"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.
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 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.