Like a Black Stone Falling

August 19, 2011

Isidore walked. Dawn clarified the world; he winced at the brightness of leaves, grass, the earth beneath his paws.

He lacked his burden. When he tried to speak to the Coffincreepers, he would have said I didn’t. We didn’t. I couldn’t, but the untruth plugged his throat, and so they took the body. In the forest, he managed. Brother Aloysius found…

Enough, said the old tod. Enough death, enough children. Isidore wished he had coins to put on her eyes.

He stumbled into the orchard. A root caught him and he tripped, landing hard on his burnt paw. A pair of arms wrapped around him; this is my death, he thought, but the arms were warm and small and childish. Foweller helped him to his feet. The otter studied Isidore’s burn, frowning with all the gravity of a senior physician. “You’ll be all right,” he declared. “Take whiskey. Three times a day.”

“They’ll throw me in the Abbey jail.”

“I might’ve said willow-bark tea.”

“Boy,” Isidore said. “Tell me everything you saw.”

He had the whole tale: Camp Willow, the Mask, blood-spattered cobblestone in Redwall City. He chanced to put his paw on Foweller’s shoulder, and he spoke gruffly. “You’re all right?” Foweller withdrew, contemplating this, then leaned into Isidore. “I don’t know,” he said, “but he’s gone. I did it.”

“You did,” said Isidore, thinking of the matted, stinking thing he carried, and whether Foweller could smell it. The young otter felt so certain, so real– Carter could not hurt him too. There must always live someone like Foweller. The whole of Hell could batter at the Abbey gate, at Isidore, but he would lock and bar his soul against it. He would keep this.

The brooch in his pocket pricked his thigh. “Can you tell me something? In confidence.”

Foweller tensed. He knew. “What?”

“I won’t tell. Not even to the Abbot. I swear it.”

“You’re lying.”

“He wants to hurt you. Or he will.” Isidore clutched at Foweller. “You saw him kill Brother Andrew. He knows. I won’t let him touch you–” he pulled the child close “– please.”

“Let me go,” Foweller squeaked. “I didn’t. I don’t know–”

“The vixen. She told me. What happened?”

The otter slouched away, drawing like a snail into its shell. “Andrew said some things about a pin, and a pistol, and his monsters. Bludd ‘n me hid, and then Andrew was dead…” He dug in his pocket. “I brought you something. I would’ve shown you, I was gonna.”

The silver pin seemed older than Isidore’s brooch: worn knotwork vines climbed the Abbey’s walls, cradling the ruby like a flower. At a twitch of Isidore’s paw, Foweller pulled it away, but the rat brought out his own.

“Bury it,” said Isidore. “Throw it in the cess. You shouldn’t know what this is, should never have seen it.”

“Isidore, tell me.”

“We have an understanding now.” Isidore dropped to his knees. “Let me keep you safe.” Foweller looked at his feet, and for an instant Isidore thought he would ask for an apple, some whiskey, some childish treat, but instead he took the bone-handled knife from his sash.

“Take it back.” He buried the blade in the ground. “Nothing happened. I want to rest.”

Carter paced before his fireplace. Isidore didn’t like his silence: he had confessed to his dealing with Foweller, but the Abbot gave him no response. Instead he listened to the tread of Carter’s paws, a patter light as moths’ wings. But it stopped– Carter stood before him, trembling. “Why do you test me? Why now? When I have given you so much?”

What have you given?, he wanted to ask, but then the Abbot knelt before him and took his burnt paw and said, “We are friends. We have that, don’t we?”

“Yes, Father.”

“I didn’t give you leave to speak.”

Abashed, Isidore let him examine the burn. “You’re healing well,” said Carter. “I wonder if you’ll remember what happened. What will I do then? What will I give, to keep you here? And what can I take?”

He squeezed Isidore’s paw, smiled at the pain he caused, and continued. “It hurts me too, remember. When I tell you to do something, you do it. I don’t care if you want it or not.” And then Carter drew his claw over the burn, first light and then deep and fast, carving a ragged path in the flesh. Isidore let him. If he allowed this, what else?

