Fumbril clasped the little ones to her affectionately. "No no, my dearies. Tis some other creature's turn now."
Granvy read a name out from the list. "It says here that Brother folium will sing."
Tollum, a fat, mournful-faced squirrel who was the official Abbey Bellringer, stepped forward.
Clearing his throat, he announced in sonorous tones, "Ahem, I will now give you a rendition from part two of The Bellringer's Burial, 'Oh, Lay Me Gentle and Deep.' "
A concerted groan arose from the Red wallers.
Several who had heard the song before were heard to comment, "Oh, no. That dirge can last half a day!"
"Huh, never heard anythin' so mis'rable in all me days!"
Skipper struck the barrel again. Buboom!
"Order there. Silence, if'n ye please, for Brother Tollum!"
At that moment, Foremole Darbee, having overcome his shyness, interrupted the proceedings. "Hurr hurr, if'n you'm doant moind, oi'll be a singen moi song naow!"
Brother Tollum looked aggrieved. "But ye didn't want to sing afore, so 'tis my turn!"
Guffy, a Dibbun molebabe, took umbrage at the Bell-ringer. "Yurr, zurr, doan't ee talk loik that to ee Foremole. Ee'm can sing, if'n ee'm 'aven a moind to!"
This sparked a dispute--Redwallers called out their opinions aloud.
"Tollum's right. Granvy said it was his turn."
"Oh, let Foremole Darbee sing. Where's the harm?"
"But it ain't right. He's already refused once!"
Brother Tollum sniffed sulkily. "Let the mole sing. It doesn't bother me!"
Foremole shook his velvety head. "Nay, zurr, you'm do ee singen. Oi don't feel loike et naow. Ee mood bee's gone offen oi some'ow!"
The molecrew set up a deep grumble of protest.
Boom! Boom! Bubooooom!
This time it was Abbess Marjoram who had struck the
barrel, with surprising force for one of her slight stature. She shouted at the noisy assembly in a stern voice, "Enough! Enough! I can put up with this no longer. The contest for Bard of Redwall is closed until you all decide to act in a proper manner! Granvy, I'll take charge of that list, please. You Redwallers, be about your business, now. I'm sure you all have chores and duties to occupy your time. Yes, what is it, Sister Fumbril?"
The jolly otter smiled winningly. "I'm sure you won't stop us dinin' in the orchard this evenin', Mother Abbess?"
Marjoram stowed both paws in her wide sleeves. "No, I suppose I won't, Sister. Providing, of course, that there are no more arguments."
There is an old saying in Mossflower Country: "There is no better food than Abbey food, and no better Abbey than Redwall to serve it." The trestle tables set up in the orchard attested to the truth of this. On the blossom-scented air of soft summer eventide, the tables were laid with clean linen, garlanded by flowers and greenery. Servers stood by, bearing jugs of pale cider, mint tea, fruit cordials and the good October Ale for which the Abbey was famed. From end to end the tables groaned under the array of fresh breads, salads, cheeses and pasties at the outer edges. Further in, there were platters of scones, tarts, cakes and pies, each with a different filling, most topped with whipped honey or meadowcream. The centrepiece was a magnificent flan of strawberries, plums and damsons set in red currant jelly on a shortcake base.
Heeding the warning from earlier that day, everybeast sat quietly. Nothing was touched until after the Abbess recited grace.
"All hail to wind, to sun and rain, for offerings such as these, and thanks to those who harvest them, from soil, from bush, and trees.
We praise the skills of those good cooks, commanded by our Friar, who labour long in kitchen, and toil by oven fire.
My final thanks to one and all, who dwell in peace here at Redwall!"
The meal commenced with gusto, amidst much cheery banter from the diners. Skipper chuckled as he served the Abbess with bread and salad.
"I noticed that you said the last line o' grace with good, firm voice, marm."
A smile played around Marjoram's lips. "I merely reminded them that I'd brook no repeat of the afternoon's performance--all that ruction!"
Sister Fumbril poured cordial for her friend. "What, d'ye mean that liddle tiff? Why, marm, 'twas only a storm in a nutshell. Though I do confess, I was a bit surprised by Foremole's behaviour."
Granvy sliced himself a small wedge of soft white cheese. "Oh, Darbee doesn't mean any real harm. He's getting on in seasons now, so he's entitled to be a little grumpy at times. Age doesn't improve temper in somebeasts."
Cellarmole Gurjee gave a rumbling laugh. "Hurr hurr hurr! So oi've noticed, zurr, speshully when oi see'd you a-tryen to deal wi' yon list."
Granvy paused, the cheese halfway to his mouth. "Aye, and I've seen you the same, when somebeast disturbs your afternoon nap down in the wine cellar."
Gurjee nodded affably. "Burr aye, that bee's true enuff, zurr. Oi'm madder'n a toadybeast wot's been boiled, when moi arternoon slumber bee's asturbed!"
Skipper Ruark caught Marjoram's attention. "Marm, I think Friar Soogum would like a word with ye, if'n ye can spare him a moment."
The Abbess put aside both food and drink. "Why, of course. I'll spare him as long as he wishes. Push along
there, so he can sit next t'me. Bring him here right away, please, Skipper."
It was not often that Soogum spent much time away from his beloved kitchens. The Friar was a huge, fat water vole, quite a shy beast, but a cook par excellence. Fumbling with his apron strings, he shuffled to the table. Sitting down next to Marjoram, he tugged one bushy eyebrow, the water vole equivalent of a bow. His voice was barely audible.
"Mother Abbess, is every thin' to yore likin?"
She patted his paw fondly. "Soogum, my dear old friend, everything is perfect, doubly delicious. I don't know what our Abbey would do without your cooking skills. Now, how may I help you?"
The Friar avoided looking up. Staring fixedly at the table-top, he replied, "Er, well, 'tis about the singin' contest. Will ye be carryin' on with it tomorrow, marm?"
Marjoram dropped her tone confidentially. "As a matter of fact, I probably will. But don't let the others know that yet. I'm keeping them stewing whilst they await my decision. Keeps them well behaved, you know. But why do you ask?"
The water vole played with some bread crumbs, lining them up in patterns, as he spoke hesitantly. "Well ... well... y'see, it's just that I've got a lot on tomorrow, so I'll be too busy t'come, marm."
Skipper interrupted. "Take the day off, matey. Let yore crew do the work--you deserve a bit o' time off."
The Friar turned his shocked gaze upon the otter. "Nay, sir, I could never be doin' that, even though I have the best of assistants. There's certain things I wouldn't trust to anybeast. 'Twouldn't be right nor proper for a Redwall Friar, would it? That's why I wanted to speak with Mother Abbess."
Marjoram patted the water vole's paw again. "Have as many words as you like, Soogum. Don't be shy. You're amongst friends."
The Friar took a deep breath before letting it all out.
"Look, I know I never put my name on the list--nobeast expected me to. But here's the thing, I make up songs, y'see. Oh, yes, I invents 'em in my head an' sings 'em to meself whilst I'm workin'. Only yesterday I thought of a good song. I've been singin' it to meself ever since. So I'd like t'be considered for the contest."
Recorder Granvy topped up his mint tea. "Certainly. Every Redwaller's entitled to sing a song. But how will you sing if you can't attend, Friar?"
Soogum swept aside the bread crumbs decisively. "I'd like to sing my song here an' now, if y'please."
Granvy removed his tiny crystal spectacles and polished them furiously (always a sign that he was agitated). He shook his head several times.
"What, you mean right here and now, in the middle of a meal? Dearie me, I don't know what the rules state about that. I'll have to consult them!"