Noel heard the gun fire in his dreams. There had only been one shot then, not three – the past in his mind was a kaleidoscope of light and leaves, trees drawing their lazy afternoon shadows across the forest floor. Noel tramped along the path, footpaws sinking into the soft loam with the weight of stolen goods. What was left of the trade caravan had dispersed and the carts were nothing but cold ashes left crumbling into the earth. It was quiet.

Shurrer caught up with him, muzzle full of his sharp stoaty smirk.

“All right, Noel?”

“Will be when I unload this mess.” Noel shifted the half-crate of fruit in his arms. It released a fragrance of faraway lands, promising flavors of which he had never dreamed – exotic delicacies that beasts like the Boss lived on as a matter of privilege. The smell made him sick.

Shurrer gave him a not unfriendly jab in the ribs.

“Did I ever tell ye I’m gettin’ tired o’ cleanin’ up after yore mess?” he said.

“What d’you mean?”

“That mouse from the caravan – you didn’t finish ‘im off.”

“So what?” Noel shifted the crate again. The scent was choking him now.

“So you can’t leave witnesses be’ind. Puts us all in danger.”

“We’re in danger anyways, raidin’ caravans in broad daylight.”

“Boss’s orders. Same as hushin’ up anybeast old enough and male enough to make a fuss.” Shurrer cleaned his claws on his rough smock. “You want t’ last in this crew much longer, you do yore own dirty work from now on.”

Noel stopped short. Shurrer had to hop-skip up to his side to keep from bumbling into him.

“You killed him?” Noel breathed. “Just now?”

“Just now.”

“But he ran. I saw him run.”

“I caught up with ‘im.”

The crate hit the ground, sweet strange orbs tinged of twilight bursting upon the earth, bleeding yellow and orange and red. Before Shurrer could scurry back into the safety of the woods Noel had crushed him against the wide trunk of an oak, seething and spitting, claws sunk deep into his arms.

“How many others? How many have you killed?”

“What in Hellgates – ah! Noel, that ‘urts – ah! Just ‘im, all right, and like two before ‘im. F’r pity’s sake let me go -!”

“Oi, you louts, quit brawlin’!” Jirrock the ferret burst from the trees, dark eyes sparkling with dimwitted mirth. “Come an’ see this! There’s an otter from Redwall over yonder, says ‘e wants t’ fight the Boss.”

* * *

Eight years later, Noel tumbled out of bed and onto the bone-cracking wood floor of the dormitory at Redwall Abbey.

“Where is he?” It was Rigg, somewhere up above him. Noel began to suspect he had slept late – afternoon sunlight cut through the window and blinded the otter from view.  “Where’s he gone?”

Noel blinked sleep from his eyes, still clinging to the hope he had been clumsy enough to roll out of his dream, had not been yanked from it into this nightmare. But the bedsheets were hanging from Rigg’s claws and his footpaw was on Noel’s chest.

“Eh?” Noel mumbled. “Who?”

Rigg unleashed a sound halfway between a roar and scream. First he threw the wadded-up sheets into Noel’s face, then his fist. Noel’s reaction was automatic and outdated, a relic of Virrel’s time: he curled up into a ball, hiding in vain from the blows as they pelted down.

“Rigg – Rigg, enough!” This voice was one Noel never thought he would be grateful to hear. When the punching ceased and he dared to peek, Carter was there heaving his whole weight against Rigg in the other direction. “My son! It won’t bring him back.”

The attack forgotten, Noel uncoiled and crawled forward, aching, onto his knees.

“What happened?” he demanded. “Who’s missing?”

Rigg wiped spittle from his mouth.

“Your bloody brother, that’s who.”

“Virrel – is he all right?” What was this poison flooding his chest, pushing out against his ribs until they might snap? Not fear of Virrel – that was dead now, deposed by fear of the otter in the drowsy green habit now standing before him. Noel recalled his dream, the mouse that Shurrer had left decaying in a lonely corner of Mossflower Wood. There was another fear – a fear! – that Virrel had joined him.

Rigg failed to see the irony, but still he laughed before storming out into the corridor. Carter was left gazing down at Noel with eyes not unlike a skeleton’s boring into those of its murderer. Noel could not explain, then, the steady even finality of his own voice.

“Where is my brother?”

“He is all right, but there has been a terrible accident,” said Carter. “Virrel has been careless, and now our friend Ripple is dead.”

All his afternoons with Isidore, all his one-sided conversations with Martin – they had done nothing to prepare him for the feelings that collapsed on him now. He even failed to detect the break in Carter’s voice as the name of dead otter passed his lips. Horror – outrage – fear – pride – injured pride, for himself and for his brother, the brother he had sworn not only to watch over but to protect. What had Virrel done? How did it feel to have taken a life in his paws?

