Rarely Pure and Never Simple

June 30, 2011

Once, when she was eight, Tamarack stumbled across a snake. She and Ripple had wandered away from the other dibbuns who were frolicking and daisy chain-weaving just outside the Abbey’s main gate, and the creature had risen from the tall grass to block their return. Clutching the otter’s paw in a vice-like grip, the vixen had waited for the snake to strike. She remembered that it had smelled like Aloysius’ archives, a collection of cobwebs and dust overrun by decaying tomes piled higher than she was tall. The thing had considered them for a moment, flicking out its forked tongue. Then, with a hissing sigh, it had slithered away. It was the first time she had ever thought about her own grave.

Meeting the cold, reptilian eyes of the otters, Julian Case, Cassius, and Locria as they sat in the musty cellar, Tamarack felt that same terror gripping her. These were murderers, villains, enemies… but then what was Selendra doing with them?

“If you aren’t interested in talking…” Case let the threat hang, a noose in the suddenly-thick air. They all began to speak at once.

“We’m came from th’ Abbey–”

“Lookin’ fer adventure–”

“We wanted to see–”

“There was a great gaping hole–”

The hedgehog held up his paws and Locria rapped the butt of her pistol on the table. “One at a time, chaps.”

“Let’s start with something simpler,” Case said. “Who are you?”

The mole placed a digging claw to his brow. “Oi be Cobb.”

“Cap’n Bludd,” the kitten said, her tail and ears held high. “Saver of mousey maids an’ plunderer of abbots.”

“Noel Lingham.” The set of the weasel’s jaw did not catch her attention so much as Cassius’ raised brows. It was her turn, though.

“Tamarack–”

“Coffincreeper,” Case finished, a faint smile touching his lips. “I thought you looked familiar. You’ve certainly grown, though, haven’t you?”

“Sir?” The vixen couldn’t help her hackles rising. Case sounded almost like the Abbot, that air of knowing about him that made her fur prickle.

“Ah, forgive me. You would have been about…” He trailed off, sizing the vixen up before placing his paw a little above the table’s edge. “About so high last I saw you. Durian’s murder rather curbed my enthusiasm for graveyards. And while I’m reluctant to dispose of an old friend’s granddaughter… and a kitten who saved one of our own, I would hope you recognize the difficult position you’ve all put me in. So, tell me, young Tamarack, why should I not kill you?”

Tamarack felt her stomach drop as everybeast turned to her. Playing at leader was well and fine when they weren’t standing with one footpaw in the grave, a willing executioner ready to push them the rest of the way. Here, though? Now? She scrabbled for Cobb beneath the table and found a small part of her courage returning when he wrapped his digging claw around her paw. From the other side, Noel squeezed her arm. Even Bludd offered a roundabout sort of support in a poorly executed whisper.

“Snout to the cannons and charge, matey.”

She took what strength she could from her friends and began. Julian Case was a murderer, but she would not give him the satisfaction of hearing her voice quaver. “We came from Redwall, sir.”

“This I can see.” The hedgehog cast a glance at Selendra who shook her head. He ran his claws through the graying spikes atop his head. “I’m rather more interested in the why, what, and how, though.”

“Mr. Cobb found a tunnel when we was digging Mr. Andrew’s grave.”

“Andrew’s dead?” Selendra interrupted.

“Aye, just this afternoon, and it were the Abbot what done it. Said Mr. Andrew attacked him after admitting to killing Brother Raimun, but Bludd and Foweller saw them. It weren’t no self-defense.”

There was a collective intake of breath from the non-Abbeybeasts.

“The rotter’s getting bold,” Locria hissed.

“Well, he tried to have me killed, as well. Why Andrew, though? He’s just–”

“Were a bit of plunder what done ‘im in,” Bludd said. “Like th’ medallion Tam ‘as.”

“What medallion?”

Tamarack felt Noel’s paw tighten around her arm again as they both jumped and looked over at Cassius. It was the first the pine marten had spoken.

“It’s a cloakpin,” Noel corrected, a hint of challenge edging into his tone.

