‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wild World,’ said the Rat. ‘And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or to me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’
The Wind in the Willows
Dustfinger must have been waiting in the road beyond the wall. Meggie had picked her precarious way along the top of that wall hundreds of times, up to the rusty hinges of the gate and back again, eyes tightly closed so that she could get a clearer view of the tiger she’d imagined waiting in the bamboo at the foot of the wall, his eyes yellow as amber, or the foaming rapids to her right and her left.
Only Dustfinger was there now, but no other sight could have made Meggie’s heart beat faster. He appeared so suddenly that Mo almost ran him down. He wore only a sweater, and he was shivering, with his arms folded over his chest. His coat was probably still damp from last night’s rain, but his hair was dry now – a ruffled, sandy mop above his scarred face.
Mo swore under his breath, switched off the engine and got out of the van.
Smiling his strange smile, Dustfinger leaned back against the wall. ‘Where are you going in such a hurry, Silvertongue? Didn’t we have a date?’ he asked. ‘You stood me up like this once before, remember?’
‘You know why I’m in a hurry,’ replied Mo. ‘For the same reason as last time.’ He was still standing by the open door of the van, looking tense, as if he couldn’t wait for Dustfinger to get out of the way. But Dustfinger pretended not to notice Mo’s impatience.
‘Then may I know where you’re going?’ he enquired. ‘It took me four years to find you last time, and if luck hadn’t been on your side Capricorn’s men would have got to you first.’ When he glanced at Meggie she stared back icily.
Mo was silent for a while. ‘Capricorn is in the north,’ he answered at last. ‘So we’re going south. Or has he taken up residence somewhere else now?’
Dustfinger looked down the road. Last night’s rain shone in the potholes. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘No, he’s still in the north. Or so I hear, and since you’ve obviously made up your mind to go on refusing him what he wants I’d better go south myself as fast as I can. Heaven knows I don’t want to be the one to give Capricorn’s men the bad news. So, if you’d give me a lift part of the way? … I’m ready to leave.’ The two bags he picked up from where they stood by the wall looked as if they’d been all round the world a dozen times. Apart from the bags, Dustfinger had nothing but his rucksack with him.
Meggie compressed her lips.
No, Mo, she thought, no, let’s not take him! But she had only to look at her father to know that his answer would be different.
‘Oh, come on, Silvertongue!’ said Dustfinger. ‘What am I going to tell Capricorn’s men if I fall into their hands?’
He looked lost, standing there like a stray dog. And hard as Meggie tried to see something sinister about him she couldn’t, not in the pale morning light. All the same, she didn’t want him to go with them. Her face showed that very clearly, but neither of the two men took any notice of her.
‘Believe me, I couldn’t keep the fact that I’ve seen you from them for very long,’ Dustfinger continued. ‘And anyway …’ he hesitated before completing his sentence, ‘you still owe me, don’t you?’
Mo bowed his head. Meggie saw his hand closing more firmly round the open door of the van. ‘If you want to look at it like that,’ he said, ‘yes, I suppose I do still owe you.’
The relief was plain to see on Dustfinger’s scarred face. He quickly hoisted his rucksack over his shoulders and came over to the van with his bags.
‘Wait a minute!’ cried Meggie, as Mo moved to help him. ‘If he’s coming with us then I want to know why we’re running away. Who is this man called Capricorn?’
Mo turned to her. ‘Meggie,’ he began in the tone she knew only too well: Meggie, don’t be so silly, it meant. Come along now, Meggie.
She opened the van door and jumped out.
‘Meggie, for heaven’s sake! Get back in! We have to leave!’
‘I’m not getting back in until you tell me.’
Mo came towards her but Meggie slipped away, and ran through the gate into the road.
‘Why won’t you tell me?’ she cried.
The road was deserted, as if there were no other human beings in the world. A slight breeze had risen, caressing Meggie’s face and rustling in the leaves of the lime tree that grew by the roadside. The sky was still wan and grey, and refused to clear.
‘I want to know what’s going on!’ cried Meggie. ‘I want to know why we had to get up at five o’clock, and why I don’t have to go to school. I want to know if we’re ever coming back, and I want to know who this Capricorn is!’
When she spoke the name Mo looked round as if the man with the strange name, the man he and Dustfinger obviously feared so much, might step out of the empty barn next moment as suddenly as Dustfinger had emerged from behind the wall. But the yard was empty, and Meggie was too furious to feel frightened of someone when she knew nothing about him other than his name. ‘You’ve always told me everything!’ she shouted at her father. ‘Always.’
But Mo was still silent. ‘Everyone has a few secrets, Meggie,’ he said at last. ‘Now, come along, do get in. We have to leave.’
Dustfinger looked first at Mo, then at Meggie, with an expression of incredulity on his face. ‘You haven’t told her?’ Meggie heard him ask in a low voice.
Mo shook his head.
‘But you have to tell her something! It’s dangerous for her not to know. She’s not a baby any more.’
‘It’s dangerous for her to know too,’ said Mo. ‘And it wouldn’t change anything.’
Meggie was still standing in the road.
‘I heard all that!’ she cried. ‘What’s dangerous? I’m not getting in until you tell me.’
Mo still said nothing.
Dustfinger looked at him, uncertain for a moment, then put down his bags. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll tell her about Capricorn myself.’
He came slowly towards Meggie, who involuntarily stepped back.
‘You met him once,’ said Dustfinger. ‘It’s a long time ago, you won’t remember, you were so little.’ He held his hand at knee-height in the air. ‘How can I explain what he’s like? If you were to see a cat eating a young bird I expect you’d cry, wouldn’t you? Or try to help the bird. Capricorn would feed the bird to the cat on purpose, just to watch it being torn apart, and the little creature’s screeching and struggling would be as sweet as honey to him.’
Meggie took another step backwards, but Dustfinger kept advancing towards her.
‘I don’t suppose you’d get any fun from terrifying people until their knees were so weak they could hardly stand?’ he asked. ‘Nothing gives Capricorn more pleasure. And I don’t suppose you think you can just help yourself to anything you want, never mind what or where. Capricorn does. Unfortunately, your father has something Capricorn has set his heart on.’