“Take this,” said Case.

“No.” Noel pushed the sword back out of his paws. Only when it was safely away from him and cradled awkwardly in Case’s arms did Noel sense the years in the blade. He warmed the dust from the handle between his claws. “Where’d you get that?”

Weapons rained down from the upper windows of the Tremontaine Inn, catching the moonlight and glittering gold and silver on their way to earth. They landed in thuds and clanks on the dusty street outside, where shadows broke free from the crowd to snatch them up close. Of the rebellious element of Redwall City, heroes and lunatics alike, there couldn’t have been more than a hundred beasts assembled outside. Noel was pleasantly surprised.

“Flint came across an armory as he put the finishing touches on our cellar tunnel. I call it ours – it was only our discovery.” Case’s gaze followed the fluttering path of an airborne mace and chain. “They really should be more careful with those.”

“Tim Churchmouse’s reliquary.” Noel glanced at Tam, but in the midst of inspecting their army she had stooped to collect one of the ancient weapons on the floor. “You found it?”

“Surely you of all beasts don’t think us clever enough to have excavated so long a tunnel in such a short time?” Case chuckled away at his self-deprecation. “It was a forgotten room, at the end of a collapsed tunnel that led from somewhere in the cellars. Only Flint’s expertise detected that there had been a construction there at all. Within we found these weapons, many of which -” He laughed again. “You may think it mad, but to me they fit the description of many an ancient weapon of Martin’s chosen warriors, once thought lost in time. In actual fact, we found this in amongst it all.”

Case opened his outstretched paw to reveal a chilling, familiar trinket: the glittering cloakpin symbol of the Society.

“It seems our friends must have lost track of the room in relatively modern times,” Case murmured. “We couldn’t let these treasures fall back into Carter’s paws.”

“And you didn’t think of makin’ this public?” Noel threw out his arms. “Beasts’ll follow a fable anywhere, we could’ve had the whole city behind us!”

“If you could tell me who would have believed they were real,” said Case, closing his paw back over the cloakpin, “maybe I would have considered it.”

His knowing smile soon found itself a reflection on Noel’s muzzle. Even when the truth was clear for all to see, as stark as death at the paws of a tyrant, beasts would rather see a gracious protector and an invisible enemy.

“Hsst! Case!” A shadowy face peered down at them from the upper room. The craggy outline against the light suggested Maggie, the badger whose homely inn had become a war room. “Is that the weasel with you?”

“Yes. Yes, I’ll…send him up.” Case’s body turned back toward Noel, but his nose kept going until it was pointed toward the ground. “There’s somebeast in that room I meant to show you, before Clacher – Fates, lad, Clacher! What happened? Why haven’t you said?”

“He’s dead,” Noel mumbled. “But – the beast in that room. Is he -”

“Dead,” said Case.

* * *

“What was that?” Tam waited for Noel to approach, eyeing Case as he hobbled into the depths of the assembly. “Not another batch of post?”

Noel’s stare was pinned on the dirk in her paws, but it took in none of the ornate styling, the ancient crafting, none of its beauty or its violence. He seemed, as he had done all that first winter that Tam had known him, to be searching the pits and bruises of his own soul.

“They’ve got me brother,” he said. “He was in the street, shot. Sounds like Rigg and Foweller were there. The bailiff was gonna take him away, but Case…he knew I’d come for him.”

“Oh, Mr. Noel.” Tam started and her head tilted back up straight. “But maybe it was Rigg that -”

Noel shook his head and waved the faint hope away.

“Doesn’t matter now. I dunno if it’s on me to forgive what Fowel’s done, but I have, even before…anyway, it don’t matter. When this finishes, I’ll take him home.”

Tam laid a paw on Noel’s ever-shifting shoulder.

“That’s right,” she said. “No matter what anybeast says, he belongs with all our friends – Mr. Andrew, and Bludd, and Ms. Saskia.”

“Tam, I meant – Norford.”

There was a spike in Tam’s start, an extra tremor of alarm as she released his shoulder from her grip. If looking at her was painful for Noel before, it was unbearable now.

A shadow swooped down on them and stifled anything more they might have to say. Fyfe came crawling out of the darkness, a keen blend of kindness and frenzy on his brow.

“Mr. Lingham,” he said. “I believe we have prepared everybeast as well as we are able, able. Are you ready to move?”

Noel gave one last decisive glance at Tam, and in the pursuit of the truth their eyes could still meet.

“Yeah. As good a time as any.”

* * *

“You sure you going in there empty-pawed?” said Tam.

Noel lolled his head at her and laughed. It was a good sound to hear, even if it drew a few nervous glares from their compatriots in the woods. The air was crisp and icy and the moon was lost in the tangled branches of the trees, but the night felt refreshing, like a pint of October ale after a long hot afternoon on the campball pitch.

One rough brown paw snicked down into the undergrowth and, when Noel caught up to Tam a moment later, he was carrying a fallen bough of rotting oak. It was Tam’s turn to laugh as Noel busied himself snapping the twigs off his new club.

“You’re going to face down Brother Isidore with that thing?”

“Oh, aye. Don’t be surprised when he takes off running for his mum.” He nodded at the blade in Tam’s paw. “What’s that you’ve got?”

“Some Long Patrol dirk.” She shrugged. “Case laughed when he saw me with it, said it belonged to another beast named Tam. How’s about that?”

“We call that fate, my dear.” Case had appeared behind them, grin wrinkling his face into a dim shroud of shadows in the moonless woods.

Noel grunted.

“But Mr. Lingham here thinks he controls his own destiny,” said Case. “Yet you believe in Martin, as well as Redwall.”

After a pause, Noel replied, “Yeah.”

“Yet those stories are built on prophecy and fate. To trust in both freedom and fate must take a great deal of balancing skill. I’m envious to learn.”

“It all makes more sense to me without it.” His downcast head sprang up. “What’s that?”

Tam’s paw could be seen tightening around the handle of her dirk.

“What’s what?”

“How long ago did Fyfe fly ahead?” Noel demanded. “Is he back?”

“Not yet,” said Case. “He’s only been gone quarter of an hour, if that. Why?”

Noel lunged forward.

“I smell smoke.”

* * *

Overground, the gates of Redwall appeared much sooner than did the yellow candlelight at the end of the rebel tunnel, but it was the scene that confronted them that made time stand still. The gates were framed in bright blazoning light, overshadowed by billowing columns of smoke.

“Fire,” Case breathed. “Redwall, my Redwall!”

The gates, or what was left of them, were thrust outward into the night, lest the heat and the flame creep into the depths of the stones and bring them tumbling down to earth. For the first time since he strode into Redwall in the depth of winter, seeking shelter from the storm and respite from his tormentor, Noel saw the gates of the Abbey as they were meant to stand: open.

“Now’s our chance!” Noel lifted his bough high above the heads of their scanty crew, then stormed the ditch as if he might land before Redwall in one leap. “Now!”

In the haze and heat and panic on the other side of the gates it must have seemed like thunder on the wind. From out of the night, their vision stung with smoke and the stabbing blaze of the flames, abbeybeasts Noel and Tam hardly recognized must have thought the nightmare murderers of winter were upon them at last. They dropped their buckets and scattered before the lightning struck.