“Careless my tail rudder,” Rigg snarled from outside. “Skip told us all he was no good, he warned Rip to stay away from him. Look where it got him!”

“How?” said Noel at last. “How did it happen?”

“He shot him! He ruddy well shot him!” Rigg made his terrible return, striking Noel in the back of the head, sending his face into the floor before Carter could flail another attempt at restraint. “Did he know how to use a gun? Did he?”

“I don’t know.” Noel pushed himself back up on all fours, felt himself cough. Something burbled in his chest and he coughed again. He was crying. “I don’t know.”

“You can’t get out of it that easy,” Rigg cried. “By Hellgates I’ll have you and him both for this -”

“Rigg!” Noel didn’t see Carter send him from the room, but when he looked up again the big otter was gone and the Abbot was kneeling by his side. “Forgive him, my son. Three deaths in as many days is too much for any beast, especially when it was one of his own. Ripple made our Abbey proud this morning – the very prize he earned for it was what killed him.”

Noel collapsed onto his elbows, sobbing like a kit. The words tore from his mouth unchecked, but Martin was in his heart and his brother’s life on his mind.

“Forgive him, please. Forgive me – Father!”

Carter’s paw was light on his shoulder, his voice nearly pleased from behind the curtain of grief.

“It was an accident, my son, but you speak rightly – it still must be atoned for. I urge you to speak to the bereaved, but your path does not end there. Once again, I would have you follow in the pawsteps of our Brother Isidore and join our order. There your soul may find true rest.”

* * *

Word spread like darkness, and the Abbey fell under a shroud of despair. Pawsteps rang hollow, and strange echoes seemed to call down from the battlements. Carter had returned with Rigg to the Abbot’s house, which left Noel feeling more starkly than ever that he was alone.

Though his mind sought her out, Tam was nowhere to be found. With a vague memory that she had been close to Ripple – who would never join her now on the campball pitch, not ever – it seemed wiser to let her be. In his sojourn across the lawns, however, he came across another shade like himself, eyes ringed with the same kind of empty sleep from which Noel had just been torn.

“Foweller – Foweller! Where’s Ripple?” The otter jerked his head toward him and paused for a moment before secreting something away in his belt. Noel winced, reached out a paw that didn’t quite cross the distance between them. “Foweller, please, for Martin’s sake.”

“They won’t let me see him.” Foweller would not look directly at him, only around and below and through him. “Uncle Skip’s still in there.”

“I’m sorry,” said Noel. The words stood as they were: words and nothing more. But the thought hung before him that if he had just taken Virrel away…but then the rebels might have had both of them. They might have Virrel now….

“I’ll be doing us both a favor.” The grin on Foweller’s muzzle was manic. “Next time I see that filthy murderer, he’s dead.”

Noel staggered backward. It was not a joke or one of those delusions the young otter seemed to play host to from time to time. In that moment, at least, Noel could see his brother – the creature he loathed, had feared the last four years of his life – die at this beast’s paw. The thought wrenched his guts like one of Virrel’s punches never could.

Noel mumbled a reply unintelligible even to himself and disappeared, plunging his paws into his coat pocket in search of answers. His claws brushed a thin sheet of crinkled paper.

* * *

“Psst, Cobb, goin’ to see Foremole now. Want to come?”

The mole sat perched on a stone memory seat a few yards outside the Coffincreeper home, eyes obscured behind the amber tint of his goggles. The alarm in the rest of his features was plain enough.

“But Noel, haven’t you’m heard -”

“Yeah.” The weasel turned his eyes to the ground, then back up to his partner in crime – if that was indeed what they were up to. “I’m gonna find him. I have to, before somebeast else does. That’s why I need your help right now.”

“What do you’m think Oi can do?”

Noel slipped Case’s coded message from his coat pocket, lowering his voice beneath the breeze.

“We got to get this to Foremole, remember? The sooner they think they can trust us the sooner I get a chance at that tunnel and figure out where Virrel’s gone.”

Cobb nodded and lumbered to his footpaws.

“Oi’ll do what Oi can. You’m think Oi can go along without an escort?”

“Nobeast’ll be suspicious with you ‘round Foremole, d’you think?”

Cobb’s sigh was gruff and, Noel though, a touch remorseful – or nervous.

“He arrested Oi for stealing, if you’m remember.”

“Yeah.” Noel frowned, recalling also his occasional visits during the end of Cobb’s incarceration. Even then something had struck him amiss about an Abbey with a dungeon. “We got to show him our faces soon, though. I’d get Tam, if not for….”

They trailed their way back into the Abbey building, toward the cellars where Cobb suggested the moles might congregate with the cellarhogs. Sure enough Foremole could be found among them, keeping Cobb under the suspicion of his beady black eyes until he had taken the note from Noel. After a moment’s contemplation he crumpled it up in his claws and beckoned them back upstairs.

