Inkheart, p.13
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       Inkheart, p.13

         Part #1 of Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke
 

  forward. ‘Get a move on!’ he growled. ‘And bow next time you pass him, understand?’

  ‘Bow!’ Elinor was going to stand her ground, but Mo quickly made her go on. ‘Who on earth can take this circus seriously?’ she said crossly.

  ‘If you don’t keep your mouth shut,’ Mo told her in a whisper, ‘you’ll soon find out how seriously they take everything here.’

  Elinor looked at the scratch on his forehead, and said no more.

  Capricorn’s church contained no pews of the kind Meggie had seen in other churches, just two long wooden tables with benches, one on each side of the nave. There were dirty plates on them, coffee-stained mugs, wooden boards where cheese rinds lay, knives, sausages, empty bread baskets. Several women were busy clearing all this away. Without pausing in their work, they glanced up as Cockerell and Flatnose passed with their three captives. Meggie thought they looked like birds hunching their heads down beneath their wings in case someone might strike them off.

  Not only were the pews missing from Capricorn’s church, but the altar had gone too. In its place there now stood a massive chair, upholstered in red and with designs carved thickly into its legs and arms. Leading up to it were four shallow steps, carpeted in black. Meggie wasn’t sure why she counted them. And crouching on the top step just a few paces away from the chair, his sandy hair ruffled as usual, was Dustfinger, apparently lost in thought as he let Gwin run up and down his outstretched arm.

  As Meggie came down the nave with Mo and Elinor, Dustfinger raised his head briefly. Gwin climbed up to his shoulder, baring his tiny teeth, sharp as splinters of glass, as if he had recognised the hatred in Meggie’s eyes as they rested on his master. Now she knew why the marten had horns, and why his twin was shown on the page of a book. She understood it all: why Dustfinger thought the world too fast and too noisy, why he didn’t understand cars and often looked as if he were somewhere else entirely. But she felt none of the sympathy Mo had shown for him. His scarred face only reminded her of the lies he had told to lure her out to him, like the Pied Piper in the story. He had played with her as he played with fire, with his brightly coloured juggler’s balls: come along, Meggie; this way, Meggie; trust me, Meggie. She felt like running up the steps and striking his lying mouth.

  Dustfinger must have guessed her thoughts, and was avoiding her eyes. Not looking at Mo and Elinor either, he put a hand in his trouser pocket and brought out a matchbox. As if unconscious of what he was doing, he took out a match, lit it, and gazed at the flame, lost in thought as he passed a finger through it almost caressingly until it singed his fingertip.

  Meggie looked away. She didn’t want to see him; she wanted to forget he was there. To her left, at the foot of the steps, stood two drum-shaped iron braziers, rusty brown, with wood heaped up in them: pale, freshly cut firewood, log upon log. Meggie was just wondering what the wood was for when more steps echoed through the church. Basta was walking down the nave with a petrol can in his hand. Reluctantly, Cockerell and Flatnose gave way as he pushed past them.

  ‘Ah, so Dustfinger’s playing with his best friend again,’ he sneered as he climbed the shallow steps. Dustfinger lowered the matchstick and straightened up. ‘Here you are,’ said Basta, putting the petrol can down at his feet. ‘Another toy for you. Light us a fire; that’s what you like best.’

  Dustfinger threw away the spent match and lit another. ‘So how about you?’ he asked quietly, raising the burning match to Basta’s face. ‘Still afraid of fire, are you?’

  Basta knocked the match out of his hand.

  ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that!’ said Dustfinger. ‘It means bad luck. You know how quickly fire takes offence.’

  For a moment Meggie thought Basta was going to hit him, and she wasn’t the only one. All eyes were turned on the two men. But something seemed to protect Dustfinger. Perhaps it really was the fire.

  ‘You’re lucky I’ve only just cleaned my knife!’ spat Basta. ‘One more trick like that, though, and I’ll carve a few nice new patterns on your ugly face. And make myself a fur collar out of your marten.’

