‘I buried them, and I’m certainly not saying where.’ Elinor felt a tear running down her nose. By all the letters of the alphabet, Elinor, she told herself, there’s a great actress lost in you!
‘Buried them. Well, well.’ Capricorn played with the rings on his left hand. He was wearing three at once, and he adjusted them, frowning, as if they had got out of line without his permission.
‘That’s why I went to the police,’ said Elinor. ‘To avenge them. And my books.’
Cockerell laughed. ‘You didn’t have to bury those books, right? They burned beautifully, like the very best firewood, and their pages – ah, they quivered like pale little fingers.’ He raised his hands and imitated the movement. Elinor hit him in the face with all her might, and she was quite strong. Blood flowed from Cockerell’s nose. He wiped it away with his hand, and looked at it as if he were surprised to see something so red coming out of him. ‘Look at that!’ he said, showing Capricorn his bloodstained fingers. ‘You wait, she’ll give the Shadow more trouble than Basta.’
When he led her away Elinor walked beside him with her head held high. Only when she saw the steep stairway disappearing into a bottomless black hole did her courage forsake her for a moment. The crypt, of course, now she remembered – the place where they put the condemned. That was what it smelled like, anyway, damp and mouldy, just as one imagines the odour of death.
At first Elinor couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw Basta’s wiry figure pressed up against the iron bars. She had thought she must have misheard Cockerell’s last remark, but sure enough, there was Basta shut up in the cage like an animal, with all the fear and hopelessness of a trapped beast in his eyes. Even the sight of Elinor did not cheer him. He looked straight through her and Cockerell, as if they were two of the ghosts he feared so much.
‘What’s he doing here?’ asked Elinor. ‘Have you taken to locking each other up now?’
Cockerell shrugged. ‘Shall I tell her?’ he asked Basta, who responded with nothing but the same glazed stare. ‘First he let Silvertongue escape, and now Dustfinger. That’s a sure way to ruin your chances with the boss, even if you do think you’re his personal pet. And of course it’s years since you managed to light a decent fire.’ He smiled maliciously at Basta.
Signora Loredan, it’s time to think about making a will, Elinor told herself as Cockerell pushed her further into the crypt. If Capricorn intends to kill his most faithful dog, he’s certainly not going to stop short at you.
‘Hey, you might look a bit more cheerful!’ Cockerell told Basta as he fished a bunch of keys out of his jacket pocket. ‘You’ve got two women for company now!’
Basta pressed his forehead against the grating. ‘Haven’t you caught the fire-eater yet?’ he croaked. His voice sounded as if he had shouted himself hoarse.
‘No, but the fat woman here says we did hit Silvertongue. Says he’s dead as a doornail. Sounds like I winged him after all. Well, I have had plenty of practice on the cats.’
Behind the door with the grating that Cockerell unlocked for her something moved. A woman was sitting there in the dark, leaning back against something that looked suspiciously like a stone coffin. Elinor could not see the woman’s face, but then the figure straightened up.
‘Company for you, Resa!’ called Cockerell as he pushed Elinor through the open door. ‘You two can have a nice chat!’
He was laughing uproariously as he trudged away.
As for Elinor, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She would rather have seen her favourite niece again anywhere but here.
A Narrow Escape
‘I don’t know what it is,’ answered Fiver wretchedly. ‘There isn’t any danger here, at this moment. But it’s coming – it’s coming.’
Farid heard footsteps just as they were making the torches.
The torches had to be larger and more solid than those Dustfinger used in his shows, for they would have to burn a long time. Farid had already cut Silvertongue’s hair with the knife Dustfinger had given him. It was short and bristly now, and at least that made Silvertongue look slightly different. Farid had also shown him the kind of earth he needed to rub on his face to darken his skin. No one must recognise them, not this time—but then he heard the footsteps.
And voices: one was speaking angrily, the other laughed and called out. But they were still too far away for him to make out the words.
Silvertongue picked up the torches, and Gwin snapped at Farid’s fingers as the boy pushed him roughly into the rucksack. ‘Where can we hide, Farid? Where?’ whispered Silvertongue.
‘I know a place.’ Farid threw the rucksack over his shoulder and led Silvertongue over to the charred wall. He climbed over the blackened stones where there had once been a window, jumped down in the dry grass behind the wall, and crouched low. The metal cover he now pushed aside had buckled in the fire and was overgrown by alyssum. Its tiny white flowers rambled like snow over the opening. Farid had found the metal plate while he was exploring during the long hours he spent here with the silent and ever-reserved Dustfinger. He had jumped off the wall and noticed the hollow sound. Perhaps the space under it had originally been a store for perishable foodstuffs, but at least once before it had also been used as a hiding-place.
Silvertongue recoiled when he touched the skeleton in the darkness. It looked small, scarcely big enough for an adult, and it lay there in the cramped, underground space quite peacefully, curled up as if it had lain down to sleep. Perhaps it was because it looked so peaceful that Farid was not afraid of it. If there was a ghost down here, he felt sure, it could be only a sad, pale creature, nothing to be frightened of.
There wasn’t much space when Farid drew the metal cover across again. Silvertongue was tall, almost too tall to hide here, but it was reassuring to have him close, even if his heart was beating just as fast as Farid’s own. The boy could feel every single beat of it as they crouched there side by side, listening for sounds from above.
The voices were coming closer, but it was difficult to make them out, for the ground muffled them as if they came from another world. Once a foot stepped on the metal cover, and Farid dug his fingers into Silvertongue’s arm and wouldn’t let him go until all was quiet again overhead. It was a long time before they dared trust the silence, such a very long time that once or twice Farid turned his head because he imagined that the skeleton had moved.
When Silvertongue cautiously raised the metal cover and looked out it did seem as if they really had gone. Only the grasshoppers were chirping tirelessly, and a bird, startled, flew up from the charred wall.
Whoever it was had taken everything with them: the blankets, the sweater that Farid had curled up in at night like a snail going into its shell, even the bloodstained bandages that Silvertongue had tied round the boy’s forehead the night they’d been shot at.
‘Never mind,’ said Silvertongue, as they stood beside their cold fireplace. ‘We shan’t be needing our blankets tonight.’ Then he ran his fingers through Farid’s dark hair. ‘What would I do without you, master scout, rabbit-catcher, finder of hiding-places?’ he asked.
Farid stared at his bare toes and smiled.