Friday, 7 May 2021

[Glory Brats 29] The Station

 The soldier called Carter prised Tekla gently from Sparrow's arms, carefully avoiding her knife."It's ok, kid - we'll take care of your sis."

"It was probably you that shot her..." Perkins muttered. Carter gave him a pained look and covered Tekla's ears.

Dee and Zed reluctantly lowered their knives. Bee still held her staff protectively in front of her. "Why should we come with you?"

"Bee!" Sparrow said, "They can help Tekla..."

Bee didn't move. "We've got the medikit - we can help her ourselves."

Sparrow laid a hand gently on Bee's arm, "Not this time. Bee, please?"

Bee shook her hand off, but lowered her staff. Sparrow turned to the captain. "Is it a long way?"

The girl shook her head briskly. "Not far. Just across the square."

The base turned out to be in the depths of the station. There were more young soldiers guarding the gates at the bottom of the stairs down from the square, and even more spread around the concourse in various stages of uniform. Some were sitting around playing cards, others were sleeping on thin mats between the pillars.

The returning soldiers laid their guns down and took off their helmets and jackets. Beneath their camouflaged faces they were young. Older than Bee of course, but not that much older. The captain looked to to be one of the older ones. "Carter, take that kid to Medic right away. The rest of you, stop standing around staring like you've never seen a bunch of kids before."

Tekla was crying for Sparrow, and struggling in Carter's arms. Rat ran up and grabbed hold of his leg. When Perkins tried to pull her away, she bit his hand. He jumped back, waving his hand in the air. "Son of a...! She bit me, she actually bit me!"

Dee and Zed laughed while Bee stood impassively by. Sparrow walked up and took hold of Rat's jumper, "It's ok, Em - they're going to help. Tekla, stop wriggling. I'll be right there with you."

"We all will." Zed said, coming up behind Sparrow with Dee and Bee. Carter shuffled over to the side of the hall, Rat still clinging to his leg.

The medic carefully cut away the ragged edge of Tekla's shirt and washed the wound out with water. Sparrow held her hand tightly as the medic then wrapped a bandage around Tekla's arm. She looked at the other children, then over at the captain. "I hope you don't expect me to cure the rest of them?"

Captain Glory Everton narrowed her eyes at the children clustered round the camp bed. "These two seem normal but the other four look strange..."  The girl with the wrap over her eyes, the thin boy with one hand twisted in on itself, the pale-skinned boy with white hair that looked like all the colour was bleached out of it, and the wild thing that bit instead of speaking like a normal person.

"That's not a very nice thing to say..." Tekla pointed out, turning round to frown at the captain. Sparrow flushed as she remembered thinking of the others as 'stupid and broken' when she first met them. Everything she'd been taught told her that being different was wrong and dangerous. She sneaked a glance at Zed and saw that he was staring at the ground. Even the normally cheerful Dee looked deflated. Bee had her chin stuck up defiantly, but her shoulders were drooped. Only Rat didn't seem to care what anyone said about her.

"Being different isn't bad..." Sparrow said slowly.

"Of course it is!" The medic interrupted. "Captain, I strongly suggest you dump these brats back where you found them."

"That's enough, Brodie. I'll decide what happens to them. Is the girl stable for now?"

Brodie nodded and stepped back from the bed, "She'll need the dressing changed daily though."

"We can do that ourselves." Bee said.

"Well I'm not chucking you back out there in the dark. You can stay the night." 

***

Glory found them an alcove away from the rest of the troops, and brought them over a few of the thin bedrolls. "Here, we don't need these ones anymore."

Sparrow took them from her, "Thank you." They spread them out in the alcove and arranged the backpacks around like a barrier.

Glory glanced back at the other soldiers, then crouched down to Sparrow's level. "What are you kids doing out here alone anyway?"

"We're looking for our dad." Tekla said, appearing at Sparrow's shoulder." But we found new friends."

Dee looked up at that, and smiled. "We're helping Sparrow; that's what friends do. Sparrow got me these glasses so my eyes don't hurt in the sun." He pointed to the plastic sunglasses on top of his head.

Glory's face quirked into a smile in spite of herself. She ruffled Tekla's hair and stood up. "Hungry, much?"

"Always..." Dee said with feeling, and rubbed his stomach.

"I think we can sort that out."

***

"I ain't serving them, Cap!"

Glory's face hardened. "Just give them some grub or you'll be on latrine duty next."

The cook slopped stew into six bowls, grumbling, "Outsider brats don't deserve good honest food..."

"I don't know if I'd call it good...or honest either, considering where those vegetables came from." Glory scooped up the tray and passed it to Sparrow. "Maybe best to find somewhere quiet to eat this."

Back at their bedrolls, everyone grabbed a bowl and started to eat. The hot stew was thickened with barley and filled them up. Sparrow took the bowls back while Bee and the others shared out the blankets from their packs. When she came back, Tekla was the only one still sitting up.

"My arm hurts..."

Sparrow wriggled under the blanket next to her little sister. "You were such a brave girl." She reached into her bag and searched around until she found what she was looking for. "Hold out your hand. Close your eyes."

Tekla's fingers closed around the cold, hard object. When she opened her eyes, she saw Sparrow's red pin badge from school. "Blue for new, red for bled..." she mumbled sleepily.

"I think getting hit by a bullet beats having a blood test for bravery any day." Sparrow said, pinning the badge to Tekla's jumper.

Tekla reached up and gave her a hug, then curled up underneath the blanket. Sparrow slid down next to her, but lay awake, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. She could hear Tekla's breathing slowing as she fell asleep. The shadows on the ceiling jumped and changed as people walked past the lights that were shining over where the others were still awake. 

She closed her eyes but all she could see was Tekla lying there on the ground in the dying light of the flare. Her little sister got shot because of her. She was supposed to take care of her, not put her in danger. Tekla should be able to run around and play like normal kids did. Not hiding in a run-down train station with a bunch of soldiers. Sparrow opened her eyes again. She'd stay awake all night if she had to, but nothing else was going to happen to Tekla. Or any of the others. She checked underneath the bedroll for her knife. Still there. She eventually fell asleep with her fingers wrapped around the handle.


Sunday, 2 May 2021

[Glory Brats 28] Exchange

Getting through the outer ring of forest was easy this time. From the outside of the fence it looked as though something large had ploughed through the metal and trees taking everything in its path. All they had to do was pick their way through the mass of twisted metal and broken tree stumps. This alone took some time, but at least they knew which direction they were going. Sparrow and Zed helped Bee find her way through the tangled mess underfoot. She was surer when she could use her hands to clamber over things, but on the flatter stretches her hands were no use, and Sparrow and Zed took an arm each to help her along.

"I feel like a baby. Being led by the hand."

"It's just for a while, Bee." Zed comforted her.

Dee ran in front of them, hopping from one clump of grassy sedge to another with nimble feet. Tekla trudged steadily behind them, followed by Rat, who was distracted by every muddy puddle or mossy ditch.

Soon they could see the outskirts of the City. It looked similar in layout to Garden City with fields and warehouses littering the outer circles. But something was different. Here the buildings were wracked and torn open as if some giant from a storybook had ripped them apart, and the fields were scarred with the tracks of many vehicles. 

"What happened here?" Zed asked.

As they got further into the City they saw that the damage was not restricted to the outer circles. Once tall buildings were little more than ruins rising out of rubble, and the streets were filled with bricks and piles of rubbish. Once again, it looked as though a path had been cleared through the debris, so here at last Bee could walk unaided apart from her staff. She shrugged off the others.

While around them the city was silent, in the distance they could hear what sounded like gunfire. They walked warily through the ruins, wondering if at any moment they would bump into some soldiers.

"How are we supposed to find my dad in all this?" Sparrow grumbled at last and sat down on the road in the dust. Rat and Tekla were playing hide and seek behind the concrete boulders.

Bee struck the ground with her staff. "You're not giving up that easily, are you?"

"Maybe we should stop and have some food?" Zed suggested hastily, sensing an argument rising.

"I wouldn't give up, not if I was searching for someone." Bee continued, twirling the staff in her hands.

Sparrow got to her feet. "I'm not giving up!"

"Good." Bee said.

"How were you planning to find your dad once we got here anyway?" Zed asked, before Bee could say anything else.

"I dunno...ask around? I thought there would be more people here. I thought there would be a city here."

"Yeah, where is everyone?" Dee asked, looking around.

"They must have got evacuated out like everyone at Garden City did." Sparrow said.

***

It began to rain again, so they sheltered in one of the abandoned buildings that wasn't as destroyed as some of the others. Everything inside was eerily left as if the inhabitants were just coming back. It appeared to have been a nursery, judging from the small chairs and tables, and toys spread across the floor. Some paper flapped in the breeze from the broken window, and bright coloured crayons lay rolled across the surface of the table. Tekla fell upon the toys and immediately started stacking the coloured blocks one on top of the other. Rat watched with interest. Dee sat down at the table and discovered the crayons, "What are these for? Can I eat them?"

Sparrow grabbed a bit of paper from the floor and drew a stick figure with one of the crayons. Dee's eyes lit up and he happily gathered a stack of paper and scribbled away. The others sank down onto the large central rug and eased their rucksacks off their shoulders onto the floor.

"What do we do now?" Bee asked.

Sparrow responded by digging into her bag and pulling out the last loaf of bread. She chucked a piece to Bee, "Here, catch."

"There's food?" Tekla abandoned the toys but pulled a face when she saw what Sparrow had. "I'm bored of bread..."

"Well it's all there is."

Tekla took the piece of bread and ambled back over to the toy area. Rat had knocked her tower down and was re-stacking the blocks. "Hey..." Tekla said, and pushed Rat. Rat snatched the bread from her and retreated to the corner. 

"Spaaa....arow!" Tekla whined, and threw one of the blocks at Rat. Rat threw it back and hit Tekla on the forehead. Tekla burst into tears and ran back to Sparrow.

"Bad Rat." Sparrow said, and gave Tekla another bit of bread. Rat just crouched in the corner, chewing on the tough crust of the bread.

Bee swallowed her last mouthful and licked the flour off her fingers, "What I meant was what do we do about finding your dad?"

