Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

Two Homes and Honey

The sudden appearance of the odd little man frightened Sarah, but Levvy astonished her with a display of bold stoutheartedness.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Levvy Dwight, and this,” Levvy waved vaguely, “is Sarah Spellings.” She pointed to the baskets of mushrooms. “Are those Tricholoma magnivelare?”

Spex Gribble placed both hands on his round belly and chortled. “Indeed, my dear! How clever you are. Tricholoma magnivelare, the elusive, scrumptious pine mushroom. I’ve harvested enough for quite a feast, as you can see. However do not ask, please do not ask—all harvesting locations are secret, I’m afraid. Difficult times, you understand, difficult times indeed. A matter of survival—and who might this be?”

Rumpus was bounding on his hind legs, pawing the air before the gnome-like man. Spex shifted his weight from foot to foot in a comical wobble, grinning at the excited dog. Sarah’s fear dissolved, and she bit her lip, trying not to laugh.

“His name is Rumpus, Mister Gribble,” said Sarah.

“Oh no, no, no. Please dispense with formalities. Civilization is crumbling and so forth; titular niceties are unnecessary. A simple ‘Spex’ will do. Hello, pup—aren’t you a saucy, happy fellow!” Spex patted Rumpus warily.

“Excuse me,” said Levvy. “But did you see a boy just now? He’s blonde, tall, and dressed kind of like an elf. A rugged elf,” she added helpfully.

“Oho! You seek my recently acquired neighbour, Quinn Braxt.” Spex spat on a filthy finger, and rubbed the cracked lenses of his glasses. “Busy chap, Quinn, quite the industrious fellow. Only been here a month, and he’s already built a decidedly ostentatious forest dwelling. Puts my own humble shanty to shame. Let me assure you that abrupt departures are habitual with young Quinn. Nothing to be alarmed about, my dears. I’m certain that shortly—aha, you see? The very man!”

Spex shuffled past Sarah and Levvy, extending a short arm toward Quinn, who had reappeared as mysteriously as he had vanished.

“My good man, my good man,” said Spex, shaking Quinn’s hand formally. “You’ve succeeded in alarming these young ladies—most improper form. In your absence, they were disconcerted, discombobulated, bamboozled, and befuddled, and I find myself inclined to invite both you and them to my abode. Would you care to partake in the bounty of today’s harvest?”

“Hello, Spex,” Quinn said warmly. “I’m glad you made introductions. Sarah and Levvy haven’t eaten hunaja, so I had to run and get some. Do you mind if I…?”

“Absolutely, absolutely. Don’t let me impede your spectacular show. When you’ve astonished them with your brilliance, why don’t the three of you—oh, excuse me, your Rumpusness,” Spex nodded to the dog, “the four of you, come round for supper? It isn’t every day I have such sumptuous victuals on offer.” He lifted the mushroom baskets.

“We would be honoured. We’ll be there when the sun is slanting on the pond, and the first white-crowned sparrow sings.” Quinn bowed deeply.

Sarah opened her mouth to protest. Levvy gave her a shove.

“Pine mushrooms,” Levvy said softly, her eyes enormous.

“But we don’t even know—”

“Thanks Spex, we’d love to come for dinner,” said Levvy.

“Very good, very good. Once again, enchanted to meet you, my dears.” He inclined his shaggy head toward Sarah and Levvy, and ambled into the forest. His grubby clothes were camouflage; as soon as he departed, he blended into the woods.

“Excellent chap, Spex Gribble,” said Quinn, looking pleased. He opened one of the pouches hanging from his belt. “He knows this forest intimately. I was fortunate to meet him.”

“He seems great. But we can’t stay,” said Sarah.

“Sarah, come on! Why wouldn’t we?” Levvy huffed, exasperated.

“My father must be worried. He might even think I’m dead.”

“Sure, but you’re not dead. Your dad is probably with my folks. I bet they’re waiting until it’s safe to cross the ravine, and then they’ll meet us where the Big Maple used to be. In the meanwhile, a mushroom feast sounds good to me. I can’t believe you want to run back ho—”

Levvy bit back the word ‘home’, and Sarah felt a prickle of annoyance, mingled with fear. She wasn’t brave enough to return to Wailsmouth on her own. She opened her mouth to argue with Levvy, but stopped short at the sight of what Quinn was holding: two squares of honeycomb, thick amber honey oozing from perfect golden hexagons. Honey was a rare treat, and a taste Sarah adored.

“Is it real?” she asked, staring.

“Oh, it’s real. This is hunaja, honey made by special bees from my homeland. Please, partake.” Solemnly, Quinn offered the delicacy.

“Blessings,” Sarah and Levvy said together.

The girls exchanged a glance, and smiled. Sarah closed her eyes, and put a square of honeycomb on her tongue. A heavenly sweetness filled her mouth. Just like that, her resolve melted away. Levvy was right—of course they should dine with Spex Gribble! When would an opportunity like this come along again? Her father’s worry would dissolve soon enough, and this was a grand adventure. A metallic gleam of gold flashed from a nearby tree trunk. Sarah rubbed her eyes, and blinked. When she looked again, the glint of gold had become a tower of horizontal golden lines. She shuffled cautiously toward the tree. Impossible, she thought. Ridges of bark, interlaced with gold, jutted from the trunk, as far up as she could see.

