A shed squatted in the northernmost corner of the orchard. Isidore pulled a flask from the rafters and gave the child a tot of whisky; then he brought forth a chipped basin. The otter’s pondwater stench deserted him after a thorough scrubbing.

Isidore helped Foweller shimmy into an old muslin tunic, dressed him with a sash, then directed him to lay on the pallet in the corner. “Rest.”

“I don’t want to rest. I want to get Virrel.”

“Then wait. I said justice’ll find him.”

“No. He’ll die.”

“That’s what I meant.”

Foweller fidgeted. He dove under the blankets, worried at his claws, sour and silent all the while, then settled for rattling the latch of a small carved chest with his footpaw. “You sleep here?”

“Aye.”

“The dormitories are better.”

“I don’t like them… Stop your fiddling. Give that here.” Isidore took the chest and unlatched it. He arranged his treasures on the floor: a silver puzzle-ring, a sheathed knife with an etched bone handle, a chunk of tile with swooping calligraphy on a field of flowers.

He pointed to the writing on the knife, and then the tile. “This is my name. And this is my brother’s.” He unrolled a small scroll: a rat in crimson dress and turban watched birds sweep over an outcrop of rock and into the high, undulating horizon. “That is my daughter. I know how the world must account for somebeast’s loss.”

Foweller slid the knife from its sheath. A mischievous gleam chased inset gold vines down the length of the blade; dark whorls banded the steel like flowing water.

“Get up,” said Isidore.

He retrieved a roll of burlap from under the bed. It cradled a long, wickedly curved saber. This too had a bone handle, but capped with bronze, and the same gold vines wreathed the blade.

“They didn’t steal these? I had a good shovel and Sister Amery took it.”

“I hid everything in that pallet. I haven’t used these, not in years.” Isidore flicked the sword at a gnat. “Can you wield that knife?”

Foweller twirled it, but it clattered to the floor.

“Never you mind, then,” said Isidore. He sheathed the knife, then pressed it into the otter’s paw. “Play with that when you can, and show me another time.”

“But playing’s for babies.” He seemed to quiver. “I’m a better shot than anybeast, and I’m not gonna practice tricks. I have a duty.”

“A blade does too.”

Foweller considered this, then tucked the blade into the sash at his waist. Isidore brewed him hot honeyed tea in the basin, dosing it with valerian and scullcap. Afterwards, sullen, fitful sleep claimed the otter. He thrashed under the thin blanket, barking and muttering at whatever troubled his dreams (maybe slinking weasels, or otters writhing through a forest of pondweed obscured by blood).

Isidore lit a candle. He thought of a poem he had read long ago, writ large on a tomb:

In the night city, the moth seeks a flame.
Her wings shed cinnamon, cassia dark
As scorched wood; her jasmine wings wither.
Lover, she calls, I burn. O, do not weep–
You chose me. You too will die, melt, puddle:
Your narrow thread of life will drown in wax.
Moth kisses candle, heat-lashed and quick.
Such is the end of love, and life; flowers,
Wars, weddings; grieve not. Bring thy sword to hand.
Be glad of heart. Give thyself up to fire.

He ached to think of that sun-steeped mausoleum, of a lap full of olives and the taste of sweet bright oil, of his paws so richly ringed with gold and bells that he jangled when he walked. He needed no more than a pawful of earth or a sturdy trowel. He wanted nothing more than this shed and a pallet full of hay. Work diverted him; he polished the sword’s hilt till he saw his reflection in the pommel. The bronze tinted his fur dark and rich as it had been when he was young. But the face was wrong: warped, so he saw a squinting eye and crooked snout, a broad curve of cheek humbled by a scar.

He wrapped the sword in burlap, and he took leave of the shed.

Outside the abbot’s manse, the air smelled of lavender and rosemary. Somebeast had nailed a wreath above the lintel to chase away ill luck.

The Abbot himself sat on the doorstep, deep in conversation with the new Skipper. “Pardon,” he said. “Brother Isidore. What’s your need?”

Isidore bowed to him. He unrolled the burlap and offered the sword to the Abbot hilt-first. “I’ve brought you something, Father.”

Carter drew and whisked the blade through the air. “I’ll be,” he said. “Rigg, hold still.”

“Martin’s balls–” said the otter, and then Carter neatly clipped his whiskers.

“What a beautiful thing,” said Carter, sheathing the sword. “You hid it from me this whole time.”

“I did. I’m deeply sorry to admit.” Isidore knelt. “I hadn’t meant to hurt with it, and I didn’t want it seen. I give it to you because– because I am ashamed.”

Carter traced the writing on the hilt with his claw. “No need for that. Come inside. There’s something I’d like to share with you and the Skipper.”

The house smelled of beeswax and oakwood and something needling and rank. Rigg fiddled with the stubs of his whiskers. They stood in the dark of Carter’s study. The Abbot set a new match to each candle, stirred the dying fire so gloom fled the corners of the chamber. He set Isidore’s saber on the desk, then took a bundle from a tall cabinet.

“I’d ask something of you both.” He gave the bundle to Rigg, who tenderly unwrapped it: a sword. The firelight glossed licorice-dark leather and apple-red pommel. “You have your own fine blade, Brother Isidore. I return it to you.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“You are both honorable beasts,” said Carter. “Some in the Abbey aren’t half so true. Some harbor treason in their breast. They lie, cheat, steal. They murder. They seek to defy my rule in every way they can. These mutineers– they hide in the Abbey and in our villages– one of them has fled already.”

