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

Inkspell

Cornelia Funke


INKSPELL

CORNELIA FUNKE

Translated from the

German by Anthea Bell

To Brendan Fraser, whose voice is the heart of this book. Thanks for

inspiration and enchantment. Mo wouldn’t have stepped into my writing

room without you, and this story would never have been told.

To Rainer Strecker,

who is both Silvertongue and Dustfinger.

Every word in this book is just waiting for him to read it.

And of course, as almost always, last but for sure not least, for Anna,

wonderful, wonderful Anna, who had this story told to her on many

walks, encouraged and advised me, and let me know what was good and

what could still be improved. (I very much hope that the story of Meggie

and Farid has its fair share of the book now?)

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Characters from Inkheart

And Now, in Inkspell

1 Words Made to Measure

2 Fool’s Gold

3 Dustfinger Comes Home

4 Silvertongue’s Daughter

5 Farid

6 The Inn of the Strolling Players

7 Meggie’s Decision

8 The Minstrel Woman

9 Meggie Reads

10 The Inkworld

11 Gone

12 Uninvited Guests

13 Fenoglio

14 The Black Prince

15 Strange Sounds on a Strange Night

16 Only a Lie

17 A Present for Capricorn

18 Mortola’s Revenge

19 Birthday Morning

20 Visitors from the Wrong Side of the Forest

21 The Prince of Sighs

22 Ten Years

23 Cold and White

24 In Elinor’s Cellar

25 The Camp in the Forest

26 Fenoglio’s Plan

27 Violante

28 The Wrong Words

29 New Masters

30 Cosimo

31 Elinor

32 The Wrong Man

33 Fairydeath

34 Cloud-Dancer’s Message

35 Ink-Medicine

36 Screams

37 Blood-stained Straw

38 An Audience for Fenoglio

39 Another Messenger

40 No Hope

41 The Captives

42 A Familiar Face

43 Paper and Fire

44 The Burning Tree

45 Poor Meggie

46 A Knock on the Door

47 Roxane

48 The Castle by the Sea

49 The Mill

50 The Best of all Nights

51 The Right Words

52 Angry Orpheus

53 The Barn Owl

54 In the Dungeon of the Castle of Night

55 A Letter from Fenoglio

56 The Wrong Ears

57 Fire and Water

58 Invisible as the Wind

59 The Adderhead

60 Fire on the Wall

61 In the Tower of the Castle of Night

62 Where to?

63 The Badger’s Earth

64 All is Lost

65 Lord of the Story

66 Blank Paper

67 Kindness and Mercy

68 A Visit

69 The Night Before

70 The Pen and the Sword

71 Only a Dream

72 An Exchange

73 The Bluejay

74 Farid’s Hope

75 Alone Again

76 A New Poet

77 Where Now?

Acknowledgements

A note from the author

Praise for INKHEART

Copyright

Characters from Inkheart

Meggie

The daughter of Mo and Resa, now living with her parents and her mother’s aunt Elinor. Like her father, Meggie has the rare magical ability to read characters out of books – to bring them into this world by reading the words aloud. But since meeting Fenoglio, the author of the original book of Inkheart, she now dreams of being able to write as well as she can read – so that she can not only bring characters out of books, but also send them back again.

Mortimer Folchart, known as Mo or Silvertongue

A book-binder – or, as his daughter calls him, a ‘book-doctor’. Meggie says he can ‘paint pictures in the air with his voice’. Since experiencing the awful consequences of reading Dustfinger, Capricorn and Basta out of their story, and almost losing his wife forever, he has avoided reading aloud. Mo is now troubled by his daughter’s dangerous fascination with the world of Inkheart.

Resa (Theresa)

Mo’s wife, Meggie’s mother, and Elinor’s favourite niece. Resa is now safely back with her family but has still to recover from the years she spent trapped in the Inkworld, her time in service to the evil Mortola and losing her voice. She tells Meggie of her life on the other side of the pages, scribbling down her memories on paper.

Elinor Loredan

Resa’s aunt, a book-collector, also known as ‘the bookworm’. Elinor once preferred her books to human company, but is now happy to have Meggie, Mo and Resa living with her. Darius, the book-loving but stammering storyteller, is also now a part of her household.

Darius

Formerly Capricorn’s reader in the first book of Inkheart, Darius, like Mo and Meggie, possesses the ability to read characters out of stories – but damages them if he stutters over the words. He now helps Elinor in her library. Basta calls him Stumbletongue.

Fenoglio also known as ‘Inkweaver’

Author of the original book Inkheart, from which Basta, Dustfinger and Capricorn came – and, with Meggie and Mo’s help, the writer of the words used to get rid of Capricorn. He disappeared into his own story that same night.

Dustfinger

A fire-eater whom Mo accidentally read out of the pages of Inkheart. He is also known as ‘the fire-dancer’. Plucked from his story, Dustfinger has lived in our world for ten years, and would risk anything to go home to the Inkworld. At the end of the first book he stole from Mo the last remaining copy of Inkheart. He owes the three scars on his face to Basta’s knife, and is never without Gwin, his tame marten, or his young apprentice, Farid.

Farid

A boy read by Mo out of Tales of the Arabian Nights, he is devoted to Dustfinger. Nimble and quickwitted, he has a talent for stealing and other robbers’ arts, developed in his previous life. He also has a soft spot for Meggie.

Gwin

Dustfinger’s pet, a horned marten intended by Fenoglio to play a deadly part in his original tale of Inkheart.

Capricorn

The brutal leader of a gang of mercenary fire-raisers, he was read out of the pages of Inkheart. Unlike Dustfinger, Capricorn enjoyed his time in this world. He made it his business to burn every remaining copy of Inkheart in an attempt to avoid ever returning to the story. But eventually, with the help of Meggie and Fenoglio, he is destroyed by Mo.

Basta

One of Capricorn’s most devoted henchmen. Superstitious and in love with his knife, he once slashed Dustfinger’s face. At the end of the first book he made his escape, followed by Capricorn’s housekeeper and mother, Mortola.

Mortola

Capricorn’s mother, also known as ‘the Magpie’. A poisoner, she kept Resa enslaved for many years as her servant. Her greatest wish is to see Mo punished for what he has done to her son. She believes that Capricorn is waiting, still alive, in the Inkworld.

And now, in Inkspell

Orpheus, also called ‘Cheeseface’ by Farid.

Discovered in our world by Dustfinger, he claims to have the ability to both read and write characters in and out of books. He is an ardent but unreliable admirer of the original story of Inkheart.

IN THE INKWORLD

The Motley Folk

A loyal band of strolling players (entertainers) to which Dustfinger once belonged, the Motley Folk travel between Lombrica and Argenta, the two principalities of the Inkworld, led by their own Black Prince.

The Black Prince

A master knife-thrower, secretive champion of the poor, and Dustfinger’s best friend from long ago. He is accompanied wherever he goes by a faithful black bear.

Cloud-Dancer

A crippled former tightrope-walker, now a messenger – and an old friend of Dustfinger’s.

Sootbird

An unconvincing fire-eater.

Baptista

Actor and accomplished maskmaker, disfigured by pockmarks.

IN LOMBRICA

Minerva

Fenoglio’s kindly landlady.

Ivo

Minerva’s son.

Despina

Minerva’s daughter.

Rosenquartz

A tiny glass man and Fenoglio’s long-suffering helper.

Nettle

A healer who uses herbs and potions to cure the sick.

AT THE CASTLE OF OMBRA

The Laughing Prince

Bereaved father of Cosimo the Fair; also known as ‘the Prince of Sighs’ since his son’s untimely death.

Violante, ‘Her Ugliness’ The unhappy wife of Cosimo, daughter of the Adderhead, mother of Jacopo – the heir to the realms of both Lombrica and Argenta.

Balbulus

An illuminator (illustrator), brought to the library of the Castle of Ombra by Violante.

Brianna

The wilful daughter of Roxane and Dustfinger, maid to Her Ugliness.

Cosimo the Fair

The deceased son of the Laughing Prince.

AT ROXANE’S farm

Roxane

Dustfinger’s beautiful wife, formerly a minstrel who now grows herbs for the healers.

Jehan

The son of Roxane and her deceased second husband.

Jink

Another horned marten.

IN ARGENTA

At the infirmary

The Barn Owl

The physician who looked after Dustfinger when he was a child.

IN THE CASTLE OF NIGHT

The Adderhead, also known as ‘the Silver Prince’

A war-mongering tyrant who fears only Death itself. Capricorn and his fire-raisers were in his pay.

Slasher

Formerly Capricorn’s fire-raiser, now in the Adderhead’s service.

The Piper, also known as ‘Silvernose’

Formerly Capricorn’s fire-raiser, he too now sings his dark songs for the Adderhead.

Firefox

Capricorn’s successor, chief bodyguard and herald to the Adderhead.

Taddeo

The librarian of the Castle of Night.

1

Words Made to Measure

He has been trying to sing

Love into existence again

And he has failed.

Margaret Atwood,

‘Orpheus 2’, Eating Fire.

Twilight was gathering, and Orpheus still wasn’t here. Farid’s heart beat faster, as it always did when day left him alone with the darkness. Curse that Cheeseface! Where could he be? The birds were falling silent in the trees, as if the approach of night had stifled their voices, and the nearby mountains were turning black. You might have thought the setting sun had singed them. Soon the whole world would be black as pitch, even the grass beneath Farid’s bare feet, and the ghosts would begin to whisper. Farid knew only one place where he felt safe from them: right behind Dustfinger, so close that he could feel his warmth. Dustfinger wasn’t afraid of the night. He liked it.

‘Hearing them again, are you?’ he asked, as Farid pressed close to him. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? There aren’t any ghosts in this world. One of its few advantages.’

Dustfinger stood there leaning against an oak tree, looking down the lonely road. In the distance, a street lamp cast its light on the cracked asphalt where a few houses huddled by the roadside. There were scarcely a dozen of them, standing close together as if they feared the night as much as Farid.

The house where Cheeseface lived was the first in the road. There was a light on behind one of its windows. Dustfinger had been staring at it for more than an hour. Farid had often tried standing motionless like that, but his limbs simply would not keep still.

‘I’m going to find out where he is!’

‘No, you’re not!’ Dustfinger’s face was as expressionless as ever, but his voice gave him away. Farid heard the impatience in it … and the hope that refused to die, although it had been disappointed so often before. ‘Are you sure he said Friday?’

‘Yes, and this is Friday, right?’

Dustfinger just nodded, and pushed his shoulder-length hair back from his face. Farid had tried growing his own hair long, but it was so curly, tangled and unruly that in the end he cut it short again with his knife.

‘Friday outside the village at four o’clock, that’s what he said. While that dog of his growled at me as if it really fancied a nice crunchy boy to eat!’ The wind blew through Farid’s thin sweater, and he rubbed his arms, shivering. A good warm fire, that’s what he’d have liked now, but Dustfinger wouldn’t let him light so much as a match in this wind. Four o’clock … cursing quietly, Farid looked up at the darkening sky. He knew it was well past four, even without a watch.

‘I tell you, he’s making us wait on purpose, the stuck-up idiot!’

Dustfinger’s thin lips twisted into a smile. Farid was finding it easier and easier to make him smile. Perhaps that was why he’d promised to take Farid too … supposing Orpheus really did send Dustfinger back. Back to his own world, created from paper, printer’s ink and an old man’s words.

Oh, come on! thought Farid. How would Orpheus, of all people, succeed where all the others had failed? So many had tried it … the Stammerer, Golden Eyes, Raventongue. Swindlers who had taken their money.

The light went out behind Orpheus’s window, and Dustfinger abruptly straightened up. A door closed. The sound of footsteps echoed through the darkness: rapid, irregular footsteps. Then Orpheus appeared in the light of the single street lamp. Farid had privately nicknamed him Cheeseface because of his pale skin and the way he sweated like a piece of cheese in the sun. Breathing heavily, he walked down the steep slope of the road, with his hell-hound beside him. It was ugly as a hyena. When Orpheus saw Dustfinger standing by the roadside he stopped, smiled broadly, and waved to him.

Farid grasped Dustfinger’s arm. ‘Look at that silly grin. False as fool’s gold!’ he whispered. ‘How can you trust him?’

‘Who says I trust him? And what’s the matter with you? You’re all jittery. Would you rather stay here? Cars, moving pictures, canned music, light that keeps the night away—’ Dustfinger clambered over the knee-high wall beside the road. ‘You like all that. You’ll be bored to death where I want to go.’

What was he talking about? As if he didn’t know perfectly well that there was only one thing Farid wanted: to stay with him. He was about to reply angrily, but a sharp crack, like boots treading on a twig, made him spin round. Dustfinger had heard it too. He had stopped, and was listening. But there was nothing to be seen among the trees, only the branches moving in the wind, and a moth, pale as a ghost, that fluttered in Farid’s face.

‘I’m sorry, it took longer than I expected!’ cried Orpheus as he approached them.

Farid still couldn’t grasp the fact that such a voice could emerge from that mouth. They had heard about Orpheus’s voice in several villages, and Dustfinger had set out at once in search of it, but not until a week ago had they found the man himself in a library, reading fairy tales to a few children. None of the children seemed to notice the dwarf who suddenly slipped out from behind one of the shelves crammed with well-thumbed books. But Dustfinger had seen him. He had lain in wait for Orpheus, approaching him just as he was about to get into his car again, and finally he’d shown him the book – the book that Farid had cursed more often than anything else on earth.

‘Oh, I know that book!’ Orpheus had breathed. ‘And as for you,’ he had added almost devoutly, looking at Dustfinger as if to stare the scars from his cheeks, ‘I know you too! You’re the best thing in it. Dustfinger! The fire-eater! Who read you here into this saddest of all stories? No, don’t say anything! You want to go back, don’t you? But you can’t find the door, the door hidden among the letters on the page! Never mind! I can build you a new one, with words made to measure! For a special price, between friends – if you’re really the man I take you for.’

A special price between friends? What a laugh! They’d had to promise him almost all their money, and then wait for him for hours in this godforsaken spot, on this windy night that smelled of ghosts.

‘Is the marten in there?’ Orpheus shone his torch on Dustfinger’s rucksack. ‘You know my dog doesn’t like him.’

‘No, he’s finding something to eat.’ Dustfinger’s eyes wandered to the book under Orpheus’s arm. ‘Well? Have you … done it?’

‘Of course!’ As Orpheus spoke, the hell-hound bared its teeth and glared at Farid. ‘To start with, the words were rather hard to find. Perhaps because I was so excited. As I told you at our first meeting, this book, Inkheart –’ Orpheus stroked the volume – ‘was my favourite when I was a child. I was eleven when I last saw it. I kept borrowing it from our run-down library until it was stolen. Unfortunately I hadn’t been brave enough to steal it myself, and then someone else did, but I never forgot it. This book taught me, once and for all, how easily you can escape this world with the help of words! You can find friends between the pages of a book, wonderful friends! Friends like you, fire-eaters, giants, fairies …! Have you any idea how bitterly I wept when I read about your death? But you’re alive, and everything will be all right! You will retell the story—’

‘I?’ Dustfinger interrupted him, with an amused look. ‘No, believe me, that’s a task for others.’

‘Well, perhaps.’ Orpheus cleared his throat as if he felt embarrassed to have revealed so much of his feelings. ‘However that may be, it’s a shame I can’t go with you,’ he said, making for the wall beside the road with his curiously awkward gait. ‘But the reader has to stay behind, that’s the iron rule. I’ve tried every way I could to read myself into a book, but it just won’t work.’ Sighing, he stopped by the wall, put his hand under his ill-fitting jacket and brought out a sheet of paper. ‘Well – this is what you asked for,’ he told Dustfinger. ‘Wonderful words, just for you, a road of words to take you straight back again. Here, read it!’

Hesitantly, Dustfinger took the sheet of paper. It was covered with fine, slanting handwriting, the letters tangled like thread. Dustfinger slowly ran his finger along the words, as if he had to show each of them separately to his eyes. Orpheus watched him, like a schoolboy waiting to be told the mark his work has earned.

When Dustfinger finally looked up again, he sounded surprised. ‘You write very well! Those are beautiful words …’

Orpheus went as red as if someone had tipped mulberry juice over his face. ‘I’m glad you like it!’

‘I like it very much! It’s all just as I described it to you. It even sounds a little better.’

Orpheus took the sheet of paper back with an awkward smile. ‘I can’t promise that it’ll be the same time of day there,’ he said in a muted voice. ‘The laws of my art are difficult to understand, but believe me, no one knows more about them than I do. For instance, I’ve discovered that if you want to change or continue a story, you should use only words that are in the book already. Too many new words and nothing at all may happen, or alternatively something could happen that you didn’t intend. Perhaps it’s different if you wrote the original story—’

‘In the name of all the fairies, you’re fuller of words than a whole library!’ Dustfinger interrupted impatiently. ‘How about just reading it now?’

Orpheus fell silent as abruptly as if he had swallowed his tongue. ‘By all means,’ he said in slightly injured tones. ‘Well, now you’ll see! With my help, the book will welcome you back like a prodigal son. It will suck you up the way paper absorbs ink.’

Dustfinger just nodded and looked down the empty road. Farid sensed how much he wanted to believe Cheeseface – and how afraid he was of another disappointment.

‘What about me?’ Farid went up to him. ‘He did write something about me too, didn’t he? Did you check it?’

Orpheus gave him a rather nasty look. ‘My God,’ he said sarcastically to Dustfinger, ‘that boy really does seem fond of you! Where did you pick him up? Somewhere along the road?’

‘Not exactly,’ said Dustfinger. ‘He was plucked out of his story by the man who did me the same favour.’

‘Ah, yes! That … Silvertongue!’ Orpheus spoke the name in a disparaging tone, as if he couldn’t believe that anyone really deserved it.

‘Yes, that’s what he’s called. How do you know?’ There was no mistaking Dustfinger’s surprise.

The hell-hound snuffled at Farid’s bare toes. Orpheus shrugged. ‘Sooner or later you get to hear of everyone who can breathe life into the letters on a page.’

‘Indeed?’ Dustfinger sounded sceptical, but he asked no more questions. He just stared at the sheet of paper covered with Orpheus’s fine handwriting. But Cheeseface was still looking at Farid.

‘What book do you come from?’ he asked. ‘And why don’t you want to go back into your own story, instead of his, which is nothing to do with you?’

‘That’s none of your business!’ replied Farid angrily. He liked Cheeseface less and less. He was too inquisitive – and far too shrewd.

But Dustfinger just laughed quietly. ‘His own story? No, Farid isn’t in the least homesick for that one. The boy switches from story to story like a snake changing its skin.’ Farid heard something like admiration in his voice.

‘Does he indeed?’ Orpheus looked at Farid again, so patronizingly that the boy would have liked to kick his fat shins, but the hell-hound was still glaring hungrily at him. ‘Very well,’ said Orpheus, sitting down on the wall. ‘I’m warning you, all the same! Reading you back is easy, but the boy has no business in your story! I can’t put his name into it, I can only say “a boy”, and as you know, I can’t guarantee that it will work. Even if it does, he’ll probably just cause confusion. He may even bring you bad luck!’

Whatever did the wretched man mean? Farid looked at Dustfinger. Please, he thought, oh, please! Don’t listen to him. Take me with you.

Dustfinger returned his gaze. And smiled.

‘Bad luck?’ he said, and his voice conveyed the certainty that no one could tell him anything he didn’t already know about bad luck. ‘Nonsense. So far the boy has brought me nothing but good luck instead. And he’s not a bad fire-eater. He’s coming with me. And so is this.’ Before Orpheus realized what he meant, Dustfinger picked up the book that Cheeseface had put down on the wall beside him. ‘You won’t be needing it any more. And I shall sleep considerably more easily if it’s in my possession.’

Dismayed, Orpheus stared at him. ‘But … but I told you, it’s my favourite book! I really would like to keep it.’

‘And so would I,’ was all Dustfinger said as he handed Farid the book. ‘Here, take good care of it.’

Farid clutched it to his chest and nodded. ‘Now for Gwin,’ he said. ‘We must call him.’ But just as he took a little dry bread from his trouser pocket and was about to call Gwin’s name, Dustfinger put his hand over Farid’s mouth.

‘Gwin stays here,’ he said. If he had announced that he was planning to leave his right arm behind, Farid couldn’t have looked at him more incredulously. ‘Why are you staring at me like that? We’ll catch ourselves another marten once we’re there, one that’s not so ready to bite.’

‘Well, at least you’ve seen sense there,’ said Orpheus, his voice sounding injured.

Whatever was he talking about? But Dustfinger avoided the boy’s questioning gaze. ‘Come on, start reading!’ he told Orpheus. ‘Or we’ll still be standing here at sunrise.’

Orpheus looked at him for a moment as if he were about to say something else. But then he cleared his throat. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, you’re right. Ten years in the wrong story – that’s a long time. Let’s start reading.’

Words.

Words filled the night like the fragrance of invisible flowers. Words made to measure, written by Orpheus with his dough-pale hands, words taken from the book that Farid was clutching tightly, and then fitted together into a new meaning. They spoke of another world, a world full of marvels and terrors. And Farid, listening, forgot time. He didn’t even feel that there was such a thing. Nothing existed but the voice of Orpheus, so ill-suited to the mouth it came from. It obliterated everything: the pot-holed road and the run-down houses at the far end of it, the street lamp, the wall where Orpheus was sitting, even the moon above the black trees. And suddenly the air smelled strange and sweet …

He can do it, thought Farid, he really can do it, and meanwhile the voice of Orpheus made him blind and deaf to everything that wasn’t made of the written letters on the sheet of paper …

When Cheeseface suddenly fell silent, he looked around him in confusion, dizzy from the beautiful sound of the words. But why were the houses still there, and the street lamp, all rusty from wind and rain? Orpheus was still there too, and his hell-hound.

Only one thing was missing. Dustfinger.

But Farid was still standing on the same lonely road. In the wrong world.

2

Fool’s Gold

For plainly this miscreant had sold himself to Satan, and it would be fatal to meddle with the property of such a power as that.

Mark Twain,

Tom Sawyer

‘No!’ Farid heard the horror in his own voice. ‘No! What have you done? Where has he gone?’

Orpheus rose ponderously from the wall, still holding that wretched piece of paper, and he smiled. ‘Home. Where else?’

‘But what about me? Go on reading. Go on!’ Everything was blurred by the tears in his eyes. He was alone again, alone as he had always been before he found Dustfinger. Farid began trembling so hard that he didn’t even notice Orpheus taking the book from his hands.

‘And here’s the proof of it once again,’ he heard the man murmur. ‘I bear my name by right. I am the master of all words, both written and spoken. No one can compete with me.’

‘Master of words? What are you talking about?’ Farid shouted in such a loud voice that even the hell-hound flinched. ‘If you know so much about your trade, then why am I still here? Go on, start reading again! And give me that book back!’ He reached for it, but Orpheus avoided him with surprising agility.

‘The book? Why should I give it to you? You probably can’t even read. Let me tell you something! If I’d wanted you to go with him, then you’d be there now, but you have no business in his story, so I just left out what I’d written about you. Understand? And now, be off before I set my dog on you. Boys like you threw stones at him when he was a puppy, and he’s enjoyed chasing your sort ever since!’

‘You brute! You liar! You traitor!’ Farid’s voice broke. Hadn’t he known it? Hadn’t he told Dustfinger? Cheeseface was as false as fool’s gold.

Something made its way between his bare feet, something furry and round-nosed with tiny horns between its ears. The marten. He’s gone, Gwin, thought Farid. Dustfinger’s gone. We’ll never see him again!

The hell-hound lowered its bulky head and took a hesitant step towards the marten, but Gwin bared his needle-sharp teeth, and the huge dog withdrew its nose in astonishment. Its fear gave Farid fresh courage.

‘Come on, give it to me!’ He rammed his thin fist into Orpheus’s chest. ‘That piece of paper, and the book too! Or I’ll slit you open like a carp. I swear I will!’ But he couldn’t help sobbing, which made the words sound nothing like as impressive as he had intended.

Orpheus patted his dog’s head as he stowed the book away in the waistband of his trousers. ‘Dear me, that really scares us, Cerberus, doesn’t it?’

Gwin pressed close to Farid’s ankles, his tail twitching uneasily back and forth. Even when the marten ran across the road and disappeared into the trees on the other side, Farid thought it was because of the dog. Deaf and blind, he kept thinking later, you were deaf and blind, Farid. But Orpheus smiled, like someone who knows more than his opponent.

‘Let me tell you, my young friend,’ he said, ‘it gave me a terrible fright when Dustfinger wanted the book back. Luckily he handed it to you, or I couldn’t have done anything for him. It was hard enough persuading my clients not to just kill him, but I made them promise. Only on that condition would I act as bait … bait for the book, because in case you haven’t caught on yet, this is all about the book. The book and nothing else. They promised not to hurt a hair of Dustfinger’s head, but I’m afraid no one said a word about you.’

And before Farid realized what Cheeseface was talking about, he felt the knife at his throat – sharp as the edge of a reed, colder than mist among the trees.

‘Well, well, who have we here?’ a well-remembered voice murmured in his ear. ‘Didn’t I last see you with Silvertongue? It seems you helped Dustfinger to steal the book for him, isn’t that so? What a fine little fellow you are!’ The knife scratched Farid’s skin, and the man breathed peppermint into his face. If he hadn’t known Basta by his voice, then that stinking breath would have identified the man. His knife and a few mint leaves – Basta was never without them. He chewed the leaves and then spat out what remained. He was dangerous as a rabid dog, and not too bright, but how did he come to be here? How had he found them?

‘Well, how do you like my new knife?’ Basta purred into Farid’s ear. ‘I’d have liked to introduce the fire-eater to it too, but Orpheus here has a weakness for him. Never mind, I’ll find Dustfinger again. Him and Silvertongue, and Silvertongue’s witch of a daughter. They’ll all pay …’

‘Pay for what?’ said Farid. ‘Saving you from the Shadow?’

But Basta only pressed the blade more firmly against his neck. ‘Saving me? They brought me bad luck, nothing but bad luck!’

‘For heaven’s sake put that knife away!’ Orpheus interrupted, sounding sickened. ‘He’s only a boy. Let him go. I have the book as we agreed, so—’

‘Let him go?’ Basta laughed aloud, but the laughter died in his throat. A snarling sound came from the woods behind them, and the hell-hound laid its ears back. Basta spun round. ‘What the devil …? You damned idiot! What have you let out of the book?’

Farid didn’t want to know the answer. He felt Basta loosen his grip for a moment. That was enough: he bit the man’s hand so hard that he tasted blood. Basta screamed and dropped the knife. Farid jerked back his elbows, rammed them into the man’s narrow chest and ran. But he had entirely forgotten the little wall by the roadside; he stumbled on it and fell to his knees, so hard that he was left gasping for breath. As he picked himself up he saw the paper lying on the asphalt, the sheet of paper that had carried Dustfinger away. The wind must have blown it into the road. With quick fingers, he reached for it. I just left out what I’d written about you. Understand? Orpheus’s words still rang in his head, mocking him. Farid clutched the sheet of paper to his chest and ran on, over the road and towards the dark trees waiting on the other side. The hell-hound was growling and barking behind him. Then it howled. Something snarled again, so fiercely that Farid ran even faster. Orpheus screamed, fear making his voice shrill and ugly. Basta swore, and then the snarl came again, wild as the snarling of the great cats that had lived in Farid’s old world.

Don’t look round, he thought. Run, run! he told his legs. Let the cat eat the hell-hound, let it eat them all, Basta and Cheeseface included, just keep running. The dead leaves lying under the trees were damp and muffled the sound of his footsteps, but they were slippery too, and made him lose his balance on the steep slope. Desperately he caught hold of a tree trunk, pressed himself against it, knees trembling, and listened to the sounds of the night. Could Basta hear him gasping?

A sob escaped his throat. He pressed his hands to his mouth. The book, Basta had the book! He’d been supposed to look after it – and how was he ever going to find Dustfinger again now? Farid felt the sheet of paper that held Orpheus’s words. He was still holding it tight. It was damp and dirty – and now it was his only hope.

‘Hey, you little bastard! Bite me, would you?’ Basta’s voice reached him through the quiet night air. ‘You can run but I’ll get you yet, do you hear? You, the fire-eater, Silvertongue and his hoity-toity daughter – and the old man who wrote those accursed words! I’ll kill you all! One by one! The way I’ve just slit open the beast that came out of the book.’

Farid hardly dared to breathe. Go on, he told himself. Go on! He can’t see you! Trembling, he felt for the next tree trunk, sought a handhold, and was grateful to the wind for blowing through the leaves and drowning out his footsteps with their rustling. How many times do I have to tell you? There aren’t any ghosts in this world. One of its few advantages. He heard Dustfinger’s voice as clearly as if he were still following the fire-eater. Farid kept repeating the words as the tears ran down his face and thorns gashed his feet: There are no ghosts, there are no ghosts!

A branch whipped against his face so hard that he almost cried out. Were they following him? He couldn’t hear anything except the wind. He slipped again, and stumbled down the slope. Nettles stung his legs, burrs caught in his hair. And something jumped up at him, furry and warm, pushing its nose into his face.

‘Gwin?’ Farid felt the little head. Yes, there were the tiny horns. He pressed his face into the marten’s soft fur. ‘Basta’s back, Gwin!’ he whispered. ‘And he has the book! Suppose Orpheus reads him into it again? He’s sure to go back into the book some time, don’t you think? How are we going to warn Dustfinger about him now?’

Farid twice found himself back at the road that wound down the mountain, but he dared not walk along it, and instead made his way on through the prickly undergrowth. Soon every breath he drew hurt, but he did not stop. Only when the first rays of the sun made their way through the trees, and Basta still hadn’t appeared behind him, did he know that he had got away.

Now what? he thought as he lay in the damp grass, gasping for breath. Now what? And suddenly he remembered another voice, the voice that had brought him into this world. Silvertongue. Of course. Only Silvertongue could help Farid now, he or his daughter. Meggie. They were living with the bookworm woman these days. Farid had once been there with Dustfinger. It was a long way to go, particularly with the cuts on his feet. But he had to get there before Basta did …

3

Dustfinger Comes Home

‘What is this?’ said the Leopard, ‘that is so ’sclusively dark, and yet so full of little pieces of light?’

Rudyard Kipling,

Just So Stories

For a moment Dustfinger felt as if he had never been away – as if he had simply had a bad dream, and the memory of it had left a stale taste on his tongue, a shadow on his heart, nothing more. All of a sudden everything was back again: the sounds, so familiar and never forgotten; the scents; the tree-trunks dappled in the morning light; the shadow of the leaves on his face. Some were turning colour, like the leaves in that other world, so autumn must be coming here too, but the air was still mild. It smelled of over-ripe berries, fading blossoms, a thousand or more flowers dazing his senses – flowers pale as wax glimmering under the shade of the trees, blue stars on stems so thin and delicate that he walked carefully so as not to tread on them. Oaks, planes, tulip trees towering to the sky all around him! He had almost forgotten how huge a tree could be, how broad and tall its trunk, with a leaf canopy spreading so wide that a whole troop of horsemen could shelter beneath it. The forests of the other world were so young, their trees still children. They had always made him feel old, so old that the years covered him like cobwebs. Here he was young again, just a child among the trees, not much older than the mushrooms growing among their roots, not much taller than the thistles and nettles.

But where was the boy?

Dustfinger looked around, searching for him, calling his name again and again. ‘Farid!’ It was a name that had become almost as familiar to him as his own over these last few months. But there was no reply. Only his own voice echoing back from the trees.

So that was it. The boy had been left behind. What would he do now, all alone? Well, thought Dustfinger as he looked round in vain one last time, what do you think? He’ll manage better in that world than you ever did. The noise, the speed, the crowds of people, he likes all that. And you’ve taught him enough of your craft, he can play with fire almost as well as you. Yes, the boy will manage very well. But for a moment the joy of his home-coming wilted in Dustfinger’s heart like one of the flowers at his feet, and the morning light that had welcomed him only a moment ago now seemed wan and lifeless. The other world had cheated him again: yes, it had let him go after all those years, but it had kept the only beings to whom he had given his heart there …

Well, and what does that teach you? he thought, kneeling in the dewy grass. Better keep your heart to yourself, Dustfinger. He picked up a leaf that glowed red as fire on the dark moss. There hadn’t been any leaves like that in the other world, had there? So what was the matter with him? Angry with himself, he straightened up again. Listen, Dustfinger, you’re back! he told himself firmly. Back! Forget the boy – yes, you’ve lost him, but you have your own world back instead, a whole world. You’re back, can you finally believe it?

If only it wasn’t so difficult. It was far easier to believe in unhappiness than in happiness. He would have to touch every flower, feel every tree, crumble the earth in his fingers and feel the first gnat-bite on his skin before he really believed it.

But yes, he was back. He really was back. At last. And suddenly happiness went to his head like a glass of strong wine. Even the thought of Farid couldn’t cloud it any more. His ten-year nightmare was over. How light he felt, light as one of the leaves raining down from the trees like gold!

He was happy.

Remember, Dustfinger? This is what it feels like. Happiness.

Sure enough, Orpheus had read him to the very place he had described. There was the pool, shimmering among grey and white stones, surrounded by flowering oleander, and only a little way from the bank stood the plane tree where the fire-elves nested. Their nests seemed to cluster more densely around the trunk than he remembered. A less practised eye might have taken them for bees’ nests, but they were smaller and rather paler, almost as pale as the bark peeling from the tall trunk to which they clung.

Dustfinger looked round, once again breathing the air he had missed so much these last ten years. Scents he had almost forgotten mingled with those that could be found in the other world too. And you could find trees like the ones around the pool there too, although smaller and much younger. Branches of eucalyptus and alder reached out over the water as if to cool their leaves. Dustfinger cautiously made his way through the trees until he reached the bank. A tortoise made off at a leisurely pace when his shadow fell on its shell. The tongue of a toad, sitting on a stone, shot out and swallowed a fire-elf. Swarms of them were whirring about over the water, with their high-pitched buzzing that always sounded so angry.

It was time to raid their nests.

Dustfinger knelt down on one of the damp stones. Something rustled behind him, and for a moment he caught himself looking for Farid’s dark hair and Gwin’s head with its little horns, but it was only a lizard pushing its way out of the leaves and crawling up on to one of the stones to bask in the autumn sunlight. ‘Idiot!’ he muttered, leaning forward. ‘Forget the boy – and as for the marten, he won’t miss you. Anyway, you had good reasons for leaving him behind. The best of reasons.’

His reflection trembled on the dark water. His face was the same as ever. The scars were still there, of course, but at least he had suffered no further injuries: his nose hadn’t been smashed in, he didn’t have a stiff leg like Cockerell in the other story, everything was in the right place. He even still had his voice – so the man Orpheus obviously knew his trade.

Dustfinger bent lower over the water. Where were they? Had they forgotten him? The blue fairies forget every face, often just minutes after seeing it, but what about these others? Ten years is a long time, but did they count years?

The water moved, and his reflection mingled with other features. Toad-like eyes were looking up at him from an almost human face, with long hair drifting in the water like grass, and equally green and fine. Dustfinger took his hand out of the cool water, and another hand stretched up – a slender, delicate hand almost like a child’s, covered with scales so tiny that you could scarcely see them. A damp finger, cool as the water from which it had risen, touched his face and traced the scars on it.

‘Yes, it’s not easy to forget my face, is it?’ Dustfinger spoke so quietly that his voice was scarcely more than a whisper. Loud voices frighten water-nymphs. ‘So you remember the scars. And do you remember what I asked you and your sisters to do for me, when I was here before?’

The toad-like eyes looked at him, black and gold, and then the water-nymph sank and vanished as if she had been a mere illusion. But a few moments later, three of them appeared together in the dark water. Shoulders white as lily petals shimmered beneath the surface, fish-tails with rainbow scales like the belly of a perch flicked, barely visible, in the water below. The tiny gnats dancing above the water stung Dustfinger’s face and arms, as if they had been waiting just for him, but he hardly felt it. The nymphs hadn’t forgotten him – neither his face nor what he needed from them to help him summon fire.

They reached their hands up out of the water. Tiny air bubbles rose to the surface, the sign of their laughter, as silent as everything else about them. They took his hands between their own, stroked his arms, his face, his bare throat, until his skin was almost as cool as theirs, and covered with the same fine, slimy deposit that protected their scales. Then, as suddenly as they had come, they disappeared again. Their faces sank down into the dark pool, and Dustfinger might have thought, as always, that he had only dreamed them, but for the cool sensation on his skin, the shimmering of his hands and arms.

‘Thank you!’ he whispered, although only his own reflection now quivered on the water. Then he straightened up, made his way through the oleander bushes on the bank, and moved towards the fire-tree as silently as possible. If Farid had been here, he’d have been prancing through the wet grass like a foal in his excitement.

Cobwebs wet with dew clung to Dustfinger’s clothes as he stood under the plane tree. The lowest nests hung so far down that he could easily reach into one of the entrance holes. The first elves came swarming angrily out when he put in the fingers that the water-nymphs had covered with moist slime, but he calmed them by humming quietly. If he could hit the right note, their agitated swirling soon turned to a tumbling flight, their own humming and buzzing becoming drowsy, until their tiny, hot bodies settled on his arms, burning his skin and leaving a tiny deposit of soot. However much it hurt he must not flinch, mustn’t scare them away, must reach even further into the nest until he found what he was looking for: their fiery honey. Bees stung, but fire-elves burned holes in your skin if the water-nymphs hadn’t touched it first. And even with their protection, it was prudent not to be too greedy when you stole the elves’ honey. If a robber took too much they would fly in his face, burn his skin and hair, and wouldn’t let him go until he was writhing in pain at the foot of their tree.

But Dustfinger was never greedy enough to annoy them. He took only a tiny piece of honeycomb from the nest, scarcely larger than his thumbnail. That was all he needed for now. He went on humming quietly as he wrapped the honey in some leaves.

The fire-elves woke as soon as he stopped humming. They whirred around him faster and faster, while their voices rose to a sound like bumble-bees buzzing angrily. However, they did not attack him. You had to ignore them, act as if you hadn’t even seen them as you turned and walked away at your leisure, slowly, very slowly. They went on whirling in the air around Dustfinger for some time, but in the end they fell behind him, and he followed the small stream that flowed out of the water-nymphs’ pool and wound slowly away through willows, reeds and alders.

He knew where the stream would take him: out of the Wayless Wood, where you hardly ever met another soul of your own kind, and then on northwards, to places where the forest belonged to human beings, and its timber fell to their axes so fast that most trees died before their canopies could offer shelter to so much as a single horseman. The stream would lead him through the valley as it slowly opened out, past hills where no man had ever set foot because they were full of giants and bears and creatures that had never been given a name. At some point the first charcoal-burners’ huts would appear on the slopes, Dustfinger would see the first patch of bare earth among the dense green, and then he would be reunited not just with fairies and water-nymphs but, he hoped, with some of those human beings he had missed for so long.

He moved into cover when a sleepy wolf appeared between two trees in the distance, and waited, motionless, until its grey muzzle had disappeared. Yes, bears and wolves – he must learn to listen for their steps again, to sense their presence nearby before they saw him – not forgetting the big wildcats, dappled like tree-trunks in the sunlight, and the snakes as green as the foliage where they liked to hide. They let themselves down from the branches with less sound than his hand would make brushing a leaf off his shoulder. Luckily the giants generally stayed in their hills, where not even he dared go. Only in winter did they sometimes come down. But there were other creatures too, beings less gentle than the water-nymphs, and they couldn’t be lulled by humming, like the fire-elves. They were usually invisible, well hidden among timber and green leaves, but they were no less dangerous for that: Tree-Men, Trows, Black Bogles, Night-Mares … some of them even ventured as far as the charcoal-burners’ huts.

‘Take a little more care!’ Dustfinger whispered to himself. ‘You don’t want your first day home to be your last.’

The sheer intoxication of being back gradually died down, allowing him to think more clearly again. But the happiness remained in his heart, soft and warm like a young bird’s downy plumage.

He took his clothes off beside a stream and washed the water-nymphs’ slimy deposit off his body, together with the fire-elves’ soot and the grime of the other world. Then he put on the clothes he hadn’t worn for ten years. He had looked after them carefully, but there were a few moth-holes in the black fabric all the same, and the sleeves had already been threadbare when he first took them off in that other world. These garments were all red and black, the colours worn by fire-eaters, just as tightrope-walkers clothed themselves in the blue of the sky. He stroked the rough material, put on the full-sleeved doublet, and threw the dark cloak over his shoulders. Luckily everything still fitted; getting new clothes made was an expensive business, even if you just took your old clothes to the tailor to be patched up again, as the strolling players usually did.

When twilight fell he looked around for a safe place to sleep. Finally he climbed up on to a fallen oak with its root-ball towering so high into the air that it offered good shelter for the night. The root-ball was like a great rampart of earth, yet some of the roots still clung to the ground as if unwilling to let go of life. The crown of the fallen tree had put out new shoots, although they now pointed to the ground and not the sky. Dustfinger nimbly clambered along the mighty trunk, digging his fingers into its rough bark.

When he reached the roots, which were now thrusting up into the air as if they could find nourishment there, a few fairies flew up, chattering crossly. They had obviously been looking for building materials for their nests. Of course: it would soon be autumn, time for a rather more weatherproof sleeping-place. The blue fairies took no particular trouble over the nests they built in spring, but as soon as the first leaf turned colour they began improving them, padding them with animal fur and birds’ feathers, weaving more grass and twigs into the walls, sealing cracks with moss and fairy spit.

Two of the tiny blue creatures didn’t fly away when they saw him. They stared avidly at his sandy hair as the evening light, falling through the tree-tops, tinged their wings with red.

‘Ah, of course!’ Dustfinger laughed softly. ‘You want some of my hair for your nests.’ He cut off a lock with his knife. One of the delighted fairies seized the hair in her delicate, insect-like hands and fluttered quickly away with it. The other fairy, so tiny that she could only just have hatched from her mother-of-pearl egg, followed her. He had missed those bold little blue creatures, he’d missed them so much.

Down below among the trees, night was falling, but in the light of the setting sun the treetops overhead were turning red as sorrel in a summer meadow. Soon the fairies would be asleep in their nests, the mice and rabbits in their holes and burrows. The cool of the night would make the lizards’ legs stiff, the birds would fall silent, predators would prepare to go hunting, their eyes like yellow lights in the darkness. Let’s hope they don’t fancy a fire-eater for dinner, thought Dustfinger, stretching his legs out on the fallen trunk. He thrust his knife into the cracked bark beside him, wrapped himself in the cloak he hadn’t worn for ten years, and stared up at the leaves. They were growing darker and darker now. An owl rose from an oak and swooped away, little more than a shadow among the branches. A tree whispered in its sleep, words that no human ear could understand.

Dustfinger closed his eyes and listened.

He was home again.

4

Silvertongue’s Daughter

Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others?

Philip Pullman,

The Subtle Knife

Meggie hated quarrelling with Mo. It left her shaking inside, and nothing could comfort her – not a hug from her mother, not the liquorice sweets Resa’s aunt Elinor gave her if their loud voices had carried to the library, not Darius, who firmly believed in the miraculous healing powers of hot milk and honey in such cases.

Nothing helped.

This time it had been particularly bad, because Mo had really only come to see her to say goodbye. He had a new job waiting, some sick books too old and valuable to be sent to him. In the past Meggie would have gone with him, but this time she had decided to stay with Elinor and her mother.

Why did he have to come to her room just when she was reading the notebooks again? They’d often quarrelled over those notebooks recently, although Mo hated a quarrel as much as she did. Afterwards, he usually disappeared into the workshop that Elinor had had built behind the house for him, and a time would come, once Meggie couldn’t bear to be angry with him any more, when she would follow him there. He never raised his head when she slipped through the doorway, and without a word Meggie would sit down beside him on the chair that was always ready for her and watch him at work, just as she had done even before she could read. She loved watching his hands free a book from its shabby dress, separate stained pages from each other, part the threads holding a damaged quire together, or soak rag paper to mend a sheet of paper worn thin. It was never long before Mo turned and asked her a question of some kind: did she like the colour he’d chosen for a linen binding, did she agree that the paper pulp he’d mixed for repairs had turned out slightly too dark? It was Mo’s way of apologizing, of saying: don’t let’s quarrel, Meggie, let’s forget what we said just now.

But that was no good today. Because he hadn’t disappeared into his workshop, he’d gone away to see some book collector or other and give the collector’s printed treasures a new lease of life. This time he wouldn’t come to her with a present to make up the quarrel – a book he’d found in a second-hand bookshop somewhere, or a bookmark decorated with bluejay feathers found in Elinor’s garden …

So why couldn’t she have been reading some other book when he came into her room?

‘Good heavens, Meggie, you seem to have nothing in your head but those notebooks!’ he had said angrily. It had been the same every time, these last few months, whenever he had found her like that in her room – lying on the rug, deaf and blind to all that went on around her, eyes glued to the words with which she had written down what Resa told her – tales of what she had seen ‘there’, as Mo bitterly called it.

There.

Inkworld was the name Meggie gave to the place of which Mo spoke so slightingly, and her mother sometimes with such longing. Inkworld, after the book about it, Inkheart. The book was gone, but her mother’s memories were as vivid as if not a day had passed since she was there – in that world of paper and printer’s ink where there were fairies and princes, water-nymphs, fire-elves, and trees that seemed to grow to the sky.

Meggie had sat with her mother for countless days and nights, writing down what Resa’s fingers told her. Resa had left her voice behind in the Inkworld, so she talked to her daughter either with pencil and paper or with her hands, telling the story of those years – those terrible magical years, she called them. Sometimes she also drew what her eyes had seen but her tongue could no longer describe: fairies, birds, strange flowers, conjured up on paper with just a few strokes, yet looking so real that Meggie almost believed she had seen them too.

