Inkheart, p.37
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       Inkheart, p.37

         Part #1 of Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke
 

  Elinor tightened her lips. Quick, Elinor, quick, she told herself, think of a good answer. And suddenly her tongue was working again.

  ‘Why ask me?’ she said to Capricorn, who was still sitting in his chair as pale as if he had been left in the wash too long, or the sun burning down out in the square had bleached him. ‘You should know! He’s dead. Your men shot him – and the boy.’ Look at him, Elinor, she thought. Look him straight in the face the way you used to look at your father when he caught you with the wrong book. A few tears would come in useful too. Go on, just think of your books, all your burnt books! Think of last night, the fear, the despair – and if none of that works pinch yourself!

  Capricorn was gazing at her thoughtfully.

  ‘There!’ Cockerell called to him. ‘I knew we’d hit him!’

  Elinor was still looking at Capricorn, a blurred sight through the veil of her false tears.

  ‘We’ll see,’ he said slowly. ‘My men are searching the hills for an escaped prisoner. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where they should look for the two bodies?’

  ‘I buried them, and I’m certainly not saying where.’ Elinor felt a tear running down her nose. By all the letters of the alphabet, Elinor, she told herself, there’s a great actress lost in you!

  ‘Buried them. Well, well.’ Capricorn played with the rings on his left hand. He was wearing three at once, and he adjusted them, frowning, as if they had got out of line without his permission.

  ‘That’s why I went to the police,’ said Elinor. ‘To avenge them. And my books.’

  Cockerell laughed. ‘You didn’t have to bury those books, right? They burned beautifully, like the very best firewood, and their pages – ah, they quivered like pale little fingers.’ He raised his hands and imitated the movement. Elinor hit him in the face with all her might, and she was quite strong. Blood flowed from Cockerell’s nose. He wiped it away with his hand, and looked at it as if he were surprised to see something so red coming out of him. ‘Look at that!’ he said, showing Capricorn his bloodstained fingers. ‘You wait, she’ll give the Shadow more trouble than Basta.’

  When he led her away Elinor walked beside him with her head held high. Only when she saw the steep stairway disappearing into a bottomless black hole did her courage forsake her for a moment. The crypt, of course, now she remembered – the place where they put the condemned. That was what it smelled like, anyway, damp and mouldy, just as one imagines the odour of death.

  At first Elinor couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw Basta’s wiry figure pressed up against the iron bars. She had thought she must have misheard Cockerell’s last remark, but sure enough, there was Basta shut up in the cage like an animal, with all the fear and hopelessness of a trapped beast in his eyes. Even the sight of Elinor did not cheer him. He looked straight through her and Cockerell, as if they were two of the ghosts he feared so much.

  ‘What’s he doing here?’ asked Elinor. ‘Have you taken to locking each other up now?’

  Cockerell shrugged. ‘Shall I tell her?’ he asked Basta, who responded with nothing but the same glazed stare. ‘First he let Silvertongue escape, and now Dustfinger. That’s a sure way to ruin your chances with the boss, even if you do think you’re his personal pet. And of course it’s years since you managed to light a decent fire.’ He smiled maliciously at Basta.

  Signora Loredan, it’s time to think about making a will, Elinor told herself as Cockerell pushed her further into the crypt. If Capricorn intends to kill his most faithful dog, he’s certainly not going to stop short at you.

  ‘Hey, you might look a bit more cheerful!’ Cockerell told Basta as he fished a bunch of keys out of his jacket pocket. ‘You’ve got two women for company now!’

  Basta pressed his forehead against the grating. ‘Haven’t you caught the fire-eater yet?’ he croaked. His voice sounded as if he had shouted himself hoarse.

  ‘No, but the fat woman here says we did hit Silvertongue. Says he’s dead as a doornail. Sounds like I winged him after all. Well, I have had plenty of practice on the cats.’

  Behind the door with the grating that Cockerell unlocked for her something moved. A woman was sitting there in the dark, leaning back against something that looked suspiciously like a stone coffin. Elinor could not see the woman’s face, but then the figure straightened up.

  ‘Company for you, Resa!’ called Cockerell as he pushed Elinor through the open door. ‘You two can have a nice chat!’

  He was laughing uproariously as he trudged away.

  As for Elinor, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She would rather have seen her favourite niece again anywhere but here.

  51

  A Narrow Escape

  ‘I don’t know what it is,’ answered Fiver wretchedly. ‘There isn’t any danger here, at this moment. But it’s coming – it’s coming.’

  Richard Adams,

  Watership Down

  Farid heard footsteps just as they were making the torches.

  The torches had to be larger and more solid than those Dustfinger used in his shows, for they would have to burn a long time. Farid had already cut Silvertongue’s hair with the knife Dustfinger had given him. It was short and bristly now, and at least that made Silvertongue look slightly different. Farid had also shown him the kind of earth he needed to rub on his face to darken his skin. No one must recognise them, not this time—but then he heard the footsteps.

  And voices: one was speaking angrily, the other laughed and called out. But they were still too far away for him to make out the words.

  Silvertongue picked up the torches, and Gwin snapped at Farid’s fingers as the boy pushed him roughly into the rucksack. ‘Where can we hide, Farid? Where?’ whispered Silvertongue.

  ‘I know a place.’ Farid threw the rucksack over his shoulder and led Silvertongue over to the charred wall. He climbed over the blackened stones where there had once been a window, jumped down in the dry grass behind the wall, and crouched low. The metal cover he now pushed aside had buckled in the fire and was overgrown by alyssum. Its tiny white flowers rambled like snow over the opening. Farid had found the metal plate while he was exploring during the long hours he spent here with the silent and ever-reserved Dustfinger. He had jumped off the wall and noticed the hollow sound. Perhaps the space under it had originally been a store for perishable foodstuffs, but at least once before it had also been used as a hiding-place.

  Silvertongue recoiled when he touched the skeleton in the darkness. It looked small, scarcely big enough for an adult, and it lay there in the cramped, underground space quite peacefully, curled up as if it had lain down to sleep. Perhaps it was because it looked so peaceful that Farid was not afraid of it. If there was a ghost down here, he felt sure, it could be only a sad, pale creature, nothing to be frightened of.

  There wasn’t much space when Farid drew the metal cover across again. Silvertongue was tall, almost too tall to hide here, but it was reassuring to have him close, even if his heart was beating just as fast as Farid’s own. The boy could feel every single beat of it as they crouched there side by side, listening for sounds from above.

  The voices were coming closer, but it was difficult to make them out, for the ground muffled them as if they came from another world. Once a foot stepped on the metal cover, and Farid dug his fingers into Silvertongue’s arm and wouldn’t let him go until all was quiet again overhead. It was a long time before they dared trust the silence, such a very long time that once or twice Farid turned his head because he imagined that the skeleton had moved.

  When Silvertongue cautiously raised the metal cover and looked out it did seem as if they really had gone. Only the grasshoppers were chirping tirelessly, and a bird, startled, flew up from the charred wall.

  Whoever it was had taken everything with them: the blankets, the sweater that Farid had curled up in at night like a snail going into its shell, even the bloodstained bandages that Silvertongue had tied round the boy’s forehead the night they’d been s
hot at.

  ‘Never mind,’ said Silvertongue, as they stood beside their cold fireplace. ‘We shan’t be needing our blankets tonight.’ Then he ran his fingers through Farid’s dark hair. ‘What would I do without you, master scout, rabbit-catcher, finder of hiding-places?’ he asked.

  Farid stared at his bare toes and smiled.

  52

  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.

  J.M. Barrie,

  Peter Pan

  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.

  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.

  53

  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
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