The crypt below the church was a damp, cold place even on days like this when the sun was practically melting the tiles on the houses outside. It smelled of mould and mouse droppings and other things Dustfinger didn’t want to think about. Soon after arriving in the deserted village Capricorn had had gratings fitted over the narrow niches where long-dead priests slept in their stone tombs. ‘What could be more fitting than to make the condemned sleep on coffins?’ he had said at the time, with a laugh. He had always had his own peculiar sense of humour.
Impatiently, Basta pushed them down the last few steps. He was in a hurry to get back to the light of day, away from the dead and their ghosts. His hand shook as he hung his lantern on a hook and opened the grating over the first cell. There was no electric light down here, no heating either, or any other comforts, only the quiet tombs and the mice scurrying over the cracked flagstones of the floor.
‘Oh, aren’t you going to give us the pleasure of your company a little longer?’ asked Dustfinger as Basta pushed them into the cell. They had to duck. They couldn’t stand upright under the old vaults here. ‘We could tell ghost stories. I know some nice new ones.’
Basta growled like a dog. ‘We won’t be needing any coffin for you, dirtyfingers!’ he said as he closed the grating again.
‘No, indeed! An urn perhaps, a jam jar, but no coffin.’ Dustfinger took a step back from the bars so as to be out of reach of Basta’s knife. ‘I see you have a new amulet,’ he called. Basta had almost reached the steps. ‘Another rabbit’s foot, is it? Didn’t I tell you they attract White Ladies? You could see the White Ladies in our old world. You don’t see them here, which isn’t very practical, but of course they’re still around with their whispering and their icy fingers.’
Basta was standing at the foot of the steps with his fists clenched, his back still turned. Dustfinger was always surprised to find how easily you could scare the man with a few words. ‘Remember how they come for their victims?’ he went on softly. ‘They whisper your name, “Bastaaa!” and next thing you know you’re freezing cold, and then—’
‘They’ll soon be whispering your name, dirtyfingers!’ Basta interrupted, his voice shaking. ‘Yours and yours alone.’ And he hurried up the steps as if the ghosts of the White Ladies were already after him.
The sound of his footsteps died away, and Dustfinger was alone – with the silence, with death, and with Resa. They were obviously the only prisoners. Now and then Capricorn had some poor fellow locked in the crypt just to give him a good fright, but most of those who came here and wrote their names on the tombs disappeared some dark night and were never seen again.
Their own departure from this world was going to be rather more spectacular.
My last performance, in a way, thought Dustfinger. Perhaps it will turn out that all this was only a bad dream, and I just had to die to get home again? A nice idea, if only he could have believed in it.
Resa had seated herself on a sarcophagus. It was a plain stone coffin, with a cracked lid, and the name that was once on it could no longer be deciphered. It didn’t seem to frighten Resa to be so near the dead. Dustfinger felt differently. He was not afraid of ghosts and White Ladies, like Basta. If a White Lady had appeared he would have passed the time of day with her. No – he was afraid of death. He thought he heard death itself breathing down here, breathing so deeply that no air was left for anyone else. His chest felt as if a huge and ugly animal were sitting on it. Perhaps it hadn’t been so bad up there in the net after all. At least they’d had air to breathe.
He sensed Resa watching him. She beckoned him over and patted the lid of the coffin. Hesitantly, he sat down beside her. She put her hand into the pocket of her dress, brought out a candle and held it up to him with an enquiring look. Dustfinger had to smile. Yes, of course he had matches on him. It was child’s play to conceal something as small as a few matches from Basta and the other idiots.
Resa fixed the flickering candle to the coffin with a little of its own wax. She loved candles – coloured candles and stones. She always had both in her pockets. But perhaps today she had lit the candle just for him, because she knew how he loved fire.
‘I’m sorry. I should have looked for the book on my own,’ he said, passing a finger through the bright flame. ‘Forgive me.’
She put her fingers on his mouth. Presumably she was saying there was nothing to forgive. What a sweet, silent lie. She took her hand away, and Dustfinger cleared his throat. ‘You – you didn’t find it, did you?’ Not that it would make any difference now, but he had to know.
Resa shook her head and shrugged her shoulders regretfully.
‘That’s what I thought.’ He sighed. The silence was terrible, worse than a thousand voices. ‘Tell me a story, Resa!’ he said quietly, moving closer to her. Please, he added in his thoughts. Chase my fear away. It’s crushing my chest. Take us somewhere else, somewhere better.
Resa could do that. She knew endless numbers of stories, just how she knew them she had never told him, but of course he knew. He knew exactly who had once read her those stories, for he had recognised her face the instant he first saw her in Capricorn’s house. After all, Silvertongue had shown him the photograph often enough.
Resa took a piece of paper out of her inexhaustible pockets. They contained more than just candles and stones. Just as Dustfinger always carried the means of lighting a fire, she always had a number of things with her: candle stumps, a few pebbles, some paper and a pencil – her wooden tongue, she called it. Obviously none of these things had seemed to Capricorn’s men dangerous enough to be taken away from her. When Resa told one of her stories she sometimes wrote only half a sentence, and Dustfinger had to finish it. It went faster that way, and the story developed surprising twists and turns. But this time it seemed she didn’t want to tell him a story, although he had never needed one so badly.
‘Who is the girl?’ wrote Resa.
Of course. Meggie. Should he lie? Why not? But he didn’t, although he didn’t know why not. ‘She’s Silvertongue’s daughter – How old? – Twelve, I think.’
It was the right answer. He saw that in her eyes. They were Meggie’s eyes. Perhaps rather wearier.
‘What does Silvertongue look like? I think you’ve asked me that before. Well, he isn’t scarred like me.’ He tried to smile, but Resa remained grave. The candlelight flickered on her face. You know his face better than you know mine, thought Dustfinger, but I’m not going to say so. He’s taken a whole world from me, why shouldn’t I take his wife from him?
Rising to her feet, she put her hand in the air above her head.
‘Yes, he’s tall. Taller than you, taller than me.’ Why didn’t he lie to her? ‘Yes, he has dark hair, but I don’t want to talk about him now!’ He heard the petulance in his own voice. ‘Please!’ Reaching for her hand, he drew her down beside him. ‘Tell me a story. The candle will soon go out, and the light Basta’s left us is enough to see these wretched coffins but not to read letters.’
She looked at him thoughtfully, as if she were trying to guess at his thoughts and uncover the words he didn’t say. But Dustfinger could guard his face better than Silvertongue, much better. He could make it impenetrable, a shield to keep his heart from prying eyes. What business was it of anyone else to know what was in his heart?