Meggie’s voice was shrill with fear. ‘You must take me to that village! Please!’ She looked pleadingly at Dustfinger. ‘I’ll explain everything to Capricorn, and give him the book, and then he’ll let Mo go. All right?’
Dustfinger blinked up at the sun again. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said, without looking at Meggie. ‘That’s probably the only solution …’
But before he could say any more they heard Elinor’s voice calling from the house. ‘Well, well, what have we here?’ she cried, leaning out of her open window. Its pale yellow curtain flapped in the wind as if a ghost were caught in it. ‘If it isn’t our friend the matchstick-swallower!’
Meggie jumped up and ran over the lawn towards her. ‘Elinor, he knows where Mo is!’ she cried.
‘Does he indeed?’ Elinor leaned on the windowsill and scrutinised Dustfinger through narrowed eyes. ‘Put that book down!’ she snapped at him. ‘Meggie, take the book away from him.’
Taken aback, Meggie turned round. Dustfinger really was holding Inkheart, but when Meggie looked at him he quickly put it back down on the bench. Then, with a nasty glance in Elinor’s direction, he beckoned her over. Hesitantly, Meggie went to him.
‘Yes, all right, I’ll take you to your father, even though it may be dangerous for me,’ whispered Dustfinger when she was beside him. ‘But she stays here, understand?’ He slyly nodded his head in Elinor’s direction.
Meggie looked uncertainly at the house.
‘Like me to guess what he whispered to you?’ called Elinor across the lawn.
Dustfinger cast Meggie a warning glance, but she ignored it. ‘He’s going to take me to Mo!’ she called back.
‘A good idea,’ called Elinor, ‘but I’m coming too. Even if the pair of you might prefer to do without my company!’
‘We certainly might!’ muttered Dustfinger, smiling guilelessly at Elinor. ‘But who knows, perhaps we can swap her for your father? I dare say Capricorn could do with another maidservant. I know she’s no good at cooking, but perhaps she can do the laundry – even if that’s not something you learn from books.’
Meggie had to laugh – although she couldn’t tell from Dustfinger’s face if he was joking or meant it seriously.
Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.
The Wind in the Willows
Dustfinger did not steal into Meggie’s room until he was quite sure she was asleep. She had locked her door. Undoubtedly Elinor had persuaded her to do that, because she didn’t trust him and because Meggie had refused to give Inkheart back to her. Dustfinger couldn’t help smiling as he inserted the thin wire into the lock. What a stupid woman she was, in spite of all those books she’d read! Did she really think such an ordinary lock was any obstacle? ‘Well, perhaps it might be for fat fingers like yours, Elinor!’ he whispered to himself as he opened the door. ‘But my fingers play with fire, and it’s made them quick and skilful.’
His liking for Silvertongue’s daughter was a more serious obstacle, and his guilty conscience didn’t make matters any easier. Yes, Dustfinger did have a guilty conscience as he crept into Meggie’s room, although he hadn’t come to steal the book. Naturally Capricorn still wanted it – the book and Silvertongue’s daughter too, those were his new orders. But that must wait. Tonight, Dustfinger was there for a different reason. Tonight, something that had been gnawing at his heart for years drove him to Meggie’s room.
He stood thoughtfully beside the bed, looking at the sleeping girl. Betraying her father to Capricorn had not been particularly difficult, but with her it would be different. Her face reminded Dustfinger of another one, although no grief had yet left dark shadows on Meggie’s childish features. Strange, every time the girl looked at him he felt a wish to show her that he didn’t deserve the distrust he always saw in her eyes, even when she was smiling at him. She looked at her father in a very different way – as if he could protect her from all the dark and evil in the world. What a stupid, stupid idea! No one would be able to protect her from that.
Dustfinger stroked the scars on his face and frowned. Enough of such useless thoughts. He would take Capricorn what he wanted: the girl and the book. But not tonight.
Gwin moved on his shoulder, trying to wriggle out of his collar, which he liked as little as he liked the dog’s leash Dustfinger always carried with him. He wanted to go hunting, but Dustfinger wasn’t letting him out. Last night the marten had run away from him while he was talking to Basta. The furry little devil was still afraid of Basta. Dustfinger couldn’t blame him.
Meggie was sleeping soundly, her face buried in a grey sweater, probably her father’s. She murmured something in her sleep but Dustfinger couldn’t make out what. Once again his guilty conscience stirred, but he pushed the tiresome feeling away. He couldn’t do with that kind of thing, not now and not later. The girl was nothing to do with him, and he was quits with her father now. Yes, quits. He had no reason to feel like a miserable double-dealing villain.
He looked round the dark room, in search of something. Where would Meggie put the book? There was a red box beside her bed. Dustfinger lifted the lid. Gwin’s chain clinked softly as he leaned forward.
The box was full of books – wonderful books. Dustfinger took out the torch from under his coat and shone it on them. ‘Look at that!’ he murmured. ‘What beauties! Like a party of ladies dressed in their best to go to a prince’s ball.’ Silvertongue had probably rebound them after Meggie’s little fingers had worn out the old bindings. Yes, of course, there was his sign, the unicorn’s head. Each book bore it, and each was bound in a different colour. All the hues of the rainbow were gathered together in that box.
The book Dustfinger was looking for was right at the bottom. With its silvery green binding it looked plain, a poor thing among all the other grand and lordly volumes.
It didn’t surprise Dustfinger that Silvertongue had given this book such a plain dress to wear. Very likely Meggie’s father hated it as much as he loved it. Dustfinger carefully extracted it from the other books. It was almost nine years since he last had it in his hands. At the time it had still had a cardboard binding and a torn paper dust-jacket.
Dustfinger raised his head. Meggie sighed, and moved until her sleeping face was turned his way. How unhappy she looked. She must be having a nightmare. Her lips quivered, and her hands clutched the sweater as if she were looking for something – or someone – to give her security. But you are usually alone in nightmares, dreadfully alone. Dustfinger remembered many of his own bad dreams and, for a moment, he was tempted to put out his hand and wake Meggie. What a soft-hearted fool he was!
He turned his back to the bed. Out of sight, out of mind. Then he opened the book hastily before he could think better of it. His breathing was heavy – as if he had filled his mouth with liquid in preparation for breathing fire. He leafed through the first few pages, and began to read, slowly turning page after page after page. But with every page his fingers hesitated a little longer, until suddenly he closed the book. Moonlight was seeping through the cracks in the shutters. He had no idea how long he had been standing there, his eyes lost in the labyrinth of letters. He had always been a very slow reader …