Isidore envisioned the weasel racing through the wood, Foweller trailing him with knife in paw.

“Selendra Bon has turned tail. I want her associates under constant scrutiny, and their connections too. The peddler Merritt, the foxes and their thieving ward, the otter Gabriel. You will be my eyes and ears.”

“Hell’s bells. Little Selly?” said Rigg. “We played at cards only a few days ago.”

Isidore frowned at him. “She’s not so faultless as she seems.”

“She wanted to get out, I’m sure, Father. Lass can’t abide being stuck here. She went half mad over winter.”

“Were that it true,” said Carter. “The stonemason Clacher went to repair a chink in the wall and caught one of our guests trying to escape, one Berend Beecham. She intended to follow Miss Bon.”

“They are friends,” said Isidore.

“Yes. But she confessed a crime– she and Miss Bon both have informed against the abbey.” He beckoned to Rigg and Isidore. “I have her in my wine-cellar even now. Come. Let’s speak with her.”

They descended a flight of cold stone stairs. They had started to crumble; the foundations of Carter’s house seemed immeasurably old, a part of the ruins of some fable. He paused at the door.

“I’ve been with Martin, seeking his advice,” he said. “He hasn’t left my side day or night. I pray to the warrior, oh, give this duty to another and let the Abbey guide herself; let me be as I was. That is impossible, he replies. The wind is in your sails, you are in the storm. There is no turning back. Once something has begun it must end.

“We cannot founder, even if there are beasts here who are eaten away inside with lust and greed, who would see us drown and die. There will be no place for untruth in my abbey, no place for the wicked.”

The cellar smelled of cold, dust, and blood. The badger Clacher sat atop a barrel of wine. He gnashed at a leg of squab, grease dribbling down his chin. He smeared it away. “Father. She’s been cryin’.”

“Away with you.”

“Aye, sir.” Clacher seemed to rumble when he walked, like a mountain moving. His progress up the stairs sounded like the whole of the Abbey might fall around them. His captive, the mousemaid, winced at each pawfall.

Rigg approached her gingerly, and Isidore followed. She cowered before them; her eye had swollen shut and seemed to bulge like an overripe fruit. Her feet had been tied and her good arm bound to her chest, as if she clasped her torn shift to her body in an absurd gesture of modesty.

“You lemme alone,” she said. Her voice was hoarse.

“Rigg, untie her,” said the Abbot. “Let her stand.”

She wobbled like a kit walking for the first time, then lunged forward. Isidore caught her by the scruff of her neck and held her back.

“Don’t,” he said. “And don’t struggle. I shan’t hurt you if you don’t struggle.”

“Well!” said Carter. “How does that feel to walk again? Feels fine, doesn’t it? Do you want some wine, little maid?”

“Lemme alone,” she muttered. “Kill me. Go on.”

“No.” The Abbot caressed her cheek. “Clacher is cruel, I know. I can put you in the Abbey cells. They’re dry. We’ll treat these wounds.”

“No, you won’t,” she said. “You’ll ‘ave me done for. Case is comin’ for you, him and all his armies. ‘E lives for the day your head’s on a spike and this whole Abbey burns.”

“You don’t wish that, do you?” said Carter.

“I do.” She wriggled from Isidore’s grasp, but the Abbot knocked her down.

“Tell me more,” he said, “tell me all about Case, I’ve missed him so much. Tell me!” He kicked her, and she scrabbled away. He drove a paw between her shoulders, pinning her to a barrel. “Rigg! The sword.”

The otter hesitated; Isidore took the blade from him. It did not have the familiarity or the grace of his saber, and felt strangely heavy. It dazzled him, though, and shone starlike blue even in the dark cellar. The leatherbound hilt felt soft as worn cloth. Berend shook and quivered, scrabbling for purchase, her arm extended.

Isidore swung the sword, and her paw came off clean as the bud from a flower.

Scones and Guns

July 3, 2011

Foweller barely heard anything after Ripple’s last words. He watched, helpless as Skipper took his son in his broad arms and wept. Foweller could not think. This only happened on the battlefield. Not here, not in Redwall. The smell of smoke mixed with blood curled in Foweller’s nostrils, making his stomach heave.

“Fowel? Fowel, I… help me.” Virrel knelt besides him, his voice a tremulous plea. Foweller’s gaze did not leave Rip’s body as Skipper bore it away, rushing to the infirmary, followed by a stone-faced Isidore. No beast had the heart to stop him, to tell him it was too late. “Foweller?”

“They’ll kill you. I should.” Foweller muttered faintly. His claws tightened around his loaded pistol, the warm iron suddenly bidding him to kill.

“Fowel, I didn’t mean…”

“I don’t forgive you. I hate you and I want you to leave my abbey. Run away.” Foweller wondered how he could sound so calm. There was a clear path to justice, but he could not take it. A shot ought to be buried in the vermin’s throat, but Foweller knew he could not.

“Run? Run where?”

“Out. While every beast is busy.” Foweller looked at Virrel for the first time. He tried to see a murderer, a vicious weasel. Instead, he saw a terrified young beast with tears staining his cheeks. Foweller knew that Virrel was a fully grown vermin, yet his face was the most honest of any beast he had seen in his life.

“You’re not gonna…?”

