"Twelve? My word!" Dustfinger pushed his dripping hair
back from his forehead. It reached almost to his shoulders. Meggie
wondered what color it was when it was dry. The stubble
around his narrow-lipped mouth was gingery, like the fur of the
stray cat Meggie sometimes fed with a saucer of milk outside the
door. Ginger hair sprouted on his cheeks, too, sparse as a boy's
first beard but not long enough to hide three long, pale scars.
They made Dustfinger's face look as if it had been smashed and
stuck back together again.
"Twelve," he repeated. "Of course. She was . . . let's see, she
was three then, wasn't she?"
Mo nodded. "Come on, I'll find you some dry clothes."
Impatiently, as if he were suddenly in a hurry to hide the man
from Meggie, he led his visitor across the hall. "And, Meggie,"
he said over his shoulder, "you go back to sleep." Then, without
another word, he closed his workshop door.
Meggie stood there rubbing her cold feet together. Go back to
sleep. Sometimes, when they'd stayed up late yet again, Mo
would toss her down on her bed like a bag of walnuts. Sometimes
he chased her around the house after supper until she escaped
into her room, breathless with laughter. And sometimes he was
so tired he lay down on the sofa and she made him a cup of coffee
before she went to bed. But he had never ever sent her off to her
room so brusquely.
A foreboding, clammy and fearful, came into her heart as if,
along with the visitor whose name was so strange yet
somehow familiar, some menace had slipped into her life. And
she wished so hard it frightened her that she had never
gone to get Mo and Dustfinger had stayed outside until the rain
washed him away.
When the door of the workshop opened again she jumped.
"Still there, I see," said Mo. "Go to bed, Meggie. Please." He
had that little frown over his nose that appeared only when something
was really worrying him, and he seemed to look straight
through her as if his thoughts were somewhere else entirely. The
foreboding in Meggie's heart grew, spreading black wings.
"Send him away, Mo!" she said as he gently propelled her
toward her room. "Please! Send him away. I don't like him."
Mo leaned in her open doorway. "He'll be gone when you get
up in the morning. Word of honor."
"Word of honor no crossed fingers?" Meggie looked him
straight in the eye. She could always tell when Mo was lying,
however hard he tried to hide it from her.
"No crossed fingers," he said, holding both hands out to show
Then he closed her door, even though he knew she didn't like
that. Meggie put her ear to it, listening. She could hear the clink
of china. So the man with the sandy beard was getting a nice cup
of tea to warm him up. I hope he catches pneumonia, thought
Meggie . . . though he needn't necessarily die of it. Meggie heard
the kettle whistling in the kitchen and Mo carrying a tray of clattering
crockery back to the workshop. When that door closed she
forced herself to wait a few more seconds, just to be on the safe
side. Then she crept back out into the hallway.
There was a sign hanging on the door of Mo's workshop, a
small metal plaque. Meggie knew the words on it by heart. When
she was five she had often practiced reading the old-fashioned,
Some books should be tasted
but only a few
should be chewed and digested thoroughly.
Back then, when she still had to climb on a box to read the
plaque, she had thought the chewing and digesting were meant
literally and wondered, horrified, why Mo had hung on his workshop
door the words of someone who vandalized books. Now she
knew what the plaque really meant, but tonight, she wasn't interested
in written words. Spoken words were what she wanted to
hear, the words being exchanged in soft, almost inaudible whispers
by the two men on the other side of the door.
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