Everyone began talking at once; opinions fluttered like moths. Sarah was stunned. The last time she’d seen Harpminster Abbott, his army had deserted him, and he’d been attacked by his closest aide. Blood spilling from a face wound, her uncle had sent out waves of despair. Crippled with grief, the free people of Vancouver had let their enemy escape. Harpminster Abbott had simply walk away. Could he have travelled inland, Sarah wondered? And why would he have gone to a wild, sparsely populated plateau, with few Puffer resources?
Charlie shouted over the hubbub of voices. “Sarah Spellings! You defeated Parleyment’s army, by driving away bad feelings with a whirlwind of snow. You alone have the skill to defeat your uncle. Come help the people of Quessnell Raft, I beg you!”
Ichamus Nickel was leaning sulkily against a tree. He spat in the dirt. “I don’t think so,” he sneered. “We have our own security to worry about. Sarah protects Sassamatta Grove—you folks in the Cariboo will have to fend for yourselves.”
“Of course she’ll come,” said Fern, as if Ichamus hadn’t spoken. “Free communities like ours ought to support each other. Also, I volunteer for the mission.”
Murdock was lying on his back beside Fern, chewing a blade of grass. “Yeah, I would volunteer for that,” he said sleepily.
“Me too—I’m going too!” shouted Sammy, scrambling to sit near Murdock.
“Not a chance,” said Tony Spellings.
“You never let me do anything fun!” Sammy bellowed, his small face twisting in anger.
Levvy burst out laughing. “Poor little Sammy,” she wheezed, “living in a treehouse, fishing and bicycling. Playing in the woods all day—and never doing anything fun.”
“Travelling to the Cariboo would be dangerous,” Tony Spellings said loudly. “Ichamus is right. We’re at half-strength in Sassamatta, because of the new grove at Burnubbee Mountain. We can’t spare anyone, least of all Sarah. I’m sorry for your village’s troubles, Charlie. But the answer is no.”
Sarah felt the kick of rebellion. Why was her father agreeing with Ichamus Nickel, who was probably still loyal to Harpminster Abbott? Ichamus lived in Sassamatta Grove out of hunger and desperation, not loyalty! And her father was exaggerating their depleted strength in numbers; Doug and Debbie Dwight were at Burnubbee Mountain with Mateo and Bram. All four of them were strong warriors, but four people hardly cut Sassamatta’s forces in half.
“We’re not helpless, Tony,” snapped Tomin. “We know how to defend ourselves. Anyway, Parleyment is in ruins, so we can spare Sarah. It sounds like she’s needed in the Cariboo.”
“Excuse me,” Song said politely, “but don’t you have a karmic debt to pay? When Parleyment fire bombed your grove, Grizzella Sticks and the free people of Vancouver came to your rescue. At that time, you promised to pay the favour forward. This is what Sarah told me.”
Sarah nodded, remembering Grizzella, the tiny but fierce leader of the free community of Vancouver. Song was right, Grizzella had helped the grove. But most members of the grove had travelled to Stanley Park at Christmas, and fought against Parleyment forces—so the debt had been repaid. Sarah poked Levvy’s arm, curious to know her clever friend’s thoughts. Levvy sometimes had visions about the near future, and many of them had come true—she might have special insight into the wisdom of travelling to the Cariboo. Levvy, gazing dreamily at Charlie Crow, didn’t respond.
“This could be a Parleyment diversion,” said Tony Spellings. “A trick to draw some of us away, and make the grove easier to defeat. That would be a classic Parleyment tactic.”
You should know, Sarah thought bitterly.
“How can we be sure Charlie’s telling the truth?” asked Ichamus.
Charlie’s dark eyes flashed, and his nostrils flared. “I risked my life to come here. I snuck around the Cariboo Posse, negotiated with river pirates, got stalked by a cougar and chased by a grizzly bear. Raccoons ate all my food. I almost starved to death in the mountains. I didn’t want to come here! But Quessnell Raft needs Sarah’s help, and I accepted the task.”
“River pirates?” Levvy echoed faintly.
“We should send Sarah and a delegation to help Quessnell Raft. I will go with Sarah, of course,” said Quinn, inhaling deeply, as if he could smell his part in the upcoming adventure.
“My dear friends,” Spex admonished, wagging a stubby finger, “this decision should not be rushed. The Cariboo is two weeks’ travel on horseback over a high mountain pass. Such a journey shouldn’t be undertaken without careful consideration. I hereby request a Sunset Council.”
“Yes—exactly!” Tomin cried out. He clapped cupped hands together once, thwuck. “This situation is what Sunset Councils are for!”