Sparrow frowned and threw a bit of bread at Dee's head. "Dee, come and eat! I don't know...That Grace Norden lady said my dad was helping them, so it must be something to do with the train line. I suppose if we find the station we could follow the line and maybe find him that way."

"Do you know where the station is?" Zed asked.

"It'll be in the centre of the city. All the Cities are built on the same layout. We just need to find out what sector we're in and then we can work our way inwards from that."

They started to make their way towards the centre of the city. They passed through streets that were eerily quiet and untouched, and others that had bullet holes scarring the walls or entire chunks of building crumbling across their path. The sky slowly darkened above them, and the last rays of the sun made the ruined buildings cast strange shadows. Their footsteps dragged. Sparrow pulled Tekla along, eyes flicking from side to side and all around as they picked their way through the rubble. The nearer they got to the centre, the worse the damage seemed to be. Although they had heard gun shots earlier in the day, now all was quiet, and somehow that was worse than the noise of the guns.

Eventually they came to the end of a street that opened onto a large spacious square, laid out with trees and benches. Sparrow pulled the group to a halt.

"The station should be just on the other side of the square."

"Not far then!" Dee said cheerfully and was about to step round the corner but Sparrow stopped him.

"I don't like it." She said,"It's too open and quiet."

"Surely that's a good thing?" Bee asked.

"I say we wait."

Bee sighed and leant against the wall. Tekla and Rat got restless, although Sparrow constantly hissed at them to sit still and be quiet. The shadows in the square lengthened and joined up, and the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Something moved in the darkness across the square. Zed and Sparrow saw it at the same time, and pulled the others over to the wall next to Bee.

The dark shapes scuttled across the square in small groups, running from one hiding spot to another. The rising moon cast light on their helmets and guns. The children shrank back against the wall as the soldiers drew nearer. Rat broke away from Sparrow's grasp and ran down the middle of the street. A sharp burst of gunfire rang out. Sparrow called out, springing forward to chase after her and the others followed. There was a swooshing noise, and a fiery red flare landed amongst their feet, spewing sparks and smoke everywhere. Light danced across the insides of her eyelids. More gunfire filled the air.

Coughing, Sparrow lunged forward to grab the back of Rat's shirt and dragged her round the corner. The others emerged out of the smoke and darkness, Zed pulling Bee and Dee by the hand.

"Where's Tekla?" Sparrow screamed at them and darted back round the corner. In the fading red glow of the flare she spotted Tekla sprawled on the ground and then the flare died, leaving only tendrils of smoke. With her heart thumping in her ears, Sparrow reached down and pulled Tekla up by the shoulders. The little girl howled. Sparrow shook her and pushed her forward into the shadow of the buildings where the others were huddled.

Tekla continued to sob and Sparrow put a hand over her mouth to dull the noise. They could hear voices coming closer.

"I think I got one of them - didn't you hear that screech?"

"I dunno - sounded more like an animal to me..."

"Carter; Perkins - shut up! If they're injured they could still be close by."

"Sorry Glory."

"Sorry Cap."

The third soldier spoke up again, louder this time, her voice carrying in the silence between the empty buildings. "You might as well come out with your hands up. We know there aren't that many of you."

Sparrow chewed her lip, still keeping her hand across Tekla's mouth, although the sobs had been replaced with silent tears that left tracks down her dirty cheeks. 

"I don't trust them..." Bee whispered in her ear. 

Sparrow reached into her back pocket and pulled out her handkerchief. It was torn and dirty, but still recognisably a piece of white fabric. She wrapped it around a stone and threw it round the corner.

"Grenade!" yelled one of the soldiers and there was the sounds of them scrambling to a safe distance. When the expected explosion didn't happen there was nervous laughter and some shouting.

"Is this snot-rag supposed to be a white flag? Alright, we accept your surrender, come out now."

Sparrow eased her hand away from Tekla's mouth and took a proper look at her little sister. Mixed in with the dirt and dust there was blood seeping slowly from a wound on her upper arm where a bullet had ripped through her clothing. It was long and thin, an angry red colour with scorch marks around the broken skin.

"You shot my little sister!" Sparrow yelled. She looked around at the others. Zed and Dee had their knives held in shaky hands, and Bee had a firm grip on her staff. Rat crouched ready to spring. Sparrow pulled out her own knife.

A group of soldiers came running around the corner. They looked down at the children in shock.

"Hey, you haven't seen any other soldiers here, have you, brats?"

All the soldiers looked in disdain at the one who had spoken up.

"Carter you idiot, they were the 'soldiers'...and we shot one of them."

Sparrow looked at their uniforms in surprise. "You're from Central!"

"34th Central...the Glory Troop, kid." Carter grinned.

The girl in charge frowned and slapped Carter on the back of his head. "If I have to tell you one more time to stop calling us that..." She shook her head. "Never mind, let's get you lot safely back to base and get that wound seen to. Before all this noise attracts attention."


Saturday, 24 April 2021

Character interviews! With Weasley_Detectives!

OK so it's interview time again! This time round I'm doing a question swap with Weasley_Detectives at Weasley_Detectives - so head on over there to read her amazing Tintin fanfic, 'Tintin and the Seal of Cagliostro': A spate of mysterious high profile robberies by the gentleman thief "Kaitou Red" have captured the public's imagination. Tintin is hot on his trail, but when jewel of the opera, Mademoiselle Castafiore, is kidnapped, the infamous reporter fears he has stumbled upon a far deadlier plot. 

She also has a Tumblr account for the story: https://kaitou-red.tumblr.com (yes, that cover artwork is hers; she's ALSO an awesome artist.) 

Weasley_Detectives has chosen to interview Bee, so without more ado, let's get on with the questions. I've chosen to interview her OC Gideon Stark, and my questions and her answers will appear after Bee.

BEE from Glory Brats

What is your earliest memory?

I don't know how old I am in the memory, but I was still small and weak. I remember hearing the babies crying, and wishing they would stop because I wanted to sleep. So I got out of my bed and went towards the noise, but before I could get there one of the older children tripped me up and pulled my hair. The others joined in, kicking at me on the floor and I could only curl up and wait for them to stop. Eventually one of the wardens came in and pulled them off me. We all got punished though. I can remember thinking it wasn't fair, but then life isn't fair, is it?

Do you have any pet peeves? 

don't like when people grab me without warning, or push and pull me around. 

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

I'd like to know what other people are thinking, because then I would know how to react to them and how to manipulate them better. And if you can manipulate people then you can get them to leave you alone.

Which member of the Glory Brats are you closest to and why?

Probably Zed, because I met him first. He's quiet and thoughtful. I like being around him because he treats me like a normal person, and focuses on things that I can do, rather than making me feel different just because I can't see.

Do you consider Sparrow a friend?

I wouldn't say we're friends. I think Sparrow is bossy, thoughtless and naive. She only thinks about what she wants to do. I don't even know at this point if we could ever be friends. I don't like her and I don't think she likes me. Not that I care.

How do you think your friends would describe you?

Prickly. Quiet. Blunt.

If you could change one thing about your personality, what would it be? 

I'd like to be able to trust people more. But I know I can't. People are always selfish in the end.

Do you consider yourself a follower or a leader?

I don't like this question! I guess I'm following Sparrow, because I don't want the responsibility of being a leader. Being a leader means people depend on you, and I don't like depending on others, or having others depend on me. But being a follower is a weak position, and I don't see myself as weak. So I suppose if  Sparrow wasn't here I'd be a leader, since no one else could be.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you go and who would you take with you?

I'd go somewhere sunny and dry, because I like feeling the sun on my skin, and I've had enough of being soaked through by the rain. I'd have a house all on one level where nothing would ever change position and I'd be able to find my way around without help. Zed could come with me, if he liked, I suppose.

You and Sparrow are stuck on a desert island together. You discover a pack of creatures who appear to treat you as gods. Do you and Sparrow share power, or do you divide the island into two warring nations?

Stuck with Sparrow?! I might start off by sharing power because I couldn't care less what other people do, as long as they leave me alone, but eventually I'd get so annoyed by her that I'd run off to be on my own, followed by like-minded individuals who'd worship me from a respectful distance. And we'd probably end up fighting over something stupid.

GIDEON STARK from The Seal of Cagliostro

What was your childhood nickname?

I don't believe I could repeat any of them in polite company. In any case, they were less nicknames, more threats of violence from an angry mob.

What would be your food heaven and food hell?

Caviar and cigarettes! As for food hell... Fish head stew. Don't ask.

You're a stylish chap - who are your style icons and why?

Josephine Baker. She's simply marvellous. Do you think I could pull off a leopard?

What makes you get up in the morning?

The call of sowing seeds of chaos wherever I may roam.

We know you're a bit of a gambler, but do you always win? Tell us about a time that you lost a gamble.

Well there was that time in Izmir with Archie, a fine vintage Ch√Ęteau Lafite Rothschild, and that damned Sicilian. Oh, and the Goat. *sighs* We.. We don't talk about Izmir.

We all have something we hold dear - what would you consider your most treasured possession?

Tintin. *dreamy sigh* He's such a delightfully trusting plaything...

It's fair to say that you're a hit with the ladies - what do you look for in a woman?

Strawberry blonde hair. Freckles. Honest blue eyes. A sense of adventure. Charming recklessness. A world famous reporter and staunch activist for the common good... *dreamy sigh*

Do you have any bad habits? (Apart from gambling and womanising, we know about those.)

Only espionage, treachery and the intricately detailed planning and execution of 101 notoriously high profile thefts. Ha! I jest, of course. I suppose telling bad jokes would be one of my many bad habits.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I've always rather fancied donning one of those old German handlebar moustache-beard affairs. Oh you mean about my personality? I suppose I can be a tad too self involved...

What would you consider the lowest depths of misery?

Oh, jolly good question. But what to pick? A comfortable marriage of convenience? Becoming an upstanding member of society? Sobriety? Good god, so many to choose from.

Friday, 9 April 2021

[Glory Brats 27] The house in the valley

 Sparrow woke up as the trading post was springing to life. The fire had died down to ash and cold cinders that were soon trampled underfoot as the business of the day got going. Zed and Dee had taken the second watch, and were bleary eyed as they shoved their blankets into their bags and shifted out of the way of the grownups pushing wheelbarrows and carts.

