They had no answer to that.
‘Elinor, please, we need someone to stay with our things!’
‘Our things? You mean Dustfinger’s dirty rucksack?’ She was so angry she had kicked it. How clever they’d thought themselves, but their disguise had done them no good! Who had recognised them? Basta, Flatnose, the man with the limp? ‘We’ll be back by dawn, Elinor, with Meggie,’ Mo had said. Liar! She could tell from his voice that he didn’t believe it himself. Elinor stumbled over a tree root, grabbed at something prickly, and fell to her knees sobbing. Murderers! Murderers and fire-raisers. What had she to do with people like that? She should have known better when Mortimer suddenly turned up at her door, asking her to hide the book. Why hadn’t she just said no? Hadn’t she thought instantly that the matchstick-eater looked like someone with the word trouble written all over him in red? But the book – ah, the book. Of course she hadn’t been able to resist the book.
They took that stinking marten with them, she thought as she picked herself up again, but not me. And now they’re dead. ‘Let’s go to the police!’ How often she’d said that! But Mortimer had always given the same answer. ‘No, Elinor, Capricorn would get Meggie well out of the way as soon as the first police officer set foot in the village. And believe me, Basta’s knife is faster than all the police in the world.’ As he spoke she had seen that little frown above his nose, and she knew him well enough to know what it meant.
What was she going to do? She was alone, after all.
Don’t make such a fuss, Elinor, she told herself. You’ve always been alone, remember. Now, use your head. Whatever’s happened to her father, you must help the girl – get her out of this thrice-accursed village. There’s no one left but you to do it. If you don’t, she’ll end up as one of those timid maidservants who scarcely dare to raise their heads and whose only purpose is to clean and cook for their ghastly master. Perhaps she’ll be allowed to read aloud to Capricorn now and then, when he feels like it, and then, when she’s older … she’s a pretty little thing. Elinor felt sick. ‘I need a shotgun,’ she whispered, ‘or a knife, a big sharp knife. I’ll slip into Capricorn’s house with it. Who’s going to recognise me in this unspeakable dress?’ Mortimer had always thought she couldn’t cope with the world except between the covers of a book, but she’d show him!
Just how will you do that? asked the little whispering voice inside. He’s gone, Elinor, gone like your books.
She wept, so loudly that she alarmed even herself and put a hand to her mouth. A twig cracked under her feet, and the light went out behind one of the windows in Capricorn’s village. She had been right. The world was a terrible place, cruel, pitiless, dark as a bad dream. Not a good place to live in. Only in books could you find pity, comfort, happiness – and love. Books loved anyone who opened them, they gave you security and friendship and didn’t ask anything in return, they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly. Love, truth, beauty, wisdom and consolation against death. Who had said that? Someone else who loved books, she couldn’t remember the author’s name, only the words. Words are immortal – until someone comes along and burns them.
She stumbled on, getting closer all the time. Pale light seeped from Capricorn’s village, like milky water running into the night. Three of the murderers were standing among the vehicles in the car park with their heads together. ‘Talk away!’ whispered Elinor. ‘Boast, why don’t you, with your bloodstained fingers and black hearts – you’ll be sorry yet for killing them.’ Would it be better to go down straight away or wait until daylight? Both were mad ideas; she wouldn’t get beyond the third house in the village. One of the three men looked round, and for a moment Elinor thought he could see her. She scrambled back, slipped, and grabbed at a branch before she lost her footing again. Then came a rustling behind her, and a hand covered her mouth before she could look round. She wanted to scream, but the fingers were pressing so hard on her lips that she couldn’t utter a sound.
‘So here you are. Any idea how long I’ve been looking for you?’
It couldn’t be true. She had been so sure she would never hear that voice again.
‘Sorry, but I knew you’d scream! Come on!’ Mortimer took his hand away from her mouth and gestured to her to follow him. She wasn’t sure which she wanted to do most, fling her arms round his neck or hit him hard enough to hurt.
Only when the houses of Capricorn’s village were almost out of sight behind the trees did he stop. ‘Why didn’t you stay at the camp? Staggering round here in the dark – have you any idea how dangerous it is?’
This was too much. He had walked so fast that Elinor was still gasping for breath. ‘Dangerous?’ In her fury she found it difficult to keep her voice down. ‘You’re a fine one to talk about danger! I thought you were both dead! I thought they’d stabbed you or shot you or …’
He rubbed a weary hand over his face. ‘Some of them are pretty poor shots,’ he said. ‘Luckily.’
His calm tone made Elinor want to shake him. ‘Really? And what about the boy?’
‘He’s all right too, except for a scratch on his forehead. When they started firing the marten ran away and Farid went after him. That’s when a ricochet caught him. I’ve left him up at the camp.’
‘The marten? Is that all you can think about, that vicious, stinking animal? Tonight has aged me by ten years!’ Elinor’s voice was rising again, and she forced herself to lower it. ‘I put on this horrible dress,’ she hissed.’ And I could see you in my mind’s eye, lots of blood and terrible wounds … oh, must you look at me like that?’ she snapped. ‘It’s a wonder you’re not both dead. I should never have listened to you. We should have gone to the police. This time they must believe us, they—’
‘It was bad luck, Elinor, that’s all,’ Mo interrupted. ‘Honestly. It just happened to be Cockerell on guard outside the house. The others wouldn’t have recognized me.’
‘And what about tomorrow? Perhaps it’ll be Basta or Flatnose then. How’s it going to help your daughter if you’re dead?’
Mo turned his back to her. ‘But I’m not dead, Elinor,’ he said evenly. ‘And I’m going to get Meggie out of there before she has to play the leading role at an execution.’
When they reached their camp Farid was asleep. The bloodstained bandage Mortimer had tied round his head looked almost like the turban he had been wearing when he first appeared among the columns of Capricorn’s church.
‘It looks worse than it is,’ Mo whispered. ‘But if I hadn’t held him back he’d have chased half-way round the village after that marten. And if they hadn’t caught us I expect he’d have slipped into the church too, to see how Dustfinger was doing.’
Elinor only nodded and wrapped her blanket round her. It was a mild night; anywhere else it could have been called peaceful.
‘How did you shake them off?’ she asked.
Mortimer sat down beside the boy. Only now did Elinor see that he was carrying the shotgun Farid had stolen for him. He took it off his shoulder and put it down in the grass beside him. ‘They didn’t follow us for long,’ he said. ‘Why bother? They know we’ll be back. All they have to do is wait.’