By Oren Otter
The sun was shining brightly as Chrissy played at the edge of the river. It would have been unbearably hot if not for the cool of the water. Chrissy had only come out for a few minutes to play on the swing and already her fur was drying. Swishing her tail up and down, the little nord pup swung back and forth, enjoying the cool feel of the breeze on her face and flippers. When she swung real high, she could see Hala's house over the hill. There was her mother, chatting away with Hala's mother, while her father carefully taught baby brother Tark to swim. Tark was still terrified of the water, but of course, that wouldn't last long. No otter ever failed to outgrow his fear and learn to love the water. It was in their blood to swim. They just had to realize it. All up and down the banks, children played and splashed, seeking relief from the afternoon sun. Chrissy herself would be going back down to the water, soon.
As she slowed her swinging down, her big brother Max came out of the burrow, his fur painted in a gaudy mix of blue, green and brown. Chrissy giggled. "What are you supposed to be?" she laughed.
"I am supposed to be the spirit of Otter Island." Max replied indignantly. "If you took any interest in culture whatsoever, you'd know that I'm in the play that's being put on at the markets today."
"Ooh! A play!" beamed Chrissy as she hopped off the swing, happily clapping her paws. "Can I come and watch?"
"No." replied Max. "There would be no one there to watch you. I'd be up on stage."
"I don't need anyone to watch me." Chrissy huffed. "I'm a big girl!"
"You know the rules. Mom and Dad don't want you gong off by yourself until you're older."
The pup crossed her arms and huffed. "I'm old enough." she groused.
"Whatever. I'll talk to you later." And with that, he set off toward the markets.
With a slight sense of dissatisfaction, Chrissy returned to the river. A number of the other pups were playing a game of Marco Polo. She'd join in.
* * *
Now the sun was advancing toward the horizon. Chrissy and Hala lay side by side on the grassy riverbank, allowing the waning rays to dry their fur and resting from the exertion of a serious day of play.
"I like days like this." said Chrissy. "I wish every day could be like this."
"Me too." Hala agreed. "But my dad says I have to start going to school."
"Mine, too." Chrissy groused. "They say I can't swim in deep water until I go to swimming lessons."
"Me too. AND they want me to study burrow-building so I can dig out my own room."
"Why do we have to study that stuff? I mean... you just dig! How hard can it be?"
"That's what I say."
Chrissy crossed her arms and frowned. "It's not fair. Our parents act like we can't do anything just because we're little."
"It's not fair." Hala concurred.
"You know what we should do?" asked Chrissy.
"We should move away and dig our own burrow."
"Yeah." Hala agreed.
Any further discussion of the matter was halted by the cry of "Chrissy! Suppertime!"
* * *
One thing Chrissy never objected to was her father's cooking. He'd prepared a sumptuous meal that night, including filet of tuna, lightly toasted so that it was still a little soft inside, hot apples and a loaf of bread with spicy peppers baked right in. When supper was over, Max, who still had traces of paint in his fur, cleared the dishes away.
"May I have some taffy for desert?" asked the pup, looking expectantly toward the candy cupboard.
"I don't think so." said her father. "You've already eaten two apples. I think that's enough sugar for this time of night."
"Aaaaaw, please? I promise I'll sleep good."
"Your father said no." Mom reinforced. "Now go take your bath and get ready for bed."
"But Mom, I've been in the water all day today. Why do I have to take a bath?"
"Because when you play, you're not getting clean. I want to see you come back from the river with clean fur, young lady. I'm not going to have a child of mine catching cold because her fur was dirty."
Her little black lip sticking out in a pout, Chrissy made to obey.
A little later, the young otter was curling up on a soft mat filled with feathers and dried peppermint leaves. Max lay down a few feet away, giving her plenty of space. Chrissy was used to this. Max thought he was too old for snuggling.
"How did the play go?" she asked.
"It was okay." Max replied. "Blalok forgot a line, but Tak covered for him. All in all, we did pretty well."
"Are you going to do it again tomorrow? Maybe I'll come see."