The news of Mattie's murder had spread quickly through the people present, and even new arrivals seemed to be sporting grim faces, and weapons at their belts. They could hear groups talking about how the roads were getting more dangerous for travel, with so many soldiers and militia groups around.

In a quiet corner, Sparrow pulled out the map she'd ripped from the book, and spread it on the ground. Her finger traced the lines on the paper from the Shambles to the trading post, and then stopped. Exchange looked to be nearby, but no roads led directly to it. They'd have to get as close as they could to the surrounding forest and then find their own way through.

Sparrow folded up the map and shoved it into her pocket. "Let's get going."

"What about breakfast?" Dee asked.

"No money left." Sparrow said shortly.

"Could we trade something for food?" Zed suggested. "Maybe we could spare something from the medikit?"

"I suppose so..." Sparrow took the kit out of Tekla's bag and rifled through it to see if there was anything they wouldn't need. She pulled out some tablets in a plastic bottle. "Don't know what these are for. I'll see what I can get for them."

She sprinted off towards the stalls. It was a bit like the market at the Shambles, but the stalls were bigger and fancier, and it was busier too. She found a stall dealing in medicines and other things. The woman behind the stall wore a dirty white coat over her other clothes.  She spotted Sparrow's knee and nodded at it. "That's a nasty graze you got there. Need something for it?" 

Sparrow glanced at her knee in surprise and shook her head, "No thank-you, we've already got some antiseptic cream. How much for these?" She held up the bottle of tablets.

***

Sparrow returned to the others carrying two loaves of bread. She shoved one of them into her bag and tore the other one into pieces and shared them with the group. "And everyone can have a bit of water too - we should refill the bottles while we're here."

There was a water pump in the centre of the trading post, and a queue of people looking to fill various buckets, canisters and bottles. Sparrow handed over one of the coins she'd got for the tablets and joined the line of people waiting.

***

Leaving the trading post, the clouds were gathering above them, and by the time they were out of sight, the first drops were beginning to fall. Sparrow set a fast pace, and the others tried to keep up, although Tekla lagged behind. 

"I want a piggy back..." she whined, dragging her feet in the dirt on the road.

"Not this time," Sparrow snapped, "It's too early and you've just eaten."

They were following the same road that had led them to the trading post, but it curved away to the right and led them through fields on either side that were overgrown and filled with weeds and saplings. The hedgerows curved over the road like a tunnel and protected them from the worst of the rain.

The road sloped down into a small valley, with abandoned houses scattered across the landscape. The hedgerows petered out and were replaced by wood and metal fences that were half sunk into the grass verges as though they were being swallowed by the ground.

One of the houses loomed ahead, and Sparrow looked around at the others following her and relented. 

"Hey," she called out, "We'll shelter in this next house until the rain stops."

A half-hearted cheer went through the group. The house was small and made of stone, with a red door that stuck as Sparrow tried to shoulder her way in. The lock had already been broken. The others helped push and shove until it opened enough to let them all in out of the rain. They slipped in through the gap and stood in the dark hallway. Zed opened the door nearest to them. Inside there were big comfy chairs and yellowed lacy curtains at the window. Everyone sank into a chair or onto a cushion and eased rucksacks off their backs. Sparrow stood at the window and pulled back the curtain, looking out into the rain. Suddenly she dropped the curtain and ducked down out of sight of the road.

"What is it?" Zed asked.

"There's a truck stopped on the road outside."

They heard the noise of the truck doors slamming shut, and Sparrow raised her head to risk a peek through the curtains. "They've got out, but they're all just standing around..."

One of the men lifted the bonnet at the front of the truck and stared into the engine. Sparrow slid back down against the wall. "I think their engine is broken."

Through the thin glass they could hear the men shouting and cursing at each other. There was silence, then they heard a noise at the front door.

Sparrow scanned the room. "Quick, behind that couch!"

Grabbing their bags, they all scrambled into the gap between the couch and the wall. They heard the front door being shoved open, and then the squeak of the door to the lounge. The man gave a cough, and  called out to the others behind him, "Through here."

They heard the sounds of more people entering the room, and the springs of the chairs protesting as they sat down heavily. 

Tekla covered her mouth with both her hands, while the others tried to breath quietly. Rat crouched ready to run, eyes darting everywhere. Sparrow's leg started to cramp and she winced as she tried to ease it without making a noise. Thankfully someone broke the silence.

"Did we have to shoot that guy earlier?" 

"Not this again..."

"Yeah, but did we have to?"

"Yes! He had a knife, he was going to fight, maybe one of us would have got hurt, you want that? Well, you want that?"

There was a shout from outside and the men sprang up out of their seats, reaching for their guns. One of them went to the window and pulled back the curtain, "Stand down, it's just Marshall. Looks like he's fixed the truck."

Once they left, everyone could breath freely. They spilled out from behind the couch and stretched their arms and legs. Sparrow peeked out the window again. The men grabbed something from the truck and headed back up the path.

"They're coming back!" Sparrow flung the lounge door open and ran into the hall. The door at the end had a glass panel in the top half, with what looked like a kitchen beyond. She kicked the door open. Everyone ran in and the door swung shut behind them just before the men arrived back at the front door. Zed watched them anxiously through the keyhole as they carried in what looked like a crate of bottles, but they went into the lounge and shut the door.

Sparrow tried wiggling the back-door handle, and it came off in her hand. The door swung open. She almost threw the broken handle to the side, but remembered the men next door and placed it on the table carefully instead. 

 Zed was opening all the cupboards and drawers quietly, and discovered a knife at the back of one drawer. He took it out and showed it to Sparrow, who nodded and pointed at Bee. Zed tapped Bee on the arm and then placed the knife in her hand. She examined it with her other hand then shook her head violently and held out her staff. Zed took the knife back and gave it to Dee. 

They crept down the back steps and into the overgrown garden. The remains of a path led back around to the front of the house. They tried to stay out of sight of the view from the lounge window, ducking down to crawl underneath it. Once back on the road they hid behind the truck and caught their breath.

"They killed Mattie, didn't they?" Bee said.

"Yeah..." Sparrow said, pulling her knife out and sticking it in one of the tyres. Dee did the same to the back tyre, and then all of them ran off along the road and out of sight of the house.



Tuesday, 30 March 2021

[Glory Brats 26] The Trading Post

 "What do we do now?" Dee asked.

"Mattie said to follow the road to the trading post." Bee said.

"Should we...go and see if he's OK?" Zed suggested.

Sparrow jumped to her feet, "Yeah, he could need our help. Just you and me, though, Zed. Bee - you alright to stay here with the others?"

Bee nodded her head. "Yes."

Sparrow and Zed disappeared behind the trunk and set off up the farm track. As they neared the buildings, they could see someone propped up against the wall. Sparrow broke into a run and stood looking down at the body until Zed caught up with her. Mattie was slumped against the stones, his arms lying limply by his side. There was no getting away from the hole in his chest. The fabric around it was torn and soaked with blood. By his hand there was a knife that looked as though it had fallen out of his grasp when he was hit.

Sparrow felt the tears pricking in her eyes again, but rubbed them away with the back of her hand. She picked up the knife and held it out to Zed. "I guess this is yours now," she mumbled.

Zed took the knife and continued to stare at the body. "We can't help him?"

"Not even a doctor could help him."

"Doctors don't help people!" Zed said fiercely.

Sparrow looked at him in surprise. "Of course they do, silly. My mum's a doctor."

"The doctor who was at the place with us didn't help. She said she was there to help, but all she did was hurt us."

Sparrow frowned. "Well, sometimes it can hurt, like when you have to get a jag."

Zed shook his head. "No, this was different. Anyway, I don't want to talk about it just now."

"You're the one that brought it up!"

Zed remained silent, and Sparrow looked down at Mattie again. "We should do something."

"Do what?"

"Like cover him or something, since we can't bury him. It's what you do when someone dies."

"There's nothing here."

Sparrow looked around and spotted some weeds growing by the side of the road. She picked the flowers and laid them in Mattie's hand, where the knife had been. The two of them walked silently back to the others.

***

It was getting dark, and there was still no sign of the trading post. Sparrow began to wonder if they should find somewhere to sleep for the night, or carry on walking in the dark. The moon was rising in the sky, so they would have some light to see by. They were walking in the middle of the road when they heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. There was just enough time for everyone to dive for the grassy verge at the side before it trundled past them. It had no lights showing.

"That was close." Sparrow said, as they clambered to their feet. "But at least it means we must be near to the trading post. Let's carry on."

This was met with groans from everyone, and tears from Tekla as she was dragged along. Sparrow tried to take Rat's hand and pull her along too, but Rat just bit her arm and continued at her own pace. Sparrow gave up.

"Tekla, do you want a piggy back?"

Tekla did want a piggy back, and so did Rat, once she saw Tekla being lifted up. Sparrow shifted Tekla's weight and looked down at Rat. "You'll just have to take turns. Unless... Bee? Could you take Rat on your back?"

"Why would I want to do that?" Bee said from the front of the group.

"Please, Bee? Just for a little while?"

"Fine." Bee stopped and knelt down so Rat could climb onto her back. Rat clasped her arms around Bee's neck and laughed. The group stopped and stared.

"I didn't know she could do that." Sparrow said. 

Rat continued to laugh at intervals as they walked along. Tekla grew heavier on Sparrow's back and her head lolled forward in sleep. Eventually Rat's head fell forward too, lulled to sleep by the movement. 

***

They could see the lights of the trading post from a long way off. They didn't seem to be getting any closer until suddenly they were there. Even though it was dark and most of the stalls were all shut up, people were still milling about. The stalls that were open were selling food and drinks, and people clustered around them or sat in groups around small fires by their vehicles.

"I'm hungry..." Dee said, sniffing the air as they passed one of the food stalls. 

"We're all hungry." Sparrow replied, thinking that lunch was a long time ago, and wishing that they hadn't eaten all the food. She fingered the coins in her pocket that Caris had given back to her. She didn't know how much food they would buy. They found an empty spot by a wall and sat down gratefully.

"I'll see if I can get us some food," Sparrow said, easing Tekla off her shoulders and onto the ground. Tekla woke up and looked around in confusion. Bee dumped Rat on the dirt and Rat bit Bee's ankle. 

