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."
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."