. A doorman in an elaborate costume stood at the entrance, and although he seemed surprised by their lack of luggage he overlooked their dirty clothes with a friendly smile. The pillows were so soft and white that Meggie had to bury her face in them at once. All the same, the sense of unreality didn’t leave her. A part of her was still in Capricorn’s village, or trudging through thorns, or cowering in the ruined hovel and trembling as Basta came closer. Mo seemed to feel the same. Whenever she glanced at him there was a distant expression on his face, and instead of the relief she might have expected after all they’d been through, she saw sadness in it – and a thoughtfulness that frightened her.

‘You’re not thinking of going back, are you?’ she asked at last. She knew him very well.

‘No, don’t worry!’ he replied, stroking her hair. But she didn’t believe him.

Elinor seemed to share Meggie’s fears, for she was to be seen several times talking earnestly to Mo – in the hotel corridor outside her room, at breakfast, at dinner. But she fell silent abruptly as soon as Meggie joined them. Elinor called a doctor to treat Mo’s arm, although he didn’t think it necessary, and she bought them all new clothes, taking Meggie with her because, as she said, ‘If I choose you something myself you won’t wear it.’ She also did a great deal of telephoning, and visited every bookshop in the town. At breakfast on the third day she suddenly announced that she was going home.

‘I’ve already hired another car,’ she said. ‘My feet are better now, I’m dying to see my books again, and if I see one more tourist in swimming trunks I shall scream. But before I leave, let me give you this!’

With these words she passed Mo a piece of paper across the table. It had a name and address on it in Elinor’s large, bold handwriting. ‘I know you, Mortimer!’ she said. ‘I know you can’t get Inkheart out of your head. So I’ve found you Fenoglio’s address. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you, but after all there’s a fair chance that he still has a few copies. Promise me you’ll go to see him – he lives not far from here – and put the copy of the book still in that wretched village out of your mind once and for all.’

Mo stared at the address as if he were learning it off by heart, and then put the piece of paper in his new wallet. ‘You’re right, it really is worth a try!’ he said. ‘Thank you very much, Elinor!’ He looked almost happy.

Meggie didn’t understand any of this. But she knew one thing: she’d been right. Mo was still thinking of Inkheart; he couldn’t come to terms with losing it.

‘Who’s Fenoglio?’ she asked uncertainly. ‘A bookseller or something?’ The name seemed familiar, though she couldn’t remember where she had heard it. Mo did not reply, but gazed out of the window.

‘Let’s go back with Elinor, Mo!’ said Meggie. ‘Please!’

It was nice going down to the sea in the morning, and she liked the brightly coloured houses, but all the same she wanted to leave. Every time she saw the hills rising behind the town her heart beat faster, and she kept thinking she saw Basta’s face, or Flatnose’s, among the crowds in the streets. She wanted to go home, or at least to Elinor’s house. She wanted to watch Mo giving Elinor’s books new clothes, pressing fragile gold leaf into the leather with his stamps, choosing endpapers, stirring glue, fastening the press. She wanted everything to be as it had been before the night when Dustfinger turned up.

But Mo shook his head. ‘I have to pay this visit first, Meggie,’ he said. ‘After that we’ll go to Elinor’s. The day after tomorrow at the latest.’

Meggie stared at her plate. What amazing things you could have for breakfast in an expensive hotel … but she didn’t feel like waffles with fresh strawberries any more.

‘Right, then I’ll see you in a couple of days’ time. Give me your word of honour, Mortimer!’ There was no missing the concern in Elinor’s voice. ‘You’ll come even if you don’t have any luck with Fenoglio. Promise!’

Mo had to smile. ‘My solemn word of honour, Elinor,’ he said.

Elinor heaved a deep sigh of relief and bit into the croissant that had been waiting on her plate all this time. ‘Don’t ask me what I had to do to get hold of that address!’ she said with her mouth full. ‘And in the end the man doesn’t live far from here at all – about an hour’s car journey. Odd that he and Capricorn live so close to one another, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, odd,’ murmured Mo, looking out of the window. The wind blew through the leaves of the palms in the hotel garden.

‘His stories are nearly always set in this region,’ Elinor went on, ‘but I believe he lived abroad for a long time and moved back here only a few years ago.’ She beckoned to a waitress and asked for more coffee.

Meggie shook her head when the waitress asked if she would like anything else.

‘Mo, I don’t want to stay here,’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t want to visit anyone either. I want to go home, or at least back to Elinor’s.’

Mo picked up his coffee cup. It still hurt when he moved his left arm. ‘We’ll get it over with tomorrow, Meggie,’ he said. ‘You heard Elinor – it’s not far away. And by the end of the day after that you’ll be back in Elinor’s huge bed, the one that a whole school class could sleep in.’ He was trying to make her laugh, but Meggie couldn’t. She looked at the strawberries on her plate. How red they were.

‘I’ll have to hire a car too, Elinor,’ said Mo. ‘Can you lend me the money? I’ll pay you back as soon as we meet again.’

Elinor nodded, her gaze lingering on Meggie. ‘You know something, Mortimer?’ she said. ‘I don’t think your daughter is very keen on books just now. I remember the feeling. Whenever my father got so absorbed in a book that we might have been invisible I felt like taking a pair of scissors and cutting it up. And now I’m as mad about them as he was. Oh well, that’s something to think about, eh?’ She folded her napkin and pushed her chair back. ‘I’m going upstairs to pack, and you can tell your daughter who Fenoglio is.’

Then she was gone, leaving Meggie at the table with Mo. He ordered another coffee, even though he usually drank no more than one cup.

‘What about your strawberries?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you want them?’

Meggie shook her head.

Mo sighed, and took one. ‘Fenoglio is the man who wrote Inkheart,’ he said. ‘It’s possible that as the author he will still have some copies. Indeed, it’s more than possible, it’s very probable.’

‘Oh, come on!’ said Meggie scornfully. ‘Capricorn’s sure to have stolen them long ago! He stole all the copies – you saw that!’

But Mo shook his head. ‘I don’t believe he will have thought of Fenoglio. You know, it’s a funny thing about writers. Most people don’t stop to think of books being written by people much like themselves. They think that writers are all dead long ago – they don’t expect to meet them in the street, or out shopping. They know their stories but not their names, and certainly not their faces. And most writers like it that way – you heard Elinor say it was quite hard for her to get hold of Fenoglio’s address. Believe me, it’s more than likely that Capricorn has no idea the man who wrote his story lives scarcely two hours’ drive away from him.’

