Mo nodded and glanced at Elinor. ‘You brought Capricorn the book?’
‘Of course! You’d have given it to him yourself if I hadn’t …’ said Elinor, going red and looking down at her dusty shoes.
‘If you hadn’t swapped them round,’ Meggie ended her sentence for her. She reached for Mo’s hand and held it very tightly. She couldn’t believe he was back with her, apparently perfectly all right except for the scratch on his forehead, almost hidden by his dark hair. ‘Did they hit you?’ She felt the dried blood anxiously with her forefinger.
Mo had to smile, although he couldn’t have been feeling much like it. ‘That’s nothing. I’m fine too. Don’t worry.’
Meggie didn’t think that was really much of an answer, but she asked no more questions.
‘So how did you come here?’ asked Mo. ‘Did Capricorn send his men back again?’
Elinor shook her head. ‘No need for that,’ she said bitterly. ‘Your slimy-tongued friend fixed it. A nice kind of snake you brought to my house, I must say. First he gives you away, then he serves up the book and your daughter to this man Capricorn. “Bring the girl and the book.” We heard Capricorn say so himself. That was our little matchstick-eater’s mission, and he carried it out to his master’s complete satisfaction.’
Meggie put Mo’s arm round her shoulders and buried her face against him.
‘The girl and the book?’ Mo held Meggie close again. ‘Of course. Now Capricorn can be sure I’ll do what he wants.’ He turned round and went over to the pile of straw lying on the floor in a corner of the room. Sighing, he sat down on it, leaned his back against the wall, and closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Well, now we’re quits, Dustfinger and I,’ he said. ‘Although I wonder how Capricorn is going to pay him for his treachery. Because what Dustfinger wants is something Capricorn can’t give him.’
‘Quits? What do you mean?’ Meggie sat down beside him. ‘And what are you supposed to do for Capricorn? What does he want you for, Mo?’ The straw was damp, not a good place to sleep, but still better than the bare stone floor.
Mo said nothing for what seemed an eternity. He stared at the bare walls, the locked door, the dirty floor.
‘I think it’s time I told you the whole story,’ he said at last. ‘Although I would rather not have had to tell you in a grim place like this, and not until you’re a little older.’
‘Mo, I’m twelve!’ Why do grown-ups think it’s easier for children to bear secrets than the truth? Don’t they know about the horror stories we imagine to explain the secrets?
‘Sit down, Elinor,’ said Mo, making space. ‘It’s quite a long story.’
Elinor sighed, and sat down unceremoniously on the damp straw. ‘This can’t be happening!’ she murmured. ‘This really can’t be happening!’
‘That’s what I thought for nine years, Elinor,’ said Mo. And then he began his story.
Once Upon a Time
He held up the book then. ‘I’m reading it to you for relax.’
‘Has it got any sports in it?’
‘Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders … Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.’
‘Sounds okay,’ I said, and I kind of closed my eyes.
The Princess Bride
You were just three years old, Meggie,’ Mo began. ‘I remember how we celebrated your birthday. We gave you a picture book – you know, the one about the sea-serpent with toothache winding itself round the lighthouse …’
Meggie nodded. It was still in her book-box – Mo had twice given it a new dress. ‘We?’ she asked.
‘Your mother and I …’ Mo picked some straw off his trousers. ‘I could never pass by a bookshop. The house where we lived was very small – we called it our shoebox, our mouse-hole, we had all sorts of names for it – and that very day I’d bought yet another crate full of books from a second-hand bookseller. Elinor would have liked some of them,’ he added, glancing at her and smiling. ‘Capricorn’s book was there too.’
‘You mean it belonged to him?’ Meggie looked at Mo in surprise, but he shook his head.
‘No, but … well, let’s take it all in order. Your mother sighed when she saw all those new books and asked where we were going to put them, but then of course she helped me to unpack the crate. I always used to read aloud to her in the evenings—’
‘You? You read aloud?’
‘Yes, every evening. Your mother enjoyed it. That evening she chose Inkheart. She always did like tales of adventure – stories full of brightness and darkness. She could tell you the names of all King Arthur’s knights, and she knew everything about Beowulf and Grendel, the ancient gods and the not-quite-so ancient heroes. She liked pirate stories too, but most of all she loved books which had at least a knight or a dragon or a fairy in them. She was always on the dragon’s side, by the way. There didn’t seem to be any of them in Inkheart, but there was any amount of brightness and darkness, fairies and brownies. Your mother liked brownies as well: hobgoblins, bugaboos, the Fenoderee, the folletti with their butterfly wings, she knew them all. So we gave you a pile of picture books, sat down on the rug beside you, and I began to read.’
Meggie leaned her head against Mo’s shoulder and stared at the blank wall. She saw herself against its dirty white background as she had looked in old photos: small, with plump legs, very fair hair (it had darkened a little since then), her little fingers turning the pages of big picture books.
‘We enjoyed the story,’ her father went on. ‘It was exciting, well written, and full of all sorts of amazing creatures. Your mother loved a book to lead her into an unknown land, and the world into which Inkheart led her was exactly what she liked. Sometimes the story took a very dark turn, and whenever the suspense got too much, your mother put a finger to her lips, and I read more quietly, although we were sure you were too busy with your own books to listen to a sinister story which you wouldn’t have understood anyway. I remember it as if it were yesterday; night had fallen long ago. It was autumn, with draughts coming in through the windows. We had lit a fire – there was no central heating in our shoebox of a house, but it had a stove in every room – and I began reading the seventh chapter. That’s when it happened—’
Mo stopped. He stared ahead of him as if lost in his own thoughts.
‘What?’ whispered Meggie. ‘What happened, Mo?’
Her father looked at her. ‘They came out,’ he said. ‘There they were, all of a sudden, standing in the doorway to the corridor outside the room, as if they’d just come in from out of doors. There was a crackling noise when they turned to us – like someone slowly unfolding a piece of paper. I still had their names on my lips: Basta, Dustfinger, Capricorn. Basta was holding Dustfinger by the collar, as if he were shaking a puppy for doing something forbidden. Capricorn liked to wear red even then, but he was nine years younger and not quite as gaunt as he is today. He wore a sword, something I’d never seen at close quarters before. Basta had one hanging from his belt too, while Dustfinger …’ Here Mo shook his head. ‘Well, of course the poor fellow had nothing but the horned marten whose tricks earned him a living. I don’t think any of the three of them realised what had happened. Indeed, I didn’t understand it myself until much later. My voice had brought them slipping out of their story like a bookmark forgotten by some reader between the pages. How could they understand what had happened? Basta pushed Dustfinger away so roughly that he fell down, then he tried to draw his sword, but his hands were white as paper and they obviously didn’t yet have the strength for it. The sword slipped from his fingers and fell on the rug. Its blade looked as if there were dried blood on it, but perhaps it was only the reflection of the fire. Capricorn stood there, looking round. He seemed dizzy; he was staggering on the spot like a dancing bear that has been made to turn round too often. And that may well have saved us, or so Dustfinger has always claimed. If Basta and his master had been in full command of their powers, they’d probably have killed us outright, but they hadn’t fully arrived in this world yet, and I picked up the terrible sword lying on the rug among my books. It was heavy, much heavier than I’d expected. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous holding the thing. I probably clutched it like a vacuum cleaner or a walking stick, but when Capricorn staggered towards me and I held the blade between us he stopped. I stammered something, tried to explain what had happened, not that I understood it myself, but Capricorn just stared at me with those pale eyes, the colour of water; while Basta stood beside him with a hand on the hilt of his dagger. He seemed to be waiting for his master to tell him to cut all our throats.’