Inkheart, p.23
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       Inkheart, p.23

         Part #1 of Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke
 

  thickly there that you could hardly take a step without feeling their shoots twine round your legs, and from the top step you could see the sea, far away yet looking very close.

  Meggie opened the book of poems. She had to narrow her eyes because the sun was shining in her face so brightly, and before beginning to read she looked over her shoulder to make quite sure Mo hadn’t followed her down. She didn’t want him to catch her at what she was planning to do. She was ashamed of it, but the temptation was just too great.

  When she was perfectly sure no one was coming she took a deep breath, cleared her throat – and began. She shaped every word with her lips the way she had seen Mo do it, almost tenderly, as if every letter were a musical note and any words spoken without love were a discord in the melody. But she soon realised that if she paid too much attention to every separate word the sentence didn’t sound right any more, and the pictures behind it were lost if she concentrated on the sound alone and not the sense. It was difficult. So difficult. And the sun was making her drowsy, until at last she closed the book and held her face up to its warm rays. It was silly of her to try anyway. Very silly …

  Later that afternoon Pippo, Paula and Rico came back and Meggie walked round the village with them. They bought things in the shop where Mo had gone in the morning, sat on a wall on the outskirts of the village, watched ants carrying pine needles and flower seeds over the rough stones, and counted the ships sailing by on the distant sea.

  A second day passed like this. Now and then Meggie wondered where Dustfinger could be, and whether Farid was still with him, how Elinor was, and if she was beginning to wonder where they were.

  There was no answer to any of these questions, and Meggie didn’t find out what Fenoglio was doing behind his study door either. ‘Chewing his pencil,’ Paula told her when she had managed to hide under her grandfather’s desk. ‘Just chewing the end of his pencil and walking up and down.’

  ‘Mo, when are we going to Elinor’s house?’ Meggie asked on their second night, when she sensed that, yet again, he couldn’t sleep. She perched on the edge of his bed. The bed creaked just like hers.

  ‘Soon,’ he said. ‘Go to sleep again now, OK?’

  ‘Do you miss her – my mother, I mean?’ Meggie herself didn’t know why she asked that question out of the blue. All of a sudden it was there, on the tip of her tongue, and had to be spoken aloud.

  It was a long time before Mo answered.

  ‘Sometimes,’ he said at last. ‘In the morning, at midday, in the evening, at night. Almost all the time.’

  Meggie felt jealousy digging its little claws into her heart. She knew that feeling; she felt it every time Mo had a new girlfriend. But how could she be jealous of her own mother? ‘Tell me about her,’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t mean the made-up stories you used to tell.’

  She used to search her books for a suitable mother, but there were hardly any mothers in her favourite stories. Tom Sawyer? No mother. Huck Finn? Ditto. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys? Not a mother in sight. Jim Button was motherless too – and all you found in fairy tales were wicked stepmothers, heartless, jealous stepmothers … the list could go on for ever. That had often comforted Meggie in the past. It didn’t seem particularly unusual not to have a mother, or at least not in the books she liked best.

  ‘What do you want me to tell you?’ Mo looked at the window. The tom cats were fighting outside again. Their yowls sounded like babies crying. ‘You look more like her than me, I’m glad to say. She laughs like you, and she chews a strand of hair while she’s reading exactly the way you do. She’s shortsighted, but too vain to wear glasses—’

  ‘I can understand that.’ Meggie sat down beside him. His arm hardly hurt him now. The bite from Basta’s dog had almost healed up, but there would always be a scar, pale as the scar Basta’s knife had left nine years ago.

  ‘What do you mean? I like glasses,’ said Mo.

  ‘I don’t. Go on.’

  ‘She loves stones, flat, smooth stones that fit comfortably into the hand. She always has one or two of them in her pocket, and she weights down books with them, specially paperbacks. She doesn’t like the covers to stick up in the air, but you were always taking the stones away and rolling them over the wooden floor.’

  ‘And then she was cross.’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know. She tickled your fat little neck until you let go of the stones.’ Mo turned round to look at her. ‘Do you really not miss her, Meggie?’

  ‘I don’t know. Well, only if I’m feeling angry with you.’

  ‘About a dozen times a day, then?’

  ‘Don’t be so silly!’ Meggie dug her elbow into his ribs.

  They both listened for any sounds in the night. The window was open just a crack, and it was quiet outside. The tom cats had fallen silent, probably licking their wounds For a moment Meggie thought she could hear the sea breaking in the distance, but perhaps it was only the traffic on the nearby motorway.