"Ow!" Bee rubbed at the sore spot, "That's the last time I give you a lift..."

Sparrow approached the stall with the least amount of people around it. Even so, she had to push her way to the front. The vendor looked down at her.

"Bit late for you to be out, eh?"

Sparrow said nothing, only held up the coins in her hand. The vendor shrugged and waved his ladle over the stall contents.

"What you want? Stew? Noodles? Rice?"

"Rice please. For six."

The customers around laughed. The vendor scowled, "That's six bits - you got that much, kid?"

Sparrow handed over the coins and the vendor made a show of checking them. Finally satisfied, he started to ladle scant amounts of rice, vegetables and meat into six plastic bowls. Sparrow opened her mouth to ask about the meat, but then shut it again. Maybe it was best not to know.

One of the customers leaned over. "Don't cheat the kid, Vin. Fill those bowls up."

Sparrow turned around and yelled at the others, "Come and grab a bowl! I can't carry all these."

Dee got there first, closely followed by Rat. Rat took her bowl and started scooping the rice into her mouth with her fingers. The crowd around the stall started to laugh again as the group of children trooped out of the shadows to get their food. They started to walk carefully back to the wall, but there was a shout from around one of the fires. 

"Hey, kids - there's a spot for you here."

They hung back at first, wary, but the group by the fire shuffled round to make room and they stepped into the warm glow of the fire. Sparrow set her bag down and rummaged inside to find some spoons. The adults talked amongst themselves while the children ate. It didn't take long for them to clear their bowls. Tekla fell asleep with her head in Sparrow's lap, still holding onto her spoon. Dee collected the bowls and took them back to the stall. When he came back he took his blanket out of his pack, wrapped it around himself, and curled up next to Zed. One by one, the children dropped off to sleep until Sparrow and Bee were the only ones left awake.

Sparrow yawned, then shook her head. She had to stay awake, especially with grown ups around. She felt inside her bag for her knife. It was still there.

"You can go to sleep if you want," she said to Bee. "I don't mind."

"Not sleepy." Bee replied.

"What are you kids doing wandering round here alone anyway?" The conversation had stopped and attention turned to Sparrow.

"We weren't alone..." Sparrow started to say, before the words caught in her throat. She tried again. "We were getting a lift from someone - Mattie, from the Shambles..."

"Young Mattie? What happened?"

Sparrow hung her head to hide the tears that were rolling down her cheeks.

"He's dead." Bee said, "That's right, isn't it, Sparrow?"

Sparrow nodded, "They shot him and took the truck."

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

[Glory Brats 25] Back on the road

 Early one morning, while it was still dark and before the birds began to be heard, Sparrow shook Tekla awake.

"C'mon, Tickles, get up. I've got your clothes here."

Half asleep, Tekla allowed herself to be helped into several layers of clothing. Sparrow grabbed their bags and tiptoed around the sleeping bodies on the floor. She froze as Bee shifted in her sleep. When nothing happened, she beckoned for Tekla to follow her down the stairs and into the dark hallway.

"You wait here, I need to leave the money for Caris on the table." Sparrow said as she shoved Tekla's arms into her backpack.

"Why are we..." Tekla started to ask, but Sparrow put a hand over her mouth. 

"Shh...we need to be quiet."

Sparrow eased the door open and padded across the floor in her socks. She took out the small remaining amount of coins that Jem had given her and left them on the table. It wasn't much, but perhaps it would help Caris get over the fact that she had been left with more hungry mouths to feed. She turned to go back to Tekla, and accidentally knocked over a bottle on the edge of the table.

"S...Sparrow? Is that you?" Zed's voice was sleepy, as if he wasn't fully awake yet.

Sparrow picked up the bottle slowly and laid it back down on the table. "Yeah, I had to use the toilet..."

Zed peered at her in the grey light that was filtering through the gaps around the edge of the shutters. "Are you...dressed already?"

Sparrow walked quickly to the door and opened it. Zed stumbled out of the bed and reached for his jumper, struggling into it as he walked. "You're leaving me behind, aren't you?" He stopped when he saw just Tekla out in the hall and his eyes widened in realisation. "No, you're leaving us ALL behind." 

Grabbing Tekla's hand, Sparrow unlatched the outer door. "Just go back to bed."

"But Sparrow..." he started to say but stopped when he heard the kitchen door opening, and turned around to see Caris wrapped in a shawl and holding a lamp.

"What is going on here?" She raised the lamp and looked over Zed's shoulder at Sparrow and Tekla. Jem appeared at the top of the stairs, surrounded by the others. "Is everything alright? What's going on?"

"Kitchen. Now." Caris ordered, and stalked off to put the kettle on the hob.

Sparrow and Tekla reluctantly shuffled through to the kitchen, standing awkwardly by the door. The others burst in.

"You were going to leave us behind." Dee said reproachfully.

"Never mind that - you were going to dump this lot on me!" Caris exclaimed, slamming the cups down on the table.

"You'll be better off here..." Sparrow explained to Dee, then turned to Caris. "And I left money on the table to help."

"Why do you get to decide what's better for us?" Bee asked, "You never asked us what we wanted to do."

"We want to go with you." Zed said quietly.

"You can't leave in the middle of the night anyway." Jem sat down at the table and patted the bench next to her. "Sit down, girlie, and we'll talk it over." 

"There's nothing to talk about!" Sparrow said. "Tekla and me need to find our dad, but no one else needs to come."

The piercing whistle of the kettle broke the tension in the room. Sparrow sat down as Caris poured the hot water into the teapot. Tekla crawled into Caris's bed and fell asleep, bag still on her back. Rat sat underneath the table.

"Why don't we ask your friends what they want to do?" Jem suggested.

"We want to go with you." Zed repeated, "Don't we, Bee?"

"Well I don't want to be left behind."

"That settles it, then." Caris said. "You can all leave together in the morning, at a sensible time. We'll see if one of the traders can take you where you need to go."

Sparrow stood up and hugged Caris. Caris looked surprised, then pushed Sparrow gently away. "Whatever it takes to get you lot out of my way."

***

 Behind the square where the market had been held was an open space, filled with all kinds of different vehicles, from horse-drawn carts to canvas covered trucks like the one the soldiers had. The drivers and traders stood clustered around a stall that was serving food and hot drinks. Caris told the kids to stay put while she went over to talk with them, and came back with a young man wearing an oil stained blue boiler suit over his clothes.

"This is Mattie. I cured his granda's cough last winter so he's going to take you to just outside your Exchange City, aren't you, Mattie?"

Mattie nodded, "I guess so, Ms Caris. This all of 'em?"

"Yep. Don't lose any now." Caris watched as they all clambered into the back of Mattie's open truck.

***

The road was bumpy and pitted with potholes. Sparrow and the others were jostled around in the back of the truck, sliding from one side to the other. Tekla and Rat thought it was great fun, and the older kids relished not having to walk.

"This would have taken us ages..." Sparrow reflected.

"What's that?" Mattie called over his shoulder from the front.

"Thanks for taking us, Mr Mattie." Sparrow said.

"Just Mattie is fine. No problem, I've got to pick up a shipment from the trading post out there anyway. Might as well have some passengers on the road out."

 "This is better than the horses!" Zed said, looking over the sides of the truck at the scenery whizzing by them.

They drove all through the morning, only stopping briefly to wolf down some food that Caris and Jem had packed for them. Mattie had a sandwich and some water from a battered metal canister. Then it was back on the road. They were driving along winding roads, with high hedges on either side, the bushes almost forming a tunnel above their heads. Occasionally there would be a gap where they could see overgrown fields of long waving grass, dotted with the last of the summer flowers.

They reached a long stretch of road where they could see far ahead. It looked like something was blocking the road in the distance.

"Maybe a fallen tree..." Mattie said,  "That happens along this way sometimes."

When they got closer they saw that the tree was indeed blocking the road. It seemed to have been cut down and left there. "Nothing to do but find a way round it for now."

He reversed back and turned off into a side road on the right. It was a farm track, rutted and full of holes, with the skeletons of tractors and large machinery visible in the fields. As they drove up the road to where the farm buildings turned into a large courtyard, Mattie slowed the truck right down, and turned round to face the kids, his arm over the seat.

"See that canvas tarp in the back? You guys get under that for now and lie low. An' if I tell you to go, you slip down and run back to that old tree as fast as you can. Follow the road and you should reach the trading post by the time it gets dark." He turned back and put both hands on the wheel, muttering, "Might be nothing but better safe than sorry..."

Dee pulled the tarp out and helped Sparrow to spread it over them all. The truck inched towards the courtyard. Suddenly it stopped. They heard the door open, and Mattie getting out, the crunch of his boots on the gravel. Underneath the tarp it was hard to work out what was going on. Sparrow was crouched down, her arms around Tekla, holding her still. Even breathing in and out seemed to make the canvas shift, and she tried holding her breath. Her heart was beating in her ears and if she closed her eyes she could see stars.

"GO. Go now!" Mattie's voice was close, as if he'd come back a few steps. He slapped the side of the truck. "I said go!"

Pushing Tekla out of the way, Sparrow fumbled for the catch that let the back of the truck down. It fell with a bump and a rattle of the chain that held it. She scratched her knees as she slid over the floor, and then out into the open over the end of the truck and fell onto the stony ground. She heard yelling coming from the courtyard as she pulled Tekla and Rat down from the back. Dee and Zed slid out next, and Bee came out slowly, her legs reaching for the security of the ground before she pushed off from the edge.

Dee and Zed each took one of Bee's hands and ran along the road, closely followed by Sparrow half dragging Tekla and Rat. They heard more yelling behind them, and then a single shot filled the air. Sparrow gasped and ran harder than she'd ever run before. Tekla was crying, and Sparrow felt her eyes start to fill with tears too, with sheer desperation. The farm road seemed to stretch before them, as they stumbled along it.

When they reached the fallen tree, they sank down on the far side of it, behind the trunk, hidden in the branches that brushed the road. Sparrow's knee was bleeding and covered in dirt from the back of the truck. She licked her hand and rubbed her kneecap, wincing. Tekla's crying subsided into wide-eyed stares and tearful sniffs. They heard the sound of the truck revving up, more yelling, and then the noise of it driving away and getting fainter in the distance until there was only silence.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

[Glory Brats 24] Preparations for departure

 Caris came back alone, leaving Dee to help Jem pack things up at the market. She stalked into the room and seized the cloth out of Bee's hands. She watched as Zed's body tensed with the shivering, then ordered everyone out of the room. Sparrow and Bee joined Tekla and Rat in the courtyard outside.