“One day I hope so. I don’t forget my debts, remember? You helped me. Now I’m letting you go. If I ever see you again,” he trailed off, raising his weapon. Virrel did not look twice before shooting off across the lawn. Foweller squinted at Virrel’s retreating back. The weasel rounded the corner of the dormitories. With the dangers outside the Abbey walls, would he even survive?

“Five, four, three, two, one. Here I come, ready or not.” Foweller stumped from one footpaw to the other, making wayward progress after Virrel. By the time the otter had reached the east gate he was in tears. With Uncle Skip out of sight, it was alright for Foweller to be a kit. He blinked at the gate and sniffed. It was wide open, the old lock easily overcome. So much for a strict lockdown.

Foweller fired his pistol into the ground outside the Abbey and turned away.

~~~

“Foweller! Foweller, what happened? Did you see Virrel? You didn’t… shoot him did you?” Rigg’s voice had raised at least a whole tone. The otter crew had gathered outside the infirmary. Skipper was letting no beast in but Sisters Amery and Delores. Foweller had wiped his eyes fervently with one paw as he had meandered back from the gate.

“He escaped. I missed,” Foweller lied, holding up his smoking pistol. Rigg’s face seemed disappointed for one moment, then the look was brushed aside.

“May I have your attention please!” Abbot Carter strode up the path to the infirmary, his face plastered with grief. “Friends, let us keep calm and brave for Skipper in such a trying hour…” Carter never finished. A sob from the door parted the otters to reveal Uncle Skip. His face was streaming tears and saliva had dribbled down his chin.

“Those weapons… must go!” he shouted, his red eyes accusing the Abbot. A few otters nodded furiously. Foweller paled under his fur. It had not been his fault, had it? He had only wanted to show Rip how to load the damn thing.

“The security of my Abbey-…”

“No! No muskets!” Uncle Skip roared. The Abbot fixed him with a glare that could make a badger think twice. Skip glared right back. For once, it seemed Carter was not in control.

“This otter crew has a duty and you have a duty, Skipper.” It was the first time Foweller had ever heard the gentle Abbot growl.

“Then I stand down, sir. Any beast against this horror, with me!” Skipper folded his arms. A steady trickle of them backed away, leaving few otters beside him.

“Foweller?” Uncle Skip’s eyes pleaded with him. Foweller quailed under his gaze. He had said he would defend the abbey only this morning. Betray that for Uncle Skip?

“Shame on you. Appealing to him at a time like this!” Isidore’s voice cried from behind Foweller. The rat’s paw patted his shoulder. “Lad, let’s go for a walk.”

“Thank you, Brother Isidore. As for the rest of you!“ The abbot drew himself up to his full height. “I pronounce Rigg the new Skipper of Otters!”

“You can’t do that!” Gabriel shouted from Uncle Skip’s side.

“Which side’s got the guts to defend our home, ye spineless whelp,” Rigg bellowed back, balling his fists and baring his teeth in Gabriel’s face. Gabriel punched Rigg square in the jaw. The new Skipper fell like a stone. It would have been an outright brawl if Sister Amery had not intruded between the otters.

“Enough! Fighting when our Skipper needs you the most!” Amery thundered, giving the unconscious Rigg a frigid glare. Foweller’s heart missed a beat when he saw her red-slicked arms.

“Come, child. Let’s get away from here.” Foweller tagged along, holding the rat’s burned paw. Brother Isidore was not his favourite Abbey dweller right now, but he would gladly get out of Uncle Skip’s sight.

Foweller was led down to the orchard. Foweller was surprised to see how much the same it was. Nature had not stopped to mourn Rip’s death. If Foweller did not know any better, it would have seemed like any other sunny afternoon. He was content to stay silent like that all day, but something in Isidore’s eyes prompted him.

“I let him go.” Foweller confessed. Isidore nodded and led him on, towards the old rat’s shed. “I let Virrel escape. It didn’t seem right otherwise.”

“No beast can blame you for that,” Isidore reasoned, “Justice will catch up with him.”

“I’ll catch up with him.” Foweller affirmed. He closed his eyes. All he could see was Ripple’s own, staring up at him.

Stand Up Strong

July 3, 2011

Ripple strutted across Skipper’s room in his Long Patrol jacket, the pistol held at a jaunty angle. Commander Eliwood was ready for battle!

“Let’s give those rascals a jolly good drubbin’. Wot wot!” Ripple twirled his whiskers. The best officers always had a great big moustache to frighten the enemy. The otter struck a pose, thinking of Locria. She would appear over the hill, spyglass in paw. Raising it to her eye, she would shake her fist at the tactical genius that had thwarted her battle after battle. And yet their love blossomed over the inferno of war…

There was a knock at the door. “Ripple?”

Ripple was already flinging his jacket under the bed as Uncle Rigg strode in. Of course, this meant he was standing around in his nightwear.

“Um, hullo, Uncle Rigg.” Ripple put his paws behind his back. Rigg grinned broadly.

“No need to hide it, the Abbot told me all about your reward. But what good’s the pistol if you’ve never fired one in your life, eh?” Rigg winked. Ripple shrugged. He knew how to! It was like a bow, surely. Aim and shoot.

“Well, ‘spose I won’t need to just yet,” Ripple suggested. Rigg knelt and produced something from behind his back. He held out a powder horn, lead musket balls and some slips of paper.

“My own personal gift, young Rip. From an uncle that knows how important this day is to you.” Rigg beamed. Ripple’s heart jumped. Real powder? Real shots too! He bet Foweller and Bludd would be impressed.

“Thanks, Uncle Rigg!” Ripple exclaimed and scooped up his prizes. Time for some fun.