Meggie wasn’t so sure. She thoughtfully pleated the tablecloth, then smoothed out the pale yellow fabric again. ‘All the same, I’d rather we went to Elinor’s house,’ she said. ‘I don’t see why …’ She hesitated, but then finished what she had been going to say. ‘I don’t see why you want the book so much. It’s no use anyway.’ My mother’s gone, she added in her thoughts. You tried to bring her back but it doesn’t work. Let’s go home.

Mo helped himself to another of her strawberries, the smallest of all. ‘The little ones are always the sweetest,’ he said, and put it in his mouth ‘Your mother loved strawberries. She couldn’t get enough of them, and was always terribly cross if it rained so much in spring that they rotted in her strawberry bed.’

A smile lit up his face as he looked out of the window again. ‘Just this one last shot, Meggie,’ he said. ‘Just this one. And the day after tomorrow we’ll go back to Elinor’s. I promise.’

23

A Night Full of Words

What child unable to sleep on a warm summer night hasn’t thought he saw Peter Pan’s sailing ship in the sky? I will teach you to see that ship.

Roberto Cotroneo,

When a Child on a Summer Morning

Meggie stayed in the hotel while Mo went to the hire-car firm to collect the car he had booked. She took a chair out on to the balcony, looked out over its white-painted railing to the sea shining like blue glass beyond the buildings, and tried to think of nothing, nothing at all. The sound of the traffic drifting up to her was so loud that she almost didn’t hear Elinor’s knock.

Elinor was already on her way down the corridor when Meggie opened the door. ‘Oh, you are there,’ Elinor said, coming back and looking rather embarrassed. She was hiding something behind her back.

‘Yes, Mo’s gone to fetch the hire car.’

‘I’ve got something for you – a goodbye present.’ Elinor produced a flat parcel from behind her back. ‘It wasn’t easy to find a book without any unpleasant characters in it, but I absolutely had to find one your father could read aloud to you without doing any damage. I don’t think anything can happen with this one.’

Meggie undid the flower-patterned gift wrapping. The cover of the book showed two children and a dog. The children were kneeling on a narrow piece of rock or stone, looking anxiously down at the abyss yawning beneath them.

‘They’re poems,’ explained Elinor. ‘I don’t know if you like that kind of thing, but I thought that if your father read them aloud they’d sound wonderful.’

Meggie opened the book. She read:

     Oh, if you’re a bird be an early bird

     And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.

     If you’re a bird, be an early bird

     But if you’re a worm, sleep late.

The words were like a little melody singing to her off the pages. She carefully closed the book. ‘Thank you, Elinor,’ she said. ‘I—I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.’

‘Oh, and here’s something else you might like,’ said Elinor, taking another little parcel out of her new handbag. ‘Someone who devours books like you should have this one,’ she said. ‘But I think you’d better read it on your own. There are any number of villains in it. All the same, I think you’ll enjoy it. After all, there’s nothing like a few comforting pages of a book when you’re away from home, right?’

Meggie nodded. ‘Mo’s promised we’ll join you the day after tomorrow,’ she said. ‘But you’ll say goodbye to him too before you leave, won’t you?’ She put Elinor’s first present on the chest of drawers near the door and unwrapped the second. Meggie was pleased to see that it was a thick book.

‘Oh, never mind that. You do it for me!’ said Elinor. ‘I’m not good at saying goodbye. Anyway, we’ll be seeing each other again soon – and I’ve already told him to look after you. Oh, and never leave books lying about open,’ she added, before turning round. ‘It breaks their spines. But I expect your father’s told you that a thousand times already.’

‘More often than that,’ said Meggie, but Elinor had already gone. A little later Meggie heard someone dragging a case to the lift, but she didn’t go out into the corridor to see if it was Elinor. She didn’t like goodbyes either.

Meggie was very quiet for the rest of the day. Late in the afternoon Mo took her out for a meal in a little restaurant nearby. Dusk was falling when they came out again, and there were a great many people in the darkening streets. In one square the crowds were particularly dense, and as Meggie pushed her way through them with Mo she saw that they were standing round a fire-eater.

It was very quiet as Dustfinger let the burning torch lick his bare arms. But as soon as he bowed and the audience clapped Farid went round with a little silver dish, which was the only thing that didn’t quite seem to belong in these surroundings. Farid, however, looked much the same as the boys who lounged around on the beach nudging each other when girls passed by. His skin was a little darker, perhaps, and his hair a little blacker, but it would never have occurred to anyone looking at him that he had just slipped out of a story-book in which carpets could fly, mountains could open, and lamps granted wishes. He wore trousers and a T-shirt instead of his blue, full-length robe. He looked older in them. Dustfinger must have bought the clothes for him, as well as the shoes in which he walked very carefully, as if his feet weren’t quite used to them yet. When he saw Meggie in the crowd he gave her a shy nod and passed on quickly.

Dustfinger spat out one last fireball into the air – its size made even the bravest in the audience step back – then he put down the torches and picked up his juggling balls. He threw them so high in the air that the spectators had to tilt their heads right back to watch, then caught them and knocked them up in the air again with his knee. They rolled along his arms as if pulled by invisible threads, emerged from behind his back as if he had plucked them out of empty air, bounced off his forehead, his chin, such light, weightless, dancing little things … it would all have seemed easy, cheerful, just a pretty game, if it hadn’t been for Dustfinger’s face. That remained deadly serious behind the whirling balls, as if it had nothing to do with his dancing hands, nothing to do with their skill, nothing to do with their carefree lightness. Meggie wondered whether his fingers still hurt. They looked red, but perhaps that was just the firelight.

When Dustfinger bowed and put his balls back in the rucksack the spectators were slow to disperse, but finally only Mo and Meggie were left. Farid was sitting on the paving stones counting the money he had collected. He looked happy – as if he had never done anything else in his life.

‘So you’re still here,’ said Mo.

‘Why not?’ Dustfinger was collecting his props: the two bottles he had used in Elinor’s garden, the burnt-out torches, the bowl into which he spat and whose contents he now tipped carelessly out on the pavement. He had got himself a new bag; the old one was probably still in Capricorn’s village. Meggie went over to the rucksack, but Gwin wasn’t in it.

‘I’d hoped you’d be well away by now, going back north or somewhere else. Somewhere Basta can’t find you.’

Dustfinger shrugged his shoulders. ‘I have to earn some money first. Anyway, I like the weather here better, and the people are more likely to stop and watch. They’re generous too. Right, Farid? How much did we make this time?’

The boy jumped when Dustfinger turned to him. Farid had put aside the dish with the money in it and was just about to place a burning matchstick in his mouth. He quickly pinched it out with his fingers. Dustfinger suppressed a smile. ‘He’s dead set on learning to play with fire. I’ve shown him how to make little practice torches, but he’s in too much of a hurry. He has blisters on his lips all the time.’

