Meggie looked at the rucksack with distaste. She was glad she couldn’t see Gwin’s muzzle. There might still be blood on it.
Dustfinger leaned back in Elinor’s deckchair. ‘Shall I give you a performance this evening – show you what the bottles, the cotton wool and all the other mysterious things in my bag are for?’ he asked without looking at her. ‘It has to be dark for that, pitch dark. Are you scared to be out of doors in the middle of the night?’
‘Of course not!’ said Meggie, offended, although really she was not at all happy to be out in the dark. ‘But first, tell me why you stuck those horns on Gwin! And tell me what you know about the book.’
Dustfinger folded his arms behind his head. ‘Oh, I know a lot about that book,’ he said. ‘And perhaps I’ll tell you some time, but first the two of us have a date. Here at eleven o’clock tonight. OK?’
Meggie looked up at a blackbird singing its heart out on Elinor’s rooftop. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Eleven o’clock tonight.’ Then she went back to the house.
Elinor had suggested that Mo set up his workshop next door to the library. There was a little room where she kept her collection of old books about animals and plants (for there seemed to be no kind of book that Elinor didn’t collect). She kept this collection on shelves of pale, honey-coloured wood. On some of the shelves the books were propping up glass display cases of beetles pinned to cardboard, which only made Meggie dislike Elinor all the more. By the only window was a handsome table with turned legs, but it was barely half as long as the one Mo had in his workshop at home. Perhaps that was why he was swearing quietly to himself when Meggie put her head round the door.
‘Look at this table!’ he said. ‘You could sort a stamp collection on it but not bind books. This whole room is too small. Where am I going to put the press and my tools? Last time I worked up in the attics, but now they’re filled with crates of books too.’
Meggie stroked the spines of the books crammed close together on the shelves. ‘Just tell her you need a bigger table.’ Carefully, she took a book off the shelf. It contained pictures of the strangest of insects: beetles with horns, beetles with probosces, one even had a proper nose. Meggie passed her forefinger over the pastel-coloured pictures. ‘Mo, why haven’t you ever read aloud to me?’
Her father turned round so abruptly that the book almost fell from her hand. ‘Why do you ask me that? You’ve been talking to Dustfinger, haven’t you? What did he tell you?’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’ Meggie herself didn’t know why she was lying. She put the beetle book back in its place. It felt almost as if someone were spinning a very fine web around the two of them, a web of secrets and lies closing in on them all the time. ‘I think it’s a good question, though,’ she said as she took out another book. It was called Masters of Disguise. The creatures in it looked like live twigs or dry leaves.
Mo turned his back to her again. He began laying out his implements on the table, even though it was too small: his folding tool on the left, then the round-headed hammer he used to tap the spines of books into shape, the sharp paper-knife … He usually whistled under his breath as he worked, but now he was perfectly quiet. Meggie sensed that his thoughts were far away. But where?
Finally, he sat on the side of the table and looked at her. ‘I just don’t like reading aloud,’ he said, as if it was the most uninteresting subject in the world. ‘You know I don’t. That’s all.’
‘But why not? I mean, you make up stories. You tell wonderful stories. You can do all the voices, and make it exciting and then funny …’
Mo crossed his arms over his chest as if hiding behind them.
‘You could read me Tom Sawyer,’ suggested Meggie ‘or How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.’ That was one of Mo’s favourite stories. When she was smaller they sometimes played at having crumbs in their clothes, like the crumbs in the rhino’s skin.
‘Yes, an excellent story,’ murmured Mo, turning his back to her again. He picked up the folder in which he kept his endpapers and leafed absent-mindedly through them. ‘Every book should begin with attractive endpapers,’ he had once told Meggie. ‘Preferably in a dark colour: dark red or dark blue, depending on the binding. When you open the book it’s like going to the theatre. First you see the curtain. Then it’s pulled aside and the show begins.’
‘Meggie, I really do have to work now,’ he said without turning round. ‘The sooner I’m through with Elinor’s books the sooner we can go home again.’
Meggie put the book about creatures who were masters of disguise back in its place. ‘Suppose he didn’t stick the horns on?’ she asked.
‘Gwin’s horns. Suppose Dustfinger didn’t stick them on?’ ‘Well, he did.’ Mo drew a chair up to the table that was not long enough for him. ‘By the way, Elinor’s gone shopping. If you feel faint with hunger before she gets back, just make yourself a couple of pancakes, OK?’
‘OK,’ murmured Meggie. For a moment she wondered whether to tell him about her date with Dustfinger that night, but then she decided against it. ‘Do you think I can take some of these books to my room?’ she asked instead.
‘I’m sure you can. So long as they don’t disappear into your box.’
‘Like that book thief you once told me about?’ Meggie put three books under her left arm and four under her right arm. ‘How many was it he stole? Thirty thousand?’
‘Forty thousand,’ said Mo. ‘But at least he didn’t kill the owners.’
‘No, that was the Spanish monk whose name I’ve forgotten.’ Meggie went over to the door and opened it with her toe. ‘Dustfinger says Capricorn would kill you to get hold of that book.’ She tried to make her voice sound casual. ‘Would he, Mo?’
‘Meggie!’ Mo turned round with the paper-knife, pretending to point it at her threateningly. ‘Go and lie in the sun or bury your pretty nose in those books, but please let me get some work done. And tell Dustfinger I shall carve him into very thin slices with this knife if he goes on telling you such nonsense.’
‘That wasn’t a proper answer!’ said Meggie, making her way out into the passage with an armful of books.
Once in her room, she spread the books out on the huge bed and began to read. She read about beetles who moved into empty snail-shells as we might move into an empty house, about frogs shaped like leaves and caterpillars with brightly coloured spines on their backs, white-bearded monkeys, stripy anteaters, and cats that dig in the ground for sweet potatoes. There seemed to be everything here, every creature Meggie could imagine, and even more that she could never have dreamed existed at all. But none of Elinor’s clever books said a word about martens with horns.
Fire and Stars
So along they came with dancing bears, dogs and goats, monkeys and marmots, walking the tightrope, turning somersaults both backwards and forwards, throwing daggers and knives and suffering no injury when they fell on their points and blades, swallowing fire and chewing stones, doing tricks with magic goblets and chains under cover of cloak and hat, making puppets fence with each other, trilling like nightingales, screaming like peacocks, calling like deer, wrestling and dancing to the sound of the double flute …