Monday, 30 November 2020

[Glory Brats 14] Food and Rest

They left the horses at a stable by the gate. Rosa tried to take Rat away to get her hands seen to, but Rat struggled and ran back to Sparrow and the others. "I'll go with her," said Sparrow. "Sometimes she bites."

"And you others would like some food? Hana - take them to the kitchen and fix them up with something. You - come with me."

Sparrow and Rat followed Rosa through the muddle of houses and into a wooden building, painted white inside and out. It was set up like a hospital ward, with beds running along the walls. This reassured Sparrow. She hadn't been sure what Outsider medicine would be like, but it appeared to be similar to City clinics, if a little basic.

Rosa rang a bell just inside the door. There was a wooden bench underneath. She nodded her head at it, "Sit there and wait." 

Sparrow sat on the bench. Rat crawled underneath it. A man stalked across the ward floor to the entrance. "What can I help with?"

"Hey Doc. We found these kids in the woods," Rosa said. "They say the one underneath the bench has burnt her hands. I need to go report now, but I'll come back when I'm done."

The doctor knelt on the ground to get a look at Rat. He took in her bared teeth, sock-wrapped hands,  and her mud-encrusted clothes. He looked up at Sparrow.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"She burnt her hands in the fire trying to get the dead bird back, and we poured water over but we didn't have enough so then we took her to the river and put her hands in the water, and then we covered them with socks so she wouldn't scratch. We used my socks." Sparrow stuck her legs out to show her bare feet inside her gym shoes.

"I can see that." The doctor risked another glance at Rat. "What's this one's name?"

"We call her Rat but her name is Em. It's on her wrist. Be careful, she bites."

The doctor went to a cupboard and came back with some thick gloves on. He knelt down again. "Hello Em.  I'm going to help make your hands better. Why don't you come out and I'll take a look?"

"She doesn't speak. She'll come out if you have some food."

Rat looked up at the mention of food. Standing up again, the doctor picked up a plate on the desk and brought it over. It had some bread on it. He held a piece out to Rat and she grasped at it clumsily with her sock-wrapped hands, stuffing it into her mouth.

"My name's Sparrow by the way."

"Hello Sparrow. Do you know why she's so scared?"

Rat by this point had crawled out from under the bench and was crouching by it, eyes focused on the plate with the bread. 

Sparrow picked the last bit of bread up and waved it in front of Rat's face. "You want this bit? Then you'll have to behave. No biting!" 

 Rat reached out to take the piece but Sparrow shook her head. She stuck her arms out in front of her and indicated that Rat should do the same. The doctor took off his gloves and slowly began to peel away the sock from Rat's skin. Rat squirmed and opened her mouth showing her teeth, but Sparrow held up the bit of bread and she became still again.

'I don't know why she's like this." Sparrow said at last. "She just is."

***

Once Rat's hands were checked and bandaged up, Rosa took them to join the others. They were in one of the grass covered houses, sitting on benches at a long wooden table. Bowls of soup were in front of them, being hastily demolished. Inside the house it was dark but cosy, with lamps hanging from the ceiling and dotted around the place. Sparrow and Rat sat down at the table and each got some soup and bread. Rat tried to lift the bowl with her bandaged hands and dropped it. A bit of the soup slopped over the side onto the table. Rat bent her face down and licked it all up.

Sparrow sighed and lifted up Rat's spoon. She fed Rat a mouthful and then took some from her own bowl. Then she fed Rat again, who was waiting, mouth open like a baby bird.

"You kids certainly can eat!" Hana remarked as she cleared the table. "I'll show you where you can sleep tonight."

She took the others upstairs, leaving Sparrow and Rat to eat alone. Once they were finished, Sparrow stacked their bowls with the others next to the sink. Then she wandered up the stairs with Rat clambering behind.

Upstairs was a long room with a high, pointed roof and a window at the end. Beds lined the sides of the room, covered in colourful blankets made from scraps of different fabrics. Hana was lighting a lamp at the top of the stairs. It was made of metal and pierced all over with holes, casting striking shadows on the floor and walls. 

"I wasn't sure if you'd want a light or not."

"That's fine." Sparrow said politely.

"Sparrow - the beds are so soft! You sink right into them." Dee called out from one of the beds.

"Oho so you can speak..." Hana said, turning round, "I wasn't sure - you were all so quiet."

"Rat's the only one of us who doesn't speak." Bee said, stroking the soft fabric of the quilt. "Sometimes the others talk too much."

