The Rafters ushered their visitors into the dining hall, where small birds swooped under a lofty ceiling of twisted birch branches, and ornate chandeliers of sculpted bark and knotted rope hung over circular tables ringed with carved stools. Shiny tin mugs cluttered the base of a stone fountain, splashing and gurgling into a reservoir. Children entered the dining hall, rushed to the fountain, and drank mugs of cool, clear water. Adults waited patiently for the children to quench their thirst before serving themselves water, and choosing a table. Charlie waved the guests from Sassamatta Grove to a head table featuring a sturdy bench with a carved back, like a medieval throne. No one sat down until Ma Crow had reached the bench, and gracefully lowered her glorious bulk. Ma inclined her head toward an empty stool beside her, and obediently, Sarah took it.
A deep gong sounded. Two dozen servers entered the hall in a formal, ceremonious procession. Each server bore a platter heaped with fresh food; there were soft breads, pungent cheeses, strips of meat, bowls of harvest vegetables glistening with butter, platters of poached fish, and jugs of a bubbly amber drink. Mouthwatering aromas drifted through the dining hall.
“I think I’m going to faint,” said Levvy, and Sarah felt lightheaded too.
“Don’t faint,” said Charlie, laughing. “You don’t want to miss out on this delicious feast.”
Levvy clapped her hands like a delighted child. Quinn caught Sarah’s eye, and winked. She smiled back gratefully, feeling less overwhelmed. The food looked and smelled scrumptious; Sarah felt hungrier than she’d ever been in her life. She almost forgot her manners, and reached to serve herself from a platter, but just in time Ma placed her hands on the table, rings clunking heavily, and pushed to standing. She raised her arms, and spoke in a resonant, confident alto voice.
“Blessings song—blessings be! Blessings song on the count of three! A-one, and a-two, and a-one, two, three!” Ma chanted, and the Rafters burst into lusty song:
Over water, on we row!
Wind and water, Rafters know.
Fish and fowl, fruit and grain,
Make us whole and well again!
With a din of clattering silver and scraping china, the crowd dug into the feast. Every mouthful was fresh and tasty. Sarah found herself close to tears again, overcome with joy and gratitude. When she finished her meal before anyone else, Ma pushed extra helpings onto her plate.
“Please, no!” Sarah protested weakly. “I don’t want to eat anyone else’s share.”
“Eat, Sarah Spellings, eat!” Ma insisted. “Feasts like this are rare. When we have one, we aren’t shy about second and third helpings. Our cooks are insulted if we don’t swallow every scrap. Food isn’t always this abundant—but tonight we celebrate! Go on, I say!”
Sarah ate until her stomach was taut. She was taken aback when the main course was followed by dishes of berries and cream ladled with honey. Somehow, she found room in her belly for a generous helping of dessert. “This honey reminds me,” she said, licking her lips. “Quinn has a gift for Quessnell Raft.” Sarah waved for his attention, but Quinn was deep in conversation with Jimbo. All at once she felt desperately tired. Yawning expansively, she propped her chin on folded hands to keep from dozing off in her empty berry dish.
“Plenty of time for gifts and chit-chat tomorrow,” Ma said gently. She leveraged herself to standing, and swung arms like sailboat booms. “Guests! Follow me to your chambers.” Ma showed them through a willow-branch curtain, into a corridor with a low roof and soft, spongy cork floors. Sound was muted; the walls were covered with tightly-woven reed mats. Brass bells hung over a series of wicker doors, each one leading to a small bedroom. Ma ushered Sarah to a room at the very end of the corridor. Inside was a plain washstand, and the most comfortable-looking bed Sarah had ever seen: creamy sheets, deep pillows, and a duck down comforter. A nubbly hand towel and a bar of fragrant lavender soap had been thoughtfully provided, placed beside a stone basin and wooden pitcher of water. Folded at the foot of the bed were a clean tunic of rough brown fabric, and a pair of scratchy grey wool socks with thin leather soles.
“Leave your dirty laundry outside the door,” said Ma. “It will be washed and returned to you. Goodnight, Sarah Spellings. Sweet dreams.”
Ma closed the wicker door gently.
