Grave Matters

June 17, 2011

Death had never been an enemy. It was a friend who brought fish to their larder, linens to their table, and extra coin to their purses. Her dearest confidants lay amongst the mossy headstones and sun-flecked patches of soil. Death was not her enemy, but somehow they had begun to grow apart. It was stealing away more and more beasts, good beasts who did not yet belong in one of Papa’s wooden boxes… or in an unwilling earth.

“Tam, watch the–”

“Miz Tam!”

Colm swore and Tamarack yelped as the lip of the grave collapsed, taking her with it into the chest-deep hole. She felt her slick shovel thwack something, and then Colm’s arms were about her waist, arresting her plunge into the brown sludge lining the bottom of the grave. The vixen frowned at Cobb as the mole pressed a paw to what was surely a shovel-shaped lump on his forehead.

“Martin’s stripy pants, Tam!” Colm snarled, setting her down before shoving her into the slimy wall. “I told you to stay back.”

“I was trying to shore it up!”

“You sure done something, mudface.”

“Toady-eyed scragg–”

“Miz Tam,” Cobb said, “Oi think… maybe it would be better if we’m took it in turns to work on th’ grave. Th’ earth’s being roight temperamental.”

All around, Tamarack could see the evidence of last night’s storms. The trees, still blooming in pink, white, and lavender buds, had scattered their petals across the graveyard – a colorful and fragrant carpet to greet the mourners. The rain had washed clean the markers and warrior’s monument, and puddles gathered in the trenches around the newer plots. Her boots had been caked with mud and twigs even before they’d started digging.

“Mr. Cobb’s got a point.”

“Aye.” The older fox rubbed his snout leaving a long brown streak across his russet fur. “Aye… Fate’s take it. Go on and check with Clacher about Raimun’s marker, then. It’s an hour past due, and it’ll be my own grave I’m digging here if there’s a problem.”

“I can dig instead.” She knew she’d said it too quickly when Colm’s exasperation turned to a sneer. It was well enough for him to stand there and make faces; he didn’t have to face the old badger.

Clacher was under the disturbing notion that his days as a roving warrior entitled him to a fox-tail motif in his workshop. Every time the vixen had entered his establishment in the past, the stonemason would stroke his various conquests, all the time fixing her with his beady gaze.

“Please…?”

The cruelest big brother in the world had spoken. “Get, Tamarack.”

“Oi’d be happy to go with her, if’n that be all right, Zir Colm.” Tamarack flashed Cobb a bright grin and latched on to his sticky arm.

“Right gentlebeast, Mr. Cobb is! More than I can say for some.”

“Fine. Just go. And be back soon. We still got the flowers to take care of.”

She waved away the command as Cobb boosted her out of the grave and followed. “Right.”

“Oy, mudface.”

Tamarack felt a tug on her tail and turned back to kick mud in his face to see how he liked it. The worry stretching Colm’s features into a grimace stayed her footpaw, though. “What is it?”

“You be careful, you hear? I… you been worrying beasts something fierce running around these days asking questions about things you ain’t supposed to. You promise me you’ll watch out.”

“Watch out for what, zir?”

“Abbot Carter,” Tamarack answered, staring hard at her brother. He turned his eyes to the mud and worms beneath him. Did Colm know about them having the cloakpin, then?

“You just watch out,” Colm mumbled, driving his shovel into the bottom of the grave in a half-hearted way that hurt Tamarack more than his punches and shoves. “Both of you.”

Cobb looked to her, but the vixen could only shake her head. Whatever this was, they needed to find out soon. Colm never told her to be careful, but if it was true about Grandpa Durian being murdered because of something like the cloakpin…

“Come on, Mr. Cobb, we can see Ms. Saskia first,” she said as they trekked toward the gate. “And then – Mr. Noel!”

The vixen raced to greet the weasel, forgetting the mud that covered her face and arms as she grinned at the campball coach. “All right, Mr. Noel?”

“Oh… Tamarack.” He favored her with a pensive smile as a pleasant mixture of grass, sweat, and tobacco tickled her nose. A touch of honey lingered about him, as well – Isidore’s influence, no doubt. “Aye, I’m all right. You?”

“Right as can be, sir! I’m sorry I missed your games last night, but I was…” She trailed off, glancing back as Cobb joined them. The mole and weasel exchanged a nod. “I was busy.”

“Shame about Raimun.” Noel picked at the rust on the gate.

“Murder always is, sir.”

“Miz Tam, may Oi speak to you?” She felt a bit guilty at the fear in the mole’s voice, but this was different. This was Noel.

“Isidore didn’t think it was a natural death either.”

This time she did look to Cobb for approval. The mole sighed, but he stepped forward, closing their circle to unwelcome listeners. “There’s something else: I delivered a package to him not two hours afore they found his body. And it were something I don’t think him or no beast in the Abbey were meant to have.”

“What was it?”