* * *

In an empty corner of the kitchens Foremole Flint tossed the wadded-up paper into a gently burning oven, and spoke for the first time.

“Where be the other two, then?”

Cobb and Noel exchanged a glance before the weasel dared to offer their names.

“Tamarack, and Bludd, the kitten.”

Flint hurr-hurred to himself behind a grimace, a gesture evidently meant to attract less attention than dragging a claw down his own face.

“Young Tam,” he muttered, “and an orphan dibbun. Oi wouldn’t’ve believed it. Best I be speakin’ to you gentlebeasts first, then. Especially you’m.” His velvety face contorted into a glare meant solely for Noel. “Your brother and young Ripple – were that really an accident?”

“Yeah.” Noel said it after a pause. “He wouldn’t – he has nothin’ to do with the Abbot. If you lot find him wandering around out there -”

Flint raised a claw.

“Leave that to Oi. For now you just stick to me and Brother Sebastian. We two be keepin’ an eye on Brother Tompkins, and if you do the same you’m’ll make some use of yourselves. You stay clear of him, he’s part of their Society, but he moight make a change if we give him the chance.”

“Flint,” said Noel, barely above a whisper, “just what is the Society?”

Flint tapped the side of his own snout with a digging claw, the mole version of a wink.

“That be another thing you can leave to me. Oi’ve got some very interestin’ reading on the subject. For now, you have a bigger job than that to do for Oi.”

Cobb and Noel glanced at one another again, more tremulously this time.

“What be that?”

“You’m four made a hole in moi tunnel,” said Flint, crossing his arms. “You’m need to plug it up.”

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“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!”

The storehouse door creaked to life and then shut to in silence. It was the only door, which made it the same one Noel had secured moments before diving into the dust and dank in search of spelunking equipment. He swung round, holding his unlit lantern high.

“Who’s that?” he demanded.

Two shuffling pawsteps answered from behind the mounds of scrap and smithing goods blocking his view of the exit. He expected to hear the Abbot’s soothing tones, or Selendra’s disinterested queries. What Noel heard was the voice of his own father.

“Oi, Mabel! You seen me dressing gown?”

Noel froze, blinked. His reply was automatic.

“You’re wearin’ it, y’ dunce!”

From behind the barrels of rope and firewood Virrel appeared, and the two brothers did something they had not done together in months. They laughed.

Noel bent forward over his haunches, struggling for breath.

“You really nailed ‘im that time – that was ‘im, the ol’ kook -”

“He’s turnin’ into a right old codger, isn’t he?”

“Bleddy Hellgates, Virrel.” Noel coughed and wiped his eyes. “What’re you doin’ here?”

Virrel shrugged, a motion made awkward by whatever it was he was holding behind his back. There had been a day when the thought of that object would have stirred a menagerie of fears in Noel’s mind – a mace, a club, a knife? – but that day had passed, far back in the wintertime.

“Saw you come in ‘ere from upstairs in the dorms,” said Virrel. “What’re you doin’?”

“Nobeast else saw, did they?”

Virrel made a face, the ugly one Redwall had grown accustomed to.

“I dunno, what’s that matter? What’ve you got them lanterns for, then?”

Thirty seconds earlier, Noel might have told him. But that savage expression lost him, in how often it had once foretold his own pain and humiliation.

“Listen Virrel,” said Noel. “I’m gonna be away for a while.”

“Where?”

“I dunno how long, but -”

Where? Can you get us outta here?”

Noel sighed and gazed out a murky window.

“I dunno. I guess that’s what I’m gonna figure out.”

Virrel nearly dropped whatever it was he was hiding, flailing a paw at the ropes and lantern-poles half-assembled at Noel’s footpaws.

“You can’t carry all that swag by yourself, who you goin’ with?”

“Leave off it and just trust me, will you? We’re proper stuck here now anyway, you may as well get used to it.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t be if you’d let us leave.”

“You could’ve left on your own, gotten sliced up by whatever’s lurkin’ out there. Martin knows you said you would enough times.”

“Always bloody Martin with you – oi, it’s not so safe inside here then, is it?” Virrel hobbled a few steps back and forth, pacing like a hawk in a cage. “You know they’re sayin’ old Abbot Cartwheels did the Recorder mouse in. And now that ravin’ cook’s dead – I liked him, always good for a laugh, he is. Was.”

“I know, you bloody watch yourself around that streamdog, all right?” Noel felt his own face turn jagged and fierce. “If we find somethin’ I’ll come straight back for you. ‘Til then mind those other streamdogs as well, that Foweller’s shapin’ up to be an odd one.”

“Yeah, well, that’s fine, that. Ripple, aye, he’s more of a brother to me than you ever were.”

“Same here, I never had to bail him out o’ no jailhouse in Veil Village in the middle o’ winter.”

