Hope in Places Where It Can't Be

June 18, 2011

Noel spat, tightened his paw around his pipe, and hurled it across the Abbey pond.

He regretted it even before it had left his claws. It landed somewhere in a clump of reeds with no satisfying splash, no image of it sinking to the bottom where it could never be smoked in the company of Isidore or Raimun or any other beast again. Anger did nothing to change minds or to call souls back from the dead, yet he felt himself swallowed up by it, a minnow in the jaws of a pike.

In the water his reflection had bisected, split and divided. Of the two Noels in front of him he recognized one from today, lost and confused. The other he recognized from the days that Selendra and Carter recalled him to: lost and confused and desperately unhappy.

A third Noel, short and swinging from side to side with the weight of the worry on his shoulders, glided across the water like a ghost.

“Foweller!”

The little otter deigned only to pause and shift the weight of the shovel on his back. Noel’s gaze followed his tapping footpaw after the meandering tendrils of mourners passing them by, winding indoors for warm tea and biscuits to remind them of life still left to be lived.

“Sorry,” said Noel. “Have you seen Bludd?”

Foweller shrugged.

“Dunno. Not lately. Have you seen Virrel?”

Noel replied with another shrug and returned to the solace of the pond. In the gentle ripples of the breeze he could almost see his brother’s face in place of his own. He had not been at the funeral.

Virrel was probably in the dormitories, where they had caught silent sight of one another more than once since the previous night. His brother crouched behind his bed, obscuring his latest mischief from view. Noel had nearly forgotten it, interested only in the kitten who might hold his fate in her paws.

* * *

“Bludd! Bludd, you in here?”

A thump, and then a cry. Noel caught the nearest doorjamb in his claws and rounded it into the empty dormitory, like a flintlock snapping to in its flashpan.

“…Ripple?”

“Uh…fell out, I guess.” The otter peered up at him from the floor, a puddle of sheets and pillows and rudder. Noel bit back a laugh and glanced back over his shoulder before padding into the room.

“You all right?”

“Um, yeah…I thought you were going to the funeral?”

“Just came back from it.”

“Oh.” A put-on grimace of embarrassment lasted only a moment, fooling neither of them. “Must’ve slept through it.”

Noel waved it away. Ripple was young, and he’d already lost a parent, and even worse he had been there in the attic – he didn’t need any further exposure to death’s chilling favors.

“Rip,” said Noel, “look. If you’re not busy – I really need your help.”

Ripple’s next expression was instant, honest, and suspicious. Noel had asked that before, begged for it in those same words, to make him the eleventh beast on a needy campball side. Ever so cunning, as if he were laying down one of the cards from his game, Ripple had defused his pleas every time.

“Um,” he said. “What for?”

Noel scratched at the back of his head with one paw, fiddled in his empty pocket with the other.

“I need to find Bludd. Haven’t seen her, have you? Kind of tags along with you sometimes, thought you might give me some ideas where she goes.”

“Yeah, but…I don’t know. She could be up with the sparrows or something. She’s weird.”

“It’s really important. Please.”

It might have been the voice that broke him. It wasn’t the same one that lauded him, goaded him, sought every weak and proud point in his spirit to lure Ripple into the game that Noel knew was destined to set the world aflame. That voice was heavy now, close to its own collapse. Ripple couldn’t have known that it was choked with an endless reel of terrors: the Abbot storming down the corridor with Virrel, leave my abbey at once, vagabond, thief, murderer.

Ripple dragged himself up off the ground. Noel did not dare to offer him a paw, and before he could reconsider the otter was already dusting off his stripey trousers.

“O-okay. I’ll try.”

* * *

It was dim and gloomy on the lawn. Even with the sun high overhead, Noel found his eyes tracing shadows on the ground, the rings of shade beneath the trees. Bludd might be taking refuge in them, but he felt drawn to them, too – dark places like those in his mind where thoughts of Carter and Cassius survived.

Ripple appeared from behind the rosebushes, his shuffling downcast gait a welcome sight thirty minutes into their fruitless search.

“Anything?” asked Noel.

He shook his head, trundling alongside as they skimmed the grounds from the southern wall to the orchards. The hanging, snatching branches sparked a memory in Noel’s jumbled mind.

“Listen, Ripple,” he said. “I know you’ve probably heard enough o’ this from everybeast and their brother, but yesterday, with Isidore – he didn’t have the right to do that to you. He knows what he’s on about with the bees but, you know, you’re a lad, aren’t you? You’ve got your dignity.”