"Is Zed gonna be alright?" Tekla asked, holding one of the chickens.

Bee didn't say anything. 

"Yeah, of course." Sparrow said, after a pause. "Caris will help him."

"Oh, that's good." Tekla said, and returned to stroking the chicken.

Sparrow paced the length of the courtyard, her arms folded and head bowed. Maybe Zed wouldn't have got sick if only they'd stayed at the other Outsider settlement. And maybe now Zed would be too sick to continue on. They'd been here almost a week, and he'd got worse, not better. And summer was over now, despite the few nice days, and autumn would only bring more rain and cold weather.

They heard the trundle of the cart and soon Dee and Jem appeared back from the market. Jem's face turned to a worried frown when she saw them all waiting outside. She told Dee to wait with the others and went inside.

***

At last Caris came and told them they could come in. "But quietly, mind. He's sleeping for now."

They filed silently through the front room into the kitchen and sat down around the table. Jem ladled out soup into bowls. They picked up their spoons and began to eat mechanically, until Caris joined them and everyone broke out into questions.

She held up her hands in protest and waited for them to quieten down. "I've given him something to help him sleep. He should be over the worst now."

"He was shivering so badly it was like he was having a fit!" Sparrow said, "It was horrible to watch."

"He did have a fit," Caris replied. "That's what happens when your temperature is too high and your body can't regulate it."

They stared at her blankly. She sighed. "He got too warm and his body didn't know what to do."

"I tried to cool him down," Bee said, "And we gave him some cold water to drink."

"But he's going to be alright now, isn't he?" Sparrow asked.

Caris looked across at Jem. "It's too early to say. We'll know more in the morning. Now eat your soup and go to bed, the lot of you."

***

Over the next few days, Zed slowly began to get better. Sparrow began to think about leaving. She packed and re-packed their bags several times, trying to make them as light as possible. Reluctantly, she left out the book of stories that Jem had given her. She'd already read it several times over anyway, sometimes reading aloud to the others before they went to sleep at night, if there was a stub of candle to be spared.

If Caris and Jem noticed her preparations, they said nothing. Although Jem did mention that the weather seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Sparrow cleaned and checked over their collection of footwear and realised that something needed to be done. Zed couldn't carry on wearing sandals through autumn, and Dee's canvas shoes had holes in. She found some tape to patch the holes, but the sandal problem would need some thought.

"Where can I get boots?" she asked Caris one morning over breakfast, "Waterproof ones."

"There's a trader over by the market square that might have something..." Caris mused, "but there's no guarantee."

Breakfast over, Sparrow made her way over to where the market had been held. It was empty, apart from a group of children kicking around a ball made from a bundle of fabric. The ball ran across Sparrow's path and she kicked it back towards them before pushing open the door to the clothing trader.

Inside it was dark and musty smelling. The opening door knocked a bell that clanged loudly. Once her eyes adjusted she could make out clothes hangers dangling from the low ceiling, tables with piles of clothes and fabric, and a light coming from the far corner of the room. 

"Can I help you?" The trader looked as if he clothed himself from his shop stock, wearing a jumble of colours and patterns as he lurched forward into to the main body of the shop.

"Yes, I'm looking for shoes...boots - waterproof ones." Sparrow said.

"Hm, I might have some around - check underneath the tables..." The man waved a hand vaguely towards the tables and retreated into the back of the room.

Sparrow knelt down on the dusty floor and peered into the darkness. She saw a battered cardboard box and pulled it out into the light. Inside was a jumble of different items of footwear, some tied together by their laces. She reached into the box and found one rubber boot that would fit Zed, but try as she might, she couldn't find another, despite searching through the entire box. She pushed the box back and reached for the other one. Right on top was the other rubber boot. Grabbing the pair, she scrambled to her feet and took them over to the shop owner.

She held them up. "How much for these?"

He looked up from his repair work and glanced at the boots. "Footwear is five bits."

Sparrow shoved the boots forward, "But there's a tear in the rubber!"

"Four bits then...and I'll give you a patch for them." He reached up to a wooden cabinet by his side and opened a little drawer. He took out a rubber patch and held out a hand for the torn boot. Sparrow passed it over, and he glued the patch in place. "Don't let it get wet for three hours now or the glue won't stick right."

Stepping out into the square again, Sparrow saw that the kids had stopped playing for the moment and were sitting down on the ground. They waved her over, but she shook her head and held up the bag with the boots. Caris wanted her to do some errands while she was out.

Sparrow felt easier in her mind now that she'd got Zed's footwear sorted. She didn't want to leave Caris and Jem with too many things to do once she and Tekla had gone. She felt guilty enough about leaving the others behind. It was the right thing to do though, she was sure now. Zed would have time to recover properly, and Bee seemed happier not moving around all the time. Dee would be able to play - like those kids in the square - and Em...well, she'd learn to be more Em and less Rat.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

[Glory Brats 23] Peppermint and sunglasses

 Back with the others, Sparrow had no time to look at the map any closer until much later. Caris was determined to get as much work out of them as possible so she set them all to various tasks around the house. She ushered Sparrow and Bee into the front room and started explaining what each of the many herbs and plants were used for, and how to prepare them properly. 

"You can start with the very simple ones for just now. Here, take this one..." She reached up to the ceiling and pulled down a bunch of leaves that was hanging there. "Now crush the leaves between your fingers a little, that's it...now, smell it."

"Mint!" Sparrow said quickly, recognising it from their garden at home. Dad would chop it and stir it through the new potatoes with butter.

"This is peppermint. Made into a tea it helps if you are feeling sick. But we're going to mix it with another herb too - now try this one..."

Sparrow felt as if her head would burst with all the new things Caris was saying. She tried hard to listen and take everything in, but every so often her attention would wander. It felt like school again.

Bee liked the plants. She liked that everything was organised and in it's own box or place so that she could find it. She could tell which plant was which by the scent it left on her fingers when she crushed it.

The moment Caris left the room, Sparrow pulled out the folded map from beneath her jumper, and knelt down on the floor to study it.

"What are you doing?" Bee asked, hearing the crinkle of the paper.

"What is it?" Zed asked, leaning over the side of the bed.

"It's a map. A sort of picture of where everything is. It'll tell us how to get to Exchange. When you're better of course."

"I feel better already." Zed said earnestly, swinging his legs down to the ground. "Look, I'm well enough to get up now." He pushed himself up from the bed and took a few steps towards Sparrow, before stumbling forward and clutching at the edge of the table for support. "I just got up too quickly, that's all..."

Sparrow helped him back to the bed, and returned to looking at the map. It was crudely drawn on thin paper, but it was better than nothing. She heard footsteps outside and had just enough time to stuff the paper back under her jumper before Caris came back, carrying a basket full of freshly cut herbs. She looked at Sparrow kneeling on the floor. Sparrow slowly got to her feet, feeling guilty. Caris held the basket out to her.

"Tie these up with string so they can be hung up. They'll shrink as they dry so make sure you tie the knots tightly."

***

On the top floor, above their room, Caris had a rooftop garden, which made the most of the early morning sunlight. There were boxes filled with all kinds of growing plants, some clambering up stakes and others creeping over the sides. There was even a small greenhouse, made with salvaged windows from old buildings, and in here Caris grew the tender herbs that needed heat, and shelter from the wind and the rain.

She also grew a small selection of fruits and vegetables, some to eat and others to sell. She instructed Sparrow in how to care for them, how to pick them and prepare them. Jem watched from a chair in the corner, sipping on some tea.

"You should be working too." Caris said.

"I'm an old woman," retorted Jem, "I've earned this rest."

"I thought you didn't like being called old?" Sparrow pointed out.

"She's got me there..." Jem laughed. "I reserve the right to be contradictory in my old age."

"She's old when it suits her..." Caris said, shaking her pruning knife at her aunt.

Sparrow stood on her tiptoes to look out over the wall that ran around the roof. She couldn't quite see down to the street but she could see far over the city settlement around them. She noticed a crowd of people gathering in one place and pointed it out.

"What's happening over there?" She asked.

"Market." Caris said shortly. "And we're late."

The market was held in a square just off the main road. Some people had proper stalls with tables to display their goods, and other people just had a blanket or sheet laid out on the ground to protect things from the dirt. There were people selling everything from old clothes to freshly made bread. Sparrow saw tubs full of scrap metal, piles of faded fabric, and even stalls selling hot food cooked in big pans over burning coals.

After paying the stall fees, and collecting a folded table, Caris led them over to a space inbetween two other stalls. Sparrow helped set up the table and lay everything out on it. Jem had a canvas sheet that she spread on the ground. Caris was selling some vegetables in a basket, but mainly pots of healing salves, bottles of tonics, and different kinds of dried teas. Jem was selling anything and everything. Sparrow recognised some of the things they had collected on their journey. The scrap metal dealer came over when he saw them arrive, and rummaged through the pieces in Jem's cart. A crowd gathered around Caris, clamouring for this particular salve for bad backs, or burns, or for that special tonic that cured the autumn fever.

***

Near the end of the day, Jem called Sparrow to her side and handed her some coins. "You found some of the stuff, so it's only fair you get some of the cash."

Caris raised an eyebrow, "And what's she going to do with that?"

"Whatever she wants." Jem replied. Caris muttered something about a fool and his money, but didn't say anything else.

Sparrow wandered off to explore the rest of the market while Caris and Jem were busy haggling over prices with some last minute customers. She turned the coins over in her pocket, wondering what to do with them. All around her, the different sights and smells were vying for her attention. She stopped in front of a stall selling clothes and other things, and picked up some sunglasses. Dee was always complaining about the sunlight hurting his eyes. 

Just then, she saw Dee, pushing his way through the crowds. She ran over and grabbed him by the arm. 

"What's wrong? What are you doing here?"

"It's Zed! Bee said to come and fetch you."

Sparrow looked around. Caris and Jem were still busy with customers. Dee's pale white hair was beginning to draw attention, so she pulled him over to the side of the square.