~~~

“Half-cock. Pour. Close pan. Pour down the barrel. Ball. Paper. Draw ramrod. Ram it down. Return ramrod. Full-cock. You’re really slow, you know!” Foweller commented. Ripple gritted his teeth. So, Commander Eliwood was more of a strategist than a musketeer. So what?

“I’m gettin’ there, Fowel,” Ripple replied, carefully tipping the powder down the weapon’s muzzle. His paws shook a little, he wanted to rush. Foweller had already finished loading. Rigg and Virrel stood by them on the lawn, waiting. A few Abbey beasts had come to watch the otters shoot, Brother Isidore among them. Ripple felt there was a certain cold attitude amongst some beasts towards the Abbot’s plan, but this was going to be too much fun to worry about that.

“Ye cheated, anyhow. Ye just spat down the barrel and left the little rod thing,” Ripple muttered. Foweller’s replied by firing across the pond into the tree that had been marked for practice. Ripple jumped, dropping his musket ball.

“Oh!” Ripple snarled. That was loud. They definitely had the attention of the onlookers now. Foweller was already loading again, muttering something about the position of the ‘dogfox’. Hah! Now he thought about it, the metal jaws that clamped the flint did rather resemble a fox’s head. He bent over to retrieve his precious shot and poke it neatly into the barrel. Next, the scrap of paper and the rod.

“And Commander Eliwood aims…” Ripple whispered, returning the short ramrod into its groove. He pointed his weapon at the target. That was no tree, it was a vermin Lord, clad in the green uniform of the enemy!

“Yer aim’s off,” Virrel pointed out. Ripple scowled. The moment was ruined.

“I’m doin’ fine.”

“Nah, it’s more t’the left. Here, lemme show…” Ripple hopped back, twisting the pistol away as Virrel tried to snatch it.

“I’m doin’ fine,” he protested, taking aim again. Virrel laughed and pulled the pistol away.

“Virrel, that’s mine!” Ripple fumed. He wrenched at the weapon and started pulling it from Virrel’s claws.

“Steady on, lads!” Rigg called, moving to intervene.

“Give it here, Father Abbot said—”

BANG.

Ripple gasped as the shot rang in his ears. Oh, bother, now all he could hear was whistling…

“Give it… back,” Ripple slurred, wresting the pistol from Virrel’s grasp. He pushed the weasel aside and stumbled down the lawn. Foweller was beside him, waving his arms and shouting something. That was no good, Ripple could not hear anything…

“Aye, hot day!” Ripple shouted back. “Knew the sun was bad.”

“…got to lie down! Get a surgeon!” Foweller bawled in reply. Ripple nodded. Lying down sounded like a good idea. All this traipsing around was not doing his paws any favours. He clutched a paw to his chest. It ached.

“Think I’ll dip my paws in th’ pond again,” Ripple muttered. His lungs felt like they were seizing up. Something hot and sticky dribbled over his paws. He shook his head, baffled and annoyed. Why was everything so uncomfortably warm?

“Fowel? I need…” Ripple waved in the direction of the pond. Foweller’s lip trembled, but he nodded.

“I-I’ll help you, Rip. We’ll get there,” Foweller sounded all choked up. Ripple leant on his friend’s shoulder with his paw. Together, they ambled down the slope. Ripple could feel his breathing growing more ragged.

He collapsed into the shallows and sighed and gazed at the miniature waves that swished across the water’s surface. He had swum the whole length of it today. Skipper sure had been proud. The otter smiled and paddled his paws lazily, watching red ink blossom and flow in spirals and eddies.

“Hey Fowel… I got an idea… I figgered out the problem we had with… the game,” he said. Foweller was tugging at his arm, shouting something at startled onlookers. Ripple noticed Skipper running from the Abbey, screaming.

“Rip, hang on! Just keep breathing, don’t worry! I’ve seen that before… you just need it extracted. It… It’ll all be better. I promise!” Foweller shook him. Ripple giggled. Foweller was such an emotional kit. Was he crying over a card game?

“Lissen. We get a block of wood. ‘cept we cut it up an’ put numbers from one to twenny on each face. Then ye roll it…” Ripple started choking. He knew those celebratory scones had been too much. “It’s random, see? It takes the numbers away… leaves it up to chance…”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it now, Rip! Just keep calm. Somebeast, get me a bandage! Oh hellgates!” Foweller screeched. Ripple watched the younger kit struggle to drag him up. Not more swimming, he hoped.

“Leave it, Fowel,” Ripple muttered. He reached out a paw and stilled his friend with his touch.

“R-Rip?!” Foweller squeaked.

“I’m too tired to go swimmin’. Let’s just relax. Take the afternoon off.” Ripple murmured, closing his eyes. A nap in the sun would not go amiss. Maybe Foweller would save him something from afternoon tea. Then they could go back up to the attic and all would be well. “We’ll work on th’ game more. Chance! It’ll be a whole new game, f’rget four… four point five… it’ll just be five. Can ye imagine it? Takin’ the numbers out…”

O2 In Love

July 3, 2011

Foweller folded his shirt on the infirmary bed. He only had the one and it would simply not do to be swathed in a scratchy green habit. Even Rip’s stripey trousers were more passable than that.