Meggie looked sideways at Farid. He seemed to be ignoring them as he packed Dustfinger’s things back in the bag, but she felt sure he was listening to every word they said. She met his eyes twice, those dark eyes, and the second time he turned away so abruptly that he almost dropped one of Dustfinger’s bottles.

‘Hey, go carefully with that, will you?’ snapped Dustfinger impatiently.

‘I hope there’s no other reason why you’re still here?’ asked Mo as Dustfinger turned back to him.

‘What do you mean?’ Dustfinger avoided his gaze. ‘Oh, that. You think I might go back for the book. You overestimate me. I’m a coward.’

‘Nonsense!’ Mo sounded irritated. ‘Elinor will be home tomorrow,’ he said.

‘Nice for her.’ Dustfinger looked impassively at Mo’s face. ‘So why aren’t you with her?’

Mo looked at the buildings around them and shook his head. ‘There’s someone I have to visit first.’

‘Here? Who is it?’ Dustfinger put on a short-sleeved shirt, a bright garment with a pattern of large flowers. It didn’t suit his scarred face.

‘There’s someone who might still have a copy.’

Dustfinger’s face remained unmoved, but his fingers gave him away. They were suddenly having difficulty getting the buttons of his shirt through the buttonholes. ‘That’s impossible!’ he said hoarsely. ‘Capricorn would never have overlooked one.’

Mo shrugged. ‘Maybe not, but I’m going to try all the same. The man I’m talking about doesn’t sell books either new or second-hand. Capricorn probably doesn’t even know he exists.’

Dustfinger looked round. Someone was closing the shutters in one of the surrounding houses, and on the other side of the square a few children were playing about among the chairs of a restaurant until a waiter shooed them away. There was a smell of warm food and the liquid spirits Dustfinger used in his fiery games, but no black-clad man could be seen anywhere, except for the bored-looking waiter who was straightening the chairs.

‘So, who is this mysterious stranger?’ Dustfinger lowered his voice to little more than a whisper.

‘The man who wrote Inkheart. He lives not far from here.’

Farid came over to them, holding the silver dish with the money in it. ‘Gwin hasn’t come back,’ he told Dustfinger. ‘And we don’t have anything to tempt him. Shall I buy a couple of eggs?’

‘No, he can look after himself.’ Dustfinger ran a finger over one of his scars. ‘Put the money we’ve taken into the leather bag – you know, the one in my rucksack!’ he told Farid. His voice sounded impatient. Meggie would have given Mo a hurt look if he had spoken to her like that, but Farid didn’t seem to mind. He just hurried off purposefully.

‘I really thought it was all over, no way to get back ever again …’ Dustfinger broke off and looked up at the sky. A plane crossed the horizon, coloured lights blinking. Farid looked up at it too. He had put the money away and was standing expectantly beside the rucksack. Something furry scuttled across the square, dug its claws into his trouser legs and clambered up to his shoulder. With a smile, Farid dug his hand into his trouser pocket and offered Gwin a piece of bread.

‘Suppose there really is still a copy?’ Dustfinger pushed his long hair back from his forehead. ‘Will you give me another chance? Will you try to read me back into it? Just once?’ There was such longing in his voice that it went to Meggie’s heart.

But Mo’s face was not forthcoming. ‘You can’t go back, not into that book!’ he said. ‘I know you don’t want to hear me say so, but it’s the truth, and you’d better resign yourself to it. Perhaps I can help you some other way. I’ve got an idea – rather crazy, but still …’ He said no more, just shook his head and kicked an empty matchbox that was lying on the paving stones.

Meggie looked at Mo in surprise. What kind of idea? Did he really have one, or was he just trying to comfort Dustfinger? If so, it hadn’t worked. Dustfinger was looking at him with all his old hostility. ‘I’m coming,’ he said. His fingers had left a little soot on his face when he stroked his scar. ‘I’m coming when you go to visit this man. Then we’ll see.’

There was loud laughter behind them. Dustfinger looked round. Gwin was trying to climb on to Farid’s head, and the boy was laughing as if there were nothing better than to have a marten’s sharp claws digging into his scalp.

‘Well, he’s not homesick, anyway,’ muttered Dustfinger. ‘I asked him. Not homesick in the least! All this,’ he added, waving a hand at his surroundings, ‘all this appeals to him. Even the noisy, stinking cars. He’s glad to be here. You’ve obviously done him a favour.’ The look he gave her father as he said these words was so reproachful that Meggie instinctively reached for Mo’s hand.

Gwin had jumped down from Farid’s shoulder and was sniffing curiously at the road surface. One of the children who had been romping among the tables bent down and looked incredulously at the little horns. But before the child could put a hand out to touch, Farid quickly intervened, picked Gwin up and put the marten back on his shoulders.

‘So where does he live, this—?’ Dustfinger did not finish his sentence.

‘About an hour’s drive from here.’

Dustfinger said nothing. The lights of another plane were blinking up in the sky. ‘Sometimes, when I went to the spring to wash early in the morning,’ he murmured, ‘there’d be tiny fairies flitting about above the water, not much bigger than the butterflies you have here, and blue as violet petals. They liked to fly into my hair. Sometimes they spat in my face. They weren’t very friendly, but they shone like glow-worms by night. I sometimes caught one and put it in a jar. If I let it out at night before going to sleep I had wonderful dreams.’

‘Capricorn said there were trolls and giants too,’ said Meggie quietly.

Dustfinger gave her a thoughtful look. ‘Yes, there were,’ he said. ‘But Capricorn wasn’t particularly fond of them. He’d have liked to do away with them all. He had them hunted. He hunted anything that could run.’

‘It must be a dangerous world.’ Meggie was trying to imagine it all: the giants, the trolls, and the fairies. Mo had once given her a book about fairies.

Dustfinger shrugged. ‘Yes, it’s dangerous, so what? This world’s dangerous too, isn’t it?’ Abruptly, he turned his back on Meggie, picked up his rucksack, threw it over his shoulder, then waved to the boy. Farid picked up the bag with the balls and torches, and followed him eagerly. Dustfinger went over to Mo once more.

‘Don’t you dare tell that man about me!’ he said. ‘I don’t want to see him. I’ll wait in the car. I only want to know if he still has a copy of the book, understand?’

Mo shrugged his shoulders. ‘As you like.’

Dustfinger inspected his reddened fingers and felt the taut skin. ‘He might tell me how my story ends,’ he murmured.

Meggie looked at him in astonishment. ‘You mean you don’t know?’