“I never asked you to do that, I never asked you to do nothin’ -”

“Our mum bloody well asked me -”

“Count on you to bend over backwards for her, if she can’t even get the Old Weasel to do it -”

“I’m the only beast who does owt in this family, and you’re the best example o’ that by far!”

Virrel gave no warning before he lunged. No truly dangerous fighter ever did. There was only the barely detectable coiling of the spring, the long fluid stretch across the space between them, defying time, confounding Noel’s senses until he had already been tackled to the floor.

Dust sprayed skywards, fists flailed, hushed grunts and snarls threatened to break out into screams. Noel’s collection of lanterns skidded across the room, driven aside by kicks and thrashes. In the corner of his eye he could see it – up came that fist, that terrible bundle of claws four years younger than his own but carrying the cruelty of generations behind it –

Whump. Whump. Both of Noel’s punches landed dully in his brother’s gut, and it was over. The elder weasel shoved Virrel off himself and lurched upright. Before he realized he was safe he had already taken up a lantern pole and raised it over his head. He was not going to be punished this time, not again –

“I never,” he breathed, “never would in me life, but for you, I…I just might.”

Noel threw the lantern pole across the storehouse, where it crashed against some smithing tongs and brought them to the floor. He reached down to offer Virrel a paw up from the earth.

His muzzle full of chokes, maybe even sobs, Virrel stared at that paw only a moment before skittering to the door on all fours, snatching up his prize, and fleeing back outside. Noel caught a glimpse of what he held as he went – a book?

Now the affair had ended Noel’s stomach complained as bitterly as his heart. But there was no time to sit down – things had to be put right, and then the answers might begin to come at last. Perhaps there would be an answer for Virrel, too.

* * *

There was another beast on her way to the graveyard, but coming along the eastern wall had made Saskia part audience to the mayhem that had erupted inside the storehouse.

“‘ey.” Despite the softness of her voice, Saskia still had to raise a paw to calm Noel’s start. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah. Fine. Ah – did you see me brother?”

“Virrel Lingham. I didn’t know ‘e was yours.” Saskia half-smiled, but Noel didn’t think to ask what she meant by it. “Yeah, ‘e split pretty quick. Wot’s all this stuff you’ve got ‘ere?”

Noel nodded to himself. Virrel wasn’t too broken, anyway – he’d have to apologize, if he could find a way to do so that didn’t mean tempting the shark with blood.

“Look, Saskia,” he murmured. “We found somethin’. It’s big.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Tam, Cobb and me. I think it has somethin’ to do with – with bloody all of it, d’you know what I mean? These weird deliveries, Raimun, the Abbot -”

“Well, wot is it?”

“Cobb’s found a tunnel. We think it goes out.”

Saskia’s eyes reminded him of Virrel’s just before they had gone ugly. Now he had time to study them, Noel saw one word reflected there: escape.

“We’re gonna check it out tonight,” he said, “make sure it leads somewhere less dangerous than here, y’know. If you wanna do us a favor y’ might keep an eye on the north wall later on, see that nobeast’s snoopin’ around.”

“So y’ think this might be our ticket out of ‘ere.”

“It’s our ticket t’ somethin’, anyway.” Before striding on in search of a place to stash his goods until nightfall, Noel paused, frowned, and seemed to look inward. “Saskia – if you could keep an eye on Virrel, I’d…he’s me brother, y’see.”

Swallowing composure, he didn’t remain long enough to see that Saskia understood what he meant. It was a question whether or not he understood it himself.

Noel spat, tightened his paw around his pipe, and hurled it across the Abbey pond.

He regretted it even before it had left his claws. It landed somewhere in a clump of reeds with no satisfying splash, no image of it sinking to the bottom where it could never be smoked in the company of Isidore or Raimun or any other beast again. Anger did nothing to change minds or to call souls back from the dead, yet he felt himself swallowed up by it, a minnow in the jaws of a pike.

In the water his reflection had bisected, split and divided. Of the two Noels in front of him he recognized one from today, lost and confused. The other he recognized from the days that Selendra and Carter recalled him to: lost and confused and desperately unhappy.

A third Noel, short and swinging from side to side with the weight of the worry on his shoulders, glided across the water like a ghost.

“Foweller!”

The little otter deigned only to pause and shift the weight of the shovel on his back. Noel’s gaze followed his tapping footpaw after the meandering tendrils of mourners passing them by, winding indoors for warm tea and biscuits to remind them of life still left to be lived.

“Sorry,” said Noel. “Have you seen Bludd?”

Foweller shrugged.

“Dunno. Not lately. Have you seen Virrel?”

Noel replied with another shrug and returned to the solace of the pond. In the gentle ripples of the breeze he could almost see his brother’s face in place of his own. He had not been at the funeral.

Virrel was probably in the dormitories, where they had caught silent sight of one another more than once since the previous night. His brother crouched behind his bed, obscuring his latest mischief from view. Noel had nearly forgotten it, interested only in the kitten who might hold his fate in her paws.