For the first time since they’d begun, Tamarack found herself eyeing Noel, sizing him up. Shouting about the pins to everybeast had gotten them a thorough and rather terrifying rebuke. Still, the fact stood that this was Noel, a beast who had brought all of the Abbey kits together again, had given her a reason to step out of the graveyard apart from mischief and errands.

“I can’t tell you everything, Mr. Noel. I promised I wouldn’t. But I can tell you what the Abbot saw.”

Noel’s eyes widened. “The Abbot saw what you had.”

“Aye. And I’m downright scared it had something to do with Brother Raimun’s death. The Abbot sounded… he didn’t tell me off, but something weren’t right about the way he was acting. He saw part of the title of a pamphlet I was taking to Brother Raimun. Just a name: Julian Case.”

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping Ms. Saskia might. We were going to go talk to her. I’d ask the Abbot, but…”

“But,” the weasel agreed.

“Do you know where she might be?”

“‘Fraid not. Last I saw of her was at the festival…though she does seem to be friendly with Aloysius. Now it’s my turn to ask: have you seen Bludd?”

“Not since last noight when she’m scurried off loik a little spoider,” Cobb replied. Tamarack nodded her agreement.

“Ms. Saskia might know, though! Why don’t we go see her together?”

“If that’s all right with ye, Cobb…” The weasel’s eyes flicked to the mole.

He shifted a bit. “Whatever Miz Tam wants.”

“Right, then!” Tamarack waited for Noel to step back before opening the gate and ushering Cobb through. The mole, weasel, and vixen stood for only a moment before Tamarack linked an arm with each and began leading them toward the gatehouse. If all else failed, that was around about where Merritt’s cart was, and the ferret would know where to find the wayward hare.

They talked of inconsequential things as they went: campball, the new songs that had played at the festival, and the stonemason’s terrible taste in decor. It seemed important, though, these meaningless words. More and more, Tamarack had noticed their disappearance from her usual conversation. She and Cobb spoke of the pins, mysteries, and murder. Exciting, but she missed speaking of things that did not matter.

“Martin’s on our side,” Noel said as they approached the archives to see Saskia emerging.

Tamarack unhooked herself from the older beasts and reached a paw up to wave. “Ms. Saskia!”

The hare hesitated for a moment, her eyes fixed on something beyond the trio, then she nodded and returned the wave. “Tamarack, I’d wondered where you’d got to last night.” She glanced at the males.

“Mr. Cobb knows about the pins, and I trust Mr. Noel.”

“Were you able to read Merritt’s book?”

“Aye, a bit. He, er… caught me afore I could get much into it. Sorry.” She lowered her ears and glanced away. The hare sighed. “I did see something, though! He has a bunch of names of beasts living in the Abbey. Some of them are Brothers and Sisters, but most are just beasts like me and Mr. Cobb. I remember Mr. Rigg, Sister Saffron, and Mr. Trioson were there. But it didn’t look like a ledger for beasts what owe him… just little squiggly lines next to the names. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you’ve gotten farther than I ‘ave,” Saskia admitted.

Cobb’s digging claw felt heavy on her shoulder. “Oi doan’t think you’m should be sneakin’ looks at things loike that. Even if it’s for Miz Saskia. You’m could of gotten in a lot of trouble.”

“But she didn’t. And it’s done.”

The vixen shrugged the mole off. “It’s fine, Mr. Cobb.”

“There’s less to say about your cloakpin, I’m afraid,” Saskia continued. “I couldn’t find anything like it in my books. I ‘ave more back at the shop, but your Abbot ‘as decided to trap me ‘ere.”

“He’s not my Abbot,” Noel interjected.

“Fair enough.”

Tamarack chewed her lip. “Well, have you heard of a beast called Julian Case, then?”

Saskia blinked, then cocked her head to one side. “Of course I ‘ave. I wouldn’t expect a gel like you to, but ‘ave the pair of you been living under a rock?” She addressed this to Cobb and Noel.

The mole wilted, and the weasel hunched his shoulders, bringing his arms up to cross over his chest. “I’m… sure Ms. Saskia didn’t mean nothing by that,” the vixen said. “Right?”

Seeming to realize the misstep, the hare backpedaled. “Ah, right. I print papers for a living. I forget not everybeast reads them. Case was around a few seasons ago, set to take over the Abbey from old Abbot Simon. But then ‘e murdered ‘is own family with the ‘elp of some marten named Cassius. Simon banished the pair of them, and Carter took over. We sold rather a lot of papers when that was ‘appening.”

“Cassius?”

Tamarack turned with the others to look at Noel. The weasel’s arms had fallen to his sides, and his brow was furrowed so deeply, it looked like it would take a hot iron to smooth it once more. She reached out and grasped his paw, shaking him from his reverie.

“Mr. Noel, what’s wrong?”

“That can’t be right. Cassius ran a gang. Why was he at Redwall?”

“Planning th’ murder with Zir Case?” Cobb suggested.

