…Don't Need One to Shine

July 3, 2011

“Well, Julian.” Cassius heaved himself up out of his chair to tower over the other beasts in the room, a stone colossus come to life. “If you’re done interrogatin’ these poor wretches, I’d like to have me turn with ‘em – one of ‘em, anyway.”

Case dipped his aging spiked head and shifted backward, freeing the marten’s path to one of two new doors on the far side of the room. It was an elegant but queasy sort of deference, one that distracted Noel from the fact that Cassius was waiting for him.

Noel lowered his brows and recoiled in slow motion, shielding Tamarack behind him.

“I’m not leavin’ them.”

“They won’t be harmed,” said Selendra. “Locria was an accident.”

Noel ignored her and turned back to his friends.

“Cobb -”

“Oi woan’t let them touch a hair on their heads, long as Oi be standing.”

Noel worked his jaw, considering, then nodded and eased himself off the bench. Bludd tugged at his sleeve as he passed.

“You sure ‘bout this, shipmate? Don’t need any backup, do ye?”

“Not this time, Bludd. I’ll fill you in when I get back.”

Cassius waved him through the door and into another corridor beyond. Noel couldn’t resist peering down the endless stretch of mole-hewn earth, but with his friends and their fearful faces shut behind him escape was the last thing on his mind.

“Forgive Locria.” Cassius dawdled a few pawsteps down the hallway before coming to rest against the side of the tunnel. “She’s a useful beast, ex-Long Patrol, but blasted impulsive. She’s only sixteen.”

“I don’t care if she’s a dibbun. Anybeast who’d do that to a lass deserves more than what I gave her.”

Cassius gave a low chuckle and shrugged into his berth against the wall.

“It’s funny t’ hear that from you, lad, but it’s natural in yer voice, if’n y’ don’t mind me sayin’. Another thing that don’t surprise me is that I find the most pussyfooted weasel who ever ran in me crew at Redwall.”

Noel tried not to eye him with too-deliberate suspicion. In Cassius’s manner he could detect no true familiarity for him – if Selendra hadn’t mentioned her conversation with one Noel Lingham on her return, it was doubtful Cassius would have recognized him at all.

“I only left you when the rest of your crew did,” said Noel. “The whole vermin world’s pussyfooted to you, then.”

“Aye, and it’s that day I want to remind ye of, lad. I know it ain’t good practice takin’ ye aside like this, but there’s summat I want to show you and it ain’t somethin’ that should be seen by ladybeasts.”

There was no resisting the darting lift of his brows when Cassius first cast aside his long coat and then began unbuttoning his jerkin in the midst of the chill hallway. Before Noel could demand an explanation, the marten had spun on his heels, naked to the waist, and suddenly Noel was reliving a landmark in his own sordid life of eight years before.

It was the same winding, terrible scar he remembered, running like a gully from between his now-hairless shoulder blades on down to near the tail of his spine – only by forcing himself to stare did Noel feel certain it had closed, was not still pulsing and burbling with blood. By the grunt Cassius uttered in shrugging his shirt back onto his shoulders, it was clear the pain, at least, still lingered.

Cassius wheeled about to face him once more, all the mirth vanished from his features.

“You know the beast who did this t’ me?”

Noel closed his eyes and gazed into blackness. There was no searching to be done: the answer was already there.

“Carter,” he said.

When he looked upon Cassius again, his former chief was studying him carefully.

“You don’t sound surprised.”

“I guess I’m not. I knew it all along, always have. How could I forget? But….”

“You didn’t want t’ think the Abbot o’ Redwall was capable o’ such a thing.”

“No.” Noel had snapped at his guide, and bent his gaze earthward by way of apology. “He’s spent his whole life around Martin. Why didn’t he take any o’ that in? Why’d Martin let him do stuff like that, in his name?”