At first Mo himself had bound the notebooks in which Meggie wrote down Resa’s memories – and each binding was more beautiful than the last – but a time came when Meggie noticed the anxiety in his eyes as he watched her reading them, completely absorbed in the words and pictures. Of course she understood his uneasiness; after all, for years he had lost his wife to this world made of words and paper. How could he like it if his daughter thought of little else? Oh yes, Meggie understood Mo very well, yet she couldn’t do as he asked – close the books and forget the Inkworld for a while.

Perhaps her longing for it wouldn’t have been quite as strong if the fairies and brownies had still been around, all those strange creatures they had brought back from Capricorn’s accursed village. But none of them lived in Elinor’s garden now. The fairies’ empty nests still clung to the trees, and the burrows that the brownies had dug were still there, but their inhabitants were gone. At first Elinor thought they had run away or been stolen, but then the ashes had been found. They covered the grass in the garden, fine as dust, grey ashes, as grey as the shadows from which Elinor’s strange guests had once appeared. And Meggie had realized that there was no return from death, even for creatures made of nothing but words.

Elinor, however, could not reconcile herself to this idea. Defiantly, desperately, she had driven back to Capricorn’s village – only to find the streets empty, the houses burned down, and not a living soul in sight. ‘You know, Elinor,’ Mo had said when she came back with her face tear-stained, ‘I was afraid of something like this. I couldn’t really believe there were words to bring back the dead. And besides – if you’re honest with yourself – you must admit they didn’t fit into this world.’

‘Nor do I!’ was all Elinor had replied.

Over the next few weeks, Meggie often heard sobbing from Elinor’s room when she slipped into the library one last time in the evening to find a book. Many months had passed since then – they had all been living together in Elinor’s big house for nearly a year, and Meggie had a feeling that Elinor was glad not to be alone with her books any more. She had given them the best rooms; Elinor’s old schoolbooks and a few writers she no longer much liked had been banished to the attic to make more space. Meggie’s room had a view of snow-topped mountains, and from her parents’ bedroom you could see the distant lake with its gleaming water, which had so often tempted the fairies to fly in that direction.

Mo had never simply gone off like that before. Without a word of goodbye. Without making up the quarrel …

Perhaps I should go down and help Darius in the library, thought Meggie as she sat there wiping the tears from her face. She never cried while she was quarrelling with Mo; the tears didn’t come until later … and he always looked terribly guilty when he saw her red eyes. She was sure that yet again everyone had heard them quarrelling! Darius was probably making the hot milk and honey already, and as soon as she put her head round the kitchen door Elinor would begin calling Mo, and men in general, names. No, she’d better stay in her own room.

Oh, Mo. He had snatched the notebook she was reading out of her hand and taken it with him! And that one was the book where she had collected ideas for stories of her own: beginnings which had never got any further, opening words, crossed-out sentences, all her failed attempts … how could he just take it away from her? She didn’t want Mo to read it, she didn’t want him seeing how she tried in vain to fit the words together on paper, words that came to her tongue so easily and with such power when she read aloud. Meggie could write down what Resa described to her; she could fill pages and pages with the stories her mother told her. But as soon as she tried to make something new of them, a story with a life of its own, her mind went blank. The words seemed to fly out of her head – like snowflakes leaving only a damp patch on your skin when you put out your hand to catch them.

Someone knocked on Meggie’s door.

‘Come in!’ she snuffled, looking in her trouser pockets for one of the old-fashioned handkerchiefs that Elinor had given her. (‘They belonged to my sister. Her name began with an M, like yours. Embroidered in the corner there, see? I thought it would be better for you to have them than let the moths eat holes in them.’)

Her mother put her head round the door.

Meggie tried a smile, but it was a miserable failure.

‘Can I come in?’ Resa’s fingers traced the words in the air faster than Darius could have said them aloud. Meggie nodded. By now she understood her mother’s sign language almost as easily as the letters of the alphabet – she knew it better than Mo and much better than Elinor, who often called for Meggie in desperation when Resa’s fingers went too fast for her.

Resa closed the door behind her and sat down on the window-sill with her daughter. Meggie always called her mother by her first name, perhaps because she hadn’t had a mother for ten years, or perhaps because, for the same inexplicable reason, she had always called her father just Mo.

Meggie recognized the notebook as soon as Resa put it on her lap. It was the one that Mo had taken. ‘I found it lying outside your door,’ said her mother’s hands.

Meggie stroked the patterned binding. So Mo had brought it back. Why hadn’t he come in? Because he was still too angry, or because he was sorry?

‘He wants me to put them away in the attic. At least for a while.’ Meggie suddenly felt so small. And at the same time so old. ‘He said, “Perhaps I ought to turn into a glass man or dye my skin blue, since my wife and daughter obviously think more of fairies and glass men than of me.”’

Resa smiled, and stroked Meggie’s nose with her forefinger.

‘Yes, I know, of course he doesn’t really think that! But he always gets so angry when he sees me with the notebooks….’

Resa looked out through the open window. Elinor’s garden was so large that you couldn’t see where it began or ended, you just saw tall trees and rhododendron shrubs so old that they surrounded Elinor’s house like an evergreen wood. Right under Meggie’s window was a lawn with a narrow gravel path round it. A garden seat stood to one side of the lawn. Meggie still remembered the night when she had sat there watching Dustfinger breathe fire. Elinor’s ever-grumpy gardener had swept the dead leaves off the lawn only that afternoon. You could still see the bare patch in the middle where Capricorn’s men had burned Elinor’s best books. The gardener kept trying to persuade Elinor to plant something in that space, or sow more grass seed there, but Elinor just shook her head energetically. ‘Who grows grass on a grave?’ she had snapped the last time he suggested it, and she told him to leave the yarrow alone too. It had grown luxuriantly around the sides of the blackened patch ever since the fire, as if to make its flat flower-heads a reminder of the night when Elinor’s printed children were swallowed up by the flames.

The sun was setting behind the nearby mountains, so red that it was as if it, too, wanted to remind them of that long-extinguished fire, and a cool wind blew from the hills too, making Resa shiver.

Meggie closed the window. The wind blew a few faded rose petals against the pane; they stuck to the glass, pale yellow and translucent. ‘I don’t want to quarrel with him,’ she whispered. ‘I never used to quarrel with Mo. Well, almost never …’

‘Perhaps he’s right.’ Her mother pushed back her hair. It was just as long as Meggie’s, but darker, as if a shadow had fallen on it. Resa usually held it back with a comb. Meggie often wore her hair like that too, and sometimes when she looked at her reflection in the mirror of her wardrobe she seemed to be seeing, not herself, but a younger version of her mother. ‘Another year and she’ll be towering over you,’ Mo sometimes said when he wanted to tease Resa, and the short-sighted Darius had confused Meggie with her mother several times already.

Resa ran her forefinger over the window-pane as if tracing the rose-petals that clung to it. Then her hands began speaking again, hesitantly, just as lips can sometimes hesitate. ‘I do understand your father, Meggie,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I myself think the two of us talk about that other world too often. Even I don’t understand why I keep coming back to the subject. And I’m always telling you about what was beautiful there, not the other things: being shut up, Mortola’s punishments, how my hands and knees hurt so much from all the work that I couldn’t sleep … all the cruelty I saw there. Did I tell you about the maid who died of fright because a Night-Mare stole into our bedroom?’

‘Yes, you did.’ Meggie moved very close to her mother, but Resa’s hands fell silent. They were still roughened from all her years of toil as a maid, working first for Mortola and then for Capricorn. ‘You’ve told me about everything,’ said Meggie. ‘The bad things too, even if Mo won’t believe it!’

‘Because all the same he feels that we dream only of the wonderful part. As if I ever had many of those!’ Resa shook her head. Again her fingers fell silent for a long time before she let them go on. ‘I had to steal it for myself, in seconds, minutes … sometimes a precious hour when we were allowed out in the forest to gather the plants Mortola needed for her black potions.’

‘But there were the years when you were free too! When you disguised yourself and worked in the markets as a scribe.’ Disguised as a man … Meggie had pictured it over and over again: her mother with her hair cut short, wearing a scribe’s tunic, ink on her fingers from the finest handwriting to be found in the Inkworld. So Resa had told her. It was the way she had earned a living in a world which didn’t make it easy for women to work. Meggie would have liked to hear the story again now, even if it had a sad ending, for after that Resa’s years of unhappiness had begun. But wonderful things had happened during that time too, like the great banquet at the Laughing Prince’s castle to which Mortola had taken her maids, the banquet where Resa saw the Laughing Prince himself, and the Black Prince and his bear, the tightrope-walker called Cloud-Dancer …

But Resa hadn’t come into her room to tell all those stories again. She said nothing in reply. And when her fingers did begin to speak once more, they moved more slowly than usual. ‘Forget the Inkworld, Meggie,’ they said. ‘Let’s both of us forget it, at least for a little while. For your father’s sake – and for yours. Or one day you may be blind to the beauty around you here.’ She looked out of the window again at the gathering dusk. ‘I’ve told you all about it already,’ said her hands. ‘Everything you wanted to know.’

So she had. And Meggie had asked her many questions, thousands and thousands of them. Did you ever see one of the giants? What sort of clothes did you wear? What did the fortress look like, in the forest where Mortola took you, and that prince you talk about, the Laughing Prince – was his castle as huge and magnificent as the Castle of Night? Tell me about his son Cosimo the Fair, and the Adderhead and his men-at-arms. Was everything in his castle really made of silver? How big is the bear that the Black Prince always keeps beside him, and what about the trees, can they really talk? And that old woman, the one they all call Nettle, is it true that she can fly?

Resa had answered all these questions as well as she could, but even a thousand answers did not add up to a whole ten years, and there were some questions that Meggie had never put to her. She had never asked about Dustfinger, for instance. But Resa had talked about him all the same, telling her that everyone in the Inkworld knew his name, even many years after he had disappeared. Of course, he was known as the fire-dancer too, so Resa had recognized him at once when she met him for the first time in this world …

There was another question that Meggie didn’t ask – although it often came into her mind – for Resa couldn’t have answered it: what about Fenoglio, the writer of the book that had drawn first her mother and finally even its own author into its pages? How was Fenoglio now?

More than a year had passed since Meggie’s voice had cast the spell of Fenoglio’s own words over him – and he had disappeared as if they had swallowed him up. Sometimes Meggie saw his wrinkled face in her dreams, but she never knew if it looked sad or happy. Not that it had ever been easy to read the expression on Fenoglio’s tortoise-like face anyway. One night, when she woke suddenly from one of these dreams and couldn’t get to sleep again, she had begun a story in which Fenoglio was trying to write himself home again, back to his grandchildren and the village where Meggie had first met him. But as with all the other stories she’d started to write, she never got past the first three sentences.

Meggie leafed through the notebook that Mo had taken away from her, then closed it again. Resa put a hand under her chin and looked into her face.

‘Don’t be cross with him!’

‘I never am, not for long! He knows that. How much longer will he be away?’

‘Ten days, maybe more.’

Ten days! Meggie looked at the shelf beside her bed. There they were, neatly ranged side by side: the Bad Books, as she secretly called them, full of Resa’s stories: tales of glass men and water-nymphs, fire-elves, Night-Mares, White Women and all the other strange creatures that her mother had described.

‘All right. I’ll phone him and say he can make them a box. But I’ll keep the key to it.’

Resa dropped a kiss on her forehead. Then she carefully passed her hand over the notebook in Meggie’s lap. ‘Does anyone in the world bind books more beautifully than your father?’ her fingers asked.

Meggie shook her head with a smile. ‘No,’ she whispered. ‘No one, in this world or any other.’

When Resa went downstairs again to help Darius and Elinor with supper, Meggie stayed by the window to watch Elinor’s garden filling with shadows. When a squirrel scurried over the lawn, its bushy tail stretched out behind it, she was reminded of Dustfinger’s tame marten Gwin. How strange that she now understood the yearning she had so often seen on his master’s scarred face.

Yes, Mo was probably right. She thought about Dustfinger’s world too much, far too much. She had even read some of Resa’s stories aloud a few times, although didn’t she know how dangerous her voice could be when it spoke the words on the page? Hadn’t she – to be perfectly honest, more honest than people usually are – hadn’t she cherished a secret hope that the words would take her to that world? What would Mo have done if he’d known about these experiments? Would he have buried the notebooks in the garden or thrown them in the lake, as he sometimes threatened to do with the stray cats that stole into his workshop?

Yes, I’ll lock them away, thought Meggie, as the first stars appeared outside. As soon as Mo has made them a new box. The box with her favourite books in it was crammed full now. It was red, red as poppies; Mo had only recently repainted it. The box for the notebooks must be a different colour, perhaps green like the Wayless Wood that Resa had described so often. Yes, green. And didn’t the guards outside the Laughing Prince’s castle wear green cloaks too?

A moth fluttered against the window, reminding Meggie of the blue-skinned fairies and the best of all the stories that Resa had told her about them: how they healed Dustfinger’s face after Basta had slashed it, in gratitude to him for the many times he had freed their sisters from the wire cages where pedlars imprisoned them to be sold at market as good-luck charms. And deep in the Wayless Wood he … no, that’s enough!

Meggie leaned her forehead against the cool pane.

Quite enough.

I’ll take them all to Mo’s workshop, she thought. At once. And when he’s back I’ll ask him to bind me a new notebook for stories about this world of ours. She had already begun writing some: about Elinor’s garden and her library, about the castle down by the lake. Robbers had once lived there; Elinor had told her about them in her own typical story-telling style, with so many grisly details that Darius, listening, forgot to go on sorting books, and his eyes widened in horror behind his thick glasses.

‘Meggie, supper-time!’

Elinor’s call echoed right to the top of the stairs. She had a very powerful voice. Louder than the Titanic’s foghorn, Mo always said.

Meggie slipped off the window-sill.

‘Just coming!’ she called down the corridor. Then she went back into her room, took the notebooks off the shelf one by one until her arms could hardly hold the stack, and carried the precarious pile down the corridor and into the room that Mo used as an office. It had once been Meggie’s bedroom; she had slept there when she first came to Elinor’s house with Mo and Dustfinger, but all you could see from its window was the gravel forecourt, some spruce trees, a large chestnut, and Elinor’s grey station wagon, which stood out of doors in all weathers, because it was Elinor’s opinion that cars living in luxury in a garage rusted more quickly. But when they had decided to come and live there, Meggie had wanted a window with a view of the garden. So Mo, surrounded by Elinor’s collection of old travel guides, did his paperwork in the room where Meggie had slept before she ever went to Capricorn’s village, when she still had no mother and almost never quarrelled with Mo …

‘Meggie, where are you?’ Elinor’s voice sounded impatient. Her joints often ached these days, but she refused to go to the doctor. (‘What’s the point?’ was her only comment. ‘They haven’t invented a pill to cure old age, have they?’)

‘I’ll be down in a minute!’ called Meggie, carefully lowering the notebooks on to Mo’s desk. Two of them slipped off the pile and almost knocked over the vase of autumn flowers that her mother had put by the window. Meggie caught it just before the water spilled over Mo’s invoices and receipts for petrol. She was standing there with the vase still in her hand, her fingers sticky with drifting pollen, when she saw the figure between the trees where the path came up from the road. Her heart began to thud so hard that the vase almost slipped out of her fingers again.

Well, that just went to prove it. Mo was right. ‘Meggie, take your head out of those books, or soon you won’t know the difference between reality and your imagination!’ He’d told her that so often, and now it was happening. She’d been thinking about Dustfinger only a moment ago, hadn’t she? And now she saw someone standing out there in the night, just like the time, more than a year ago, when she’d seen Dustfinger waiting outside their house, motionless as the figure she saw there at this moment …

‘Meggie, for heaven’s sake, how many more times do I have to call you?’ Elinor was wheezing from climbing all the stairs. ‘What are you doing, standing there rooted to the spot? Didn’t you say – good heavens, who’s that?’

‘You can see him too?’ Meggie was so relieved she could have hugged Elinor.

‘Of course I can.’

The figure moved. Barefoot, it ran over the pale gravel.

‘It’s that boy!’ Elinor sounded incredulous. ‘The one who helped the matchstick-eater steal the book from your father. Well, he’s got a nerve, turning up here. He looks rather the worse for wear. Does he think I’m going to let him in? I dare say the matchstick-eater’s out there too.’

Elinor came closer to the window, looking anxious, but Meggie was already out of the door. She ran downstairs and raced through the entrance hall. Her mother came along the corridor leading to the kitchen.

‘Resa!’ Meggie called. ‘Farid’s here. It’s Farid!’

5

Farid

He was stubborn as a mule, clever as a monkey, and nimble as a hare.

Louis Pergaud,

The War of the Buttons

Resa took Farid into the kitchen and tended his feet first. They looked terrible, cut and bleeding. While Resa cleaned them and put plasters over the cuts, Farid began telling his story, his tongue heavy with weariness. Meggie did her best not to stare at him too often. He was still rather taller than she was, even though she’d grown a great deal since they last met … on the night when he had gone off with Dustfinger. Dustfinger and the book. She hadn’t forgotten his face, any more than she could forget the day when Mo first read him out of his own story in Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. She’d never met another boy with such beautiful eyes, almost like a girl’s. They were as black as his hair, which was cut a little shorter than it had been in the old days and made him look more grown-up. Farid. Meggie felt her tongue relishing his name – and quickly turned her eyes away when he raised his head and looked at her.

Elinor stared at him all the time without any embarrassment, and with as much hostility as she had shown in scrutinizing Dustfinger when he had sat at her kitchen table, feeding his marten bread and ham. She hadn’t let Farid bring the marten into the house with him. ‘And if he eats a single songbird in my garden he’d better watch out!’ she said as the marten scurried away over the pale gravel. She had bolted the door after him, as if Gwin could open locked doors as easily as his master.

Farid played with a book of matches as he told his tale.

‘Look at that!’ Elinor whispered to Meggie. ‘Just like the matchstick-eater. Don’t you think he looks very like him?’

But Meggie did not reply. She didn’t want to miss a word of the story Farid had to tell. She wanted to hear everything about Dustfinger’s return, about the man with the hell-hound who read aloud so well, about the snarling creature that could have been one of the big cats from the Wayless Wood – and about the words that Basta had shouted after Farid: ‘You can run, but I’ll get you yet, do you hear? You, the fire-eater, Silvertongue and his hoity-toity daughter – and the old man who wrote those accursed words! I’ll kill you all! One by one!’

While Farid told his story, Resa’s eyes kept straying to the grubby piece of paper he had put down on the kitchen table. She looked at it as if she were afraid of it, as if the words on that paper could draw her back again. Back to the Inkworld. When Farid repeated the threat Basta had shouted, she put her arms around Meggie and held her close. But Darius, who had been sitting next to Elinor in silence all this time, buried his face in his hands.

Farid didn’t waste much time describing how he had got to Elinor’s house on his bare, bloody feet. In answer to Meggie’s questions, he just muttered something about getting a lift from a truck driver. He ended his account abruptly, as if he had suddenly run out of words, and when he fell silent it was very quiet in the big kitchen.

Farid had brought an invisible guest with him. Fear.

‘Put more coffee on, Darius!’ said Elinor, as she looked gloomily at the table laid for supper. No one was taking any notice of it. ‘This could be iced tea, it’s so cold.’

Darius set to work at once, busy and eager, like a bespectacled squirrel, while Elinor gave Farid a glance as cold as if he were personally responsible for the bad news he’d brought. Meggie still remembered just how alarming she had once found that look. ‘The woman with pebble eyes,’ she had secretly called Elinor. Sometimes the name still fitted.

‘What a terrific story!’ exclaimed Elinor as Resa went to give Darius a hand; Farid’s news had obviously made him so nervous that he couldn’t measure out the right amount of ground coffee. He had just begun counting the spoonfuls he was tipping into the filter for the third time when Resa gently took the measuring spoon from his hand.

‘So Basta’s back with a brand-new knife and a mouth full of peppermint leaves, I suspect. Bloody hell!’ Elinor was apt to swear when she was anxious or annoyed. ‘As if it wasn’t bad enough waking up every third night drenched in sweat because I’ve seen his foxy face in my dreams … not to mention his knife. But let’s try to keep calm! Look at it like this: Basta knows where I live, but obviously it’s Mo and Meggie he’s after, not me, so this house ought really to be safe as – well, safe as houses for you. After all, he’s not likely to know you’ve moved in here, is he?’ She looked at Resa and Meggie triumphantly, as if this were a conclusive argument.

But Meggie’s response made Elinor’s face darken again at once. ‘Farid knew,’ she pointed out.

‘So he did,’ growled Elinor, her glance turning to Farid again. ‘You knew too. How?’

Her voice was so sharp that Farid instinctively flinched. ‘An old woman told us,’ he said in a wavering voice. ‘We went back to Capricorn’s village after the fairies Dustfinger took with him turned to ashes. He wanted to see if the same thing had happened to the others. The whole village was deserted, not a soul in sight, not even a stray dog. Only ashes, ashes everywhere. So we went to the next village and tried to find out just what had happened, and … well, that was when we heard how a fat woman had been there, saying something about dead fairies, but at least, she said, luckily the human beings hadn’t died on her too, and they were living with her now …’

Elinor lowered her gaze guiltily, and collected a few crumbs from her plate with one finger. ‘Damn it,’ she muttered. ‘Yes. Perhaps I did say rather too much in that shop when I phoned you from there. I was in such a state after seeing the empty village! How could I guess those gossips would tell Dustfinger about me? Dustfinger, of all people! Since when do old women talk to someone like him?’

Or to someone like Basta, thought Meggie.

But Farid just shrugged his shoulders, rose to his feet, which were now covered with plasters, and began limping up and down Elinor’s kitchen. ‘Dustfinger thought you’d all be here in any case,’ he said. ‘We even passed this way once because he wanted to see if she was all right.’

He jerked his head Resa’s way. Elinor snorted scornfully. ‘Oh, did he, indeed? How good of him.’ She had never liked Dustfinger, and the fact that he had stolen the book from Mo before disappearing had done little to lessen her dislike. Resa, however, smiled at Farid’s words, though she tried to hide her smile from Elinor. Meggie still clearly remembered the morning when Darius had brought her mother the strange little bundle he’d found outside the front door – a candle, a few pencils, and a box of matches, all tied up with stems of blue speedwell. Meggie had known at once who the bundle came from. And so did Resa.

‘Well,’ said Elinor, drumming on her plate with the handle of her knife, ‘I’m delighted to hear that the matchstick-eater’s back where he belongs. The very idea of him slinking around my house by night! It’s just a pity he didn’t take Basta too.’

Basta! When Elinor said his name Resa suddenly rose from her chair, went out into the corridor and came back with the telephone. She held it out to Meggie with a look of entreaty in her eyes, and began gesticulating so excitedly with her other hand that even Meggie had difficulty in reading the signs she traced in the air. But finally she understood.

Resa wanted her to call Mo. Of course.

It seemed forever before he came to the phone. He’d probably been working. When Mo was away he always worked late into the night, so that he could get home sooner.

‘Meggie?’ He sounded surprised. Perhaps he thought she was calling because of their quarrel, but who’d be interested in that stupid argument now?

It was some time before he could make anything of the words she was hastily stammering out. ‘Slowly, Meggie!’ he kept saying. ‘Take it slowly.’ But that was easier said than done when your heart was in your mouth, and Basta might be waiting at Elinor’s garden gate this very minute … Meggie didn’t even dare to think this idea through to its logical conclusion.

Mo, on the other hand, remained strangely calm – almost as if he had expected the past to catch up with them again. ‘Stories never really end, Meggie,’ he had once told her, ‘even if the books like to pretend they do. Stories always go on. They don’t end on the last page, any more than they begin on the first page.’

‘Has Elinor switched the burglar alarm on?’ he asked now.

‘Yes.’

‘Has she told the police?’

‘No. She says they wouldn’t believe her anyway.’

‘She ought to call them, all the same. And give them a description of Basta. You can describe him between you, right?’

What a question! Meggie had tried to forget Basta’s face, but it would live on in her memory for the rest of her life, as clear as a photograph.

‘Listen, Meggie.’ Perhaps Mo wasn’t quite as calm as he made out. His voice didn’t sound the same as usual. ‘I’ll drive back tonight. Tell Elinor and your mother. I’ll be with you by tomorrow morning at the latest. Bolt everything and keep the windows closed, understand?’

Meggie nodded, forgetting that Mo couldn’t see her over the phone.

‘Meggie?’

‘Yes, I understand.’ She tried to sound calm and brave, even if she didn’t feel that way. She was scared, badly scared.

‘See you tomorrow, Meggie!’

She could tell from his voice that he was going to set out right away. And suddenly, seeing the moonlit road in her mind’s eye, the long road back, a new and terrible thought came into her mind …

‘What about you?’ she exclaimed. ‘Mo! Suppose Basta’s lying in wait for you somewhere?’ But her father had already rung off.

Elinor decided to put Farid where Dustfinger had once slept: in the attic room, where crates of books were stacked high around the narrow bedstead. Anyone who slept there would surely dream of being struck dead by printed paper. Meggie was told to show Farid the way, and when she wished him goodnight he just nodded abstractedly. He looked very lost sitting on the narrow bed – almost as lost as on the day when Mo had read him into Capricorn’s church, a thin, nameless boy with a turban over his black hair.

That night, before she went to sleep, Elinor checked the burglar alarm several times to make sure it really was switched on. As for Darius, he went to find the rifle that Elinor sometimes fired into the air if she saw a cat prowling under one of the birds’ nests in her garden. Wearing the orange dressing-gown that Elinor had given him last Christmas – it was much too big for him – he settled down in the armchair in the entrance hall, the gun on his lap, staring at the front door with a determined expression. But when Elinor came to check the alarm for the second time he was already fast asleep.

It was a long time before Meggie could sleep. She looked at the shelves where her notebooks used to stand, stroked the empty wood, and finally knelt down by the red-painted box that Mo had made long ago for her favourite books. She hadn’t opened it for months. There wasn’t room in it for a single extra book, and by now it was too heavy for her to take it when she went away. So Elinor had given her the bookcase to hold more of the books she loved. It stood beside Meggie’s bed, and it had glass doors, and carvings that twined over the dark wood, making it look as if it hadn’t forgotten that it was once alive. And the shelves behind the glass doors were well filled, for by now Resa and Elinor, as well as Mo, gave Meggie books, and even Darius brought her a new one now and then. But her old friends, the books Meggie had already owned before they had moved in with Elinor, still lived in the box, and when she opened the heavy lid it was almost as if half-forgotten voices met her ears and familiar faces were looking at her. How well-worn they all were … ‘Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times?’ Mo had said when, on Meggie’s last birthday, they were looking at all her dear old books again. ‘As if something was left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells … and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower … both strange and familiar.’

Slightly younger, yes. Meggie picked up one of the books lying on top and leafed through it. She had read it at least a dozen times. Ah, here was the scene she had liked best when she was eight, and there was the one she had marked with a red pencil when she was ten because she thought it was so beautiful. She ran her finger down the wobbly line. There’d been no Resa in her life then, no Elinor, no Darius, only Mo … no longing to see blue fairies, no memories of a scarred face, a marten with little horns and a boy who always went barefoot, no memory of Basta and his knife. A different Meggie had read that book, very different … and there she would stay between its pages, preserved as a memento.

With a sigh, Meggie closed the book again and put it back with the others. She could hear her mother pacing up and down next door. Did she, like Meggie, keep thinking of the threat that Basta had shouted after Farid? I ought to go to her, thought Meggie. Perhaps our fear won’t be so bad if we’re together. But just as she was getting up Resa’s footsteps died away, and it was quiet in the room next door, quiet as sleep. Maybe sleep wasn’t a bad idea. Mo certainly wouldn’t arrive any sooner just because she was awake and waiting for him … oh, if only she could at least have called him, but he was always forgetting to switch his mobile on.

Meggie closed the lid of her book-box softly, as if the sound might wake Resa again, and blew out the candles that she lit every evening although Elinor was always telling her not to. As she was taking her T-shirt off over her head, she heard a knock at her door, a very quiet knock. She opened the door, expecting to see her mother outside because she couldn’t sleep after all, but it was Farid. He went scarlet in the face when he saw that she was wearing only her underclothes. He stammered an apology, and before Meggie could say anything limped away again on his lavishly plastered feet. She almost forgot to put the T-shirt back on before going after him.

‘What’s the matter?’ she whispered anxiously as she beckoned him back into her room. ‘Did you hear anything downstairs?’

But Farid shook his head. He was holding the piece of paper in his hand: Dustfinger’s return ticket, as Elinor had tartly described it. Hesitantly he followed Meggie into her room, and looked around it like someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in enclosed spaces. Ever since he had disappeared with Dustfinger, leaving no trace behind, he had probably spent most of his days and nights in the open air.

‘I’m sorry,’ he stammered, staring at his toes. Two of Resa’s plasters were already peeling off. ‘I know it’s late, but—’ and for the first time he looked Meggie in the eye, turning red again as he did so. ‘But Orpheus says he didn’t read it all,’ he went on, his voice hesitating. ‘He just left out the words that would have taken me into the book too. He did it on purpose, but I have to warn Dustfinger, so …’

‘So what?’ Meggie pushed the chair from her desk over to him and sat down on the window-sill herself. Farid sat down as hesitantly as he had entered her room.

‘You must get me there too. Please!’ He held the dirty piece of paper out to her again, with such a pleading expression in his black eyes that Meggie didn’t know where to look. How long and thick his eyelashes were! Hers were nothing like as beautiful.

‘Please! I know you can do it!’ he stammered. ‘I remember that night in Capricorn’s village … I remember all about it, and you had only a single sheet of paper then!’

That night in Capricorn’s village. Meggie’s heart always began to thud when she thought of it: the night when she had read the Shadow into appearing, and then hadn’t been able to make him kill Capricorn until Mo did it for her.

‘Orpheus wrote the words, he said so himself! He just didn’t read them aloud – but they’re here on this paper! Of course my actual name isn’t there or it wouldn’t work.’ Farid was speaking faster and faster. ‘Orpheus says that’s the secret of it: if you want to change the story you must use only words that are already in the book, if possible.’

‘He said that?’ Meggie’s heart missed a beat, as if it had stumbled over Farid’s information. You must use only words that are already in the book if possible … was that why she’d never been able to read anything out of Resa’s stories – because she’d used words that weren’t in Inkheart? Or was it just because she didn’t know enough about writing?

‘Yes. Orpheus thinks he’s so clever because of the way he can read aloud.’ Farid spat the man’s name out like a plum-stone. ‘But if you ask me, he’s not half as good at it as you or your father.’

Maybe not, thought Meggie, but he read Dustfinger back. And he wrote the words for it himself. Neither Mo nor I could have done that. She took from Farid the piece of paper with the passage that Orpheus had written. The handwriting was difficult to decipher, but it was beautiful – very individual and curiously ornate.

‘When exactly did Dustfinger disappear?’

Farid shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ he muttered, abashed. Of course – she had forgotten that he couldn’t read.

Meggie traced the first sentence with her finger. Dustfinger returned on a day fragrant with the scent of berries and mushrooms.

Thoughtfully, she lowered the piece of paper. ‘It’s no good,’ she said. ‘We don’t even have the book. How can it work without the book?’

‘But Orpheus didn’t use the book either! Dustfinger took it away from him before he read the words on that paper!’ Farid pushed his chair back and came to stand beside her. Feeling him so close made Meggie uneasy; she didn’t try to work out why.

‘But that can’t be so!’ she murmured.

Dustfinger had gone, though.

A few hand-written sentences had opened the door between the words on the page for him – the door that Mo had tried to batter down so unsuccessfully. And it was not Fenoglio, the author of the book, who had written those sentences, but a stranger – a stranger with a curious name. Orpheus.

Meggie knew more than most people about what waited beyond the words. She herself had already opened doors, had lured living, breathing creatures out of faded, yellowing pages – and she had been there when her father read this boy out of an Arabian fairy-tale, the boy of flesh and blood now standing beside her. However, this Orpheus seemed to know far, far more than she did, even more than Mo – Farid still called him Silvertongue – and suddenly Meggie was afraid of the words on that grubby piece of paper. She put it down on her desk as if it had burned her fingers.

‘Please! Do please at least try!’ Farid’s voice sounded almost pleading. ‘Suppose Orpheus has already read Basta back after all? Dustfinger has to learn that they’re in league with each other. He thinks he’s safe from Basta in his own world!’

Meggie was still staring at the words written by Orpheus. They sounded beautiful, enchantingly beautiful. Meggie felt her tongue longing to taste them. She very nearly began reading them aloud. Horrified, she clapped her hand to her mouth.

Orpheus.

Of course she knew the name, and the story that surrounded it like a tangle of flowers and thorns. Elinor had given her a book with a beautiful poem about him in it.

Orpheus with his lute made trees

And the mountain-tops that freeze,

    Bow themselves when he did sing:

To his music plants and flowers

Ever sprung; as sun and showers

    There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,

Even the billows of the sea,

    Hung their heads, and then lay by.

In sweet music is such art,

Killing care and grief of heart

    Fall asleep, or hearing die.

She looked at Farid with a question in her eyes. ‘How old is he?’

‘Orpheus?’ Farid shrugged. ‘Twenty, twenty-five, how should I know? Difficult to say. His face is like a child’s.’

So young. But the words on the paper didn’t sound like a young man’s words. They sounded as if they knew a great many things.

‘Please!’ Farid was still looking at her. ‘You will try, won’t you?’

Meggie looked out of the window. She couldn’t help thinking of the empty fairies’ nests, the glass men who had vanished, and something Dustfinger had said to her long ago: Sometimes, when you went to the well to wash early in the morning, those tiny fairies would be whirring above the water, hardly bigger than the dragonflies you have here, and blue as violets … they weren’t very friendly, but by night they shone like glow-worms.

‘All right,’ she said, and it was almost as if someone else were answering Farid. ‘All right, I’ll try. But your feet must get better first. The world my mother talks about isn’t a place where you’d want to be lame.’

‘Nonsense, my feet are fine!’ Farid walked up and down on the soft carpet as if to prove it. ‘You can try right away as far as I’m concerned!’

But Meggie shook her head. ‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘I must learn to read it fluently first. That’s not going to be easy, given his handwriting – and it’s smeared in several places, so I’ll probably copy it out. This man Orpheus wasn’t lying. He did write something about you, but I’m not quite sure that it will do. And if I try it,’ she went on, trying to sound very casual, ‘if I try it, then I want to come with you.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, why not?’ Meggie couldn’t keep her voice from showing how hurt she felt by his horrified look.

Farid did not reply.

Didn’t he understand that she wanted to see it for herself? She wanted to see everything that Dustfinger and her mother had told her about, Dustfinger in a voice soft with longing: the fairies swarming above the grass, trees so high that you thought they would catch the clouds in their branches, the Wayless Wood, the strolling players, the Laughing Prince’s castle, the silver towers of the Castle of Night, Ombra market, the fire that danced for him, the whispering pool where the water-nymphs’ faces looked up at you …

No, Farid didn’t understand. He had probably never felt that yearning for a completely different world, any more than he felt the homesickness that had broken Dustfinger’s heart. Farid wanted just one thing: he wanted to find Dustfinger, warn him of Basta’s knife and be back with him again. He was Dustfinger’s shadow. That was the part he wanted to play, never mind what story they were in.

‘Forget it! You can’t come too.’ Without looking at Meggie he limped back to the chair she had given him, sat down and pulled off the plasters that Resa had so carefully put on his toes. ‘People can’t read themselves into a book. Even Orpheus can’t! He told Dustfinger so himself: he’s tried it several times, he said, and it just won’t work.’

‘Oh no?’ Meggie tried to sound more sure of herself than she felt. ‘You said yourself that I read better than he does. So perhaps I can make it work!’ Even if I can’t write as well as he does, she added to herself.

Farid cast her an uneasy glance as he put the plasters in his trouser pocket. ‘But it’s dangerous there,’ he said. ‘Particularly for a g—’ He didn’t finish the word. Instead he began inspecting his blood-stained toes intently.

Idiot. Meggie’s anger tasted bitter on her tongue. Who did he think she was? She probably knew more about the world she’d be reading him into than he did. ‘I know it’s dangerous,’ she said, piqued. ‘Either I go with you or I don’t read aloud from this sheet of paper. You must make up your mind. And now you’d better leave me alone. I have to think.’

Farid cast a final glance at the piece of paper with Orpheus’s words on it before he went to the door. ‘When will you try?’ he asked before he went back out into the corridor. ‘Tomorrow?’

‘Perhaps,’ was all Meggie would say.

Then she closed the door behind him, and was alone with the words that Orpheus had written.

6

The Inn of the Strolling Players

‘Thank you,’ said Lucy, opening the box and taking out a match. ‘WATCH, EVERYONE!’ she cried, her voice echoing round the White Flats. ‘WATCH! THIS IS GOODBYE TO BAD MEMORIES!’

Philip Ridley,

Dakota of the White Flats

It took Dustfinger two whole days to get through the Wayless Wood. He met very few people on the way: a few charcoal-burners blackened with soot, a ragged poacher with two rabbits slung over his shoulder and hunger written large on his face, and a group of the Prince’s game wardens, armed to the teeth, probably on the trail of some poor devil who had shot a deer to feed his children. None of them saw Dustfinger. He knew how to pass unseen, and only on the second night, when he heard a pack of wolves howling in the nearby hills, did he dare to summon fire.

Fire. So different in this world and the other one. How good it would be to hear its crackling voice again at last, and to be able to answer. Dustfinger collected some of the dry wood lying around among the trees, with wax-flowers and thyme rambling over it. He carefully unwrapped the fire-elves’ stolen honey from the leaves that kept it moist and supple, and put a tiny morsel in his mouth. How scared he had been the first time he tasted the honey! Scared that his precious booty would burn his tongue for ever and he would lose his voice. But that fear had proved groundless. The honey did burn your mouth like red-hot coals, but the pain passed off – and if you bore it long enough, then afterwards you could speak to fire, even with a mere human tongue. The effect of a tiny piece lasted for five or six months, sometimes almost a year. Just a soft whisper in the language of the flames, a snap of your fingers, and sparks would leap crackling from dry wood, damp wood, even stone.

At first the fire licked up from the twigs more reluctantly than it had in the old days – as if it couldn’t really believe he was back. But then it began to whisper and welcomed him more and more exuberantly, until he had to rein in those wildly leaping flames, imitating the sound of their crackling until the fire sank lower, like a wildcat that will crouch down and purr if you stroke its fur carefully enough.

While the fire devoured the wood and its light kept the wolves away, Dustfinger found himself thinking of the boy again. He couldn’t count the many nights when he’d had to tell Farid how fire spoke, for the boy knew only mute and sullen flames. ‘Heavens above,’ he muttered to himself as he warmed his fingers over the glowing embers, ‘you’re still missing him!’ He was glad that the marten at least was still with the boy, to keep him company as he faced the ghosts he saw everywhere.

Yes, Dustfinger did miss Farid. But there were others whom he had been missing for ten long years, missing them so much that his heart was still sore with longing. It was with those people crowding his mind that he strode out, more impatiently with every passing hour, as he approached the outskirts of the forest and what lay beyond it – the world of humans. It was not just his longing for fairies, little glass men and water-nymphs that had tormented him in the other world, nor his desire to be back in the silence under the trees. There weren’t many human beings he had missed, but he had missed those few all the more fiercely.

He had tried so hard to forget them since the day he came, half-starved, to Silvertongue’s door, and Silvertongue had explained that there could be no way back for him. It was then he had realized that he must choose. Forget them, Dustfinger – how often he had told himself that! – forget them, or the loss of them all will drive you mad. But his heart simply did not obey. Memories, so sweet and so bitter … they had both nourished and devoured him for so many years. Until a time came when they began to fade, turning faint and blurred, only an ache to be quickly pushed away because it went to your heart. For what was the use of remembering all you had lost?

Better not remember now either, Dustfinger told himself as the trees around him became younger and the canopy of leaves above grew lighter. Ten years – it’s a long time, and many may be lost and gone by now.

Charcoal-burners’ huts appeared among the trees more and more often now, but Dustfinger did not let the soot-blackened men see him. Outside the forest, people spoke of them slightingly, for the charcoal-burners lived deeper in the forest than most dared to go. Craftsmen, peasants, traders, princes: they all needed charcoal, but they didn’t like to see the men who burned it for them in their own towns and villages. Dustfinger liked the charcoal-burners, who knew almost as much about the forest as he did, although they made enemies of the trees daily. He had sat by their fires often enough, listening to their stories, but after all these years there were other stories he wanted to hear, tales of what had been going on outside the forest, and there was only one place to hear those: in one of the inns that stood along the road.

Dustfinger had one particular inn in mind. It lay on the northern outskirts of the forest, where the road appeared among the trees and began to wind uphill, past a few isolated farms, until it reached the city gate of Ombra, the capital city of Lombrica, the Laughing Prince’s realm.

The inns on the road outside Ombra had always been places where the strolling players called the Motley Folk met. They offered their skills there to rich merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen, for weddings and funerals, for festivities to celebrate a traveller’s safe return or the birth of a child. They would provide music, earthy jokes and conjuring tricks for just a few coins, taking the audience’s minds off their troubles large and small. And if Dustfinger wanted to find out what had been happening in all the years he was away, then the Motley Folk were the people to ask. The players were the newspapers of this world. No one knew what went on in it better than these travellers who were never at home anywhere.

Who knows, thought Dustfinger as he walked down the road, with the autumn sun, by now low in the sky, on his face. If I’m lucky I may even meet old acquaintances.

The road was muddy and full of puddles. Cartwheels had made deep ruts in it, and the hoofprints left by oxen and horses were full of rainwater. At this time of year it sometimes rained for days on end, as it had yesterday, when he had been glad to be under the trees where the leaves caught the rain before it drenched him to the skin. The night had been cold, all the same, and his clothes were clammy even though he had slept beside his fire. He was glad that the sky was clear today, apart from a few shreds of cloud drifting over the hills.

Luckily he had found a few coins in his old clothes. He hoped they would be enough for a bowl of soup. Dustfinger had brought nothing with him from the other world. What would he do here with the printed paper they used for money in that world? Only gold, silver and ringing copper counted in this one, with the local prince’s head on the coins if possible. As soon as his money was gone he’d have to look for a market place where he could perform, in Ombra or elsewhere.

The inn that was his destination hadn’t changed much in the last few years, either for better or for worse. It was as shabby as ever, with a few windows that were hardly more than holes in the grey stone walls. In the world where he had been living until three days ago, it was unlikely that any guests at all would have crossed such a grubby threshold. But here the inn was the last shelter available before you entered the forest, the last chance of a hot meal and a place to sleep that wasn’t damp with dew or rain … and you got a few lice and bugs thrown in for free, thought Dustfinger as he pushed the door open.

It was so dark in the room inside that his eyes took a little while to adjust to the dim light. The other world had spoilt him with all its lights, with the brightness that made even night into day there. It had accustomed him to seeing everything clearly, to thinking of light as something you could switch on and off, available whenever you wanted. But now his eyes must cope again with a world of twilight and shadows, of long nights as black as charred wood, and houses from which the sunlight was often shut out, because its heat was unwelcome …

All the light inside the inn came from the few sunbeams falling through the holes that were the windows. Dust-motes danced in them like a swarm of tiny fairies. A fire was burning in the hearth under a battered black cauldron. The smell rising from it was not particularly appetizing, even to Dustfinger’s empty stomach, but that didn’t surprise him. This inn had never had a landlord who knew the first thing about cooking. A little girl hardly more than ten years old was standing beside the cauldron, stirring whatever was simmering in it with a stick. Some thirty guests were sitting on rough-hewn benches in the dark, smoking, talking quietly and drinking.

Dustfinger strolled over to an empty place and sat down. He surreptitiously looked round for a face that might seem familiar, for a pair of the motley trousers that only the players wore. He immediately saw a lute-player by the window, negotiating with a much better dressed man than the musician himself, probably a rich merchant. No poor peasant could afford to hire an entertainer, of course. If a farmer wanted music at his wedding he must play the fiddle himself. He couldn’t have afforded even the two pipers who were also sitting by the window. At the table next to them, a group of actors were arguing in loud voices, probably about who got the best part in a new play. One still wore the mask behind which he hid when they acted in the towns’ market places. He looked strange sitting there among the others, but then all the Motley Folk were strange – with or without masks, whether they sang or danced, performed broad farces on a wooden stage or breathed fire. The same was true of their companions – travelling physicians, bonesetters, stonecutters, miracle healers. The players brought them customers.

Old faces, young faces, happy and unhappy faces: there were all of those in the smoke-filled room, but none of them seemed familiar to Dustfinger. He too sensed he was being scrutinized, but he was used to it. His scarred face attracted glances everywhere, and the clothes he wore did the rest – a fire-eater’s costume, black as soot, red as the flames that he played with, but that others feared. For a moment he felt curiously strange amidst all this once-familiar activity, as if the other world still clung to him and could be clearly seen: all the years, the endless years since Silvertongue plucked him out of his own story and stole his life without intending to, as you might crush a snail-shell in passing.

‘Hey, who have we here?’

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder, and a man leaned over him and stared at his face. His hair was grey, his face round and beardless, and he was so unsteady on his feet that for a moment Dustfinger thought he was drunk. ‘Why, if I don’t know that face!’ cried the man incredulously, grasping Dustfinger’s shoulder hard, as if to make sure it was really flesh and blood. ‘So where’ve you sprung from, my old fire-eating friend? Straight from the realm of the dead? What happened? Did the fairies bring you back to life? They always were besotted with you, those little blue imps.’

A few men turned to look at them, but there was so much noise in the dark, stuffy room that not many people noticed what was going on.

