Shuddering with a grieved and exhausted sigh, Vanessa pulled the sheet up over Stroker's head. "Rest well, old friend ... you've earned it."
Absolute silence hung over the Infirmary, in spite of the number of creatures gathered there. Redwall had just lost one of its best; Stroker had been a stalwart of the Abbey's otter crews since Vanessa was a child, and everybeast present knew the Abbess would be particularly affected by his death ... especially since she and Sister Aurelia had battled well into the night, drawing upon every ounce of their combined healers' skill, striving in vain to save him.
Aurelia rested a consoling paw on her mentor's shoulder. "We did everything we could, Vanessa. His injuries were just too grave. It was out of our paws from the start."
"No, not from the start ... " She turned to regard Alexander, who stood at the fore of the onlookers. "We now have one dead otter and one dead squirrel to go with our dead dormouse. I hope you're happy."
Alexander and the Abbess were childhood friends, as close as any two Redwallers could be; as such, she felt she could be more forthright and unsparing in her criticism of him than she normally would be with those under her authority.
"Stroker was my friend too," Alex said grimly. "And let's not forget Flashtail - he was one of my best squirrels. We had no way to know this would turn into such a disaster. It could have turned out very differently, with that pike dead. We weighed our chances, and decided it was a risk worth taking. And if I had it to do all over again, I'd go out on that boat myself."
"And if I had it to do all over again," Vanessa bit off her words, "I'd have had Balla fetch her biggest bung hammer from the cellars and smash in the bottom of that boat, if that's what it had taken to keep Stroker, Turoh and Flashtail from going out onto the pond. Two fine beasts would still be alive now, had I stuck to my resolve and not allowed you to partake in this foolishness. It is a regret I will carry with me for the rest of my seasons."
"I'm sorry, Abbess," spoke up Turoh; the young otter had suffered no more than bruises and scratches in his bout with the pike, thanks in large part to Stroker's timely intervention. "We should've listened to you."
"We should always listen to our Abbess, all of us," Geoff said to everybeast there. "She is the head of our order for a reason, and today we have seen what happens when we choose not to heed her wisdom and counsel."
"Thank you, Geoff." Vanessa stood and stretched her tired muscles, feeling totally drained. She ran her gaze over all the sad faces around her, made even more somber by the late night lamplight. "We will deal with this pike as I originally planned. We will wait for Montybank and Maura to return so that they can handle the matter properly. Until then, nobeast else is to go near the pond. No more heroics or foolish displays of bravery, or misguided attempts to avenge our fallen loved ones. And that is an order."
"You won't hafta tell us again, ma'am," Turoh said sheepishly. "'sides which, our only boat's still adrift in th' middle of th' pond ... an' I fer one shore as shrimp ain't swimmin' out t'retrieve it."
It was late the following afternoon when the shrimping expedition returned to Redwall. Vanessa, alerted to their approach by the Sparra, went out to meet them by the east wallgate.
The bright summer sun had returned as well, chasing away the dismal cloud cover of the previous day. The otter troop could be heard before they could be seen through the trees, boisterously singing an old marching tune with great good cheer. Clearly they were in high spirits, for they had no reason to be otherwise; the weather was perfect, their arduous task was nearly at an end, and they would soon be back amongst friends and family and enjoying all the comforts of the best home anybeast could want.
Their joyful tunemaking tapered off to perplexed silence as they broke through the trees and beheld the solitary figure of their Abbess standing outside the wall with her paws clasped solemnly before her. One look at her face was enough to tell them something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Most of the others stood back as Montybank strode up to Vanessa. Maura accompanied him, huffing and puffing as she hauled the heavy, sloshing barrels on the cart behind her. They stopped before the Abbess, concern etched on their faces. "What is it, Nessa?" the otter skipper asked.
"Yes," the big badger seconded, "what's happened, Vanessa?"
Vanessa took a few moments before speaking. She had agonized over whether she should send out the sparrows or some other messenger to inform the expedition of the tragedies that had occurred in their absence. In the end she had decided not to; news like that could be kept until the last possible moment. But now that moment had arrived, and she could put it off no longer.
"Not here," she said at last. "Not until you're all inside and settled down. Then I'll tell you everything."
