“Don’t disrespect me, Sarah.”
“If you want respect, you have to earn it—you taught me that, Dad.”
“What have I done to lose your respect?” Tony asked angrily.
Sarah folded her arms over her chest in defiance, and immediately regretted doing so—cold water entered her jacket at the wrists, and trickled along her forearms.
“Okay, here we go again. Sarah, I left Sassamatta last year to change your uncle’s mind about attacking Vancouver. I did not commit treason,” said Sarah’s father.
“You snuck out of the grove like a traitor, after freeing a prisoner. If your mission was so noble, why did you sneak around—why didn’t you share it with us? And when I was kidnapped by Harpminster Abbott, and you didn’t try to rescue me. You called him Harpy—you were buddies!”
For close to a year, doubt had been festering like spoiled food in Sarah’s stomach. It spewed out of her now, tasting like bile. Her father’s features crumpled, and he thrust his fingers through his greying hair. The rain had softened to a light shower, and a patch of blue appeared in the western sky; villagers emerged from treehouses, crept along sodden rope bridges, and climbed down ladders. Pale, fiery-haired Hanx and dark skinned, afro-topped Trig lumbered into the clearing, looking like chess pieces from opposite sides of the board. Spotting Sarah, they came to join her beside the fallen branch.
“I’ve apologized enough,” said Tony heatedly. “and I’ve been a team player all along. Stop holding this grudge, Sarah. It isn’t healthy.”
“You know what’s unhealthy, Dad? Keeping secrets. For instance, what were you and Ichamus talking about this morning?”
Sarah’s father looked flustered, and whipped off his rain jacket. “I don’t have to justify everything I say and do, and I won’t be subjected to an inquisition!”
“Well that just proves it,” said Sarah. “You’re hiding something.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I won’t tolerate this tantrum.”
Sarah opened her mouth, and prepared to unleash the fury in her chest, but Trig put a warning hand on her shoulder, and spoke gently.
“Please don’t fight. It was a rough start to the morning. But we just saw Sammy, and he’s fine, which is all that matters.”
Sarah took a long, deep breath, and exhaled to a count of ten. As her anger receded, her father seemed to wither; his grey cheeks sagged, and his wrinkles deepened. His sorrowful posture reminded Sarah of when mother had died, and remorse rushed in to replace anger. Before she could apologize, her father turned and walked away, shoulders slumped and head bowed.
“Sarah?” Sammy tugged at her sleeve, his voice was tiny and tearful. “I’m sorry I left the treehouse this morning.”
Sarah knelt down, and hugged her brother. “It was a bad idea, but I guess you learned a lesson. Don’t worry, okay? Sometimes when people are scared, they get really mad.”
“Me and Trig are gonna dig trenches, and drain the clearing,” said Hanx, rubbing Sammy’s head, “and we’re prob’ly gonna get really muddy. Wanna help?”
“Yes!” Sammy shouted.
Thank you, Sarah mouthed, and Hanx winked at her as he led Sammy away.
Relief no one was hurt soon turned to alarm: inspecting the kitchen, Pietro discovered cracked food containers. The flour was spoiled and useless, the beans and rice soaked unusable, and a supply of crackers and granola had turned into soggy mush. Breakfast was a grim affair, as everyone contemplated the depleted pantry. As Sarah was finishing her porridge, Quinn sat down heavily beside her.
“Lots of rain-catchment barrels are contaminated with debris, and I’m not sure if the water is safe to drink.”
Sarah sighed. Quinn cleared his throat, and glanced up nervously.
“What else is wrong?” Sarah asked, alarmed.
“The rope bridges are waterlogged. If they dry soon, they should be okay. But if it rains again, they could break, or pull down the trees where they’re moored.”
“Should I dry them out?” Sarah asked.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Quinn.
While friends hung soaked blankets and sleeping bags, Sarah dried out the rope bridges. Her hexagon necklace glowing, she twisted her hands, as if wringing out the braided hemp, and imagined the water inside them draining. Droplets rained down from the bridges, and they regained their shape. She was deep in concentration, finishing the final bridge, when she heard a gleeful yelp, and looked up to see Levvy run pell-mell across the clearing, and throw her arms around her parents.
The light in Sarah’s hexagon necklace faded; the Dwight family’s tender reunion reminded her of her fight with her father. In the clearing, Murdock and Fern were giving an animated account of their journey to Burnubbee Mountain and back. Sarah, feeling anxious and antisocial, didn’t join the happy, curious audience. She took a nap instead, slept through dinner, and woke when the sun’s orange circle was grazing the horizon and the meeting gong rang.
Awash with apprehension, Sarah took the trail down to Sassamatta Lake. Most of the villagers sat on driftwood benches by the shore, but Tony Spellings was skipping rocks across the flat surface of the lake. He glanced up at her briefly, nodded, and returned his attention to the water. Sarah’s heart sank, and she wished she’d sought him out earlier in the day.