“Goodnight, Ma,” Sarah whispered, her heart aching for her own mother. She peeled smelly, grimy clothes from her body, and dropped them outside the door. The bed was a wonder, too beautiful to despoil, so summoning the last of her energy Sarah washed, transforming clear water from the pitcher to a brown slurry in the basin. The tunic was surprisingly soft, the socks cosy and warm. She dove underneath the thick comforter. Rumpus nosed through the door and curled up at her feet. Sarah sank into blissful oblivion.
When she opened her eyes, sunlight splashed through green leaves. Was she in a Sassamatta treehouse? No—there was a sloshing sound, and the sense she was floating. She was reluctant to abandon the warm nest of comforter and clean sheets, but to her astonishment, Sarah was hungry. She pushed the wicker door open, and the brass bell tinkled. Her dirty clothes were gone. Rumpus was nowhere to be seen, and the long corridor was empty.
A right turn would take Sarah back to the dining hall, but to her left, a set of swinging saloon-style half-doors piqued her curiosity. Padding in the new socks, she passed through squeaky swinging doors into a broad, circular room. A pot-bellied black stove squatted at the furthest point of a curving wall, with a box of dried and neatly split birch beside it. A fire crackled and popped inside the stove; Sarah inhaled the comforting smell of woodsmoke. A stovepipe exited the boiler room through a steel-reinforced hole in the roof. A round metal reservoir with a temperature gauge was welded to the top of the stove; two thin metal pipes departed from this boiler and wrapped around the room, suspended on brackets. Sarah brushed a pipe with her fingertips—and yanked her hand away! The pipe was conducting hot water, warming the raft by radiant heat.
A small door led outside. Sarah found herself on a circular porch deck overlooking the sparkling blue water of a tranquil lake that stretched to meet shores of yellow-leaved trees. An overhang protected a brass telescope mounted on a rotating base, its lens directed across the lake. Sarah covered one eye, gazed through the telescope, and spied people with axes felling and limbing trees. Firewood was loaded into boxes lined with floatation tubes; a solo canoeist was paddling across the lake, towing a train of firewood boxes to the raft. Rotating the telescope, Sarah saw people fishing from a wide-bottomed boat, lines dangling from poles. As she watched, a rod bent sharply, and a fisher deftly reeled and netted a flopping, silvery fish.
Sarah lingered on the deck for a few minutes, then set out for the dining hall. Shuffling in her socks and tunic, she noticed features of the corridor she’d been too tired to appreciate the night before; heating pipes running along the walls, and cabinets with decorative handles shaped like ducks, beavers, otters, and fish. Peeking inside a cabinet, her breath caught with pleasure—it was a miniature lending library, shelves stuffed with books.
The dining hall was almost empty. Eleven people sat at the head table before the remains of a generous breakfast. Feeling awkward, Sarah reached down and rubbed Rumpus behind his ears. She seemed to be interrupting a serious meeting. Ma was presiding, in a flowing pale green tunic, her hair wrapped in a scarf of the same fabric. Gold hoops dangled from her earlobes, and her wrists were heavy with gold bracelets. Two older men and a woman with weathered skin and sharp eyes flanked Ma. A fourth stranger, a young girl, stared at Sarah owlishly. After a moment, the girl’s mouth pursed into a small red bow, and she returned her attention to a three-dimensional puzzle she was trying to solve, two twisted pieces of silver. Charlie’s expression was stern, but Shayna and Lily smiled shyly at Sarah. Quinn, Fern, and Levvy were wearing their new tunics and socks.
“Finally!” Levvy rushed to Sarah’s side, hugged her, and whispered in her ear. “We haven’t told them about the uranium, or your uncle’s project. They already seem pretty freaked out.”
A young boy scurried into the dining hall, deposited a plate of food for Sarah, executed a nervous bow, and ran away. “Blessings!” Sarah called after him. She glanced at Ma, wondering if she was allowed to tuck into the scrambled eggs, sliced apples, and crusty bread.
“Please eat,” Ma said. “While you do, I will introduce my high council. This is Ionia,” the woman nodded curtly. “Paolo and Eustace are the Captains of the Watchers,” Ma continued, and the two men inclined their heads toward Sarah.
“What are Watchers?” Sarah asked, around a mouthful of eggs.
“They’re our army. Defenders of Quessnell Raft,” said white-haired Paolo. “Until your uncle showed up, the raft’s Watchers were always able to defend us.”
Sarah tilted her head sympathetically, and took another bite of breakfast. She felt guilty for having an uncle like Harpminster Abbott.