* * *

“Bludd! Bludd, you in here?”

A thump, and then a cry. Noel caught the nearest doorjamb in his claws and rounded it into the empty dormitory, like a flintlock snapping to in its flashpan.

“…Ripple?”

“Uh…fell out, I guess.” The otter peered up at him from the floor, a puddle of sheets and pillows and rudder. Noel bit back a laugh and glanced back over his shoulder before padding into the room.

“You all right?”

“Um, yeah…I thought you were going to the funeral?”

“Just came back from it.”

“Oh.” A put-on grimace of embarrassment lasted only a moment, fooling neither of them. “Must’ve slept through it.”

Noel waved it away. Ripple was young, and he’d already lost a parent, and even worse he had been there in the attic – he didn’t need any further exposure to death’s chilling favors.

“Rip,” said Noel, “look. If you’re not busy – I really need your help.”

Ripple’s next expression was instant, honest, and suspicious. Noel had asked that before, begged for it in those same words, to make him the eleventh beast on a needy campball side. Ever so cunning, as if he were laying down one of the cards from his game, Ripple had defused his pleas every time.

“Um,” he said. “What for?”

Noel scratched at the back of his head with one paw, fiddled in his empty pocket with the other.

“I need to find Bludd. Haven’t seen her, have you? Kind of tags along with you sometimes, thought you might give me some ideas where she goes.”

“Yeah, but…I don’t know. She could be up with the sparrows or something. She’s weird.”

“It’s really important. Please.”

It might have been the voice that broke him. It wasn’t the same one that lauded him, goaded him, sought every weak and proud point in his spirit to lure Ripple into the game that Noel knew was destined to set the world aflame. That voice was heavy now, close to its own collapse. Ripple couldn’t have known that it was choked with an endless reel of terrors: the Abbot storming down the corridor with Virrel, leave my abbey at once, vagabond, thief, murderer.

Ripple dragged himself up off the ground. Noel did not dare to offer him a paw, and before he could reconsider the otter was already dusting off his stripey trousers.

“O-okay. I’ll try.”

* * *

It was dim and gloomy on the lawn. Even with the sun high overhead, Noel found his eyes tracing shadows on the ground, the rings of shade beneath the trees. Bludd might be taking refuge in them, but he felt drawn to them, too – dark places like those in his mind where thoughts of Carter and Cassius survived.

Ripple appeared from behind the rosebushes, his shuffling downcast gait a welcome sight thirty minutes into their fruitless search.

“Anything?” asked Noel.

He shook his head, trundling alongside as they skimmed the grounds from the southern wall to the orchards. The hanging, snatching branches sparked a memory in Noel’s jumbled mind.

“Listen, Ripple,” he said. “I know you’ve probably heard enough o’ this from everybeast and their brother, but yesterday, with Isidore – he didn’t have the right to do that to you. He knows what he’s on about with the bees but, you know, you’re a lad, aren’t you? You’ve got your dignity.”

Ripple shrugged.

“He apologized. It’s all right.”

Noel did not nearly jump, or almost jump, he did jump. Ripple actually skipped out of a stumble in his alarm.

“He did!”

“Um…yeah. Last night. Before….”

Raimun could not have been further from Noel’s mind. Isidore was saved – was already saved. If unswerving, unquestioning loyalty could bend, could it break, too? His spirit was roused, now. He couldn’t resist.

“Lissen,” said Noel. “When everything’s back to normal, before we have to go back home, you really got to give campball a go.”

“That’s more Skipper’s thing. And Foweller’s.”

Noel had to resist the temptation of a double-take. Surely Redwall wasn’t so different from the outside that its dibbuns didn’t call their fathers “dad”. Maybe it was a nickname – he grinned to himself at the thought of his own Old Weasel.

“It could be your thing too if you wanted,” he said.

“I dunno. Maybe someday.”

Noel half-nodded, kicking at a shrub now that the trees were thinning out again back onto the lawn. It took him a moment to realize Ripple had stopped short behind him.

“Hey, Noel. You know, uh, Virrel…is he really a bad influence?”

Noel screwed his face up, not least at the strange choice of words.

“Nobeast’s all bad. But you’ve got choices, haven’t you, and if you don’t try to make up for the bad ones – the really bad ones – then other beasts’ve got a right to put you straight, d’you know what I mean?”

“I think so.”

“There’s not a whole lot I’ve found to rely on in life so far.” He smiled. “You’re lucky, though. Here at Redwall, you’ve got Martin to count on.”

Ripple looked at the ground, then back up at the high windows of the dormitories.

“Um…I think I’m gonna head back in, if you don’t mind.”

“Yeah. Thanks for givin’ me a paw.”

Bobbing his head, the otter wandered off out of the trees. Noel sighed and gave his shrub another kick – a proper campball strike this time, ka-boom

“Oi! Watcher footpaw there!”

