Want to Picture the World

August 3, 2011

He’d done it for the truth.

That was what Noel told himself, hanging in Tamarack’s wake and savoring these fresh proud bruises layered over Rigg’s barrage from the afternoon. They throbbed like hammer blows on a new-forged blade, each one struck home with brutal precision – and yet those claws had lifted the most fragile of honeybees onto the breeze.

There was no silence in which to ponder – that was only an illusion. The world went on rumbling around him, impatient for him to catch up.

“Father Abbot,” said Emmerich, “begging your pardon, but if you could take this weasel off my doorstep we’d like to deal with Tam in our own way.”

Carter nodded and bowed his head, still crowned by his nightcap.

“Of course. Young Tamarack has nothing but my forgiveness. Grief strikes our hearts in different places, and the young most deeply…but I must admit, my son, that I am deeply disappointed in you.” Carter turned toward Noel but averted his eyes, glancing over his head at Isidore behind him. “I fear I was mistaken – you do not yet appear ready to join our order.”

Carter hobbled ahead of them out of the graveyard, leaving the once-pupil, once-master trailing him in what was now true silence. It didn’t last. Isidore’s paw sought Noel in the darkness, tightening about his arm, possessive and unkind.

“You’ve done a fool thing this night, lad.”

Noel yanked himself free, stumbled backwards into the light still burning dim in the Coffincreepers’ window.

“I won’t let him hide the truth.”

“Don’t enslave yourself to ideals you don’t understand.” Isidore’s claws remained outstretched for a moment, then closed on themselves in a fist. “Last chance, boy. If you turn your back on this place now -”

But like a petulant kit, that was just what Noel did.

* * *

Noel huddled in the empty corner of the dormitory where Virrel had once sealed himself away from the good beasts of Redwall Abbey. In his paws he cradled his brother’s secret: a book. Pages here and there had been marked off with a selection of Merritt’s saucier leaflets – Noel, red-eared, recognized a particularly wrinkled image pilfered from his own drawer at home – but it was clear from the underlined syllables in Martin the Warrior: A Dibbun’s History what Virrel had really been up to.

Outside the window it was still dark. Most of Noel’s night had been spent storing up precious sleep, interrupted only by a midnight trip to the larders to fill the gaping hole in his belly. The satchel of cold oatcakes and dried fish sitting beside him, meanwhile, was reserved for another’s stomach.

Noel scooped it up off the floor and crept down the stairs, taking a long and darkened path toward the graveyard around the foot of the belltower. Some dutiful soul, perhaps Isidore himself, had been there since: only a slick patch of flattened grass remained to mark the scene.

Cobb was only one step away from Tamarack, and now that he was standing outside a back window of the Coffincreeper home, so was Noel.

“Tam?” The answer to his soft taps came swift and sleepless, a shadowy face betraying tears still fresh enough to catch the moonlight. Tamarack appeared at the back porch moments later, shutting the door behind her.

“Oh, Mr. Noel, we’ve made a terrible mistake – it wasn’t him.”

“What -” The pair of goggles she offered him only scored deeper lines of confusion into his weary features. He turned Cobb’s eyepieces over in his paws. “What’s this mean?”

“Abbot Carter had nothing to do with – with Mr. Cobb. He – oh, Fates, it’s all my fault. If only I hadn’t pushed him so hard. He must’ve been so scared up there!”

The picture was a hazy one, but Cobb alone on the belltower could only paint one portrait in the end: that of a beast in utter despair. Noel seized Tamarack in his paws, desperate that she not cast herself under the same shadow.

“You listen to me. It’s not your fault, all right? If anybeast deserves the blame, it’s me.” His paws slid from her shoulders, his gaze to the field of graves stretching away from them into the night. “I shouldn’t’ve let us go after the Abbot like that. I put us right in the open.”

“He already knew about me.” Tam shook her head, as fierce as Noel had been a moment before. “He has almost since the beginning. I’m not in any more danger now than I was afore you got dragged into this.”

“Things have changed.” He didn’t say so, but Isidore was right: he had been overwhelmed by something he didn’t comprehend. But the real crime was that his lust for truth had put Tam in the line of fire. “I think we should go.”

Tamarack looked down at the satchel in his paw, and there was alarm in her eyes when they snapped back up to Noel.

“For how long?” she demanded.

“I don’t know. We need to get you out of their way.”

“We can’t up and leave now,” said Tam. “And where’ll we go – to those bloodthirsty beasts in that tunnel, who won’t even tell us a thing? Mr. Noel, I can’t.”

Noel’s claws tightened around the satchel as he searched the indistinct heights of the battlements for an answer. It was there that he found Isidore was wrong: Noel hadn’t turned his back on this place. He never would.

“You’re right,” he said. “Let’s just pop by for a chat.”

* * *

“The bells of St. Ninian’s,” Noel whispered, “still chime at midnight.”

The sealed door at the pitch-dark end of the tunnel swung open, inviting the flickering light of Noel’s torch to illuminate the sneer of their most unfriendly ally.

