Isn't It a Utopia?

May 31, 2011

“Rip?”

“Mmhm?”

“Got any paints?”

“Aye. In that drawer… no, the one below. That one.”

Ripple pointed with his quill and went back to the problem at paw. If a ditch protected, but high ground was desirable for accuracy…

“So ye never get hit in a ditch?”

“Oh no, not never. Sometimes you do. It’s sort of random. What’s this under the paints?”

“Random…” Rip started. “Huh? What’s what…”

Foweller turned, displaying Merritt’s “gift” for Ripple to see. “It was sticking out of the papers.”

“Uhhhh…” His mind was blanking. He couldn’t breathe.

“Haha, it’s so gross. Lookit that.”

“That’s not mine,” Ripple said. His head swam. He felt like throwing up.

Foweller turned the picture upside-down, grimacing in amusement at it. He looked up as somebeast creaked across the attic floor.

“Rip? What’s not yers?”

Ripple couldn’t remember moving so fast in his entire life. He went from lying flat on the floor to lying flat over Foweller in just four seconds flat. He batted the picture out of the younger otter’s paws and shoved it as far under the desk as he could reach.

Skipper rounded the bookshelf an instant later and quirked his head at them sprawled out together.

Ripple’s thoughts went something like this: The stair didn’t squeak. Skipper saw the picture. Owowowow, my legs, never doing that again. I don’t have a book. This looks really bad, don’t it. Punch Foweller.

He punched Foweller.

“Oi there, Rip, what’s that all about! Gerroff, ye terror, what’s gotten into ye? First Isidore’s hives…”

Foweller was not one to let a swing go unrequited, and Skipper had a time of getting them apart. He held them aloft by the scruffs of their necks. Paralyzed, they twisted gently in his grip, weather vanes on a lazy day, glaring daggers at each other.

Skipper let Foweller down first.

“What is this fightin’ all about, Foweller?”

“Dunno, Uncle Skip! Rip started it.”

Uncle? Ripple mouthed.

“We was playin’ at our game!” Foweller indicated the massive spread of glued-together paper and the various designs and crafting tools littering the floor. “Then he trounced me.”

“Ye hurt any?”

“No, Uncle Skip. Rip hits like a weasel.”

“That so. Very well,” said Skipper. “Foweller, ye may go. I’d like to speak with my son in private.”

“Okeedoke, Uncle Skip!” Foweller smiled so sweetly it was a wonder his teeth didn’t fall out of his mouth in dusty little shards.

Ripple writhed. Skipper bapped him. He let Ripple down when Foweller had gone. The little otter’s chin sunk to his chest. He clasped his paws behind his back, lest they fidget and betray his feelings.

“What am I goin’ to do with ye, Rip?” he sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “What’s gotten into ye? Look at this mess! What in hellgates happened to the shelf here?”

“Uh… wood rot?”

“Wood rot an’ what? When did it happen?”

“Bludd, sir. This mornin’…”

Skipper sighed again.

“Why today, Rip? Spring Nameday celebration’s tonight. Ye’ve been actin’ like a ruddy fool, an’ if it keeps up yer goin’ to get more than a switchin’, I’ll see to that myself.” Skipper reached over and pulled Ripple closer. Clasping his head with both paws, Skipper rubbed his thumb claw against the dried white goo that had been administered to Ripple’s myriad bee stings. “Still hurts?”

“Aye, sir.”

“An’ yer rudder?” Skipper tipped him over a knee to check the bandage Sister Agnes had applied around the base of Ripple’s tail. It was still off-white, with no red spots bleeding through. Ripple’s pajamas had spared his legs, but would need stitching.

“Aye, sir.”

“Rip. I want ye to come down tonight. Help out with settin’ up the feast. Father Abbot’s orders, ye know. I was gonna get ye off the hook, let ye rest, but…” He helped Ripple upright again. “I’ll send some crew to clean up the shelvin’ mess. Ye got five minutes to get ready an’ head downstairs.”

Ripple nodded. He shifted his paws behind his back again and stepped closer to the desk. He bumped his chair by accident.

“An’ no more playin’ with Virrel.”

“But -”

“No! That’s final. That weasel’s a bad influence on ye, I know it. He’s a bad apple, that one, an’ yer not to be alone with him no more, got it?”

“But he’s -”

Rip.”

Ripple bowed his head again. “Aye, sir.”

“Right. Now, mind tellin’ me why ye were tryin’ to pop Foweller’s ears off?”

When Ripple raised his head, he’d managed to get his eyes moist. It was easy. “He found… he was makin’ fun of… of mum’s picture.”

Skipper hugged him. Ripple waited it out as stoically as possible. Things started to get awkward around the two-minute mark when he realized Skipper was sobbing.

He wondered if he had gone too far.


There really wasn’t any reason to have a Spring Nameday celebration feast outside, except to punish youngsters by forcing them to do pointless manual labor. Ripple didn’t know why they couldn’t just eat in the Great Hall and glance out a window once in a while. The days were fine and warm, but the nights still nipped.

Evening began to flow over the walls, washing out the dregs of sunlight from the corners of the abbey.

Ripple paused along the edge of the shadow. The blades of grass caught in the crossfire of light and dark looked sharp, serrated like the tip of a shrimp knife. He stepped over them, then immediately felt foolish.

He dragged a dining chair along behind him.

“No, no! Yer muckin’ up the chair,” shouted Rigg, bounding past. The burly otter had a chair slung over either shoulder. “Carry ’em like this!”