“Fowel! Skipper told me ye needed me?” Ripple hobbled through the door, pausing in uncertainty as he caught sight of Foweller.

“Uncle Skip thinks I should tell you,” Foweller tried to steady his voice, “it’s the right time. For both of us.”

“What is, Fowel?” Ripple asked, drawing near. Foweller turned and gave him a radiant smile.

“We’re joining Skipper’s crew!” He exclaimed. Ripple blinked.

“But I… I don’t want…” Ripple mumbled something and tugged at his habit. It was then Foweller noticed a flash of blue cloth underneath. Before Ripple could stop him, Foweller grabbed the otter’s habit sleeve and yanked it up. The bright brass button on the cuff of a Long Patrol jacket shined up at him.

“What…?” Foweller’s maw cracked into a grin. Rip stumbled back, hiding his jacket in silent fury. It was then Foweller started to laugh. First a snicker, then a fit of hysterical gasps that made Sister Amery look into the room with a puzzled expression.

“I never realised the Long Patrol had infiltrated the abbey!” Foweller chuckled, buckling over to hold himself.

“Oi, lemme be. I don’t make fun of yer sho—of Martin. Anyway, did Skip say what ye gotta do? He’s always got a test planned.”

Foweller noted the rapid change of subject.

“We have to swim all the way across the pond. Under water!”

“The pond…” Ripple flinched. “Uh, I don’t have to, aye? Skip knows I… I’m not ready.”

“Oh…” Foweller’s face fell, “Well, I was hoping you could help me. I’m not the strongest swimmer, what with my rudder gone. I suppose I can manage without you.”

“Ye can’t swim? Um, that is, ye can swim, but without yer rudder, er… Can’t be that different, aye? It’s not, um, a real rudder, not like a ship, I mean, just a tail I thought…” Ripple blustered. Foweller shrugged.

“Oh, well since I lost it, swimming has been a lot harder. I usually paired up with another otter to get through it. But I reckon I can do it myself this time.”

“An’… if ye can’t?”

“I drown!” Foweller winked and skipped off, his footpaws askew. His ears perked as he heard Ripple hobbling to catch up with him. That had been easy.

~~~

The Abbey pond did seem larger than usual today. Foweller suspected recent rain had something to do with it. The two otters stood together, shaking a little under the expectant gaze of the Abbey’s population of otters. Foweller could name a few faces from the crowd. Uncle Skip, Rigg, Remy, Gabriel and even Abbot Carter were amongst them. An image of Andrew’s body flashed before Foweller and he set his teeth in resolve. He would show Carter that he was not such an easy target as the mouse had been.

“Right, lads, ye know th’ rules! Ye must swim without takin’ no breath o’ fresh air from this end of the pond t’the other. A test of strength an’ endurance what’ll prove ye to be fit fer Skipper’s crew!” Skip bellowed in his most officious tone.

“Uh. Fowel. Did yer mother ever try to drown ye as a kit?” Ripple murmured. Foweller gave a nervous snort.

“Tried, yes. She was cunning alright, getting me by the neck at the crack of dawn. The trick was to learn to swim. She gave up after she realised she had no hope of succeeding!” Foweller puffed his chest.

“Aye. Mine tried to lure me in with promises of mussels. Then she made me dive for ‘em,” Ripple recounted darkly. Carter stepped forward and gave the two kits a reassuring smile. Foweller found the Abbot an eerie sight. He felt behind those friendly eyes, Carter suspected him. Or worse, knew about the break-in.

“I know you two will do Skipper and our Abbey proud. This is your first step towards becoming the wholesome and noble goodbeasts that Redwall needs in such tempestuous times as these. You have no need of luck, my sons. Martin is on your side.”

“I know!” Foweller replied smartly, earning a chuckle from the assembly.

“On yer marks. Take a breath! Go!” Skipper shouted. The cheers of the crowd were instantly muffled as Foweller plunged in. The cold shock was enough to get his heart racing as he spread his webbed paws and paddled through the gloomy depths.

Foweller soon lost his sense of time as he swam, knowing nothing but the muffled reverberations in the water and his own pulse. He fell into the easy rhythm of strokes and started to wonder why he even needed a rudder at all. Swimming was dead easy. The moment he thought that, he found himself belly-up, flailing about like a drowning pup. So that was what his rudder had been for!

Something tugged at Foweller’s arm. He shook it off. Weeds, or maybe even a little fish. It grabbed at him more ferociously and Foweller realised that Ripple had caught up. Ripple pulled him back on track and Foweller gave him a thumbs-up. He squinted through the water. Rip did not seem pleased. Something was wrong.

Ripple’s face was scrunched in panic, his claw desperately jabbing at his muzzle. He was running out of air. Whilst Foweller had been fooling about, Rip must have been desperately trying to make it to the other side with his sore, sad legs.

Ripple pointed to the surface but Foweller shook his head. No. They had to get across together without breathing fresh air. It was the rules, or they would not be allowed on the crew. No expeditions with Skipper, no visiting shrew clans, no defending Redwall Abbey. Foweller tugged Rip along, both of them thrashing for the end. But the end was not coming. Instead of a friendly shore, more dark water stretched on as far into the gloom as Foweller could see.

Foweller realised he was no longer pulling Rip along; he was more pulling Rip down, away from the surface. Bubbles issued from Rip’s snout. His friend needed air. Foweller began to feel his heart pounding. What if they were going in circles? What if Rip really drowned? Foweller had forced him into this!

Foweller was trained to act rather than think too much. He was not going to fail this time. Rip needed air. No fresh air. No fresh air… Fresh air!

Foweller grabbed Rip’s head and forced the otter’s muzzle against his own. He breathed out, trying to ignore Rip’s muffled cry of distress. Foweller’s breath entered Rip’s depleted lungs, causing Ripple to shudder in relief. Foweller kicked and paddled, feeling Ripple start to move with him.