‘Cloud-Dancer!’ Dustfinger straightened up and embraced the other man. ‘How are you?’

‘Ah, and there was I thinking you’d forgotten me!’ Cloud-Dancer gave a broad grin, baring large, yellow teeth.

Oh no, Dustfinger had not forgotten him – although he had tried to, as he had tried to forget the others he had missed. Cloud-Dancer, the best tightrope-walker who ever strolled around the rooftops. Dustfinger had recognized him at once, in spite of his now grey hair and the left leg that was skewed at such a curiously stiff angle.

‘Come along, we must drink to this. You don’t meet a dead friend again every day.’ He impatiently drew Dustfinger over to a bench under one of the windows. A little sunlight fell through it from outside. Then he signalled to the girl who was still stirring the cauldron, and ordered two goblets of wine. The little creature stared at Dustfinger’s scars for a moment, fascinated, and then scurried over to the counter. A fat man stood behind it, watching his guests with dull eyes.

‘You’re looking good!’ remarked Cloud-Dancer. ‘Well-fed, not a grey hair on your head, hardly a hole in your clothes. You even still have all your teeth, by the look of it. Where’ve you been? Maybe I should set out for the same place myself – seems like a man can live pretty well there.’

‘Forget it. It’s better here.’ Dustfinger pushed back the hair from his forehead and looked round. ‘That’s enough about me. How have you been yourself? You can afford wine, but your hair is grey, and your left leg …’

‘Ah, yes, my leg.’ The girl brought their wine. As Cloud-Dancer searched his purse for the right money, she stared at Dustfinger again with such curiosity that he rubbed his fingertips together and whispered a few fire-words. Reaching out his forefinger, he smiled at her and blew gently on the fingertip. A tiny flame, too weak to light a fire but just bright enough to be reflected in the little girl’s eyes, flickered on his nail and spat out sparks of gold on the dirty table. The child stood there enchanted, until Dustfinger blew the flame out and dipped his finger in the goblet of wine that Cloud-Dancer pushed over to him.

‘So you still like playing with fire,’ said Cloud-Dancer, as the girl cast an anxious glance at the fat landlord and hurried back to the cauldron. ‘My own games are over now, sad to say.’

‘What happened?’

‘I fell off the rope, I don’t dance in the clouds any more. A market trader threw a cabbage at me – I expect I was distracting his customers’ attention. At least I was lucky enough to land on a cloth-merchant’s stall. That way I broke my leg and a couple of ribs, but not my neck.’

Dustfinger looked at him thoughtfully. ‘Then how do you make a living now you can’t walk the tightrope?’

Cloud-Dancer shrugged. ‘Believe it or not, I can still go about on foot. I can even ride with this leg of mine – if there’s a horse available. I earn my living as a messenger, although I still like to be with the strolling players, listening to their stories and sitting by the fire with them. But it’s words that nourish me now, even though I can’t read. Threatening letters, begging letters, love letters, sales contracts, wills – I deliver anything that can be written on a piece of parchment or paper. And I can be relied upon to carry a spoken message too, when it’s been whispered into my ear in confidence. I make quite a good living, although I’m not the fastest messenger money can hire. But everyone who gives me a letter to deliver knows that it really will reach the person it’s meant for. And a guarantee of that is hard to find.’

Dustfinger believed him. For a few gold pieces you can read the Prince’s own letters, that was what they used to say even in his own time. You just had to know someone who was good at forging broken seals. ‘How about our other friends?’ Dustfinger looked at the pipers by the window. ‘What are they doing?’

Cloud-Dancer took a sip of wine and pulled a face. ‘Ugh! I should have asked for honey in this. The others, well,’ he rubbed his stiff leg, ‘some are dead, some have just disappeared like you. Look over there, behind the farmer staring so gloomily into his tankard,’ he said, jerking his head at the counter. ‘There’s our old friend Sootbird, with a laugh fixed on his face like a tattoo, the worst fire-eater for miles around, although he still tries to copy you and wonders why fire would rather dance for you than him.’

‘He’ll never find out.’ Dustfinger glanced surreptitiously at the other fire-eater. As far as he remembered, Sootbird could juggle burning torches well enough, but fire didn’t dance for him. He was like a hopeless lover rejected again and again by the girl of his choice. Long ago, feeling sorry for the man’s futile efforts, Dustfinger had given him some fire-elves’ honey, but even with its aid Sootbird hadn’t understood what the flames were telling him.

‘I’ve heard that he works with powders bought from alchemists now,’ Cloud-Dancer whispered across the table, ‘and that’s an expensive pastime, if you ask me. The fire bites him so often that his hands and arms are quite red from it. But he doesn’t let it get at his face. Before he performs he smears it with grease until it shines like bacon fat.’

‘Does he still drink after every show?’

‘After the show, before the show, but he’s still a good-looking fellow, don’t you think?’

Yes, so he was, with his friendly, ever-smiling face. Sootbird was one of those entertainers who lived on the glances of others, on laughter and applause, on knowing that people will stop to look at them. Even now he was entertaining the others who were leaning against the counter with him. Dustfinger turned his back; he didn’t want to see the old mixture of admiration and envy in the other man’s eyes. Sootbird was not one of those he had missed.

‘You mustn’t think times are any easier now for the Motley Folk,’ said Cloud-Dancer across the table, low-voiced. ‘Since Cosimo’s death the Laughing Prince doesn’t let the likes of us into the markets except on feast days, and as for going up to the castle itself, that’s only when his grandson demands entertainers loudly enough. Not a very nice little boy – he’s already ordering his servants about and threatening them with whipping and the pillory. Still, he loves the Motley Folk.’

‘Cosimo the Fair is dead?’ Dustfinger nearly choked on the sour wine.

‘Yes.’ Cloud-Dancer leaned over the table, as if it wasn’t right to speak of death and misfortune in too loud a voice. ‘He rode away scarcely a year ago, beautiful as an angel, to prove his princely courage and finish off the fire-raisers who were haunting the forest then. You may remember their leader, Capricorn?’

Dustfinger had to smile. ‘Oh yes. I remember him,’ he said quietly.

‘He disappeared about the same time you did, but his gang carried on the same as ever. Firefox became their new leader. There wasn’t a village nor a farm this side of the forest that was safe from them. So Cosimo rode away to put an end to their evil deeds. He smoked out the whole band, but he didn’t come home himself. Since then, his father, who used to like eating so much that his breakfast alone could have fed three whole villages, has become known as the Prince of Sighs too. For the Laughing Prince does nothing but sigh these days.’

Dustfinger held his fingers in the dust-motes dancing above him in the sun. ‘The Prince of Sighs!’ he murmured. ‘Well, well. And what about His Noble Highness on the other side of the forest?’

‘The Adderhead?’ Cloud-Dancer looked round uneasily. ‘Hm, well, I’m afraid he’s not dead yet. Still thinks himself lord of the whole world. When his game wardens find a peasant in the forest with a rabbit he has the man blinded, he enslaves folk who don’t pay their taxes and makes them dig the ground for silver until they’re coughing up blood. The gallows outside his castle are always in use, and he likes to see a pair of motley trousers dangling there best of all. Still, few speak ill of him, because he has more spies than this inn has bedbugs, and he pays them well. But you can’t bribe Death,’ added Cloud-Dancer softly, ‘and the Adderhead is growing old. It’s said that he’s afraid of the White Women these days, and terrified of dying, so terrified that he falls to his knees by night and howls like a beaten dog. And they say his cooks have to make him calves’ blood pudding every morning, because that’s supposed to keep a man young, and he keeps a hanged man’s finger-bone under his pillow to protect him from the White Women. He’s married four times in the last seven years. His wives get younger and younger, but still none of them has given him what he wants most dearly.’

‘So the Adderhead has no son yet?’

Cloud-Dancer shook his head. ‘No, but all the same his grandson will rule us some day, because the old fox married one of his daughters off to Cosimo the Fair – Violante, known to everyone as Her Ugliness – and she had a son by Cosimo before he went away to die. They say her father made her acceptable to the Laughing Prince by giving her a valuable manuscript to take for her dowry – and the best illuminator at his court into the bargain. Yes, the Laughing Prince was once as keen on written papers as on good food, but now his precious books are mouldering away! Nothing interests him any more, least of all his subjects. There are rumours that it’s all gone exactly as the Adderhead planned, and that he himself made sure his son-in-law would never return from Capricorn’s fortress, so that his grandson could succeed to the throne.’

‘The rumours are probably true.’ Dustfinger looked at the crowd in the stuffy room. Strolling pedlars, physicians, journeymen craftsmen, players with darned sleeves. One man had an unhappy-looking brownie sitting on the floor beside him. Many looked as if they didn’t know how they were going to pay for the wine they were drinking. There were few happy faces to be seen here, few faces free of care, sickness and resentment. Well, what had he expected? Had he hoped that misfortune would have stolen away while he was gone? No. He had wanted to come back – that was all he’d hoped for in ten long years – not back to paradise, he’d just wanted to come home. Doesn’t a fish want to be back in the water, even if there’s a perch lying in wait for it?

A drunk staggered against the table and almost spilled the wine. Dustfinger reached for the jug. ‘And what about Capricorn’s men? Firefox and the rest? Are they all dead?’

‘In your dreams!’ Cloud-Dancer laughed bitterly. ‘All the fire-raisers who escaped Cosimo’s attack were welcomed to the Castle of Night with open arms. The Adderhead made Firefox his herald, and these days the Piper, Capricorn’s old minstrel, sings his dark songs in the Castle of Silver Towers. He wears silk and velvet, and his pockets are full of gold.’

‘The Piper’s still around?’ Dustfinger passed his hand over his face. ‘Heavens, have you no good news at all to tell me? Something to make me glad to be home again?’

Cloud-Dancer laughed, so loudly that Sootbird turned and glanced at him. ‘The best news is that you’re back!’ he said. ‘We’ve missed you, Master of the Fire! They say the fairies sigh as they dance by night, since you left us so faithlessly, and the Black Prince tells his bear stories about you before falling asleep.’

‘So the Prince is still around too? Good.’ Relieved, Dustfinger took a sip of the wine, although it really did taste vile. He hadn’t dared to ask about the Prince, for fear he might hear something like Cosimo’s sad story.

‘Oh, he’s doing fine!’ Cloud-Dancer raised his voice as two pedlars at the next table began to quarrel. ‘Still the same – black as pitch, quick with his tongue and even quicker with his knife, never seen without his bear.’

Dustfinger smiled. Yes, this was good news indeed. The Black Prince: bear-tamer, knife-thrower, probably still fretting angrily at the way of the world. Dustfinger had known him since they were both homeless, orphaned children. At the age of eleven they’d stood side by side in the pillory over on the far side of the forest, where they were born, and they’d still smelled of rotten vegetables two days later. They had both been born in Argenta, the Silver Land, the realm of the Adderhead.

Cloud-Dancer looked at his face. ‘Well?’ he asked. ‘When are you finally going to ask the question you’ve been wanting to ask since I clapped you on the shoulder? Go on! Before I’m too drunk to answer you.’

Dustfinger had to smile; he couldn’t help it. Cloud-Dancer had always known how to see into other people’s hearts, though you might not have thought so from his face. ‘Very well. What shall I … how is she?’

‘At last!’ Cloud-Dancer smiled with such self-satisfaction that two gaps in his teeth showed. ‘Well, first, she’s still very beautiful. Lives in a house now, doesn’t sing and dance any more, doesn’t wear brightly coloured skirts, pins up her hair like a farmer’s wife. She tends a plot of land up on the hill behind the castle, growing herbs for the physicians. Even Nettle buys from her. She lives on that, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, bringing up her children.’

Dustfinger tried to look indifferent, but Cloud-Dancer’s smile told him that he wasn’t succeeding. ‘What about that spice merchant who was always after her?’

‘What about him? He left years ago, he’s probably living in some big house by the sea, growing richer with every sack of pepper his ships bring in.’

‘Then she didn’t marry him?’

‘No. She chose another man.’

‘Another man?’ Once again Dustfinger tried to sound indifferent, and once again he failed.

Cloud-Dancer enjoyed keeping him in suspense for a while, and then went on. ‘Yes, another man. He soon died, poor fellow, but she has a child by him, a boy.’

Dustfinger said nothing, listening to his own thudding heart. His stupid heart. ‘What about the girls?’

‘Oh, the girls. Yes, them – I wonder who their father can have been?’ Cloud-Dancer was smiling again, like a little boy who has pulled off a mischievous trick. ‘Brianna’s as lovely as her mother already. Although she’s inherited your red hair.’

‘And Rosanna, the younger?’ Her hair was dark, like her mother’s.

The smile on Cloud-Dancer’s face disappeared as if Dustfinger had wiped it away. ‘The child has been dead a long time,’ he said softly. ‘There was a fever, two winters after you went away. Many died of it. Even Nettle couldn’t help them.’

Dustfinger drew bright, damp lines on the table with his forefinger, which was sticky from the wine. Dead. Much might be lost in the space of ten years. For a moment he tried desperately to remember her face, such a little face, but it blurred, as if he had spent too long over the attempt to forget it.

Amidst all the noise, Cloud-Dancer sat with him in silence for a long time. Then at last he rose, ponderously; it wasn’t easy to get up from the low bench with his stiff leg. ‘I must be off, my friend,’ he said. ‘I still have three letters to deliver, two of them up there in Ombra. I want to be at the city gate before dark, or the guards will have their little joke again and refuse to let me in.’

Dustfinger was still drawing lines on the dark wood of the table. Two winters after you went away – the words stung like nettles in his head. ‘Where are the others camping at the moment?’

‘Just outside the city wall of Ombra. Our prince’s beloved grandson celebrates his birthday soon. Every entertainer and minstrel is welcome at the castle on that day.’

Dustfinger nodded without raising his head. ‘I’ll see. Maybe I’ll go along too.’ He abruptly rose from the hard bench. The girl by the hearth looked at them. His younger daughter would have been about her age now if the fever hadn’t carried her off.

Together with Cloud-Dancer, he made his way past the crowded benches and chairs to the door. It was still fine outside, a sunny autumn day, clad in bright foliage like a strolling player.

‘Come to Ombra with me!’ Cloud-Dancer laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘My horse will carry two, and we can always find a place to sleep there.’

But Dustfinger shook his head.

‘Later,’ he said, looking down the muddy road. ‘It’s time I paid a visit.’

7

Meggie’s Decision

The idea hovered and shivered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.

Philip Pullman,

Northern Lights

Mo came home just as they were all sitting down to breakfast, and Resa kissed him as if he’d been away for weeks. Meggie hugged him harder than usual too, relieved that he had come back safe and sound, but she avoided looking him straight in the eye. Mo knew her too well. He would have spotted her guilty conscience at once. And Meggie’s conscience was very guilty.

The reason was the sheet of paper hidden among her school books up in her room, closely written in her own hand, although the words were by someone else. Meggie had spent hours copying out what Orpheus had written. Every time she got something wrong she had begun again from the beginning, for fear that a single mistake could spoil everything. She had added just three words – where the passage mentioned a boy, in the sentences left unread by Orpheus, Meggie had added ‘and the girl’. Three nondescript, perfectly ordinary words, so ordinary that it was overwhelmingly likely that they occurred somewhere in the pages of Inkheart. She couldn’t check, however, because the only copy of the book she would have needed to do that was now in Basta’s hands. Basta … the mere sound of his name reminded Meggie of black days and black nights. Black with fear.

Mo had brought her a present to make peace between them, as he always did when they had quarrelled: a small notebook bound by himself, just the right size for her jacket pocket, with a marbled paper cover. Mo knew how much Meggie liked marbled patterns; she had been only nine when he had taught her how to colour them for herself. Guilt went to her heart when he put the notebook down by her plate, and for a moment she wanted to tell him everything, just as she had always done. But a glance from Farid prevented her. That glance said, ‘No, Meggie, he won’t let you go there – ever.’ So she kept quiet, kissed Mo, whispered, ‘Thank you,’ and said no more, quickly bending her head, her tongue heavy with the words she hadn’t spoken.

Luckily no one noticed her sad expression. The others were still anxious about Farid’s news of Basta. Elinor had gone to the police, on Mo’s advice, but her visit to them had done nothing to improve her mood.

‘Just as I told you,’ she said crossly, working away at the cheese with her knife as if it were the cause of all this trouble. ‘Those fools didn’t believe a word I said. A couple of sheep in uniform would have listened better. You know I don’t like dogs, but maybe I ought to get some after all … a couple of huge black brutes to tear Basta apart the moment he comes through my garden gate. A Dobsterman dog, yes. A Dobsterman or two. Isn’t a Dobsterman the dog that eats people?’

‘You mean a Dobermann.’ Mo winked across the table at Meggie.

It broke her heart. There he was winking at her, his deceitful daughter who was planning to go right away, to a place where he probably couldn’t follow her. Perhaps her mother would understand, but Mo? No, not Mo. Never.

Meggie bit her lip so hard that it hurt, while Elinor, still in a state of agitation, went on. ‘And I could hire a bodyguard. You can do that, can’t you? One with a pistol – no, not just a pistol, armed to the teeth: knives, guns, everything, and so big that Basta’s black heart would stop at the mere sight of him! How does that sound?’

Meggie saw Mo suppress a smile with difficulty. ‘How does it sound? As if you’d been reading too many thrillers, Elinor.’

‘Well, I have read a lot of thrillers,’ she said, injured. ‘They’re very informative if you don’t usually mix much with criminals. What’s more, I can’t forget seeing Basta’s knife at your throat.’

‘Nor can I, believe me.’ Meggie saw his hand go to his throat as if, just for a moment, he felt the sharp blade against his skin again. ‘All the same, I think you’re worrying unnecessarily. I had plenty of time to think it all over on the drive back, and I don’t believe Basta will come all the way here just to get revenge. Revenge for what? For being saved from Capricorn’s Shadow – and by us? No. He’ll have had this Orpheus read him back by now. Back into the book. Basta never liked our world half as much as Capricorn did. Some things about it made him very nervous.’

He spread jam on top of his bread and cheese. Elinor watched this, as usual, with horror, and Mo, also as usual, ignored her disapproving glance.

‘So what about those threats he shouted after the boy?’

‘Well, he was angry that he’d got away, wasn’t he? I don’t have to tell you the kind of thing Basta says when he’s angry. I’m only surprised he was actually clever enough to find out that Dustfinger had the book. And I’d like to know where he found this man Orpheus too. He seems to be better than me at reading aloud.’

‘Nonsense!’ Elinor’s voice sounded cross, but relieved too. ‘The only one who may be as good at it as you are is your daughter.’

Mo smiled at Meggie and put another slice of cheese on top of the jam. ‘Thanks, very flattering. But, however that may be, our knife-happy friend Basta has gone! And I hope he’s taken the wretched book with him, and put an end to that story for ever. There’ll be no more need for Elinor to jump when she hears something rustling in the garden at night, and Darius won’t have to dream of Basta’s knife – which means that the news Farid has brought is in fact very good news! I hope you’ve all thanked him warmly!’

Farid smiled shyly as Mo raised his coffee cup to him, but Meggie saw the anxiety in his black eyes. If Mo was right, then by now Basta was in the same place as Dustfinger. And they all thought Mo was right. You could see the relief in Darius’s and Elinor’s faces, and Resa put her arms around Mo’s neck and smiled as if everything was fine again.

Elinor began asking Mo questions about the books he had so shockingly abandoned to answer Meggie’s phone call. And Darius was trying to tell Resa about the new system of classification he had thought up for Elinor’s library. But Farid looked at his empty plate. Against the background of its white china, he was probably seeing Basta’s knife at Dustfinger’s neck.

Basta. The name stuck in Meggie’s throat like a pebble. She kept thinking the same thing: if Mo was right, Basta was now where she soon hoped to be herself. In the Inkworld.

She was going to try it that very night, she would try to use her own voice and Orpheus’s words to make her way through the thicket of written letters, into the Wayless Wood. Farid had pleaded with her to wait no longer. He was beside himself with anxiety for Dustfinger, and Mo’s remarks had certainly done nothing to change that. ‘Please, Meggie!’ He had begged her again and again. ‘Please read it!’

Meggie looked across the table at Mo. He was whispering something to Resa, and she laughed. You heard her voice only when she laughed. Mo put his arm round her, and his eyes sought Meggie. When her bed was empty tomorrow morning he wouldn’t look as carefree as he did now. Would he be angry, or merely sad? Resa laughed when, for her and Elinor’s benefit, he mimicked the horror of the collector whose books he had abandoned so disgracefully when Meggie had phoned, and Meggie had to laugh too when he imitated the poor man’s voice. The collector had obviously been very fat and breathless.

Elinor was the only one who didn’t laugh. ‘I don’t think that’s funny, Mortimer,’ she said sharply. ‘Personally, I’d probably have shot you if you’d simply gone off leaving my poor books behind, all sick and dirty.’

‘Yes, I expect you would.’ Mo gave Meggie a conspiratorial look, as he always did when Elinor lectured him or his daughter on the way to treat books or the rules of her library.

Oh Mo, if only you knew, thought Meggie, if only you knew … She felt as if he would read her secret in her face any minute now. Abruptly, she pushed her chair back, muttered, ‘I’m not hungry,’ and went off to Elinor’s library. Where else? Whenever she wanted to escape her own thoughts, she went to books for help. She was sure to find something to keep her mind occupied until evening finally came and they all went to bed, suspecting nothing.

Looking at Elinor’s library, you couldn’t tell that scarcely more than a year ago it had contained nothing but a red rooster hanging dead in front of empty shelves, while Elinor’s finest books burned on the lawn outside. The jar that Elinor had filled with some of their pale ashes still stood beside her bed.

Meggie ran her forefinger over the backs of the books. They were ranged side by side on the shelves again now, like piano keys. Some shelves were still empty, but Elinor and Darius were always out and about, visiting second-hand bookshops and auctions, to replace those lost treasures with new and equally wonderful books.

Orpheus … where was the story of Orpheus?

Meggie was on her way over to the shelf where the Greeks and Romans whispered their ancient stories when the library door opened behind her, and Mo came in.

‘Resa says you have the sheet of paper that Farid brought with him in your room. Can I see it?’ He was trying to sound as casual as if he were just asking about the weather, but he’d never been any good at pretending. Mo couldn’t pretend, any more than he could tell lies.

‘Why?’ Meggie leaned against Elinor’s books as if they would strengthen her backbone.

‘Why? Because I’m curious, remember? And what’s more,’ he added, looking at the backs of the books, as if he could find the right words there, ‘and what’s more, I think it would be better to burn that sheet of paper.’

‘Burn it?’ Meggie looked at him incredulously. ‘But why?’

‘I know it sounds as if I’m seeing ghosts,’ he said, taking a book off the shelf, opening it and leafing absent-mindedly through it, ‘but that piece of paper, Meggie … I feel it’s like an open door, a door that we’d be well advised to close once and for all. Before Farid tries disappearing into that damn story too.’

‘What if he does?’ Meggie couldn’t help the cool note that crept into her voice. As if she were talking to a stranger. ‘Why can’t you understand? He only wants to find Dustfinger! To warn him against Basta.’

Mo closed the book he had taken off the shelf and put it back in its place. ‘So he says. But suppose Dustfinger didn’t actually want to take him along, suppose he left him behind on purpose? Would that surprise you?’

No. No, it wouldn’t. Meggie said nothing. It was so quiet among the books, so terribly quiet among all those words.

‘I know, Meggie,’ said Mo at last, in a low voice. ‘I know you think the world that book describes is much more exciting than this one. I understand the feeling. I’ve often imagined being right inside one of my favourite books. But we both know that once imagination turns to reality things feel quite different. You think the Inkworld is a magical place, a world of wonders – but believe me, your mother has told me a lot about it that you wouldn’t like at all. It’s a cruel, dangerous place, full of darkness and violence, ruled by brute force, Meggie, not by justice.’

He looked at her, searching her face for the understanding he had always found there before, but did not find now.

‘Farid comes from a world like that,’ said Meggie. ‘And he didn’t choose to get into this story of ours. You brought him here.’

She regretted her words the moment they were out. Mo turned away as if she had struck him. ‘Yes. You’re right, of course,’ he said, going back to the door. ‘And I don’t want to quarrel with you again. But I don’t want that paper lying about your room either. Give it back to Farid. Or else, who knows, there could be a giant sitting on your bed tomorrow morning.’ He was trying to make her laugh, of course. He couldn’t bear the two of them to be on bad terms again. He looked so depressed. And so tired.

‘You know perfectly well nothing like that can happen,’ said Meggie. ‘Why do you always worry so much? Things don’t just come out of the words on the page unless you call them. You should know that better than anyone!’

His hand was still on the door-handle.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, no doubt you’re right. But do you know what? Sometimes I’d like to put a padlock on all the books in this world. And as for that very special book … I’d be glad, now, if Capricorn really had burned the last copy back there in his village. That book brings bad luck, Meggie, nothing but bad luck, even if you won’t believe me.’

Then he closed the library door after him.

Meggie stood there motionless until his footsteps had died away. She went over to one of the windows looking out on to the garden, but when Mo finally came down the path leading to his workshop he didn’t look back at the house. Resa was with him. She had put her arm round his shoulders, and her other hand was tracing words, but Meggie couldn’t make them out. Were they talking about her?

It was sometimes an odd feeling suddenly to have not just a father, but two parents who talked to each other when she wasn’t with them. Mo went into his workshop alone, and Resa strolled back to the house. She waved to Meggie when she saw her standing at the window, and Meggie waved back.

An odd feeling …

Meggie sat among Elinor’s books for some time longer, looking first at one, then at another, searching for passages to drown out her own thoughts. But the letters on the pages remained just letters, forming neither pictures nor words, and finally Meggie went out into the garden, lay down on the grass and looked at the workshop. She could see Mo at work through its windows.

I can’t do it, she thought, as the wind blew leaves off the trees and whirled them away like brightly painted toys. No. I can’t! They’ll all be so worried, and Mo will never, ever say a word to me again.

Meggie thought all those things; she thought them over and over again. And at the same time she knew, deep down inside her, that she had made up her mind long ago.

8

The Minstrel Woman

The minstrel must go on his way,

As he has done so long,

And so a note of sad farewell

Lingers around his song.

Ah, will I e’er come back again?

My dear, alas, who knows?

The heavy hand of death is laid

On many a budding rose.

E. von Monsterberg,

quoted from

Musikanten, Gaukler und Vaganten

It was just getting light when Dustfinger reached the farm that Cloud-Dancer had described to him. It lay on a south-facing slope, surrounded by olive trees. The soil, said Cloud-Dancer, was poor and stony there, but it suited the herbs that Roxane grew. The house stood alone, with no village nearby to protect it. There was only a wall, hardly chest-high, and a wooden gate. You could see the rooftops of Ombra in the distance, the castle towers rising high above the houses, and the road winding towards the city gate – so near, and yet too far to be a refuge if highwaymen or soldiers coming home from war thought it a good idea to loot this lonely farm, where only a woman and two children lived.

Perhaps at least she has a farm-hand, thought Dustfinger as he stood behind some bushes of broom. Their branches hid him, but he had a good view of the house.

It was small, like most farmhouses – not as poor as many of them, but not much better either. The whole house would have fitted a dozen times over and more into one of the great halls where Roxane had once danced. Even the Adderhead used to invite her to his castle, poorly as he thought of the Motley Folk, for in those days everyone had wanted to hear her sing. Rich traders, the miller down by the river, the spice merchant who had sent her presents for more than a year … so many men had wanted to marry her, had given her jewellery and costly dresses, offered her fine apartments in their houses, and every one of those apartments was certainly larger than the little house where she lived now. But Roxane had stayed with the Motley Folk. She had never been one of those women among the strolling players who would sell their voices and their bodies to a lord and master for a little security, a settled home …

However, the day had come when she, too, had tired of travelling and had wanted a home for herself and her children. For no law protected those who lived on the road, and that meant the Motley Folk as well as robbers and highwaymen. If you stole from a player you need not fear any punishment, if you did violence to one of their women you could safely go back to your comfortable home, and even if you killed a traveller you need not fear the hangman. All his widow could do in revenge was strike the killer’s shadow as the sun cast it on the city wall, only his shadow, and she had to pay for her husband’s funeral too. The Motley Folk were fair game. People called them the Devil’s decoys, they liked to be entertained by them, listened to their songs and stories, watched their clever tricks – and barred their doors and gates to them when evening came. The players had to camp outside towns and villages, outside the protection of the walls, always on the move, envied for their freedom, yet despised because they served many masters for money and bread.

Not many strolling players ever left the road – the road and the lonely paths. But that was obviously what Roxane had done.

There was a stable beside the house, a barn and a bakehouse, and between them a yard with a well in the middle of it. There was a garden, fenced off to keep chickens and goats from uprooting the young plants, and a dozen narrow fields on the slope beyond. Some had been harvested, while in others the herbs stood high, bushy and heavy with their own seed. The fragrance borne across to Dustfinger on the wind made the morning air both sweet and bitter.

Roxane was kneeling in the farthest field, among plants of flax, comfrey and wild mallow. She seemed to have been at work for a long time already, although the morning mist still hung in the nearby trees. A boy of perhaps seven or eight knelt beside her. Roxane was talking to him and laughing. How often Dustfinger had summoned up her face in his memory, every part of it: her mouth, her eyes, her high forehead. It had been more difficult with every passing year, and with every year the picture had dimmed, desperately as he had tried to remember more clearly. Time had blurred her face and covered it with dust.

Dustfinger took a step forward – and two steps back. He had thought of turning back three times already, of stealing away again as silently as he had come, but he had stayed. A wind blew through the broom bushes, catching him in the back as if to give him fresh heart, and Dustfinger plucked up his courage, pushed the branches aside and walked towards the house and the fields.

The boy saw him first, and a goose rose from the tall grass by the stable and came towards him, cackling and beating her wings. Peasants were not allowed to keep dogs, that was a privilege reserved for princes, but a goose was a reliable guard too – and just as alarming. But Dustfinger knew how to avoid the gaping beak, and stroked the excited bird’s white neck until she folded her wings like a freshly ironed dress and waddled peacefully away, back to her place in the grass.

Roxane had risen to her feet. She wiped the earth off her hands on to her dress and looked at him, just looked. She had indeed pinned her hair up like a farmer’s wife, but it was obviously as long as ever and still as black, apart from a few grey strands. Her dress was as brown as the earth where she had been kneeling, no longer brightly coloured like the skirts she used to wear. But her face was still as familiar to Dustfinger as the sight of the sky, more familiar than his own reflection.

The boy picked up the rake lying on the ground beside him. He clutched it with a grimly determined air, as if he were used to protecting his mother from strangers. Clever lad, thought Dustfinger, never trust anyone, certainly not a scar-faced man like me suddenly emerging from the bushes.

What was he going to say when she asked him where he’d been?

Roxane whispered something to the boy, who reluctantly lowered the rake. Suspicion still lingered in his eyes.

Ten years.

He’d often been gone a long time – in the forest, in the towns on the coast, among the isolated villages lying in the hills around – like a fox that visited farmyards only when its stomach rumbled. ‘Your heart’s a vagabond,’ Roxane always said. Sometimes he’d had to search for her when she had moved on with the others. They lived together in the forest for a while, in an abandoned charcoal-burner’s hut, and then in a tent with other strolling players. They even managed to hold out within the solid walls of Ombra all one winter. He was always the one who wanted to move on, and when their first daughter was born and Roxane wanted to stay put more often – in some reasonably familiar place, with the other women among the strolling players, close to the shelter of walls – he would go off alone. But he always came back to her and the children, much to the annoyance of all the rich men who flocked around her wanting to make an honest woman of her.

What had she thought when he stayed away for a whole ten years? Had she, like Cloud-Dancer, thought him dead? Or did she believe he had simply left without a word, without saying goodbye?

He could not find the answer in Roxane’s face. He saw bewilderment there, anger, perhaps love too. Perhaps. She whispered something to the boy, took his hand and made him walk beside her. She went slowly, as if she must prevent her feet from going faster. He longed to run to her, leaving one of those years behind him at every step, but he had used up all his courage. He stood there as if rooted to the spot, looking at her as she came towards him after all those years, all the years for which he had no explanation … except one that she wouldn’t believe.

Only a few paces still separated them when Roxane stopped. She put her arm around the boy’s shoulder, but he pushed it away. Of course. He didn’t want his mother’s arm reminding him how young he still was. How proudly she thrust out her chin. That was the first thing he had noticed about Roxane – her pride. He couldn’t help smiling, but he bowed his head so that she couldn’t see the smile.

‘Obviously no living creature can withstand you to this day. My goose has always driven everyone else off.’ When Roxane spoke there was nothing special about her voice, none of the strength and beauty it had when she sang.

‘Well, nothing’s changed there,’ he said. ‘In all these years.’ And suddenly, as he looked at her, he finally, truly knew that he had come home. It was so strong a sensation that he felt weak at the knees. How happy he was to see her again, how dreadfully, terribly happy! Ask me, he thought. Ask me where I’ve been. Although he didn’t know how he would explain.

But she said only, ‘You seem to have been well off, wherever you’ve been.’

‘It only looks like that,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t stay there of my own free will.’

Roxane examined his face as if she had forgotten what it looked like, and stroked the boy’s hair. It was as black as hers, but his eyes were the eyes of another. They looked at him coldly. Dustfinger rubbed his hands together and whispered fire-words to his fingers until sparks fell from them like rain. Where they landed on the stony ground flowers sprang up, red flowers, each petal a tongue of flame. The boy stared at them with mingled delight and fear. In the end he crouched down beside them and put his hand out to the fiery flowers.

‘Careful!’ warned Dustfinger, but it was already too late. The boy, taken by surprise, put his burned fingertips in his mouth.

‘So the fire still obeys you,’ said Roxane, and for the first time he detected something like a smile in her eyes. ‘You look hungry. Come with me.’ And without another word she walked towards the house. The boy was still staring at the fiery flowers.

‘I’ve heard you grow herbs for the healers.’ Dustfinger stood indecisively in the doorway.

‘Yes, even Nettle buys from me.’

Nettle, small as a moss-woman, always surly, sparing of her words as a beggar with his tongue cut out. But there wasn’t a better healer in this world.

‘Does she still live in the old bear’s cave on the outskirts of the forest?’ Hesitantly, Dustfinger walked through the doorway. It was so low that he had to duck his head. The smell of freshly baked bread rose to his nostrils. Roxane placed a loaf on the table, brought cheese, oil, olives.

‘Yes, but she isn’t often there. She’s getting more eccentric all the time, she roams the forest talking to the trees and to herself, looking for plants still unknown to her. Sometimes you don’t see her for weeks, so people come to me more and more often these days. Nettle has taught me things these last few years.’ She didn’t look at him as she said that. ‘She’s shown me how to grow herbs in my fields that usually thrive only in the forest. Butterfly clover, jinglebell leaf, and the red anemones where the fire-elves get their honey.’

‘I didn’t know those anemones could be used for healing too.’

‘They can’t. I planted them because they reminded me of someone.’ This time she did look at him.

Dustfinger put out his hand to one of the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling, and rubbed the dry flowers between his fingers: lavender, where vipers hide, and helpful if they bite you. ‘I expect they grow here only because you sing for them,’ he said. ‘Didn’t folk always say: when Roxane sings the stones burst into flower?’

Roxane cut some bread, poured oil into a bowl. ‘I sing only for the stones these days,’ she said. ‘And for my son.’ She handed him the bread. ‘Here, eat this. I baked it only yesterday.’ Then, turning her back to him, she went over to the fire. Dustfinger watched her surreptitiously as he dipped a piece of bread into the oil. Two sacks of straw and a couple of blankets on the bed, a bench, a chair, a table, pitchers, baskets, bottles and bowls, bundles of dried herbs under the ceiling, crammed close together the way they used to hang in Nettle’s cave, and a chest that looked strangely fine in this otherwise sparsely furnished room. Dustfinger still remembered the cloth merchant who had given it to Roxane. It was a heavy load for his servants to carry, and it had been full to the brim with silken dresses embroidered with pearls, the sleeves edged with lace. Were they still there in the chest? Unworn, useless for working in the fields?

‘I went to Nettle when Rosanna first fell ill.’ Roxane did not turn to him as she spoke. ‘I didn’t know anything, not even how to draw the fever out of her. Nettle showed me all she knew, but nothing helped our daughter. So I rode to see the Barn Owl with her, while her fever rose higher and higher. I took her into the forest, to the fairies, but they didn’t help me either. They might have done it for you – but you weren’t there.’

Dustfinger saw her pass the back of her hand over her eyes. ‘Cloud-Dancer told me.’ He knew these were not the right words, but he could find no better.

Roxane just nodded, and passed her hand over her eyes again. ‘Some say that you can see the people you love even after death,’ she said quietly. ‘They say the dead visit you by night, or at least in your dreams; your longing for them calls them back, if only for a little while … Rosanna didn’t come. I went to women who said they could speak to the dead. I burned herbs whose fragrance was supposed to summon her, and I lay awake long nights hoping that she would come back, at least once. But it was all lies. There’s no way back. Or have you been there? Did you find one?’

‘In the realm of the dead? No.’ Dustfinger shook his head with a sad smile. ‘No, I didn’t go quite so far. But believe me, if I had, then even from there I’d have sought some way to get back to you …’

How long she looked at him! No one else had ever looked at him like that. And once again he tried to find words, the words that could explain where he had been, but there were none.

‘When Rosanna died,’ Roxane’s tongue seemed to shrink from the word, as if it could kill her daughter a second time, ‘when she died and I held her in my arms, I swore something to myself: I swore that never, never again would I be so helpless when death tried to take away someone I love. I’ve learned a great deal since then. Perhaps today I could cure her. Or perhaps not.’

She looked at him again, and when he returned her glance he did not try to hide his pain, as he usually would.

‘Where did you bury her?’

‘Behind the house, where she always used to play.’

He turned to the open door, wanting at least to see the earth under which she lay, but Roxane held him back. ‘Where have you been?’ she whispered, laying her forehead against his chest.

He stroked her hair, stroked the fine grey strands like silken cobwebs running through the sooty black, and buried his face in it. She still mixed a little bitter orange into the water when she washed her hair. Its perfume brought back so many memories that he felt dizzy. ‘Far away,’ he said. ‘I’ve been very, very far away.’ Then he just stood there holding her tightly, unable to believe that she was really there again, not just a figment of his dreams, not just a memory, blurred and vague, but a woman of flesh and blood with fragrant hair … and she was not sending him away.

How long they simply stood there like that, he didn’t know.

‘What about our older girl? How is Brianna?’ he asked at last.

‘She’s been living up at the castle for four years now. She serves Violante, the Prince’s daughter-in-law, known to everyone as Her Ugliness.’ She came out of his arms, smoothed her pinned-up hair, and reached for his hands. ‘Brianna sings for Violante, looks after her spoilt little son and reads to her,’ she said. ‘Violante adores books, but her eyesight is bad, so she can’t easily read them for herself – let alone that she must do it in secret because the Prince thinks poorly of women who read.’

‘But Brianna can read?’

‘Yes, and I’ve taught my son to read too.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Jehan. After his father.’ Roxane went over to the table and touched the flowers standing on it.

‘Did I know him?’

‘No. He left me this farm – and a son. The fire-raisers set light to our barn, he ran in to save the livestock, and the fire consumed him. Isn’t it strange – that you can love two men and fire protects one of them, but kills the other?’ She was silent for some time before she spoke again. ‘Firefox was leader of the arsonists then. They were almost worse than under Capricorn. Basta and Capricorn disappeared at the same time as you, did you know?’

‘Yes, so I’ve heard,’ he murmured, unable to take his eyes off her. How lovely she was. How beautiful. It almost hurt to look at her. When she came towards him again every movement reminded him of the day he had first seen her dance.

‘The fairies did very well,’ she said quietly, stroking his face. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d think someone had simply painted those scars on your face with a silver pencil.’

‘A lie, but a kind one,’ he said just as softly. No one knew better than Roxane where the scars came from. They would neither of them forget the day when the Adderhead had commanded her to dance and sing before him. Capricorn had been there too, with Basta and all the other fire-raisers, and Basta had stared at Roxane like a tom-cat eyeing a tasty bird. He had pursued her day after day, promising her gold and jewels, threatening and flattering her, and when she rejected him again and again, alone and in company, Basta made enquiries to discover the identity of the man she preferred to him. He lay in wait for Dustfinger on his way to Roxane, with two other men, who held him down while Basta cut his face.

‘You didn’t marry again after your husband died?’ You fool, he thought, are you jealous of a dead man?

‘No, the only man on this farm is Jehan.’

The boy appeared in the doorway as suddenly as if he had been listening behind it, just waiting for his name to be spoken. Without a word he made his way past Dustfinger and sat down on the bench.

‘The flowers are even bigger now,’ he said.

‘Did you burn your fingers on them?’

‘Only a little.’

Roxane pushed a jug of cold water over to him. ‘Here, dip them in that. And if it doesn’t help I’ll break an egg for you. There’s nothing better for burns than a little egg white.’

Jehan obediently put his fingers in the jug, still looking at Dustfinger. ‘Doesn’t he ever burn himself?’ he asked his mother.

Roxane had to smile. ‘No, never. Fire loves him. It licks his fingers, it kisses him.’

Jehan looked at Dustfinger as if his mother had said that fairy and not human blood ran in his veins.

‘Careful, she’s teasing you!’ said Dustfinger. ‘Of course it bites me too.’

‘Those scars on your face – they weren’t made by fire?’

‘No.’ Dustfinger helped himself to more bread. ‘This woman, Violante,’ he said. ‘Cloud-Dancer told me the Adderhead is her father. Does she hate the strolling players as much as he does?’

‘No.’ Roxane ran her fingers through Jehan’s black hair. ‘If Violante hates anyone, it’s her father himself. She was seven when he sent her here. She was married to Cosimo when she was twelve, and six years later she was a widow. Now there she sits in her father-in-law’s castle, trying to care for his subjects, as he has long neglected to do in his mourning for his son. Violante feels for the weak. Beggars, cripples, widows with hungry children, peasants who can’t pay their taxes – they all go to her, but Violante is a woman. Any power she has is only because everyone’s afraid of her father, even on this side of the forest.’

‘Brianna likes it at the castle.’ Jehan wiped his wet fingers on his trousers and looked at their reddened tips with concern.

Roxane dipped his fingers back in the cold water. ‘Yes, I’m afraid so,’ she said. ‘Our daughter likes to wear Violante’s cast-off clothes, sleep in a soft four-poster bed, and have the fine folk at court pay her compliments. But I don’t care for it, and she knows I don’t.’

‘The Ugly Lady sends for me too sometimes!’ There was no mistaking the pride in Jehan’s voice. ‘To play with her son. Jacopo pesters her and Brianna when they’re reading, and no one else will play with him because he always starts screaming when you have a fight with him … and when he loses he shouts that he’s going to have your head chopped off!’

‘You let him play with a prince’s brat?’ Dustfinger cast Roxane an anxious glance. ‘Whatever their age, princes are never friends to anyone. Have you forgotten that? And the same is true of their daughters, especially if the Adderhead is their father.’

Roxane made her way past him in silence. ‘You don’t have to remind me what princes are like,’ she said. ‘Your daughter is fifteen years old now, it’s a long time since she took any advice from me. But who knows, maybe she’ll listen to her father, even if she hasn’t seen him for ten years. Next Sunday the Laughing Prince is holding festivities to celebrate his grandson’s birthday. A good fire-eater is sure to be welcome at the castle, since Sootbird is the only one they’ve had to entertain them all these years.’ She stopped in the open doorway. ‘Come along, Jehan,’ she said, ‘your fingers don’t look too bad, and there’s plenty of work still to do.’

The boy obeyed without protest. At the door he cast a last, curious look at Dustfinger, then ran off – and Dustfinger was left alone in the little house. He looked at the pots and pans near the fire, the wooden bowls, the spinning-wheel in the corner and the chest that spoke of Roxane’s past. Yes, it was a simple house, not much bigger than a charcoal-burner’s hut, but it was a home – something that Roxane had always wanted. She had never liked to have only the sky above her by night … even if he made the fire grow flowers for her, flowers to watch over her sleep.

9

Meggie Reads

‘Don’t ask where the rest of this book is!’ It is a shrill cry that comes from an undefined spot among the shelves. ‘All books continue in the beyond …’

Italo Calvino,

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

When all was quiet in Elinor’s house, and the garden was bright in the moonlight, Meggie put on the dress that Resa had made for her. Several months ago, she had asked her mother what kind of clothes women wore in the Inkworld.

‘Which women?’ Resa had enquired. ‘Farmers’ wives? Strolling players? Princes’ daughters? Maidservants?’

‘What did you wear?’ Meggie asked, and Resa had gone into the nearest town with Darius and bought some dress material there: plain, coarsely woven red fabric. Then she had asked Elinor to bring the old sewing machine up from the cellar. ‘That’s the sort of dress I wore when I was living in Capricorn’s fortress as a maid,’ her hands had said, putting the finished dress over Meggie’s head. ‘It would have been too fine for a peasant woman, but it was just about good enough for a rich man’s servant, and Mortola was very keen that we shouldn’t be much worse dressed than the Prince’s maids – even if we only served a gang of fire-raisers.’

Meggie stood in front of her wardrobe mirror and examined herself in the dull glass. She looked strange to herself. And she’d be a stranger in the Inkworld too; a dress alone couldn’t alter that. A stranger, just as Dustfinger was here, she thought – and she remembered the unhappiness in his eyes. Nonsense, she told herself crossly, pushing back her smooth hair. I’m not planning to spend ten years there.

The sleeves of the dress were already a little too short, and it was stretched tight over her breasts too. ‘Good heavens, Meggie!’ Elinor had exclaimed when she realized, for the first time, that they weren’t as flat as the cover of a book any more. ‘Well, I imagine your Pippi Longstocking days are over now!’