The quartet fell into an uneasy silence. Tamarack tried to think of something to say to ease the air of consternation about Noel, but she was trying to fit together this new information herself. Why would a pamphlet about Julian Case cause so much trouble if the story had been in the papers? How did the pins fit in? And now there was Cassius, a murderous ex-gang leader to contend with.

This time, Cobb’s digging claw on her back was welcomed, as were his gentle suggestions. “Oi think Miz Tam and Oi should get back to work. Th’ funeral…”

Saskia and Noel both nodded.

“Thanks for your help, Ms. Saskia. You too, Mr. Noel. If I find out anything else about what’s going on, I’ll… I’ll let you know.”

This time, she let Cobb lead them away.


Preparing for Raimun’s burial took the rest of the morning as the Coffincreepers folded Cobb into the routine of a full-service funeral. Mumma and Ida wove wreaths of lily, asphodel, amaranth, and marigold in the kitchen while Papa cleaned and shrouded the body in his workshop. Tamarack lost herself in running messages in Grannie’s crisp script to the bell ringer, the cooks, and the beasts who would speak at the service. Colm and Cobb finished digging the grave, laid the marker, and filled in the worst puddles surrounding the plot. Just before tea, they all gathered on the porch to take turns in the bathtub, pulling on starched black suits and dresses after. Cobb practically swam in one of Papa’s old suits, the slacks too long by a paw-length, and the jacket hanging off his frame like tar.

“We’ll see you have something proper for next time,” Ida assured, perching a hat atop the mole’s head.

Tamarack felt as ill-fitted to her own costume with the high collar chaffing at the fur of her neck. They were all too clean. This wasn’t life, and it certainly wasn’t death. Redwall demanded this picture, though. Their art reflected teary ladies and somber gentlebeasts in black too well to dismiss. Their art also reflected more interesting things, but many of the illustrations in Merritt’s pamphlets seemed destined to stay just that.

“Quit grinning like a punch-drunk rabbit,” Colm hissed in her ear.

The vixen reformed her face to a thoughtful grimace, greeting the last of the mourners. “Brother Aloysius, I’m glad you and your family could make it.”

The bat looked more harried in the sunshine – no shadows to hide the wrinkles on his young face. “Raimun was a good friend to me. I feel his loss keenly in my heart, my heart.”

Many beasts spoke, each sharing the piece they held of Raimun’s life before laying it with a lily upon the dark coffin. Even the most unlikely had something to say.

“Showed me how to make hats from paper when I was a kit. Never forgot… and never learned another ruddy foldin’ trick neither,” Skipper admitted when it came to his turn, and suddenly, they were allowed to smile again.

“I remember he told me a story about Martin and Gonff bein’ chased by an irate badgermum with a broom,” Noel told them with a grin. “He said he thought it might help me understand Sister Agnes better.”

Foweller’s tribute was rather more solemn. He did not say anything, merely saluted the coffin before tottering back to stand among the dark-clothed ranks.

“My children,” the Abbot said when the last of Raimun’s friends and acquaintances had finished, “we all mourn the passing of one of the cornerstones of our Abbey and Order. Raimun was a good and kind beast. His pawsteps will resonate in our hearts and in these walls forever.”

Tamarack let her eyes drift over the crowd of mourners as the Abbot rambled on about his close, personal kinship with Raimun. Saskia stood with Merritt, both of them stiff, as if uncertain of their roles on such an occasion. A flash of teeth caught her attention, and she refocused on Brother Tompkins. The squirrel was glaring daggers laced with poison, tipped with barbs at the old otter. She elbowed Cobb’s side and motioned with her muzzle.

“He looks roight fierce,” the mole muttered. She could only nod as Colm fixed them with a reproachful scowl. Tompkins looked like he was about ready to take a shovel to the Abbot’s face.

“Now.” Abbot Carter clapped his paws. “Brother Aloysius has prepared something for the passing bells.”

Tamarack shifted her gaze to the bat as he shuffled toward the coffin, laying a claw upon it for support.

“There are not many who could befriend a bat. Not many who would try, who would wait to retire at dawn after a day’s full work simply to share a conversation, conversation.” He looked so frail with his large ears pinned back. “I did not start this life as a scholar, but Raimun taught me how to live as one, live as one. How to find strength in that place between one’s body and mind. I thought we would grow old together, recording the stories of this wondrous place. Such are the dreams of children, of children. This is for Raimun.”

The Abbey bell began to sound as the bat spoke.

“Suns that set as seasons turn,
Flowers grow and wither yet.
Who can say what flame may burn,
Friends that we have known and met.
Look into the young ones’ eyes,
See the winter turn to spring,
Across the quiet eternal lake,
Ripples spread-”

Aloysius’ voice hitched, but he collected himself after a pause and deep breath.

“Ripples spreading in a ring.”

