Inkheart, p.38
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       Inkheart, p.38

         Part #1 of Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke

  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.

  ‘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.

  Rudyard Kipling,

  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.

  Fire. They had decided to start a fire next to Capricorn’s house, so that it would not spread to the hills so fast but would threaten the only thing Capricorn cared about: his treasure chambers.

  This time, the village was not quiet and empty as it had been on the previous nights, but was buzzing like a wasps’ nest. Four armed guards were patrolling the car park, and cars were parked all round the wire-netting fence that surrounded the former football field. Their headlights bathed the area in glaring light, as if a bright cloth had been spread out in the dark.

  ‘So that’s where the show’s to take place,’ whispered Silvertongue as they approached the houses. ‘Poor Meggie.’

  A kind of rostrum had been set up in the middle of this arena with a cage opposite it, perhaps for the monster that Silvertongue’s daughter was to read out of the book, perhaps for the prisoners. On the left-hand side of the field, facing away from the wire fence and the village, stood long wooden benches. A few of the Black Jackets were already sitting on them, like ravens that had found a bright, warm place to spend the night.

  They had thought of stealing into the village from the car park. With so many strangers around, perhaps no one would notice them. But then they decided on a longer, darker route. Farid went ahead again, using every tree as cover, always keeping uphill from the houses until they were above the uninhabited part of the village that looked as if a giant had trodden on it. Even there, more guards than usual were patrolling. They had to keep retreating into the shadows of a gateway, ducking down behind a wall, or climbing through a window and waiting with bated breath for the guard to pass by. Luckily there were many dark corners in Capricorn’s village, and the guards strolled through the alleys with an air of boredom, as men do when they are sure there is no threat of danger.

  Farid had Dustfinger’s rucksack with him, containing all they would need to kindle a quick, hot fire. Silvertongue carried the wood they had collected, in case the flames did not find enough to feed on among the stones. And there were Capricorn’s stocks of petrol too. Farid still had the smell of it in his nostrils from the night when they had shut him up in the sheds. The tanks were seldom guarded, but they might not need them. It was a windless night; the flames would burn quietly and steadily. Farid remembered Dustfinger’s warning: ‘Never light a fire when it’s windy. The wind will catch hold of it and it will forget you, it will fan the flames until they leap up and bite you and lick the skin from your bones.’ But the wind was sleeping tonight, and still air filled the alleyways, like warm water in a bucket.

  They had hoped to find the square outside Capricorn’s house empty, but as they were about to enter it from one of the alleys they saw half a dozen men standing outside the church.

  ‘Why are they still here?’ whispered Farid, as Silvertongue drew him into the shadow of a doorway. ‘The festivities are about to begin.’

  Two maids came out of Capricorn’s house, each with a pile of plates. They were taking them to the church. Obviously the successful execution was to be celebrated there later. When the maids passed the guards the men whistled at them. One of the women almost dropped the crockery when one of them tried to lift her skirt with the barrel of his gun. It was the man who had recognised Silvertongue when they slipped into the village the night before. Farid touched his forehead, which was still bloodstained, and cursed him with the worst curses he knew. Why did he have to be the one there? But even if they got past him unrecognised, how were they going to start a fire while the others were still standing around?

  ‘Take it easy!’ Silvertongue whispered to him. ‘They’ll soon go away. The first thing we have to do is make sure Meggie really has left the house.’

  Farid nodded, looking at the big house. There were still lights on in two of the windows, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. ‘I’ll sneak down to the football field and see if she’s there,’ he whispered to Silvertongue. Perhaps they had already fetched Dustfinger from the church, perhaps he was in the cage they had set up, and he could whisper to him that they had brought his best friend, fire, to save him.

  Night shadows filled many of the nooks and crannies among the houses, despite
the brightness of the street lights. Farid was about to set off, using their shelter, when the door of Capricorn’s house opened. The old woman with a face like a vulture came out. She was dragging Silvertongue’s daughter along behind her. Farid hardly recognised Meggie in the long white dress she wore. After them, gun in hand, came the man who had shot at him and Silvertongue. He looked round, took a bunch of keys from his pocket, locked the door, and beckoned to one of the men standing outside the church. He was obviously telling him to guard the house. So only one man would stay on guard when the others went off to see the show.

  Farid felt Silvertongue tensing every muscle – as if he wanted to run to his daughter, who looked almost as pale as her dress. The boy clutched his arm in a warning gesture, but Silvertongue seemed to have forgotten him. He had eyes only for the girl. One reckless step and he would be out of the shelter of the shadows.

  ‘Don’t!’ Farid pulled him back in alarm – as best he could, for he scarcely came up to Silvertongue’s shoulder. Luckily, Capricorn’s men were watching the old woman as she crossed the square, walking so fast the girl stumbled over the hem of her dress a couple of times.

  ‘She looks so pale!’ whispered Silvertongue. ‘Heavens, do you see how frightened she is? Perhaps she’ll look this way, perhaps we can give her a signal—’

  ‘No!’ Farid was still hanging on to him with both hands. ‘We must start the fire. That’s the only way we can help her. Please, Silvertongue – they’ll see you!’

  ‘Don’t keep calling me Silvertongue. It gets on my nerves.’

  The old woman disappeared among the houses with Meggie. Flatnose was following them, lumbering like a bear in a black suit, and at last the other men left too. They went down the street, laughing, looking forward to what the night promised them: death spiced with fear, and the appearance of a new terror in this accursed village.

  Only the guard outside Capricorn’s house was left. He watched the others go, his face gloomy as he kicked an empty cigarette packet and struck the wall with his fist. He was the only one who was going to miss the fun. Even the guard at the top of the church tower could at least watch the show from a distance.

  They had expected a guard to be posted outside the house. Farid had explained the best way to get rid of him, and Silvertongue had nodded and agreed to the plan. When the footsteps of Capricorn’s men had died away and they could hear nothing but the noise from the direction of the car park, they moved out of the shadows, acting as if they had only just emerged from the alley, and openly approached the guard side by side. He looked at them suspiciously, pushed himself away from the wall against which he had been leaning, and took the gun from his shoulder. Alarmed, Farid involuntarily put his hand to his forehead, but at least the guard was not one of the men who might have recognised them, not the man with the limp, or Basta, or any of Capricorn’s other personal henchmen.

  ‘Hey, lend us a hand!’ called Silvertongue, ignoring the gun. ‘Those fools forgot Capricorn’s armchair. We’ve been sent to fetch it.’

  The guard was holding his gun in front of his chest. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake! That thing’s so heavy it’d break your back. Where are you from?’ He scrutinised Silvertongue’s face, as if trying to remember
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