They hadn’t found anything suitable for Farid to wear, not in the attic or in the trunks of clothes down in the cellar that smelled of mothballs and cigar smoke, but he didn’t seem to mind. ‘Who cares? If it works we’ll start out in the forest,’ he said. ‘No one will be interested in my jeans there, and as soon as we come to a village or town I’ll steal myself something to wear!’

Everything always seemed so simple to him. He couldn’t understand that Meggie felt guilty because of Mo and Resa, any more than he understood her anxiety to find the right clothes. When she confessed that she could hardly look Mo and her mother in the eye after deciding to go with him, he had just asked ‘Why?’, looking at her blankly. ‘You’re thirteen! Surely they’d be marrying you off to someone quite soon anyway?’

‘Marrying me off?’ Meggie had felt the blood rise to her face. But how could she talk about such things to a boy out of a story in the Thousand and One Nights, where all women were servants or slave-girls – or lived in a harem?

‘Anyway,’ added Farid, kindly ignoring the fact that she was still blushing, ‘you’re not intending to stay very long, are you?’

No, she wasn’t. She wanted to taste and smell and feel the Inkworld, see fairies and princes – and then come home again to Mo and Resa, Elinor and Darius. There was just one problem: the words Orpheus had written might take her into Dustfinger’s story, but they couldn’t bring her back. Only one person could write her back again – Fenoglio, the inventor of the world she wanted to visit, the creator of glass men and blue-skinned fairies, of Dustfinger and Basta too. Yes, only Fenoglio could help her to return. Every time Meggie thought of that, her courage drained away and she felt like cancelling the whole plan, striking out those three little words she had added to what Orpheus had written: ‘… and the girl’.

Suppose she couldn’t find Fenoglio, suppose he wasn’t even in his own story any more? Oh, come on! He must still be there, she told herself whenever that thought made her heart beat faster. He can’t simply write himself back, not without someone to read what he’s written aloud! But suppose Fenoglio had found another reader there, someone like Orpheus or Darius? The gift didn’t seem to be unique, as she and Mo had once thought.

No, he’s still there! I’m sure he is! thought Meggie for the hundredth time, reading her goodbye letter to Mo and Resa once more. She herself didn’t know why she had chosen to write it on the letterhead that she and Mo had designed together. That was hardly going to mollify him.

Dearest Mo, dear Resa. Meggie knew the words by heart.

Please don’t worry. Farid has to find Dustfinger to warn him about Basta, and I’m going too. I won’t stay long – I just want to see the Wayless Wood, the Laughing Prince and Cosimo the Fair, and perhaps the Black Prince and Cloud-Dancer. I want to see the fairies again, and the glass men – and Fenoglio. He’ll write me back here. You know he can do it, so don’t worry. Capricorn isn’t in the Inkworld any more, after all.

See you soon, lots of love and kisses, Meggie.

P.S. I’ll bring you a book back, Mo. Apparently there are wonderful books there, hand-written books full of pictures, like the ones in Elinor’s glass cases. Only even better. Please don’t be angry.

She had torn up this letter and rewritten it three times, but that had made matters no better. Because she knew that there were no words that could stop Mo being angry with her and Resa weeping with anxiety – the way she did the day Meggie came home from school two hours later than usual. She put the letter on her pillow – they couldn’t miss seeing it there – and went over to the mirror again. Meggie, she thought, what are you doing? What do you think you’re doing? But her reflection did not reply.

When she let Farid into her room just after midnight he was surprised to see her dress. ‘I don’t have shoes to go with it,’ she said. ‘But luckily it’s quite long, and I don’t think my boots show much, do they?’

Farid just nodded. ‘It looks lovely,’ he murmured awkwardly.

Meggie locked the door after letting him in, and took the key out of the lock so that it could be unlocked again from outside. Elinor had a second key, and though she probably wouldn’t be able to find it at first, Darius would know where it was. Meggie glanced at the letter on her pillow once more …

Over his shoulder, Farid had the rucksack she had found in Elinor’s attic. ‘Oh, he’s welcome to it,’ Elinor had said when Meggie asked her. ‘It once belonged to an uncle of mine. I hated him! The boy can put that smelly marten in it. I like the idea!’

The marten! Meggie’s heart missed a beat.

Farid didn’t know why Dustfinger had left Gwin behind, and Meggie hadn’t told him, although she knew the reason only too well. She herself, after all, had told Dustfinger what part the marten was to play in his story. He was to die a dreadful, violent death because of Gwin – if what Fenoglio had written came true.

But Farid just shook his head sadly when she asked him about the marten. ‘He’s gone,’ said the boy. ‘I tied him up in the garden, because the bookworm woman kept on at me about her birds, but he gnawed through the rope. I’ve looked for him everywhere, but I just can’t find him!’

Clever Gwin.

‘He’ll have to stay here,’ said Meggie. ‘Orpheus didn’t write anything about him, and Resa will look after him. She likes him.’

Farid nodded, and glanced unhappily at the window, but he didn’t contradict her.

The Wayless Wood – that was where Orpheus’s words would take them. Farid knew where Dustfinger had meant to go after arriving in the forest: to Ombra, where the Laughing Prince’s castle stood. And that was where Meggie hoped to find Fenoglio too. He had often told her about Ombra when they were both Capricorn’s prisoners. One night, when neither of them could sleep because Capricorn’s men were shooting at stray cats outside again, he had whispered to Meggie, ‘If I could choose to see one place in the Inkworld, then it would be Ombra … After all, the Laughing Prince is a great lover of books, which can hardly be said of his adversary the Adderhead. Yes, life must surely be good for a writer in Ombra. A room in an attic somewhere, perhaps in the alley where the cobblers and saddlers work – their trades don’t smell too bad – and a glass man to sharpen my quills, a few fairies over my bed, and I could look down into the alley through my window and see all life pass by …’

‘What are you taking with you?’ Farid’s voice startled Meggie out of her thoughts. ‘You know we’re not supposed to bring too much.’

‘Of course I know.’ Did he think that just because she was a girl she needed a dozen dresses? All she was going to carry was the old leather bag that had always gone with her and Mo on their travels when she was little. It would remind her of Mo, and she hoped that in the Inkworld it would be as inconspicuous as her dress. But the things she’d stuffed into it would certainly attract attention if anyone saw them: a hairbrush made of plastic, modern like the buttons on the cardigan she had packed; also a couple of pencils, a penknife, a photograph of her parents and one of Elinor. She had thought hard about what book to take. Going without one would have seemed to her like setting off naked, but it mustn’t be a heavy book, so it had to be a paperback. ‘Books in beach clothes,’ Mo called them, ‘badly dressed for most occasions, but useful when you’re on holiday.’ Elinor didn’t have a single paperback on her shelves, but Meggie herself owned a few. In the end she had decided on one that Resa had given her, a collection of stories set near the lake that lay close to Elinor’s house. That way she would be taking a little bit of home with her – for Elinor’s house was her home now, more than anywhere else had ever been. And who knew, maybe Fenoglio would be able to use the words in it to write her back again, back into her own story …

Farid had gone to the window. It was open, and a cool wind was blowing into the room, moving the curtains that Resa had made. Meggie shivered in her new dress. The nights were still very mild, but what would the season be in the Inkworld? Perhaps it was winter there …

‘I ought to say goodbye to him, at least,’ murmured Farid. ‘Gwin!’ he called softly into the night air, clicking his tongue.

Meggie quickly pulled him away from the window. ‘Don’t do that!’ she snapped. ‘Do you want to wake everyone up? I’ve already told you, Gwin will be fine here. He’s probably found a female marten by now. There are a few around the place. Elinor’s always afraid they’ll eat the nightingale that sings outside her window in the evening.’

Farid looked very unhappy, but he stepped back from the window. ‘Why are you leaving it open?’ he asked. ‘Suppose Basta …’ He didn’t finish his sentence.

‘Elinor’s alarm system works even if there’s an open window,’ was all Meggie said, while she put the notebook Mo had given her in her bag. There was a reason why she didn’t want to close the window. One night in a hotel by the sea, not far from Capricorn’s village, she had persuaded Mo to read her a poem. A poem about a moon-bird asleep in a peppermint wind. Next morning the bird was fluttering against the window of their hotel bedroom, and Meggie couldn’t forget how its little head kept colliding with the glass again and again. Her window must stay open.

‘We’d better sit close to each other on the sofa,’ she said. ‘And sling your rucksack over your back.’

Farid obeyed. He sat down on the sofa as hesitantly as he had on her chair. It was an old, velvet, button-backed sofa with tassels, its pale green upholstery very worn. ‘You need somewhere comfortable to sit and read,’ Elinor had said when she asked Darius to put it in Meggie’s room. What would Elinor say when she found that Meggie had gone? Would she understand? She’ll probably swear a lot, thought Meggie, kneeling beside her school bag. And then she’ll say, ‘Damn it, why didn’t the silly girl take me too?’ That would be Elinor all over. Meggie suddenly wanted to see her again, but she tried not to think of any of them any more – not Elinor or Resa or Mo. Particularly not Mo, for she might have only too clear an idea of what he’d look like when he found her letter … no, stop it, she told herself.

She quickly reached into her school bag and took out her geography book. The sheet of paper that Farid had brought with him was in there, beside her own copy of it, but Meggie took out only the copy in her own handwriting. Farid moved aside as she sat down next to him, and for a moment Meggie thought she saw something like fear in his eyes.

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘Have you changed your mind?’

But he shook his head. ‘No. It’s just … it hasn’t ever happened to you, has it?’

‘What?’ For the first time Meggie noticed that he had a beard coming. It looked odd on his young face.

‘Well, what – what happened to Darius.’

Ah, that was it. He was afraid of arriving in Dustfinger’s world with a twisted face, or a stiff leg, or mute like Resa.

‘No, of course not!’ Meggie couldn’t help the note of injury that crept into her voice. Although – could she really be sure that Fenoglio had arrived unharmed on the other side? Fenoglio, the Steadfast Tin Soldier … she had never seen people again after sending them away into the letters on the page. She’d seen only those who came out of the pages. Never mind. Don’t think so much, Meggie. Read, or you may lose courage before you even feel the first word on your tongue …

Farid cleared his throat, as if he, and not Meggie, must start reading.

So what was she waiting for? Did she expect Mo to knock on her door and wonder why she had locked it? All had been quiet next door for some time. Her parents were asleep. Don’t think of them, Meggie! Don’t think of Mo or Resa or Elinor, just think of the words – and the place where you want them to take you. A place of marvels and adventures.

Meggie looked at the letters on the page, black and carefully shaped. She tried the taste of the first few syllables on her tongue, tried to picture the world of which the words whispered, the trees, the birds, the strange sky … Then she began to read. Her heart was thudding almost as violently as it had on the night she had been meant to use her voice to kill. Yet this time she had to do so much less. She had only to open a door, nothing but a door between the words, just large enough for her and Farid to pass through …

A fresh fragrance rose to her nostrils, the scent of thousands and thousands of leaves. Then everything disappeared: her desk, the lamp beside her, the open window. The last thing that Meggie saw was Gwin, sitting on the window-sill, snuffling and looking at them.

10

The Inkworld

Thus sharply did the terrified three learn the difference between an island of make-believe and the same island come true.

J.M. Barrie,

Peter Pan

It was bright. Sunlight filtered through countless leaves. Shadows danced on a nearby pool, and a swarm of tiny red elves was whirring above the dark water.

I can do it! That was Meggie’s first thought when she sensed that the letters on the page really had let her through and she wasn’t in Elinor’s house any more, but somewhere very, very different. I can do it. I can read myself into a story. She really had slipped through the words, as she’d so often done in her mind. But this time she wouldn’t have to slip into the skin of a character in the story – no, this time she would be in the story herself, part of it. Her very own self. Meggie. Not even that man Orpheus had done it. He had read Dustfinger home, but he couldn’t read himself into the book, right into it. No one but Meggie had ever done it before, not Orpheus, not Darius, not Mo.

Mo.

Meggie looked round almost as if she hoped he might be standing behind her, as usual when they were in a strange place. But only Farid was there, looking around as incredulously as she was. Elinor’s house was far, far away. Her parents were gone. And there was no way back.

Quite suddenly, Meggie felt fear rise in her like black, brackish water. She felt lost, terribly lost, felt it in every part of her. She didn’t belong here! What had she done?

She stared at the paper in her hand, so useless now, the bait she had swallowed. Fenoglio’s story had caught her. The sense of triumph that had carried her away just now was gone as if it had never been. Fear had extinguished it, fear that she had made a terrible mistake and it could never be put right. Meggie tried desperately to find some other feeling in her heart, but there was nothing, not even curiosity about the world now surrounding her. I want to go back! That was all she could think.

But Farid turned to her and smiled.

‘Look at those trees, Meggie!’ he said. ‘They really do grow right up to the sky. Look at them!’

He ran his fingers over his face, felt his nose and mouth, looked down at himself, and on realizing that he was obviously entirely unharmed began leaping about like a grasshopper. He made his way over the tree roots that wound through the moss which grew thick and soft between them, jumped from root to root – and then turned round and round, laughing, arms outstretched, until he was dizzy and staggered back against the nearest tree. Still laughing, he leaned against its trunk, which was so vast that five grown men with their arms stretched out could hardly have encompassed it, and looked up into the tangle of twigs and branches.

‘You did it, Meggie!’ he cried. ‘You did it! Hear that, Cheeseface?’ he shouted at the trees. ‘She can do it, using your words. She can do what you’ve tried thousands of times! She can do it and you can’t!’ He laughed again, as gleefully as a small child. Until he noticed that Meggie was perfectly silent.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked, indicating her mouth in alarm. ‘You haven’t …?’

Lost her voice, like her mother? Had she? Her tongue felt heavy, but the words came out. ‘No. No, I’m all right.’

Farid smiled with relief. His carefree mood soothed Meggie’s fears, and for the first time she really looked around her. They were in a valley, a broad, densely wooded valley among hills with trees standing so close together on their slopes that the crowns grew into each other. Chestnut and oak on the hillsides, ash and poplar further down, mingling their leaves with the silvery foliage of willows. The Wayless Wood deserved its name. It seemed to have no end and no beginning, like a green sea where you could drown as easily as in the wet and salty waves of its sister the Ocean.

‘Isn’t this incredible? Isn’t it amazingly wonderful?’ Farid laughed so exuberantly that an animal of some kind, invisible among the leaves, snarled angrily down at them. ‘Dustfinger told me about it, but it’s even better than he said. How can there be so many different kinds of leaves? And just look at all the flowers and berries! We won’t starve here!’ Farid picked a berry, round and blue-black, sniffed it and put it in his mouth. ‘I once knew an old man,’ he said, wiping the juice from his lips, ‘who used to tell stories at night by the fire. Stories about paradise. This is just how he described it: carpets of moss, pools of cool water, flowers and sweet berries everywhere, trees growing up to the sky, and the voices of their leaves speaking to the wind above you. Can you hear them?’

Yes, Meggie could. And she could see elves, swarms of them, tiny creatures with red skins. Resa had told her about them. They were swirling like midges above a pool of water, only a few steps away, which reflected the leaves of the trees. It was surrounded by bushes that bore red flowers, and the water was covered with their faded petals.

Meggie couldn’t see any blue fairies, but she did see butterflies, bees, birds, spiders’ webs still silvery with dew although the sun was high in the sky, lizards, rabbits … there was a rustling and a rushing all around them, a crackling and a scratching and a pulsing, there was a hissing and a cooing and a chirping. This world seemed to be bursting with life, and yet it seemed quiet as well, wonderfully quiet, as if time didn’t exist, as if there were no beginning or end to the present moment.

‘Do you think he came here too?’ Farid looked round wistfully, as if hoping that Dustfinger would appear among the trees at any moment. ‘Yes, of course. Orpheus must have read him to this very place, don’t you think? He told me about that pool, and the red elves, and the tree over there with the pale bark where you can find their nests. “And then you must follow a stream,” he said, “a stream going north. For in the south lies Argenta where the Adderhead rules, and you’ll be hanged from a gallows there quicker than you can say your name.” But I’d better take a look from up there!’ Quick as a squirrel, he climbed a sapling, and before Meggie knew it he had caught hold of a woody vine and was hauling himself up to the top of a gigantic tree.

‘What are you doing?’ she called after him.

‘You can always see more from further up!’

Farid was hardly visible among the branches now. Meggie folded up the sheet of paper with Orpheus’s words on it and put it in her bag. She didn’t want to see the letters any more; they seemed to her like poisonous beetles, like Alice in Wonderland’s bottle saying ‘Drink me!’ Her fingers touched the notebook with its marbled paper cover, and suddenly she had tears in her eyes.

‘When you come to a charcoal-burner’s hut, Dustfinger said, then you know you’re out of the Wayless Wood.’ Farid’s voice came down to her like the sound of a strange bird. ‘I remember every word he said. If I want them to, words stick in my memory like flies sticking to resin. I don’t need paper to put them on, not me! You just have to find the charcoal-burners and the black patches they leave on the forest floor, he said, and then you know the world of humans isn’t far off. Follow the stream that springs from the water-nymphs’ pool. It will lead you straight to Lombrica and the Laughing Prince’s realm. Soon you’ll see his castle on the eastern slope of a hill, high above a river. It’s grey as a wasps’ nest, and the city is all around it, with a market place where you can breathe fire right up to the sky …’

Meggie was kneeling among the flowers – violets and purple bellflowers – most of them fading now, but they were still fragrant, and smelled so sweet that she felt dizzy. A wasp was zooming around among them – or did it just look like a wasp? How much had Fenoglio copied from his own world and how much had he made up? It all seemed so familiar and yet so strange.

‘Isn’t it lucky he told me about everything in such detail?’ Meggie saw Farid’s bare feet. He was swinging through the leaves at a dizzy height. ‘Dustfinger often couldn’t sleep at night. He was afraid of his dreams. I used to wake him up when they were bad, and then we sat by the fire and I asked him questions. I do that very well. I’m brilliant at asking questions. You bet I am!’

Meggie couldn’t help smiling at the pride in his voice. She looked up at the canopy of foliage, and saw that the leaves were turning colour, as they had been in Elinor’s garden too. Did the two worlds keep time with each other? And had they always kept time, or did their stories become inextricably linked only on the day when Mo brought Capricorn, Basta and Dustfinger from one into the other? She would never find out the answer, for who could know?

There was a rustling under one of the bushes, a thorny shrub, heavy with dark berries. Wolves and bears, cats with dappled fur – Resa had told her about them too. Involuntarily, Meggie stepped back, but her dress caught on some tall thistles white with their own downy seed-heads.

‘Farid?’ she called, cross with herself when she heard the fear in her voice. ‘Farid!’

But he didn’t seem to hear her. He was still chattering away to himself high among the branches, carefree as a bird in the sunshine, while she, Meggie, was down here among the shadows. Shadows that moved, had eyes, growled … was that a snake? She freed her dress with such a violent tug that it tore, and stumbled further back until she came up against the rough trunk of an oak tree. The snake slid past quickly, as if the sight of Meggie had made it mortally afraid too, but there was still something moving under the bush, and finally a head pushed out from the prickly twigs. It was furry and round-nosed, and it had tiny horns between its ears.

‘No!’ whispered Meggie. ‘Oh no!’

Gwin stared at her almost reproachfully, as if he thought it was her fault that his fur was full of fine prickles.

Farid’s voice above her was more distinct now. Obviously he was finally coming down from his lookout post. ‘No hut, no castle, nothing in sight!’ he called. ‘It’ll be a few days before we get out of this forest, but that’s how Dustfinger wanted it. He wanted to take his time coming back to the world of humans. I think he was almost more homesick for the trees and fairies than for other people. Well, I don’t know about you – and the trees are beautiful, very beautiful – but personally I’d like to see the castle too, and the other strolling players, and the men-at-arms.’

He jumped down on the grass, hopped on one leg through the carpet of blue flowers – and let out a cry of delight when he saw the marten. ‘Gwin! Oh, I knew you’d heard me! Come here, you son of a devil and a snake! Won’t Dustfinger be surprised to see we’ve brought him his old friend after all!’

Oh, won’t he just! thought Meggie. Fear will take his breath away – he’ll go weak at the knees.

The marten jumped on to Farid’s knee as the boy crouched down in the grass, and affectionately licked his chin. He would have bitten anyone else, even Dustfinger, but with Farid he acted like a young kitten.

‘Shoo him away, Farid!’ Meggie’s voice sounded sharper than she had intended.

‘Shoo him away?’ Farid laughed. ‘What are you talking about? Hear that, Gwin? What have you done to offend her? Left a dead mouse on one of her precious books?’

‘Shoo him away, I said! He’ll be all right on his own, you know he will. Please!’ she added, seeing his horrified expression as he looked at her.

Farid straightened up, the marten in his arms. His face was more hostile than she had ever seen it before. Gwin jumped up on his shoulder and stared at Meggie as if he had understood every word she said. Very well, then, she’d just have to tell Farid – but how?

‘Didn’t Dustfinger tell you?’

‘Tell me what?’ He looked at her as if he’d like to hit her.

Above them, the wind blew through the leaf canopy like a menacing whisper.

‘If you don’t shoo Gwin away,’ said Meggie, although each word was difficult to utter, ‘then Dustfinger will. And he’ll chase you away too.’

The marten was still staring at her.

‘Why would he do a thing like that? You don’t like him, that’s what it is. You never liked Dustfinger, and you don’t like Gwin either.’

‘That’s not true! You don’t understand!’ Meggie’s voice was loud and shrill. ‘He’s going to die because of Gwin! Dustfinger dies, that’s how Fenoglio wrote the story! Perhaps it’s been changed, perhaps this is a new story we’re in and everything in the book is just a pile of dead words, but all the same …’

Meggie hadn’t the heart to go on. Farid stood there shaking his head again and again, as if her words were like needles digging into it, hurting him.

‘He’s going to die?’ His voice was barely audible. ‘He dies in the book?’

How lost he looked standing there with the marten still perched on his shoulder! He looked at the trees around them with horror, as if they were all intent on killing Dustfinger. ‘But – but if I’d known that,’ he stammered, ‘I’d have torn up Cheeseface’s wretched piece of paper! I’d never have let him read Dustfinger back!’

Meggie just looked at him. What could she say?

‘Who kills him? Basta?’

Two squirrels were chasing about overhead. They had white spots as if someone had shaken a paintbrush over them. The marten wanted to go after them, but Farid seized his tail and held it tight.

‘One of Capricorn’s men. That’s all Fenoglio wrote!’

‘But they’re all dead!’

‘We don’t know that.’ Meggie would have been only too glad to comfort him, but she didn’t know how. ‘Suppose they’re still alive in this world? And even if they aren’t – Mo and Darius didn’t read all of them out. Some are still sure to be here. Dustfinger tries to save Gwin from them, and they kill him. That’s what it says in the book, and Dustfinger knows it. That’s why he left the marten behind.’

‘Yes, so he did.’ Farid looked round as if seeking some solution, a way he could send the marten back again. Gwin nuzzled his cheek with his nose, and Meggie saw the tears in Farid’s eyes.

‘Wait here!’ he said, and he turned abruptly and went off with the marten. He had gone only a few paces before the forest swallowed him up like a frog swallowing a fly, and Meggie stood there on her own among the flowers. Some of them grew in Elinor’s garden too, but this wasn’t Elinor’s garden. This wasn’t even the same world. And this time she couldn’t just close the book and be back again: back in her own room, on the sofa that smelled of Elinor. The world beyond the words on the page was wide – hadn’t she always known it? – wide enough for her to be lost there forever. Only one person could write her out of it again – an old man – and Meggie didn’t even know where he lived in this world he had created. She didn’t even know if he was still alive. Could this world live if its creator was dead? Why not? Books don’t stop existing just because their authors have died, do they?

What have I done? thought Meggie as she stood there waiting for Farid to come back. Oh Mo, what have I done? Can’t you fetch me back again?

11

Gone

I woke up and knew he was gone. Straight away I knew he was gone. When you love somebody you know these things.

David Almond,

Skellig

Mo knew at once that Meggie was gone. He knew it the moment he knocked on her door and only silence replied. Resa was down in the kitchen with Elinor, laying the table for breakfast. The clink of the plates made its way upstairs to him, but he hardly heard it; he just stood there outside the closed door, listening to his own heart. It was beating far too loudly, far too fast. ‘Meggie?’ He pressed the handle down, but the door was locked. Meggie never locked her door, never.

His heart beat even faster, as if to choke him. The silence behind the door sounded terribly familiar. Just such a silence had met his ears once before, when he had called Resa’s name again and again. He had waited ten years for an answer.

Not again, please God, not again. Not Meggie.

It seemed as if he heard the book whispering on the other side of the door: Fenoglio’s accursed story. He thought he heard the pages rustling, greedy as pale teeth.

‘Mortimer?’ Elinor was standing behind him. ‘The eggs are getting cold. Where are you and Meggie? Oh heavens!’ She looked at his face with concern and reached for his hand. ‘What’s the matter with you? You’re pale as death.’

‘Do you have a spare key for Meggie’s door, Elinor?’

She understood at once. Just like Mo, she guessed what had happened behind that locked door, presumably last night when they were all asleep. She pressed his hand. Then she turned without a word and hurried downstairs. But Mo just stood there leaning against the locked door, heard Elinor call Darius and begin to search for the key, cursing, and he stared at the books standing side by side on her shelves all down the long corridor. Resa came running upstairs, pale-faced. Her hands fluttered like frightened birds as she asked him what had happened. What was he to say?

‘Can’t you imagine? Haven’t you told her about the place often enough?’ He tried the handle again, as if that could change anything. Meggie had covered the whole door with quotations. They looked to him now like magic spells written on the white paint in a childish hand. Take me to another world! Go on! I know you can do it. My father has shown me how. Odd that your heart didn’t simply stop when it hurt so much. But his heart hadn’t stopped ten years ago either, when the words on the page swallowed Resa up.

Elinor pushed him aside. She was holding the key in her trembling fingers, and she impatiently put it in the lock. Crossly, she called Meggie’s name, as if she too hadn’t guessed long ago that nothing but silence waited behind that door: the same silence as on the night that had taught Mo to fear his own voice.

He was the last to enter the empty room, and he did so hesitantly. There was a letter on Meggie’s pillow. Dearest Mo … he didn’t read on, he didn’t want to see the words that would only pierce him to the heart. As Resa picked up the letter he looked round the room – his eyes searching for another sheet of paper, the one the boy had brought with him – but it was nowhere to be found. Well, of course not, you fool, he told himself. She’s taken it with her; after all, she must have been holding it while she read.

Only years later would he discover from Meggie that the original sheet of paper with Orpheus’s writing on it had been there in her room all the time, hidden between the pages of a book – where else? Her geography book. Suppose he had found it? Would he have been able to follow Meggie? No, probably not. The story had another path in store for him, a darker and more difficult path.

‘Perhaps she’s only gone off with the boy! Girls of her age do that kind of thing. Not that I know much about it, but …’ Elinor’s voice reached him as if from very far away. In answer, Resa handed her the letter that had been waiting on the pillow.

Gone. Meggie was gone.

He had no daughter any more.

Would she come back, like her mother? Fished out of the sea of words again by some other voice? If so, when? In ten years’ time, like Resa? She’d be grown up by then. Would he even recognize her? Everything was blurred before his eyes: Meggie’s school things on the desk in front of the window, her clothes, carefully hanging over the back of the chair as if she really meant to come back, her soft toys beside the bed, their furry faces kissed threadbare, although it was a long time since Meggie had needed them to help her get to sleep. Resa began crying without a sound, one hand pressed to her mute mouth. Mo wanted to comfort her, but how could he with such despair in his own heart?

He turned, pushed aside Darius, who was standing there in the open doorway with a sad, owl-like gaze, and went to his study, where those damned notebooks were still stacked among his own papers. He swept them off the desk one by one, as if he could silence the words that way – all the accursed words that had bewitched his child, luring her away like the Pied Piper in the story, to a place where he had already been unable to follow Resa. Mo felt as if he were dreaming the same nightmare all over again, but this time he didn’t even have a book whose pages he could have searched for Meggie.

Later, he couldn’t say how he had got through the rest of that day without going mad. All he remembered was wandering for hours through Elinor’s garden, as if he might find Meggie somewhere there among the old trees where she liked to sit and read. When darkness fell and he set out to look for Resa, he found her in Meggie’s room. She was sitting on the empty bed, staring at three tiny creatures circling just below the ceiling, as if they were looking for the door they had come through. Meggie had left the window open, but they didn’t fly out, perhaps because the strange, black night frightened them.

‘Fire-elves,’ said Resa’s hands when he sat down beside her. ‘If they settle on your skin you must shake them off, or they’ll burn you.’

Fire-elves. Mo remembered reading about them in the book. Something always came back in return. There seemed to be just that one book in the whole world.

‘Why three of them?’ he asked. ‘One for Meggie, one for the boy …’

‘I think the marten went too,’ said Resa’s hands.

Mo almost laughed out loud. Poor Dustfinger, he obviously couldn’t shake off his bad luck – but Mo could feel no sympathy for him. Not this time. Without Dustfinger the words on the sheet of paper would never have been written, and he would still have a daughter.

‘Do you think at least she’ll like it there?’ he asked, laying his head in Resa’s lap. ‘After all, you liked it, didn’t you? Or, at any rate, you told her so.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said her hands. ‘So very sorry.’

But he held her fingers tight. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said softly. ‘I was the one who brought the damned book into the house, remember?’ And then they were both silent. In silence, they watched the poor, lost elves. At some point they did fly through the window, and into the strange night. As their tiny red bodies disappeared into the blackness like sparks going out, Mo wondered whether Meggie was wandering through an equally black night at this moment. The thought pursued him into his dark dreams.

12

Uninvited Guests

‘You people with hearts,’ he said once, ‘have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.’

L. Frank Baum,

The Wizard of Oz

On the day when Meggie disappeared silence moved back into Elinor’s house, but not the silence of the old days when only her books lived there with her. The silence that now filled the rooms and corridors tasted of sorrow. Resa wept a great deal, and Mortimer said nothing, as if paper and ink had swallowed up not just his daughter, but all the words in the world with her. He spent a lot of time in his workshop, ate little, hardly slept – and on the third day Darius, looking very anxious, went to Elinor and told her that Silvertongue was packing up all his tools.

When Elinor entered his workshop, out of breath because Darius had been tugging her along behind him so fast, Mortimer was throwing the stamps he used for gold leaf into a crate, pell-mell – tools that he normally handled as carefully as if they were made of glass.

‘What the devil are you doing?’ enquired Elinor.

‘What does it look like?’ he replied, and began clearing away his sewing frame. ‘I’m going to find another profession. I never want to touch a book again, curse them all. Other people can listen to the stories they tell and mend the clothes they wear. I want nothing more to do with them.’

When Elinor went to fetch Resa to help her, Resa just shook her head.

‘Well, I can understand why those two are useless just now,’ commented Elinor, as she and Darius sat at breakfast by themselves yet again. ‘How could Meggie do a thing like that to them? What was her idea – did she want to break her poor parents’ hearts? Or prove once and for all that books are dangerous?’

Darius had no answer but silence. He had been the same all these last few sad days.

‘For heaven’s sake, all of you silent as the grave!’ Elinor snapped at him. ‘We must do something to get the silly creature back. Anything. Good God, it can’t be as difficult as all that! After all, there are no fewer than two Silvertongues under this roof!’

Darius looked at her in alarm and choked on his tea. He had left his gift unused for so long that no doubt it seemed like a dream to him – and he didn’t want to be reminded of it.

‘All right, all right, you don’t have to read aloud,’ Elinor assured him impatiently. Good God, that owlish gaze of horror! She could have shaken him. ‘Mortimer can do it! But what should he read? Think, Darius! If we want to fetch her back, should it be something about the Inkworld or about our own world? Oh, I’m all confused. Perhaps we can write something like: Once upon a time there was a grumpy middle-aged woman called Elinor who loved nothing but her books, until one day her niece moved in with her, along with the niece’s husband and daughter. Elinor liked that, but one day the daughter set off on a very, very stupid journey, and Elinor swore that she would give all her books away if only the child would come home. She packed them up in big crates, and as she was putting the last book in, Meggie walked through the doorway … Heavens above, don’t stare at me in that sympathetic way!’ she snapped at Darius. ‘I’m trying to do something, at least! And you yourself keep saying: Mortimer is a master, it takes him only a couple of sentences!’

Darius adjusted his glasses. ‘Yes, only a couple of sentences,’ he said, in his gentle, uncertain voice. ‘But they must be sentences describing a whole world, Elinor. The words must make music. They must be so closely interwoven that the voice doesn’t fall through.’

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ Elinor said brusquely – although she knew he was right. Mortimer had once tried to explain it to her in almost the same way: the mystery of why not every story would come to life. But she didn’t want to hear about that, not now. Damn you, Elinor, she thought bitterly, damn you three times over for all those evenings you spent with the silly child imagining what it would be like to live in that other world, among fairies, brownies and glass men. There had been many such evenings, very many, and Mortimer had often put his head round the door and asked, sarcastically, if they couldn’t discuss something other than Wayless Woods and blue-skinned fairies just for once.

Well, at least Meggie knows all she needs to know about that world, thought Elinor, wiping the tears from her eyes. She realizes she must be careful of the Adderhead and his men-at-arms, and she mustn’t go too far into the forest or she’ll probably be eaten, torn to pieces or trodden underfoot. And she’d be well advised not to look up when she passes a gallows. She knows she must bow when a prince rides by, and that she can still wear her hair loose because she’s only a girl … damn it, here came the tears again! Elinor was mopping the corners of her eyes with the hem of her blouse when someone rang the front door bell.

Many years later, she was still angry with herself for the stupidity that didn’t warn her to look through the spy-hole in the door before opening it. Of course she had thought it was Resa or Mortimer outside. Of course. Stupid Elinor. Stupid, stupid Elinor. She had realized her mistake only when she opened the door, and there stood the stranger in front of her.

He was not very tall and rather too well-fed, with pale skin and equally pale fair hair. The eyes behind his rimless glasses looked slightly surprised, almost innocent like a child’s. He opened his mouth to speak as Elinor put her head round the door, but she cut him short.

‘What are you doing here?’ she barked. ‘This is private property. Didn’t you see the notice down by the road?’

He had come in a car; the impudent fool had simply brought it up her drive! Elinor saw it, a dusty, dark blue vehicle, standing beside her own station wagon. She thought she saw a huge dog on the passenger seat. That was the last straw!

‘Yes, of course I did!’ The stranger’s smile was so innocent that it suited his childish face. ‘Why, no one could miss seeing the notice, and I really do apologize, Signora Loredan, for my sudden and unannounced arrival.’

Heavens above – it took Elinor’s breath away. The moon-faced man’s voice was almost as beautiful as Mortimer’s, deep and velvety like a cushion. Coming from that round face with its childlike eyes, it was so incongruous that you felt almost as if the stranger had swallowed its real owner and taken over his voice.

‘Never mind the apologies!’ said Elinor abruptly, once she had got over her surprise. ‘Just get out.’ And so saying, she was about to close the door again, but the stranger only smiled (a smile that no longer looked quite so innocent) and jammed his shoe between the door and the frame. A dusty brown shoe.

‘Do forgive me, Signora Loredan,’ he said softly, ‘but I’ve come about a book. A truly unique book. I have heard, of course, that you have a remarkable library, but I can assure you that you don’t yet have this book in your collection.’

With an almost reverent expression on his face, he put a hand under his pale, creased linen jacket. Elinor recognized the book at once. Of course. It was the only book that made her heart beat faster not because it was a particularly fine edition, or because she longed to read it. No. At the sight of that book Elinor’s heart beat faster for only one reason: because she feared it like a ferocious animal.

‘Where did you get that from?’ She answered her question herself, but unfortunately a little too late. Suddenly, very suddenly, the memory of the boy’s story came back to her. ‘Orpheus!’ she whispered – and she wanted to shout, loud enough for Mortimer to hear her in his workshop, but before a sound could come out of her mouth someone slipped out of the cover of the rhododendron bushes by the front door, quick as a lizard, and put his hand over her mouth.

‘Well, my lady bookworm,’ a man’s voice purred in her ear. Elinor had so often heard that voice in her dreams, and every time she found herself fighting for breath at the sound of it! Even in broad daylight the effect was just as bad. Basta pushed her roughly back into the house. Of course, he had a knife in his hand; Elinor could as easily imagine Basta without a nose as without a knife. Orpheus turned and waved to the strange car. A man built like a wardrobe got out, strolled around the car at a leisurely pace, and opened the back door. An old woman stuck her legs out and reached for his arm.

Mortola. The Magpie.

Another regular visitor to Elinor’s nightmares.

The old woman’s legs were thickly bandaged under her dark stockings, and she leaned on a stick as she walked towards Elinor’s house on the wardrobe-man’s arm. She hobbled into the hall with a grimly determined expression, as if she were taking possession of the whole house, and the look she gave Elinor was so openly hostile that its recipient felt weak at the knees, hard as she tried to hide her fear. A thousand dreadful memories came back to her – memories of a cage stinking of raw meat, a square lit by the beams of glaring car headlights, and fear, dreadful fear …

Basta closed the door of the house behind Mortola. He hadn’t changed: the same thin face, the same way of narrowing his eyes, and there was an amulet dangling around his neck to ward off the bad luck that Basta thought lurked under every ladder, behind every bush.

‘Where are the others?’ Mortola demanded, while the wardrobe-man looked around him with a foolish expression. The sight of all those books seemed to fill him with boundless astonishment. He was probably wondering what on earth anyone would do with so many.

‘The others? I don’t know who you’re talking about.’ Elinor thought her voice sounded remarkably steady for a woman half dead with terror.

Mortola’s small, round chin jutted aggressively. ‘You know perfectly well. I’m talking about Silvertongue and his witch of a daughter, and that maidservant, the one he calls his wife. Shall I get Basta to set fire to a few of your books, or will you call the three of them for us of your own accord?’

Basta? Basta’s afraid of fire, Elinor wanted to reply, but she refrained. It wasn’t difficult to hold a lighted match to a book. Even Basta, who feared fire so much, would probably be capable of that small action, and the wardrobe-man didn’t look bright enough to be afraid of anything. I just have to keep stalling, thought Elinor. After all, they don’t know about the workshop in the garden, or about Darius either.

‘Elinor?’ she heard Darius call at that very moment. Before she could reply, Basta’s hand was over her mouth again. She heard Darius come down the corridor with his usual rapid tread. ‘Elinor?’ he called again. Then the footsteps stopped as abruptly as his voice.

‘Surprise, surprise!’ purred Basta. ‘Aren’t you glad to see us, Stumbletongue? A couple of old friends come to pay you a visit!’ Basta’s left hand was bandaged, Elinor noticed when he took his fingers away from her mouth, and she remembered the hissing creature that Farid said had slipped through the words in Dustfinger’s place. What a pity it didn’t eat rather more of our knife-happy friend, she thought.

‘Basta!’ Darius’s voice was little more than a whisper.

‘That’s right, Basta! I’d have been here much sooner, believe you me, but they put me in jail for a while on account of something that happened years ago. No sooner was Capricorn gone than all the people who’d been too scared to open their mouths suddenly felt very brave. Well, never mind. You could say they did me a favour, because who do you think they put in my cell one fine day? I never could get him to tell me his real name, so let’s call him by the name he’s given himself: Orpheus!’ He slapped the man so hard on the back that he stumbled forward. ‘Yes, our good friend Orpheus!’ Basta put an arm around his shoulders. ‘The Devil did me a real favour when he made Orpheus, of all people, my cellmate – or perhaps our story is so keen to have us back that it sent him? Well, one way or another, we had a good time, didn’t we?’

Orpheus did not look at him. He straightened his jacket in embarrassment, and inspected Elinor’s bookshelves.

‘Hey, just look at him!’ Basta dug his elbow roughly into Orpheus’s ribs. ‘You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve told him there’s nothing to be ashamed of in going to jail, particularly when your prisons here are so much more comfortable than our dungeons at home. Come on, tell them how I found out about your invaluable gifts. How I caught you one night reading yourself that stupid dog out of the book! Reading himself a dog! Lord knows, I could think of better ideas.’

Basta laughed nastily, and Orpheus straightened his tie with nervous fingers. ‘Cerberus is still in the car,’ he told Mortola. ‘He doesn’t like it there at all. We ought to bring him in!’

The wardrobe-man turned to the door. He obviously had a soft spot for animals, but Mortola stopped him with an impatient gesture.

‘The dog stays where it is. I can’t stand that creature!’ Frowning, she looked around Elinor’s hall. ‘Well, I expected your house to be bigger than this,’ she said, with assumed disappointment. ‘I thought you were rich.’

‘So she is!’ Basta flung his arm so roughly round Orpheus’s neck that his glasses slipped down his nose. ‘But she spends all her money on books. What would she pay us for the book we took from Dustfinger, do you think?’ He pinched Orpheus’s round cheeks. ‘Yes, our friend here made good juicy bait for the fire-eater. He may look like a bullfrog, but even Silvertongue can’t make the words obey him so well, let alone Darius. Ask Dustfinger – Orpheus sent him home as if nothing could be easier! Not that the fire-eater will—’

‘Hold your tongue, Basta!’ Mortola interrupted him abruptly. ‘You’ve always liked the sound of your own voice. Well?’ She impatiently tapped her stick on the marble tiles that were Elinor’s pride and joy. ‘Where are they? Where are the others? I shan’t ask again!’

Come along, Elinor told herself, lie to them. Lie yourself blue in the face! Quick! But she hadn’t even opened her mouth when she heard the key in the lock. Oh no! No, Mortimer! she prayed silently. Stay where you are! Go back to the workshop with Resa, shut yourselves up there, but please, please don’t come in just now!

Of course her prayers made not the slightest difference.

Mortimer opened the door, came in with his arm round Resa’s shoulders – and stopped abruptly at the sight of Orpheus. Before he had entirely grasped what was going on, the man built like a wardrobe had closed the door behind him in obedience to a signal from Mortola.

‘Hello there, Silvertongue!’ said Basta, in a menacingly soft voice, as he snapped his knife open in front of Mortimer’s face. ‘And isn’t this our lovely mute Resa? Excellent! Two birds with one stone. All we need now is the little witch.’

Elinor saw Mortimer close his eyes for a moment, as if hoping that Basta and Mortola would have disappeared when he opened them again. But, naturally, no such thing happened.

‘Call her!’ ordered Mortola, as she stared at Mortimer with such hatred in her eyes that Elinor felt afraid.

‘Who?’ he asked, without taking his eyes off Basta.

‘Don’t pretend to be more stupid than you are!’ Mortola said crossly. ‘Or do you want me to let Basta cut the same pattern on your wife’s face as he did on the fire-eater’s?’

Basta ran his thumb lovingly over the gleaming blade.

‘If by “little witch” you mean my daughter,’ replied Mortimer huskily, ‘she isn’t here.’

‘Oh no?’ Mortola hobbled towards him. ‘Be careful what you say. My legs are aching after that endless drive to get here, so I’m not feeling particularly patient.’

‘She isn’t here,’ Mortimer repeated. ‘Meggie has gone away, with the boy you took the book from. He asked her to take him to Dustfinger, she did it – and she went with him.’

Mortola narrowed her eyes incredulously. ‘Nonsense!’ she exclaimed. ‘How could she have done it without the book?’ But Elinor saw the doubt in her face.

Mortimer shrugged. ‘The boy had a hand-written sheet of paper with him – the one that sent Dustfinger back, apparently.’

‘That’s impossible!’ Orpheus looked at him in astonishment. ‘Are you seriously saying your daughter read herself into the story, using my words?’

‘Oh, so you’re this Orpheus, are you?’ Mortimer returned his glance, not in a very friendly way. ‘Then you’re responsible for the loss of my daughter.’

Orpheus straightened his glasses and gave Mortimer an equally hostile look. Then, abruptly, he turned to Mortola. ‘Is this man Silvertongue?’ he demanded. ‘He’s lying! I’m sure of it! He’s lying! No one can read themselves into a story. He can’t, his daughter can’t, no one can. I’ve tried it myself, hundreds of times. It doesn’t work!’

‘Yes,’ said Mortimer wearily. ‘That’s just what I thought too. Until four days ago.’

Mortola stared at him. Then she signalled to Basta. ‘Shut them up in the cellar!’ she ordered. ‘And then look for the girl. Search the whole house.’

13

Fenoglio

‘I do practise remembering, Nain,’ I said. ‘Writing and reading and remembering.’

‘That you should!’ said Nain sharply. ‘Do you know what happens each time you write a thing down? Each time you name it? You sap its strength.’

Kevin Crossley-Holland,

The Seeing Stone

It wasn’t easy to get past the guards at the gate of Ombra after dark, but Fenoglio knew them all. He had written many love poems for the heavily-built oaf who barred his way with his spear tonight – and very successful they were, he had been told. Judging by the fool’s appearance, he’d be needing to call on Fenoglio’s services again.

‘But mind you’re back before midnight, scribbler!’ the ugly fellow grunted before letting him pass. ‘That’s when the Ferret takes over from me, and he’s not interested in your poems, even though his girl can read.’

‘Thanks for the warning!’ said Fenoglio, giving the stupid fellow a false smile as he pushed past him. As if he didn’t know that the Ferret was not to be trifled with! His stomach still hurt when he remembered how that sharp-nosed fellow had dug the shaft of his spear into it, when he’d tried pushing past him with a couple of well-chosen words. No, there’d be no bribing the Ferret, not with poems or any other written gifts. The Ferret wanted gold, and Fenoglio didn’t have too much of that, or at least not enough to waste it on a guard at the city gates.

