The boy didn’t answer, just examined his sore thumb. Then he sucked it and spat. ‘What else could it be?’ he asked.
Dustfinger looked at Mo, but he seemed so deep in thought that he didn’t notice the glance. ‘How about another story?’ said Dustfinger.
Farid laughed. ‘Another story. I like that idea. I’ve always been fond of stories.’
‘Oh yes? And how do you like this one?’
‘Too many thorns, and I wish it would get light, but at least I haven’t had to work yet. That’s something.’
Meggie couldn’t help smiling.
A bird called in the distance. Gwin stopped and raised his round muzzle, sniffing the air. The night belongs to beasts of prey, and always has. It’s easy to forget that when you’re indoors, protected by light and solid walls. Night provides cover for hunters, making it easy for them to creep up and strike their prey blind. Words about the night from one of her favourite books slipped into Meggie’s mind: ‘This is the hour of pride and power, talon and tush and claw.’
She snuggled her face against Mo’s shoulder once more. Perhaps I ought to walk again, she thought. He’s been carrying me for so long. But then she nodded off to sleep still perched on his back.
This grove, that was now so peaceful, must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.
Robert Louis Stevenson,
Meggie woke up when Mo stopped. The path had brought them almost to the crest of the hill. It was still dark, but the night was growing paler as if lifting her skirts a little way off to let the new morning appear.
‘We must take a breather, Dustfinger,’ Meggie heard Mo saying. ‘The boy can hardly keep up, Elinor’s feet must need a rest, and if you ask me this wouldn’t be a bad place for one.’
‘What feet?’ asked Elinor, sinking to the ground with a groan. ‘You mean those poor sore objects attached to my legs?’
‘That’s what I mean,’ said Mo, as he pulled her up again. ‘But they must go just a little further. We’ll rest up there.’
A good fifty metres to their left, at the very top of the hill, there was a house, if you could call it that, huddled among the olive trees. Meggie slipped off Mo’s back before they climbed up to it. The walls looked as if someone had piled up a number of stones in a hurry, the roof had collapsed, and where there must once have been a door only a black hole now gaped.
Mo had to bend low to make his way in. Broken shingles from the roof covered the floor, there was an empty sack in a corner, some broken earthenware shards, perhaps from a dish or a plate, and a few bones gnawed clean. Mo sighed.
‘Not a very comfortable place, Meggie,’ he said. ‘But try imagining you’re hiding out with the Lost Boys, or …’
‘Or in Huckleberry Finn’s tub.’ Meggie looked round. ‘I think I’d rather sleep outside, all the same.’
Elinor came in. The accommodation didn’t seem to appeal much to her either.
Mo gave Meggie a kiss and went back to the door. ‘Believe me, it’ll be safer in here,’ he said.
Meggie looked at him in concern. ‘Where are you going? You have to get some sleep too.’
‘Oh, I’m not tired.’ His face gave away his lie. ‘Go to sleep now, all right?’ Then he went out again.
Elinor pushed the broken shingles aside with her foot. ‘Come on,’ she said, taking off her jacket and spreading it on the floor. ‘Let’s try to make ourselves comfortable together. Your father’s right, we must just imagine we’re somewhere else. Why are adventures so much more fun when you read about them?’ she murmured, stretching out on the floor.
Cautiously, Meggie lay down beside her. ‘At least it isn’t raining,’ remarked Elinor, looking at the collapsed roof. ‘And we have the stars above us, even if they’re fading. Perhaps I ought to have a few holes knocked in my own roof at home.’ With an impatient nod, she told Meggie to lay her head on her arm. ‘In case any spiders try crawling into your ears while you’re asleep,’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘Oh Lord,’ Meggie heard her add in a murmur, ‘I’ll have to buy a new pair of feet, I really will. There’s no hope for these.’ With that she was asleep.
But Meggie lay with her eyes wide open, listening to the sounds outside. She heard Mo talking quietly to Dustfinger, but she couldn’t make out the words. Once she thought she heard Basta’s name. The boy Farid had stayed outside too, but he made no sound.
Elinor began snoring after only a few minutes, but hard as Meggie tried she couldn’t get to sleep, so she got up quietly and slipped outside. Mo was awake, sitting with his back against a tree, watching the morning light drive the night from the sky above the surrounding hills. Dustfinger was sitting a little further off. He raised his head only briefly when Meggie came out of the hut. Was he thinking of the fairies and the brownies? Farid lay beside him, curled up like a dog, and Gwin was sitting at his feet eating something – Meggie quickly turned her head away.
Dawn was breaking over the hills, casting light on summit after summit. Meggie saw houses in the distance, scattered like toys on the green slopes. The sea must lie somewhere beyond them. She put her head on Mo’s lap and looked up at his face.
‘They won’t find us here, will they?’ she asked.
‘No, of course not!’ he said, but his face wasn’t half as carefree as his voice. ‘Why aren’t you asleep in there with Elinor?’
‘She snores,’ murmured Meggie.
Mo smiled. Then, frowning, he looked down the hillside to the place where the path lay, hidden by rockroses, gorse and thorns.
Dustfinger never took his eyes off the path either. The sight of the two men on watch made Meggie feel better, and soon she was sleeping as deeply as Farid – as if the ground outside the tumbledown house were covered with downy feathers instead of thorns.
When Mo shook her awake, she thought at first it had all been just a bad dream – but his hand was over her mouth. He was holding a finger to his lips in warning. Meggie heard the rustle of grass and the barking of a dog. Mo pulled her to her feet and pushed her and Farid into the shelter of the dark hovel. Elinor was still snoring. She looked like a young girl with the light of dawn on her face, but as soon as Mo had woken her all her weariness, anxiety and fear came rushing back.
Mo and Dustfinger stationed themselves by the doorway, one to the left and the other to the right, their backs pressed to the wall. Men’s voices broke the quiet of the morning. Meggie thought she could hear the dogs sniffing, and wished she could dissolve into thin air, odourless and invisible air. Farid stood beside her, his eyes wide. Meggie noticed for the first time that they were almost black. She had never seen such dark eyes, and his lashes were as long as a girl’s.
Elinor was leaning against the wall opposite, biting her lips nervously. Dustfinger made a sign to Mo, and before Meggie realised what their plan was they made their way out. The olive trees where they took cover were stunted, with matted branches hanging almost to the ground, as if the weight of their leaves was too much for them. A child could easily have hidden behind them, but did they provide enough shelter for two grown men?