‘Those stay here,’ he said.
Mo did not return in time to meet them as they walked to Basta’s car. All that long, endless way, he didn’t appear.
In the Hills
‘Let him alone,’ said Merlin. ‘Perhaps he does not want to be friends with you until he knows what you are like. With owls, it is never easy-come and easy-go.’
The Sword in the Stone
Dustfinger looked across to Capricorn’s village. It seemed close enough to touch. Some of the windows reflected the sky, and one of the Black Jackets was repairing a couple of broken tiles on a roof. Dustfinger saw him wipe the sweat from his brow. The fools never took their jackets off even in this heat – as if they were afraid of falling apart without that black uniform. Not that crows take off their feathers in the sun either, and these men were just a flock of crows: robbers, carrion-eaters who liked to plunge their sharp beaks into dead flesh.
The boy had been uneasy when he saw how close Dustfinger’s chosen hiding-place was to the village, but Dustfinger had explained why there couldn’t be anywhere safer to lie low among the surrounding hills. The charred walls were hardly visible, camouflaged as they were by the gorse and wild thyme that had taken root among the soot-blackened stones. Capricorn’s men had set fire to the house soon after taking over the deserted village. The old woman who had lived there had refused to leave, but Capricorn wouldn’t tolerate prying eyes so close to his new hideout and gave his followers a free hand. His crows, his black vultures, had set fire to the home-made chicken run and the one-roomed cottage. They had trampled over the carefully tended beds in the garden, and shot the donkey that was almost as old as its mistress. They came under cover of darkness as usual, and the moon, so one of Capricorn’s maidservants had told Dustfinger, shone particularly brightly that night. The old woman had tottered out of the house, weeping and screaming. Then she’d cursed them. She cursed them all, but her eyes were turned on only one of them. Basta, who was standing a little way from the others because he feared the fire, his shirt very white in the moonlight. Perhaps she had hoped that shirt might conceal something like innocence or a kind heart. On Basta’s orders, Flatnose had put his hand over her mouth to shut her up. The others had laughed – until, unexpectedly, she fell down dead and lay there lifeless among her trampled garden beds. Ever since that day, Basta had feared this place more than anywhere else in the hills. No, there could be nowhere better to keep watch on Capricorn’s village.
Dustfinger spent most of the time perched in one of the oaks that had once given the old woman a shady place to sit outside her cottage. Its branches hid him from the curious eyes of anyone who might stray up the hillside. He perched there motionless for hour upon hour, watching the car park and the houses through his binoculars. He had told Farid to stay further away, in the hollow behind the house. The boy had reluctantly obeyed. He was sticking close to Dustfinger, close as a burr, and he didn’t like the gutted cottage. ‘Her ghost is still here, for sure,’ he kept saying. ‘That old woman’s ghost. Suppose she was a witch?’ But Dustfinger just laughed at him. There were no ghosts in this world, or if there were they never showed themselves. The hollow was so well sheltered that he had even risked lighting a fire the previous night. The boy had snared a rabbit; he was good at setting traps and more ruthless than Dustfinger. When Dustfinger caught a rabbit he didn’t take it out of the trap until he was quite sure the poor thing had stopped wriggling. Farid had no such scruples. Perhaps he had gone hungry too often.
Above all he loved to watch with wonder and admiration whenever Dustfinger took a few little sticks and lit a fire. The boy had already burnt his fingers playing games with matches. The flames had bitten his nose and his lips, yet Dustfinger kept finding him making torches of cotton wool and thin twigs. Once he set light to the dry grass, and Dustfinger grabbed him and shook him like a disobedient dog until tears came into his eyes. ‘Listen hard, because I’m not telling you again! Fire is a dangerous creature!’ he had shouted at Farid. ‘Fire is not your friend. It will kill you if you don’t respect it. And its smoke will give you away to your enemies!’
‘But it’s your friend!’ the boy had stammered defiantly.
‘Nonsense! I’m not careless, that’s all. I take note of the wind! You let it play with the fire. I’ve told you a hundred times: never light a fire when it’s windy. Now go and look for Gwin.’
‘It is your friend, though!’ the boy had muttered before running off. ‘Or anyway, it obeys you better than the marten does.’
He was right there, though that didn’t mean much, for a marten obeys only itself, and even fire didn’t obey Dustfinger in this world as well as in his own, where the flames turned to flower shapes whenever he told them to. They had forked up in the air for him, like trees branching in the night, and rained down sparks. They had roared and whispered with their crackling voices, they had danced when he said the word. The flames here were both tame and mutinous, strange, silent beasts which sometimes bit the hand that fed them. Only occasionally, on cold nights when there was nothing but the flames to stave off his loneliness, did he think he heard them calling to him, but they whispered words he didn’t understand.
However, the boy was probably right. Yes, fire was his friend, but it was also the reason why Capricorn had summoned him back in that other life. ‘Show me how to play with fire!’ he had said when his men dragged Dustfinger before him, and Dustfinger had obeyed. He still regretted teaching him so much, for Capricorn loved to give fire free rein, catching it again only when it had eaten its fill of crops and stables, houses and anything that couldn’t run fast enough.
‘Is he still away?’ Farid was leaning against the rough bark of the tree. The boy was as quiet as a snake. Dustfinger always jumped when he appeared so suddenly.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Luck’s on our side.’ On the day they came to this hideout Capricorn’s car had been standing in the parking place, but that afternoon two of the boys had begun polishing its silver paintwork until they could see their reflections in it, and shortly before it was dark it had driven off. Capricorn often had himself driven around the countryside, to the villages further down the coast or to one of his other bases, as he liked to call them, although these so-called bases were often little more than a hut in the woods with a couple of bored men guarding it. Like Dustfinger, he couldn’t drive a car, but some of his men had mastered the art of it. Hardly any of them held a driving licence, though, because to pass the test they would have to be able to read.
‘Yes, I’ll go over there again tonight,’ murmured Dustfinger. ‘He won’t be away much longer, and Basta is sure to be back soon too.’ Basta’s car had not been in the car park at all since they’d come here. It was unusual for it to be gone so long, because Basta didn’t like to be away from the village for any length of time. Were he and Flatnose still lying in the ruined cottage, bound and gagged?
‘Good! When do we start!’ Farid sounded as if he wanted to get moving at once. ‘After sunset? They’ll all be in the church eating then.’
Dustfinger shooed a fly away from his binoculars. ‘I’m going alone. You’re to stay here and keep an eye on our things.’