‘What’s that for?’ he said, when Basta came into the cell and held out his knife. ‘You might as well put it away. If you kill me you’ll spoil Capricorn’s fun. He won’t forgive you for that in a hurry.’
Yes, he was afraid. Meggie could hear it in his voice. The words were spilling out of his mouth a little too fast.
‘Who said anything about killing?’ growled Basta as he closed the cell door behind him.
Dustfinger retreated as far as the stone coffin. ‘Ah, you were thinking of adding a few more decorations to my face?’ He was almost whispering. There was something else in his voice now – hatred, scorn, rage. ‘Don’t expect it to be so easy this time,’ he said softly. ‘I’ve learned a few useful tricks since then.’
‘Have you indeed?’ Basta was standing barely a pace away from him. ‘And what may they be? Your friend fire isn’t here to help you. You don’t even have that stinking marten.’
‘It was words I had in mind.’ Dustfinger placed a hand on the coffin. ‘You see, the fairies have taught me how to lay a curse on someone. They were sorry for my cut face, and they knew how bad I am at fighting. So … I curse you, Basta – I curse you by the bones of the dead man lying in this coffin. I’ll bet there’s no old priest in it now, but someone you disposed of. Isn’t that right?’
Basta did not answer, but his silence was more eloquent than any words.
‘Of course. An old coffin like this makes a wonderful hiding-place.’ Dustfinger caressed the cracked lid with his fingers as if trying to call the dead back to life with the warmth of his hand. ‘May his spirit haunt you, Basta!’ he said in a solemn voice. ‘May he breathe my name in your ear at every step you take, may he—’
Meggie saw Basta’s hand leap to his rabbit-foot.
‘That thing won’t help you!’ Dustfinger’s hand was still on the coffin. ‘Poor Basta! Are you feeling hot already? Do your limbs begin to tremble?’
Basta lunged at him with the knife, but Dustfinger, light on his feet as he was, avoided the blade. ‘Fire is faster than you, Basta!’ he whispered. ‘Much faster.’
‘Give me the note you handed her!’ Basta screamed in his face.
Dustfinger just put the note in his trouser pocket.
Meggie stood motionless as a doll. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother put her hand in the pocket of her dress. When she brought it out again she was holding a stone in it, a grey stone not much bigger than a bird’s egg.
Dustfinger passed his hands over the lid of the coffin, then held them out to Basta. ‘Shall I touch you?’ he asked. ‘What happens when you touch a murdered man’s coffin? Tell me. You know all about such things.’
He took another step aside, like a dancer circling round his partner.
‘I’ll cut your filthy fingers off if you try to touch me!’ yelled Basta, his face red with rage. ‘Every one of them, and your tongue into the bargain.’ He lunged with the knife again, cutting through the air with the bright blade, but Dustfinger avoided it. He was leaping around Basta faster and faster, ducking, retreating, advancing, but suddenly he found that his fearless dance had trapped him. He had only the bare wall behind him now, the grating cut off his retreat to the right – and Basta was coming straight at him.
At that moment Meggie’s mother raised her hand. The stone hit Basta on the head. Astonished, he spun round, looked at her as if trying to remember who she was, and put his hand to his bleeding face. She never knew how Dustfinger did it, but suddenly he had Basta’s knife in his hand. Basta was staring at its familiar blade in amazement, as if he couldn’t grasp the fact that the faithless thing was pointing at his own chest.
‘Well, how’s this, then?’ Dustfinger slowly brought the tip of the knife close to Basta’s stomach. ‘Do you feel how soft your flesh is? The human body is a fragile thing, and you can’t get a new one. What is it you and your friends do to cats and squirrels? Flatnose likes describing it—’
‘I don’t hunt squirrels.’ Basta’s voice cracked. He was trying not to look at the blade, now scarcely a hand’s breadth from his snow-white shirt.
‘No, so you don’t. I remember now. It doesn’t amuse you as much as it does the others.’
Basta’s face was white. All the furious red had ebbed out of it. Fear is not red. Fear is pale as a dead man’s face. ‘What are you going to do now?’ he gasped. He was breathing hard, as if he were drowning. ‘You don’t think you’ll get out of this village alive, do you? They’ll shoot you down before you’re across the square.’
‘Well, I’d prefer that to a meeting with the Shadow,’ replied Dustfinger. ‘Anyway, none of you are very good shots.’
Meggie’s mother came up to him, and mimed writing with her finger in the air. Dustfinger put his hand in his trouser pocket and gave her the note. Basta followed the paper with his eyes as if the strength of his gaze would draw it to him. Resa wrote something on it and handed it back to Dustfinger, who read what she had written, frowning. ‘Wait until dark? No, I won’t wait. But perhaps the girl had better stay here.’ He looked at Meggie. ‘Capricorn won’t harm her. After all, she’s his new Silvertongue, and some time her father will try to rescue her.’ Dustfinger put the note away again and ran the tip of the knife down Basta’s shirt buttons. They clinked as the metal touched them. ‘You go to the stairs, Resa,’ he said. ‘I’ll finish this business off, and then we’ll stroll across Capricorn’s square and walk away like an innocent pair of lovers.’
Cautiously, Resa opened the cell door. She came out past the grating and took Meggie’s hand. Her fingers were cold and rather rough, a stranger’s fingers, but her face was familiar, although it had looked younger and less anxious in the photograph.
‘Resa! We can’t take her with us!’ Dustfinger seized Basta’s arm and forced him back against the wall. ‘Her father will murder me if she gets shot out there. Now, turn round and cover her eyes, unless you want her to watch ….’ The knife was trembling in his hand. Resa looked at him, horrified, and shook her head vigorously, but Dustfinger acted as if he didn’t see her.
‘You must thrust hard, Dirtyfingers!’ hissed Basta as he pressed his hands against the stone behind him. ‘Killing isn’t easy. You have to practise to do it well.’
‘Nonsense!’ Dustfinger grabbed him by the jacket and held the knife under his chin, the way Basta had pulled his knife on Mo that time in the church. ‘Any fool can kill. It’s easy – as easy as throwing a book on the fire, breaking down a door, or frightening a child.’
Meggie began to tremble, she didn’t know why. Her mother took a step back towards the grating, but when she saw Dustfinger’s stony face she stopped. Then she turned, drew Meggie’s face against her breast, put her arms round her and held her tight. Her smell seemed familiar to Meggie, like something long forgotten; she closed her eyes and tried not to think of anything, not Dustfinger or the knife or Basta’s white face. And then, for a terrible moment, there was only one thing in the world she wanted – to see Basta lying dead on the floor, limp as a doll thrown away, an ugly, stupid toy which always seemed a little scary.