Charlie guided them to a narrow trail above the old highway, avoiding the main route. Levvy rode Puff beside Splotch, and Sarah overheard Charlie bragging about his knowledge of the area’s topography, and saw him proudly pointing out landscape features.
“See that mountain peak? Pa and I climbed it when I was only three.”
“Does your father live at Quessnell Raft?” Levvy asked.
“Pa died a few years back,” said Charlie uncomfortably. “I’m still the youngest Rafter ever to climb that mountain,” he boasted.
That morning, Levvy had washed her face and untangled her messy hair, and Sarah had felt a pang of jealousy. It must be nice, she thought, not to worry about saving an entire village. Levvy usually rode near Sarah, cracking jokes and providing cheerful reassurances; today her friend was ignoring her in favour of the handsome man from the Cariboo. Levvy giggled at something Charlie said, and Sarah grimaced.
Quinn was quiet and withdrawn. A suspicion formed in Sarah’s mind, and grew until it loomed like a standing stone: Quinn must have known all along that her powers were a mutation. Over the last year their friendship had evolved. He smiled at her often, and showed signs of affection, but he always remained a little bit aloof. Sarah had guessed he was being cautious, in case he went back to the future. Now she wondered if Quinn kept his distance because, well—who would want to kiss a Deevie?
They came to a grove of trees beside a sun-warmed rock face. Charlie dismounted smoothly, and patted Splotch’s neck affectionately. “This old mare needs a rest,” he said. “We could use one, too. This is a safe place for a nap. When can sleep until dark, and travel through the night. Fern, that will give you a chance to test your vision again.”
Fern looked startled, and gave Charlie a grateful nod. They ate a meagre meal of rice and mushrooms, then reclined in soft bunchgrass. A creek burbled nearby, and bees buzzed in late-season flowers. Rumpus curled up with Sarah, and she scratched behind his ears. At least my dog cares about her welfare, Sarah thought, unshed tears pricking the corners of her eyes.
In what seemed like seconds, Quinn was shaking her shoulder. “Everyone else is awake,” he said, “and ready to ride.” The sky was dark and spattered with stars. Numb and sleepy, nodding in the saddle, Sarah gave Merrylegs his head, lazily depending on him to follow the other horses. Night inspired silence; no one spoke, and the rhythmic clop of hooves lulled Sarah into a trance. She barely noted their surroundings, and was surprised when the rising sun revealed a thirsty, desert landscape: rock spires, stark clay hills, and desiccated plants. They sped up, trotting where the ground was even. The trail climbed a ridge, and hemmed the edge of a steep canyon. Sarah’s body was sore, and her thoughts kept looping back to Clara Bonhomme’s revelations in the chapel.
It was the third morning since the chapel. Laxgi circled overhead, and Quinn relaxed; the eagle was a sign they were on the right track. They desert was behind them now; the hills were green, and dotted with sparkling blue lakes, good places to feed, water, and rest horses. Mid afternoon, the animals were grazing contentedly among birch and poplar trees when a cloud of dust formed to the east.
“Rider,” Fern warned. “Closing in fast.”
“We’re almost there—it’s a friend,” said Charlie, breezily assured.
Fern nocked an arrow, and trained her bow on the dusty disturbance. The roiling brown cloud grew four legs and a cowboy hat. A young man, riding a paint horse that could have been Splotch’s twin, brought his horse up short and whooped a welcome.
“Yeeeeha! Charlie Crow—where have you been? Ma’s gonna slap your face!”
“Jimbo!” Charlie shouted.
The young man burst into song. “Well met on the mountain, well met on the plain!”
“Well met my brother, you’ve come home again!” Charlie finished the refrain.
Fern lowered her bow.
“This is my brother, Jimbo!” Charlie gleefully pointed to each of them in turn. “Jimbo, this is Sarah, Levvy, and Quinn. Fern’s the one who was gonna stick you with an arrow.”
“Pleased to meet ya!” Jimbo grinned, bowed his head, and touched the brim of his hat. He shared Charlie’s burnished brown skin and black hair, but his nose was misshapen, and his lopsided smile was missing a few teeth. “No trouble from the Posse since you left, Charlie—Shayna and Lily say you’re jinxed, and you bring trouble with you.”
“Who are Shayna and Lily?” Levvy asked.
Sarah thought she heard a tinge of envy in her friend’s voice.
“My sisters,” Charlie said happily.
The brothers rode side by side, chattering excitedly. The trail entered dense forest. Sarah was hopeful her growling stomach would soon be fed. Levvy and Quinn sat straighter in their saddles, and they all exchanged nervous smiles. As purple twilight chased away the day, they came to a curving wooden stile fence, enclosing a horse paddock. Solar lamps cast white-blue circles of light on a raked dirt oval. Two women with thick limbs and long black braids jogged from a roughly-built stable to meet the riders. As they got closer, Sarah realized they were twins.
