Sarah Spellings & The Cariboo Posse

Horse & Rider

A lizard clung to a spruce tree, its black toes splayed out on mottled grey bark. Beyond the tree, brilliant patches of blue shimmered in blazing summer sun. The forest was quiet, except for the delicate click-and-buzz of insects, and the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker drilling for its dinner. It was early afternoon.

A short distance from the lizard, two girls sat in the shade of a cedar tree. One had a pencil in her hand, and an open sketchbook pressed against her knees. The edges of several more notebooks and sketchbooks peeked out from a ragged satchel on the ground beside her. Strands of thin, straggly hair descended from an orange bandana tied around her head. Both girls wore shorts and shirts in shades of tan and muted green, blending in with their surroundings. A very good likeness of the lizard was half-drawn on the open page of the sketchbook. The girl with the bandana squinted at the lizard, raised her pencil, and drew the shape of the reptile’s tail.

The other girl was fast asleep, reclined against the soft bark of the cedar tree. Her thick, black hair framed her round, tan face, and her broad lips, slightly separated, curved up at the corners in a gentle smile. She wore two necklaces, an ornate filagree heart-shaped locket on a chain, and a golden hexagon, securely knotted to a leather thong.

Thud-thud! Two moccasin-clad feet landed beside the sketcher’s elbow. Her pencil skidded across the page, leaving a dark line. The lizard scuttled away, and vanished into a wrinkle in the spruce tree’s bark. Subject gone and drawing ruined, the girl who had been sketching leapt up in annoyance.

“Quinn!” shouted Levvy Dwight. “You just wrecked my sketch of elgaria coerulea principis!

The other girl, whose name was Sarah Spellings, woke up. She yawned and stretched, then tucked her legs underneath her and sprang to her feet. Sarah was a little bit shorter than Levvy, but she was only fourteen, and might yet grow taller.

The moccasins were at the bottom of two long, pale legs that disappeared under a rough-woven tunic. A leather belt encircled the tunic-wearer’s hips, and from it hung three knife sheaths and four sturdy pouches. Two ropy arms dangled from recently broadened shoulders, over which hovered a handsome, freckle-spattered face, with bright blue eyes and strong cheekbones—the face of a young man, thick blonde hairs growing sparsely on his upper lip and chin.

“I apologize,” said the young man, whose name was Quinn Braxt. “But the tree’s not going anywhere, Levvy. You can make another attempt.”

Sarah had known Quinn for a year, and he still had the power to surprise her with his stiff manners and strange customs. He claimed to have come from the future, and Sarah believed him, because Quinn knew how to build magically concealed treehouse villages, called groves.

“For your information,” Levvy fumed, “I wasn’t sketching the tree. Elgaria coerulea principis is the taxonomic name for the Northwestern alligator lizard!” Grasping her sketchbook, Levvy thrust it toward Quinn, open to the page of her spoiled sketch.

Understanding dawned in Quinn’s eyes. He frowned, and bit his lip, genuinely stricken.

Sighing, Levvy closed the book. “Whatever. It’s fine.”

“Is anyone down for a dip in the lake?” asked Sarah, bouncing on her heels. Her armpits were damp with sweat, and her skin itched in the midday heat.

“I came to ask you guys the same question,” said Quinn.

Sarah grinned. Levvy crammed her sketchbook into her satchel. Walking single file, the three friends followed a dusty forest trail. Sunlight glinted off a sapphire circle, ahead through the trees, and soon they stood at the rim of a small lake. Timid waves splashed gently on a rocky shore. The water was clean and clear. Sarah could make out the shimmering shapes of submerged fishing baskets, weighed down to the bottom with heavy rocks, poles tucked neatly under the handles. The fishing gear belonged to Sassamatta Grove, the treehouse village where Sarah, Quinn, and Levvy lived.

The villagers in Sassamatta called themselves Followers of the Grove. They lived close to the land, and in harmony with nature. On this peaceful summer day, in a hushed forest beside a tranquil lake, it was hard to imagine conflict. But Sarah was tormented by nightmares about the early days of Sassamatta, especially the terrible night, almost a year ago, when Parleyment forces had firebombed the grove.

Parleyment was the chaotic remnant of the country’s government. Harpminster Abbott, Sarah’s uncle and self-declared leader of Parleyment, was a despot. He had seized power in the tumultuous aftermath of earthquakes and storms. Eight months earlier, on Christmas Day, tensions between Parleyment and the free community of Vancouver had exploded in Stanley Park. Vancouver had won, and Harpminster Abbott and his forces had fled. Since the Battle of Christmas, a nervous peace had prevailed.

