THE CRIMSON BADGER - Interlude, With Otters

Winokur was beginning to think he should have been born a sea otter.

It was the morning after the Long Patrol's "escape" from Salamandastron, and now that there were no longer any hares at the fortress, Winokur found himself free to engage in other pursuits. It was rather difficult to play peacemaker when one of the warring sides had run off. And since he was sworn as a Redwaller to remain neutral, he would not have felt right assisting in Urthblood's preparations for possible war between the two badgers. Those preparations occupied nearly every beast of Urthblood's army, and spilled into nearly every corner of the immense mountain stronghold, leaving little room for an idle observer. Feeling very much in the way, Winokur was driven out onto the shores along the western foot of the mountain.

From there, it was but a few short steps into the gentle blue-green swells of the summer sea. Now he stood gazing across the endless expanse of ocean while its foamy skirt lapped and flowed against his footpaws. He'd thought he'd overcome his fear of the boundless waters during his swim with the nighttime invasion force, but facing them once more in the full light of a bright sunny day, he discovered his misgivings had returned.

Had he actually swum in that other world, way out past where the breakers started to form? What gargantuans of the sea had shared that swim with them, perhaps so close that two or three powerful tail strokes would have brought their open jaws, wide enough to swallow an otter whole, around him? Winokur shuddered as he stood there in the warm morning sunshine. He had actually enjoyed that nighttime trek, or so he'd thought, and had looked forward to venturing forth once more into the ocean main. Now that the opportunity to do so was before him, he found he was unable to take the dive.

He was roused from his indecision by the appearance of Saybrook's entire otter squad - including his father Warnokur - heading down to the shore themselves. Urthblood had issued them a special assignment. An army of this size would deplete the food stores of Salamandastron in a dangerously short time, and this would be a major problem if Urthfist and the Long Patrol attempted to put the mountain under siege - a thing they were certainly capable of doing. Fortunately, it just so happened that Urthblood had a food source open to him that had never been available before to any Lord of the Mountain. The fortress may have been situated on the seashore, but hares and badgers were neither good swimmers nor adept boating beasts, and so the bounty of the sea so tantalizingly close had always gone unharvested by them. Urthblood intended to change this ... and he had just the creatures for the job.

It turned out that the army had carried a number of nets and seines among its supplies, along with various other implements geared toward underwater hunting and gathering. Today, the otters had been excused from all other duties so they could supplement the food supply with whatever they could catch.

When Saybrook outlined this strategy to Winokur and heartily invited the young Redwaller along to "share in the fun," Winokur felt his reluctance start to melt away. Surely, surrounded by all these other otter friends as well as his own father, and with the coastal waters brightly illuminated to reveal any lurking menace in plenty of time to avoid it, he would look silly if he declined out of some insubstantial fears. Yet still he hesitated, hemming and hawing uncertainly. It would take the combined exhortations of nearly the entire party to coax - or rather, to chagrin - Winokur into joining the fishing expedition.

Warnokur was in boisterous spirits. "Ha! They might've kept us from helpin' t' capture this lump o' rock, Wink, but we get t' show our stuff to 'em now! No otter can outfish you 'n' me when we're in top form, eh?"

"Um, yeah." Winokur diplomatically refrained from pointing out that most of his fishing experience had been gained from Montybank in the Abbey pond, since Warnokur had only ever spent a few days out of each season at Redwall.

"Only right, ain't it?" his father went on. "Th' two o' us who got left standin' in th' rain while these other riverdogs got all th' glory o' capturin' Salamandastron, we'll have our chance t' prove our worth now ... make these thicktails glad they brought us along t' pull their soggy rudders outta th' fire!"

But Saybrook could see the uncertainty on Winokur's face. "You comin', Wink lad?"

"Um ... "

"Course he's comin'!" Warnokur laughed. "Couldn't hold him back with galley chains! Ain't that right, Wink?"

Winokur glanced back and forth between his father and Saybrook, but his gaze finally settled on the shimmering sea. There were mysteries and magic out there beneath the waves, more than enough to overcome his qualms. Quite apart from how it would look to the rest of the otters if he stayed ashore, he knew in the end that he would be too disappointed in himself if he didn't take the plunge. Life was meant to be lived, and he might never visit the ocean again. If he returned to Redwall never having embraced this adventure before him, he would regret it always.

Winokur set his jaw and straightened his stance. "Course I'm comin'!"

"Then get yerself stripped outta them robes an' join th' crowd!" Warnokur invited.

Wink slipped off Abbess Mhera's old habit and lovingly rolled it into a neat bundle, which he left on the rocks above the high tide line. "Okay ... let's go fishing!"

