With the light came two of Capricorn’s men. Mo had only just sat up, wearily, and Elinor was rubbing her aching back and muttering crossly when they heard the footsteps.
They weren’t Basta’s footsteps. One of the two men, a great tall beanpole, looked as if a giant had pressed his face flat with his thumb. The other was small and thin, with a goatee beard on his receding chin. He kept fiddling with his shotgun, and glowered unpleasantly at the three of them, as if he felt like shooting them on the spot.
‘Come on, then. Get a move on!’ he snapped as they stumbled out into the bright light of day, blinking. Meggie tried to remember whether his voice was one of those she had heard in Elinor’s library, but she wasn’t sure. Capricorn had many men.
It was a fine, warm morning. The sky arched blue and cloudless above Capricorn’s village, and a couple of finches were twittering in a rose bush growing wild among the old houses, as if there were no danger in the world but a hungry cat or two. Mo took Meggie’s arm as they stepped outside. Elinor had to get her shoes on first, and when the man with the goatee tried hauling her roughly out because she didn’t move fast enough for him, she pushed his hands away and fired a volley of bad language at him. That simply made the two men laugh, whereupon Elinor tightened her lips and confined herself to hostile glances.
Capricorn’s men were in a hurry. They led Mo, Meggie and Elinor back the way Basta had brought them the night before. The flat-faced man went ahead of them and the man with the goatee brought up the rear, shotgun at the ready. He dragged one leg as he walked, but nonetheless he kept urging them on, as if to prove that he could move faster than they could even though he limped.
Even by day Capricorn’s village appeared curiously deserted, and not just because of the many empty houses, which looked even more dismal in the sunlight. There was hardly anyone to be seen in the narrow alleys, only a few of the Black Jackets, as Meggie had secretly baptised them, with skinny boys following them like puppies. Meggie only twice saw a woman passing in a hurry. She could see no children playing or running after their mothers, only cats: black, white, ginger, tortoiseshell, tabby cats, lying in the warm sun on top of walls, in doorways, on lintels. It was deathly quiet among the houses of Capricorn’s village, and everything that went on seemed to be done in secret. Only the men with the guns didn’t hide. They hung around together in gateways and at the corners of buildings, leaning lovingly on their weapons as they talked. There were no flowers outside the houses, like the flowers Meggie had seen in the towns and villages all along the coast, instead roofs had fallen in and wild bushes were in bloom, growing out through glassless windows. Some were so heavy with scent that they made Meggie feel dizzy.
When they reached the square outside the church, Meggie thought the two men were taking them to Capricorn’s house again, but they passed it on their left and went straight to the big church door. The tower of the church looked as if wind and weather had been wearing the masonry down for a dangerously long time. A rusty bell hung under the pointed roof, and scarcely a metre lower down a seed carried by the wind had grown into a stunted tree that now clung to the sand-coloured stone.
There were eyes painted on the church door, narrow red eyes, and ugly stone demons the height of a man stood on either side of the entrance, their teeth bared like savage dogs.
‘Welcome to the Devil’s house!’ said the bearded man with a mocking bow before opening the heavy door.
‘Don’t do that, Cockerell!’ the flat-faced man snapped at him, spitting three times on the dusty paving stones at his feet. ‘It’s bad luck.’
The man with the goatee just laughed and patted the fat belly of one of the stone figures. ‘Oh, come on, Flatnose. You’re almost as bad as Basta. Carry on like this and you’ll be hanging a stinking rabbit’s foot round your own neck too.’
‘I like to be on the safe side,’ growled Flatnose. ‘You hear strange tales.’
‘Yes, and who made them up? We did, you fool.’
‘Some of them date from before our time.’
‘Whatever happens,’ Mo whispered to Elinor and Meggie as the two men argued, ‘leave the talking to me. A sharp tongue can be dangerous here, believe me. Basta is quick to draw his knife, and he’ll use it too.’
‘Basta’s not the only one here with a knife, Silvertongue!’ said Cockerell, pushing Mo into the dark church. Meggie hurried after him.
It was dim and chilly inside the church. The morning light made its way in only through a few windows, painting pale patches high up on the walls and columns. No doubt these had once been grey like the flagstone floor, but now there was only one colour in Capricorn’s church. Everything was red. The walls, the columns, even the ceiling, were vermilion, the colour of raw meat or dried blood. For a moment, Meggie felt as if she had stepped into the belly of some monster.
In a corner near the entrance stood the statue of an angel. A wing was broken off, and the black jacket of one of Capricorn’s men had been hung over the other wing while someone had stuck a pair of fancy dress horns on its head, the kind children wear to parties. Its halo was still there between them. The angel had probably once stood on the stone plinth in front of the first column, now it had had to give way to another statue, whose gaunt, waxen face seemed to look down at Meggie with a supercilious expression. Whoever had carved it wasn’t very good at his trade; its features were painted like the face of a plastic doll, with oddly red lips and blue eyes that held none of the cold detachment the colourless eyes of the real Capricorn turned on the world. But, to make up for that, the statue was at least twice the height of its living model, and all who passed it had to tilt their head back to look up at its pale face.
‘Is that allowed, Mo?’ asked Meggie quietly. ‘Putting up a statue of yourself in a church?’
‘Oh, it’s a very old custom!’ Elinor whispered back. ‘Statues in churches aren’t often the statues of saints. Most saints couldn’t have paid the sculptor. In the cathedral of—’
Cockerell prodded her in the back so roughly that she stumbled forward. ‘Get a move on!’ he growled. ‘And bow next time you pass him, understand?’
‘Bow!’ Elinor was going to stand her ground, but Mo quickly made her go on. ‘Who on earth can take this circus seriously?’ she said crossly.
‘If you don’t keep your mouth shut,’ Mo told her in a whisper, ‘you’ll soon find out how seriously they take everything here.’
Elinor looked at the scratch on his forehead, and said no more.
Capricorn’s church contained no pews of the kind Meggie had seen in other churches, just two long wooden tables with benches, one on each side of the nave. There were dirty plates on them, coffee-stained mugs, wooden boards where cheese rinds lay, knives, sausages, empty bread baskets. Several women were busy clearing all this away. Without pausing in their work, they glanced up as Cockerell and Flatnose passed with their three captives. Meggie thought they looked like birds hunching their heads down beneath their wings in case someone might strike them off.
Not only were the pews missing from Capricorn’s church, but the altar had gone too. In its place there now stood a massive chair, upholstered in red and with designs carved thickly into its legs and arms. Leading up to it were four shallow steps, carpeted in black. Meggie wasn’t sure why she counted them. And crouching on the top step just a few paces away from the chair, his sandy hair ruffled as usual, was Dustfinger, apparently lost in thought as he let Gwin run up and down his outstretched arm.