Dustfinger smiled. Meggie still didn’t particularly like his smile. It seemed to appear only to hide something else. ‘What’s so unusual about that, princess?’ he asked quietly. ‘Do you know how your story ends?’

Meggie had no answer to that.

Dustfinger winked at her and turned. ‘I’ll be at the hotel tomorrow morning,’ he said. Then he walked off without turning back. Farid followed him, carrying the heavy bag, happy as a stray dog who has found a master at last.

That night the full moon hung round and orange in the sky. Before they went to bed, Mo pulled back the curtains so that they could see it – a brightly coloured Chinese lantern among all the white stars.

Neither of them could sleep. Mo had bought a couple of well-worn paperbacks that looked as if they had already passed through the hands of several people. Meggie was reading the book full of unpleasant characters that Elinor had given her. She liked it, but at last her eyes closed with weariness and she fell asleep. Beside her, Mo read on and on while the orange moon shone in the foreign sky outside.

When a confused dream woke her with a start some time in the night, Mo was still sitting up in bed, an open book in his hand. The moon had disappeared long ago, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen through the window.

‘Can’t you sleep?’ asked Meggie, sitting up.

‘It was my left arm that stupid dog bit – and you know I sleep best on my left side. Anyway, there’s too much going around in my head.’

‘There’s a lot going around in my head too.’ Meggie turned to the bedside table and picked up the book of poems that Elinor had given her. She stroked the binding, passed her hand over the curved spine, and traced the letters on the jacket with her forefinger. ‘You know something, Mo?’ she said hesitantly. ‘I think I’d like to be able to do it too.’

‘Do what?’

Meggie stroked the binding of the book again. She thought she could hear the pages whispering, very quietly. ‘Read like that,’ she said. ‘Read aloud the way you do, and make everything come to life.’

Mo looked at her. ‘You’re out of your mind!’ he said. ‘That’s what has caused all the trouble we’re in.’

‘I know.’

Mo closed his book, leaving his finger between the pages.

‘Read me something aloud, Mo!’ said Meggie quietly. ‘Please. Just for once.’ She offered him the book of poems. ‘Elinor gave me this as a present. She said nothing much could happen if you did.’

‘Oh, did she?’ Mo opened the book. ‘Suppose it does, though?’ He leafed through the smooth white pages.

Meggie put her pillow close to his.

‘Do you really have any idea how you might be able to read Dustfinger back into his story? Or were you making it up?’

‘Nonsense. I’m useless at telling lies, as you know.’

‘Yes, I do.’ Meggie couldn’t help smiling. ‘Well, what’s your idea?’

‘I’ll tell you when I know if it works.’

Mo was still leafing through Elinor’s book. Frowning, he read a page, turned it over and read another.

‘Please, Mo!’ Meggie moved closer to him. ‘Just one poem. A tiny little poem. Please. For me.’

He sighed. ‘Just one?’

Meggie nodded.

Outside the noise of the cars had died down. The world was as quiet as if it had spun itself into a cocoon, like a moth preparing itself to slip out in the morning, young again and good as new.

‘Please, Mo, read to me!’ said Meggie.

So Mo began filling the silence with words. He lured them out of the pages as if they had only been waiting for his voice, words long and short, words sharp and soft, cooing, purring words. They danced through the room, painting stained-glass pictures, tickling the skin. Even when Meggie nodded off she could still hear them, although Mo had closed the book long ago. Words that explained the world to her, its dark side and its light side, words that built a wall to keep out bad dreams. And not a single bad dream came over the wall for the rest of that night.

Next morning, a bird flew down and perched on Meggie’s bed, a bird as orange as the light of last night’s moon. She tried to catch it, but it flew away to the window where the blue sky was waiting for it. It collided with the invisible glass again and again, bumping its tiny head, until Mo opened the window and let it out.

‘Well, do you still wish you could do it?’ asked Mo when Meggie had watched the bird fly away until it merged with the blue of the sky.

‘It was beautiful!’ she said.

‘Yes, but will it like this world?’ asked Mo. ‘And what’s gone to replace it in the world it came from?’

Meggie stayed by the window as Mo went downstairs to pay their bill. She remembered the last poem that Mo had read before she fell asleep. She picked up the book from her bedside table, hesitated for a moment – and opened it.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends

And before the street begins,

And there the grass grows soft and white,

And there the sun burns crimson bright,

And there the moon-bird rests from his flight

To cool in the peppermint wind.

Meggie whispered the words aloud as she read them, but no moon-bird flew down from the lamp. And she must be just imagining the smell of peppermint.

24

Fenoglio

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

Mark Twain,

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Dustfinger and Farid were waiting for them in the car park when they left the hotel. Over the nearby hills, a warm wind was slowly driving rain-clouds towards the sea. Everything seemed grey today, even the houses with their bright colour-washed walls and the flowering shrubs in the streets. Mo took the coastal road, which Elinor had said was built by the Romans, and followed it further west.

All through the drive the sea lay to their left, its water stretching to the horizon, sometimes hidden by houses, sometimes by trees, but this morning it didn’t look half as inviting as it had on the day when Meggie had come down from the mountains with Elinor and Dustfinger. The grey of the sky cast a dull reflection on the blue waves, and the sea-spray foamed like dirty dishwater. Several times, Meggie found her gaze wandering to the hills on her right. Capricorn’s village was hidden somewhere among them. Once she even thought she saw its pale church tower in a dark fold of the hills, and her heart beat faster, although she knew that it couldn’t possibly be Capricorn’s church. Her feet remembered all too well how long that endless journey down the mountainside had been.

Mo was driving faster than usual, much faster. He could obviously hardly wait to reach their destination. After a good hour they turned off the coast road and followed a narrow, winding lane through a valley grey with buildings. Glasshouses covered the hills here, their panes painted white for protection against the sun that was now hidden behind clouds. Only when the road went uphill did the country on both sides turn green again. The buildings gave way to natural meadowland, and stunted olive trees lined the road, which forked unexpectedly a couple of times. Mo had to keep consulting the map he had bought, but finally the right name appeared on a sign.

They drove into a small village, little more than a square, a few dozen houses, and a church that looked very much like Capricorn’s. When Meggie got out of the car she saw the sea far below. The waves were so rough on this overcast day that, even from this distance, she could see the breakers. Mo had parked in the village square beside the memorial for the dead of two world wars. The list of names was long for such a small place. Meggie thought there were almost as many names as the village had houses.

‘You can leave the car unlocked. I’ll keep an eye on it,’ said Dustfinger, as Mo was about to lock up. He threw his rucksack over his shoulder, put the sleepy Gwin on his chain, and sat on the steps in front of the war memorial. Farid sat down beside him without a word. Meggie looked uneasily at them both as she followed Mo.