Evening shades lay over Mossflower. In the gloaming of the long summer twilight, Maura and the otters paid a visit to the new graves of the departed Redwallers.
Maura squatted over Binsley's burial mound, one massive paw pressed against the fresh earth as if the badger mother were trying to send her love to the departed dormouse through the grave and into the next world. "If only I'd been here ..."
Abbess Vanessa stood supportively alongside the big badger. "Now, Maura, I'll not have you or anybeast else blaming themselves for this tragedy. I've already been through this with Sister Aurelia, who's convinced that Binsley would still be alive if only she'd been paying a little closer attention ... "
"She's right," Maura said softly, dispassionately.
"Maybe she is," Vanessa nodded, "but she doesn't need to ever hear you or any of us telling her that. She's being quite hard on herself, and she'll need all the understanding and support we can give her. There's nobeast at Redwall who can get our children to behave the way you can, Maura, not even Brother Geoff. By all accounts, they were acting especially rambunctious that afternoon, running every way at once. Poor Aurelia was simply overmatched, in spite of her best efforts. She is inconsolable as it is - we must not put this on her shoulders."
Maura climbed to her feet. "There's only one creature I blame for this, and that's that damnable pike. If I could get my paws around its throat right this moment," she glared toward the evening-shimmery pond, "I'd show it what I think about fish who kill our young ones."
"No profit in revenge, Maura mum," Montybank said from a few paces away, where he knelt at his otter friend's grave. "Old Stroker 'ere's proof enuff o' that. Poor ol' Stroke - he was teaching' me th' ropes of bein' a proper waterdog when I was still a wet-b'hind-th'-ears pup. He was as much a Skipper as I'll ever be." He sniffed and pawed away a tear, and many of the other otters assembled behind him followed suit.
"I know it's difficult, coming home after a long hard journey only to be met by such terrible news as this," said Vanessa. "You must all be bone tired. Get a good night's rest, all of you, and tomorrow we'll do what needs to be done about that pike."
Monty stood to face her. "Beggin' yer pardon, Nessa, but if y'think there's a single one o' us who's gonna be able t'sleep sound in our beds tonight while three of our Abbeymates're sleepin' under cold earth or at th' bottom of th' pond, yore very much mistaken. We got work t'do, so I says let's get to it!"
"Hear hear," agreed Maura. "My paws are at your command, Vanessa. Just tell me what to do."
They worked throughout the night. First, they drained one of the barrels and laid the shrimp out on trays on the big table in Cavern Hole. Before proceeding, the empty barrel was refilled with fresh water from the Abbey's stocks of drinking rainwater, and the remaining live shrimp were evenly divided between the two containers so that they would not go foul while they were awaiting introduction to the pond. The Redwallers had a pike to take care of before that could happen.
Vanessa decided that simply soaking the shrimp in her sedative potion would not be sufficient; the drug might wash off in the pond before the pike had a chance to eat its fill. So, she instructed that each individual shrimp be cut open, stuffed with a tiny wad of bread heavily laced with the potion, and then meticulously sewn closed again with vegetable thread. It was painstaking work, and every beast in the Abbey with any sewing skill was called upon to lend a paw.
By dawn, nearly two hundred of the shrimp had been thus prepared. Alexander set aside his knife and flexed his stiff paws. "There, that's the last of them. Think that'll be enough to knock that fish out?"
"Let me put it this way," Vanessa answered, eyes squinted as she checked the sutures on the shrimp spread out before her. "There's enough of the drug in all of these to stop the hearts of any five ordinary creatures. If we can get the pike to consume most of them, it'll have a nice little nap for itself."
"Assuming this drug affects fish at all," Sister Aurelia put in tiredly.
"Tut tut, there, missy - no cause fer bein' pessimistic." Montybank surveyed the riches of crustaceans displayed under his nose. "Shame t' waste all these perfectly good watershrimp on that bloodthirsty scumfins. They'd be soooo good in a nice big steamin' cauldron o' hotroot soup, or mebbe in pasties, with leeks 'n' onions, or mebbe mushrooms ... "
"But it's all for a good cause," Alex reminded him. "Once we're rid of that pike, you can restock the pond with shrimp, and then you'll be able to scoff on those delicacies anytime you want."
