Hearing the guard scream I looked up, saw him unarmed and waving an injured hand, and then he was tripping away into the mad swim of churning bodies. The squatters swarmed him, not just begging but demanding, threatening, crazed—and now, somewhere, one of them had his weapon. Looking panicked, he waved to the other wight with a two-hands-over-the-head get me out of here!
I struggled to my feet and ran for Emma. The other guard dove into the crowd, firing into the air until he could pull out his comrade and get back to the truck. The moment their feet hit the running boards, they slapped the side of the truck and the engine roared. I reached Emma just as it took off for the bridge, its monster tires spitting gravel and ash.
I clasped her arm to reassure myself she was still whole. “You’re bleeding,” I said, “a lot,” which was a clunky statement of fact but also the best I could articulate how awful it felt to see her hurt—limping, a gash on her scalp leaking blood into her hair.
“Where’s Addison?” she said. But before “I don’t know” had left my lips, she interrupted—“We’ve got to go after it. This may be our only chance!”
We looked up as the truck was reaching the bridge and saw the guard gun down two squatters chasing after it. As they fell writhing to the dirt, I knew she was wrong: there was no chasing down the truck, no getting across the bridge. It was hopeless—and now the squatters knew it. As their comrades fell, I could feel their desperation turn to rage, and in what seemed an instant that rage turned on us.
We tried to run but found ourselves blocked on all sides. The mob was shouting that we’d “ruined it,” that “they’d cut us off now,” that we deserved to die. Blows started raining down on us—slaps, punches, hands tearing at our hair and clothes. I tried to protect Emma but she ended up protecting me, for a few moments at least, swinging her hands around, burning whomever she could. Even her fire wasn’t enough to get them away from us, and the hits kept coming until we were on our knees, then balled up on the ground, arms protecting our faces, pain coming from every direction.
I was almost sure I was dying, or dreaming, because I heard at that moment singing—a loud, peppy chorus of “Hark to the driving of hammers, hark to the driving of nails!”—but with each line came a smattering of fleshy thuds and corresponding yelps: “What (SMACK!) to build a gallows, the (THWACK!) for all that ails!”
After a few lines and a few thwacks, the blows stopped raining down and the mob backed away, wary and grumbling. I saw dimly, through a haze of blood and grit, five brawny gallows riggers, tool belts hung from their waists and hammers raised in their hands. They’d cut a wedge through the crowd, and now they circled us, looking down doubtfully as if we were some strange species of fish they hadn’t been expecting to find in their nets.
“Is this them?” I heard one of them say. “They don’t look so good, cousin.”
“Of course it’s them!” said another, his voice like a foghorn, deep and familiar.
“It’s Sharon!” Emma cried.
I could move my hand just enough to wipe one eye clear of blood. There he stood, all seven black-cloaked feet of him. I felt myself laugh, or try to; I’d never been so glad to see someone so ugly. He was digging something out of his pocket—little glass vials—and raised them above his head shouting, “I’VE GOT WHAT YOU WANT RIGHT HERE, YOU SICK MONKEYS! GO TAKE THEM AND LEAVE THESE CHILDREN BE!”
He turned and threw the vials down the road. The mob flooded after them, gasping and shouting, ready to tear one another apart to get them. And then it was just the riggers, slightly rumpled from the melee but unscathed, tucking their hammers back into their belts. Sharon, striding toward us with one snow-white hand outstretched, was saying, “What were you thinking, wandering off like that? I was worried sick!”
“It’s true,” said one of the riggers. “He was beside himself. Had us looking everywhere for you.”
I tried sitting up but couldn’t. Sharon was right over top of us, peering down like he was examining roadkill.
“Are you whole? Can you walk? What in the devil’s name have these reprobates done to you?” His tone was somewhere between angry drill sergeant and concerned father.
“Jacob’s hurt,” I heard Emma say, her voice cracking. “So are you,” I tried to say but couldn’t get my tongue straight. It seemed she was right: my head felt heavy as stone, and my vision was a failing satellite signal, good one moment, gone the next. I was being lifted, carried in Sharon’s arms—he was much stronger than he looked—and I had a sudden flashing thought, which I tried to say aloud:
I was all mush-mouthed but somehow he understood me, and turning my head toward the bridge, he said, “There.”
In the distance, the truck seemed to be floating in midair. Was my concussed brain playing tricks?
No. I could see it now: the truck was being lifted across the gap by the hollow’s tongues.
But where’s Addison?
“There,” Sharon repeated. “Underneath.”
Two hind legs and a small brown body dangled from the truck’s underside. Addison had clamped onto some part of its undercarriage with his teeth and caught a ride, the clever devil. And as the tongues deposited the truck on the far side of the bridge, I thought, Godspeed, intrepid little dog. You may be the best hope we’ve got.
And then I was fading, fading, the world irising toward night.