"You're not supposed to talk in front of the adults." Zed said quietly. "They don't like it."

"Well, talk as much as you like now. No one else is here so you've got the place to yourselves. People will be coming and going downstairs so give a shout if you need anything. Night, kids."

She placed the lamp on a hook on the wall. They heard her thumping down the stairs. Sparrow ran over and jumped on one of the free beds next to Tekla. Rat climbed onto the last bed and burrowed into the blankets.

***

Sparrow slept for a long time. Even so, she was still the first to wake up. Or so she thought. Then she noticed Bee sitting by the window at the end of the room. She was sitting in a shaft of sunlight and the wrap from around her eyes was lying on the floor. Sparrow swung her legs round to get out of bed and at the noise Bee's fingers flew to fix the wrap back in place.

"You don't have to wear it...."

"What do you know...City Girl?"

"City Girl yourself! And I bet you're just scared, scared of what people will say." Sparrow taunted.

Bee stood up. "So what if I am? People don't like my eyes."

"Well they'll never get a chance to like them if you don't let them see them."

"You want to see my eyes, Sparrow? Do you want to tell me you like my eyes?" Bee pulled the wrap off. Her eyes were whiter than Dee's eyes, and she had faded bruising around both eye sockets. It looked so different from anything she had ever seen that Sparrow wanted to be sick. Instead she stayed silent, wondering if they hurt.

"Thought not..." muttered Bee, and tied the wrap back over her eyes. She stalked across the floor and found the stair railing with her hands. "I'm going downstairs."


Wednesday, 25 November 2020

[Glory Brats 13] Outsiders

 Sparrow made Rat lie on the bank and dip her arms into the flowing water. Rat made grumbly noises and tried to roll over, but Sparrow sat on her until she lay still. Zed hovered nearby. 

"She's got blisters on her hands." Sparrow lay on her back and stared up at the trees. 

"We could put socks over them and tie them so she doesn't take them off?"

Sparrow sat up, "That's actually a good idea. If we keep them damp then they'd be cooling too." She untied her shoelaces and removed her socks. Rat did not want the socks over her hands but they eventually wrestled them into place and secured them with tape from the MediKit. Rat bashed her hands against her face and tried to bite through the ties. 

They were headed back along the path to the others when they heard noises from behind them. Sparrow pulled them all in to the side to hide in the undergrowth. They crouched down close to the ground and waited. 

Sparrow had only ever seen horses in books. In real life they were noisier than she expected. They clip clopped along the path at a fast trot, but pulled up sharply just in front of them. She held her breath.

"You might as well come out. We saw you dive in there."

They shuffled out onto the path. Four adults on horses looked down at them. The one in front dismounted when she saw they were only kids. She stepped forward and they retreated back towards the undergrowth, so she stopped.

"What's wrong with the little one's hands?"

"She burnt them in the fire." Sparrow called from the middle of a bush. "But we've put cold water on them and covered them so she can't scratch at them and we don't need any help thank you goodbye."

They heard hastily smothered laughter. Rat peeked her head out and was hauled back by Sparrow.

"What are you doing out here all alone? Is there anyone with you?"

Sparrow held up the slide rule, "We're looking for my dad. He's a railway engineer. Have you seen him?"

The woman leaned forward, "Can I see that?"

Sparrow slunk onto the path. She warily handed the slide rule over, "Be careful with it..."

The woman took a quick glance at it then handed it back over. "I think we might know where your father is."

"Do you really?" Sparrow's face lit up. "Where is he?"

"He came through here with us about a week ago. That's when he must have dropped it."

"But where is he?" Sparrow persisted.

The woman hesitated. "He's with friends. You should come with us, we can take care of your friend's burns so they don't get infected."

Sparrow looked down at Rat's bandaged hands. She knew that she couldn't do anything more for Rat, and maybe this would give them all a chance to sleep properly and get some more food. After all, they could always leave any time they liked.

"Okay, we'll come with you, but I'll need to get the others." Sparrow, Zed and Rat ran off towards where they'd left the others.

Bee, Dee and Tekla trooped along behind Sparrow and out onto the path. Dee's eyes widened when he saw the horses, but kept his mouth shut in the presence of the adults. 

"That all of you?"

Sparrow nodded, and the woman started to give out orders, "Right, you two bigger ones can sit behind me and Merrik, and the smaller ones can pair up with Hana and Kade. We'll be slow, but faster than walking."

