April 21, 2011
“Something’s wrong with this grave.”
“Aye, you spent yesterday yapping instead of finishing the dig, scraggtail.”
Tamarack snatched up the nearest clod of dirt and chucked it at her brother’s head. He ducked into the grave he was digging. “There’s a body in here, you half-wit.”
A snort accompanied his reply. “Expect that’s quite the novelty in a graveyard, Tam.”
Resisting the urge to climb out of her hole and introduce Colm to the business-end of her shovel, the vixen shot back, “I mean there’s one here as ain’t supposed to be.”
Colm’s head appeared over the rim of his grave, a brow raised askance. “What are you on about now?” He pulled himself up and out before trotting over.
“I think it’s a rabbit.”
Pale saplings of bone rose at irregular intervals from the molehills of misshapen flesh and fur as the foxes stared down at the body – a garden fit for a grave. A mask of congealed blood, dirt, and insects hid its identity, but the long, floppy ears protruding from the top of the putrid mound were unmistakable.
“Who is it?” Colm wondered.
“Can’t rightly tell when he’s fixed himself up for a fancy do in Dark Forest, can I?” Without waiting for the older fox’s retort, Tamarack knelt to paw at the body.
Maggots, fur, cloak, and- “Here, now. What’s this?”
The vixen brushed away a beetle and wrenched the silver fastener from the rabbit’s cloak. It was in the shape of Redwall Abbey, a red gem set in place of the main gates. “What do you make of it?” she asked, standing and passing the curious piece of jewelry to her brother. “Think we could sell it?” Tamarack climbed out of the hole and dusted herself off as Colm rose and began cleaning the fastener with his pawkerchief. “I hear Sister Felso’s been sniffing around for something pretty as won’t turn too many heads on the streets. Looks like the abbey, so maybe she’ll… You listening to me, Colm?” She prodded her brother’s bony hip, but he did not move, did not even snap at her to quit. “What’s wrong, Co–Oy!”
Colm whirled on the spot and hurled the fastener back into the grave, eyes wide, ears flat against his head, and chest heaving. “Fill up that hole. Now!”
“Forget about it! You forget about it and that rabbit. I mean… There ain’t no rabbit. Nothing to forget about. Get to filling, Tam.”
“W-what about a marker?”
“I said there ain’t nothing to mark!”
“I ain’t just going to forget seeing a body, Colm,” the vixen snarled. “We have to report this. I don’t want our graveyard to be no dumping ground to some maniacs. They’re like as not to rob half the graves we ain’t got to looting yet! And what if they come aft–Argh!”
Colm’s fist connected with her jaw, and the vixen performed a graceless half-twirl before tripping over a mound of dirt and flopping onto the ground.
“You will leave it be, Tamarack Coffincreeper! Put it out of your mind and don’t you even think about sticking your pointy little nose in problems as ain’t none of your concern.”
“Tch!” The vixen rubbed at her smarting jaw and sat up as Colm stalked back to the other grave, the foul stench of sweat, rot, and oil polluting his earthy-tobacco scent. Not likely. There was more than one way to mark a grave, and anything that scared Colm enough to set his tail bottlebrushing warranted a nose stuck well into the problem.
April 21, 2011
“Capital B. E, L…” Saskia muttered, inkstained paws darting into nooks in the wooden tray she held and plucking out little nibs of tin, setting them into the rack. Her morning had been occupied with arranging seven freshly-ordered rolls of paper in the storeroom. Mister Sheridan, her employer, had arranged to be absent for the delivery, citing some business about a “poet of some renown” the next town over. Naturally.
Letters snapped into place, one by one, her paws connecting each click to the next almost rapidly enough to render the sound a constant rattle. Saskia needed a spare hour that afternoon, and the delivery had disturbed her schedule.
The bell above the door gave a chipper tinkle and she glowered at it before turning to the newcomer across the counter, hastily erasing the frown and replacing it with a placid not-quite-smile Sheridan would be proud of. A short ferret stood in the doorway; he doffed his feathered hat and half-bowed.
