‘I don’t see any castle,’ muttered Meggie, but it wasn’t long before Elinor spotted one. ‘Sixteenth century,’ she announced as the ruined walls appeared on a mountainside. ‘Tragic story. Forbidden love, pursuit, death, grief and pain.’ And as they passed between the strong and silent rock walls Elinor told the tale of a battle that had raged in this very place over six hundred years ago. ‘To this day, if you dig among the stones you’ll still find bones and dented helmets.’ She seemed to know a story about every church tower. Some were so unlikely that Meggie wrinkled her brow in disbelief, and Elinor, without taking her eyes off the road, always responded, ‘No, really, that’s just what happened!’ She seemed to be particularly fond of bloodthirsty stories: tales of the beheading of unhappy lovers, or princes walled up alive. ‘Yes, everything looks very peaceful now,’ she remarked when Meggie turned a little pale at one of these stories. ‘But I can tell you there’s always a sad story somewhere. Ah, well, times were more exciting a few hundred years ago.’
Meggie didn’t know what was so exciting about times when, if Elinor was to be believed, your only choice was between dying of the plague or getting slaughtered by invading soldiers. But Elinor’s cheeks glowed pink with excitement at the sight of some burnt-out old castle, and whenever she told tales of the warrior princes and greedy bishops who had once spread terror and death abroad in the very mountains through which they themselves were now driving on modern paved roads, a romantic gleam lit her usually chilly pebble eyes.
‘My dear Elinor, you were obviously born into the wrong story,’ said Dustfinger at last. These were the first words he had spoken since they set out.
‘The wrong story? The wrong period, you mean. Yes, I’ve often thought so myself.’
‘Call it what you like,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Anyway, you should get on well with Capricorn. He likes the same kinds of stories as you.’
‘Is that supposed to be an insult?’ asked Elinor, offended. The comparison seemed to trouble her, for after that she kept quiet for almost an hour, which left Meggie with nothing to distract her from her miserable thoughts and the frightening pictures they conjured up for her in every tunnel.
Twilight was beginning to fall when the mountains drew back from the road and the sea suddenly appeared beyond green hills, a sea as wide as another sky. The sinking sun made it glisten like the skin of a beautiful snake. It was a long time since Meggie had seen the sea, and then it had been a cold sea, slate-grey and pale from the wind. This sea looked different, very different.
It warmed Meggie’s heart just to see it, but all too often it disappeared behind the tall, ugly buildings covering the narrow strip of land that lay between the water and the encroaching hills. Sometimes, the hills reached all the way down to the sea, and in the light of the setting sun they looked as if they were giant waves that had rolled up on to the land.
As they followed the winding coastal road Elinor began telling stories again: tales of the Romans who, she said, had built the road they were on, and how they feared the savage inhabitants of this narrow strip of land. Meggie was only half listening. Palm trees grew beside the road, their fronds dusty and sharp-edged. Giant agaves flowered among the palms, looking like spiders squatting there with their long spiny leaves. The light behind them turned pink and lemon-yellow as the sun sank further down towards the sea, and dark blue trickled down from the sky like ink flowing into water. It was so beautiful a sight that it almost hurt to look at it. Meggie had thought the place where Capricorn lived would be quite different. Beauty and fear make uneasy companions.
They drove through a small town, past houses as bright as if a child had painted them. They were colour-washed orange and pink, red and yellow. A great many were yellow: pale yellow, brownish yellow, sandy yellow, dirty yellow, and they had green shutters and red-brown roofs. Even the gathering twilight couldn’t drain them of their brightness.
‘It doesn’t seem so very dangerous here,’ remarked Meggie, as they drove past another pink house.
‘That’s because you keep looking to your left,’ said Dustfinger behind her. ‘But there’s always a light side and a dark side. Look to your right for a change.’
Meggie did as he said. At first she saw nothing but the brightly coloured houses there too. They crowded close to the roadside, leaning against each other as if they were arm in arm. But then the houses were suddenly left behind, and steep hills with the night already settling among their folds lined the road instead. Yes, Dustfinger was right. It looked sinister over there, and the few houses left seemed to be drowning in the gathering dusk.
It quickly grew darker, for night falls fast in the south, and Meggie was glad that Elinor was driving along the well lit coastal road. But all too soon Dustfinger told her to turn off along a minor road leading away from the coast, away from the sea and the brightly coloured houses, and into the dark.
The road wound further and further into the hills, going up and down as the slopes by the roadside grew steeper and steeper. The light of the headlamps fell on gorse, on vines run wild, and olive trees crouching like bent old men beside the road.
Only twice did they meet another vehicle coming towards them. Now and then the lights of a village emerged from the darkness. But the roads along which Dustfinger guided Elinor led away from the lights and deeper and deeper into the night. Several times the beam of the headlights fell on ruined houses, but Elinor didn’t know stories about any of them. No princes had lived in those wretched hovels, no red-robed bishops, only farmers and labourers whose stories no one had written down, and now they were lost, buried under wild thyme and fast-growing gorse.
‘Are we still going the right way?’ asked Elinor in a muted voice, as if the world around her were too quiet for anyone to speak out loud. ‘Where on earth do we find a village in this God-forsaken wilderness? We’ve probably taken at least two wrong turnings already.’
But Dustfinger only shook his head. ‘We’re going the right way,’ he replied. ‘Once we’re over that hill you’ll be able to see the houses.’
‘I certainly hope so!’ muttered Elinor. ‘I can hardly make out the road. Heavens above, I had no idea anywhere in the world was still so dark. Couldn’t you have told me what a long way it was? Then I’d have filled up the tank again. I don’t even know if we have enough fuel to make it back to the coast.’
‘So whose car is this?’ Dustfinger snapped back. ‘Mine? I told you I don’t know the first thing about cars. Now, keep your eyes on the road. We’ll be coming to the bridge any moment.’
‘Bridge?’ Elinor drove round the next bend and suddenly stamped on the brake. Right across the road, lit by two builders’ lamps, was a metal barrier. It looked rusty, as if it had stood there for years.
‘There!’ said Elinor, clapping her hands on the steering wheel. ‘We have gone the wrong way. I told you so.’
‘No, we haven’t.’ Dustfinger took Gwin off his shoulder and got out of the car. He looked round, listening intently as he approached the barrier, then dragged it over to the side of the road.
Elinor’s look of disbelief almost made Meggie laugh out loud. ‘Has the man gone right out of his mind?’ she whispered. ‘He doesn’t think I’m going to drive down a closed road in this darkness, does he?’