Mr. White grimaced. “You are a disgusting specimen, corporal.
But I agree with you—she is fascinating. I’ve heard about you, you know,” he said to Emma. “I’d give anything to do what you can do. If only we could bottle those hands of yours …”
Mr. White smiled weirdly before turning back to the soldier.
“Finish up,” he snapped, “we don’t have all day.”
“With pleasure,” the soldier replied, and then he stood, dragging his hands up Emma’s torso as he rose.
What happened next seemed to unfold in slow motion. I could see that this disgusting letch was about to lean in and give Emma a kiss. I could also see that, behind her back, Emma’s hands were now lined with flame. I knew where this was going: the second his lips got near her, she was going to reach around and melt his face—even if it meant taking a bullet. She’d reached a breaking point.
So had I.
I tensed, ready to fight. These, I was convinced, were our last moments. But we’d live them on our own terms—and if we were going to die, by God, we’d take a few wights with us along the way.
The soldier slid his hands around Emma’s waist. The barrel of another’s rifle dug into her forehead. She seemed to be pushing back against it, daring it to fire. Behind her back I saw her hands begin to spread, white-hot flame tracing along each of her fingers.
Here we go—
Then CRACK!—the report of a gun, stunning and sharp. I shut down, blacked out for a second.
When my sight came back, Emma was still standing. Her head still intact. The rifle that had been pressed against it was pointed down now, and the soldier who’d been about to kiss her had pulled away and spun around to face the window.
The gunshot had come from outside.
Every nerve in my body had gone numb, tingling with adrenaline.
“What was that?” said Mr. White, rushing to the window. I could see through the glass over his shoulder. The soldier who’d gone to intercept the train was standing outside, waist-deep in wildflowers. His back was to us, his rifle aimed at the field.
Mr. White reached through the bars that covered the window and pushed it open. “What the hell are you shooting at?” he shouted.
“Why are you still here?”
The soldier didn’t move, didn’t speak. The field was alive with the whine of insects, and briefly, that’s all we could hear.
“Corporal Brown!” bellowed Mr. White.
The man turned slowly, unsteady on his feet. The rifle slipped from his hands and fell into the tall grass. He took a few doddering steps forward.
Mr. White took the revolver from his holster and pointed it out the window at Brown. “Say something, damn you!”
Brown opened his mouth and tried to speak—but where his voice should’ve been, an eerie droning noise came echoing up from his guts, mimicking the sound that was everywhere in the fields around him.
It was the sound of bees. Hundreds, thousands of them. Next came the bees themselves: just a few at first, drifting through his parted lips. Then some power beyond his own seemed to take hold of him: his shoulders pulled back and his chest pressed forward and his jaws ratcheted wide open, and from his gaping mouth there poured forth such a dense stream of bees that they were like one solid object; a long, fat hose of insects unspooling endlessly from his throat.
Mr. White stumbled back from the window, horrified and baffled.
Out in the field, Brown collapsed in a cloud of stinging insects. As his body fell, another was revealed behind him.
It was a boy.
He stood defiantly, staring through the window. The insects swung around him in a great, whirling sphere. The fields were packed with them—honeybees and hornets, wasps and yellow jackets, stinging things I couldn’t know or name—and every last one of them seemed to be at his command.
Mr. White raised his gun and fired. Emptied his clip.
Hugh went down, disappearing in the grass. I didn’t know whether he had fallen to the ground or dived to it. Then three other soldiers ran to the window, and while Bronwyn cried “Please, don’t kill him!” they raked the field with bullets, filling our ears with the thunder of their guns.
Then there were bees in the room. A dozen, maybe, furious and flinging themselves at the soldiers.
“Shut the window!” Mr. White screamed, swatting the air around him.
A soldier slammed the window closed. They all went to work smacking the bees that had gotten in. While they were busy with that, more and more collected outside—a giant, seething blanket of them pulsing against the other side of the glass—so many that by the time Mr. White and his men had finished killing the bees inside the room, the ones outside had nearly shut out the sun.
The soldiers clustered in the middle of the floor, backs together, rifles bristling out like porcupine quills. It was dark and hot, and the alien whine of a million manic bees reverberated through the room like something out of a nightmare.
“Make them leave us alone!” Mr. White shouted, his voice cracking, desperate.
As if anyone but Hugh could do that—if he was still alive.
“I’ll make you another offer,” said Bekhir, pulling himself to his feet using the window bars, his hobbled silhouette outlined against the dark glass. “Put down your guns or I open this window.”
Mr. White spun to face him. “Even a Gypsy wouldn’t be stupid enough to do that.”
“You think too highly of us,” Bekhir said, sliding his fingers toward the handle.
The soldiers raised their rifles.
“Go ahead,” said Bekhir. “Shoot.”
“Don’t, you’ll break the glass!” Mr. White shouted. “Grab him!”
Two soldiers threw down their rifles and lunged at Bekhir, but not before he punched his fist through the glass.
The entire window shattered. Bees flushed into the room. Chaos erupted—screams, gunfire, shoving—though I could hardly hear it over the roar of the insects, which seemed to fill not just my ears but every pore of my body.
People were climbing over one another to get out. To my right I saw Bronwyn push Olive to the floor and cover her with her body. Emma shouted “Get down!” and we ducked for cover as bees tumbled over our skin, our hair. I waited to die, for the bees to cover every exposed inch of me in stings that would shut down my nervous system.
Someone kicked open the door. Light blasted in. A dozen boots thundered across the floorboards.
It got quiet. I slowly uncovered my head.
The bees were gone. So were the soldiers.