After that there was a bit of fuss getting everybody where they were supposed to be. Dee broke his silence after discovering that they were actually to ride on the monsters. Sparrow sat behind Hana, with Rat in front. She didn't like the sensation of riding at first, it was too bumpy and she moved from side to side. Luckily their journey was along a fairly flat piece of ground - she didn't want to think what it would be like over rough ground. They rode through the trees for the first part, which thinned out to a scrubby wasteland area. Here they rode a little faster, as though they were worried about being seen on the open terrain. After a while they arrived at a place where they had to go through an old town, with empty houses and buildings on either side of the road. Doors and windows were boarded up, with an occasional one busted open where scavengers had entered to look for loot. 

They rode mostly in silence, although Rosa  -the woman in charge- occasionally called out to the other riders. Hana tried talking to Sparrow, but her attention was mostly taken up with keeping Rat on the horse. Rat did not like the horse, and she wriggled around and almost fell off until Sparrow told her to stop it. Rat didn't always do what Sparrow said, but this time she obeyed. 

"How long have you kids been on your own?" Hana asked.

Sparrow thought for a bit. "Well, my dad disappeared over a week ago. And so Tekla and me were alone, and then we met the others maybe...four days ago? I forget how long, I've not been counting."

"Had other things to think about." Hana suggested.

"Yeah." Sparrow agreed. "My dad...he's not where we're going, is he?"

Hana glanced at Rosa's back before she answered. "No. But he was there with us. You'll learn more when we get there. Not long now."

Sparrow looked down at the road before remembering that made her feel sick, and returned to staring at Hana's back. "Why was my dad with you? He was working on the railway when they all disappeared. Everyone said that the Outsiders took them away."

"Outsiders?"

"People who...oh." Sparrow stopped, swallowed once, then started again. "YOU were the Outsiders. You took my dad away."

Hana turned round to give her a sympathetic glance. "It wasn't like that. We had to speed up our plans. Your dad always meant to come with us. He just didn't mean for the others on his team to get involved."

Sparrow sat in silence. She had too many questions. Her dad and Outsiders? Why would he go with them? Why would he leave Tekla and her on their own? Could she even trust these people? She felt stupid for not realising before,  but everyone always spoke of Outsiders as half-savages, only skilled in fighting. Certainly not people who cared about the burnt hands of strange children.

 "Here we are," said Hana, and Sparrow looked up. They rode through a gate set into a high wooden fence. Someone shut the gate behind them. Beyond the fence were houses that looked half sunk into the earth, the corrugated metal fronts looking strange beside the grass-covered rooftops. The houses were built surrounding a huge stone tower, circular in shape, with a door high up in the wall that was reached by a wooden ramp.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

[Glory Brats 12] The Brats make a discovery

They followed the path through some trees which were as unlike the other forest as could be. The trees were not so close together, their trunks were smooth, and the canopy was open, letting light dapple through onto the ground below. Sparrow looked around at the others. Bee was walking slowly along the path. Zed yawned widely. Dee looked half asleep as he walked. Only Tekla and Rat seemed to have any energy, running ahead and darting in and out of the trees.

"We should stop and rest." Sparrow decided. "I'll build a fire too and we can dry off our wet socks. It won't be seen as easily during the daylight."

She soon got a fire going in a small clearing. Bee handed out the blankets from the packs, and everyone sat down on the ground around the fire. Dee curled up on his blanket and fell asleep. Zed stretched out as though he was going to do the same. Bee leant back against a tree stump and soon her head fell forward in sleep.  

"I guess I'll stay awake then." Sparrow said to herself. She watched as Tekla and Rat chased one another around the clearing. She felt her eyes closing and wondered if it would be so bad to fall asleep. She shook herself awake. Tekla and Rat couldn't look after themselves and even Dee had managed to stay awake all night to watch over them. 

"Don't go too far!" she called out, as Tekla hid behind a tree. "Stay where I can see you."

She settled herself down onto her blanket and watched the fire. Her eyes closed again, and this time she didn't shake herself awake. She could hear the two little girls running through the leaf litter on the forest floor. As long as she could hear them she could shut her eyes just for a little while. Soon she had drifted off into sleep.

Sparrow woke up with a start. She raised her head in panic and looked around the clearing. Tekla and Rat were nowhere to be seen. Getting to her feet, she ran to where she'd last seen Tekla darting behind a tree. She breathed a sigh of relief. The two girls were crouched down by a fallen tree, looking at something on the ground.

"Tekla!" She called out, angry now that her fear was gone.

Tekla turned around, her finger to her lips, "Shhhhh. Sparrow, come and see!"

