Interlude: Petty Treason

July 16, 2011

The fever burned her. She remembered the same thing happened when she lost her other paw, and then reached for the dirty dish of water— thirsty, so thirsty— but she was a tree without branches, she was a worm crawling forward, she was a mouth and tail and feet. She lapped from the bowl and half-drowned in it. Weak, too weak. She would die.

There was a village beneath the abbey, all shadows coming and going in the dark and through her fiery dreams, like the house in Redwall City before Selendra came for her. Selendra wasn’t like them. Selendra didn’t hurt her and tumble coin in her lap for the joy she took. After she’d taken the knife in her arm the old madam brought her to the school. The bitch ransomed her body for the last time. She learned how to make teas and ointment and purge instead, and how to touch someone with an innocent blind paw.

“Is she alive?” Selendra lived. Let her live longer. “So you left.” Yes, packed skirts and stays that smelled of her lover’s pale, sawdusty fur.

“Who told you? Who told you to go?”

“Please,” she said. Her world was red and wet. “Everything I know…”

“Who was it?”

“Help me… help me.”

“Who?”

The kitten. Bless her, save her, but she said it. They stopped hurting her. The old rat stitched her wounds. Rigg cradled her the way the beasts in the brothel did. They washed her with wine; they fed her; once somebeast mopped the sweat from her brow. Berend wept and burned in the dark.

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A shed squatted in the northernmost corner of the orchard. Isidore pulled a flask from the rafters and gave the child a tot of whisky; then he brought forth a chipped basin. The otter’s pondwater stench deserted him after a thorough scrubbing.

Isidore helped Foweller shimmy into an old muslin tunic, dressed him with a sash, then directed him to lay on the pallet in the corner. “Rest.”

“I don’t want to rest. I want to get Virrel.”

“Then wait. I said justice’ll find him.”

“No. He’ll die.”

“That’s what I meant.”

Foweller fidgeted. He dove under the blankets, worried at his claws, sour and silent all the while, then settled for rattling the latch of a small carved chest with his footpaw. “You sleep here?”

“Aye.”

“The dormitories are better.”

“I don’t like them… Stop your fiddling. Give that here.” Isidore took the chest and unlatched it. He arranged his treasures on the floor: a silver puzzle-ring, a sheathed knife with an etched bone handle, a chunk of tile with swooping calligraphy on a field of flowers.

He pointed to the writing on the knife, and then the tile. “This is my name. And this is my brother’s.” He unrolled a small scroll: a rat in crimson dress and turban watched birds sweep over an outcrop of rock and into the high, undulating horizon. “That is my daughter. I know how the world must account for somebeast’s loss.”

Foweller slid the knife from its sheath. A mischievous gleam chased inset gold vines down the length of the blade; dark whorls banded the steel like flowing water.

“Get up,” said Isidore.

He retrieved a roll of burlap from under the bed. It cradled a long, wickedly curved saber. This too had a bone handle, but capped with bronze, and the same gold vines wreathed the blade.

“They didn’t steal these? I had a good shovel and Sister Amery took it.”

“I hid everything in that pallet. I haven’t used these, not in years.” Isidore flicked the sword at a gnat. “Can you wield that knife?”

Foweller twirled it, but it clattered to the floor.

“Never you mind, then,” said Isidore. He sheathed the knife, then pressed it into the otter’s paw. “Play with that when you can, and show me another time.”

“But playing’s for babies.” He seemed to quiver. “I’m a better shot than anybeast, and I’m not gonna practice tricks. I have a duty.”

“A blade does too.”

Foweller considered this, then tucked the blade into the sash at his waist. Isidore brewed him hot honeyed tea in the basin, dosing it with valerian and scullcap. Afterwards, sullen, fitful sleep claimed the otter. He thrashed under the thin blanket, barking and muttering at whatever troubled his dreams (maybe slinking weasels, or otters writhing through a forest of pondweed obscured by blood).