“What you’ve got to get straight, lad, is that nothin’s as it seems. Carter didn’t grow up in Redwall, in fact ‘e was a member o’ the Long Patrol at Salamandastron. He committed atrocities there, too. So y’see, the myth and majesty of Redwall the good, Redwall the charitable, Redwall the just, is just that – a myth.”

“That’s not the whole truth, though. The beasts living under Redwall’s roof, they’re good.”

“Yet they’re blind enough t’ be led by a torturer and a murderer. It’s an institution tailor-made for a beast like ‘im to seize control.”

“But it’s a good institution.” Noel recalled the softly sibilant voice of the Historian, Aloysius, singing to him of Martin’s vision and hopes in the early dawn hours of winter. “The basics of it, the message, is good – the Woodlander’s Code.”

“What good’s a Woodlander’s Code if nobeast abides by it?”

Noel’s expression turned defiant, his stance firm. He swept a paw behind him at the door.

“I do. And so do those beasts in there.”

Cassius chuckled again and retrieved his coat from the floor, reaching out to pat the young weasel’s unmarred shoulders.

“Aye, and that’s why we can use a beast like you, you and your friends. Under this Society an’ beasts like Carter Redwall’s become a poison. It’s got to be eliminated before Mossflower, vermin and woodlander alike, can know freedom.”

“And that’s why I’m goin’ to help you.” The certainty in his voice must have startled Cassius, likely still working on a vague memory of a hotheaded teenage beast who refused to fire a matchlock at a living creature. “But get this: Carter’s the poison. Redwall can still be saved – I’ll stake me life on it.”

“You’d better ‘ope, for yore own sake, that you never ‘ave to.”

* * *

Only a few minutes passed before Noel reemerged from the corridor, Cassius looming behind him. For all that it felt like, though, it might have been hours.

“Noel!” Tam leapt out of her seat before Locria could protest. In a whisper she added, “What’d he say?”

“Tell you on the way back – are you lot all right? What’ve they been sayin’ to you?”

“‘May I take your order?’” Case glanced at them from the table, arranging a collection of empty tumblers on a tray. “Water, lad?”

Noel shook his head. He couldn’t rectify this kindly old codger with the brutal judge who had earlier nodded a sentence of death upon them. Was this the hedgehog who would have been abbot?

“‘m all right, thanks,” he mumbled.

“Suit yourself. It’s a long journey back, I’m sure you know – and before you all go I need to ask something of you.”

So that was what the sudden burst of hospitality was for. Noel wrinkled his snout.

“What moight that be?” said Cobb.

“First, and most obviously, we require your complete secrecy. You seem to be doing a fair enough job of that so far, with the exception of the cloakpin…” His eyes also lingered for a dangerous moment on the youngest of their number, until Bludd stuck her tongue out at him. “…that includes this tunnel. Assume that nobeast can be trusted.”

Noel upheld his stern impassive facade, even with images of Saskia rioting in his mind.

“Second, I need you to deliver this to the Foremole.” Case slipped a folded sheet of thin paper from under his tray and handed it to Noel, who thoughtlessly and unceremoniously flipped it open. When Case issued no complaint, he read it aloud, much to everybeast’s confusion.

“‘During the Trials of Cluny, Redwall’s tapestry was repaired by the mouse Methuselah. Many misrepresent the quality of the repair despite its perfect union with the rest of the work.’”

“Code.” Case’s smile was almost apologetic. “From that he’ll understand he’s to be your primary contact within the Abbey. As we move forward he may begin to introduce you to others as well – you already seem to know a few of them. He may even teach you that code.”

“So we can report back to you ourselves?” said Tamarack.

“Clever lass,” said Cassius, and again Tam seemed to stiffen under his gaze.

“That’s number three,” said Case. “Anything suspicious, anybeast asking too many questions, you go to Foremole or one of the other contacts he gives you. We’ll give you more detailed assignments later. Until we know we can trust you, only use the tunnel yourselves if your contacts have been compromised. To enter this door knock twice, then thrice. The password is ‘the bells of St. Ninian’s still chime at midnight’.”

