‘What do you think it is?’ she asked.
‘Looks like veal. Why?’
Meggie pushed the plate away. ‘I’m not hungry,’ she murmured.
Fenoglio looked at her with great sympathy. ‘You know, Meggie,’ he said, ‘I think I ought to write a story about you next, you and how you save us all with your voice. It would be a very exciting story.’
‘But would it have a happy ending?’ Meggie looked out of the window. Only another hour, two at the most, and it would be dark. Suppose Mo came then? Suppose he made another attempt to free her? He didn’t know what she and Fenoglio were planning. Suppose they shot at him again? Suppose they really did hit him last time? Meggie put her arms on the table and buried her face in them.
She felt Fenoglio stroking her hair. ‘It will be all right, Meggie!’ he whispered. ‘Believe me, my stories always have happy endings. If I want them to.’
‘That dress has very tight sleeves!’ she whispered. ‘How am I to hide the paper in my sleeve without the Magpie noticing?’
‘I’ll distract her attention. Don’t worry.’
‘But later? They’ll all see me take the paper out.’
‘Nonsense, you’ll manage.’ Fenoglio put a hand under her chin. ‘It will be all right, Meggie!’ he said again, wiping a tear off her cheek with his forefinger. ‘You’re not alone, even if you may feel you are tonight. I’m here, and Dustfinger is somewhere out there. I know him as well as I know myself, and I can assure you he’ll come, if only to see the book and perhaps get it back – and then there’s your father, and that boy who was looking at you in such a lovesick way back in the square in front of the memorial when I first saw Dustfinger.’
‘Oh, stop it!’ Meggie dug her elbow into his stomach, but she had to laugh, even though her tears were still blurring everything, the table, her hands, Fenoglio’s wrinkled face. She felt as if she had used up enough tears for a whole lifetime in these last few weeks.
‘Why? He’s a good-looking lad. I’d put in a good word for him with your father like a shot.’
‘I said stop it!’
‘Only if you’ll eat something.’ Fenoglio pushed the plate back towards her. ‘And that lady, your friend, what was her name?’
‘Elinor.’ Meggie put an olive in her mouth and chewed it until she could feel the stone between her teeth.
‘Exactly. Perhaps she’s out there too, with your father. Good Lord, when I come to think of it we’re almost in the majority.’
Meggie almost choked on the olive stone. Fenoglio smiled, pleased with himself. Mo always raised his eyebrows when he had managed to make her laugh, looking both surprised and serious as if he had no idea what she was laughing at. Meggie could see his face before her so clearly that she might almost have reached out to touch it.
‘You’ll soon see your father again!’ whispered Fenoglio. ‘And then you can tell him how you found your mother along the way and rescued her from Capricorn. That’s quite something, don’t you think?’
Meggie just nodded.
The dress felt scratchy on her throat and arms. It was more like a dress for a grown-up than a child, and it was rather too big for Meggie. When she took a few steps in it she trod on the hem. The sleeves fitted tightly, but she had no difficulty in pushing the sheet of paper up inside one of them; it was as thin as a dragonfly’s leg. She practised a couple of times – pushing it in, pulling it out. Finally, she left it up her sleeve. It crackled slightly when she moved her hands or raised that arm.
The moon hung pale in the sky above the church tower, and the night wore a veil of moonlight when the Magpie came back to fetch Meggie.
‘You haven’t combed your hair!’ she said crossly. This time she had another maid with her, a stocky woman with a red face and red hands who was obviously not afraid of Meggie’s powers of witchcraft. She pulled the comb so brutally through Meggie’s hair that she almost cried out.
‘Shoes!’ said the Magpie, seeing Meggie’s bare toes peep out from under the hem of the dress. ‘Didn’t anyone think of shoes?’
‘She could put those on.’ The maid pointed to Meggie’s worn-out trainers. ‘The dress is long enough, no one will see them. Anyway, don’t witches always go barefoot?’
The Magpie gave her such a look that her voice died on her lips.
‘Exactly!’ cried Fenoglio, who had been watching the two women get Meggie ready, with an ironic expression on his face. ‘That’s what they do, they always go barefoot. Do I have to change for this festive occasion too? What does one wear to attend an execution? I imagine I shall be sitting beside Capricorn?’
The Magpie stuck her chin out. It was a small, soft chin and looked as if it came from another, gentler face.
‘You can stay as you are,’ she said, putting a slide set with pearls in Meggie’s hair. ‘Prisoners don’t have to change.’ The mockery dripped from her voice like poison.
‘What do you mean, prisoners?’ Fenoglio pushed his chair back.
‘I mean prisoners, what else?’ The Magpie stepped back and looked critically at Meggie. ‘That will have to do,’ she said. ‘It’s odd, but with her hair back she reminds me of someone.’ Meggie quickly lowered her head, and before the Magpie could give this observation more thought Fenoglio diverted her attention.
‘But I am no ordinary prisoner, madam, let’s get that quite clear!’ he roared. ‘Without me none of this would exist at all, your own less than delightful self included.’
The Magpie cast him a final contemptuous glance and took hold of Meggie’s arm, luckily not the one with Fenoglio’s precious words inside its sleeve. ‘The guard will come for you when it’s time,’ she said to Fenoglio, leading Meggie to the door.
‘Remember what your father told you!’ called Fenoglio when Meggie was out in the passage. ‘Words don’t come to life until you can taste them on your tongue.’
The Magpie nudged Meggie in the back. ‘Get moving!’ she said, and closed the door behind them.
‘And then – I have it!’ said Bagheera, leaping up. ‘Go thou down quickly to the men’s huts in the valley, and take some of the Red Flower which they grow there, so that when the time comes thou mayest have even a stronger friend than I or Baloo or those of the Pack that love thee. Get the Red Flower.’
By Red Flower Bagheera meant fire, only no creature in the jungle will call fire by its proper name. Every beast lives in deadly fear of it.
The Jungle Book
They set out when dusk fell over the hills, leaving Gwin at their camp. After what had happened on their last night-time visit to Capricorn’s village, even Farid could see it was better that way. Silvertongue made him go first. He knew nothing of the boy’s fear of ghosts and other nocturnal terrors. Farid had hidden it from him more successfully than he had from Dustfinger. Silvertongue did not mock his fear of the dark either, as Dustfinger had, and curiously enough that made the fear less, shrinking it as only daylight usually did. But now Farid was going to use something else that Dustfinger thought him too foolhardy to handle.