Isidore lit a candle. He thought of a poem he had read long ago, writ large on a tomb:

In the night city, the moth seeks a flame.
Her wings shed cinnamon, cassia dark
As scorched wood; her jasmine wings wither.
Lover, she calls, I burn. O, do not weep–
You chose me. You too will die, melt, puddle:
Your narrow thread of life will drown in wax.
Moth kisses candle, heat-lashed and quick.
Such is the end of love, and life; flowers,
Wars, weddings; grieve not. Bring thy sword to hand.
Be glad of heart. Give thyself up to fire.

He ached to think of that sun-steeped mausoleum, of a lap full of olives and the taste of sweet bright oil, of his paws so richly ringed with gold and bells that he jangled when he walked. He needed no more than a pawful of earth or a sturdy trowel. He wanted nothing more than this shed and a pallet full of hay. Work diverted him; he polished the sword’s hilt till he saw his reflection in the pommel. The bronze tinted his fur dark and rich as it had been when he was young. But the face was wrong: warped, so he saw a squinting eye and crooked snout, a broad curve of cheek humbled by a scar.

He wrapped the sword in burlap, and he took leave of the shed.

Outside the abbot’s manse, the air smelled of lavender and rosemary. Somebeast had nailed a wreath above the lintel to chase away ill luck.

The Abbot himself sat on the doorstep, deep in conversation with the new Skipper. “Pardon,” he said. “Brother Isidore. What’s your need?”

Isidore bowed to him. He unrolled the burlap and offered the sword to the Abbot hilt-first. “I’ve brought you something, Father.”

Carter drew and whisked the blade through the air. “I’ll be,” he said. “Rigg, hold still.”

“Martin’s balls–” said the otter, and then Carter neatly clipped his whiskers.

“What a beautiful thing,” said Carter, sheathing the sword. “You hid it from me this whole time.”

“I did. I’m deeply sorry to admit.” Isidore knelt. “I hadn’t meant to hurt with it, and I didn’t want it seen. I give it to you because– because I am ashamed.”

Carter traced the writing on the hilt with his claw. “No need for that. Come inside. There’s something I’d like to share with you and the Skipper.”

The house smelled of beeswax and oakwood and something needling and rank. Rigg fiddled with the stubs of his whiskers. They stood in the dark of Carter’s study. The Abbot set a new match to each candle, stirred the dying fire so gloom fled the corners of the chamber. He set Isidore’s saber on the desk, then took a bundle from a tall cabinet.

“I’d ask something of you both.” He gave the bundle to Rigg, who tenderly unwrapped it: a sword. The firelight glossed licorice-dark leather and apple-red pommel. “You have your own fine blade, Brother Isidore. I return it to you.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“You are both honorable beasts,” said Carter. “Some in the Abbey aren’t half so true. Some harbor treason in their breast. They lie, cheat, steal. They murder. They seek to defy my rule in every way they can. These mutineers– they hide in the Abbey and in our villages– one of them has fled already.”

Isidore envisioned the weasel racing through the wood, Foweller trailing him with knife in paw.

“Selendra Bon has turned tail. I want her associates under constant scrutiny, and their connections too. The peddler Merritt, the foxes and their thieving ward, the otter Gabriel. You will be my eyes and ears.”

“Hell’s bells. Little Selly?” said Rigg. “We played at cards only a few days ago.”

Isidore frowned at him. “She’s not so faultless as she seems.”

“She wanted to get out, I’m sure, Father. Lass can’t abide being stuck here. She went half mad over winter.”

“Were that it true,” said Carter. “The stonemason Clacher went to repair a chink in the wall and caught one of our guests trying to escape, one Berend Beecham. She intended to follow Miss Bon.”

“They are friends,” said Isidore.

“Yes. But she confessed a crime– she and Miss Bon both have informed against the abbey.” He beckoned to Rigg and Isidore. “I have her in my wine-cellar even now. Come. Let’s speak with her.”

They descended a flight of cold stone stairs. They had started to crumble; the foundations of Carter’s house seemed immeasurably old, a part of the ruins of some fable. He paused at the door.

“I’ve been with Martin, seeking his advice,” he said. “He hasn’t left my side day or night. I pray to the warrior, oh, give this duty to another and let the Abbey guide herself; let me be as I was. That is impossible, he replies. The wind is in your sails, you are in the storm. There is no turning back. Once something has begun it must end.

