The snow dwindled to a few lazy, drifting flakes, but the temperature hovered below freezing. Carrying their snowshoes, they walked back to Spex’s hut, footsteps crunching on icy ground. Levvy, keen to learn about Spex’s surveillance equipment, followed him into his mossy hut. Quinn sat on a rock outside, whetstone in hand, sharpening his knives. Sarah, jittery, paced nearby. Eventually the constant schwick, schwick, schwick of steel blades on stone got on her nerves.
“We’re not going to stab anyone, Quinn. We don’t need sharp knives.”
“There’s no point in having a tool if it’s poorly maintained.” Schwick, schwick, schwick.
“Ice climbing gear would be more useful,” Sarah said, and she paused. “Hey, do you think the water in the ravine is frozen?”
Quinn lowered knife and whetstone. “I imagine it would be,” he said slowly.
“They won’t be expecting anyone to come from the ravine,” Sarah said eagerly. “Only one of us would have to climb—and send down a rope for the others.”
A plan took shape. Quinn used an old pair of Spex’s leather hikers and a handful of nails to craft studded ice climbing boots, driving nails through the soles from the inside. He then cut, fit, and glued leather insoles to hold the nail-heads in place. Sarah rummaged in Spex’s tiny kitchen shelves and produced a short-handled axe, and a steel trowel.
“Do you mind if we use these?” she asked, holding the tools aloft.
Spex’s head was bent together with Levvy’s over the radio equipment in the tree stump table. He glanced up, and licked his lips. “Oooh, are we roasting a pig?”
“Sorry, no. Ice climbing equipment.”
“Certainly, certainly. Be my guest.” Spex turned back to his radio.
By late afternoon the sky was dusky, and the air frosty. A crescent moon rose, a hazy yellow swish behind wispy, wintry clouds. Sarah wore a black wool sweater, thick leggings, a heavy, insulated canvas jacket, a black knit toque borrowed from Spex, and the studded boots. In her pack she carried rope, emergency food, and the axe and trowel, sharpened and converted into ice-climbing picks.
“I wish you every success,” said Spex. “May you find the Dwights, place the microphone, and have a word with good old Tony. A word of caution: should you encounter him, Harpminster Abbott’s company can be, erm, hypnotic.”
“Hypnotic?” Sarah sniffed.
Spex raised a bushy eyebrow. “I don’t understand the nature of Harpy’s powers. As I say, he has always shunned my company. But those closest to him, your father included, report acting on strange compulsions in his presence. Consider yourselves warned.”
Rumpus, whose presence might give them away, stayed behind with Spex. Straining at his leash, the terrier barked mournfully as Sarah, Quinn and Levvy set out under cover of darkness. They reached the ravine without incident; clear, clean smells of spruce and pine sharpened Sarah’s senses. Light from houses on Wailsmouth Street shone over the ridge of the ravine. Chunks of snow and ice had formed along the banks of the waterway, but the stream still flowed.
“It hasn’t frozen solid. How will we get across?” Levvy whispered.
PING! A sharp, metallic sound resounded in the woods. Sarah dove into shrubs, and crouched down behind a log. Quinn and Levvy ducked, covering their heads with their arms. Ping, ping, ping! Sarah gazed into the darkness and saw no one. From the top of the cliff came a burst of derisive laughter, then another loud PING! rang out directly above Sarah, and she heard the soft thunk of something hitting the ground. An object, dark against the white carpet of icy snow, rolled to a stop near the log where she cowered. Sarah picked up a tin can, of the sort used in food factories. Two holes, entry and exit, had been freshly ripped in the can’s sides. Sarah examined the damaged can, puzzled.
“Agh—they shot me!” Levvy fell to the ground, and grasped her left foot.
“Ha, you missed. My turn!” A voice called from the clifftop.
Guns! They were shooting bullets, at tin-can targets.
“It can’t be,” Sarah whispered frantically, but Levvy was writhing on the ground and groaning. Quinn plucked her toque from her head, folded it, and gave it to Levvy to bite, muffling her distress while he carefully removed her boot. Dark liquid stained the snow.
“Heal her, Sarah,” Quinn hissed.
Sarah was seized by gut-wrenching fear. Here it was at last—a test of her dormant powers. Could she help? She knelt in the snow, cradled Levvy’s wounded foot, and prayed for tingling to begin in her hands. But Sarah’s palms and fingers remained still and cold, and the hexagon hung uselessly around her neck. She pictured the grove, its members in distress, under siege from Parleyment forces—and still, not a twinge. Her powers must have deserted her. Anguished, Sarah tried to understand. Could Levvy’s injury somehow be the for the best? Quinn elbowed Sarah aside. He used a sling to bind Levvy’s foot, and slow the bleeding.