Tomin had invented the Sunset Council soon after Sassamatta Grove began. When there was a general disagreement over a grove issue, a Sunset Council was held to decide how to proceed. Everyone was allowed to give their opinion during the council. When all arguments had been made, a vote was held by show of hands. Decisions made at Sunset Council were final and binding. A Sunset Council was a great suggestion. Grateful and relieved, Sarah moved to hug Spex, but something multi-legged was crawling in his beard, so she patted his grubby shoulder instead.
“Wait a minute,” Levvy cut in. “Everyone is supposed to be present at Sunset Council. My parents are at Burnubbee Mountain, with Mateo and Bram.”
“Mateo and Bram are visitors,” Murdock drawled. “Visitors are allowed to attend Sunset Council, but their votes don’t count. But we can go get the Dwights—right, Fern?”
With a terse downward snap of her head, Fern agreed.
Overhead, the sky was turning purple, and the first pinpoints of stars were dotting the horizon over treetops to the east. Sarah yawned. Spex got to his feet, clambered awkwardly onto a stump, and slapped his palms together. “I formally request a Sunset Council in two days’ time,” he declared.
“Two days—why such a long delay? Charlie frowned. “Quessnell Raft needs you now.”
“It’s the way we do things here,” said Tony, quite rudely, Sarah thought.
Charlie bowed sharply. He strode out of the clearing, toward the firewood lean-to where his horse was stabled. “You offended him,” Sarah accused her father, the crease between her eyebrows deepening. Tony Spellings rolled his eyes, lifted his hands, and let them drop by his sides. “I can’t win with you, Sarah,” he said. “Come on, Sammy—bedtime.” Sarah touched the locket containing her mother’s photograph, and wished for the millionth time that she still had two parents.
“Don’t fret,” Spex counselled her gently. “Charlie is impatient to help his people, but snap decisions lead to regrets. Just as clouds lead to rain, and dinner leads to dessert—and on that happy subject, Pietro mentioned an apple pudding, to go with our evening tea.”
Fern and Murdock left for Burnubbee Mountain at dawn the next day. By the time Sarah woke, the sun was high in a cloudless sky, extending a heat spell that showed no sign of breaking. Sarah and her friends swam in the lake, and sheltered in the shade. Levvy invited Charlie to join them, but he refused, and spent the day on his own, grooming his horse and napping in a hammock.
The morning of the Sunset Council, a thunderclap roused Sarah from a deep sleep. She rolled out of her cedar branch bed, scooted to the treehouse doorway, and surveyed the sky. A roiling mass of ominous cloud was somersaulting inland. Gusts of wind blasted the clearing, snapping off dead branches and flinging them sideways. Rope bridges swayed as if they were made of silk, and not heavy, densely-braided hemp. Electric tension in the air accompanied the sharp perfume of rain on rocks.
“There’s going to be a thunderstorm,” said Quinn.
“Wow! Amazing,” Levvy said sarcastically. She popped her eyes, and bobbled her head. “How on earth can you predict the future like that?”
Quinn puffed his cheeks, and exhaled slowly. Sarah hoped her friends wouldn’t start arguing with each other again. Quinn and Levvy admired each other’s strengths, but they often disagreed. Quinn doubted Levvy’s ability to predict the future, even though she’d foreseen the storm that destroyed Sarah’s house, and the tall ships that had sailed into English Bay. For her part, Levvy thought Quinn’s refusal to tell them about the future was obstinate and unnecessary. Sarah sighed; between the impending storm and the Sunset Council, there was enough tension in the air.
Ka-BOOM! A thunderclap shook the treehouse.
“What a poor day for travel!” Quinn said. “Sarah, can you stop this storm?”
“I think it’s too late,” said Sarah.
Wind buffeted the treehouse. Outsized drops of rain smacked the ground like pebbles. Sarah touched her hexagon necklace, which glowed when her powers were working—but the talisman hung on her breastbone, a lifeless lump of metal. A branch broke off and plummeted into the clearing like an outsized spear. Raindrops became a downpour as bulging purple clouds disgorged their contents. Sarah, Quinn and Levvy crouched in their treehouse. Sheets of rain swept across the roof, and the rain catchment barrel started to fill. A bright flash of lightning blinded Sarah for a second. KA-BOOM! She cringed, and covered her ears.
“We should get down to the ground!” Quinn shouted.
“No—that’s dumb! We’re safer here!” yelled Levvy.