  Gwin uttered a soft, threatening snarl, and wrapped himself around Dustfinger’s neck. Dustfinger bent, picked up the spent matches, and put them back in the matchbox. ‘Yes, I’m sure you’d enjoy that,’ he said, still without looking at Basta. ‘But why would I want to light a fire just now, I wonder?’

  ‘Never you mind that, just do it. Then the rest of us can keep it fed. But make sure it’s a large, hungry blaze, not one of the tame little fires you like to play with.’

  Dustfinger picked up the petrol can and slowly climbed down the steps. He was standing beside the rusty braziers when the church door opened for the second time.

  Meggie turned at the sound of the heavy wooden door creaking, and saw Capricorn appear between the red columns. He glanced at his statue, as if to make sure it still gave a flattering enough image of him, then strode quickly down the nave. He was wearing a suit as red as the church walls. Only the shirt beneath it was black, and he had a black feather in his buttonhole. A good half-dozen of his men were following him, like crows following a peacock. Their steps seemed to echo all the way up to the ceiling. Meggie reached for Mo’s hand.

  ‘Ah, so our guests are here already,’ said Capricorn, stopping in front of them. ‘Did you sleep well, Silvertongue?’ He had curiously soft, curving, almost feminine lips, and as he spoke he kept running his little finger along them as if to retrace them. They were as bloodless as the rest of his face. ‘Wasn’t it kind of me to reunite you with your little girl last night? At first I meant it to be a surprise present for you today, but then I thought: Capricorn, you really owe that child something for bringing you what you’ve wanted so long, and of her own free will too.’

  He was holding Inkheart. Meggie saw Mo’s gaze linger on the book. Capricorn was a tall man, but Mo stood a few centimetres taller, which obviously displeased Capricorn. He stood very upright, as if that would make up for the difference.

  ‘Let Elinor take my daughter home with her,’ said Mo. ‘Let them go and I’ll try to read you back again. I’ll read you anything you like, but let the two of them go first.’

  What was he talking about? Meggie looked at him in horror. ‘No!’ she said. ‘No, Mo, I don’t want to go away.’ But no one was paying any attention to her.

  ‘Let them go?’ Capricorn turned to his men. ‘Hear that? Why would I do such a crazy thing now they’re here?’ The men laughed. But Capricorn turned to Mo again. ‘You know as well as I do that from now on you’ll do whatever I want,’ he said. ‘Now that she’s here, I’m sure you won’t go on denying us a demonstration of your skill.’

  Mo squeezed Meggie’s hand so hard her fingers hurt.

  ‘And as for this book,’ said Capricorn, looking at Inkheart with as much dislike as if it had bitten his pale fingers, ‘this extremely tedious, stupid and extraordinarily long-winded book, I can assure you I have no intention of ever again letting myself be spellbound by its story. All those troublesome creatures, those fluttering fairies with their twittering voices, the swarming, scrabbling stupid beasts everywhere, the smell of fur and dung. All through this book you kept falling over bandy-legged brownies in the market-place, and when you went hunting the giants scared the game away with their huge feet. Talking trees, whispering pools – was there anything in that world that didn’t have the power of speech? And then those endless muddy roads to the nearest town, if town it could be called – that pack of well-born, finely dressed princes in their castles, those stinking peasants, so poor there was nothing to be got out of them, and the vagabonds and beggars with vermin dropping from their hair – oh, how sick I was of them all.’

  Capricorn made a sign, and one of his men brought in a large cardboard box. You could see from the way he carried it that it was very heavy. The man put it down on the grey flagstones in front of Capricorn with a sigh of relief. Capricorn handed Cockerell, who was standing beside him, the book that Mo had kept from him so
long, and bent to open the box. It was full to the brim with books.

  ‘It’s been a great deal of trouble finding them all,’ said Capricorn as he reached into the box and took out two books. ‘They may look different, but the contents are the same. The fact that the story has been printed in several languages made the search even more difficult – a particularly useless feature of this world, all those different languages. It was simpler in our own world, wasn’t it, Dustfinger?’

