Meggie’s voice died away as if the wind had blown it from her lips.
Something was rising from the gravel that covered the football pitch. It grew taller, it stretched its ashen limbs. The night air suddenly stank of sulphur. That stench burned Meggie’s eyes so that the letters blurred, but she must go on reading while the eerie creature grew taller and taller.
‘Yet one night, a mild and starlit night, the Shadow heard not Capricorn’s voice when it was called forth, but the voice of a girl, and when she called his name he remembered; he remembered all those from whose ashes he was made, all the pain and all the grief—’
The Magpie reached over Meggie’s shoulder. ‘What’s this? What are you reading?’ But Meggie jumped up and backed away before the old woman could snatch the sheet of paper from her. ‘He remembered,’ she read on in a loud, clear voice, ‘and he determined to be avenged – avenged upon those who were the cause of all this misfortune, whose cruelty poisoned the whole world.’
‘Make her stop!’
Was that Capricorn’s voice? Meggie almost fell off the rostrum as she tried to keep away from the Magpie. Darius stood there, staring at her in astonishment, the casket in his hands. Then suddenly but deliberately, as if he had all the time in the world, he put down the casket and wrapped his thin arms firmly around the Magpie from behind. Nor did he let go, no matter how hard she struggled and cursed. And Meggie read on as the Shadow stood, watching her. The figure had no face, that was true, but it had eyes, terrible eyes, red as the embers of a hidden fire.
‘Get the book away from her!’ shouted Capricorn. He was standing in front of his chair, bent double as if he feared his legs would refuse to obey him if he took so much as a step towards the Shadow. ‘Get it away from her!’
But none of his remaining men moved, none of the boys and none of the women came to his aid. They had eyes for nothing but the Shadow as he stood there listening to Meggie’s voice, as if she were telling him a long-forgotten tale.
‘Indeed, he wanted revenge,’ Meggie read on. If only her voice weren’t shaking so much, but it wasn’t easy to kill, even if someone else was going to do it for her. ‘So the Shadow went to his master, and reached out to him with ashen hands …’
How soundlessly it moved, that terrible, gigantic figure!
Meggie stared at Fenoglio’s next sentence. And Capricorn fell down on his face, and his black heart stopped beating—She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t. It had all been in vain.
Then, suddenly, someone else was standing behind her. She hadn’t even noticed him climbing up on to the rostrum. The boy was there too, holding a shotgun aimed at the benches – but no one sitting there stirred. No one so much as lifted a finger to save Capricorn. And Mo took the book from Meggie’s hands, ran his eyes over the lines Fenoglio had added, and in a firm voice read to the end of what the old man had written.
‘And Capricorn fell down on his face, and his black heart stopped beating, and all those who had gone burning and murdering with him disappeared – blown away like ashes in the wind.’
A Deserted Village
In books I meet the dead as if they were alive,
in books I see what is yet to come …
All things decay and pass with time …
all fame would fall victim to oblivion
if God had not given mortal men the book to aid them.
Richard de Bury,
So Capricorn died, just as Fenoglio had written, and Cockerell disappeared at the same moment as his master fell to the ground, and with him more than half the men left on the benches. The rest ran away, all of them, the boys and women too. Those heading towards the village met some of Capricorn’s men running back from extinguishing the fire. Their faces were smeared with soot and full of horror, and not because of the flames that had been licking around Capricorn’s house, for they had put these out. No. They had seen Flatnose and several other men vanish into thin air before their very eyes. They were gone, as if the darkness had swallowed them up, as if they had never existed. And perhaps that was the truth of it. The man who had made them had now destroyed them, erased them like mistakes in a drawing, like marks on white paper. They were gone, and the others, the men who had not been born of Fenoglio’s words, were hurrying back to tell Capricorn what had happened. But Capricorn lay on his face with gravel clinging to his red suit, and never again would anyone tell him anything – about fire and smoke, about fear and death. Never again.
Only the Shadow still stood there, a figure so tall that the men running across the car park saw him from afar, grey before the black night sky, his eyes two blazing red stars, and they forgot the master they had been going to serve. Every one of them ran for the cars. They wanted only to get away, far away, before the being who had been summoned like a dog turned and devoured them all.
Meggie did not come to her senses properly until they had all gone. She had nestled her head under Mo’s arm, as she always did when she simply didn’t want to see the world. Mo put the book under the jacket which had almost made him look like one of Capricorn’s henchmen. And he held her tight while all about them people were running and screaming. Only the Shadow stood perfectly still, as if killing his master had sapped all his power.
‘Farid,’ Meggie heard Mo say, ‘can you get that cage open?’
Only then did she bring her head out from under Mo’s arm, and saw that the Magpie was still there. Why hadn’t she disappeared too? Darius was still holding on to her as if he were afraid of what would happen if he let go. But she was no longer kicking and struggling. She was just looking at Capricorn, with tears running down her sharp-boned face, over her small soft chin, and falling like rain on her dress.
Agile as Gwin, Farid jumped down from the rostrum and ran over to the cage, without once taking his eyes off the Shadow. However, the Shadow just stood there frozen, as if he would never move again.
‘Meggie,’ whispered Mo. ‘Let’s go over to the prisoners, shall we? Poor Elinor looks exhausted, and there’s someone else I want to introduce to you.’ Farid was already busy with the door of the cage, but the two women inside were watching them.
‘You don’t need to introduce her,’ said Meggie, squeezing his hand. ‘I know who she is. I’ve known for ages. I wanted so much to tell you, but you weren’t here, and now there’s something else we have to read first. The last few sentences.’ She took the book out from under Mo’s jacket and leafed through it until she found Fenoglio’s sheet of paper still among the pages. ‘He wrote them on the other side, there wasn’t any space left on the first page,’ she said. ‘He just can’t make his handwriting small.’
Meggie lowered the sheet of paper and looked round, searching for him, but she couldn’t see him anywhere. Had Capricorn’s men taken him with them, or—?
‘Mo, he’s gone!’ she said, dismayed.
‘I’ll go and look for him in a moment,’ Mo reassured her. ‘But now read the rest, quick! Or shall I do it?’
‘No, I will.’
The Shadow was beginning to move again. He took a step towards the dead Capricorn, staggered back and turned as clumsily as a dancing bear. Meggie thought she heard a groan. Farid ducked down behind the cage when the red eyes looked his way. Her mother and Elinor flinched, too, but Meggie read in a firm voice: