Walk Tall

August 16, 2011

Dawn outside the walls of the Abbey had never seemed quite as vibrant to her. It lacked that rose tint, the sun reflecting off the sandstone, that brought so much warmth. Gathering with the family for breakfast, Tamarack could let her imagination, and the light that crept across their table, transform the gray porridge to Cherry Delight. Papa always looked fitter in the morning, his pale eyes and faded fur bright as any kit born in the meadow. Mumma glowed the orange of a robin’s breast, and Grannie lost seasons in those early hours when her back was not so bent, nor her whiskers so grizzled.

They would all be eating by now, saying their good mornings. Colm would be muttering about picking a spot for Cobb’s grave, and Papa would have the mole’s body in his workshop, ready and waiting in the cold. Perhaps they would lay him next to Ripple. Would the Abbot let them bury Cobb in the graveyard, though? The Fates did not look kindly on beasts who stole away their own time.

Tamarack bared her teeth. This was different. This was Case and Cassius and Carter. She’d done her crying for the mole and the otter, and now there was doing. She and Noel would see to it that none of those beasts could harm another again, or drive a beast to take the most desperate measure.

“Think they made it back safe?” the vixen asked the weasel. He sat in an old chair by the window while she perched on the bed – neither of them had slept since stealing the key to Saskia’s room. The few hours snatched before their departure from the Abbey were enough to keep them restless now.

“Reckon so. We’ll know in a few–”

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“Get out ‘ere you bloody idiots,” Cassius growled through the door.

“That’s a yes, then.” Tamarack smirked and jumped up, then winced as pain stabbed her chest. She’d have to be more careful about attacking a beast like Abbot Carter head-on in the future. The door began to shudder under the pine marten’s renewed assault, and the vixen opened it. “Why, Mr. Cassius, what’s the problem?”

“Cellar. Now.” The marten’s voice was level, but the stench of anger and splay of his ears told them enough.

She knew she was pressing her luck, but there was a point to be made. Tamarack crossed her arms and braced herself against the wall, obstinate. “Me and Noel told you afore, sir: We’ll be the ones calling the orders from here on out.”

“Well, then, yer ladyship, won’t you an’ tall, dark, an’ punchy over there join me in the cellar for brekkers? Would be awfully grateful.”

Noel stood and walked over, resting his paw on her shoulder. “That sounds more like it.”


The march down to the cellar had the comforting familiarity of a funeral procession. They trudged toward their destination, single file, Cassius acting Papa’s part as he led them. Case obliged the fantasy, the tap-tap of his claws upon the table setting the cadence for their final descent.

“Perhaps one of you could tell me,” the hedgehog said, stilling his paw as Tamarack and Noel sat across from him, “why Aloysius is gone this morning, not to mention why I just found Corwin and Irwin locked in the upstairs broom closet… unconscious.”

The vixen exchanged a glance with the weasel. He nodded, and she began.

“We needed Ms. Saskia to have a clear path down to Brother Aloysius.”

Cassius snorted. “You’re tellin’ me a skinny weasel an’ a nosey lit’le brat took out two full-grown otters?”

“That’s enough,” Case snapped. The hedgehog raked a claw through his headspikes. “Cassius, go find Selendra and Locria. I’ll deal with them.” As the marten departed, a sneer marring his face, Case continued, “You’ve done a very foolish thing, Tam.”

She bristled at the familiarity. He had known her a very long time ago, that wasn’t the same as knowing her for a very long time. Noel must have felt her tensing. He leaned forward and bared his teeth.

“We’ve done somethin’ that saved two lives. That’s never foolish.”

“I would not have killed Aloysius.”

“But you would’ve hurt him.”

Silence. Case glared at them across the table. Then, all at once, he was movement, ripping the pistol from his belt and slamming it onto the table. Tamarack and Noel jumped up. The weasel dragged them left as the vixen raised her fists, tail bottle-brushing.

“Put it away right now, old hog.”

“Are you scared of this, lad? Tam? How’s your muzzle, child?” There was something more there than just a threat. He actually sounded concerned, paternal… as one would expect of an abbot of Redwall. “It’s empty. I haven’t reloaded it since the other night because I hate these things. And I hate that we have to use them for anything at all. But you have to understand, we must use the tools we’ve been given. Aloysius holds the keys to the archives, to Brother Timothy’s writing, and the answer to the riddle in his Heraldry that might bring down Carter. Pain is a tool, and I will do what I must to see satisfaction for my family’s murder.”

“Way I reckon it,” she retorted, “you’re about the same as him, sir. You got some truth to you, aye, and Abbot Carter deserves to die after all he’s done, but you ain’t no better.”

“Aloysius didn’t tell Carter,” Noel continued. “He’s on our side. Mine and Tam’s and Saskia’s and Bludd’s.”

“I don’t know what side you’re on, Mr. Case, but I don’t want to be on it no more.”

“Seems t’ me, we don’t need ye, then, love.”

Tamarack swung her head around fast enough to register the gun in Cassius’ paw pointed at her before the sound of the pistol went off.

BANG.

Dead. She had to be dead now. It occurred to her some two seconds later that she was still intact and that the only screams were coming from Cassius’ direction.

“Knee! My bloody knee! Ye back-stabbin’ spike pit! Argh!” The marten writhed at the bottom of the stairs, clutching his leg as Selendra and Locria sidled around him.

“It was loaded,” the vixen said, gaping at Case. He could have shot them the whole time.

