Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

Ragtag Parleyment Army

“Would anyone care for tea?” Spex wedged himself between wood-fired stove and tree-stump table, filled a kettle, and set it to boil on the cast iron stovetop. Rumpus sat by the door, ears perked up and nose twitching. A weighty silence hung in the hut. Sarah broke it with a faint squeak.

“Harpminster Abbott is here?

“Technically that’s Uncle Harpminster, to you.” Spex said.

“No way. I don’t care if he’s my mother’s brother. I will never call him ‘Uncle Harpy’.” Sarah snatched her mother’s picture and with trembling hands, fit it back into the heart-shaped locket, and clicked the tiny clasp closed. Spex addressed the little audience in his hut, but he dropped the dreamy tone of his story, and adopted the firm guise of a military strategist.

“Harpy’s been on Wailsmouth Street for a month. His headquarters are, improbably, in Violet Smacker’s home. He’s here to recapture the loyalty of Vancouver, and to personally oversee the end of your so-called rogue community. Harpy wanted a word with his old chum Tony, so he sent an envoy to the grove, who arranged for Tony to free Milton and return to the streets.”

“What envoy? And why didn’t you tell us Harpminster Abbott was here?” Levvy demanded.

Spex harrumphed. “I know nothing about Harpy’s envoy. Eavesdropping is an imperfect art; I can’t hear every detail. And naturally I didn’t tromp through the forest to communicate Harpminster’s presence. It seemed pointless to spoil your autumn with news of old Harpy skulking about. I counted on you three coming round to visit, once Tony disappeared.”

“You knew my father was planning to leave us, and you did nothing? You should have told us, or stopped him, or interfered!” Sarah shouted.

Spex sniffed indignantly. “My dear children. Snippets and snatches of conversations are not enough to make me saddle up Grump. I overheard Ichamus say that Milton and Tony would be returning to Wailsmouth Street on Harpminster’s orders. I wasn’t able to learn the timing or specifics of this reunion.”

“If Ichamus was your friend, why do you spy on him?” Levvy asked, arching an eyebrow.

Spex sighed. “Ichamus knows I live in these woods, but we are not friends. Ichamus does Harpy’s bidding, and that makes him dangerous, and well worth watching, or in my case, listening to. Back in the Glebe, Ichamus and Harpy bullied me. I suffered many an indignity at their hands. I adopted a persona in order to please them. They made me miserable. It was Tony and Ichamus who were close friends. Tony was the kinder of the two; sometimes he would stick up for me.”

“Dad was not friends with Mister Nickel.”

“Their philosophies diverged once your parents married, but once upon a time, Sarah, your father enjoyed Icky’s company. When last you came, I misled you somewhat. You see, your father and Sammy weren’t truly Ichamus’ prisoners—they were more like guests. Your house was smashed at the bottom of the ravine, and Tony and Sammy needed living quarters.”

“But you let us believe we were rescuing them!” Sarah goggled at Spex, who waved a nonchalant hand.

“In the spirit of team building, and as a loyalty and training exercise for Fern, I made it into an exercise,” he said. A jet of steam shot from the kettle’s spout, and a shrill whistle pierced the hut. Spex poured water into the teapot. “Things are more complicated than they seem. Old loyalties remain, from before the earthquakes and storms.”

“But Harpminster Abbott was always evil. And you knew he was here, and didn’t tell us,” Quinn folded his arms across his chest, scowling.

Spex banged a fist on the table, rattling teacups in saucers. “I am not Bunky, the Messenger Dwarf! If you wanted information about developments on Wailsmouth Street, you knew where to find me. I told you what I knew—Parleyment won’t tolerate independent communities, and Grizzella Sticks is preparing downtown Vancouver for some sort of invasion! It should be no surprise that Wailsmouth Street is full of soldiers.”

“Soldiers?” Levvy echoed. “What soldiers, from where?”

“My goodness. I don’t know them personally,” Spex choked. “They are the soldiers that make up Harpminster Abbott’s ragtag Parleyment army.”

“I need to talk to my father,” said Sarah quietly.