"Nah. It's not for really little kids. Besides, right after the play, me and the guys are going to the ice caves. We've made a humongous ice slide and we're going to spend the afternoon sliding on it."
"Ooh! I wanna do that!"
"Sorry, short stuff. It's for big pups. Not little squirts."
"I'm not a little squirt. I'm a big girl."
"Sure ya are."
Chrissy pulled a blanket over her head, despite the warmth. She didn't like Max when he called her a little squirt, and preferred to have a physical barrier between him and her when he got like this.
The next morning, Chrissy woke to the smell of fried eel bacon. With a smile, her father handed her a plate with an egg and a strip of bacon, along with a small glass of milk. She chirped happily, then laid back and set her food on her chest.
"Uh-unh." Dad corrected her. "Sit up and eat."
"But Dad, the kalans always eat like this."
"The kalans are sea otters." Dad argued. "If they spill their milk, it goes in the water. Now sit up."
As if on cue, Chrissy's milk toppled off of her front and splashed all over the mat on which Max was still sleeping. He woke with a start, and upon realizing what happened, spoke his sister's name as if it were a swear word.
"I'm sorry." said the pup, timidly.
Dad stared at the sleeping mat. "It's going to take me forever to clean this." he grumped.
"I'm sorry." the girl repeated.
"Go eat your breakfast outside." her father ordered.
Lips pouting and ears back, Chrissy obeyed.
Sitting under the tree with an empty plate beside her, Chrissy moped.
"Pssst!" someone whispered.
The little one looked around, but no one was there.
"Psst! Up here!"
Chrissy looked up to see Hala in the tree. "How did you get up there?" she asked.
"I climbed. I got good claws for climbing."
"I'm moving away." Hala announced. "I came to ask you to go with me."
"Where would we go?" Chrissy inquired.
"South of the orchard. It's a great spot and nobody will bother us there."
"Or tell us to take a bath."
"Or go to school."
"Or where we can and can't go."
"So what are we waiting for?" Hala climbed down from the tree, losing her grip a few feet from the ground and landing on the back of her tail.
"You okay?" asked Chrissy.
"I'll be all right. Let's go!"
Nobody saw the two pups leave. They simply started walking south. About midday, they began crossing the fjord. It was a long swim, and though they had started out to the right of the Fjord Village, the current slowly swept them along until they were some distance to the left. This put a few more hours on their trip, making it a bit more daunting to two little girls who were exhausted from a prolonged swim.
"See that?" huffed Hala as she waded ashore on all fours, shaking herself dry. "I... don't need... to go to... swimming school!"
"Me... neither." Chrissy concurred.
The girls rested for about an hour before continuing on their journey. The way was clear across the meadows and evening saw them at the edge of the orchards.
Chrissy's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets at the sight of the trees laden with fruit. Both pups squealed with delight and ran forward, intent on enjoying a gigantic dinner. First they ate peaches until their muzzles and chests were covered in juice, then they gorged on melon until it covered their ears. After that, it was strawberries, blackberries and gooseberries until their paws were stained all the way up to their shoulders.
Once their bellies were full, it began to get dark, but the two little otters weren't ready to sleep. Chrissy made her way down to the shore, about a fifteen minute walk, and began to dig on the sloping shore.
"What are you doing?" asked Hala.
"I'm making a slide!" Chrissy responded, cheerfully. "It's going to be a bigger and better slide than any other slide ever!" So saying, she dug into the mud. And dug. And dug. By the time her slide was completed, she was too exhausted to use it. Hala, meanwhile, had been doing some digging of her own. She had hollowed out a small concave bluff in the Earth.
"What's that?" asked Chrissy.
"This is our house." Hala replied. "It's going to be a big burrow."
Chrissy didn't know how to tell her that her efforts looked pretty pitiful. What was worse... it started to rain. As the two little pups sat in their hollow, filthy fur soaked through to the skin, the mud just got wetter and wetter, soaking them even worse as it ran down to the sea.
"I'm going to be sick." said Hala.
"Me too." Chrissy agreed, and lost all the fruit she had eaten. Hala, sickened by the smell and sight, did likewise. The disgusting mess poured down Chrissy's slide into the ocean.