Ripple tilted his chair to the side and blinked at the grass stains on the curly-carved feet. He resumed dragging it.

At least he didn’t have to help with the tables.

“Psst.”

A decorative bush rattled. Ripple ignored it.

“Psssssst. Fft. Fft. Oi!”

“I’m busy,” he told the bush, and it grew large triangle ears in response. Then a muzzle and two little eyes.

“Whatcher gonna do to dat chair, then?”

Ripple pointed towards where the tables and other chairs were being set up. Various abbeybeast bustled with tablecloths, cutlery and dishes. Bludd looked between the set-up and the main abbey building.

“So… how’re ye gonna move all the walls after?”

Ripple’s brain just couldn’t cope with that. Across the lawn, a young vixen spotted him. She began to wave, standing on tip-paws, then stopped and drooped, changed directions. Ripple stared after.

“Um. Sorry?” he said.

“What fer?” Bludd cartwheeled in front of him.

“I mean, I don’t understand what yer askin’.”

The vixen glanced over at them again. Her nose pointed determinedly, but then her stride faltered and her ears went back, and she once again busied herself with something else. Ripple continued to stare at her, until he lost her in the crowd.

“That’s nothin’ to apologize about. Why’ve ye got dots all over? I gots dots on my belly. Are ye turnin’ into a wildcat? Ye should start wid stripes. Or bigger ears. Those are really tiny ones ye got!”

This continued until Ripple had brought his chair to the nearest table. Rigg was waiting for him, and slapped him on the back, knocking him over.

“There ye go! That’s two chairs, well done matey! Hyup an’ at ’em.” Rigg hauled him up again and brushed dirt from his habit front. “I’d tell ye to fetch another, but we’re all finished up now. I’ll go ask what ye need to do next, provided Skip’s still sober enough to say.”

“Oh… Alright, Uncle Rigg. Oh!”

“Eh?”

“Do you have a son, Uncle Rigg?”

“Nope! Ye’ll never find me tied down to one female all me life.” Rigg flexed. “Wouldn’t be fair to the rest.”

Ripple sat down to wait. He wriggled to and fro, but it didn’t move closer to the table. He almost snapped at Bludd to stop holding the wheels before he remembered where he was.

Speaking of Bludd, she was being awfully quiet… Ripple did a quick check around. Oh. She was gone.

“You there… Ripple, ain’t it?”

He craned his back head around until he found the source, sitting across from him: a male fox. Not the old one, but the younger one. Still seasons beyond Ripple’s own age. Beside him was the mole, Cobb.

“No,” said Ripple. “Ye’ve got me confused with another otter.”

The mole leaned forward. His goggles were hitched up, now the sun was over the wall. “You’m be th’ beast that brought Oi food in th’ dungeon. Oi remember you’m.”

“But you ain’t Ripple?” the fox said. Ripple shook his head. He glanced at the abbey. So far away! Escape would be difficult. Why was there a blueberry scone on his lap?

“Oi’m certain he -”

Suddenly, the table lurched. The cloth parted beside Ripple, and Bludd crawled out onto an empty chair. She slammed her elbows down and ogled at Cobb.

“A dungeon? Wodjer do, pillage a whole village?”

“Oh, no! Oi… Oi troied to steal some food… from th’ Abbey garden…” Cobb fiddled with his claws and bowed his head.

“Oh.” The kitten sulked. “I was gonna ask ye t’ join my rovin’ crew o’ scallywags… but if ye never done nothin’ dangerous afore… Like fight off a whole army o’ bees! Wanna see my bites?”

“They’re stings,” said Ripple, distantly.

“I knows buzzy bees sting,” said Bludd. “I was talkin’ about my bites.” She chomped her jaws at him and grinned.

The fox was still giving him a very odd look, so Ripple mumbled a vague apology, pointed at something no one could quite see, and slipped away, leaving Bludd and Cobb to discuss career options for the recently paroled. Or whatever it was Bludd had in mind.

Ripple examined his scone as he settled down at another table. It seemed clean enough… It was probably her way of apologizing. And, well, he did like blueberries. It was the kind that had jam inside. His favorite!

He bit into it, and then yelped, crumbs spraying through his whiskers. A heavy paw had landed on his shoulder. Ripple twisted in his seat, and began to choke at the sight of the dark, cowled figure. The figure’s other paw drew the hood back, revealing the Abbot’s kindly-enough half-smile.

“There seems to be a young creature in my abbey who is not altogether aware of our rules of conduct and the respect we are to show to other beasts and their property.”

“Um, I’m sorry, Father, I -”

“I of course speak of our mutual friend, Bludd.” The Abbot scrunched his face at the name the wild kitten had chosen for herself. He sat down as well.

“Oh,” said Ripple. He swallowed what little scone remained, and licked his whiskers clean.

Behind the Abbot, he saw the vixen again, and followed her movements with his eyes. He scootched up to the edge of his chair.

“It was not you who knocked Isidore’s hive into the fire, was it? Come now, my son, don’t be so hesitant. I know you well, and you are a careful, caring soul. It was no accident, but nor was it an act of aggression, was it?”

“N-no, Father…”

She almost saw him, but he ducked his head and scratched his ear just in time, hiding his face behind his arm.

“It was Bludd, wasn’t it?”

“My dad says not to lie.”

“And so?”

Ripple’s muzzle flattened in finality. The Abbot almost smiled.

“Why do you protect her, who has done you wrong, my son? On so many occasions,” he added.

“She’s my friend, Father.”

