Terrouge E-zine Archives
The Long Dark - Chapter Six
By: Flammable Pears
Darkness awoke with a scream.
She closed her mouth when she realized somebeast else was screaming along with her. To her dismay, they stopped as well.
"Don't do that! You startled me."
She opened her eye. She was lying on her back, surrounded by familiar cold.
"'Allo," Jib said, smiling down at her. "You're alive."
"Oh." She couldn't see him. "Good."
The side of her head hurt something horrible; probably just her wound acting up again. The wayward nail hadn't merely gouged her eye, but a fair bit of cheek as well. Odd, though. She patting at her face with a gentle, wet smacking sound - it had never bled so much before…
Jib grasped her paw and pulled it away. He began to pack some snow against her head. She wriggled her footpaws and stared at the reddening clouds above her while he worked.
"Why'm I in a florist?"
Her own paws waved vaguely in the air in front of her, hard to see in the almost non-existent dawn light. She could just make out spidery shapes further away.
"Do you remember running?"
"And do you remember me sayin', 'oh golly I'm sorry I'm sorry golly please forgive me this way he won't get us out here'?"
Darkness thought hard. This involved some muzzle-wrinkling, which dislodged some of the packed snow from her cheek.
Jib shrugged. "Well, I did. And I am - sorry, that is. I really am, Darkness. Fates, what was I thinkin'? Lettin' him free again, just to get revenge? An ear isn't enough to make up for my leg, but …" He fell silent as he tied a cloth around her head.
Darkness sat up, rubbed her bare paws together. She'd forgotten what snow felt like. Now she remembered why she'd wanted to forget in the first place.
"Do you ever wonder," Jib said, "what happens when we die?"
"The Coondook eats us?"
"Er, hrm … well, yes. But I mean, where do we go? The part inside our heads, that thinks and sees and feels?"
"He gnaws on that bit for hours sometimes."
Jib looked over his shoulder at the looming shape of the abbey's bell tower, then back at the marten. Darkness steadied herself against a tree. She felt dizzy, sick to her stomach.
"You goin' to be all right? I'd carry you on my back, but, well. Aheh. I've found a place, not far. The moles dug it out. Ready?"
"Wait …" Darkness pointed at the snow. "Dig, first."
The hedgehog shut his mouth and dug, kicking the snow away with effort. He soon had a hole he could curl up in, then one he could stand up in. Still, Darkness ordered him to dig. Jib obeyed; it was the least he could do to compensate her.
"I've found somethin'!" he called up. He was wet and cold now, his clothes soaked from his digging frenzy. "There's a whole bunch of 'em!"
Darkness peered down.
"Do they go 'crunch-crunch'?"
"Yes! No. Sort of."
"Those," she said, "are leaves. Bring me some. I want t'feel the crinkle."
~ ~ ~
"Hare. Squirrel, mebbe. This'n's definitely mouse, 'asn't got sandals. 'Nudder one, same size, prolly mouse. An' these liddle ones - ferret."
Twitchett sniffed the air as Madridge prowled the clearing with his nose to the ground. Something smelled like fire, or the aftermath of a fire. Different than the ash-snow they got in Fleetwood. More like the cooking fires of woodlander's homes, but without any food smells getting in the way.
"Odd tracks," Madridge grumbled. "Flavour's are deeper'n th'rest."
"They want us to follow, make sure we knew which group he went with," Twitchet said. "Buying time for the rest of them, no doubt. Do you smell anything odd? Fire?"
"'ve got pine sap in m'nose."
"Lovely. Get up."
Madridge stood and brushed himself off.
"'s been hours! Why can't we stop an' eat summat?"
"We'll eat when we get there," Twitchet snarled. "Oh, yes, some nice hare soup'd do just the trick, don't you think?"
"Coulda 'ad hare soup if'n I'd stayed behind …"
"Shut up before I hit you."
"But I - " The ferret shut his mouth and stomped off after his mate. He was beginning to think that perhaps it would be less work to just try for another litter altogether. If Twitchet wanted a son so badly, she might reconsider her previous oaths …
They'd long since left the coast hills. They had passed through a small bog and legged it over flatlands for a few days - at least, it felt like it to Madridge. They'd hardly stopped for meals, and only taken two quick naps, but he was sure they'd been on the move longer. Now they were in the forest - Mossflower Wood proper, further than most Fleetwood vermin had ever gone in their lives. The trees were tall, bare, untouched by tools but marred here and there with blackened trunks.