"Squirrels and otters," Mother Maura shook her big striped head. "How anybeast can think of food during times like these ... "
"Hey, a body's gotta eat, through good an' bad," Monty protested.
"Yeah," Alex added, "and just be glad there are no hares living at Redwall currently, or you'd see the real meaning of a scofferbeast."
"Well, all this talk of food is making me hungry," Brother Geoff said. "And it is almost dawn ..."
"Past dawn, actually," Friar Hugh informed him. "I can see the windows up in Great Hall starting to glow with the morning light. Let me go fire up the ovens and see what I can scrape together for breakfast." With that, the mouse cook stalked off toward the kitchens.
"Sounds like it's going to be awhile before the morning meal's ready," Maura surmised. "We've worked all night on this - I say we might as well get right to it and see if this is going to work. While we're waiting for our breakfast, let's go and give the pike his."
The treated shrimp were loaded into a barrel and carted out to the pond by Maura. The formidable badger was the only Redwaller big enough to be in no great danger from the pike. Nevertheless, all the otters went with her. If the predatory fish had the audacity to attack her, they all wanted to be there with their javelins at the ready. A clear shot at the pike now might eliminate the need to engage it in the water, if they could sink enough shafts into it from the bank.
But their adversary made no appearance. Maura waded in up to her knees and tipped her load of shrimp into the pond. A few of the crustaceans sank straight to the shallow bottom, but most floated, buoyed by the lighter bread and air pockets trapped in their sewn-together shells. Like a loose raft they drifted upon the surface as Maura retreated to the shore. Together, she and the otters regarded the results of her labor. "I hope that confounded fish shows up before most of those shrimp sink. They won't be as easy to find if they're all lying in the bottom mud."
"Wouldn't worry 'bout that," said Montybank. "That thing's so ravenous, it'll go fer anything that moves, or smells like food. Actshully surprised it hasn't reared its ugly head already."
"Mebbe that run-in with me 'n' Flash 'n' Stroker gave it pause," Turoh said. "After all, we did leave a harpoon stuck in its side."
"Then let's all move back from the water's edge," Maura advised. "This plan of Vanessa's is our best bet for disposing of this pike, and we don't want to intimidate it."
They all shuffled backward several paces, putting a safe distance between themselves and the bank so that they wouldn't scare away their quarry. They didn't want to go back inside the Abbey, since somebeast had to watch to make sure the pike consumed the shrimp. And so, in the cool crisp air of a magnificently dawning summer morning, they stood and watched and waited.
They didn't have to wait long. A rippling disturbance along the surface revealed the pike's wake, making straight for the mass of shrimp. The upper curve of its toothed jaw broke the surface as it tore into the bait set out for it.
"Eat up, me hearty," Monty growled in satisfaction. "We made 'em special, jus' fer you!"
While most of the Abbey took their breakfast in Great Hall, the otters met out in the privacy of the orchard to discuss their strategy. Vanessa joined them, seated to one side on a mossy old stump.
Montybank addressed the troop. "We can't know fer shore whether Nessa's potion is gonna affect that fish or no. Either way, this ends t'day. That pike's been a danger in our midst fer too long. We'll wait 'til late afternoon - if th' drug's gonna work at all, that'll give it enuff time t' kick in to the fullest."
He slowly swept his gaze over the faces of his otters. "Now, I don't hafta tell you it's gonna be a risky affair. We've all seen what that terror can do. We know it's capable of killin' even th' best of us. If yon pike's fully awake an' in a fightin' mood when we meet it, there's a chance some o' us here might not see another sunrise. That's why I'm not orderin' anybeast t'do what I'm proposin'. This'll be by volunteer only. Nobeast'll think any less o' any otter 'ere who decides not t' take part. Now, let's see a show o' paws from those foolhardy enuff t' wanna dance with our scaly friend down there ... "
Without a moment's hesitation, every single otter's paw shot up.