The vixen was seated now, talking to Cobb and Bludd.

“Yes. I suppose so. But why choose her, over all the others who could be your friend?”

“Well… ‘cos… she’s… fun.”

The Abbot glanced in the direction Ripple was looking, and nodded.

“Tell me, my son. Do you think Bludd should be held accountable for today’s incident?”

“I done the punishment already, Father.”

“And so should she not be punished doubly, for letting the blame fall on you in the first place?”

“I’ve forgiven her already, Father.”

The Abbot leaned back and breathed his pipe.

“And when did you ever plan on telling Tamarack?” he said.

Ripple hunkered down in his habit, blushing.

The Abbot stood up and patted Ripple’s shoulder.

“The night is young, and so are you. There is time yet to heal. You’ve done your share of that, these past few seasons, but there is always more to do, and every once in a while you must air out your bandages and expose the wound again. Find the time to talk to her tonight, my son. It may sting at first, but it is better in the long run than to let it fester. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to sample some of the cellarhog’s fine ale before I can think up another metaphor for the next life lesson I’ll need to impart before the night is over. An Abbot’s work is never over…”

Ripple did his best to straighten his posture as the older otter moved by him.

“Oh, and Ripple…”

“Aye, Father?”

“Any ideas for the name?”

“Umm… name of what, Father?”

The Abbot stared for some time, his face caught somewhere between amusement and stern disapproval.

“Do try to get out a bit more, there’s a good dibbun.”

Ripple glared down at the tablecloth and his clenching paws.

“‘m not a dibbun… Oops.”

There was jam on his habit collar.

“Oi, Rip! Over here!” Rigg shouted, waving at him from the abbey. “Found another job for ye!”

War Games

May 27, 2011

“Hold still, dear. Still! There’s a good muffin… no! No! Oh, Foweller!” Sister Amery threw up her paws in exasperation, watching the grinning otter kit dance out of her reach across the midday sunbeams that streaked through the infirmary windows.

“Jolly rotten ointment there, Big Sis,” Foweller stuck his pink tongue out at the jar in the mouse’s paw. He scrambled in an ungainly lope to the door, only for Amery to dart forward and catch him. He squirmed in her arms, not having the heart to put Amery to sleep.

“Come now, let me see your poor rudder, babe. My word, how did this ever happen?” Amery hauled him back to her seat by his bed.

“Dropped the ball, Sis. I had my eye on a stoat. Scummy weasel snuck up and took a slice!”

“Foweller, you tell the most beastly tall tales,” Amery huffed, “Scummy stoats indeed!”

“No, Sis, the stoat were lovely! I can always tell ‘em by the black tipped tails. Much stronger too, proper beasts they are. Weasels are the slimy, runty ones.”

“Such language! Who taught you those words? It’s bad enough your mother let you have that horrid sword,” Amery muttered, her face creasing in frustration at holding Foweller still over her lap, pulling up his cream-coloured shirt. He trembled at the touch of her cold paws.

“Weren’t Mum, Sis. She prob’ly still thinks I joined the travelling players. Swords are boring anyway. Every beast has got a sword lying about. I want an axe instead. Bet nobeast’s got one of those.”

“You shouldn’t have anything of the sort til you’re older. You should play with the rest of the dibbuns at the Abbey. I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends,” Amery reassured him.

“Got friends, Sis. Rip. Blood. Martin,” Foweller replied. He beamed at the shovel that leant against the wall by his bed, a steadfast guardian to keep him safe in the dark. He had cried every night since they had taken away Martin. Wisely, the shovel had been returned to the kit for the sake of every beast getting some sleep.

“Of course, muffin. Martin’s every good beast’s friend,” Amery agreed. Her mind was certainly not on the shovel.

Foweller was released from the infirmary with a cleaned and bandaged rudder stub. The scent of fresh berries and pastries drew him down stone steps and arched halls to Cavern Hole. It was easy for the kit to move through the Abbey with one paw trailing across the walls to help him balance. He barely glanced at the tapestry in the Great Hall, his mind on lunch.

“Over ‘ere, Foweller! I saved ye some dandelion an’ burdock cordial, an’ some blueberry pancakes. How’re ye feelin’?” Skipper fretted over Foweller, offering him a seat amongst a group of otters. Foweller nibbled the first pancake under Skipper’s hopeful gaze.

“I was thinkin’ ye might want to play campball after lunch,” Skipper continued. Foweller considered Skipper’s gentle tone and tentative wording. He contemplated his pancake, before holding out a paw.

“Honey, please,” Foweller commanded. His stomach fluttered as Skipper obediently delivered the pot of sweet, thick syrup.

“Thank’ee.” He remembered his manners.

“It’ll be a good old romp. I’ll be playin’ an’… an’ Noel,” Skipper trailed off.

“Noel,” Foweller repeated. The conversation seemed to turn cold. Skipper winced.

“Aye, he’s a fair campballer, so he is. It… it’s just a game…”

“I wanna play, Uncle Skip!” Foweller’s face brightened and all seemed jolly again. Skipper perked up and grinned as he watched the kit spread too much honey over his pancakes.

“To the winner, the spoils,” Foweller whispered gleefully at the honey. He would teach Noel a lesson in campball!


Foweller staggered out into the sun, his arms spread out to keep his balance. In the open field, where there were no walls or trenches to support him, the little otter truly missed his tail. He blinked and squinted, hazy images forming themselves into… vermin!

Noel,” Foweller intoned dramatically, or so he imagined.

“Hey, Foweller,” Noel replied, a bright smile on his face.