"Oh, I got these for you." She handed him the sunglasses. He held them in confusion until she opened them up and fitted them on for him. He smiled and then frowned.

"Bee said to hurry. She said he's burning up, and he was talking all funny..."

Sparrow took his hand and together they ran out of the square and back to the house. Tekla and Rat were sitting on the step outside. They moved apart to let Sparrow and Dee through. Sparrow burst into the room and rushed over to the bed. Zed was lying back on the thin pillow, his eyes closed. Bee was kneeling next to him, a damp cloth in her hand. She put it to his forehead and he turned towards her, mumbling something that Sparrow didn't catch.

"How long has he been like this?" she asked Bee.

Bee continued to press the cloth to Zed's forehead, "I don't know. I went into the kitchen to boil some water and when I came back he was talking nonsense. I've tried to cool him down but he still feels really warm."

Sparrow tried to remember back to her first aid lessons in school. What else could they do for fever and high temperature? "Fluids!" She said eventually, "We need to make sure he drinks something." She ran into the kitchen and filled a glass with water. Together, she and Bee tried to help Zed to sit up and drink. A little spilled as they held it to his lips but he managed to swallow some of it.

They laid him back down onto the bed and sat quietly. Suddenly, Zed began to shiver uncontrollably, his fists clenched and arms strained, shaking the bed frame underneath.

Sparrow looked on helplessly until the shivering stopped. She turned to Dee. "You need to go back to the market and fetch Caris. She'll know what to do."

Thursday, 11 March 2021

First Mudlark of 2021

 Last week I went out mudlarking for the first time in ages. I have one spot that I go to, near me, that is at the mouth of a river where it meets the sea, and then spots along the beach that I know I regularly find stuff at. Mudlarking, if you don't know what it is, is an obscure sort of hobby where people look for things in mud, or in my case, sand. I think of the things I find as little historical treasures, but I suppose they are essentially the rubbish of history. In some cases, literally, as often collected rubbish was dumped on beaches to be taken away by the sea.

I find old pieces of pottery and china, sea glass, bits of old broken bottles, bottle stoppers (glass and vulcanite) and plastic figurines. I've even found what could possibly be a small stone cannonball, but that's a story for another blogpost.

On this mudlark I found 19 pieces of blue and white pottery, 3 pieces of pink transfer ware, one piece with tiny hand-painted gilt detail, one piece of black transfer ware, one piece of a Staffordshire slipware mixing or kitchen bowl, the handle of a brown teapot, a highly detailed piece of brown pottery that probably came from a teapot, two necks of old bottles with corks still in, the top of a clay ink bottle, a glass bottle fragment with embossing on it, two vulcanite bottle stoppers and one glass bottle stopper.

The slipware fragment is terracotta with a mustard yellow glaze with brown decoration in an elongated wave pattern. I'm very excited by this piece as it's only the second piece of Staffordshire slipware I've found, and is probably mid nineteenth century. 

The vulcanite bottle stoppers are mid twentieth century, and can be dated fairly accurately to that as one is 'war grade' style, with the middle hollowed out to save on rubber, and the other has text on it that allows me to research further. 'Vulcanisation' was a process that hardened the rubber to make it stronger.  These stoppers can often be found with a softer red rubber seal still around them that made the bottle stopper airtight. The second vulcanite stopper I found was marked with 'Wm. Murray & Co. Ltd/Craigmillar/Edinburgh'. A quick internet search later and I discover that William Murray & Co. was a brewing company founded in 1880 and closed in 1963. So my little bottle stopper is nearly 60 years old. My glass bottle stopper will be even older, and would have had a cork seal around the glass.

The glass bottle fragment has '...AYLOR/...ERBALIST/...REET/...K' embossed on the side, which probably was a Herbalist, called Taylor, who worked out of an unknown street, and then the town, which would end in K (either Kilmarnock or Greenock?) but I've been unable to find out anything more. 



Saturday, 6 March 2021

[Glory Brats 22] Chickens, and a theft.

The next day Sparrow was the last to wake up. She heard Caris banging on the ceiling with the broom and ran downstairs. Zed was sitting up in the bed in the front room. 

"You're awake!" Sparrow said joyfully. "Do you feel better?"

"A bit..." Zed sipped from a cup. "I've been coughing a lot though. You should go through to the kitchen now - Caris is impatient."

Caris looked up as she entered the kitchen, but didn't say anything. Everyone else was eating toast and eggs for breakfast, washed down with more tea, but a different tea from last night. This one was less floral, with a sharper taste that verged on bitter. Caris and Jem talked to themselves, but the children ate in silence, applying themselves to the food until it was all gone. They would eat well while staying with Caris, thought Sparrow.

"Right." Caris said, clapping her hands together to get their attention. "The two little ones can come with me and get washed, the boy can clear the table, and the two girls can wash and dry the dishes."

"Good luck washing Rat..." Dee muttered and snorted into his tea.

"Don't you remember our names?" Sparrow asked, "I'm Sparrow, and that's..."

"Nope." Caris interrupted her, stalking towards Tekla and Rat. "Less talking, more working."

***

Sparrow and Bee had settled themselves into a rhythm of sorts with the dishes - Sparrow filled the basin with heated water from the stove and added soap flakes from a tub on the shelf. Bee dried the plates and cutlery as Sparrow handed them to her, and then set them on the table. Dee put them away. Shouts and splashes came from the washroom next door. Sparrow wondered if Rat had bitten Caris yet.

"Hey, what do you think this is for?" Dee asked, holding out a strange knife with a large square blade.

"Put it back!" Sparrow hissed as the door from the washroom creaked open.

"That's for chopping off the heads of nosy little chickens..." Caris said, pushing Tekla and Rat in front of her.

Dee's eyes widened and he shoved the knife back into the drawer and slammed it shut. 

"But not actual chickens, right?" Sparrow asked, "Not for killing actual chickens?"

"Yes, actual chickens!" Caris exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air, "What do you think you ate last night child?"

Sparrow felt sick. Never before in her whole life had she eaten something that had once been alive. Her stomach heaved and she pushed past Caris into the washroom as her breakfast came back up.

***

Sparrow wiped her mouth and got up from the floor. Caris came in carrying a kettleful of hot water. 

"You finished spewing yet?" She poured the water into the metal tub and placed a folded cloth on the side. "You might as well have a wash while you're in here. There's soap in the dish. Don't take too long now. The other girl is waiting." The door swung shut behind her.

Sparrow's clothes felt like they were stuck to her. The cuffs of her jumper were stiff with engrained mud that flaked off as she removed it. There was a tideline of dirt on her wrists, and the cracked mirror showed that there was a similar one around her neck where her shirt had been. She picked up the cloth and unfolded it. It was faded and patched in places, and darned over the patches, the stitches giving it a rough feel. She dipped it in the warm water and rubbed it on the thick block of soap in the dish on the side. The dirt came off her in layers, changing the water from clear to murky. She scrubbed so hard she thought that her skin might come off with the dirt.

There was a knock at the door. "It's Bee - hurry up!"

Sparrow wriggled back into her shirt and shorts, but left her jumper and mud-encrusted socks in a pile on the floor. The concrete was cold to her feet and she was glad to get back to the warmth of the kitchen. Caris had a mug of hot tea waiting for her, although she narrowed her eyes in scrutiny as she handed it over. "Did you clean underneath your nails?"

Sparrow extended a hand for inspection. It must have satisfied Caris because she took a large jumper from a box underneath the bed and passed it to Sparrow. "Don't want you getting ill too..." she muttered. "Now finish your tea and then go help Jem sort out the stuff you brought back. She's out in the front yard."

The jumper came down to just above Sparrow's knees and the sleeves flopped past her hands. She shoved the sleeves up her arms and clasped her hands around the mug for warmth. The tea had a touch of milk in it so it was cool enough to drink straight away. She put the empty mug in the washing basin and went out through the front room. Zed was asleep so she tiptoed past him and out into the yard. 

 Jem had tipped all the stuff out from the cart and laid it on the ground. Tekla and Rat were both outside too - Tekla putting chicken eggs into a basket, and Rat eating the vegetable scraps that were meant for the chickens. Sparrow looked at the chickens and felt guilty, remembering how much she'd enjoyed last night's meal.

"You going to help or you just gonna stand there gawping at the chickens?" Jem said. Sparrow hurried over to the cart.

"Scrap metal goes over there," Jem pointed to a small pile, "And electronics goes here...wood here..."

"What about books?" Sparrow asked, pulling one from the pile and flipping through it.

"Books go back in the cart - we're taking them to a guy I know later today. He'll pick out all the ones worth anything."

***

The bookseller lived on the other side of the settlement. Sparrow pushed the cart while Jem navigated the busy streets. Everyone seemed in a hurry to get somewhere, pushing and shoving, and Sparrow had a job keeping Jem in sight sometimes. Jem didn't slow down for her either, weaving in and out of the crowds with a practised air, leaving Sparrow to run behind with the cart.

Jem pulled up short in front of a ramshackle looking warehouse with a metal roof. A man sat outside smoking. He nodded his head at Jem.

"I see you finally got yourself a kid to help out."

"She threatened me with a knife and then asked me to dinner, how could I refuse?"

The man stood up and pushed the heavy door open. "Step on inside, the boss'll be pleased to see you're still alive, old lady."

"Hey, watch who you're calling old..." Jem retorted. 

The man gave a laugh and sat back down, as they trundled past him into the semi-darkness of the warehouse interior. As her eyes adjusted from the brightness outside, Sparrow could make out rows of shelving that filled the entire space. Books were crammed onto every shelf, and stacked in the spaces on top. Passing the seemingly endless rows of books, Sparrow began to wonder if their small collection would be worth anything. She'd never seen so many books before. Not even her school library had this many.

They emerged from the rows of books into a small open space in the centre of the warehouse. Here the roof was made up of clear panels, allowing the sunlight to spill through down to the floor. There was a large wooden table in the middle of the space, with a man sitting on one of the chairs around it. He turned his head at the sound of their arrival. 

"I heard you were back in town, Jem. And with a pack of kids too - you collecting them now, as well?"

Jem cackled and sat down heavily on one of the chairs. "They were a job lot, just my luck."

"So what have you got for me this time? Anything good?"