Tamarack found her paws intertwining with Cobb’s and Colm’s as they stood waiting for the bell to ring out each season of Raimun’s life. The ripples had begun with the cloakpin – a small stone cast into dangerous waters. She would not allow them to fade.

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Mr. Batty Twist

June 16, 2011

Ripple dozed in front of the gatehouse, in the shadow of a bush. His habit hood was pulled over his eyes. His tail lay strewn over the grass, tip twitching. He yawned, and then licked his whiskers because his breath had coated them in mussel taste.

The sound of the gatehouse door closing roused him. After a good (cautious) stretch, he rose and knocked.

“Come in, come in.” Ripple opened the door. “Ke ke ke.”

Ripple dragged himself inside and sunk onto a chair without looking around.

“Mornin’, Brother Alooooo – ” the yawn could not be stopped – “ysius.”

“Another late night?”

“Aye, Brother.”

“My apologies, apologies. Were it not for the storm, they would not have been keeping you.”

“Umm… who, Brother?”

“My family? Were they not a bother?”

The scratching, the keening, the shuffling… Ripple blushed a little, feeling foolish for letting his imagination take such hold of his reality. A perfectly logical explanation for everything! It had just been a few more bats than usual. He would have rather preferred Andrew’s Things, but he wouldn’t admit that to Aloysius.

“Oh… oh no, sir! Weren’t at all. I uh, I slept in Skip’s room…”

“Ah. I see.” The bat stopped what he was doing and sat opposite Ripple. Ripple blinked at him. Aloysius looked more weary than usual. Ripple wished he had a beetle in his pocket to cheer him up. “We shall not be doing any lessons today.”

“Oh… alright.” Well, gosh, what had he woken up for, then?

“But I did want to talk to you, so I am glad you came. You left the feast early last night, before I could give you the book you were interested in, interested in.”

After some shuffling about, the bat passed the book to Ripple: Two Treatises of Government. Ripple glanced a few pages in and tried not to sigh. Obviously, he had been on an entirely different page than the one Saskia had been on yesterday. He’d been hoping for something about tactics or strategy. This didn’t look interesting at all. It looked worse than Aloysius’s usual required readings.

It was perfect. Skipper wouldn’t suspect a thing, and Ripple wouldn’t have to figure out how to come clean a second, sober time.

“Thanks!” he said, trying perhaps too hard to inject cheer into his tone. “I’ll be sure to, um, take good care of it.”

“I’m sure you will, as you always do. Ripple, why did you leave the attic? I fear it was not my family’s restlessness at all, at all.”

“Um, they were only half the reason, Brother.” Ripple fidgeted, then hid his paws beside his legs, pinning them to the sides of the chair. “It’s Brother Raimun. He… he died up there, an’ it don’t feel right no more.”

“Mm-hm. Hence your coming to the gatehouse for studies. Well, do not fear, young Ripple. Brother Raimun was a kindly soul, a kindly soul, and I’m sure that will persist wherever he has gone. The Abbey has no history of being haunted, despite the many famous deaths that have occurred. Why, Cluny the Scourge met his end in the bell tower, and there has never been any instance of him possessing somebeast. I like to think Martin’s spirit keeps us all safe, all safe – those living, and those who have gone to rest in an uneasy state. On that note, the funeral will no doubt begin shortly. Will you be attending, be attending?”

Ripple wagged his footpaws, stirring up dust.

“Do I got a choice?”

“I should think so, should think so.”

Last night felt so much like a dream. Had he really seen Tamarack? Was she really alright with him now? She had such startling questions, and he wanted the answers. Could he brave the forbidden graveyard to see her before the funeral?

He could not. Not yet. It was still too early.

“Nuh-uh. I don’t… don’t want to see him again like that…”

Aloysius patted his shoulder with a wing tip.

“I understand. And now I must bid you good morning, for I have a eulogy to see to. Go rest, Ripple, go rest.”

Ripple returned to Skipper’s dormitory. By then it was empty. He placed the book on the bedside table and rolled under the covers again. With any luck, Bludd would not think to check for him here. Maybe she would be busy bothering Foweller. That was a good plan… bothering… yawn… Foweller…

A Talk of Morals

June 16, 2011

“Brother Aloysius, what brings you to Martin’s side this morning?”

“The reassurance of an old friend, an old friend, and a reminiscence for better days.”

The bat felt Abbot Carter sidle next to him as he studied the ancient threads that made up Martin the Warrior’s tapestry. The otter’s presence towered over his. Aloysius did not straighten.

“Ah, yes. Troubled times have come our way, haven’t they? And how long will they stay? Who can say for certain? Still, it is reassuring to this aging abbot that our old friend Martin is still sought out for his guidance by young and old alike. Noel was here yesterday, you know.”

“He has always shown a deep respect for our warrior mouse, warrior mouse.”

“Indeed, and you as well. I remember overseeing your first lessons here at the abbey. None could recount Martin’s days as well as you.”

Aloysius shuffled his feet. “It was he who brought me here, Father.”

