The old man sighed.
‘Oh, all right,’ said Meggie. ‘I’ll try.’
Every letter, she thought, every single letter matters! Let the words echo, ring out, whisper and rustle and roll like thunder. Then she began to read.
At the third sentence the tin soldier sat bolt upright. Meggie saw him out of the corner of her eye. For a moment she almost lost the thread of the story, stumbled over a word and re-read it. After that she dared not look at the little soldier again – until Fenoglio put his hand on her arm.
‘He’s gone!’ he breathed. ‘Meggie, he’s gone!’
He was right. The bed was empty.
Fenoglio squeezed her arm so hard that it hurt. ‘You truly are a little enchantress!’ he whispered. ‘And I didn’t do so badly myself, did I? No, definitely not.’ He looked with some awe at his ink-stained fingers. Then he clapped his hands and danced round the cramped room like an old bear. When he finally stopped beside Meggie’s bed again he was rather breathless. ‘You and I are about to prepare a most unpleasant surprise for Capricorn!’ he whispered, a smile lurking in every one of his wrinkles. ‘I’ll set to work at once! Oh yes, he’ll get what he wants: you’ll read the Shadow out of the book for him. But his old friend will be slightly changed! I guarantee that! I, Fenoglio, master of words, enchanter in ink, sorcerer on paper. I made Capricorn and I shall destroy him as if he’d never existed – which I have to admit would have been better! Poor Capricorn! He’ll be no better off than the magician who conjured up a flower maiden for his nephew. Do you know that story?’
Meggie was staring at the place where the tin soldier had been. She missed him. ‘No,’ she muttered. ‘What flower maiden?’
‘It’s a very old story. I’ll tell you the short version. The long one is better, but it will soon be light. Well – there was once a magician called Gwydyon who had a nephew. He loved his nephew better than anything in the world, but his mother had put a curse on the young man.’
‘It would take too long to tell that part now. Anyway, she cursed him. If he ever touched a woman he would die. This broke the magician’s heart – must his favourite nephew be condemned to being sad and lonely for ever? No. Was he not a magician? So he shut himself up in the chamber where he worked magic for three days and three nights and made a woman out of flowers – the flowers of oak and broom and meadowsweet, to be precise. There was never a more beautiful woman in the world, and Gwydyon’s nephew fell in love with her at first sight. But Blodeuedd, for that was her name, was his undoing. She fell in love with another man, and the two of them killed the magician’s nephew.’
‘Blodeuedd!’ Meggie savoured the name like an exotic fruit. ‘How sad. What happened to her? Did the magician kill her too as a punishment?’
‘No. Gwydyon turned her into an owl, and to this day all owls sound like a weeping woman.’
‘That’s beautiful! Sad and beautiful,’ murmured Meggie. Why were sad stories often so beautiful? It was different in real life. ‘Right, so now I know the story of the flower maiden,’ she said. ‘But what does it have to do with Capricorn?’
‘The point is that Blodeuedd didn’t do what was expected of her. And that’s our own plan: your voice and my words, beautiful, brand-new words, will see to it that Capricorn’s Shadow does not do what’s expected of him!’ Fenoglio looked as pleased as a tortoise who has found a fresh lettuce leaf somewhere entirely unexpected.
‘Then what exactly is he to do?’
Fenoglio wrinkled his brow. His satisfaction was all gone. ‘I’m still working on that,’ he said crossly, tapping his forehead. ‘In here. It takes time.’
Voices were raised outside – men’s voices. They came from the other side of the wall. Meggie slipped quickly off her bed and ran to the open window. She heard footsteps, rapid, stumbling, fleeing footsteps – and then shots. She leaned out of the window so far that she almost fell out, but she could see nothing. The noise seemed to come from the square outside the church.
‘Careful!’ whispered Fenoglio, grasping her shoulders. More shots were heard. Capricorn’s men were calling to each other. Their voices sounded angry and excited – oh, why couldn’t she make out what they were saying? She looked at Fenoglio, her eyes full of fear. Perhaps he had been able to understand some of the shouting – words, names?
‘I know what you’re thinking, but it certainly wasn’t your father,’ he soothed her. ‘He wouldn’t be crazy enough to creep into Capricorn’s house at night!’ Gently, he drew her back from the window. The voices died away. The night became still again as if nothing had happened.
Her heart beating fast, Meggie went back to bed. Fenoglio helped her up.
‘Make him kill Capricorn!’ she whispered. ‘Make the Shadow kill him.’ Her own words frightened her, but she did not take them back.
Fenoglio rubbed his forehead. ‘Yes, I suppose I must, mustn’t I?’ he murmured.
Meggie took Mo’s sweater and held it close. Doors slammed somewhere in the house; the sound of footsteps echoed up to them. Then all was silent again. It was a menacing silence. A deathly silence, thought Meggie. The word kept going through her mind.
‘Suppose the Shadow doesn’t obey you?’ she asked. ‘Like the flower maiden. Then what?’
‘We had better not even think of that,’ replied Fenoglio slowly.
‘Why, O why did I ever leave my hobbit-hole!’ said poor Mr Baggins bumping up and down on Bombur’s back.
When Elinor heard the shots she jumped up so fast that she stumbled over her blanket in the dark and fell full length in the coarse grass. It pricked her hands as she got up. ‘Oh God, oh God, they’ve caught them!’ she stammered, groping round in the night looking for the stupid dress the boy had stolen for her. It was so dark that she could scarcely see her own feet. ‘Oh, it serves them right,’ she kept repeating to herself. ‘Why didn’t they take me with them, the stupid idiots? I could have kept watch, I’d have been on the alert.’ But when she had finally found the dress and pulled it over her head with trembling fingers she suddenly stood still.
How quiet it was. Deathly quiet.
They’ve shot them, something whispered inside her. That’s why it’s so quiet. They’re dead. Dead as mutton. They’re lying bleeding in that square outside the house, both of them. Oh, my God! Now what? She sobbed. No, Elinor, no tears now. What use are tears? You must look for them, come on. She stumbled off. Was she going the right way?
‘No, you can’t come too, Elinor,’ Mortimer had said. He had looked so different in the black suit Farid had stolen for him – like one of Capricorn’s men, which of course was the point of the masquerade. The boy had even found him a shotgun.
‘Why not?’ she had replied. ‘I’ll even put that silly dress on!’
‘A woman would be conspicuous, Elinor! You’ve seen for yourself – there are never any women in the streets at night. Only the guards. Ask the boy.’
‘I don’t want to ask him! Why didn’t he steal a suit for me too? Then I could have disguised myself as a man.’