Madridge did not like forests. He did not like things standing around being bigger than he was. He tolerated Fleetwood's huts and shacks because he owned them. He did not own the forest … or did he?
"What is it?"
"D'you think I ought ter own th'trees?"
"… what? What's that got to do with anything?"
"Well, I own Fleetwood. 'm th'Admiral an' Mayor. But I don' own th'desert, 'cos th'lizards're there. But there's nobeast t'stop me from ownin' th'forest."
"Too late," Twitchet said, sensing where this was going. "I own the forest. I put my footpaw in it before you. You're on my land now, Madridge." She smiled at him, baring her teeth. This was going to be fun. "So keep walking - no! Start running. You're getting fat! Hup, hup! Follow those tracks, y'great lazy slob, call yourself an Admiral? You couldn't lead a flock of ducklings to a pond!"
Madridge cursed under his breath and jogged on ahead as she whacked him none-too-gently with a stray stick. It didn't take long before he began panting in earnest again, and he soon dropped back to match her stride.
"Wot's a ducklin', any'ow."
"They're like vultures that float on water, now stop dallying!"
Twitchet nodded approvingly as her mate darted forwards again. It was good to see him up and about properly again. It had been too long since the times of their courtship, when he'd hike for miles to fetch her the rarest of birds, or wade up to his neck in the half-frozen river to do battle with whatever fish he could find.
Then she'd caved in. He'd won her over, and that had been the end of his trying. Back to lazing about the town, doing his best to ignore his father's legacy while still bossing everybeast about. She'd only lately gotten him back to leading the foraging parties, and look where that had gotten him.
Still, she would have to let him rest properly before they caught up. He would need his strength to take care of the hare and squirrel, and his dressings would need to be replaced soon. Then she supposed she would have to hunt and cook dinner, take out the bones and make sure he didn't drink too much before napping.
The ferretwife snorted; sometimes it seemed the only difference between Madridge and Flavour was that Flavour wiped his own chin.
"Oi! What did I just tell you about dawdling? If that fake tail's dragging you down I'll yank both of them off! Move!"
Madridge glanced over his shoulder at her, a claw held up to his lips. He pointed at the trees above them.
"Shhh. Saw summat move."
"It's the wind," Twitchet said.
"Th'wind is brown now?"
"I'm russet, you silly weasel."
Twitchet's tail fluffed as she darted behind a trunk. Madridge stood his ground and unsheathed his sword. The branches rustled heavily. He could just make out a shape of something - no somebeast. Then it was gone.
"Twitchet …?" Madridge whimpered.
"Just kill it!" Twitchet shouted, peering around the trunk. "Before it - aaiee!"
Flump - the creature dropped into the snow between them.
"I say, that's not very nice, is it? First you call me brown, then you want to kill me! Psh. Although I suppose you'd think I'm brown, aha, I haven't had a wash for days. Too cold in the stream! Are you two just passing through, or would you care to stop for a meal? I'd offer tea, but I'm all out! I can whip up a stew, though. You are weasels, aren't you? You don't look like any weasels I've seen, and you're not pine martens. In fact - aha! You know what you remind me of?"
The squirrel beamed at them.
"You're like tiny little Coondooks!"
"Do you still want to kill me, or …?"
~ ~ ~
"Oh, wot d'you want? Another drink? More mushrooms? Is your scarf too tight? Thorn in your footpaw?"
Itache held Flavour out in front of her, paws under his arms, trying to see if his facial features would give her any clues. Apart from the dribbly snot and tears gunking up his whiskers, there was no discernable reason for him to be crying. He certainly couldn't have been cold, coddled up as he was in her arms most of the time.
Clad in scarcely more than a pillowcase with armholes when they found him amidst their baggage, the little ferret was now a prince of fashion. Itache had fashioned him some sleeves for his arms and little blue mittens for all four paws (every mother, even a Long Patrol Commander, carried an emergency sewing kit and spare cotton wool.) She'd then taken Dooley's traveling scarf and wrapped it around his pillowcase, providing him with a belt, a sash and a scarf, with enough left over to bunch up into a hat - or a leash, if the need arose. It often did.