‘Midnight!’ he cursed quietly as he stumbled down the steep path. ‘As if that wasn’t just when the strolling players wake up!’

His landlady’s son carried the torch ahead of him. Ivo was nine years old and full of insatiable curiosity about all the wonders of his world. He was always fighting his sister for the honour of carrying the torch when Fenoglio went to visit the strolling players. Fenoglio paid Ivo’s mother a few coins a week for a room in the attic. The price included the washing, cooking and mending that Minerva did for him too. In return, Fenoglio told her children bedtime stories, and listened patiently as she told him what a stubborn oaf her husband could be at times. The fact was, Fenoglio had struck lucky.

The boy scurried along ahead of him with increasing impatience. He could hardly wait to reach the brightly coloured tents, where music played and firelight shone among the trees. He kept looking round reproachfully, as if Fenoglio were taking his time on purpose. Did he think an old man could go as fast as a grasshopper?

The Motley Folk had pitched camp where the ground was so stony that nothing would grow on it, behind the cottages where the peasants who farmed the Laughing Prince’s land lived. Now that the Prince of Ombra no longer wanted to hear their jests and songs, they came less often than before, but luckily the prince’s grandson wanted players to entertain him on his birthday, so this Sunday they would at last come streaming through the city gates: fire-eaters and tightrope-walkers, animal tamers and knife-throwers, actors, buffoons, and many a minstrel whose songs came from Fenoglio’s pen.

For Fenoglio liked writing for the Motley Folk: merry songs, sad songs, songs to make you laugh or weep, as the spirit moved him. He couldn’t earn more than a few copper coins for those songs; the strolling players’ pockets were always empty. If his words were to earn gold then he must write for princes or for a rich merchant. But when he made the words dance and pull faces, when he wanted to write tales of peasants and robbers, of ordinary folk who didn’t live in castles or eat from golden plates, then he wrote for the strolling players.

It had taken some time for them to accept him into their tents. Only when more and more wandering minstrels were singing Fenoglio’s songs, and their children were asking for his stories, did they stop turning him away. And now even their king invited Fenoglio to sit beside his fire, as he had tonight. Although not a drop of royal blood ran in his veins, this man was known as the Black Prince. The Prince took good care of his motley subjects, and they had chosen him to lead them twice already. It was better not to ask where all the gold he gave so generously to the sick and crippled came from, but Fenoglio knew one thing: he himself had invented the Prince.

Oh yes, I made them all! he thought, as the music came more clearly through the night air. He had made up the Prince and the tame bear that followed him like a dog, and Cloud-Dancer who, sad to say, fell off his rope, and many more, even the two rulers who believed that they laid down the law in this world. Fenoglio had not yet seen all his creations, but every time he suddenly met one in flesh and blood it made his heart beat faster – although he couldn’t always remember whether any particular one of them had really sprung from his own pen, or came from somewhere else …

There were the tents at last, bright as windblown flowers in the black night. Ivo began running so fast that he almost fell over his own feet. A dirty boy with hair as unkempt as an alley cat’s fur came out to meet them, hopping on one leg. He grinned challengingly at Ivo – and ran away on his hands. Lord, these players’ children performed such contortions, you might think they had no bones in their bodies!

‘Off you go, then!’ growled Fenoglio when Ivo looked pleadingly at him. After all, he didn’t need the torch any more. Several fires were burning among the tents, which often consisted of little more than a few grubby lengths of cloth stretched over ropes between the trees. Fenoglio looked around with a sigh of satisfaction as the boy raced away. Yes, this was just as he’d imagined the Inkworld as he wrote his story: bright and noisy, full of life. The air smelled of smoke, of roast meat, of rosemary and thyme, horses, dogs and dirty clothes, pine needles and burning wood. Oh, he loved it! He loved the hurry and bustle, he even loved the dirt, he loved the way life here was lived before his very eyes, not behind locked doors. You could learn anything in this world: how the smith shaped the metal of a sickle in the fire, how the dyer mixed his dyes, how the tanner removed hair from leather and how the cobbler cut it to shape to make shoes. Nothing happened behind closed doors. It was all going on, in the alleyways, on the road, in the market place, here among shabby tents, and he, Fenoglio – still as curious as a boy – could watch, although the stench of the leather mordant and the dye tubs sometimes took his breath away. Yes, he liked this world of his. He liked it very much – although he couldn’t help seeing that not everything was working out the way he had intended.

It was his own fault. I should have written a sequel, thought Fenoglio, making his way through the crowd. I could still write one, here and now, and change everything, if only I had someone to read it aloud! Of course he had looked for another Silvertongue, but in vain. No Meggie, no Mortimer, not even someone like that man Darius who was more than likely to botch the job … and Fenoglio could play only the part of a writer whose fine words didn’t exactly keep him in luxury, while the two princes he had invented ruled his world after their own fashion. Annoying, extremely annoying.

One of those princes above all gave him cause for concern – the Adderhead.

He reigned to the south of the forest, high above the sea, sitting on the silver throne of the Castle of Night. As an invented character, not by any means a bad one. A bloodhound, a ruthless slave-driver – but after all, the villains are the salt in the soup of a story. If you can keep them under control. It was for this purpose that Fenoglio had thought up the Laughing Prince, a ruler who would rather laugh at the broad jokes of the strolling players than wage war, and his magnificent son Cosimo. Who could have guessed that Cosimo would simply die, and then his father would collapse with grief like a cake taken out of the oven too soon?

Not my fault! How often Fenoglio had told himself that. Not my idea, not my fault! But it had happened all the same. As if some diabolical scribbler had intervened, going on with the story in his place and leaving him, Fenoglio, the creator of this whole world, with nothing but the role of a poor writer!

Oh, stop that. You’re not so poor, Fenoglio, he thought as he stopped beside a minstrel sitting among the tents, singing one of Fenoglio’s own songs. No, he wasn’t poor. The Laughing Prince, who was now the Prince of Sighs, would hear only Fenoglio’s laments for his dead son, and Balbulus, the most famous illuminator far and wide, had to record the stories Fenoglio wrote for the Prince’s grandson Jacopo in his own hand, on the most costly of parchment. No, he really wasn’t so poor!

And moreover, didn’t his words now seem to him better in a minstrel’s mouth than pressed between the pages of a book, to lie there gathering dust? He liked to think of them as free, owing no one allegiance. They were too powerful to be given in printed form to any fool who might do God knew what with them. Looked at that way, it was reassuring to think that there were no printed books in this world. Books here were hand-written, which made them so valuable that only princes could afford them. Other folk had to store the words in their heads, or listen to minstrels singing them.

A little boy tugged at Fenoglio’s sleeve. His tunic had holes in it, and his nose was running. ‘Inkweaver!’ He brought out a mask from behind his back, the kind of mask worn by the actors, and quickly put it over his eyes. There were feathers, light brown and blue, stuck to the cracked leather. ‘Who am I, Inkweaver?’

‘Hm!’ Fenoglio wrinkled his lined brow as if he had to think hard about it.

The mouth below the mask drooped in disappointment. ‘The Bluejay! I’m the Bluejay, of course!’

‘Of course!’ Fenoglio pinched the child’s red little nose.

‘Will you tell us another story about him today? Please!’

‘Maybe! I must admit, I imagine his mask as rather more impressive than yours. What do you think? Shouldn’t you look for a few more feathers?’

The boy took off his mask and looked at it crossly. ‘They’re not very easy to find.’

‘Take a look down by the river. Even bluejays aren’t safe from the cats that go hunting there.’ He was about to move away, but the boy held on tight. Thin as the children of the strolling players might be, they had strong little hands.

‘Just one story. Please, Inkweaver!’

Two other children joined him, a girl and a boy. They looked expectantly at Fenoglio. Ah, yes, the Bluejay stories. He’d always told good robber tales – his own grandchildren had liked them too, back in the other world. But the stories he thought up here were much better. You heard them everywhere these days: The Incredible Deeds of the Bravest of Robbers, the Noble and Fearless Bluejay. Fenoglio still remembered the night he had made the Bluejay up. His hand had been trembling with rage as he wrote. ‘The Adderhead’s caught another of the strolling players,’ the Black Prince had told him that night. ‘It was Crookback this time. They hanged him at noon yesterday.’

Crookback – one of his own characters! A harmless fellow who could stand on his head longer than anyone else. ‘Who does this prince think he is?’ Fenoglio had cried out into the night, as if the Adderhead could hear him. ‘I am lord of life and death in this world, I, Fenoglio, no one else!’ And the words had gone down on paper, wild and angry as the robber he created that night. The Bluejay was all that Fenoglio would have liked to be in the world he had made: free as a bird, subject to no lord, fearless, noble (sometimes witty too), a man who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, and protected the weak from the tyranny of the strong in a world where there was no law to do it …

Fenoglio felt another tug at his sleeve. ‘Please, Inkweaver! Just one story!’ The boy was really persistent. He loved listening to stories, and would very likely make a famous minstrel some day. ‘They say the Bluejay stole the Adderhead’s lucky charm!’ whispered the little boy. ‘The hanged man’s finger-bone to protect him from the White Women. They say the Bluejay wears it around his own neck now.’

‘Do they indeed?’ Fenoglio raised his eyebrows, always a very effective move, thick and bushy as they were. ‘Well, I’ve heard of an even more daring deed, but I must have a word with the Black Prince first.’

‘Oh, please, Inkweaver!’ They were clinging to his sleeves, almost tearing off the expensive braid he’d had sewn on the coarse fabric for a few coins, so as not to look as poverty-stricken as the scribes who wrote wills and letters in the market place.

‘No!’ he said sternly, freeing his sleeve. ‘Later, maybe. Now go away!’

The boy with the runny nose looked at him so sadly that, for a moment, Fenoglio was reminded of his grandson. Pippo always used to look like that when he brought Fenoglio a book and put it on his lap with a hopeful expression …

Ah, children! thought Fenoglio, as he walked towards the fire where he had seen the Black Prince. Children, they’re the same everywhere. Greedy little creatures, but the best listeners in the world – any world. The very best of all.

14

The Black Prince

‘So bears can make their own souls …’ she said. There was a great deal in the world to know.

Philip Pullman,

Northern Lights

The Black Prince was not alone. Of course not; his bear was with him, as usual. He was crouching by the fire behind his master, like a shaggy shadow. Fenoglio still remembered the words he had used when he first created the Prince at the very beginning of Inkheart. He recited them quietly to himself as he approached him: ‘An orphan boy with skin almost as black as his curly hair, as quick with his knife as his tongue, always ready to protect those he loved – his two younger sisters, a maltreated bear, or his best friend, his very best friend Dustfinger …’

‘… who would have died an extremely dramatic death if it had been left to me, all the same!’ added Fenoglio quietly as he waved to the Prince. ‘But luckily my black friend doesn’t know that, or I don’t suppose I’d be very welcome at his fireside!’

The Prince returned his greeting. He probably thought he was called the Black Prince because of the colour of his skin, but Fenoglio knew better. He had stolen the name from a history book in his old world. A famous knight once bore it, a king’s son who was a great robber too. Would he have been pleased to think that his name had been given to a knife-thrower, king of the strolling players? If not, there’s nothing he can do about it, thought Fenoglio, for his own story came to its end long ago.

On the Prince’s left sat the hopelessly incompetent physician who had almost broken Fenoglio’s jaw pulling out a tooth, and to the right of him crouched Sootbird, a lousy fire-eater who knew as little of his trade as the physician knew of drawing teeth. Fenoglio was not quite sure about the physician, but there was no way he had invented Sootbird. Heaven knew where he had come from! All who saw him inefficiently breathing fire, in terror of the blaze, instantly found another name springing to mind: the name of Dustfinger the fire-dancer, tamer of the flames …

The bear grunted as Fenoglio sat down by the fire with his master, and scrutinized him with little yellow eyes, as if to work out how much meat there was left to gnaw on such old bones. Your own fault, Fenoglio told himself: why did you have to make the Prince’s companion a tame bear? A dog would have done just as well. The market traders told anyone who would listen that the bear was a man under a spell, bewitched by fairies or brownies (they couldn’t decide which), but Fenoglio knew better. The bear was just a bear, a real bear who loved the Black Prince for freeing him, years ago, from the ring through his nose and from his former master, who beat him with a thorny stick to make him dance in market places.

Six more men were sitting beside the fire with the Black Prince. Fenoglio knew only two of them. One was an actor whose name Fenoglio kept forgetting. The other was a professional Strong Man who earned his living performing in market places: tearing chains apart, lifting grown men into the air, bending iron bars. They all fell silent as Fenoglio joined them. They tolerated his company, but he was not by any means one of them. Only the Prince smiled at him.

‘Ah, the Inkweaver!’ he said. ‘Do you have a new song about the Bluejay for us?’

Fenoglio accepted the goblet of hot wine and honey that one of the men gave him at a sign from the Prince, and sat down on the stony ground. His old bones didn’t really like hunkering down there, even on a night as mild as this, but the strolling players did not care for chairs or other forms of seating.

‘I really came to give you this,’ he said, putting his hand into the breast of his doublet. He looked around before handing the Prince the sealed letter, but in this milling throng it was difficult to see if anyone who didn’t belong to the Motley Folk was watching them.

The Prince took the letter with a nod and tucked it into his belt. ‘Thank you,’ he said.

‘You’re welcome!’ replied Fenoglio, trying to ignore the bear’s bad breath. The Prince couldn’t write, any more than most of his motley subjects could, but Fenoglio was happy to do it for him, particularly when it was something like this he wanted. The letter was for one of the Laughing Prince’s head foresters. His men had attacked the strolling players’ women and children on the road three times. No one else seemed to mind, neither the Laughing Prince in his grief nor the men who were supposed to do justice in his place, for the victims were only strolling players. So the king of the players himself was going to do something about it: the man would find Fenoglio’s letter on his doorstep that very night. Its contents would prevent him from sleeping in peace, and with luck would keep him away from women wearing the brightly coloured skirts of the Motley Folk in future. Fenoglio was rather proud of his threatening letters, almost as proud as he was of his robber songs.

‘Have you heard the latest, Inkweaver?’ The Prince stroked his bear’s black muzzle. ‘The Adderhead has put a price on the Bluejay’s head.’

‘The Bluejay?’ Fenoglio swallowed his wine the wrong way, and the physician thumped him on the back so hard that he spilled the hot drink over his fingers. ‘That’s a good one!’ he gasped, once he had his breath back. ‘Well, don’t let anyone say words are just noise and hot air! The Adder will have to search a long time for that particular robber!’

How oddly they were looking at him! As if they knew more than he did. But more about what?

‘Haven’t you heard yet, Inkweaver?’ said Sootbird quietly. ‘Your songs seem to be coming true! The Adderhead’s tax gatherers have already been robbed twice by a man in a bird mask, and one of his game wardens, a man famous for enjoying every kind of cruelty, is said to have been found dead in the forest with a feather in his mouth. Guess what bird the feather came from?’

Fenoglio glanced incredulously at the Prince, but he was looking at the fire, stirring the embers with a stick.

‘But … but that’s astonishing!’ cried Fenoglio – and then hastily lowered his voice as he saw the others looking anxiously around. ‘Astonishing news, I mean!’ he went on in an undertone. ‘Whatever’s going on – well, I’ll write another song this minute! Suggest something! Go on! What would you like the Bluejay to do next?’

The Prince smiled, but the physician looked at Fenoglio with scorn. ‘You talk as if it were all a game, Inkweaver!’ he said. ‘You sit in your own room, scribbling a few words on paper, but whoever’s playing the part of your robber risks his neck, for he’s certainly made of flesh and blood, not just words!’

‘Yes, but no one knows his face, because the Bluejay wears a mask. Very clever of you, Inkweaver. How is the Adderhead to know what face to look for? A mask like that is very useful. Anyone can wear it.’ It was the actor speaking. Baptista. Yes, of course, that was his name. Did I make him up? Fenoglio wondered. Well, never mind; no one knew more about masks than Baptista, perhaps because his face was disfigured by pock marks. Many of the actors got him to make them leather masks showing laughter or tears.

‘The songs give a detailed description of him, though.’ Sootbird gave Fenoglio a searching look.

‘So they do!’ Baptista leaped to his feet, put his hand to his shabby belt as if he wore a sword there, and peered around as if looking for an enemy. ‘He’s said to be tall. That’s no surprise. Heroes usually are.’ Baptista began prowling up and down on tiptoe. ‘His hair,’ he said, stroking his own head, ‘is dark, dark as moleskin, if we’re to believe the songs. Now, that’s unusual. Most heroes have golden hair, whatever you take golden hair to look like. We know nothing about his origins, but one thing’s for sure –’ and here Baptista assumed a haughty expression – ‘none but the purest princely blood flows in his veins. How else would he be so brave and noble?’

‘No, you’re wrong there!’ Fenoglio interrupted him. ‘The Bluejay is a man of the people. What kind of a robber gets born in a castle?’

‘You heard the poet!’ Baptista looked as if he were wiping the haughtiness right away from his brow with his hand. The other men laughed. ‘So let’s get to the face behind the feathered mask.’ Baptista ran his fingers over his own ruined face. ‘Of course he’s handsome and distinguished – and pale as ivory! The songs don’t say so, but we know that a hero’s skin is pale. With due respect, Your Highness!’ he added, bowing mockingly to the Black Prince.

‘Oh, don’t mind me! I’ve no objection!’ was all the Prince said, his expression unchanged.

‘Don’t forget the scar!’ said Sootbird. ‘The scar on his left arm where the dogs bit him. It’s mentioned in every song. Come along, roll up your sleeves. Let’s see if the Bluejay is by any chance here among us!’ He looked challengingly around him, but only the Strong Man, laughing, pushed up his sleeve. The others sat in silence.

The Prince smoothed back his long hair. He had three knives at his belt. The strolling players, even the man they called their king, were forbidden to carry arms, but why should they keep laws that failed to protect them? Folk said the Prince was so skilful with a knife that he could aim at the eye of a dragonfly and hit it. Just as Fenoglio had once written.

‘Whatever he looks like, this man who’s making my songs come true, I drink to him. Let the Adderhead search for the man I described. He’ll never find him!’ Fenoglio raised his goblet to the company. He was feeling in the best of moods, almost intoxicated, and certainly not with the terrible wine. Well, he thought, and who says so, Fenoglio? You do! You write something and it comes true! Even without anyone to read it aloud …

But the Strong Man spoiled his mood. ‘To be honest, Inkweaver, I don’t feel like celebrating,’ he growled. ‘They say the Adderhead is paying good silver these days for the tongue of every minstrel who sings songs mocking him. And they also say he has quite a collection of tongues already.’

‘Tongues?’ Instinctively, Fenoglio felt his own. ‘Does he mean my songs too?’

No one answered him. The men said nothing. The sound of a woman singing came from a tent behind them – a lullaby as sweet and peaceful as if it came from another world. A world of which one could only dream.

‘I’m always telling my motley subjects: don’t go near the Castle of Night!’ The Prince put a piece of meat dripping with fat in the bear’s mouth, wiped his knife on his trousers and returned it to his belt. ‘To think that we’re just food for crows to the Adderhead – mere carrion! But since the Laughing Prince took to weeping instead of laughing, they’ve all had empty pockets and empty bellies. That’s what sends them over there. There are many rich merchants in Argenta, far more than on this side of the forest. It’s not for nothing they call it the Silver Land.’

Devil take it. Fenoglio rubbed his aching knees. What had become of his good mood? Vanished – like the fragrance of a flower trodden underfoot. Gloomily, he took another sip of honeyed wine. The children came flocking around him again, begging for a story, but Fenoglio sent them away. He couldn’t make up stories when he was in a bad temper.

‘And there’s another thing,’ said the Prince. ‘The Strong Man picked up a boy and a girl in the forest today. They told a strange story: they said Basta, Capricorn’s knife-man, was back, and they’re here to warn an old friend of mine about him – Dustfinger. I expect you’ve heard of him?’

‘Mmph?’ Fenoglio nearly choked on his wine with surprise. ‘Dustfinger? Yes, of course, the fire-eater.’

‘The best there’s ever been.’ The Prince cast a quick glance at Sootbird, but he was just showing the physician a sore tooth. ‘He was thought to be dead,’ the Prince went on, lowering his voice. ‘No one’s heard anything of him for over ten years. There were countless tales of how and where he died, but luckily none of them seem to be true. However, Dustfinger’s not the only man the boy and girl are looking for. The girl was also asking about an old man, a writer with a face like a tortoise. You, by any chance?’

Fenoglio couldn’t find a word in his head that would do for an answer. Saying no more, the Prince took his arm and pulled him to his feet. ‘Come along!’ he added, as the bear lumbered along behind them, grunting. ‘The two of them were half-starved, said something about being deep in the Wayless Wood. The women are just feeding them now.’

A boy and a girl … Dustfinger … Fenoglio’s thoughts were racing, although unfortunately his head was not at its clearest after two goblets of wine.

More than a dozen children were squatting in the grass under a lime tree on the outskirts of the camp. Two women were ladling out soup for them. The children greedily spooned the thin brew up from the wooden bowls that had been put into their dirty hands.

‘See how many they’ve rounded up again!’ the Prince whispered to Fenoglio. ‘We shall all go hungry because of their soft hearts.’

Fenoglio just nodded as he looked at the thin faces. He knew how often the Black Prince himself picked up hungry children. If they turned out to have any talent for juggling, standing on their heads, or other tricks that would bring a smile to people’s faces and lure a few coins out of their pockets, then the Motley Folk took them in and let them join the company of the strolling players, going from market to market, from town to town.

‘There they are.’ The Prince pointed to two heads bending particularly low over their bowls. When Fenoglio moved towards them, the girl raised her head as if he had called her name. Incredulously, she stared at him – and put her spoon down.

Meggie.

Fenoglio returned her gaze with such astonishment that she had to smile. Yes, it really was Meggie. He remembered that smile very well, even if she hadn’t often had reason to show it when they were imprisoned in Capricorn’s house together.

She leaped up, pushed past the other children and flung her arms around his neck. ‘Oh, I knew you were still here!’ she cried, between laughter and tears. ‘Did you really have to write those wolves into your story? And then the Night-Mares and the Redcaps – they threw stones at Farid and went for his face with fingers like claws. It was a good thing Farid could make a fire, but still …’

Fenoglio opened his mouth – and closed it again, helplessly. His head was full of a thousand questions. How did she get here? What about Dustfinger? Where was her father? And what about Capricorn? Was he dead? Had her plan worked? If so, why was Basta still alive? The questions drowned each other out like humming insects, and Fenoglio dared not ask any of them while the Black Prince stood there, never taking his eyes off him.

‘I see you know these two,’ he remarked.

Fenoglio just nodded. Yes, where had he seen the boy sitting beside Meggie before? Wasn’t he with Dustfinger on that strange day when, for the first time, he met one of his own creations face to face?

‘Er … they’re relations of mine,’ he stammered. What a pitiful lie for a storyteller!

The Prince’s mocking eyes sparkled. ‘Relations … well, fancy that! I must say they don’t look very like you.’

Meggie unwound her arms from Fenoglio’s neck and stared at the Prince.

‘Meggie,’ said Fenoglio, ‘may I introduce the Black Prince?’

With a smile, the Prince made her a bow.

‘The Black Prince! Oh yes.’ Meggie repeated his name almost reverently. ‘And that’s his bear! Farid, come here. Look!’

Farid, of course. Fenoglio remembered him now. Meggie had often talked about him. The boy stood up, but not before hastily swallowing the very last of the soup in his bowl. He kept well behind Meggie, at a safe distance from the bear.

‘She absolutely insisted on coming!’ he said, wiping his greasy mouth on his arm. ‘Really! I didn’t want to bring her, but she’s as obstinate as a camel.’

Meggie was obviously about to make some sharp retort, but Fenoglio put his arm round her shoulders. ‘My dear boy,’ he told Farid, ‘you have no idea how glad I am to see Meggie here! I could almost say she’s all I needed in this world to make me happy!’

He hastily took his leave of the Prince and drew Meggie and Farid away with him. ‘Come with me!’ he whispered as they made their way past the tents. ‘We have a great deal to talk about, a very great deal, but we can do it better in my room without strange ears to overhear us. It’s getting late anyway, and the guard at the gate won’t let us back into the city after midnight.’

Meggie just nodded abstractedly and looked at the hurry and bustle all around her, wide-eyed, but Farid pulled his arm away from Fenoglio’s grasp. ‘I can’t come with you. I have to look for Dustfinger!’

Fenoglio looked disbelievingly at him. So it was really true? Dustfinger was—

‘Yes, he’s back,’ said Meggie. ‘The women said Farid might find him at the house of the minstrel woman he once lived with. She has a farm up there on the hill.’

‘Minstrel woman?’ Fenoglio looked the way Meggie’s finger was pointing. The hill she meant was only a black outline in the moonlit night. Of course! Roxane. He remembered her. Was she really as wonderful as he had described her?

The boy was shifting impatiently from foot to foot. ‘I have to go,’ he told Meggie. ‘Where can I find you?’

‘In Cobblers’ and Saddlers’ Alley,’ replied Fenoglio, answering for Meggie. ‘Just ask for Minerva’s house.’

Farid nodded. He went on looking at Meggie.

‘It’s not a good idea to start a journey by night,’ said Fenoglio, although he had a feeling that this boy wasn’t interested in his advice. ‘The roads here aren’t what you’d call safe. Particularly not at night. There are robbers, vagabonds …’

‘I can look after myself.’ Farid took a knife from his belt.

‘Take care, Meggie.’ He reached for her hand, then turned abruptly and disappeared among the strolling players. It did not escape Fenoglio that Meggie turned to look back at him several times.

‘Heavens, poor lad!’ he growled, shooing a couple of children out of the way as they came flocking up to beg him for a story again. ‘He’s in love with you, am I right?’

‘Oh, don’t!’ Meggie let go of his hand, but he had made her smile.

‘All right, I’ll hold my tongue! Does your father know you’re here?’

That was the wrong question. Her guilty conscience was plain to see in her face.

‘Dear me! Very well, you must tell me all about it. How you came here, what all this talk of Basta and Dustfinger means, everything! You’ve grown! Or have I shrunk? My God, Meggie, I’m so glad you’re here! Now we can get this story back under control! With my words and your voice—’

‘Under control? What do you mean?’ She suspiciously examined his face. She had often seen him look just like that in the past, when they were Capricorn’s prisoners – his brow wrinkled, his eyes as clear as if they could look straight into your heart. But this wasn’t the place for explanations.

‘Later!’ whispered Fenoglio, and drew her on. ‘Later, Meggie. There are too many ears here. Damn it, where’s my torchbearer now?’

15

Strange Sounds on a Strange Night

How silent lies the world

Within fair twilight furled,

Bringing such sweet relief!

A quiet room resembling,

Where, without fear or trembling,

You sleep away day’s grief.

Matthias Claudius,

Evening Song

Later, when Meggie tried to remember the way they went to Fenoglio’s room, she could see only a few blurred pictures in her mind’s eye – a guard who tried to bar their way with his spear, but sullenly let them pass when he recognized Fenoglio, dark alleys down which they followed a boy with a torch, then a steep flight of steps, creaking underfoot as it led them up the side of a grey wall. She felt so dizzy with weariness as she followed Fenoglio up these steps that he felt quite anxious, and took her arm a couple of times.

‘I think we’d better wait until morning to tell each other what’s happened since we last met,’ he said, propelling her into his room. ‘I’ll ask Minerva to bring you up a straw mattress later, but you’ll sleep in my bed tonight. Three days and nights in the Wayless Wood. Inky infernos, I’d probably have died of sheer fright!’

‘Farid had his knife,’ murmured Meggie. The knife had indeed been a comfort when they were sleeping in the treetops by night, and those growling, grating noises came up to them from below. Farid had always kept it ready to hand. ‘And when he saw ghosts,’ she said sleepily, as Fenoglio lit a lamp, ‘he made a fire.’

‘Ghosts? There aren’t any ghosts in this world, or at least none that I wrote into it. What did you eat all that time?’

Meggie groped her way over to the bed. It looked very inviting, even if it was only a straw mattress and a couple of coarse blankets. ‘Berries,’ she murmured. ‘Lots of berries, and the bread we took with us from Elinor’s kitchen – and rabbits, but Farid caught those.’

‘Good heavens above!’ Fenoglio shook his head, incredulous. It was really good to see his wrinkled face again, but right now all Meggie really wanted to do was sleep. She took her boots off, crept under the scratchy blankets and stretched out her aching legs.

‘What gave you the crazy idea of reading yourself and Farid into the Wayless Wood? Why not arrive here? Dustfinger must have told the boy a few things about this world.’

‘Orpheus’s words.’ Meggie couldn’t help yawning. ‘We only had Orpheus’s words, and Dustfinger had got Orpheus to read him into the forest.’

‘Of course. Sounds just like him.’ She felt Fenoglio pulling the blankets up to her chin. ‘I’d better not ask you who this Orpheus is. We’ll talk again tomorrow. Sleep well. And welcome to my world!’

Meggie just managed to open her eyes once more. ‘Where are you going to sleep?’

‘Don’t worry about me. A few of Minerva’s relations come in every night to share the family’s beds downstairs, and one more won’t make much difference. You soon get used to a little less comfort, I assure you. I only hope her husband doesn’t snore as loud as she says.’

Then he closed the door behind him, and Meggie heard him laboriously making his way down the steep wooden staircase, cursing quietly to himself. Mice scurried through the rafters over her head (at least, she hoped they were mice) and the voices of the sentries guarding the nearby city wall drifted in through the only window. Meggie closed her eyes. Her feet hurt, and the music from the strolling players’ camp was still ringing in her ears. The Black Prince, she thought, I’ve seen the Black Prince … and the city gate of Ombra … and I’ve heard the trees whispering to each other in the Wayless Wood. If she could only have told Resa all about it. Or Elinor. Or Mo. But more than likely Mo never wanted to hear another word about the Inkworld.

Meggie rubbed her tired eyes. Fairies’ nests clung to the beams in the roof above the bed, just as Fenoglio had always wanted, but nothing moved behind the dark entrance holes where the fairies flew into them. Fenoglio’s attic room was rather larger than the one where he and Meggie had been kept prisoner by Capricorn. As well as the bed he had so generously let her have, there was a wooden chest, a bench, and a writing-desk made of dark wood, gleaming and adorned with carvings. It did not go with the rest of the furniture: the roughly made bench, the simple chest. You might have thought it had strayed here out of another story, just like Meggie herself. An earthenware jug stood on it, containing a whole set of quill pens; there were two inkwells …

Fenoglio was looking happy. He really was.

Meggie passed her arm over her tired face. The dress Resa had made her still smelled of her mother, but now it smelled of the Wayless Wood too. She put her hand inside the leather bag that she had almost lost twice in the forest, and took out the notebook Mo had given her. The marbled binding was a mixture of deep blue and peacock green – Mo’s favourite colours. It was good to have your books with you in strange places. Mo had told her that so often, but did he mean places like this? On their second day in the forest Meggie had tried to read the book she had brought with her, while Farid went hunting for a rabbit. She couldn’t get past the first page, and finally she had forgotten the book and left it lying as she sat beside a stream with swarms of blue fairies hovering over it. Did your hunger for stories die down when you were in one yourself? Or had she just been too exhausted? I should at least write down what’s happened so far, she thought, stroking the cover of her notebook again, but weariness was like cotton wool in her head and her limbs. Tomorrow, she thought. And tomorrow I’ll tell Fenoglio that he must write me back home, too. I’ve seen the fairies, I’ve even seen the fire-elves, and the Wayless Wood and Ombra. Yes. Because, after all, it will take him a few days to find the right words …

Something rustled in one of the fairies’ nests above her. But no blue face looked out.

It was chilly in this room, and everything was strange – so strange. Meggie was used to strange places; after all, Mo had always taken her with him when he had to go away to cure sick books. But she could rely on one thing in all those places: she knew he was with her. Always. Meggie pressed her cheek against the rough straw mattress. She missed her mother and Elinor and Darius, but most of all she missed Mo. It was like an ache tugging at her heart. Love and a guilty conscience didn’t mix. If only he had come too! He’d shown her so much of her own world, how she would have loved to show him this one! She knew he’d have liked it all: the fire-elves, the whispering trees, the camp of the strolling players …

Oh, she did miss Mo.

How about Fenoglio? Wasn’t there anyone he missed? Didn’t he feel at all homesick for the village where he used to live, for his children, his friends and neighbours? What about his grandchildren? Meggie had often raced around his house with them! ‘I’ll show you everything tomorrow!’ Fenoglio had whispered to her as they hurried after the boy ahead of them, carrying the torch which had almost burned down, and his voice had sounded as if he were a prince informing his guest that he would show him round the palace next day. ‘The guards don’t like people roaming the streets by night,’ he had added, and it was indeed very quiet among the close-crammed houses. They reminded Meggie of Capricorn’s village so much that she half expected to see one of the Black Jackets around some corner, leaning against the wall with a rifle in his hand. But all they met were a few pigs grunting as they wandered in the steep alleys, and a ragged man sweeping up the rubbish that lay among the houses and shovelling it into a handcart. ‘You’ll get used to the smell in time!’ Fenoglio had whispered, as Meggie put her hand over her nose. ‘Think yourself lucky I’m not lodging with a dyer, or over there with the tanners. Even I haven’t got used to the stink of their trades.’

No, Meggie felt sure that Fenoglio didn’t miss anything. Why would he? This was his world, born from his brain, as familiar to him as his own thoughts.

Meggie listened to the night. There was another sound as well as the rustle of the scurrying mice – a faint snoring. It seemed to come from the desk. Pushing back her blanket, she made her way cautiously over to it. A glass man was sleeping beside the jug of quill pens, his head on a tiny cushion. His transparent limbs were spattered with ink. Presumably he sharpened the pens, dipped them in the bulbous inkwells, sprinkled sand over the wet ink … just as Fenoglio had always wanted. And did the fairies’ nests above his bed really bring good luck and sweet dreams? Meggie thought she saw a trace of fairy dust on the desk. Thoughtfully, she ran her finger over it, looked at the glittering dust left clinging to her fingertip, and rubbed it on her forehead. Did fairy dust cure homesickness?

For she was still homesick. All this beauty around her, yet she kept thinking of Elinor’s house and Mo’s workshop … her heart was so stupid! Hadn’t it always beat faster when Resa told her about the Inkworld? And now she was here, really here, it didn’t seem to know just what it ought to feel. It’s because the others aren’t here too, something inside her whispered, as if her heart were trying to defend itself. Because they’re none of them here.

If only Farid at least had stayed with her … how she envied him the way he had slipped from one world to another as if he were just changing his shirt! The only longing he seemed to know was for the sight of Dustfinger’s scarred face.

Meggie went to the window. There was only a piece of fabric tacked over it. Meggie pushed it aside and looked down into the narrow alley. The ragged refuse collector was just pushing his cart past with its heavy, stinking load. It nearly got stuck between the buildings. The windows above it were almost all dark; a candle burned behind only one of them, and a child’s crying drifted out into the night. Roof stood next to roof like the scales of a fir-cone, and the walls and towers of the castle rose dark above them to the starry sky.

The Laughing Prince’s castle. Resa had described it well. The moon stood pale above the grey battlements, outlining them in silver, them and the guards pacing up and down on the walls. It seemed to be the same as the moon that rose and set over the mountains behind Elinor’s house. ‘The Prince is holding festivities for his spoilt grandson,’ Fenoglio had told Meggie, ‘and I’m to go up to the castle with a new song. I’ll take you with me. We’ll have to find you a clean dress, but Minerva has three daughters. They’re sure to have a dress among them to fit you.’

Meggie took one last look at the sleeping glass man and went back to the bed under the fairies’ nests. After the celebrations, she thought as she pulled her dirty dress off over her head and slipped under the coarse blanket again, first thing after the celebrations I’ll ask Fenoglio to write me home. As she closed her eyes, she once again saw the swarms of fairies who had swirled around her in the green twilight of the Wayless Wood, pulling her hair until Farid threw fir-cones at them. She heard the trees whispering in voices that seemed to be half earth, half air, she remembered the scaly faces she had seen in the water of dark pools, and the Black Prince too, and his bear …

There was a rustling under the bed, and something crawled over her arm. Meggie sleepily brushed it off. I hope Mo isn’t too angry, was the last thing she thought before she fell asleep and dreamed of Elinor’s garden. Or was it the Wayless Wood?

16

Only a Lie

The blanket was there, but it was the boy’s embrace that covered and warmed him.

Jerry Spinelli,

Maniac Magee

Farid soon realized that Fenoglio was right. It had been stupid just to go off like that in the middle of the night. It was true that no robber leaped out at him from the darkness, and not even a fox crossed his path as he climbed the moonlit hill that the strolling players had pointed out to him, but which of the run-down farms lying among the black nocturnal trees was the right one? They all looked the same: a grey stone house, not much bigger than a hut, surrounded by olive trees, a well, sometimes a cowshed, a few narrow fields. Nothing stirred in the farmhouses. Their inhabitants were asleep, exhausted by hard work, and with every wall and every gate that he crept past Farid’s hopes dwindled. Suddenly, and for the first time, he felt lost in this strange world, and he was about to curl up and go to sleep under a tree when he saw the fire.

It was burning brightly high up on the slope of the hill, red as a hibiscus flower opening and then fading even as it unfurls. Farid quickened his pace and hurried up the slope, his gaze fixed on the place where he had seen the blossoming flames. Dustfinger! It shone among the trees again, sulphur yellow this time, bright as sunlight. It must be Dustfinger! Who else would make fire dance by night?

Farid went faster, so fast that he was soon struggling for breath. He came upon a path winding uphill, past the stumps of trees that had been felled only recently. The path was stony and wet with dew, but his bare feet were glad to be spared the prickly thyme for a while. There, another red flower blossoming in the darkness! Above him, a house emerged from the night. Beyond it the hill climbed on, terraced fields rose up the slope like steps, with stones piled up along their edges. The house itself looked as poor and plain as all the others. The path ended at a simple gateway and a wall of flat stones just high enough to reach Farid’s chest. As he stood at the gate a goose went for him, flapping her wings and hissing like a snake, but Farid took no notice of her. He had found the man he was looking for.

Dustfinger was standing in the yard, making flowers of flame blossom in the air. They opened at a snap of his fingers, spread their fiery petals, faded, put out stems of burning gold, and burst into flower yet again. The fire seemed to come out of nowhere; Dustfinger had only to call it with his hands or his voice, he fanned the flames with nothing but his breath – no torches now, no bottle from which he filled his mouth – Farid could see none of the aids he had needed in the other world. He just stood there setting the night ablaze. More and more flowers swirled around him in their wild dance, spitting sparks at his feet like golden seed-corn, until he stood there bathed in liquid fire.

Farid had noticed often enough how peaceful Dustfinger’s face became when he was playing with fire, but he had never seen him look so happy before. Just plain happy. The goose was still cackling, but Dustfinger seemed not to hear her. Only when Farid opened the gate did she scold so shrilly that he turned – and the fiery flowers went out as if night had crushed them in black fingers. The happiness in Dustfinger’s face was extinguished too.

At the door of the house, a woman stood up; she had probably been sitting on the doorstep. There was a boy there too; Farid hadn’t noticed him before. The boy’s gaze followed Farid as he crossed the yard, but Dustfinger still hadn’t moved from the spot where he was standing. He just looked at Farid as the sparks went out at his feet, leaving nothing but a faint red glow behind.

Farid sought that familiar face for any welcome, any hint of a smile, but it showed only bewilderment. At last Farid’s courage failed him, and he just stood there, with his heart trembling in his breast as if it were freezing cold.

‘Farid?’

Dustfinger was coming towards him. The woman followed. She was very beautiful, but Farid ignored her. Dustfinger was wearing the clothes he always carried with him in the other world but had never worn. Black and red … Farid dared not look at him when he stopped a pace away. He just stood there with his head bent, staring at his toes. Perhaps Dustfinger had never meant to take him along at all, perhaps he’d fixed it from the start that Cheeseface wouldn’t read those final sentences, and now he was angry because Farid had followed him from one world to another all the same … Would he beat him? He’d never beaten him yet, although he’d come close to it once when Farid accidentally set fire to Gwin’s tail.

‘How could I ever have believed that anything would stop you chasing after me?’ Farid felt Dustfinger’s hand raise his chin, and when he looked up, he saw at last what he had been hoping for in Dustfinger’s eyes: joy. ‘Where have you been hiding? I called you at least a dozen times, I looked for you … the fire-elves must have thought me crazy!’ He was scrutinizing Farid’s face anxiously, as if he wasn’t sure whether there was some change in it. It was so good to feel his concern. Farid could have danced for joy, the way the fire had danced for Dustfinger just now.

‘Well, you seem to be the same as ever!’ said Dustfinger at last. ‘A skinny dark-eyed little devil. But wait – you’re so quiet! It didn’t cost you your voice, did it?’

Farid smiled. ‘No, I’m all right!’ he said, glancing quickly at the woman, who was still standing behind Dustfinger. ‘But it wasn’t Cheeseface who brought me here. He simply stopped reading the moment you were gone! Meggie read me here, using Cheeseface’s words.’

‘Meggie? Silvertongue’s daughter?’

‘Yes, but what about you? You’re all right, aren’t you?’

Dustfinger’s mouth twisted into the wry smile that Farid knew so well. ‘As you can see, the scars are still there. But there’s no more damage done, if that’s what you mean.’ He turned round and looked at the woman in a way that Farid didn’t like at all.

Her hair was black, and her eyes were almost as dark as his own. She really was very beautiful, even if she was old – well, much older than Farid – but he didn’t like her. He didn’t like either her or the boy. After all, he hadn’t followed Dustfinger to his own world just to share him.

The woman came up beside Dustfinger and placed her hand on his shoulder. ‘Who’s this?’ she asked, sizing Farid up in much the same way as he had looked at her. ‘One of your many secrets? A son I don’t know about?’

Farid felt the blood rise to his face. Dustfinger’s son. He liked the idea. Unobtrusively, he stole a look at the strange boy. Who was his father?

‘My son?’ Dustfinger affectionately caressed her face. ‘What an idea! No, Farid’s a fire-eater. He was my apprentice for a while, and now he thinks I can’t manage without him. Indeed, he’s so sure of it that he follows me everywhere, however far he has to go.’

‘Oh, stop it!’ Farid’s voice sounded angrier than he had intended. ‘I’m here to warn you! But I can go away again if you like.’

‘Take it easy!’ Dustfinger held him firmly by the arm as he turned to go. ‘Heavens above, I forgot how quickly you take offence. Warn me? Warn me of what?’

‘Basta.’

The woman’s hand flew to her mouth when he said that name – and Farid began to tell his story, describing everything that had happened since Dustfinger disappeared from that remote road in the mountains as if he had never existed. When he had finished, Dustfinger asked just one question. ‘So Basta has the book?’

Farid dug his toes into the hard earth and nodded. ‘Yes,’ he muttered ruefully. ‘He put his knife to my throat. What was I to do?’

‘Basta?’ The woman reached for Dustfinger’s hand. ‘He’s still alive, then?’

Dustfinger just nodded. Then he looked at Farid again. ‘Do you believe he’s here now? Do you think Orpheus has read him here?’

Farid shrugged helplessly. ‘I don’t know! When I got away from him he shouted after me that he’d be revenged on Silvertongue too. But Silvertongue doesn’t believe it, he says Basta was just in a rage …’

Dustfinger looked at the gate, which was still standing open. ‘Yes, Basta says a lot of things when he’s in a rage,’ he murmured. Then he sighed, and trod out a few sparks that were still glowing on the ground in front of him.

‘Bad news,’ he said softly. ‘Nothing but bad news. All we need now is for you to have brought Gwin with you.’

Thank heaven it was dark. Lies weren’t nearly as easily spotted in the dark as by day. Farid did his best to sound as surprised as possible. ‘Gwin? Oh no! No, I didn’t bring him with me. You said he was to stay there. And Meggie said so too – she said I mustn’t bring him.’

‘Clever girl!’ Dustfinger’s sigh of relief went to Farid’s heart.

‘You left the marten behind?’ The woman shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe it. ‘I always thought you loved that little monster more than any other living creature.’

‘Oh, you know my faithless heart!’ replied Dustfinger, but his light-hearted tone of voice couldn’t deceive even Farid. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asked the boy. ‘How long have you been here?’

Farid cleared his throat; his lie about Gwin was like a splinter lodged in it. ‘For four days,’ he managed to say. ‘The strolling players gave us something to eat, but I’m still hungry, all the same …’

‘Us?’ Dustfinger’s voice suddenly sounded distrustful.

‘Silvertongue’s daughter. Meggie. She came with me.’

‘She’s here?’ Dustfinger looked at him in astonishment. Then he groaned, and pushed the hair back from his forehead. ‘Oh, how pleased her father will be! Not to mention her mother. Did you by any chance bring anyone else too?’

Farid shook his head.

‘Where is she now?’

‘With the old man.’ Farid jerked his head back the way he had come. ‘He’s living near the castle. We met him in the strolling players’ camp. Meggie was very glad to see him. She was going to look for him anyway, to get him to take her back. I think she’s homesick …’

‘What old man? Who the devil are you talking about now?’

‘Well, that writer! The one with the face like a tortoise – you remember, you ran away from him back then in—’

‘Yes, yes, all right!’ Dustfinger put his hand over Farid’s mouth as if he didn’t want to hear another word, and stared towards the place where, somewhere in the darkness, the walls of Ombra lay hidden. ‘Heavens above, what next?’ he murmured.

‘Is that … is it more bad news?’ Farid hardly dared to ask.

Dustfinger looked away, but all the same Farid had seen his smile. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose there never was a boy who brought so much bad news all at once. And in the middle of the night too. What do we do with bearers of bad tidings, Roxane?’

