Build a Fire Where It's Cold

May 26, 2011

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.

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