Hollow City / Page 27

Page 27

All around us we could hear the wights spreading throughout the camp, kicking things over, throwing open caravan doors, shoving people. A child screamed and a man reacted angrily, but was cut short with the sound of wood meeting flesh. It was excruciating to lie there and listen to people suffer—even if those same people had been ready to tear us limb from limb just minutes ago.

From the corner of my eye I saw Hugh rise from the hay and crawl to Bronwyn’s trunk. He slipped his fingers over the latch and began to open the lid, but Bronwyn stopped him. “What are you doing?” she mouthed.

“We’ve got to get them before they get us!”

Emma lifted herself out of the hay on her elbows and rolled toward them, and I got closer too, to listen.

“Don’t be insane,” said Emma. “If we throw the eggs now, they’ll shoot us to ribbons.”

“So what, then?” said Hugh. “We should just lie here until they find us?”

We clustered around the trunk, speaking in whispers.

“Wait until they unlock the door,” said Enoch. “Then I’ll throw an egg through the bars behind us. That’ll distract the wights long enough for Bronwyn to crack the skull of whichever one comes into the cage first, which should give the rest of us time to run. Scatter to the outer edges of camp, then turn and throw your eggs back at the middle-most campfire. Everyone in a thirty-meter radius will be a memory.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Hugh. “That just might work.”

“But there are children in the camp!” said Bronwyn.

Enoch rolled his eyes. “Or we can worry about collateral damage, run into the woods, and leave the wights and their dogs to hunt us down one by one. But if we plan on reaching London—or living beyond tonight—I don’t recommend it.”

Hugh patted Bronwyn’s hand, which was covering the trunk latch. “Open it,” he said. “Give them out.”

Bronwyn hesitated. “I can’t. I can’t kill children who’ve done nothing to harm us.”

“But we don’t have a choice!” whispered Hugh.

“You always have a choice,” said Bronwyn.

Then we heard a dog snarl very near the bottom rim of the cage, and went silent. A moment later a flashlight shone against the outside of the tarp. “Tear this sheet down!” someone said—the dog’s handler, I assumed.

The dog barked, its nose snuffling to get beneath the tarp and up through the cage bars. “Over here!” shouted the handler. “We’ve got something!”

We all looked to Bronwyn. “Please,” Hugh said. “At least let us defend ourselves.”

“It’s the only way,” said Enoch.

Bronwyn sighed and took her hand away from the latch. Hugh nodded gratefully and opened the trunk lid. We all reached in and took an egg from between the layered sweaters—everyone but Bronwyn. Then we stood and faced the cage door, eggs in hand, and prepared for the inevitable.

More boots marched toward us. I tried to prepare myself for what was coming. Run, I told myself. Run and don’t look back and then throw it.

But knowing that innocent people would die, could I really do it? Even to save my own life? What if I just dropped the egg in some grass and ran into the woods?

A hand grabbed one edge of the tarp and pulled. The tarp began to slide away.

Then, just shy of exposing us, it stopped.

“What’s the matter with you?” I heard the dog’s handler say.

“I’d steer well away from that cage if I was you,” said another voice—a Gypsy’s.

I could see half the sky above us, stars twinkling down through the branches of oaks.

“Yeah? And why is that?” said the handler.

“Old Bloodcoat ain’t been fed in a few days,” the Gypsy said.

“He don’t usually care for the taste of humans, but when he’s this hungry he ain’t so discriminating!”

Then came a sound that stole the breath right out of me—the roar of a giant bear. Impossibly, it seemed to be coming from among us, inside our cage. I heard the dog’s handler shout in surprise and then scramble down the ramp, pulling his yelping dog along with him.

I couldn’t fathom how a bear had gotten into the cage, only that I needed to get away from it, so I pressed myself hard against the bars. Next to me I saw Olive stick her little fist in her mouth to keep from crying out.

Outside, other soldiers were laughing at the handler. “Idiot!” he said, embarrassed. “Only Gypsies would keep an animal like that in the middle of their camp!”

I finally worked up the courage to turn around and look behind me. There was no bear in our cage. What had made that awful roar?

The soldiers kept searching the camp, but now they left our cage alone. After a few minutes we heard them pile back into their truck and restart the engine, and then, at last, they were gone.

The tarp slid away from our cage. The Gypsies were all gathered around us. I held my egg in one trembling hand, wondering if I’d have to use it.

The leader stood before us. “Are you all right?” he said. “I’m sorry if that frightened you.”

“We’re alive,” Emma replied, looking around warily. “But where’s this bear of yours?”

“You aren’t the only ones with unusual talents,” said a young man at the edge of the crowd, and then in quick succession he growled like a bear and yowled like a cat, throwing his voice from one place to another with slight turns of his head so that it sounded like we were being stalked from all directions. When we’d gotten over our shock, we broke into applause.

“I thought you said they weren’t peculiar,” I whispered to Emma.

“Anyone can do parlor tricks like that,” she said.

“Apologies if I failed to properly introduce myself,” said the Gypsy leader. “My name is Bekhir Bekhmanatov. And you are our honored guests.” He bowed deeply. “Why didn’t you tell us you were syndrigasti?”

We gaped at him. He had used the ancient name for peculiars, the one Miss Peregrine had taught us.

“Do we know you from somewhere?” Bronwyn asked.

“Where did you hear that word?” said Emma.

Bekhir smiled. “If you’ll accept our hospitality, I promise to explain everything.” Then he bowed again and strode forward to unlock our cage.

* * *

We sat with the Gypsies on fine, handwoven carpets, talking and eating stew by the shimmering light of twin campfires. I dropped the spoon I’d been given and slurped straight from a wooden bowl, my table manners a distant memory as greasy, delicious broth dribbled down my chin. Bekhir walked among us, making sure each peculiar child was comfortable, asking if we had enough to eat and drink, and apologizing repeatedly for the state of our clothes, now covered in filthy bits of hay from the cage. Since witnessing our peculiar display he’d changed his attitude toward us completely; in the span of a few minutes we’d graduated from being prisoners to guests of honor.

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