“We have highly skilled archers,” Paolo said proudly. “But no weapon can fight the Posse’s misery. If it were only feelings of despair and stolen goods, we could recover. It was when they kidnapped Ignatio, my brother, that we realized we needed your help. This morning Charlie said he knows where we might find Ignatio. It’s time to share that information, Charlie Crow.”
Charlie looked at the Followers of the Grove, and cocked an eyebrow. Levvy cleared her throat. Sarah swallowed her eggs, and glanced at Quinn, who turned to Fern. No one wanted to tell the Rafters what the Cariboo Posse were building. Fern’s eyes darted around the table, and she clicked her tongue impatiently.
“The Posse has built a nuclear reactor in Billy’s Bay,” Fern said.
Shocked silence greeted this pronouncement, and then Ma smiled indulgently. “You must be mistaken,” she said. “There’s no need for power generation in the Cariboo. We use mill wheel technology. It is old, but effective. We also harness the wind, and we have extensive solar panel installations.”
Levvy rummaged in her satchel, and flipped a notebook open to a sketch of the rig rye. “Have you seen this symbol painted around here—in red paint?”
Ionia, Paolo and Eustace glanced at the notebook, their eyes widening in recognition.
“Gangs called Slickers paint this sign, the rig eye, on oil or gas reservoirs, report the location to Parleyment, and collect rewards,” Levvy explained.
Ma snorted scornfully. “Rafters have no use for fossil fuels! In the Cariboo, we have a saying—oil and water don’t mix.”
“And yet I have seen this symbol,” Paolo said. “In the old boatyards, near Horsefly.”
Ma’s nostrils flared. “Keena,” she said, addressing the child turning silver pieces in her fingers. “Please examine Sarah, and tell us what you see.”
Letting her puzzle drop to the table, Keena fixed bulbous eyes on Sarah, and swayed on her stool. “In a place of rock and stone, you will summon a whirlwind,” she said in a tiny voice. “The odds are in your favour. All signs point to success, but not without sorrow.”
Uncomfortable with this pronouncement, Sarah passed a crust of bread to Rumpus.
“Keena is our seer,” said Ionia. “If she predicts a good outcome, we go forward with a risk. According to this vision, we should follow you to Billy’s Bay, and hope to find Ignatio,”
“Whoa there,” said Fern, flicking her eyes around the table. “Not without sorrow doesn’t sound promising to me! We were ambushed by the Cariboo Posse at Blue Earth Lake. Harpminster Abbott stole uranium from beneath the chapel. Slickers, we discovered, are nasty criminals. They’ve been stockpiling oil and gas for secondary-power generators to build the reactor. Nothing about this mission will be easy or safe, no matter what this child says.”
Water lapped gently beneath the dining hall floor. Keena’s eyes rolled back until only the whites were visible. Her voice dropped an octave, and when she spoke, Sarah shuddered—she sounded like a demon. “You will find poison in a hole in the ground,” Keena intoned.
“That’s the same vision I had in the Grove!” Levvy exclaimed.
“There’s no hole in the ground around here,” said Paolo.
“Well, there’s the old copper and gold mine, close to Billy’s Bay,” said Eustace quietly.
A harsh silence descended. The Rafters stared at each other in disbelief.
“No one can live there,” Ma said at last. “It’s forbidden. The water and land are poisoned by the old mine tailings, chemical leftovers of the mining operation.”
Keena had gone back to playing with her silver puzzle. She slouched in her chair, clearly resentful of having to attend the meeting. Paolo put his head in his hands, and Eustace frowned deeply. Charlie’s ears turned bright red, and Shayna and Lily looked embarrassed.
“I guess we owe Keena an apology,” said Ma.
The little girl rolled her eyes, and heaved a long-suffering sigh.
“For weeks,” Ma admitted, “Keena has been telling us the Posse was north of here. We didn’t believe her, because no sane person would choose to live up there. On the coast you had earthquakes. In the Cariboo, wildfires burned cities to the ground. Billy’s Bay is a scorched wasteland.”
“How far away is this old mine?” Sarah asked.
“A day’s ride at most,” Paolo replied.
Ma stood up abruptly, knocking over a juice glass and upending a bowl of strawberries. She thrust a ham-sized fist in the air, and bellowed: