Anxiety didn’t show on Haeclim’s impassive features, but it was clearly stamped upon his heart. Now this might be strange behavior for the Skipper’s only son to act, but being an otter still in his adolescent seasons, it was natural. Even beyond that fact one would need convincing. The facts for that were obvious in themselves.
The young otter in question was a giant among his tribe. He was closer in size to a badger, and they were even bigger still. His body was nearly covered in sinew and muscle. Such physique had never been recorded among the Holt‘s members. When he was younger, his father, and passing travelers, had taught him all manner of fighting skills. He was the undefeated champion of Holt Montis, under his father, of course.
One last feature completed this unique individual: his stripe. It was whiter than swan feathers and ran from his nose to the crown of his head. “You were born with it,” his father told him. He had also told him it was the mark of a warrior. Haeclim had been told right. Looking back, he could see it as if it were happening all over again.
Two days ago, he had taken some of the pups out for a walk along the bank. He was enjoying the company of the little ‘uns. They were skipping stones down the stream, laughing and giggling merrily along with them, as if he were their age again. But a relatively short distance down the path, trouble waited. And it waited with a rancid stench and a nasty demeanor.
Largut was the leader of a motley, ragged bunch of vermin. There were half-a-score of them in all, and each one carrying either a primitive club or spear. Largut was the biggest of the bunch, hence the fact that he was the leader. A ferret had heard a sound up the path, speeding off immediately to investigate. Moments later, he came running back, out of breath, but with the information.
Largut glared at him, gesturing him to come closer. Once in range, the rat grabbed the tired gang member, pinning him to a tree. As the lackey recovered, he found himself prodded by the wrong end of Largut’s spear.
“Tell me whatcha saw, cully, and don’t fib to me. M’spear don’t like fibs either.”
Gasping in short breaths, he made his report. “Bunch o’ stream dogs comin’ our way, chief. But there’s a big ’un with ’em. Stripe like a badger’s down ’is face. I think we better let these one’s go.”
Removing his spear, the gargantuan rat back-handed the flunkey to the ground. Largut then looked over to the rest of his band. Sliding a claw across his throat, they knew what to do. The last thing the fallen ferret saw was a thick hickory club smashing his face in.
Largut stationed his team along the fringe of the woodlands, which was on the opposite side of the path. As his prey came closer, he signaled for his band to form a line across the track, veritably blocking the way. The leaders stepped in front of their followers. The big, strong-muscled otter started to parley as calmly as possible.
“Afternoon, all. We’re naught but poor creatures who want to enjoy the day. So please step to one side.” This was met by laughter and teasing from the vermin.
“Oohh! Listen to the nice gentlebeast.”
“Don’t he talk so fancy! Hahahahaha!”
The laughter was silenced by a stern gaze from their harsh chief. Now Largut had the floor. “Alright smartbeast. If youse is poor, them ‘owd you get so big? Nobeast gets that way unless they got something o’ value. Pay up!” He polished off his sentence by pointing his spear point towards the young ones. Seeing the vermin eye them with a demented stare, Haeclim stepped a bit closer to negotiate a settlement.
“Well, I guess if ya put it that way, I can give you something.” And with that, he seized the spear and brought the end crashing across his enemy’s chins, knocking the rat unconscious. Swooping down like a great bird of prey, he scooped the little ones in both his arms and dumped them into the stream. The vermin yelled for a charge. Over the din, the burly otter yelled out to the pups, “Get back to the Holt! Get help!” Reluctantly, they obeyed.
Diverting his attention back to the vermin, he saw one of them running at him with a spear pointed towards his midriff. Calmly side-stepping, he tripped the vermin and grabbed him by the tail. Yelping with pain, the hapless pest found his world turned into a whirlwind of noise and dizziness. Then he went limp, for Haeclim had used him to bash aside a stoat who came too close with a club.
