November in Sassamatta was cold and wet. The Followers of the Grove winterized their treehouses, stuffing moss and leaves into crevices where wind blew or rain trickled. Tempers grew short with the darkening days. Laxgi didn’t visit. Even Rumpus seemed despondent, head resting on his paws, staring bleakly out of his doghouse. If only they could catch glimpses of the surrounding mountains, Sarah thought, the majestic snowy peaks would bolster morale. But thick, chilly fog obscured the view, and pressed like cold hands. Gardening season had ended; there was more time to grumble. An itchy, contagious irritability began to affect everyone, and Sarah found herself caught up in squabbles over the grove’s priorities. After scaring Sassamatta Grove with his dire prediction about Harpminster Abbott and a Parleyment Army, Spex had gone home to eavesdrop on Ichamus Nickel.
“Making weapons and battle training should be our focus now,” Tomin announced.
“What about repairing clothes and bedding?” Levvy pointed to a rip in her trousers. “And we still need to fish, and process root vegetables.”
“If we’re beaten, and forced back to the streets, none of that will matter.”
Tomin erected spear targets in the forest, and established an archery range in a field. Much to Sarah’s annoyance and dismay, Quinn was an enthusiastic participant in preparations for war. She found his increasingly martial mood unsettling.
“Mateo can hit a moving target with an arrow. Bram learned his spear skills in the Swiss alps, and Song knows sevenmartial arts. We need to hone our skills,” said Quinn, rolling his shoulders and flexing his muscles, as if a fight were about to break out. The knife he had given Sarah for her birthday felt heavy in her pocket. She unfolded it only to slice apples or pears, and couldn’t imagine using it on a human being. Sarah glanced at Quinn’s profile. His shoulders were straight and proud, his jaw set.
“I don’t want to fight,” said Sarah.
“Neither do I. But we have to defend ourselves when Parleyment attacks. They launched fire at our homes, and tried to topple our trees, remember? Years from now, groves will be everywhere—because we won the right to live independently, through armed struggle.”
“Does it have to be that way? Hanx and Trig used to work for Parleyment, and now they love the grove.” Sarah gestured toward the outdoor kitchen, where the two giants were hefting massive boulders, building a stone chimney.
“Those two are here because we beat them in a fight,” said Quinn.
Sarah shook her head, exasperated. “No, it wasn’t like that. They chose to be here.”
It was already hard to imagine Hanx and Trig chasing her and Levvy through the forest. Sarah had gotten to know them. They were simple, kind men, who did what they were told in exchange for food and lodging. Parleyment had fed them before, and Sassamatta fed them now.
“They’re hopelessly dim,” Quinn said.
Sarah wanted to object, but Hanx and Trig were at that moment trying to lift a net full of rocks, while standing inside the net. She hurried over to explain their error while Quinn laughed. Later that day, Sarah and Levvy watched Bram coach a knot of followers in a muddy field.
“Point your hand straight at your target, and follow through.” Bram hefted a long spear above his shoulder, ran three steps, and released the weapon. The spear described a smooth arc, and thud-duh-duh-duh, impaled the chest of a crude wooden dummy propped up inside the treeline. Bram’s students cheered and applauded.
“I don’t like this,” Sarah muttered.
Song, who had slipped up silently to watch the spear-throwing lesson, clicked her tongue. “But Sarah,” she said, “even if we hold peace in our hearts, we must fight for freedom.” Song’s gaze was flinty and determined, and she held a clutch of arrows in a graceful hand.
“It just seems unnecessary,” said Sarah.
“So you will stand idly by and watch, while everything you have worked to create is taken from you?”
“Song has a point,” Levvy said. “My parents had to defend the gardens on Wailsmouth Street against thieves and vandals, and sometimes things got rough.”
Sarah bit her lip, and tried to keep complaints about combat training to herself, but she was uneasy. With the onset of winter, she felt a dwindling of her natural powers. She hoped it was merely a hibernation. Her hands had healed from the hunaja burns, and she’d done nothing extraordinary since; nothing magical had happened for weeks. Disconcertingly, the Followers of the Grove, particularly the foreign sailors, still approached her with reverence. It made Sarah anxious, she confided to Levvy.
“What if I let everyone down?”
“You worry too much. Everything’s fine, so we haven’t needed your powers. When you need them, poof, they’ll work.” Levvy waved a casual hand.