“We cannot founder, even if there are beasts here who are eaten away inside with lust and greed, who would see us drown and die. There will be no place for untruth in my abbey, no place for the wicked.”

The cellar smelled of cold, dust, and blood. The badger Clacher sat atop a barrel of wine. He gnashed at a leg of squab, grease dribbling down his chin. He smeared it away. “Father. She’s been cryin’.”

“Away with you.”

“Aye, sir.” Clacher seemed to rumble when he walked, like a mountain moving. His progress up the stairs sounded like the whole of the Abbey might fall around them. His captive, the mousemaid, winced at each pawfall.

Rigg approached her gingerly, and Isidore followed. She cowered before them; her eye had swollen shut and seemed to bulge like an overripe fruit. Her feet had been tied and her good arm bound to her chest, as if she clasped her torn shift to her body in an absurd gesture of modesty.

“You lemme alone,” she said. Her voice was hoarse.

“Rigg, untie her,” said the Abbot. “Let her stand.”

She wobbled like a kit walking for the first time, then lunged forward. Isidore caught her by the scruff of her neck and held her back.

“Don’t,” he said. “And don’t struggle. I shan’t hurt you if you don’t struggle.”

“Well!” said Carter. “How does that feel to walk again? Feels fine, doesn’t it? Do you want some wine, little maid?”

“Lemme alone,” she muttered. “Kill me. Go on.”

“No.” The Abbot caressed her cheek. “Clacher is cruel, I know. I can put you in the Abbey cells. They’re dry. We’ll treat these wounds.”

“No, you won’t,” she said. “You’ll ‘ave me done for. Case is comin’ for you, him and all his armies. ‘E lives for the day your head’s on a spike and this whole Abbey burns.”

“You don’t wish that, do you?” said Carter.

“I do.” She wriggled from Isidore’s grasp, but the Abbot knocked her down.

“Tell me more,” he said, “tell me all about Case, I’ve missed him so much. Tell me!” He kicked her, and she scrabbled away. He drove a paw between her shoulders, pinning her to a barrel. “Rigg! The sword.”

The otter hesitated; Isidore took the blade from him. It did not have the familiarity or the grace of his saber, and felt strangely heavy. It dazzled him, though, and shone starlike blue even in the dark cellar. The leatherbound hilt felt soft as worn cloth. Berend shook and quivered, scrabbling for purchase, her arm extended.

Isidore swung the sword, and her paw came off clean as the bud from a flower.

“Selendra,” said Isidore. “May we speak?” At any other time, Isidore might have left Selendra alone. He knew rot killed hives, withered gardens, festered wounds. He knew she would protest.

“This is a private conversation,” she said.

“I insist,” said Isidore. He nodded to the ferret. “You offended her greatly last night. I know you for a swindler, and I know you spread filth. I charge you with obscenity, in the name of Abbot Carter.”

“Well, fates below,” said Merritt. “This isn’t the first time. I’ll see your charge; you won’t bring it through.”

“Sel, you said he’d shown you something filthy,” said Isidore. “You’re young. His influence– the honorable thing to do is to cut the weed before it grows and strangles everything around it.”

“A weed! I’m a weed,” said Merritt.

“He isn’t good, for you or for anyone,” said Isidore.

“This is patently ridiculous,” she said. She had taken a kerchief from her pocket and twisted it in her paws. Part of her was feminine, then: some natural delicacy caused her to recoil from his charges as she would from a spider. “I don’t know what idiot ideas you’ve got, but you seem to think you’re my husband. I’ll warn you now: once you lose my good opinion it’s lost forever.”

Isidore tugged Selendra closer, held her by the shoulders. “I’ll charge him or I’ll ask the Abbot to turn him away.”

“The Abbot!” she said. “Is that it? He’s a liar and a cheat. What do you think happened to Raimun?”

“That borders on treason. Do you understand?”

Merritt fluttered his paws at somebeast; the lanky haremaid Isidore had met the night before strode toward them. She jabbed her paw between him and Selendra, pulling the mousemaid away.

“Sas,” said Selendra, and she buried her face in the hare’s shoulder.

Isidore smiled at the pair. He seemed to stand in some momentary vacuum. All his strength and stoicism and endurance rushed inside. He was quiet; he mingled with the grass and stone; he uttered nothing. Duty reigned him in. She cut him deeply. Very well, since no part of him ached at the loss.