“I’ll give you one chance to surrender now,” Foweller threatened, glowering up at the weasel. Noel laughed good-naturedly, misinterpreting the otter’s tone. Around them, the campball players gambolled about while Badgermum Agnes watched intently.

“Don’t think we’ll go easy on you,” Noel joked. His face grew more serious and he shuffled from one footpaw to the other.

“Foweller, do you know how Ripple’s doing? I heard he got into trouble.”

“Rip was very brave,” Foweller explained gravely, “he stayed behind so we could run. A rat was upon us!”

“Isidore, though – he wouldn’t really harm anybeast,” Noel faltered, his eyes not quite looking into the otter’s.

It would and did. Enough talk. Let’s play!” Foweller stumped across the field to his goalposts. The whistle blew and the game started. Foweller’s eyes were fixed on the brown ball’s every movement as it was kicked down the field. From Remy to Skipper back to Remy and then to him! Foweller kicked it up the field and chased after it like a wild monster, zig-zagging in case of musketeers at the goals. Foweller was a stoat among weasels, no beast getting between him and victory.

“Dribble it, Foweller! Small kicks!” Noel cried as he darted after the otter.

“You’d know about dribbling, slackjawed weasel,” Foweller hissed between his yellow teeth as he nearly reverted to all fours to catch up to the ball.

“Nicely done! Now line up your shot at the goals! Here, let me show you,” Noel’s coaching was starting to really aggravate the kit. Ignoring the weasel, he booted the ball with all his childish might and watched a young mouse muck up his green habit diving for it.

“I know about lining shots, thanks. Had a bit of practice with a few beasts like you,” Foweller panted at his arch-rival. Noel missed the hint and ruffled Foweller’s fur with a smile. Foweller chose not to respond to this humiliation. He stuck his snout in the air and strolled snootily back to his side of the field. Skipper gave him an encouraging thumbs-up.

“Nice goal, Foweller!” Foweller smiled up at the older otter in adoration.

“Easy, Uncle Skip!”

Noel had retrieved the ball and kicked off. Foweller turned. His eyes widened as he spotted the projectile headed straight for him…

All Foweller could hear was the telltale whistle of the cannonball. He dove for the mud instinctively, his eyes and nose choked and reddened by powder smoke. The ground shuddered. He could feel tears streaming down his face. He was screaming…

“Foweller? What’s wrong?” Noel was standing over him, looking confused. Foweller realised he was curled up on the grass, shivering. The ball had rolled past him through the goalposts. He jumped up, puffing out his chest.

“I’m tired is all,” he snapped. He stormed off the field, his footpaws leading him in a curved, drunken line back to the Abbey. He could feel Skipper was watching him. He imagined the big otter’s disappointment and shuddered.


“Oh, um. ‘lo there, Fowel.” Foweller looked up to see a familiar otter, the habit he wore not quite able to conceal his nightwear. Ripple was holding a half-eaten scone, jam and crumbs hanging off his fuzzy maw; comfort food after his run-in with the rat. The Great Hall was near empty, every other beast enjoying the afternoon sun.

“Rip!” Foweller threw up a snappy salute. He awkwardly let his paw down, feeling embarrassed. The other kits always mocked him for that. His heart leapt when the older otter gave him a salute back with an enthusiastic grin.

“Rip, you’re the bally bravest otter ever!” Foweller exclaimed a little too loud.

“Um, I am?” Ripple looked at the shorter kit quizzically as he devoured the scone.

“The way you stood up to that rotten blood-starved vermin!” Foweller gushed, not caring who was listening.

“Oh, he was just, uh. Upset. A little. About the bees,” Ripple reasoned, hobbling along with Foweller up the stone steps to his room in the attic. Foweller was perfectly content to go at Ripple’s easy, ambling pace, his paws leaning against the walls to steady him. The pair of otters made their winding way through the abbey’s halls and soon arrived in the cooler, quieter upper levels of the building.

“What derring-do! What a cavalier! Older beasts would have faltered in your place!” Foweller skipped into Ripple’s room among the bookshelves, squinting at the model sailing ship in the corner.

“Well, I, uh… was nothin’, really,” Ripple said shyly, wincing as he rubbed his sore rump. “Um, so, do ye have a moment?”

“You mean for…?” Foweller turned and winked. Ripple waddled to the window and closed the curtains. Foweller smiled, illuminated by candlelight. Now, nobeast could hear them. Ripple glanced furtively about, making sure Aloysius was nowhere to be seen.

“Fowel, I… just wanted ye to know…” Ripple quavered, taking a careful step forward. Their eyes met.

“Yes, Rip?” Foweller asked. Ripple took a deep breath, bent over and pulled something from under his bed.

“It’s ready!” Ripple announced in an excited hush. The two otters gazed down at the masterpiece.

“Thirty squares by thirty squares. Rip, you’re brilliant, don’tcha know?” Foweller breathed. The map was the biggest any beast had ever seen, with hundreds of squares for a huge battle.

“Just a bit,” Ripple said with proud modesty.

“We need something to change the landscape, though. Big cannon and mortar’ll change play, plus this game is in jolly desperate need of sappers…” Foweller muttered, his eyes roving across the grid.

“I worked up some, uh, some ideas fer ground cards. No more paintin’ straight on the map. An’ I sketched up some, er, artillery cards. Tried to do it like ye described ‘em,” Ripple replied, ruffling through a drawer of papers in his desk. Foweller’s attention was diverted to something at the bottom of the grid. He was not a very literate kit, but he knew his numbers.

