When we were finally out of sight we dropped the boats and flopped onto their overturned keels, our wheezing breaths echoing in the damp and dripping dark. “Please, please let them not have seen us,” Emma prayed aloud.
“Ah, birds! Our tracks!” Millard yelped, and then he stripped off the overcoat he’d been wearing and scrambled back outside to cover the drag marks our boats had made; from the sky they’d look like arrows pointing right to our hiding place. We could only watch his footsteps trail away. If anyone but Millard had ventured out, they’d have been seen for sure.
A minute later he came back, shivering, caked in sand, a red stain outlining his chest. “They’re getting close now,” he panted. “I did the best I could.”
“You’re bleeding again!” Bronwyn fretted. Millard had been grazed by a bullet during our melee at the lighthouse the previous night, and though his recovery so far was remarkable, it was far from complete. “What have you done with your wound dressing?”
“I threw it away. It was tied in such a complicated manner that I couldn’t remove it quickly. An invisible must always be able to disrobe in an instant, or his power is useless!”
“He’s even more useless dead, you stubborn mule,” said Emma. “Now hold still and don’t bite your tongue. This is going to hurt.” She squeezed two fingers in the palm of her opposite hand, concentrated for a moment, and when she took them out again they glowed, red hot.
Millard balked. “Now then, Emma, I’d rather you didn’t—”
Emma pressed her fingers to his wounded shoulder. Millard gasped. There was the sound of singeing meat, and a curl of smoke rose up from his skin. In a moment the bleeding stopped.
“I’ll have a scar!” Millard whined.
“Yes? And who’ll see it?”
He sulked and said nothing.
The balloons’ engines grew louder, then louder still, amplified by the cave’s stone walls. I pictured them hovering above the cave, studying our footprints, preparing their assault. Emma leaned her shoulder into mine. The little ones ran to Bronwyn and buried their faces in her lap, and she hugged them. Despite our peculiar powers, we felt utterly powerless: it was all we could do to sit hunched and blinking at one another in the pale half-light, noses running from the cold, hoping our enemies would pass us by.
Finally the engines’ whine began to dwindle, and when we could hear our own voices again, Claire mumbled into Bronwyn’s lap, “Tell us a story, Wyn. I’m scared and I don’t like this at all and I think I’d like to hear a story instead.”
“Yes, would you tell one?” Olive pleaded. “A story from the Tales, please. They’re my favorite.”
The most maternal of the peculiars, Bronwyn was more like a mother to the young ones than even Miss Peregrine. It was Bronwyn who tucked them into bed at night, Bronwyn who read them stories and kissed their foreheads. Her strong arms seemed made to gather them in warm embraces, her broad shoulders to carry them. But this was no time for stories—and she said as much.
“Why, certainly it is!” Enoch said with singsongy sarcasm. “But skip the Tales for once and tell us the story of how Miss Peregrine’s wards found their way to safety without a map or any food and weren’t eaten by hollowgast along the way! I’m ever so keen to hear how that story ends.”
“If only Miss Peregrine could tell us,” Claire sniffled. She disentangled herself from Bronwyn and went to the bird, who’d been watching us from her perch on one of the boats’ overturned keels. “What are we to do, headmistress?” said Claire. “Please turn human again. Please wake up!”
Miss Peregrine cooed and stroked Claire’s hair with her wing. Then Olive joined in, her face streaking with tears: “We need you, Miss Peregrine! We’re lost and in danger and increasingly peckish and we’ve got no home anymore nor any friends but one another and we need you!”
Miss Peregrine’s black eyes shimmered. She turned away, unreachable.
Bronwyn knelt down beside the girls. “She can’t turn back right now, sweetheart. But we’ll get her fixed up, I promise.”
“But how?” Olive demanded. Her question reflected off the stone walls, each echo asking it again.
Emma stood up. “I’ll tell you how,” she said, and all eyes went to her. “We’ll walk.” She said it with such conviction that I got a chill. “We’ll walk and walk until we come to a town.”
“What if there’s no town for fifty kilometers?” said Enoch.
“Then we’ll walk for fifty-one kilometers. But I know we weren’t blown that far off course.”
“And if the wights should spot us from the air?” said Hugh.
“They won’t. We’ll be careful.”
“And if they’re waiting for us in the town?” said Horace.
“We’ll pretend to be normal. We’ll pass.”
“I was never much good at that,” Millard said with a laugh.
“You won’t be seen at all, Mill. You’ll be our advance scout, and our secret procurer of necessary items.”
“I am quite a talented thief,” he said with a touch of pride. “A veritable master of the five-fingered arts.”
“And then?” Enoch muttered sourly. “Maybe we’ll have food in our bellies and a warm place to sleep, but we’ll still be out in the open, exposed, vulnerable, loopless … and Miss Peregrine is … is still …”
“We’ll find a loop somehow,” said Emma. “There are landmarks and signposts for those who know what to look for. And if there aren’t, we’ll find someone like us, a fellow peculiar who can show us where the nearest loop is. And in that loop there will be an ymbryne, and that ymbryne will be able to give Miss Peregrine the help she needs.”
I’d never met anyone with Emma’s brash confidence. Everything about her exuded it: the way she carried herself, with shoulders thrown back; the hard set of her teeth when she made up her mind about something; the way she ended every sentence with a declarative period, never a question mark. It was infectious and I loved it, and I had to fight a sudden urge to kiss her, right there in front of everyone.
Hugh coughed, and bees tumbled out of his mouth to form a question mark that shivered in the air. “How can you be so bloody sure?” he asked.
“Because I am, that’s all.” And she brushed her hands as if that were that.