April 21, 2011

Male Rat

Isidore was tired, and he thought he might be getting old. His knuckles ached with the morning’s work, and sticky black scraps of tar paper still clung to his paws. He bent to thrust his arms in the snow, to soothe the ache and clean his fur, but his knees popped. At last the cold burrowed in his felted sleeves, so he pulled free from the drift and went back to the skep-hives.

He lit the paper in the smoker. The bellows coaxed the flame higher and caught the kindling. Eggy stink trickled out. That meant the sulphur had ignited, so he let the smoke build.

“Sorry, soldiers,” he said, and he set the smoker’s spout at the wicker skep-hive’s entrance.

Redwall craved honey, wax, and royal jelly. Isidore wanted a warm bed, an assistant, and safety. He’d robbed his soldiers to meet the demand. His hives had honey left, except for this one. The huddled workers, drones, and queen would starve and die if he didn’t poison them.

He wondered if a bee’s death hurt as much as an arrow in the back. Between his shoulders, a scarred knot throbbed.

A voice chimed in the crystal air. “Hey, Methuselah.”

“Selendra!” He turned to greet the mousemaid and saw that two otters accompanied her. He bowed his head bashfully.

“Special dispensation for you, mate,” said Sel. “All that honey sweetened the– oof! Never mind.” She hoisted a skep and handed the others to her otter guards.

“They won’t bite us?” said one.

“Bees don’t bite, Rigg. Don’t be a dummy,” said the other.

“They’re all asleep,” Isidore sang.

Rigg just scoffed.

Their path to the abbey didn’t join the main thoroughfare until they passed the old quarry, and so the woods felt claustrophobic. He hoped he could disarm marauders with a smile, a salute, and his name. If the ghosts of the wood attacked, hoping to break and batter the party as a gift to Redwall, he would wake the bees from their slumber.  The otters would reassure any crusaders worried for Selendra’s virtue.

They flanked her, struggling to keep pace with the mousemaid’s swagger. Isidore shuffled behind. He dug in his pocket and brought out a ring. The silver glinted in the blue winter light. “Sel, can I talk with you?”

“Keep on ahead, boys,” she said to the otters, and she dropped back.

“I found this. I thought you’d like it.”

She frowned. “You found it?”

“Look.” He twisted the ring. It broke into seven interlocking hoops, and he dangled it from a claw. “It’s old. I forgot I had it.”

“Isidore, tell me how you got it.”

“It’s mine, from when I was a soldier. You think I stole it?”

“No, Isidore,” she snapped. “Let me see…” She struggled to put it together. He took it from her; with a few flicks of his claw the rings clicked into place.

“You deserve nice things. Put it on,” he said, and he offered it to her.

Isidore couldn’t tell the meaning of the furrow in her brow, whether it was confusion or disgust, but she still frowned. A tooth crept over her lip. She sucked in her cheek. Then she gave him the ring, shouldered her skep and glowered at her footpaws.

“You know, you know what a gift like that means.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. You’re my friend.”

“Please, not right now.” Sel lunged ahead. The otters drew together behind her so Isidore couldn’t pass. They struggled through powder until they came to a clear road. Isidore slumped onward, trailing behind them.

“Hurry up, ratty,” said Rigg.

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