  Dustfinger made no answer. He stood there holding the petrol can and staring at the box. Capricorn strolled over to him and threw the two books into one of the braziers.

  ‘What are you doing?’ Dustfinger tried to snatch them out, but Basta pushed him away.

  ‘Those stay where they are,’ he growled.

  Dustfinger stepped back, holding the can behind his back, but Basta grabbed it from his hands. ‘Why, it looks as if our fire-eater would rather let someone else light the fire today,’ he mocked.

  Dustfinger cast him a glance full of hatred. Face rigid, he watched Capricorn’s men throw more and more books into the braziers. In the end there were over two dozen copies of Inkheart on the piles of firewood, their pages crumpled, their bindings wrenched apart like broken wings.

  ‘You know what always got me down back in our old world, Dustfinger?’ asked Capricorn as he took the petrol can from Basta’s hand. ‘The difficulty of lighting a fire. It wasn’t any problem to you, of course – you could even talk to fire, very likely one of those grunting brownies taught you how – but it was a tedious business for the rest of us. The wood was always damp, or the wind blew down the chimney. I know you long for the good old days, you miss all your chirping, fluttering friends, but I don’t shed a tear for any of that. This world is far better equipped than the one we had to be content with for so many long years.’

  Dustfinger did not seem to hear a word of what Capricorn was saying. He just stared at the petrol and smelled its fumes as it was poured over the books. The pages sucked it up as greedily as if they were welcoming their own end.

  ‘Where did they all come from?’ he stammered. ‘You always told me there was just one copy left – Silvertongue’s.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I told you all kinds of things.’ Capricorn put his hand in his trouser pocket. ‘You’re such a gullible fellow, Dustfinger. It’s fun to tell you lies. Your innocence always amazed me – after all, you lie very cleverly yourself. But you’re too ready to believe what you want to believe, that’s your trouble. Well, you can safely believe me now. These,’ he said, tapping the petrol-soaked pile of books, ‘these really are the last copies of our ink-black home. It’s taken Basta and the others years to track them all down in shabby lending libraries and second-hand bookshops.’

  Dustfinger looked longingly at the books, as a man dying of thirst might look at the last glass of water in existence. ‘But you can’t burn them!’ he stammered. ‘You promised to send me back if I found you Silvertongue’s book. That’s why I told you where he was. That’s why I brought you his daughter.’

  Capricorn merely shrugged his shoulders and took the book from Cockerell’s hands – the book with the green binding that Meggie and Elinor had been so eager to give him, the book for which he had made his men bring Mo all this way, the book for which Dustfinger had betrayed them all.

  ‘I’d have promised to fetch you down the moon from the sky if that would have done me any good,’ said Capricorn, looking bored as he flung the last copy of Inkheart on to the pile with its companions. ‘I’m happy to make promises, especially promises I can’t keep.’ Then he took a lighter from his trouser pocket. Dustfinger was about to leap at him to strike it out of his hand, but Capricorn made a sign to Flatnose.

  Flatnose was so tall and broad that beside him Dustfinger looked almost like a child, and indeed the man took hold of him as if he were a badly behaved little boy. Fur bristling, Gwin leaped off Dustfinger’s shoulder. One of Capricorn’s men kicked out as the marten shot past his legs, but Gwin got away and disappeared behind one of the red columns. The other men stood there laughing at Dustfinger’s desperate attempts to free himself from Flatnose’s iron grasp. Flatnose thought it greatly amusing to let Dustfinger get just close enough to the petrol-soaked books to touch the top volumes with his fingers.

  Such cruelty made Meggie feel quite ill. Mo took a step forward as if to go to Dustfinger’s aid, but Basta barred his way, a knife in his hand. Its blade, narrow and shiny, looked terribly sharp held against Mo’s throat.