“It warms my heart to hear it so.”

They stood in silence for a time. Rainbow hued light crawled across the worn sandstone blocks, drifting across the tapestry and giving life to the creatures contained within. Even now, Old Brother Hubert’s stitching had prevailed against countless centuries, and even Brother Metheselah’s repair had withstood the test of time. Aloysius’s head drooped.

“It is my understanding that Brother Raimun was closest to you, given the proximity of your work.”

The bat blinked, washing away his weariness. “Indeed, Father. We entertained ourselves well into the night with talks of the Abbey and its history, its history.”

“Would it be too much to ask that you impart our beloved fallen with his eulogy?”

Aloysius opened his mouth and hesitated. Lifting his gaze, he peered at Carter. There was a slight smile to the otter’s lips, his eyes crinkled in warmth.

“I would be honored, Father, I would be honored.”

“Rest easy, my son.” A strong paw patted the historian’s back. “There is still time to prepare, and I’m afraid you have not yet taken to bed.”

“I admit the festivities and other pressing matters have taken me away from my archives, my archives.”

“Well, I can assure you they are not going anywhere, and you will find yourself back nose-deep in parchment in due time. Have you attended to your guests?”

“I have, Father, I have.”

“Good. With Brother Raimun’s departure, and Brother Willoughby, as well, we will need a new Gatekeeper. I am entrusting you to this task, Brother Aloysius.”

“Me? As Gatekeeper? I do not know if I can accept such responsibility on top of my other tasks, other tasks,” he said, unable to hide his irritation.

Carter waved it away with his paw. “If you can keep track of thousands of books, surely you can keep track of a few hundred abbeybeasts,” the Abboy said, and there was his smile again.

Aloysius frowned.

“As for your archives, as I said before, you will get back to them in due time. I need a beast who will pay attention to the creatures in my Abbey. You are more than qualified to do the job.”

The bat deflated, his eyes going back to Martin and the fleeing hordesbeasts at his back. “Yes, Father.”

“Excellent! Good night, Brother Aloysius, or should I say good morning?” With a click of his heels, the Abbot turned to leave.

“Father, Father,” Aloysius called, turning to the departing otter. Carter stopped and pivoted in the bat’s direction. “I have heard speculation that Brother Raimun’s death may have been induced, induced.”

“Induced?” The abbot’s face changed, though at this distance, Aloysius could not discern how. “From who did you hear this?”

Aloysius rubbed his wingclaws together, casting a glance towards Martin for encouragement, then shook his head. “It was a confession, Father.”

Carter’s posture stiffened. “Do you believe it?”

He hesitated. To acknowledge the idea of murder within the abbey was reprehensible. But he knew Saskia, and she had an honest heart. Who was he to deny her?

“I cannot say, I cannot say.”

“Walk with me, Brother Aloysius.”

Before the bat could respond, the Abbot had turned and strode down the hallway. Aloysius fluttered to catch up.

“I’m afraid you may have missed the closing to my speech, tending to your guests as you were. ‘If you know a beast who has been acting suspicious, let one of the Order know. We can confront this individual, learn what motivates him, and deal with him accordingly.’ Yes, Aloysius, Brother Raimun was murdered.”

The bat faltered in his step, his winged appendages catching him from tumbling to the floor. “Lies,” Aloysius breathed. Abbot Carter did not waver in his stride.

“Lies, my son? I said that Brother Raimun died of natural causes. Wormwood is a natural herb, albeit a deadly one. No, I did not lie, but neither did I give the whole truth.”

Aloysius fluttered to his side. “But why, but why?”

“Can you imagine the pandemonium that would have ensued if I admitted murder had taken place within our very walls? And then, who would stop the murderer from taking his leave of our abbey?”

“He could already be gone.”

“He is not. Tell me, who is spreading this tale?”

The bat shook his head. “I cannot, Father, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“You understand the livelihood of our Abbey is at stake.”

Halting, Aloysius drew himself up. “Abbot Carter, it was a confession, a confession.”

The Abbot stopped in his tracks and peered at Aloysius. The otter’s back was straight, head forward, paws folded behind his back. “I see,” he said.

The two searched the other’s expression. Given the distance between them, Aloysius could divine nothing.

“And you expect this matter will resolve itself?”

“I believe the true nature of beasts will show themselves, show themselves.”

“Do you understand the reason for this lockdown, my son?”

His wings were trembling. “We are not a jail, not a jail.”

“Nor are we a nest of fledglings, while a cuckoo walks amongst us.”

To this, Aloysius said nothing.

“I hope you reconsider, Brother Aloysius. I would hate to think another innocent life be taken needlessly from our midst.”

Abbot Carter turned and left.

“Lo maggior don che Dio per sua larghezza
Fesse creando, e a la sua bontate
Più conformato, e quel ch’e’ più apprezza,
Fu de la volontà la libertate;
Di che le creature intelligenti,
E tutte e sole, fuore e son dotate.”