By the end of that first day, Winokur's reservations about ocean swimming were banished forever. The undersea world was a place of unlimited wonders. With the sun's rays slanting down from the rippling surface through the aqua-green water, Winokur could see quite clearly down to a depth of many body lengths. In those dancing shafts of sunlight he saw for the first time what the glow jellies really looked like: tiny oval bodies, of the size and shape of gooseberries, but crystal clear so that they were almost impossible to see unless they were searched for most carefully. Eight shimmering bands ran along their surfaces from one end to the other, and the sunlight played up and down the length of these bands in moving waves of irridescent green, purple, orange, red, yellow and blue. It was remarkable that creatures which glowed like cold fire at night should also sparkle like living jewels in all the colors of the rainbow when viewed in the daylight. They were quite the most beautiful things Winokur had ever seen, and now that he knew their true nature he would never consider tasting one, as Olimpo had done during the invasion swim.

Each glow jelly trailed two long, feathery fronds out behind it, delicate white threads scarcely more visible than the oval bodies themselves. These fronds were sticky to the touch, and on several occasions Winokur found them clinging onto his face and other parts of him after he'd swum through them unaware. The only way to avoid this, he discovered, was to swim quickly and powerfully, so that the rush of water over his sleek otter figure would wash them free.

But the glow jellies were merely the top layer of the wonders to be found here. Since their immediate concern was food, Saybrook and the other otters with previous ocean experience guided the rest down to the sea bottom where most of the readily-available edible life forms were to be found. They demonstrated how the various types of quarry could be located, caught, and brought back to the sandy shore.

And what a variety there was! Clumps of mussels with shells of blue-black, whose tethers could be cut free from the rocks with a sharp knife so that these shellfish could be brought up in huge bunches. Clams, dug out of the sandy and muddy patches where their siphons betrayed their presence, some of them so big and heavy that a solitary otter had all it could do to bear it to the surface. Scallops, with their bizarre double rows of blue eyes, that would attempt to flee from capture by clacking their bivalve shells like living castenets flitting across the seabed. Wavy-shelled cockles, found the same way as the clams but smaller and easier to carry. Whelks, whose large, twisted spiral shells sticking up from the rocks made them easy to spot. And, of course, there were shrimp, in swarms vast enough to stock Redwall's pond a hundred times over. These the otters took in one bulging netful after another. In no time at all they'd hauled up enough to make shrimp soup for every soldier in Urthblood's army.

All that day, the wonders kept coming at Winokur in an unending stream. There were other jelly-like beings beside the glow-jellies: pulsating saucers like giant dinner plates with four-leaf-clover patterns of lavender or yellow at their center, or large white globes with undulating purple fringes and shrubby, spongelike arms sticking out from their undersides. Tiny, glassy slivers like living needles, visible only when the light hit them a certain way, flitting this way and that in the currents. Things that looked like flowers of every imaginable shade and hue growing on the rocks, petals waving carefree in the ebb and flow, but which actually turned out to be animals, their fluttering arms holding stinging death for any small fish that blundered against them. Spiny round balls, more like living pincushions than hedgehogs, which somehow knew to point their sharp quills at Winokur every time he approached, in spite of their apparent lack of eyes. Multi-armed star shapes that crept slowly over the rock faces, and fed upon mussels and oysters by pulling apart the double shells in slow motion and then sticking it mouth (or was that its stomach?) down between them. There was even one creature, like an ugly, dirty cucumber lying on the sandy bottom, which seemed to spit out all its guts at Winokur when he molested it ... and then slowly crawled off, easy as you please!

But most amazing of all, Winokur learned that day that there were some fish which actually flew! He first glimpsed them out of the corner of his eye, and thought he surely must be seeing things. But, when he mentioned it to Saybrook, the otter captain assured him that yes, there were indeed fish that used their side fins as wings for gliding, and could propel themselves with their tails in this fashion for quite some distance.

"But they're not good eatin'," Saybrook concluded, and dove back beneath the surface.

Winokur stayed up for awhile, treading water and bobbing in the wave swell, and watching the flying fish putting on their show. One had to look quickly to catch them, since there was no way to know where they would surface next. They did indeed glide in the manner Saybrook had described. Winokur was fascinated. Wait until he got back to Redwall, and told his Abbey friends about all this!

Undoubtedly, there were things in this wonderland to put fear into the hearts of even a brave and full-grown otter campaigner. Winokur encountered his first of these as he was intently burrowing after a clam. Glancing up through the silt he'd stirred up, he found himself staring into a nightmare visage of stalked eyes, spearlike antennae, and working mandibles. Winokur dropped his clam and pushed away in alarm, just ahead of the giant pincher that tried to snip him in half at the waist.