Monty grinned. "Yeah, that's about what I figgered from you lot o' sopheads. Glad t' see yore all just as brave as y'are foolish. Now, th' plan's simple: two javelins to each otter, an' we all stick t'gether. If'n that pike's plannin' on havin' otter on its dinner menu, it'll hafta contend with all o' us at once, an' that puts th' odds heavily in our favor. T'would be an extra comfort if we could all wear chain mail fer this battle, but it'd be too heavy an' slow us down too much even if we had armor fer everybeast. We'll be travelin' light - it's gonna be our natural swimmin' skill an' otter agility that's our best weapon. That, an' our javelins."
Every head nodded in enthusiastic agreement. "Awright, then. Now, our noble Abbess's got a few words 'fore we adjourn. Nessa, they're all yores."
"Thank you, Monty." Vanessa stood to address the group. "First of all, let me thank all of you for your courage. As has been said, your endeavor will not be without its danger. But we must be rid of this menace, and you otters are our only hope of accomplishing this. I cannot express deeply enough my gratitude for your willingness to risk life and limb for this cause. If you are successful, this entire Abbey will be indebted to you.
"That said, I must stress something else. This is an extraordinary time for Redwall. It is not our way to seek revenge for its own sake, or to act with malice against another living creature. Normally, when we take a fish from our pond once every season or two, it is to use it gratefully for food. And, normally, when we face an enemy of Redwall, it is because we are attacked, and must fight to defend ourselves. But nothing about this situation is normal. Our Abbey has never known a threat like this before, within our own walls. We will not be killing that pike for food, and we will not be meeting it in honorable battle as we would a foebeast. We will be hunting it with the sole purpose of exterminating it. I gain no joy from having a paw in such a scheme. That pike must die, true ... but I will take no satisfaction from its death. And neither should any of you. This course of action is necessary. That does not mean we should enjoy it."
The otters somberly digested her words. They had needed this reminder of all Redwall stood for. Montybank's crew were honorable and goodhearted to a beast, but they had indeed let their desire to avenge their fellow Redwallers influence them. They realized they must bear no enmity toward their quarry; to do so would not properly honor their fallen comrades.
"Right, then." Monty said, taking the stump back from Vanessa. "Let's go get some o' that good scoff Friar Hugh cooked up. This'll be our big meal fer th' day - no swimmin' on a full stomach, y'know. So eat yer fill now!"
The great fish felt strange.
The sudden reappearance of so many shrimp in the pond had mystified it, as had the fact that they were already dead. And there had been a peculiar taste and texture to them. But all of this meant nothing in the face of its all-consuming hunger. Not even the land-dwellers' barb in its side, and the injuries that were ever-so-slowly draining its life away, could command its attention through the mindless drive to gain its next meal.
The shrimp were not warm, or bloody. They were nearly unpalatable after the new and infinitely more satisfying tastes the fish had so recently acquired. But no more of the fulfilling land creatures had placed themselves where it could get at their meat. And survival meant getting more food. Any food. So, it had eaten the shrimp. All of them, even the ones that had to be picked one by one out of the bottom mud.
Now, as the morning wore on toward noon, the great fish was feeling more and more lethargic, almost at a remove from its watery world. It lay in its grotto, unquestioning of the waves of sleepiness sweeping through it. The fish accepted its lack of energy and alertness as perfectly natural; its primitive mind, now further limited by the drug dulling its senses, never considered that this might have been something done to it by the land creatures, by some arcane process totally beyond its meagre comprehension. No worry or doubt nagged at it in the slightest - it was the great fish, after all, lord and master of its domain. All would be well.
It would simply sleep for awhile, and let the future take care of itself ...
The time had come for the final showdown.
Vanessa, Geoff, and many of the Abbey elders had turned out onto the lawns in a show of support for the otters. Alexander and all his squirrels stood with their bows at the ready for any assistance they might be able to render. Maura was keeping all the children occupied with games and songs and puzzles down in Cavern Hole; the Abbess did not want any young eyes to witness the hunt in case things did not go all the otters' way and there were casualties.
In the golden light of the late afternoon sun, the otters assembled in a phalanx along the pond's bank, with Montybank at the head of the formation. Vanessa clasped paws with her old friend the otter Skipper, and she gave those calloused, sure and steady flippers a warm shake of encouragement. "May luck be with you today, and all of you return from this unharmed."