A bundle of fur and claws burst from the leaves and out onto the lawn, tittering as it rolled end over end and at last picked up running.

“Bludd,” said Noel. He froze only long enough for his legs to get the message that they should follow suit. “Oi, Bludd! Get back here, you little -”

He shot ahead, arms outstretched, grasping at anything they might purchase. His paws found her ankles, his stomach hit the ground, and in one raucous fuzzy mess they tumbled onto the grass, Bludd’s crowing pirate giggle followed by Noel’s snuffling chortles.

“Bludd, come on now, gotta ask you this. Stop, stop. It’s important, I mean it!”

“Aye?” Bludd finally ceased kicking one of her pinned legs at his face. “It’ll cost ye.”

Noel scratched his chin, buying time to catch his breath.

“All right,” he said. “Next match, you can be captain of a side.”

“Proper captain, eh! ‘bout time ye saw me potential. Well, what is it then?”

“You said there was somebeast talkin’ behind me back last night. Who was it? You can tell your old shipmate, can’t you?”

Bludd wrinkled her nose, and Noel had to suppress another chuckle. She was above such derisive dibbun-coaxing nonsense. She had a secret to spill, though, and now they were alone and the whole world had changed overnight there was nothing to stop her.

“It was that big mouse lady, and Brother Sebastian. They said you seen a Cassius. What’d you see him do? Did he gut somebeast, make him walk the plank?”

In the silence that followed Bludd freed herself to give Noel a not ungentle pat on the head. His frown had forced its way to the surface against his will.

“All right, shipmate?”

“Yeah…thanks a million, Bludd. Mind if I ask you keeping that information below decks, if you know what I mean?”

“I already forgotten it.”

Noel smiled, pressed his paws to the earth, and sat up.

“Y’know, we’re really stuck here now. I wasn’t doin’ this place any favors keepin’ Virrel about but now I don’t got any choice. What about you, Bludd – are you happy here?”

Her mouth was a pearl-white line of grinning fangs.

“It’s a pirate’s paradise, innit? As long as they keep the vittles comin’, I got nothin’ to complain about!”

* * *

Not long afterward, Noel fished his pipe from where it hung in the reeds, the bowl dipping half-in, half-out of a puddle of algae. Grimacing, he scooped it out with a grimy claw and replaced it in his pocket.

There might be time for a smoke later, but it was enough to know he had the option again. For now, there was work yet to be done.

As the beasts of Redwall Abbey laughed and danced under the burgeoning twilight, Noel lurched his way through the crowd and, when nobeast else was looking, clutched a paw to his belly. So much food. He’d been picking at it all afternoon – pasties and cakes, cheeses and ales. He’d be at it still if not for his current quest.

“Foweller? Foweller! Where are you -?”

It was a haremaid who responded, waving from a gap amidst the throng. Noel slipped his stomach-bracing paw back to his side and cocked his head as he drew near.

“‘e’s just been through ‘ere,” she explained. “Bounded off to get a table not three seconds ago.”

“Cheers – eh.” Noel slowed to a stop. “Feel like I know you from somewhere.”

She shrugged, a casual smile easing its way over her teeth.

“I think I’ve seen the back of your ‘ead before. I deliver the books.”

“Ah yeah. The print shop.” Noel flicked his claws at his right temple, as if to twiddle his memory. “Been in there once or twice.”

“Really?” She gave a laugh, a worried one if Noel’s ear caught it right. “I wouldn’t’ve guessed. You’re into literature with a lesson, are you?”

“Couldn’t stand the stuff. There’s no answers in it – no offense. Name’s Noel, by the way.”

“Saskia. And I just set the type, so none taken.” She jerked a thumb off to one side. When her eyes followed they took on a troubled slant. “You were looking for somebeast, though…does that look right to you?”

It didn’t. Not ten paces away Foweller stood more like a marionette than an otter. Ripple hovered nearby, as if afraid to get tangled in his invisible strings.

“Oi, Foweller!” Noel nodded to Saskia and forgot Ripple, who at the sight of Mossflower’s most zealous campballer merged back into the crowd like a shade. Only by touching Foweller at the shoulder could Noel bring him back to spastic life. “Where’ve you been all day? Didn’t you see the roster?”

Maybe it was the pseudo-military jargon that caught his attention. Foweller was at once back in tune, his reply more challenge than echo.

“Roster?”

At ease now, Noel chuckled and fished a scrap of paper out of his coat pocket. Food as good as Redwall’s could make a beast forgetful. There wasn’t anything like this in Norford – even his mother’s prawn and ale pie, once his paragon of culinary perfection, had sunk well to the bottom of his estimation.

Foweller blinked at the list that was offered him.

“So this one can read,” he mumbled.

Noel seemed to suck in his lower jaw, the closest he could come to a pout.

