Terrouge E-zine Archives
The Long Dark - Chapter Four
By: Flammable Pears
The pine marten fought against the paws holding her down. Her heart pounded and her lungs ached, as though somebeast with gelid paws was squeezing the air out of them.. Her footpaws flailed wildly, stuck in the act of running; her dreams were only one step behind her, and they were now haunted by the Coondoock and the despairing silence of these scarcely-lit rooms she woke to.
"Percy, get over here! We're losin' her!"
The squirrelmaid ran over. The marten's flailing subsided at the sight of a familiar face, and the pressure on her chest was relieved. The shadow that loomed over her stepped back into the candlelight; it faded into the concerned face of a young hedgehog.
"I should have said," Perception whispered. "She always wakes up screaming."
"The others never did that."
"The others were too far gone. We're not losing her, Jib, we're getting her back. Hello, Darkness."
The squirrelmaid smiled down at the pine marten. Somewhere in the marten's mind the warm memory of friendship melted away the paws clutching at her chest.
"Percy," she said. "Where'm I?"
"Redwall's infirmary. I told you I'd get you here, didn't I? Jib here distracted the Coondook just long enough for me to carry you out of Cavern Hole. And look, new bandages. You'll be fine in no time."
The pine marten sat up with a groan. The word Darkness floated above her head, nipped at her memory, and she recalled it to be the name she'd chosen for herself. The bandages on her side, though still fresh, were already soaked with blood.
Percy sat beside her on the bed and patted her paws with gentle maternity.
"I found you in my trap downstairs," she said. "I'm Perception. I'm a squirrel. Squirr-rull. You had been attacked by the Coondook, a monster. We hid in Cavern Hole for a few days' time, until Jib came back. He's a hedgehog. Heeedge-hog. You said your name is Darkness. You're a pine marten. Piiine maaar-ten. We're inside Redwall, and we're safe… for now." Percy pursed her lips. "Do you need me to repeat any of that?"
Darkness shook her head; Percy smiled.
"See, Jib? She's starting to remember easier now. Hurry up with that soup."
"Leaves," Darkness said.
"Leaves. I … need to feel the leaves …" She made clasping motions with her paws.
"Nooononono. Under cold, under the ash-snow. Crunch-crunch - leaves?"
Jib pulled up a chair and passed over a bowl of soup to Percy. He looked at Darkness with an air of inquisitive youthfulness.
"Wot are leaves?" he asked.
~ ~ ~
Varpu O'doma - James - clutched the sack of food to his chest, miserable. He stood on the lip of a small hill, just a short hike out of Fleetwood's boundaries.
"Does it have to be me?" he said wretchedly.
"You were going t'do it anyway," Itache reminded him. She tried to keep her tone soft.
"Yes, but that was out of the goodness of my heart, not to serve as a distraction for an attacking force!"
"We're not attackers, we're liberators, wot. And she's probably your granddaughter."
"Grandniece," Leejaw corrected.
James stared blankly at the town. This was all getting to be a bit much for him. His children - he'd practically raised those lizards - had murdered so many beasts. All he'd wanted to do was save them from the constant fighting. Delivering the food had been his chance to help set things right - at least, as right as things could possibly get, considering. But to turn this act of compassion into one of deception …
Was his honour worth the life of a mai -
Well, he thought, that was a stupid question.
"Promise not to hurt them?" he said.
Itache glowered. "We'll do wot we can not to.But we'll not let ourselves be beaten down, either. Do this f'r us and you'll save more o' them than otherwise would've been."
She turned away and trudged back down the backside of the hill to where her Long Patrol waited. Leejaw and Tynan followed in silence.
Dooley saluted them as they arrived. The rest of the young hares scrambled to their footpaws to follow suit.
"Stand down and listen up," Itache said. "O'doma's going t'wait until nightfall before headin' into town. We've got until then t'get around t'th'other side. That shack at th'edge of town should be where Roslin's bein' held, accordin' t'his information. Now, there's no real signal we can come up with that'll tell us when it's time t'strike, so we'll just wing it. Y'know th'drill: get in, get Roslin, get out. No bravery. No stayin' behind t'hold them off. No goin' it alone. If we lose even one beast, we will have failed."
The hares knew this speech well. Lives were important - but numbers were more important. Sending ten back to fetch two was a folly that threatened their continued existence. Starvation and cold had claimed too many beasts, and would continue to do so. The best one could do for one's family was stay alive long enough to become a parent of the next generation. That was what it all got down to; not the survival of loved ones, but the survival of anyone at all. It was, as Itache said, what everybeast had quite failed to realise.
Itache's mother had gone back, during the great exodus. A family of hedgehogs had fallen behind, unable to keep up with the unforgiving pace required of them. Her mother had gone back, and … had never returned. She was not remembered as a hero. She was not remembered at all. The only thing Itache had to remind herself of her mother was that single phrase: She'd gone back to help.
The hare said no more, and the soldiers had no more questions. Camp had been packed away while the others discussed the situation with James, and they were ready to move out.