“Through the gates!” Noel heard his voice crowing with lust and glory. “Through the gates, come on! Redwall’s ours!”

* * *

“Brother Aloysius,” Tam gasped. “He must’ve done it! But -” Her head swiveled over her shoulder as they passed through the smoldering hulk of boards and twisted, mangled rivets that had made Redwall a prison for so many months. Noel drew her close, shielding her from the wave breaking around them.

“What is it?” he said.

“Look – the archives.” The friendly little hut where Aloysius and Martin had lived side by side was crumbling under the tremendous weight of the flames. The fire looked to have bled away from it, spreading from there up to the gates. “Why would he have done that…?” said Tam.

A roar of anguish cut short their fearful thoughts. Finishing the race across the lawns, they found Case empty-pawed, weapons thrown to the floor, fists pummeling helplessly against the solid oaken doors of Great Hall.

“Blast it all, I had him. I had him, he was in my sight!”

Noel passed his claws over the sealed doors, then seized Case’s shoulder and brought them both hurtling backwards at once. A glass jar full of the infirmary’s viscous cure-all solution struck the earth where they had stood, and as Case sat recovering from the near-blow tiny Sister Delores could be seen leaning out of a high dormitory window.

“You murderer!” she shrieked. “Are you behind this? Look what you’ve done to our abbey!”

“Now, now, Sister. That’s hardly in the spirit of our order, is it?”

Case could only manage a squeal of rage as Carter appeared over the ledge. Noel struggled to put himself in the hedgehog’s place, imagined that Mum and the Old Weasel and Lucy and Tam were all snatched from him in one terrible instant. Even with the real losses they had sustained at his paws, he couldn’t fathom the depths of that void in Case’s heart.

“Brother Case,” said the Abbot. “Enough of this, please. You were sentenced with exile so that we might all put the past behind us and live in peace.” Carter’s smooth velvet tones tumbled down on them like a fog, drawing a haze over their own passions. But Noel could sense the darkness in his heart with the scorched edge in his next few words. “I see now that we have taken alarm at a mere pawful of beasts. This cannot end well for you. I pray, turn back now and you may leave Redwall as free beasts.”

Noel’s paw sealed itself over Case’s shoulder once more, warm and heartening this time. He lifted himself up from the ground.

“There’s more than enough of us to keep an eye on every door out of that building, and for as long as we need.”

“I was warned about you.” The dark anger threatened to consume Carter entirely. “There were many who told me not to welcome two ragged weasels into our home. They feared an outsider would be the one to bring destruction to our Abbey.” He lifted his voice, to the many faces now peering from the windows and to the countless abbeybeasts within. “Let it be known to all present that this beast – this creature to whom you entrusted your dibbuns – is a deceiver. He followed a beast named Cassius, a notorious vagabond and murderer in his own right, for many seasons in Mossflower. It is only fitting that he now allies himself with another old enemy of this place.”

“An old enemy?” Noel demanded. “Nobeast up there heard what Case did and thought, no, that can’t be right? Because you knew him, and he was your friend?” Noel offered his paw to Case, along with a faint smile. “Time we heard the truth.”

Case nodded and stood on his own. He brushed the dust and ash from his knees and stepped forward, and in the dawning light of a new day in his abbey – his home – the heartbreak of his scheming and rage fell away. Each and every face lining the windows beheld only a shattered beast, yearning for something that could never be.

“My family – my Arabella, my lads Lucas and Michael, my Betony – they were murdered. That will always be true. But they were taken from me. By that beast there – Carter, the beast you call Abbot!”

Even from the ground, Carter’s face could be seen betraying a flinch. Perhaps he had expected, or hoped, for silence, for more of the stinging catcalls and jeers that echoed down from the heights. The overwhelming sound was one of gasps, of terrified whispers and doubt.

“For years he’s been plotting to destroy me,” said Case, drawing strength from his audience, “ever since he discovered I was next to be abbot. A wayward Long Patrol thug, the taking of Redwall was just another campaign for him. And he’s deceived you all as well. So many of the beasts you’ve lost this last winter, and since, their blood was spilled by his paws!”

“We’ve heard this before!” Sister Ambrosia shoved herself to the front of another window, glancing only briefly at the stubborn shape of her brother on the ground. “Your rumors and your tall tales have got round by now. What reason would the Abbot have to murder his own beasts? Brother Andrew and little Ripple – they were only taken from us once this vermin and his brother came to poison our home!”

“Watch how you use that word, ma’am,” Tam snapped.

“Indeed, Sister,” said Case. “Don’t think us foolish enough to believe your Abbot walks alone. We are aware of the tools he holds, the names of those who follow his every command, even to murder. We know who you are!”

The Society responded to the call-out with silence, cold as marble. Noel searched the ground, the obeisant ranks of his army ringing the building, standing awkward guard at every threshold. Up above, angry and anxious and empty faces stared down, waiting for doomsday to rise with the sun. Through one portal Noel caught a glimpse of the cool, penetrating eyes of a rat before they disappeared again into the red stone walls.

“You say you come here to rescue my own beasts from me,” said Carter at last. “I, who have done all I can to protect them against you – who drew first blood and then cast our beloved dead back at our gates like so much filth. You claim to save this place and everybeast in it, and yet you stand here and let this abbey burn!” A curious expression lit his features, something between resignation and delight. “I will be the one to save this place. I cradle Redwall in my paws. This foolishness will end now.”

* * *

Isidore was waiting for him inside.

“The muskets,” said Carter.

“No!” Emmerich Coffincreeper, still coughing up smoke from the firefight, threw himself at the Abbot’s footpaws. “Please – my Tam’s out there. I don’t know how, and when all this is over I’ll thrash her to the ends of the earth, but Father Abbot -”

Carter deigned to set a paw on his head.

“I am afraid the time for instructive punishment has ended. Our way of life now is threatened. Surely you would not side with one who shames your kind, who earns himself the name of vermin?”

Emmerich offered only a sob in return. Carter released him, sighing.

“We will do what we can to spare your kin,” he said, “but the most I can promise is to protect this abbey. Brother Isidore -”

* * *

Then suddenly, there was light. Light and no sound – and then a terrible roar, rumbling and fire.

“What was that?” Tam said it as they ran, arms thrown over their eyes to deflect the light and the heat searing outward from the far side of the main abbey building. Noel kept pace alongside her, oak branch still held aloft.

Not much more than what they found would have convinced them that doomsday was truly nigh. The rear of the abbey building was almost no more, a smoking hole of charred sandstone belching smoke and flame. The smell brought an image to Noel’s mind of a thousand of his old flintlocks all firing at once.

“What happened here?” Case shook Flint’s stunned prone form where he found it lying several yards away. “Blast you, brother, wake up!”

“Case, get back to the main doors!” Noel snapped. “Don’t let one eye off Carter, you hear me?”

“These were the store rooms. Who did this?” In Tam’s murmur Noel could hear what was beginning to dawn on her, and what had yet to touch him as the outsider: Redwall was burning. Now that its heart was aflame the horror of it became real. The abbey, a landmark of peace for generations – Martin’s home – stood at the brink of destruction.

“Forget what it was, Tam. This is it.” Noel summoned his strength and thrust his club into the yawning breach. “Redwall is ours!”