Roxane. So that was her name. For a moment Farid thought she would suggest sending him away. But then she shrugged. ‘We feed them, what else?’ she said. ‘Even if this one doesn’t look too starved.’

17

A Present for Capricorn

‘If he has been my father’s enemy, I like him still less!’ exclaimed the now really anxious girl. ‘Will you not speak to him, Major Heyward, that I may hear his tones? Foolish though it may be, you have often heard me avow my faith in the tones of the human voice!’

J. Fenimore Cooper,

The Last of the Mohicans

Evening drew on, night fell, and no one came to unlock Elinor’s cellar. They sat there in silence among tubes of tomato purée, cans of ravioli and all the other provisions stacked on the shelves around them – trying not to see the fear on each other’s faces.

‘My house isn’t all that large!’ said Elinor once, breaking the silence. ‘By now even that fool Basta should have realized that Meggie really isn’t here.’

No one replied. Resa was clinging to Mortimer as if that would protect him from Basta’s knife, and Darius was cleaning his already spotless glasses for the hundredth time. By the time footsteps finally approached the cellar door, Elinor’s watch had stopped. Memories flooded into her weary mind as she rose, with difficulty, from the container of olive oil on which she had been sitting – memories of blank, windowless walls and musty straw. Her cellar was a more comfortable prison than Capricorn’s sheds, let alone the crypt under his church, but the same man opened the door – and Elinor was just as much afraid of Basta in her own house.

When she had last seen him, he had been a prisoner himself, shut up in a cage by the master he adored. Had he forgotten that? How had Mortola persuaded him to serve her again in spite of it? The stupid idea of asking Basta didn’t even cross Elinor’s mind. She gave herself the answer: because a dog needs a master.

Basta had the man built like a wardrobe with him when he came to fetch them. There were four of them, after all, and Basta remembered only too well the day when Dustfinger had escaped him. ‘Well, Silvertongue, I’m sorry it’s taken some time,’ he said in his soft, cat-like voice, as he pushed Mortimer down the corridor to Elinor’s library. ‘But Mortola just couldn’t decide what kind of revenge to take, now that your witchy daughter really has run for it.’

‘And what has she thought up?’ asked Elinor, although she was afraid of the answer. Basta was only too willing to tell her.

‘Well, first she was going to shoot you all and sink you in the lake, although we told her just burying you somewhere under the bushes out there would do. But then she decided it would be too merciful to let you die knowing the little witch has got away from her. No, Mortola really didn’t fancy that idea.’

‘Oh, didn’t she?’ Fear made Elinor’s legs so heavy that she stopped walking until the wardrobe-man impatiently pushed her on. But before she could ask what Mortola was planning to do instead of shooting them, Basta was already opening the door of her library and ushering them in with an ironic bow.

Mortola was sitting enthroned in Elinor’s favourite armchair. Scarcely a pace away from her lay a dog with running eyes and a head broad enough for you to rest a plate on it. Its forelegs were bandaged, like Mortola’s own legs, and there was a bandage around its belly too. A dog! In her library! Elinor tightened her lips. This is probably the least of your worries just now, Elinor, she told herself. You’d better just ignore it.

Mortola’s stick was leaning against one of the glass cases in which Elinor kept her most valuable books. The moon-faced man stood beside the old woman. Orpheus – what did the fool think he was doing, claiming such a name for himself? Or had his parents in all seriousness given it to him? At any rate, he looked as if he too had passed a sleepless night, which gave Elinor a certain grim satisfaction.

‘My son always said revenge was a dish best eaten cold,’ observed Mortola, as she looked at her prisoners’ exhausted faces. There was a pleased expression on her own. ‘I admit I wasn’t in any mood to take that advice yesterday. I’d have liked to see you all dead there and then, but the little witch’s disappearing act has given me time to think, and I’ve decided to postpone my revenge for a while, so that I can enjoy it all the more, and in cold blood.’

‘Hear, hear!’ muttered Elinor, earning a thrust from the butt of Basta’s rifle. But Mortola turned her birdlike gaze on Mortimer. She seemed to be seeing no one else: not Resa, not Darius, not Elinor, just him.

‘Silvertongue!’ She spoke the name with scorn. ‘How many have you killed with your velvet voice? A dozen? Cockerell, Flatnose, and finally, your crowning achievement, my son.’ The bitterness in Mortola’s voice was as raw as if Capricorn had died only last night, instead of over a year ago. ‘And you will die for killing him. You will die as sure as I’m sitting here, and I shall watch, as I had to watch the death of my son. But since I know from personal experience that nothing hurts more, in this or any other world, than the death of one’s own child, I want you to see your daughter die before you die yourself.’

Mortimer stood there and didn’t turn a hair. Usually you could see all his feelings in his face, but at this moment even Elinor couldn’t have said what was going on inside him.

‘She’s gone, Mortola,’ was all he said, hoarsely. ‘Meggie’s gone, and I don’t think you can bring her back, or you’d have done it long ago, wouldn’t you?’

‘Who said anything about bringing her back?’ Mortola’s narrow lips twisted into a joyless smile. ‘Do you think I intend to stay in this stupid world of yours any longer now I have the book? Why should I? No, I’m going to look for your daughter in my own world, where Basta will catch her like a little bird. And then I’ll give the two of you to my son as a present. There’ll be more festivities, Silvertongue, but this time Capricorn will not die. Oh no. He’ll sit beside me and hold my hand while Death takes first your daughter, and then you. Yes, that’s how it will be!’

Elinor glanced at Darius, and saw in his face the incredulous astonishment that she herself felt. But Mortola was smiling superciliously.

‘Why are you staring at me like that? You think Capricorn is dead?’ Mortola’s voice almost cracked. ‘Nonsense. Yes, he died here, but what does that mean? This world is a joke, a masquerade such as the strolling players perform in market places. In our world, the real world, Capricorn is still alive. That’s why I got the book back from that fire-eater. The little witch said it herself, the night you killed him: he’ll always be there as long as the book exists. Yes, I know she meant the fire-eater, but what’s true of him is most certainly true of my son! They’re still there, all of them: Capricorn and Flatnose, Cockerell and the Shadow!’

She looked triumphantly from one to another of them, but they all remained silent. Except for Mortimer. ‘That’s nonsense, Mortola!’ he said. ‘And you know it better than anyone. You were in the Inkworld yourself when Capricorn disappeared from it, together with Basta and Dustfinger.’

‘So? He went away, that’s all.’ Mortola’s voice was shrill. ‘And then he didn’t come back, but that means nothing. My son was always travelling on business. The Adderhead sometimes sent him a messenger in the middle of the night when he needed his services, and then he’d be gone the next morning. But he’s back now. Back and waiting for me to bring his murderer to his fortress in the Wayless Wood.’

Elinor felt a crazy urge to laugh, but fear closed her throat. There’s no doubt about it, she thought, the old Magpie’s lost her wits! Unfortunately that doesn’t make her any less dangerous.

‘Orpheus!’ Mortola impatiently beckoned the moon-face to her side. Very slowly, as if to show that he obeyed her by no means as willingly as Basta did, he strolled over to her, taking a sheet of paper out of the inside pocket of his jacket as he did so. With a self-important expression, he unfolded it and laid it on the glass case with Mortola’s stick leaning on it. The dog, panting, watched every movement he made.

‘It won’t be easy!’ observed Orpheus as he leaned over the dog, affectionately patting its ugly head. ‘I’ve never tried reading so many people over all at once before. Perhaps it would be a better idea to do it one by one—’

‘No!’ Mortola brusquely interrupted him. ‘No, you’ll read us all over at once, as we agreed.’

Orpheus shrugged. ‘Very well, just as you like. As I said, it’s risky because—’

‘Be quiet! I don’t want to hear this.’ Mortola dug her bony fingers into the arms of the chair. (I’ll never be able to sit in it again without thinking of her, thought Elinor.) ‘May I remind you of that cell? I was the one who paid for its door to open. A word from me and you’ll end up back there, without books or so much as a single sheet of paper. And, believe me, I’ll make sure you do just that if you fail. After all, you read the fire-eater over without much trouble, according to Basta.’

‘Yes, but that was easy, very easy! Like putting something back in its proper place.’ Orpheus looked out of Elinor’s window as dreamily as if he were seeing Dustfinger vanish again, this time from the lawn outside. Frowning, he turned to Mortola. ‘It’s different with him,’ he said, pointing to Mortimer. ‘It’s not his story. He doesn’t belong in it.’

‘Nor did his daughter. Are you saying she reads better than you?’

‘Of course not!’ Orpheus stood up very straight. ‘No one reads better than me. Haven’t I proved that? Didn’t you yourself say Dustfinger spent ten years looking for someone to read him back?’

‘Yes, very well. No more talk, then.’ Mortola picked up her stick and rose to her feet, with difficulty. ‘Wouldn’t it be amusing if a ferocious cat slipped out of the pages, like the one that came through when the fire-eater left? Basta’s hand hasn’t healed yet, and he had a knife and the dog to help him.’ She gave Elinor and Darius a nasty look.

Elinor took a step forward, ignoring the butt of Basta’s rifle. ‘What do you mean? I’m coming too, of course!’

Mortola raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. ‘Oh, and who do you think decides that? Why would I want you with us? Or that stupid bungler Darius? I’m sure my son would have no objection to feeding you two to the Shadow as well, but I don’t want to make things too difficult for Orpheus.’ She pointed her stick at Mortimer. ‘We’re taking him with us. No one else.’

Resa was clinging to Mortimer’s arm. Mortola went over to her, smiling. ‘Yes, little pigeon, I’m leaving you here too!’ she said, pinching her cheek hard. ‘It will hurt if I take him away from you again, won’t it? When you’ve only just got him back. After all those years …’

Mortola signed to Basta, who reached roughly for Resa’s arm. She struggled, still clinging to Mortimer, with a desperate expression on her face that went to Elinor’s heart. But as she went to try and help Resa, the wardrobe-man barred her way. And Mortimer himself gently removed Resa’s hand from his arm.

‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘After all, I’m the only one in this family who hasn’t been to the Inkworld yet. And I promise you I won’t come back without Meggie.’

‘Very true, because you won’t come back at all!’ Basta mocked, as he pushed Resa hard towards Elinor. And Mortola was still smiling. Elinor would have loved to hit her. Do something, Elinor! she thought. But what could she do? Hold on to Mortimer? Tear up the sheet of paper that the moon-face was so carefully smoothing out on her glass case?

‘Well, can we begin now?’ asked Orpheus, licking his lips as if he could hardly wait to demonstrate his skill again.

‘Of course.’ Mortola leaned heavily on her stick and beckoned Basta to her side.

Orpheus looked at him suspiciously. ‘You’ll make sure he leaves Dustfinger alone, right?’ he said to Mortola. ‘You promised!’

Basta passed a finger over his throat and winked at him.

‘Did you see that?’ Orpheus’s beautiful voice broke. ‘You promised! That was my one condition. You leave Dustfinger in peace or I don’t read a single word!’

‘Yes, yes, all right, don’t shout like that or you’ll ruin your voice,’ replied Mortola impatiently. ‘We have Silvertongue. Why would I be interested in that wretched fire-eater? Go on, start reading!’

‘Hey, wait a minute!’ This was the first time Elinor had heard the wardrobe-man’s voice. It was curiously high for a man of his size – as if an elephant were speaking in a cricket’s chirping voice. ‘What happens to the others when you’re gone?’

‘How should I know?’ Mortola shrugged. ‘Let whatever comes here to replace us eat them. Make the fat woman your maid and Darius your bootboy. Anything you like, it’s all the same to me. Just start reading!’

Orpheus obeyed. He went over to the glass case where the sheet of paper with his words on it was waiting, cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses.

‘Capricorn’s fortress lay in the forest where the first tracks of giants could be found.’ The words flowed over his lips like music. ‘It was a long time since anyone had seen the giants, but other and more alarming beings haunted the walls by night – Night-Mares and Redcaps, creatures as cruel as the men who had built the fortress. It was all of grey stone, as grey as the rocky slope behind it …’

Do something! thought Elinor. Do something, it’s now or never, snatch that piece of paper from the moon-faced man’s hand, kick the Magpie’s stick away … but she couldn’t move a muscle.

What a voice! And the magic of the words – they slowed her brain, making her drowsy with delight. When Orpheus read of prickly woodbine and tamarisk flowers, Elinor thought she could smell them. He really does read as well as Mortimer! That was the only thought of her own that would form in her head. And the others were no better off, they were all staring at Orpheus’s lips as if they could hardly wait for the next word: Darius, Basta, the wardrobe-man, even Mortimer – why, even the Magpie. They listened motionless, caught up in the sound of the words. Only one of them moved. Resa. Elinor saw her struggling against the magic as you might struggle in deep water, finally coming up behind Mortimer and flinging her arms around him.

And then they had all disappeared: Basta, Mortola the Magpie – and Mortimer and Resa.

18

Mortola’s Revenge

I do not dare,

I do not dare to write it,

if you die.

Pablo Neruda,

‘The Dead Woman’,

The Captain’s Verses

It was as if a transparent picture, like stained glass, came down over what Resa had just been seeing – Elinor’s library, the backs of the books so carefully classified by Darius and ranged side by side – blurring it all, while the other picture itself became clearer. Stones eroded the books; soot-blackened walls replaced the bookshelves. Grass sprouted from Elinor’s wooden floorboards, and the white plaster of the ceiling gave way to a sky covered by dark clouds.

Resa’s arms were still wound around Mo. He was the only thing that didn’t disappear, and she wouldn’t let go of him for fear of losing him again after all, as she had lost him once before. So long ago.

‘Resa?’ She saw the alarm in his eyes as he turned and realized that she had come too. Quickly, she put her hand over his mouth. Honeysuckle climbed up the black walls on their left. Mo put out his hand to the leaves, as if his fingers must feel what his eyes had already seen. Resa remembered that she had once done the same, touching everything, bewildered to find the world beyond the letters on the page so real.

If she hadn’t heard the words Orpheus had spoken for herself, Resa wouldn’t have known where Mortola had made him read them all. Capricorn’s fortress had looked so different when she had last stood in its courtyard. There had been men everywhere, armed men on the flights of steps, at the gate, on the wall. Where the bakehouse had stood there was nothing now but charred beams, and it was by the stairway over there that she and the other maids used to beat the dust from the tapestry hangings, tapestries which Mortola placed on the walls of the bare rooms only on special occasions.

Those rooms were gone. The walls of the fortress were crumbling and black from fire. Soot covered the stones as if someone had painted them with a black brush, and yarrow grew all over the once bare courtyard. Yarrow loved burned earth; it grew everywhere. Where a narrow stairway had once led up to the watch-tower, the forest was now making its way into Capricorn’s den. Young trees had taken root among the ruins, as if they had been just waiting to reclaim the place occupied by this human abode. Thistles grew in the gaping cavities of the windows, moss covered the ruined stairs, and ivy climbed to the charred wooden stumps that had once been Capricorn’s gallows. Resa had seen many men hanging on them.

‘What’s this?’ Mortola’s voice echoed from the dead walls. ‘What are these miserable ruins? This isn’t my son’s fortress!’

Resa drew closer to Mo’s side. He still seemed numbed, almost as if he were waiting for the moment when he would wake up and see Elinor’s books again instead of the stones. Resa knew only too well how he was feeling. It was not so bad for her this second time; after all, she wasn’t alone now, and she knew what had happened. But Mo seemed to have forgotten everything: Mortola, Basta – and why they had brought him here. Resa, however, had not forgotten, and she watched with a thudding heart as Mortola stumbled through the yarrow to the charred walls and felt the stones, as if she were running her fingers over her dead son’s face.

‘I’ll cut that man Orpheus’s tongue out with my own hands and serve it for supper!’ she exclaimed. ‘With chopped foxglove! Is this supposed to be my son’s fortress? Never!’

Her head moved frantically back and forth like a bird’s as she looked around her. But Basta just stood there in silence, pointing his gun at Resa and Mo.

‘Well, say something!’ shouted the Magpie. ‘Say something, you fool!’

Basta bent down and picked up a rusty helmet lying at his feet. ‘What do you expect me to say?’ he growled, throwing the helmet back into the grass with a gloomy expression, and giving it a kick that sent it clattering against the wall. ‘Of course it’s our castle. Didn’t you see the figure of the goat on the wall there? Even the carved devils are still standing, though they wear ivy crowns now – and look, there’s one of the eyes that Slasher liked to paint on the stones.’

Mortola stared at the red eye to which Basta was pointing. Then she hobbled over to the remains of the wooden gate, now splintered, torn off its hinges, and barely visible under the brambles and tall stinging nettles. She stood there in silence, looking round her. As for Mo, he had finally come back to his senses.

‘What are they talking about?’ he whispered to Resa. ‘Where are we? Was this where Capricorn used to hide out?’

Resa just nodded. However, the Magpie turned at the sound of Mo’s voice and stared at him. Then she came over to him, stumbling as if she felt dizzy.

‘Yes, this is his castle, but Capricorn isn’t here!’ she said in a dangerously low voice. ‘My son is not here. So Basta was right after all. He’s dead, here and in the other world too, dead, and what killed him? Your voice, your accursed voice!’ There was such hatred in her face that Resa instinctively tried to draw Mo away, somewhere, anywhere he would be safe from that glance. But there was nothing behind them except the sooty wall with the figure of Capricorn’s goat still displayed on it, a red-eyed goat with burning horns.

‘Silvertongue!’ Mortola spat the word out as if it were poison. ‘Killertongue suits you better. Your daughter couldn’t bring herself to utter the words that killed my son, but you – oh, you didn’t hesitate for a moment!’ Her voice was little more than a whisper as she went on: ‘I can still see you before me, as if it had happened only last night – taking the piece of paper from her hand and putting her aside. And then the words came out of your mouth, fine-sounding as everything you say, and when you’d finished my son lay dead in the dust.’ For a moment she put her fingers to her mouth as if to suppress a sob. When she let her hand drop again, her lips were still quivering.

‘How – how can this be?’ she went on, in a trembling voice. ‘Tell me, how is it possible? He didn’t belong in your false world at all. So how could he die there? Was that the only reason you lured him over with your wicked tongue?’ And again she turned and stared at the burned walls, her bony hands clenched into fists.

Basta bent down again. This time he picked up an arrow point. ‘I’d really like to know what happened!’ he muttered. ‘I always said Capricorn wasn’t here, but what about the others? Firefox, Pitch-Eater, Humpback, the Piper, Slasher … are they all dead? Or are they in the Laughing Prince’s dungeon?’ He looked uneasily at Mortola. ‘What are we going to do if they’re all gone?’ Basta sounded like a boy afraid of the dark. ‘Do you want us to live in a cave like brownies until the wolves find us? Have you forgotten the wolves? And the Night-Mares, the fire-elves, all the other creatures crawling around the place … I for one haven’t forgotten them, but you would come back to this accursed spot where there are three ghosts lurking behind every tree!’ He reached for the amulet dangling around his neck, but Mortola did not deign to look at him.

‘Oh, be quiet!’ she said, so sharply that Basta flinched. ‘How often must I tell you that ghosts are nothing to be afraid of? As for wolves, that’s why you carry a knife, isn’t it? We’ll manage. We managed in their world, and we know our way around in this one a good deal better. And, don’t forget, we have a powerful friend here. We’re going to pay him a visit, yes, that’s what. But first I have something else to do, something I should have done long ago.’ And again her eyes were on Mo. On him and no one else. Then she turned, walked steadily up to Basta and took the rifle from his hand.

Resa reached for Mo’s arm and tried to pull him aside, but Mortola was too quick on the draw. The Magpie had some skill with a gun. She had often shot at the birds who pecked the seed from her garden beds, back in Capricorn’s yard. Blood spread over Mo’s shirt like a flower blossoming, red, crimson. Resa heard herself scream as he fell and suddenly lay there motionless, while the grass around him turned as red as his shirt. She flung herself down on her knees, turned him over, and pressed her hands to the wound as if she could hold back the blood, all the blood carrying his life away …

‘Come along, Basta!’ she heard Mortola say. ‘We have a long way to go, and it’s time we found safe shelter before it gets dark. This forest is not a pleasant place by night.’

‘You’re going to leave them here?’ That was Basta’s voice.

‘Why not? I know you always fancied her, but the wolves will take care of them. The fresh blood will bring them this way.’

The blood. It was still flowing so fast, and Mo’s face was white as a sheet. ‘No. Oh, please, no!’ whispered Resa. Aloud, in her own voice. She pressed her fingers to her shaking lips.

‘Well, what do you know? Our little pigeon can speak again!’ Basta’s mocking voice hardly penetrated the rushing in her ears. ‘What a pity he can’t hear you any more, eh? So long, Resa!’

She did not look round. Not even when their footsteps died away. ‘No!’ she heard herself whispering again and again. ‘No!’ like a prayer. She tore a strip of fabric from her dress – if only her fingers weren’t shaking so badly – and pressed it to the wound. Her hands were wet with his blood and her own tears. Resa, she told herself sternly, crying won’t do him any good. Try to remember! What did Capricorn’s men do when they were wounded? They cauterized the wound, but she didn’t want to think of that. There had been a plant too, a plant with hairy leaves and pale mauve flowers, tiny bells into which bumble bees flew, buzzing. She looked around, through the veil of tears over her eyes, as if hoping for a miracle …

Two blue-skinned fairies were hovering among the twining honeysuckle. If Dustfinger had been here now, he’d surely have known how to entice them. He’d have called to them softly, persuaded them to give him some of their fairy spit, or the silvery dust that they shook out of their hair.

She heard her own sobbing again. She lifted the dark hair back from Mo’s brow with her blood-stained fingers, called him by name. He couldn’t be gone, not now, not after all those years …

Over and over she called his name, put her fingers on his lips, felt his breath, shallow and irregular, coming with difficulty as if someone were sitting on his chest. Death, she thought, it’s Death …

A sound made her jump. Footsteps on soft leaves. Had Mortola changed her mind? Had she sent Basta back to fetch them? Or were the wolves coming? If only she at least had a knife. Mo always carried one. Feverishly, she put her hands in his trouser pockets, feeling for the smooth handle …

The footsteps grew louder. Yes, they were human footsteps, no doubt about it. And then suddenly all was still. Menacingly still. Resa felt the handle in her fingers. She quickly removed the knife from Mo’s pocket and snapped it open. She hardly dared to turn, but at last she did.

An old woman was standing in what had once been Capricorn’s gateway. She looked as small as a child among the pillars that still stood erect. She had a sack slung over her shoulder and was wearing a dress that looked as if she had woven it from nettles. Her skin was burned brown, her face furrowed like the bark of a tree. Her grey hair was as short as a marten’s fur, and had leaves and burrs clinging to it. Without a word, she came towards Resa. Her feet were bare, but she didn’t seem to mind the nettles and thistles growing in the courtyard of the ruined fortress. Her face expressionless, she pushed Resa aside and bent over Mo. Unmoved, she lifted the bloody scraps of fabric that Resa was still pressing to the wound.

‘I never saw a wound like that before,’ she remarked, in a voice that sounded hoarse, as if it wasn’t often used. ‘What did it?’

‘A gun,’ replied Resa. It felt strange to be speaking with her tongue again instead of her hands.

‘A gun?’ The old woman looked at her, shook her head, and bent over Mo again. ‘A gun. What may that be?’ she murmured as her brown fingers felt the wound. ‘Dear me, these days they go inventing new weapons faster than a chick hatches from its egg, and I have to find out how to mend what they stab and cut.’ She put her ear to Mo’s chest, listened, and straightened up again with a sigh. ‘Are you wearing something under that dress?’ she asked abruptly, without looking at Resa. ‘Take it off and tear it up. I need long strips.’ Then she put her hand into a leather bag at her belt, took out a little bottle, and used its contents to soak one of the strips of fabric that Resa was offering her. ‘Press that down on it!’ she said, handing the fabric back to Resa. ‘This is a bad wound. I may have to cut or cauterize it, but not here. The two of us can’t carry him on our own, but the strolling players have a camp not far off, for their old and sick people. I may find help there.’ She dressed the wound with fingers as nimble as if she had never done anything else. ‘Keep him warm!’ she said as she rose to her feet again and slung the sack over her shoulder. Then she pointed to the knife that Resa had dropped in the grass. ‘Keep that with you. I’ll try to be back before the wolves get here. And if one of the White Women turns up, make sure she doesn’t look at him or whisper his name.’

Then she was gone, as suddenly as she had come. And Resa knelt there in the courtyard of Capricorn’s fortress, her hand pressed down on the blood-soaked dressing, and listened to Mo’s breathing.

‘Can you hear me? My voice is back,’ she whispered to him. ‘Just as if it had been waiting for you here.’ But Mo did not move. His face was as pale as if the stones and grass had drunk all his blood.

Resa didn’t know how much time had passed when she heard the whispering behind her, incomprehensible and soft as rain. When she looked around, there stood the figure on the ruined stairway. A White Woman, blurred as a reflection on water. Resa knew only too well what such an apparition meant. She had told Meggie about the White Women often enough. Only one thing lured them, and faster than blood lured the wolves: failing breath, a heart beating ever more feebly …

‘Be quiet!’ Resa shouted at the pale figure, bending protectively over Mo’s face. ‘Go away, and don’t you dare look at him. He isn’t going with you, not today!’ They whisper your name if they want to take you with them, so Dustfinger had told her. But they don’t know Mo’s name, thought Resa. They can’t know it, because he doesn’t belong here. All the same, she held her hands over his ears.

The sun was beginning to set. It sank inexorably behind the trees. Darkness fell between the charred walls, and the pale figure on the stairs stood out more clearly all the time. It stood there motionless, waiting.

19

Birthday Morning

‘Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city … Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills …’

Khalil Gibran,

The Prophet

Meggie woke with a start. She had been dreaming, and her dreams had been bad, but she didn’t remember what they were about, only the fear they left behind like a knife wound in the heart. Noise came to her ears, shouting and loud laughter, children’s voices, the barking of dogs, the grunting of pigs, hammering, sawing. She felt sunlight on her face, and the air she was breathing smelled of dung and freshly baked bread. Where was she? Only when she saw Fenoglio sitting at his writing-desk did she remember. Ombra – she was in Ombra.

‘Good morning!’ Fenoglio had obviously slept extremely well. He looked very pleased with himself and the world in general. Well, who should be pleased with it if not the man who made it up? The glass man Meggie had seen last night, asleep beside the jug of quill pens, was standing beside him.

‘Say hello to our guest, Rosenquartz!’ Fenoglio told him.

The glass man bowed stiffly in Meggie’s direction, took Fenoglio’s dripping pen, wiped it on a rag and put it back in the jug with the others. Then he bent to look at what Fenoglio had written. ‘Ah. Not a song about this Bluejay for a change!’ he snapped. ‘Are you taking this one up to the castle today?’

‘I am indeed,’ said Fenoglio loftily. ‘Now, do please make sure the ink doesn’t run.’

The glass man wrinkled his nose, as if he had never allowed such a thing to happen, put both hands into the bowl of sand standing next to the pens, and scattered the fine grains over the freshly written parchment with practised energy.

‘Rosenquartz, how often do I have to tell you?’ snapped Fenoglio. ‘Too much sand, too much energy. That way you’ll smudge everything.’

The glass man brushed a couple of grains of sand off his hands and folded his arms, looking injured. ‘Then you do better!’ His voice reminded Meggie of the noise you make tapping a glass with your fingernails. ‘I’d certainly like to see that!’ he added sharply, examining Fenoglio’s clumsy fingers with such scorn that Meggie had to laugh.

‘Me too!’ she said, pulling her dress on over her head. A few withered flowers from the Wayless Wood still clung to it, and Meggie couldn’t help thinking of Farid. Had he found Dustfinger?

‘Hear that?’ Rosenquartz cast her a friendly glance. ‘She sounds like a clever girl.’

‘Oh yes, Meggie’s very clever,’ replied Fenoglio. ‘The two of us have been through a lot together. It’s thanks to her that I’m sitting here now, trying to tell a glass man the right way to scatter sand over ink.’

Rosenquartz looked curiously at Meggie, but he didn’t ask what Fenoglio’s mysterious comment meant. Meggie went up to the desk and looked over the old man’s shoulder. ‘Your handwriting’s easier to read these days,’ she said.

‘Thank you very much,’ murmured Fenoglio. ‘You should know. But look – do you see that smudged P?’

‘If you are seriously suggesting that I’m to blame for it,’ said Rosenquartz in his ringing little voice, ‘then this is the last time I hold your pens for you, and I’m going straight off to look for a scribe who won’t expect me to work before breakfast.’

‘All right, all right, I’m not blaming you. I smudged the P myself!’ Fenoglio winked at Meggie. ‘He’s easily offended,’ he whispered confidentially to her. ‘His pride is as fragile as his limbs.’

The glass man turned his back on Fenoglio without a word, picked up the rag he had used to clean the pen, and tried to wipe a still-damp inkspot off his arm. His limbs were not entirely colourless, like those of the glass people who had lived in Elinor’s garden. Everything about him was pale pink, like the flowers of a wild rose. Only his hair was slightly darker.

‘You didn’t say anything about my new song,’ Fenoglio pointed out. ‘Wonderful, don’t you agree?’

‘Not bad,’ replied Rosenquartz without turning round, and he began polishing up his feet.

‘Not bad? It’s a masterpiece, you maggot-coloured, ink-smudging pen-holder!’ Fenoglio struck the desk so hard that the glass man fell over on his back like a beetle. ‘I’m going to market today to get a new glass man, one who knows about these things and will appreciate my robber songs too!’ He opened a longish box and took out a stick of sealing wax. ‘At least you haven’t forgotten to get a flame for the wax this time!’ he growled.

Rosenquartz snatched the sealing wax from his hand and held it in the flame of the candle that stood beside the jug. His face expressionless, he placed the melting end of the wax on the parchment roll, waved his glass hand over the red seal a couple of times, and then cast Fenoglio an imperious glance, whereupon Fenoglio solemnly pressed the ring he wore on his middle finger down on to the soft wax.

‘F for Fenoglio, F for fantasy, F for fabulous,’ he announced. ‘There we are.’

‘B for breakfast would sound better just now,’ said Rosenquartz, but Fenoglio ignored this remark.

‘What did you think of the song for the Prince?’ he asked Meggie.

‘I … er … I couldn’t read it all because you two were quarrelling,’ she said evasively. She didn’t want to make Fenoglio even gloomier by saying that the lines struck her as familiar. ‘Why does the Laughing Prince want such a sad poem?’ she asked instead.

‘Because his son is dead,’ replied Fenoglio. ‘One sad song after another, that’s all he wants to hear since Cosimo’s death. I’m tired of it!’ Sighing, he put the parchment back on his desk and went over to the chest standing under the window.

‘Cosimo? Cosimo the Fair is dead?’ Meggie couldn’t conceal her disappointment. Resa had told her so much about the Laughing Prince’s son: everyone who saw him loved him, even the Adderhead feared him, his peasants brought their sick children to him because they believed anyone as beautiful as an angel could cure all sicknesses too …

Fenoglio sighed. ‘Yes, it’s terrible. And a bitter lesson. This story isn’t my story any more! It’s developed a will of its own.’

‘Oh no, here we go again!’ Rosenquartz groaned. ‘His story! I’ll never understand all this talk. Maybe you really ought to go and see one of those physicians who cure sick minds.’

‘My dear Rosenquartz,’ Fenoglio replied, ‘all this talk, as you call it, is above your transparent little head. But believe me, Meggie knows just what I’m talking about!’ He opened the chest, looking cross, and took out a long, dark blue robe. ‘I ought to get a new one made,’ he muttered. ‘Yes, I definitely ought to. This is no robe for a man whose words are sung up and down the land, a man commissioned by a prince to put his grief for his son into words! Just look at the sleeves! Holes everywhere. In spite of Minerva’s sprigs of lavender, the moths have been at it.’

‘It’s good enough for a poor poet,’ remarked the glass man in matter-of-fact tones.

Fenoglio put the robe back in the chest and let the lid fall into place with a dull thud. ‘One of these days,’ he said, ‘I am going to throw something really hard at you!’

This threat did not seem to bother Rosenquartz unduly. The two went on wrangling about this and that; it seemed to be a kind of game they played, and they had obviously forgotten Meggie’s presence entirely. She went to the window, pushed aside the fabric over it and looked out. It was going to be a sunny day, although mist still lingered above the hills surrounding the city. Which was the hill where the house of the minstrel woman stood, the place where Farid hoped to find Dustfinger? She had forgotten. Would he come back if he actually found the fire-eater, or would he just go off with him, like last time, forgetting that she was here too? Meggie didn’t even try to work out just how that idea made her feel. There was enough turmoil in her heart already, so much turmoil that she’d have liked to ask Fenoglio for a mirror, just to see herself for a moment – her own familiar face amidst all the strangeness surrounding her, all the strange feelings in her heart. But instead she let her gaze wander over the misty hills.

How far did Fenoglio’s world go? Just as far as he had described it? ‘Interesting!’ he had whispered, back when Basta had dragged the two of them off to Capricorn’s village. ‘Do you know, this place is very like one of the settings I thought up for Inkheart?’ It must have been Ombra he meant. The hills around Ombra really did look like those over which Meggie had escaped with Mo and Elinor when Dustfinger set them free from Capricorn’s dungeons, except that these seemed even greener, if that was possible, and more enchanted. As if every leaf suggested that fairies and fire-elves lived under the trees. And the houses and streets you could see from Fenoglio’s room might have been in Capricorn’s village, if they hadn’t been so much noisier and more colourful.

‘Just look at the crowds – they all want to go up to the castle today,’ said Fenoglio behind her. ‘Travelling pedlars, peasants, craftsmen, rich merchants, beggars, they’ll all be going there to celebrate the birthday, to earn or spend a few coins, to enjoy themselves, and most of all to stare at the grand folk.’

Meggie looked at the castle walls. They rose above the russet rooftops almost menacingly. Black banners on the towers flapped in the wind.

‘How long has Cosimo been dead?’

‘Hardly a year yet. I’d just moved into this room. As you can imagine, your voice took me straight to where it plucked the Shadow out of the story: the middle of Capricorn’s fortress. Fortunately, all was hopeless confusion there because the monstrous Shadow had disappeared, and none of the fire-raisers noticed an old man suddenly standing among them looking foolish. I spent a couple of dreadful days in the forest, and unfortunately I didn’t, like you, have a clever companion who could use a knife, catch rabbits, and kindle fire with a couple of dry twigs. But the Black Prince himself finally picked me up – imagine how I stared when he was suddenly there in front of me. I didn’t think I knew any of the men who were with him, but I’ll admit that I could never remember the minor characters in my stories very clearly – only vaguely, if at all.

‘Well, be that as it may, one of them took me to Ombra, ragged and destitute as I was. But luckily I had a ring that I could sell. A goldsmith gave me enough for it to allow me to rent this room from Minerva, and all seemed to be going well. Very well indeed, in fact. I thought up stories, and stories about stories, better than any I’d made up for a long time. The words came pouring out of me, but when I’d only just made my name with the first songs I wrote for the Laughing Prince, when the strolling players had just begun to find that they liked my verses, Firefox goes and burns down a few farms by the river – and Cosimo the Fair sets out to put an end to Firefox and his gang once and for all. Good, I thought, why not? How was I to guess that he’d get himself killed? I had such plans for him! He was to be a truly great prince, a blessing to his subjects, and my story was going to give them a happy ending when he freed this world from the Adderhead. But instead he gets himself killed by a band of fire-raisers in the Wayless Wood!’

Fenoglio sighed.

‘At first his father wouldn’t believe he was dead. For Cosimo’s face was badly burned, like those of all the other dead who were brought back. The fire had done its work, but when months passed, and still he didn’t return …’ Fenoglio sighed again, and once more looked in the chest where the moth-eaten robe lay. He handed Meggie two long, pale blue woollen stockings, a couple of leather straps, and a much-washed, dark blue dress. ‘I’m afraid this will be too big for you – it belongs to Minerva’s second daughter, and she’s the same size as her mother,’ he said, ‘but what you’re wearing now urgently needs a wash. You can keep the stockings up with those garters – not very comfortable, but you’ll get used to it. Good Lord, you really have grown, Meggie,’ he said, turning his back to her as she changed her clothes. ‘Rosenquartz! You turn round too!’

It was true that the dress didn’t fit particularly well, and Meggie suddenly felt almost glad that Fenoglio had no mirror. At home she had been studying her reflection quite often recently. It was odd to watch your own body changing as if you were a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis.

‘Ready?’ asked Fenoglio, turning round. ‘Ah well, that’ll do, although such a pretty girl really deserves a prettier dress.’ He looked down at himself, and sighed. ‘I think I’d better stay as I am; at least this robe doesn’t have any holes in it. And what does it matter? The castle will be swarming with entertainers and fine folk today, so no one will take any notice of the two of us.’

‘Two? What do you mean?’ Rosenquartz put down the blade he had been using to sharpen a pen. ‘Aren’t you going to take me with you?’

‘Are you crazy? Just for me to carry you back in pieces? No. Anyway, you’d have to listen to that bad poem I’m taking to the Prince.’

Rosenquartz was still grumbling as Fenoglio closed the door behind them. The wooden staircase that Meggie had hardly been able to climb last night, exhausted as she was, led down to a yard surrounded by houses, with pigsties, woodsheds and vegetable plots competing for what little space was left. A narrow little stream wound its way through the yard, two children were shooing a pig away from the vegetable beds, and a woman with a baby in her arms was feeding a flock of skinny hens.

‘A wonderful morning, isn’t it, Minerva?’ Fenoglio called to her, as Meggie hesitantly followed him down the last steep steps.

Minerva came to the foot of the stairs. A girl of perhaps six was clinging to her skirt, and stared suspiciously at Meggie. She stopped, feeling unsure of herself. Perhaps they can see it, she thought, perhaps they can see I don’t belong here …

‘Watch out!’ the little girl called, but before Meggie realized what she meant, something was pulling her hair. The little girl threw a clod of earth, and a fairy fluttered away empty-handed, scolding crossly.

‘Good heavens, where are you from?’ asked Minerva, helping Meggie down from the steps. ‘Aren’t there any fairies there? They’re crazy for human hair, particularly when it’s as pretty as yours. If you don’t pin it up you’ll soon be bald. And anyway, you’re too old to wear it loose, not unless you want to be taken for one of the strolling players.’

Minerva was small and stocky, not much taller than Meggie. ‘My word, how thin you are!’ she said. ‘That dress is almost slipping off your shoulders. I’ll take it in for you this evening. Has she had any breakfast?’ she asked, and shook her head at the sight of Fenoglio’s baffled expression. ‘Dear Lord, surely you didn’t forget to give the girl something to eat?’

Fenoglio helplessly raised his hands. ‘I’m an old man, Minerva!’ he cried. ‘I do forget things! What’s the matter with everyone this morning? I was in such a good mood, but you all keep going on like this. Rosenquartz has already been infuriating me.’

By way of answer Minerva dumped the baby in his arms and led Meggie off with her.

‘And whose baby is this?’ enquired Fenoglio, following her. ‘Aren’t there enough children running about the place already?’

‘It’s my eldest daughter’s,’ was all Minerva replied, ‘and you’ve seen it a couple of times before. Are you getting so forgetful that I’ll have to introduce my own children to you?’

Minerva’s younger children were called Despina and Ivo; Ivo was the boy who had been carrying Fenoglio’s torch last night. He smiled at Meggie as she and his mother came into the kitchen. Minerva made Meggie eat a plate of polenta and two slices of bread spread with a paste that smelled of olives. The milk she gave her was so rich that Meggie’s tongue felt coated with cream after the first sip. As she ate, Minerva pinned her hair up for her. Meggie scarcely recognized herself when Minerva pushed a bowl of water over to her so that she could see her reflection.

‘Where did you get those boots?’ asked Ivo. His sister was still inspecting Meggie like some strange animal that had lost its way and wandered into their kitchen. Where indeed? Meggie hastily tried to pull the dress down to hide her boots, but it was too short.

‘Meggie comes from far away,’ explained Fenoglio, who had noticed her confusion. ‘Very far away. A place where there are people with three legs, and others whose noses grow on their chins.’

The children stared first at him and then at Meggie.

‘Oh, stop it! What nonsense you do talk!’ Minerva lightly cuffed the back of his head. ‘They believe every word you say. One of these days they’ll be setting off to look for all the crazy places you tell them about, and I’ll be left childless.’

Meggie almost choked on the rich milk. She had quite forgotten her homesickness, but Minerva’s words brought it back – and her guilty conscience too. She had been away from home five days now, if she’d been keeping count correctly.

‘You and your stories!’ Minerva handed Fenoglio a mug of milk. ‘As if it wasn’t enough for you to keep telling them those robber tales. Do you know what Ivo said to me yesterday? When I’m grown up I’m going to join the robbers too! He wants to be like the Bluejay! What do you think you’re doing, pray? Tell them about Cosimo for all I care, tell them about the giants, or the Black Prince and his bear, but not another word about that Bluejay, understand?’

‘Yes, yes, not another word,’ muttered Fenoglio. ‘But don’t blame me if the boy picks up one of the songs about him from somewhere. Everyone’s singing them.’

Meggie had no idea what they were talking about, but in her mind she was already up at the castle anyway. Resa had told her that the birds’ nests clustered together on its walls so thickly that sometimes the twittering drowned out the minstrels’ songs. And fairies nested there too, she said, fairies who were pale grey like the stone of the castle walls because they often nibbled human food, instead of living on flowers and fruits like their sisters in the wild. And there were said to be trees in the Inner Courtyard of the castle that grew nowhere else except in the very heart of the Wayless Wood, trees with leaves that murmured in the wind like a chorus of human voices, and foretold the future on moonless nights – but in a language that no one could understand.

‘Would you like anything else to eat?’

Meggie started, and came down to earth again.

‘Inky infernos!’ Fenoglio rose and handed the baby back to Minerva. ‘Do you want to fatten her up until she fits into that dress? We must be off, or we’ll miss half of it. The Prince has asked me to bring him the new song before midday, and you know he doesn’t like people to be late.’

‘No, I don’t know any such thing,’ replied Minerva grumpily, as Fenoglio propelled Meggie towards the door. ‘Because I don’t go in and out of the castle the way you do. What does our fine prince want from you this time – another lament?’

‘Yes, I’ve had enough of them too, but he pays well. Would you rather I was penniless and you had to look for a new lodger?’

‘Very well, very well,’ grumbled Minerva, clearing the children’s empty bowls off the table. ‘I tell you what, though: this prince of ours will sigh and lament himself to death, and then the Adderhead will send his men-at-arms. They’ll settle here like flies on fresh horse dung, on the excuse of just wanting to protect their master’s poor fatherless grandson.’

Fenoglio turned so abruptly that he almost sent Meggie flying. ‘No, Minerva. No!’ he said firmly. ‘That won’t happen. Not as long as I live – which I hope will be a very long time yet!’

‘Oh yes?’ Minerva removed her son’s fingers from the tub of butter. ‘And how are you going to prevent it? With your robber songs? Do you think some fool with a feathered mask, playing the hero because he’s listened to your songs too often, can keep the men-at-arms away from our city? Heroes end up on the gallows, Fenoglio,’ she continued, lowering her voice, and Meggie could hear the fear behind her mockery. ‘It may be different in your songs, but in real life princes hang them, and the finest of words don’t change that.’

The two children looked uneasily at their mother, and Minerva stroked their hair as if that would wipe away her own words. But Fenoglio merely shrugged. ‘Oh, come on, you see everything in such dismal hues!’ he said. ‘You underestimate the power of words, believe me! They are strong, stronger than you think. Ask Meggie!’

But before Minerva could do just that, he was pushing Meggie out of the house. ‘Ivo, Despina, do you want to come?’ he called to the children. ‘I’ll bring them home safe and sound. I always do!’ he added, as Minerva’s anxious face appeared in the doorway. ‘The best entertainers far and wide will be at the castle today. They’ll have come from very far away. Your two can’t miss this chance!’

As soon as they stepped out of the alley, they were caught up in the crowd streaming along. People came thronging up from all sides: shabbily dressed peasants, beggars, women with children, and men whose wealth showed not only in the magnificence of their embroidered sleeves, but most of all in the servants who roughly forced a path through the crowd for them. Riders drove their horses through the throng without a thought for those they pushed against the walls; litters were jammed in the crush of bodies, however angrily the litter-bearers cursed and shouted.

‘Devil take it, this is worse than a market day!’ Fenoglio shouted to Meggie above the heads around them. Ivo darted through the crowd, quick as a herring in the sea, but Despina looked so alarmed that Fenoglio finally put her up on his shoulders before she was squashed between baskets and people’s bellies. Meggie felt her own heart beat faster, what with all the confusion, the pushing and shoving, the thousands of smells and the voices filling the air.

‘Look around you, Meggie! Isn’t it wonderful?’ cried Fenoglio proudly.

It was indeed. It was just as Meggie had imagined it on all those evenings when Resa had told her about the Inkworld. Her senses were quite dazed. Eyes, ears … they could scarcely take in a tenth of all that was going on around her. Music came from somewhere: trumpets, jingles, drums … and then the street widened, spewing her and all the others out in front of the castle walls. They towered among the other buildings, tall and massive, as if they had been built by men larger than those now flocking to the gateway. Armed guards stood in front of the gate, with their helmets reflecting the pale morning light. Their cloaks were dark green, like the tunics they wore over their coats of mail. Both bore the emblem of the Laughing Prince. Resa had described it to Meggie: a lion on a green background, surrounded by white roses – but it had changed. The lion wept silver tears now, and the roses twined around a broken heart.