~~~

Foweller shot out of the water, heaving onto the sweet dry land. He coughed and collapsed to his knees, sensing Ripple crawling up the bank beside him.

“We… augh… made it!” Foweller wheezed. He could hear Skip’s footpaws drumming the earth as the big otter hurried to the pond’s edge.

“What… were ye… doin’?” Ripple choked.

“Buddy breathing, you mean?” Foweller caught Ripple’s glare.

“Ye made that up.”

“Did not!”

“Lads! Are ye alright?” Skipper called, rushing to Ripple’s side. Foweller snickered as he heard Rip spit profusely on the ground. He could hear the applause rising from the otter crew.

“I knew they’d do it, pair of strong young fellas like that!” Rigg cheered, pumping an arm in triumph. Foweller tried not to retch.

“Well done, my sons.” The Abbot’s clap was slow, deliberate and soon quietened every beast. Foweller had never heard a beast clap with such deadening menace. But then, he was not going to forget what had happened to Andrew. “Today you are no longer mere dibbuns. You take on the responsibility and the pride of the Skipper’s crew. To celebrate, I have arranged a surprise in the Great Hall!”

“A… surprise?” Foweller repeated. He staggered to his feet and helped Rip up with one paw. What could Carter be planning? The two otters staggered across the bright green lawn, tired but grinning. Carter strode in front to open the doors of the Great Hall himself.

Foweller blinked. Boxes, neatly lined along a table. They were open, their contents padded with hay. He leant over, his eyes adjusting from the bright morning sun. Oiled, varnished and shined. Muskets. Foweller lifted one of the weapons from the hay and kissed it. It was a flintlock, no dirty old matchlocks for Redwall.

“Now here’s a familiar group of friends,” he joked, nudging Rip. The otter crew stared in silence.

“Where did these come from? Are we allowed to send out packages?” Ripple piped up, a tinge of cautious hope in his voice. Rigg laughed and slapped Rip’s back.

“’Fraid these have been here a while. The Abbot had me store them in the cellars till the time came!” Foweller noted Ripple’s crestfallen expression. The Abbot clasped his paws together.

“Foweller and Ripple are the new blood in this clan of otters. This Abbey cannot remain closed to the new forever. These firearms symbolise our future in the modern world and the safety and security these walls harbour. We must embrace them or perish in obsolescence,” he announced.

“Oh. I was just hopin’ for jam scones,” Rip said. The tension was broken and there was laughter again. The Abbot smiled and surrendered his audience to the kitchens. Though Foweller tried to wriggle his way through the throng of hungry otters, somehow the Abbot caught up with him.

“My son, I have a special gift for you,” Foweller shivered as the Abbot’s whiskers tickled his ear. Reluctantly, he was steered from the hungry congregation and back to the boxes of firelocks. It was then he saw what lay on the table beside them.

Two pistols. Foweller recognised both. The first was his, a worn looking wheel-lock made of iron. The second was the heavy flintlock that he had pulled from the Abbot’s drawer. He tired not to recall the last he had seen the weapon. In Andrew’s paws, right before…

“I once told you a dibbun had no need of such things,” the Abbot continued, lifting the weapon. “But of course, you’re not a dibbun anymore, nor is Ripple. And in the coming times, I fear you shall need this more than ever.”

Foweller picked up his pistol and caressed it, his pads brushing along the old familiar lines in the metalwork. It had been for nothing. Andrew would have lived if only Foweller had not been so reckless and impatient. All he had to show for his escapade was a cloakpin and a mystery. Foweller looked up to realise the Abbot had left him. Instead, there was Ripple, scoffing a scone.

“Mmf, woffit?” Ripple said around his bulging cheeks. Foweller pointed at the flintlock, putting Carter out of his mind.

“Present for you!” Foweller turned away as Ripple took it, his eyes lighting up. Foweller was still hungry. He stumbled for the door in excitement, placing a paw on the tapestried wall to steady himself. Scones and guns, what more could he want?

“Well, Julian.” Cassius heaved himself up out of his chair to tower over the other beasts in the room, a stone colossus come to life. “If you’re done interrogatin’ these poor wretches, I’d like to have me turn with ‘em – one of ‘em, anyway.”

Case dipped his aging spiked head and shifted backward, freeing the marten’s path to one of two new doors on the far side of the room. It was an elegant but queasy sort of deference, one that distracted Noel from the fact that Cassius was waiting for him.

Noel lowered his brows and recoiled in slow motion, shielding Tamarack behind him.

“I’m not leavin’ them.”

“They won’t be harmed,” said Selendra. “Locria was an accident.”

Noel ignored her and turned back to his friends.

“Cobb -”

“Oi woan’t let them touch a hair on their heads, long as Oi be standing.”

