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. 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

[Glory Brats 18] Nightfall and Dinner

"What did you say that for?" Bee whispered furiously. "We barely have enough food for all of us."

"We can share." Sparrow whispered back before raising her voice, "We could all share the fire and food, if you want..."

The figure hesitated before turning round again. They nodded slowly, pushing back their hood to reveal long hair and a weathered face.

"Um, follow us then." Sparrow said, dragging the cart and Bee towards the door. The old woman followed at a distance, not wanting to get too close. When they reached the small building where the others were, Sparrow had to pause to fit the cart through, and the old woman came up and put her hand on Sparrow's arm. Sparrow shook it off.

"What?" She said testily.

"I'm Jem. My name is Jem." Her voice was husky, as if she didn't talk much.

"Oh. I'm Sparrow. That was Bee with me. The others...well the others are inside."

"Others?" Jem looked alarmed.

"Yeah, my little sister and the other kids."

"Oh, children..." The woman looked relieved and went to pat Sparrow's arm again before catching her eye. 

"Let's get inside." Sparrow gave the cart a final shove and it rolled into the narrow hall. She stepped aside to let Jem enter first, and gave a last look around the darkening landscape before following her inside.

"Listen you lot, this is Jem." Sparrow pushed past and jerked a thumb towards Jem. "Bee you already met; this is my little sister Tekla, that's Dee, Zed, and the one in the corner is Rat. Jem's gonna have some food with us."

Introductions dispensed with, Sparrow ripped the posters off the wall and gathered the smallest bits of wood from the cart to start a fire. The others had draped their wet clothing over the furniture, and it was dripping into puddles on the floor.

Bee started to search through the packs and pulled out the dry blankets. She handed them out while Sparrow was coaxing the fire into life. Zed had got out some tins of food and the metal pan. Jem watched from the doorway until Sparrow waved her over to the fire in the centre of the room. "Bring more of the big bits from the cart please."

Jem reached into the cart and grabbed an armful of the bigger pieces of wood. She brought them over to Sparrow and dropped them on the ground next to her. Sparrow looked up, "Thanks. Sorry about...you know. That was the first time I'd ever done anything like that."

Jem gave a laugh that was more of a bark. "I should hope it would be the last time too!" She said sternly.

Sparrow looked fierce, "But people are bad out here..."

Jem allowed a softer expression onto her face. "Not everyone. It's best to check first. Has everyone you met tried to do you harm?"

"No...not at first." Sparrow acknowledged. "The horse people did bandage Rat's hands and feed us." 

"There, you see. What if you'd threatened them? They might not have been so helpful then."

"I suppose..." Sparrow didn't sound altogether convinced. 

By this point, Zed had finished emptying tins into the pan and stirred it all up. He pushed it over to Sparrow who balanced it on top of the embers. Jem reached into her coat and pulled out something. She offered it to Sparrow. "It's not much but we can all have a bite if we roast it over the fire."

Sparrow looked down at the dead thing in horror. She recoiled from it like she had from Rat's dead bird and looked at Jem as if she was mad. "We can't eat that!"

Jem shrugged, "All the more for me then." Watched by the children with half disgust, half fascination, she pulled a blunt looking knife from the inside of her coat and began to skin the rat. It was hard going and  Sparrow offered her sharper knife to do the job instead. Jem nodded her thanks and wiped her own knife on the side of her coat before stashing it away again.

"What you got against eating rat then?" Jem asked after the skinned and gutted rat had been placed on the embers next to the pot. She darted a glance at Rat who had crept closer to the fire, hunched under a blanket while her outer clothes were dripping on the chair. "Is it cos of the little 'un, Rat?" At the sound of her name,  Rat looked up and stared at her across the fire while the flames danced in her eyes.

"Her real name is Em," Sparrow explained, "And it's not just rat, it's all animals."

"Oho, so you are from the Cities then. I heard tell they don't eat meat in there. What's a bunch of City kids doing out here all alone?"

Sparrow explained about looking for her dad, and how she and Tekla had found the others.

"Actually we found you." Bee corrected.

Sparrow stuck her tongue out at Bee. Tekla giggled, "Bee, Sparrow's sticking her tongue out at you."

