A Fragile Little Thing
When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her, he said, ‘Who is Tinker Bell?’
‘O Peter,’ she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.
‘There are such a lot of them,’ he said. ‘I expect she is no more.’
I expect he was right, for fairies don’t live long, but they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.
Capricorn’s men were looking for Dustfinger in the wrong place. He hadn’t left the village. He hadn’t even tried. Dustfinger was in Basta’s house.
It was in an alley just behind Capricorn’s yard, surrounded by empty houses inhabited only by cats and rats. Basta did not want neighbours. Indeed, he wanted no other company but Capricorn’s. Dustfinger knew Basta would have slept on the threshold of Capricorn’s room if he had been allowed to, but none of the men lived in the main house. They stood guard there, that was all. They ate in the church and slept in one or other of the many abandoned houses in the village, that was the rule and it could not be broken. Most of the men kept moving round, living in one house and going on to another when the roof began to leak. Only Basta had lived in the same place ever since they came to the village. Dustfinger suspected he had chosen that house because St John’s wort grew beside the door, and there is no other plant with such a reputation for keeping away evil – leaving aside the evil in Basta’s own heart.
Like most of the buildings in the village the house was built of grey stone, with black-painted shutters that Basta usually kept closed and on which he had painted the signs he believed would keep bad luck away, just like the yellow flowers of St John’s wort. Sometimes Dustfinger thought Basta’s constant fear of curses and sudden disaster probably arose from his terror of the darkness within himself, which made him assume that the rest of the world must be exactly the same.
Dustfinger had been lucky to make it as far as Basta’s house. He had run into a whole crowd of Capricorn’s men almost as soon as he stumbled out of the church. Of course they had recognised him instantly, Basta had long ago made that a certainty. But their surprise had given Dustfinger just enough time to disappear down one of the alleys. Fortunately, he knew every nook and cranny of this accursed village. He had meant to make for the car park and go on into the hills, but then he’d thought of Basta’s empty house. He had forced his way through holes in walls, crawled through cellars, and ducked down behind the parapets of balconies that were no longer used. When it came to hiding, even Gwin had nothing to teach Dustfinger. A strange sense of curiosity had always driven him to explore the hidden, forgotten corners of this and any other place, and all that knowledge had now come in useful.
He was out of breath when he finally reached Basta’s house. Basta was probably the only man in Capricorn’s village who locked his front door, but the lock was no great obstacle to Dustfinger. He let himself in and hid in the attic until his heart had slowed down, even though the wooden planks were so rotten that he feared he would go through the floor at every step. Downstairs, he found enough food in Basta’s kitchen to quell the hunger that had been gnawing like a worm at the walls of his stomach. Neither he nor Resa had been given anything to eat since they were put in those nets, so it was doubly satisfying to fill his belly with Basta’s food.
When he had partially satisfied his hunger he opened one of the shutters just a crack, so that he could have warning in good time of any approaching footsteps, but the only sound that met his ears was a tinkling, so faint that he could hardly hear it. Only then did he remember the fairy that Meggie had read into this world that normally had no fairies.
He found her in Basta’s bedroom. The room contained nothing but a bed and a chest of drawers on which a number of bricks lay carefully arranged side by side, all of them covered with soot. They said in the village that whenever Capricorn had a house set on fire Basta took away a brick or stone, even though he feared fire at other times, and clearly that story was true. On one of the bricks stood a glass jug with a faint light coming from it, not much brighter than a glow-worm would have made. The fairy was lying at the bottom of the glass, crumpled up like a butterfly just out of the cocoon. Basta had put a plate over the top of the jug, but the fragile little thing didn’t look as if she had the strength to fly.
When Dustfinger took the plate away the fairy didn’t even raise her head. Dustfinger put his hand into her glass prison and carefully took the little creature out. Her limbs were so delicate he was afraid his fingers would break them. The fairies he knew had looked different, smaller but stronger, with fair blue skin and four shimmering wings. This one had skin the same colour as a human, a very pale human, and her wings were more like butterfly than dragonfly wings. But would she like the same things to eat as the fairies he knew? It was worth a try. She looked half dead.
Dustfinger took the pillow off Basta’s bed and put it on the kitchen table, which was scrubbed clean. (Everything in Basta’s house was scrubbed clean, as spotless as his snow-white shirt.) He laid the fairy on the pillow, then filled a dish with milk and put it on the table beside her. She immediately opened her eyes – so in having a good sense of smell and a taste for milk she seemed no different from the fairies he knew. He dipped his finger in the milk and let a white drop fall on her lips. She licked it up like a hungry little cat. Dustfinger trickled drop after drop into her mouth until she sat up and feebly beat her wings. Her face had a little colour in it now, but although he spoke three fairy languages he understood not a word of what she finally said in her faint tinkling voice.
‘What a pity!’ he whispered, as she spread her wings and flew, rather unsteadily, up to the ceiling. ‘That means I can’t ask you if you could make me invisible, or so small that you could carry me to Capricorn’s festivities.’
The fairy looked down at him, tinkled something that he couldn’t understand, and settled on the side of the kitchen cupboard.
Dustfinger sat down on the only chair by Basta’s kitchen table and looked up at her. ‘All the same,’ he said, ‘it’s good to see someone like you again. If only the fire in this world had more of a sense of humour, and a troll or a glass man would look out of the trees now and then – well, perhaps I could get used to the rest of it after all, the noise, the speed, the crowds – and the way the nights are so much lighter …’
He sat there in his worst enemy’s kitchen for quite a long time, watching the fairy flying round the room investigating everything, for fairies are naturally inquisitive, and this one was obviously no exception. Every now and then she stopped to sip her milk, and he filled the dish a second time. Once or twice, footsteps approached, but each time they passed by the house. What a good thing Basta had no friends. The air that came in through the window was sultry; it made Dustfinger drowsy. The narrow strip of sky showing above the houses would stay light for many hours yet – long enough for him to make up his mind whether or not to go to Capricorn’s festivities.
Why should he go? He could get hold of the book later, some time when all the excitement in the village had died down and everything was back to normal. And what about Resa? What was going to happen to her? The Shadow would come for her. There was nothing to be done about that, not by anyone, not even Silvertongue if he were really so mad as to try. But Silvertongue didn’t know about her, or about his daughter, and at least there was no need to worry about Meggie – not now that she was Capricorn’s favourite toy. Capricorn wouldn’t let the Shadow hurt her.