“It’s not any more. Selendra, please help Cassius up to Maggie’s room and have her fetch a healer for him. Old friend,” he added, eyes fixed on Cassius, “we agreed that I would make the decisions on who to kill. Consider that your warning.”

Cassius spat curses as the mousemaid hauled him to his footpaws and began the arduous task of mounting the staircase.

“Be careful,” Selendra called over her shoulder. There was something in her voice, a touch as delicate as a drop of beeswax; the warning had not been meant for Case or Locria.

“Now, why don’t we all just sit down again?” the hedgehog suggested.

Tamarack intertwined her paw with Noel’s and squeezed. “I think we’ll stand,” he growled. “We should be off anyway.”

“You’ve barely had time to sort through your mail, lad. As you saw, I intend to keep you alive.”

“For now,” the vixen and weasel replied in unison.

The hedgehog’s quills rustled as he snorted and shook his head. “When have you seen me kill a beast? Name one. I’m no Veil Sixclaw. My paws are clean of Abbey blood.”

The idea had been gnawing at her mind since they’d first stepped through the door just two days ago, but she’d set it aside, too many deaths this season to consider it. “Them monsters in the woods this past winter, sir… I reckon it weren’t just bandits filling my graveyard with bodies. You said you been at this how long?”

His eyes flicked to Locria and the hare bowed her head in shame. “We’ve had a few small mistakes, Tam. I had no part in that, and Cassius and I stopped it just as soon as we found out what was happening. In any case, four beasts do not fill a graveyard.”

“Four?” Noel asked, blinking.

The vixen felt her hackles rise. She could see every name, had read each a hundred times or more as she and Colm dug the shallowest graves, packing the bodies in snow until the frozen earth had opened some small place for them. “Ruslen, 16, ‘Forever young.’ Chamomile, 16, ‘Fondly remembered.’ Sister Thistledown, 64, ‘Always with us.’ Mr. Moonclaw, 27, ‘A life cut short.’ Ellen, 12, ‘Martin guide her.’ Baily, 10, ‘Our little pebble.’ Sister Sarah, 30, ‘Chasing the lark in Dark Forest.’ Brother Xander, 42, ‘Never forgotten.’ Pikey, 7, ‘Blessed and blessing.’ Mr. Gurtpaw, 34, ‘Together always.’ Mrs. Gurtpaw, 32, ‘Together always.’ Brother–”

“Wot in Mossflower are you on about?”

“Everybeast that’s died since last winter. It’s the inscription on the gravemarkers,” Noel explained. Tamarack noticed that he had taken a step away from her. Their paws were still linked, but she was holding onto him.

“Don’t you dare tell me you ain’t got blood on your paws…” She trailed off. The hedgehog had collapsed onto the bench at the table, his head held in his paws.

“That’s… Sarah and Xander? But we… Locria.”

Tamarack felt herself flinch away from the hedgehog’s quiet hiss. Noel tightened his grip on her paw and moved to close the small distance between them once more.

“I didn’t. I wouldn’t, sah!” the hare protested. “We stopped. You can ask Maggie! I would never…”

“Stay here. All of you,” Case commanded as he stood up and strode toward the stairs. “Selendra never said… why wouldn’t she say?” He disappeared, still muttering.

“We’re leaving,” Noel told Locria.

“He said–”

The vixen couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “You really want Noel to knock you out again?”

Her eyes shone white as she hop-skipped backward a pace. “We’re trying to stop Carter.”

“That’s the difference between us, then,” Noel growled, “we’re actually going to do it.”

“Not without the Heraldry, you bally well aren’t,” she snapped, then lowered her ears. “I mean, I can help you… but you have to promise me something. Tit for tat, wot?”

Tamarack glanced at Noel, and he shrugged. Better to be quick about it with Case preoccupied and a willing accomplice. “What?”

“I – I need you to give this letter to Commander Eliwood.” She withdrew a neatly-addressed envelope from her coat pocket even as the vixen felt her insides freeze up. “Tell him I’ve been trying to write, but with helping Julian and Cassius plan our strategy, there hasn’t been an opportunity to get something to him. Anyway, I just wanted him to know… I say! Take it or I’m not helping you.” The maid waved the letter under Tamarack’s snout. “Do you know him? Commander Eliwood. Tallish hare chap making his home at your Abbey for the lockdown. Dashed hard to miss, I’d wager.”

The weasel shook his head. “Haven’t heard of him. Tam?”

“Arr, Captain Eliwood, you’ll never take me crew or me ship!” Tamarack growled, jabbing her stick at Ripple. “Queen of the Pirates, Lady Chopsnout, owns these waters.”

“Hahaa!” The younger otter brandished his own stick, puffing up his chest as they faced each other in the Shallows of Honor. “I’ll have yer treasure yet, Lady Chopsnout! No pirate, queen or commoner, is safe from me silver blade and flintlock pistol. Avast!”

Locria was just like her: a kit. A kit playing at war and trying to reach out to a friend who could never reply.

“Show us, please,” Tamarack said, snatching the letter as a small part of her cried out in revulsion. They couldn’t tell Locria that Ripple was dead, though, not if they wanted her help. Ripple, Commander Eliwood, would have understood. It wasn’t quite a lie. “We’ll take it to him just as soon as we can.”

“All right.” The hare clapped her paws. “Er… all right. You there, Noel, was it? You’re tall enough, I think.”

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