A long silence hung in the air, marred only by the edges of Saskia’s panting breaths, torn ragged by anger. Isidore had gone, and Merritt too.

“It’s much too foul a morning to ‘andle ‘is nonsense.” She waited. Selendra said nothing. “…I’ve missed you.”

“It’s been too long.” The words shivered, naked and cold.

” ‘ave you been well?”

“I don’t understand him. He really does think he needs to protect me from something.”

“From Merritt.”

Selendra waved a dismissive paw. “From whatever he’s taken it into his head to protect me from on a particular day.”

“You might… you might be more tolerant, I suppose. ‘E does seem to mean well, and ‘e may be right about Merritt.”

She snorted. “Fates below, Saskia, I’ve never been the first to speak in Merritt’s defense but that’s a bit much. He’s harmless and exceptionally useful. He can be turned to a just cause, since he’s always thinking with either his wallet or his–”

“I ‘ad noticed.”

“Anyhow, weren’t you working for him?”

Saskia cringed. “Yes but–if I want to open my own shop someday, I need the money. Sheridan pays enough to live on but little more.”

Selendra looked at her. “I won’t tell you what to do. But you don’t look very happy.”

“Thank you for the commentary,” Saskia snapped. “It would make an excellent footnote in my memoirs. ‘But she wasn’t ‘appy.'”

“You’re damned stubborn, and always were. If you believed it was wrong, you wouldn’t be doing it.”

“There’s a vixen ‘ere, school-aged I’d reckon, and yesterday I watched Merritt sell ‘er… sell ‘er ‘is things, things I’d printed for ‘im, and I stood there and watched it. All I could think was my mother would be positively ill at the prospect and Aloysius would never forgive me. I shouldn’t ‘elp Merritt, no right-thinking beast ever would, and I felt nothing about it but sick. I’ve a duty to stand against ‘im.”

“There’s an argument to be made that if she’s old enough to want it, she’s old enough–” Selendra held up a paw to forestall an outraged response. “But I don’t mean to speak of that. You never struck me as a beast to substitute another’s judgment for your own, and here you are sounding just like Faraday.”

Saskia recoiled as though Selendra had reached out and cuffed her across the jaw. “I can’t believe you’d dare–”

“I speak,” Selendra said, “as I find. Another beast tells you what your duty is, and you’d carve out your own heart in service, as he would. As he did. The only duty you’re bound to take on is to follow your own conscience–the only duty you have any right to take on.”

Saskia took a deep breath. “Are we talking about Merritt, or about Abbot Carter?”

“Either. Both. You know Carter’s poison, he’s lying through his teeth.”

“Merritt ‘as something to ‘ide too, you know. ‘E’s got a book which fates alone know wot’s in it, but ‘e’s not keen to let me ‘ave a look.”

“Sometimes you have to trust.”

“Like you trust the Abbot?”

“Saskia, Carter has done worse on this day than I ever have known Merritt to do. I don’t know what Carter’s intentions are, nor Merritt’s, and I don’t know either of their secrets. But Merritt isn’t the one keeping us prisoner here.”

“I know that.” She sighed. “And I do trust ‘im, ‘e’s given me a chance to earn wot I most want and I ought to be grateful. I just wish…”

Selendra nodded. “And Carter?”

“The Abbot, whatever else ‘e might do or say, ‘as no right to keep us ‘ere,” she conceded.

“If you believe that, truly, you’re one of us.” Selendra extended a paw to shake.

Saskia looked at it. “No. I can’t, I need… I need to think. And I want to talk to Aloysius.”

Selendra grimaced. “Brother Aloysius is Isidore with dear Faraday’s manners. The latter, I grant, are charming, and perhaps all the more so to you, but–”

“Enough. I’m not lusting after ‘im, if that’s what you mean to imply. But if you mean me to make up my own mind then let me do it.”

Selendra smiled and nodded. “It heartens me to see you stubborn again.”

Saskia stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the solid mousemaid. “Thank you.” She walked away, leaving Selendra standing alone in the Abbey lawn.

Aloysius had been at breakfast and she hadn’t yet seen him head for the gatehouse. Distracted, Saskia wandered into the Abbey with intentions of finding Aloysius in the attic.

She wouldn’t let anybeast write her thoughts, but the least she could do was to truly become a palimpsest, the words that had been inked in carelessness scraped away to be replaced. She could become a tray of type, the metallic nibs of her letters sorted and orderly and unset, an engraving plate unpainted.

And Saskia could speak to Aloysius, and listen to the bat’s calm words and kindness, and decide for herself who to follow.

Saskia found herself soon enough on the stairwell where she’d spoken to Ripple. The previous evening seemed like years ago now, with all the time between smeared to a blur. He’d limped up the stairs, she’d helped with the decorations. She’d wanted to feel useful, a part of the Abbey’s celebration.

It had been a frivolous desire. Hadn’t it?

