We rode like that for a long time, until our ears rang with the clatter of wagon wheels and our clothes were caked with dust, until the midday sun had wheeled across the sky and dipped behind the trees, which rose up like the walls of a great green canyon on either side of us. I scanned the forest constantly, afraid that at any moment the wights and their dogs would burst out and attack us. But for hours we didn’t see anyone—not a wight, not even another traveler. It was as if we’d arrived in an abandoned country.
Now and then the caravan would stop and we’d all hold our breath, ready to flee or fight, sure we were about to be discovered. We’d send Millard out to investigate, and he would creep down from the wagon only to find that the Gypsies were just stretching their legs or reshoeing a horse, and then we’d start moving again. Eventually I stopped worrying about what would happen if we were discovered. The Gypsies seemed road-weary and harmless. We’d pass as normal and appeal to their pity. We’re just orphans with no home, we’d say. Please, could you spare a morsel of bread? With any luck, they’d give us dinner and escort us to the train station.
It wasn’t long before my theory was put to the test. The wagons pulled abruptly off the road and shuddered to a stop in a small clearing. The dust had hardly settled when a large man came striding around back of our wagon. He wore a flat cap on his head, a caterpillar mustache below his nose, and a grim expression that pulled down the corners of his mouth.
Bronwyn hid Miss Peregrine inside her coat while Emma leapt off the wagon and did her best impression of a pathetic orphan. “Sir, we throw ourselves at your mercy! Our house was hit by a bomb, you see, and our parents are dead, and we’re terribly lost …”
“Shut your gob!” the man boomed. “Get down from there, all of you!” It was a command, not a request, emphasized by the decorative-but-deadly-looking knife balanced in his hand.
We looked at one another, unsure what to do. Should we fight him and run, and probably give away our secret in the process—or play normal for a while longer and wait to see what he does? Then dozens more of them appeared, piling out of their wagons to range around us in a wide circle, many holding knives of their own. We were surrounded, our options dramatically narrowed.
The men were grizzled and sharp-eyed, dressed in dark, heavy-knit clothes built to hide layers of road dust. The women wore bright, flowing dresses, their long hair held back by scarves. Children gathered behind and between them. I tried to square what little I knew about Gypsies with the faces before me. Were they about to massacre us—or were they just naturally grumpy?
I looked to Emma for a cue. She stood with her hands pressed to her chest, not held out like she was about to make flame. If she wasn’t going to fight them, I decided, then neither was I.
I got down from the wagon like the man had asked, hands above my head. Horace and Hugh did the same, and then the others—all but Millard, who had slipped away, unseen, presumably to lurk nearby, waiting and watching.
The man with the cap, whom I’d pegged as their leader, began to fire questions at us. “Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are your elders?”
“We come from the west,” Emma said calmly. “An island off the coast. We’re orphans, as I already explained. Our houses were smashed by bombs in an air raid, and we were forced to flee. We rowed all the way to the mainland and nearly drowned.” She attempted to manufacture some tears. “We have nothing,” she sniffled. “We’ve been lost in the woods for days with no food to eat and no clothes but the ones we have on. We saw your wagons passing but were too frightened to show ourselves. We only wanted to ride as far as the town …”
The man studied her, his frown deepening. “Why were you forced to flee your island after your house was bombed? And why did you run into the woods instead of following the coast?”
Enoch spoke up. “No choice. We were being chased.”
Emma gave him a sharp look that said: Let me do this.
“Chased by who?” asked the leader.
“Bad men,” Emma said.
“Men with guns,” added Horace. “Dressed like soldiers, although they aren’t, really.”
A woman in a bright yellow scarf stepped forward. “If soldiers are after them, they’re trouble we don’t need. Send them away, Bekhir.”
“Or tie them to trees and leave them!” said a rangy-looking man.
“No!” cried Olive. “We have to get to London before it’s too late!”
The leader cocked an eyebrow. “Too late for what?” We hadn’t aroused his pity—only his curiosity. “We’ll do nothing until we find out who you are,” he said, “and what you’re worth.”
* * *
Ten men holding long-bladed knives marched us toward a flatbed wagon with a big cage mounted on top of it. Even from a distance I could see that it was something meant for animals, twenty feet by ten, made of thick iron bars.
“You’re not going to lock us in there, are you?” Olive said.
“Just until we sort out what to do with you,” said the leader.
“No, you can’t!” cried Olive. “We have to get to London, and quick!”
“And why’s that?”
“One of us is ill,” said Emma, shooting Hugh a meaningful look. “We need to get him a doctor!”
“You don’t need to go all the way to London for no doctor,” said one of the Gypsy men. “Jebbiah’s a doctor. Ain’t you, Jebbiah?”
A man with scabrous lesions spanning his cheeks stepped forward. “Which one of ye’s ill?”
“Hugh needs a specialist,” said Emma. “He’s got a rare condition. Stinging cough.”
Hugh put a hand to his throat as if it hurt him and coughed, and a bee shot out of his mouth. Some of the Gypsies gasped, and a little girl hid her face in her mother’s skirt.
“It’s some sort of trick!” said the so-called doctor.
“Enough,” said their leader. “Get in the cage, all of you.”
They shoved us toward a ramp that led to it. We clustered together at the bottom. No one wanted to go first.
“We can’t let them do this!” whispered Hugh.
“What are you waiting for?” Enoch hissed at Emma. “Burn them!”
Emma shook her head and whispered, “There are too many.” She led the way up the ramp and into the cage. Its barred ceiling was low, its floor piled deep with rank-smelling hay. When we were all inside, the leader slammed the door and locked it behind us, slipping the key into his pocket. “No one goes near them!” he shouted to anyone within earshot. “They could be witches, or worse.”