‘Yes. This will be dangerous. There’s someone I want to visit, and to do that I have to get into the yard behind Capricorn’s house.’
The boy gazed at him with eyes full of astonishment. Eyes that sometimes looked as if they had seen too much already.
‘Surprised, are you?’ Dustfinger suppressed a smile. ‘You wouldn’t have thought I had any friends in Capricorn’s house!’
The boy shrugged his shoulders and looked over to the village. A vehicle was driving into the car park, a dusty truck with two goats tethered on the open loading platform.
‘Look at that – another farmer’s lost his goats!’ muttered Dustfinger. ‘Wise of him to give them up freely, or there’d have been a note pinned to his stable door this evening.’
Farid looked at him, an unspoken question in his eyes.
‘The red rooster crows tomorrow, that’s what the note would say. It’s the only thing Capricorn’s men know how to write. But sometimes they just hang a dead rooster above the door. Anyone can understand that.’
‘Red rooster?’ The boy shook his head. ‘Is it a curse or something?’
‘No! Good heavens, you sound like Basta.’ Dustfinger laughed quietly. Capricorn’s men were getting out of the truck. The smaller of them was carrying two plastic bags filled to bursting; the other was hauling the goats off the loading platform. ‘The red rooster means fire, the fire they’ll light in the farmer’s outhouses or olive groves. And sometimes the rooster crows in the attic of the house or, if a farmer has been particularly stubborn, in his children’s bedroom. We almost all have something we love dearly.’
The men were leading the goats into the village. Dustfinger knew by his limp that one of them was Cockerell. He had often wondered whether Capricorn knew about all the little deals his men did, or whether they were working for themselves on the side now and then.
Farid caught a grasshopper in the hollow of his hand and watched it through his fingers. ‘I’m going with you all the same,’ he said.
‘I’m not afraid!’
‘That makes it worse.’
Capricorn had had floodlights installed after the escape of his captives – outside the church, on the roof of his house and in the car park. They didn’t exactly make it easier to walk the streets unobserved. The first night after their arrival here Dustfinger had stolen into the village, his scarred face blackened with soot because it was too easily recognisable. Capricorn had also reinforced the guards on sentry duty, probably because of all the treasure Silvertongue had brought him. By now, of course, that treasure had disappeared into the cellars of his house and was carefully locked in the heavy safes that Capricorn had fitted there. He didn’t care to spend money; like the dragons of legend, he hoarded it. Sometimes he placed a ring on his finger, or put a necklace round the neck of a maid who happened to take his fancy. Or he sent Basta out to buy him a new sporting gun.
‘Who are you going to meet?’
‘None of your business.’
The boy let the grasshopper go again. It hopped rapidly away on its spindly olive-green legs.
‘A woman,’ said Dustfinger. ‘One of Capricorn’s maids. She’s helped me a couple of times before.’
‘The one in the photo in your rucksack?’
Dustfinger lowered his binoculars. ‘How do you know what’s in my rucksack?’
The boy hunched his head down between his shoulders, like someone used to being beaten for every thoughtless remark. ‘I was looking for matches.’
‘If I catch you with your fingers in my rucksack again I’ll tell Gwin to bite them off.’
The boy grinned. ‘Gwin never bites me.’
He was right. The marten was crazy about Farid.
‘Where is that faithless animal anyway?’ Dustfinger peered through the branches. ‘I haven’t seen him since yesterday.’
‘I think he’s found a female.’ Farid picked up a stick and poked at the dead leaves that lay everywhere under the trees. By night the rustling leaves would give away anyone trying to steal up to their camp in silence. ‘If you don’t take me with you tonight,’ said the boy, without looking at Dustfinger, ‘I’ll just follow you anyway.’
‘If you follow me I shall beat you black and blue.’
Farid lowered his head and gazed inscrutably at his bare toes. Then he glanced at the ruined walls where they had made their camp.
‘And don’t start on about the old woman’s ghost again!’ said Dustfinger crossly. ‘How often do I have to tell you? All the danger is over in those houses. Light a fire in the hollow if you’re afraid of the dark.’
‘Ghosts don’t fear fire.’ The boy’s voice was hardly more than a whisper.
Sighing, Dustfinger clambered down from his look-out post. The boy was almost as bad as Basta. He wasn’t afraid of curses, ladders or black cats, but he saw ghosts everywhere, and not just the ghost of the old woman now sleeping buried somewhere in the hard ground. Farid saw other ghosts and spirits too, whole armies of them: malignant, all-powerful beings who tore the hearts out of poor mortal boys and ate them. He refused to believe it when Dustfinger told him they hadn’t come with him, he had left them behind in a book along with the thieves who used to beat and kick him. He might well die of fear if he stayed here alone all night. ‘Oh, very well then, you’d better come,’ said Dustfinger. ‘But not a squeak out of you, understand? The men down there aren’t ghosts. They’re real people, and they have knives and guns.’
Gratefully, Farid flung his thin arms around him.
‘Yes, all right, that’ll do!’ said Dustfinger, pushing him away. ‘Come on, let’s see if you can stand on one hand yet.’
The boy immediately obeyed. Bright red in the face, he balanced first on his right hand and then on his left, bare legs up in the air. After three wobbly seconds he landed in the prickly leaves of a rockrose, but he promptly got up, pulled a few thorns out of his foot, and tried again.
Dustfinger sat down under a tree.
It was high time to get rid of the boy, but how? You could throw stones at a dog, but a boy … Why hadn’t he stayed with Silvertongue, who knew more about looking after young people? And it was Silvertongue, after all, who had brought him here. But no, the boy had to run after him, Dustfinger.
‘I’m going to look for Gwin,’ said Dustfinger, getting to his feet.
Without a word Farid trotted after him.
She spoke to the King, hoping he would forbid his son to go, but he said: ‘Well, dear, it’s true that adventures are good for people even when they are very young. Adventures can get into a person’s blood even if he doesn’t remember having them.’
The Secret of Platform 13
Capricorn’s village didn’t look like a dangerous place on the grey rainy day when Meggie set eyes on it again. The houses standing among the green hills were a miserable sight, with not a ray of sunlight to brighten their ruins. Meggie could hardly believe these same houses had looked so menacing on the night of their escape.
‘Interesting,’ whispered Fenoglio as Basta drove into the car park. ‘Do you know, this village is very like one of the settings I thought up for Inkheart? Well, there’s no fortress, but the landscape around is similiar, and the age of the village would be about right. Did you know that Inkheart is set in a world not unlike our own medieval times? Of course I added some things – the fairies and the giants.’