Back from the Darkness

June 9, 2011

As the beasts of Redwall Abbey laughed and danced under the burgeoning twilight, Noel lurched his way through the crowd and, when nobeast else was looking, clutched a paw to his belly. So much food. He’d been picking at it all afternoon – pasties and cakes, cheeses and ales. He’d be at it still if not for his current quest.

“Foweller? Foweller! Where are you -?”

It was a haremaid who responded, waving from a gap amidst the throng. Noel slipped his stomach-bracing paw back to his side and cocked his head as he drew near.

“‘e’s just been through ‘ere,” she explained. “Bounded off to get a table not three seconds ago.”

“Cheers – eh.” Noel slowed to a stop. “Feel like I know you from somewhere.”

She shrugged, a casual smile easing its way over her teeth.

“I think I’ve seen the back of your ‘ead before. I deliver the books.”

“Ah yeah. The print shop.” Noel flicked his claws at his right temple, as if to twiddle his memory. “Been in there once or twice.”

“Really?” She gave a laugh, a worried one if Noel’s ear caught it right. “I wouldn’t’ve guessed. You’re into literature with a lesson, are you?”

“Couldn’t stand the stuff. There’s no answers in it – no offense. Name’s Noel, by the way.”

“Saskia. And I just set the type, so none taken.” She jerked a thumb off to one side. When her eyes followed they took on a troubled slant. “You were looking for somebeast, though…does that look right to you?”

It didn’t. Not ten paces away Foweller stood more like a marionette than an otter. Ripple hovered nearby, as if afraid to get tangled in his invisible strings.

“Oi, Foweller!” Noel nodded to Saskia and forgot Ripple, who at the sight of Mossflower’s most zealous campballer merged back into the crowd like a shade. Only by touching Foweller at the shoulder could Noel bring him back to spastic life. “Where’ve you been all day? Didn’t you see the roster?”

Maybe it was the pseudo-military jargon that caught his attention. Foweller was at once back in tune, his reply more challenge than echo.

“Roster?”

At ease now, Noel chuckled and fished a scrap of paper out of his coat pocket. Food as good as Redwall’s could make a beast forgetful. There wasn’t anything like this in Norford – even his mother’s prawn and ale pie, once his paragon of culinary perfection, had sunk well to the bottom of his estimation.

Foweller blinked at the list that was offered him.

“So this one can read,” he mumbled.

Noel seemed to suck in his lower jaw, the closest he could come to a pout.

“Enough to see us down here, anyway.” His claw tapped at where Brother Raimun had diligently copied out their two names, under the heading “Lawn Games”.

Foweller peered up at Noel for the first time, eyes heavy with weariness.

“Let me guess: campball?”

“No.” The pout did not subside. “The Abbot said we needed ‘variety’. I’ve got some sack races that need seeing to, think you could help me with that?”

Foweller grinned. If Noel had studied his face a moment longer, he might have called it a smirk.

“If you can’t manage a few dibbuns with skinned knees – very well.”

“That’s the spirit, eh!” He clapped a paw to Foweller’s back, at which the otter stumbled forward and then took off running for the playing fields. Noel loped after him, his enthusiasm flagging. Getting an otter to play games shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth, even if those games didn’t include the One True Sport.

There were already a dozen dibbuns at the touchline, burrowing in and out of the granary sacks as they waited for the signal to begin. Noel frowned. Where was Tam, or her brother, or anybeast with a sense of humor advanced beyond bogey jokes? Foweller was right – they had skinned knees and yoinked tails to look forward too, and all the bratty yowling that would ensue.

“Having second thoughts, weasel?” Foweller was getting stuck in, shifting the tottering dibbuns upright and pointing them in the right direction. A simple enough job when they were all delirious with excitement, perhaps.

“Nah, I love this stuff.” Noel grinned over his own sarcasm. “Just wondered where Tam and her lot were.”

Foweller’s expression fairly curdled over. Before Noel could ask, the otter muttered something to himself and then cried out for the race to begin.