  ‘Where do you think Dustfinger has gone?’ The darkness enveloped them like a soft cloth. I’ll miss this warmth, she thought, I really will.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Mo. His voice sounded absent. ‘A long way off, I hope, but I’m not sure.’

  Nor was Meggie. ‘Do you think that boy’s still with him?’ Farid. She liked his name.

  ‘I expect so. He was running after Dustfinger like a dog.’

  ‘He likes Dustfinger. Do you think Dustfinger likes him?’

  Mo shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know who or what Dustfinger likes.’

  Meggie rested her head against his chest, the way she always used to at home when he was telling her a story. ‘He still wants the book, doesn’t he?’ she whispered. ‘Basta will make mincemeat of him if he catches him. He must have got a new knife by now.’

  Someone was coming along the narrow alley. A door opened and was closed again, a dog barked.

  ‘If it wasn’t for you,’ said Mo, ‘I’d go back too.’

  30

  Talkative Pippo

  ‘We were told there was a village nearby that might enjoy our skills.’

  ‘You were misinformed,’ Buttercup told him. ‘There is no one, not for many miles.’

  ‘Then there will be no one to hear you scream,’ the Sicilian said, and he jumped with frightening agility toward her face.

  William Goldman,

  The Princess Bride

  Next morning, at around ten o’clock, Elinor rang Fenoglio’s house. Meggie was sitting upstairs with Mo, watching him remove a book from its mildewed binding as carefully as if he were releasing an injured animal from a trap.

  ‘Mortimer!’ Fenoglio called up the stairs. ‘Come down at once, will you? There’s some hysterical female on the phone, shouting in my ear. I can’t make head nor tail of it. Says she’s a friend of yours.’

  Mo put the book to one side, minus its cover, and went downstairs. Fenoglio handed him the receiver with a gloomy expression on his face. Elinor’s voice was pouring rage and despair into the peaceful study. Mo himself had some difficulty in making sense of what she was saying.

  ‘But how did he know … oh, of course …’ Meggie heard him saying. ‘Burnt? All of them?’ He passed a hand over his face and glanced in Meggie’s direction, but she had a feeling that he was looking straight through her. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Yes, of course, though I’m afraid they won’t believe a word of it. And the police down here aren’t responsible for what’s happened to your books … yes, of course. Naturally … I’ll pick you up. Yes.’

  Then he rang off.

  Fenoglio could not conceal his curiosity. He scented a new story in the offing. ‘What was all that about?’ he asked impatiently as Mo just stood there staring at the telephone. Rico was clinging to Fenoglio’s back like a little monkey. It was Saturday, but the other two children hadn’t turned up yet. ‘What’s the matter, Mortimer? Aren’t you talking to us any more? Look at your father, Meggie! Standing there like a stuffed dummy!’

&n
bsp; ‘That was Elinor,’ said Mo. ‘Meggie’s mother’s aunt. I told you about her. Capricorn’s men broke into her house. They swept the books off the shelves all over the house and trampled on them, and the books in Elinor’s library …’ He hesitated for a moment before going on. ‘Her most valuable books – they took them out into the garden and burned them. All she found in her library was a dead rooster.’

  Fenoglio let his grandson slide off his back. ‘Rico, go and look for the kittens,’ he said. ‘This is not for your ears.’ Rico protested, but his grandfather pushed him out of the room and closed the door after him. ‘What makes you so sure Capricorn is behind this?’ he asked, turning back to Mo.

  ‘Who else would do such a thing? Anyway, as far as I remember the red rooster is his emblem. Forgotten your own story, have you?’

  Fenoglio was looking downcast. ‘No, no, I remember that,’ he murmured.

  ‘What about Elinor?’ Meggie’s heart beat anxiously as she waited for Mo’s answer.

  ‘Luckily, she wasn’t back yet when it happened. She took her time going home. Thank heavens. But you can imagine how she feels. Her finest books – my God!’

  Fenoglio was picking up some toy soldiers from his rug with trembling fingers. ‘Yes, Capricorn likes fire,’ he said huskily. ‘If it was really his doing, your friend can think herself fortunate he didn’t burn her too.’

  ‘I’ll tell her.’ Mo picked up a matchbox lying on Fenoglio’s writing-desk, opened it and slowly closed it again.

  ‘What about my books?’ Meggie hardly dared to ask. ‘My book-box – I hid it under the bed.’

  Mo put the matchbox back on the desk. ‘That’s the one piece of good news,’ he said. ‘No one touched your book-box. It’s still under the bed. Elinor looked.’

