‘The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’,
from The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments,
tr. Edward William Lane
Farid stared at the dark until his eyes hurt, but Dustfinger did not return. Sometimes Farid thought he saw his scarred face among the low-growing branches. Sometimes he thought he heard his almost silent footsteps on the dead leaves, but he was always wrong. Farid was used to listening to the sounds of the night. He had spent endless hours doing so back in his other life, when the world around him was not green but brown and yellow; his eyes had often let him down, but he had always been able to rely on his ears.
All the same, Farid listened in vain that night, the longest night of his life. Dustfinger didn’t come back. When day began to dawn above the hills Farid went to the two captives, gave them water, a little of the dry bread they still had left, and a few olives.
‘Come on, Farid, untie us!’ said Silvertongue as Farid put the bread in his mouth. ‘Dustfinger should have been back by now, you know he should.’
Farid said nothing. He loved to hear Silvertongue’s voice. It had lured him out of his old, wretched life, but it seemed that Dustfinger didn’t like it any more, he didn’t know why – and Dustfinger had told him to keep watch on the prisoners. He had said nothing about untying them.
‘Look, you’re a clever lad,’ said the woman, ‘so use your head for a moment, will you? Are you going to sit here until Capricorn’s men come and find us? What a sight we’ll be: a boy watching two captives who can’t lift a finger to help him. They’ll fall about laughing.’
What was she called again? Eli-nor. Farid had difficulty remembering the name. It was awkward as a pebble on his tongue, and sounded like the name of an enchantress from a far-distant land. He thought her unnatural; she looked at him as a man might look, without timidity or fear, and her voice could be very loud and as angry as a lion’s roar.
‘We have to get down to the village, Farid!’ said Silvertongue. ‘We must find out what’s happened to Dustfinger – and where my daughter is.’
Yes, the girl – the girl with the clear, bright eyes, little pieces of sky fallen to the earth and caught in her dark lashes. Farid poked the ground with a stick. An ant was carrying a breadcrumb bigger than itself past his toes.
‘Perhaps he doesn’t understand what we’re saying,’ said Elinor.
Farid raised his head and cast her a glance of annoyance. ‘Yes, I do. I understand everything.’ And so he had, from the first moment, as if he had never heard any other language. He remembered the red church. Dustfinger had explained that it was a church, although Farid had never seen such a building before. He also remembered the man with the knife. There had been a great many such men in his old life. They loved their knives and did terrible things with them.
‘You’ll run off if I untie you.’ Farid looked uncertainly at Silvertongue.
‘No, I won’t. Do you think I’d leave my daughter down there with Basta and Capricorn?’
Basta and Capricorn. Yes, those had been the names. The knife-man and the man with the eyes as colourless as water. A robber, a murderer … Farid knew all about him. Dustfinger had told him a great deal as they sat together by the fire in the evening. They had exchanged sad stories, although both of them longed for one with a happy ending.
Now this story, too, was growing darker with each day that passed.
‘It’ll be better if I go alone.’ Farid dug the stick so hard into the ground that it broke in his fingers. ‘I’m used to slinking into strange villages, strange palaces and houses – it was my job in the old days. If you know what I mean.’
‘They always sent me,’ Farid went on. ‘Who’d be afraid of a thin young boy? I could sniff around everywhere without arousing suspicion. When did the guards change? Which was the best way of escape? Where did the richest man in the village live? If all went well they gave me enough to eat. If it did not they beat me like a dog.’
‘They?’ asked Elinor.
‘The thieves,’ replied Farid.
The two adults fell silent. And Dustfinger still wasn’t back. Farid looked towards the village and saw the first rays of the sun rising above its rooftops.
‘Very well. You may be right,’ said Silvertongue. ‘You go down alone and find out what we need to know, but first untie us. If you don’t we won’t be able to help you if they do catch you. And I don’t fancy sitting here tied up like this when the first snake wriggles past.’
The woman looked as frightened as if she already heard it rustling through the dead leaves. But Farid looked thoughtfully at Silvertongue’s face, trying to decide whether his eyes could trust him as his ears already did. Finally he stood up without a word, took the knife Dustfinger had given him from his belt, and cut them both free.
‘My God, I’m never letting anyone tie me up like that again!’ said Elinor, rubbing her arms and legs. ‘I feel as numb as a rag doll. How are you, Mortimer? Can you still feel your feet?’
Farid looked at her curiously. ‘You don’t look like his wife. Are you his mother?’ he asked, nodding in Silvertongue’s direction.
Elinor’s face came out in more red blotches than a toadstool. ‘Good Lord above, no! What makes you think that? Do I really look so old?’ Glancing down at herself, she sighed. ‘Yes, I probably do. All the same, I’m not his mother. I’m not Meggie’s mother either, in case that’s your next question. My children were all made of paper and printer’s ink, and that man,’ she said, pointing to the rooftops of Capricorn’s village shining through the trees, ‘that man down there destroyed a great many of them. Believe me, he’ll regret it.’
Farid looked at her doubtfully. He couldn’t imagine Capricorn being afraid of a woman, certainly not one who got out of breath when she climbed a hill and was scared of snakes. No, if the man with the pale eyes feared anything it would be what most people feared – death. And Elinor didn’t look as if she knew much about killing. Nor did Silvertongue.
‘The girl …’ Farid hesitated before asking, ‘Where is her mother?’
Silvertongue went over to the cold fireplace and took a piece of the bread lying among the soot-blackened stones. ‘She went away long ago,’ he said. ‘Meggie was just three. What about your own mother?’
Farid shrugged his shoulders and looked up at the sky. It was as blue as if the night had never been. ‘I’d better go now,’ he said, putting his knife away and picking up Dustfinger’s rucksack. Gwin was sleeping close to it, curled up between the roots of a tree. Farid picked him up and put him in the rucksack. The marten sleepily protested, but Farid tickled his head and strapped the rucksack up.
‘Why are you taking that marten?’ asked Elinor in surprise. ‘The smell of him could give you away.’
‘He may come in useful,’ replied Farid, pushing the tip of Gwin’s bushy tail into the rucksack too. ‘He’s clever. Cleverer than a dog or a camel, anyway. He understands what you say to him, and maybe he’ll find Dustfinger.’
‘Farid.’ Silvertongue was searching his pockets, and took out a piece of paper. ‘I don’t know whether you’ll be able to find out where they’re keeping Meggie prisoner,’ he said, hastily scribbling something with the stump of a pencil, ‘but if possible can you try to see she gets this note?’