When Mo left her to go and fetch their bags from the camper van Meggie went into the kitchen, but Dustfinger wasn’t there either. She even looked for him in Elinor’s bedroom, but however many doors in the huge house she opened there was no sign of him. Finally, she was too tired to go on searching. Mo had gone to bed long ago, and Elinor had disappeared into her own bedroom. So Meggie went to her room and lay down in the big bed. She felt very lost in it, like a dwarf, as if she had shrunk. Like Alice in Wonderland, she thought, patting the flowered bed linen. Otherwise she liked the room. It was full of books and pictures, and there was even a fireplace, although it looked as if no one had used it for at least a hundred years. Meggie swung her legs out of bed again and went over to the window. Outside, night had fallen long ago, and when she pushed the window shutters open a cool breeze blew on her face. The only thing she could make out in the dark was the gravel forecourt in front of the house. A lamp cast pale light over the grey and white pebbles. Mo’s stripey van stood beside Elinor’s grey estate car like a zebra lost in a horse’s stable. Meggie thought of the house they had left in such a hurry, and her room there, and school, where her desk would have been empty today. She wasn’t sure whether she felt homesick or not.
She left the shutters open when she went back to bed. Mo had put her book-box beside her. Wearily, she took a book out and tried to make herself a nice nest in its familiar words, but it was no good. Again and again the thought of that other book blurred the words, again and again Meggie saw the big initial letters before her – large, colourful letters surrounded by figures whose story she didn’t know because the book hadn’t had time to tell it to her.
I must find Dustfinger, she thought sleepily. He must be here somewhere. But then the book slipped from her fingers and she fell asleep.
The sun woke her next morning. The air was still cool from the night before, but the sky was cloudless, and when Meggie leaned out of the window she could see the lake gleaming in the distance beyond the branches of the trees. The room Elinor had given her was on the first floor. Mo was sleeping only two doors further along, but Dustfinger had to make do with an attic room. Meggie had seen it when she was looking for him yesterday. It held nothing but a narrow bed surrounded by crates of books towering up to the rafters.
Mo was already sitting at the table with Elinor when Meggie came down to the kitchen for breakfast, but Dustfinger wasn’t there. ‘Oh, he’s had breakfast already,’ said Elinor sharply, when Meggie asked about him. ‘Along with some animal like a Pomeranian dog. It was sitting on the table and it spat at me when I came into the kitchen. I wasn’t expecting anything like that. I made it clear to your peculiar friend that flies are the only animals I’ll allow anywhere near my kitchen table, and so he took the furry creature outside.’
‘What do you want him for?’ asked Mo.
‘Oh, nothing special. I – I just wanted to ask him something,’ said Meggie. She hastily ate half a slice of bread, drank some of the horribly bitter cocoa Elinor had made, and went out.
She found Dustfinger behind the house, standing on a lawn of short, rather rough grass where a solitary deckchair stood next to a plaster angel. There was no sign of Gwin. A few birds were quarrelling among the red flowers of the rhododendron, and there stood Dustfinger looking lost to the world, and juggling. Meggie tried to count the coloured balls – four, six, eight. He plucked them out of the air so swiftly that it made her dizzy to watch him. He stood on one leg to catch them, casually, as if he didn’t even have to look. Only when he spotted Meggie did a ball escape his fingers and roll at her feet. Meggie picked it up and threw it back.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’ she asked. ‘It looked – well, wonderful.’
Dustfinger made her a mocking bow. There was that strange smile of his again. ‘It’s how I earn my living,’ he said. ‘With the juggling and a few other things.’
‘How can you earn a living that way?’
‘At markets and fairs. At children’s birthday parties. Did you ever go to one of those fairs where people pretend they’re still living in Medieval times?’
Meggie nodded. Yes, she had once been to a fair like that with Mo. There had been wonderful things there, so strange that they might have come from another world, not just another time. Mo had bought her a box decorated with brightly coloured stones, and a little fish made of shiny green and gold metal, with its mouth wide open and a jingle in its hollow body that rang like a little bell when you shook it. The air had smelled of freshly baked bread, smoke and damp clothes, and Meggie had watched a smith making a sword, and had hidden behind Mo’s back from a woman in witch’s costume.
Dustfinger picked up his juggling balls and put them back in his bag which was standing open on the grass behind him. Meggie went over to it and looked inside. She saw some bottles, some white cotton wool and a carton of milk, but before she could see any more Dustfinger closed the bag.
‘Sorry, trade secrets,’ he said. ‘Your father’s given the book to this Elinor, hasn’t he?’
Meggie shrugged her shoulders.
‘It’s all right, you can tell me. I know anyway. I was listening. He’s mad to leave it here, but what can I do?’ Dustfinger sat down on the deckchair. His rucksack was on the grass next to him, with a bushy tail spilling out of it.
‘I saw Gwin,’ said Meggie.
‘Did you?’ Dustfinger leaned back, closing his eyes. His hair looked even paler in the sunlight. ‘So did I. He’s in the rucksack. It’s the time of day when he sleeps.’
‘I mean I saw him in the book.’ Meggie didn’t take her eyes off Dustfinger’s face as she said this, but it didn’t move a muscle. His thoughts couldn’t be read on his brow, in the same way as she could read Mo’s. Dustfinger’s face was a closed book, and Meggie had the feeling that if anyone tried reading it he would rap their knuckles. ‘He was sitting on a letter,’ she went on. ‘On a capital N. I saw his horns.’
‘Really?’ Dustfinger didn’t even open his eyes. ‘And do you know which of her thousands of shelves that book-mad woman put it on?’
Meggie ignored his question. ‘Why does Gwin look like the animal in the book?’ she asked. ‘Did you really stick those horns on him?’
Dustfinger opened his eyes and blinked up at the sun.
‘Hm, did I?’ he enquired, looking at the sky. A few clouds were drifting over Elinor’s house. The sun disappeared behind one of them, and its shadow fell across the green grass like an ugly mark.
‘Does your father often read aloud to you, Meggie?’ asked Dustfinger.
Meggie looked at him suspiciously. Then she knelt down beside the rucksack and stroked Gwin’s silky tail. ‘No,’ she said. ‘But he taught me to read when I was five.’
‘Ask him why he doesn’t read aloud to you,’ said Dustfinger. ‘And don’t let him put you off with excuses.’
‘What do you mean?’ Meggie straightened up, feeling cross. ‘He doesn’t like reading aloud, that’s all.’
Dustfinger smiled. Leaning out of the deckchair, he put one hand into the rucksack. ‘Ah, that feels like a nice full stomach,’ he commented. ‘I think Gwin had good hunting last night. I hope he’s not been plundering a nest again. Perhaps it’s just Elinor’s rolls and eggs.’ Gwin’s tail twitched back and forth almost like a cat’s.