Gilt By Association

June 4, 2011

“Mr. Cobb, are you kicking me?” Tamarack asked as she sat down across from the mole, her plate overflowing with rhubarb pie, pasties, fish, and spring salad. Something had knocked her leg beneath the table, and Colm was already off to fetch his own food.

The mole dropped a forkful of carrot casserole on his lap as his eyes widened. “No, Miz Tam. Oi would never do that.”

“Well, if it ain’t you, then I got a right friendly spider pulling at my belt just now.”

At Cobb’s frown, the vixen grabbed the paw she could see, now groping along the bench, and jerked upward.

Yeowch! Whatcher go an’ do that fer, ye blasted landlubber?” The owner of the paw appeared, wriggling and hissing. She yanked herself free to stem the blood dribbling from her nose.

“Are you all roight, Miz Kitty?” Cobb passed the young wildcat his napkin.

“Why’re you hiding under the table, Bludd?” Tamarack snorted. “Not to mention punching me like I’m some corpsified beast what don’t care no more.”

“I was treasure-huntin’, matey,” the kitten babbled around the white-now-red-spotted napkin. “Saw me a bit o’ treasure an’ ‘ad at it. Jist an ‘onest freebooter plyin’ ‘er trade.”

“Treasure?” The only treasure she had was… “Bludd! You’re not allowed to steal that. Not never, you hear?”

Bludd wilted. “C’mon, mate, didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

That had sounded rather harsh. Bludd was good for a laugh now and again. “Sorry, Bludd. Just getting a bit tetchy. Ain’t had a chance to fill up the belly proper, aye? Oh, and this here fellow’s Mr. Cobb. He’s working for my family.”

“So, they’ve sentenced ye t’ th’ wheel an’ chain, matey? Bad luck after ‘scapin’ a dungeon.”

“You’ve met before, have you?”

“Not properly, Miz Tam. She’m were… excited ’bout moi being locked in th’ Abbey dungeon. Oi thought she’m runned off.”

Bludd placed a paw over her heart. “Asked ‘im t’ join me crew. Almost! But pinchin’ veggibles ain’t part o’ th’ pirate code.”

“Right, well, Mr. Cobb, this is Bludd. She sleeps in the graveyard sometimes.”

“Doan’t it get cold in th’ noight?”

“Dead beasts tell no tales,” the kitten explained, tapping her bloody nose.

“And they got the best sort of loot: the kind as ain’t nobeast using no more.”

“Miz Tam.” Cobb’s mouth flattened into a grimace.

“Mumma says it’ll stick if you make funny faces like that, Mr. Cobb.”

By this time, Bludd’s paw had crept across the table and appropriated a mushroom pasty from Tamarack’s plate. It disappeared beneath the napkin. “Is that where ye got that there silver medallion in yer pocket, matey?”

“Not… quite.” Tamarack exchanged a glance with Cobb as she pulled the cloakpin from her pocket and showed it to Bludd beneath the edge of the table. The vixen was careful to hold on tight. “There’s been some trouble, and we found this around about where it started.”

“Eh? Is Brother Tompkins in trouble?”

“Brother Tompkins?” Tamarack pocketed the cloakpin and slapped Bludd’s paw before the kitten could steal another pasty. “Go get your own. And what do you mean Brother Tompkins?”

“Well,’s like th’ one he’s got, innit? Can’t blame an ‘onest freebooter fer lookin’, can ye? No, says I,” the wildcat grumbled, claws reaching toward Cobb’s plate. The mole slid it to the right, and Bludd scowled at him. For a moment, Tamarack thought he might actually stick his tongue out at the little fiend, but he resisted the temptation and settled for a frown.

“Where did you see it?” the fox asked. “Where exactly?”

“Don’ rightly recall.” Bludd crossed her arms and turned her nose up. “Might do with a bit o’ skilly an’ duff, though.”