“Four… point… five,” he read. Ripple twiddled his paws.

“Well, if we ever get it printed… that’s what it’d be,” he explained. The word ‘printed’ seeming to resonate around the room. Foweller could have sworn the candles fluttered.

“Edition four-point-five,” he whispered reverently. The very idea made him shiver with trepidation. To think in this little room, they could forever change the face of the game they loved!

“How close do ye reckon it is to, uh… ye know… the real… the real thing?” Ripple murmured. Foweller tilted his head.

“Well, this game’s a lot quieter. Unless you start shouting your orders. Easier t’see too. No smoke in your eyes or firecrackers. The other players don’t scream half so much,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Oh, well… the Fourth Edition still hasn’t included firearms yet…” Ripple mumbled, rubbing the back of his head. Foweller laughed and scooted over to the desk.

“Well, let’s fix that, shall we?” he said. His eyes seemed to light up as he began to draw by the candle light.

There were two problems that Noel could see with taking on a badgermum as your referee in campball: firstly, she refused to understand the rules. Secondly, she was big enough to get away with it.

Bweeee!

Noel scudded to a halt, footpaws grinding two fresh mudtracks in the Abbey lawn. Amidst the wriggling throng of post-goal celebration he singled out the hedgehog who had been idling, full of spiny cheek, just by the opposite team’s goal before thwocking the ball home.

“Come on! No kick-throughs, I said!”

Badgermum Agnes lowered her reed whistle and turned her sour eyes on Noel.

“It looked like a fair goal to me, lad. Don’t go making up rules on them now they’ve finally got a grasp of this mess.”

“Them’s Norford Rules. Hanging about the goal like that, he’s clearly off his own side of the field.”

“I said I’d eject you if you ran your muzzle off at me again, and I meant it. Is that clear enough for you?”

Noel swallowed his curses and swung back to the touchline, where he was playing manager for another round. When spring had billowed out over the forests and fields of Mossflower Country, buoyant with birdsong and flowering with color, Noel had come into bloom along with it. Like one of the bees thrumming through Isidore’s orchard, he eagerly spread the sting that had plagued him all his young life: the enthrallment for what he could only refer to as “the Game”.

“All right, Noel?” Tamarack raced by with a flash of gleaming white teeth– the clever hedgehog was on her team. “Agnes teaching you at your own sport?”

“Oh, aye,” he replied, stretching on tip-paws to call after her. “I’ve only seen George Betford, the best two-footpawed goal-scorer in modern history, make a fifty-yard dash against the whole defensive side of the Norford firsts, so I need an old maid to remind me now and again how this game gets played, d’you know what I mean?”

Tam, glancing earthwards in confusion, prepared to remark that she was pretty sure she had two footpaws as well. But a greater confusion left the words forgotten in her throat – a new and different mayhem had erupted on the far side of the pitch.

Upon his first glance Noel’s heart made as if to lift, his smile as if to divest itself of its sarcasm. There was Isidore – come to watch at last? Not far ahead of him was young Ripple, the sole otter in Redwall still immune to the fever of the Game, whom no coaxing or cunning seemed to sway. So he had decided to join them!

Or not. Ripple plunged to safety behind his father and screamed.

“By Martin, he’s bleedin’ – I’ll thrash you harder’n anything -”

It was the only snippet of the exchange that made it to Noel’s side of the pitch, where it fell on deaf ears. His idyll was shattered, not by the screams and the shouting and the swift appearance of the Abbot, but by the makeshift whip lying abandoned in the grass. In that paw – more often seen tracing delicate loops in the air as if to snare faraway ideals, or nurturing the insects that bustled and buzzed in his skeps – had it been in that paw?

Agnes filled his view, stealing Isidore from sight. Her eyes were mild now that a field full of startled dibbuns had made them allies. Sound returned, and Noel spoke for her.

“About time for lunch, isn’t it?”

Agnes nodded, spun back toward the young creatures fidgeting in frightened quiet, and herded them toward Cavern Hole for cakes and cordial. Before she remembered to collect Noel into the fold, he had already vanished.

*  *  * 

Noel wasn’t in the habit of talking with pictures. For Martin the Warrior, however, he was willing to make an exception.

The mouse’s story was an old one. Noel remembered a blithe glimpse through a line or two when first teaching himself to read as a teenager. In the months since arriving at Redwall he had pestered the historian, Aloysius, for every ink-stained scrap of pulp that bore the name Martin. Strange how in a few short years a flicker of hope had burst into flame.

“Don’t tell me you’re the only beast I’ve got left.”

There were too many questions, flooding him like the solemn half-light of Great Hall’s stained windows. Noel still held out hope that by following in Isidore’s wake he might find the answers.

But he shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have hurt the cub. Noel’s left eye did not throb now, healed months ago after that final beating, but its memory called to him. So too did that of his avenging fist, held before him now in dusky violet light.

“Got no room to act like a saint though, do I? But what else should’ve I done – given him me other eye?”

“It is as though he can hear us sometimes, isn’t it?”

Noel clenched his jaw, swiveled, cast his eyes to his own his dirt-caked footpaws. Still he refused to address the Abbot of Redwall as “Father”. Saying nothing, at least, was a sight more polite than what Virrel chose to call him behind closed doors.

“Even if he cannot respond in words, he is always there to listen.” Abbot Carter drew near with a gentle smile, strong arms tucked away into his habit sleeves. “I’m pleased to see you here, Noel. He is a guide to us all – even the wayward among us.”