  Meggie took a deep breath. Was it Basta who had set fire to the books? No, Basta was afraid of fire; she remembered only too well how Dustfinger had mocked him for it. But in the last resort it made no difference which of the Black Jackets it had been. Elinor’s treasures were gone, and not even Mo could bring them back.

  ‘Elinor is flying back down here. I’m to pick her up at the airport,’ said Mo. ‘She’s taken it into her head to set the police on Capricorn. I told her I didn’t think she’d have much luck. Even if she had evidence that it was his men who broke into her house, how can she prove he gave the order? But you know Elinor.’

  Meggie nodded gloomily. Oh yes, she knew Elinor – and she understood her rage only too well.

  But Fenoglio laughed. ‘The police! You don’t get anywhere by setting the police on Capricorn!’ he said. ‘He makes his own rules, his own laws—’

  ‘Oh, be quiet! This isn’t a book you’re writing!’ Mo interrupted him. ‘Very likely it’s amusing to invent a character like Capricorn, but believe you me, it’s not in the least bit funny to cross his path. I’m off to the airport. I’ll leave Meggie here. Look after her.’

  And he was out of the door before Meggie could protest. She ran after him, but Paula and Pippo met her coming down the street. They caught hold of her, trying to make her play with them. They wanted her to be a cannibal, a witch, a six-armed monster – the characters from their grandfather’s stories with which they populated their games. By the time Meggie had finally managed to shake off their little hands, Mo had long since gone. The place where he had parked the hire-car was empty, and Meggie stood in the square, alone with the war memorial and a few old men gazing out to sea with their hands in their trouser pockets.

  Restlessly, she wandered over to the steps in front of the memorial and sat down. She didn’t feel like chasing Fenoglio’s grandchildren round his house or playing hide-and-seek with them. She just wanted to sit there and wait for Mo’s return. The hot wind that had blown through the village overnight had left fine sand on all the windowsills. The air was cooler than it had been for the last few days. The sky above the sea was still clear, but grey clouds were forming above the hills, and every time the sun disappeared behind them a shadow fell over the village rooftops, making Meggie shiver.

  A cat stalked towards her, stiff-legged, tail erect. It was a skinny little creature with ticks in its grey fur, and ribs showing through its thin coat like stripes. Meggie enticed it over, speaking to it gently, until it put its head under her arm and purred, asking to be petted. It didn’t look as if it belonged to anyone: no collar, not an ounce of fat on it, nothing to suggest it had a caring owner. Meggie scratched its ears and chin and stroked its back as she looked down the road that went round a sharp bend as it left the village and disappeared from sight beyond the houses.

  How far was it to the nearest airport? Meggie propped her chin on her hands. The clouds above her were massing more and more ominously. They loomed overhead, close-packed and grey with rain.

  The cat rubbed against her knee, and as Meggie’s fingers stroked its dirty fur an awful thought suddenly occurred to her. Suppose Elinor’s house wasn’t all Dustfinger had told Capricorn about? Suppose he’d told him where she and Mo had been living too? Would they find a heap of ashes waiting for them at the farmhouse? No, she wouldn’t think about that. He doesn’t know, she whispered. He has no idea! Dustfinger didn’t tell him. She kept whispering it like a magic charm.

  After a while she felt a raindrop on her hand, then another. She looked up at the sky. There wasn’t so much as a speck of blue to be seen. How quickly the nearby sea could make the weather change! All right, I’ll just wait in the apartment, she thought. We might even have some milk there for the cat. The poor thing weighed no more than a small damp towel. Meggie was afraid of breaking something when she picked it up.

  It was pitch dark in the apartment. Mo had closed the shutters that morning so that the sun wouldn’t make it too hot. Meggie was shivering and wet from the fine drizzle when she entered the cool bedroom. She put the cat down on her unmade bed, slipped on Mo’s sweater, which was much too big for her, and went into the kitchen. The milk carton was almost empty, but if she diluted what was left with a little warm water there was just enough for a saucerful.

  The cat jumped down so quickly when Meggie put the milk on the floor beside the bed that it almost fell over its own paws. Rain was falling harder and harder outside. Meggie listened to it drumming on the paving stones. She went over to the window and opened the shutters. The narrow strip of sky visible between the rooftops was as dark as if the sun were about to set. Meggie went over to Mo’s bed and sat down on it. The cat was still licking the saucer, its little tongue greedily rasping over the flower-patterned china, hoping for a last delicious drop. Meggie heard footsteps out in the street, and then a knock at the door. Who was that? Mo couldn’t possibly be back yet. Or had he forgotten something? The cat had disappeared, probably to hide under the bed. ‘Who’s there?’ called Meggie.