“Aye. Found it on a bunny what gone and got hisself tossed in my graveyard without a proper burial. Colm – he’s my brother – were scared half out of his hide just looking at it.” Tamarack reached into her pocket and held the cloakpin up. Locria grabbed it without preamble. “Oy!” The vixen lunged for her treasure, but Cobb and Noel held her back.

“It’s not worth it,” the weasel muttered.

“It be all roight, Miz Tam,” the mole added as the hare tossed the pin to Case and Cassius. “Oi doan’t think Miz Sel will let them keep it.”

True, the mouse had prevented their untimely demise, but she wasn’t proving to be a particularly vocal advocate for their continued existence.

“You say you found this on a body?” Case asked, pawing the pin off to Selendra.

“Aye, sir.” Tamarack tracked the pin’s progress, coiling herself up to spring for it at the next possible chance. It was her only solid link to Colm, to the graveyard, to home down here. She wouldn’t let them steal it without a fight. “The Abbot weren’t none too happy when he found out, neither.”

“Carter knows that you have this? Fates!” The panic in the hedgehog’s voice was enough to draw her attention to him. He was glaring at Selendra. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I didn’t know,” the mousemaid countered, bristling. “I’ve been following the lead on Tompkins and Delores to protect that one.” She jerked a claw at Noel, and Tamarack felt the weasel stiffen beside her. Protect him from what? “Merritt’s the one who had her deliver the package to Raimun.”

“Merritt let a flipping kit… well no wonder Raimun’s tripped off to meet his bally maker. I told you we couldn’t trust the blighter, Case. Too busy dabbing it up by half!”

“Merritt’s done us far more good than–”

“Always defending that ferret, Sel,” Locria scoffed, crossing her arms. “You’ll make Berend jealous.”

“Will you both–”

“Shut up.” Cassius might well have shouted for the reaction those two simple words produced. The table fell silent, and Tamarack took advantage of the distraction to snatch the cloakpin from Selendra’s lax grip. Stuffing it back in her pocket, the vixen glanced over at Cassius and felt her own paws freeze. There was something altogether hungry about his face, like a pike on the prowl. This beast was a predator. “Seems t’ me our guests ‘ave quite a lot o’ information they shouldn’t, a quality the likes o’ us can appreciate. Question is: Can we trust ’em?”

“Don’t even think about it, Cassius,” Selendra growled. “They don’t know what’s going on.”

“No, but I’d sure as shooting like to!” Tamarack laid her ears back and cringed. That had come out much louder than she’d intended.

“Me, too!” Bludd chimed. The vixen smiled at the kitten and received a grin in return. When had the fuzzy tidal wave of destruction become reliable? After saving Selendra? She’d have to ask about that if they didn’t get their heads chopped off.

Noel nodded. “Only seems fair if you’re going to kill us all anyway.”

“Listen here,” the vixen continued, “we been running around for three days trying to figure out why a pin would scare my big brother. We been threatened, lied to, and turned around in circles just trying to fit everything together. Two beasts have been murdered inside the Abbey in as many days, two dozen more in the last season, and now we find a pair of murderers sitting pretty as you li–”

Locria cut the rant short, smashing her pistol across Tamarack’s muzzle. The vixen screeched and fell back as the bench she and the others had been sitting on toppled. Eyes watering and the sharp tang of blood in her mouth, she dragged herself up to avoid one of the guard otter who was charging Noel.

The weasel held Locria in a headlock while Cobb grappled with the other otter. Selendra only just had hold of Bludd, the kitten thrashing like a five-limbed octopus in her arms.

“Sto-guck!” The vixen choked. Everything smelled like blood. She knew it was just in her mouth, but the first otter had reached Noel. “Stop! Leave him–”

Bang!

Tamarack rubbed away her tears and panic, focusing on the cloud of smoke that had begun to wrap itself around Case’s arm. The hedgehog’s pistol was pointed straight out toward the far wall.

“I’m glad to have your attention. Locria, quit struggling, be quiet, and if you even think about hitting an ignorant kit without permission again, I will personally shoot you with your own gun. Do I make myself clear?”

