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."
"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."