"Thanks, Nessa. That's my hope - we'll just hafta see how it shakes out."
She stood aside so Alexander could bid Monty good luck for himself. Otter and squirrel embraced, pounding each other on the back. "You give that pike a few extra jabs for me. For Flashtail."
"Fer shrimp 'n' acorns, Alex matey! Yore makin' me feel like I'm departin' fer a ten-seasons' jaunt! Shore, we'll 'ave this all over with in a jiffy, you just watch ... an' yeah, I got meself a javelin 'ere with Flash's name on it, you c'n count on that."
"Now Monty," Vanessa admonished, "you remember what we talked about this morning in the orchard. I don't want that pike's suffering prolonged in any way. It's to be killed as mercifully as possible - not tortured."
"Aye. We'll remember that, Nessa. Truth t' tell, I think we're all lookin' to be done with this business as soon as may be." Monty stepped back to address his troop. "Awright, lads 'n' lasses, let's do this sharp as only proper waterdogs can. Follow my lead, an' here we go!"
The otter skipper gracefully dove headfirst into the shallows, skimming smoothly along the bottom and toward the deeper region of the pond. By ones and twos the rest of the otters dove in after him, slicing the surface with such practiced skill that barely a ripple was left in their wake. Within moments it was as if they'd all vanished from the face of the earth.
The onlookers gazed at the calm waters with collectively baited breath, waiting expectantly to see what this contest would bring.
It ended more quickly than anybeast could have imagined. In truth, it had been over before the first otter got its fur wet.
The armed party had not been under for very long at all when several of their sleek and shiny heads broke the surface out in the middle of the pond. They conversed briefly as they tread water, then Monty flashed an "okay" signal to the landbound watchers and all the otters vanished once more. Since their words had not carried to the shore, the rest of the Redwallers were left mystified as to what was afoot.
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Geoff wondered nervously.
"Your guess is as good as mine," answered Alexander. "But they didn't seem overly excited or panicked, so I gather it's not going too badly."
"Not yet, anyway." Sister Aurelia patted her healers' bag. "But I'm keeping this ready, just in case ... "
Moments later Monty and a few of his companions emerged from the shallows and waded ashore. They seemed more frustrated than anything else. "Dead! The blasted thing's dead!"
"Well, wasn't that the whole idea?" Alex asked, puzzled by his friend's demeanor. "You certainly made quick work of it. It can't have put up much of a struggle ... "
Montybank shook his head. "T'wasn't us, Alex matey. It was dead afore we ever laid paw or javelin on it. When we didn't see it anywhere, we swam down t'survey th' bottom. Discovered it lying in a cozy li'l nook it'd made fer itself in some o' the old stone blocks left o'er from th' ruins o' Kotir - figgers a bloodthirsty brute like that'd feel at home in a tyrant's fallen castle. Anyways, when it didn't attack or stir at all, we tickled its gills with our shafts an' jabbed at it an' smacked it on th' skull. Didn't move or twitch a muscle. It's deader'n last season's dragonflies."
Alexander furrowed his brow. "I don't trust it, Monty. That monster is so full of surprises, we can't take anything for granted where it's concerned. It could just be playing dead. Or sleeping from Vanessa's potion. I say stick it full of javelins, just to be safe."
"Oh, don't worry, we'll do even better'n that," said Monty. "B'lieve me, I knows a dead fish when I see one, but like you say, can't take any chances. Ah, 'ere it comes now!"
To Monty's right, a dozen otters struggled ashore with the pike in their paws. It was all they could do to haul it out of the water and lug it up onto the greensward. The pike's slack jaw and dull, unseeing eyes were clearly those of a dead thing, but that didn't stop all the mice, moles, hedgehogs and even a few of the valiant squirrels from stepping back away from it. Even in death, the great fish was fearsome to behold.
"Egads! Look at the size of that thing!" Geoff declared. "It ... it could swallow me whole!"
Monty clapped the Recorder mouse heartily on the back. "Not much danger o' that now, Geoff matey. Tho' this time yesterday I dare say it woulda found you a tasty morsel."
