Meggie peered out of the doorway. Her heart was beating so fast that it almost suffocated her. Outside, the sun was rising higher and higher. Daylight crept into every valley, beneath every tree, and suddenly Meggie wished for the night again. Mo was kneeling down so that his head couldn’t be seen above the tangled branches. Dustfinger was pressed close to a crooked tree trunk, and there, terrifyingly close, twenty paces at most away from the two of them, was Basta. He was making his way up the slope through thistles and knee-high grass.
‘They’ll have reached the valley by now!’ Meggie heard a rough voice call, and next moment Flatnose appeared beside Basta. They had brought two vicious-looking dogs with them. Meggie saw the dogs’ broad skulls pushing through the grass, and heard them snuffling.
‘What, with two children and that fat woman?’ Basta shook his head and looked round. Farid peered past Meggie – and flinched back as if something had bitten him when he saw the two men.
‘Basta?’ Soundlessly, Elinor’s lips formed his name. Meggie nodded, and Elinor went even paler than she was already.
‘Damn it, Basta, how much longer are you going to trudge around here?’ Flatnose’s voice echoed a long way in the silence that lay over the hills. ‘The snakes will soon be waking up, and I’m hungry. Let’s just say they fell into the valley with the car. We’ll give it another push and no one will find out! The snakes will probably get them anyway. And if not, then they’ll lose their way, starve, get sunstroke – oh, who cares what happens? But anyway we’ll never see them again.’
‘He’s been feeding them cheese!’ Basta furiously hauled the dogs to his side. ‘That bloody little fire-eater has been feeding them cheese to ruin their noses. But nobody would believe me. No wonder they whine with joy every time they see his ugly mug.’
‘You beat them too much,’ grunted Flatnose. ‘That’s why they won’t go to any trouble for you. Dogs don’t like being beaten.’
‘Nonsense. You have to beat them or they’ll bite you! They like the fire-eater because he’s like them – he whines, he’s sly and he bites.’ One of the dogs lay down in the grass and licked its paws. Angrily, Basta kicked it in the ribs and hauled it to its feet. ‘You can go back to the village if you like!’ he spat at Flatnose. ‘But I’m going to get that fire-eater and cut off all his fingers one by one. Then we’ll see how cleverly he can juggle. I always said he couldn’t be trusted, but the boss thought his little tricks with fire were so entertaining.’
‘OK, OK. Everyone knows you can’t stand him.’ Flatnose sounded bored. ‘But he may have nothing to do with the disappearance of that lot. You know he’s always come and gone as he pleased. Maybe he’ll turn up again tomorrow knowing nothing about it.’
‘Yeah, right,’ growled Basta. He walked on. Every step brought him closer to the trees behind which Mo and Dustfinger were hiding. ‘And Silvertongue pinched the fat woman’s car key from under my pillow, did he? No. This time no excuses will do Dustfinger any good. Because he took something else too – something of mine.’
Involuntarily, Dustfinger put his hand to his belt, as if he were afraid that Basta’s knife could call out to its master. One of the dogs raised its head and tugged Basta on towards the trees.
‘He’s found something!’ Basta lowered his voice. ‘The stupid creature’s picked up a scent!’
Ten more paces, perhaps fewer, and he would be among the trees. What were they going to do? What on earth were they going to do?
Flatnose was trudging along after Basta with a sceptical expression on his face. ‘They’ve probably scented a wild boar,’ Meggie heard him say. ‘You want to be careful, they can run you right down. Oh no, I think there’s a snake there. One of those black snakes. You’ve got the antidote in the car, right?’
He stood there perfectly still, rooted to the spot and staring down at the ground in front of his feet. Basta took no notice of him. He followed the snuffling dog. A few more steps and Mo would only have to reach out a hand to touch him. Basta unslung the shotgun from his shoulder, stopped and listened. The dogs pulled to the left and jumped up at one of the tree trunks, barking.
Gwin was up there in the branches.
‘What did I say?’ called Flatnose. ‘They’ve scented a marten, that’s all. Those brutes stink so strong even I could pick up their smell!’
‘That’s no ordinary marten!’ hissed Basta. ‘Don’t you recognise him?’ His eyes were fixed on the ruined hovel.
Mo seized his opportunity. He sprang out from behind the tree, seized Basta and tried to wrench the gun from his hands.
‘Get him! Get him, you brutes!’ bellowed Basta, and obviously the dogs were willing to obey him this time. They leaped up at Mo, baring their yellow teeth. Before Meggie could run to his aid Elinor seized her, and held her tight no matter how hard she struggled, just as she had done before back in her own house. But this time there was someone else to help Mo. Before the dogs could get their teeth into him, Dustfinger had grabbed their collars. Meggie thought they would tear him apart when he dragged them off Mo, but instead they licked his hands, jumping up at him like an old friend and almost knocking him down.
But there was still Flatnose. Luckily, he wasn’t too quick on the uptake. That saved them – for a brief moment he simply stood there staring at Basta, who was still struggling in Mo’s grip.
Meanwhile, Dustfinger had hauled the dogs over to the nearest tree, and he was just winding their leashes round the cracked bark when Flatnose came out of his daze.
‘Let them go!’ he bellowed, pointing his shotgun at Mo.
With a suppressed curse, Dustfinger let the dogs loose, but the stone Farid threw moved faster than he did. It hit Flatnose in the middle of the forehead – an insignificant little stone, but the huge man collapsed in the grass at Dustfinger’s feet like a felled tree.
‘Keep the dogs off me!’ called Mo as Basta fought to get control of his gun. One of the dogs had bitten Mo’s sleeve. At least, Meggie hoped it was just his sleeve. Before Elinor could restrain her again she ran to the big dog and seized its studded collar. The dog wouldn’t let go, however hard she pulled. She saw blood on Mo’s arm, and she almost got hit on the head with the barrel of Basta’s shotgun. Dustfinger tried to call the dogs off, and at first they obeyed him, or at least they let go of Mo, but then Basta succeeded in freeing himself. ‘Get him!’ he shouted, and the dogs stood there growling, not sure whether to obey Basta or Dustfinger.
‘Bloody brutes,’ shouted Basta, pointing his shotgun at Mo’s chest, but at that very moment Elinor pressed the muzzle of Flatnose’s gun against his head. Her hands were shaking, and her face was covered with red blotches as it always was when she was worked up, but she looked more than determined to use the gun.
‘Drop it, Basta,’ she said, her voice unsteady. ‘And not another word to those dogs! I may never have used a gun before but I’m sure I can manage to pull the trigger.’
‘Sit!’ Dustfinger ordered the dogs. They looked uncertainly at Basta, but when he said nothing they lay down in the grass and let Dustfinger tie them to the tree.