“Is this a ladder,” Sarah breathed. “made of gold?”

“Not exactly. The ladder rungs grew from the tree. The perception the rungs are gold is a byproduct of eating hunaja,” said Quinn proudly.

“How?” Levvy gawked. “There was no ladder there before!”

“Actually, the ladder was there all along; you just needed hunaja to perceive it.” Quinn folded his arms across his chest and smiled.

Levvy’s shoulders stiffened. “Was that honey drugged?”

“What? No!” Quinn said, flustered. “Hunaja won’t harm you. Listen, we shouldn’t linger on the forest floor—it’s dangerous. Those guys could come back. Come up to my treehouse. I’ll explain there.”

Sarah checked nervously over her shoulder. Hiding in a treehouse seemed like a good idea. “But what about my dog?” she asked, and Rumpus sat down heavily on his haunches, and cocked his head pitifully, as if he understood he might be left behind.

“He has to come with us.” Quinn fumbled with a white pouch hanging from his belt, loosened a drawstring, and unfurled a sling made of lightweight fabric. He knotted the ends together, slipped the sling around his neck, and opened it like a hammock. “Put him in. He’ll be safe, I promise.”

Sarah lifted Rumpus and placed him in the sling. Quinn adjusted the fabric to hold the dog securely. Only his floppy ears, round eyes, and black nose were visible; Rumpus looked snug, and seemed content to be carried. Quinn started up the golden ladder. Sarah tilted her head back; the cedar tree stretched as far as she could see. She climbed nervously, testing each glittering rung in disbelief, but the ladder, so recently invisible, was strong and easy to ascend. She could hear Levvy mumbling in amazement. When the ground was a dizzying distance below them, they reached a wide crook where the trunk met a broad, strong branch.

Quinn stepped nimbly off the ladder. “Don’t look down,” he advised. “The rope bridge is much stronger than it looks. It bounces when more than one person crosses at a time, so wait until you can’t see me before you begin.”

“Could you hurry up?” Levvy called from below. “My hands are sweating!”

Quinn vanished behind the tree trunk. Sarah climbed a few rungs further, and reached a staging platform secured to a branch. Gratefully, she moved sideways off the ladder. Stretched out before her was a bridge constructed of three thick horizontal ropes: a lower one for walking, and two at waist height, serving as handrails. It was was lashed together with thin diagonal branches, and like the ladder, it gleamed with strands of gold. The bridge vanished into a density of green branches.

Quinn was nowhere to be seen.

Sarah tested the bottom rope with her foot. It felt taut and strong, so she balanced on her right foot, and moved her left foot out in slow motion. Another step, and another. Soon Sarah began to trust she wouldn’t fall. She raised her chin, and dared to scan her surroundings. She was suspended in a tree-world, on a gold-tinged bridge, like a heroine from a picture book. Then the thrill abruptly turned to terror: the bridge lurched violently, and the ropes swayed. Sarah clutched the handrails and shrieked.

“Crossing!” Levvy shouted.

Sarah hummed a nervous tune, and forced herself to stay in motion. A few more steps, and fringes of soft cedar brushed her forehead; she had reached the other terminus of the bridge. A sturdy deck led to an arched doorway, leading into a single room treehouse. The structure was nestled in enormous branches, braced with big struts to hold it steady. The walls were upright posts, interwoven with cedar boughs. Floor and roof were made of thin branches, lashed together tightly with rope. It looked like a raft in the sky, Sarah thought, streaked with golden light.

Quinn sat cross-legged in the single, mostly empty room. Cedar boughs were heaped against one wall, and there was a large wooden bucket in a corner. Rumpus was out of the sling, curled up in Quinn’s lap. Small hammocks hung from the ceiling, slouching with hidden burdens.

“It’s a little cramped,” said Quinn, “but there’s room for three.”

Sarah eased her body to sitting. When Levvy entered the treehouse, the structure didn’t groan or shake, but bore her weight easily.

“This is fantastic!” Levvy exclaimed.

“Oh, it’s no fantasy, I assure you,” Quinn said soberly. “Where I come from, most people live in treehouses like this one, connected by rope bridges. Groves, we call such communities.”

“Groves. Never heard of them. Where exactly do you come from?” Levvy asked.

“Sorry, but do you have any water?” Sarah interrupted, tapping her parched lips together. “I should have filled my bottle at the ravine.”

Quinn got to his feet. Above the wooden bucket, two small planks attached at a sharp angle protruded through the treehouse wall, forming a sluiceway. Quinn reached into the bucket. There was a light splash, and Quinn handed Sarah a cup of fresh, clean water. She drank it in three long swallows. Quinn refilled the cup, and passed it to Levvy. He cleared his throat importantly.

“Rainwater collection is a simple matter in this ecosystem, but compared to my home grove, this setup is primitive. Ordinarily a treehouse this size would have two or three buckets.”

