‘I knew it!’ Elinor almost forgot to keep her voice down. ‘He just wants to save his own skin. That’s why he’s helping us! He doesn’t have a guilty conscience, oh no. Why should he?’
‘I don’t care why he’s helping us, Elinor,’ Mo interrupted her impatiently. ‘We have to get away from here, that’s what matters. But we’re going to take someone else with us too.’
‘Someone else? Who?’ Dustfinger looked at him uneasily.
‘The boy. The one I condemned yesterday to the same fate as you,’ replied Mo, making his way past Dustfinger and out of the door. ‘Basta said he’s next door to us, and a lock is no obstacle to your clever fingers.’
‘I burned those clever fingers today!’ muttered Dustfinger angrily. ‘Still, just as you please. Your soft heart will be the ruin of us yet.’
When Dustfinger knocked on the door bearing the number 5 a faint rustling could be heard on the other side of it. ‘Seems like they were going to let him live,’ he whispered as he got to work on the lock. ‘They put people condemned to death in the crypt under the church. Ever since I told Basta for a joke that a White Lady haunts the stone coffins down there, he turns white as a sheet whenever Capricorn sends him into the crypt.’ He chuckled quietly at the memory, like a schoolboy who’s just played a particularly good practical joke.
Meggie looked across at the church. ‘Do they often condemn people to death?’ she asked quietly.
Dustfinger shrugged. ‘Not as often as they used to. But it does happen.’
‘Stop telling her such stories!’ whispered Mo. He and Elinor never took their eyes off the church tower. The sentry was posted high up on the wall beside the belfry. It made Meggie dizzy just to look up there.
‘Those are no stories, Silvertongue, it’s the truth! Don’t you recognise the truth when you meet it any more? The truth’s not pretty, of course. No one likes to look it in the face.’ Dustfinger stepped back from the door and bowed. ‘After you. I’ve picked the lock, you can fetch him out.’ Even with his burnt fingers it hadn’t taken him long.
‘You go in,’ Mo whispered to Meggie. ‘He’ll be less afraid of you.’
It was pitch dark on the other side of the door, but Meggie heard a rustle as she stepped into the room, as if an animal were moving somewhere in the straw. Dustfinger put his arm through the doorway and handed her a torch. When Meggie switched it on, the beam of light fell on the boy’s dark face. The straw they had given him seemed even mouldier than the pile on which Meggie had slept, but the boy looked as if he hadn’t closed his eyes since Flatnose had locked him in anyway. His arms were tightly clasped round his legs, as if they were all he could rely on. Perhaps he was still waiting for his nightmare to end.
‘Come with us!’ whispered Meggie, reaching out a hand to him. ‘We want to help you! We’ll take you away from here!’
He didn’t move, just stared at her, his eyes narrow with distrust.
‘Hurry up, Meggie!’ breathed Mo through the door.
The boy glanced at him and retreated until his back was right up against the wall.
‘Please!’ whispered Meggie. ‘You must come! The people here will do bad things to you.’
He was still looking at her. Then he stood up, cautiously, never taking his eyes off her. He was taller than she was by almost a hand’s breadth. Suddenly, he leaped forward, making for the open door. He pushed Meggie aside so roughly that she fell over, but he couldn’t get past Mo.
‘Here, take it easy!’ Mo said under his breath. ‘We really do want to help you, but you must do as we say, understand?’
The boy glared at him with dislike. ‘You’re all devils!’ he whispered. ‘Devils or demons!’ So he did understand their language, and why not? His own story was told in every language in the world.
Meggie got up and rubbed her knee. She must have grazed it on the stone floor. ‘If you want to see some real devils then all you have to do is stay here!’ she hissed at the boy as she pushed her way past him. He flinched as if she were a witch.
Mo drew the boy to his side. ‘See that man on watch up there?’ he whispered, pointing to the church tower. ‘If he sees us they’ll kill us.’
The boy looked up at the man on guard.
Dustfinger went over to him. ‘Hurry up, will you?’ he said quietly. ‘If the lad doesn’t want to go with us then he can just stay here. And the rest of you take your shoes off,’ he added, glancing at the boy’s bare feet, ‘or you’ll make more noise than a flock of goats.’
Elinor grumbled something in a cross voice, but she obeyed, and the boy did follow them, if hesitantly. Dustfinger hurried on ahead as if trying to outstrip his own shadow. The alley down which he led them sloped so steeply that Meggie kept stumbling, and every time Elinor stubbed her toes on the bumpy cobblestones she uttered a quiet curse. It was dark between the close-set houses. Masonry arches stretched from one side of the street to the other, as if to prevent the walls from collapsing. The rusty street lights cast ghostly shadows. Every noise sounded threatening, every cat scurrying out of a doorway made Meggie jump. But Capricorn’s village was asleep. They passed only one guard, leaning on the wall in a side street and smoking. Two tom cats were fighting somewhere on the rooftops, and the guard bent to pick up a stone to throw at them. Dustfinger took advantage of the moment. Meggie was very glad he had made them take off their shoes. They slipped soundlessly past the guard whose back was still turned, but Meggie dared not breathe again until they were round the next corner. Once again, she noticed the many empty houses, the blank windows, the dilapidated doors. What had wrecked these homes? Just the course of time? Had the people who once lived here run away from Capricorn, or was the village already abandoned before he and his men took up residence? Hadn’t Dustfinger said something like that?
He had stopped. He raised his hand in a warning gesture, and put a finger to his lips. They had reached the outskirts of the village. Only the car park still lay ahead. Two street lights illuminated the surface of the cracked asphalt, and a tall wire-netting fence rose to their left. ‘The arena for Capricorn’s ceremonies and festivities is on the other side of that fence,’ whispered Dustfinger. ‘I suppose the village children once played football there, but these days it’s the scene of Capricorn’s diabolical celebrations: bonfires, brandy, a few shots fired into the air, fireworks, blackened faces – that’s their idea of fun.’
They put their shoes on before following Dustfinger into the car park. Meggie kept looking at the wire fence. Diabolical celebrations. She could almost see the bonfires, the blackened faces … ‘Come on, Meggie!’ urged Mo, leading her on. The sound of rushing water could be heard somewhere in the darkness, and Meggie remembered the bridge they had crossed on the way here. Suppose a guard was stationed there this time?
There were several cars in the car park, including Elinor’s, which was parked a little way from the others. They all kept looking around anxiously as they ran towards it. Behind them the church tower rose high above the rooftops, and there was nothing now to shield them from the sentry’s eyes. Meggie couldn’t see him at this distance, but she was sure he was still there. From such a height they must look like black beetles crawling over a table. Did he have a pair of binoculars?