She was young and she could learn.

Isidore left. He crossed the lawn and went arout the Abbey complexes: past the silent dormitory which seemed to sweat the smell of wine; the mill, kiln, and smithy which peppered his nose with dust and then smelting; the grain storehouse and its earthy, round odor promising bread and mould.

His orchard brimmed with sweet air. Slowly swinging his shoulders, Isidore willed himself to its calm, the shadows of leaves dappling his fur. He bent to scoop water from the bucket he now kept by the hives and splashed it over his brow. At last, his strange spasm released him; he felt shaky, knocked over the bucket with his footpaw and cursed.

A shadow shifted, behind the hives and in the depths of the orchard. Isidore’s paw was at his hip, grasping for the sword that did not hang there, had not hung there. But the shade was only Noel stirred from rest. The young weasel emerged from a tangle of honeysuckle, belching smoke and tapping the ashes of his pipe in the mud.

“Child,” said Isidore. “I haven’t disturbed you…?”

“No.”

“Is there something you’d share with me?”

“No.”

“All right.” Isidore bent to check the entrance of a hive. A cluster of dead bees lay on the plinth. Varroa? Fungus? He spat a curse. “Look. How’d that happen?”

“Did you check the– the thing at the top, the feeder?” Noel waggled his paw at the hive.

Isidore pulled out the slat, gently as he could. Inside, a hundred feeble bees wriggled in a pond of sugar syrup. He cursed again.

Noel twitched his whiskers. “You all right?”

“No.” Isidore slogged out of the muddy orchard. Noel paced beside him, mincing over puddles and patches of grass. He turned at the granary, to the left and the gardener’s house. They passed the entrance of the graveyard, heard the wet shuck of Coffincreeper shovels. Isidore ran his paw over the gate. “Raimun?”

“Aye.”

“It wasn’t right. Had bile all down his front.”

Noel was silent. He joined Isidore in peering through the gate. The grave lay somewhere beyond the mausoleum housing the relics of Martin and other heroes.

“Poison?” the weasel said, finally.

“Aye,” said Isidore. “I’ve seen enough in my day. And some said the Abbot did it. I don’t like disloyalty, boy.”

“What if it were the Abbot, though? Let’s just say. Wouldn’t stayin’ loyal to him be disloyal to the truth?”

“You aren’t that sort, are you, Noel?” This brooked no response. Isidore brushed the gate with his paw, and a slick of grey, greasy mill-scale came off on his fur. The hinges had begun to rust after the night’s rain. “You can’t understand a Brother’s duty to his home.”

“So… so you think this is the right path, then? Bein’ a proper Brother. Redwall, and Martin- is that the best way to follow him? Is that the only way there is, d’you think?”

For some time, Isidore did not speak. He looked to the sky: an indistinct bird floated on high, swept once, twice over the north walls, left. The world felt empty, like a great dark expanse of water, and he was gliding deeper and darker than he ever cared to. At last he turned to face Noel. “I’d seen thousands of beasts fight and die. I told them to do it. And I spent years out there in those woods, thinking about it; there isn’t a better thing in this world than this Abbey. Not in Southsward, or any of those cities, or even a few steps beyond those walls.”

“And nothin’ could go wrong, you think? Martin… I mean, he still talks to beasts, but he’s gone, isn’t he? He’s a lot to live up to. I guess that’s what I worry about. I dunno that I could do that.”

“This is about– about honor, and duty. You mightn’t understand them yet,” said Isidore. They went around the apse of Great Hall, then rambled back to the graveyard. “But if you follow them, then you do what you can for this place and it’ll come through. The traitor who hurt Raimun will be punished. We’ll be happy.”

“And then the Abbot- he’ll do right by Raimun. Like Martin’d do.”

“Aye.” Isidore looked again to the grey and unforgiving sky. The image of his bees struggling in their wet, sugar-sticky grave vexed him. “I had best clean out the hives.”

Noel brushed the arm of his habit, let go, shrugged. “I want to be happy here, Isidore.”

“I hope you are.”

