Meggie followed Elinor down the unlit corridor. For a moment she had the odd feeling that her mother might step out of one of the many doors, smiling at her. There was hardly a light on in the whole vast house, and once or twice Meggie bumped her knee on a chair or a little table that she hadn’t seen in the gloom. ‘Why is it so dark everywhere here?’ she asked as Elinor felt around for the light switch in the entrance hall.
‘Because I’d rather spend my money on books than unnecessary electricity,’ replied Elinor, looking at the light she had turned on as if she thought the stupid thing should go easy on the power. Then she made her way over to a metal box fixed to the wall near the front door and hidden behind a thick, dusty curtain. ‘I hope you switched your light off before you knocked on my door?’ she asked, as she opened the box.
‘Of course,’ said Meggie, although it wasn’t true.
‘Turn round!’ Elinor told her before setting to work on the alarm system. She frowned. ‘Heavens, all these knobs! I hope I haven’t done something wrong again. Tell me as soon as the show’s over – and don’t even think of seizing your chance to slink into the library and take a book off the shelves. Remember that I sleep right next door, and my hearing is keener than a bat’s.’
Meggie bit back the answer on the tip of her tongue. Elinor opened the front door. Without a word, Meggie pushed past her and went outside. It was a mild night, full of strange scents and the chirping of crickets. ‘Were you always as nice as this to my mother?’ she asked as Elinor was about to close the door behind her.
Elinor looked at her for a moment as if turned to stone. ‘Oh yes, I think so,’ she said. ‘Yes, I’m sure I was. And she was always as cheeky as you, too! Have fun with your fire-eater!’ Then she shut the door.
As Meggie was going through the dark garden behind the house she suddenly heard unexpected music. It filled the night air as if it had been only waiting for Meggie’s footsteps: strange music, a carnival mixture of bells, pipes and drums, both boisterous and sad. Meggie wouldn’t have been surprised to find a whole troop of fairground entertainers waiting for her on the lawn behind Elinor’s house, but only Dustfinger stood there.
He was waiting where Meggie had found him that afternoon. The music came from a cassette recorder on the grass beside the wooden deckchair. Dustfinger had placed a garden bench on the edge of the lawn for his audience. Lighted torches were stuck into the ground to the right and left of it, and two more were burning on the lawn, casting quivering shadows in the night. The shadows danced across the grass like servants conjured up by Dustfinger from some dark world for this occasion. He himself stood there bare-chested, his skin as pale as the moon, which was hanging in the sky right above Elinor’s house as if it too had turned up especially for Dustfinger’s show.
When Meggie emerged from the darkness Dustfinger bowed to her. ‘Sit down, pretty lady!’ he called over the music. ‘We were all just waiting for you.’
Shyly, Meggie sat down on the bench and looked around her. The two dark glass bottles she had seen in Dustfinger’s bag were standing on the deckchair. Something whitish shimmered in the bottle on the left, as if Dustfinger had filled it with moonlight. A dozen torches with white wadding heads were wedged between the wooden rungs of the chair, and beside the cassette recorder stood a bucket and a large, big-bellied vase, which if Meggie remembered correctly came from Elinor’s entrance hall.
For a moment, she let her eyes wander to the windows of the house. There was no light in Mo’s bedroom – he was probably still working – but one floor below Meggie saw Elinor standing at her lighted window. The moment Meggie looked her way she drew the curtain, as if she had felt Meggie watching her, but she still stayed at the window. Her shadow was a dark outline against the pale yellow curtain.
‘Do you hear how quiet it is?’ Dustfinger switched the recorder off. The silence of the night fell on Meggie’s ears, muffled as if by cotton wool. Not a leaf moved; there was nothing to be heard but the torches crackling and the chirping of the crickets.
Dustfinger switched the music back on. ‘I had a private word with the wind,’ he said. ‘There’s one thing you should know: if the wind takes it into its head to play with fire then even I can’t tame the blaze. But it gave me its word of honour to keep still tonight and not spoil our fun.’
So saying, he picked up one of the torches from Elinor’s deckchair. He sipped from the bottle with the moonlight in it and spat something whitish out into the big vase. Then he dipped the torch he was holding into the bucket, took it out again, and held its dripping head of wadding to one of its burning sisters. The fire flared up so suddenly it made Meggie jump. However, Dustfinger put the second bottle to his lips, filling his mouth until his scarred cheeks were bulging. Then he took a deep, deep breath, arched his body like a bow, and spat whatever was in his mouth out into the air above the burning torch.
A fireball hung over Elinor’s lawn, a bright, blazing globe of fire. It ate away at the darkness like a living thing. And it was so big, Meggie felt sure everything around it would go up in flames: the grass, the deckchair, and Dustfinger himself. But he just spun round and round on the spot, exuberant as a dancing child, breathing out more fire. He made the fire climb high in the air, as if to set the stars alight. Then he lit a second torch and ran its flame over his bare arms. He looked as happy as a child playing with a pet animal. The fire licked his skin like something living, a darting, burning creature that he had befriended, a creature that caressed him and danced for him and drove the night away. He threw the torch high in the air where the fireball had just been blazing, caught it as it came down, lit more, juggled with three, four, five torches. Their fire whirled around him, danced with him but never hurt him: Dustfinger the tamer of flames, the man who breathed sparks, the friend of fire. He made the torches disappear as if the darkness had devoured them, bowed to the speechless Meggie with a smile, before once more spitting fire out into the night’s black face.
Afterwards, she could never say what had distracted her attention from the whirling torches and the showers of sparks, making her look up once more at the house and its windows. Perhaps you feel the presence of evil on your skin like sudden heat or cold … or perhaps it was just that the light now seeping through the library shutters caught her eye, the light falling on the rhododendron bushes where their leaves pressed close to the wood. Perhaps.
She thought she heard voices rising above Dustfinger’s music, men’s voices, and a terrible fear rose inside her, as dark and strange as the terror she had felt on the night when she first saw Dustfinger standing out in the yard. As she jumped up, a burning torch slipped from his hands and fell on the grass. He quickly trod the fire out before it could spread any further, then followed the direction of Meggie’s eyes, and he too looked at the house without a word.
Meggie began to run. Gravel crunched under her feet as she raced towards the house. The front door stood ajar, there was no light in the entrance hall, but Meggie heard loud voices echoing down the corridor that led to the library. ‘Mo?’ she called, and there was the fear back again, digging its curved beak into her heart, taking her breath away.
The library door was open too. Meggie was about to rush in when two strong hands grasped her by the shoulders.