Meggie glanced at Mo, but he just stood there looking at her.
‘Capricorn can’t bind books like your father,’ Dustfinger went on. ‘In fact, he’s not much good at anything except terrifying people. But he’s a master of that art. It’s his whole life. I doubt if he himself has any idea what it’s like to be so paralysed by fear that you feel small and insignificant. But he knows just how to arouse that fear and spread it, in people’s homes and their beds, in their heads and their hearts. His men spread fear abroad like the Black Death, they push it under doors and through letterboxes, they paint it on walls and stable doors until it infects everything around it of its own accord, silent and stinking like a plague.’ Dustfinger was very close to Meggie now. ‘Capricorn has many men,’ he said softly. ‘Most have been with him since they were children, and if Capricorn were to order one of them to cut off your nose or one of your ears he’d do it without batting an eyelid. They like to dress in black like rooks – only their leader wears a white shirt under his black jacket – and should you ever meet any of them then make yourself small, very small, and hope they don’t notice you. Understand?’
Meggie nodded. Her heart was pounding so hard that she could scarcely breathe.
‘I can see why your father has never told you about Capricorn,’ said Dustfinger, looking at Mo. ‘If I had children I’d rather tell them about nice people too.’
‘I know the world’s not just full of nice people!’ Meggie couldn’t keep her voice from shaking with anger, and more than a touch of fear.
‘Oh yes? How do you know that?’ There it was again, that mysterious smile, sad and supercilious at the same time. ‘Have you ever had anything to do with a real villain?’
‘I’ve read about them.’
Dustfinger laughed aloud. ‘Yes, of course that almost comes to the same thing!’ he said. His mockery hurt like stinging nettles. He bent down to Meggie and looked her in the face. ‘All the same, I hope reading about them is as close as you ever get,’ he said quietly.
Mo was stowing Dustfinger’s bags in the back of the van.
‘I hope there’s nothing in there that might come flying round our heads,’ he said as Dustfinger got in the back seat behind Meggie. ‘With your trade I wouldn’t be surprised.’
Before Meggie could ask what trade that was, Dustfinger opened his rucksack and carefully lifted out an animal. It was blinking sleepily. ‘Since we obviously have quite a long journey ahead of us,’ he told Mo, ‘I’d like to introduce someone to your daughter.’
The creature was almost the size of a rabbit, but much thinner, with a bushy tail now draped over Dustfinger’s chest like a fur collar. It dug its slender claws into his sleeve while inspecting Meggie with its gleaming beady black eyes, and when it yawned it bared teeth as sharp as needles.
‘This is Gwin,’ said Dustfinger. ‘You can tickle him behind the ears if you like. He’s very sleepy at the moment, so he won’t bite.’
‘Does he usually?’ asked Meggie.
‘Yes,’ said Mo, getting back behind the wheel. ‘If I were you I’d keep my fingers away from that little brute.’
But Meggie couldn’t keep her hands off any animal, however sharp its teeth. ‘He’s a marten or something like that, right?’ she asked.
‘Something of that nature.’ Dustfinger put his hand in his trouser pocket and gave Gwin a piece of dry bread. Meggie stroked his little head as he chewed – and her fingertips found something hard under the silky fur: tiny horns growing beside his ears. Surprised, she took her hand away. ‘Do martens have horns?’
Dustfinger winked at her and let Gwin climb back into the rucksack. ‘This one does,’ he said.
Bewildered, Meggie watched him do up the straps. She felt as if she were still touching Gwin’s little horns. ‘Mo, did you know that martens have horns?’ she asked.
‘Oh, Dustfinger stuck them on that sharp-toothed little devil of his. For his performances.’
‘What kind of performances?’ Meggie looked enquiringly, first at Mo, then at Dustfinger, but Mo just started the engine and Dustfinger, who seemed to have come far, judging by his bags, took off his boots and stretched out on Mo’s bed in the van with a deep sigh. ‘Don’t give me away, Silvertongue,’ he said before he closed his eyes. ‘I have my own secrets, you know. And for those I need darkness.’
They must have driven fifty kilometres, and Meggie was still trying to work out what he could possibly have meant.
‘Mo?’ she asked, when Dustfinger began snoring behind them. ‘What does this Capricorn want from you?’ She lowered her voice before she spoke the name, as if that might remove some of the menace from it.
‘A book,’ replied Mo, without taking his eyes off the road.
‘A book? Then why not give it to him?’
‘I can’t. I’ll explain soon, but not now, all right?’
Meggie looked out of the van window. The world they were passing outside already looked unfamiliar – unfamiliar houses, unfamiliar roads, unfamiliar fields, even the trees and the sky looked unfamiliar – but Meggie was used to that. She had never really felt at home anywhere. Mo was her home, Mo and her books, and perhaps the camper van that carried them from one place to the next.
‘This aunt we’re going to see,’ she said, as they drove through an endless tunnel. ‘Does she have any children?’
‘No,’ said Mo, ‘and I’m afraid she doesn’t particularly like children either. But as I said, I’m sure you’ll get on well with her.’
Meggie sighed. She could remember several aunts, and she hadn’t ‘got on’ particularly well with any of them.
They were driving through mountains now, the slopes on both sides of the road rose ever more steeply, and there came a point where the houses looked not just unfamiliar but really different. Meggie tried to pass the time by counting tunnels, but when the ninth swallowed them up and the darkness went on and on she fell asleep. She dreamed of martens in black jackets and a book in a brown-paper cover.
A House Full of Books
There is a sort of busy worm,
That will the fairest book deform.
Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint
The poet, patriot, sage or saint,
Nor sparing wit nor learning.
Now, if you’d know the reason why,
The best of reasons I’ll supply:
’Tis bread to the poor vermin.
J. Doraston, quoted by W. Blades
Meggie woke up because it was so quiet. The regular sound of the engine that had lulled her to sleep had stopped. The driver’s seat beside her was empty. It took Meggie a little while to remember why she wasn’t in bed at home. Tiny dead flies were stuck to the windscreen, and the van was parked outside an iron gate. It looked alarming, with sharp ashen-grey spikes, a gate made of spearheads just waiting to impale anyone who tried to clamber over. It reminded Meggie of one of her favourite stories, the tale of the Selfish Giant who wouldn’t let children into his garden. This was exactly how she had imagined his garden gate.
Mo was standing in the road with Dustfinger. Meggie got out and went over to them. On the right of the road a densely wooded slope fell steeply to the bank of a wide lake. The hills on the other side rose from the lake like giants emerging from the depths. The water was almost black, and pale twilight, darkly reflected in the waves, was already spreading across the sky. The first lights were coming on in the houses on the bank, looking like glow-worms or fallen stars.