Leejaw grimaced. He was no stranger to a babe's caterwauling, but this was beyond ridiculous. Flavour wasn't just crying - he was composing. There was a definite ostinato to be heard through all the noise. If it wasn't so annoying, it could have been rather catchy as a ballad chorus.
"How about a ride on Mr. Leejaw's shoulders, wotwot?"
"Maybe your ears are scaring him," Leejaw shot back. "Stop wiggling them about so much."
Itache glanced over her shoulder at him and stuck her tongue out. This caught Flavour's attention, and his song of sorrows turned into gleeful cackling instantly.
Tynan lowered his paws from his ears.
"Wot's that? Wot's goin' on? Is he killin' miss Itache?"
Leejaw explained the situation, struggling to hold his own laughter in. The ferret's laughter was infectious; who would ever dream a vermin, even a babe, could be so innocent and jolly? Certainly not he.
It was nice to know it was possible.
Tynan chuckled darkly at the tale.
"Keep yore tongue out, miss. A frozen licker is a small price t'pay for - is that water I hear?"
"Your ears are off, matey," O'doma said. The old mouse had kept quiet, trudging along behind them. "I don't hear nothin'. 'Cept ringin' …"
"No, no, I hear it too." Itache said. "Have any of you been down to th'Western Sea before? Ooogawooga, boogaboo, wot," she added, to keep Flavour's hysterics going. There was no real change in volume from before, but it was much more pleasant to listen to. "It's th'sound o' water lappin' at th'shore."
The forest thinned out; the ground sloped downward towards a wide expanse of deep blue water. The grey snow melted away to patches of blackened dirt, with little tufts of grass cropping up here and there. The dirt became clumpier, giving way to pebbles as it met the water's edge.
"Th'Great Inland Lake," O'doma announced. "We camped here on th'shore once, remember, Ty?"
"Just a dream t'me now," the old vole said. He sat down and let his tailtip flop into the icy shallows. "My dreams remember, but not my eyes."
"It's wonderful," Leejaw said. He shielded his eyes and gazed out toward the middle of the lake. "What's that out there? A boat?"
"Could be th'island," O'doma mused, rubbing his chin. "Where th'shrews an' otters went to, if I recall."
"More'n them," Itache said. "A lot of beasts thought it would be safer to stay on th'island than keep goin'. Oogaboo."
"Was it?" Leejaw said. Itache looked at him.
"D'you see any of 'em around now?"
"If the island kept them safe," Tynan said, now kicking his footpaws in the water despite the temperature, "if they had enough food an' water to survive, they wouldn't have any reason to leave it, would they?"
"Good f'r them, then, wot. Now unless any of you want t'stay, paddlin' about in th'water waitin' f'r a welcomin' comittee, I'd suggest gettin' your tails in motion. Salamandastron's a long way off yet an' we can get a few more miles in before it gets too dark."
Itache's tone clearly told them she was not to be trifled with. They'd all learned, one way or another, not to argue with her regarding their journey or the ferretbabe she now cared for. As one, they collected themselves, stretched and fiddled with pack straps, flicked their sandals clean and trudged off after her.
"Think they're still followin'?" O'doma said, glancing behind at the lake shore.
"No idea," Leejaw said. "We can only hope Twitchet's as selfish as any vermin. And that may not be the case."
Roslin had informed them of as much as she could about Flavour's parents and the Fleetwood vermin in general. While she hadn't the time to tell them about every detail regarding her duties as a vermin's schoolteacher, they knew enough about Twitchet and Madridge to surmise that either the entire town was after them, or had gone to Floret to fetch another teacher. Either one was a good scenario. With O'dama's lizard tribe having cut down most of their warriors, the vermin would be little trouble for Floret, and the hares could carry Roslin home safely before even the most experienced of foxes could get his bearings. If the vermin were after them to get Flavour back, then Floret and Roslin were safe. And if it came to a fight …
They'd all agreed they'd lived long enough.
It wasn't that they wanted to die - far from it. But the end was near no matter how they looked at it, and taking the scum of the land to Dark Forest with them seemed a better choice than dying peacefully with vermin running rife.
Of course, it had been days ago they'd decided on that. Before Itache had started getting cozy with the ferretbabe.