Bobbing like hares to the dinner table, the tiny creatures hopped and flopped all over the lawn with the chirrups of cheers and giggles singing in their wake. While Foweller crossed his arms and continued to look lost, Noel waved his paws over his head like a madbeast.

“No, no, don’t stop there! You got to come back this way, come back – that’s it! It’s on now, Foweller, look at them two, the squirrel twins. Nobeast else has come close.”

“Quite a brotherly relationship they’ve got,” said Foweller. “Too bad Virrel can’t say the same.”

Most things Noel could laugh off, and many more things he could pretend away, but the topic of his brother wasn’t one of them. He pretended, for the moment, that Foweller wasn’t wearing a look of triumph now that he had discovered this.

“You can say a lot of things about Virrel,” Noel mumbled.

“I don’t know. For a weasel he’s almost worth his own breath.”

Noel rocked side to side, twitched as if about to burst out of his fur. An experienced beast might have leapt forward to intervene, finding in it the same kind of alarm motion preceding a fist to the muzzle. The only danger Noel presented, though, was a voice almost too low to hear.

“Listen, Foweller,” he said. “Be careful around him, all right?”

Foweller’s eyes narrowed to slits.

“I think I can manage on my own.”

“I mean, you do what you like. But if you like your neck the way it is you’ll stand clear of him.”

“If I like my eye the way it is, who should I stand clear of?”

Noel whirled on him, changed completely, all fangs and diamond eyes and bristling fur. Never before had he looked more verminous and vulnerable all at once, a new and different species born of anxiety and fear.

“Oi! I bloody mean it -”

“Excuse me – Noel?”

The two beasts swung around as one. Behind them there stood a stocky young mousemaid, paws held before her as she decided whether or not the interruption was a welcome one. Noel’s penitent smile gave her the answer.

“Selendra…right?”

“You know me,” she said, beaming with surprise. “I understand you and Isidore have gotten very close since you both came to Redwall.”

Noel turned to face her, happy to let the weight of the sack-bound dibbuns and the agony of Foweller fall behind him.

“Knew him before that, actually. Used to pass him by once in a while on me walks. He gave me honey.”

“Those must have been long walks.”

“They didn’t feel that way.”

“Well,” said Selendra, “I could do with a short one now if you don’t mind talking to me for a few minutes.”

“All right, Foweller?” Noel’s face was doubly apologetic, but he wasn’t sure Foweller caught either meaning. He was watching the squirrel twins bounce across the finish line, together.

“I told you I can manage on my own.”

Noel sighed and began to walk, shuffled a bit when he realized he didn’t know where they were going, and started the conversation instead.

“How long’ve you known Isidore?” he asked.

“Not too much longer than you, I expect. He keeps himself to himself.”

“He’s clever, isn’t he? He’s – he’s kinda like me. Got up to some funny stuff when he was younger, but now I think he’s got his life pretty well figured out.”

Selendra led them away from the festivities, toward the orchard. For a moment she squinted ahead, behind the trees, then leapt across Noel in the direction of the pond.

“You are similar, aren’t you?” Her voice had dropped, the sound barely carrying the few inches to Noel’s ears. “You know Isidore calls you his ‘pupil’ sometimes. What kind of funny stuff do you mean, though?”

This was sounding familiar. Noel tried to shake off the coincidence. Best to get it over with at once, he supposed.

“Everything,” he said. “Scrumping, boozing, opium. Followed round a gang for a while after I left Norford.”

“Norford – that’s the village just across the ford on the River Moss? Near that cave formation, what’s it called?”

“Lingl-Dubbo Cave. Hence me name.” At her questioning gaze, he added, “Lingham. Me family name.”

“I see. This gang you were in – was that near here, then? Do you remember who led it?”

“Yeah, bit south of here, and west. Nothing major we did, really, just hustled a few travelers and the smaller villages, and rival gangs o’ course. Least, nothing major that I did. Couldn’t really get into it.”

“What did the chief have to say about that?”

“Not much. It was a big gang, don’t think he really noticed me.”

“No? What was he called, again?”