  Elinor screamed, and directed a torrent of curses at Basta that Meggie had never even heard before, but she herself could not move. She just stood there, in numb and silent terror, staring at the blade against Mo’s bare throat.

  ‘Let me have one of them, Capricorn, just one!’ Mo cried, and only then did Meggie realize that he had not been going to help Dustfinger but was thinking of the book. ‘I promise never to read aloud a line of it that mentions your name.’

  ‘You! Are you mad? You’re the last man I’d give one to,’ replied Capricorn. ‘One day you might be unable to control your tongue after all, and I’d land back in that ridiculous story again. No thank you very much!’

  ‘Nonsense!’ cried Mo. ‘I couldn’t read you back into it even if I wanted to – how often do I have to tell you that? Ask Dustfinger. I’ve explained it to him a thousand times. I myself don’t understand how or when these things happen. For heaven’s sake, believe me!’

  With a chilling smirk, Capricorn answered merely with a smile, ‘I’m sorry, Silvertongue, but the fact is I don’t believe anyone. You ought to know that by now. We’re all liars when it serves our purpose.’ And with those words he flicked the lighter and held its flame to one of the books. The petrol had made the pages almost transparent, like parchment, and they flared up at once. Even the stout cloth bindings caught light immediately, the linen turning black as the flames licked round it.

  When the third book caught fire, Dustfinger kicked Flatnose’s kneecap so hard that the man screamed with pain and let go of him. Nimble as his marten, Dustfinger wriggled out of those powerful arms and stumbled towards the braziers. Without hesitating, he reached into the flames, but the book he plucked out was already burning like a torch. Dustfinger dropped it on the flagstone floor and reached into the fire again, with his other hand this time, but by now Flatnose had already grasped him by the collar and was shaking him so roughly that Dustfinger was gasping for air.

  ‘Look at the lunatic!’ sneered Basta as Dustfinger stared at his hands, his face distorted with pain. ‘Can anyone explain what he wants so much? Maybe those ugly brownie girls who thought him so wonderful when he juggled in the market-place? Or the filthy hovels where he lived with other vagabonds? They smelled even worse than the rucksack he carries that stinking marten around in.’

  Capricorn’s men laughed as the books slowly crumpled into ashes. There was still a smell of petrol in the church, such an acrid smell that it made Meggie cough. Mo put a protective arm around her shoulders, as if Basta had threatened her rather than him. But who, thought Meggie, who could protect Mo?

  Elinor was looking at his neck as anxiously as if she feared Basta’s knife might have left its mark there after all. ‘These fellows are out of their minds!’ she whispered. ‘You know what they say: when people start burning books they’ll soon burn human beings. Suppose we’re the next to find ourselves on a pyre?’

  Basta seemed to hear what she was saying. He caught her eye, and with a twisted smile kissed the blade of his knife.

  Elinor fell silent, as if she had swallowed her tongue.

  Capricorn had taken a snow-white handkerchief from his pocket. He cleaned his fingers with it carefully, as if to wipe even the memory of Inkheart off his hands. ‘Well, that’s done at last,’ he remarked with a final nod at the smoking embers. Then, with a satisfied expression on his face, he climbed up to the chair that had replaced the altar. Capricorn sank into its red upholstery with a deep sigh.

  ‘Dustf
inger, go to the kitchen and get Mortola to put something on your burns,’ he ordered in a commanding voice. ‘You’ll be no use for anything without the use of your hands.’

  Dustfinger looked at Mo for a long time before obeying this order. Head bent, with unsteady steps, he walked past Capricorn’s men. The way to the church porch seemed endless. For a moment, as Dustfinger opened the door, bright sunlight shone into the building. As it closed behind him, Meggie, Mo and Elinor were left with Capricorn and his men – and the reek of petrol and burnt paper.

