No, I won’t go, thought Dustfinger, I’ll hide here for a while. Tomorrow, there’ll be no more Basta, that’s one good thing. And perhaps I shall go away from here, go away for ever … No. He knew he wouldn’t do that. Not while the book was here.
The fairy had flown over to the window, and was peering curiously out at the alley.
‘Forget it. Stay here,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Please. Believe me, it’s no place for you out there.’
She looked at him quizzically, then folded her wings and knelt on the windowsill. And there she stayed, as if she couldn’t decide between the hot room and the strange freedom on offer outside.
The Right Words
This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life.
Robert Louis Stevenson,
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Fenoglio wrote and wrote, but the number of pages he had hidden under the mattress was no greater. He kept taking them out, fiddling with them, tearing up one and adding another. ‘No, no, no!’ Meggie heard him muttering crossly to himself. ‘No, that’s not it yet.’
‘It will be dark in a few hours,’ she said at last, anxiously. ‘Suppose you don’t finish it in time?’
‘I have finished!’ he snapped, irritated. ‘I’ve finished a dozen times already, but I’m not happy with it.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper before he went on. ‘There are so many questions. Suppose the Shadow turns on you or me or the prisoners once he’s killed Capricorn? And is killing Capricorn really the only solution? What’s going to happen to his men afterwards? What do I do with them?’
‘What do you think? The Shadow must kill them all!’ Meggie whispered back. ‘How else are we ever going to get home or rescue my mother?’
Fenoglio did not like this reply. ‘Good heavens, what a heartless creature you are!’ he whispered. ‘Kill them all! Haven’t you seen how young some of them are?’ He shook his head. ‘No! I’m not a mass murderer, I’m a writer! I’m sure I can think of some less bloodthirsty ending.’ And he began writing again … and crossing words out … and writing more, while outside the sun sank lower and lower until its rays were gilding the hilltops.
Every time steps came along the corridor Fenoglio hid what he had been writing under his mattress, but no one came in to see what the old man kept scribbling on his blank sheets of paper. For Basta was down in the crypt.
The bored guards on duty outside their door had several visitors that afternoon. Men had obviously come into the village from Capricorn’s outposts to watch the execution. Putting her ear to the door, Meggie eavesdropped on their conversations. They laughed a lot, and their voices sounded excited. They were all looking forward to the night’s spectacle. Not one of them seemed to feel sorry for Basta. Far from it. Knowing Capricorn’s former favourite was to die that night just seemed to add to their fun. Of course they discussed Meggie too. That little witch, they called her, that little madam the enchantress, and not all of them seemed to be convinced of her powers.
As for Basta’s executioner, Meggie learned no more than what Fenoglio had already told her and what she remembered of the passage that the Magpie had made her read. It wasn’t much, but she heard the fear in those voices outside the door, and the horrified awe that overcame them all at the mention of his name, which was not a real name at all. Only those who, like Capricorn himself, had come out of Fenoglio’s book had ever seen the Shadow – but they had all obviously heard about him – and they painted pictures in the darkest tones of the way he would deal with the prisoners. There were evidently several opinions about how he actually killed his victims, but the suggestions Meggie overheard grew more and more horrible the closer evening came, until she could bear it no longer. She went to sit by the window with her hands over her ears.
It was six o’clock – the church clock was just beginning to strike – when Fenoglio suddenly put down his pen and looked over what he had written with a satisfied expression. ‘Got it!’ he whispered. ‘Yes, that’s it. That’s how it will be. It will turn out splendidly.’ Impatiently, he beckoned Meggie over and gave her the paper.
‘Read it!’ he whispered, glancing nervously at the door. Out in the corridor, Flatnose was just boasting of the way he had poisoned a farmer’s stocks of olive oil.
‘Is that all?’ Meggie looked incredulously at the single sheet of paper.
‘Yes, that’s all. No more is needed. As you’ll see. The words just have to be the right ones. Go on, read it!’
Meggie did as he said.
The men outside were laughing, and she found it difficult to concentrate on Fenoglio’s words. Finally, she did it. But she had no sooner finished the first sentence than the men outside fell utterly silent. The Magpie’s voice echoed down the corridor. ‘What’s all this? A coffee morning?’
Fenoglio hastily took the precious paper and put it under his mattress. He was just readjusting the bedspread when the Magpie opened the door.
‘Your supper,’ she told Meggie, putting a steaming plate down on the table.
‘What about me?’ enquired Fenoglio in a deliberately cheerful voice. The mattress had slipped slightly when he hid the paper under it, and he had to lean against his bed to hide it from Mortola, but luckily she had no eyes for him. Meggie felt sure she thought he was merely a liar, and very likely it annoyed her that Capricorn did not agree with her.
‘Eat it all up!’ she ordered Meggie. ‘And then get changed. Your clothes look dreadful, and stiff with dirt too.’ She signalled to the maid who had come with her, a young girl at most only four or five years older than Meggie herself. The rumours of Meggie’s supposed powers of witchcraft had obviously reached this girl’s ears too. A snow-white dress was draped over her arm, and she avoided looking at Meggie as she made her way past her to hang it in the wardrobe.
‘I don’t want that dress!’ Meggie spat at the Magpie. ‘I want to wear this.’ She took Mo’s sweater off her bed, but Mortola snatched it from her hands.
‘Nonsense. Do you want Capricorn to think we’ve been keeping you in a sack? You’ll wear that dress. Either you put it on yourself or we’ll put it on you. I shall come for you as soon as darkness falls. Wash your face and comb your hair. You look like a stray cat.’
The maid scurried past Meggie again, looking as frightened as if any contact might burn her. The Magpie impatiently pushed the girl out into the corridor.
‘Lock the door,’ she told Flatnose. ‘And send your friends away. You’re supposed to be on guard.’
Flatnose strolled casually towards the door. Meggie saw him make a face at the Magpie behind her back before he closed it.
She went over to the dress and touched the white material. ‘White!’ she murmured. ‘I don’t like white things. Death has white hounds. Mo once told me a story about them.’
‘Ah yes, the white, red-eyed hounds of Death.’ Fenoglio came over to her. ‘Ghosts are white too, and the thirst of the ancient gods for blood was quenched only by white sacrificial animals, as if the gods liked the taste of innocence best. Oh no, no!’ he added quickly, seeing Meggie’s terrified eyes. ‘No, believe me, Capricorn certainly wasn’t thinking of any such thing when he sent you that dress. How would he know such stories? White is the colour of the beginning too, and of the end. And,’ he added, lowering his voice, ‘remember, both you and I, Meggie, are going to make sure it is Capricorn’s end and not ours.’ Gently, he led Meggie to the table and made her sit down. The smell of roast meat rose to her nostrils.