Leejaw eyed her nervously. The hare was swinging Flavour back and forth in her arms, humming a quiet tune to him. She was happier than the squirrel had ever seen her before. Without the Long Patrol to worry about, or the grudge-holding townsfolk of Floret pelting her home with pebbles, she was free to enjoy life.
But at the same time, the Long Patrol was all she'd had. Even her son had been more her Lieutenant than her family. Itache hadn't had friends in Floret. She wasn't even particularly well-liked; she'd never done anything to be liked. All she had now was this ferret. Cute as he was in his blue scarf, he was still vermin. Leejaw didn't want to be the one to remind her of that. When the time came, would she swing her sabre at the kit's parents, Flavour himself tucked under her arm? Or would she put him down and step back as she'd declared she'd do?
Further introspection was cut short as Leejaw's nose filled with snow.
"Ooph - wot happened, mate?" O'doma said, kneeling beside him.
"Huh?" Leejaw blinked and pushed himself up again. "I don't know. Must've tripped."
The squirrel glanced at his tracks and chuckled. "My own footpaws, I guess. Wasn't lookin'."
"Never stopped me!" Tynan bellowed from up ahead.
"Y'goin' to be alright, Lee?" O'doma asked, brushing snow off Leejaw's cloak. "I'll put my footpaw down if you need, make Itache let us rest."
"Thank you, but I'll be fine."
"Everybeast'll be fine in th'end, mate. What matters is bein' fine now."
"Then I am fine."
"You don't look it."
Leejaw glanced up ahead. Tynan and Itache hadn't stopped, and were far enough ahead not to hear them converse.
"Okay, okay. I'm not fine. But I'll make it, so don't worry about me, mm? And don't mention it to Ty. I'll do it myself, once we get t'Redwall."
~ ~ ~
"We should be underneath the Abbey by now," Jib said. He paused to let Darkness pass him by with the lantern. She'd refused to let him carry it, but had made him go on ahead anyway.
"'s warm down here," she whispered.
Behind them the tunnel stretched on, winding its way amidst the catacombs. Another tunnel led off to their right. Jib pointed it out.
"That heads back to the moles' dormitories. I think the next one leads up to the abbey grounds. After that, there's one to Cavern Hole. They've been mostly blocked up, though. But you can get through if you tried."
Darkness peered down the tunnel for a moment before gesturing for Jib to lead again.
"Your head's stopped bleedin'?" Jib asked.
"We can wait, then. We've enough food to last us a while longer. You don't need to do this just yet …"
Darkness was silent for a good while. Jib kept glancing back, trying to see any change of expression on her face: none.
"Two jam jars left," she said. "Hidden under th'stairs. Coondook'll never find 'em."
"Y'know, I'd always been wonderin' … where does - did - he get his prey from? We've hidden all the jars. But he's been livin' in the abbey as long as I can remember. I haven't seen many beasts alive. There'd been this mouse, and an old otter, then Perception, then you. But none of them were killed by him, and yet, still so many skeletons. And then, aheh, I found out."
They stopped at the next lead-off. Planks and crates just barely covered the passageway, and beyond that, Darkness could see mounds of dirt and large rocks. Jib reached for a pickaxe that was hanging from a jutting nail, but Darkness grabbed his wrist and took it for herself. He backed off considerably.
"How'd y'find these tumbles?" Darkness twirled her new weapon languidly in the wavering lamplight, examining it from all angles.
"Well, two moles found me in the forest, after I'd escaped the traps, and brought me here. They had food enough for themselves, had been livin' comfortably all this time - descendants of the first moles to build the tunnels, really. But they needed more medical supplies from Redwall. To heal my leg."
"They turned it into a stick?"
They continued on towards the Cavern Hole exit.
"There'd been dozens of them, scores of m-moles," Jib said. "All … all gone." His voice broke.
"I heard them scream sometimes," Darkness said, nodding. "'s nice."
"It's …?" Jib stopped.
"Nice, aye. Not echoes. Like th'pawsteps behind us."
The hedgehog's surge of anger dissipated. He looked down at his footpaws, then at Darkness. The pine marten was just standing there, smiling at him. Jib licked his lips. His eyes flickered with longing to the pickaxe in her paw.
"We're not movin'," he said.
And yet, down the way they'd just come, the definite sound of padding paws.