“Tomorrow’s not likely to be any easier than today was,” said Millard. “We’ll need what rest we can get.”
We gathered cuts of springy moss to use as pillows, Emma drying the rain from them with her hands before we tucked them under our heads. Lacking blankets, we nestled together for warmth: Bronwyn cuddling the small ones; Fiona entangled with Hugh, whose bees came and went from his open mouth as he snored, keeping watch over their sleeping master; Horace and Enoch shivering with their backs to one another, too proud to snuggle; myself with Emma. I lay on my back and she in the crook of my arm, head on my chest, her face so invitingly close to mine that I could kiss her forehead anytime I liked—and I wouldn’t have stopped except that I was as tired as a dead man and she was as warm as an electric blanket and pretty soon I was asleep and dreaming pleasant, forgettable nothings.
I never remember nice dreams; only the bad ones stick.
It was a miracle that I could sleep at all, given the circumstances. Even here—running for our lives, sleeping exposed, facing death—even here, in her arms, I was able to find some measure of peace.
Watching over us all, her black eyes shining in the dark, was Miss Peregrine. Though damaged and diminished, she was still our protector.
The night turned raw, and Claire began to shake and cough. Bronwyn nudged Emma awake and said, “Miss Bloom, the little one needs you; I’m afraid she’s taking ill,” and with a whispered apology Emma slipped out of my arms to go and attend to Claire. I felt a twinge of jealousy, then guilt for being jealous of a sick friend. So I lay alone feeling irrationally forsaken and stared into the dark, more exhausted than I had ever been and yet unable now to sleep, listening to the others shift and moan in the grip of nightmares that could not have equalled the one we would likely wake to. And eventually the dark peeled back layer by layer, and with imperceptible gradations the sky feathered to a delicate pale blue.
* * *
At dawn we crawled from our shelter. I picked moss out of my hair and tried in vain to brush the mud from my pants, but succeeded only in smearing it, making me look like some bog creature vomited from the earth. I was hungry in a way I’d never experienced, my belly gnawing at itself from the inside, and I ached just about everywhere it was possible to ache, from rowing and running and sleeping on the ground. Still, a few mercies prevailed: overnight the rain had let up, the day was warming by degrees, and we seemed to have evaded the wights and their dogs, at least for the time being; either they’d stopped barking or were too far away to be heard.
In doing so we’d gotten ourselves hopelessly lost. The forest was no easier to navigate by day than it had been in the dark. Green-boughed firs stretched away in endless, disordered rows, each direction a mirror of the others. The ground here was a carpet of fallen leaves that hid any tracks we might’ve made the night before. We’d woken in the heart of a green labyrinth without a map or compass, and Miss Peregrine’s broken wing meant she couldn’t fly above the treeline to guide us. Enoch suggested we raise Olive above the trees, like we had in the fog, but we didn’t have any rope to hold her, and if she slipped and fell into the sky, we’d never get her back again.
Claire was sick and getting sicker, and lay curled in Bronwyn’s lap, sweat beading her forehead despite a chill in the air. She was so skinny I could count her ribs through her dress.
“Will she be all right?” I asked.
“She’s feverish,” Bronwyn said, pressing a hand to the girl’s cheek. “She needs medicine.”
“First we’ll have to find our way out of this accursed forest,” said Millard.
“First we should eat,” said Enoch. “Let’s eat and discuss our options.”
“What options?” said Emma. “Pick a direction and we’ll walk in it. Any one’s as good as another.”
In sullen silence we sat and ate. I’ve never tasted dog food but I’m sure this was worse—brownish squares of congealed meat fat from rusted tins, which, lacking utensils, we dug out with our fingers.
“I packed five salted game hens and three tins of foie gras with cornichons,” Horace said bitterly, “and this is what survives our shipwreck.” He held his nose and dropped a gelatinous nugget down his throat without chewing. “I think we’re being punished.”
“For what?” said Emma. “We’ve been perfect angels. Well, most of us.”
“The sins of past lives, maybe. I don’t know.”
“Peculiars don’t have past lives,” said Millard. “We live them all at once.”
We finished quickly, buried our empty tins, and prepared to go. Just as we were about to, Hugh burst through a thicket of bushes into our makeshift camp, bees circling his head in an agitated cloud. He was out of breath with excitement.
“Where have you been?” Enoch demanded.
“I needed some privacy to attend to my morning never-you-minds,” Hugh said, “and I found—”
“Who gave you permission to be out of visual range?” Enoch said. “We nearly left without you!”
“Who says I need permission? Anyway, I saw—”
“You can’t just wander away like that! What if you’d gotten lost?”
“We’re already lost.”
“You ignoramus! What if you couldn’t find your way back?”
“I left a trail of bees, like I always do—”
“Would you kindly let him finish!” Emma shouted.
“Thank you,” said Hugh, and then he turned and pointed back the way he’d come. “I saw water. Quite a lot of it, through the trees there.”
Emma’s face clouded. She said, “We’re trying to get away from the sea, not back to it. We must’ve doubled back on ourselves in the night.”
We followed Hugh back the way he’d come, Bronwyn carrying Miss Peregrine on her shoulder and poor sick Claire in her arms. After a hundred yards, a glisten of gray ripples appeared beyond the trees: some wide body of water.
“Oh, this is just awful,” said Horace. “They’ve chased us right back into their arms!”
“I don’t hear any soldiers,” said Emma. “In fact, I don’t hear anything at all. Not even the ocean.”
Enoch said, “That’s because it’s not the ocean, you dolt,” and he stood up and ran toward the water. When we caught up with him he was standing with his feet planted in wet sand, looking back at us with a self-satisfied I-told-you-so grin. He’d been right: this wasn’t the sea. It was a misty, gray lake, wide and ringed with firs, its calm surface smooth as slate. But its most distinguishing feature was something I didn’t notice right away; not until Claire pointed out a large rock formation jutting from the shallows nearby. My eyes skimmed it at first but then went back for a second glance. There was something eerie about it—and decidedly familiar.