Sarah’s father, Tony Spellings, had grown up when people lived in houses on city streets, and drove around in private cars. Back then, food was supplied by truck deliveries, and bought from stores. After the earthquakes and storms, some people had wanted to keep living in the old ways, especially members of Parleyment, who owned the food factories and delivery companies. Others, like the villagers of Sassamatta Grove, were eager to grow food locally, and use clean energy.

On the far shore of the lake, a rope swing swayed below an overhanging branch of a Giant Maple tree. A lithe figure grasped the rope, leapt from the branches, and swung out over the lake in a smooth parabola. When the arc of the rope reached its zenith, the figure executed a perfect jackknife dive, and entered the water with the merest of splashes. Cheers echoed across the water.

“Well done, Murdock!” Quinn exclaimed.

“How do you know that was Murdock?” Levvy asked, squinting.

“Easy—he’s the best diver in the grove. Come on!” Quinn stripped down to his underclothes and ran into the lake. The girls followed close behind. The far shore looked close, but the three friends had to take breaks to tread water, and catch their breath. Squeals of delight and shouts of encouragement came from the rope-swing tree, and the smallish figure of a young boy soared over the water, limbs flailing. With a happy whoop and a harsh slapping sound, he fell into the lake. Sarah winced; the boy was her little brother Sammy, the only school-aged child at Sassamatta. Her brother had probably botched the dive on purpose, Sarah thought, to get Murdock’s attention. Sure enough, Murdock was swimming vigorously toward Sammy, who had surfaced after his belly flop.

“What a terrible dive,” said Quinn. “I’ll show Sammy how it’s done.”

Sarah waded onto the pebbly beach at the base of the rope-swing tree. She was greeted by Rumpus, a scruffy brown-and-white terrier. She bent down and scratched the soft fur behind his floppy ears. Straightening, she spied two strong, tanned legs swinging in midair. The legs belonged to Song, a young woman who had sailed from China to find ‘The Queen of Nature’ prophesied by a seer in her native land. A total of three tall ships had sailed into Vancouver’s English Bay almost a year earlier, each from a different continent, each seeking an enchantress who could harness the powers of nature. The ships had since returned to their home ports, leaving behind crew members to learn about building groves: Song from Asia, Mateo from South America, and Bram from Europe.

The tall ships had found the enchantress they sought—Sarah Spellings.

Sarah was mystified by her power to direct the forces of nature. She’d discovered it by accident in the aftermath of a big storm. Plants grew and matured at her touch, weather obeyed her will, and she could heal broken bones. Quinn had shown Sarah how to harness her gift, and given her a hexagon talisman that helped channel energy. But Quinn refused to explain what he knew about her magical abilities. He claimed he couldn’t tell her without violating the rules of time travel.

“Sarah, it’s about time you got here!” Song cried. “Murdock says no one can beat him at diving, I say he has to prove it by competition.”

“Murdock cheats,” said a clipped female voice. “I already beat him for height and number of rotations. He claims victory because his entry was cleaner—or so he says.”

The speaker was Fern Phractle, whose delicate features and slight build belied great acrobatic skill, and almost superhuman endurance. Sold to Parleyment by her parents to be trained in espionage, Fern had escaped. She could be bitter, and pessimistic, but her loyalty to Sassamatta Grove was fierce. Parleyment surgeons had surgically altered her eyes, flickering circles of greenish gold. She could see great distances, and detect living things by heat patterns. She sounded angry, but that was just Fern’s stern demeanour; Sarah guessed the spy wasn’t really mad at Murdock, her romantic partner.

“You’re sore because I’m better than you,” yelled Murdock from the lake.

“Pah! You’re only better in the air,” Fern countered. “As soon as you get underwater you’re a mess—all knees and elbows.”

“Who cares about the underwater part?” Murdock protested. “Only you can see it!”

Laughing, Sarah clambered up the tree trunk, grasped the rope, and jumped off the branch. Her thick, strong limbs engaged, and her black hair fanned out. She rotated, and the world became a bright blur. Releasing the rope, Sarah flung herself skyward, arched her back, pointed her toes, and clasped her hands together over her head. She entered the water like an arrow, and the bright world was subsumed.

“Talk about cheating!” yelled Murdock, when Sarah’s head bobbed up. “That was an impossibly clean entry—you must have used your powers!”

Sarah’s powers only worked for unselfish purposes, and she reminded Murdock of this fact. “It doesn’t help anyone but me if I win the diving contest. You’re just jealous!”

Levvy’s plunge into the lake was sloppy and carefree, and her splash was substantial.

