Wide-eyed, the pups sat on the grass listening to the story of Haeclim’s fight with Largut and his gang.
“Well, little friends, there we were. Walking along, happy as a robin on a sunny day, when what do you think happened? Do you think you know?” They shook their heads like any youngster does when asked about such things. Allowing himself a small amount of pleasure from their faces, he continued, embellishing a few details as he went on.
“Out of the forest came the biggest rat you ever saw. Horrible! Disgustingly fat! Him and twenty other vermin, rotten weasels, rats, stoats, ferrets, you name them, stood right in front of us. You remember don’t you, Oakrudder?” The young otter, who had fought over the shaker, had indeed been present that fateful day.
“Oh yeah, Skipper. They was mean, rotteny vermin, jus’ like you said they was.”
“Yep. That they were, Oakrudder. So I go in front of the little otters I was watching, and asked the rats very nicely…”
“Oh! Oh! I know what you do!” Oakrudder interrupted. Haeclim gave a stern glance, silencing the little impish otter. Smiling slowly, the Skipper resumed his story.
“Like I was saying, I went up to them and I said….”
“Luuuuunch!” Clapping a paw over his mouth, Haeclim pulled a face, letting the pups laugh over his pretended mistake. Looking over in the direction of the call, they could see the cook, a portly otter called Lobdog, standing over a steaming cauldron of shrimp and hotroot soup. With a thankful sigh, Haeclim led the young otters to the pot.
“Thanks for saving me, old friend,” he said while leaning in to get his bowl filled.
“That‘s the fourth time they‘ve asked me to tell them that story.”
“Oh no problem, Skip. I could tell you was tired. It was time to eat, anyway.”
The holt’s leader patted the cook’s stomach jokingly. “Anytime is time to eat with you around, ya old barrel-belly.” No sooner had he spoken, that the cook bounced Haeclim for a loop. There was soup all over the place as Lobdog stood over the giant.
“Mind your elders, you impudent rascal! ‘Sides, an inch or two extra ‘round the waist line never hurt nobeast. Now be off with ya!” he said, pointing with his ladle and smiling warmly.
Haeclim began to walk to a far tree at the edge of the holt, with a comfortable rock to lean his back against. The pups began to follow, but were blocked dead in their tracks by the cook’s rudder. Lobdog looked down with a kindly, yet firm gaze.
“Now, now, scallywags! Let Skipper have his peace an’ quiet. You’ll like it one day too when you’re older.”
They started to turn around, almost sadly. But with the soup’s scent stirring in their nostrils, they quite forgot their sorrow and ran off to enjoy their sunny day. Meanwhile, Haeclim had quite gotten relaxed in the shade of the tree. He supped at his meager, but pleasing meal.
Yet all the while, he couldn’t help but notice something was amiss. Scanning the distance, he saw there was no sign of birds anywhere. Their joyful singing had ceased, giving him a sense of unrest, as if something terrible stood foreboding on the horizon. Looking up, he saw his father standing over him, their minds one in trepidation.
“I sense it too, son. When the birds stop giving thanks to Mother Nature as they do, it’s a sure sign of evil on the horizon. What do you suggest we do?”
“Well, Dad,” he sighed, scratching his head as he rose to his feet, “The best thing I can think of now is to get a small bunch together, scout out the area, and see if we can find out what’s coming our way.”
Patting his son on the back, Boxthorn began to do just that. Running off to the holt, he started assembling the swiftest otters in the tribe. After a few minutes, they had about half a score, including Boxthorn and Haeclim, convening under the branches. The Skipper, of course was the first to speak.
“I take it, then, you’ve all noticed it too. We’ve got trouble coming our way, and I doubt it’ll be a bowl of cherries for us. If anything, I bet it’s that rat I thrashed the other day. Vermin always come back pining for revenge. So we’re gonna head north a piece until we can get a clear idea of what we’ve got in store. Go get only slings and stones. We gotta be quick with this.”
“Right-o, Skip!” they barked quietly. Haeclim went off to get his needed tools, hoping and praying the chills going up his spine were just a result of paranoia. On the way, he bumped into one of the pups he had entertained earlier, who was going back for a second helping.