“Bludd, I–” Before she could finish, Tamarack caught sight of Merritt’s cart. The ferret was gone. “Cluny take the Long Patrol! Here, Bludd, you can have my plate. All the skilly and duff you can eat. Mr. Cobb, I need you to ask her proper about the other pin while I go take care of something.”

“What? But, Miz Tam… Oi’m not s’posed to be alo–”

“Mumma and Papa and Grannie are just over there. You’ll be fine.” She stood as Bludd’s furry tentacles latched onto her plate and drew it in. Dinner would have to wait.

“But…”

“We’re in this together, Mr. Cobb… ain’t we? I need you to do this for me.”

The mole hung his head. “Oi’ll troi, Miz Tam.”

“Cobb th’ Gob, ‘s what I’ll call ye!” Tamarack heard Bludd announce. She didn’t need to look back to know that the mole was staring after her.

Sorry, Mr. Cobb.


The aroma of scholars and scoundrels mixed with grass, wood smoke, and fish as Tamarack crouched behind Merritt’s cart. A quick walk of her claws along one of the boxes brought her to the edge, but she paused for a moment, chewing her lip. It was just a book. This would bring them one step closer to figuring out the pin and helping Colm, whether he wanted it or not. Cobb would deal with Bludd and the second pin, and they’d be two steps closer to the answer.

Merritt wouldn’t mind her looking. Books didn’t mean anything, not really. Not really at all…

Think of Colm. This is for Colm… and for Ms. Saskia, too. The hare was nice enough for a stuffy sort of beast – a bit like Aloysius. She deserved to know a few of Merritt’s secrets, if only to have something to niggle him with when business was slow. Right.

The vixen pulled herself up and plunged her snout into the box, letting her whiskers drift across the pamphlets, loose papers, and tomes. A bit of digging, switching boxes, and holding likely suspects up to the moonlight revealed the book in question: red with gold gilt… no title. She managed to scan the first page before a paw landed on her shoulder. She’d have to talk to Foweller about living up to one’s lookout duties later, possibly emphasizing with a well-placed shovel to his thick head.

“Tamarack.” Merritt managed the precise cadence Mumma used when she was about to tan Tamarack’s hide.

“Well, hello there, Mr. Merritt. Enjoying the festival?” The vixen turned to face the ferret, the sharp white points of her teeth stitching a crooked grin across her maw.

He smiled back, his claws digging into her flesh before he released and pointed at the book. “What are you doing with that, Ms. Tamarack?”

“Reading.”

“You know that’s mine, yes?” There was the sweetest uptick in his voice at the end, like honey laced with nightshade.

“Aye, sir. I…” She couldn’t tell on Saskia, not when she was trusting the hare to keep her own secrets. “I was looking for more of the pamphlets you sold me today. Right good they were.”

“I see.” One of the ferret’s eyebrows rose a full claw-length.

Her ears fell back, and she curled her tail between her legs. He didn’t sound angry, and that was worse. “I’m awful sorry. Didn’t mean no harm, but… Why do you got the names of a dozen Abbeybeasts in your book, Mr. Merritt? It don’t look like Mumma’s ledger.”

Merritt considered her for a moment. “Why do you and your brother always have spare coin lying about, I wonder, Ms. Tamarack?” When she did not answer, he favored her with a conspiratorial wink. “We, all of us, have our mysteries. In any case,” he continued, snatching the book out of her paws and snapping it shut, “how does this sound? I’ll overlook this incident and Saskia sending out kits to do her meddling if you’ll deliver a package for me.”

“I never said–”

“You never had to, my dear.” Waving his paw for her to follow, the ferret led the vixen to another box, this one locked. In a trice, he had the thing open. Tossing the book in, Merritt pulled out a large brown envelope. “Do you know who Brother Raimun is?”

“Aye.” She took the envelope and opened it before he could tell her not to.

JULIAN CASE:
a
True Relation
of the
Unjust, Cruel
and
Barbarous Proceedings
at
Redwall Abbey.