Spex nodded. “Understandable, after these revelations. I suggest a reconnaissance mission to Wailsmouth Street, to determine our next steps, and while you are there I require your assistance. I have procured a second directional microphone. I need you to place it in a tree in Violet Smacker’s yard. You’ll have to be cautious; the whole neighbourhood is being watched, and the ziplines are under guard. I suggest hiking along the ravine to a crossing point, and backtracking into the neighbourhood.”

“So we’re going to thwart Harpminster Abbott’s plans?” Quinn leaned forward.

“Naturally, my boy, naturally. Have I not explained myself adequately? Harpy is the epitome of evil! Nothing good can come of his machinations. He is a despot who must be stopped. There is, however, nothing we can do tonight. We have talked away our daylight, and we all need repose. I have provisioned your treehouse with cedar boughs, candles, water, and snacks. With no small amount of effort, I may add.” Spex removed his eyeglasses, and rubbed his knuckled into patches of fatigue under his eyes. Sarah pictured the diminutive man climbing a treehouse ladder, laden with supplies, and felt a twinge of guilt.

“Thanks for getting the treehouse ready for us, Spex.” Sarah swallowed hard. “And I’m glad I know the truth about my mother.”

“Goodnight,” Spex said gruffly. He flicked the backs of his hands at them. “Off you go.”

Sarah, Quinn and Levvy strapped on their snowshoes and shuffled in falling snow to the base of the big cedar. Was it Sarah’s imagination, or did Quinn and Levvy walk at a safe distance from her? She felt tainted by her blood-tie to Harpminster Abbott, infamous oppressor, and stung by betrayal. Her father had kept her mother’s identity hidden. He’d been dishonest about his friendship with Mister Nickel. So many lies, she thought, remembering his claims about the forest being full of pirates and slave-traders. She tried to brood, but the night was crisp, and the snow tumbling in the forest was enchanting. It was impossible to wander in the winter wonderland and stay morose. Sharp tang of pine and balsam infused her senses. Surrounded by forest giants, strength and vigour flooded her limbs, and before long Sarah was smiling. At Quinn’s outpost treehouse, the ladder was dusted with snow, golden hunaja gleaming with white flakes in the crisp, dark night.

“The ladder’s like a Christmas decoration!” Levvy exclaimed.

Hunaja and snow are festive together,” Quinn agreed, his words hanging in a cloud of frozen breath. Rumpus tore in loops around the trees, ploughing his nose through snow.

“We should have left Rumpus with Spex—now we’ll have to carry him up, like the first time we were here,” said Sarah.

Whistling for the dog, Sarah scooped up Rumpus and tucked him inside one of Quinn’s fabric slings. They climbed slippery ladder rungs at a careful pace, and reached the rope bridge without mishap. The bridge was beautiful, gleaming with golden snow. When they crossed, their footsteps sent delicate showers of white tumbling to the ground far below. In the treehouse, Sarah lit two candle lanterns. True to his word, Spex had provided all the comforts they needed. Soon they were snuggling into cosy sleeping bags on a mattress of fresh, springy, aromatic cedar boughs. Sarah’s eyelids were closing when Levvy whispered Bunky, the Messenger Dwarf, and the three of them erupted in helpless giggles. Each time quiet descended, someone would snort, and set them all to laughing again. In spite of the night’s sombre news, Sarah fell asleep content. A parade marched into her dreams, a line of people stepping crisply to the sharp rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum. Cymbals crashed. She woke, and the dream vanished, but the sound carried on. She slipped out of her sleeping bag, peeked outside, then sprang back in alarm—a line of soldiers was marching in the forest below, to the beat of a drum in four-four military time!

The martial drumbeat woke Levvy and Quinn, and the three friends lay on their bellies, camouflaged by hunaja and cedar boughs, watching soldiers surround the ladder tree. Sarah clutched a fold of skin behind Rumpus’ ears, warning him to be silent. The soldiers wore uniforms, mismatched khaki jackets and pants, black wool hats, and shiny black boots not designed for winter; the line stuttered with soldiers slipping and falling down, causing ungainly pile-ups in the ranks.

“Left, left, left right left!” The commanding officer shouted from the rear of the platoon. “Company, HALT!

The line of soldiers faltered to a stop.

“About FACE!” The soldiers rotated a quarter turn and stood at attention. “Form ranks!” With a a good deal of jostling and miscued choreography, the soldiers arranged themselves in ten lines of eight soldiers each. The commanding officer frowned, and clasped her hands behind her back.

