Flatnose made his way down the slope, clumsy as a bear. Meggie heard him cursing the thorns, the prickles, the darkness and the wretched riff-raff he was having to stumble after in the middle of the night. Basta was still standing in the road. His face was sharply outlined when he lit a cigarette with a lighter. The white smoke drifted up to them until Meggie thought she could almost smell it.
‘They’re not here,’ called Flatnose. ‘They must have got away on foot. Hell, do you think we have to follow them?’
Basta went over to the roadside and looked down. Then he turned and looked up at the slope where Meggie was crouching beside Mo, her heart thudding wildly. ‘They can’t have got far,’ he said. ‘But it’ll be difficult to find their trail in the dark.’
‘Exactly!’ Flatnose was panting as he appeared back on the road. ‘We’re not bloody native trackers, are we?’
Basta did not reply. He just stood there, listening and inhaling his cigarette smoke. Then he whispered something to Flatnose. Meggie’s heart almost stopped.
Flatnose looked round anxiously. ‘Nah, let’s get the dogs instead!’ Meggie heard him say. ‘Even if they’re hiding somewhere around here, how do we know whether they climbed up or down?’
Basta glanced at the trees, looked down the road, and trod out his cigarette. Then he went back to the van and took out two shotguns. ‘We’ll try going down first,’ he said, tossing Flatnose one of the guns. ‘I’m sure that fat woman would rather climb downhill.’ And without another word, he vanished into the darkness. Flatnose cast the van a longing glance, then trudged after him, grumbling.
The two were barely out of sight before Dustfinger rose to his feet, soundless as a shadow, and pointed up the slope. Meggie’s heart was beating in her throat as they followed him. They darted from tree to tree, from bush to bush, constantly looking behind them. Every time a twig cracked underfoot Meggie jumped, but luckily Basta and Flatnose were making a fair amount of noise themselves as they worked their way downhill through the undergrowth.
A time came when they couldn’t see the road any more. But their fear did not leave them, the fear that Basta might have turned back already and was now following them uphill. Yet, however often they stopped and listened, all they could hear was their own breathing.
‘They’ll soon realise they’ve gone the wrong way,’ Dustfinger whispered after a while. ‘Then they’ll go back for the dogs. We’re lucky they didn’t bring them in the first place. Basta doesn’t think much of those dogs, and he’s right. I’ve fed them cheese often enough, and cheese dulls a dog’s nose. All the same, he’ll fetch them sooner or later, because even Basta doesn’t like taking bad news back to Capricorn.’
‘Then we must just go faster,’ said Mo.
‘Go faster where?’ Elinor was still fighting for breath.
Dustfinger looked round. Meggie wondered why. She could hardly make anything out, it was so dark. ‘We must keep going south,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Towards the coast. We must hide among other people. That’s the only thing that can save us. Down there the nights are bright and nobody believes in the Devil.’
Farid was standing beside Meggie, gazing at the night sky as if he could make morning come, or find the people Dustfinger had mentioned somewhere, but there wasn’t a light to be seen in the darkness except for the tangle of stars sparkling cold and distant in the heavens. For a moment, Meggie felt as if those stars were eyes giving their presence away, and imagined she could hear them whispering, ‘Look, Basta, there they go, down there! Quick, catch them!’
They stumbled on, keeping close together so that no one would get lost. Dustfinger had taken Gwin out of his rucksack and put him on his chain before letting him run with them. The marten didn’t seem to like it. Dustfinger had to keep hauling him out of the undergrowth, away from all the promising scents that their human noses couldn’t pick up. The marten spat and snarled with annoyance, biting and tearing at the chain.
‘Curse the little brute, I’m sure to fall over it,’ said Elinor crossly. ‘Can’t you keep it away from my sore feet? I tell you one thing, the moment we’re in decent human company again I’m going to take the best hotel room money can buy and put my poor feet up on a big soft cushion.’
‘You’ve still got money on you?’ Mo sounded incredulous. ‘They took all mine first thing.’
‘Yes, Basta took my wallet too,’ said Elinor. ‘But I think ahead. I have my credit card somewhere safe.’
‘Is anywhere safe from Basta?’ Dustfinger dragged Gwin away from a tree trunk.
‘Oh yes,’ replied Elinor. ‘Men are never particularly keen to search fat old ladies. Which can be useful. That was how some of my most valuable books came into my—’ She interrupted herself abruptly, clearing her throat when her eyes fell on Meggie. But Meggie acted as if she hadn’t heard Elinor’s last remark, or at least hadn’t understood what she meant.
‘You’re not all that fat!’ Meggie said. ‘And old is a bit of an exaggeration!’ Oh, how her own feet hurt.
‘Well, thank you very much, darling!’ said Elinor. ‘I think I’ll buy you from your father so you can say nice things like that to me three times a day. How much do you want for her, Mo?’
‘I’ll have to think about it,’ replied Mo. ‘Suppose I lend her to you for a few days now and then?’
They chatted like this, voices scarcely raised above a whisper, as they struggled through the thorny growth on the hillside. It didn’t matter what they talked about, for their hushed conversation had only one purpose: to fend off the fear and exhaustion weighing down all their limbs. On and on they walked, hoping that Dustfinger knew where he was taking them. Meggie kept close behind Mo all the time. At least his back offered some protection from the thorny branches which kept catching at her clothes and scratching her face, like vicious animals with needle-sharp claws lying in wait in the dark.
At last, they came upon a footpath they could follow. It was littered with empty cartridge cases dropped by hunters who had dealt out death in this silent place. Walking was easier on the trodden earth, although Meggie was so tired she could hardly pick her feet up. When she stumbled against the back of Mo’s legs for the second time, he put her on his back and carried her as he used to do before she could keep up with his long legs. He had called her ‘Little Flea’ in those days, or ‘Feather Girl’, or ‘Tinker Bell’ after the fairy in Peter Pan. Sometimes he still called her Tinker Bell.
Wearily, Meggie rested her face against his shoulders and tried to think of Peter Pan instead of snakes, or men with knives. But this time her own story was too strong to give way to an invented one. Mo was right: fear, unfortunately, devours everything.
It was a long time since Farid had said anything. Most of the time he stumbled along after Dustfinger. He seemed to have taken a fancy to Gwin. Whenever the marten’s chain got caught up somewhere Farid would rush to free him, even if Gwin only hissed at him in return and snapped at his fingers. Once he sank his teeth into the boy’s thumb and made it bleed.
‘Well, do you still think this is a dream?’ asked Dustfinger ironically as Farid wiped the blood away.