"What for?" Bee asked, puzzled. Sparrow scowled at Tekla.

"Food's ready!" Zed said hurriedly, sensing a argument about to break out. He slopped the soupy mix of beans and vegetables into various empty cans, and held out a fistful of spoons for everyone.

"Sure you don't want any?" Jem asked as she tore the stringy meat off her rat and added it to her can. Sparrow and Tekla shook their heads violently, but the others were intrigued by the smell of the roasted meat.

"Can I...try just a tiny bite?" Dee asked. "It smells so good!"

"A tiny bite is all there is..." Jem remarked as she handed over a piece. "Anyone else?"

Rat's hands were still bandaged so she had to wait for someone to feed her. She tried to lift the can up with her bandaged hands but she could only hold it with two hands. She banged it against the floor in frustration when no one seemed to notice.

"Sorry Em..." Sparrow said, and put down her own food. She picked up the spoon and started to feed Rat, but Rat shook her head and shut her mouth. She pointed at the rat insistently, until Jem held out a piece for her. Sparrow took it with disgust on her face and watched it disappear into Rat's mouth. Rat then pointed to her mouth and stared at Sparrow until Sparrow started to feed her again.

"Eww, Rat ate herself!" Dee laughed.

Sparrow grinned and poked Rat, "Are you good to eat? Shall we put you on the fire and roast you?" Rat squirmed away.

Zed shivered and sneezed. Jem glanced over in his direction. "All this rain will do that for you. We've been lucky with the weather so far this season but now it's turning nasty. Time to find a place to stay under cover if you can."

The warmth from the fire and their bodies was drying their damp clothes slowly, but the ones hanging off the chairs were still sodden. Sparrow looked around at the others as they warmed their hands and feet at the flames. Zed's socks steamed in the heat from the embers. No, wait, it was smoke, not steam.

"Zed, your socks are burning!" Sparrow jumped up and threw some water over Zed's feet.

"I thought it was a bit hot..." he said, looking ruefully at his wet socks. He sneezed again. Jem reached into one of the many deep pockets of her coat and pulled out a small lidded pot. She unscrewed the lid and passed it over to Zed. "Here, rub this on your chest. It'll keep the cold from travelling into your lungs. Well, it'll help, anyhow."

Zed scrunched up his nose at the unfamiliar smell. It was strong, but not unpleasant, reminding him of the sap that had oozed from the branches in the forest. He rubbed a little of the salve over his collarbones and handed the pot back.

Tekla yawned and pulled her blanket closer around her. Sparrow found herself yawning too, now that she'd eaten.

"You go to sleep if you like," Jem suggested. "I'll watch the fire for a bit and wake you up later."

Sparrow was too tired to disagree. She sat herself down next to Tekla and closed her eyes. The next thing she knew was Dee shaking her awake.

"Sparrow, Sparrow! I woke up and that lady was gone..."

Sparrow jerked awake, looking around at the sleeping bodies. Jem was no where to be seen. The fire was dangerously low, and there was no glow from the door that would mean it was daytime. She got to her feet, careful to step over the sleeping Tekla beside her.

As she reached the door, she heard a noise outside and froze, reaching for her knife. She groaned when she realised that she'd never got it back from Jem after she'd finished with the rat.

Cursing herself, she looked around for another weapon and her eyes settled on Bee's staff. She grabbed hold of it and stumbled back to the doorway, only to be met by Jem with an armful of wood.

Jem's eyes flickered to the staff, but she said nothing. Sparrow fell back to let her through and watched her add the wood to the fire.

"You should have woken me up before you went out..." Sparrow said as she replaced Bee's staff. "Oh, and I need my knife back."

"Oh, of course..." Jem handed it over. "I didn't want to disturb you, you looked sound asleep."

"Well, I'm awake now. I'll stay on watch while you get some sleep."

"I'll stay awake to watch too!" Dee piped up. 

"Only if you're quiet," Sparrow said. "We don't want to disturb the others."