Sparrow went over, intending to grab both girls by the arms and drag them back to the fire. But when she got there, she froze, looking down at what they had found.

In a moss-lined hollow lay a squirming mass of puppies. They had short, soft fur and velvety ears, and were wriggling and squealing as Tekla and Rat picked them up. She knelt down and stroked one that was trying to clamber out of the way of the others. Then she drew her hand back and stood up.

"Leave them alone - you don't know what diseases they might have. And the mother will be..." she broke off as she heard a low growling sound coming from behind her. She turned around to see the mother dog snarling and showing its teeth. Tekla screamed and ran away. The dog followed her, barking and snapping. Sparrow grabbed Rat and ran after them. 

Tekla ran into the clearing, still screaming, followed by the dog. The others around the campfire woke up with the noise. Sparrow bounded over to the fire, shoved Rat at Zed, and seized a burning branch from the fire. She advanced on the dog, and it backed off, still growling. She moved forward until the dog was out of the clearing, when it turned and ran back to the puppies. It stood there, barking. Sparrow kept the burning branch in front of her and backed slowly away.

She threw the branch back onto the fire. Then she rounded on Tekla and Rat.

"I told you to stay where I could see you!"

Tekla's bottom lip quivered like she was about to cry. Rat frowned and bared her teeth like the dog had, and wriggled free of Zed's grasp. She crouched some distance away, watching as Tekla ran forward to clasp Sparrow around the waist. "I'm so...orry, Sparrow!"

Sparrow hugged her back. She looked over at Rat and waved for her to come over too, but Rat turned away, her body hunched over. Sparrow shrugged. Tekla sat down on a blanket and pulled a soft toy bird out of her pack. She hugged it to her chest and sniffed. 

Once everyone was quiet, Rat crept closer to the fire. She found a space between Tekla and Bee and pulled something out of her pocket. She started stroking it gently.

"Ugh, what is that smell?" Bee asked, wrinkling her nose.

At first Sparrow couldn't smell anything, then it drifted across the campfire and she wanted to be sick. She looked over at Rat, but Rat was hiding whatever it was with her hands, trying to shove it back into her pocket.

"Em, what is that?" Sparrow scrambled over to where Rat was sitting and grabbed at the object. It was squishy in her hand and she dropped it back into Rat's lap in disgust. Rat scooped it up and ran off with it. Sparrow followed, tackling her to the ground, and the thing fell out of Rat's grasp. Dee picked it up by one wing, holding it as far as possible from himself. The dead bird flopped down. Rat squirmed out from underneath Sparrow and wrenched it from Dee. She clutched it to her chest and glared at them all.

Sparrow looked from Rat to Tekla and back again. She stood over Rat. "It's not a toy, Em. It's dead. It needs to be thrown away."

Rat shook her head and tightened her grip on the dead bird. Sparrow sighed in frustration. "Tekla, give me your bird."

"Nu uh!" 

"Not for keeps, I just want to show her it..."

Tekla reluctantly handed over the toy bird. Sparrow held it up in front of Rat. "See? It's not a real bird."

Rat reached one hand out to the toy, still gripping her bird with the other. She looked warily at Sparrow, who nodded in encouragement. Rat poked it, then darted away. Sparrow frowned and threw the soft toy back to Tekla. "Ugh, why won't she throw it away?" 

She watched as Rat ran up to Tekla and shoved the bird in her face. Tekla squealed and ran away, chased by Rat flapping the wings of the dead bird up and down.

"Right, that's enough!" Sparrow marched over to Rat and seized the bird, fighting down her own disgust. Rat clung on to her arm, biting and scratching, but Sparrow held the bird up too high for her to reach. "This thing needs to go."

She chucked the dead bird onto the fire. Rat let go of Sparrow's arm and reached into the flames before anyone could stop her. She yelped in pain and tumbled backwards, tears starting in her eyes. Zed knelt down by her and pulled her away from the fire. 

"Bee, get the MediKit!" 

Bee started to search in her pack, but Sparrow pulled a metal bottle out of her rucksack, "It's water that you put on burns." She knelt on the other side of Rat and unscrewed the top of the bottle. Holding Rat's arm out, she poured the water over the burns on her hands and wrists. Rat rolled from side to side and gave a little whimper. As Sparrow poured the last of the water out, Dee handed her his water bottle.

"We're gonna need more..." Sparrow said. "We'll have to go back to the river." 