Her thirst quenched, Sarah gazed around the treehouse. Her senses told her she was dreaming. She inhaled the clean aroma of fresh cedar, and ran her fingertips over the floor’s rough ridges, making sure she was really experiencing a gold-streaked treehouse.

“Okay, explain how the honey thing works,” Levvy ordered, cracking a notebook and poising a pen above its pages.

“Ahem,” Quinn sniffed. “First of all, it’s not a drug. Seeing the gold highlights is a side effect. We treat our building materials with hunaja, and then keep hunaja in our body systems, because when you ingest hunaja, you can perceive hunaja.

“But how does it turn things gold?” Sarah frowned, perplexed.

“They’re not really gold,” Quinn said impatiently. “Eating hunaja isn’t alchemy. Nothing is actually gold. It’s a trick of the mind, and the honey allows it to happen.”

“I want to know the actual physics, or chemistry, or whatever,” said Levvy.

Two bright pink spots appeared on Quinn’s sharp cheekbones. “It’s really complicated,” he admitted. “To be honest, I don’t understand it completely myself. Hunaja is kind of like medicine, except instead of curing a disease, it enhances the senses. Eating it lets you see where hunaja has been painted, but only for a week or two; the effect fades a little bit every day, so you have to eat more. But listen, how it works isn’t important. The usefulness of hunaja isn’t the gold that you see, but what others can’t see. Things treated with hunaja are invisible, except to those who have eaten it.”

Levvy poked a wall with a cautious finger.

“Did you build all of this yourself?” Sarah asked, thinking about primitive forts she had constructed for Sammy, leaky, leaning shelters, built with rotten planks pounded crookedly between trees. This treehouse was professional, like a miniature home.

“We learn how to build groves as children,” said Quinn with disdain.

“Do you sleep way up here?” Levvy asked.

“Of course! The three of us will sleep here tonight. Those cedar boughs make a soft mattress,” said Quinn, indicating the pile of greenery in the corner.

Waking up inside a treehouse! Sarah imagined the rustle of leaves, and the whisper of wind. “I’ve never heard of anyone living like this,” she said. “My father never told me about groves. It’s too bad there’s nowhere to grow your food.”

“Naturally we grow our own food,” Quinn bristled. “Our gardens are simply located some distance from our houses. We also gather food that grows naturally and abundantly all around us. Spex Gribble, for example, is an adept gatherer. I guarantee he will use only local foods to make this evening’s meal. And speaking of our engagement, we should depart soon.”

“Sammy would love this,” said Sarah.

Momentarily forgotten, the reality of her predicament settled on Sarah like an itchy sweater. A deep crease appeared in her forehead, like an exclamation mark between black eyebrows. Worry came over her like a cold breeze. She wanted a hot meal, her father and brother’s company, and her own bed. She was close to tears.

Levvy touched Sarah’s shoulder. “Hey, we’re safe here,” she said gently. “We’ll eat dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and then head back to the neighbourhood, I promise.”

Sarah took a deep breath, and released it slowly. Calm down. Be brave.

Quinn settled Rumpus in the sling, like a furry baby. Leaving their rain gear and backpacks in the treehouse, Sarah and Levvy reversed their trip to the canopy. Sarah was more confident on the rope bridge this time. Climbing down the ladder was trickier than going up, but the distance seemed shorter.

Quinn reached the ground first and released Rumpus, who tore around in circles, kicking up sprays of needles and dirt. The forest seemed denser and darker; evening sunlight was obscured by the criss-cross of branches. They walked in single file, Sarah following Quinn’s blonde head like a beacon. A shiny golden circle appeared through the trees. Sarah thought it was hunaja again, but closer up, she saw it was the sunset, reflected on the surface of a small pond. Beyond this shimmering water, a wall of moss-covered rock slanted sharply out of the earth. The wall was part of a tiny shanty, disguised to look like the surrounding forest, a casual arrangement of mossy logs and a roof thatched with cedar branches.

A bouquet of delicious aromas made Sarah’s mouth water. Spex Gribble popped out of the wee house, wiping his thick, stubby fingers on a filthy apron, tied around his substantial waist.

“My dears, my dears. Welcome! You’re in for a rare culinary treat, if I may immodestly say so. Pine mushrooms of course, baked with roundroot, and spiced with mustard grass and grated boisenberry bark. A salad of thimble-cress and dried amber-grubs. I’m very pleased you could…” he trailed off, peering at them. “One of your number is missing,” he said.

Sarah turned around. There was no one behind her. She backtracked, and saw Levvy standing stock-still near the pond. Her eyes open but unseeing, and her mouth was slack. Sarah hurried back to join her, with Quinn and Rumpus following close. She reached Levvy’s side, and touched her arm softly. Levvy stared at the water, unblinking, then screamed.


Sarah recoiled. Spex arrived, red-faced and panting with exertion. “The pool is an oracle,” he gasped. “Seers come here, to access their second sight. Does your friend have the gift?”

Levvy was in a trance.

“They are coming at night,” she said, “to attack the treehouse.”

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