  ‘And now let’s come to you, Silvertongue!’ said Capricorn, stretching his legs. He was wearing black boots. He examined the gleaming leather with satisfaction, removing a scrap of charred paper from the toe of one boot. ‘Until now I, Basta and the unfortunate Dustfinger are the only evidence that you can conjure up extraordinary magic out of little black letters. You yourself don’t seem to trust your gift, if we’re to believe you – which, as I was saying just now, I don’t. On the contrary, I think you are a master of your craft, and I can scarcely wait for you to give us another taste of your skill at long last. Cockerell!’ His voice sounded irritated. ‘Where’s the reader? Didn’t I tell you to bring him?’

  Cockerell stroked his beard nervously. ‘He was still busy choosing books,’ he stammered. ‘I’ll fetch him right away.’ And with a hasty bow, he limped off.

  Capricorn began drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair. ‘No doubt you’ve already heard that I had to resort to the services of another reader while you were hiding from me so successfully,’ he said to Mo. ‘I found him by chance five years ago, but he’s useless. You only have to look at Flatnose’s face.’ Flatnose lowered his head, embarrassed, when all eyes turned on him. ‘And Cockerell owes him his limp too. As for the girls he read out of his books for me, you should have seen them. It’d give a man nightmares just to see their faces. Finally, I had him read to me only when I felt like amusing myself with his monsters, and I actually found my men in this world of yours, just by recruiting them when they were still young. There’s a lonely boy who likes to play with fire in almost every village.’ Smiling, he inspected his fingernails like a satisfied cat examining its claws. ‘I’ve told the reader to find the right books for you. At least the poor fool does know his way around books – he lives in them like one of those pale worms that feed on paper.’

  ‘And just what am I supposed to read out of his books for you?’ Mo’s voice sounded bitter. ‘A few monsters, a couple of human horrors to suit the present company?’ He nodded in Basta’s direction.

  ‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer, don’t put ideas into his head!’ whispered Elinor, with a nervous glance at Capricorn.

  But Capricorn merely flicked some ash off his trousers and smiled. ‘No, thank you, Silvertongue,’ he said. ‘I have enough men, and as for the monsters, well, perhaps we’ll get around to them later. For the time being we’re doing very well with Basta’s trained dogs and the local snakes. They make excellent and deadly presents. No, Silvertongue, all I want today as a test of your skill is gold. I have such an appetite for money! My men do their best to squeeze all that can be squeezed out of this part of the country.’ At these words from Capricorn, Basta lovingly stroked his knife. ‘But it’s never enough for all the wonderful things that can be bought in this infinitely wide world of yours. A world of so many pages, Silvertongue, so very many pages, and I want to write my name on every one of them.’

  ‘In what kind of letters?’ enquired Mo. ‘Is Basta going to scratch them into the paper with his knife?’

  ‘Oh, Basta can’t write,’ replied Capricorn calmly. ‘None of my men can either read or write. I’ve forbidden them to learn. But I got one of my maidservants to teach me how to read. And when there’s something to be written the reader does it. So you see, my dear Silvertongue, I can make my mark on your world.’

  The church door opened as if Cockerell had just been waiting for this cue. The man he ushered in had his head hunched between his shoulders and looked neither right nor left as he followed Cockerell. He was small and thin, and couldn’t be any older than Mo, but his back was bent like an old man’s, and his arms and legs moved awkwardly, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with them. He kept nervously adjusting his glasses. The frame was held together over the bridge of his nose with sticky tape, as if it had often been broken. He was clutching a number of books to his chest with his left arm, as if they offered some protection from the stares turned on him from all sides and the sinister place to which he had been brought.

  When the two men eventually reached the foot of the steps Cockerell dug an elbow into his companion’s ribs, and the man bowed so hurriedly that two of the books fell to the floor. He was quick to snatch them up, and bowed to Capricorn a second time.

  ‘We’ve been waiting for you, Darius!’ said Capricorn. ‘I trust you’ve found what I wanted.’

  ‘Oh yes, yes!’ stammered Darius, casting an almost reverent glance at Mo. ‘Is that him?’

  ‘Yes. Show him the books you’ve chosen.’

 
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