He unbuttoned his coat and threw the free edge over his muzzle. With a glance for Tam to steel them both against the onslaught, he narrowed his eyes and threw himself forward, dissolving into the flames.

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The Good Rebel

September 21, 2011

The devastation in the rebels’ humble subterranean abode stretched beyond the small sad body of a hare on the floor. Chairs had been flung and smashed, and their remnants hung with torn scraps of paper. The table sat collapsed in an unrecognizable heap of shattered boards. The walls were scraped and clawed and smeared with blood.

But Locria was all they saw. Tamarack made the noise that Noel felt inside: a gurgle of sick despair. He imagined that no body she had ever put into the ground at Redwall had looked like this.

“What happened?” Tam moaned. “Who did this?”

“You know who it was.” Case answered them from the inner doorway, his voice faded and lost. What Noel could see of his eyes were glazed and white and pinned on him.

“Clacher,” Noel murmured.

“This is your doing, weasel.” The hedgehog betrayed the full weight of his many years, hardships, and sacrifices as he staggered toward them. The gray ends of his spiketips seemed to stretch their blanched claws up to his brain. “Only a madbeast would send a badger through that tunnel. You’ve destroyed us.”

Noel bit back images of Foweller, fought back with hollow anger.

“He was wounded,” he said. “He should’ve been put somewhere safe.”

“He was.” Case’s accusations, already weak and weary, died away. “He was…allowed to escape. A fault of ours with which you are already familiar.”

“Who let him go?” Tam cried.

Case waved a paw.

“It matters little now. The beasts you sent through told me about your escape. It may not have been your paws that attacked those on guard, but you surely cannot return to Redwall now.”

“Wrong,” said Noel. “We’re going back tonight.”

“Fool!” Case was alive again now that outrage flared to stir him. “Are you after an early death? You want to march now, now that you’ve burdened us with your refugees, and when my Lieutenant – when this poor lass is dead!”

“More’s gone on than what they told you. And -” Noel forced his gaze onto the dead hare, drinking in the image of a bedazzled young leveret and drowning out the beast whose pistol had pointed at him one too many times. If he squinted he could just make out that the gun’s flintlock was still cocked. “Like you say, I haven’t got any clues on how to raise the dead. No, it was Cassius who said that. Where’s he?”

Case’s face glazed over, as distant as it had been when they found him. He hobbled toward the inner door.

“Follow me.”

* * *

Cassius was sweating, writhing, moaning in turbid sleep. He lay prone on a table in the center of the empty Tremontaine Inn, the building atop the rebel hideaway. As Noel gazed down at him in his pestilent slumber, even the sweet cool air of freedom turned murky and sour.

Case hesitated only a moment, as if seeking somebeast’s permission, before lifting the blanket. Beneath it there stood exposed the oozing mess that had conquered Cassius’s leg, the one Case had shot.

“I did that to him,” said Case. “Cassius, my brother -”

“Why haven’t you got him to a doctor?” Noel snapped.

“Locria was looking after him.” Case lowered the blanket and mumbled the rest of his half-reply. “Now that she’s gone….”

“Who’s left?” said Noel.

“Myself. Flint and Sebastian. Corwin and Irwin watch the door from outside.”

“Don’t forget the rear guard.” Two skeptical eyes stabbed at them from the kitchen door. Merritt sauntered out, followed by the stares of other faces that had become familiar to them in their flight through the tunnel.

Tam crossed her arms, flashing a smug grin as the ferret approached.

“I thought you weren’t gonna do anything reckless.”

“It’s always in my interest to avoid idiocy. I’ve developed a finely tuned sense for it, and, miracle of miracles, I somehow find you two here. Why are you back?” He jerked a claw toward the door – which, as Noel peered at it, betrayed slivers of moonlight between warped hinges. “Your friend left that-a-way.”

“Never mind all the beasts you socked, we’ve been found out,” said Noel. “Isidore knows.”

Merritt’s face plunged into something dark and beyond, for once, the power of his words. Everybeast else had the pleasure of witnessing helpless confusion swamp Case’s expression.

“The beekeeper?” he said.

“More like enforcer, nowadays,” said Tam.

“Well, that won’t do at all,” said Merritt, at last. “I dare say that’s who Selendra’s gone after.”

Noel swiveled on Case, who only looked sideways before answering.

“She disappeared when Clacher broke free.”

“You don’t think she let him -” said Tam, but Merritt cut short the thought almost before it began.

“She has more reason than anybeast here to see him dead,” said Merritt. “What you’d better bother yourself worrying about is why he had us all playing hide-and-seek up here instead of going back to Redwall the way he came.”

“He might’ve heard us coming,” said Noel. “Or he might have sniffed out a real mess starting and turned tail.”

“Mossflower might give him more chance for the kind of stuff he gets up to,” Tam muttered.

“We’ve still got to find him.” Noel felt the eyes in the room turning on him and Tam, and for once he didn’t feel the stares of reproach and ridicule sap his strength. They empowered him. “Merritt, you and the others sound the alarm. Get as many beasts from the city as you can to be at Redwall by morning. I’ll find Clacher.”

“What makes you think I’ll take another pawstep in this trail of destruction you’ve so lovingly crafted?” Merritt demanded. “And what makes you think anybeast will roll out of bed not two hours after midnight just because they’re needed at the red stone shack on the hill?”

“Because if they don’t, it’ll just be us.” As Merritt conceded with gesture of defeat, Noel’s attention caught Flint and Sebastian tread haltingly downstairs. After a quick nod to them, he settled once more on Case. “You get your own self together, and any weapons you’ve got. You started this rot, you’ll bloody be there when it ends.”

“Wait,” said Case. “Take a weapon for the badger before you go.”

Noel waved him off and plowed his way to the front door.

“I won’t need it.”

“Even Martin took he up the sword,” said Flint.

“Well I’m not him, am I?” Noel’s jaw slanted earthward. Flint, Sebastian, Case – they all stared back at him in dull delusion. None of them knew the truth. Only a glimpse into Tam’s clever eyes dragged him back to what had become their awful reality.

“Before you say what I know you’re thinking,” she said, “I’m coming with you.”

“He’ll want that tail of yours.” It was a half-hearted attempt to frighten her and doomed to fail. Tam just grinned back.

“You need somebeast to make sure you do the job right this time.” Her paw closed around his, and with half a smile between them the pair stepped out into Redwall City.

* * *

“It’s late,” said a voice from above, “and if I am not mistaken, mistaken, not where my brother expects you to be.”

In a silent street on the outskirts of Redwall City, the most Noel expected was a paw to come crushing into him from out of the night, or a scream from Tam’s lips as Clacher stole his terrible prize. What they encountered not long after leaving the borders of Redwall and rebellion behind was a gentle flutter of wings, and a dimunitive huddled shadow that came to rest on the road.

Noel nearly uttered the name of the Historian himself, but Tam broke out in a grateful grin.

“You’re Aloysius’s brother,” she said. “I thought you all left.”

“I am Fyfe. And no, we’ve not quite gone, not quite gone. Aloysius has seen fit to make Redwall his home. In a way, it becomes ours as well, as well.” The bat shuffled in place. Noel flicked his gaze at Tam before directing it downward once more.

“We’re looking for a beast,” said Noel.