Saskia huffed, and replaced her frown. “Merritt, you bally idiot, ‘ow many times ‘ave I told you to never, ever, under any circumstance whatsoever, come ‘ere durin’ working hours? If Sheridan comes back–”
“D’lighted t’ see you too, miss. I do so happen to have encountered your charming employer across town, at the Silver Anchor. He complimented my hat before proceedin’ to make an ‘onest try at coverin’ my boots in what was–if I’m not mistaken–about half a bottle of last year’s house sherry.”
Saskia grimaced and returned to setting type as she spoke. “Then wot’s your business? I’m behind schedule.”
“Business indeed. Fifteen pages, a hundred copies, three days, totaling ten silver pieces, at our usual rate? Not the sort of thing that could be done over a counter, more’s the pity.”
“And when”–she paused to spell ‘adamantine’–“‘ave you done anything above a counter? Is this’n dodgy politics, or pornography, or is it gen’ral criminal-bleedin’-enterprise?”
Merritt sniffed. “Do you care? If you’re getting scruples from reading that nonsense, I’d do well to be rid of you, dearie.”
Saskia had softened her glare for a moment, but the ferret had obligingly reminded her of it. “No.” She finished setting her page and laid it on the counter.
“Still perfectly pleased to offer you the chance to work in my shop full-time, y’know.”
“If I could be seen with you in public, that’d be a temptin’ offer, wot?”
“And me a perfectly respectable tradesbeast, too,” Merritt clucked.
“You know,” she growled, “Wot I meant.”
“If ever you tire of hiding from Sheridan whatever it is you need the spare gold for, keep it in mind, Saskia. Or if he lets so many clients drink him under the table he ends up in debtor’s prison and you on the street.” Merritt smirked as though he’d deployed some high-society bon mot.
“Get out, you bally… awful… creature.” Saskia winced. “You’ll ‘ave your pages Friday.”
” ‘Bally awful’ goldmine, you mean. And indifferent to how you’re spending all these shiny, shiny coins on opium or frilly dresses or what-have-you, too.”
The ferret bowed again and left, the bell jingling as he swept out.
Saskia wouldn’t admit to being tempted… but all the same, Merritt would make a nice change from sneaking about under Sheridan’s pointy nose. If she could stomach the dodgy dealing. Well….
Saskia began her next page. It was some book of right terrifying “moral poetry” that didn’t even rhyme properly.
She planned to offer Merritt a typesetter’s job in her own shop, and see how he’d like it. Eventually.
April 21, 2011
It’s far too dark in here,” the sister scolded. The graying mouse stood in the doorway of the Abbey attic and gazed into the gloom. “For goodness sake, light a candle!”
“I already got a candle,” came the mumbled reply from the writing desk in the corner. A scrawny young otter sat there, cocooned in a quilt, hunched over parchments, quill bristling.
“More than one?”
“I only need one.”
“Aye, and a diet of nothing but carrots! I brought up your soup.”
She set it down on the desk and idly began flipping through his stacks of Long Patrol officer cards. The otter paused in his writing, shoulders tensing.
“Very interesting. Did you make these ones?”
“No, sister,” he said. “They’re from Salamandastron. Collectibles. Very… very… rare.”
“I see. From your friend?”
“Some o’ them. Th’collection he sent me didn’t have th’ones I wanted fer my army, so I’ve been tradin’ with beasts all o’er Mossflower.”
“I see. Who are you writing to now?”
The otter curled his arm over the paper. “It’s private.”
“I won’t pry, Ripple, but you know I worry. Not everybeast out in Mossflower is -”
“I know, Sister.” He sighed. “Vermin are vermin. But it’s only tradin’ cards fer the game. No one’s gettin’ hurt. I’m probably not even writin’ to any vermin!”
“You mean you don’t know? You haven’t met any of them? Why not invite them over to Redwall? Or ask if you can visit. I’m sure Skipper would be glad to take you outside to see -”
“Outside?” Ripple squeaked. He dropped his quill. His eyes darted to the drawn window curtain, as if daring it to spring open.