“Enough to see us down here, anyway.” His claw tapped at where Brother Raimun had diligently copied out their two names, under the heading “Lawn Games”.

Foweller peered up at Noel for the first time, eyes heavy with weariness.

“Let me guess: campball?”

“No.” The pout did not subside. “The Abbot said we needed ‘variety’. I’ve got some sack races that need seeing to, think you could help me with that?”

Foweller grinned. If Noel had studied his face a moment longer, he might have called it a smirk.

“If you can’t manage a few dibbuns with skinned knees – very well.”

“That’s the spirit, eh!” He clapped a paw to Foweller’s back, at which the otter stumbled forward and then took off running for the playing fields. Noel loped after him, his enthusiasm flagging. Getting an otter to play games shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth, even if those games didn’t include the One True Sport.

There were already a dozen dibbuns at the touchline, burrowing in and out of the granary sacks as they waited for the signal to begin. Noel frowned. Where was Tam, or her brother, or anybeast with a sense of humor advanced beyond bogey jokes? Foweller was right – they had skinned knees and yoinked tails to look forward too, and all the bratty yowling that would ensue.

“Having second thoughts, weasel?” Foweller was getting stuck in, shifting the tottering dibbuns upright and pointing them in the right direction. A simple enough job when they were all delirious with excitement, perhaps.

“Nah, I love this stuff.” Noel grinned over his own sarcasm. “Just wondered where Tam and her lot were.”

Foweller’s expression fairly curdled over. Before Noel could ask, the otter muttered something to himself and then cried out for the race to begin.

Bobbing like hares to the dinner table, the tiny creatures hopped and flopped all over the lawn with the chirrups of cheers and giggles singing in their wake. While Foweller crossed his arms and continued to look lost, Noel waved his paws over his head like a madbeast.

“No, no, don’t stop there! You got to come back this way, come back – that’s it! It’s on now, Foweller, look at them two, the squirrel twins. Nobeast else has come close.”

“Quite a brotherly relationship they’ve got,” said Foweller. “Too bad Virrel can’t say the same.”

Most things Noel could laugh off, and many more things he could pretend away, but the topic of his brother wasn’t one of them. He pretended, for the moment, that Foweller wasn’t wearing a look of triumph now that he had discovered this.

“You can say a lot of things about Virrel,” Noel mumbled.

“I don’t know. For a weasel he’s almost worth his own breath.”

Noel rocked side to side, twitched as if about to burst out of his fur. An experienced beast might have leapt forward to intervene, finding in it the same kind of alarm motion preceding a fist to the muzzle. The only danger Noel presented, though, was a voice almost too low to hear.

“Listen, Foweller,” he said. “Be careful around him, all right?”

Foweller’s eyes narrowed to slits.

“I think I can manage on my own.”

“I mean, you do what you like. But if you like your neck the way it is you’ll stand clear of him.”

“If I like my eye the way it is, who should I stand clear of?”

Noel whirled on him, changed completely, all fangs and diamond eyes and bristling fur. Never before had he looked more verminous and vulnerable all at once, a new and different species born of anxiety and fear.

“Oi! I bloody mean it -”

“Excuse me – Noel?”

The two beasts swung around as one. Behind them there stood a stocky young mousemaid, paws held before her as she decided whether or not the interruption was a welcome one. Noel’s penitent smile gave her the answer.

“Selendra…right?”

“You know me,” she said, beaming with surprise. “I understand you and Isidore have gotten very close since you both came to Redwall.”

Noel turned to face her, happy to let the weight of the sack-bound dibbuns and the agony of Foweller fall behind him.

“Knew him before that, actually. Used to pass him by once in a while on me walks. He gave me honey.”

“Those must have been long walks.”

“They didn’t feel that way.”

“Well,” said Selendra, “I could do with a short one now if you don’t mind talking to me for a few minutes.”

“All right, Foweller?” Noel’s face was doubly apologetic, but he wasn’t sure Foweller caught either meaning. He was watching the squirrel twins bounce across the finish line, together.

“I told you I can manage on my own.”

Noel sighed and began to walk, shuffled a bit when he realized he didn’t know where they were going, and started the conversation instead.

“How long’ve you known Isidore?” he asked.

“Not too much longer than you, I expect. He keeps himself to himself.”

“He’s clever, isn’t he? He’s – he’s kinda like me. Got up to some funny stuff when he was younger, but now I think he’s got his life pretty well figured out.”

Selendra led them away from the festivities, toward the orchard. For a moment she squinted ahead, behind the trees, then leapt across Noel in the direction of the pond.

“You are similar, aren’t you?” Her voice had dropped, the sound barely carrying the few inches to Noel’s ears. “You know Isidore calls you his ‘pupil’ sometimes. What kind of funny stuff do you mean, though?”