Jem gestured at the cart, "See for yourself - there's not so many good ones out there now..."

The man gestured at Sparrow to bring the cart over and he pulled out handfuls of books, spreading them on the table in front of him. They varied in size and shape, from slim paperbacks to larger books with hardboard covers. Some he shoved to the side immediately, and others he scanned through before discarding. One or two he placed in a pile to his right - a pile that grew only slightly by the time he'd finished.

"I'll take these ones," he said, laying his hand on top of the pile. 

Jem rubbed her fingers together, "What are they worth to you?"

Sparrow slipped off while they haggled over the price. She wandered through the rows of bookcases, trailing her fingers along the spines. Not all of them had titles, and some were merely a sheaf of papers held together by a few stitches. She wondered why these ones had been chosen. She pulled one of them out but it was just filled with calculations and diagrams that she couldn't understand.

At the end of the row there was a bookcase filled with books that looked different to the other ones. They were roughly bound, but newer looking, without the faded covers and brittle pages of most of the books. She took one of them out and flicked through it. The purple type was set slightly squint on the pages, but it seemed to be a book of directions. Bound in the middle of the book was a map. Sparrow stared at it.   

It was a map of the Cities, showing where they were and how they were connected. At least, the Cities were marked on it, but other things were marked on it too - roads and smaller settlements, scattered all over. There was even markings showing where fresh water could be found. She glanced over her shoulder, but no one was in sight. Carefully, she tore out the central page and stuffed it under her jumper.

Monday, 1 March 2021

[Glory Brats 21] The Shambles

Night came on quicker than Sparrow had hoped. Jem seemed to know the way though, and they continued plodding on through the darkness. Luckily the moon came out from behind the clouds and lit their way, or they would have to have stopped until morning. Everybody was eager to reach their destination, especially Zed, who kept on walking despite the cough wracking his thin body. Every so often he would stop to catch his breath, and then have to run to keep up with the others. 

They passed under bridges that arched over the road, between dark-windowed buildings that grew ever higher. Sometimes they would see a faint light from inside, and Sparrow wondered if they would stop, but Jem kept leading them further along the road. Gradually, the lights became more and more frequent, and occasionally they could hear snatches of noise escaping from a building as if a door was suddenly opened and then shut.

They started to be aware of other people around them, some hanging back in the shadows, some gathered around fire braziers that burned in the side streets. The buildings started to look a little more cared for, with repairs made to crumbling walls and doors that weren't hanging on their hinges. Some even had boxes outside with plants growing in them, spilling greenery into the road. 

Even though it was night, there was light coming from just about every building now, either an oil lamp shining on a windowsill or a flickering string of lights hung above a door. More and more people appeared, and soon they almost had to push their way through the crowds. Sparrow wondered where they were all going. Some of them were going slowly, carrying boxes or bundles over their shoulders, and others walked quickly as if they had somewhere important to go. None of them paid the group of children any attention. Sparrow found Tekla and Rat and took their hands, not wanting them to get lost in the crush of people.

Jem wove her way in and out of the crowds with a practiced air. Bee held on tight to the cart as Jem pulled, and tried to keep up with her faltering feet on the uneven road. Dee helped Zed push through the crowds and struggled to keep Jem and Bee in sight. Sparrow had to break into a run, trying to catch sight of the others ahead. Tekla and Rat strained at her grasp, their little legs unable to go as fast.

At last the crowds lessened, and Sparrow could see in front of her. They had turned into one of the side streets, off the main road, and Jem was marching towards a set of concrete steps that led up to an iron barred gate. She pulled a metal chain by the side and there was a jangling noise from inside. A light went on beyond the gate, revealing a small courtyard.  

The children hung back at the bottom of the steps with the cart, but they could see a woman enter the courtyard and come up to the gate. "You're earlier than usual..."

"Hello to you too, Caris." Jem replied dryly.

Caris unlocked the gate and stepped back to let Jem enter. Jem hesitated and gestured towards the children. "I found these on my travels. One of them is ill. I thought you might be able to help."

Caris peered past Jem into the street. Bee and Sparrow stood behind the cart, Tekla weighing down Sparrow's arms, and Rat clinging to her waist. Zed leant on Dee's shoulder and coughed. 

Caris raised an eyebrow. "And what am I supposed to do with the other five?" 

"They can make themselves useful?"

"I doubt that. Still, I suppose you'd better come in. Yes, all of you..."

Sparrow let the others go in first, before hauling the cart up the steps and through the gate. The courtyard was lit by a pale electric light above a doorway. The ground surface was concrete but there were large boxes of growing things and pots full of plants everywhere, even hanging from the walls. 

"Well don't dawdle unless you want to stay out there all night." Caris called from the doorway. Sparrow hurried to drag the cart over. Inside there was a thin hallway, mostly taken up by a wooden staircase that vanished into darkness. Caris pointed to the only other door in the hall and finished locking up. 

Sparrow pushed open the door with the cart and was immediately hit with a barrage of different scents and smells. The others stood in the middle of the room, which was filled from floor to ceiling with jars and bottles and boxes. Bunches of dried plants hung from the rafters, and there was a scrubbed wooden table with bowls and bundles of cloth laid out. 

Caris came in and put her hands on Zed's shoulders. "Aunt Jem, take the others through to the kitchen and put some tea on."

"But we want to stay with Zed!" Dee cried, as Caris took Zed over to a bed in the corner and had him sit down. 

"Your friend will be fine." Caris said, and pushed them into the next room, shutting the door firmly. The kitchen was a large room, warmed by a cooking stove and lit by a single lamp on the table in the centre. This was also scrubbed as clean as the one in the other room. In fact, everything was scrupulously clean,  and Sparrow was very conscious of their dirty clothes and bodies, and was almost afraid to touch anything.

Jem had no such worries, however, and set to work filling a kettle with water from a large plastic container. She set it on top of the stove and rummaged in the cupboards until she found some earthenware cups and a small box filled with dried leaves and flowers. It had a musty, aromatic smell similar to the room next door, and Sparrow wondered how Zed was. At that moment, Caris came through and clapped her hands together. "Your friend is sleeping. He has a bad chill and cough, but he should get better in a week or so."

"A week!" Sparrow exclaimed, "But what will we do for a week stuck here?"

"Work for me for your board and lodging." Caris said, pulling out a bench from under the table and gesturing that they should sit. The kettle on the stove started to sing, and she deftly picked it up using a padded cotton cloth. With her other hand she grabbed a teapot from the side and set it on the table. She spooned the tea leaves into the pot and poured the water over. Instantly a fragrant scent filled the room.

There were only three of the earthenware cups, so Sparrow dug around in their packs to find the tin mugs and set them out on the table so there was enough for everyone.

"Good." Caris said, setting the third cup in front of Sparrow. It was an earthy brown colour, with a scrawled pattern in red glaze and a red rim. It had no handle, so Sparrow used the ends of her sleeves to hold the hot cup in her hands. The fragrant tea made her feel sleepy, and she wondered if Caris was a witch, like those in the tales her father used to tell her, casting a spell on them all. A nice witch, obviously, but tricksy, like all witches. Sparrow looked at Caris with her black layered dress and wild dark hair pulled back by a flowing red scarf. Caris caught her looking and raised an eyebrow. Sparrow ducked her head over her tea and took a sip. The tea tasted like a summer afternoon, warm and lazy, with a hint of thunder.

"I sleep here," Caris said, pointing to a bed nook in the corner, underneath the stairs. "You can sleep upstairs; Aunt Jem will show you where."

Sparrow's stomach rumbled loudly, and Tekla giggled. 

"What, now I need to feed you, too?" Caris exclaimed, raising her arms in exasperation.

Embarrassed, Sparrow offered up her pack. "We have some food we can give you..."

"Great." Caris took the pack and started pulling cans out onto the table. "Now go away, shoo."

"I'll show you where you can sleep." Jem suggested, getting up from the table. She lit another oil lamp and took it with her. They tiptoed through the front room where Zed was sleeping. It was cold in the hallway, but upstairs the warmth from the kitchen stove pipe kept the room comfortable. The room was a large open space, with the staircase continuing up to another floor. There was a bed in the corner covered in blankets and cushions, and a large metal chest which proved to contain more blankets. Jem portioned out the cushions and blankets and let them make up their own sleeping arrangements where they wanted. It was basic, but better than sheltering in ruins or being outside in the rain. 

Sparrow dumped Zed's pack on the floor by her bed and stared out the window at the city. She could see people hurrying past in the rain, and see the blurred reflections of lights in the puddles. It was strange to be around so many people again. But this was nothing like Garden City. 

There was a banging on the floorboards from below. They trooped back downstairs to find Caris holding a long handled broom up to the ceiling. "Dinner's ready."









Tuesday, 26 January 2021

[Glory Brats 20] A Gruesome Discovery

A little further on the road was part-blocked by large red and white barriers, some of which were pushed to the side. They made their way through them and carried on walking until they reached the first of the houses. It was a little cottage, set back from the road with a path leading up to the door. Sparrow stood at the gate. The door was covered with a cross of yellow and black striped tape, and there was a sheet of paper pinned to the front that was flapping in the breeze.

"Should we go in and look for stuff?" Sparrow pushed the gate and it swung open, but Jem caught at her arm and stopped her from going any further.

"Not here."

They walked silently past the other houses in the village, all with the same tape and paper on the doors. Sparrow glanced at one as she walked past, but the print was too faded to read much beyond the odd word. She recognised 'quarantine' though, and looked around the village with a new fear, as though the very air they breathed could be dangerous. She ran up to Jem.

"Why did we come this way?"

"Because other people don't."

"But it's dangerous! If the people here were sick, then..."

"They died a long time ago, and the dead don't hurt you, not if you don't go messing with them."

A light rain started to fall as they were leaving the village. Jem had a tarp to cover the cart to protect the books. She wrapped it round Zed and lashed it to the sides. The sun still tried to shine through the rain, watery rays reflecting off the water pooling in the holes in the road. Tekla trailed along at the end of the line, dragging her feet along the road. Sparrow knew that she was still sulking because she hadn't been allowed to go in the cart. And because Sparrow had shouted at her. Still, Sparrow thought, she couldn't just get everything she wanted. They were ALL tired, and Rat wasn't acting like that. She'd just have to get over it. Sparrow had other things to worry about. Like where they were going to stop for a rest, and what they were going to eat. They didn't have enough time to stop and light a fire so it'd have to be something cold. She looked up to the sky to see if the sun was overhead yet, but it was hard to tell with the clouds and the rain shower.