Noel worked his jaw, considering, then nodded and eased himself off the bench. Bludd tugged at his sleeve as he passed.

“You sure ‘bout this, shipmate? Don’t need any backup, do ye?”

“Not this time, Bludd. I’ll fill you in when I get back.”

Cassius waved him through the door and into another corridor beyond. Noel couldn’t resist peering down the endless stretch of mole-hewn earth, but with his friends and their fearful faces shut behind him escape was the last thing on his mind.

“Forgive Locria.” Cassius dawdled a few pawsteps down the hallway before coming to rest against the side of the tunnel. “She’s a useful beast, ex-Long Patrol, but blasted impulsive. She’s only sixteen.”

“I don’t care if she’s a dibbun. Anybeast who’d do that to a lass deserves more than what I gave her.”

Cassius gave a low chuckle and shrugged into his berth against the wall.

“It’s funny t’ hear that from you, lad, but it’s natural in yer voice, if’n y’ don’t mind me sayin’. Another thing that don’t surprise me is that I find the most pussyfooted weasel who ever ran in me crew at Redwall.”

Noel tried not to eye him with too-deliberate suspicion. In Cassius’s manner he could detect no true familiarity for him – if Selendra hadn’t mentioned her conversation with one Noel Lingham on her return, it was doubtful Cassius would have recognized him at all.

“I only left you when the rest of your crew did,” said Noel. “The whole vermin world’s pussyfooted to you, then.”

“Aye, and it’s that day I want to remind ye of, lad. I know it ain’t good practice takin’ ye aside like this, but there’s summat I want to show you and it ain’t somethin’ that should be seen by ladybeasts.”

There was no resisting the darting lift of his brows when Cassius first cast aside his long coat and then began unbuttoning his jerkin in the midst of the chill hallway. Before Noel could demand an explanation, the marten had spun on his heels, naked to the waist, and suddenly Noel was reliving a landmark in his own sordid life of eight years before.

It was the same winding, terrible scar he remembered, running like a gully from between his now-hairless shoulder blades on down to near the tail of his spine – only by forcing himself to stare did Noel feel certain it had closed, was not still pulsing and burbling with blood. By the grunt Cassius uttered in shrugging his shirt back onto his shoulders, it was clear the pain, at least, still lingered.

Cassius wheeled about to face him once more, all the mirth vanished from his features.

“You know the beast who did this t’ me?”

Noel closed his eyes and gazed into blackness. There was no searching to be done: the answer was already there.

“Carter,” he said.

When he looked upon Cassius again, his former chief was studying him carefully.

“You don’t sound surprised.”

“I guess I’m not. I knew it all along, always have. How could I forget? But….”

“You didn’t want t’ think the Abbot o’ Redwall was capable o’ such a thing.”

“No.” Noel had snapped at his guide, and bent his gaze earthward by way of apology. “He’s spent his whole life around Martin. Why didn’t he take any o’ that in? Why’d Martin let him do stuff like that, in his name?”

“What you’ve got to get straight, lad, is that nothin’s as it seems. Carter didn’t grow up in Redwall, in fact ‘e was a member o’ the Long Patrol at Salamandastron. He committed atrocities there, too. So y’see, the myth and majesty of Redwall the good, Redwall the charitable, Redwall the just, is just that – a myth.”

“That’s not the whole truth, though. The beasts living under Redwall’s roof, they’re good.”

“Yet they’re blind enough t’ be led by a torturer and a murderer. It’s an institution tailor-made for a beast like ‘im to seize control.”

“But it’s a good institution.” Noel recalled the softly sibilant voice of the Historian, Aloysius, singing to him of Martin’s vision and hopes in the early dawn hours of winter. “The basics of it, the message, is good – the Woodlander’s Code.”

“What good’s a Woodlander’s Code if nobeast abides by it?”

Noel’s expression turned defiant, his stance firm. He swept a paw behind him at the door.

“I do. And so do those beasts in there.”

Cassius chuckled again and retrieved his coat from the floor, reaching out to pat the young weasel’s unmarred shoulders.

“Aye, and that’s why we can use a beast like you, you and your friends. Under this Society an’ beasts like Carter Redwall’s become a poison. It’s got to be eliminated before Mossflower, vermin and woodlander alike, can know freedom.”

“And that’s why I’m goin’ to help you.” The certainty in his voice must have startled Cassius, likely still working on a vague memory of a hotheaded teenage beast who refused to fire a matchlock at a living creature. “But get this: Carter’s the poison. Redwall can still be saved – I’ll stake me life on it.”

“You’d better ‘ope, for yore own sake, that you never ‘ave to.”

* * *

Only a few minutes passed before Noel reemerged from the corridor, Cassius looming behind him. For all that it felt like, though, it might have been hours.

“Noel!” Tam leapt out of her seat before Locria could protest. In a whisper she added, “What’d he say?”

“Tell you on the way back – are you lot all right? What’ve they been sayin’ to you?”

“‘May I take your order?’” Case glanced at them from the table, arranging a collection of empty tumblers on a tray. “Water, lad?”

Noel shook his head. He couldn’t rectify this kindly old codger with the brutal judge who had earlier nodded a sentence of death upon them. Was this the hedgehog who would have been abbot?

“‘m all right, thanks,” he mumbled.

“Suit yourself. It’s a long journey back, I’m sure you know – and before you all go I need to ask something of you.”