The guards let most of the crowd pass, only occasionally barring someone’s way with the shaft of a spear or a mailed fist. No one seemed troubled by that – they went on pressing in – and Meggie too finally found herself in the shadow of those metre-thick walls. Of course she had been in castles before, with Mo, but it felt quite different to be going in past guards armed with spears instead of a kiosk selling picture postcards. The walls seemed so much more threatening and forbidding. Look, they seemed to say, see how small you all are, how powerless and fragile.

Fenoglio appeared to feel none of this; he was beaming like a child at Christmas. He ignored both the portcullis above their heads and the slits through which hot pitch could be tipped out on the heads of uninvited guests. Meggie, on the contrary, instinctively looked up as they passed, and wondered why the traces of pitch on the weathered stone looked so fresh. But finally the open sky was above her again, clear and blue, as if it had been swept clean for the princely birthday – and Meggie was in the Outer Courtyard of Ombra Castle.

20

Visitors from the Wrong Side of the Forest

Darkness always had its part to play. Without it, how would we know when we walked in the light? It’s only when its ambitions become too grandiose that it must be opposed, disciplined, sometimes – if necessary – brought down for a time. Then it will rise again, as it must.

Clive Barker,

Abarat

First of all Meggie looked for the birds’ nests that Resa had described, and sure enough, there they were, clinging just below the battlements like blisters on the walls. Birds with yellow breasts shot out of the entrance holes. Like flakes of gold dancing in the sun, Resa had said, and she was right. The sky above Meggie seemed to be covered with swirling gold, all in honour of the princely birthday. More and more people surged through the gateway, although there was already a milling crowd in the courtyard. Stalls had been set up within the walls, in front of the stables and the huts where the blacksmiths, grooms and everyone else employed in the castle lived and worked. Today, as the Prince was inviting his subjects to celebrate with him the birthday of his grandson and royal heir, food and drink was free. ‘Very generous, I’m sure,’ Mo would probably have whispered. ‘Food and drink from their own fields, won by the labour of their own hands.’ Mo did not particularly like castles. But that was the way of Fenoglio’s world: the land on which the peasants toiled belonged to the Laughing Prince who was now the Prince of Sighs, so a large part of the harvest was his too, and he dressed in silk and velvet, while his peasants wore much-mended smocks that scratched the skin.

Despina had wound her thin arms around Fenoglio’s neck when they passed the guards at the gate, but at the sight of the first entertainers she quickly slipped off his back. One of them had stretched his rope between the battlements, and was walking high up there in the air, moving more lightly than a spider on its silver thread. His clothes were blue as the sky above him, for blue was the colour of the tightrope-walkers; Meggie’s mother had told her that too. If only Resa had been here! The Motley Folk were everywhere among the stalls: pipers and jugglers, knife-throwers, Strong Men, animal tamers, contortionists, actors, clowns. Right in front of the wall Meggie saw a fire-eater, yes, black and red was their costume, and for a moment she thought it was Dustfinger, but when the man turned he was a stranger with an unscarred face, and the smile with which he bowed to the people around him was not at all like Dustfinger’s.

But he must be here, if he’s really back, thought Meggie, as she looked around for him. Why did she feel so disappointed? As if she didn’t know. It was Farid she really missed. And if Dustfinger wasn’t here, she supposed it would be no use looking for Farid either.

‘Come along, Meggie!’ Despina pronounced her name as if it was going to take her tongue some time to get used to it. She pulled Meggie over to a stall selling sweet cakes dripping with honey. Even today those cakes had to be paid for. The trader selling them was keeping a close eye on his wares, but luckily Fenoglio had a few coins on him. Despina’s thin fingers were sticky when she put them into Meggie’s hand again. She looked round, wide-eyed, and kept stopping, but Fenoglio impatiently waved them on, past a wooden platform decked with flowers and evergreen branches, rising above the stalls. The black banners flying from the castle battlements and towers overhead hung here as well, to the right and left of three thrones on the platform. The backs of the seats were embroidered with the emblem of the weeping lion.

‘Why three thrones, I ask myself?’ Fenoglio whispered to Meggie as he urged her and the children on. ‘The Prince of Sighs himself won’t be showing his face anyway. Come along, we’re late already.’ With a firm step, he turned his back on the busy scene in the Outer Courtyard and made his way to the Inner Ring of the castle walls. The gate towards which he was moving was not quite as tall as the one in the Outer Ring, but it too looked forbidding, and so did the guards who crossed their spears as Fenoglio approached them. ‘As if they didn’t know me!’ he whispered crossly to Meggie. ‘But we have to play the same game every time. Tell the Prince that Fenoglio the poet is here!’ he said, raising his voice, as the two children pressed close to him and stared at the spears as if looking for dried blood on their points.

‘Is the Prince expecting you?’ The guard who spoke seemed to be still very young, judging by what could be seen of his face under his helmet.

‘Of course he is!’ snapped Fenoglio. ‘And if he has to wait any longer I’ll blame it on you, Anselmo. What’s more, if you want me to write you a few fine-sounding words, as you did last month –’ here the guard cast a nervous glance at his fellow sentry, but the latter pretended not to have heard and looked up at the tightrope-walker – ‘then,’ Fenoglio concluded, lowering his voice, ‘I shall keep you waiting in your own turn. I’m an old man, and God knows I have better things to do than kick my heels here in front of your spear.’

All that could be seen of Anselmo’s face turned as red as the sour wine that Fenoglio had drunk beside the strolling players’ fire. However, he did not move his spear aside. ‘The fact is, Inkweaver, we have visitors,’ he said in an undertone.

‘Visitors? What are you talking about?’

But Anselmo wasn’t looking at Fenoglio any more.

The gate behind him opened, creaking, as if its own weight were too heavy for it. Meggie drew Despina aside; Fenoglio took Ivo’s hand. Soldiers rode into the Outer Courtyard, armed horsemen, their cloaks silvery grey, like the greaves they wore on their legs, and the emblem on their breasts was not the Laughing Prince’s. It showed a viper’s slender body rearing up in search of prey, and Meggie recognized it at once. This was the Adderhead’s coat of arms.

Nothing moved in the Outer Courtyard now. All was silent as the grave. The entertainers, even the blue-clad tightrope-walker high above on his rope, were all forgotten. Resa had told Meggie exactly what the Adderhead’s emblem looked like; she had seen it often enough at close quarters. Envoys from the Castle of Night had been welcome guests in Capricorn’s fortress. Many of the farms set on fire by Capricorn’s men, so rumour said at the time, had been burned down on the Adderhead’s orders.

Meggie held Despina close as the men-at-arms rode by them. Their breastplates glinted in the sun. It looked as if not even a bolt from a crossbow could pierce that armour, let alone a poor man’s arrow. Two men rode at their head: one was a redhead, in armour like the soldiers following him but resplendent in a cloak of foxtails, while the other was wearing a green robe shot with silver that was fine enough for any prince. However, what everyone noticed about him first was not that robe but his nose; unlike ordinary noses of flesh and blood, it was made of silver.

‘Look at that couple! What a team!’ Fenoglio whispered to Meggie, as the two men rode side by side through the silent crowd. ‘Both of them my creations, and both once Capricorn’s men. Your mother may have told you about them. Firefox was Capricorn’s deputy, the Piper was his minstrel. But the silver nose wasn’t my idea. Nor the fact that they escaped Cosimo’s soldiers when he attacked Capricorn’s fortress, and now serve the Adderhead.’

It was still eerily silent in the courtyard. There was no sound but the clatter of hooves, the snorting horses, the clank of armour, weapons and spears – curiously loud, as if the sounds were caught between the high walls like birds.

The Adderhead himself was one of the last to ride in. There was no mistaking him. ‘He looks like a butcher,’ Resa had said. ‘A butcher in princely clothes, with his love of killing written all over his coarse face.’ The horse he rode was white, heavily built like its master, and was almost entirely hidden by a caparison patterned with the snake emblem. The Adderhead himself wore a black robe embroidered with silver flowers. His skin was tanned by the sun, his sparse hair was grey, his mouth curiously small – a lipless slit in his coarse, clean-shaven face. Everything about him seemed heavy and fleshy: his arms and legs, his thick neck, his broad nose. Unlike those richer subjects of the Laughing Prince who were now standing in the courtyard, he wore no jewellery, no heavy chains around his neck, no rings set with precious stones on his fat fingers. But gems sparkled in the corners of his nostrils, red as drops of blood, and on the middle finger of his left hand, over his glove, he wore the silver ring he used for sealing death warrants. His eyes, narrow under lids folded like a salamander’s, darted restlessly around the courtyard. They seemed to linger for a split second, like a lizard’s sticky tongue, on everything they saw: the strolling players, the tightrope-walker overhead, the rich merchants waiting beside the empty, flower-decked platform, submissively bowing their heads when his glance rested on them. Nothing seemed to escape those salamander eyes, nothing at all: no child pressing his face into his mother’s apron in alarm, no beautiful woman, no man glaring up at him with hostility. Yet he reined in his horse in front of only one person in the crowd.

‘Well, well, so here’s the king of the strolling players! Last time I saw you, your head was in the pillory in my castle courtyard. And when are you going to honour us with another visit?’ The Adderhead’s voice rang out through the silent courtyard. It sounded very deep, as if it came from the black interior of his stout body. Meggie instinctively moved closer to Fenoglio’s side. But the Black Prince bowed, so deeply that the bow turned to mockery. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘but I’m afraid my bear didn’t care for your hospitality. He says the pillory was rather tight for his neck.’

Meggie saw the Adderhead’s mouth twist into an unpleasant smile. ‘Well, I could keep a rope ready for your next visit – a rope that will fit perfectly, and a gallows of oak strong enough even for such a fat old bear as yours,’ he said.

The Black Prince turned to his bear and pretended to discuss it with him. ‘Sorry again,’ he said, as the bear threw its paws around his neck, grunting, ‘the bear says he likes the south, but your shadow lies too dark over it. He won’t come until the Bluejay pays you the honour of a visit too.’

A soft whisper ran through the crowd – and was silenced when the Adderhead turned in his saddle and let his lizard-like gaze move over those standing around him.

‘And furthermore,’ the Prince continued in a loud voice, ‘the bear would like to know why you don’t make the Piper trot along behind your horse on a silver chain, as such a good, tame minstrel should?’

The Piper wrenched his horse round, but before he could urge it towards the Black Prince the Adderhead raised a hand. ‘I will let you know just as soon as the Bluejay is my guest!’ he said, while the silver-nosed man reluctantly rode back to his place. ‘And believe me, that will be before long. I’ve already ordered the gallows to be built.’ Then he spurred his horse, and the men-at-arms rode on again. It seemed an eternity before the last of them had disappeared through the gateway.

‘Yes, off you ride!’ whispered Fenoglio, as the castle courtyard gradually filled with carefree noise again. ‘Viewing this place as if it would all soon be his, thinking he can spread his power through my world like a running sore, and play a part I never wrote for him …’

The guard’s spear abruptly silenced him. ‘Very well, poet!’ said Anselmo. ‘You can go in now. Off with you!’

‘Off with you?’ thundered Fenoglio. ‘Is that any way to speak to the Prince’s poet? Listen,’ he told the two children, ‘you’d better stay here. Don’t eat too much cake. And don’t go too close to the fire-eater, because he’s useless at his job, and leave the Black Prince’s bear alone. Understand?’

The two of them nodded, and ran straight to the nearest cake stall. But Fenoglio took Meggie’s hand and strode past the guards with her, his head held high.

‘Fenoglio,’ she asked in a low voice as the gate closed behind them, and the noise of the Outer Courtyard died away, ‘who is the Bluejay?’

It was cool behind the great gate, as if winter had built itself a nest here. Trees shaded a wide courtyard, the air was fragrant with the scent of roses and other flowers whose names Meggie didn’t know, and a stone basin of water, round as the moon, reflected the part of the castle in which the Laughing Prince lived.

‘Oh, he doesn’t exist!’ was all Fenoglio would say, as he impatiently beckoned her on. ‘But I’ll explain all that later. Come along now. We must take the Laughing Prince my verses at last, or I won’t be his court poet any more.’

21

The Prince of Sighs

The man couldn’t very well tell the king, ‘No, I won’t go,’ for he had to earn his bread.

Italo Calvino, tr. George Marten,

Italian Folk Tales,

‘The King in the Basket’

The windows of the hall where the Prince of Sighs, once the Laughing Prince, received Fenoglio were hung with black draperies. The place smelled like a crypt, of dried flowers and soot from the candles. The candles were burning in front of statues which all had the same face, sometimes a good likeness, sometimes less good. Cosimo the Fair, thought Meggie. He stared down at her from countless pairs of marble eyes as she walked towards his father with Fenoglio.

The throne in which the Prince of Sighs sat enthroned stood between two other high-backed chairs. The dark green upholstery of the chair on his left was occupied only by a helmet with a plume of peacock feathers, its metal brightly polished as if it were waiting for its owner. A boy of about five or six sat in the chair on his right. He wore a black brocade doublet embroidered all over with pearls as if it were covered in tears. This must be the birthday boy: Jacopo, grandson of the Prince of Sighs, but the Adderhead’s grandson too.

The child looked bored. He was swinging his short legs restlessly as if he could hardly prevent himself running outside to the entertainers, and the sweet cakes, and the armchair waiting for him on the platform adorned with prickly bindweed and roses. His grandfather, on the other hand, looked as if he never intended to rise from his chair again. He sat there as powerless as a puppet, in black robes that were too large for him now, as if hypnotized by the eyes of his dead son. Not particularly tall but fat enough for two men, that was how Resa had described him; seldom seen without something to eat in his greasy fingers, always rather breathless because of the weight his legs, which were not especially strong, had to carry, and yet always in the best of tempers.

The Prince whom Meggie saw now, sitting in his dimly lit castle, was nothing like that. His face was pale and his skin hung in wrinkled folds, as if it had once belonged to a larger man. Grief had melted the fat from his limbs, and his expression was fixed, as if it had frozen on the day when they brought him the news of his son’s death. Only his eyes still showed his horror and bewilderment at what life had done to him.

Apart from his grandson and the guards standing silent in the background, there were only two women with him. One kept her head humbly bent like a maidservant, although she wore a dress fit for a princess. Her mistress stood between the Prince of Sighs and the empty chair on which the plumed helmet lay. Violante, thought Meggie. The Adderhead’s daughter and Cosimo’s widow. Her Ugliness, as people called her. Fenoglio had told Meggie about her, emphasizing the fact that she was indeed one of his creations, but that he had never intended her to be more than a minor character: the unhappy child of an unhappy mother and a very bad father. ‘It’s absurd to marry her to Cosimo the Fair!’ Fenoglio had said. ‘But as I told you, this story is getting out of hand!’

Violante wore black, like her son and her father-in-law. Her dress too was embroidered with pearly tears, but their precious lustre didn’t suit her particularly well. Her face looked as if someone had drawn it on a stained piece of paper with a pencil too pale for the purpose, and the dark silk of her dress made her look even plainer. The only thing you noticed about her face was the purple birthmark, as big as a poppy, disfiguring her left cheek.

When Meggie and Fenoglio came across the dark hall, Violante was just bending down to her father-in-law, speaking to him quietly. The Prince’s expression did not change, but finally he nodded, and the boy slipped down from his chair in relief.

Fenoglio signalled to Meggie to stay where she was. His head respectfully bent, then he stepped aside, and unobtrusively signalled to Meggie to do the same. Violante nodded to Fenoglio as she passed him, her head held high, but she didn’t even look at Meggie. She ignored the stone statues of her dead husband too. Her Ugliness seemed to be in a hurry to escape this dark hall – in almost as much of a hurry as her son. The maid who followed her passed so close to Meggie that the servant girl’s dress almost touched her. She didn’t seem much older than Meggie herself. Her hair had a reddish tinge, as if firelight were falling on it, and she wore it loose, as only the women among the strolling players usually did in this world. Meggie had never seen lovelier hair.

‘You’re late, Fenoglio!’ said the Prince of Sighs as soon as the doors had closed behind the women and his grandson. His voice still came out of his mouth with an effort, like a very fat man’s. ‘Did you run short of words?’

‘I won’t run short of words until my last breath, my Prince,’ replied Fenoglio, with a bow. Meggie wasn’t sure whether to copy him. In the end she decided on a clumsy curtsey.

At close quarters the Prince of Sighs looked even more fragile. His skin resembled withered leaves; the whites of his eyes like yellowed paper. ‘Who’s the girl?’ he asked, bending his weary gaze on her. ‘Your maid? Too young to be your lover, isn’t she?’

Meggie felt the blood rise to her face.

‘Your Grace, what an idea!’ said Fenoglio, dismissing it and putting an arm around her shoulders. ‘This is my granddaughter who’s come to visit me. My son hopes I shall find her a husband, and what better place for her to look for one than at the wonderful festivities you’re holding today?’

Meggie blushed more than ever, but she forced herself to smile.

‘You have a son, do you?’ The voice of the Prince of Sighs sounded envious, as if he begrudged any of his subjects the luck of having a living son. ‘It’s not wise to let your children go too far away,’ he murmured, without taking his eyes off Meggie. ‘Only too likely that they may never come back!’

Meggie didn’t know where to look. ‘I’ll be going home soon,’ she said. ‘My father knows that.’ I hope, she added in her mind.

‘Yes. Yes, of course. She’ll be going back. When the time comes.’ Fenoglio’s voice sounded impatient. ‘But now we come to the reason for my visit.’ He took the roll of parchment so carefully sealed by Rosenquartz from his belt, and climbed the steps to the princely chair with his head respectfully bent. The Prince of Sighs seemed to be in pain. He tightened his lips as he leaned forward to take the parchment, and cool though it was in the hall, sweat stood out on his forehead. Meggie remembered what Minerva had said: This Prince of ours will sigh and lament himself to death. Fenoglio seemed to think so too.

‘Aren’t you feeling well, my Prince?’ he asked with concern.

‘No, I am not!’ snapped the Prince, annoyed. ‘Unfortunately the Adderhead noticed it today too.’ He leaned back, sighing, and struck the side of his chair with his hand. ‘Tullio!’

A servant clad in black, like the Prince, shot out from behind the chair. He would have looked like a rather short human being but for the fine fur on his face and hands. Tullio reminded Meggie of the brownies in Elinor’s garden who had turned to ashes, although he clearly had more of the human being about him.

‘Go and get me a minstrel – one who can read!’ ordered the Prince. ‘He can sing me Fenoglio’s song.’ And Tullio scurried off, as willing as a puppy.

‘Did you send for Nettle, as I advised?’ Fenoglio’s voice sounded urgent, but the Prince just waved the idea angrily away.

‘Nettle? What for? She wouldn’t come, or if she did it would probably just be to poison me, because I had a couple of oaks felled for my son’s coffin. How can I help it if she’d rather talk to trees than human beings? None of them can help me, not Nettle nor any of the physicians, stonecutters and boneknitters whose evil-smelling potions I’ve swallowed. No herb grows that can cure grief.’ His fingers trembled as he broke Fenoglio’s seal, and all was so still in the darkened hall as he read that Meggie heard the candle flames hiss as the wicks burned down.

Almost soundlessly, the Prince moved his lips as his clouded eyes followed Fenoglio’s words. ‘He will awake no more, oh never more,’ Meggie heard him whisper. She looked sideways at Fenoglio, who flushed guiltily when he noticed her glance. Yes, he had stolen the lines, and certainly not from any poet of this world.

The Laughing Prince raised his head and wiped a tear from his clouded eyes. ‘Fair words, Fenoglio,’ he said bitterly, ‘yes, you know all about those. But when will any of you poets find the words to open the door through which Death takes us?’

Fenoglio looked round at the statues. He stared at them, lost in thought as if he were seeing them for the first time. ‘I am sorry, but there are no such words, my Prince,’ he said. ‘Death is all silence. Even poets have no words once they have passed the door Death closes behind us. If I may, then, I would humbly beg your leave to go. My landlady’s children are waiting outside, and if I don’t catch them again soon they may well run off with the strolling players, for like all children they dream of taming bears and dancing between heaven and hell on a tightrope.’

‘Yes, yes, go away!’ said the Prince of Sighs, wearily waving his beringed hand. ‘I’ll send to let you know when I want words again. They are sweet-tasting poison, but still, they’re the only way to make even pain taste bittersweet for a few moments.’

He will awake no more, oh never more … Elinor would certainly have known who wrote those lines, thought Meggie, as she walked back down the dark hall with Fenoglio. The herbs scattered on the floor rustled under her boots. Their fragrance hung in the cool air as if to remind the sad Prince of the world waiting for him out there. But perhaps it reminded him only of the flowers in the crypt where Cosimo lay.

At the door, Tullio came to meet them with the minstrel, hopping and leaping in front of the man like a trained, shaggy animal. The minstrel wore bells at his waist and had a lute on his back. He was a tall, thin fellow with a sullen set to his mouth, and so garishly clothed that he would have put a peacock’s tail to shame.

‘That fellow can actually read, can he?’ Fenoglio whispered to Meggie as he pushed her through the door. ‘I don’t believe it! What’s more, his singing sounds as sweet as the cawing of a crow. Let’s be off before he gets his great horsy teeth into my poor lines of verse!’

22

Ten Years

Time is a horse that runs in the heart, a horse

Without a rider on a road at night.

The mind sits listening and hears it pass.

Wallace Stephens,

‘The Pure Good of Theory’,

Collected Poems

Dustfinger was leaning against the castle wall, behind the stalls where people were crowding. The aroma of honey and hot chestnuts rose to his nostrils, and high above him went the tightrope-walker whose blue figure, from a distance, reminded him so much of Cloud-Dancer. He was holding a long pole with tiny birds sitting on it, birds as red as drops of blood, and when the dancer changed direction – stepping lightly, as if standing on a swaying rope was the most natural thing in the world – the birds flew up and fluttered around him, twittering shrilly. The marten on Dustfinger’s shoulder looked up at them and licked his lips. He was still very young, smaller and more delicate than Gwin, not half as likely to bite, and most important of all he didn’t fear fire. Absently, Dustfinger tickled his horned head. He had caught him behind the stable soon after his arrival at Roxane’s house, when the marten was trying to stalk her chickens, and had called him Jink, because of the way he jinked as he moved, dodging and darting before jumping up at Dustfinger so suddenly that he almost knocked him over. Are you crazy? he had asked himself when he lured the animal to him with a fresh egg. He’s a marten. How do you know that it makes any difference to Death what name he bears? But he’d kept Jink all the same. Perhaps he had left all his fears behind in the other world: his fears, his loneliness, his ill fortune …

Jink learned fast; he was soon leaping through the flames as if he’d been doing it all his life. It would be easy to earn a few coins with him at the markets – with him and the boy.

The marten nuzzled Dustfinger’s cheek. Some acrobats were building a human tower in front of the empty platform that still awaited the birthday boy. Farid had tried persuading Dustfinger to perform too, but he didn’t want people staring at him today. He wanted to stare himself, see his fill of all he’d missed so long. So he was not in fire-eater’s costume either, but wore Roxane’s dead husband’s clothes, which she had given him. They had obviously been almost the same size. Poor fellow: neither Orpheus nor Silvertongue could bring him back from where he was now.

‘Why don’t you earn the money today for a change?’ he had asked Farid. The boy had turned first red and then white as chalk with pride – and shot away into the turmoil. He was a quick learner. Only a tiny morsel of the fiery honey, and Farid was talking to the flames as if he’d been born with their language on his tongue. Of course, they didn’t yet spring from the ground when the boy snapped his fingers as readily as for Dustfinger himself, but when Farid called to the fire in a low voice it would speak to him – condescendingly, sometimes with mockery, but still it answered him.

‘Oh, but he is your son!’ Roxane had said when Farid had drawn a bucket of water from the well early in the morning, cursing, to cool his burned fingers. ‘He’s not,’ Dustfinger had replied – and had seen in her eyes that she didn’t believe him.

Before they set off for the castle, he had practised a couple of tricks with Farid, and Jehan had watched. But when Dustfinger beckoned him closer, he ran away. Farid had laughed out loud at him for it, but Dustfinger put his hand over his mouth. ‘The fire devoured his father, have you forgotten?’ he had whispered, and Farid bowed his head, ashamed.

How proudly he stood there among the other entertainers! Dustfinger pushed his own way past the stalls to get a better view. Farid had taken off his shirt as Dustfinger himself sometimes did – burning cloth was more dangerous than a small burn on the skin, and you could easily protect your naked body against the licking tongues of fire with grease. The boy put on a good act, such a good one that even the traders stared at him spellbound, and Dustfinger took his chance to free a few fairies from the cages where they had been imprisoned, to be sold to some fool as lucky charms. No wonder Roxane suspects you of being his father, he told himself. Your chest swells with pride when you look at him. Next to Farid, a couple of clowns were exchanging broad jokes, to his right the Black Prince was wrestling with his bear, but all the same more and more people stopped to look at the boy standing there playing with fire, oblivious of all around him. Dustfinger watched as Sootbird lowered his torches and looked enviously their way. He’d never learn. He was still as poor a fire-eater as he’d been ten years ago.

Farid bowed, and a shower of coins fell into the wooden bowl that Roxane had given him. He glanced proudly at Dustfinger, as hungry for praise as a dog for a bone, and when Dustfinger clapped his hands he flushed red with delight. What a child he still was, even though he had proudly shown Dustfinger the first stubble on his chin a few months ago!

Dustfinger was making his way past two farmers haggling over a couple of piglets when the gate to the Inner Castle opened again – this time not, as before, for the Adderhead, when Dustfinger himself had only just managed to hide from the Piper’s searching glance behind a cake stall. No. Obviously the birthday boy himself was finally appearing at his own festivities – and his mother would accompany the child, with her maidservant. How fast his foolish heart was suddenly beating! ‘She has your hair,’ Roxane had said, ‘and my eyes.’

The Prince’s pipers made the most of their big scene. Proud as turkey-cocks they stood there, long-stemmed trumpets held aloft in the air. The strolling players, being their own masters, disapproved without exception of musicians who sold their art to a single lord. In exchange, the pipers were better dressed, not in motley array like the players on the road, but in their Prince’s colours. For the pipers of the Prince of Sighs, that meant green and gold. His daughter-in-law wore black. Cosimo the Fair had been dead for barely a year, but his young widow would certainly have been courted by several suitors already, in spite of the mark, dark as a burn, that disfigured her face. The crowd came thronging around the platform as soon as Violante and her son had taken their seats. Dustfinger had to climb on an empty barrel to catch a glimpse of her maidservant beyond all those heads and bodies.

Brianna was standing behind the boy. Despite her bright hair, she was like her mother. The dress she wore made her look very grown up, yet Dustfinger still saw in her face traces of the little girl who had tried to snatch burning torches from his hand, or stamped her foot angrily when he wouldn’t let her catch the sparks he brought raining down from the sky.

Ten years. Ten years he’d spent in the wrong story. Ten years in which Death had taken one of his daughters, leaving behind nothing but memories as pale and indistinct as if she had never lived at all, while his other daughter had grown up, laughing and weeping through all those years, and he had not been there. Hypocrite! he told himself, unable to take his eyes from Brianna’s face. Are you trying to tell yourself you were a devoted father before Silvertongue lured you into his story?

Cosimo’s son laughed out loud. His stubby finger pointed first at one, then at another of the entertainers, and he caught the flowers that the women players threw him. How old was he? Five? Six?

Brianna had been the same age when Silvertongue’s voice had enticed him away. She had only come up to his elbow, and she’d weighed so little that he scarcely noticed when she climbed up on his back. When he forgot time yet again and stayed away for weeks on end, in places with names she had never heard, she used to hit him with her little fists and throw the presents he brought her at his feet. Then she would slip out of bed the same night to retrieve them after all: coloured ribbons as soft as rabbit fur, fabric flowers to put in her hair, little pipes that could imitate the song of a lark or the hoot of an owl. She had never told him so, of course, she was proud – even prouder than her mother – but he always knew where she put the presents – in a bag among her clothes. Did she still have it?

She had kept his presents, yes, but they could never bring a smile to her face when he had stayed away for a long time. Only fire could do that, and for a moment – a seductive moment – Dustfinger was tempted to step out of the gaping crowd, take his place among the other entertainers performing tricks for the Prince’s grandson, and summon fire just for his daughter’s sake. But he stood where he was, invisible behind the throng, watching her smooth back her hair with the palm of her hand in the same way as her mother did so often, unobtrusively rubbing her nose and shifting from foot to foot, as if she’d much rather be dancing down there than standing stiffly here.

‘Eat him, bear! Eat him up this minute! So he really is back, but do you think he’s planning to go and see an old friend?’

Dustfinger spun round so suddenly that he almost fell off the barrel where he was still standing. The Black Prince was looking up at him, with his bear behind him. Dustfinger had hoped to meet him here, surrounded by strangers, rather than in the strolling players’ camp, where there were too many who would ask where he had been … The two of them had known each other since they were the same age as the Prince’s grandson enthroned in his chair on the platform – the orphaned sons of strolling players, adult before their time, and Dustfinger had missed that black face almost as much as Roxane’s.

‘So will he really eat me if I get off this barrel?’ The Prince laughed. His laughter sounded almost as carefree as in the old days. ‘Maybe. After all, he’s noticed that I really do have a grudge against you for not coming to see me. And didn’t you scorch his fur last time you two met?’

Jink crouched on Dustfinger’s shoulder as he jumped off the barrel, chattering excitedly in his ear. ‘Don’t worry, the bear doesn’t eat your sort!’ Dustfinger whispered to him – and hugged the Prince as hard as if a single embrace could make up for ten years.

‘You still smell more of bear than man.’

‘And you smell of fire. Now tell me, where’ve you been?’ The Black Prince held Dustfinger at arm’s length and looked at him as if he could read in his face everything that had happened during his friend’s absence. ‘So the fire-raisers didn’t string you up, then, as many folk say. You look too healthy for that. What about the other story – that the Adderhead locked you up in his dankest dungeon? Or did you turn yourself into a tree for a while, as some songs say, a tree with burning leaves deep in the Wayless Wood?’

Dustfinger smiled. ‘I’d have liked that. But I assure you, even you wouldn’t believe the real story.’

A whisper ran through the crowd. Looking over all the heads, Dustfinger saw Farid, red in the face, acknowledging their applause. Her Ugliness’s son was clapping so hard that he almost fell off his chair. But Farid was searching the throng for Dustfinger’s face. He smiled at the boy – and sensed that the Black Prince was looking at him thoughtfully.

‘So the boy really is yours?’ he said. ‘No, don’t worry, I’ll ask no more questions. I know you like to have your secrets, and I don’t suppose that has changed much. All the same, I want to hear the story you spoke of, some time. And you owe us a performance too. We can all do with something to cheer us up. Times are bad, even on this side of the forest, though it may not seem so today …’

‘Yes, so I’ve heard already. And the Adderhead obviously doesn’t love you any better than before. What have you done, to make him threaten you with the gallows? Did the bear take one of his stags?’ Dustfinger stroked Jink’s bristling fur. The marten never took his eyes off the bear.

‘Oh, believe me, the Adderhead scarcely guesses half of what I do, or I’d have been dangling from the battlements of the Castle of Night long ago!’

‘Oh yes?’ The tightrope-walker was sitting on his rope above them, surrounded by his birds and swinging his legs, as if the milling crowd down below was nothing to do with him. ‘Prince, I don’t like that look in your eye,’ said Dustfinger, looking up at the man walking the rope. ‘You’d do better not to provoke the Adderhead any more, or he’ll have you hunted down just as he’s hunted others. And then you won’t be safe on this side of the forest either!’

Someone was pulling at his sleeve. Dustfinger turned, so abruptly that Farid flinched back in alarm. ‘I’m sorry!’ he stammered, nodding rather uncertainly to the Prince. ‘But Meggie’s here. With Fenoglio!’ He sounded as excited as if he had met the Laughing Prince in person.

‘Where?’ Dustfinger looked round, but Farid had eyes only for the bear, who had affectionately placed his muzzle on the Black Prince’s head. The Prince smiled and pushed the bear’s muzzle away.

‘Where?’ Dustfinger repeated impatiently. For Fenoglio was the very last person he wanted to meet.

‘Over there, just behind the platform!’

Dustfinger looked the way Farid’s finger was pointing. Sure enough, there was the old man, with two children, just as he had first seen him. Silvertongue’s daughter stood beside him. She had grown tall – and even more like her mother. Dustfinger uttered a quiet curse. What were those two after, here in his story? They had as little to do with it as he had to do with theirs. Oh yes? mocked a voice inside him. The old man won’t see it that way. Did you forget he claims to have created everything here?

‘I don’t want to see him,’ he told Farid. ‘Bad luck clings to that old man, and worse than bad luck too, mark my words.’

‘Is the boy talking about the Inkweaver?’ The Prince came so close to Dustfinger’s side that the marten hissed at him. ‘What do you have against him? He writes good songs.’

‘He writes other things as well.’ And who knows what he’s already written about you, Dustfinger added in his mind. A few well-chosen words, Prince, and you’re a dead man!

Farid was still looking at the girl. ‘What about Meggie? Don’t you want to see her either?’ His voice sounded husky with disappointment. ‘She asked how you were.’

‘Give her my regards. She’ll understand. Off you go, then! I can see you’re still in love with her. How was it you once described her eyes? Little pieces of the sky!’

Farid blushed scarlet. ‘Stop it!’ he said angrily.

But Dustfinger took him by the shoulders and turned him round. ‘Go on!’ he said. ‘Give her my regards, but tell her to keep my name out of her magic mouth, understand?’

Farid cast a last glance at the bear, nodded – and strolled back to the girl very slowly, as if to show that he wasn’t in any hurry to reach her. She was going to great pains herself not to look his way too often, as she fidgeted awkwardly with the sleeves of her dress. She looked as if she belonged here, a maidservant from a not particularly prosperous home, perhaps the daughter of a farmer or a craftsman. Well, her father was indeed a craftsman, wasn’t he? If one with special talents. Perhaps she was looking around rather too freely. Girls here usually kept their heads bent – and sometimes they were already married by her age. Did his daughter Brianna have anything like that in mind? Roxane hadn’t said so.

‘That boy’s good. Better than Sootbird already.’ The Prince put out his hand to the marten – and withdrew it when Jink bared his tiny teeth.

‘That’s not difficult.’ Dustfinger let his eyes wander to Fenoglio. So they called him Inkweaver here. How contented he looked, the man who had written Dustfinger’s death. A knife in the back, plunged so deep that it found his heart, that was what Fenoglio had planned for him. Dustfinger instinctively reached to touch the spot between his shoulder-blades. Yes; he had read them already, after all, Fenoglio’s deadly words, one night in the other world when he had been lying awake, trying in vain to conjure up Roxane’s face in his memory. You can’t go back! He had kept hearing Meggie’s voice saying those words. One of Capricorn’s men is waiting for you in the book. They want to kill Gwin, and you try to help him, so they kill you instead. He had taken the book out of his rucksack with trembling fingers, had opened it and searched the pages for his death. And then he’d read what it said there in black and white, over and over again. After that he had decided to leave Gwin behind if he should ever come back here … Dustfinger stroked Jink’s bushy tail. No, perhaps it had not been a good idea to catch another marten.

‘What’s the matter? You look as if the hangman had given you the nod all of a sudden.’ The Black Prince put an arm around his shoulders, while his bear sniffed curiously at Dustfinger’s rucksack. ‘The boy must have told you how we picked him up in the forest? He was in a state of great agitation, said he was here to warn you. And when he said of whom, many of my men’s hands went to their knives.’

Basta. Dustfinger ran a finger over his scarred cheek. ‘Yes, he’s probably back too.’

‘With his master?’

‘No, Capricorn’s dead. I saw him die myself.’

The Black Prince put his hand in his bear’s mouth and tickled its tongue. ‘Well, that’s good news. And there wouldn’t be much for him to come back to, just a few charred walls. Only old Nettle sometimes goes there. She swears you can’t find better yarrow anywhere than in the fire-raisers’ old fortress.’

Dustfinger saw Fenoglio glancing his way. Meggie was looking in the same direction too. He quickly turned his back on them.

‘We have a camp near there now – you’ll remember the old brownies’ caves,’ the Prince went on, lowering his voice. ‘Since Cosimo smoked out the fire-raisers those caves have made a good shelter again. Only the strolling players know about them. The old and frail, cripples, women tired of living on the road with their children – they can all stay and rest there for a while. I tell you what, the Secret Camp would be a good place for you to tell me your story! The one you say is so hard to believe. I’ve often been there for the bear’s sake. He gets grouchy when he spends too long between city walls. Roxane can tell you how to find the place; she knows her way about the forest almost as well as you by now.’

‘I know the old brownie caves,’ said Dustfinger. He had hidden from Capricorn’s men there many times, but he wasn’t sure that he really wanted to tell the Prince about the last ten years.

‘Six torches!’ Farid was beside him again, wiping soot off his fingers on his trousers. ‘I juggled with six torches and I didn’t drop one. I think she liked it.’

Dustfinger suppressed a smile. ‘Very likely.’ Two of the strolling players had drawn the Prince aside. Dustfinger wasn’t sure whether he knew them, but he turned his back, to be on the safe side.

‘Did you know everyone’s talking about you?’ Farid’s eyes were round as coins with excitement. ‘They’re all saying you’re back. And I think some of them have recognized you.’

‘Oh, have they?’ Dustfinger looked uneasily around. His daughter was still standing behind the little prince’s chair. He hadn’t told Farid about her. It was bad enough having the boy jealous of Roxane.

‘They say there was never a fire-eater to match you! The other one there, Sootbird they call him –’ Farid put a piece of bread in Jink’s mouth – ‘he asked about you, but I didn’t know if you wanted to meet him. He’s really bad at it, he doesn’t know how to do anything – but he says he knows you. Is that right?’

‘Yes, but all the same I’d rather not meet him.’ Dustfinger turned. The tightrope-walker had come down from his rope at last. Cloud-Dancer was talking to him and pointing Dustfinger’s way. Time to disappear. He would be happy to see them all again, but not here, and not today …

‘I’ve had enough of this,’ he told Farid. ‘You stay and earn us a few more coins. I’ll be at Roxane’s if you want me.’

Up on the platform, Her Ugliness was handing her son a gold-embroidered purse. The child put his plump hand into it and threw the entertainers some coins. They hastily bent to pick them out of the dust. But Dustfinger cast a last look at the Black Prince and went away.

What would Roxane say when she heard that he hadn’t exchanged a single word with his daughter? He knew the answer. She would laugh. She knew only too well what a coward he could be.

23

Cold and White

I am like a goldsmith hammering day and night

Just so I can extend pain

Into a gold ornament as thin as a cicada’s wing

Xi Murong,

‘Poetry’s Value’,

Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry

There they were again. Mo felt them coming closer, he saw them even though his eyes were closed – white women, their faces so pale, their eyes colourless and cold. That was all there was in the world, white shadows in the dark and the pain in his breast, red pain. Every breath brought it back. Breathing. Hadn’t it once been perfectly easy? Now it was difficult, as difficult as if they had buried him already, heaping earth on his breast, on the pain burning and throbbing there. He couldn’t move. His body was useless, a burning prison. He wanted to open his eyes, but his lids weighed down as heavily as if they were made of stone. Everything was lost. Only words remained: pain, fear, death. White words. No colour in them, no life. Only the pain was red.

Is this death? Mo wondered. This void, full of faint shadows? Sometimes he thought he felt the fingers of the pale women reaching into his agonized breast as if to crush his heart. Their breath wafted over his hot face, and they were whispering a name, but it was not the name he remembered as his own. Bluejay, they whispered.

Their voices seemed to be made of cold yearning, nothing but cold yearning. It’s easy, they whispered, you don’t even have to open your eyes. No more pain, no darkness. Stand up, they whispered, it’s time to go, and they entwined their white fingers with his. Their fingers were wonderfully cool on his burning skin.

But the other voice wouldn’t let him go. Indistinct, barely audible, as if it came from far, far away, it penetrated the whispering. It sounded strange, almost discordant among the whispering shadows. Be quiet, he wanted to tell it with his tongue of stone. Be quiet, please, let me go! For nothing but that voice kept him imprisoned in the burning house that was his body. But the voice went on.

He knew it, but where from? He couldn’t remember. It was long ago that he had last heard it, too long ago …

24

In Elinor’s Cellar

The lofty bookshelves sag

Under thousands of sleeping souls

Silence, hopeful –

Every time I open a book, a soul is awakened.

Xi Chuan,

‘Books’,

New Generation

I ought to have furnished my cellar more comfortably, thought Elinor, watching Darius pump up the air mattress he had found behind one of the storage shelves for her. But how could she have guessed that some dreadful day she’d have to sleep down here, while a bespectacled, moon-faced man sat up in her wonderful library with his slobbering dog, playing master of the house? The wretched animal had almost eaten the fairy who had slipped out of Orpheus’s words. A blue fairy and a lark fluttering in panic against the window-panes, that was all that had come out of the book – to replace four people! ‘Look at that!’ Orpheus had triumphantly announced. ‘Two for four! There are fewer and fewer coming out, and one day I’ll manage not to let anything out of a book at all.’ Conceited pig! As if anyone was interested in who or what came out of the book, when Resa and Mortimer had gone! And Mortola and Basta …

Quick, Elinor, think of something else!

If only she could have hoped that someone useful would soon come knocking on her front door! But unfortunately such a visitor was highly improbable. She had never had much to do with her neighbours, certainly not since Darius had taken over the care of her books and Mo, Resa and Meggie had moved in. What more did she need in the way of company?

Her nose began to prickle ominously. That’s the wrong way to think, Elinor, she warned herself – as if she’d been able to think of anything else these last few hours. They’re all right! she kept telling herself. You’d have sensed it if anything had happened to them. Wasn’t that what all the stories said? You felt it, like a pang in your heart, when something happened to someone you loved?

Darius smiled hesitantly at her as his foot went tirelessly up and down on the pump. The air mattress already looked like a caterpillar, a huge, squashed caterpillar. How was she supposed to sleep on that thing? She’d roll off and land on the cold cement floor.

‘Darius!’ she said. ‘We must do something! We can’t simply let them shut us up here while Mortola …’

Oh God, how that old witch had looked at Mortimer. Don’t think about it, Elinor! Just don’t think about it! Or about Basta and his gun. Or Meggie wandering through the Wayless Wood all alone. I’m sure she’s alone! A giant will have stepped on that boy and crushed him by now … It was a good thing Darius didn’t know the silly way her thoughts were getting all mixed up, making the tears start to come all the time …

‘Darius!’ Elinor whispered, for the man built like a wardrobe would certainly be on guard outside the door. ‘Darius, it’s all up to you! You must read them back!’

Darius shook his head so vigorously that his glasses almost slipped off his nose. ‘No!’ His voice was trembling like a leaf in the wind, and his foot began pumping again as if that stupid mattress were the most important thing in the world. Then, very suddenly, he stopped and hid his face in his hands. ‘You know what will happen!’ Elinor heard him say in a stifled voice. ‘You know what will happen to them if I read while I’m afraid.’

Elinor sighed.

Yes, she knew. Distorted faces, stiff legs, a lost voice … and of course he was afraid. Probably even more afraid than she was, for Darius had known Mortola and Basta considerably longer …

‘Yes. Yes, I know. All right,’ she murmured, and began abstractedly straightening a few cans on the shelves – tomato sauce, ravioli (not a particularly nice brand), red kidney beans – Mortimer loved red kidney beans. There it came again, that prickling in her nose.

‘Very well!’ she said, turning round resolutely. ‘Then that Orpheus will have to do it.’ How composed and sure of herself she sounded! She was obviously a gifted actress, thought Elinor, she’d realized that before, back in Capricorn’s church when all had seemed lost … indeed, now that she came to think of it, everything had seemed rather gloomier then, if anything.

Darius stared at her, bewildered.

‘Don’t look at me like that, for God’s sake!’ she hissed. ‘I don’t know how we can make him do it either. Not yet.’

She began pacing up and down, up and down, between the shelves full of cans and preserving jars.

‘He’s vain, Darius!’ she whispered. ‘Very vain. Did you see how he changed colour when he realized that Meggie had done something he’s tried and failed to do for years? I’m sure he’d like to ask her—’ She stopped suddenly and looked at Darius.

‘—how she managed it.’ Darius stopped pumping.

‘Yes! But Meggie would have to be here herself to tell him that.’ They looked at each other.

‘That’s how we’ll do it, Darius!’ Elinor whispered. ‘We’ll get Orpheus to bring Meggie back, and then she can read Mortimer and Resa back too, with the same words he used for her! That ought to work!’ She began pacing up and down again like the caged panther in the poem she liked so much … except that the look in her eyes was no longer hopeless. She must lay her plans well. That man Orpheus was clever. And so are you, Elinor, she told herself. Just try it!

She couldn’t help it; she started thinking of the way Mortola had looked at Mortimer again. Suppose it was much too late by the time she …?

Oh, stop it!

Elinor thrust out her chin, pulled her shoulders back – and marched firmly towards the cellar door. She hammered on the white-painted metal with the flat of her hand. ‘Hey!’ she called. ‘Hey, you, wardrobe-man! Open this door! I have to speak to that man Orpheus! At once.’

But nothing stirred on the other side of the door – and Elinor let her hand drop again. For a moment she entertained the dreadful thought that the two men had gone and left them alone down here, locked in … and without so much as a can opener, thought Elinor. What a ridiculous way to die. Starving among piles of canned food. She was just raising both hands to hammer on the door again when she heard footsteps outside. Footsteps going away, up the stairs leading from the cellar to the entrance hall.

‘Hey!’ she shouted, so loudly that Darius, standing behind her, jumped. ‘Hey, come back, you hulking great wardrobe! Open this door! I want to talk to Orpheus!’

But all was quiet on the other side of the door. Elinor fell to her knees in front of it. She felt Darius come up beside her and put a hand hesitantly on her shoulder. ‘He’ll be back,’ he said quietly. ‘At least they’re still here, aren’t they?’ Then he returned to the air mattress.