By a Scrupulous Fieldmouse with Scruples Enough.

It sounded like something Aloysius would write. She furrowed her brow, but held her silence. Merritt was proving to be about as forthcoming as a scholar with a bad case of the riddles; she’d get nothing out of him. Raimun, though…

“I would ask that you be discreet about this delivery, Ms. Tamarack,” the ferret added as he dug through his box once more, pulling out a small woven bag before shutting and locking the lid. Tamarack wrinkled her nose at the pungent odor of walnuts as Merritt swung the strap over his shoulder. “If you’re very good about it, I might even give you a treat.”

“I don’t like walnuts, sir.”

“Hmm? Oh.” A sliver of fang appeared as he glanced down at the bag. “That’s not the sort of treat I was thinking of… Saskia might like that, though. I can never tell.” And with this cryptic pronouncement, the ferret slithered away. Tamarack followed him with her eyes as he snaked around drunken revelers and toward the main Abbey building.

She had only managed a small glimpse of the book. Would it be enough for Saskia? Tamarack narrowed her eyes. ‘Mysteries’ my shovel. He hadn’t said she needed to be quick about the delivery of the package, just ‘discreet’. And what cunning creature like Merritt would mind a lass nosing about where he, himself, was concerned? He had slinked toward the Abbey with the air of a cat left to guard the cream… most unusual.

Tucking the envelope beneath her arm, the vixen struck out toward her next minor mystery. Saskia would need good information on Merritt before she would help, no doubt, and Raimun might be in the main building.

Getting there was half the battle, though. Tamarack entered the obstacle course of the festival grounds in just five paces. She dodged past staggering dancers, shrugged off the taunts of lesser beasts who wouldn’t know a how to run a race if the instructions were painted along their legs, and traversed the belly of a badger who had passed out in front of the pathway. At last, her goal came into sight: the door to the main building. She stopped a fox-length short, attention drawn to a skinny otter hunched by the doorway.

Ripple.

He hadn’t heard her, his gaze fixed on a group of hares taking it in turns to show off their jumping prowess by the desserts table.

His legs… The otter’s eyes were bright as he watched the hares, but she could see he was leaning heavily on the wall, almost using his rudder as a prop.

“Rip?”

He turned, and when he saw her, his maw split into that lopsided grin he always wore – the one that made him look like Skipper. “Tam! Where have ye been? I been lookin’ for ye the whole festival. Remy’s been thumbin’ her snout at me all night. We got to show her how a pair of mateys really win a race!” The otter stood straight and loped over to her, his gait easy and familiar as he stopped to slap her on the back. “Hah! I’ll be aimin’ for the gold of course, but yer welcome to try for silver. Or ought I to say, ‘Slowver’?”

Before he could scamper away, Tamarack dropped Merritt’s envelope and wrapped her arms around Ripple’s neck. “I’m sorry, Rip! I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry.”

“What’re ye goin’ all weepy for, Tam?” Ripple laughed. “Only but an accident. Right as ye like now. C’mon, or we’ll miss the start of–”

“Uh…”

Tamarack blinked. The Ripple giggling beside her dissolved into a Ripple goggling at her from the side of the building. He worked his jaw up and down twice, then snapped it shut.

“How you doing, Rip?” She offered a small smile and started to wave.

The otter was already hobbling away, though; every stumble and awkward hop stung like a hornet. Tamarack hurried into the main building, slamming the door shut behind her.

He had seen her. She had finally seen him. And he hadn’t yelled at her, hadn’t screamed. There had been so much screaming that day. Ripple, her, Rigg, Skip…

But he didn’t look mad. The vixen felt the tightness in her chest loosen. He didn’t shout none, or call for Skipper. He’d simply gaped like a landed fish. Coming to think on it, he’d always had a bit of trout about the maw. A smile tugged at her whiskers as Tamarack began marching along the corridor toward the Great Hall. Ripple had just been busy. He wasn’t running away. He wouldn’t run away from her. Couldn’t run away anymore…

Merritt. She needed to focus on Merritt now. But where had he gone? The vixen scratched her ear as she looked around. Two seasons was a long time to go without stepping paw in a building. In the dormitories?