In his grove, he scraped dead bees from the feeder-troughs, wielding his trowel like a knife. He addressed a prayer to whatever spirit might listen that this new life would be pure and sweet; another was for Noel. His last was for whatever wayward beasts had come to Redwall: that they find satisfaction, in Abbey rule or the Dark Forest.

Grace (Found Briefly)

June 9, 2011

After meeting Noel, Selendra returned to the Nameday Feast. She kept to the shadow of the belltower, away from the games and gluttony and commotion. Her neckerchief made her itch and sweat; she tied it, untied it, eventually tucked it into the waist of her skirt. A match flared and then fell from her paw. She champed the stem of her pipe.

Someone joined her: a ferret.

“It’s a lovely evening,” she said. He smiled; they stood there in the dark each like one half of a different pair of lovers, each waiting for some other elusive beast. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time: “It’s your turn to say something, Merritt. I’ve talked about the weather.”

“Whatever you want me to say, I will. Formalities, a poem, something ribald–”

“Poem. A good one.”

“Good at its heart? Or popular, lots of stirring empty-headed words, maybe a heaving bosom or two?”

“Merritt,” she snapped. “Don’t toy with me.”

“Sorry, then.

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead beasts rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea
.”

“Hum.” She tapped the ashes out of her pipe. “You always know how to bother me.”

“Yes. But I also meant it’ll end.”

She sighed and lit her pipe again. She last met her contact weeks ago, for a delivery of parcels at the wicker gate. She had taken a crate filled with tinkling jars: someone had marked the marjoram’s lid, for “joy.” On delivery to the kitchen she opened the jar and found a dried nasturtium amongst the herb– that was for “victory.” Julian had reached Salamandastron.

She also found a sprig of prince’s feather, meant only for her.

“Where’s Berend?” she asked. “No one told you anything?”

“No.” He dug in his pocket. “I’ve got to show you the most remarkable pamphlet, though, it’s about Case– things even I never thought I’d see–” He offered her a crumpled, sextodecimo booklet.

She turned it over in her paws and then tore it down the middle. “That’s not funny. Who made this?”

“Wasn’t Saskia,” he said. “Wasn’t anyone I know.”

“Don’t talk to me. Bother someone else.”

She stalked away, but Merritt called her back. “Come, then, Sel, some little words. You know how fond I am of you.

I prophesy, with feet upon a grave,
Of freedom, though all beasthood were one slave;
Of truth, though all the world were liar; of love,
That time nor hate can raze the witness of
.

“So you see, I’m not so bad,” he said, and gallantly he kissed her paw. “Go.”

The bats swooped overhead, stirring the already-riotous feast. Isidore’s head pounded with a surfeit of sour white wine as he and Brother Aloysius led the new guests away. He felt trapped in one of those dreams that haunt soldiers years after their tours: running-dreams with arrows, high fires, and breezes that tug and might really be the enemy’s clutching paw.

The otter at the gate heralded their approach. Together they divided the guests into three lines, to take papers. One mousemaid in Isidore’s procession wore garlands of flowers on her neck and on one arm. She laughed when she saw him. “Halloo,” she said, “you’re the beekeeper?”

He squinted at her papers. Berend Beecham of Rillrock. Herbalist and midwife, here by invitation of–

“Selendra tole me all about you.” She beamed. “We met at market, though, you ‘n me. That wax you sold, I use it for salves and I swear there’s naught better.”

“Well, thank you,” he said, and he returned her papers.

He and Aloysius finished their queues. The otter at the gate elbowed Isidore. “You got your paper, ratty?”

“Rigg,” said Aloysius, “don’t tease. Isidore is a Brother, a Brother.”

“Oh, I know– I’m only kiddin’.”

“Aye,” said Isidore. “It isn’t any trouble.”

He joined the festivities. He was happy just to watch the dragon-tongue flickers of gentian blue at the heart of the bonfire; he thought of a night long ago when he had addressed a teeming crowd, like this, just like this, and each of them had held a torch so a field of light like endless stars burned beneath him.

But those were idle dreams: he had yet to apologize to Skipper’s son.

First, though, he found Selendra. She stood at the fireside with a lanky hare and the mousemaid Berend.