There was a farm up ahead, and Jem said that might be a good place to rest for a bit. They would maybe even find some stuff to take with them.

There was a big barn before they got to the house, with a large metal gate across the opening. Sparrow unhooked the gate and swung it open, allowing the others in. It was good to get out of the rain for a while. Jem sat down on an old plastic crate, while Bee helped Zed take the tarp off the cart.

"I want out for a bit, to stretch my legs..." he said. "It's kinda cramped in there."

Sparrow and Bee helped him clamber out of the cart, and he walked slowly around the inside of the barn. It was divided up into sections by metal panels, and was empty apart from a stack of the orange plastic crates that Jem was sitting on.

"Can we eat now?" Dee said, pulling up a crate.

Sparrow got Bee to turn around and opened her pack. She handed out some slightly shrivelled looking apples to everyone, then rummaged around in her own bag to find a pack of rather stale biscuits and a canister of water. She took a swig of the water and then passed it round to everyone else.

"Only a little bit, mind, it's got to last until we get to the Shambles."

After everyone had eaten, they left Zed and Bee to mind the cart and look after Rat and Tekla. Jem led the way to the back door of the house. "I've been through here before but there should still be some stuff left to grab. I'll start upstairs if you take the downstairs rooms."

Sparrow left Dee wandering in the garden while she searched the kitchen. She started to look through the mostly empty cupboards, and pile potential items on the table, then moved through to the other room. It was a dark room, with curtains still hanging at the one window. There was a fireplace, with two chairs either side, and a small bookcase with a few books still on the shelves. She was flicking through these when she heard Dee's scream. He came rushing through the kitchen to meet her, flying into her arms. Jem came to the top of the stairs and called down.

"What was that?"

Sparrow held Dee at arm's length and gave him a small shake. "What is it, Dee?"

He stuttered and stumbled over his words, trying to get them out, "In....the garden, there's, there's a shed in the garden...and...and..." He tugged at Sparrow's arm, "I'll show you..."

Sparrow followed him out to the garden and down between weed-filled flower beds and overgrown shrubs. The shed was partly hidden by a tangle of clambering roses and bindweed. The door stood partly open, and Dee hung back, pointing with a shaking finger. Sparrow inched forward, not knowing what to expect. She pushed the door fully open with one hand, and then stepped back quickly as she took in the scene before her.

The floor of the shed was littered with bones. Human bones. A skull rolled around the wooden boards where it had been knocked by the door opening. Sparrow took another step backwards, dragging Dee with her. They bumped into Jem coming down the garden path. She peered past them into the shed.

"Hmph, thought as much. They must have missed one. Best leave it alone." She stumped back towards the house and they followed her quickly.

Jem had brought a few finds down from the upper floor, and they gathered Sparrow's finds from the kitchen and sitting room before heading back to the barn. Tekla and Rat were clambering on top of the stacked crates, and Zed was sitting at the side, Bee standing over him anxiously.

"He's been coughing even when he's resting..."

"I'm fine!" Zed stressed, "I can walk some more, I promise."

"I found a skeleton!" Dee said proudly.

"Yeah, and screamed your lungs out." Sparrow added.

"We wondered what that was." Bee said. "We were worried."

"Better get going again." Jem said, dumping the new finds in the cart. They all headed out into the rain.



Friday, 22 January 2021

[Glory Brats 19] A problem

Sparrow sighed. Looking after the others was exhausting. They weren't so bad though, she thought. At first she'd thought that she'd have to do everything for them, but they learnt pretty quickly and could keep up better than at the beginning. Even Dee was a sturdy wee thing, despite being so pale. She looked over at him, trying to keep his eyes open, despite his head drooping, his white hair flopping forward. She felt a surge of affection for him that previously she'd only felt for Tekla. Grabbing her blanket, she sank down next to him, and nudged him gently.

"You still awake, soldier?"

"Uh...uh huh..." Dee raised his head and yawned widely, "I'm...awake."

As they sat in the flickering light of the fire, Dee fell back to sleep, his head resting on Sparrow's shoulder. She waited for daylight to come in through the doorway, watching as the wood in the fire crumbled into glowing embers and finally dead ashes. The sleeping bodies and noises of the others were some comfort against the darkness, despite her own breathing seeming the loudest sound in the room. At long last, the grey light of day filtered through, and the others started to stir.

Sparrow poked her head out the door. It wasn't actually raining, but everything was wet and dripping, and the sky looked cloudy. "I'm going to go grab some more stuff to burn before it starts raining again."

She trotted off towards the large building and ducked under the metal door. Pools of rainwater collected in holes and cracks in the floor where the roof was gone, but there were dry areas around the edges. She scooted around the debris, collecting splintered bits of partition walls and parts of broken furniture. She wished she'd brought the cart to carry everything. When she'd got as much as she could carry, she headed back, remembering to rip some posters from the wall to help re-start the fire.

She found the others clustered around Zed. "He can't get up!" Tekla said, coming over to pull Sparrow closer.

"Can't or won't?" Sparrow muttered, but her tone changed when she saw Zed's flushed face. "We're staying here for the day. I'll get the fire going so we can all have a hot drink."

She started the fire in the ashes of the previous one, and told Dee to get the powdered milk packet from the bags. The hot malty drink had been a staple of school camp suppers, drunk around the evening campfire before the whistle blew for bedtime. Sparrow mixed it up and poured it into one of the few enamel cups. She got Zed propped up against the wall, and pressed the cup into his hand. He shivered, "Sparrow? I don't feel so good..."

"Drink your milk." She ordered, and grabbed one of the blankets from Rat, who was curled up in the corner in a nest of her own making. Rat clutched at the blanket but wasn't fast enough to stop Sparrow taking it and roughly throwing it around Zed's shoulders. He held out the empty cup, "Thanks. Can I go back to sleep now?" He yawned and his eyes closed.

Sparrow let him sleep and chased the others away. "Go on, go find some more stuff to burn or something. Just don't go too far. And don't get hurt!"

Dee and Tekla took the cart with them, followed by Rat and Bee at a slower pace. Bee was still finding her way over the stony ground, and Rat was jumping in every puddle. Jem stood at the doorway and watched them as they made their way to the other buildings in the complex. Sparrow came and stood next to her. "Do you think Zed will be ok?" she asked.

"Should be..." Jem mulled. "He seems strong enough. You youngsters can throw off most things easy." 

But Zed didn't improve throughout the day. By nightfall he was coughing too much to want to eat anything (Rat ate his share) and through the next night his uneven breathing kept Sparrow awake even when she wasn't on watch. That morning, the sun broke through the clouds, and Sparrow knew that they should move on while the weather was good. 

It was Jem who came up with the solution. "I'm heading to the Shambles to stay with my niece over the winter. You could travel with me and the boy could get some help there."

"What's the Shambles?"

"It's built around one of the old cities, not your fancy new ones, but where people stayed before. It's big and dirty and looks half falling to bits but it's a roof over your head when the weather is bad. I can only stand being around that many people for so long, though, so I mostly hoof it around the wastelands for as long as I can."

"But how will we get Zed there?" Sparrow pointed out, "He can't walk far without stopping to cough..."

"Put him in the cart when he's tired. We can fit the other stuff around him."

"Other stuff?"

Jem, it turned out, had a stash of scavenged stuff that she planned to trade with when she got to the Shambles. "We should try and pick up some more on the way to sweeten my niece for when I turn up with you lot."

"What sort of stuff should we look for?" Dee asked, peering into the bottom of the cart and pulling out a   metal pan with a broken handle.

"Anything metal mostly, but some plastic is good too. Anything with wires. Mainly though, I collect the books. Not many people do, so there's plenty of them out there. I know a guy that buys up most of what I bring him, and sometimes I'll sell one or two elsewhere."

"Books?" Sparrow looked up from packing the bags. "What kind of books?"

"Oh, anything will do...gardening, cooking, history, some stories..."

"There are story books?"

"Sure thing!" Jem dipped a hand into the cart and rummaged around. She pulled out a slim paperback and tossed it over.

"Stories for Eight Year Olds," Sparrow read out. "But I'm nine!"

"Oh well, what a shame, I guess you can't read it then, best hand it back over..." 

But Sparrow held onto the book with both hands. "My dad used to tell me stories. I never knew there were books just for stories."

"Keep that one if you like," Jem said, "The story books ain't worth much to the old man anyway."

Sparrow placed it carefully in her pack. "How far is it to the Shambles?"

Jem pushed her hair out of her eyes, "'Bout a day? Maybe more if we're walking slow."

"Better get going then, hadn't we..." Sparrow shrugged her shoulders into her coat and slung her bag on her back. Zed struggled to his feet and reached for his pack. Sparrow got there first. "Uh uh...I'll take that. You just focus on walking."

They set off with the sun shining down, Rat running ahead, arms spread wide, and Tekla trotting beside Sparrow. Jem pulled the cart while Bee pushed from behind. Zed had Bee's staff to lean on, and Dee walked beside him, looking up every so often into the older boy's face to see if he was struggling with a cough.

It wasn't long before Zed and Dee began to drop behind the others. Sparrow kept turning round to check on them, and she halted the group when she saw Zed hunched over, clinging to the staff. 

Jem and Bee brought the cart up and Sparrow and Dee helped Zed clamber in over the side.

"I want to ride in the cart too!" Tekla said, "When's it my turn?"

"Not just now, Tekla!" Sparrow snapped.

"Why don't you help me pull the cart?" Jem suggested, but this didn't appeal to Tekla and she sat down in the dirt. 

"I  wanna ride..." she started to wail, until Sparrow pulled her to her feet and shook her.

"Zed is ill! That's why he's in the cart. Now be quiet and keep walking."

This shocked Tekla into silence, and they continued on following Jem's directions. This part of the road was overgrown, as if not many people came this way. Grass grew out of the cracks and moss spread along the edges. Eventually they came to a large black-rimmed sign that said 'Welcome to Colston'. Someone had painted a large red X over the sign.