Sunday, 15 November 2020

[Glory Brats 11] Brats on the run

 They found themselves in a lane running between two rows of buildings. It was dark, and for the first time in ages, Sparrow felt as if eyes were watching her from all around.

"Keep close to the wall," she warned the others. Bee put one hand out to find the wall. They ran as quietly as possible until they came to the end of the lane. Sparrow peeked around the corner to see if anyone was about. At first she thought the road was empty, but then she noticed a figure leaning against a wall over near the bonfire. She ducked back behind the wall. 

"We'll have to be careful. There maybe more scouts about. We need to get back to the gap in the fence, but we'll have to go a roundabout way to get there." She took another quick look around the corner, scanning the area for possible hiding spots. "I'll go first, then you two follow. Zed, we'll run alongside that building opposite until we get to that barrier on the road. Then run to hide behind that, one at a time, before heading to the building across the road. Got that, Bee?"

Sparrow took a last look at the figure in the distance before setting off. She ran in the shadow of the building, feeling every minute that someone was going to call out and she'd be caught again. The barrier was just a large block of concrete, but was big enough to hide her if she crouched down. When she reached the safety of the final building she looked back to check on the others.

She could barely see them, deep in the shadows. Good. That meant they were well hidden from any searching eyes. She checked on the scout, but they were looking in the other direction. "Go, go now!" she said in to herself. As if in response, Bee and Zed darted out across the road. Bee stumbled a little bit as she ran, and fell onto her hands and knees on the road. Zed, already hidden behind the barrier, froze as the scout looked over in their direction. Bee lay very still. 

The scout came closer but was distracted by a shout from the square behind. In that moment, Zed scrambled to his feet and half-dragged Bee behind the concrete block. Sparrow realised that she'd been holding her breath. They all waited while the scout walked closer towards them. It was the woman that had caught Sparrow, with the rifle on her back. She scanned the road but stopped just short of the concrete. As she turned away, Sparrow gestured to Zed to stay put. Only when she got further away did Sparrow beckon them towards her. They carefully walked across the final gap.

"Whew that was close," Sparrow said. Bee said nothing, angry and ashamed that she'd almost got them caught again. Zed patted her shoulder stiffly. "It could have been any of us..."

"Not me!" Sparrow said, "I look where I'm go....oh."

They crept back to the fence in an awkward silence, constantly looking around to check they weren't being followed. They found the pile of rocks that Sparrow had left as a marker and slipped back under the fence and into the woods.

They found Dee sitting by the dying embers of the fire, clutching Sparrow's knife. He scrambled to his feet as they approached. "They fell asleep but I didn't. I looked after them." He held the knife out to Sparrow, "I took it from your bag. I'm sorry. I was scared when you didn't come back."

Sparrow took the knife and shoved it in her bag, "Always give a knife back by the handle, Dee. You don't go pointing knives at friends."

"What's friends?"

Sparrow paused. She'd meant it as a throwaway comment - 'friends' as in 'not enemies'. Because these kids weren't her friends, were they? Not real friends like Minnow or Fiony. She sighed. "People that you like, Dee. Friends are people that you like and that like you."

"Oh," said Dee happily. "Like all of us."

"Yeah..." said Bee. "That's what we are. Friends."

Sparrow ignored her and knelt down to shake Tekla and Rat awake. "C'mon, wake up - we need to go."

Tekla sleepily rubbed at her eyes,"But....it's still night?"

Rat rolled over and sprung to her feet, eyes flickering warily from side to side. Zed picked up the blankets and shoved them in the cart, while Sparrow scattered the embers from the fire. She turned to Zed, "Put the blankets in the packs - we're going to have to leave the cart. It'll slow us down." 

Zed tucked the blankets in the packs belonging to Rat, Dee and Tekla, and then helped Sparrow and Bee store the cans and other food in their own packs. Once they'd filled the rucksacks and satchels with as much as they could carry, Sparrow took the cart to the top of the ridge and sent it trundling downwards. 

They set off towards the fence, but stayed hidden in the trees. They passed the spot where they had burrowed under the fence and could see the fire still burning, and people still milling around it, although not as many as before. 

"We can't go through that way," said Sparrow. "It's too dangerous. We'll have to keep the fence in sight and find another spot to cross over."

They walked in silence. The only sound was the crunch of their feet on the forest floor. The sky began to get lighter, and the birds began to wake up above their heads. Sparrow increased her pace. She wanted to be on the other side of the fence before the sun came up, but the fence stretched ahead endlessly. She squinted into the distance, straining her eyes in the dim light. It looked as though the fence was bulging inwards towards the trees. 