‘Remember, you promised not to mention me!’ Dustfinger called after them.

‘Yes, all right!’ replied Mo.

Farid was playing with matches again. Meggie caught him at it when she looked round once more. By now he could extinguish the burning matches with his mouth quite well, but all the same Dustfinger took the box of matches away from him, and Farid looked sadly at his empty hands.

Meggie had met many people who loved books, sold them, collected them, printed them or, like her father, prevented them from falling apart, but she had never before met anyone who wrote the words that filled all a book’s pages. She didn’t even know the names of the authors of some of her favourite stories, let alone what they looked like. She had seen only the characters who emerged from the words to meet her, never the writer who had made them up. It was just as Mo had said: in general one thought of writers as dead or very, very old. But the man who opened the door to them, after Mo had rung the bell twice, was neither. That is, he was certainly quite old, at least in Meggie’s eyes: in his mid-sixties or even older. His face was wrinkled like a turtle’s, but his hair was black, without a trace of grey (she was to find out later that he dyed it), and he didn’t look at all fragile. On the contrary: he planted himself so impressively in the doorway that Meggie was instantly tongue-tied. Luckily Mo was not.

‘Signor Fenoglio?’ he asked.

‘Yes?’ The face looked less forthcoming than ever. There was disapproval in every line of it. But Mo seemed undaunted.

‘I’m Mortimer Folchart,’ he introduced himself, ‘and this is my daughter Meggie. I’m here about one of your books.’

A boy appeared at the door beside Fenoglio, a little boy of about five, and a small girl joined them on the other side of the doorway. She stared curiously, first at Mo, then at Meggie. ‘Pippo’s picked the chocolate chips out of the cake,’ Meggie heard her whisper as she looked anxiously up at Mo. When his eyes twinkled at her she disappeared behind Fenoglio’s back, giggling. But Fenoglio himself still looked anything but friendly.

‘All the chocolate chips?’ he growled. ‘Very well, I’m coming. You go and tell Pippo he’s in serious trouble.’ The little girl nodded and ran away, obviously happy to be the bearer of bad news. The small boy clung to Fenoglio’s leg.

‘A very particular book,’ Mo went on. ‘Inkheart. You wrote it quite a long time ago, and unfortunately I can’t buy a copy anywhere now.’ With the man’s icy stare still resting on her father, Meggie could only marvel that the words didn’t freeze on Mo’s lips.

‘Oh yes. So?’ Fenoglio crossed his arms. The girl appeared on his left again. ‘Pippo’s hiding,’ she said.

‘That won’t do him any good,’ said Fenoglio. ‘I can always find him.’ The little girl scurried off again. Meggie heard her in the house, calling to the chocolate thief. Fenoglio, however, turned back to Mo. ‘So what do you want? If you’re planning to ask me clever questions of some kind about the book, forget it. I don’t have time for that sort of thing. Anyway, as you said yourself, I wrote it ages ago.’

‘No, there’s only one question I was going to ask. I’d like to know if you still have any copies, and if so may I buy one from you?’

The old man’s expression was no longer quite so forbidding as he inspected Mo. ‘How extraordinary. You must be really keen on the book,’ he murmured. ‘I’m flattered. Although,’ he added, and his face darkened again, ‘I hope you’re not one of those idiots who collect rare books just because they’re rare, are you?’

Mo couldn’t help smiling. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I want to read it, that’s all. I just want to read it.’

Fenoglio braced an arm against the door frame and looked at the house opposite as if he feared it might collapse at any moment. The street where he lived was so narrow that Mo could have touched both sides at once if he stretched his arms out. Many of the houses were built of coarse blocks of sandy grey stone, like the houses in Capricorn’s village, but here there were flowers in window boxes and pots of plants on the steps, and many of the shutters looked as if they had been freshly painted. There was a pram outside one house, a moped leaning against the wall of another, and voices floated into the street from open windows. Capricorn’s village probably looked like this once, thought Meggie.

An old woman passing by looked suspiciously at the strangers. Fenoglio nodded to her, murmured a brief greeting, and waited until she had vanished behind a green-painted front door. ‘Inkheart,’ he said. ‘That really is a long time ago. And it’s odd that you should be asking about that one, of all my books.’

The girl came back. She tugged Fenoglio’s sleeve and whispered something in his ear. Fenoglio’s turtle face twisted in a smile. Meggie liked him better that way. ‘Oh, that’s where he always hides, Paula,’ he told the little girl softly. ‘Perhaps you should advise him to try a better hiding-place.’

Paula ran off for the fourth time, but not before gazing curiously at Meggie first.

‘Well, you’d better come in,’ said Fenoglio. Without another word he showed Mo and Meggie into the house, went down a dark, narrow passage ahead of them, limping because the little boy was still clinging to his leg like a monkey, and pushed open the door to the kitchen, where the ruins of a cake stood on the table. Its brown icing was as full of holes as the binding of a book when bookworms have been gnawing at it for years.

‘Pippo?’ Fenoglio bellowed so loud that even Meggie jumped, although she didn’t feel guilty of any naughtiness. ‘I know you can hear me. And I warn you I shall tie a knot in your nose for every hole in this cake. Understand?’

Meggie heard a giggle. It seemed to come from the cupboard next to the fridge. Fenoglio broke a piece off the cake with the holes still in it. ‘Paula,’ he said, ‘give this girl a slice if she doesn’t mind the missing chocolate.’ Paula emerged from under the table and looked enquiringly at Meggie.

‘I don’t mind,’ said Meggie, whereupon Paula took a huge knife, cut an enormous piece of cake, and put it on the table in front of her.

‘Pippo, let’s have one of the rose-patterned plates,’ said Fenoglio, and a hand stuck out of the cupboard holding a plate in its chocolate-brown fingers. Meggie was quick to take the plate before it dropped, and put the piece of cake on it.

‘What about you?’ Fenoglio asked Mo.

‘I’d prefer the book,’ said Mo. He was looking rather pale.

Fenoglio removed the little boy from his leg and sat down. ‘Go and find another tree to climb, Rico,’ he said. Then he looked thoughtfully at Mo. ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a single copy left. They were stolen, all of them. I lent them to an exhibition of old children’s books in Genoa: a lavishly illustrated special edition, a copy with a signed dedication by the illustrator, and the two copies that belonged to my own children with all their scribbled comments – I always asked them to mark the bits they liked best – and finally my own personal copy. Every last one of them was stolen two days after the exhibition opened.’

Mo ran a hand over his face as if he could wipe the disappointment off it. ‘Stolen,’ he said. ‘Of course.’

