Her hand crept to her neck. Chris had her coat, but she’d kept her fleece and wool scarf. Carefully, slowly, she unwrapped the loops of wool, then bunched the scarf into a fleece pocket.

“Okay, girl,” she said, moving much more slowly than she wanted. The mare was quivering; she could see its hide twitching. When her hand found Bella’s bridle again, Ellie resisted the urge to pull or do anything but stroke the animal’s neck. “Easy,” she said as the horse tossed and blew a loud and long horsey raspberry. Ellie kept stroking, telling the horse, It’s fine, that’s good, it’s okay. When the horse was only breathing and no longer stamping, Ellie inched out the scarf, thought for just a second—you watch; this only works in books—then reached up and draped the scarf over Bella’s eyes.

To her astonishment, the mare didn’t toss or even move. Ellie could actually see the tension rippling and then running out of the horse’s powerful shoulders. Still talking nonsense, she tied the scarf, lightly knotting it behind the horse’s jaw.

“All right, let’s go,” she said, cautiously gathering up the reins, bracing herself for the bolt Bella would surely try. The horse did tug but only once.

It was, Ellie decided, a good omen. In five minutes, the mechanical rasp and clack of the crows swelled through the trees. Bella’s ears pricked, angling toward the sound like radar dishes homing in on an alien signal.

Don’t bolt, please don’t shy. Ellie held her breath but then thought that if she didn’t get spooked, the horse probably wouldn’t either. The milling crows parted as they had before, like waves retreating from a beach. Ellie led the horse all the way to the point where the ramp met the slider and felt a burst of elation. Her saddle was just even with the ramp at its highest point.

This is gonna work. Throwing the reins over the horse’s head so they draped over the horn, she scurried up the ramp. The slider complained, and that made Bella turn her head, but Ellie was already wheeling inside to where Mina, tail thumping, patiently waited. This has to.

She spared a few seconds to press her ear to Chris’s chest. His heart balled with a dull thump . . . pause . . . thump . . . pause . . . thump . . . Boy, that was really slow. She wished she knew if that was good or bad, then decided anything was better than zip. His eyes still roamed, but his breathing was better, no gasps now, and his skin was pinker.

Drag him . That was what she’d decided. Grabbing up pillows from the other bodies, she eyed Chris, the distance he would fall, then arranged the pillows into a landing zone. Shaking out two of the burlap sacks, she spread these over the pillows, then clambered back up to Chris, braced herself on her knees, hooked her hands under his arms, and levered him into a slouch against her lap. His arms were heavy but floppy, his limp hands dangling, the fingers like the legs of dead spiders. Chris’s head slewed then lolled, and she could see the steady but slow throb of his pulse in his neck. The smudges under his eyes were bluer now, not as gray.

“Okay,” she said. She hitched toward the edge in fits and starts, scooting him what seemed an inch at a time, feeling with her feet for the moment when her boot tipped over the pallet’s lip and into air. Chris was much heavier than she’d expected, and she was sweating, her breath coming in harsh pants. Tail swishing encouragement, Mina watched as Ellie worked her butt toward the edge with another gigantic heave—

Her right foot shot into thin air. Gasping, she felt herself tilt as Chris’s weight shifted against her chest; her left knee, still bent to support him, fired with a sudden tearing pain as she tumbled sideways off the pallet. She came down hard on the pillows, on her back, and in an awkward splay, like a ballerina doing a really bad split. The impact slapped the air from her lungs, and pain roared all the way into her groin. Chris was so much dead weight on her chest, and he’d jackknifed, although he was now mostly off the pallet, his legs loosely flexed at the knees. Squirming out from under, she got her boots planted and pushed to a stand. Her left knee yelled, but she could gimp on it just fine and that was all that mattered.

All right, hurry up, hurry up. Pulling his legs off the rest of the way, she got Chris arranged on the burlap sled, tucked all the remaining sacks and her coat around his body. Then she went to his head, fisted up tongues of burlap, and pulled, really put her weight into it. He moved—not by a lot, but the burlap let out a shush as it skidded over stone, and suddenly, his head was six inches closer to the slider than it had been only a second before. Huffing, grunting, her boots clapping stone and Mina keeping pace, she hauled him all the way to the slider, which she’d left open this time around. The crows were bunched up at the edge but backed away in that black eddy as she slid the burlap onto the snow. Here, the going got even easier. As she dragged Chris to the left and toward Bella, she eyed the saddle. Okay, slide him as close as you can, then roll him onto his tummy, and you’ll have to push, get his chest over the saddle—

As if someone somewhere flicked a switch, the crows went completely still and silent. Just a dead stop, like a soundtrack suddenly cutting out. What? For a second, Ellie actually thought there was something wrong with her ears. But then she heard Mina’s pants and her own harsh breaths, and the hard drum of her heart. Uh-oh. All the fine hairs bristled on her neck. She was still in her crouch, but now she let go of the burlap and straightened. Beneath her boots, the snow spoke in tiny, alarmed squeals. In his burlap cocoon, Chris sighed a low moan.

As one, the crows lifted in a huge, silent storm, exploding from the snow and the death house to rocket away in a swirling cloud. It was so much like the day everything died that Ellie threw her arms over her head and screamed, “No, no, not again!” She couldn’t help it. But there was no detonation of pain in her head. So it’s not that. Eyes wide, she threw her head back, watching the crows silently spin away. Then what? What could—

By her side, Mina began to growl, deep in her chest, a sound that swelled to a snarl.

Oh . . . Her mind couldn’t squeak out the no. Heart slamming her ribs, Ellie swept her eyes from the sky and those silent birds and down to the snow and the woods. Oh boy, I’m in so much trouble.

Because there, in the clearing and at the mouth of the trail that would take her and Chris from the death house to safety, was a girl.

32

Those knives were real trouble. The Glock in his hand wouldn’t fire. Neither would the Eagle. His Bravo was out of easy reach. Tom thought about that silver glint in the trees and wondered just how many other Chuckies were out there, knives at the ready, and what they were waiting for, unless this was simply the way they did things. Send in an attacker, one right after the other, to tire him out before swarming in for the kill, like wolves.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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