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 whether he had seen it before. He took no notice of Farid at all. ‘You from the north, then? I heard you have a lot of fun up there.’