“It’s not healthy, a young otter like you staying cooped up inside all season ’round, writing to strangers. Won’t even play with the dibbuns you grew up with.”
“But there’s… trees out there…”
The sister smiled. “And rivers and hills and meadows.”
Ripple shuddered. “I don’t have t’go out, do I?”
“I suppose not. Not if it scares you.”
“I’m not scared! I’m just…”
The mouse took hold of his chair and pulled it out. The wheels creaked as she rolled him across the floor.
“Why did you bring this rickety old thing up here? It’s dangerous. You don’t even need it anymore. What if you rolled down the stairs?”
His paws squeezed the chair’s arms as he pressed himself into it. She was not pushing him fast, but the back of his teeth were electrified.
“Aye, that it is. It’s got your rump’s shape molded into it.” Delores giggled. She returned him to his desk. “You do your leg exercises still?”
“Yes, sister. Skipper comes up and helps me.”
“Don’t sound so bitter, Ripple. He means the best for you.”
“I just wish he’d… wish he’d stay out o’ my life! I don’t wanna join his crew. All right? I’m happy here!”
“Rip…” Delores leaned over his chair and hugged him from behind. “He loves you. I’ll talk to him if you want me to. But someday you’ll have to come downstairs and join the rest of us for meals, and someday you’ll have to go outside and meet your friends, and someday you’ll have to help out around the Abbey or else go with your father and follow in his footsteps.”
“No, I don’t.”
The sister sighed. “Your soup’ll get cold on you. Good night, Ripple.”
When Delores left, Ripple read his letter from start to finish. He nodded to himself. It was a good letter. It just needed a little more… hm. Persuasion.
He wrote: Enclosed within is a rare Winter of the Late Frost Corporal Whipscutt. Note the epewlet is missing from his shoulder. One of a kind! Please send me any Brocktrees you have! Love you, my darling,
– Commander Eliwood
April 21, 2011
“Noel, come here. Let me have a look that eye – oh! Noel….”
Sister Amery’s face fractured into a branching mess of strains and shadows. Noel had the suspicion that he added a new wrinkle to that painted portrait of sympathy each time she caught him in the abbey halls. This would be the fifth.
“What was it?” she cooed. “Did we trip down the battlements again?”
“Stairs,” he murmured. “Door. Ran into it.”
“What, both at once?”
One of her paws explored the mass of swollen flesh cradling his right eye. Above her ministrations his cream-colored eyebrows worked furiously, two caterpillars contesting for ultimate dominion over his forehead. Before they could agree on a means of escape the mouse’s arm shot out and around his, thwarting his vain attempt to twist away and back down the dark corridor from where he had emerged.
“You are a clumsy bunny,” she said. “What am I going to do with you?”
In reply he offered a grunt, a warning shot to which she remained oblivious. Sister Amery only smiled as she led him up the familiar steps to the infirmary – five times had he toed the cracks in these stones, inhaled the whisker-sizzling musk of potions and tonics sighing down the stairway. She set him down on a bed that promptly leached its putrid lavender scent into his clothes.
“I do feel for you both, Noel,” she said. “It must be difficult, two weasels in an abbeyful of mice and otters and hares…Redwall has yet to catch up with the outside world in some ways. Maybe it would have been better had the two of you stopped in the village – and now that the Abbot doesn’t want any of us to leave! Oh, but you do understand it’s for the best.”
There was no argument there. He had seen the bodies. They had given him ideas – ideas that frightened him.
Sister Amery knelt down to poultice the purple bloom just visible under his fur, and her face resumed some of its youthful roundness.
“It’s a lot of pressure looking after your brother,” she said. “Still, you must take care of yourself – who would he have left to turn to?”
* * *
“Hello again, Munchkin! How was the Momma Mouse?”
The crisp winter chill outside the abbey building, once so refreshing, turned sour with that voice – a constant audible sneer. Noel jerked away from his brother, crunching just a few feet into the snowdrifts still piled thick against the walls.
“Do me a favor, Virrel, and whizz off.”