O'doma came back up the hill once the hares had gone, and sat with Tynan and Leejaw to wait. Night was not long away. They shared a small meal of the roots and berries the vermin probably would not have much use for. The group talked quietly; mostly Tynan catching up with his old friend and reminiscing about Redwall.
"My grandniece, eh?" O'doma smiled. "That'd be nice. A real family …"
"Perdue was your sister, right?" Tynan said.
"Aye. My very twin, in fact."
"She married Forge. Twelve liddle mouselings in all."
"Forge? Who stood on his head during lessons and liked to spread honey on the Abbot's chair?"
"The very same. He turned out a good sort when she lost you." Tynan paused to chew reflectively on a berry that Leejaw had promised him was not purple at all. "What exactly happened?" he asked, swallowing. "When the cave-in …?"
"Skipper dug us out in the end," O'doma said. "Tero was with us, inside. He tried to - "
"Wait, who was Tero?"
"The Abbey Warrior. He tried to protect some of the dibbuns with his body … the rocks killed him … eventually. Skip had water, but not enough … we tried to catch up with everybeast else. But then the lizards came. And then … the sky."
The old mouse stared at Martin's sword, which lay on the ground in the middle of the group; Leejaw had been admiring it; Tynan had tried to, then decided after the first three nicks in his paw that it was a good enough sword.
"They killed Skip … but they raised us up. I suppose, so we'd be bigger, more to eat. Some of us learned their language, grew into their grace. Some of us didn't make it. Eventually the lizards passed away, leaving just me and Ragnar, the oldest beasts. He fell ill. And this newest generation … I wasn't able to control them by myself."
A ponderous silence fell upon the group.
"Well, I'm glad you lived to see me again, my friend," Tynan said at last. "But I think it's time now for you to deliver the food. Itache and her Patrol should be waitin'."
"Aye … I'll see you again, Ty. Somewhere or other, soon enough. Mr. Leejaw, a pleasure meeting you as well."
"Good luck, James," the squirrel said. They shook paws.
"Think they'll make it?" Tynan said, after O'doma had left.
"Was thinking about apples, actually, just now. But, yes. Itache's trained them up good. The plan is good. The vermin are weakened. All we have to do now is just not say 'What could go wrong?' … oh, dikes'n'marshes. How do you use a bow again? It's been ages since I practiced."
Tynan sat down and put his ears toward the town, ignoring his friend's struggle with his weaponry.
"James'll come through," he said. In his lap the sword of Martin the Warrior lay sheathed. O'doma would not need it.
"How d'you know? You haven't seen him since you were a dibbun. He's been living with crazy lizards in a desert." Leejaw sighted down an arrow for a second, until it poiked off his bowstring and twirled away behind him. "Hedgerows! He could be completely dotty and untrustworthy for all we know, for all his good manners and intentions."
"Mostly," Tynan said, "I know because he's shouting 'Hey, vermin, I've brought you some food' …"
~ ~ ~
Twitchet came to relish her mate's absences, whether he was away or just in a coma from his wounds. No Madridge meant peace and quiet in the town, for he usually took a good deal of the boisterous population (now deceased) with him. The males left behind took it upon themselves to live up to their expectations and napped or lazed about. This left the females free to conspire and try to sap some enjoyment out of life.
It was during one such meeting of minds that she suggested her idea.
They all knew about the town to the south-west, where, legend had it, a castle once stood. Too much resistance had ruled out the south as a source of food, but every so often the vermin would send out scouts to keep track of the woodlanders. Twitchet had often gone on these adventures, simply to get away from Madridge; she did her best to explain to her fellow vermin what she'd seen:
Goodbeasts - the young ones, hardly more than babes - would gather in a circle around an elder, who spoke to them of numbers and letters, herbs and myths. Twitchet had scorned the concept at first, until she saw one of the young mousebabes write on a piece of parchment. The little beast had proudly written his name - something grown vermin couldn't begin to understand why they'd even want to do …
"Are we stupid?" Twitched had asked her friends. "Are we stupid? No. We're just dumb."
Ah, what an uproar that had caused. But she had been right. And her solution was perfect.
The mousemaid could teach, that was certain. What Twitchet had failed to count on were the vermin's sheer will-power to be the most idiotic they could possibly be and still breathe. Only a pawful sat around for the lectures willingly, herself included, until the mouse began reiterating past lessons for the slower learners. Some beasts, Twitchet thought, probably stayed because they lacked the brain function to crawl away when the lessons began.
But the kits and pups, they had no choice in the matter. They would learn. Maybe this generation of Fleetwood vermin wouldn't be able to learn the math necessary to build a ship and return home, but maybe - just maybe - their offspring would. Right up until they learned how to pick the locks on the schoolhouse door, at least.
She had been on her way to fetch Flavour from his daily torture sessions when she heard the shouts. Her ears pricked. Food? Had somebeast survived?
No … no vermin actually used the term 'vermin'. Twitchet frowned. A goodbeast, then. Bringing food?
It was a strange sight to behold. For a few moments, she wondered exactly what kind of mushrooms they'd been stealing from their neighbours all this time.