"What do you think killed it?" Aurelia asked, and looked to the Abbess. "Your potion, Vanessa?"
"I'd like to think not," Vanessa said soberly. "I meant to put it to sleep, not slay it. If my work is responsible for this, it really would be almost the same as if I'd poisoned it ... "
"Don't fret yoreself, Nessa." Monty strode fearlessly right up to the pike and wiggled the javelin protruding from its side. "M'self, I'd like t' fancy it was this that did th' job. It'd be only fittin' if it was Stroker's blow that belatedly slew this menace. Old Stroke got th' last laugh on th' creature that took 'is life."
"Yes, that would indeed be poetic justice," Vanessa nodded, and some of her melancholy seemed to lift.
Alexander continued to regard the pike warily. "Can we be absolutely, positively certain that it's truly dead?"
"Yes," Geoff backed him up, "we must take no chances."
"Never met a fish that could live outta water. That's why I had my crew haul it up." Monty whacked the side of the fish hard with his heavy tail; the meaty thwack! echoed across the Abbey grounds. "We'll keep ol' ugly out 'ere on th' lawns overnight, so even if it is just playin' dead, it'll suffocate. That'll remove all doubt."
Sister Aurelia wrung her paws in thought. "Do you think we should perhaps allow the children out here to see it? Maybe if they see for themselves that it's dead, that will allay their fears ... "
"Wouldn't recommend that, missy," said Monty. "Youngbeasts're naturally curious, pokin' an' proddin' inta things. Let 'em out here, an' some o' them will prob'ly look in its mouth."
"Why? What's in its mouth?"
"Well, pike ain't 'xactly the cleanest o' creatures - bits 'n' scraps all stuck 'tween its teeth. And, er, this un's been eatin' Redwallers ... "
Aurelia blanched, and nearly fainted.
"All right," said Vanessa, "we'll keep the children well away from it. If they want a look, they can see it from the upper dormitory windows. Let it stay here on the lawn overnight, and tomorrow we'll decide how to properly dispose of it."
The pike may have been dead, but the otters still had work to do.
Before the sun had even set, the two barrels of live shrimp were carted over to the pond to be acclimated. Two more empty barrels were rolled out, and the watershrimp divided between all four containers. Then, one cup at a time, water from the pond was slowly trickled into each barrel.
Winokur, a young otter who'd never before taken part in a restocking of the pond, asked, "Tell me again why we're doin' this?"
So's we don't shock 'em too bad," Montybank explained as he ladled pond water from a small pail into one of the barrels. "Leastways, no more'n they've already been shocked, bein' snatched from their river home an' jostled halfway through Mossflower. Y'see, water's different from place t' place, an' what we got here in our pond might not be th' same as what these shrimp're used to in the River Moss. If'n we just throws 'em inta new waters without lettin' 'em get accustomed first, it could kill 'em. So we take it nice 'n' easy, let 'em taste their new home a liddle bit at a time, an' then let 'em loose. By th' time each o' these casks is full to th' brim, should be safe t' pour 'em out inta th' pond."
"Oh." Winokur eyed the trickle with which his skipper was adding the pond water to the shrimp barrels. "At that rate, won't it take all night?"
"Mebbe," Monty nodded. "But anything worth doing's worth doin' right, eh? B'sides, looks like it'll be a beautiful summer's eve, full moon an' clear skies. A beast could spend a night in far worse places than 'ere by our splendid, pike-free pond."
Winokur threw his gaze toward the beached behemoth; the dead pike was even more ghastly to behold in the failing light of evening. "Yeah - now it's outta th' pond an' up here, givin' us all the ol' evil eye. Ugh! Gives me th' willies, just lookin' at it!"
"So don't look at it," Monty grinned. "Fer me, it's as fine a trophy as any otter could want. I could stare at it all night ... an' prob'ly will."
"What d'you reckon we'll do with it? Come tomorrow, I mean?"
"Oh, our esteemed Abbess is pretty good at comin' up with solutions fer things like this," Monty answered. "I'm sure she'll think o' something. Tho', if she's lookin' fer suggestions, I got a few I could lend her ... "
As the evening wore on and Monty tended the shrimp with his helpers, a few of the other otters swam out to retrieve the drifting coracle, now that there was no danger of an attack. Monty studied the small boat as it was hauled ashore. "Well, she looks none th' worse fer wear. Came outta her battle with th' pike in better shape than her crew, that's fer shore. Guess we won't be needin' her anymore this season."