Saskia climbed the stairs like a gallows. Here she’d embarrassed herself, here she’d made an attempt at redemption, here Ripple had asked her whether she’d thought the lockdown was right. She had evaded the question. That was… close to what had happened?

His words, and hers, clattered away into a vague jumbling of feelings. It had been uncomfortable, and she hadn’t known what to say–

“Saskia, you seem quite lost, quite lost.” Aloysius half-stepped, half-fluttered down the stairs to her.

She jumped, startled.

“Oh goodness, I’m sorry to scare you, scare you.”

“I’m not lost, Brother, at least not anymore. I was looking for you.”

“Whatever for?” He smiled, beatific.

“I want–I need to talk to you.”

“Then to the gatehouse, I think? Young Ripple is still upstairs, and,” he considered her expression, “I warrant that whatever you must say would best be said undisturbed, undisturbed.”

When they emerged from the Abbey back into the vacant gray daylight, Selendra had moved on; the cart stood unattended. Aloysius led the way to the gatehouse in reverent silence.

They entered. He closed the door behind them.

“I’m troubled.” Saskia leaned heavily against the paper-laden desk while Aloysius idly looked over his bookshelves.

“I see. What troubles you?”

Saskia thought. That was a complicated question. She opted for the simplest route. “That the Abbot of Redwall ‘olds us all prisoner.”

Aloysius’ expression changed, Saskia thought, from cheerfully neutral to firmly neutral. It was difficult to tell.

“You’re much smarter than me, and good. You know the Abbot isn’t telling the truth. That if ‘e believes Raimun died naturally, there’s no reason for me to be confined ‘ere.”

Aloysius frowned, and nodded gravely. “Yet I am certain that our Abbot is acting for the best, for the best.”

“I’m not.”

He was dumbstruck. Saskia pressed her advantage. “Look at it from my place. ‘E’s keeping me ‘ere against my will and lying about why.”

“Sometimes we must take it upon ourselves to trust the wisdom of our betters, our betters.” Aloysius folded his wings about himself.

“I’m not a Sister of Redwall, Aloysius. ‘E isn’t my better and ‘e hasn’t the right.”

Aloysius turned his back to her and unfurled his wings, stirring the papers on his desk, which he then straightened once more. “Be that as it may, you have always been a beast who knows her duty, her duty.”

“I find myself uncertain.”

“You are well-read enough to find your own way, your own way, and follow the wisdom of those who have spoken before.”

“I don’t know what is past wisdom to be treasured, and what is past folly to be discarded. Not anymore.”

He smiled, a bit sadly. “You shall find your way again, I have faith, have faith. Commitment to duty, to the path on which we find ourselves… these things bind us, keep us far from… from our impulses, impulses.” His words died away at the end, a cold, dry, faraway wind in barren treetops.

“I…” She found herself wishing and unwilling to confess. I am what you despise, I am Merritt’s cohort, I have stained my paws in black ink and with them painted over others’ hearts. Please…

“Yes?”

“I… thank you, Brother, for your words and your kindness.”

“If ever you wish to consult me again, please do not hesitate, do not hesitate. I do always find our conversations illuminating.” He bowed his head to her and opened the door.

Saskia let go of the desk, swayed, and righted herself. She stepped outside.

The click of the door behind her brought with it the revelation that her parchment was still blank, that nothing had been written at all, she knew nothing, thought nothing…

Or, rather…

The Abbot’s actions of this day were a gross injustice. At least there was that, which she did believe with all her ill-tempered heart. If that is all, then I should, I must resolve to do whatever I can to escape this place, and see that we all are free again.

“Selendra,” said Isidore. “May we speak?” At any other time, Isidore might have left Selendra alone. He knew rot killed hives, withered gardens, festered wounds. He knew she would protest.

“This is a private conversation,” she said.

“I insist,” said Isidore. He nodded to the ferret. “You offended her greatly last night. I know you for a swindler, and I know you spread filth. I charge you with obscenity, in the name of Abbot Carter.”

“Well, fates below,” said Merritt. “This isn’t the first time. I’ll see your charge; you won’t bring it through.”

“Sel, you said he’d shown you something filthy,” said Isidore. “You’re young. His influence– the honorable thing to do is to cut the weed before it grows and strangles everything around it.”

“A weed! I’m a weed,” said Merritt.

“He isn’t good, for you or for anyone,” said Isidore.

“This is patently ridiculous,” she said. She had taken a kerchief from her pocket and twisted it in her paws. Part of her was feminine, then: some natural delicacy caused her to recoil from his charges as she would from a spider. “I don’t know what idiot ideas you’ve got, but you seem to think you’re my husband. I’ll warn you now: once you lose my good opinion it’s lost forever.”

Isidore tugged Selendra closer, held her by the shoulders. “I’ll charge him or I’ll ask the Abbot to turn him away.”

“The Abbot!” she said. “Is that it? He’s a liar and a cheat. What do you think happened to Raimun?”