They spoke absently, about the food and the sweet night air. “Do you remember,” said the hare, too voluble, “that dreadful thing the schoolmistress recited every evening when she made us tramp about the yard?”

“Fates, do I!” said Sel. “You know, she was the fattest cat I’d ever seen… I always thought she might pounce if I didn’t keep an eye on her.”

“No, that’s the old ferret Merritt did drawings for,” said Berend. “Jack, jill, dib, he’d jump ’em.”

He noticed Berend’s left arm ended in a stump at the elbow. Her garlands stopped him from appraising the napped, worn fabric of her shift.

Isidore found it curious Selendra had befriended someone so obviously deficient, yet it was admirable in its way. He esteemed Selendra for the temper of her soul. Her spirit was of particularly strong, masculine quality; it shone through in her large and knuckled paws, in her hoarse, smoke-parched voice. Best of all she was one of those rare, very rare females who did not take the world for granted, never wearied her beauty with powders or milks even in the smallest quantity, enjoyed the sweat of honest work.

“Oh, don’t talk to me about Merritt.” Selendra massaged her temples. “He made me so angry–”

“What now?” said the hare.

Selendra sighed. “He had one of his dreadful pamphlets.”

“Is he–” Isidore hesitated. “He’s the one that circulates… Aloysius had said. Don’t–”

“Look,” said the hare, “Let’s not talk about ‘im. I’ve told ‘im ‘undreds of times, I stamp my foot and ‘e’s never once listened to me.”

“You’re his partner,” said Isidore.

“I– no!” the hare stammered. “I mean, I know ‘im. But I’d never…”

“Come here,” he said, tugging her away from the fireside. “I must speak to you.” He placed a paw on her shoulder. “There is no room for filth in the Abbey. I won’t tolerate it. And if you– your influence– might corrupt Selendra–”

She snorted, and she brushed his paw away. “Don’t lecture me.”

“If you should like a good friend, or good work, I live here.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t even know you.”

“All right.”

He turned back to the pair of mice. Berend dressed Selendra with garlands, calling the flowers’ names. “Here’s chamomile,” she said, “columbine, and pheasant’s eye. Give one of these to Sebastian, ‘n Flint. This is yarrow. That’s for the Abbot, if he wants it.”

He caught young Ripple on the stairs to the attic. The otter flinched away from him. His bowl of shrimp slopped broth on the floor.

“Let me be. I worked it off now,” he said.

But Isidore gently tapped his back. “I was a fool. I apologize.”

“All right, then,” said Ripple, and shuffled away.

Isidore followed him into the library. “Listen.”

The event of that afternoon had made a profound impression on him and aggravated his nerves; it was perfectly in keeping with his code of ethics and yet had disturbed him utterly. He had not been so cruel in a long, long time. His actions shone like the bright patch on a wall when some object has been taken away and the rest of the surface has dimmed and dirtied. “You see, I regret it. But if you should ever need a friend, then I am here. I would like to teach you.”

“I got friends, sir. I got a teacher. Brother Aloysius.”

“I mean if you would like to build things, or grow them… I am sure you have an able mind, and you should exercise it.”

“I do. It’s all I got.” He waddled to his desk.

“Well. Good night.”

“G’night.”

Isidore’s paw pushed the door open but he turned at the otter’s cry. “Mister Isidore! Mister Isidore! Come quick, there’s–”

“Aye?”

“There’s somebody in the stacks.”

The library’s darkness descended on Isidore, a pitch that pressed on all sides and made his whiskers prickle. A creaking moan split the silence. Isidore rounded one of the shelves. There in the deepest shadow, somebeast lay crumpled like an old, dry beetle belly-up in dust; the figure’s claws scuttled over the spine of a book. Ripple peeped from behind Isidore. “It’s Brother Raimun,” he said.

Isidore knelt beside the mouse. Yellow foam covered his chin. “Please, please,” he croaked, clutching blindly at Isidore’s habit. “Carter…”

“Lad,” Isidore snapped. “Find the Abbot– stop sniveling so. Tell no one.” He patted Raimun’s cheek. “He’ll be here soon, Brother.”

Raimun shuddered, and died soon thereafter. There in the silence, Isidore held the Recorder, stroking the old mouse’s paw.

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.