They came to the spot that Sparrow had seen and looked at it from the safety of the tree-line. Someone had cut the wire of the fence and pushed their way through. By now, the sun was just coming up, and they could see further beyond the fence. Sparrow glanced to either side. She couldn't see anyone, and there were no buildings nearby for anyone to be hiding in. Beckoning the other kids forward, she stepped through the gap in the fence.

The warm light of the rising sun touched their faces. They stood clustered together, looking at out the view before them. The dusty road became a track with hedges on either side, and fields full of gently waving grass filled the horizon. A river rippled along the edges of the fields, the water glinting in the sunlight. 

"What's that?" Dee asked, pointing along the road to the left of them. 

Sparrow looked. It was a truck, and it was heading right for them. "Run!" she shouted at the others, grabbing Bee's hand and heading down the track between the hedges. They jumped into the ditch at the side of the track and crouched down, letting the bushes hide them. The truck couldn't make it down the track so they would have to stop at the top and follow on foot. The sound of the truck came closer, but Sparrow couldn't hear any signs of it slowing down. It drove right past the turn off for the track. 

After waiting for a few minutes to be sure they weren't coming back, Sparrow clambered out of the ditch. The others followed, except for Rat, who remained crouched under the hedge long after the truck had passed.

"What was that?" Bee asked.

"I think it belonged to the soldiers," Sparrow said. "It's a truck - like the cart, only bigger, and faster, and  you sit in it to steer it. They must have stolen it from the City. C'mon Em, out you get, it's gone now." 

Rat crawled out from under the hedge, stuffing something deep into the pocket of her dirty dungarees. They walked down the track to where the river crossed the path, with a ford of river stones just underneath the water. The banks were soft and trampled, and soon they were up to their ankles in the smooth, cool mud. Rat left a rubber boot behind her, and Sparrow had to go back and get it. As she was splashing back through the water, she noticed something lying on the stones and picked it up. It was a metal slide rule. Turning it over in her hands, she noticed the engraved marks at the end, and smiled suddenly. She waved it in the air at the others. "This was my dad's. He must have gone this way too."


Tuesday, 10 November 2020

[Glory Brats 10] The brats attempt an escape

"Are you a City kid?"

 Sparrow nodded slowly. This appeared to please the captain, who sat down on a chair and leaned in. "Have they abandoned the city?"

"They all left in the evacuation," said Sparrow. "We're the only ones left behind."

"How many of you are there?"

Sparrow told him. The captain seemed surprised at so many children alone, but was relieved to find out that the others were younger.

"Where are they? We should bring them here, don't you think?"

Sparrow hesitated. 

"We could look after them properly, make sure you all get some food..."

Sparrow thought about this. Their meagre store of food was already running low, and the kids were always hungry. It would be nice to be sure of a good meal. But she didn't like the way they'd all been grabbed and hauled about, and she didn't like the thought of that happening to Tekla and the others. She shook her head firmly.

The captain's expression didn't change, but he stood up and walked away a short distance to confer with another of the adults. The three children looked round at one another, and held each other's hands tightly. After some time, the captain came back over.

"Put them in one of the houses for now. We can always find the others later." 

They were dragged to their feet again and taken away to one of the semi ruined buildings. A hole in the wall served as a doorway, and the floor inside was strewn with rubble and bits of rubbish that they had to pick their way through. A flickering lamp cast jumping shadows across the room. There was no furniture, apart from a table with one leg propped up by a brick. Sparrow took all this in with one glance, before they were marched through a corridor open to the sky to a small dark room. They were shoved inside and the door shut and locked behind them. Sparrow banged her fists on the door in frustration. 

"What do we do now?" Zed asked. 

"There's a draught coming from over here." Bee said. Sparrow fumbled around in the darkness until she bumped into Bee. The older girl flinched away. "Over there, behind me."

Sparrow shut her eyes and counted to forty under her breath. When she opened her eyes again, she could see a faint light coming from the corner of the room. She went over to investigate. Near the top of the wall there was a small hole leading to outside. Some bricks and rubble lay on the floor underneath where they had fallen in. Sparrow tried to reach the hole but she was too short, and she just scraped her fingers on the rough wall.

"Bee! Come over here, will you?" Sparrow pulled a reluctant Bee over to the corner. "Reach up with your hands and I can see if you are tall enough."

Bee felt her way up the wall but her hands still fell short of the hole. 

"What about standing on the bricks?" Zed suggested.