“Listen, I really have got him under control now -”

“I refer to Brother Isidore.”

The significance of that title failed to stir Noel from his own relief at having escaped yet another apology for his miscreant relation.

“We all have our pasts,” the Abbot continued. “Some scar us with habits that refuse to heal.” Carter inclined his head. “When will you tell me about yours?”

Noel shrugged, heavy brows still shielding his eyes lest they betray him.

“Dunno. What’s there to tell? We came from Norford, we’ll go back when it’s safe to travel. Everybeast knows it’s a dead end there.”

“Yet you’re a very insightful young lad to have come from such a place.”

So the old riverdog was determined to squeeze something out of him? Just as well it was a confession.

“I wasn’t always.” Noel’s voice matched the sanctity of their surroundings, dim and slumberous. “Got into trouble meself, you know, ran with a gang for a bit. ’s just what you did up there.”

“Yes – yes, I suspected as much. My son, there is no shame in carrying violence in our past as long as it remains in the past. Martin was one of the first to learn that.” The Abbot nodded, stepped back as if to release the young weasel from the pressure of his gaze. “You may wish to speak with your friend Isidore again soon. He has chosen a new future today, one I have great hope you may consider as well.”

Noel squinted as the Abbot bid him farewell and left to join the others in Cavern Hole. Yes, it had been there again: that faint trail of familiarity that seemed to follow the Abbot wherever he went – in his smile, in his eyes, like a whisper from the very past Noel had half-revealed.

Then there came a sudden chill, one that only left him once he returned to the sun-swathed pitch outside. It struck him that, in searching the Abbot’s face for the meaning of that familiarity, the Abbot had been searching for something in Noel, too.

Among Others

May 26, 2011

For a moment Isidore could not see through the smoke and the flurry of wings. He heard the kits shriek and scatter, and then lunged as swift as a swordsbeast for one of them, an otter.

He threw himself over his wriggling, squeaking quarry. A score of burning stings lanced through Isidore’s shirt, but finally the panicked swarm streamed past him and away from the fire. The pain would stop if he ignored it.

Isidore dragged the shrieking babe upright and cuffed his ear. “They’ve gone now— no, don’t you run too—” and he dug his claws into the cub’s scruff “— tell me your name.”

“Ripple, sir.”

“Ripple, you’ll have it for this.” Isidore reached for a withy branch and peeled it from its tree.

“I didn’t do it,” the otter bawled. “It’s their fault—”

Isidore flourished the rod. He bent Ripple over his knee and made a heavy stroke over the back of the otter’s legs. He delivered another smack, then another and another all in quick succession. Ripple squalled. He beat his fists against Isidore, he wriggled and spat, but the rat drew back only briefly. He had often whipped beasts for petty thefts and for speaking out of turn, as he had been whipped when he was young. It was never so dreadful as one feared; feeling the smart did a babe good.

“Ooh, I’ll tell my Dad,” said Ripple. “Lemme go, lemme go…”

Isidore whisked the hateful branch over the otter’s tail.

But the cub finally wriggled and tumbled from his grasp. He landed with a sob, and he tottered away in little half-hops. Isidore gave chase, huffing after him; with each pawfall, his mass shook and bowled forward.

They ran out of the orchard and onto the lawn, into the midst of the campball teams. He shook the withe at Ripple. The cub dove behind an older otter, a beast Isidore recognized as the Skipper.

Isidore (doubled over, panting) threw down his branch. “That kit’s done me wrong.”

The cub clung to the Skipper’s leg. The older otter hoisted him up. “Rip?”

“He’s whipped me, sir!”

“He knocked over a hive — might’ve stung him to death —”

“You thought you had the right? My son?”

” — and they’ve swarmed. I had the right,” said Isidore. “You look, he’s hardly sorry at all.”

“By Martin, he’s bleedin’.” Skipper set down the cub, who howled like a beast dealt a death-blow. “I’ll thrash you harder’n anything.”

The campball crowd had gathered round. Isidore saw the weasel Noel, his sometimes-pupil. Together they would spend their evenings in the orchard. They would blow smoke rings and watch Brother Aloysius swoop overhead, snapping gnats from the air. Isidore downed sticky mugs of beer and lemonade; he spoke abstractedly of the honor of hard work while stacking bricks or sanding wood. Noel would listen attentively and say nothing.

But there-and-then, the weasel wrinkled his brow, shrugged and hunched away from the fight.

A different beast approached and shouldered through the throng: a regal otter, Abbot Carter, his paws held aloft. “Stop this now,” said Carter, “hold, all of you. Skip?”

“Aye, Father.”

Isidore frowned. “Sir.”

“I’ll take the rat. Stop peeping, you lot— take the cub to the infirmary.” He took up Isidore’s paw. “Show me the bees. We must talk.”

They walked to the orchard, strolled for a quiet moment under festoons of sweet blossoms. The Abbot snapped a pawful of apple florets from a branch and sniffed them. He crumpled the flowers in his paw and let them scatter on a breeze. At last, he spoke: “You’re Miss Selendra’s project?”

“I am.”

“I remember her Dibbunhood. Sel was a good, strong beast even then. We might’ve used her in the Long Patrol. But she likes stitching, and dipping candles, and scrubbing floors. All the little arts of peace. You too, I think.”

Isidore hesitated. “I do.”

“Your actions suggest otherwise.”

He remembered Noel’s disinclination to watch the fight. He thought of Selendra polishing candlesticks to a mirrorlike surface and peering at herself in their convexities, and the way she might dance so her skirts fluttered at the next Nameday feast.