  ‘Meggie!’ a child’s voice called back. Of course, Paula or Pippo. Yes, it must be Pippo. They probably wanted to go looking for ants with her again, even though it was raining. A grey paw emerged from under the bed and patted her shoelace. Meggie went out into the tiny hall. ‘I don’t have time to play just now!’ she called through the closed door.

  ‘Please, Meggie!’ begged Pippo’s voice.

  Sighing, Meggie opened the door – and found herself looking straight into Basta’s face.

  ‘Well, well, who do we have here?’ he asked in a menacingly soft voice, his fingers around Pippo’s thin little neck. ‘What do you say to that, Flatnose? She doesn’t have time to play.’ Basta pushed Meggie roughly aside and came through the door with Pippo, followed, of course, by Flatnose, whose broad shoulders would hardly fit through the doorway.

  ‘Let go of him!’ Meggie snapped at Basta, although her voice shook. ‘You’re hurting him.’

  ‘Am I indeed?’ Basta looked down at Pippo’s pale face. ‘Not very nice of me, is it, especially since he showed us where you were hiding?’ With these last words he squeezed Pippo’s neck even more firmly.

  ‘Do you know how long we lay in that filthy hove
l?’ he snarled at Meggie.

  She took a step backwards.

  ‘A very long time!’ Basta emphasised the word, putting his foxy face so close to Meggie’s she could see herself reflected in his eyes. ‘Isn’t that right, Flatnose?’

  ‘Those damn rats almost nibbled my toes off,’ growled the giant. ‘Wouldn’t I just love to twist this little witch’s nose until it’s pointing the wrong way round!’

  ‘Later, maybe.’ Basta pushed Meggie into the dark bedroom. ‘Where’s your father?’ he asked. ‘This little lad,’ he said, letting go of Pippo’s throat and prodding him in the back so roughly that he stumbled against Meggie, ‘told us he’s gone out. Gone out where?’

  ‘Shopping.’ Meggie could hardly breathe, she was so frightened. ‘How did you find us?’ she whispered, but instantly knew the answer. Dustfinger. Of course. Who else? But why had he betrayed them this time?

  ‘Dustfinger,’ replied Basta, as if he had read her thoughts. ‘It’s just too easy to find that fellow. There aren’t so many crazy jugglers in this world who go around breathing fire and who have a tame marten, not to mention one with horns. So we only had to ask around a bit, and once we were on Dustfinger’s trail we were also on your father’s, of course. We arrived just in time to see you drive away from the hotel car park, and we’d certainly have paid you a visit before now if this fool,’ he said, digging his elbow so hard into Flatnose’s stomach he let out a grunt of pain, ‘hadn’t lost sight of you on our way here. We searched almost a dozen villages, wore our voices out asking questions, ran ourselves off our feet, until we finally got here, and one of those old fellows who spend all day staring out to sea remembered Dustfinger’s scarred face. Where is he? Is he – er – out shopping too?’ asked Basta, with a scornful twist of his mouth.

  Meggie shook her head. ‘He went away,’ she replied tonelessly. ‘Ages ago.’ So Dustfinger hadn’t given them away after all. Not this time. And he’d slipped through Basta’s fingers. Meggie could almost have smiled.

  ‘You burned Elinor’s books!’ she said, holding Pippo close. He was still speechless with terror. ‘You’ll be sorry you did that.’

  ‘Oh, will we?’ Basta smiled unpleasantly. ‘I wonder why? As far as I know Cockerell had a lot of fun with those books. But that’s enough talk. We don’t have for ever. That boy,’ he said, pointing at Pippo, who retreated as if Basta’s forefinger were a knife, ‘has told us some strange stories about a grandfather who writes books, and a book in which your father took a particular interest.’

  Meggie swallowed. Stupid Pippo. Stupid, talkative little Pippo.

  ‘Lost your tongue?’ asked Basta. ‘Shall I squeeze the boy’s skinny neck again?’

  Pippo began crying and buried his face in Mo’s sweater. Meggie stroked his curly head comfortingly.

  ‘His grandfather doesn’t have the book you’re thinking of any more,’ she told Basta. ‘You and your friends stole it long ago!’ Her voice sounded hoarse with hatred, and her own thoughts sickened her. She wanted to kick Basta, hit him, stab him in the stomach with his own knife, the brand-new knife he wore stuck in his belt.

  ‘Stole it. Just fancy!’ Basta grinned at Flatnose. ‘I think we’d
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