So that was what the sudden burst of hospitality was for. Noel wrinkled his snout.

“What moight that be?” said Cobb.

“First, and most obviously, we require your complete secrecy. You seem to be doing a fair enough job of that so far, with the exception of the cloakpin…” His eyes also lingered for a dangerous moment on the youngest of their number, until Bludd stuck her tongue out at him. “…that includes this tunnel. Assume that nobeast can be trusted.”

Noel upheld his stern impassive facade, even with images of Saskia rioting in his mind.

“Second, I need you to deliver this to the Foremole.” Case slipped a folded sheet of thin paper from under his tray and handed it to Noel, who thoughtlessly and unceremoniously flipped it open. When Case issued no complaint, he read it aloud, much to everybeast’s confusion.

“‘During the Trials of Cluny, Redwall’s tapestry was repaired by the mouse Methuselah. Many misrepresent the quality of the repair despite its perfect union with the rest of the work.’”

“Code.” Case’s smile was almost apologetic. “From that he’ll understand he’s to be your primary contact within the Abbey. As we move forward he may begin to introduce you to others as well – you already seem to know a few of them. He may even teach you that code.”

“So we can report back to you ourselves?” said Tamarack.

“Clever lass,” said Cassius, and again Tam seemed to stiffen under his gaze.

“That’s number three,” said Case. “Anything suspicious, anybeast asking too many questions, you go to Foremole or one of the other contacts he gives you. We’ll give you more detailed assignments later. Until we know we can trust you, only use the tunnel yourselves if your contacts have been compromised. To enter this door knock twice, then thrice. The password is ‘the bells of St. Ninian’s still chime at midnight’.”

* * *

Thirty minutes into their journey had passed, in cloying damp earth the smell of a fresh grave – a scent Noel realized was darkly familiar to him now – before their heads no longer nipped back over hunched shoulders and they felt safe enough to speak. It was as if they had unstuffed their mouths with cotton.

“So you was – you was my age when you saw Carter do that.” Tamarack seemed to be envisioning the scene Noel had described, one of three dozen hardened vermin rogues watching stunned as their leader was demolished in a one-on-one battle with a simple Redwall otter. “Why? What was the point?”

“Bloodthirsty, ‘e is,” Bludd chirped, still hopping about but only at half-steam. “Aye, like a pirate who launches a broadside under a white flag, just t’ watch beasts fling ‘emselves inter the sea.”

Noel nodded, rocking his lantern light as he did. Cobb’s next question was tentative.

“Did nobeast stay to help him after?”

“No.” Noel’s words were as bitter as the encroaching chill of the tunnel. “We all thought he’d be dead after that. To those of us that hung around long enough Carter just told us to scram, leave Mossflower and never come back.”

“As if he was still trying to play the old-timey Redwall hero,” said Tam. “But just like in them days, Cassius didn’t learn his lesson neither, did he? What do you make of him, Mr. Noel – of all them? I know we can’t trust them, but -”

“They’re worthless beasts,” Noel growled. “Carter’s dangerous ‘cause he’s got no heart. They’ve got cold ones – no reason to be or to do anythin’.”

Tam tried to look down at her footpaws in the darkness.

“But if you got a kind of fire in your heart, you might end up followin’ people like Carter. Like this Society – they give beasts a reason to come together, even though it’s wrong.”

“Aye.” It came after a pause broken only by Bludd’s gentle humming, in which Noel and Cobb both were struck dumb by the kit’s intuition. “But with a cold heart y’ can’t get nothin’ done. ‘s why there’s only three of ‘em in there rather’n three hundred.”

From there the conversation was forced to cheerier topics. Even the standard groan arose when Noel tried to switch the subject to campball. Only when the lateness of the night began to take its toll did they finally fall into stricken silence. Sometime in the early hours of the morning they at last staggered out into brilliant brisk starlight, Cobb offering Tam a weary digging claw up out of the hole, followed by Noel still cradling the snoozing Bludd in his arms.

It was when the elder trio had placed the kitten in her dormitory bed and began staggering back to their own when the final fright of their ordeal came upon them. An avenging angel, wings outspread, blocked their path back up the corridor.

“By the stars and fates!” Tam clapped a paw over her muzzle, remembering the now-sleeping terror they had just tucked away. “Brother Aloysius – what are you doing here?”

“Be silent, Miss Coffincreeper! I won’t be asked that question from you, from you.” His voice was horrible and distorted. “What are you three doing in the dibbun dormitories so late? How many of you are there, are there?”

“Uh, we was just -”

“Just us three – ah, four -”

“Brother Andrew!”

Everybeast in the corridor cocked their ears at young Tam.

“What is the meaning of this, of this?” Aloysius demanded.

Tam, seeming to recall her rapidly swelling cheek, shuffled back into shadow as if to hide her emotion.

“We, uh…we was holding a bit of a wake for him. Mr. Noel hardly knew him, you see, and Mr. Cobb and I are still so upset – it helped to talk to somebeast about him.”

“Bludd managed to tag along, as usual,” Noel added. His cool line seemed to smooth Aloysius’s ruffled fur, as the bat folded his wings back beneath him and began crawling the other way.

“I see. I am sorry for our mutual loss, mutual loss. But it would do us all a kindness for you to obey the curfews that have been set for your own safety, and for older beasts to set a good example to the young – Mr. Cobb and Mr. Noel! Now goodnight, goodnight!”