“I suspect you’re looking for many beasts, many beasts.” Pointed pearlescent teeth winked up at them in the moonlight. “We’re aware of what goes on in that establishment – yes, in the Abbey as well as that inn, that inn. We’ve been hoping to aid and abet it.”

“Have you -” Tam lowered her voice from a delighted cry to a whisper. “Have you found beasts who’ll listen?”

“Some,” said Fyfe, “with memories of simpler times, and with love for something they see dying before them, before them. But you’re not expecting their assistance tonight, are you?”

“We are.” Noel nearly stammered. “But – not us, not right now. We – the badger -”

“It is dark, and his stride is long.” Again, something about the way the light bent around his face suggested Fyfe was smiling. “I doubt a beast like yourself could find him, find him.”

“What about a beast like you?”

* * *

Unlike his fellow sinner Cassius, Clacher had not earned forgiveness enough for the treatment of his wounds. The place in his body where Noel had striven to rend muscle from bone had grown bloated and pungent. No amount of dock leaves, pressed to the site in the safety of the woods where Fyfe’s pitchless shrieks detected him, would save his mutilated arm.

But Noel remembered his own wounds: the bones still creaking in his chest, the blood that had tinged his spittle for a night and a day. As Fyfe led them through the dark, his body’s secret complaints brought him forward, into the open and the dim glow of the clearing.

Clacher froze. Tam did the same, steady but tense in the brush behind Noel, who after announcing his presence stepped forth with clenched fists.

“Stay where you are,” he said. “Stay there and I won’t hurt you.”

Clacher stood up. He held out his paws, as if to express what fear pain had to offer him. Noel saw that he held nothing in them.

Yet they came toward him like pawfuls of knives, claws swiping at air first by lack of speed, then lack of luck. Noel stumbled backward over a downed ash tree, and as he landed every old bruise and tear bore back in on him at once. They pressed him into the dirt and begged him to give up his foolishness, that if he would not discharge the monster he could at least accept a speedy death of his own.

He felt two paws drag him clear of the downward blow that would have killed him. From out of the mud and the leaves they pressed a stone into his hand. He flung it, and blood spewed from Clacher’s nose.

And then the blood flowed from his skull, and from his ears, and it did not stop. Tam’s paws clenched around Noel’s shoulders now in terror. They could only watch, bound together and to the earth as Clacher’s head imploded before them.

Fyfe’s blinding screech brought stillness back to the clearing. Once the insides of Noel’s head stopped rebounding against the sound, he lurched upright and collapsed again on top of the ghost that had appeared to wreak its vengeance on Clacher. The club that killed him finally dropped from Selendra’s grip.

“What’ve you done?” Noel gurgled. “Look what you’ve done.”

“Berend.” Selendra squeaked and writhed underneath him. She felt like a heart beating its last, and Noel leapt back up to tear free of her. “Berend, Berend.”

Fyfe dropped to the ground, brushing against Tam until she too had recovered. Selendra wept, cocooning herself in loam and dust, until finally something called her to stumble upright once more. Noel’s footpaw landed on her club just as she reached for it.

“Enough,” he said. “No more – I said no more!” Selendra tore the club free, and received a goal-scoring belt to the chest for her trouble. The pain didn’t register or didn’t last, only saw her scramble to her paws and stagger choking into the darkness.

Tam didn’t seem to want to look at Noel’s kicking paw either, as embarrassed by his reaction as he was.

“Should we follow her?” asked Tam.

“Let’s get back,” Noel muttered. “We’ll see her again before long.”

Tell a Sacred Story

September 2, 2011

“He’s not going to like this,” said Noel, but his voice creaked with excitement. Even the sour taste that dinner had left in his mouth couldn’t stifle the revelations jumping on his tongue. The lawn between Great Hall and the main doors of Redwall Abbey, where the archive nestled snug opposite the Gatehouse, had never felt wider than at that moment.

“Oh, go on,” said Tam. “It’s a proper riddle, Brother Alo’ll love it. And now we’ve solved it, all we need is for Martin to make one of his famous appearances.”

“What’s that?” Foweller nudged the spade of his shovel with an idle fist.

“You know the old stories – Martin’s spirit appears to brave beasts when Redwall’s in trouble. Fates know it’s about time he showed up.” Tamarack leaned in front of the door just as they arrived, her broad grin barring the way. “You haven’t had any dreams lately, have you, Mr. Noel?”

“Wish I could say so.” Noel chewed his lip and pushed open the door.

Aloysius, upside-down and wrapped tight in sleep, could only be roused after an effort. Two misty, red-rimmed eyes did not hide their disapproval at the onslaught.

“Master Noel,” he croaked, and, after a petite harrumph, “Foweller, Miss Tamarack. Would it surprise you to learn you have even invaded my dreams, my dreams?”

“Must have been a good one, then,” said Noel.

“We think we’ve solved the riddle,” said Foweller.

Tamarack’s prediction came true. Alo swooped from his perch down onto the floor, scuttling along the tiles to his desk. As he went, the Heraldry appeared from where it had been pressed against his heart.

“Well?” he demanded. “Tell me, tell me!”

“We thought about what we decided before we went off to dinner.” Tamarack recounted the points of discussion on her claws. “The page, the line, and the word have got to be talking about the actual pages, lines, and words of the Heraldry, right? So there must be a code hidden in the book itself.”

“Yes, but the sequence – impossible to tell from such gibberish, gibberish.” Aloysius cut short his own sigh and darted his gaze over the trio, searching for an answer.

“We think it’s a number trick,” said Noel. “‘I am that is’, we know that’s Matthias. In a lot of the bum poetry they print on the outside they call him Martin’s second coming.”

“And ‘churchmice’ sounded like it meant Timothy himself,” said Tamarack. “And you said that Tess was his twin sister. Two churchmice!”

“That just leaves the grandson.” Noel crossed his arms and slumped down into his coat. “And that’s the part we can’t figure out.”

But Aloysius threw himself out of his seat, sending an eruption of books and balled-up paper flying across the room.

“Martin!” he squealed. “By Martin, it’s Martin! You see – you see, you see – after Matthias there was Mattimeo. He married Timothy’s sister Tess, and Matthias became a grandfather when they had a son – a son they named Martin the Second.” At the blank stares of his pupils-turned-riddlers, Aloysius could only bumble with ecstasy. “Twos! They are all twos, twos! Just like the record itself, two hundred and twenty-two. How blind we have all been!”

“So what do you think?” said Noel. “Page two, line two, word two?”

“Likely it is more than that, Master Noel. The Heraldry is quite a book – I expect Timothy hid quite a message there for us, for us.” Only Aloysius’s voice was still with them. He had returned to his desk headfirst, digging out quill, ink, and paper. When he reemerged his face was that of a bat far younger than Noel remembered. “Now – let us begin.”

Aloysius opened the book to its second crinkled, withering page, and traced one dainty claw along the second line to its second word.

“Well, what is it?” cried Tamarack.

“Very promising, promising. ‘The’.” Aloysius squinted up at his companions, across a distance of only a few inches where their heads had packed together over his shoulder. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but this is a task best left to one dedicated historian, historian. Do not be so downcast! It will not take long. You may return within the hour.”

* * *

Noel could remember a time when the walls whispered his name. They breathed with the spirit of the peaceful warrior, the wanderer whose journey had come to an end. In the first few weeks of his extended stay at Redwall, a lockdown had seemed a pleasure.