"Should we put her back in storage?" inquired Pronk, who'd headed the recovery operation and now stood holding the prow of the boat.
"Yeah, I guess ... no, wait." Monty glanced over to where Alexander and the squirrels were busy digging an honorary grave for Flashtail alongside Binsley's and Stroker's. "Got an idea fer it. We otters don't need boats, an' nobeast else at the Abbey's used it fer ages. Lay it aside by th' pike there, an' I'll see to it later."
Pronk nodded. "Aye aye, Skip."
Come midnight, with the bright full summer moon casting its wan yellow glow down on Redwall, Monty decided the shrimp were ready for release. With two otters at each barrel, the four brimful casks were tipped slowly onto their sides, spilling their living contents into the pond in a gentle mingling of waters. Enough of the moonlight penetrated the surface for the watching otters to see a myriad of silvery ghost shapes flitting and skittering through the water, dispersing and vanishing into their new home.
"There y'go, me liddle beauties," Monty smiled. "Go be fruitful an' multiply - we've been without shrimp 'n' hotroot soup fer too long!"
After releasing the shrimp, Montybank allowed himself a few luxurious hours of sleep - the first he'd had in two days - but was up with the dawn. He had a memorial to erect, and wanted to have it done before the day was too old.
Binsley's tiny grave was now flanked on one side by Stroker's and on the other by the symbolic burial mound the squirrels had dug for Flashtail. Monty had a notion on how to further commemorate the pike's three victims, and with the help of Foremole's digging crew, his idea was realized in no time at all.
When Vanessa came out to see it after her own late breakfast, she was somewhat at a loss for words. "Honestly, Monty, I really don't know ... it's different, I have to admit."
The coracle stood half-buried in the earth at the head of the three graves, its pointed prow aimed at the sky. The boat in which Stroker and Flashtail had bravely met the pike now watched over them like an eternal guardian.
"I like it," Maura announced.
"Well, it does sort of look like a chapel," Geoff ventured, "so I suppose it's fitting in that sense ... "
"I think Flashtail would have approved," said Alexander, "and isn't that what's really important?"
"No better tribute ol' Stroke could've wanted," Monty added. "Knew it was th' right 'n' proper thing t' do the moment the idea popped up in me noggin."
Sister Aurelia waved a paw toward the shady hollow formed by the upended vessel. "We could put fresh flowers inside, maybe in a vase, up on a pedestal ... "
Vanessa shrugged. "Well, everybeast seems to like it, so I'll go along with the crowd and say, good work, Monty!"
The otter skipper absorbed assorted backslaps and pawshakes, accepting them all with his usual easygoing nature.
"Which leaves us with just one remaining question." Maura jerked a paw toward the pike's massive carcass, festering in the morning sun. "What are we going to do with that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Vanessa said nonchalantly, glancing toward the otter chief. "Monty did such a fine job coming up with this memorial sculpture that I think I'll just leave it up to him."
"Why, certainly, Nessa," he readily agreed. "Only one thing we can do with it. Too big t'bury, an' no good fer eatin', not that we'd wanna tuck inta anything that might still have some o' our loved ones inside it. We gotta chuck it back in th' pond. Plain an' simple."
"Very well, then. No use putting it off. I hereby authorize you to remove that foul creature from our sight forthwith."
"Just a moment, Abbess," Maura said. "There's something I'd like to do first. I know it's been lying on the lawn all night and there's no chance at all that it's still alive, but it would let me rest easier ... "
"Whatever you feel is necessary, Maura," Vanessa assented.
"Okay." The big badger set off for the main Abbey building. "Be right back. Don't do anything without me."
When Maura returned, she carried in one paw the Sword of Martin. These days that fine weapon normally hung on display in Great Hall like a revered museum piece, untouched and unused, along with its companion shield - the legendary arms of Redwall's founding mouse warrior. Nobeast by the pond that morning could recall the last time the famed sword had been brought down from its wall brackets, and the sight of their hulking badger Mother striding toward them while bearing the blade in a no-nonsense manner was one that the assembled Redwallers would long remember.