Sparrow grabbed a couple of bricks from around the room and stacked them one on top of another. She tried to guide Bee's foot onto the top brick, but Bee shook her off, "Get out of the way - I can do it myself."

Bee wobbled on top of the bricks, but used the wall to steady herself. She stretched up as far as she could reach, and her fingers felt the rough edges of the hole. "These stones feel like I could take some away and make the hole a bit bigger..."

"Pass them down to us then, or they'll make too much noise." Sparrow and Zed stood by, ready to take the stones that Bee worked out of the wall. They placed them carefully on the floor. 

"That's enough," Sparrow said, "It looks big enough now."

"How are we going to get out of here through there? It's too high up for the two of you to get to, and I can't climb up there myself..." Bee protested.

"If I help Zed climb onto your shoulders, he can get up there, and I'll go after. Then you pile the bricks up and stand on top of them, and we help pull you up."

"No! The two of you alone won't be able to pull me up. You two should help me get up there, and then Zed can get on your shoulders and I'll help him up, and then Zed and me can help you up." 

Sparrow folded her arms and frowned. She realised that Bee's was the better idea, but didn't want to admit it. Bee took her silence for acceptance, and started to clamber up the wall, jamming her hands into the gap and hauling herself up. Zed instinctively moved forward to help. "What do you want me to do?"

"Give me a punt up." 

Zed looked over at Sparrow, "I'll need your help too."

She stepped up to the pile of rubble and stood next to Zed. The two of them made a cradle for Bee's foot with their hands. Bee stepped into it and they lifted her up as far as they could. There was a muffled cry from Bee as she banged her head on the top of the hole. "Ugh, it's hard to get through."

"At least if you can get through, then we know Zed and me will too." Sparrow said, looking up at the hole critically. "You need to bend your head down a little more, and tilt your right shoulder down."

Bee made the adjustments and disappeared from sight. Her arms soon reappeared, followed by her head,  "Quick, Zed - I can't tell if there's anyone around up here."

"I told you one of us should have gone first," Sparrow said.

Zed stepped up on top of the bricks and rubble and reached up for Bee's hands. Sparrow pushed him from below. Bee grabbed hold of Zed's arms and hauled him up through the hole. Sparrow was next, and soon all three of them were outside again. 

Friday, 6 November 2020

[Glory Brats 9 ] The Brats get caught.

 "I thought you said they were just dirty old bones" Bee said, after Sparrow's screams had subsided.

Rat held up a leg bone and waved it in the air. Sparrow shuddered and fought her for it, throwing it back down the hill. "Em, NO. These were people once..."

Rat bit her on the hand and tumbled down the hill after the bone. Sparrow waved her hand about in pain. "Will somebody...do something...about her...please!"

Zed obediently trotted down the hill. Tekla started to cry.

Sparrow sighed. "Not now, Tickles..."

"s'getting dark..." Tekla said through her sobs, "an' there's scary bones and..."

Dee slipped his hand into Tekla's,"Don't worry. Sparrow's here. She'll look after us."

Sparrow gulped in a big breath of air. The others were depending on her. She had to take charge. "Yes, there's bones, Tekla, but they can't hurt us. We'll find a place to camp soon, I promise."

Zed must have persuaded Rat to leave the bones alone because he came back up the hill to join them, followed at a short pace by the little girl. Sparrow grabbed the handle of the cart and began to tug it up over the crest of the hill. The others wearily pushed from behind.

Eventually Sparrow stopped the cart. The ground was flat and relatively stone free, and everyone was tired. "We'll stop here," she said.

Dee flopped dramatically onto the ground. Sparrow nudged him with her foot, "Oi, help us set up camp first..."

"Will we have a fire tonight?" Bee asked as she shook dust and crumbs out of the blankets from the cart.

"Yeah," said Sparrow, "But we'll keep it small."

Zed, Dee and Tekla began to pick up kindling and sticks for the fire. Sparrow knelt on the ground, scraped a shallow hole and began to coax sparks from the flint and steel onto a piece of cotton fluff from her pack. Rat crouched some distance away, hands stuffed in the deep pockets of her dungarees. 

Zed came up past the cart carrying an armful of twigs, "There's a light in the distance over there." 

Bee paused her unloading. "I can smell smoke."

"I've just lit the fire, genius." Sparrow called out.

"No, this is different. It smells different from the woodsmoke."

Sparrow left the fire and came over. "Don't be silly. And stop frightening the little ones, you two."