“Wot are you two doin’ back here?” Locria lifted her pistol from her side, allowing the barrel to slide past Noel to the darker shape at his side. “Don’t tell me you’ve buggered us already -”

“Don’t you ever point that at her again!” Noel bowled into her, a cannonball of muscle and claws, sending them both to the floor in a mottled, thrashing heap. Tamarack’s cry was matched by another from within the cavernous meeting place.

“Enough. Enough, lad, you’ll kill ‘er!” Cassius’s words had an effect, one that tore Noel from Locria’s prone form as swiftly and violently as he had collided with it. The pine marten creaked down on his knees beside his Lieutenant, only standing again upon satisfaction that she still lived. But his frame remained bent. “Are you a madbeast? What’s ‘appened, where’s Flint?”

“Flint’s fine.” After this first foray into speech, Tamarack’s voice retreated into quiet. “But…Cobb’s dead.”

“You remember him, don’t you, Cassius?” Noel retrieved his torch from the floor outside and shut the door, punctuating his query with a slam. “Or is he like me – not worth the memory ‘til he’s of use to you?”

Cassius did something then that even Noel wasn’t expecting: he backed away. The room had been his and Locria’s alone, with only a guttering candle and a disheveled heap of papers on the table in their company.

“Let’s not get hasty, lad. O’ course I remember ‘im – and the fourth beast, too.” He allowed himself half a wicked grin. “Or ‘ave you forgotten her?”

“She’s missing.” A stillness came over Noel and Tamarack both. In the tunnels he had described his visit to the bush where he had last uncovered Bludd in time of need, and the particularly violent kick he had dealt it this very evening. There had been no cackle, no shriek, no answer. “That’s why we’re here.”

“Well, you won’t find her ‘ere.” Cassius spread his paws wide, displaying nothing. “And I ain’t got no ideas on raisin’ the dead. I’m sorry for yer friend, but they’ll pay ten times his weight in blood.”

“Somebeast will, but not them,” said Noel. “Of all the beasts you’ve killed, was Carter in among ‘em?”

Cassius’s arms sank back to his sides, taking his smile with it.

“We only done what needed doin’, lad. You think you could do better?”

“Yeah. I do.” Noel spun away from him to set his torch in a crumbling wall bracket. “Face it: you lot have no idea what’s really goin’ on in there. You don’t know what you’re doin’ – nor you nor Case and especially not that beast there, if she’d point a gun at your best hope for putting Redwall back in the right paws.”

“You want a bloodless revolution, eh? What would you suggest we do, then? Reason with the nutters? You must be jokin’.”

“You keep raising your forces.” Tam recited the skeletal plan she and Noel had crafted together during their aching journey through the darkness. “We report to you directly, no middle beasts, and you make the moves we tell you to make.”

Cassius laughed long and loud, crossing his arms as if to hold his sides.

“Well, miss – well, miss! You are jokin’. We’ve got beasts in Redwall closer to the thick o’ this thing than you’ll ever be, and they’ve been that way longer’n you’ve been alive.”

“Aye, they’re close,” said Noel. “Too close. They’re bloody entrenched. They can’t even get at this Tompkins, the one raw link in the chain, without riskin’ the house of cards you lot’ve built. Carter may have it out for us but at least we don’t have a game to spoil.”

Cassius stood still, but only for a moment. When he uncrossed his arms they reached for the far door, the one that spilled forth sweet free air from the city above.

“Fine. You want to play games? I’ll ‘ave a word with Case. Keep in mind you’ve only found one bloody pin on yore own, and that was by accident!”

Noel grinned, and Tam only reflected his triumph.

“You have a chat, then. We’ll be here.”

Cassius growled, jabbing a paw at Locria beginning to wheeze on the floor.

“You clean that up! And ‘ere, ‘ave some light readin’ while you wait.” He plunged his fist into the pile of papers, trawling from its depths a slim bound packet of opened letters. Cassius shoved them into Noel’s paws without ceremony. “Post. For you. Been backed up for ages in Redwall City, seein’ as they ain’t been lettin’ through so much as an ant’s note home to its mum. Thought we’d pick it up for you since you joined, expected you’d be grateful, but you’re damn cocky for a beast who can’t even feel the noose round his own neck!”

Noel snorted and sliced a claw through the twine around the bundle. Ridiculous, was he, or realistic? Unlike Cobb or Ripple, who did he have that would weep if he died – his unassuming parents? Virrel, probably back to harassing passers-by in Mossflower Wood? There was only –

He froze at the sight of the topmost letter. Like the rest it was open, scanned by the keen eyes of the resistance, but before Noel could glare in protest a double-take drew his eyes back down to the signature at the end of the page.

“Oh,” he said.

Tam tilted her head at him, brows furrowed.

“What is it?”

“Nothing, just….” He gave a sigh, a little cough that might have been of all things a laugh. “I was just now thinking of this beast.”

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