Then, once the little ones were safely away, Haeclim took the offensive. Using his enemy as a flail, the otter rushed through the enemy, walloping any of the foes that came within range of his furry weapon. Some went left, some went right, but all of them went down. Within moments, the group was either whining on the ground from discomfort or unconscious. Haeclim released his grip on the unfortunate’s tail, letting the carcass plop to the ground.
A cloud of dust was kicking up down the trail. It was the Holt defenders, marching in two columns, ten deep. Each one was a fine specimen of a river otter, carrying double-tipped javelins and slings. Splitting in two, the columns parted and circled their enemies, who were still massaging their bruises and licking their wounds. Only half of the ambush gang was left. The rest had been put down by Haeclim, who looked as though he had merely run a quarter-mile.
Largut was just coming around, and moaning from the blow to his jaw. Staggering to get up, he found a fire-hardened javelin tip at his bulbous throat, which rose in size as he gulped visibly. Lifting his eyes, he expected to see the big otter. Instead, he saw an older creature with a placid look of contempt.
“Mercy!” was all he was able to mutter for his cracked jawbone.
“Oh I dunno,” he pondered, winking playfully to his friends, “What’d ’ya think, mateys? What should we do with this sorry excuse of flesh ‘n fur?” The responses that followed turned Largut’s legs into jelly and made his spine run for cover.
“Pull out his tail an’ hang ‘im with it!”
“Dangle him over a river full of pikes!”
Largut‘s heart lept into his through as he heard every threat. He fainted on the spot. Hearty laughter rang out from the defenders. They relieved the vermin of their weapons and herded them towards the otter that had Largut pinned to the ground. All were shaking, whimpering, and otherwise making a spectacle of themselves.
“Don’t kill us, your honor! We meant no harm!”
“Yeah, it was all the chief’s idea!”
“Sharrup!” commanded Largut, who had been woken up by the blubbing and was back in his usual temper. However, the rat felt the javelin’s point back into his neck, allowing a small trickle of blood to escape. Now Haeclim’s father, the Skipper of Holt Montis, got down to business.
“Silence, rat! If it weren’t for my good nature, I might listen to my comrades’ suggestions. Now I’m gonna be merciful and let you live out your miserable, thieving lives. But should any of us here see, or even smell your filthy hides around here, we’ll show you how true river warriors safeguard their home. Right?”
Throwing back their heads, the holt war cry echoed like thunder.
Immediately the lane became virtually naught but dust motes, with the sound of retreating paws and the muttering of vengeful curses following behind. This was soon replaced by roaring laughter from the otters.
“Did you see the way they was tripping over each other?”
“Yeah! I think even a hare couldn’t catch up with that lot!”
Seeing their job was done, Skipper Boxthorn signaled a return home. Patting backs and congratulating each other on a job well done, they walked back, side-by-side.
Skipper Boxthorn peeked around the curtain to check on his son’s progress. “Are we ready, son?“ he asked.
“I dunno, dad. This is something I’ve known would happen for some time now. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to guide and lead the tribe like you ‘ave.”
“Well, that’s why you’re becoming Skipper: so you can lead and guide the holt as you see fit. I can’t lead our people forever, and you were the right one to take my place. You’ve learned quite a lot from m’self and the guests we’ve had over the seasons. As for a little advice, I can tell you this: don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a sign of true leadership.”
Boxthorn rose, going back towards his hut to prepare for his part in the ritual. He called back, ”It’s almost time for the ceremony. Finish dressin’, then prepare to meet the holt in a different light, Skipper.”
Finishing his ceremonial ensemble, he turned to study himself in the mirror-like surface of the river. Looking down, he had to make sure that it was his reflection he saw, and not that of a warrior from the depths of time. Before him was a giant otter clad in a sapphire colored half-sleeved tunic, with a silver trim outlining the sleeves‘ cuffs. Adding a Northern flourish to his garbs, a green and blue field kilt that had been a gift from a passing highland warrior. And a hooded cloak, matching the color of the spring evening around him, draped about his shoulders, fastened by a circular clasp adorned with the holt coat of arms: a pike baring its razor-sharp teeth.
Soon, he would be leader of the holt. He would be Skipper!