‘Well, don’t you recognise your old friend?’ Capricorn put his hands in his dressing-gown pockets. Tinker Bell was still held in Basta’s fingers like a broken doll. Her faint tinkling was the only sound to be heard. ‘Yes, I see you do!’ There was no mistaking the satisfaction in Capricorn’s voice. ‘That’s what happens to filthy little traitors who steal keys and set prisoners free.’
Meggie refused to look at Capricorn. She had eyes only for Dustfinger.
‘Hello, Meggie! You look rather pale!’ he called down. He was trying very hard to sound light-hearted, but Meggie heard the terror in his voice. She knew what voices meant. ‘I’m to give you love from your father! He’ll come for you soon, he says, and he won’t come alone.’
‘You’ll make a teller of fairy tales yet if you carry on like that, fire-eater!’ Basta called up. ‘But even the girl here doesn’t believe that tale. You’ll have to think up something better!’
Meggie stared up at Dustfinger. She so wanted to believe him.
‘Basta, let go of that poor fairy!’ he called to his old enemy. ‘Send her up to me. It’s far too long since I saw one of those.’
‘Oh, I bet you’d like that. No, I’m keeping her for myself!’ replied Basta, flicking Tinker Bell’s tiny nose with his finger. ‘I’ve heard that fairies keep bad luck away if you keep them in your house. I’ll put her in one of those big glass wine jugs. You were always so keen on fairies – what do they eat? Do I feed her flies, or what?’
Tinker Bell braced her arms against his fingers and tried desperately to free her second wing. She managed it too, but Basta had a strong grip on her legs, and hard as she fluttered she couldn’t break free. At last, with a quiet tinkle, she gave up. Her light was hardly any brighter now than a candle flickering out.
‘Do you know why I had the girl brought here, Dustfinger?’ Capricorn called up to his prisoner. ‘She was to persuade you to tell us something about her father and where he is – if you really know anything, which I begin to doubt. But now I don’t need the information any more. The daughter can take her father’s place, and just at the right time too! For I’ve decided that we must think up something really special for your punishment. Something impressive, something memorable! After all, that’s only right for a traitor, isn’t it? Can you guess what my idea is? No? Then let me give you a clue. In your honour, my new reader will read aloud to us from Inkheart. It’s your favourite book, after all, even though I know you’re not very fond of the character I want her to bring out of it. Her father would have fetched that old friend for me long ago if you hadn’t helped him to escape, but now his daughter will do it. Can you guess who it is I mean?’
Dustfinger laid his scarred cheek against the net. ‘Oh yes, indeed I can. How could I ever forget him?’ he said, so quietly that Meggie could hardly make out the words.
‘Why are you talking only about the fire-eater’s punishment?’ The Magpie had appeared between the columns again. ‘Have you forgotten our little mute pigeon Resa? Her treachery was at least as bad as his.’ She looked up at the second net with a disdainful expression.
‘Yes, to be sure!’ There was something almost like regret in Capricorn’s voice. ‘Ah, what a waste – but there’s nothing else for it.’
Meggie couldn’t see the face of the woman dangling in the second net just beyond Dustfinger. She saw only the dark blonde hair, a blue dress, and slender hands clinging to the ropes.
Capricorn sighed heavily. ‘It really is a shame,’ he said, turning to Dustfinger. ‘Why did you have to pick on her, of all people? Couldn’t you have persuaded one of the others to go nosing around for you? I really have had a weakness for her, ever since that useless Darius read her out of the book for me. It never bothered me that she lost her voice in the process. No, far from it, I stupidly assumed that meant I could trust her more. Did you know her hair used to look like spun gold?’
‘Yes, I remember that,’ said Dustfinger hoarsely. ‘But in your presence it’s turned darker.’
‘Nonsense!’ Capricorn frowned with annoyance. ‘Maybe we should try fairy dust. Sprinkled with a little fairy dust, they say, even brass will look like gold. Perhaps it works on a woman’s hair as well.’
‘Hardly worth the trouble!’ said the Magpie mockingly. ‘Unless you want her to look particularly beautiful for her execution.’
‘Oh, never mind.’ Capricorn turned abruptly and went back to the steps. Meggie hardly noticed. She was looking up at the strange woman. Capricorn’s words were working away feverishly in her mind: hair like spun gold … that useless reader Darius … no, it couldn’t be true. She stared up, narrowing her eyes to see the face better through the ropes, but it was hidden in dark shadows.
‘Good.’ Capricorn dropped into his chair again with another heavy sigh. ‘How long shall we need for the preparations? It all ought to be done properly, I think.’
‘Two days.’ The Magpie climbed the steps and took up her position behind him. ‘If you want to summon the men from the other bases, that is.’
Capricorn frowned. ‘Yes, why not? It’s time to set everyone a little example. Discipline has left much to be desired recently.’ He looked at Basta as he said this, and Basta bowed his head as if all the misdemeanours of the last few days weighed heavily on him. ‘The day after tomorrow, then,’ Capricorn went on. ‘When darkness falls. I want Darius to carry out another experiment with the girl first. Get her to read something out of a book, anything – I just want to make sure that fairy didn’t turn up by pure chance.’
Basta had wrapped Tinker Bell in his jacket again. Meggie wanted to put her hands over her ears so as not to hear the feeble tinkling sounds the fairy was making. She pressed her lips together to stop them trembling, and looked up at Capricorn.
‘But I won’t read aloud for you!’ she said. Her voice rang out through the church at twice its usual volume. ‘Not a word! I won’t read you out any treasure, and I certainly won’t read out some kind of – of executioner!’ She spat the word into Capricorn’s face.
But Capricorn only toyed with the belt of his dressing gown, looking bored. ‘Take her away,’ he told Basta. ‘It’s late. The child must get some sleep.’
Basta prodded Meggie in the back. ‘You heard. Go on, get moving.’
Meggie looked up at Dustfinger one last time, and then walked uncertainly down the nave ahead of Basta. When she had passed below the second net she looked up again. The unknown woman’s face was still hidden, but she thought she could make out her eyes, and a slender nose … and if she imagined the hair rather lighter in colour—
‘Go on, I said!’ snapped Basta.
Meggie obeyed, but she kept looking back. ‘I won’t do it!’ she cried when she had almost reached the church porch. ‘I swear! I won’t read anyone here. Ever!’
‘Oh, don’t swear oaths you can’t keep!’ whispered Basta as he pushed the door open and led her out into the brightly floodlit square.
The Black Horse of the Night