“Where’s the fun in that? Surprises are much better.”
“Tickles must’ve taken a fancy to you,” said another. “He chewed the legs off his last visitor!”
“That’s nothing,” said a head with a shiny hoop earring like a pirate. “Once I saw him tie a rope around a peculiar, lower him into the river for five minutes, then reel him up and eat him.”
“Peculiar al dente,” the third said, impressed. “Our Tickles is a gourmand.”
Not quite ready to stand, I scooted over a few feet to Emma and Addison. While she sat rubbing her head, he tested his weight on an injured paw.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I knocked my head pretty good,” Emma replied, wincing as I parted her hair to examine a trickle of blood.
Addison held up a limp paw. “I fear it’s broken. I don’t suppose you could’ve asked the beast to set us down gently.”
“Very funny,” I said. “Come to think of it, why didn’t I just tell it kill to all the wights and rescue our friends, too?”
“Actually, I was wondering the same thing,” said Emma.
“Well, I’m not,” she said. I dabbed at her wound with my shirt cuff. She drew a sharp breath and pushed my hand away. “What happened back there?”
“I think the hollow understood me, but I couldn’t make it obey. I don’t have a connection with that hollow like I do—did—with the other one.”
That beast was dead, crushed under a bridge and probably drowned, and now I was a little sorry about it.
“How did you connect with the first one?” asked Addison.
I quickly recounted how I’d found it frozen in ice up to its eyeballs, and after a night spent in strangely intimate, hand-atop-head communion I had, apparently, managed to safe-crack some vital part of its neurology.
“If you had no connection with the bridge hollow,” said Addison, “why did it spare our lives?”
“Maybe I confused it?”
“You need to get better at this,” Emma said bluntly. “We have to get Addison across.”
“Better? What am I supposed to do, take lessons? That thing will kill us the next time we get near it. We’ll have to find another way across.”
“Jacob, there is no other way.” Emma raked a veil of mussed hair away from her face and held me with her eyes. “You’re the way.”
I was launching into a creaky rebuttal when I felt a sharp pain in my backside and leapt yelping to my feet. One of the heads had bitten me on the ass.
“Hey!” I shouted, rubbing the spot.
“Stick us back on our pikes like you found us, vandal!” it said.
I punted it as hard as I could and it tumbled away into the crowd of squatters. All the heads began to shout and curse us, rolling about grotesquely with the action of their jaws. I cursed back and kicked ash in their horrible leathery faces until they were all spitting and choking. And then something small and round came sailing through the air and hit me wetly in the back.
A rotten apple. I spun to face the squatters. “Who threw that?”
They laughed like stoners, low and snickering.
“Go back where you came from!” one of them yelled.
I was starting to think that wasn’t a bad idea.
“How dare they,” Addison snarled.
“Forget it,” I said to him, my anger already fading. “Let’s just—”
“How dare you!” Addison shouted, livid, rising up to address them on hind legs. “Are you not peculiar? Have you no shame? We’re trying to help you!”
“Give us a vial or get stuffed!” said a ragged woman.
Addison trembled with outrage. “We’re trying to help you,” he said again, “and here you are—here you are!—while our people are being murdered, our loops torn out root and branch, sleeping before the enemy’s gate! You should be flinging yourselves at it!” He pointed his wounded paw at them. “You are all traitors, and I swear one day I shall see you dragged before the Council of Ymbrynes and punished!”
“Okay, okay, don’t waste all your energy on them,” Emma said, wobbling to her feet. Then a rotten head of cabbage bounced off her shoulder and fell splat to the ground.
She lost it.
“All right, someone’s gonna get their face melted!” she yelled, waving a flaming hand at the squatters.
During Addison’s speech, a group had been muttering in a conspiratorial huddle, and now they came forward holding blunt weapons. A sawed branch. A length of pipe. The scene was turning ugly fast.
“We’re tired of you,” a bruised man said in a lazy drawl. “We’re puttin’ you in the river.”
“I’d like to see that,” Emma said.
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “I think we should go.”
There were six of them, three of us, and we were in rough shape: Addison was limping, Emma had blood running down her face, and thanks to my injured shoulder I could hardly lift my right arm. Meanwhile, the men were spreading apart and closing in. They meant to drive us into the chasm.
Emma looked back at the bridge and then at me. “Come on. I know you can get us across. One more try.”
“I can’t, Em. I can’t. I’m not messing around.”
And I wasn’t. I didn’t have it in me to control that hollow—not yet, at least—and I knew it.