Sparrow woke up as the trading post was springing to life. The fire had died down to ash and cold cinders that were soon trampled underfoot as the business of the day got going. Zed and Dee had taken the second watch, and were bleary eyed as they shoved their blankets into their bags and shifted out of the way of the grownups pushing wheelbarrows and carts.
The news of Mattie's murder had spread quickly through the people present, and even new arrivals seemed to be sporting grim faces, and weapons at their belts. They could hear groups talking about how the roads were getting more dangerous for travel, with so many soldiers and militia groups around.
In a quiet corner, Sparrow pulled out the map she'd ripped from the book, and spread it on the ground. Her finger traced the lines on the paper from the Shambles to the trading post, and then stopped. Exchange looked to be nearby, but no roads led directly to it. They'd have to get as close as they could to the surrounding forest and then find their own way through.
Sparrow folded up the map and shoved it into her pocket. "Let's get going."
"What about breakfast?" Dee asked.
"No money left." Sparrow said shortly.
"Could we trade something for food?" Zed suggested. "Maybe we could spare something from the medikit?"
"I suppose so..." Sparrow took the kit out of Tekla's bag and rifled through it to see if there was anything they wouldn't need. She pulled out some tablets in a plastic bottle. "Don't know what these are for. I'll see what I can get for them."
She sprinted off towards the stalls. It was a bit like the market at the Shambles, but the stalls were bigger and fancier, and it was busier too. She found a stall dealing in medicines and other things. The woman behind the stall wore a dirty white coat over her other clothes. She spotted Sparrow's knee and nodded at it. "That's a nasty graze you got there. Need something for it?"
Sparrow glanced at her knee in surprise and shook her head, "No thank-you, we've already got some antiseptic cream. How much for these?" She held up the bottle of tablets.
Sparrow returned to the others carrying two loaves of bread. She shoved one of them into her bag and tore the other one into pieces and shared them with the group. "And everyone can have a bit of water too - we should refill the bottles while we're here."
There was a water pump in the centre of the trading post, and a queue of people looking to fill various buckets, canisters and bottles. Sparrow handed over one of the coins she'd got for the tablets and joined the line of people waiting.
Leaving the trading post, the clouds were gathering above them, and by the time they were out of sight, the first drops were beginning to fall. Sparrow set a fast pace, and the others tried to keep up, although Tekla lagged behind.
"I want a piggy back..." she whined, dragging her feet in the dirt on the road.
"Not this time," Sparrow snapped, "It's too early and you've just eaten."
They were following the same road that had led them to the trading post, but it curved away to the right and led them through fields on either side that were overgrown and filled with weeds and saplings. The hedgerows curved over the road like a tunnel and protected them from the worst of the rain.
The road sloped down into a small valley, with abandoned houses scattered across the landscape. The hedgerows petered out and were replaced by wood and metal fences that were half sunk into the grass verges as though they were being swallowed by the ground.
One of the houses loomed ahead, and Sparrow looked around at the others following her and relented.
"Hey," she called out, "We'll shelter in this next house until the rain stops."
A half-hearted cheer went through the group. The house was small and made of stone, with a red door that stuck as Sparrow tried to shoulder her way in. The lock had already been broken. The others helped push and shove until it opened enough to let them all in out of the rain. They slipped in through the gap and stood in the dark hallway. Zed opened the door nearest to them. Inside there were big comfy chairs and yellowed lacy curtains at the window. Everyone sank into a chair or onto a cushion and eased rucksacks off their backs. Sparrow stood at the window and pulled back the curtain, looking out into the rain. Suddenly she dropped the curtain and ducked down out of sight of the road.
"What is it?" Zed asked.
"There's a truck stopped on the road outside."
They heard the noise of the truck doors slamming shut, and Sparrow raised her head to risk a peek through the curtains. "They've got out, but they're all just standing around..."
One of the men lifted the bonnet at the front of the truck and stared into the engine. Sparrow slid back down against the wall. "I think their engine is broken."
Through the thin glass they could hear the men shouting and cursing at each other. There was silence, then they heard a noise at the front door.
Sparrow scanned the room. "Quick, behind that couch!"
Grabbing their bags, they all scrambled into the gap between the couch and the wall. They heard the front door being shoved open, and then the squeak of the door to the lounge. The man gave a cough, and called out to the others behind him, "Through here."
They heard the sounds of more people entering the room, and the springs of the chairs protesting as they sat down heavily.
Tekla covered her mouth with both her hands, while the others tried to breath quietly. Rat crouched ready to run, eyes darting everywhere. Sparrow's leg started to cramp and she winced as she tried to ease it without making a noise. Thankfully someone broke the silence.
"Did we have to shoot that guy earlier?"
"Not this again..."
"Yeah, but did we have to?"
"Yes! He had a knife, he was going to fight, maybe one of us would have got hurt, you want that? Well, you want that?"
There was a shout from outside and the men sprang up out of their seats, reaching for their guns. One of them went to the window and pulled back the curtain, "Stand down, it's just Marshall. Looks like he's fixed the truck."
Once they left, everyone could breath freely. They spilled out from behind the couch and stretched their arms and legs. Sparrow peeked out the window again. The men grabbed something from the truck and headed back up the path.
"They're coming back!" Sparrow flung the lounge door open and ran into the hall. The door at the end had a glass panel in the top half, with what looked like a kitchen beyond. She kicked the door open. Everyone ran in and the door swung shut behind them just before the men arrived back at the front door. Zed watched them anxiously through the keyhole as they carried in what looked like a crate of bottles, but they went into the lounge and shut the door.
Sparrow tried wiggling the back-door handle, and it came off in her hand. The door swung open. She almost threw the broken handle to the side, but remembered the men next door and placed it on the table carefully instead.
Zed was opening all the cupboards and drawers quietly, and discovered a knife at the back of one drawer. He took it out and showed it to Sparrow, who nodded and pointed at Bee. Zed tapped Bee on the arm and then placed the knife in her hand. She examined it with her other hand then shook her head violently and held out her staff. Zed took the knife back and gave it to Dee.
They crept down the back steps and into the overgrown garden. The remains of a path led back around to the front of the house. They tried to stay out of sight of the view from the lounge window, ducking down to crawl underneath it. Once back on the road they hid behind the truck and caught their breath.
"They killed Mattie, didn't they?" Bee said.
"Yeah..." Sparrow said, pulling her knife out and sticking it in one of the tyres. Dee did the same to the back tyre, and then all of them ran off along the road and out of sight of the house.