Winokur somehow made it to the surface without drowning in his panic. Saybrook and several of the others, noticing his rapid ascent, followed him up. Sputtering and spitting out water he'd inadvertantly swallowed, Winokur described the creature as best he could, not knowing whether he'd be believed.

Saybrook's face lit up. "Aha! A lobster, matey, that's what y' saw ... an' they ARE good eatin'!"

Winokur sputtered anew, this time in surprise. "But, but, that thing's bigger than any of us! And it just tried to make two otters out of me!"

"Aw, Wink! Ya just gotta know how t' handle 'em, is all! Tulia, Brot, fetch me some net cord - we'll show these landlubbers how it's done!"

And show them he did. Saybrook and the others with seagoing experience deftly demonstrated how several otters working as a team could safely bind the lobster's lethal claws shut. The otters were far swifter and more agile than the sea creature, not to mention far more intelligent, and in very short order they'd rendered the lobster harmless. Or nearly so; it was still able to swing its tied pinchers about like clubs, and the otters were careful to avoid them. Saybrook and six others each grabbed the lobster by one of its sharply pointed legs and, struggling valiently, bore the weighty creature to the surface.

Winokur and Warnokur studied it from several safe paces away once it was on the beach. "Egads!" the otter father declared. "Looks like a monster shrimp outta me worst nightmare! You sure this thing's good eatin', Cap'n? This armor looks t' be thick as me tail!"

"Oh, it ain't that bad!" Saybrook slapped the lobster on its long hind section. "'Nuff meat in this 'ere tail t' feed this entire otter regiment." He walked forward and patted one of the bound claws. "An' plenny more in these same choppers that almost cut you in two, Wink. An' tastier than any shrimp, lemme tell ya. Let's go see if we c'n find anymore, mateys!"

Saybrook led most of his companions back into the sea. Brot, Olimpo and Rosbor lingered, tangling the lobster's legs in netting so it wouldn't be able to crawl back into the water. The two Redwallers looked on in interest. "I say, how're we gonna kill this thing?" Warnokur asked.

"Well," Rosbor laughed, "first y' get a really, really, really big pot ... "

The otters ended up catching and landing two more lobsters before the day was done. These behemoths were added to a bushel of clams, a half bushel each of scallops, whelks and cockles, two bushels of mussels and oysters, and five bushels of shrimp. Some of this haul had already been delivered to the kitchens early in the afternoon so the shrews could get a head start on making shrimp soup and clam chowder for the evening meal. When the otters arrived later on with the rest of their catch, most of the shrews ran screaming from the kitchen area. Which was just as well, as it turned out, since otters were the only ones who knew how to properly prepare scallop, whelk and lobster. For the latter, they ended up having to raid the armory for battle axes and heavy pikes to get the lobster meat out of the shell. But everybeast who tasted it that night agreed that the final result was worth the effort.

Unbelieveably, the hungry army put paid to the otters' total catch in one sitting. Which meant that they'd have to do it all again the following day ...

There wasn't a single otter among them who complained. Thanks to the initiation given them by Saybrook and the few other "old salts," the entire squad was now quite at home in the offshore waters. And, being natural fishers, they would rather be doing this than anything they might have been assigned within Salamandastron. Winokur shared this view; he did not hesitate diving into the waves on his second morning. Indeed, he was eager as a pup to immerse himself once more into this miraculous world and to be engrossed, enthralled, entertained and educated by its myriad delights.

By noon they'd already assembled respectable quantities of shrimp, clams and oysters, all sorted up above the high tide line, and landed their first lobster of the day as well. Shrews bore away the shrimp and clams to the kitchens, but steered well clear of the king-sized crustacean.

Winokur encountered a crab near a large undersea cave. He and Saybrook surfaced to discuss the matter.

"Stay away from crabs," Saybrook warned with finality. "They're more dangerous than any lobster. Not enough meat in their claws to make 'em worth th' trouble."

"Okay. You're the wisebeast hereabouts." Winokur gazed toward the shore. "At the rate we're going, we're in danger of fishing out these waters. We're gonna eat up everything with fin and claw within a day's swim of Salamandastron!"

Saybrook dismissed the younger otter's concerns. "This ain't like yer fine li'l Abbey pond, Wink, or even th' big broadstreams. The sea's forever changin'. What's here today may well be gone tomorrow, but somethin' new'll take its place. We could keep this up all season an' barely scratch th' surface of the bounty that's here. Why, we ain't even gotten to th' true fishin' yet - herring, mackeral, pilchard, mullet, comber, tuna, blue-throat, haddock, shad, hake, whiting, cod, pollack, halibut, eel, plaice, flounder, sole ... "

"Wow!" Winokur boggled wide-eyed. "I guess there is always gonna be enough for us out here."