“Ah, Sarah! Excellent, excellent.” Spex said, and he thrust a long, intricately carved stick into her hands. This was the talking stick, a yellow cedar branch, oiled to a warm sheen, with a dozen faces carved into its surface. Eleven faces were wide-eyed listeners; the twelfth, at the top of the stick, was an open-mouthed speaker. During Sunset Council, only the person holding the talking stick was allowed to speak.
“I can’t lead this council,” Sarah protested. “It’s my future we’re debating.”
Spex blinked behind his cracked spectacles. “My goodness—right you are, Sarah Spellings,” he said. He reclaimed the talking stick, shuffled over to a prominent rock, and climbed up clumsily to its surface. Sarah joined Quinn and Levvy on a length of driftwood. Tony Spellings, his hands clasped tightly in his lap, sat beside a glowering Ichamus Nickel, and a timid-looking Pietro. Charlie Crow stood beside Spex’s rock, surveying the gathering with serious intent. The lake was suffused with golden evening light, and birds sang in the trees along the shore.
“Gracious good evening to one and all!” Spex gave his unruly beard a nervous tug. “Allow me to remind you of Sunset Council rules. Only the person holding the talking stick may speak. When everyone who wishes to has spoken, there will be a show-of hands vote for this proposition: be it resolved that Sassamatta Grove send a delegation, led by Sarah Spellings, to Quessnell Raft. A ‘yes’ vote supports this proposition; a ‘no’ vote counts against it. Charlie Crow, please get us started.”
Charlie grasped the talking stick and stood up proudly. “My people are water-dwellers of the Cariboo region. They sent me here to ask for your help. We’re asking Sarah Spellings to come to Quessnell Raft, and use her powers to help us overcome the Cariboo Posse. We are not meek, and we will fight alongside her. Rafters are archers, runners, and paddlers. We are strong fighters, and loyal friends. Our goal is to defeat the Posse, and for Sarah to be safely home before winter.”
Doug Dwight raised his hand, and took the talking stick from Spex. The length of wood seemed small and breakable in his powerful, suntanned hands. “We have enemies, too. By sending you Sarah, we leave ourselves open to attack, and put ourselves at risk. Your request is selfish and short-sighted. How can you promise to keep Sarah safe, when you almost died coming here?”
Low mutters rippled through the lakeside gathering. Levvy reached out, and took the talking stick from her father. “Charlie Crow saved Sammy’s life this morning!” she exclaimed. “How can we refuse to help the Cariboo? If we want friends, we have to be friends.” Levvy jammed the talking stick under her arm, and opened a notebook. “But I think the plan is flawed. And, um, I compiled a list of potential problems. Problem number one,” she read, “Charlie rode here on horseback, and we don’t have horses. Paddling canoes up the Fraser River would take too long, so how do we get there? Even if we had horses, no one knows how to ride. Ahem. Problem number two, what about provisions? We can’t spare the rations a mission like this would need, especially after the storm. And problem number three: it snows in October in the mountains. We could get stuck in the Cariboo.”
Sarah took Levvy’s hand and squeezed it, trying to convey gratitude for her friends’ clear and organized thinking. Pietro raised a hand, and waggled his fingers. Levvy passed him the talking stick.
“It’s—it’s about—about the h-h-horses,” said Pietro, who stammered when he was nervous. “There are s-s-stables at Langlock, Langlock, Langlockley. P-p-parleyment s-stables. In the lowlands, between here and the m-m-mountains.” Sweating profusely, Pietro held the talking stick aloft. Fern leapt across the circle, and clutched the stick like a spear.
“I ride,” Fern said. “Horseback riding was part of Parleyment training. But horses are valuable. Even if we find some, we have nothing valuable enough to trade for such a luxury.”
The Sunset Council was silent, until Debbie Dwight rose, and took the talking stick from Fern. “Sarah and her friends are only children,” said Levvy’s mother. “Sure, they were brave last winter, but they also got lucky. What can a bunch of kids do? This mission, or whatever, is way too dangerous. I might never see my daughter again. Levvy doesn’t have our permission to join to go this expedition. Sarah shouldn’t go, either,” Debbie said, frowning at Tony. “Powers or no powers.”
Levvy scowled. Across the circle, Sarah’s father kicked at pebbles, avoiding her eyes, and she felt the absence of her mother like a missing limb. It had been eight years since Victoria Abbott died. Soon, Sarah thought, the little image in her locket would feel like a stranger, like a photograph from a history book.
“Sarah could zap those bad guys with lightning!” a high voice called out, and Sarah looked up.
Sammy had climbed a tree near the beach. He was hiding in the leaves, listening to the meeting.
“Samuel!” Tony shouted. “I told you to stay in the kitchen!”
“Sarah said anyone could come to Sunset Council,” Sammy said defiantly. “I’m anyone!”
General laughter rolled across the lake.
“Come to the meeting properly, then,” Sarah called up to her brother. “Get down from that tree, and sit with us. You might as well learn how council works.”
Sammy clambered down, ran around the outside of the circle, and sat beside his father. Tony patted his son’s thick mop of black hair, and Spex gestured for the talking stick.