“Oh! Pardon me, Skipper,” he said with a start. Looking up, he was greeted with a half-smile, which was slightly unusual. Rubbing the youth’s head, Haeclim reassured him that he was all right. Going on about his business, the younger otter started to continue to the pot. Turning around, he suddenly called back.
“Could you finish the story later? I want to hear how it ends again.”
Smiling fully, feeling his cross lifted for a moment, he looked back and said, “Okay, my little friend. I will.”
“I promise,” Haeclim said as he watched the youngster go off for more lunch. Suddenly he wished he could be that age again. He had less cares, more fun, and all the time in the world. But, as if a reminder of reality, he felt his cross return to his shoulders as the group began to come towards him.
“Ready, son?” Boxthorn asked, fixing the thong of his sling loosely to his belt. Nodding silently, they began their trek north, hoping to find only silent forests and green meadows.
Bluntclaw was beginning to feel a little annoyed at the new recruit, who was beginning to get more attention that would go to a beast of high rank than the fat cur they originally brought up from the south. Seeing the subject of his thoughts come up from behind,
Bluntclaw sneered as he bent over and brought his leg out, pretending to pick up something from the dust of the path. Just as planned, Largut went sprawling head over heels. Rushing to help him up, Bluntclaw suddenly played the good cop to the rat.
“Och noo! Ye all right, there, friend? Nothin’ broke, Ah trust?”
Shrugging him off, Largut snarled, “Why should you care, flour-gob? I ain’t no one’s friend, ‘specially a fox who can’t even keep the color on his fur.”
Tempted as he was to spit the rat, the arctic fox walked along side him, speaking smoothly.
“I’m only trying to look out for a fellow horde brother. I’ve seen the way Nisac’s been eyeing ya. He favors ya, y’see. Oh, t’won’t be long noo afore he promotes ye to captain or something’.” He could see the bile of greed and power beginning to fill the rat’s eyes as Bluntclaw went on and on about the possible rewards coming.
“Ye sure, cully?” Largut asked a little less harshly.
With slyness that would make a snake jealous, the fox put his arm around Largut’s shoulders, saying comfortingly, “As sure as the Northland’s winter is blistering cold.” Dropping off to let the rat go ahead, Bluntclaw sneered again, savoring the taste of the victory to come. His fat fish was ogling at the bait!
Night was not far off and Haeclim’s group was lying low in the hush of the forest. Their senses were primed, noting every stir and sound that broke the silence. About ready to turn back, they began to hear a sound that made the hair on their necks rise up, as cats do when disturbed suddenly. Holding his paw up, and pointing forward, they pressed on, driving themselves towards the sound which made them fear for their family’s lives: the sound of many drums. Many… many drums.
The sound was their lead, bringing them closer to the answer of why things felt of death. Then the drums stopped, and so did they. But soon they did not need the drums. There was a warm glow ahead of them. It started out small, like a simple torch light. But it intensified to almost making the night into day.
Creeping slowly towards the heat, which they could feel even from that distance, their eyes rested on what they could only wish wasn’t before them: a vast army, like a massive tidal wave of blood. The smell assailing their noses was enough to convince the otters that they were vermin. The grandiose sight made a few of their hearts sink into the pit of their stomachs. Shaking them to their senses, which nearly made them jump out of their skins, Haeclim looked them dead in the eye.
“Hey! Instead of shivering there like leaves in the fall, let’s get back to the holt and get things prepared for these vermin. They may outnumber us many-fold, but we’ll show them we won’t be easy pickings.”
“Well said, m’boy,” Boxthorn declared solemnly. “We need to get the females and young ‘uns evacuated.” Rising ever so carefully, they crept off back home. Once at a safe distance, they began a great dash, making even a descending falcon seem sluggish. For they knew the lives of those they loved depended on them.
The moon, as round and full as a wheel of Swiss cheese, was already high in the black sky, sequined with glowing stars. The nightingales gave no song that night, nor had they sung at all for some time. Narsissa noticed this as she waited for Haeclim by the rock he was sitting at earlier. They usually met there at night, just to sit out under the stars, one holding the other in their arms. But she sat alone, with only a quilt, and the wind wrapped around her shoulders.
Then from nowhere, she heard the sound of leaves under footpaws, running at top speed. Getting up quickly, she hid herself behind the tree. She had been warned when she was younger about what wandered around the woods at night, and she had kept those warnings in her head since. Poking her head around the trunk, she peered towards where the sound was coming from.