But that wasn't the worst part. The next thing they heard was a growling voice saying "who dares?" Both of the girls were frightened, now, and jumped and lightning flashed, illuminating a sinister figure. It was obviously no otter, for its arms were far too long, and instead of walking, it moved with a horrid slithering motion. As it drew closer, Chrissy and Hala could see that it was a nageel, one of the vile magical beings of the deep. "You have angered Tuzor, seeker and scout of the nageel. You shall suffer." declared the monster.
"We didn't do anything!" Hala exclaimed.
"We were just sitting here and trying to stay warm in our house!" Chrissy shouted over the pounding rain.
"House? You furry creatures are pathetic to call this a house. And in digging out this sad hollow, you have fouled my water with mud and vomit. I was dining on the carcass of a porpoise in peace and resting from my duties when my water turned into a choking cloud, thanks to you."
"We didn't mean it!" Chrissy wailed, trying hard not to cry in her terror.
"I care not whether you meant it." hissed the nageel. "You otters are a disease, and you need to be removed from the face of our island."
"It's not your island!" Hala shouted. "It's our island! You're just a bunch of bullies who want to steal what doesn't belong to you!"
At this, Tuzor said nothing, but raised his hand. Horrible claws like the teeth of a moray grew from the fingertips, crackling with electricity. He brought the hand down toward Hala and...
Hala screamed. Chrissy screamed. Tuzor spit blood and stared stupidly at the arrow through his chest. Then his eyes glazed over and he fell backward and slid down the mudslide into the sea.
The girls didn't understand what had happened until where Tuzor had stood, a winged figure landed. It was Gabriel, a member of the coastal patrol, and he held in his right paw a mighty longbow. "You two are extremely lucky." said the seagull-winged otter. "If I had arrived a second later, you might both have been killed."
Chrissy merely broke down and sobbed.
Gabriel lifted his bow and drew back the string. Magically, a flaming arrow appeared, which he shot into the sky. "The other members of the coastal patrol will be here in a moment to escort you home." he said. Then he extended his wings to shelter the pups from the rain. "You've caused a lot of worry." he said quietly. "The entire island has been looking for you."
"We're sorry." said Hala in a hushed tone, muzzle contorted in a sad frown.
"Oh, you don't need to apologize to me. I'm on the coastal patrol. It's my job to rescue little pups from nageel in the middle of a storm. But if I were you, I'd have an apology ready for your parents."
He might have said more, but at that point, Grant, the big, brawny river wolf came up to the hollow. "Any trouble, Gabe?" he inquired.
"Nageel." Gabriel replied simply. "Looked like a scout. Might be trouble brewing."
Grant simply nodded, then reached down and picked up the pups, one in each arm. "First thing's first." he said. "Let's get you to the fjord village so that you can get cleaned up and warmed up. Gabe, will you go back to the river village and inform the families?"
"Will do." replied the winged one as he ran and took off into the rainy night.
* * *
It was a bright and sunny day. Any sign of the previous night's rain had been washed away by the sun's light, save for the wonderfully green plants, trees and grasses.
"Hi!" said one of the older pups. My name is Zhenji. What's yours?"
"I'm Chrissy." said the younger.
"Oh! You must be the other one who went missing last night."
"Yeah, I was just talking to Hala. She's here, too."
Chrissy went over and sat down next to her friend. If she was to be forced to go to school, at least she'd have company.
"Hi, Chrissy." said Hala.
"Hi." Chrissy responded. "So... you grounded too?"
"Yeah. For a month. You?"
Chrissy picked some grass seeds out of her tail. "I don't really mind." she said. "After last night, I kind of like being at home. I don't even mind all the rules, because at least at home, I'm safe and warm and not sick and I don't get attacked by nageels."
"Me too." Hala agreed.
Both turned their attention forward as a grown-up stepped toward them. "I'd like to welcome all those who are here for the first time." he said. "I'm Chak, your teacher, and today, we are going to learn how to properly dig a burrow."
Chrissy and Hala sighed together. This was going to be a long class.