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."