“But she–”

“I’m sorry, Locria?” There was that same sweet smile the Abbot wore. Tamarack shuddered and coughed, spitting out a tooth. She wiped her maw with the back of her paw and winced. She’d lost most of her baby teeth to Colm’s rough housing, but this took the gilded coffin in terms of pain.

“You’ve been clarity itself, sah.” Locria sighed.

The weasel released her after a wary moment, and the otter fighting Cobb backed away to join his companion. Bludd landed a shallow scratch on Selendra’s arm and hissed as the mouse let go. Selendra probably hadn’t deserved that… not entirely. Maybe just a bit.

“Now that we’ve all calmed down,” Case continued, holstering his pistol, “why don’t we sit?”

“You’m keep your paws off Miz Tam,” Cobb warned with a more terrifying glower than Tamarack would have thought he possessed. She laid a paw on his shovel-like digging claws as they sat down, all too aware of the peculiar reversal.

“I’m fine, Mr. Cobb. Mumma’s done me worse with one of her birchings.” A little lie never hurt now and again.

“I promise no more unexpected violence.”

“And what about the expected sort?” Noel growled.

Tamarack felt herself bristling again as Case grinned at them, too benign for sincerity. “Hopefully, it won’t come to that. I think we need to clear up a few things, though. I am not a murderer, and neither is Cassius. Well… not the murder you’re thinking of, anyway. It’s a lie that Carter started.”

“Then who did it?” Noel asked while Tamarack nursed her snout.

“I suspect Carter and whoever his cronies were at the time. That pin you found, it marks his inner circle. Or, a circle that he’s taken over, anyway.”

“The Society o’ Martin,” Cassius drawled, throwing his arms wide. “Sworn defenders o’ Mossflower country and bent on the eradication o’ vermin just like you and me. They run Redwall, and Case didn’t like that so much. Ain’t ‘e a proper gent?”

“So, then…” Tamarack said, leaning in as the missing pieces slotted into place. “Abbot Carter murdered your family, Mr. Case, and said it was you, so that he’d become abbot instead?”

“A gold coin for the lass!” Cassius exclaimed, with a mock-clap. The vixen would have sneered at him if she hadn’t known that it would hurt like a pistol to the face. She settled for a glare and let Noel sneer for her. The marten offered a smirk in return, but the expression dissolved into something uglier a moment later, all fangs and slitted yellow eyes. “We been workin’ t’ bring that bloody prater down ever since. And now we ‘ave you lovelies. Selendra tells us the kitty saved ‘er life. The rest o’ you, though…”

“They’re me crew,” Bludd said, her voice sounding smaller, for once fitting her tiny frame. It was unnatural.

Tamarack left off her staring at Cassius. Bludd’s shoulders were tensed, her tail bottle-brushing behind her. The vixen reached across Noel and grabbed the kitten’s paw. A quick flick of her eyes and a squeeze were enough. Bludd had given her support when Tamarack had needed it most, she would do the same.

“Beg pardon?”

“I trusts me crew, and ye should, too,” the kitten boomed, falling into fine captain form. “That’s Bosun Tam, that is, Cobb th’ Gobb, an’ Lieutenant McNoel. A cap’n never launches into a new venture without ‘er crew!”

“I think they’ll be all right, Cassius,” Selendra agreed, grimacing as she touched a paw to her bandaged ear. “They already know about the tunnel, and there’s only so much information Sebastian and Flint can gather now that I’ve gone. You all have to promise to keep this a secret, though. We aren’t ready to take down Carter yet because–”

“Because he’s the Abbot,” Noel concluded, “and you’re just murderers.”

“Precisely,” Case said. “So, the question becomes: Will you help us?”

“What if we say no?” Tamarack put in.

The hedgehog shrugged. “Then we discuss the expected sort of violence, my dear.”

“Right…” A quick glance to confirm that dying was not on the preferred list of activities this evening. “I suppose we’ll be helping you, sir.”

“Splendid.”

As he leaned back and folded his paws in his lap, Tamarack swore she saw a flicker of forked tongue. Whatever else he was, the vixen suspected they’d avoided Julian Case’s fangs by a hairsbreadth.

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