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.

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