Today the walls stared down at him, stern and lifeless. The red sandstone had turned murky brown in the twilight. They encroached on his soul.

Dawdling in the grass outside Aloysius’s study, Tamarack and Foweller were a welcome comfort. Most of their hushed and fervent chatter was spent daring one another to suggest what secrets the message would unveil.

“Maybe it is a prophecy.” Noel traced a dream-cloud in the dust between his footpaws. “It might even mention us.”

“I bet it says Carter is actually half-weasel,” said Foweller.

“Nah. He’s far too ugly for that.”

“How long ago did Brother Timothy live, Mr. Noel?” asked Tamarack.

Noel shrugged.

“Sorry. Most of what I know’s about Martin. I didn’t even remember there was a second one.” He sneaked a grin at Foweller’s shovel. “Or a third.”

“They’re all the same at the end of the day.” Foweller beamed. “Ridding the world of vermin, one dirty murderous weasel at a time.”

If they had not followed that with a pause, if somebeast had thought of something else to say, Noel might not have made the connection. Tamarack looked away, as if she had heard his heart go silent.

“Foweller,” he breathed. “Virrel – was it you that….”

The little otter seemed to perceive for once that this weasel had a heart. Apprehension tarried on his face only an instant before disgust shoved its way past.

“A beast with half a brain ‘twixt his ears would be glad. Rigg said that when you found out about Ripple, you -” Foweller made as if to get up and leave, but just turned the other way in his rudderless seat.

“I’m not sorry he’s gone.” It didn’t surprise Noel to admit it, but it shamed him. “I wish I could be, but all I feel’s…relief. I feel free. I….” He lowered his head. “I just wanted him to be me brother. But he never was that.”

Foweller reached into the dust and grasped Noel’s paw. When Noel looked into his face he saw it had changed like a turning tide, full of grin and mayhem once more.

“Soldiers are brothers,” he said. “They’re bound in blood and fire. There’s nothin’ stronger.”

Noel squeezed his paw in return. Tamarack stood over them, nodding back toward the archives.

“C’mon,” she said. “Curfew’ll start soon. May as well pester Brother Aloysius while we still can.”

* * *

The archive had not changed since they left, still untidy and raging with dustclouds – yet there was something newly broken in the atmosphere. Noel and Tam exchanged a glance. Foweller bolted forward.

When they reached Aloysius’s desk they found only the bat, still alone and still alive. He cringed and trembled and did not acknowledge them.

“It was nothing, wasn’t it?” Tamarack mumbled. “Just gibberish, like you said.”

“Worse than that. Lies, lies. Callous lies.” Aloysius strangled the paper in his claws. “It says – it dares to suggest – our Martin, our guiding spirit -”

Noel reached out a paw.

“Let me see.”

“It is absurdity.” Aloysius yielded his notes without argument, eager to give them up. “A dead end, dead end. Brother Timothy must have been no more than a charlatan.”

“No.” Before Noel’s eyes had finished tumbling down the page, he too was shaking. Just like love, he recalled, he could sense the truth.

The letters grew scrawling and weak as Aloysius had watched his faith crumble away. Noel’s voice did the same as he read aloud:

The Society of Martin formed soon after his death. He was not buried in secret, but with fanfare at Redwall’s heart. Those who remained swore to follow the ways of Martin and the Woodlander’s Code.

Time passed. War and famine challenged Redwall. Hope failed.

Fables of Martin told in Mossflower became truth to many. Visitors came telling of miracles and visitations. Inspired, Saxus enshrined legends in recorded history. It was accepted, then taught, that he came to heroes in dreams. Prophecies were concocted. All forgeries and fiction. But faith in Martin revived.

Falsehoods were discovered many times by scholars. Those who found the truth had to choose: die or join. History was rewritten to eliminate these incidents from the record. Soon only beasts selected by the order were allowed to hold positions of leadership, to minimize exposure.

Treaties with vermin tribes made Redwall neutral ground. War came only when the order thought to frighten abbeybeasts into submission. Salamandastron ensured damage was not excessive. Wars did not break out, they were organized. The rat general and fox slaver broke the agreements.

This writer’s brother makes demands: vermin must never enter Redwall, must be destroyed when possible. Much disagreement resulted. Society, among which this scribe is shamefully counted, nearly split. Compromise that vermin will be called enemies of Redwall, but when abbeybeasts grow too content vermin are summoned to carry out what has been made their ancestral duty.

This one knows not if Martin truly lived, but reliquary holds treasures of fondest heroes, alongside names of those who defied the order. The sword remains. This Recorder gives you what truth is known. He begs who reads this to learn the rest.

If the walls of Redwall had been tightening around Noel before, they were collapsing on him now.

There were no questions in him anymore. He sensed there were still answers left to be found, but they were faraway hopes, stylized ideals, only silhouettes of reality. In the absence of his continual dogged assault on the truth, only Foweller’s innocent query made it up to the goal line.

“I thought there were only two churchmice,” he said. “If Timothy had a brother, too, then the words must be wrong.”

“Mattimeo was Timothy’s brother-in-law,” said Aloysius. “The rat and the fox are Cluny the Scourge and Slagar the Cruel. It appears the effects of the war and his enslavement as a Dibbun drew vengeance from his heart, his heart. Before then, this Society appears to have had genuine intentions.”

“They lied.” Noel’s throat was raw, as if the message had poisoned him on its way out. The others were still crowded round him, their eyes fixed on him and on the sheaf in his paws. He felt like a clown and a broken creature. “Martin’s dead. He always has been. Maybe he never even -”

There was a terrible resolve in the way Noel’s pawsteps took him toward the door. He didn’t know where he was going.

“Stop, Master Noel.” Aloysius’s voice reached him as if from a great distance, but on the verge of the doorway Noel lingered to obey. “Martin did exist. I do not know to what reliquary Brother Timothy refers, but he is right. The Warrior’s paws still held that sword that has seen so much bloodshed. This…this may redefine our faith, but it does not destroy it, destroy it.

“We do not,” Aloysius gulped back tears, “we do not need dreams. Even the early Society knew this. They lived by the Code, the Code. As must we all.”

Noel turned back to face him, leaning against the doorframe for support.

“Nobeast will believe this,” he said.

“Perhaps not, but Brother Timothy has made a request. I…I think it only polite to honor it, honor it.”

“To learn the truth.” Noel still struggled to hold himself upright, but his smile shone bright and strong. “I can do that.”

Earlier, that morning…

“Erm…Brother Aloysius?”

Noel wasn’t sure what to expect when the bat turned to face him. What he saw was surprise, but there was something tugging at the corners of Aloysius’s mouth – up or down, he couldn’t quite tell – that suggested something deeper.

“All right?” said Noel, faintly.

“Yes. There is a difference in how you appear just now – that is all, that is all.”

“I meant after last night.” Noel edged his way further into the sanctity of the archives, bending his spine to fit stacks of books, pawing in short stubby steps to avoid seasons-old records papering the floor.

“I am well enough, well enough. The occasional adventure does an old body no harm. Apologies for the state of my archives – Saskia and I have just been in search of an old record of mine, of mine.”

As Aloysius inclined his head toward the book open before him, Noel took the opportunity to reach for the tome weighing down his own coat, the one he and Tam had coaxed from Locria’s submissive paws.