“Tamarack, child, what are you doing here?”

Tamarack whirled about, clutching Merritt’s envelope to her chest as she watched the Abbot pad forward. His sandals hissed softly along the floor.

“I was looking for… for Brother Raimun, Father.”

“Who let you in, child?” There was no accusation in his voice, no challenge, but she could feel the rebuke all the same.

“I’m sorry, Father. Mist-er… Brother Aloysius and Brother Andrew asked me to deliver this here package to him.” She nearly bit her tongue as she tried to clamp down on the lie. Of all the beasts she could name… the bookworm and the mouse who jumped at his own shadow?

The Abbot looked about as incredulous as she felt. “And what would Brothers Aloysius and Andrew wish to deliver to Brother Raimun?”

In for a copper, in for a gold. “A… recipe. Aye! A recipe. Brother Andrew’s a cook, and Brother Aloysius is… It’s an historical recipe, Father. Brother Aloysius found it in his archives and knew… knew Brother Raimun would want to see it right away because… he likes food.”

“I like food,” the otter said, a smile sharper than broken glass cut across his muzzle. “Come, child, let me see this recipe.” He advanced, and Tamarack retreated, matching his stride.

“It’s a secret, Father.”

“There are no secrets in my Abbey.”

“I mean it’s a surprise, sir! For… for after the festival.” She’d run out of room to back up, her tail brushing the wall. “Wouldn’t want to spoil a surprise.”

He still wore the smile, but it was no longer so dangerous. It had been a trick of the light, an odd reflection off the windows. “Ah, a surprise. It would be so very unfortunate to spoil a surprise.”

“That’s right, Father. That’s right.” The guard hairs along the nape of her neck lowered. The Abbot was a kind beast. He was only curious, like her. “You’ll find out soon enough, I reckon.”

“Could you not give me a hint, though, child? A small sampling? I must confess that, while I enjoy them, the ‘surprise’ of these terrible murders have rather dulled my taste for the unexpected.”

As she watched, it seemed to Tamarack that the horrors of the past season began to etch themselves into every line upon the the Abbot’s brow. The otter slumped before her, his shoulders carrying a great, invisible weight. His whiskers drooped, and his eyes fell. Such sad eyes. For all his seasons, he looked to Tamarack like a kit, lost and alone.

“I’m sorry, Father, I–”

“Tamarack?”

The vixen and otter both started, the envelope dropping between them with a light smack.

She dove for it, but before she could do more than place her paw on the brown paper, the Abbot’s sandal had pinned her in place.

“A very interesting recipe, then, this ‘Julian Case’?” Tamarack looked down. Part of the cover page for the pamphlet was peeking out.

“Y-yes, sir.” All of the care had vanished from his face as she struggled to retract her paw. “You’re hurting me, Father. Sir. Please!”

“Ah.” He removed his sandal, and the vixen scooped up the envelope, wincing as she licked her crushed claws. “Brother Andrew, young Tamarack was just speaking of you.”

Hellgates.

Tamarack watched the mouse’s tail twitch as he scurried toward them, his bloodshot eyes fixed on her. “Have you found out more since last night?”

“What were you and young Tamarack up to last night, Brother Andrew?”

“We–”

“Brother Andrew!” Tamarack reached out and grasped his paw, tugging him back toward the entrance of the building. “I just found something out. Come on, we need to ask Brother Raimun about it.”

“Eh? But…”

“Run along, Brother Andrew,” the Abbot advised. “I’ll find out soon enough. Don’t you reckon, Tamarack?”

The vixen fled with the mouse in tow, the Abbot’s kindly chuckle chasing them down the corridor.

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