Anything, anything. Penance, the satisfaction of their oaths.

“Take the kit,” said Carter. “And keep him safe. But you must give me someone else.”

In his years alone he learned to read the script of Mossflower. He’d traded for an old book, the Legend of Great Beasts; he thought it was a history, but it was a kind of compendium. It said this: Of all creatures, bees alone were created for the sake of others. They are loved for their virtue, for in all things they are diligent. They collect honey from the air and purify it, build their basilicas of wax, and keep and tend their brothers under the guidance of a king. They have one kind and dwell together until their deaths. One working and flight and flower is common to them all.

Later, Isidore learned this was wrong.

Bees kept a fat queen, and they had never issued from dead flesh or strained honey from a summer breeze. But they flew with their queen in swarming. When her wings failed, the company carried her. Those that did not, those that would not work or fight for common cause, doomed themselves to die by their fellow soldiers’ stings.

Carter had the Legend in his library. Isidore stroked the thick linen pages, watching Tompkins watching him over the top of his lorgnette. He uncovered knowledge like finding sweet apples in worm-picked windfall. They live in fixed places, are diligent in producing honey, build their houses with great skill, gather honey from various flowers, weave wax to fill their homes with many offspring, have kings and armies with which they wage war, flee from smoke, and are irritated by noise…

The door creaked open and Carter entered. “Brothers!”

“Father,” said Tompkins, and he nodded. Isidore did not answer. He resumed reading. And bees choose to their king him that is most worthy and noble in highness and fairness, and most clear in mildness, for that is chief virtue in a king…

“Brother Isidore, will you get the tea?”

He stirred from his rest. “Yes, Father.”

He went to the kitchen. Carter had left out a canister of tea redolent with lavender. Isidore ran his claws through the leaf, inhaled the sweet, earthy scent. The kettle was so hot it still squealed when he took it off the fire; in the pot, flower and field mingled with cast iron. It hurt his paw to carry it, even with a rag wrapped around the handle.

“I will make this one thing clear,” he heard Tompkins say. “It’s unconscionable. I resign.”

“The kit could not be helped, Brother.”

“And every other beast?”

“Oh, tea, at last.” Carter beamed at Isidore.

The Abbot had brought out a service of cups glazed with humble nut-brown. Isidore poured for him first. Carter savored the brew, cradling his cup like it held the finest mead.

“No poison,” Tompkins said. “Aren’t I blessed.”

“No, no poison,” Carter said. Isidore felt blood beading on his paw again. Carter’s claw tapped against the side of his cup, once, twice, grazed porcelain with the faintest clink, like a distant bell. Isidore unstoppered the kettle, and a gout of steam burst forth.

He threw the tea on Tompkins.

The squirrel toppled from his chair, writhing and squealing, and Isidore could see him flush crimson under his fur. Tompkins scrabbled at the floor. Isidore straddled him and pulled a knife from his sash: his brother’s knife, Foweller’s gift. The blood had gone from Tompkins– his skin was yellow-white as the knife’s bone handle.

The squirrel’s flesh peeled under Isidore’s touch like a mushroom gone soft. Tompkins groaned, and a horrible chortling word escaped him: “No-ooo.”

“You made mockery of us,” Isidore said.

“I just wanted– I just wanted– Ruslen,” Tompkins whimpered, “and Chamomile.” He fixed his gaze on the Abbot, but his eyes were blind, soft marbles. “He made me hold the knife, with Thistledown. That’s what he does. Please don’t kill me, please.”

“Where is Julian Case?” Isidore asked. “Who are his agents?”

“I don’t know. Don’t let me die. Hyssop and lavender. Please.”

“Quiet, Brother. Names.”

“The printer. Saskia.”

Isidore considered this, and then he slit the squirrel’s throat.

“I had to. I had to keep them in, like so many ants in an anthill. You don’t leave if there’s wolves in the wood.” Carter slumped into him. The otter was sweating, and his eyes rolled so a sliver of white showed at the edges. “Yes. Yes. Keep them where Case couldn’t– you did it,” he said. “You did it. My friend. My champion.”

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