Isidore inclined his head and held out his paws in supplication. “Father, please. Forgive me…”

“I will.” The otter tapped him on the shoulder.

They came to the collection of hives at the center of the orchard. The fire that lulled the bees to sleep crackled merrily in its shallow pit; it had consumed most of the wicker skep, and gave off black smoke as it burned the wax inside. The cloud smelled of scorched sugar. Isidore took the shovel he kept at the fireside, and he scattered dirt over the fire until it died.

“Martin bless me if they haven’t all flown. Excuse me, Father.”

“Of course. But let’s talk; I should like to know you well as anyone in Redwall.” The Abbot sat on a pile of bricks. He motioned at Isidore’s scars. “You must’ve earned these in a fight.”

“Did someone say?”

“Say what?”

“Ah… hordebeast. I was a hordebeast.” He looked at his footpaws. “I’m finished with that.”

Carter smiled. “Well. You always know a military fellow. My commanders thumped me and everyone else, just the same as you thrashed that cub.”

“Aye.”

Isidore hunched by the fire and picked the burnt carcass of a bee from the embers. He had lost the hive for good. Like as not they had swarmed outside the abbey and would build a new home there. A sickly contrition had seized him; the paw that had swung the withe felt heavy.

The Abbot knelt beside him. “There is always room for a beast like you in my Abbey,” the otter said. “But there are things you must understand. Give me your paw.”

Isidore offered, and the Abbot gripped it tightly.

“Here… the Abbey is like this. We stand together, always, or we aren’t Redwallers. Goodbeast or vermin, you live here. So our paws are lashed together in whatever we do.”

“I understand.”

“All or none.” He smiled at Isidore. “Then if I asked you to fight for me, would you?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Whatever, however you’re tested, you will?”

“I will.”

“Then let me test you,” said Carter. “What I’m about to do… understand it as penance. And it’ll prove you.”

Carter thrust his paw and Isidore’s into the coals.

Isidore did not shout and he did not pull away; he grimaced, but he submitted to the Abbot. The otter finally relented.

Carter’s smile sparkled. “Then we’ll call you Brother. You’ll take the habit.”

The habit: he saw himself in habit, tending the bees. Green draped with white veils, and scattered with straw… He felt invigorated as he might with a pint of shandy in his belly. They left the orchard. He saw young Noel demonstrate a strange shimmying kick to the campballers, and he waved. Noel frowned, but he did wave back.

At their parting, he bowed. “Father.”

“Brother Isidore— go. Apologize to Skipper. And show that cub some mercy.”

The Abbey’s grounds brimmed with sunlight and seemed to shine from within, almost like stained glass.

Friendship First!

May 26, 2011

“No.” Ripple finished picking up his cards, then crossed back to his desk and plopped down in the chair.  Bludd expected it, but huffed all the same.

She pranced up to him, batting the wheels to make them spin.  “C’mon, matey!  I know ye’ll fancy it.”

“Oi! Stop that.” Ripple kept himself still by gripping the desk with both paws.  “An’ that’s what ye said last time, an’ it took until all night to get all the ink out.”

“Yer only sayin’ no a’cos yer skeered.”

“I sure am! Now can ye go away?”

The wildcat stood on tip-paw, peeking over Ripple’s shoulder.  She toyed with something in her paw. “Whatcher got there thas’ so bloody poncy anyway?” There was something bright and colorful and-!

“None of yer business.” Ripple hunched over his cards and shoved the kitten away with his rudder.

“Fancy!” She scurried around to the side.  “Hahar!  Can’t fool me, dat be yer secret ‘idden treasure!”

The otter shifted to better shield his possessions. “Yes.” He paused.  “No.” He uncovered a big square of parchment all covered with numbers.  “Here, I’ll show ye.  This is the base attack, then ye add in this number here, but ye got to subtract it from their defense stat, which is this number, then ye tally up the uses of the weapons an’ shield an’ mark them down, then ye can figure out how much ye wounded ’em…”

“Gerrofit!” Bludd pushed the sheet away, her ears nearly disappearing against her head.  “Yer dodgy, ‘at’s wot! Addin’ a bunch o’silly numbers all day.”  She kicked at the wheels of the chair, forcing Ripple to grab onto his desk again to keep from rolling away.  “I’m goin’ t’play with th’ ‘ares.”

It took a moment for Ripple to comprehend.  “Um, hold on, don’t go.”  Bludd stopped mid-storm in the doorway.  “…what do ye mean by… hares.”

the kitten shrugged. “Th’ones with th’fancy clothes.”

“Uniforms? Are they here? At Redwall? When did they get here?”

“Aye, thas’ right.  Jus’ today.  I saw ’em when I was comin’ inside ter get you.”

Ripple bit his lip. “Now, this ain’t like the time when you said there was an adder in my room, right?”

“That wuz diff’rent…” Bludd sniffled, paws behind her back. “‘sides, I wuz only playin’ with yer.”

The otter sighed.  “Well, then, um… I didn’t mean to snap at ye, then. Ye should have tole me earlier! I’ll tell ye what: help me see the hares, an’ I’ll let ye show me what ye wanted to show me.”

A thrumming purr roared up in the kitten’s chest and she rollicked about in the doorway while Ripple got ready to go.  As he turned to grab his cane, Bludd skipped past the desk, a card slipping from her paw to join its brothers.  The long patrol hare standing at attention on the card’s front smiled up at her.  She smiled back.