“What’s that?” Noel asked. Aloysius obliged to lift the cover and show him. “The Complete Records of Brother Timothy Churchmouse?”

The archivist’s mild expression betrayed a twinge of what Noel suspected was irritation. The volume was lying open at the end, but Aloysius’s claws returned it to the middle.

“An omnibus of mine – although ‘complete’ may be a relative term, relative term.”

“Think this would help?” Noel withdrew the book from his coat and laid it beside Timothy’s chronicles. Aloysius leapt up in his seat, the haze of sleep once clouding over him cleared in an instant as he grasped it like the paw of an old and well-missed friend.

“Noel – this is the Heraldry! Where did you get it, get it?”

“A couple of the lads back at the hideout were kind enough to lend it to me.” Noel only half-winked, interrupted by that expression renewing itself on Aloysius’s face. “What’s the matter?”

“Something has indeed changed about you.” A flicker of worry crept into Aloysius’s eyes. “You remember the story of Blaggut, don’t you, don’t you?”

“Aye, and I remember another about a beast named Romsca.”

Aloysius folded his claws before him.

“Romsca was a brave soul, but a lonely one. In the end she died at violent paws.”

“Okay, well.” When Aloysius looked up again it was to Noel’s grinning teeth. “I don’t plan to follow in her exact pawsteps.”

“How do you plan to proceed, proceed?”

“I want the killing to stop. I’m goin’ to stop the killer.”

“You don’t mean to attack the Abbot – again -”

Noel waved a paw.

“I can handle one otter in a green dress -” He winced, tilting his head at Aloysius’s habit as an apology, and added, “It’s the other beasts on his ticket I’ve got me eye on. Got to make him powerless. I don’t know about you, but one more death and I’ll…oh, for Martin’s sake.”

The sorrow that dimmed the bat’s face at that final remark said everything Noel needed to know. Aloysius reached for his paw.

“My friend, I have more sad news, sad news.”

* * *

Tamarack was waiting outside for him on the lawns, a triumphant grin threatening to burst at her muzzle. Noel hated to rob it from her, but he didn’t have to – it was gone as soon as he came slouching forth into the sunlight.

“Fates,” she whispered. “What is it? Did he tell -”

“No. It’s Bludd.” There were no tears this time. Perhaps they had all been spent on Ripple, or perhaps he had already known. “Aloysius found her in the woods this morning. She’d been dead a while.”

Tamarack gave a sound that Noel couldn’t identify as gasp or sigh, but she covered her mouth all the same. It grieved him that she might have to fake her own horror, but could more death actually shock them now?

“We should’ve believed her,” she whispered, claws reaching up to dig into her forehead. “Say what you like about Cobb, this really is my fault.”

“I’ll say what I like about whatever I like. It’s not and you know it.” Noel glared, seeking the fire in his heart until he struck upon the plan outlined to Aloysius not five minutes before. “Who were the beasts after her again? Tell me for certain.”

“Brother Isidore. Mr. Rigg was with him.”

Noel turned his glare inward. Despite Ripple, despite the impassable void now yawning between them, he failed to conceive an image of that rat capable of such a crime – even knowing the truth, he couldn’t make himself see. Why was that? What stood in his path?

“I’m gonna find ‘em, then.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Noel led their storming way toward the Abbot’s house. With Tam at his right paw he tried to smile, in vain only because of this nameless obstacle still obscuring his sight.

* * *

They never made it to Isidore. Rigg presented a more immediate opportunity near the entrance to Great Hall, holding conference there with a badger Noel loathed to recognize.

Maybe Rigg sensed this supposed change in Noel, too. He motioned Clacher to silence and nodded at their approach, a faint smile playing about his eyes.

“Noel,” he said.

“Rigg.”

“You seen Fowel this mornin’, I guess?”

“You seen Bludd?”

“Aye. Not too long ago.” Rigg’s smile vanished. “Aloysius brought her in from the little wood. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“We were thinking Brother Isidore might,” said Tamarack.

Rigg crossed his arms and fixed the duo with that haughty slant-eyed suspicion Noel was so familiar with.

“I think Brother Isidore’s seen enough o’ you for a while,” said Rigg. “If you’ve got any sense o’ decency you’ll let well enough alone.”

“Suppose we did see somethin’,” said Noel. It came out sudden, harsh and unnatural. He wondered if this was what wheedling sounded like in his voice. “Maybe we could help.”

“What do you think you saw?” said Rigg. “I’m fair convinced you two must’ve dug yourselves a little cave somewhere for when you’re not busy attackin’ Father Abbot – where do you two get off to?”

Noel swore under his breath and spun toward the Great Hall doors. Tam hung behind him a moment with their still-unfinished business.

“C’mon,” he snapped. “I need a drink.”

The vixen skipped up beside him, bouncing with impatience and confusion.

“I thought we were going to the Abbot’s,” she whispered.

“Quick detour. The cellars,” said Noel. He was breathing fast. “Stay close to me, Tam.”

* * *

The beasts of Redwall Abbey bustled past on their hungry way to Cavern Hole, taking little notice of the grim-faced pair. By contrast with the ground floor halls growing warm with noonday sun, the cellar was cool, calm and empty. It was just the right time of day for heading back through the tunnel. But the plan in Noel’s head was different, and too terrible to convey.

“Tam.” It was the first thing Noel had said since his abrupt turn back inside the abbey, uttered once they were deep down an aisle of cellarhog ale kegs. “When he comes down the stairs I need you to go, run. Find Flint or Sebastian, whoever we know on our side who’s got a spare bit o’ muscle between his shoulders.”

“Noel, for Martin’s sake, what’s going on?”

“Clacher’s coming.”

“How do you -”

“I think he was the one who…did it to Bludd. When I fed ‘em that line just now, it wasn’t Rigg who looked like he wanted to wring me neck.” Noel almost grasped at his own collar. Cassius was wrong, in a way – he could feel the noose tightening, but as if it were snaking around his soul. “Tam, what should I do?”

Tamarack’s confusion had failed to lift. Her gaze was one of upturned eyebrows and worried eyes.

“If he killed her,” she said, “and if he’s one of these beasts we’re talking about who’s doing Carter’s dirty work…we have to get rid of him.”

“He has to die.”

Tamarack nodded, but it was slow – and worse, doubtful.

Heavy pawsteps rang out like belltolls dampened by rust, cutting short any further protest, obscured only briefly by the slamming of the cellar door and the sound of something dense being set to in front of it. Tam tightened her grip on Noel’s paw.

“I won’t let him hurt you, Tam,” he whispered. “I’ll distract him and you run.”

“Two dead weasels in a day – a fine day.” It wasn’t a voice they heard often, but it broke like distant thunder. “Only a shame they didn’t bring me the brother’s tail to match.”

“I won’t let him hurt you,” said Noel. Tears began streaming at once down either side of his face. “I won’t let him, I won’t let him -”

“Noel – oh, Fates -”

The thing blocking his sight, the mystery feeling that wouldn’t let him see Isidore as a killer, that for years stayed his fist from his brother’s face, that breathed in that open letter from the post still sitting in his coat pocket – it sparked and burned and took shape in the light. It stabbed him over and over again somewhere he couldn’t defend. Like he could sense love now, he had always been able to sense the truth: that somebeast who had been part of him was dead, and that in a few moments he would be, too.

