"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."
"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."