Dee nodded, and Sparrow checked on the drying clothes while Jem settled down beside the fire. The clothes were just damp now, rather than actually wet. Still, it would either mean wearing damp clothes tomorrow, or staying here another night until they dried. Only Zed was showing signs of a cold now, but they could all get sick if they had another day of walking in the rain. Maybe it was best to stay put for a day or so. If the weather wasn't sunny tomorrow. 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

[Glory Brats 17] Firewood

 It was raining. It had been raining all day, and everyone was wet and tired. It didn't help that the track they were on was now becoming a small stream with the water that was running along it. They were following the city fence around the outside of the forest. Sparrow reasoned that by going around the city they'd have to reach the railway line going towards Exchange at some point. And this way they wouldn't get lost in the forest again. It did mean, however, that they were in unknown territory,  and for this reason she was carrying the knife in her hand.

Sparrow looked around at the others following her. While they were in the woods, Bee had found a long, smooth branch that she could use as a staff to help her traverse the ground. It would also come in handy, Sparrow reflected, as a weapon if need be. Zed was stumbling along in his sandals, the socks underneath sodden with mud. Dee's footwear was in a similar state - the canvas gym shoes with a tide mark of mud nearly up to the laces. Bee, Rat and Tekla were luckier, their rubber boots were perfect for this weather. Sparrow looked down at her own shoes, sturdy leather walking boots that she had worn for camping with the school. One of the laces had come undone and was trailing in the mud. She stopped to re-tie it, sticking the knife into the ground beside her. Bee's staff nearly hit her on the head. 

"Watch it! You're lethal with that thing..."

"Why've we stopped?"

"Boot lace."

This brief interaction seemed to open the floodgates of general conversation, and there arose a chorus of comments and complaints from the younger members of the group. Apart from Rat, of course, who was stoically stamping in all the puddles she could find. Tekla joined in and was briefly distracted from her misery. Their enjoyment made the rest of the group feel lighter as they trudged along punctuated by splashes and giggles.

Up ahead, Sparrow could see a cluster of derelict buildings standing at some distance from the track. "I can see some shelter, Bee. I'm going to check it out. You stay here with the others. I'll signal to Zed if everything's ok."

She trotted off in the direction of the group of buildings. As she got closer, she could see that the roof of the bigger building had caved in, but the smaller buildings still looked solid. She slowed her pace as she came up to the first doorway. The door had been kicked in, and was hanging on its hinges. She squeezed past it into the hallway, tiptoeing over broken glass and other rubbish. She couldn't hear anything but the drum of the rain on the roof. A quick glance into the two rooms revealed no hidden dangers, so she scrambled back to the doorway and waved at Zed and the others to join her. They ran the last bit, desperate to get out of the rain.

"Watch your feet" she warned Zed, as they crunched over the broken glass, aware that his feet in sandals were more vulnerable than the others.

Inside it was dark, but dry at least. A wooden desk, some chairs, and a metal filing cabinet were the only furniture, with some peeling posters stuck on the walls. 

"There might be some stuff we can use for firewood in the other buildings..." Sparrow said, as the others stood around, dripping water into puddles on the floor. 

"I'll come with you," Zed offered.

"No, I'll take Bee - the roof's fallen in and her boots will be better than your sandals."

The two girls walked across to the other buildings in silence. Bee stumbled slightly on the uneven ground, but Sparrow didn't notice, focused as she was on their surroundings and possible threats. The biggest building had a large doorway, with a metal door that opened upwards like a garage. It was stuck halfway but Sparrow was short enough to be able to walk underneath.

"Wait." She ordered Bee, who had nearly walked into the door. Bee felt for the edge of the door and forced it upward, making a grating noise that echoed through the cavernous space beyond. 

"We need to be quiet!" Sparrow whispered, gripping her knife tighter as her eyes scanned the inside of the building. The roof had collapsed into the middle, leaving space around the edges. Splintered wooden beams and twisted lengths of metal lay scattered on the floor, while other broken pieces of roof hung precariously overhead. Sparrow inched her way around the outside of the room, listening for any noise that might indicate a further collapse. Bee followed slowly, using the wall to guide her, and sliding her staff across the floor to check for anything that might trip her up.

