Get Back What They've Taken

July 12, 2011

Noel heard the gun fire in his dreams. There had only been one shot then, not three – the past in his mind was a kaleidoscope of light and leaves, trees drawing their lazy afternoon shadows across the forest floor. Noel tramped along the path, footpaws sinking into the soft loam with the weight of stolen goods. What was left of the trade caravan had dispersed and the carts were nothing but cold ashes left crumbling into the earth. It was quiet.

Shurrer caught up with him, muzzle full of his sharp stoaty smirk.

“All right, Noel?”

“Will be when I unload this mess.” Noel shifted the half-crate of fruit in his arms. It released a fragrance of faraway lands, promising flavors of which he had never dreamed – exotic delicacies that beasts like the Boss lived on as a matter of privilege. The smell made him sick.

Shurrer gave him a not unfriendly jab in the ribs.

“Did I ever tell ye I’m gettin’ tired o’ cleanin’ up after yore mess?” he said.

“What d’you mean?”

“That mouse from the caravan – you didn’t finish ‘im off.”

“So what?” Noel shifted the crate again. The scent was choking him now.

“So you can’t leave witnesses be’ind. Puts us all in danger.”

“We’re in danger anyways, raidin’ caravans in broad daylight.”

“Boss’s orders. Same as hushin’ up anybeast old enough and male enough to make a fuss.” Shurrer cleaned his claws on his rough smock. “You want t’ last in this crew much longer, you do yore own dirty work from now on.”

Noel stopped short. Shurrer had to hop-skip up to his side to keep from bumbling into him.

“You killed him?” Noel breathed. “Just now?”

“Just now.”

“But he ran. I saw him run.”

“I caught up with ‘im.”

The crate hit the ground, sweet strange orbs tinged of twilight bursting upon the earth, bleeding yellow and orange and red. Before Shurrer could scurry back into the safety of the woods Noel had crushed him against the wide trunk of an oak, seething and spitting, claws sunk deep into his arms.

“How many others? How many have you killed?”

“What in Hellgates – ah! Noel, that ‘urts – ah! Just ‘im, all right, and like two before ‘im. F’r pity’s sake let me go -!”

“Oi, you louts, quit brawlin’!” Jirrock the ferret burst from the trees, dark eyes sparkling with dimwitted mirth. “Come an’ see this! There’s an otter from Redwall over yonder, says ‘e wants t’ fight the Boss.”

* * *

Eight years later, Noel tumbled out of bed and onto the bone-cracking wood floor of the dormitory at Redwall Abbey.

“Where is he?” It was Rigg, somewhere up above him. Noel began to suspect he had slept late – afternoon sunlight cut through the window and blinded the otter from view.  “Where’s he gone?”

Noel blinked sleep from his eyes, still clinging to the hope he had been clumsy enough to roll out of his dream, had not been yanked from it into this nightmare. But the bedsheets were hanging from Rigg’s claws and his footpaw was on Noel’s chest.

“Eh?” Noel mumbled. “Who?”

Rigg unleashed a sound halfway between a roar and scream. First he threw the wadded-up sheets into Noel’s face, then his fist. Noel’s reaction was automatic and outdated, a relic of Virrel’s time: he curled up into a ball, hiding in vain from the blows as they pelted down.

“Rigg – Rigg, enough!” This voice was one Noel never thought he would be grateful to hear. When the punching ceased and he dared to peek, Carter was there heaving his whole weight against Rigg in the other direction. “My son! It won’t bring him back.”

The attack forgotten, Noel uncoiled and crawled forward, aching, onto his knees.

“What happened?” he demanded. “Who’s missing?”

Rigg wiped spittle from his mouth.

“Your bloody brother, that’s who.”

“Virrel – is he all right?” What was this poison flooding his chest, pushing out against his ribs until they might snap? Not fear of Virrel – that was dead now, deposed by fear of the otter in the drowsy green habit now standing before him. Noel recalled his dream, the mouse that Shurrer had left decaying in a lonely corner of Mossflower Wood. There was another fear – a fear! – that Virrel had joined him.

Rigg failed to see the irony, but still he laughed before storming out into the corridor. Carter was left gazing down at Noel with eyes not unlike a skeleton’s boring into those of its murderer. Noel could not explain, then, the steady even finality of his own voice.

“Where is my brother?”

“He is all right, but there has been a terrible accident,” said Carter. “Virrel has been careless, and now our friend Ripple is dead.”

All his afternoons with Isidore, all his one-sided conversations with Martin – they had done nothing to prepare him for the feelings that collapsed on him now. He even failed to detect the break in Carter’s voice as the name of dead otter passed his lips. Horror – outrage – fear – pride – injured pride, for himself and for his brother, the brother he had sworn not only to watch over but to protect. What had Virrel done? How did it feel to have taken a life in his paws?

“Careless my tail rudder,” Rigg snarled from outside. “Skip told us all he was no good, he warned Rip to stay away from him. Look where it got him!”

“How?” said Noel at last. “How did it happen?”

“He shot him! He ruddy well shot him!” Rigg made his terrible return, striking Noel in the back of the head, sending his face into the floor before Carter could flail another attempt at restraint. “Did he know how to use a gun? Did he?”

“I don’t know.” Noel pushed himself back up on all fours, felt himself cough. Something burbled in his chest and he coughed again. He was crying. “I don’t know.”

“You can’t get out of it that easy,” Rigg cried. “By Hellgates I’ll have you and him both for this -”

“Rigg!” Noel didn’t see Carter send him from the room, but when he looked up again the big otter was gone and the Abbot was kneeling by his side. “Forgive him, my son. Three deaths in as many days is too much for any beast, especially when it was one of his own. Ripple made our Abbey proud this morning – the very prize he earned for it was what killed him.”