‘Of course?’ Fenoglio narrowed his eyes and looked at Mo with great curiosity. ‘You’ll have to explain. In fact I’m not letting you out of my house until I find out why you’re interested in this of all my books. In fact, I might set the children on you – and you wouldn’t like that!’

Mo tried for a smile, without much success. ‘My copy was stolen as well,’ he said at last. ‘And that was a very special edition too.’

‘Extraordinary.’ Fenoglio raised his eyebrows, which were like hairy caterpillars creeping above his eyes. ‘Come on, let’s hear your story.’ All the hostility had vanished from his face. Curiosity, pure curiosity, had won out. In Fenoglio’s eyes Meggie saw the same insatiable hunger for a good story that overcame her at the sight of any new and exciting book.

‘There’s not much to tell,’ said Mo. Meggie heard in his voice that he didn’t intend to tell the old man the truth. ‘I restore books. That’s how I make my living. I found yours in a second-hand bookshop some years ago, and I was going to give it a new binding and then sell it, but I liked it so much I kept it instead. And now it’s been stolen and I’ve been trying in vain to buy another copy. A friend who knows a great deal about rare books and how to get hold of them finally suggested I might try the author himself. She was the person who found me your address. So I came here.’

Fenoglio wiped a few cake crumbs off the table. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘but that’s not the whole story.’

‘What do you mean?’

The old man scrutinised Mo’s face until he turned his head away and looked out of the narrow kitchen window. ‘I mean I can smell a good story miles away, so don’t try keeping one from me. Out with it! And then you can have a piece of this magnificently perforated cake.’

Paula clambered up on to Fenoglio’s lap, nestled her head under his chin, and looked at Mo as expectantly as the old man himself.

But Mo shook his head. ‘No, I think I’d better say no more. You wouldn’t believe a word of it anyway.’

‘Oh, I’d believe all manner of things!’ Fenoglio assured Mo, cutting him a slice of cake. ‘I’d believe any story at all just so long as it’s well told.’

The cupboard door opened a crack, and Meggie saw a boy’s head emerge. ‘What about my punishment?’ he asked. Judging by the fingers, which were sticky with chocolate, this must be Pippo.

‘Later,’ said Fenoglio. ‘I have something else to do now.’

Disappointed, Pippo came out of the cupboard. ‘You said you were going to tie knots in my nose.’

‘Double knots, seaman’s knots, butterfly knots, any knots you fancy, but I have to hear this story first. So go and fool about with something else until I have time for you.’

Pippo stuck his lower lip out sulkily and disappeared into the corridor. Rico, the little boy, ran after him.

Mo remained silent, pushing cake crumbs off the worn table-top, drawing invisible patterns on the wood with his forefinger. ‘There’s someone in this story, and I’ve promised not to tell you about him,’ he said at last.

‘Keeping a bad promise makes it no better,’ said Fenoglio. ‘Or at least so a favourite book of mine says.’

‘I don’t know if it was a bad promise.’ Mo sighed, and looked up at the ceiling as if the answer might be found there. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you. But Dustfinger will murder me if he finds out.’

‘Dustfinger? I once called a character that. Oh yes, of course, the poor trickster in Inkheart. I killed him off in the last chapter but one. A very touching scene. I cried while I was writing it.’

Meggie almost choked on the piece of cake she had just put in her mouth, but Fenoglio went on calmly. ‘I haven’t killed off many of my characters, but sometimes it just happens. Death scenes aren’t easy to write – they can too easily get sentimental – but I thought I did pretty well with Dustfinger’s death.’

Horrified, Meggie looked at Mo. ‘He dies? Did – did you know that?’

‘Yes, of course. I’ve read the whole story, Meggie.’

‘But why didn’t you tell him?’

‘He didn’t want to know.’

Fenoglio was following this exchange with a puzzled look on his face – and with great curiosity.

‘Who kills him?’ asked Meggie. ‘Basta?’

‘Ah, Basta!’ Fenoglio smiled. Each of his separate wrinkles expressed self-satisfaction. ‘One of the best villains I ever thought up. A rabid dog, but not half as bad as my other dark hero, Capricorn. Basta would let his heart be torn out for Capricorn, but his master is a stranger to such loyalty. He feels nothing, nothing at all, he doesn’t even enjoy his own cruelty. Yes, I really did think up some pretty dark characters for Inkheart, and then there’s the Shadow, Capricorn’s hound, as I always called him to myself. Though of course that’s far too friendly a name for such a monster.’

‘The Shadow?’ Meggie’s voice was hardly more than a whisper. ‘Does he kill Dustfinger?’

‘No, no. I’m sorry, I’d quite forgotten your question. Once I begin talking about my characters it’s hard to stop me. No, one of Capricorn’s men kills Dustfinger. It was a very successful scene. Dustfinger has some kind of tame marten. Capricorn’s man wants to kill it because he enjoys killing small animals, so Dustfinger tries to save his furry friend and dies in the attempt.’

Meggie said nothing. Poor Dustfinger, she thought. Poor, poor Dustfinger. She couldn’t think of anything else. ‘Which of Capricorn’s men does it?’ she asked. ‘Flatnose? Or Cockerell?’

Fenoglio looked at her in surprise. ‘Well, fancy that. You know all their names? I usually forget them soon after I’ve made them up.’

‘It’s neither of them, Meggie,’ said Mo. ‘The murderer’s name isn’t even mentioned in the book. A whole pack of Capricorn’s men is hunting Gwin, and one of them draws a knife and uses it. A man who’s probably still waiting for Dustfinger.’

‘Waiting for him?’ Fenoglio looked at Mo, confused.

‘That’s terrible!’ whispered Meggie. ‘I’m glad I didn’t read any more.’

‘What do you mean? Are you talking about my book?’ Fenoglio’s voice sounded hurt.

‘Yes,’ said Meggie. ‘I am.’ She looked at Mo, a question in her eyes. ‘And Capricorn? Who kills him?’

‘No one.’

‘No one!’

Meggie stared at Fenoglio so accusingly that he rubbed his nose awkwardly. It was an impressive nose. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ he cried. ‘Yes, I let him get away with it. He’s one of my best villains. How could I kill him off? It’s the same in real life: notorious murderers get off scot-free and live happily all their lives, while good people die – sometimes the very best people. That’s the way of the world. Why should it be different in books?’

‘What about Basta? Does he stay alive too?’ Meggie remembered what Farid had said back in the ruined hovel: ‘Why not kill them? That’s what they were going to do to us!’

