"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.