She dismounted awkwardly from Merrylegs, and stumbled as her feet hit the ground. When she released Rumpus from his pannier, Shayna and Lily squealed in unison, and rushed to fuss over the terrier, scratching his belly and cooing endearments.
“When you girls are finished,” said Charlie,”I’d like to introduce you to my friends.”
“Oh! Are you Sarah Spellings?” Shayna asked Levvy.
Levvy pointed at a bedraggled and weary Sarah. Shayna and Lily had probably hoped she’d have a crown of flowers, Sarah thought, or a dress of leaves. Charlie’s sisters greeted Sarah warmly, and welcomed all the visitors to Quessnell Raft, then turned to the animals.
“They look done in,” said Lily sternly.
“Shayna and Lily care for our herd,” Charlie explained. “They’ll take good care of Jed and Rohanna’s horses. We’ll go the rest of the way on foot.”
Jimbo led them to field of tall grass, and a narrow boardwalk that bounced gently underfoot. Sarah lurched, reached for the peeled-log railing, and heard sloshing below her feet; the boardwalk was a bridge, floating in grassy shallows! Light from a rising moon gleamed through branches, and an owl hooted. The boardwalk ended at a small clearing, enclosed by poplar saplings and carpeted with bark mulch.
“You’ll want to grab a tree trunk,” Jimbo said, grinning—and the land jerked into motion!
“You’re standing on a living barge,” Charlie explained, “tethered to an underwater cable.” He was hauling a dripping rope from the water, and coiling it the mossy ground by his feet. Sarah clutched a branch to steady herself, as the barge rocked gently.
“Quessnell Raft,” said Quinn. “I didn’t think it would be an actual raft.”
With a gentle thump, the barge made contact with a solid harbour. Jimbo tugged aside a curtain of dangling willow branches, revealing a wooden ramp ascending to a leafy entranceway. Charlie rushed past his guests, and opened creaky doors of lashed poplar poles. Sarah and Levvy climbed the ramp, with Quinn and Fern at their heels.
They entered a grand hall, with ceilings so high they seemed to vanish. The walls were made of the forest itself, and papered with leaves. Thousands of tiny amber lights, strung from a network of vines, delicately illuminated the cavernous space. Sarah gasped. Low, melodic flute music began to play, and from the shadows stepped a crowd of serene faces. The Rafters hummed along with the flutes, and then began to sing. Sarah had never heard such a chorus; unexpected tears welled in her eyes, and she trembled at the beauty of the sound.
Rumpus leapt from of Sarah’s arms, and bounded toward the choir.
Levvy clutched Charlie’s hand, and leaned into him. For a shocked moment, Sarah thought her friend’s intention was romantic, until she launched a series of rapid-fire questions.
“Are those lights solar powered?” Levvy asked. “And does that barge operate on a double-pulley system? This building—does it float freely, or is it secured to the lake bottom?”
Charlie didn’t answer, but gently brushed Levvy from his side, and went to meet the woman leading the choir of Rafters. She was immense in every respect, height, girth and bearing, with outsized features, a strong nose and full lips. She wore a caftan, voluminous folds of bright blue cloth that surfed around her like waves. Multi-coloured wooden bead necklaces were stacked on her chest. Her hands, raised for a gigantic hug, were heavy with silver rings, and her hair was hidden by a turban that matched her dress. Charlie disappeared in her embrace.
“This is Ma Crow, my mother,” said Charlie, when she released him at last.
Ma Crow held her son’s head between her outsized palms, kissed his forehead, and shifted her imposing body to face the newcomers. Her gaze slid across their faces, and came to rest on Sarah’s. Ma’s eyes widened, and she inhaled deeply before booming with reproach. “Charlie Crow! Is this exhausted, ravenous person Sarah Spellings? What have you done? Are the rest of them like this?”
Ma Crow lumbered forward. She leaned her broad face into Levvy’s narrow one, sighed, shook her head, and turned to Quinn, who tolerated the inspection with stiff distaste. Ma pinched Fern’s forearm, and the spy recoiled, muttering I’m fine.
“They’re half-dead, Charlie Crow!” Ma thundered. “Haven’t I taught you anything?”
The crowd of curious Rafters finished their song, and drew closer. Charlie mingled with his people, slapping backs and receiving hugs. Sarah gazed at the majestic hall, noticing delicate ladders rising into leafy lofts, and wooden barrels equipped with a foot-pumps. She watched as a child stepped on a pump, activated a water fountain, and slurped fresh water. Intimate alcoves were tucked in the hall’s recesses, and Sarah glimpsed woven white blankets, and colourful cushions.
“Welcome to Quessnell Raft!” Ma bellowed. “The dining hall lies beyond the Grand Hall, through the birch archway.” She gestured with a substantial arm. “Let us feast!”