“Tam, go. Go now!”

She burst forth from their hiding place, tearing across the darkened cellar like a rust-colored comet. Clacher swung his club, but too late, striking a shelf support in her wake. A full keg dropped a yard to the earth, contents running out like watery blood across the floor. Noel leapt forward, taking up one of the shattered staves in his paw.

Something like gunfire exploded into his side and burst in diamond sprays before his eyes. He felt himself flying, only for a moment, until a jutted-out keg tap connected with one of his kidneys. The pitch of his scream was too high to carry sound, but he heard the crunch as he landed and the heavy pawsteps coming for him, fast.

Noel hadn’t a chance, he knew. It was Virrel who’d been the brawler. If only he had a gun – he could nick a dry leaf in the breeze – but bullets exploded and mushroomed and killed. And if Virrel was dead, there was nobeast left whom he had ever desired to destroy. He was free.

The club came down just as he rolled out of the way, and it didn’t lift fast enough to evade the jagged stave Noel drove sideways into cords of muscle. Clacher made no sound as Noel kicked it deeper into his arm. He would have twisted it to ensure the badger would never lift a club again, but that club was coming for him in the other paw.

Blood was burbling from his gullet like strawberry fizz, but still he darted, still he climbed, finding purchase in the shelves against the wall. They were desperately near the rack hiding the secret doorway from view, and he could suddenly remember the way Aloysius’s delicate throat had felt in his claws. It must have been similar to how his ankle felt in Clacher’s, now that he had caught him up halfway up his ascent. Noel dug his claws into the back of the shelving, felt his knuckles bury themselves against the wall as from the other end Clacher tried to stretch his long weak body to nothing.

And then he could feel his mind start to spin as up became down and time became infinite and the whole rack came toppling down upon them both.

* * *

Tam was only gone a few moments. Sebastian himself was already on the other side, straining to force the door, witness to their silent pursuit but too late to intervene. When Tam had levered the mighty keg of October Ale free of the door, they paused only long enough to watch it fly down the steps, rolling to a long sad stop against the far wall.

It was there that they found a choking, bloodied weasel pacing in broken steps above a badger, stunned and half-crushed by a demolished rack of shelving, a halo of shattered jars smashed to pieces against his skull.

“What am I gonna do with you?” Noel shrieked. “What am I gonna do?”

Tam rushed toward him, just quick enough to catch him as he slumped into her arms.

Sebastian held back only a moment to assure himself that the beast stumbling into the cellar after them was Flint. When the hedgehog returned to the crisis before him, his rigid face swelled with an unexpected pity.

“You’ve made a right ruddy mess, haven’t you?” he mumbled. Sorting through the heap of tools and glass from the fallen shelves, he produced a bung hammer and shuffled toward the prone form of the badger on the floor.

“Stop.” Noel’s head emerged from Tam’s embrace, a paw wiping the blood from his muzzle. “Open the tunnel. We’ll clean up. You and Flint take him through, if you can manage him safe. Tell Locria to find a better place for him than where they stuck Aloysius.”

Sebastian shook his head, but question overrided argument.

“What are you goin’ to do – chuck every undesirable out into Redwall City like it’s your own personal dustbin? And what makes you think they won’t come back?”

“They never did,” said Noel, pausing to wheeze, “when Martin sent them away.”

The hedgehog opened his mouth only to shut it again. He repeated the process twice more before cursing aloud and gesturing for Flint to help him move the rack and expose the tunnel. Tamarack helped Noel move a few yards away, the pair of them feeling his bones crack as if they belonged to one another.

“Mr. Noel,” she murmured. “Are you sure that part of the stories was true? They never said if the…vermin ever came back or not.”

He could have pontificated about Martin like he did to Isidore in happier days, or to Virrel when he would listen, but he wasn’t sure how to tell her that Clacher’s life would continue because Noel was a slave to something else besides truth.

In an instant, Tamarack recognized the letter Noel took forth from his pocket.

“Is that from your home?” she asked.

He just handed it to her. This is what it said:

Noel,

You and I are through, if you think I am going to wait one more day for you to get the idiot out of jail you are gravly mistaken, where have you been? Dad says Redwall is closed but if thats your excuse for not saying nothing to me in 3 months then you can just get stuffed all rite!!

P.S. I hate your stupid flowers, they have all dried out and Mum is on me to get rid of them

L
xoxo

At Tamarack’s questioning look, Noel lowered his eyes to the ground.

“That’s Lucy,” he mumbled.

“She don’t sound real fond of you at the minute.” Tam offered the letter back to him, her voice painfully distant. Noel waved the paper away.

“She’s not here right now. You are, though, Tam, and – I need you.” He buried his face back in her arms and made no sound.

He’d done it for the truth.

That was what Noel told himself, hanging in Tamarack’s wake and savoring these fresh proud bruises layered over Rigg’s barrage from the afternoon. They throbbed like hammer blows on a new-forged blade, each one struck home with brutal precision – and yet those claws had lifted the most fragile of honeybees onto the breeze.

There was no silence in which to ponder – that was only an illusion. The world went on rumbling around him, impatient for him to catch up.

“Father Abbot,” said Emmerich, “begging your pardon, but if you could take this weasel off my doorstep we’d like to deal with Tam in our own way.”

Carter nodded and bowed his head, still crowned by his nightcap.

“Of course. Young Tamarack has nothing but my forgiveness. Grief strikes our hearts in different places, and the young most deeply…but I must admit, my son, that I am deeply disappointed in you.” Carter turned toward Noel but averted his eyes, glancing over his head at Isidore behind him. “I fear I was mistaken – you do not yet appear ready to join our order.”

Carter hobbled ahead of them out of the graveyard, leaving the once-pupil, once-master trailing him in what was now true silence. It didn’t last. Isidore’s paw sought Noel in the darkness, tightening about his arm, possessive and unkind.

“You’ve done a fool thing this night, lad.”

Noel yanked himself free, stumbled backwards into the light still burning dim in the Coffincreepers’ window.

“I won’t let him hide the truth.”

“Don’t enslave yourself to ideals you don’t understand.” Isidore’s claws remained outstretched for a moment, then closed on themselves in a fist. “Last chance, boy. If you turn your back on this place now -”

But like a petulant kit, that was just what Noel did.

* * *

Noel huddled in the empty corner of the dormitory where Virrel had once sealed himself away from the good beasts of Redwall Abbey. In his paws he cradled his brother’s secret: a book. Pages here and there had been marked off with a selection of Merritt’s saucier leaflets – Noel, red-eared, recognized a particularly wrinkled image pilfered from his own drawer at home – but it was clear from the underlined syllables in Martin the Warrior: A Dibbun’s History what Virrel had really been up to.

Outside the window it was still dark. Most of Noel’s night had been spent storing up precious sleep, interrupted only by a midnight trip to the larders to fill the gaping hole in his belly. The satchel of cold oatcakes and dried fish sitting beside him, meanwhile, was reserved for another’s stomach.

Noel scooped it up off the floor and crept down the stairs, taking a long and darkened path toward the graveyard around the foot of the belltower. Some dutiful soul, perhaps Isidore himself, had been there since: only a slick patch of flattened grass remained to mark the scene.