Everything was not fine in Sassamatta, in Sarah’s view. At mealtimes there were heated arguments about what to do with the remaining prisoner. Milton was still captive in the net enclosure, staunchly refusing to eat grove food. It seemed the sour little man would starve himself to death.
“How does he survive?” Sarah asked Fern, one frigid, windy day. Milton was curled up on a stack of cedar boughs.
“I caught him eating grubs, scrabbling in the ground, eating worms and maggots. Also, if I leave food inside the net, he eats it when I’m not looking.”
“Just let him go home to Wailsmouth Street. It’s cruel to keep him here.”
“If we free him, I can’t be responsible for what happens,” said Fern grimly. “He’s determined to have his revenge. You should hear his violent threats.”
With mounting discomfort, Sarah observed that the only person Milton would talk to was her father. Tony Spellings lurked near the net prison, glancing around nervously, as if to be sure he wasn’t seen carrying on his hushed conversations with Milton. At the treehouses Sarah’s father was quiet and moody. He slept a great deal, and avoided conversations.
“Dad, are you okay? Is the weather getting you down?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Sarah. I already told you, losing the house was a big deal for me.”
She wanted to believe him, but since he first learned of her powers, the distance between them had broadened. It felt unbridgeable. Sarah didn’t feel comfortable talking to her father about things that troubled her, the way she used to. Where, for instance, were Levvy’s parents? Levvy claimed she wasn’t worried, but Sarah noticed the flicker of distress in her friend’s eyes. Sammy was the only carefree person in Sassamatta, it seemed. Sarah loved hearing her little brother chirp and laugh in the trees. Murdock was his hero; Sammy helped Murdock remove mud and debris from the chain and gears of his black mountain bike. He chased Murdock through the trees, pretending to cycle over fallen logs, little fists wrapped around invisible handlebars, feet pumping up and down on imaginary pedals.
“I guess Sammy needs a bicycle of his own,” Sarah said.
“Oh, Sammy’s got that figured out,” Murdock said. “Santa Claus is bringing him a bicycle.”
“Santa’s coming to Sassamatta?”
Murdock feigned shock. “Of course Santa’s coming! But just in case, Fern and I are planning a trip to Vancouver. I hear you can get anything you want, if you’re willing to pedal away the hours at a CycleCentre. Cycle for a cycle, if you catch my drift,” he winked.
A day in late November dawned, drearier than most. The air was bitter and chill, the sky flat and colourless. Sarah huddled in her cedar-bough bed for as long as she could, rousing herself at last to join a bedraggled crafting group around a small, smoky campfire. She peeked in Rumpus’ doghouse. It was empty. Sarah plunked herself down on a bench. Song was teaching a knot of followers how to weave a hat from supple strips of cedar bark. Shouts of encouragement came from the target practice field; Sarah was pleased to see that Quinn was among the crafters. From a big brown pot, Levvy poured out three steaming, aromatic mugs of herbal tea.
“Mentha arvensis and Asarum caudatum. Wild mint and ginger. I thought they might be strange together, but it tastes pretty good.” Levvy had been experimenting with teas made from local herbs.
“Very invigorating,” Quinn was stringing a pair of snowshoes, weaving a latticework of waxed string inside teardrop-shaped wooden frames.
“How come you’re not honing your battle skills today?” Sarah asked, slurping her tea. Fern and Murdock were at the fire too, sharpening sticks. Quinn looked up from his handiwork and regarded Sarah seriously. For the millionth time, she was startled by the blueness of his eyes.
“I’ve been thinking,” Quinn said. “Parleyment won’t attack in winter, because they face the same challenges we do: travelling in snow, and food and energy shortages. I want to put together a team, and start building a grove on Burnubbee Mountain.”
Sarah opened her mouth to object, but Fern and Murdock were nodding.
“Think about it Sarah,” Levvy broke in forcefully. “It would break the monotony. It’s been freezing, wet, and boring for weeks. All we do is eat, stay warm, and sleep. A grove-building project would be a distraction. I’ve drawn up some plans. Here, take a look.”
As Sarah reached for Levvy’s notebook, a shout came from the trees.
“Help, come quick! Milton escaped!”
They scrambled to their feet and ran to the prison enclosure, Fern scanning the forest with her enhanced eyes. At the net enclosure, they found Tony Spellings alone, arms dangling at his sides. Netting sagged loosely on the ground, and Fern sprang forward and examined it.