“First lesson, young man,” Spex huffed. “You spoke out of turn, just now. Only the person holding the talking stick may speak—so no more interruptions!” Sammy looked chagrined, but Spex had turned to the rider from the Cariboo. “Charlie, what does Quessnell Raft expect from Sarah? We use defensive force at Sassamatta, but we don’t initiate violence. We welcome our enemies, treat them well, and try to convince them of the wisdom of our ways.”
Ichamus Nickel lunged for the talking stick. “I wasn’t welcomed,” he said indignantly. “I was detained and held prisoner! Guarded by thugs, threatened with starvation, and intimidated. Hey, is anyone listening to me?”.
Heads had turned to admire the lake, shining orange and pink, mirroring the sunset. A pair of ducks zoomed across the water and landed, drawing golden arrows on the sparkling surface. A crescent moon was ascending in the violet sky eastern sky, and a smattering of stars twinkled.
“I have the talking stick!” cried Ichamus.”I am speaking, and you have to listen!”
Ichamus was interrupted by the a long, mournful note from high above the trees. Fern focussed her extra-keen eyes, and slid her head from side to side, scanning the sky.
“It’s Laxgi,” Fern reported.
Laxgi was a bald eagle Quinn had met when he arrived from the future. She wasn’t his pet; Laxgi came and went according to her whims—yet she seemed to sense when she was needed, and had helped Sassamatta Grove in the past. Quinn answered her call, and the eagle soared swooped down to the Sunset Council, extending her bright yellow legs and sharp black talons. She lit on a branch of the tallest tree, beat broad, brown wings, and settled.
Ichamus banged the talking stick on a driftwood bench. “If everyone is quite finished? I have the talking stick! As I was saying, I got no welcome here. I wanted to go home to Wailsmouth Street. I completely disagree with a mission to terrorize and enslave the Cariboo Posse, whoever they are.” Ichamus’ thin lips pressed together, and vanished.
Murdock.stood, strode over to Ichamus, and snatched the talking stick from his hands. “Put a sock in it, Icky,” said Murdock. “You were terrified to go back to Wailsmouth Street, and you begged us to feed and protect you. Go find Harpminster Abbott, if you hate it here so much.”
Ichamus trembled with impotent fury.
Charlie extended a hand, and Murdock placed the talking stick across his palm. “Our hope is to scare the Cariboo Posse away with Sarah’s powers. We don’t want bloodshed; we just want to be left in peace. We would do the job ourselves, if we could combat the Posse’s contagious despair.”
Charlie went before Sarah, and sank to one knee. His dark eyes flashing, he presented her with the stick. He was wearing a cream t-shirt with cut-off sleeves; Sarah noticed his broad shoulders and ropy, muscular forearms. Her ears felt hot, and she spoke haltingly.
“When Harpminster Abbott held me prisoner, I couldn’t fight his evil aura. My powers didn’t work, because I wasn’t helping anyone else. What I mean is, the things I can do aren’t always possible, so I can’t promise anything. But if I’m protecting your raft, they should work.” Blushing, Sarah passed the talking stick to Spex.
“Does anyone else have something to add?” Spex asked brightly. “Going once, going twice? No? Then it’s time to vote!” Spex cleared his throat importantly. “Hear ye, hear ye! Those in favour of sending a delegation to the Cariboo, please raise your hand!”
Almost every arm shot upward. Doug and Debbie Dwight crossed their arms over their chests, glowering. Ichamus Nickel wrinkled his nose, and shook his head in disgust.
“Majority rules!” Spex declared. “Sunset Council has decided, and the decision will stand. A delegation will leave for the Cariboo as soon as possible. Sarah Spellings will go, of course. Do we have volunteers for this mission?”
Quinn, Levvy, Murdock and Fern stepped forward, and Charlie smiled radiantly.
“Splendid.” Spex placed the stick on the ground and clapped his hands. “Hurrah for goodwill among neighbours! All for one and one for all! Ex unitum vires, in unity there is strength, et cetera!”
Rumpus grasped the talking stick in his teeth and tore down the beach at top speed. Sammy leapt in front of the terrier. Rumpus dropped the stick at the boy’s feet and panted expectantly, hoping to play fetch. Sammy reached for the stick, but the dog was faster, and his jaws closed on the new toy. Sunset Council dissolved into a game of trying to get the talking stick back from Rumpus, who could stop on a dime, and change direction with blurry, confounding speed. After a quarter hour of hilarity, Murdock outfoxed Rumpus by throwing a bigger stick, which the dog chased. A triumphant Murdock held the talking stick high over his head, like a trophy. Moonlight wavered on the lake; night had fallen, and the woods were dark.
Spex put the talking stick in his tunic, and whistled sharply for everyone’s attention. “A Sunset Council should be closed with a formal ceremony. Please stand in a circle, and hold hands.”
“We can’t close Sunset Council,” said Debbie grimly.
“Why not?” Spex asked, affronted. “A final decision has been reached.”
“I know that,” said Debbie testily. “All the participants should be here for the Council closing ceremony—and Ichamus Nickel is gone.”