“I am a student of obscure and unpleasant loops,” Millard spoke up. “Been a pet hobby for many years.”
“Bully for you!” said Addison. “Then I suppose you have a way to get past the horde of hollows who’ll be guarding their entrances as well!”
Suddenly it felt like everyone’s eyes were on me. I swallowed hard, kept my chin high, and said, “Yeah, in fact, we do.”
“We’d better,” grumbled Enoch.
Then Bronwyn said, “I believe in you, Jacob. I haven’t known you too long, but I feel I know your heart, and it’s a strong, true thing—a peculiar heart—and I trust you.” She leaned against me and hugged my shoulder with one arm, and I felt my throat tighten.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling lame and small in the face of her big emotion.
The dog clucked his tongue. “Madness. You children have no self-preservation instincts at all. It’s a wonder any of you are still breathing.”
Emma stepped in front of Addison and tried to shut him down. “Yes, wonderful,” she said, “thank you for illuminating us with your opinion. Now, doomsaying aside, I have to ask the rest of you: Are there any objections to what we’re proposing? I don’t want anyone volunteering because they feel pressured.”
Slowly, timidly, Horace raised his hand. “If London is where all the wights are, won’t going there be walking right into their hands? Is that a good idea?”
“It’s a genius idea,” Enoch said irritably. “The wights are convinced we peculiar children are docile and weak. Us coming after them is the last thing they’d expect.”
“And if we fail?” said Horace. “We’ll have hand-delivered Miss Peregrine right to their doorstep!”
“We don’t know that,” said Hugh. “That London is their doorstep.”
Enoch snorted. “Don’t sugarcoat things. If they’ve broken open the prison loops and they’re using them to keep our ymbrynes, then you can bet your soft parts they’ve overrun the rest of the city, too! It’ll be absolutely crawling with them, mark my words. If it weren’t, the wights would never have bothered coming after us in little old Cairnholm. It’s basic military strategy. In battle you don’t aim for the enemy’s pinky toe first—you stab him right through the heart!”
“Please,” Horace moaned, “enough talk of smashing loops and stabbing hearts. You’ll frighten the little ones!”
“I ain’t scared!” said Olive.
Horace shrank into himself. Someone muttered the word coward.
“None of that!” Emma said sharply. “There’s nothing wrong with being frightened. It means you’re taking this very serious thing we’re proposing very seriously. Because, yes, it will be dangerous. Yes, the chances of success are abysmal. And should we even make it to London, there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to find the ymbrynes, much less rescue one. It’s entirely likely that we’ll end our days wasting away in some wightish prison cell or dissolved in the belly of a hollowgast. Everyone got that?”
Grim nods of understanding.
“Am I sugarcoating anything, Enoch?”
Enoch shook his head.
“If we try this,” Emma went on, “we may well lose Miss Peregrine. That much is uncontroversial. But if we don’t try, if we don’t go, then there’s no question we’ll lose her—and the wights will likely catch us anyway! That said, anyone who doesn’t feel up to it can stay behind.” She meant Horace and we all knew it. Horace stared at a spot on the ground. “You can stay here where it’s safe, and we’ll come collect you later, when the trouble’s through. There’s no shame in it.”
“My left ventricle!” said Horace. “If I sat this out, I’d never live it down.”
Even Claire refused to be left behind. “I’ve just had eighty years of pleasantly boring days,” she said, raising up on one elbow from the shady spot where she’d been sleeping. “Stay here while the rest of you go adventuring? Not a chance!” But when she tried to stand, she found she couldn’t, and lay back again, coughing and dizzy. Though the dishwatery liquid she’d drunk had cooled her fever some, there was no way she’d be able to make the journey to London—not today, not tomorrow, and certainly not in time to help Miss Peregrine. Someone would have to stay behind with Claire while she recuperated.
Emma asked for volunteers. Olive raised her hand, but Bronwyn told her to forget it—she was too young. Bronwyn started to raise her own hand, then thought better of it. She was torn, she said, between wanting to protect Claire and her sense of duty to Miss Peregrine.
Enoch elbowed Horace. “What’s the matter with you?” Enoch taunted. “Here’s your big chance to stay behind!”
“I want to go adventuring, I really and truly do,” Horace insisted. “But I should also like to see my 105th birthday, if at all possible. Promise we won’t try to save the whole blasted world?”
“We just want to save Miss P,” said Emma, “but I make no guarantees about anyone’s birthday.”
Horace seemed satisfied with this, and his hands stayed planted at his sides.
“Anyone else?” said Emma, looking around.
“It’s all right,” Claire said. “I can manage on my own.”
“Out of the question,” said Emma. “We peculiars stick together.”
Fiona’s hand drifted up. She’d been so quiet, I’d nearly forgotten she was sitting with us.
“Fee, you can’t!” said Hugh. He looked hurt, as if by volunteering to stay behind she was rejecting him. She looked at him with big, sad eyes, but her hand stayed in the air.
“Thank you, Fiona,” said Emma. “With any luck, we’ll see you both again in just a few days.”
“Bird willing,” said Bronwyn.
“Bird willing,” echoed the others.
* * *
Afternoon was slipping toward evening. In an hour the animals’ loop would be dark, and finding our way down the mountain would be much more dangerous. As we made preparations to leave, the animals kindly outfitted us with stores of fresh food and sweaters spun from the wool of peculiar sheep, which Deirdre swore had some peculiar property, though what exactly it was she couldn’t quite remember. “Impervious to fire, I think—or perhaps water. Yes, they never sink in water, like fluffy little lifejackets. Or maybe—oh, I don’t know, they’re warm in any case!”