“Ta-dah!” Levvy crowed as she surfaced.

“The Sassamatta judge awards you a perfect ten,” said Sarah.

Murdock and Sammy swam for shore, but Sarah and Levvy stayed in the water, waiting for Quinn to take his turn.

“There’s no prize for best jump,” Fern informed Quinn drily. “Bragging rights only.”

Quinn frowned seriously, gripped the rope, and swung over the lake. When he let go, he grabbed his ankles, somersaulted in midair, and rotated one and a half times. He struck the water broadside, on his back, created an enormous splash, and surfaced to general laughter.

“I’m surprised there’s any water left in the lake!” Levvy hooted.

“Quiet!” Fern shouted.

Everyone fell silent. Fern’s keen powers of perception had earned everyone’s respect; she had seen through walls to find hostages, and detected an enemy hiding inside an armoured tank. Taut as a bowstring, she leaned toward the treehouse village, like a bloodhound pointed toward a kill.

“Something’s coming fast,” Fern said. “Get back to the grove—now!”

Song swung nimbly down from the tree, and ran with Murdock, Sammy, and Fern along a shoreline trail. Rumpus darted among their legs, barking crisply. Sarah, Quinn, and Levvy swam back across the lake, and donned their clothes. The young people converged in a large clearing under soaring cedar, fir, spruce and maple trees. Sassamatta Grove looked like a normal forest until you had eaten hunaja, special honey made by bees from the future. Quinn had brought hunaja back through time. Hunaja revealed the grove’s sparkling golden ladders, rope bridges, and treehouses.

Tall, lanky, and dressed in brown rags, Tomin clambered out of a treehouse and descended a gold ladder, reminding Sarah of a daddy longlegs spider. Though unelected, Tomin was the de facto leader of Sassamatta Grove; the Followers deferred to his decisions.

“What’s wrong?” Tomin asked. “Should I sound the gong?”

“Too late for that,” said Fern, pointing toward the eastern edge of the clearing.

Ba-da-dump, ba-da-dump!

Hoofbeats hammered the earth. A white horse with black and brown markings galloped into their midst, muzzle spattered with foam, eyes red and rolling with exertion, flanks wet with sweat. A filthy, barely-conscious rider was slumped in the saddle. Sarah had never seen a live horse, and she stepped back in alarm, afraid of the animal’s size and strength.

Two oversized, burly men jogged into the clearing. Like Fern, Hanx and Trig had defected from Parleyment, and joined Sassamatta Grove. A short, bearded figure, more gnome than man, waddled in after the two giants, wearing cracked gold-rimmed glasses, belly protruding under a grimy garment.

“Hanx—calm this horse,” ordered the round little man, whose name was Spex Gribble. “Take her behind the kitchen, and give her some water. Trig—help the rider out of the saddle.”

Trig’s muscular arms bulged as he lowered the dirt-spattered rider to the soft green ground. Hanx promptly led the mare away, murmuring calmly into one of her long ears. Trig gently removed a length of thin fabric from the rider’s head and neck, protection from hot summer sun.

“Water,” the rider gasped.

He was about seventeen, Sarah guessed. He had a sepia complexion, except for his sunburned nose. A black braid hung down his back, and dark eyes blinked from a handsome, smudged, and travel-weary face. Quinn, who had foreseen the stranger’s need and fetched a dipper of water, poured cool liquid into the rider’s thirsty, gulping mouth.

The stranger sighed with relief, and smacked his dry lips. “Blessings,” he said, the traditional thanks for food and drink. He coughed, a raspy hack. “Charlie—My name is Charlie Crow.”

Sarah knelt down. “I’m Sarah,” she said, “and this is Sassamatta grove. Where did you ride from?”

“Are you Sarah Spellings?” Charlie grunted, and pushed himself up to his elbows. “I rode here from the Cariboo to find you! Ten days on horseback, over the Coastal Mountains by way of the Coquihalla Pass. I come from a raft—we need your help—please!”

Sarah was speechless.

“But—how do you know her?” Levvy asked.

“Everyone has heard of Sarah,” said Charlie, and he stopped to cough. Quinn hurriedly gave him another drink of water, and Charlie swallowed gratefully. “She defeated Parleyment in the Battle of Christmas Day. News of Sarah Spellings travelled to our raft. Her story came along the river, over the mountains, and across the plateau.” Charlie’s voice cracked. “Sarah, we need you to come to the Cariboo,” he pleaded. “Come to our raft, before the Posse kills us all!”

The last of his energy spent, the rider collapsed in a faint.

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