Noel collapsed onto his elbows, sobbing like a kit. The words tore from his mouth unchecked, but Martin was in his heart and his brother’s life on his mind.

“Forgive him, please. Forgive me – Father!”

Carter’s paw was light on his shoulder, his voice nearly pleased from behind the curtain of grief.

“It was an accident, my son, but you speak rightly – it still must be atoned for. I urge you to speak to the bereaved, but your path does not end there. Once again, I would have you follow in the pawsteps of our Brother Isidore and join our order. There your soul may find true rest.”

* * *

Word spread like darkness, and the Abbey fell under a shroud of despair. Pawsteps rang hollow, and strange echoes seemed to call down from the battlements. Carter had returned with Rigg to the Abbot’s house, which left Noel feeling more starkly than ever that he was alone.

Though his mind sought her out, Tam was nowhere to be found. With a vague memory that she had been close to Ripple – who would never join her now on the campball pitch, not ever – it seemed wiser to let her be. In his sojourn across the lawns, however, he came across another shade like himself, eyes ringed with the same kind of empty sleep from which Noel had just been torn.

“Foweller – Foweller! Where’s Ripple?” The otter jerked his head toward him and paused for a moment before secreting something away in his belt. Noel winced, reached out a paw that didn’t quite cross the distance between them. “Foweller, please, for Martin’s sake.”

“They won’t let me see him.” Foweller would not look directly at him, only around and below and through him. “Uncle Skip’s still in there.”

“I’m sorry,” said Noel. The words stood as they were: words and nothing more. But the thought hung before him that if he had just taken Virrel away…but then the rebels might have had both of them. They might have Virrel now….

“I’ll be doing us both a favor.” The grin on Foweller’s muzzle was manic. “Next time I see that filthy murderer, he’s dead.”

Noel staggered backward. It was not a joke or one of those delusions the young otter seemed to play host to from time to time. In that moment, at least, Noel could see his brother – the creature he loathed, had feared the last four years of his life – die at this beast’s paw. The thought wrenched his guts like one of Virrel’s punches never could.

Noel mumbled a reply unintelligible even to himself and disappeared, plunging his paws into his coat pocket in search of answers. His claws brushed a thin sheet of crinkled paper.

* * *

“Psst, Cobb, goin’ to see Foremole now. Want to come?”

The mole sat perched on a stone memory seat a few yards outside the Coffincreeper home, eyes obscured behind the amber tint of his goggles. The alarm in the rest of his features was plain enough.

“But Noel, haven’t you’m heard -”

“Yeah.” The weasel turned his eyes to the ground, then back up to his partner in crime – if that was indeed what they were up to. “I’m gonna find him. I have to, before somebeast else does. That’s why I need your help right now.”

“What do you’m think Oi can do?”

Noel slipped Case’s coded message from his coat pocket, lowering his voice beneath the breeze.

“We got to get this to Foremole, remember? The sooner they think they can trust us the sooner I get a chance at that tunnel and figure out where Virrel’s gone.”

Cobb nodded and lumbered to his footpaws.

“Oi’ll do what Oi can. You’m think Oi can go along without an escort?”

“Nobeast’ll be suspicious with you ‘round Foremole, d’you think?”

Cobb’s sigh was gruff and, Noel though, a touch remorseful – or nervous.

“He arrested Oi for stealing, if you’m remember.”

“Yeah.” Noel frowned, recalling also his occasional visits during the end of Cobb’s incarceration. Even then something had struck him amiss about an Abbey with a dungeon. “We got to show him our faces soon, though. I’d get Tam, if not for….”

They trailed their way back into the Abbey building, toward the cellars where Cobb suggested the moles might congregate with the cellarhogs. Sure enough Foremole could be found among them, keeping Cobb under the suspicion of his beady black eyes until he had taken the note from Noel. After a moment’s contemplation he crumpled it up in his claws and beckoned them back upstairs.

* * *

In an empty corner of the kitchens Foremole Flint tossed the wadded-up paper into a gently burning oven, and spoke for the first time.

“Where be the other two, then?”

Cobb and Noel exchanged a glance before the weasel dared to offer their names.

“Tamarack, and Bludd, the kitten.”

Flint hurr-hurred to himself behind a grimace, a gesture evidently meant to attract less attention than dragging a claw down his own face.

“Young Tam,” he muttered, “and an orphan dibbun. Oi wouldn’t’ve believed it. Best I be speakin’ to you gentlebeasts first, then. Especially you’m.” His velvety face contorted into a glare meant solely for Noel. “Your brother and young Ripple – were that really an accident?”

“Yeah.” Noel said it after a pause. “He wouldn’t – he has nothin’ to do with the Abbot. If you lot find him wandering around out there -”

Flint raised a claw.

“Leave that to Oi. For now you just stick to me and Brother Sebastian. We two be keepin’ an eye on Brother Tompkins, and if you do the same you’m’ll make some use of yourselves. You stay clear of him, he’s part of their Society, but he moight make a change if we give him the chance.”

“Flint,” said Noel, barely above a whisper, “just what is the Society?”

Flint tapped the side of his own snout with a digging claw, the mole version of a wink.

“That be another thing you can leave to me. Oi’ve got some very interestin’ reading on the subject. For now, you have a bigger job than that to do for Oi.”

Cobb and Noel glanced at one another again, more tremulously this time.

“What be that?”

“You’m four made a hole in moi tunnel,” said Flint, crossing his arms. “You’m need to plug it up.”

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