Hollow City / Page 34

Page 34

I dreamed up a dozen escape plans. We’d scatter. No—he’d shoot at least a few of us. Maybe someone could pretend to faint in the road, then the person behind would trip, and in the confusion—no, he was too disciplined to fall for anything like that. One of us would have to get close enough to take his gun away.

Me. I was closest. Maybe if I walked a little slower, let him catch up, then ran at him … but who was I kidding? I was no action hero. I was so scared I could hardly breathe. Anyway, he was ten whole yards behind me, and had his gun aimed right at my back. He’d shoot me the second I turned around, and I’d bleed out in the middle of the road. That was my idea of stupidity, not heroism.

A jeep zoomed up from behind and pulled alongside us, slowing to match our pace. There were two more soldiers in it, and though both wore mirrored sunglasses, I knew what was behind them. The wight in the passenger seat nodded to the one who’d captured us and gave a little salute—Nice going!—then turned to us and stared. From that moment he never took his eyes off us or his hands off his rifle.

Now we had escorts, and one rifle-wielding wight had become three. Any hope of escape I’d had was dashed.

We walked and walked, our shoes crunching on the gravel road, the jeep’s engine grumbling beside us like a cheap lawnmower. The town receded and a farm sprang up on either side of the tree-lined road, its fields fallow and bare. The soldiers never exchanged a word. There was something robotic about them, as if their brains had been scooped out and replaced with wires. Wights were supposed to be brilliant, but these guys seemed like drones to me. Then I heard a drone in my ear, and looked up to see a bee circle my head and fly away.

Hugh, I thought. What’s he up to? I looked for him in line, worried he might be planning something that would get us all shot—but I didn’t see him.

I did a quick head count. One-two-three-four-five-six. In front of me was Emma, then Enoch, Horace, Olive, Millard, and Bronwyn.

Where was Hugh?

I nearly leapt into the air. Hugh wasn’t here! That meant he hadn’t been rounded up with the rest of us. He was still free! Maybe in the chaos at the depot he’d slipped down into the gap between the train and the platform, or hopped onto the train without the soldier noticing. I wondered if he was following us—wished I could look back at the road behind without giving him away.

I hoped he wasn’t, because that might mean he was with Miss Peregrine. Otherwise, how would we ever find her again? And what if she ran out of air, locked in that trunk? And what did they do with suspiciously abandoned baggage in 1940, anyway?

My face flushed hot and my throat tightened. There were too many things to be terrified of, a hundred horror scenarios all vying for attention in my brain.

“Back in line!” the soldier behind me shouted, and I realized that it was me he was talking to—that in my fevered state I’d strayed too far from the center of the road. I hurried back to my place behind Emma, who gave me a pleading look over her shoulder—Don’t make him angry!—and I promised myself I’d keep it together.

We walked on in edgy silence, tension humming through us like an electric current. I could see it in Emma as she clenched and unclenched her fists; in Enoch as he shook his head and muttered to himself; in Olive’s uneven steps. It seemed like just a matter of time before one of us did something desperate and bullets started flying.

Then I heard Bronwyn gasp and I looked up, a horror scenario I hadn’t yet imagined taking shape before my eyes. Three massive forms lay ahead of us, one in the road and two more in the field adjacent, just the other side of a shallow ditch. Heaps of black earth, I thought at first, refusing to see.

Then we got closer, and I couldn’t pretend they were anything other than what they were: three horses dead in the road.

Olive screamed. Bronwyn instinctively went to comfort her—“Don’t look, little magpie!”—and the soldier riding shotgun fired into the air. We dove to the ground and covered our heads.

“Do that again and you’ll be lying in the ditch beside them!” he shouted.

As we returned to our feet, Emma angled toward me and breathed the word Gypsies, then nodded at the closest horse. I took her meaning: these were their horses. I even recognized the markings on one—white spots on its hind legs—and realized it was the very horse I’d been clinging to just an hour ago.

I felt like I was about to be sick.

It all came together, playing out like a movie in my head. The wights had done this—the same ones who’d raided our camp the night before. The Gypsies had met them along the road after leaving us at the edge of town. There’d been a skirmish, then a chase. The wights had shot the Gypsies’ horses right out from under them.

I knew the wights had killed people—killed peculiar children, Miss Avocet had said—but the brutality of shooting these animals seemed to exceed even that evil. An hour ago they’d been some of the most fully alive creatures I’d ever seen—eyes gleaming with intelligence, bodies rippling with muscle, radiating heat—and now, thanks to the intervention of a few pieces of metal, they were nothing but heaps of cold meat. These proud, strong animals, shot down and left in the road like garbage.

I shook with fear, seethed with anger. I was sorry, too, that I’d been so unappreciative of them. What a spoiled, ungrateful ass I was.

Pull it together, I told myself. Pull yourself together.

Where were Bekhir and his men now? Where was his son? All I knew was that the wights were going to shoot us. I was sure of it now. These impostors in soldiers’ costumes were nothing but animals themselves; more monstrous even than the hollowgast they controlled. The wights, at least, had minds that could reason—but they used that creative faculty to dismantle the world. To make living things into dead things. And for what? So that they might live a little longer. So that they might have a little more power over the world around them, and the creatures in it, for whom they cared so little.

Waste. Such a stupid waste.

And now they were going to waste us. Lead us to some killing field where we’d be interrogated and dumped. And if Hugh had been dumb enough to follow us—if the bee flying up and down our line meant he was nearby—then they’d kill him, too.

God help us all.

* * *

The fallen horses were well behind us when the soldiers ordered us to turn off the main road and down a narrow farm lane. It was hardly more than a footpath, just a few feet wide, so the soldiers who’d been riding alongside us had to park their jeep and walk, one in front and two behind. On either side of us the fields grew wild, bursting with flowering weeds and humming with late-summer insects.

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