Holding her breath, the sound grew louder and louder, until it seemed almost ready to pounce upon her. Then suddenly from the forest burst a shape she knew almost immediately from the immenseness of it: Haeclim. He was soon joined by the other members of the scouting party. They all collapsed on the ground, trying to gulp in as much air as they could to regain. Running off towards the other dwellings, Narsissa awoke some of the other members of the tribe to help her get the returning party into warmer conditions. The wind was beginning to pick up, and none too kindly.
Rushing them inside the Skipper’s hut, for it was the only one big enough to house the giant, the otters in Narsissa’s charge soon had a suitable flame burning in the center of the room. Finding corked bottles of aged elderberry wine, which Boxthorn had left as a housewarming gift, Narsissa gave a cup to each of the otters who sat up, recovering from their long and furious run. Haeclim was the first to come around. His head was still muddled, but he could make out the one he held dearest in from of him.
“Thank you, Narsissa,” he said, taking in the wine slowly. Looking back at him, she stroked his cheek, and noticed a small scratch which probably came from a branch that whipped his face. While Narsissa went to get a bowl of salt water to clean the wound, Haeclim’s mother kneeled before her son and husband, holing their paws in hers. A look of concern was evident on her face, even in the firelight.
“What’s going on, boys? Why were ye away fer so long?” she asked in a hushed tone. Looking back to his wife, he squeezed her paw caringly.
“What we’re about to say, Holly, you mustn’t repeat. I don’t want the holt in a panic. Do you understand?” His question carried a grave tone. She gave a solemn nod.
“We went off on the trail of that rat Haeclim thrashed a few days back. It was about evening when we were deciding to turn back. But we couldn’t. Because we suddenly heard a great sound, like thunder. Ain’t that right, son? His son stared at the ground, sighing, “Unfortunately, yes.”
“We went after it, knowing it had to come from something…” And so he went on telling of what they found not a day away. All the while, those within hearing range felt their spirits sink, like heavy rocks being drawn by gravity to the bottom of the ocean. Snapping his claws, Haeclim brought them out of their depressive spell, giving his father their full attention again. Boxthorn was nearly finished with the report,
“…so finally, knowing we’d seen enough to get a good idea of what we’ve got on our doorstep, we just got up and ran ‘til we got back.” Fully recovered, the others went home for a much needed sleep. All except Haeclim, Boxthorn, Narsissa and Holly. All they could do was sit their in the glow and warmth of the fire, wondering what the first step would be to prepare for such an extensive enemy. Rising, Boxthorn clapped resoundingly.
“If we’re gonna be ready, we gotta get things emptied out now. If we’re all still here come the morning, you can bet a whisker to a wels catfish we won’t be left with even a blade of grass to look on. We need to get every beast roused, packed, and moved while we still have time.”
“Well, if we are to get every best out of the holt, husband, where would we go?” wondered Holly.
“Wait,” Narsissa began. “I remember when I was a pup, your son and I would always wander off together into the hillside. On one of our trips, we met a bunch of moles just starting a small colony. Moles have always been accommodating to other creatures in evil times. Maybe they’d be willing to help us.” Grasping her paw, Haeclim nearly shouted out loud from admiration of her suggestion.
“Great idea, Narsissa! I’ll go with you and see that you‘re safe. Mom, you and Dad stay here and get the holt ready for travel. Just have them bring the necessities. We can’t afford a heavy trip.”
“Right, Skipper,” Holly barked, saluting smartly. Marching off, she began to wake up the otters in their huts. As Boxthorn was about to join her, Haeclim grabbed his arm. With a look of sorrow in his eye, he entreated, “Please look after mother.”
“I understand, son,” Boxthorn nodded gravely. He knew the chances and risks his son needed to take while he was Skipper.
Going off, Boxthorn joined his wife in getting the holt ready. Almost immediately after, Haeclim and Narsissa ran off into the woods, remembering as best they could the direction of the mole colony. They would push themselves every inch of the way. They would push themselves all night if need be. They would push to protect the ones they loved, and for the home they always knew. But they were too fast, and the trees would not permit light enough, to notice a small black bird take off from a branch in a tree near Haeclim’s hut. The bird was flying north!