All went perfectly quiet. A few feet scraped uneasily on the red clinkers of the old football field – then, suddenly, Meggie heard something behind her. It was a ticking like the sound of a clock, yet not quite the same; it sounded like a human tongue imitating a clock: tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick.
The sound was coming from among the cars parked behind the wire fence with their dazzling headlights on. Meggie couldn’t help it – she looked round, in spite of the Magpie and all the suspicious eyes turned on her. She could have kicked herself for being so stupid. Suppose they had seen it too – the thin figure rising among the cars and quickly ducking down again. But no one seemed to have noticed her glance any more than the ticking.
‘A very fine speech!’ said Capricorn slowly. ‘But you’re not here to make funeral orations for dead traitors. You’re here to read aloud, and I am not going to tell you so again.’
Meggie forced herself to look at Capricorn. She mustn’t look at the cars again. Suppose that really had been Farid? Suppose she hadn’t imagined the ticking?
The Magpie was watching her suspiciously. Perhaps she had heard it too, that soft, harmless ticking, nothing but a tongue clicking against someone’s teeth. What did it mean, unless you knew the story of Captain Hook and his fear of the crocodile with the ticking clock inside it? The Magpie wouldn’t have read it, but Mo knew that Meggie would understand his signal. He had woken her up often enough with that ticking sound, right beside her ear, so close that it tickled. ‘Breakfast time, Meggie!’ he used to whisper. ‘The crocodile’s here!’
That was it. Mo knew she would recognise the ticking that helped Peter Pan to go aboard Captain Hook’s ship and rescue Wendy. He couldn’t have given her a better signal.
Wendy, thought Meggie. What had happened next? For a moment she almost forgot where she was, but the Magpie reminded her. She slapped Meggie’s face with the flat of her hand.
‘Start reading, will you, little witch!’ she hissed. And so Meggie obeyed.
Hastily, she removed the black bookmark from the pages where it lay. She must hurry, she must read before Mo did anything silly. He didn’t know what she and Fenoglio were planning.
‘I’m going to start now, and I don’t want anyone disturbing me!’ she cried. ‘Anyone! Is that understood?’ Oh please, let Mo understand, she thought, please!
A few of Capricorn’s remaining men laughed, but Capricorn himself leaned back and folded his arms in anticipation. ‘Yes, just you take heed of what the girl said!’ he called. ‘Anyone who disturbs her will be given to the Shadow to welcome him here.’
Meggie put two fingers up her sleeve. There they were, Fenoglio’s words. She looked at the Magpie. ‘Well, she’s disturbing me!’ she said out loud. ‘I can’t read with her standing so close behind me.’
Capricorn gestured impatiently to the Magpie. Mortola’s face looked sour, as if he had told her to eat a bar of soap, but she took two or three reluctant steps back. That would have to do.
Meggie raised her hand and pushed the hair back from her forehead.
The signal for Fenoglio.
He instantly launched into his performance. ‘No, no, no! She’s not to read!’ he cried, moving towards Capricorn before Cockerell could stop him. ‘I can’t allow it! I am the author of this story, and I didn’t write it to be misused for purposes of violence and murder!’
Cockerell tried to put his hand over Fenoglio’s mouth, but Fenoglio bit his fingers and side-stepped him with more agility than Meggie would ever have expected of the old man.
‘I invented you!’ he bellowed as Cockerell chased him round Capricorn’s chair. ‘And I’m sorry I did, you stinking devil of a villain.’ Then he ran off. Cockerell didn’t catch up with Fenoglio until he reached the cage containing the prisoners, and in revenge for the mockery and laughter coming from the benches he twisted the old man’s arm behind his back so viciously that Fenoglio let out a cry of pain. Yet when Cockerell dragged him back to Capricorn’s side Fenoglio was looking quite pleased, because he knew he had given Meggie plenty of time. They had rehearsed it often enough. Her fingers had been shaking as she took the sheet of paper out of her sleeve, but no one noticed anything when she slipped it into the pages of the book. Not even the Magpie.
‘How the old man boasts!’ cried Capricorn. ‘Do I look as if an old fellow like that invented me?’
There was more laughter. The smoke above the rooftops seemed to have been forgotten. Cockerell put his hand over Fenoglio’s mouth.
‘Once again, and I hope this will be the last time,’ said Capricorn to Meggie, ‘start reading! The prisoners have waited long enough for their executioner.’
Silence fell again, and once more it smelled of fear.
Meggie bent over the book on her lap. The letters seemed to dance on the pages.
Come out, thought Meggie, come out and save us! Save us all: Elinor and my mother, Mo and Farid. Save Dustfinger if he’s still alive, and save Basta too for all I care.
Her tongue felt like a little animal that had found refuge in her mouth, and was now butting its head against her teeth.
‘Capricorn had many men,’ she began. ‘And every one of them was feared in the surrounding towns and villages. They stank of cold smoke, they stank of sulphur and everything that reminds you of fire. Whenever one of them passed by people closed their doors and hid under the stairs with their children. They called them Firefingers and Bloodhounds; Capricorn’s men had many names. They were feared by day, and by night they made their way into dreams and poisoned them. But there was one who was feared even more than Capricorn’s villains.’ Meggie felt as if her voice was growing stronger with every word she read. It seemed to grow until it filled the arena. ‘Folk called him the Shadow.’
Two more lines at the bottom of the page, then turn it over. Fenoglio’s words were waiting. ‘Look at this, Meggie!’ he had whispered when he showed her the sheet of paper. ‘What an artist I am, eh? Is there anything in the world better than words on the page? Magic signs, the voices of the dead, building blocks to make wonderful worlds better than this one, comforters, companions in loneliness. Keepers of secrets, speakers of the truth . . all those glorious words.’
Taste every word, Meggie, whispered Mo’s voice inside her, savour it on your tongue. Do you taste the colours? Do you taste the wind and the night? The fear and the joy? And the love. Taste them, Meggie, and everything will come to life. ‘Folk called him Capricorn’s Shadow.’ How the sh hissed as it passed her lips, how darkly the sound of the ‘o’ formed in her mouth.
‘He came only when Capricorn called him,’ she read. ‘Sometimes he was red as fire, sometimes grey as the ash to which fire turns all that it devours. He darted out of the earth as fast as flames lick their way up wood. His fingers and even his breath brought death. He rose before his master’s feet, soundless, faceless, scenting his way like a hound on the trail and waiting for his master to point to the victim. It was said that Capricorn had commanded one of the trolls who understand the whole art of fire and smoke to create the Shadow from the ashes of his victims. No one was sure, for it was also said that Capricorn had ordered those who called the Shadow to life to be killed. All that everyone knew was that he was immortal, invulnerable and pitiless, like his master.’