“These ropes weren’t cut,” she announced. “The prisoner didn’t escape—he was set free!”
Silence crept over them like a fog. Tony’s expression was unreadable.
“What happened, Dad? Did you see anyone else?” Sarah asked.
“I—no,” said Tony. “I didn’t see anyone else.”
“Impossible.” Fern’s yellow-green eyes sought out Tony’s dark ones. “This rope can only be released with the pulley system, or cut with a sharp blade. Milton couldn’t reach the pulley lever, and the ropes are intact, so someone released the prisoner.”
Sarah’s father rocked heel-to-toe, and remained mute.
“Dad, what were you doing here?” A crease folded between Sarah’s eyebrows.
“I felt sorry for Milton, okay? He was over here all alone, so I came to keep him company.” Tony kicked a tree root absently as he spoke.
“If you were keeping Milton company, how come you didn’t see the person who released him?” Fern demanded.
“I won’t be interrogated!” Tony shouted.
Sarah blinked back tears. Who was this angry, defensive man? Her father never acted like this! Tony exhaled forcefully, and continued in a calmer tone. “I noticed Milton was gone, so I called for help. If you want to recapture him, you’re wasting your time. The longer you stand around accusing me, the further away he’ll get.” Tony stalked toward the clearing.
“Rumpus!” Levvy called, cupping her mouth with her hands.
Sarah was stunned. Milton was gone, and her father, distant before, now seemed a complete stranger, and complicit in the prisoner’s escape. She stood by the empty net while Murdock sprinted to the clearing, and returned quickly with his bicycle. Fern sat on the saddle, and Murdock stood on the pedals. They took off into the forest, riding double. A cold northwest wind began to blow, bringing needles of freezing rain. Shouts for Rumpus multiplied, mixed with more worrisome cries: people were searching for Sarah’s brother.
“Sammy! Where are you, Sammy?”
“What’s been going on between your father and Milton?” Quinn asked sternly.
“I don’t know,” said Sarah, and overwhelmed, she burst into tears. Freezing rain pelted down; wind whipped through the trees and stung her skin. A roaring filled her ears, and she felt a clutch of desperation in her chest. Quinn grasped her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake.
“Sarah, get it together, okay? We have to find Sammy.”
She wrenched away from Quinn, and jogged back to the clearing. One by one she visited her brother’s favourite places, until at last she spotted him, dwarfed by trees and poking at a puddle with a stick. Weak with relief, she forced herself to speak casually.
“People were calling for you, buddy. Hey, where are your rain pants, and your hat? Come on. Let’s get your gear from the treehouse.”
“Where’s Dad?” Sammy asked. “How come people are calling for Rumpus?”
“He’s not around,” said Sarah lightly. “Maybe he found a dead fish by the lake.”
But Rumpus wasn’t at the lake, or sniffing around the garden, or begging in the kitchen. The rain persisted. Sarah maintained a false cheerfulness for Sammy’s sake until afternoon tea, when Levvy and Quinn shot her apprehensive looks. Sarah knew her father still hadn’t been found; he had scarpered.
“Is Murdock gone too?” Sammy asked tearfully.
Sarah recruited Hanx and Trig to distract her brother, and the big men took Sammy to their treehouse to play checkers. They had learned the game at last, and played it endlessly. Light was fading from the gloomy sky when a bark rang out, and Rumpus tore across the clearing. The dog danced on his hind legs, and licked tears of relief from Sarah’s cheeks. Fern and Murdock arrived a few minutes later, their clothes rumpled and muddy and their expressions grim.
“We were too late,” said Murdock. “Milton escaped by kayak into the ocean inlet. There were kayaks hidden in brush near the shore. We thought about taking one and going after him, but then you guys would have worried about us, too.”
Fern picked up the story. “Milton had Rumpus in his kayak,” she said. “They were already on the water when we got there. We called for Rumpus, and he went berserk. He thrashed around until Milton had to let him go, or capsize. Rumpus jumped in the water and paddled to shore.”
“He was drenched and shivering,” Murdock said. “We had to warm him up.”
“What about Tony?” Quinn asked.
Hairs on the back of Sarah’s neck prickled. “Was my father there?”
Fern and Murdock exchanged a lengthy glance. “Yeah, he was there,” Fern said at last. “He ran out from the treeline, got into a kayak, and went after Milton.”
“So he was helping you guys bring Milton back?”
“No,” Murdock said quietly. “Tony and Milton paddled away together.”