Twenty minutes later, Rivers arrived, leading a group of at least a hundred children. The ones who could walk held hands, forming a line that never seemed to end. Older men and women who must have been their caretakers carried the smallest ones—toddlers and infants who couldn’t have been more than a few months old, and I bit back a curse. If the guards found us, we would be completely defenseless.
“Val,” called Benjy as they entered. A blonde woman who reminded me of Nina, the matron of our group home, looked up. “Over here.”
She carried two sleeping babies in her arms, and when she joined us, Benjy took one. “What’s going on?” she said.
“We’re getting out of here.” As he launched into the plan, I headed across the dining hall to join Rivers. He stood at the doorway, weapon in hand, as he kept vigilant watch over the eerily quiet street.
“How long before we can move?” I said. His steady stare didn’t waver.
“Scotia gave me a ten-minute warning. Gather everyone together, and I’ll lead you there.”
“Any idea what she’s going to do?” I said, and he grimaced, all traces of his boyish demeanor gone.
“Concentrate on doing your part. Let her handle the rest.”
Worry fluttered in my chest, but for once in my life, I did as I was told. There was nothing I could do to help Scotia and Hannah, but I could help those kids, and I had to focus on that.
By the time those ten minutes were up, Benjy and I had sorted the children into small groups and assigned an able-bodied adult to look after them. I was kneeling beside a five-year-old girl on the verge of tears when a loud blast sounded nearby, rattling the dining hall. Several children screamed, and I flinched as the world seemed to tilt all over again.
“Rivers,” I called, stumbling toward him as quickly as I could. “What’s going on?”
He spoke into a communication device on his shoulder and glanced at me. “Time to go.”
One by one, we ushered the groups out of the dining hall and into the freezing cold. It was early afternoon by now, but clouds had gathered, and as we made our way through the back alleys toward Mercer Manor, it began to snow.
As we passed each block, I spotted clusters of men and women holding weapons and standing on the corners, watching us. Several nodded, and one man—the first man who had volunteered—smiled.
“All right?” said Benjy, appearing beside me. Now he carried a toddler in his other arm, and despite his brave face, I could see him wince with each step.
“Yeah—are you okay? I can take the baby,” I said, but he shook his head.
“You can barely walk in a straight line. I’ve got them.”
I remained glued to his side. As we grew closer to Mercer Manor, I drew the gun Scotia had given me, holding it in my uninjured hand. The silence seemed to echo warnings all around us, and my skin prickled as if I could sense someone watching us. With every step I took, I readied myself for an onslaught, but miraculously, nothing happened. Despite the tension in the air, no one attacked us. Scotia really had secured the section.
“All right,” said Rivers once we reached the street. “You have a clear shot. Go as fast as you can. Lila—up front. I need you to show them where to go.”
I joined him, Benjy still at my side. “There’s a tunnel in the cellar,” I said to the others. Dozens of faces stared at me, and the children’s weren’t the only ones that were tear-stained. “Once we reach it, go as quickly as you can. It’s several miles long, but it should let out in a safe place.”
“Should?” said Val.
“It’s our best chance. Unless you want to stay here.”
Her face grew pinched, and she shifted the baby in her arms, but she didn’t say anything more.
I led the way across the street and up to the gate of Mercer Manor. Half a dozen Blackcoats stood on either side of us, weapons at the ready in case someone attacked, and my heart was in my throat as Rivers opened the gate. I expected smoke and fire at any moment, but everything was unnervingly normal. The only sign that something was amiss was the unnatural quiet throughout the section, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something or someone was watching us.
The climb up the hill wore me down to the bone, but I pushed on, refusing to collapse no matter how badly my knees shook. I had to do this. This was their only chance at safety, and Scotia and the others wouldn’t be able to fight a real battle if they had to worry about protecting us, too. I had to do my job so they could do theirs.
At last I reached the porch, and I unlocked the keypad securing the front door with my necklace, not caring who saw. As soon as the lock clicked open, I pushed open the door and led them inside the foyer. Dozens of footsteps echoed in the marble hallway, and several people gasped as they saw the splendor that had stood here all this time while they were only a hundred feet away, trudging through snow and mud.
“This way,” I said, and I led them to the cellar door and down the creaky steps. Part of me expected to see Mercer in the workshop, waiting with knives in each hand, but it was empty. I flicked on the lights and hurried over to the opening in the wall. The wooden cupboard still lay smashed on the concrete floor, right where I’d left it, and I stepped around the pieces of wood before yanking the door open.
The tunnel was as dark as ever. I rooted around for the flashlight I’d left down there, sighing with relief when I found it. “Here—take this,” I said to a girl who looked to be about ten. “Hold the flashlight so everyone can see where they’re going.”