‘And what about Dustfinger?’ Elinor’s voice sounded hoarse too.
‘He was still where he’d fallen on the rug, sitting there as if paralysed, not making a sound. I didn’t stop to think about Dustfinger. If you open a basket and see two snakes and a lizard crawl out, you’re going to deal with the snakes first, right?’
‘What about my mother?’ Meggie could only whisper. She wasn’t used to saying that word.
Mo looked at her. ‘I couldn’t see her anywhere. You were still kneeling among your books, staring wide-eyed at the strange men standing there with their heavy boots and their weapons. I was terrified for you, but to my relief both Basta and Capricorn ignored you. “That’s enough talk,” Capricorn said finally, as I became more and more entangled in my own words. “Never mind how we arrived in this miserable place, just send us back at once, you accursed magician, or Basta here will cut the talkative tongue out of your mouth.” Which didn’t sound exactly reassuring, and I’d read enough about those two in the first chapters of the book to know that Capricorn meant what he said. I was wondering so desperately how to end the nightmare that I felt quite dizzy. I picked up the book. Perhaps if I read the same passage again, I thought … I tried. I stumbled over the words while Capricorn glared at me and Basta drew the knife from his belt. Nothing happened. The two of them just stood there in my house, showing no sign of going back into their story. And suddenly I knew for certain that they meant to kill us. I put down the fatal book and picked up the sword I’d dropped on the rug. Basta tried to get to it before me, but I moved faster. I had to hold the wretched thing with both hands; I still remember how cold the hilt felt. Don’t ask me how I did it, but I managed to drive Basta and Capricorn out into the passage. There were several breakages because I was brandishing the sword so clumsily. You began to cry, and I wanted to turn round and tell you it was all just a bad dream, but I was fully occupied keeping Basta’s knife away from me with Capricorn’s sword. So it’s happened, I kept thinking, you’re in the middle of a story exactly as you’ve always wanted, and it’s horrible. Fear tastes quite different when you’re not just reading about it, Meggie, and playing hero wasn’t half as much fun as I’d expected. The two of them would certainly have killed me if they hadn’t still been rather weak at the knees. Capricorn cursed me, his eyes almost bursting out of his head with fury. Basta swore and threatened, giving me a nasty cut on my upper arm, but then, suddenly, the front door was thrown open and they both disappeared into the night, still reeling like drunks. My hands were trembling so much I could scarcely manage to bolt the door. I leaned against it and listened for sounds outside, but all I heard was my own racing heart. Then I heard you crying in the living room, and remembered that there had been a third man. I staggered back, still holding the sword, and there stood Dustfinger in the middle of the room. He had no weapon, just the marten sitting on his shoulders. He flinched, face white as a sheet, when I came towards him. I must have been a terrible sight with the blood running down my arm, and I was shaking all over, whether from fear or anger I couldn’t have said. “Please,” he kept whispering, “don’t kill me! I’m nothing to do with those two. I’m only a juggler, just a harmless fire-eater. I can show you.” And I said, “Yes, yes, all right, I know who you are, you’re Dustfinger – I even know your name, you see.” At which he cowered in awe before me – a magician, he thought, who seemed to know all about him and who had plucked him out of his world as easily as picking an apple off a tree. The marten scampered along his arm, jumped down on the carpet and ran towards you. You stopped crying and put out your hand. “Careful, he bites,” said Dustfinger, shooing him away from you. I took no notice. I suddenly realised how quiet the room was, that was all. How quiet and how empty. I saw the book lying open on the carpet where I had dropped it, and I saw the cushion where your mother had been sitting. And she wasn’t there. Where was she? I called her name again and again, I ran from room to room. But she had gone.’
Elinor was sitting bolt upright, staring at him in horror. ‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer, what are you saying?’ she cried. ‘You told me she went away on some stupid adventure holiday and never came back!’
Mo leaned his head against the wall. ‘I had to think up something, Elinor,’ he said. ‘I mean, I could hardly tell the truth, could I?’
Meggie stroked his arm where his shirt hid the long, pale scar. ‘You always told me you’d cut your arm climbing through a broken window.’
‘Yes, I know. The truth would have sounded too crazy, don’t you think?’
Meggie nodded. He was right; she would just have thought it was another of his stories. ‘So she never came back?’ she whispered, although she knew the answer already.
‘No,’ replied Mo softly. ‘Basta, Capricorn and Dustfinger came out of the book and she went into it, along with our two cats who were curled up on her lap as usual while I read aloud. I expect some creature from here changed places with Gwin too, maybe a spider or a fly or a bird that happened to be flying round the house. Oh, I don’t know …’ Mo fell silent.
Sometimes, when he had made up such a good story that Meggie thought it was true, he would suddenly smile and say, ‘You fell for that one, Meggie!’ Like the time on her seventh birthday when he told her he’d seen fairies among the crocuses in the garden. But the smile didn’t come this time.
‘I searched the whole house for your mother. No sign of her,’ he went on, ‘and when I came back to the living room, Dustfinger had vanished and so had his friend with the horns. But the sword was still there, and it felt so real that I decided not to doubt my sanity. I put you to bed – I think I told you your mother had already gone to sleep – and then I began reading Inkheart out loud again. I read the whole damn book until I was hoarse and the sun was rising, but nothing came out of it except a bat and a silken cloak, which I used later to line your book-box. I tried again and again during the days and nights that followed, until my eyes were burning and the letters danced drunkenly on the page. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I kept making up different stories for you to explain where your mother was, and I took good care you were never in the room with me when I was reading aloud, in case you disappeared too. I wasn’t worried about myself. Oddly enough, I had a feeling that the person reading the book ran no risk of slipping into its pages. I still don’t know whether I was right.’ Mo flicked a midge off his hand. ‘I read until I couldn’t hear my own voice any more,’ he went on, ‘but your mother didn’t come back, Meggie. Instead, a strange little man as transparent as if he were made of glass appeared in my living room on the fifth day, and the postman disappeared just as he was putting the mail into our letterbox. I found his bike out in the yard. After that I knew that neither walls nor locked doors would keep you safe – you or anybody else. So I decided never to read aloud from a book again. Not from Inkheart or from any other book.’
‘What happened to the little glass man?’ asked Meggie.
Mo sighed. ‘He broke into pieces only a few days later when a heavy truck drove past the house. Obviously, very few creatures move easily from one world to another. We both know what fun it can be to get right into a book and live there for a while, but falling out of a story and suddenly finding yourself in this world doesn’t seem to be much fun at all. It broke Dustfinger’s heart.’