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?"
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?"