O'doma was in a troublesome spot. Most of the vermin surrounding him and grabbing at the fruit and tubers that had spilled onto the ground were female; mates of those who had never returned. Nobeast had seen Madridge come back, and Twitchet had not volunteered the information regarding the outcome of the foraging expedition. She pretended to be as clueless as the rest when it came to their missing husbands. This was, she realised, the only reason the mouse was still alive.
"Please," the old fool begged, "Please, it's only a peace offering! Let me go; I can get you more! I don't want trouble anymore!"
Two males recognised him as the hooded figure who hung about with the lizards in the west. They pushed forward and seized the goodbeast. The one on the left, a fox, tickled his throat with a sharpened piece of coral as his weasel companion held him still.
"Where's th'rest o' Madridge's lot, eh? Y'seen 'em in that desert o' yers, mousey?"
"Yes! Yes, they're collecting food!" O'doma licked his lips. His paws slipped with sweat. "They're probably scarfing it down right now, enjoying the warmth, aha, yes, that's it! They've completely killed all the lizards and have moved into the desert without you! Oh please don't hurt me…"
"'urt you? Naw! We wuddn't do that, it'd be … summat 'orrible, 'orrible beasts do! We'll jus' slit yer throat nice'n quick-like, 'ow 'bout that, eh?"
"Oh, leave 'im alone!" one female weasel cried out. "'e 'asn't done anything to us, maybe 'e'll really bring more food back."
"Y'suggestin' we be nice to a … to a goodbeast?" the fox snarled back.
"Yes, that's exactly wot I'm sayin'!"
The crowd of vermin was too thick; she had nowhere to escape to as the fox threw O'doma aside and bullied his way towards her. Nobeast even looked up from their food squabbles as he thrust the jagged coral into her stomach. The fox leered at her and gave it a good twist.
"That's wot we'll get, bein' nice t'that lot! That's all we ever gets from 'em!" he shouted as he wrenched his weapon free.
"That's not true!" O'doma said, "I just gave you food! I never wanted to hurt anybeast!"
The other vermin that held him let him go as the crowd parted enough to reveal the dead weaselmaid.
"Remy," he choked. "Tha' wos … y'jus' killed Remy, y'stupid - " The rest of his words fell away into a strangled warcry as he launched himself at the fox, who turned and nonchalantly held the coral out to catch the second weasel in the throat.
All hellgates exploded; Twitchet, standing apart from the brawl, vaguely saw O'doma running back for the hills outside the town. Most of her attention was focused on the smaller vermin hopping up and down around the edges. That was … odd. What were the young ones doing out here?
She turned and cursed. She knew those long-eared shapes anywhere.
"Oi! You stupid beasts, stop! There's hares stealin' our teacher!"
Only a pawful of females cared enough to detach themselves from the ongoing massacre to give chase after the ferretmaid. One had had the presence of mind to have taken a bow from her tent to investigate the ruckus O'doma had caused. Now she notched an arrow and took careful aim at the hare in the rear of the group …
~ ~ ~
She was getting better, in a way. The frostbite in her paws had almost faded, the wound in her side scabbed over nicely. She could move about on her own again without feeling too much pain. That was … different. She was not a creature used to comfort, used to safety.
"Where did the Coondook come from? It's hard to say…"
It was nice to have somebeast to talk to. Not that Darkness ever said much; she didn't have anything to say. Perception talked enough for both of them. Even now, the squirrel's words echoed in Darkness's mind as she worked:
"Jib says he came over from the Western Sea. A great ship, full of beasts, had come to investigate the fire mountain. They say - well, Jib says - that a great wave came before they reached the shore, and the ship broke upon the mountain itself."
The marten grunted with exertion as she set the weights for the trap. The hallway was cold up here in the attics; the air in front of her nose fogged and fell away. The constant drip-drip in the background was beginning to annoy her. She put her ears back in irritation.
"Jib says he knows this, because his parents were on the ship. Somehow, they survived, and lived here until he was born."
The knot was tricky, but knots were always tricky. She would never have thought of the pulley herself; it was a holdover from Perception's design. But now the trap was finished. She would catch him this time. She would finish what the others had started.
"He was born here, in Redwall. There'd been others, but time and cold took them away, and he was alone until I came. Well, not always alone…"
Darkness stood and looked out the window. From up here in the abbey attics, she could see far over the field to the west, see the bobbing lantern as Perception kept running. Darkness wondered why she'd spared the squirrel. She supposed it was because … somebeast else might need someone to talk to, out there. There had to be others.
"The Coondook had been around as well. Not always in Redwall, but around. Jib says, he has a memory of being young, of the Coondoock holding him, singing to him. They said he'd been their ship's Captain."
The marten turned at a groan from the ceiling. She growled in mad disquietude. Jib was still moving, trying to shift the rope net that held him up. The drip-drip increased as he moved his paw away from his stomach. Some bait he was turning out to be.
"What happened? Well, I think you'd know best, Darkness. He'd been like you. But you fought back! You survived the - well, the darkness, I suppose!"
"Why, Darkness?" he coughed, spitting more blood into the pool on the floor.
"… didn't you?"
"I just want to hear somebeast else scream again," she said.