“All right. Just a moment…”  Ripple gathered up his cards and shuffled them back into a neat stack.  He paused.  “Oops.  Missed ye there, Sergeant.”  Satisfied, he set the pack down and stumped toward the door.  Bludd raced ahead of him, taking the stairs three at a time.

Ripple shielded his eyes from the lances of light tearing through the window at the bottom of the stairs.  The wildcat danced from stone to stone, skipping ahead and constantly wheeling back to make sure that her friend was still following.

The two made their way outside. “Are y’sure they went this way?” Ripple asked, glancing back longingly at the door.

“Sure as m’name’s Bludd.  Ooh, look o’er there!” She dashed toward the orchard.

“Grk! Bludd, stop!”

Ripple pulled back at the end of the blanket tied about her middle before she trod on a heap of broken glass.  Bludd looked from the shattered kitchen window to her savior.  “Thanks a shipful, Ripper me matey!”

“I wonder what happened…” Ripple pondered out loud.  “Think the cook’s finally tossed it?”

“Hope so; His vittles are rubbish.” Bludd circled around the glass, entranced by the rows of skep-hives laid out on shelves in the orchard.  Smoke wafted lazily like dragon’s breath from a small fire.  Isidore looked up from tending the flames as the wildcat and otter approached.

“You two young’ns care to lend a paw over here?” he asked.

Ripple opened his mouth, but Bludd was faster.  “Oh, yessir!  I loves bees.”

“Mm. Just stay over there while I get this ready.”

Unable to contain her excitement over such an important job, Bludd began shuffling about.

“I’m a stripey bee
Buzzy li’l buz
I makes a lot o’ honey and I gots a lot o’ fuzz!”

Isidore smiled faintly although he didn’t turn from his work.  “Aye, that you are, lass.”

In the middle of her dance, Bludd whirled, grinning.  “Watcher!  I’m gonna sting ya!” She dashed backward at Ripple, her tail a striped lance.

Ripple side-stepped with room to spare as the cat rocketed past him.  She tripped over the tails of her blanket and tumbled in the grass, just missing the lowest row of skep hives.  The otter hissed a short breath and then crossed his arms.  “Please don’t point yer rear end at me ever again.”

“Not a bad song, kitty.”

Bludd’s ears swiveled and she mrrped at the unfamiliar voice. Another otter, this one smaller than Ripple, looked down at her with his paws akimbo.

“I’m norra kitty. I’m Bludd.” She skittered and leaped to her footpaws.

“And I’m Foweller.”  The young otter cocked his head.  “Huh.  You don’t look bloody.”

“Just wait,” Ripple said, glowering, “until she’s leanin’ over my new Fourth Edition rulebook.”

“Whatcher doing?” Foweller asked.

Bludd flicked her tail at the hives.  “Bees!” She said.  Foweller nodded in understanding.

“An’,” Ripple added, although his voice was a little softer, “we’re goin’ to talk to those hares, aye?”  He craned his neck, peering further into the orchard.  “I don’t see them.”

“Hares?” Foweller asked.  Ripple turned to Bludd.  She shrugged.

“They said they wuz comin.'”

“They said they was comin’ here or they said they’d be goin’ here?”

Bludd was following the path of a stray bee. “Both!” She stretched her paw out, providing a furry landing pad.  The insect alighted for only a second, and she giggled as its wings tickled her pawpad. The kitten crouched beside the row of skep hives, tail wiggling.

“I wuz thinkin’,” she said. “What ‘ave they got in those ‘ives anyway?  It’s th’ secret of their honey-makin’, I bet.”

Foweller knelt beside her.  “You think so?”

Bludd glanced over to Isidore – the rat was still focused on his work.  She lowered her voice. “Let’s crack one open an’ ‘ave a look, aye?”

Ripple was suddenly on her other side, looking her right in the eye.  “No. Definitely not. Even [i]you[/i] would have to realize how addlepated an’ dangerous that is.  Bees aren’t friendly; they’re little wasps!”

“Break into their fortress and take their loot…” Foweller showed his little needle teeth.  “It [i]does[/i] sound dangerous.  You sure you’re up for it, Bloody?”

Bludd snorted.  “Cap’n Bludd ain’t skeered o’ buzzy bees.”

That seemed to spark something in Foweller.  “Captain, huh?”

“I’ll show yer!”

Before Ripple could grab her, the wildcat pounced.

The hive toppled into the nearby fire.  Red hot jaws of flame snapped it up in seconds, sending a magnificent plume of smoke into the heavens.  Foweller hop-skipped backward.  Isidore shouted something, but it was drowned out by the roar of the fire and the drone of panicked bees.  Bludd yowled, set upon by dozens of striped sentinels.  She was scooped up by the scruff and hauled backward, out of the seething, stinging cloud.  She twisted about in the beast’s grip.

“Oof!  Keep still, will ye?”  Bludd’s ears perked in recognition of Ripple’s voice.  And then she saw Isidore’s face.

Her tail bottlebrushed, the wildcat squirmed and wriggled like a hooked shark.  Her footclaws dug into Ripple’s stomach and he let go with a bark of pain.  Landing on all fours, she shot off across the grass.

In the courtyard, Noel looked over his team, campball in paw.  He nodded in approval and turned around, only to be nearly bowled over by a panicked wildcat.  “If Isidore comes by,” she said, “tell ‘im I ‘aven’t been ‘ere!  Oh, I’ll play later.  Bye!”

Bludd tore out of sight, leaving a befuddled weasel in her wake.