But in the back of her mind, a place she didn’t visit often because it hurt too much, she’d also nursed another idea. The night before Harlan and Marjorie and Brett, Tom and Alex had talked about Rule. She remembered the rustle of maps and Tom’s voice. She’d tried going there after Harlan, only she’d gotten so lost. It was just luck that Jayden found her. So, maybe, when the boy from Rule came and took Tobe to get better, someone would find the whistle and then show Alex. (Why anyone would, she didn’t know. It was stupid. But it was something, like a message in a bottle.) Then Alex would know where to find her, and she’d tell Tom—because, of course, Alex would’ve saved him—and they would come for her . . . just like that.

If Tom was really okay, too. If he was still alive. If he wasn’t like poor Chris, the boy from Rule who had only tried to help.

Until Hannah had gone and done what she’d done and couldn’t take it back.

From the sky came more hard, mournful cries as a trio of crows arrowed left to right, west to east, followed by six more. Even higher, she spotted the telltale glide of several seagulls. Frowning now, she craned a look behind her, toward shore. That gull was still there, but the crows had vanished. Even deeper in the trees, something flickered—a flash of light green—and then a cedar swayed with a sudden shake and shiver, spilling a fine curtain of snow.

“Well, that’s weird,” Ellie said. Crows loved fish guts or just about anything dead or dying. (Well, except the people-eaters.) This was something Jayden said, too: if you want to know where that deer you clipped had got to, don’t follow the blood. Look for the crows.

But they’re all gone now. She jumped her eyes over low-hanging branches and snow-laden evergreens. That still-billowing cloud of fine snow. Where there’d been plenty of birds before, now there was only that one gull. Which was a little strange.

Shouldering the auger over her left and a .22 on the right, she grabbed up her primer bucket again and resumed her slow trudge toward shore. The gun, a Savage, was what Jayden called a plinker, meaning it didn’t do squat and only added weight, but it made her feel better. While her hand auger wasn’t a thirty-pounder like Grandpa Jack’s, it was long and unwieldy—essentially a spear tipped with two incredibly sharp, stainless-steel blades.

Ahead, she could see Mina squirting after that one gull. With an alarmed cry, the gull lifted from its perch, circled, and let go of a long, drippy streamer. Mina skidded at the last second but not fast enough. A stringer of green-white goo splashed her muzzle, and then the gull was winging higher, shrieking gull-laughs: Ah-hah-hah-hah!

“Serves you right,” she said, while Mina only snorted and groveled in the snow. As they passed into the woods, she saw the gull, back on its rock, and could swear it was still laughing.

This particular farm was huge, once probably two farms or even three, with a gazillion acres and lots of outbuildings. Eli had gone left, following a wooded path back to the farmhouse. She peeled off right on her horse, a poky, muddy brown mare named Bella, down a meandering trail through oaks and tall tamaracks. Ahead, in a crescent-shaped clearing, the trail elbowed right and left. One look at that fork and Bella spooked, prancing and shaking her head in a clatter of metal and leather.

“Okay, okay, you big baby.” Dismounting, she looped the reins around a stout oak. None of the horses liked this part of the woods. Nothing good lay down that right-hand trail.

“So totally lame,” she muttered, darkly. Trotting by her side, Mina turned her a look, and Ellie said to the dog, “Bet if it’d been you and me, they wouldn’t have given up so fast.” Yeah, but when Jayden and Hannah found her and Mina, they hadn’t been hurt like Chris. Mortally wounded was what Hannah said about Chris, which was a fancy way of saying hurt so bad I can’t fix it. But there might have been a chance. Chris could be really strong, or Hannah might be wrong. Not trying wasn’t fair. Tom and Alex always tried. They would’ve fought . . .

“You know, Ellie, it really doesn’t do you any good to think about this. You’ll just get to feeling sorry for yourself and all.” She let out an exasperated sigh. Why was she remembering Tom and Alex and her dad and Grandpa Jack so much today? It couldn’t be the fishing. She fished all the time. “Yeah, but I miss them all the time,” she said, mad that her nose was starting to itch again. Soon she’d be bawling like a little kid. Focus on the positive: that’s what Grandpa Jack always said—and Hannah and Jayden and Isaac were nice.

“But they’re not Alex.” She veered for the left fork. “They’re not T—”

By her side, Mina suddenly alerted with a soft but distinct huff.

Uh-oh. Caught in mid-stride, one boot above the snow, Ellie went absolutely still. In her chest, her heart slapped a fast fish-flop of alarm. Mina was looking not left but down the right fork. Not growling—a good sign—but her dog’s ears were up, her body stiff. So that was not good. Not bad. Growling was bad because growling meant either unfamiliar adults, for whom she had no use, or people-eaters, for whom she had even less. Wrong time of day for them anyway. But something was spooking the dog. What?

From the sky came another harsh bray, and that was when she finally heard what it was that Mina had picked up. Heck, for all she knew, her horse had probably spooked early because Bella could hear what she hadn’t. But now Ellie did: a sound like . . . voices? Lots of them, too, like a crowded school yard at recess, coming from somewhere down that right fork. She watched Mina listening. The dog was still alert but not growling. So . . . not dangerous? Probably no adults, anyway; no people. Not alive, anyway.

Then it dawned on her. “Oh boy,” she said, and almost—doh!— smacked her forehead like Homer Simpson. The birds. The crows. That was why there were so many. Crows were scavengers, drawn to death. It was just like Jayden said: if you wanted to know where that poor wounded deer was, look for the crows. Made perfect sense.

Yeah, but do I want to go down there? Because now it was a choice, wasn’t it? Someone would have to check this out. It would take her a good hour to dump her gear, slog back to her horse, then hoof it back to the farmhouse. She was here now. Someone had to put that poor deer out of its misery, and she should grow up already. Tom would do it. So would Alex.

Carefully squaring the auger across the mouth of her pail, she unlimbered her rifle and threw the bolt. At the sound, Mina’s tail whisked in approval.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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