But Elinor sat there, her back against the cold cellar door, listening to the silence. You couldn’t even hear the birds down here, not the smallest chirp of a cricket. Meggie will fetch them back, she thought. Meggie will fetch them back! But suppose by now her mother and father are both …

Not the way to think, Elinor. Not the way to think.

She closed her eyes and heard Darius begin pumping again.

I’d have sensed it, she thought. Yes, I would. I’d have sensed it if anything had happened to them. It says so in all the stories, and surely they can’t all be lying!

25

The Camp in the Forest

I thought it said in every tick:

I am so sick, so sick, so sick;

O death, come quick, come quick, come quick.

Frances Cornford,

‘The Watch’,

Collected Poems

Resa didn’t know how long she had been sitting there, just sitting in the dimly lit, dark cave where the strolling players slept, holding Mo’s hand. One of the women players brought her something to eat, and now and then one of the children crept in, leaned against the cave wall and listened to what she was telling Mo in a quiet voice – about Meggie and Elinor, Darius, the library and its books, the workshop where he cured books of sickness and wounds as bad as his own … How strange the strolling players must find her stories of another world that they had never seen. And how very strange they must think her, to talk to someone who lay so still, his eyes closed as if he would never open them again.

Just as the fifth White Woman appeared on the steps, the old woman had returned to Capricorn’s fortress with three men. It had not been so very far for her to go. Resa had seen guards standing among the trees as they entered the camp. The people these men were guarding were the cripples and the old folk, women with small children, and obviously there were also some in the camp who were simply resting from the stress and strain of life on the open road.

When Resa asked where food and clothing for all these people came from, one of the strolling players who had come to fetch Mo replied: ‘From the Prince.’ And when she asked what prince he meant, he had put a black stone into her hand by way of answer.

She was known as Nettle, the old woman who had so suddenly appeared at the gate of Capricorn’s fortress. Everyone treated her with respect, but a little fear was mingled with it too. Resa had to help her when she cauterized Mo’s wound. She still felt sick when she thought of it. Then she had helped the old woman to bind up the wound again, and memorized all her directions. ‘If he’s still breathing in three days’ time he may live,’ she had said before leaving them alone again, in the cave that offered protection from wild beasts, the sun and the rain, but not from fear or from black, despairing thoughts.

Three days. It grew dark and then light again outside, light and then dark again, and every time Nettle came back and bent over Mo, Resa sought her face desperately for some sign of hope. But the old woman’s features remained expressionless. The days went by, and Mo was still breathing, but he still wouldn’t open his eyes.

The cave smelled of mushrooms, the brownies’ favourite food. Very likely a whole pack of them had once lived here. Now the mushroom aroma mingled with the scent of dead leaves. The strolling players had strewn the cold floor of the cave with them: dead leaves and fragrant herbs – thyme, meadowsweet, woodruff. Resa rubbed the dry leaves between her fingers as she sat there cooling Mo’s forehead, which was not cold any more but hot, terribly hot … the scent of thyme reminded her of a fairy tale he had read to her long, long ago, before he found out that his voice could bring someone like Capricorn out of the words on the page. Wild thyme should not be brought indoors, the story had said, bad luck comes with it. Resa threw the hard stems away and brushed the scent off her fingers on to her dress.

One of the women brought her something to eat again, and sat beside her for a while in silence, as if hoping that her presence would bring a little comfort. Soon after that three of the men came in too, but they stayed standing at the entrance of the cave, looking at her and Mo from a distance. They whispered to each other as they glanced at the pair of them.

‘Are we welcome here?’ Resa asked Nettle on one of her silent visits. ‘I think they’re talking about us.’

‘Let them!’ was all the old woman said. ‘I told them you were attacked by footpads, but of course that doesn’t satisfy them. A beautiful woman, a man with a strange wound, where do they come from? What happened? They’re curious. And if you’re wise, you won’t let too many of them see that scar on his arm.’

‘Why not?’ Resa looked at her, baffled.

The old woman scrutinized her as if she wanted to see into her heart. ‘Well, if you really don’t know, then that’s just as well,’ she said at last. ‘And let them talk. What else are they to do? Some come here to wait for death, others for life to begin at last, others again live only on the stories they are told. Tightrope-walkers, fire-eaters, peasants, princes – they’re all the same, flesh and blood and a heart that knows it will stop beating one day.’

Fire-eaters. Resa’s heart leaped when Nettle mentioned them. Of course. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?

‘Please!’ she said, when the old woman reached the entrance of the cave again. ‘You must know many strolling players. Is there one who calls himself Dustfinger?’

Nettle turned as slowly as if she were still deciding whether to answer this. ‘Dustfinger?’ she finally replied, in unforthcoming tones. ‘You’ll scarcely find one of the strolling players who doesn’t know of him, but no one’s seen him for years. Although there are rumours that he’s back …’

Oh yes, he’s back, thought Resa, and he will help me just as I helped him in the other world.

‘I must send him a message!’ She heard the desperation in her own voice. ‘Please!’

Nettle looked at her without any expression on her brown face. ‘Cloud-Dancer is here,’ she said at last. ‘His leg is aching again, but as soon as it’s better he’ll be on his way. See if he’ll ask around for you and deliver your message.’

Then she had gone.

Cloud-Dancer.

Darkness was falling again outside, and with the fading light men, women and children came into the cave and lay down on the dead leaves to sleep – away from her, as if Mo’s stillness might be catching. One of the women brought her a torch. It cast quivering shadows on the rocky walls, shadows that made faces and passed black fingers over Mo’s pallid face. The fire did not keep the White Women away, although it was said that they both desired and feared it. They appeared in the cave again and again, like pale reflections with faces made of mist. They came closer and disappeared again, presumably driven away by the sharp and bitter smell of the leaves that Nettle had scattered around the place where Mo was lying. ‘It will keep them off,’ the old woman had said, ‘but you must watch carefully all the same.’

One of the children was crying in his sleep. His mother stroked his hair to comfort him, and Resa couldn’t help thinking of Meggie. Was she alone, or was the boy still with her? Was she happy, sad, sick, in good health …? How often she had asked herself these questions, as if she hoped for an answer some time, from somewhere …

A woman brought her fresh water. She smiled gratefully, and asked the woman about Cloud-Dancer. ‘He prefers to sleep in the open,’ she said, pointing. It was some time since Resa had seen any more White Women, but all the same she woke one of the women who had offered to relieve her during the night. Then she climbed over the sleeping figures and went out.

The moon was shining through the dense canopy of leaves, brighter than any torch. A few men were sitting around a fire. Unsure of herself, Resa went towards them, in the dress that wasn’t right for this place at all. It ended too far above her ankles even for one of the strolling players, and it was torn too.

The men stared at her, both suspicious and curious.

‘Is one of you Cloud-Dancer?’

A thin little man, toothless and probably not nearly as old as he looked, nudged the man sitting next to him in the ribs.

‘Why do you ask?’ This man’s face was friendly, but his eyes were wary.

‘Nettle says he might carry a message for me.’

‘A message? Who to?’ He stretched his left leg, rubbing the knee as if it hurt him.

‘To a fire-eater. Dustfinger is his name. His face …’

Cloud-Dancer drew one finger over his cheek. ‘Three scars. I know. What do you want with him?’

‘I want you to take him this.’ Resa knelt down by the fire and put her hand into the pocket of her dress. She always had paper and a pencil with her; they had done duty as her tongue for years. Now her voice was back, but a wooden tongue was more useful for sending Dustfinger a message. Fingers trembling, she began to write, taking no notice of the suspicious eyes following her hand as if she were doing something forbidden.

‘She can write,’ remarked the toothless man. There was no mistaking the disapproval in his tone. It was a long, long time ago that Resa had sat in the market places of towns on the far side of the forest, dressed in men’s clothes and with her hair cut short, because writing was the only way she knew to earn her living – and writing was a craft forbidden to women in this world. Slavery was the punishment for it, and it had made her Mortola’s slave. For it was Mortola who had discovered Resa’s disguise, and as a reward she was allowed to take her away to Capricorn’s fortress.

‘Dustfinger won’t be able to read that,’ pointed out Cloud-Dancer equably.

‘Yes, he will. I taught him how.’

They looked at her incredulously. Letters. Mysterious things, rich men’s tools, not meant for strolling players and certainly not for women …

Only Cloud-Dancer smiled. ‘Well, fancy that. Dustfinger can read,’ he said softly. ‘Fine, but I can’t. You’d better tell me what you’ve written, so that I can tell him the words even if your note gets lost. Which can easily happen with written words, much more easily than with words in your head.’

Resa looked Cloud-Dancer straight in the face. You trust people far too easily … how often Dustfinger had told her that, but what choice did she have now? In a low voice, she repeated what she had written. ‘Dear Dustfinger, I am in the strolling players’ camp with Mo, deep in the Wayless Wood. Mortola and Basta brought us here, and Mortola—’ her voice failed as she said it – ‘Mortola shot Mo. Meggie is here too, I don’t know exactly where, but please look for her and bring her to me! Protect her as you tried to protect me. But beware of Basta. Resa.’

‘Mortola? Wasn’t that what they called the old woman who lived with the fire-raisers?’ The man who asked this question had no right hand. A thief – you lost your left hand for stealing a loaf, your right hand for a piece of meat.

‘Yes, they say she’s poisoned more men than the Adderhead has hairs on his head!’ Cloud-Dancer pushed a log of wood back into the fire. ‘And it was Basta who slashed Dustfinger’s face all that time ago. He won’t like to hear those two names.’

‘But Basta’s dead!’ remarked the toothless minstrel. ‘And they’ve been saying the same about the old woman too!’

‘That’s what they tell the children,’ said a man with his back to Resa, ‘so they’ll sleep better. The likes of Mortola don’t die. They only bring death to others.’

They’re not going to help me, thought Resa. Not now they’ve heard those two names. The only one looking at her in anything like a friendly way was a man wearing the black and red of a fire-eater. But Cloud-Dancer was still inspecting her as if he wasn’t sure what to make of her – her and her mysterious message.

Finally, however, and without a word, he took the note from her fingers and put it in the bag he wore at his belt. ‘Very well, I’ll take Dustfinger your message,’ he said. ‘I know where he is.’

He was going to help her after all. Resa could hardly believe it.

‘Oh, thank you.’ Swaying with exhaustion, she straightened up again. ‘When do you think he’ll get the message?’

Cloud-Dancer patted his knee. ‘My leg must get better first.’

‘Of course.’ Resa bit back the words she wanted to shout, begging him to hurry. She mustn’t press him too hard, or he might change his mind, and then who would find Dustfinger for her? A piece of wood broke apart in the flames, spitting out glowing sparks at her feet. ‘I have no money to pay you,’ she said, ‘but perhaps you’ll accept this.’ And she took her wedding ring off her finger and offered it to Cloud-Dancer. The toothless man looked at the gold ring as avidly as if he would like to put his own hand out for it, but Cloud-Dancer shook his head.

‘No, forget it,’ he said. ‘Your husband is sick. It’s bad luck to give away your wedding ring, I’ve heard.’

Bad luck. Resa was quick to put the ring back on her finger. ‘Yes,’ she murmured. ‘Yes, you’re right. Thank you. Thank you with all my heart!’

She turned to go.

‘Hey, you!’ The minstrel whose back had been turned to her was looking at her. He had only two fingers on his right hand. ‘Your husband – he has dark hair. Dark as the fur of a mole. And he’s tall. Very tall.’

Bewildered, Resa looked at him. ‘So?’

‘And then there’s the scar. Just where the songs say. I’ve seen it. Everyone knows how he got it: the Adderhead’s dogs bit him there when he was poaching near the Castle of Night, and he took a stag, one of the White Stags that only the Adderhead himself may kill.’

What on earth was he talking about? Resa remembered what Nettle had said: And if you’re wise, you won’t let too many of them see that scar on his arm.

The toothless man laughed. ‘Listen to Twofingers, will you! He thinks it’s the Bluejay lying there in the cave. Since when did you believe in old wives’ tales? Was he wearing his feathered mask?’

‘How should I know?’ snapped Twofingers. ‘Did I bring him here? But I tell you, that’s him!’

Resa sensed that the fire-eater was examining her thoughtfully. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. ‘I don’t know any Bluejay.’

‘You don’t?’ Twofingers picked up the lute lying on the grass beside him. Resa had never before heard the song that he now sang in a soft voice:

Bright hope arises from the dark

And makes the mighty tremble.

Princes can’t fail to see his mark,

Nor can they now dissemble.

With hair like moleskin smooth and black,

And mask of bluejay feathers,

He vows wrongdoers to attack,

Strikes princes in all weathers.

He hunts their game

He robs their gold –

And him they would have slain.

But he’s away, he will not stay,

They seek the Jay in vain.

How they were all looking at her! Resa took a step backwards.

‘I must go to my husband,’ she said. ‘That song … it has nothing to do with him. Believe me, it doesn’t.’

She felt their eyes on her back as she returned to the cave. Forget them, she told herself. Dustfinger will get your message, that’s all that matters, and he’ll find Meggie and bring her here.

The woman who had taken her place rose without a word and lay down with the others again. Resa was so exhausted that she swayed as she knelt on the dead leaves covering the floor. And the tears came once more. She wiped them away with her sleeve, hid her face in the fabric of her dress that smelled so familiar … of Elinor’s house, of the old sofa where she used to sit with Meggie – telling her about this world. She began to sob, so loudly that she was afraid she might have woken one of the sleeping company. Alarmed, she pressed her hand to her mouth.

‘Resa?’ It was hardly more than a whisper.

She raised her head. Mo was looking at her. Looking at her.

‘I heard your voice,’ he whispered.

She didn’t know whether to laugh or weep first. She leaned over him and covered his face with kisses. And then she both laughed and wept.

26

Fenoglio’s Plan

All I need is a sheet of paper

and something to write with, and then

I can turn the world upside down.

Friedrich Nietzsche,

Die weisse und die schwarze Kunst

Two days had passed since the festivities at the castle: two days which Fenoglio had spent showing Meggie every nook and cranny of Ombra. ‘But today,’ he said, before they set off again after eating breakfast with Minerva, ‘today I’ll show you the river. It’s a steep climb down, not very easy for my old bones, but there’s nowhere better to talk in peace. And what’s more, if we’re in luck you may see some river-nymphs down there.’ Meggie would have loved to see a river-nymph. She had only come upon a water-nymph so far, in a rather muddy pond in the Wayless Wood, and as soon as Meggie’s reflection had fallen on the water the nymph had darted away. But what exactly did Fenoglio want to talk about in peace? It wasn’t hard to guess.

What was he going to ask her to read here this time? Or, rather, who was he going to ask her to read here – and where from? From another story written by Fenoglio himself?

The path down which he led her wound its way along steeply sloping fields where farmers were working, bent double in the morning sun. How hard it must be growing enough to eat to allow you to survive the winter. And then there were all the creatures who secretly attacked your few provisions: mice, mealworms, maggots, woodlice. Life was much more difficult in Fenoglio’s world, yet it seemed to Meggie that with every new day his story was spinning a magic spell around her heart, sticky as spiders’ webs, and enchantingly beautiful too …

Everything around her seemed so real by now. Her homesickness had almost disappeared.

‘Come on!’ Fenoglio’s voice startled her out of her thoughts. The river lay before them, shining in the sun, with faded flowers drifting on the water by its banks. Fenoglio took her hand and led her down the bank, to a place where large rocks stood. Meggie hopefully leaned over the slowly flowing water, but there were no river-nymphs in sight.

‘Well, they’re timid. Too many people about!’ Fenoglio looked disapprovingly at the women doing their washing nearby. He waved to Meggie to walk on until the voices died away, and only the rippling of the water could be heard. Behind them the roofs and towers of Ombra rose against the pale blue sky. The houses were crowded close inside the walls, like birds in a nest too small for them, and the black banners of the castle fluttered above them as if to inscribe the Laughing Prince’s grief on the sky itself.

Meggie clambered up on to a flat rock over the water’s edge. The river was not broad, but seemed to be deep, and its water was darker than the shadows on the opposite bank.

‘Can you see one?’ Fenoglio almost slipped off the wet rock as he joined her. Meggie shook her head. ‘What’s the matter?’ Fenoglio knew her well after the days and nights they had spent together in Capricorn’s house. ‘Not homesick again, are you?’

‘No, no.’ Meggie knelt down and ran her fingers through the cold water. ‘I just had that dream again.’

The previous day, Fenoglio had shown her Bakers’ Alley, the houses where the rich spice and cloth dealers lived, and every gargoyle, every carved flower, every richly adorned frieze with which the skilful stonemasons of Ombra had ornamented the buildings of the city. Judging by the pride Fenoglio displayed as he led Meggie past every corner of Ombra, however remote, he seemed to consider it all his own work. ‘Well, perhaps not every corner,’ he admitted, as she once tried getting him to go down an alley she hadn’t seen yet. ‘Of course Ombra has its ugly sides too, but there’s no need for you to bother your pretty head about them.’

It had been dark by the time they were back in his room under Minerva’s roof, and Fenoglio quarrelled with Rosenquartz because the glass man had spattered the fairies with ink. Even though their voices rose louder and louder, Meggie nodded off on the straw mattress that Minerva had sent up the steep staircase for her and that now lay under the window – and suddenly there was all that red, a dull red, shining, wet red, and her heart had started beating faster and faster, ever faster, until its violent thudding woke her with a start …

‘There, look!’ Fenoglio took her arm.

Rainbow scales shimmered under the watery surface of the river. At first Meggie almost took them for leaves, but then she saw the eyes looking at her, like human eyes yet very different, for they had no whites. The nymph’s arms looked delicate and fragile, almost transparent. Another glance, and then the scaly tail flicked in the water, and there was nothing left to be seen but a shoal of fish gliding by, silvery as a snail track, and a swarm of fire-elves like the elves she and Farid had seen in the forest. Farid. He had made a fiery flower blossom at her feet, a flower just for her. Dustfinger had certainly taught him many wonderful things.

‘I think it’s always the same dream, but I can’t remember. I just remember the fear – as if something terrible had happened!’ She turned to Fenoglio. ‘Do you think it really has?’

‘Nonsense!’ Fenoglio brushed the thought aside like a troublesome insect. ‘We must blame Rosenquartz for your bad dream. I expect the fairies sat on your forehead in the night because he annoyed them! They’re vengeful little things, and I’m afraid it makes no difference to them who they avenge themselves on.’

‘I see.’ Meggie dipped her fingers in the water again. It was so cold that she shivered. She heard the washerwomen laugh, and a fire-elf settled on her wrist. Insect eyes stared at her out of a human face. Meggie quickly shooed the tiny creature away.

‘Very sensible,’ Fenoglio said. ‘You want to be careful of fire-elves. They’ll burn your skin.’

‘I know. Resa told me about them.’ Meggie watched the elf go. There was a sore, red mark on her arm where it had settled.

‘My own invention,’ explained Fenoglio proudly. ‘They produce honey that lets you talk to fire. Very much sought after by fire-eaters, but the elves attack anyone who comes too close to their nests, and few know how to set about stealing the honey without getting badly burned. In fact, now that I come to think of it, probably no one but Dustfinger knows.’

Meggie just nodded. She had hardly been listening. ‘What did you want to talk to me about? You want me to read something, don’t you?’

A few faded red flowers drifted past on the water, red as dried blood, and Meggie’s heart began beating so hard again that she put her hand to her breast. What was the matter with her?

Fenoglio undid the bag at his belt and tipped a domed red stone out into his hand. ‘Isn’t it magnificent?’ he asked. ‘I went to get it this morning while you were still asleep. It’s a beryl, a reading stone. You can use it like spectacles.’

‘I know. What about it?’ Meggie stroked the smooth stone with her fingertips. Mo had several like it, lying on the window-sill of his workshop.

‘What about it? Don’t be so impatient! Violante is almost as blind as a bat, and her delightful son has hidden her old reading stone. So I bought her another, even though it was a ruinous price. I hope she’ll be so grateful that in return she’ll tell us a few things about her late husband! Yes, yes, I know I made up Cosimo myself, but it was long ago that I wrote about him. To be honest, I don’t remember that part particularly well, and what’s more … who knows how he may have changed, once this story took it into its head to go on telling itself?’

A horrible foreboding came into Meggie’s mind. No, he couldn’t be planning to do that. Not even Fenoglio would think up such an idea. Or would he?

‘Listen, Meggie!’ He lowered his voice, as if the women doing their washing upstream could hear him. ‘The two of us are going to bring Cosimo back!’

Meggie sat up straight, so abruptly that she almost slipped and fell into the river. ‘You’re crazy. Totally crazy! Cosimo’s dead!’

‘Can anyone prove it?’ She didn’t like Fenoglio’s smile one little bit. ‘I told you – his body was burned beyond recognition. Even his father wasn’t sure it was really Cosimo! He waited six months before he would have the dead man buried in the coffin intended for his son.’

‘But it was Cosimo, wasn’t it?’

‘Who’s going to say so? It was a terrible massacre. They say the fire-raisers had been storing some kind of alchemical powder in their fortress, and Firefox set it alight to help him get away. The flames enveloped Cosimo and most of his men, and later no one could identify the dead bodies found among the ruins.’

Meggie shuddered. Fenoglio, on the other hand, seemed greatly pleased by this idea. She couldn’t believe how satisfied he looked.

‘But it was him, you know it was!’ Meggie’s voice sank to a whisper. ‘Fenoglio, we can’t bring back the dead!’

‘I know, I know, probably not.’ There was deep regret in his voice. ‘Although didn’t some of the dead come back when you summoned the Shadow?’

‘No! They all fell to dust and ashes again only a few days later. Elinor cried her eyes out – she went to Capricorn’s village, even though Mo tried to persuade her not to, and there wasn’t anyone there either. They’d all gone. For ever.’

‘Hm.’ Fenoglio stared at his hands. They looked like the hands of a farmer or a craftsman, not hands that wielded only a pen. ‘So we can’t. Very well!’ he murmured. ‘Perhaps it’s all for the best. How would a story ever work if anyone could just come back from the dead at any time? It would lead to hopeless confusion; it would wreck the suspense! No, you’re right: the dead stay dead. So we won’t bring Cosimo back, just – well, someone who looks like him!’

‘Looks like him? You are crazy!’ whispered Meggie. ‘You’re a total lunatic!’

But her opinion did not impress Fenoglio in the slightest. ‘So what? All writers are lunatics! I promise you, I’ll choose my words very carefully, so carefully that our brand-new Cosimo will be firmly convinced he is the old one. Do you see, Meggie? Even if he’s only a double, he mustn’t know it. On no account is he to know it! What do you think?’

Meggie just shook her head. She hadn’t come here to change this world. She’d only wanted to see it!

‘Meggie!’ Fenoglio placed his hand on her shoulder. ‘You saw the Laughing Prince! He could die any day, and then what? It’s not just strolling players that the Adderhead strings up! He has his peasants’ eyes put out if they catch a rabbit in the forest. He forces children to work in his silver mines until they’re blind and crippled, and he’s made Firefox, who is a murderer and arsonist, his own herald!’

‘Oh yes? And who made him that way? You did!’ Meggie angrily pushed his hand away. ‘You always did like your villains best.’

‘Well, yes, maybe.’ Fenoglio shrugged, as if he were powerless to do anything about it. ‘But what was I to do? Who wants to read a story about two benevolent princes ruling a merry band of happy, contented subjects? What kind of a story would that be?’

Meggie leaned over the water and fished out one of the red flowers. ‘You like making them up!’ she said quietly. ‘All these monsters.’

Even Fenoglio had no reply to that. So they sat in silence while the women upstream spread their washing on the rocks to dry. It was still warm in the sun, in spite of the faded flowers that the river kept bringing in to the bank.

Fenoglio broke the silence at last. ‘Please, Meggie!’ he said. ‘Just this once. If you help me to get back in control of this story I’ll write you the most wonderful words to take you home again – whenever you like! Or if you change your mind because you like my world better, then I’ll bring your father here for you, and your mother … and even that bookworm woman, though from all you tell me she sounds a frightful person!’

That made Meggie laugh. Yes, Elinor would like it here, she thought, and she was sure Resa would like to see the place again. But not Mo. No, never.

She suddenly stood up and smoothed down her dress. Looking up at the castle, she imagined what it would be like if the Adderhead with his salamander gaze ruled up there. She hadn’t even liked the Laughing Prince much.

‘Meggie, believe me,’ said Fenoglio, ‘you’d be doing something truly good. You’d be giving a son back to his father, a husband back to his wife, a father back to his child – yes, I know he’s not a particularly nice child, but all the same! And you’d be helping to thwart the Adderhead’s plans. Surely that’s an honourable thing to do? Please, Meggie!’ He looked at her almost imploringly. ‘Help me. It’s my story, after all! Believe me, I know what’s best for it! Lend me your voice just once more!’

Lend me your voice … Meggie was still looking up at the castle, but she no longer saw the towers and the black banners. She was seeing the Shadow, and Capricorn lying dead in the dust.

‘All right, I’ll think about it,’ she said. ‘But now Farid is waiting for me.’

Fenoglio looked at her with as much surprise as if she had suddenly sprouted wings. ‘Oh, is he indeed?’ There was no mistaking the disapproval in his voice. ‘But I was going to go up to the castle with you to take Her Ugliness the beryl. I wanted you to hear what she has to say about Cosimo …’

‘I promised him!’ They had agreed to meet outside the city gates so that Farid wouldn’t have to pass the guards.

‘You promised? Well, never mind. You wouldn’t be the first girl to keep a suitor waiting.’

‘He is not my suitor!’

‘Glad to hear it! Since your father isn’t here, it’s up to me to keep an eye on you, after all.’ Fenoglio looked at her gloomily. ‘You really have grown! The girls here marry at your age. Oh, don’t look at me like that! Minerva’s second daughter has been married for five months, and she was just fourteen. How old is that boy? Fifteen? Sixteen?’

Meggie did not reply, but simply turned her back on him.

27

Violante

There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any courser like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll;

How frugal is the chariot

That bears a human soul!

Emily Dickinson,

The Poems of Emily Dickinson

Fenoglio simply persuaded Farid to go up to the castle with them. ‘This will work out very well,’ he whispered to Meggie. ‘He can entertain the Prince’s spoilt brat of a grandson and give us a chance to get Violante to talk in peace.’

The Outer Courtyard lay as if deserted that morning. Only a few dry twigs and squashed cakes showed that there had been festivities here. Grooms, blacksmiths, stable lads were all going about their work again, but an oppressive silence seemed to weigh down on everyone within the walls. On recognizing Fenoglio, the guards of the Inner Castle let them pass without a word, and a group of men in grey robes, grave-faced, came towards them beneath the trees of the Inner Courtyard. ‘Physicians!’ muttered Fenoglio, uneasily watching them go. ‘More than enough of them to cure a dozen men to death. This bodes no good.’

The servant whom Fenoglio buttonholed outside the throne-room looked pale and tired. The Prince of Sighs, he told Fenoglio in a whisper, had taken to his bed during his grandson’s celebrations and hadn’t left it since. He would not eat or drink, and he had sent a messenger to the stonemason carving his sarcophagus telling him to hurry up about it.

But they were allowed in to visit Violante. The Prince would see neither his daughter-in-law nor his grandson. He had sent even the physicians away. He would have no one near him but his furry-faced page Tullio.

‘She’s where she ought not to be, again!’ The servant was whispering as if he could be heard by the sick Prince in his apartments as he led them through the castle. A carved likeness of Cosimo looked down on them in every corridor. Now that Meggie knew about Fenoglio’s plans, the stony eyes made her even more uncomfortable. ‘They all have the same face!’ Farid whispered to her, but before Meggie could explain why the servant was beckoning them silently up a spiral staircase.

‘Does Balbulus still ask such a high price for letting Violante into the library?’ asked Fenoglio quietly as their guide stopped at a door, which was adorned with brass letters.

‘Poor thing, she’s given him almost all her jewellery,’ the servant whispered back. ‘But there you are, he used to live in the Castle of Night, didn’t he? Everyone knows that those who live on the other side of the forest are greedy folk. With the exception of my mistress.’

‘Come in!’ called a bad-tempered voice when the servant knocked. The room they entered was so bright that it made Meggie blink after walking through all those dark passages and up the dark stairs. Daylight fell through high windows on to several intricately carved desks. The man standing at the largest of them was neither young nor old, and he had black hair and brown eyes which looked at them without any cordiality as he turned to them.

‘Ah, the Inkweaver!’ he said, reluctantly putting down the hare’s foot he held in his hand. Meggie knew what it was for; Mo had told her often enough. Rubbing parchment with a hare’s foot made it smooth. And there were the colours whose names Mo had repeated over and over to her. Tell me again! How often she had plagued Mo with that demand! She never tired of the sound of them: lapis lazuli, orpiment, violet, malachite green. What makes them still shine like that, Mo? she had asked. After all, they’re so old! What are they made of? And Mo had told her – told her how you made them, all those wonderful colours that shone even after hundreds of years as if they had been stolen from the rainbow, now protected from air and light between the pages of books. To make malachite green you pounded wild iris flowers and mixed them with yellow lead oxide; the red was made from murex shells and cochineal insects … they had so often stood together looking at the pictures in one of the valuable manuscripts that Mo was to free from the grime of many years. Look at those delicate tendrils, he had said, can you imagine how fine the pens and brushes must be to paint something like that, Meggie? He was always complaining that no one could make such implements any more. And now she saw them with her own eyes, pens as fine as hairs and tiny brushes, whole sets of them standing in a glazed jug: brushes that could conjure up flowers and faces no bigger than a pinhead on parchment or paper. You moistened them with a little gum arabic to make the paint cling better. Her fingers itched to pick a brush out of the set and take it away with her for Mo … he ought to have come just for this, she thought, to stand here in this room.

An illuminator’s workshop … Fenoglio’s world seemed twice, three times as wonderful. Elinor would have given one of her little fingers to be standing here now, thought Meggie. She was about to move towards one of the desks to take a closer look at it all, the brushes, the pigments, the parchment, but Fenoglio held her back.

‘Balbulus!’ He sketched a bow. ‘And how is the master today?’ There was no mistaking the mockery in his voice.

‘The Inkweaver wants to see the Lady Violante,’ said the servant in a low voice.

Balbulus pointed to a door behind him. ‘Well, you know where the library is. Or perhaps we had better rename it the Chamber of Forgotten Treasures.’ He lisped slightly, his tongue touching his teeth as if it didn’t have enough room in his mouth. ‘Violante is just looking at my latest work, or what she can see of it. I finished copying out the stories for her son last night. I’d rather have used the parchment for other texts, I must admit, but Violante insisted.’

‘Well, I’m sorry you had to waste your art on such frivolities,’ replied Fenoglio, without so much as glancing at the work Balbulus had before him at the moment. Farid did not seem interested in the picture either. He looked at the window, where the sky outside shone a brighter blue than any of the paints sticking to the fine brushes. But Meggie wanted to see how good Balbulus was at his art, and whether his haughty attitude was justified. Unobtrusively, she took a step forward. She saw a picture framed in gold leaf, showing a castle among green hills, a forest, magnificently dressed riders among the trees, fairies fluttering around them, and a white stag turning to flee. Never before had she seen such a picture. It glowed like stained glass – like a window placed on the parchment. She would have loved to look at it more closely, see the faces, the horses’ harnesses, the flowers and clouds, but Balbulus cast her such an icy glance that she retreated, blushing.

‘That poem you brought yesterday,’ said Balbulus in a bored voice, as he bent over his work again, ‘it was good. You ought to write such things more often, but I know you prefer writing stories for children or songs for the Motley Folk. And why? Just for the wind to sing your words? The spoken word is nothing, it hardly lives longer than an insect! Only the written word is eternal.’

‘Eternal?’ Fenoglio made the word sound as if there could be nothing more ridiculous in the world. ‘Nothing’s eternal – and what happier fate could words have than to be sung by minstrels? Yes, of course they change the words, they sing them slightly differently every time, but isn’t that in itself wonderful? A story wearing another dress every time you hear it – what could be better? A story that grows and puts out flowers like a living thing! But look at the stories people press in books! They may last longer, yes, but they breathe only when someone opens the book. They are sound pressed between the pages, and only a voice can bring them back to life! Then they throw off sparks, Balbulus! Then they go free as birds flying out into the world. Perhaps you’re right, and the paper makes them immortal. But why should I care? Will I live on, neatly pressed between the pages with my words? Nonsense! We’re none of us immortal; even the finest words don’t change that, do they?’

Balbulus had listened to him without any expression on his face. ‘What an unusual opinion, Inkweaver!’ he said. ‘For my part, I think highly of the immortality of my work, and very poorly of minstrels. But why don’t you go in to Violante? She’ll probably have to leave soon, to hear some peasant’s woes or listen to a merchant complaining of the highwaymen who make the roads unsafe. It’s almost impossible to get hold of acceptable parchment these days. Robbers steal it and offer it for sale in the markets at outrageous prices! Have you any idea how many goats must be slaughtered for me to write down one of your stories?’

‘About one for each double spread,’ said Meggie, earning another icy look from Balbulus.

‘Clever girl,’ he said, in a tone that made his words sound more like blame than praise. ‘And why? Because those fools the goatherds drive them through thorns and prickly bushes, without stopping to think that their skins will be needed for parchment!’

‘Oh, come, I keep telling you!’ said Fenoglio, steering Meggie and Farid towards the library door. ‘Paper, Balbulus. Paper is the material of the future.’

‘Paper!’ she heard Balbulus mutter scornfully. ‘Good heavens, Inkweaver, you’re even crazier than I thought.’

Meggie had visited more libraries with Mo than she could count. Many had been larger than the Laughing Prince’s, but few were more beautiful. You could still see that it had once been its owner’s favourite place. The only trace of Cosimo here was a white stone bust; someone had laid roses in front of it. The tapestries on the high walls were finer than those in the throne-room, the sconces heavier, the colours warmer, and Meggie had seen enough in Balbulus’s workshop to guess what treasures surrounded her here. They stood chained to the shelves, not spine beside spine like the books in Elinor’s library, but with the cut edge facing forward, because that was where the title was. In front of the shelves were rows of desks, presumably reserved for the latest precious acquisitions. Books lay on them, chained like their sisters in the shelves, and closed so that no harmful ray of light could fall on Balbulus’s pictures. In addition all the library windows were hung with heavy fabric; obviously the Prince of Sighs knew what damage sunlight did to books. Only two windows let in the light that might harm them. Her Ugliness stood in front of one window, bending so low over a book that her nose almost touched the pages.

‘Balbulus is getting better and better, Brianna,’ she said.

‘He’s greedy! A pearl, just for letting you into your father-in-law’s library!’ Her maidservant was standing at the other window looking out, while Violante’s son tugged at her hand.

‘Brianna!’ he whined. ‘Come on! This is boring. Come on out into the courtyard. You promised.’

‘He uses the money from the pearls to buy new pigments! How else would he get them, when no one in this castle will pay gold for anything but statues of a dead man?’ Violante jumped when Fenoglio closed the door behind him, guiltily hiding the book behind her back. Only when she saw who it was did her face relax. ‘Fenoglio!’ she said, pushing her mousy brown hair back from her forehead. ‘Must you scare me like that?’ The mark on her face was like a paw-print.

Fenoglio smiled, and put his hand to the bag at his belt. ‘I’ve brought you something.’

Violante’s fingers closed greedily on the red stone. Her hands were small and rounded like a child’s. She quickly reopened the book she had hidden behind her back and held the beryl up to one of her eyes.

‘Come on, Brianna, or I’ll tell them to cut your hair off!’ Jacopo took a handful of the maid’s hair and pulled it so hard that she screamed. ‘That’s what my grandfather does. He shaves them bald, the minstrel girls and the women who live in the forest. He says they turn into owls by night and screech outside your windows till you’re dead in your bed.’

‘Don’t look at me like that!’ Fenoglio whispered to Meggie. ‘I didn’t invent this little horror. Here, Jacopo!’ He dug his elbow imperatively into Farid’s ribs as Brianna went on trying to free her hair from the child’s small fingers. ‘Look, I’ve brought someone to see you.’

Jacopo let go of Brianna’s hair and examined Farid with little enthusiasm. ‘He doesn’t have a sword,’ he pointed out.

‘A sword! Who needs a sword?’ Fenoglio wrinkled his nose. ‘Farid is a fire-eater.’

Brianna raised her head and looked at Farid. But Jacopo was still inspecting him as unenthusiastically as ever.

‘Oh, this stone is wonderful!’ his mother murmured. ‘My old one wasn’t half so good. I can make them all out, Brianna, every character. Did I ever tell you how my mother taught me to read by making up a little song for each letter?’ She began to chant quietly: ‘A brown bear bites off a big bit of B … I didn’t see particularly well even then, but she traced them on the floor very large for me, laying them out with flower petals or little stones. A, B, C, the minstrel plays for me.’

‘No,’ said Brianna. ‘No, you never told me.’

Jacopo was still staring at Farid. ‘He was at my festivities!’ he said. ‘He threw torches.’

‘That was nothing, just a children’s game.’ Farid was looking patronizingly at the boy, as if he himself and not Jacopo were the Prince’s son. ‘I can do other tricks too, but I don’t think you’re old enough for them.’

Meggie saw Brianna hide a smile as she took the comb out of her pale red hair and pinned it up again. She did it very prettily. Farid was watching her, and for the first time in her life Meggie wished that she had such lovely hair, although she wasn’t sure that she could manage to put a comb in it so gracefully. Luckily Jacopo attracted Farid’s attention again by clearing his throat and folding his arms. He had probably copied the mannerism from his grandfather.

‘Show me or I’ll have you whipped.’ The threat sounded ridiculous, uttered in such a shrill voice – yet at the same time it was more terrible than if it had come from an adult mouth.

‘Oh, will you?’ Farid’s face gave nothing away. He had obviously learned a thing or two from Dustfinger. ‘And what do you think I’d do to you then?’

This left Jacopo speechless, but just as he was about to appeal to his mother for support Farid reached out his hand to the boy. ‘Very well, come along, then.’

Jacopo hesitated, and for a moment Meggie was tempted to take Farid’s hand herself and follow him into the courtyard, instead of listening to Fenoglio trying to follow a dead man’s trail, but Jacopo moved faster. His pale, stubby fingers gripped Farid’s brown hand tightly, and when he turned in the doorway his face was that of a happy, perfectly ordinary little boy. ‘He’s going to show me tricks, did you hear?’ he said proudly, but his mother didn’t even look up.

‘Oh, what a wonderful stone,’ was all she whispered. ‘If only it wasn’t red, if only I had one for each eye—’

‘Well, I’m working on a way around that, but I’m afraid I haven’t found the right glassmaker yet.’ With a sigh, Fenoglio dropped into one of the chairs invitingly arranged among the reading desks. They all bore the old coat of arms on their leather upholstery, the one where the lion was not shedding tears, and the leather of some was so worn that you could clearly tell how many hours the Laughing Prince had once spent here – until grief sapped his pleasure in books.

‘A glassmaker? Why a glassmaker?’ Violante gazed at Fenoglio through the beryl. It looked almost as if her eye was made of fire.

‘Glass can be ground to make your eyes see better, much better than through a stone, but there isn’t a glazier in Ombra who knows what I’m talking about!’

‘Oh, I know, only the stonemasons are good for anything in this place! Balbulus says there’s not a single decent book-binder in all Lombrica.’

I could tell you the name of a good one, thought Meggie instinctively, and for a moment she wished Mo were here, so much that it hurt. But Her Ugliness was looking at her book again. ‘There are good glaziers in my father’s realm,’ she said, without glancing up. ‘He’s had several windows in his castle filled in with glass. He had to sell off a hundred of his peasants to go for soldiers to pay for it.’ Violante seemed to consider the price well worth paying.

I don’t think I like her, thought Meggie, as she went slowly from desk to desk. The bindings of the books lying on them were beautiful, and she would have loved to hide at least one of them under her dress, so that she could look at it in Fenoglio’s room at her leisure, but the clips holding the chains in place were firmly riveted to the wooden covers of the books.

‘You’re welcome to look at them.’ Her Ugliness spoke to Meggie so suddenly that she jumped. Violante was still holding the red stone up to her eye, and Meggie was reminded of the blood-red jewels at the corners of the Adderhead’s nostrils. His daughter resembled her father more than she probably knew.

‘Thank you,’ murmured Meggie, and opened one. She remembered the day when Mo had shown her how to open an old book without using her fingers. He had handed her a book with two brass clasps holding its wooden covers together, she had looked at him, baffled, and then, smiling at her, he had struck the front of the book so hard with his fist that the clasps snapped open like little mouths, and the book was opened as if by a ghostly hand.

But the book that Meggie opened in the Laughing Prince’s library showed no sign of age, as that other book had done. No speck of mould disfigured the parchment, no beetles or bookworms had nibbled it, like some of the manuscripts she had seen when Mo restored them. The years were not kind to parchment and paper; a book had many enemies, and in time it withered like a human body. ‘Which tells us, Meggie,’ Mo always said, ‘that a book is a living thing!’ If only she could have shown him this one!

Very, very carefully she turned the pages – yet her mind was not entirely on what she was doing, for the wind blew Farid’s voice into the room like the memory of another world. Meggie listened to what was going on outside as she snapped the clasps of the book shut again. Fenoglio and Violante were still talking about useless bookbinders. Neither of them was taking any notice of her, and Meggie stole over to one of the darkened windows and peered through the gap in the curtains. Her glance fell on a walled garden, beds full of brightly coloured flowers, and Farid standing among them letting flames lick their way up his bare arms, just as Dustfinger had done the first time Meggie saw him breathing fire back in Elinor’s garden, before he betrayed her …

Jacopo was laughing exuberantly. He clapped – and then stumbled back in alarm as Farid sent the torches whirling through the air like Catherine wheels. Meggie couldn’t help smiling; Dustfinger had certainly taught him a lot, even if Farid couldn’t yet breathe fire quite so high in the air as his teacher.

‘Books? No, I told you, Cosimo never came in here!’ Violante’s voice suddenly sounded considerably sharper, and Meggie turned round. ‘He thought nothing of books, he loved dogs, good boots, a fast horse … there were days when he even loved his son. But I don’t want to talk about him.’

Laughter drifted up from outside again. Brianna joined Meggie at the window. ‘The boy’s a very good fire-eater,’ she said.

‘Really?’ Her short-sighted mistress looked at her. ‘I thought you didn’t like fire-eaters. You’re always saying they’re feckless folk.’

‘This one’s good. Much better than Sootbird.’ Brianna’s voice sounded husky. ‘I noticed him at the celebrations.’

‘Violante!’ Fenoglio sounded impatient. ‘Could we forget about that fire-breathing boy for a moment? Very well, so Cosimo didn’t like books. These things happen. But surely you can tell me a little more about him!’

‘Why?’ Her Ugliness raised the beryl to her eye again. ‘Let Cosimo rest in peace, he’s dead! The dead don’t want to linger here. Why won’t anyone understand that? And if you want to know some secret about him – well, he had none! He could talk about weapons for hours on end. He liked fire-eaters and knife-throwers and wild rides through the night. He had the smiths show him how to forge a sword, and he fenced for hours with the guards down in the courtyard until he’d mastered every trick they knew, but when the minstrels struck up their songs he began yawning after the first verse. He wouldn’t have cared for any of the songs you’ve written about him. He might have liked the robber songs, but as for the idea that words can be like music, making the heart beat faster … he had no ear for that! Even executions interested him more than words, although he never enjoyed them the way my father does.’

‘Really?’ Fenoglio sounded surprised but by no means disappointed. ‘Wild rides through the night,’ he murmured. ‘Fast horses. Yes, why not?’

Her Ugliness wasn’t listening to him. ‘Brianna!’ she said. ‘Take this book. If I praise Balbulus enough for his new pictures, perhaps he’ll leave it with us for a while.’ Her maid took the book from her, an abstracted expression on her face, and went to the window again.

‘But the people loved him, didn’t they?’ Fenoglio had risen from his chair. ‘Cosimo was good to them … to the peasants, the poor … the strolling players.’

Violante stroked the mark on her cheek. ‘Yes, they all loved him. He was so handsome that you just had to love him. You couldn’t help it. But as for the peasants—’ and she wearily rubbed her short-sighted eyes – ‘do you know what he always said about them? Why are they so ugly, he asked? Ugly clothes, ugly faces … when they brought their disputes to him he really did try to do justice fairly, but it bored him to tears. He could hardly wait to get away again, back to his father’s soldiers, his horse and his hounds …’

Fenoglio said nothing. He looked so baffled that Meggie almost felt sorry for him. Isn’t he going to make me read aloud after all, she wondered? And for a strange moment she felt something like disappointment.

‘Come along, Brianna!’ ordered Her Ugliness, but her maid did not stir. She was gazing down at the courtyard as if she had never seen a fire-eater in her life before.

Frowning, Violante went over to her. ‘What are you staring at?’ she asked, squinting through the window with her short-sighted eyes.

‘He … he’s making flowers from fire,’ stammered Brianna. ‘They start like golden buds and then they unfold like real flowers. I once saw something like that … when I was very little …’

‘Yes, very nice, but come along now.’ Her Ugliness turned and made for the door. She had an odd way of walking, with her head slightly bent, yet carrying herself very upright. Brianna took a last look out of the window before hurrying after her.

Balbulus was grinding colours when they entered his workshop: blue for the sky, russet and umber for the earth. Violante whispered something to him. Presumably she was softening him up. She pointed to the book that Brianna was carrying for her.

‘I’ll be off now, Your Highness,’ said Fenoglio.

‘Yes, you can go!’ she told him. ‘But next time you visit me don’t ask questions about my late husband, bring m