Dustfinger rubbed his hand over his face, feeling his scars on it like a picture postcard saying ‘Greetings from Basta’. He could never forget Capricorn’s rabid dog for a single day even if he wanted to. ‘To help you please the girls even better in future!’ Basta had hissed in his ear before wiping the blood off his knife.
‘Oh, curse it all!’ Dustfinger kicked the nearest wall so hard that he felt the pain in his foot for days to come. ‘You’ve told that writer about me!’ he accused Mo. ‘And now even your daughter knows more about me than I do! Very well, out with it! I want to know now too. Tell me. You always wanted to tell me, after all. Basta hangs me, is that it? Strings me up and tightens the noose until I’m dead as a doornail, right? But why should that bother me? Basta’s in this world now, isn’t he? The story’s changed – it must have changed. Basta can’t hurt me if you just send me back there where I belong!’
Dustfinger took a step towards Silvertongue as if to grab him, shake him, take out on him all that had been done to himself, but Meggie came between them. ‘Stop it! It’s not Basta!’ she cried, pushing him away. ‘It’s one of Capricorn’s men, and he’s waiting for you in the book. They want to kill Gwin and you try to help him, so they kill you instead! Nothing about that has changed! It will simply happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. Do you understand? You must stay here, you can’t go back, ever!’
Dustfinger stared at the girl as if he could shut her up that way, but she held his gaze. She even tried to take his hand.
‘You should be glad to be here!’ she faltered as he retreated from her. ‘You can escape from them here. You can go away, far away, and …’ Her voice quivered. Perhaps she had seen the tears in Dustfinger’s eyes. Angrily, he wiped them away with his sleeve, and looked round like an animal in a trap, searching for some way out. But there was no way out. No going forward and, even worse, no going back.
A trio of women standing at the bus stop glanced curiously in his direction. Dustfinger often attracted such glances; anyone could see he didn’t belong here. A stranger for ever.
Three children and an old man were playing football with a tin can on the other side of the square. Farid looked at them. The Arab boy had Dustfinger’s rucksack over his narrow shoulders, and grey cat hairs clung to his trousers. He was deep in thought, wriggling his bare toes into the gaps between the paving stones. He was always taking off the trainers Dustfinger had bought him and going about barefoot, even on hot tarmac, with his shoes tied to the rucksack like loot he was taking home.
Silvertongue looked at the playing children too. Had he given some sign to the old man with them? The old fellow left the children and came over. Dustfinger took a step back. A shiver ran down his spine.
‘My grandchildren have been admiring the tame marten that boy has on a chain,’ said the old man, as he approached.
Dustfinger took another step backwards. Why was the dark-haired man looking at him like that? In quite a different way from the women at the bus stop. ‘The children say the marten can do tricks and the boy’s a fire-eater. Perhaps we could come to the show and watch at close quarters?’
The cold shiver spread right through Dustfinger, although the sun was shining down on him. The way the old man looked at him – as if he were a dog who had run away long ago and was now back, tail between his legs, perhaps with lice in his coat, but definitely his, the old man’s dog.
‘Nonsense, we don’t do tricks!’ he managed to say. ‘There’s nothing to see here!’ He retreated again, but the old man followed him – as if they were linked by an invisible thread.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the old man, raising a hand as if to touch Dustfinger’s scarred face.
Dustfinger’s back came up against a parked car. Now the old man was standing right in front of him, and still staring, staring—
‘Go away!’ Dustfinger pushed him roughly back. ‘Farid, bring me my things!’ The boy hurried to his side. Dustfinger snatched the rucksack from his hand, picked up the marten and stowed him in the rucksack, taking no notice of the animal’s sharp, snapping teeth. The old man stared at Gwin’s horns. Fingers flying, Dustfinger slung the rucksack over his shoulder and tried to push past him.
‘Please. I only want to talk to you.’ The old man barred his way, reaching for his arm.
‘Well, I don’t want to talk to you.’ Dustfinger tried to free himself from the bony fingers. They were surprisingly strong, but Dustfinger had the knife, Basta’s flick-knife. He took it out of his pocket, snapped it open and held it under the old man’s chin. His hand was trembling, he had never enjoyed threatening anyone with a knife, but the old man let go. And Dustfinger ran.
He ignored whatever Silvertongue was calling after him. He just ran for it, as he had often done in the past. He could trust his legs even if he didn’t yet know where they were taking him. He left the village and the road behind, dodged under some trees, ran through wild grass, plunged in among the mustard-yellow gorse bushes, let the silvery foliage of the olive trees hide him … he had to get away from the houses, away from the paved roads. Wild country had always protected him. Only when every breath he drew hurt him did he throw himself down into the long grass behind an abandoned cistern where frogs croaked and the rainwater that had collected among the grey stones steamed in the sun. He lay there gasping, listening to his own heartbeat and staring at the sky.
He jumped. ‘Who’s that?’
The boy stood there. Farid had followed him.
‘Go away!’ shouted Dustfinger.
The boy crouched down among the wild flowers that grew everywhere – blue and yellow and red splashes of bright colour in the grass.
‘I don’t want you!’ snapped Dustfinger.
The boy said nothing, but picked a wild orchid and examined the bloom. It looked like a bumble-bee on the tip of a flower stem. ‘What a strange flower!’ he murmured. ‘I’ve never seen one like that before.’
Dustfinger sat up and leaned against the side of the cistern. ‘You’ll be sorry if you keep running after me,’ he said. ‘I’m going back. You know where to.’
Only when he said it did he realise that he had made up his mind – long ago. Yes, he was going back. Dustfinger the coward was going back into the lion’s den. Never mind what Silvertongue said, or what his daughter thought – there was only one thing he wanted. He had never wanted anything else. And if he couldn’t have it now, then at least he could hope that one day his wish would come true.
The boy stayed sitting there.
‘Go away, will you? Go back to Silvertongue! He’ll look after you.’
Farid sat there unmoved, his arms round his knees. ‘You’re going back to that village?’
‘Yes, the village where the devils and demons live. Believe me, they’ll kill a boy like you and eat you for breakfast. They’ll enjoy their coffee all the more afterwards.’
Farid stroked his cheeks with the orchid. He made a face as the petals tickled his skin. ‘Gwin wants to get out,’ he said.
He was right. The marten was biting the fabric of the rucksack and sticking his muzzle out of it. Dustfinger undid the straps and freed him. Gwin blinked up at the sun, chattered crossly, presumably complaining that it was the wrong time of day, and scurried over to the boy. Farid picked him up, put him on his shoulder, and looked earnestly at Dustfinger. ‘I’ve never seen flowers like this,’ he repeated. ‘Or such green hills or such a clever marten. But I know a lot about the kind of men you mean. They’re the same everywhere.’