He was probably right, but there was another reason why Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange – familiar voices, friends that never quarrelled with her, clever, powerful friends, daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventurers who had travelled far and wide. Her books cheered her up when she was sad, and kept her from being bored while Mo cut leather and fabric to the right size, and re-stitched old pages that over countless years had grown fragile from the many fingers leafing through them.
Some of her books always went away with Meggie. Others were left at home because they weren’t right for where she was going, or to make room for new, unknown stories that she hadn’t yet read.
Meggie stroked their curved spines. Which books should she take this time? Which stories would help to drive away the fear that had crept into the house last night? I know, thought Meggie, why not a story about telling lies? Mo told her lies. He told terrible lies, even though he knew that every time he told one she looked hard at his nose. Pinocchio, thought Meggie. No, too sinister. And too sad. But she wanted something exciting, a story to drive all other thoughts out of her head, even the darkest. The Witches, yes. She’d take the bald-headed witches who turn children into mice – and The Odyssey, with the Cyclops and the enchantress who transforms his warriors into pigs. Her journey could hardly be more dangerous than his, could it?
On the left-hand side of the box there were two picture books that Meggie had used when she was teaching herself to read – five years old, she’d been, and you could still see where her tiny forefinger had moved over the pages – and right at the bottom, hidden under all the others, were the books Meggie had made herself. She had spent days sticking them together and cutting up the paper, she had painted picture after picture, and Mo had to write what they were underneath them. An Angel With a Happy Face, from Meggi for Mo. She had written her name herself, although back then she always left the ‘e’ off the end. Meggie looked at the clumsy lettering and put the little book back in the box. Mo had helped her with the binding, of course. He had bound all her home-made books in brightly patterned paper, and he had given her a stamp for the others so that she could print her name and the head of a unicorn on the title page, sometimes in black ink and sometimes in red, depending how she felt. But Mo had never read aloud to her from her books. Not once.
He had tossed Meggie up in the air, he had carried her round the house on his shoulders, he had taught her how to make a bookmark of blackbird’s feathers. But he had never read aloud to her. Never once, not a single word, however often she put books on his lap. Meggie just had to teach herself how to decipher the black marks and open the treasure chest.
She straightened up. There was still a little room in the box. Perhaps Mo had a new book she could take, a specially big, fat, wonderful book …
The door to his workshop was closed.
‘Mo?’ Meggie pressed the handle down. The long table where he worked had been swept clean, with not a stamp, nor a knife in sight. Mo had packed everything. Had he been lying after all?
Meggie went into the workshop and looked around. The door to the Treasury was open. The Treasury was really just a lumber-room, but Meggie had given the little cubby-hole that name because it was where her father stored his most precious materials: the finest leather, the most beautiful fabrics, marbled paper, stamps to print patterns in gold on soft leather … Meggie put her head round the open door and saw Mo covering a book with brown paper. It was not a particularly large book, and not especially fat. The green linen binding looked worn, but that was all Meggie could see, because Mo quickly hid the book behind his back as soon as he noticed her.
‘What are you doing here?’ he snapped.
‘I—’ For a moment Meggie was speechless with shock, Mo’s face was so dark. ‘I only wanted to ask if you had a new book for me. I’ve read all the ones in my room, and …’
Mo passed his hand over his face. ‘Yes, of course. I’m sure I can find something,’ he said, but his eyes were still saying: go away, go away, Meggie. And the brown paper crackled behind his back. ‘I’ll be with you in a moment,’ he said. ‘I have a few more things to pack. OK?’
A little later he brought her three books, but the one he had been covering with brown paper wasn’t one of them.
An hour later, they were taking everything out into the yard. Meggie shivered when she stepped out of doors. It was a chilly morning after the night’s rain, and the sun hung in the sky like a pale coin lost by someone high up in the clouds.
They had been living in the old farmhouse for just under a year. Meggie liked the view of the surrounding hills, the swallows’ nests under the roof, the dried-up well that yawned darkly as if it went straight down to the Earth’s core. The house itself had always been too big and draughty for her liking, with all those empty rooms full of fat spiders, but the rent was low and Mo had enough space for his books and his workshop. There was a hen-house outside, and the barn, which now housed only their old camper van, would have been perfect for a couple of cows or a horse. ‘Cows have to be milked, Meggie,’ Mo had said when she suggested keeping a couple. ‘Very, very early in the morning. Every day.’
‘Well, what about a horse?’ she had asked. ‘Even Pippi Longstocking has a horse, and she doesn’t have a stable.’
She’d have been happy with a few chickens or a goat, but they too had to be fed every day, and she and Mo went away too often for that. So Meggie had only the ginger cat who sometimes came visiting when it couldn’t be bothered to compete with the dogs on the farm next door. The grumpy old farmer who lived there was their only neighbour. Sometimes his dogs howled so pitifully that Meggie put her hands over her ears. It was twenty minutes by bike to the nearest village, where she went to school and where two of her friends lived, but Mo usually took her in the van because it was a lonely ride along a narrow road that wound past nothing but fields and dark trees.
‘What on earth have you packed in here? Bricks?’ asked Mo as he carried Meggie’s book-box out of the house.
‘You’re the one who says books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them,’ said Meggie, making him laugh for the first time that morning.
The camper van, standing in the abandoned barn like a solid, multicoloured animal, was more familiar to Meggie than any of the houses where she and Mo had lived. She never slept more deeply and soundly than in the bed he had made in it for her. There was a table too, of course, a kitchen tucked into a corner and a bench to sit on. When you lifted the seat of the bench there were travel guides, road maps and well-worn paperbacks under it.
Yes, Meggie was fond of the van, but this morning she hesitated to get in. When Mo finally went back to the house to lock the door, she suddenly felt that they would never come back here, that this journey was going to be different from any other, that they would drive further and further away, in flight from something that had no name. Or at least none that Mo was about to tell her.
‘Very well, off we go south,’ was all he said as he got behind the steering wheel. And so they set off, without saying goodbye to anyone, on a morning that still seemed much too early and smelled of rain.
But Dustfinger was waiting for them at the gate.