Cobb was only one step away from Tamarack, and now that he was standing outside a back window of the Coffincreeper home, so was Noel.

“Tam?” The answer to his soft taps came swift and sleepless, a shadowy face betraying tears still fresh enough to catch the moonlight. Tamarack appeared at the back porch moments later, shutting the door behind her.

“Oh, Mr. Noel, we’ve made a terrible mistake – it wasn’t him.”

“What -” The pair of goggles she offered him only scored deeper lines of confusion into his weary features. He turned Cobb’s eyepieces over in his paws. “What’s this mean?”

“Abbot Carter had nothing to do with – with Mr. Cobb. He – oh, Fates, it’s all my fault. If only I hadn’t pushed him so hard. He must’ve been so scared up there!”

The picture was a hazy one, but Cobb alone on the belltower could only paint one portrait in the end: that of a beast in utter despair. Noel seized Tamarack in his paws, desperate that she not cast herself under the same shadow.

“You listen to me. It’s not your fault, all right? If anybeast deserves the blame, it’s me.” His paws slid from her shoulders, his gaze to the field of graves stretching away from them into the night. “I shouldn’t’ve let us go after the Abbot like that. I put us right in the open.”

“He already knew about me.” Tam shook her head, as fierce as Noel had been a moment before. “He has almost since the beginning. I’m not in any more danger now than I was afore you got dragged into this.”

“Things have changed.” He didn’t say so, but Isidore was right: he had been overwhelmed by something he didn’t comprehend. But the real crime was that his lust for truth had put Tam in the line of fire. “I think we should go.”

Tamarack looked down at the satchel in his paw, and there was alarm in her eyes when they snapped back up to Noel.

“For how long?” she demanded.

“I don’t know. We need to get you out of their way.”

“We can’t up and leave now,” said Tam. “And where’ll we go – to those bloodthirsty beasts in that tunnel, who won’t even tell us a thing? Mr. Noel, I can’t.”

Noel’s claws tightened around the satchel as he searched the indistinct heights of the battlements for an answer. It was there that he found Isidore was wrong: Noel hadn’t turned his back on this place. He never would.

“You’re right,” he said. “Let’s just pop by for a chat.”

* * *

“The bells of St. Ninian’s,” Noel whispered, “still chime at midnight.”

The sealed door at the pitch-dark end of the tunnel swung open, inviting the flickering light of Noel’s torch to illuminate the sneer of their most unfriendly ally.

“Wot are you two doin’ back here?” Locria lifted her pistol from her side, allowing the barrel to slide past Noel to the darker shape at his side. “Don’t tell me you’ve buggered us already -”

“Don’t you ever point that at her again!” Noel bowled into her, a cannonball of muscle and claws, sending them both to the floor in a mottled, thrashing heap. Tamarack’s cry was matched by another from within the cavernous meeting place.

“Enough. Enough, lad, you’ll kill ‘er!” Cassius’s words had an effect, one that tore Noel from Locria’s prone form as swiftly and violently as he had collided with it. The pine marten creaked down on his knees beside his Lieutenant, only standing again upon satisfaction that she still lived. But his frame remained bent. “Are you a madbeast? What’s ‘appened, where’s Flint?”

“Flint’s fine.” After this first foray into speech, Tamarack’s voice retreated into quiet. “But…Cobb’s dead.”

“You remember him, don’t you, Cassius?” Noel retrieved his torch from the floor outside and shut the door, punctuating his query with a slam. “Or is he like me – not worth the memory ‘til he’s of use to you?”

Cassius did something then that even Noel wasn’t expecting: he backed away. The room had been his and Locria’s alone, with only a guttering candle and a disheveled heap of papers on the table in their company.

“Let’s not get hasty, lad. O’ course I remember ‘im – and the fourth beast, too.” He allowed himself half a wicked grin. “Or ‘ave you forgotten her?”

“She’s missing.” A stillness came over Noel and Tamarack both. In the tunnels he had described his visit to the bush where he had last uncovered Bludd in time of need, and the particularly violent kick he had dealt it this very evening. There had been no cackle, no shriek, no answer. “That’s why we’re here.”

“Well, you won’t find her ‘ere.” Cassius spread his paws wide, displaying nothing. “And I ain’t got no ideas on raisin’ the dead. I’m sorry for yer friend, but they’ll pay ten times his weight in blood.”

“Somebeast will, but not them,” said Noel. “Of all the beasts you’ve killed, was Carter in among ‘em?”

Cassius’s arms sank back to his sides, taking his smile with it.

“We only done what needed doin’, lad. You think you could do better?”

“Yeah. I do.” Noel spun away from him to set his torch in a crumbling wall bracket. “Face it: you lot have no idea what’s really goin’ on in there. You don’t know what you’re doin’ – nor you nor Case and especially not that beast there, if she’d point a gun at your best hope for putting Redwall back in the right paws.”

“You want a bloodless revolution, eh? What would you suggest we do, then? Reason with the nutters? You must be jokin’.”

“You keep raising your forces.” Tam recited the skeletal plan she and Noel had crafted together during their aching journey through the darkness. “We report to you directly, no middle beasts, and you make the moves we tell you to make.”

Cassius laughed long and loud, crossing his arms as if to hold his sides.

“Well, miss – well, miss! You are jokin’. We’ve got beasts in Redwall closer to the thick o’ this thing than you’ll ever be, and they’ve been that way longer’n you’ve been alive.”

“Aye, they’re close,” said Noel. “Too close. They’re bloody entrenched. They can’t even get at this Tompkins, the one raw link in the chain, without riskin’ the house of cards you lot’ve built. Carter may have it out for us but at least we don’t have a game to spoil.”

Cassius stood still, but only for a moment. When he uncrossed his arms they reached for the far door, the one that spilled forth sweet free air from the city above.

“Fine. You want to play games? I’ll ‘ave a word with Case. Keep in mind you’ve only found one bloody pin on yore own, and that was by accident!”

Noel grinned, and Tam only reflected his triumph.

“You have a chat, then. We’ll be here.”

Cassius growled, jabbing a paw at Locria beginning to wheeze on the floor.

“You clean that up! And ‘ere, ‘ave some light readin’ while you wait.” He plunged his fist into the pile of papers, trawling from its depths a slim bound packet of opened letters. Cassius shoved them into Noel’s paws without ceremony. “Post. For you. Been backed up for ages in Redwall City, seein’ as they ain’t been lettin’ through so much as an ant’s note home to its mum. Thought we’d pick it up for you since you joined, expected you’d be grateful, but you’re damn cocky for a beast who can’t even feel the noose round his own neck!”

Noel snorted and sliced a claw through the twine around the bundle. Ridiculous, was he, or realistic? Unlike Cobb or Ripple, who did he have that would weep if he died – his unassuming parents? Virrel, probably back to harassing passers-by in Mossflower Wood? There was only –

He froze at the sight of the topmost letter. Like the rest it was open, scanned by the keen eyes of the resistance, but before Noel could glare in protest a double-take drew his eyes back down to the signature at the end of the page.

“Oh,” he said.

Tam tilted her head at him, brows furrowed.

“What is it?”

“Nothing, just….” He gave a sigh, a little cough that might have been of all things a laugh. “I was just now thinking of this beast.”