‘Basta stays alive too,’ replied Fenoglio. ‘I remember toying for some time with the idea of writing a sequel to Inkheart, and I didn’t want to do without those two. I was proud of them! And the Shadow was quite a success too, yes, he really was, but I’m always most attached to my human characters. You know, if you were to ask me which of those two I was prouder of, Basta or Capricorn, I couldn’t tell you! Even though some critics said they were just too nasty!’

Mo stared out of the window again. Then he looked at Fenoglio. ‘Would you like to meet them?’ he asked.

‘Meet who?’ Fenoglio looked at him in surprise.

‘Capricorn and Basta.’

‘Good God, no!’ Fenoglio laughed so loud that Paula, quite frightened, put her hand over his mouth.

‘Well, we did,’ said Mo wearily. ‘Meggie and I – and Dustfinger.’

25

The Wrong Ending

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR

per

G.G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE

Mark Twain,

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Fenoglio said nothing for a long time after Mo had finished his story. Paula had gone off long ago in search of Pippo and Rico. Meggie heard them running over the wooden floorboards above her, back and forth, jumping, sliding, giggling and squealing. But in Fenoglio’s kitchen it was so quiet you could hear the tick of the clock on the wall by the window.

‘Does he have those scars on his face? I expect you know what I mean? The fairies treated the cuts – that’s why there are only slight scars left, little more than three pale lines on the skin, is that right?’ Fenoglio looked enquiringly at Mo, who nodded.

Fenoglio looked out of the window again, brushing a few crumbs off his trousers. ‘Basta scarred him,’ he said. ‘They both fancied the same girl.’

Mo nodded. ‘Yes, I know.’

A window was open in the house opposite, and you could hear a woman scolding a child inside. ‘I suppose I ought to feel very, very proud,’ murmured Fenoglio. ‘Every writer wants to create lifelike characters – and mine are so lifelike they’ve walked straight off the page!’

‘That’s because my father read them out of the book,’ said Meggie. ‘He can do it with other books too.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Fenoglio nodded. ‘A good thing you reminded me. Otherwise I might start taking myself for a minor god, mightn’t I? But I’m sorry about your mother – although depending on how you look at it, that wasn’t really my fault.’

‘It’s worse for my father,’ said Meggie. ‘I don’t remember her.’

Mo looked at her, startled.

‘Of course not. You were younger than my grandchildren,’ said Fenoglio thoughtfully. ‘I’d really like to see him,’ he added. ‘Dustfinger, I mean. Naturally I’m sorry now that I thought up such an unhappy ending for the poor fellow, but it somehow seemed right for him. As Shakespeare puts it so well, “Everybody plays his part, and mine is a sad one.”’ He looked out into the street. Something fell and broke on the floor above them, but Fenoglio didn’t seem particularly interested.

‘Are those your children?’ asked Meggie, pointing up at the ceiling.

‘Heaven help us, no. My grandchildren. One of my daughters lives in this village too. They’re always visiting me, and I tell them stories. I tell half the village stories, but I don’t feel like writing them down any more.’ He turned to Mo with an enquiring look. ‘Where is he now?’

‘Dustfinger? I can’t tell you. He doesn’t want to see you.’

‘He got quite a shock when my father told him about you,’ added Meggie. But Dustfinger must be told what happens to him, she thought, he must. Then he’ll understand why he really can’t go back. And all the same, she thought next, he’ll still be homesick. Homesick for ever.

‘I must see him! Only once. Don’t you understand?’ Fenoglio looked pleadingly at Mo. ‘I could just follow you, inconspicuously. How would he know who I am? I want to find out if he really looks the way I imagined him, that’s all.’

However, Mo shook his head. ‘I think you’d better leave him alone.’

‘Nonsense. Surely I can see him whenever I like. After all, I invented him!’

‘And you killed him off,’ Meggie pointed out.

‘Well.’ Fenoglio raised his hands helplessly. ‘I wanted to make the story more exciting. Don’t you like exciting stories?’

‘Only if they have happy endings.’

‘Happy endings!’ Fenoglio snorted scornfully, and then listened to what was going on upstairs. Something or someone had landed heavily on the wooden floorboards. Loud howls followed the thud. Fenoglio strode to the door. ‘Wait here! I’ll be back in a minute!’ he called, disappearing into the corridor.

‘Mo!’ whispered Meggie. ‘You’ve got to tell Dustfinger! You’ve got to tell him he can’t go back.’

But Mo shook his head. ‘He won’t want to listen, I promise you. I’ve tried more than a dozen times. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring him together with Fenoglio after all. He might well be more likely to believe his creator than me.’ With a sigh, he brushed a few cake crumbs off Fenoglio’s kitchen table. ‘There was a picture in Inkheart,’ he murmured, raising the palm of his hand over the table-top as if to conjure up the picture itself. ‘It showed a group of women standing under an arched gateway, in splendid clothes as if they were going to a party. One of them had hair as fair as your mother’s. You can’t see the woman’s face in the picture, she has her back turned, but I always imagined it was her. Crazy, isn’t it?’

Meggie placed her hand on his. ‘Mo, promise you won’t go back to the village!’ she said. ‘Please! Promise me you won’t try to get the book back.’

The second hand on Fenoglio’s kitchen clock was dividing time into painfully small segments.

At last Mo answered. ‘I promise,’ he said.

‘Look at me and say it!’

He did. ‘I promise!’ he repeated. ‘There’s just one more thing I want to discuss with Fenoglio, and then we’ll go home and forget about the book. Happy now?’

Meggie nodded. Although she wondered what else there could be to discuss.

Fenoglio returned with a tearful Pippo on his back. The other two children followed their grandfather, looking crestfallen. ‘Holes in the cake and now a dent in his forehead too. I think I ought to send the lot of you home!’ Fenoglio told them crossly as he put Pippo down on a chair. Then he rummaged around in the big cupboard until he found a plaster, which he stuck none too gently on his grandson’s cut forehead.

Mo pushed his chair back and stood up. ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you to Dustfinger after all.’

Fenoglio turned to him in surprise.

‘Perhaps you can make it clear to him once and for all that he can’t go back,’ Mo continued. ‘Goodness knows what he might do next! I’m afraid it could be dangerous for him – and I do have this idea, rather a weird idea, but I’d like to talk to you about it.’

‘Weirder than what I’ve heard already? I’d say that’s hardly possible!’ Fenoglio’s grandchildren had disappeared into the cupboard again. Giggling, they closed the doors. ‘Very well, I’ll listen to your idea,’ said Fenoglio. ‘But I want to see Dustfinger first!’

Mo looked at Meggie. It wasn’t often that he broke a promise, and he clearly felt far from comfortable about it. Meggie could understand that only too well. ‘He’s waiting in the square,’ said Mo hesitantly. ‘But let me talk to him first.’