"There'd hafta be a whole lot more otters in th' world afore you'd notice any scarcity in th' sea," Saybrook said. "That's what makes it th' sea!"

Toward midafternoon a most peculiar creature shot by Winokur as he swam the middle depths between surface and seabed. Most literally it shot by, for it was shaped like a thick arrow, darting through the water in a wavering line. It went past him so quickly that he couldn't even have described it in any detail. Casting his gaze around him to see whether anymore were about, he glanced seaward ...

And saw a living wall of the animals advancing toward him at an alarming speed from the deeper realms. The undersea wall stretched from surface to sea floor, leaving no room for any otter to swim above, below or around it. And that wall - countless thousands of the arrow creatures swimming in unison - was aimed straight at the shore.

A few more of the things flashed by Winokur as he swam to the surface. He scanned the waves for his fellow otters. Maybe these arrowfish were harmless. Then again, the few that he'd seen up close seemed about as long as his flipper. With such numbers bearing down upon them, he didn't think it wise to be in their path either way.

Saybrook broke near Winokur. "Squid!" he yelled to the Redwaller and the few others who'd surfaced within earshot. "We gotta get th' whole squad to shore, right away!"

"Squid? Are they dangerous?" Winokur asked. But Saybrook had already dived again. There was no mistaking the urgency that had been in his voice. Wink too dove, following the otter captain.

Most every otter had spotted the vast school by now, and floated at the ready. The few who were still oblivious, mostly absorbed by their tasks on the bottom, were quickly alerted, and within moments every otter of the brigade was stroking powerfully toward the shoreline.

They'd never make it. The school had simply come upon them too quickly, too far from shore to make it back on a single breath. Maybe if they didn't have to come up for air they might have been able to hold their slim lead. But now it was either drown or be overtaken.

No otter would ever choose drowning; their instincts were just too strong to allow it. Automatically they came up for air, even though the forward edge of the squid shoal was already upon them. The otters would be eaten before they would let themselves violate their swimming nature.

And then it was over. Still many body lengths from the shoreline, the pursuing mass abruptly veered off to one side, like a gigantic animal sharing a single brain. Winokur realized they'd entered waters that were too shallow for the shoal to sustain itself. To keep up the chase, the squid would have had to compress their numbers so tightly together that there would scarcely have been any space between their bodies at all. Otters, it seemed, were not the only creatures prohibited by their instincts from suffocating themselves.

Twoscore-odd heaving and gasping otters staggered out of the breakers and collapsed upon the wet sand. Winokur found he'd fallen right between his father and Saybrook. "That was ... a lucky break ... huh?" the young otter panted. "What would ... those squids ... have done to us?"

"Oh, nothin', prob'ly," Saybrook wheezed.

"What?" the two Redwall otters declared as one.

"Matter o' fact," Saybrook went on, "would've liked t' try catchin' a netful or two of 'em. Under other circumstances."

"But ... but, why'd we run away, then? Because there were so many of them?"

"In a manner of speakin'. See, squid usually only run at night. Way I figger it, th' only thing that'd have that many squid on the move in the middle of the day would be somebeast we don't wanna mess with. I thought we'd best be outta the water 'fore it showed up." Saybrook sat up, paw to brow as he scanned the wavetops. "An' thar she blows!"

Every otter followed Saybrook's gaze. Out beyond the breakers, three shiny black mounds rose above the waves for a few brief moments. A misty spray geysered from each instant island, and then they were gone again. A splash of white was seen as each dove back beneath the waters.

A collective gasp went up from the otters. "Shikes!" Warnokur exclaimed. "What th' willy are those things?"

"Orcas, they're called," Saybrook replied. "An' I'd hazard that even Lord Urthblood himself would steer clear of a fight with 'em."

"I'll say!" Warnokur nodded. "I think each one o' those monsters could swallow ten otters at a gulp. Biggest spankin' fish I ever seen!"

"Not a fish, matey. Their blood runs as warm as yers an' mine. Orca's a type o' whale. You'll find bigger whales in th' sea, but you won't find any deadlier. Crafty as any fox. Even sharks have something t' fear from Orcas."

These sobering words put an end to the day's fishing activities. As the otters hefted their lone lobster up toward the mountain, the killer whales surfaced and spouted again as if in a taunting farewell as they gorged themselves on squid. It was a reminder to Winokur and the rest that they were only visitors to that realm. And it was best to be firmly on dry land when the true lords of the ocean kingdom made their presence known.

(To be concluded in The Crimson Badger, Book IV: Fire on the Mountain)