They were nearly at the southern wall. Selendra glanced up to the walltops, changed direction again. Noel was losing patience. It didn’t matter who the chief was, just another powerful beast glutted on fear taking advantage of the lost and lowly. He had explained his feelings to Isidore once, but it hadn’t come out right. Now he didn’t even try.

“I dunno,” he snapped. “Pine marten. Cassius, he was called. Probably wasn’t even his real name. He wasn’t anybeast important anyway.”

Selendra didn’t respond, and almost lost him. The urge to fly off back to smiling faces, even if they were loud dibbun ones, was overwhelming in the face of her quiet interrogation.

“What kind of a beast was he?” She sounded farther away now, as if her thoughts weren’t really with Cassius or Noel or anybeast.

“A sad one. Harped on for ages about how vermin aren’t oppressed in other parts of the world like they are in Mossflower.” His voice finally faded from a snarl to a sigh. “He only wanted what every other old vermin wants – a fight and a free ride off somebeast else’s back.”

“But you don’t.”

“Yeah. No. I don’t know. That’s the problem.” Noel laughed and halted where he was, spreading his arms wide. “Me brother’s fine. He knows what he wants and he’s happy to steal it out from under you. He’s not like the rest of ‘em back home. You know Norford – full o’ vermin who’ve figured out it’s no good fighting anymore. Thing is, when you take the fight out o’ vermin who’ve lived on it for generations, they’ve got nothin’ left. But I’m not like them, either. Nothin’s not good enough for me.”

Where they had stopped was nearly back at the feast, the warm scent of stews and pastries wafting with the acrid crisp of lit torches on the breeze. The playing fields were in view also, empty.

“I’d like to talk to you again soon, Noel,” said Selendra. “For right now, though, I need to ask you a favor. Will you leave your past buried for a little while? Especially this Cassius – he’s in your past now, isn’t he?”

“Fine. That’s no problem to me.”

Selendra looked down at her footpaws, struggling for the right words.

“I’m…worried for you, you see. You mentioned your brother Virrel. He seemed to be coping here at first, but in the last half-season we’ve had him carrying off parts of the harvest, spoiling the larders – and then there was the incident with the gravestones. The Abbot nearly had a riot on his paws when he refused to send Virrel away for that. If he found out you were in a proper gang yourself, I’m not sure he’d be able to protect you, either.”

Noel felt a tremor throttle him from the inside out. The Abbot knew already. What did that mean? Would he send them both away, would they take him away from Martin? He could just kill Virrel if that happened, make his neck gape and weep scarlet like those frozen faces at the Abbey gates –

He blinked the idea away. It wouldn’t come to that. It couldn’t. Still, his voice was no less harsh to Selendra before he turned his back on her.

“I said it’s fine and I meant it. It’s only ever other beasts who bring up what I used to be. I’m only interested in me future.”

As it happened, his immediate future heralded a kitten. This Noel learned only after performing a vaulting forward somersault over something huddled in his darkened path. Soundless with surprise, he sat up massaging first his head, then his stomach.

“Ah ‘Gates,” he moaned. “If those pasties taste as good comin’ up as they did goin’ down – oi, Bludd! You all right?”

Bludd sat crouched on the ground without an answer, looking as though she’d been caught with all four paws in an especially large biscuit jar.

“Noel,” she said, words bursting forth as if they leapt from a sinking ship, “lissen. Matey. I ‘eard – I thinks I ‘eard somethin’ as you might be wantin’ t’ ‘ear. ‘Twas some beasts ‘as been sayin’ things about – about you.”

“Bludd?” Noel leaned forward, and in between the wrenching pain of his overfull gut and the lingering images of his brother, of Selendra, of the Abbot, he realized he couldn’t even manage half the smile he reserved for the little pirate cat. “Who was it?”

Bludd blinked at nothing a few yards behind him, squirmed away from the imaginary sight, and darted away as suddenly as she had appeared.

“I’ll tell ya’s later!” Shadows chased her across the lawn back towards the feast. Noel glanced in the same direction she had before running away, but Selendra was gone.

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