‘In the square here?’ Fenoglio’s eyes widened. ‘That’s wonderful!’ With one stride he was standing in front of the little mirror hanging next to the kitchen door, running his fingers through his black hair almost as if he were afraid Dustfinger might be disappointed by his creator’s appearance. ‘I’ll pretend I don’t see him until you call me,’ he said. ‘Yes, that’s the thing to do.’

There was a clattering in the cupboard, and Pippo stumbled out in a jacket that came down to his ankles and a hat so large that it had slipped right over his eyes.

‘Of course!’ Fenoglio took the hat off Pippo’s head and put it on his own. ‘That’s it! I’ll take the children with me. A grandfather with three grandchildren – nothing about that sight to make anyone uneasy, is there?’

Mo just nodded and pushed Meggie out into the narrow passage.

As they walked down the street leading back to the square and their car, Fenoglio followed a few metres behind them, with his grandchildren running and jumping around him like three puppies.

26

Shivers Down the Spine and a Foreboding

And that’s when she put her book down. And looked at me. And said it: ‘Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.’

William Goldman,

The Princess Bride

Dustfinger sat on the chilly stone steps, waiting. He felt sick with fear; but he wasn’t quite sure of what. Perhaps the war memorial behind him reminded him too much of death. He had always been afraid of death, which he imagined as cold, like a night without fire. Now, however, he dreaded something else even more. Its name was sorrow, and it had been stalking him like a second shadow ever since Silvertongue lured him into this world. Sorrow that made his limbs heavy and turned the sky grey.

Beside him, the boy was running up and down the steps. Up and down, tirelessly, with light feet and a cheerful face, as if Silvertongue had read him straight into Paradise. What could be making him so happy? Dustfinger looked round at the narrow houses, pale yellow, pink, peach, the dark green shutters at the windows and the rust-red tiles on the roofs, an oleander flowering in front of a wall as if its branches were on fire, cats stalking past the warm walls. Farid stole up to one of them, stroked its grey fur and put it on his lap, although it dug its claws into his thighs.

‘You know what people do to keep the numbers of cats down around here?’ Dustfinger stretched his legs and blinked up at the sun. ‘When winter comes they take their own cats indoors for safety, then they put out dishes of poisoned food for the strays.’

Farid still fondled the grey cat’s pointed ears. But his face was rigid and grim, not a trace left of the happiness that had just made it look so soft and open. Dustfinger glanced quickly aside. Why had he said that? Had the happiness on the boy’s face upset him so much?

Farid let the cat go and climbed the steps to the memorial.

He was still sitting there on the wall, legs drawn up, when the other two came back. Silvertongue had no book with him, and he looked strained – his guilty conscience was clearly visible on his face.

Why? What could have made Silvertongue look so guilty? Dustfinger glanced suspiciously around without knowing quite what he was looking for. Silvertongue’s face always showed his feelings; he was an open book that any stranger could read. His daughter was different. It wasn’t so easy to make out what was going on in her mind. But now, as she came towards him, Dustfinger thought he saw something like concern in her eyes, perhaps even pity … What had that writer fellow said to make the girl look at him like that?

He got up and brushed the dust off his trousers.

‘No copies left, am I right?’ he asked, when the two of them had reached him.

‘You’re right. They’ve all been stolen,’ Silvertongue replied. ‘Years ago.’

His daughter never took her eyes off Dustfinger.

‘Why are you staring at me like that, princess?’ he snapped. ‘Do you know something I don’t?’

Bull’s-eye. An accidental one, too. He hadn’t wanted to score a bull’s-eye at all, certainly not a direct hit on an uncomfortable truth. The girl bit her lip, still looking at him with that same mixture of pity and concern.

Dustfinger rubbed his hand over his face, feeling his scars on it like a picture postcard saying ‘Greetings from Basta’. He could never forget Capricorn’s rabid dog for a single day even if he wanted to. ‘To help you please the girls even better in future!’ Basta had hissed in his ear before wiping the blood off his knife.

‘Oh, curse it all!’ Dustfinger kicked the nearest wall so hard that he felt the pain in his foot for days to come. ‘You’ve told that writer about me!’ he accused Mo. ‘And now even your daughter knows more about me than I do! Very well, out with it! I want to know now too. Tell me. You always wanted to tell me, after all. Basta hangs me, is that it? Strings me up and tightens the noose until I’m dead as a doornail, right? But why should that bother me? Basta’s in this world now, isn’t he? The story’s changed – it must have changed. Basta can’t hurt me if you just send me back there where I belong!’

Dustfinger took a step towards Silvertongue as if to grab him, shake him, take out on him all that had been done to himself, but Meggie came between them. ‘Stop it! It’s not Basta!’ she cried, pushing him away. ‘It’s one of Capricorn’s men, and he’s waiting for you in the book. They want to kill Gwin and you try to help him, so they kill you instead! Nothing about that has changed! It will simply happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. Do you understand? You must stay here, you can’t go back, ever!’

Dustfinger stared at the girl as if he could shut her up that way, but she held his gaze. She even tried to take his hand.

‘You should be glad to be here!’ she faltered as he retreated from her. ‘You can escape from them here. You can go away, far away, and …’ Her voice quivered. Perhaps she had seen the tears in Dustfinger’s eyes. Angrily, he wiped them away with his sleeve, and looked round like an animal in a trap, searching for some way out. But there was no way out. No going forward and, even worse, no going back.

A trio of women standing at the bus stop glanced curiously in his direction. Dustfinger often attracted such glances; anyone could see he didn’t belong here. A stranger for ever.

Three children and an old man were playing football with a tin can on the other side of the square. Farid looked at them. The Arab boy had Dustfinger’s rucksack over his narrow shoulders, and grey cat hairs clung to his trousers. He was deep in thought, wriggling his bare toes into the gaps between the paving stones. He was always taking off the trainers Dustfinger had bought him and going about barefoot, even on hot tarmac, with his shoes tied to the rucksack like loot he was taking home.

Silvertongue looked at the playing children too. Had he given some sign to the old man with them? The old fellow left the children and came over. Dustfinger took a step back. A shiver ran down his spine.

‘My grandchildren have been admiring the tame marten that boy has on a chain,’ said the old man, as he approached.

Dustfinger took another step backwards. Why was the dark-haired man looking at him like that? In quite a different way from the women at the bus stop. ‘The children say the marten can do tricks and the boy’s a fire-eater. Perhaps we could come to the show and watch at close quarters?’

The cold shiver spread right through Dustfinger, although the sun was shining down on him. The way the old man looked at him – as if he were a dog who had run away long ago and was now back, tail between h