“Missed again—poor luck, Harold!”
“Sarah, you’ll have to go on alone,” Quinn whispered. “I’ll get Levvy back to Spex’s place. Wait for the shooting to stop before you leave, and be careful.”
Hot tears spilled from Sarah’s eyes, and coursed down her cold cheeks.
“Mmmph, mmph,” Levvy said, and Quinn gently took her toque from her mouth. “Don’t cry. It’s only my foot. Honestly, I’ll be fine. But if you find my parents, don’t tell them about this, okay?”
“How will you transport her?” Sarah sobbed.
“Easy. I’ll make a sleigh out of branches, and drag her through the snow. It’s icy enough.” Quinn tucked a strand of Sarah’s hair behind her ear, and touched her head tenderly. “You can do this, Sarah. For Sassamatta Grove’s sake, get that microphone wired close to Violet’s house.”
Ten long minutes passed before they dared to move. Projectiles flew from the cliff, thunking into trees and pinging through tin cans. Levvy squeezed Sarah’s hand, her breath coming in rapid, shallow gasps. Over and over, Sarah tried to rouse her healing powers, without success. At last the woods were quiet, and the voices faded away. Quinn flew into action, hauling branches into parallel lines and lashing them together, muttering to himself. Catching sight of Sarah, he jerked an arm toward Wailsmouth Street.
“Get going! And here, don’t forget the microphone.”
Quinn handed her a microphone and solar battery mounted on bailing wire. Sarah crammed the audio equipment into her backpack, and brushed snow and leaves from her clothes. Quinn waved her away impatiently. Curled up on the ground, Levvy seemed barely conscious. Reluctantly, Sarah left her friends, and pushed through brush to the icy ravine.
Guns were supposed to be a horrific nightmare of the past. In the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, and storms, rioting and violent crime had spiked. The death toll from random shootings had skyrocketed, leading first to restrictions, then to a complete ban on firearms. Guns had been rounded up, confiscated, and destroyed by the thousands. Even the police, where police forces still existed, stopped carrying guns, because armed officers had been regularly mobbed and mugged for their weapons. But there were other ways to fight, and to kill. Sarah’s mind strayed to the knife in her pocket. She shuddered, repulsed by the idea of using the sharp blade on a person.
The steep, dark embankment rose up before her like a fortress. She summoned her courage, and forced herself to concentrate. What were the forces of nature, in wintertime? Not warm, green, expanding growth, but freezing, contracting cold. Sarah extended her hands, palms down, and focussed on the rushing water in the ravine. Finally! The golden hexagon glowed, and prickly heat coursed through her arms and hands. Rushing water slowed and hardened, crackling and snapping as it changed state, and a bridge of ice formed over the ravine. Tentatively, Sarah put a foot onto the solid surface, and added her weight bit by bit. She took a deep breath, and stepped where only moments before water had coursed downstream. The ice held. She crossed the ravine.
The cliff on the opposite bank was streaked with rivulets of water from rain, run-off and snow melt. Waving her arms in broad swoops, Sarah directed intense cold to the towering wall of mud. The sensation of heat in her hands changed to a frostbite pain, like a thousand tiny needles shooting through her fingers. But water in the cliff whitened, and the wall became a glossy sheet of ice. Sarah ground her molars, inhaled deeply, and pictured the grove’s gold-tinged bridges and ladder rungs. She conjured the memory of a crowd at English Bay greeting sailors from the three tall ships, and their soaring song of joy. She evoked backyard Vancouver gardens, smiling people with baskets full of fresh green food. The new way of life was worth it; Parleyment’s control had to be resisted. Sarah kicked a studded boot into icy mud, thrust her newly-fashioned ice pick into the cliff, and hauled her body up the frozen wall.
The higher she climbed, the more dangerous a fall became. Kick, slam a pick into ice, hammer the next pick home, heave her body upwards, and kick again. Once, close to the top, she faltered, recalling for a fleeting moment Levvy’s grimace, and splotches of dark blood in light snow. Sweating, her heart pounding, Sarah forced the mental image of her injured friend to go away. I’ll find Levvy’s parents, Sarah promised herself, and bring them safely to Sassamatta.
After what felt like a long time, Sarah reached the top of the ridge, hauled her body over the edge, and collapsed on flat ground. Exhausted, she lay motionless, listening for voices or footsteps and recovering from the arduous ascent. Senses attuned and body recovered, she shimmied along in snow on the frozen ground, and crept into Mister Nickel’s backyard. A parallelogram of pale light fell across the back porch. Careful to stay in the shadows, she peeked through sliding glass doors. A man was seated alone at a table in a cluttered kitchen. His salt-and-pepper hair was mussed, and his face unshaven and haggard. Sarah clapped a hand over her mouth.