"What are you going to do, Maura?" Vanessa asked.
"Cut its infernal head off."
"Why?" asked Alexander. "It's as dead as it's gonna get."
"Because it will make me feel better," the badger replied brusquely. "Now, everybeast stand back and give me some room ... "
They did, while Maura sliced, hacked, sawed, hew and sliced some more, until the pike's head lay gruesomely severed from its body. The otter Pronk wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Ooo, an' ain't that a pretty smell?"
"Pretty sight, too," added Monty.
Maura rinsed the blade clean in the pond and passed the sword to Alexander. "I'll rest in peace knowing that this fish is resting in pieces. No chance of it coming back from the dead now." She grabbed up the massive head, nearly half as big as she was, and staggered with it to the damp bank. "A little more room, please," she grunted.
The other Redwallers, who'd begun to crowd in around the carnage, shuffled back once more. The powerful badger spun around in place - once, twice, three times - picking up speed as she held the pike's head out in front of her. At the climax of her third revolution she let go of the fish head, which went sailing far out over the water and splashed into the middle of the pond. It was an amazing demonstration of brute strength that left even the otters in awe.
"Well done, marm!" Monty applauded, and most of the onlookers joined in.
Maura was never one to bask in ovation from her fellow Abbeydwellers. She made a sour face as she wiped at her gore-spattered smock. "Afraid I've made quite a mess for our poor laundrettes. I'll have to go change out of this before any of the children see me and think I've turned into a mad butcher-beast."
"But that's exactly what you are," Monty pointed out. "You were mad at that pike, an' you butchered it right proud."
"Let us hope that all the butchering, bloodshed, killing and death are over with at Redwall for many seasons," said Vanessa. "We've lost three of our own, and slain the creature responsible. Such times of tragedy are mercifully rare at our beloved Abbey, so let us look to the future even as we remember those who are gone. And may such disaster not visit Redwall again in any of our lifetimes."
Montybank clapped his paws at his fellow otters. "Right! One last thing t' do, me buckos, an' that's to get th' rest o' this fish inta th' pond. So let's all grab onto it an' we'll swim it out to where its head's restin', an' then this'll all be over."
"Yes," Vanessa nodded. "It will finally be over."
There was a feast at Redwall that afternoon.
It did not take place in Great Hall, or Cavern Hole, or on the lawns under the boundless blue summer sky, or in the orchard beneath the blessedly cool shade of apple, pear and plum trees. No colorful banners or bunting were hung, no cheerful songs sung, no special treats prepared in the Abbey kitchens. A great sense of relief, like the end of a nightmare, permeated Redwall, but none of the woodlanders was in any mood to celebrate. The atmosphere was a somber one. There would be occasion for festivity and frivolity in times to come, but not today.
Down in the pond, however, it was a different story. The carcass of the pike provided a bounty seldom seen in these waters. The other fish and the newly-introduced shrimp did not stop to mourn their dead or hesitate over the morality of their actions. Down here, the normal rules of behavior at Redwall did not apply. Down here, survival was the only thing that mattered.
The shrimp were the first to find the pike, descending upon it like a living cloud to pick at any loose tatters of flesh, scrambling over it from its severed head to its tail fins. Then the other fish, attracted by the seething mass of shrimp and seeing that their grand nemesis was safely dead, swam out to join in the feeding frenzy. The shrimp quickly scattered and dispersed into the safety of the reeds and bottom stones. But the pike could not flee, and from its bones the other fish ate their fill, and then ate a little more ...
The pike was a huge fish, and its flesh would not all be consumed in one day. In the days that followed there were many more meals taken from its substance, by the shrimp and by the other fish in turns, until the bones were picked clean and only its skull and skeleton remained resting on the bottom of the pond. Thus did the mighty pike, which had taken so much from its realm over the seasons, meet its final end, preyed upon by the very prey it had terrorized for so long. And with it gone, the shrimp began to multiply and increase their numbers, awaiting the day when the otters' nets would return once more ...