Ripple shrugged.

“He apologized. It’s all right.”

Noel did not nearly jump, or almost jump, he did jump. Ripple actually skipped out of a stumble in his alarm.

“He did!”

“Um…yeah. Last night. Before….”

Raimun could not have been further from Noel’s mind. Isidore was saved – was already saved. If unswerving, unquestioning loyalty could bend, could it break, too? His spirit was roused, now. He couldn’t resist.

“Lissen,” said Noel. “When everything’s back to normal, before we have to go back home, you really got to give campball a go.”

“That’s more Skipper’s thing. And Foweller’s.”

Noel had to resist the temptation of a double-take. Surely Redwall wasn’t so different from the outside that its dibbuns didn’t call their fathers “dad”. Maybe it was a nickname – he grinned to himself at the thought of his own Old Weasel.

“It could be your thing too if you wanted,” he said.

“I dunno. Maybe someday.”

Noel half-nodded, kicking at a shrub now that the trees were thinning out again back onto the lawn. It took him a moment to realize Ripple had stopped short behind him.

“Hey, Noel. You know, uh, Virrel…is he really a bad influence?”

Noel screwed his face up, not least at the strange choice of words.

“Nobeast’s all bad. But you’ve got choices, haven’t you, and if you don’t try to make up for the bad ones – the really bad ones – then other beasts’ve got a right to put you straight, d’you know what I mean?”

“I think so.”

“There’s not a whole lot I’ve found to rely on in life so far.” He smiled. “You’re lucky, though. Here at Redwall, you’ve got Martin to count on.”

Ripple looked at the ground, then back up at the high windows of the dormitories.

“Um…I think I’m gonna head back in, if you don’t mind.”

“Yeah. Thanks for givin’ me a paw.”

Bobbing his head, the otter wandered off out of the trees. Noel sighed and gave his shrub another kick – a proper campball strike this time, ka-boom

“Oi! Watcher footpaw there!”

A bundle of fur and claws burst from the leaves and out onto the lawn, tittering as it rolled end over end and at last picked up running.

“Bludd,” said Noel. He froze only long enough for his legs to get the message that they should follow suit. “Oi, Bludd! Get back here, you little -”

He shot ahead, arms outstretched, grasping at anything they might purchase. His paws found her ankles, his stomach hit the ground, and in one raucous fuzzy mess they tumbled onto the grass, Bludd’s crowing pirate giggle followed by Noel’s snuffling chortles.

“Bludd, come on now, gotta ask you this. Stop, stop. It’s important, I mean it!”

“Aye?” Bludd finally ceased kicking one of her pinned legs at his face. “It’ll cost ye.”

Noel scratched his chin, buying time to catch his breath.

“All right,” he said. “Next match, you can be captain of a side.”

“Proper captain, eh! ‘bout time ye saw me potential. Well, what is it then?”

“You said there was somebeast talkin’ behind me back last night. Who was it? You can tell your old shipmate, can’t you?”

Bludd wrinkled her nose, and Noel had to suppress another chuckle. She was above such derisive dibbun-coaxing nonsense. She had a secret to spill, though, and now they were alone and the whole world had changed overnight there was nothing to stop her.

“It was that big mouse lady, and Brother Sebastian. They said you seen a Cassius. What’d you see him do? Did he gut somebeast, make him walk the plank?”

In the silence that followed Bludd freed herself to give Noel a not ungentle pat on the head. His frown had forced its way to the surface against his will.

“All right, shipmate?”

“Yeah…thanks a million, Bludd. Mind if I ask you keeping that information below decks, if you know what I mean?”

“I already forgotten it.”

Noel smiled, pressed his paws to the earth, and sat up.

“Y’know, we’re really stuck here now. I wasn’t doin’ this place any favors keepin’ Virrel about but now I don’t got any choice. What about you, Bludd – are you happy here?”

Her mouth was a pearl-white line of grinning fangs.

“It’s a pirate’s paradise, innit? As long as they keep the vittles comin’, I got nothin’ to complain about!”

* * *

Not long afterward, Noel fished his pipe from where it hung in the reeds, the bowl dipping half-in, half-out of a puddle of algae. Grimacing, he scooped it out with a grimy claw and replaced it in his pocket.

There might be time for a smoke later, but it was enough to know he had the option again. For now, there was work yet to be done.

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