“He used to say he’d gone to war to fight monsters,” I said.
“He did,” said Emma.
“The war ended the Nazis’ rule, but the hollowgast emerged stronger than ever,” Miss Peregrine continued. “So, like many peculiars, we remained in hiding. But your grandfather returned a changed man. He’d become a warrior, and he was determined to build a life for himself outside the loop. He refused to hide.”
“I begged him not to go to America,” Emma said. “We all did.”
“Why did he choose America?” I asked.
“It had few hollowgast at that time,” Miss Peregrine replied. “After the war there was a minor exodus of peculiars to America. For a while many were able to pass as common, as your grandfather did. It was his fondest wish to be common, to live a common life. He often mentioned it in his letters. I’m sure that’s why he kept the truth from you for so long. He wanted for you what he could never have for himself.”
“To be ordinary,” I said.
Miss Peregrine nodded. “But he could never escape his peculiarity. His unique skill, coupled with the prowess he’d honed during the war as a hunter of hollows, made him too valuable. He was often pressed into service, asked to help eradicate troublesome pockets of hollows. His nature was such that he rarely refused.”
I thought about all the long hunting trips Grandpa Portman used to go on. My family had a picture of him taken during one of these, though I don’t know who took it or when since he almost always went alone. But when I was a kid I thought it was the funniest thing because, in the picture, he’s wearing a suit. Who brings a suit on a hunting trip?
Now I knew: Someone who’s hunting more than just animals.
I was moved by this new idea of my grandfather, not as a paranoiac gun nut or a secretive philanderer or a man who wasn’t there for his family, but as a wandering knight who risked his life for others, living out of cars and cheap motels, stalking lethal shadows, coming home shy a few bullets and marked with bruises he could never quite explain and nightmares he couldn’t talk about. For his many sacrifices, he received only scorn and suspicion from those he loved. I guess that’s why he wrote so many letters to Emma and Miss Peregrine. They understood.
Bronwyn returned with a decanter of coca-wine and another flask of brandy. Miss Peregrine sent her away and set about mixing them together in a teacup. Then she began to pat Miss Avocet gently on her blue-veined cheek.
“Esmerelda,” she said, “Esmerelda, you must rouse yourself and drink this tonic I’ve prepared.”
Miss Avocet moaned, and Miss Peregrine raised the teacup to her lips. The old woman took a few sips and, though she sputtered and coughed, most of the purplish liquid disappeared down her throat. For a moment she stared as if about to sink back into her stupor, but then she sat forward, face brightening.
“Oh, my,” she said, her voice a dry rasp. “Have I fallen asleep? How indecorous of me.” She looked at us in mild surprise, as if we’d appeared out of nowhere. “Alma? Is that you?”
Miss Peregrine kneaded the old woman’s bony hands. “Esmerelda, you’ve come a long way to see us in the dead of night. I’m afraid you’ve got us all terribly worked up.”
“Have I?” Miss Avocet squinted and furrowed her brow, and her eyes seemed to fix on the opposite wall, alive with flickering shadows. Then a haunted expression stole across her face. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve come to warn you, Alma. You must be on your guard. You mustn’t allow yourselves to be taken by surprise, as I was.”
Miss Peregrine stopped kneading. “By what?”
“They could only have been wights. A pair of them came in the night, disguised as council members. There are no male council members, of course, but it fooled my sleep-dazed wards just long enough for the wights to bind them and drag them away.”
Miss Peregrine gasped. “Oh, Esmerelda …”
“Miss Bunting and I were awoken by their anguished cries,” she explained, “but we found ourselves barricaded inside the house. It took some time to force the doors, but when we did and followed the wights’ stink out of the loop, there was a gang of shadow-beasts lying in wait on the other side. They fell upon us, howling.” She stopped, choking back tears.
“And the children?”
Miss Avocet shook her head. All the light seemed to have gone out of her eyes. “The children were merely bait,” she said.
Emma slid her hand into mine and squeezed, and I saw Miss Peregrine’s cheeks glisten in the firelight.
“It was Miss Bunting and myself whom they wanted. I was able to escape, but Miss Bunting was not so fortunate.”
“She was killed?”
“No—abducted. Just as Miss Wren and Miss Treecreeper were when their loops were invaded a fortnight ago. They’re taking ymbrynes, Alma. It’s some sort of coordinated effort. For what purpose, I shudder to imagine.”
“Then they’ll come for us, too,” Miss Peregrine said quietly.
“If they can find you,” replied Miss Avocet. “You are better hidden than most, but you must be ready, Alma.”
Miss Peregrine nodded. Miss Avocet looked helplessly at her hands, trembling in her lap like a broken-winged bird. Her voice began to hitch. “Oh, my dear children. Pray for them. They are all alone now.” And she turned away and wept.
Miss Peregrine pulled the blanket around the old woman’s shoulders and rose. We followed her out, leaving Miss Avocet to her grief.
* * *
We found the children huddled around the sitting-room door. If they hadn’t heard everything Miss Avocet had said, they’d heard enough, and it showed on their anxious faces.
“Poor Miss Avocet,” Claire whimpered, her bottom lip trembling.
“Poor Miss Avocet’s children,” said Olive.
“Are they coming for us now, Miss?” asked Horace.
“We’ll need weapons!” cried Millard.
“Battle-axes!” said Enoch.
“Bombs!” said Hugh.
“Stop that at once!” Miss Peregrine shouted, raising her hands for quiet. “We must all remain calm. Yes, what happened to Miss Avocet was tragic—profoundly so—but it was a tragedy that need not be repeated here. However, we must be on watch. Henceforth, you will travel beyond the house only with my consent, and then only in pairs. Should you observe a person unknown to you, even if they appear to be peculiar, come immediately and inform me. We’ll discuss these and other precautionary measures in the morning. Until then, to bed with you! This is no hour for a meeting.”