It was her father.
A glistening metal, heavy-duty slingshot was strapped to Tony Spellings’ left wrist. With his right hand, he torqued the slingshot’s black rubber catapult, stretching it experimentally. On the table lay an arsenal: more slingshots in various stages of construction, trays of shiny metal balls and marbles, grease guns, polishing cloths, and strips of leather. A wave of indignant anger rose in Sarah. These were the weapons responsible for Levvy’s injury—not guns, but weapons-grade slingshots. Her father, clearly, was complicit. She lunged across the porch, and slapped the glass door with an open palm.
Tony reacted fast. He scooted his chair away from the table, hurried to the porch door, and yanked it open. He goggled at the sight of his muddy, disheveled daughter.
“You shouldn’t be here!”
“Neither should you,” Sarah snarled. “I know about Mom being an Abbott. And I know her brother Harpminster is here. You can’t lie to me anymore, Dad.”
“Sarah, you’re in danger, and the grove is in danger. Harpminster’s got an army.”
“I see that.” Sarah glanced down in disgust at her father’s left forearm, encased with the metal and rubber of a lethal-looking slingshot. “What are you, his top general?”
Tony glanced over his shoulder, and spoke urgently. “It’s not what it looks like. But I can’t explain, there’s no time! I’m on your side—you have to believe me—but I’m working from inside his ranks. Go back to the grove—you’ll be safe there. Harpminster Abbott’s army is going to invade Vancouver first, unless we can convince him it’s a terrible idea.”
“Sammy’s in Vancouver,” said Sarah.
“What—no, why? He shouldn’t be there!”
Ichamus Nickel’s voice called out, from the hallway outside the kitchen. “Tony?”
Sarah dove into the shadows, and her father slid the porch door closed smoothly. “I thought I heard something outside,” she heard her father lie, “but it’s all clear. Is target practice done?”
Sarah slid noiselessly off the porch and ducked around the far side of the house. She wished she had asked about the Dwights. She would begin her search for them at their old house, next to the community garden, but first the outdoor microphone had to be mounted. Keeping low to the ground, Sarah hustled from shrub to shed, down the street to Violet Smacker’s house.
A sentry was on duty outside Violet’s front door, stretching and yawning, kicking at the crumbling concrete steps, and cracking his knuckles absentmindedly. To reach the backyard, Sarah would have to distract him. She squatted beside a neglected flower garden, found a fist-sized rock, waited until the sentry’s back was turned, and threw the rock as hard as she could. It struck the side of a black car parked in front of the house, made a satisfying CLANK, and left a V-shaped dent. The sentry jogged down the front steps to investigate. Sarah scurried into Violet’s backyard. She tucked, rolled, and came up in a crouch near the trunk of a young pine tree.
She searched inside her backpack for the audio equipment, stuffed the backpack under a shrub, and scrutinized the pine tree. It had to be a branch high enough to keep the solar battery charged, but also with dense needles, to hide the microphone’s location. Aha—she saw the perfect spot. Standing on tiptoe, withstanding the prickle of needles on her bare skin, she wired the microphone into position, and turned the power switch to ON. Satisfied, she released the branch, and it sprang upward. She rubbed her hands together to warm them, and turned around unhurriedly.
Two men stood at the side of the house, watching her. Sarah bit her lower lip, and resisted peeking up at the microphone in the tree. Had they seen her put the device in place? Behind her back, she crossed her fingers. Sarah recognized one of the men as Milton; the other had waxy skin, and wavy auburn hair parted severely down the middle of his scalp.
“Gracious. Who do we have here?” the stranger asked. He whistled softly, and narrowed dark, glinting, oily eyes. “Vicky—is that you? Rumours of your death were greatly exaggerated, it would seem. Heh, heh, heh.”
A rush of malevolent energy surged through the yard. Sarah was gripped by panic.
“Ah, no. I understand, of course. You are very like my dead sister, but you must be my little niece,” said Harpminster Abbott. “I’m quite surprised to see you. I guess your daddy was wrong. He thought you’d have enough common sense to stay in the forest.”
In two long strides Sarah’s uncle was upon her. He grabbed her arm tightly, and twisted. “Not going to introduce yourself? Spoiled and impertinent, no doubt. Just like your mother.”
“Let go of me!” Sarah yelled, trying to wrench free. Harpminster Abbott delivered a hard, brisk slap to her cheek, leaving a stinging handprint. Her mouth fell open in shock.
“Help me get this brat inside.”
Milton, his mouth bent in a wicked grin, obeyed. He grabbed Sarah’s free arm, and together the two men dragged her around the front of the house. As he passed, Harpminster Abbott elbowed the side of the astonished sentry’s head. Then he pushed Sarah into Violet Smacker’s house.