“Soldiers of Parleyment! This terrain is similar to that in Sassamatta, the community we are tasked with disbanding and disabling. Our strategies in the first attempt to quash this rebellion, fire and felling, were easily blocked, because our foes had the advantage of height. These field exercises are preparation to ensure our next effort is successful. The training consists of learning to secure ropes and ascend trees with rapid efficiency. Once there, you will engage in hand-to-hand combat with anyone who resists coming quietly. I expect skilled climbing and descending within an hour.”

The commanding officer handed out ropes and climbing gear. Soldiers began to practice throwing the weighted end of a rope over branches.

“They’re going to find us,” Sarah hissed.

Hunaja protects us from being perceived inside the house,” Quinn whispered. “But if a rope is thrown over the bridge, or strikes the side of the treehouse…”

Sarah’s heart thumped hard against her ribs, but Levvy was grinning. “We’ll be okay. They’re not exactly a crackerjack team. Watch them for a minute.”

Sarah studied the soldiers below, and relaxed. Their throws were weak, and their aim was abysmal; no soldier managed to throw a rope over a branch. The exasperated commanding officer snatched a rope from a bewildered soldier to give a demonstration. On her first try, she tossed the weighted end of the rope over a strong branch, pulled the weight to the ground, and used steel rock climbing ascenders to shimmy up the rope. She threw a leg over the branch, and swung herself up to standing.

“See, it’s easy! Now get going—HUP HUP!”

The soldiers redoubled their efforts. A few gained perches on low branches, but none came close to reaching the rope bridge or treehouse. They were safe from discovery, Sarah decided, but trapped. Minute after minute dragged past, until they had been in hiding for an hour. When Rumpus whined, Sarah comforted him by scratching behind his ears. Her stomach growled, and her thoughts drifted back to Spex’s tree stump table the previous evening. She wished the soldiers would leave, so she could get to Wailsmouth Street and confront her father.

After two hours of watching their clumsy, unsuccessful attempts, the commanding officer ordered the soldiers to form a line and return to their headquarters. Tripping and stumbling, the soldiers marched off toward the ravine. When the forest was quiet again, the three observers made their way down to the clearing below, Sarah carrying Rumpus in a sling.

“We don’t have to worry our tracks will be discovered,” said Sarah. The platoon had trampled every last bit of fresh snow; the clearing was a mud-tracked mess. Rumpus bolted here and there, sniffing at bootprints. Near a broad-trunked Douglas fir, he stiffened and growled.

“Good morning!” Spex said, popping out from behind the tree.

“Hah!” Quinn leapt into a defensive stance.

“Easy, now. I brought breakfast,” Spex held out a blackened pot and three tarnished, bent spoons. “It’s gone cold, I’m afraid. A most entertaining morning of failed acrobatics, however!”

“Blessings,” Sarah said, and they fell gratefully onto the cold porridge, and ate greedily.

“Clearly a roundabout route to Wailsmouth Street is indicated. Hike upstream, cross in a remote area, and return to the streets under cover of night.”

A plan sprung fully formed into Sarah’s head, complete with a hunch the plan would work. She spoke around a mouthful of cold mush. “No, no. If we’re together, we’ll be seen, and captured. I have a better idea. I’ll go by myself, tonight, over the ravine and up the cliff. It will triple our chances of being seen if we all go.”

“A terrible plan. I insist we go as a team,” said Quinn.

“And I’m not staying behind,” Levvy said. “We’re here to find my parents, remember?”

To her chagrin, Sarah had once again forgotten about the Dwights.

“I could find them. And if I get in trouble, I can use my powers,” Sarah persisted.

“No way,” said Quinn.

“Quinn’s right,” said Levvy. “We do this together, or not at all. Give me that microphone, Spex. I know the perfect spot for it in Violet’s yard.”

Spex addressed Sarah, his face jowly and serious. “If your true reason for going to Wailsmouth Street is to be angry with your father, your powers will desert you, my dear.”

Was she going to Wailsmouth Street to help the cause of the grove, or for selfish reasons, to challenge her father? Both, Sarah decided. She hoped it was enough of the former; the success of the mission depended on it.

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