Virrel laughed, a wiry sound from a wiry weasel. In the glassy winterland of the empty abbey grounds he was a ghostly distortion of his stocky brother, right down to the faded red coat complementing Noel in blue.
“Is that any way to speak to your little brother, eh? And with the two of us stuck in this dead-end slagheap? I dread to think o’ what Mum’d say.”
Virrel’s grinning mouthful of spiny sharp teeth was suddenly full of Noel’s fist. When the stars faded from his sight Noel was standing over him, his every choking breath a reluctant struggle.
“Listen up – I’ve had enough for today, I’ve had enough for a lifetime. You’re dirt, you disgust me absolutely. And you can forget any promises I might’ve made – you touch me again, neither of us leaves this place alive. Understand?”
For once in his life, Virrel said nothing. It was only as his brother stormed away that he felt it, as far back as his teeth – the humble insistent throbs of a gentle swelling under his left eye.
April 21, 2011
Isidore was tired, and he thought he might be getting old. His knuckles ached with the morning’s work, and sticky black scraps of tar paper still clung to his paws. He bent to thrust his arms in the snow, to soothe the ache and clean his fur, but his knees popped. At last the cold burrowed in his felted sleeves, so he pulled free from the drift and went back to the skep-hives.
He lit the paper in the smoker. The bellows coaxed the flame higher and caught the kindling. Eggy stink trickled out. That meant the sulphur had ignited, so he let the smoke build.
“Sorry, soldiers,” he said, and he set the smoker’s spout at the wicker skep-hive’s entrance.
Redwall craved honey, wax, and royal jelly. Isidore wanted a warm bed, an assistant, and safety. He’d robbed his soldiers to meet the demand. His hives had honey left, except for this one. The huddled workers, drones, and queen would starve and die if he didn’t poison them.
He wondered if a bee’s death hurt as much as an arrow in the back. Between his shoulders, a scarred knot throbbed.
A voice chimed in the crystal air. “Hey, Methuselah.”
“Selendra!” He turned to greet the mousemaid and saw that two otters accompanied her. He bowed his head bashfully.
“Special dispensation for you, mate,” said Sel. “All that honey sweetened the– oof! Never mind.” She hoisted a skep and handed the others to her otter guards.
“They won’t bite us?” said one.
“Bees don’t bite, Rigg. Don’t be a dummy,” said the other.
“They’re all asleep,” Isidore sang.
Rigg just scoffed.
Their path to the abbey didn’t join the main thoroughfare until they passed the old quarry, and so the woods felt claustrophobic. He hoped he could disarm marauders with a smile, a salute, and his name. If the ghosts of the wood attacked, hoping to break and batter the party as a gift to Redwall, he would wake the bees from their slumber. The otters would reassure any crusaders worried for Selendra’s virtue.
They flanked her, struggling to keep pace with the mousemaid’s swagger. Isidore shuffled behind. He dug in his pocket and brought out a ring. The silver glinted in the blue winter light. “Sel, can I talk with you?”
“Keep on ahead, boys,” she said to the otters, and she dropped back.
“I found this. I thought you’d like it.”
She frowned. “You found it?”
“Look.” He twisted the ring. It broke into seven interlocking hoops, and he dangled it from a claw. “It’s old. I forgot I had it.”
“Isidore, tell me how you got it.”
“It’s mine, from when I was a soldier. You think I stole it?”
“No, Isidore,” she snapped. “Let me see…” She struggled to put it together. He took it from her; with a few flicks of his claw the rings clicked into place.
“You deserve nice things. Put it on,” he said, and he offered it to her.
Isidore couldn’t tell the meaning of the furrow in her brow, whether it was confusion or disgust, but she still frowned. A tooth crept over her lip. She sucked in her cheek. Then she gave him the ring, shouldered her skep and glowered at her footpaws.
“You know, you know what a gift like that means.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. You’re my friend.”
“Please, not right now.” Sel lunged ahead. The otters drew together behind her so Isidore couldn’t pass. They struggled through powder until they came to a clear road. Isidore slumped onward, trailing behind them.
“Hurry up, ratty,” said Rigg.