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."
"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.