‘Wrong page. Go on,’ the Magpie told her. ‘Find the page with the corner turned down.’
Wordlessly, Meggie obeyed. There was no picture on that page or the one opposite it. Without thinking she smoothed the corner out with her thumbnail. Mo hated to see dog-eared pages.
‘What’s the idea? Do you want to make it difficult for me to find the place again?’ hissed the Magpie. ‘Begin with the second paragraph, but mind you don’t read aloud. I don’t want to find the Shadow here in my room.’
‘How far shall I go? I mean, how far am I to read this evening?’
‘How should I know?’ The Magpie leaned over and rubbed her left leg. ‘How long does it usually take you to read your fairies and tin soldiers and so forth out of their stories?’
Meggie lowered her head. Poor Tinker Bell. ‘I can’t say,’ she murmured. ‘It depends. Sometimes it happens soon, sometimes not until after many pages, or not at all.’
‘Well, read the whole chapter, that ought to be enough! And you can leave out the “not at all” business.’ The Magpie rubbed her other leg. They were both wrapped in bandages that could be seen through the dark stockings she wore. ‘What are you staring at?’ she hissed at Meggie. ‘Can you read me something out of a book to do my legs good? Do you know a story with a cure for old age and death in it, little witch that you are?’
‘No,’ whispered Meggie.
‘Then don’t gawp so stupidly, look at the book. Mind you notice every word. I don’t want to hear you stumble once tonight, no stammering, no mispronunciations, understood? This time Capricorn is to get exactly what he wants. I shall see to that.’
Meggie let her eyes wander over the letters. She wasn’t taking in a word of what she read; she could think of nothing but Mo and the shots fired in the night. But she pretended to be reading, on and on, while Mortola never took her eyes off her. Finally, she raised her head and closed the book. ‘Finished,’ she said.
‘What, already?’ The Magpie looked at her suspiciously.
Meggie did not reply. She glared at Basta. He was leaning on Mortola’s armchair looking bored. ‘I’m not going to read that aloud this evening,’ she said. ‘You shot my father last night. Basta told me. I won’t read a word.’
The Magpie turned to Basta. ‘What was the idea of that?’ she asked angrily. ‘Do you think the child will read better if you break her silly heart? Tell her you missed him and get on with it.’
Basta lowered his head like a boy caught doing wrong by his mother. ‘I did tell her, well … almost,’ he growled. ‘Cockerell’s a terrible shot. Your father didn’t suffer so much as a scratch.’
Meggie closed her eyes with relief. She felt warm and wonderful. Everything was all right, or at least what wasn’t all right soon would be.
Happiness made her bold. ‘There’s something else,’ she said. Why should she be afraid? They needed her. She was the only one who could read their wretched Shadow out of the book for them, no one else could do it – except Mo, and they hadn’t caught him yet. They would never catch him now, ever.
‘What is it?’ The Magpie smoothed her sternly pinned-up hair. What had she looked like when she was Meggie’s age? Had her lips been so mean even then?
‘I shall only read if I can see Dustfinger again. Before he …’ She did not end the sentence.
Because I want to tell him we’re going to try to save him, and because I think my mother is with him, thought Meggie, but naturally she did not say so out loud. ‘I want to tell him I’m sorry,’ she replied instead. ‘After all, he helped us.’
Mortola’s mouth twisted mockingly. ‘How touching!’ she said.
I only want to see her once, close to, thought Meggie. Perhaps it isn’t her after all. Perhaps …
‘Suppose I say no?’ The Magpie was watching her like a cat playing with a young and inexperienced mouse.
But Meggie had been expecting that question. ‘Then I shall bite my tongue!’ she said. ‘I shall bite it so hard that it swells right up and I won’t be able to read aloud this evening.’
The Magpie leaned back in her chair and laughed. ‘Hear that, Basta? The child is no fool!’ Basta only grunted. But Mortola studied Meggie, almost benevolently. ‘I’ll tell you something: yes, you can have your silly little wish. But about this evening: before you read, I want you to have a good look at my photographs.’
Meggie glanced round.
‘Look at them closely. Do you see all those faces? Every one of those people made an enemy of Capricorn, and none of them was ever heard of again. The houses you see in the photographs are no longer standing either, not one of them, they have all been burnt down. Think of those photos when you’re reading, little witch. Should you stumble over the words, or get any silly notions about simply holding your tongue, then your face will soon be looking out of one of these pretty gold frames too. But if you do well we’ll let you go back to your father. Why not? Read like an angel tonight, and you’ll see him again! I’ve been told that his voice clothes every word in silk and satin, turns it into flesh and blood. And that’s how you are to read aloud, not uncertainly and stammering like that fool Darius. Do you understand?’
Meggie looked at her. ‘I understand!’ she said quietly, although she knew for certain that the Magpie was lying.
They would never let her go back to Mo. He would have to come and fetch her.
Basta’s Pride and Dustfinger’s Cunning
‘Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories.”’
‘The Two Towers’
from The Lord of the Rings
Basta was grumbling to himself non-stop as he escorted Meggie over to the church. ‘Bite her tongue, would she? Since when has the old woman fallen for that kind of thing? And who has to take this little madam to the crypt? Basta, of course! What am I supposed to be – the only male maidservant in the place?’
‘Crypt?’ Meggie had thought the prisoners were still in the nets, but she could see no trace of them when she and Basta entered the church, and Basta had impatiently pushed her past the columns.
‘Yes, the crypt,’ he spat. ‘Where we put the dead and those who soon will be. Down here. Get on with it. I’ve got better things to do today than baby-sit Miss Silvertongue.’
The stairs to which he was pointing were steep and led down into darkness. The treads were worn, and so uneven that Meggie stumbled at every other step. Down below it was so dark that at first she didn’t realise the staircase had come to an end, and she was feeling for the next step with her foot when Basta pushed her roughly forward. ‘What’s the idea now?’ she heard him say, with a curse. ‘Why’s the damn lantern out again?’ A match flared, and Basta’s face appeared out of the darkness.