‘So where does he live, this—?’ Dustfinger did not finish his sentence.
‘About an hour’s drive from here.’
Dustfinger said nothing. The lights of another plane were blinking up in the sky. ‘Sometimes, when I went to the spring to wash early in the morning,’ he murmured, ‘there’d be tiny fairies flitting about above the water, not much bigger than the butterflies you have here, and blue as violet petals. They liked to fly into my hair. Sometimes they spat in my face. They weren’t very friendly, but they shone like glow-worms by night. I sometimes caught one and put it in a jar. If I let it out at night before going to sleep I had wonderful dreams.’
‘Capricorn said there were trolls and giants too,’ said Meggie quietly.
Dustfinger gave her a thoughtful look. ‘Yes, there were,’ he said. ‘But Capricorn wasn’t particularly fond of them. He’d have liked to do away with them all. He had them hunted. He hunted anything that could run.’
‘It must be a dangerous world.’ Meggie was trying to imagine it all: the giants, the trolls, and the fairies. Mo had once given her a book about fairies.
Dustfinger shrugged. ‘Yes, it’s dangerous, so what? This world’s dangerous too, isn’t it?’ Abruptly, he turned his back on Meggie, picked up his rucksack, threw it over his shoulder, then waved to the boy. Farid picked up the bag with the balls and torches, and followed him eagerly. Dustfinger went over to Mo once more.
‘Don’t you dare tell that man about me!’ he said. ‘I don’t want to see him. I’ll wait in the car. I only want to know if he still has a copy of the book, understand?’
Mo shrugged his shoulders. ‘As you like.’
Dustfinger inspected his reddened fingers and felt the taut skin. ‘He might tell me how my story ends,’ he murmured.
Meggie looked at him in astonishment. ‘You mean you don’t know?’
Dustfinger smiled. Meggie still didn’t particularly like his smile. It seemed to appear only to hide something else. ‘What’s so unusual about that, princess?’ he asked quietly. ‘Do you know how your story ends?’
Meggie had no answer to that.
Dustfinger winked at her and turned. ‘I’ll be at the hotel tomorrow morning,’ he said. Then he walked off without turning back. Farid followed him, carrying the heavy bag, happy as a stray dog who has found a master at last.
That night the full moon hung round and orange in the sky. Before they went to bed, Mo pulled back the curtains so that they could see it – a brightly coloured Chinese lantern among all the white stars.
Neither of them could sleep. Mo had bought a couple of well-worn paperbacks that looked as if they had already passed through the hands of several people. Meggie was reading the book full of unpleasant characters that Elinor had given her. She liked it, but at last her eyes closed with weariness and she fell asleep. Beside her, Mo read on and on while the orange moon shone in the foreign sky outside.
When a confused dream woke her with a start some time in the night, Mo was still sitting up in bed, an open book in his hand. The moon had disappeared long ago, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen through the window.
‘Can’t you sleep?’ asked Meggie, sitting up.
‘It was my left arm that stupid dog bit – and you know I sleep best on my left side. Anyway, there’s too much going around in my head.’
‘There’s a lot going around in my head too.’ Meggie turned to the bedside table and picked up the book of poems that Elinor had given her. She stroked the binding, passed her hand over the curved spine, and traced the letters on the jacket with her forefinger. ‘You know something, Mo?’ she said hesitantly. ‘I think I’d like to be able to do it too.’
Meggie stroked the binding of the book again. She thought she could hear the pages whispering, very quietly. ‘Read like that,’ she said. ‘Read aloud the way you do, and make everything come to life.’
Mo looked at her. ‘You’re out of your mind!’ he said. ‘That’s what has caused all the trouble we’re in.’
Mo closed his book, leaving his finger between the pages.
‘Read me something aloud, Mo!’ said Meggie quietly. ‘Please. Just for once.’ She offered him the book of poems. ‘Elinor gave me this as a present. She said nothing much could happen if you did.’
‘Oh, did she?’ Mo opened the book. ‘Suppose it does, though?’ He leafed through the smooth white pages.
Meggie put her pillow close to his.
‘Do you really have any idea how you might be able to read Dustfinger back into his story? Or were you making it up?’
‘Nonsense. I’m useless at telling lies, as you know.’
‘Yes, I do.’ Meggie couldn’t help smiling. ‘Well, what’s your idea?’
‘I’ll tell you when I know if it works.’
Mo was still leafing through Elinor’s book. Frowning, he read a page, turned it over and read another.
‘Please, Mo!’ Meggie moved closer to him. ‘Just one poem. A tiny little poem. Please. For me.’
He sighed. ‘Just one?’
Outside the noise of the cars had died down. The world was as quiet as if it had spun itself into a cocoon, like a moth preparing itself to slip out in the morning, young again and good as new.
‘Please, Mo, read to me!’ said Meggie.
So Mo began filling the silence with words. He lured them out of the pages as if they had only been waiting for his voice, words long and short, words sharp and soft, cooing, purring words. They danced through the room, painting stained-glass pictures, tickling the skin. Even when Meggie nodded off she could still hear them, although Mo had closed the book long ago. Words that explained the world to her, its dark side and its light side, words that built a wall to keep out bad dreams. And not a single bad dream came over the wall for the rest of that night.
Next morning, a bird flew down and perched on Meggie’s bed, a bird as orange as the light of last night’s moon. She tried to catch it, but it flew away to the window where the blue sky was waiting for it. It collided with the invisible glass again and again, bumping its tiny head, until Mo opened the window and let it out.
‘Well, do you still wish you could do it?’ asked Mo when Meggie had watched the bird fly away until it merged with the blue of the sky.
‘It was beautiful!’ she said.
‘Yes, but will it like this world?’ asked Mo. ‘And what’s gone to replace it in the world it came from?’
Meggie stayed by the window as Mo went downstairs to pay their bill. She remembered the last poem that Mo had read before she fell asleep. She picked up the book from her bedside table, hesitated for a moment – and opened it.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Meggie whispered the words aloud as she read them, but no moon-bird flew down from the lamp. And she must be just imagining the smell of peppermint.