Sparrow darted into the centre of the room, and tugged a length of wood from underneath some shattered plasterboard. The pile in the middle shifted and she jumped back quickly as more plaster and bricks fell to the floor with a crash and a cloud of dust. 

"What was that?" Bee asked, flattening herself against the wall. 

"Just...getting some firewood..." Sparrow replied breathlessly, hugging the piece of wood to her chest.

"I thought you said we had to be quiet..."

Sparrow rolled her eyes, "That was BEFORE we knew it was empty."

There was a loud sound from the other side of the room, and both girls jumped.

"What was that?" Sparrow whispered.

"Maybe it's not so empty after all." Bee retorted, spinning her staff round to a defensive position.

Both girls could hear muttering and mumbling coming from the other side of the room that was hidden by the fallen roof. Knife in hand, Sparrow inched forward. A shuffling figure came into view, dragging a  wire cart full of broken bits of wood. The figure was stooped over, eyes fixed on the ground, occasionally bending down and picking something up to throw it into the cart. It was impossible to tell whether it was male or female, swathed as it was in cloths and scarfs. Thick gloves covered its hands and a hood hid the face.

"Hey!" Sparrow called out, waving her knife. The figure looked up.

"What are you doing?" Bee murmured.

"Getting some firewood." Sparrow said firmly. She walked towards the figure, brandishing the knife with more confidence than she felt. The figure backed away, mumbling something.

"What was that?" Sparrow demanded. The knife made her feel braver, made her face stern and her voice harder.

The figure held out their hands. "I don't...I don't want no trouble."

"Right..." Sparrow reached one hand out to rest on the cart. She couldn't quite believe that the threat of the knife had worked and now that it had she felt a bit flat.  "We just need some firewood. That's all." 

"Take it, take it..." The figure turned to walk away, leaving Sparrow holding the cart and the knife, feeling both elated and sad. She pushed the sad thought down and rolled the cart back to Bee. "Let's go." She looked at the figure walking away, and called out again, "Hey! Hey you!"

The figure froze.

"Are you hungry?" 

Monday, 4 January 2021

[Glory Brats 16] On the run again

 Sparrow took her time leaving the tower. She'd never been in a building like it before. Everything about it seemed larger than normal, from the size of the stones making up the walls and steps, to the thickness of the wooden planks of the platforms inside. She felt very small and insignificant. As she descended the outer wooden steps from the door high up in the wall, she could see over the whole settlement. The big gates were being opened to let in a truck that looked oddly out of place next to the grassy houses. It's wheels bounced on the uneven track before it pulled up in a space beside the tower. Something didn't feel right to Sparrow. She ran down the rest of the steps and hid in the space underneath. She watched as the door of the truck opened and a man she recognised got out. It was the captain from the other night who had captured them.

Sparrow wondered if she should run back and warn Grace but it was too late - one of the tower people was already showing him up the steps. She watched their feet tramp above her head and sat there, worrying. Did Grace know the captain? Why was he able to just drive up without anyone challenging him? Maybe they were working together, in which case, Sparrow realised, they weren't safe here. Grace wasn't going to look after them, she was just going to hand them over to the enemy.

Warily, she clambered out of her hiding place and ran around to the backs of the houses where the children were still playing. Zed was the closest so she grabbed him and pulled him to the side.

"We need to get out of here."

"What? But why?"

"The captain - the guy who captured us - he's here. They're going to just give us to him."

Zed looked around in alarm.

"It's ok, he's in the tower just now, but we've not got a lot of time. I don't know when they'll come and get us."

"But how will we get out? There's always someone at the gate."

"I don't know..." Sparrow looked at the group of kids and had an idea. Maybe they'd know how to get out of the settlement without being seen. "Leave that to me. Can you go back to where we slept and grab our packs?" 

Zed nodded and slipped away. She waited til there was a lull in the game and then walked into the middle of the group, "This is boring now, let's get out of here and explore outside the walls."

One of the smaller kids piped up, "We're not allowed outside without an adult."

Someone laughed, "There's a way we can get out. Not through the gate. Come on, we'll show you."

Sparrow looked around for Zed but he hadn't come back yet. Reluctantly she followed the rest of the kids along the outer wall until they came to a fenced area where some animals were grazing. The kids from the encampment hopped over the fence, but Sparrow and the others hung back, nervous of the animals.