A flash of white light and cracking sound were followed by a strange sizzling sensation in Sarah’s belly. Hair on her legs, arms, and the back of her neck bristled. Below the treehouse, puddles were joining up, and becoming rushing streams. Branches lashed the air with furious force, like green whips. Peering down through the chaos, Sarah saw a small figure in a bright red rain suit, backed up against a tree.
The wind stole her brother’s name and tossed it away. Why was Sammy outside—why hadn’t her father kept him safely in their treehouse? POP! Another explosion of light was followed by a thunderclap that rattled Sarah’s bones, and turned her nerves to jelly. She smelled charred wood, like a thousand blown-out matches, and heard a sharp crack, like firewood splitting. Levvy yelped; the rain catchment barrel had overflowed, and the treehouse was flooding.
In the clearing, Sammy ran pell-mell from one tree to another. A blast of wind, another resounding crack—and an enormous branch tumbled, leaves shuddering, right on top of her brother! Sarah’s scream was swallowed by the wind. Crouching, she moved outside, and clutched the handrail ropes of the bridge. She didn’t see a figure race into the clearing and dive into the mass of greenery where the branch had fallen. Levvy and Quinn called her back, but Sarah ignored them, and edged one foot forward, then the other. At the ladder notched into the grove’s biggest cedar, she hesitated; the rungs would be wet and slick. Rallying her courage, she climbed down.
Reaching the bottom, she waded in murky brown mud to the fallen branch, a heap of leaves and twigs. Sammy? Was he under there? A flash of red drew Sarah’s eye. She looked up to see her brother’s limp body being dragged across the clearing, sneakers sliding along sodden ground, leaving parallel ruts in the mud. Sarah plunged after him to the kitchen shelter.
Sammy was stretched out on the sawdust kitchen floor. Charlie Crow was kneeling beside him, his expression grim. Sarah dropped to her knees. Her brother’s mouth was slack, his eyes were closed, and his lips were purplish-blue.
“Did you see what happened?” Sarah shrieked.
“I think he’s okay!” Charlie said. “He was underneath the branch, so I tackled—knocked the wind out of him—there was no time to be gentle!”
“Sammy, say something,” Sarah pleaded.
“SURPRISE!” Sammy yelled, opening his eyes and grinning.
“You little brat!” Sarah yelped. “We thought you were hurt!”
Sammy scrambled to his feet. “It was fun getting dragged through the mud,” he said.
Charlie smirked. “I have a younger brother named Jimbo,” he said. “Jimbo’s like you, Sammy. He would think that trick was hilarious.”
“Ha ha,” Sarah fake-laughed in a mirthless monotone. “Charlie, how can I ever thank you? If that branch had come down on Sammy’s head…”
Charlie smiled shyly, and Sarah looked away, flustered by the stranger’s good looks. He was handsome in a completely different way than freckly, blonde Quinn.
“How old are you, kiddo?” Charlie punched Sammy’s shoulder lightly.
“I’m already eight, and I’ll be nine next April,” said Sammy. “How old are you?”
“I’m seventeen for a few more months,” Charlie answered seriously.
“Why were you out in the storm?” Sarah asked her brother, but Charlie answered.
“I slept beside Splotch last night,” said Charlie. “I’m not really a treehouse kind of guy.”
“And Splotch is…”
“My horse, of course. She’s a Paint—white, with black and brown splotches.”
“Right,” said Sarah, who knew nothing about horses, and couldn’t imagine sleeping near one.
“Oh!” Charlie said, suddenly shy. “Were you asking—”
“Sammy, yes. Why were you outside in this weather, kiddo?”
“Dad went over to Ichamus and Pietro’s treehouse. I was bored,” said Sammy.
Hot anger spread across Sarah’s chest, and she clenched her fists. Why had her father left Sammy, and gone to Ichamus and Pietro’s place? He was being sneaky and irresponsible again!
“The wind’s dying down,” said Charlie.
Sarah blinked, and looked outside. Fronds of cedar drooped with moisture, but the rain had stopped. From the kitchen, she could see the hollowed-out cedar tree that served as Rumpus’ doghouse. Muttering about checking on her dog, Sarah strode into the clearing—and ran into her father, the hood of his military green rain jacket pulled over his tousled, salt-and-pepper hair. Tony Spellings looked startled to see his daughter. He pointed at the fallen branch, and smiled hesitantly.
“Wow,” he said. “A big one came down, huh?”
Her temper flared, and Sarah screamed her father. “Sammy almost died this morning, because you weren’t you watching him! How could you leave him alone in this storm? I bet you’re planning something stupid again!”