Silvertongue looked at him with such obvious admiration that Farid blushed. ‘What an extraordinary fellow you are! Perhaps I should ask you how I’m going to get Meggie out of this village?’
Farid smiled awkwardly and looked at his toes. Ask him? No one had ever asked him for his ideas before. He had always been the scout, the tracker dog. Others had made the plans for robberies, raids, revenge. You didn’t ask the dog’s opinion. You beat the dog if he didn’t obey. ‘There are only two of us, and there are at least twenty of them down there,’ he said. ‘It won’t be easy …’
Silvertongue looked over at their camp site and the woman asleep under the trees. ‘Aren’t you counting Elinor? You should! She’s much fiercer than I am, and just at the moment she is very, very angry.’
Farid had to smile. ‘All right, three!’ he said. ‘Three against twenty.’
‘Yes, I know, that doesn’t sound good.’ Silvertongue stood up, sighing. ‘Come on, let’s tell Elinor what you’ve found out,’ he said, but Farid stayed where he was in the grass. He picked up one of the dry branches lying everywhere. First-class firewood. There was any amount of it here. In his old life, people would have gone a long, long way for wood like this. They’d have given good money for it. Farid looked at the wood, rubbed his finger over the rough bark, and looked at Capricorn’s village.
‘We could get fire to help us,’ he said.
Silvertongue looked at him blankly. ‘What do you mean?’
Farid picked up another stick, and another. He heaped them all up, all the dry twigs and branches. ‘Dustfinger showed me how to tame fire. It’s like Gwin: it bites if you don’t know how to handle it, but if you treat it properly it does as you want. That’s what Dustfinger taught me. If we use it at the right time, in the right place …’
Silvertongue bent down, picked up one of the branches and weighted it in his hand. ‘And how are you going to control it once you’ve got a fire going? It hasn’t rained for ages. The hills will be ablaze before you know it.’
Farid shrugged. ‘Only if the wind blows the wrong way.’
But Silvertongue shook his head. ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘I won’t play with fire in these hills unless I can’t think of anything else. Let’s steal into the village tonight. Maybe we can get past the guards. Maybe they know each other so little they’ll think I’m one of them. After all, we managed to slip through their fingers once, so maybe we can do it again.’
‘That’s a lot of maybes,’ said Farid.
‘I know!’ replied Silvertongue. ‘I know.’
Telling Lies to Basta
‘If ye see the laird, tell him what ye hear; tell him this makes the twelve hunner and nineteen time that Jennet Clouston has called down the curse on him and his house, byre and stable, man, guest and master, wife, miss, or bairn – black, black be their fall.’
Robert Louis Stevenson,
It took Fenoglio only a few words to persuade the guard outside the door that he had to speak to Basta at once. The old man was a gifted liar. He could spin stories out of thin air faster than a spider spins its web.
‘What do you want, old man?’ asked Basta when he was standing in the doorway. He had brought the tin soldier. ‘Here, little witch!’ he said to Meggie, handing her the soldier. ‘I’d have thrown it on the fire, but nobody here listens to me these days.’
The tin soldier started at the word ‘fire’. His moustache bristled, and his eyes looked so alarmed it touched Meggie’s heart. When she put her hands protectively round him she thought she felt his heart beating. She remembered the end of his story: The soldier melted. The next day when the maid emptied the stove, she found a little tin heart, which was all that was left of him.
‘That’s right, no one listens to you any more. I can see that for myself!’ Fenoglio looked sympathetically at Basta, as a father might look at his son – which in a way he was. ‘And that’s why I wanted a word with you.’ He lowered his voice and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. ‘I’m offering you a deal.’
‘A deal?’ Basta scrutinised him with a mixture of wariness and arrogance.
‘Yes, a deal,’ repeated Fenoglio softly. ‘I’m bored here! I’m a scribbler, as you so aptly put it. I need paper to live on much as other people need bread and wine and so forth. Bring me some paper, Basta, and I’ll help you to get those keys back. You remember – the keys that the Magpie took away from you.’
Basta took out his knife. When he snapped it open the tin soldier began trembling so much that the bayonet slipped from his tiny hands. ‘How?’ asked Basta, cleaning his fingernails with the tip of the knife.
Fenoglio bent down to him. ‘I’ll write you a magic charm to put a hex on Mortola. A hex that will keep her in bed for weeks and give you time to show Capricorn you are the rightful keeper of the keys. Of course that kind of charm doesn’t work instantly, it needs time, but believe you me, when it does start to take effect …’ Fenoglio raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
But Basta only wrinkled his nose in scorn. ‘I’ve already tried with spiders. And parsley and salt. The old woman’s proof against them all.’
‘Parsley and spiders!’ Fenoglio laughed quietly. ‘What a fool you are, Basta! I’m not talking about children’s magic. I mean the magic of the written word. Nothing is more powerful for good or evil, I do assure you.’ Fenoglio lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘I made you yourself out of words and letters, Basta! You and Capricorn.’
Basta flinched. Fear and hatred are closely linked, and Meggie saw both on his face. He believed the old man. He believed every word of it. ‘You’re a sorcerer!’ he muttered. ‘You and the girl alike – you both ought to be burned like those accursed books, and her father too.’ He quickly spat three times at the old man’s feet.
‘Ah, spitting! What’s that supposed to prevent? The Evil Eye?’ Fenoglio mocked him. ‘That notion of burning us isn’t a very new idea, Basta, but then you never were fond of new ideas. Well, are we in business or aren’t we?’
Basta stared at the tin soldier until Meggie hid him behind her back. ‘Very well!’ he growled. ‘But I shall check what you’ve been scribbling every day, understand?’
How are you going to do that, thought Meggie, when you can’t read? Basta looked at her as if he had heard her thoughts. ‘I know one of the maids,’ he said. ‘She’ll read it to me, so don’t try any tricks, right?’
‘Of course not!’ Fenoglio nodded energetically. ‘Oh yes, and a pen would be a good idea too. A black one if possible.’
Basta brought the pen and a whole stack of white typing paper. Fenoglio sat down at the table with a purposeful look, put the first sheet of paper in front of him, folded it and then tore it neatly into nine parts. He wrote five letters on each piece. They were ornate, barely legible, and always the same. Then he carefully folded these notes, spat once on each, handed them to Basta and told him to hide them as he told him. ‘Three where she sleeps, three where she eats, and three where she works. Then, after three days and three nights, the desired effect will set in. But should the accursed woman find even one of the notes, the magic will instantly turn against you.’