All the same, she started the engine when Dustfinger impatiently waved her on. As soon as she was past him he pulled the barrier back across the road.
‘No need to look at me like that!’ he said, climbing back into the car. ‘The barrier’s always there. Capricorn had it put up to keep unwanted visitors away. Not that people often venture up here. Capricorn spreads stories about the village that keep most of them at a distance, but—’
‘What sort of stories?’ Meggie interrupted him, although she didn’t think she really wanted to know.
‘Blood-curdling stories,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Like most folk, the locals round here are superstitious. The most common tale is that the Devil himself lives on the far side of that hill.’
Meggie was cross with herself for being scared, but now she just couldn’t take her eyes off the dark hilltop. ‘Mo says human beings invented the Devil,’ she said.
‘Well, maybe.’ Dustfinger’s mysterious smile was hovering round his mouth again. ‘But you wanted to know about the stories. They say no bullet can kill the men who live in that village, they can walk through walls, they kidnap three boys every month when the moon is new, and Capricorn teaches them to commit theft, arson and murder.’
‘Good heavens, who thought all that up? The folk of these parts or this man Capricorn himself?’ Elinor was leaning right over the steering wheel. The road was full of potholes, and she had to drive very slowly so as not to get stuck.
‘Both.’ Dustfinger leaned back and let Gwin nibble his fingers. ‘Capricorn rewards people who think up new stories. The one man who never joins in that game is Basta. He’s so superstitious himself he even goes out of his way to avoid black cats.’
Basta. Meggie remembered the name, but before she could ask any more questions Dustfinger was speaking again. He seemed to enjoy telling these tales. ‘Oh yes, I almost forgot!
Of course everyone living in the village of the damned has the Evil Eye, even the women.’
‘The Evil Eye?’ Meggie looked at him.
‘That’s right. One glance and you fall mortally ill. Three days after that, at the latest, and you’re dead as a doornail.’
‘Who’d believe a thing like that?’ murmured Meggie, turning to look ahead of her again.
‘Idiots would.’ Elinor stamped on the brake again. The car skidded over gravel on the road. The bridge Dustfinger had mentioned lay ahead, its grey stone pale in the headlights.
‘Go on, go on!’ said Dustfinger impatiently. ‘It’ll hold, though you might not think so.’
‘It looks as if the ancient Romans built it,’ muttered Elinor. ‘But for donkeys, not cars.’
All the same, Elinor drove on. Meggie squeezed her eyes tight shut, and didn’t open them until she could hear the gravel under the car tyres once more.
‘Capricorn likes this bridge a lot,’ said Dustfinger quietly. ‘A single well-armed man is enough to make it impassable. But luckily he doesn’t post a guard here every night.’
‘Dustfinger.’ Meggie turned hesitantly to look at him as Elinor’s car laboured up the last hill. ‘What are we going to say when they ask us how we found the village? I mean, it’s not going to be a good idea for Capricorn to know that you showed us the way, is it?’
‘No, you’re right,’ muttered Dustfinger, avoiding Meggie’s eyes. ‘Although we are bringing him the book.’ He picked up Gwin, who was clambering around the back seat, held him so that he couldn’t snap, and then lured him into the rucksack with a piece of bread. The marten had been restless ever since darkness fell. He wanted to go hunting.
They had reached the top of the hill. The world around them had disappeared from view, swallowed up by the night, but not far away a few pale rectangles glowed in the dark. Lighted windows.
‘There it is,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Capricorn’s village. Or the Devil’s village, if you prefer.’ He laughed softly.
Elinor turned to him crossly. ‘For heaven’s sake, will you stop that!’ she snapped at him. ‘You really seem to like these stories. Who knows, perhaps they’re all your own invention, and this Capricorn is just a rather eccentric book collector!’
Dustfinger made no reply, but only looked out of the window with the strange smile that Meggie sometimes wanted to wipe off his face. Yet again it seemed to be saying: how stupid you two are!
Elinor had switched off the engine. The silence surrounding them was so absolute that Meggie hardly dared to breathe. She looked down at the lighted windows. Usually, she thought brightly lit windows were an inviting sight in the dark, but these seemed far more menacing than the darkness all around.
‘Does this village have any normal inhabitants?’ asked Elinor. ‘Harmless old grannies, children, people who don’t have anything to do with Capricorn?’
‘No. Nobody lives there but Capricorn and his men,’ whispered Dustfinger, ‘and the women who cook and clean and so on for them.’
‘“And so on” … oh, wonderful!’ Elinor snorted with distaste. ‘I like the sound of this Capricorn less and less! Right, let’s get this over and done with. I want to go home to my books, proper electric light and a nice cup of coffee.’
‘Really? I thought you were longing for a little adventure?’
If Gwin could speak, thought Meggie, he’d do so in Dustfinger’s voice.
‘I prefer adventures in the sunlight,’ replied Elinor curtly. ‘Heavens, how I hate this darkness! Still, if we sit around here until dawn my books will be mildewed before Mortimer can do anything about them. Meggie, go round to the back of the car and fetch that bag. You know the one.’
Meggie nodded, and was just about to open the passenger door when a glaring light blinded her. Someone whose face she couldn’t make out was standing beside the driver’s door, shining a torch into the car. He tapped it commandingly against the pane.
Elinor jumped in such alarm she hit her knee on the steering wheel, but she quickly pulled herself together. Cursing, she rubbed her hurt leg and opened the window.
‘What’s the idea?’ she snapped at the stranger. ‘Do you have to frighten us to death? A person could easily get run over, skulking about in the dark like that.’
By way of answer the stranger pushed the barrel of a shotgun through the open window. ‘This is private property!’ he said. Meggie thought she recognised the rasping cat’s-tongue voice from Elinor’s library. ‘And a person can very easily get shot trespassing on private property at night.’
‘I can explain.’ Dustfinger leaned over Elinor’s shoulder.
‘Well, well, who have we here? If it isn’t Dustfinger!’ The man withdrew the barrel of his gun. ‘Do you have to turn up in the middle of the night?’
Elinor turned and cast Dustfinger a glance that was more than suspicious. ‘I’d no idea you were on such friendly terms with these people!’ she commented. ‘You called them devils!’
But Dustfinger was already out of the car. And Meggie didn’t like the familiar way the two men were talking. She remembered exactly what Dustfinger had said to her about Capricorn’s men. How could he talk to one of them like this? However hard Meggie strained her ears, she couldn’t make out what the pair were saying. She caught only one thing. Dustfinger called the stranger Basta.