This was sounding familiar. Noel tried to shake off the coincidence. Best to get it over with at once, he supposed.

“Everything,” he said. “Scrumping, boozing, opium. Followed round a gang for a while after I left Norford.”

“Norford – that’s the village just across the ford on the River Moss? Near that cave formation, what’s it called?”

“Lingl-Dubbo Cave. Hence me name.” At her questioning gaze, he added, “Lingham. Me family name.”

“I see. This gang you were in – was that near here, then? Do you remember who led it?”

“Yeah, bit south of here, and west. Nothing major we did, really, just hustled a few travelers and the smaller villages, and rival gangs o’ course. Least, nothing major that I did. Couldn’t really get into it.”

“What did the chief have to say about that?”

“Not much. It was a big gang, don’t think he really noticed me.”

“No? What was he called, again?”

They were nearly at the southern wall. Selendra glanced up to the walltops, changed direction again. Noel was losing patience. It didn’t matter who the chief was, just another powerful beast glutted on fear taking advantage of the lost and lowly. He had explained his feelings to Isidore once, but it hadn’t come out right. Now he didn’t even try.

“I dunno,” he snapped. “Pine marten. Cassius, he was called. Probably wasn’t even his real name. He wasn’t anybeast important anyway.”

Selendra didn’t respond, and almost lost him. The urge to fly off back to smiling faces, even if they were loud dibbun ones, was overwhelming in the face of her quiet interrogation.

“What kind of a beast was he?” She sounded farther away now, as if her thoughts weren’t really with Cassius or Noel or anybeast.

“A sad one. Harped on for ages about how vermin aren’t oppressed in other parts of the world like they are in Mossflower.” His voice finally faded from a snarl to a sigh. “He only wanted what every other old vermin wants – a fight and a free ride off somebeast else’s back.”

“But you don’t.”

“Yeah. No. I don’t know. That’s the problem.” Noel laughed and halted where he was, spreading his arms wide. “Me brother’s fine. He knows what he wants and he’s happy to steal it out from under you. He’s not like the rest of ‘em back home. You know Norford – full o’ vermin who’ve figured out it’s no good fighting anymore. Thing is, when you take the fight out o’ vermin who’ve lived on it for generations, they’ve got nothin’ left. But I’m not like them, either. Nothin’s not good enough for me.”

Where they had stopped was nearly back at the feast, the warm scent of stews and pastries wafting with the acrid crisp of lit torches on the breeze. The playing fields were in view also, empty.

“I’d like to talk to you again soon, Noel,” said Selendra. “For right now, though, I need to ask you a favor. Will you leave your past buried for a little while? Especially this Cassius – he’s in your past now, isn’t he?”

“Fine. That’s no problem to me.”

Selendra looked down at her footpaws, struggling for the right words.

“I’m…worried for you, you see. You mentioned your brother Virrel. He seemed to be coping here at first, but in the last half-season we’ve had him carrying off parts of the harvest, spoiling the larders – and then there was the incident with the gravestones. The Abbot nearly had a riot on his paws when he refused to send Virrel away for that. If he found out you were in a proper gang yourself, I’m not sure he’d be able to protect you, either.”

Noel felt a tremor throttle him from the inside out. The Abbot knew already. What did that mean? Would he send them both away, would they take him away from Martin? He could just kill Virrel if that happened, make his neck gape and weep scarlet like those frozen faces at the Abbey gates –

He blinked the idea away. It wouldn’t come to that. It couldn’t. Still, his voice was no less harsh to Selendra before he turned his back on her.

“I said it’s fine and I meant it. It’s only ever other beasts who bring up what I used to be. I’m only interested in me future.”

As it happened, his immediate future heralded a kitten. This Noel learned only after performing a vaulting forward somersault over something huddled in his darkened path. Soundless with surprise, he sat up massaging first his head, then his stomach.

“Ah ‘Gates,” he moaned. “If those pasties taste as good comin’ up as they did goin’ down – oi, Bludd! You all right?”

Bludd sat crouched on the ground without an answer, looking as though she’d been caught with all four paws in an especially large biscuit jar.

“Noel,” she said, words bursting forth as if they leapt from a sinking ship, “lissen. Matey. I ‘eard – I thinks I ‘eard somethin’ as you might be wantin’ t’ ‘ear. ‘Twas some beasts ‘as been sayin’ things about – about you.”

“Bludd?” Noel leaned forward, and in between the wrenching pain of his overfull gut and the lingering images of his brother, of Selendra, of the Abbot, he realized he couldn’t even manage half the smile he reserved for the little pirate cat. “Who was it?”

Bludd blinked at nothing a few yards behind him, squirmed away from the imaginary sight, and darted away as suddenly as she had appeared.

“I’ll tell ya’s later!” Shadows chased her across the lawn back towards the feast. Noel glanced in the same direction she had before running away, but Selendra was gone.