"They won't bite!"  "I thought you faced down a wild dog, anyway?" "It's just some sheep..." 

 Zed caught up with them, weighed down by rucksacks and bags. He handed them out, making sure Tekla and Rat got the lightest ones. "I couldn't carry everything," he explained, "I had to leave some of the tins behind."

"What do you need those for?" The other kids clustered around, hanging over the low fence.

Sparrow paused before answering. She wasn't sure if she could trust these kids, if their parents were in league with the soldiers. She shrugged her arms into her rucksack and started to climb over the fence. 

"I'll tell you later. Now show me where we can get out..."

"No." One of the older kids blocked her way. "We'll only show you if you tell us what you're up to."

Sparrow scowled. This was not how it was supposed to go. She jumped off the fence and squared up to the tall boy. "Fine. I'll tell you, but only you. And you can't go blabbering about it to the grown ups."

He pulled a face,"As if..."

They moved aside, out of earshot of the others. Their hurried exchange was cut short by a cry from the other side of the animal enclosure. "Hey, what are you kids up to?"

An angry young man started crossing the grass towards them. "I've told you kids before about hanging around here - it upsets the animals..."

The kids from the settlement ran away, and Sparrow had little choice but to follow them back into the main section of the houses. The kids melted away, mentioning chores that needed doing, or food that was waiting for them. Soon they were left standing by themselves outside the house where they had stayed the night.

"What do we do now?" Zed asked.

"Later..." Sparrow hissed, as a lady came out from the house and saw them standing there.

"I expect you're hungry again. Come inside and I'll see if I can fix you up something."

They reluctantly followed her in and anxiously waited at the table while she poured soup into bowls and stacked bread on plates.

"We'll have to sneak out tonight," Sparrow whispered across to the others. "Derrin told me how to get out."

"But where will we go?" Bee asked.

"Somewhere far away from all grown ups..." Sparrow replied into her bowl of soup.

Later that night, Sparrow waited until all noise downstairs had stopped. She shook Tekla and Dee awake. Bee was sitting on the edge of her bed. Zed was checking the straps on their bags and Rat's bright eyes glittered from underneath the bed frame.

"We all ready? Good. I'll check the downstairs is clear." 

The first step creaked under her feet and she winced. But no one called up from downstairs so she continued, the others following her to the top of the stairs. The room where they had eaten was in darkness; the only light came from the moonlight shining in through the window. She could hear the others fumbling down the wooden steps as she made her way to the door. The door wasn't locked, and she inched it open to glance up and down the road outside. A small brazier of fire was burning down to embers at the top of the road close to the tower.

She opened the door and then found Tekla and Rat's hands. "Stick close to me." She ushered the two small girls outside and around the corner of the house into the thin gap between the buildings.  Bee, Zed and Dee followed, all trying to make as little noise as possible. It was darker here, in the shadow of the houses, and Sparrow struggled to see where she was going at first, until her eyes adjusted. She felt the others crowding behind her and ran to the next shadow. The outer wall wasn't far, and she followed the line of it until they arrived at the animal enclosure.

This part of the outer wall was made up of all kinds of scavenged materials: sheets of corrugated iron, metal panels, planks of wood, doors, and even the bodies of old cars, squashed and stacked on top of one another. Sparrow opened a door on the bottom car, and saw a small gap in the broken seat panels where she could fit through. She removed her bag and pushed it through the hole first, then wriggled through the gap, twisting her arms and legs to fit. Once through, she stretched her arm back through the hole and beckoned the others to follow. "It might be a bit tight for you, Bee, but I had room to spare so you should be ok..."

Once on the other side, the moonlight revealed a landscape of bushes and small trees. A series of small paths ran through the scrubland, perfectly sized for children. Sparrow tried to work out which way they should go while she waited for the others to emerge. In the distance she could just make out the tree line of the woods where they had come from before. She wondered if the best thing was to backtrack to where they had left the main road and then head out from there. If her dad was heading to Exchange then their best bet was to find and follow the train tracks. Which meant heading back to the city.