"But I saw a big light like a fire, Sparrow, over there past that fallen tree."

Bee drew herself up to her full height. "My sense of smell is better than yours."

Sparrow glared at her, then stopped as Bee's blind eyes stared back impassively. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to check it out..." she muttered. 

Dee, Rat and Tekla were sat around the fire with blankets, biscuits, and strict instructions not to touch anything. They happily crunched into the biscuits and barely even noticed the older three slipping out of the firelight towards the fallen tree.

Following Bee's nose, they made their way round the roots of the tree where Zed had seen the light. The smell of smoke was stronger now, and even Sparrow agreed that it wasn't just coming from their small fire. The land sloped slowly downwards and levelled out at a chain link fence. 

"It's the edge of the woods." Sparrow hissed, holding the other two back.

"Don't you want to find out where the smoke is coming from?" Zed asked.

"Yeah...but carefully..." 

They slid from tree to tree, until they were inches from the fence. Weeds and lank grasses grew up on either side. Beyond it lay a dusty, rubble-strewn road, and beyond that was a large, open space surrounded on three sides by ruined buildings. In the middle of the space was a huge bonfire. They could see people grouped around it, shouting, and throwing things onto it. Others dragged broken furniture out of the ruins and heaved it into the flames. 

"Told you it wasn't just woodsmoke," Bee said.

"Alright, alright, you and your clever nose." Sparrow whispered.

"I saw the light first," said Zed.

"Do you think there's grown ups there?" Sparrow asked, looking at the distant figures surrounding the fire.

"Don't know." 

"Don't care," said Bee.

"My dad could be there!" Sparrow said. "We need to get closer to check it out." She crouched down next to the fence and pushed the weeds and grass to the side. She took a stick and scratched away at the surface  of the ground until she'd made a small gap. Wriggling under the base of the fence, she held it up for the other two. "Bee, you'll need to lie right down."

Sparrow then took some rubble from the road and made it into a small pile near where they'd gone under the fence. "So we can find it when we come back."

Under cover of darkness, they ran across the open space and scuttled behind a wall belonging to one of the ruined buildings. The light from the bonfire meant that very little could be seen in the areas of real dark beyond its reach.They sat with their backs to the wall for a bit, listening to the scraps of conversation they could hear.

"...to be abandoned..."

"...cleared out the..."

"...should try a day run. What's the..."

The words were dotted with the smashing of glass and pops from the fire as tyres burst. Sparrow started to feel that maybe her dad wasn't going to be there. She turned around and cautiously raised her head to look over the wall. The figures mostly looked like older teenagers, with a few adults. None of the adults were her dad. All of them were dressed in some kind of rough uniform, and carried knives on their belts. She felt for her knife and remembered she'd left it back at the camp. Ducking down behind the wall again, she slid back to a sitting position, "I think we'd better get back to the others now," she whispered.

They got to their feet, though crouching still, ready to run. Sparrow took off first, and ran straight into a woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder. The woman gripped Sparrow's shoulder and looked around. Spotting the other two figures by the wall, she gave a shout, and several figures from the bonfire came running over. Zed tried to duck away from them, but they grabbed his arm firmly. Bee was caught too, and the three of them were dragged into the light of the bonfire.

A ripple of laughter went round the crowd, with a few jeers and whistles. "What's that you've caught now, Emer - a kid?" someone shouted out. One of the adults stepped forward. His uniform was slightly smarter than the others, and he had a gun at his belt. Sparrow, Bee and Zed were pulled over to one side and shoved down to a sitting position on the ground.

"What are you doing here?"

"They probably saw the fire and came looking for food, Captain," the woman said, poking at Zed with her foot, "They all look kinda skinny."

"They can answer for themselves, Emer." He crouched down so his face was level with them. He noted the wrap across Bee's eyes and Zed's crumpled hand. "What's wrong with you, then?" He said to Sparrow.

"Nothing!" she said fiercely, and the captain laughed. "So you can talk. Right. Why are you here?"

"I'm looking for my dad."

"Just lost, are you? And you just happened to bump into us?"

Sparrow nodded vigorously. 

Someone came running up from the groups around the fire. "Captain, Sir - we...Whin and I...we ran into them in the forest last night. There's more of them too, I think."

The captain stood up "And you didn't report it?"

The young man shrugged, "They're just kids..."

The captain sighed and dismissed him with a gesture. He frowned down at Sparrow. "You a City kid?"

Sparrow didn't know what to do. She wished she had her knife. It made her feel braver.