“That borders on treason. Do you understand?”

Merritt fluttered his paws at somebeast; the lanky haremaid Isidore had met the night before strode toward them. She jabbed her paw between him and Selendra, pulling the mousemaid away.

“Sas,” said Selendra, and she buried her face in the hare’s shoulder.

Isidore smiled at the pair. He seemed to stand in some momentary vacuum. All his strength and stoicism and endurance rushed inside. He was quiet; he mingled with the grass and stone; he uttered nothing. Duty reigned him in. She cut him deeply. Very well, since no part of him ached at the loss.

She was young and she could learn.

Isidore left. He crossed the lawn and went arout the Abbey complexes: past the silent dormitory which seemed to sweat the smell of wine; the mill, kiln, and smithy which peppered his nose with dust and then smelting; the grain storehouse and its earthy, round odor promising bread and mould.

His orchard brimmed with sweet air. Slowly swinging his shoulders, Isidore willed himself to its calm, the shadows of leaves dappling his fur. He bent to scoop water from the bucket he now kept by the hives and splashed it over his brow. At last, his strange spasm released him; he felt shaky, knocked over the bucket with his footpaw and cursed.

A shadow shifted, behind the hives and in the depths of the orchard. Isidore’s paw was at his hip, grasping for the sword that did not hang there, had not hung there. But the shade was only Noel stirred from rest. The young weasel emerged from a tangle of honeysuckle, belching smoke and tapping the ashes of his pipe in the mud.

“Child,” said Isidore. “I haven’t disturbed you…?”

“No.”

“Is there something you’d share with me?”

“No.”

“All right.” Isidore bent to check the entrance of a hive. A cluster of dead bees lay on the plinth. Varroa? Fungus? He spat a curse. “Look. How’d that happen?”

“Did you check the– the thing at the top, the feeder?” Noel waggled his paw at the hive.

Isidore pulled out the slat, gently as he could. Inside, a hundred feeble bees wriggled in a pond of sugar syrup. He cursed again.

Noel twitched his whiskers. “You all right?”

“No.” Isidore slogged out of the muddy orchard. Noel paced beside him, mincing over puddles and patches of grass. He turned at the granary, to the left and the gardener’s house. They passed the entrance of the graveyard, heard the wet shuck of Coffincreeper shovels. Isidore ran his paw over the gate. “Raimun?”

“Aye.”

“It wasn’t right. Had bile all down his front.”

Noel was silent. He joined Isidore in peering through the gate. The grave lay somewhere beyond the mausoleum housing the relics of Martin and other heroes.

“Poison?” the weasel said, finally.

“Aye,” said Isidore. “I’ve seen enough in my day. And some said the Abbot did it. I don’t like disloyalty, boy.”

“What if it were the Abbot, though? Let’s just say. Wouldn’t stayin’ loyal to him be disloyal to the truth?”

“You aren’t that sort, are you, Noel?” This brooked no response. Isidore brushed the gate with his paw, and a slick of grey, greasy mill-scale came off on his fur. The hinges had begun to rust after the night’s rain. “You can’t understand a Brother’s duty to his home.”

“So… so you think this is the right path, then? Bein’ a proper Brother. Redwall, and Martin- is that the best way to follow him? Is that the only way there is, d’you think?”

For some time, Isidore did not speak. He looked to the sky: an indistinct bird floated on high, swept once, twice over the north walls, left. The world felt empty, like a great dark expanse of water, and he was gliding deeper and darker than he ever cared to. At last he turned to face Noel. “I’d seen thousands of beasts fight and die. I told them to do it. And I spent years out there in those woods, thinking about it; there isn’t a better thing in this world than this Abbey. Not in Southsward, or any of those cities, or even a few steps beyond those walls.”

“And nothin’ could go wrong, you think? Martin… I mean, he still talks to beasts, but he’s gone, isn’t he? He’s a lot to live up to. I guess that’s what I worry about. I dunno that I could do that.”

“This is about– about honor, and duty. You mightn’t understand them yet,” said Isidore. They went around the apse of Great Hall, then rambled back to the graveyard. “But if you follow them, then you do what you can for this place and it’ll come through. The traitor who hurt Raimun will be punished. We’ll be happy.”

“And then the Abbot- he’ll do right by Raimun. Like Martin’d do.”

“Aye.” Isidore looked again to the grey and unforgiving sky. The image of his bees struggling in their wet, sugar-sticky grave vexed him. “I had best clean out the hives.”

Noel brushed the arm of his habit, let go, shrugged. “I want to be happy here, Isidore.”

“I hope you are.”

In his grove, he scraped dead bees from the feeder-troughs, wielding his trowel like a knife. He addressed a prayer to whatever spirit might listen that this new life would be pure and sweet; another was for Noel. His last was for whatever wayward beasts had come to Redwall: that they find satisfaction, in Abbey rule or the Dark Forest.