* * *

Thirty minutes into their journey had passed, in cloying damp earth the smell of a fresh grave – a scent Noel realized was darkly familiar to him now – before their heads no longer nipped back over hunched shoulders and they felt safe enough to speak. It was as if they had unstuffed their mouths with cotton.

“So you was – you was my age when you saw Carter do that.” Tamarack seemed to be envisioning the scene Noel had described, one of three dozen hardened vermin rogues watching stunned as their leader was demolished in a one-on-one battle with a simple Redwall otter. “Why? What was the point?”

“Bloodthirsty, ‘e is,” Bludd chirped, still hopping about but only at half-steam. “Aye, like a pirate who launches a broadside under a white flag, just t’ watch beasts fling ‘emselves inter the sea.”

Noel nodded, rocking his lantern light as he did. Cobb’s next question was tentative.

“Did nobeast stay to help him after?”

“No.” Noel’s words were as bitter as the encroaching chill of the tunnel. “We all thought he’d be dead after that. To those of us that hung around long enough Carter just told us to scram, leave Mossflower and never come back.”

“As if he was still trying to play the old-timey Redwall hero,” said Tam. “But just like in them days, Cassius didn’t learn his lesson neither, did he? What do you make of him, Mr. Noel – of all them? I know we can’t trust them, but -”

“They’re worthless beasts,” Noel growled. “Carter’s dangerous ‘cause he’s got no heart. They’ve got cold ones – no reason to be or to do anythin’.”

Tam tried to look down at her footpaws in the darkness.

“But if you got a kind of fire in your heart, you might end up followin’ people like Carter. Like this Society – they give beasts a reason to come together, even though it’s wrong.”

“Aye.” It came after a pause broken only by Bludd’s gentle humming, in which Noel and Cobb both were struck dumb by the kit’s intuition. “But with a cold heart y’ can’t get nothin’ done. ‘s why there’s only three of ‘em in there rather’n three hundred.”

From there the conversation was forced to cheerier topics. Even the standard groan arose when Noel tried to switch the subject to campball. Only when the lateness of the night began to take its toll did they finally fall into stricken silence. Sometime in the early hours of the morning they at last staggered out into brilliant brisk starlight, Cobb offering Tam a weary digging claw up out of the hole, followed by Noel still cradling the snoozing Bludd in his arms.

It was when the elder trio had placed the kitten in her dormitory bed and began staggering back to their own when the final fright of their ordeal came upon them. An avenging angel, wings outspread, blocked their path back up the corridor.

“By the stars and fates!” Tam clapped a paw over her muzzle, remembering the now-sleeping terror they had just tucked away. “Brother Aloysius – what are you doing here?”

“Be silent, Miss Coffincreeper! I won’t be asked that question from you, from you.” His voice was horrible and distorted. “What are you three doing in the dibbun dormitories so late? How many of you are there, are there?”

“Uh, we was just -”

“Just us three – ah, four -”

“Brother Andrew!”

Everybeast in the corridor cocked their ears at young Tam.

“What is the meaning of this, of this?” Aloysius demanded.

Tam, seeming to recall her rapidly swelling cheek, shuffled back into shadow as if to hide her emotion.

“We, uh…we was holding a bit of a wake for him. Mr. Noel hardly knew him, you see, and Mr. Cobb and I are still so upset – it helped to talk to somebeast about him.”

“Bludd managed to tag along, as usual,” Noel added. His cool line seemed to smooth Aloysius’s ruffled fur, as the bat folded his wings back beneath him and began crawling the other way.

“I see. I am sorry for our mutual loss, mutual loss. But it would do us all a kindness for you to obey the curfews that have been set for your own safety, and for older beasts to set a good example to the young – Mr. Cobb and Mr. Noel! Now goodnight, goodnight!”

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