Eli scratched his nose, wincing at the half forgotten pain it awoke. Of course, the bear had broken his nose the night before. The ending highlight of a bad evening, only scattered images of which he could recall.
There had been him, the bear and an otter he didn’t know personally. The otter had been a dick, but the bear had brought him along so that was that, you didn’t have much choice about uninvited guests when they were introduced by a 400lbs apex predator. Although, as memories percolated through the hungover and beaten fug of his brain he did vaguely recall spending most of the evening taking the piss out of otters in general and that one in particular. A childish reaction but he had planned the evening out for two, a quick drink for him, some fishing down by the stream for the bear, and a few hours of talking bollocks with an old friend. Having to put up with the little semi-aquatic prick had ruined all of that as it had gleefully shown off, slipping into the water with barely a ripple and smugly emerging with a newly caught fish gripped in his nasty little claws. It knew Eli couldn’t swim, at least he’d assumed it did, although in hindsight that might have been his own paranoia and, after all, it had offered him up the best part of a salmon.
Still, he reassured himself, he’d been right to say that otters were just lazy beavers and challenge him to a fight. Even if the bear had, apparently, disagreed. These things happened though, in the forest, it was a dangerous place after all and no doubt the bear would forgive him. They went way back, right to the time Eli had rocked up in the middle of the vast expanse of nature and given the last of his ‘human food’ to the little cub, as it had been. The gift of a Kit Kat that had forged a friendship for life. Not to mention the fact that he himself had been forgiving back when his grizzly friend had eaten that rabbit, who had been a genuinely good guy with a suddenly grieving family of fifteen.
Shuddering as the pain in his nose abated Eli stood up and looked around. He was in the forest, which wasn’t much of a surprise really. He’d been in the forest for years now, although he had no idea how many, and waking up in some random part of it with a sore head from his homemade ‘Treesap Brew’ was part of the routine. It only took minutes for the memories of last night and the potential guilt they held to subside though, it was another beautiful day after all. Latticed sunlight was spilling down through the green canopy of trees, the birds were singing, nearby a stream whispered gently to itself and he was glad to be alive whatever social upsets he may have caused the night before.
After a few stretches to get the circulation going Eli chose a direction at random and started walking. He had no plans or obligations for the day, beyond foraging for food at some point of course. Even that was a minor concern though, failing all else he could make an impromptu social call on the squirrels, or maybe the deer, they always had a few nuts or berries going and didn’t object too loudly to one more mouth to feed.
As he walked he caught snippets of conversations from amongst the trees. Only the odd word, he wasn’t planning on eavesdropping and besides it was only the usual chatter of the forest. Grumbles about food, bad jokes about the predators, snide insults directed towards the birds, who were universally held to be bastards of the highest order. In a way it was just like being home in the city, only with less concrete and humans, plus he could walk around it naked of course. That wasn’t the main reason he’d chosen to come out here but on a day like this it was certainly an added bonus.
Eli ignored the gruff voice as his mind drifted away from the background chatter of the woods.
Before he could connect the words to himself he saw who’d spoken them, it was a wolf. A big wolf, with two big wolf friends at either side of him. Bad news, even if your best friend was a bear.
Forcing a smile Eli came to a halt a few metres from them and tried to look defiant and harmless at the same time.
“You’re screwed mate, you know that?”
The two lesser wolves let their tongues loll out, looking effortlessly evil and giving Eli all the reason he needed to believe their leader. He didn’t let the smile slip though, playing dumb was always a safe plan of action.
“Am I? Why’s that then?”
The pack leader padded closer to him, a relaxed strut which all present knew could easily swtich into a tensed pounce.
“Otters mate, otters. Words got out, they’re after you, hear you weren’t very nice to one of their lot.”
“Ah-” Eli hurriedly raked through his mind for more memories of last night. He’d taken the piss a bit, maybe sworn at the party crasher too, but that was harmless enough wan’t it?
“We had a bit of a row, that’s all, no harm done. Sure it’s me you’re looking for?”
The alpha looked over his haunches at his two friends, the glint of disbelief in his predatory eyes.
“Certain, unless you know of any other humans walking around here in the nip who’re in the habit of drinking with otters and bears.”
It was unlikely to say the least.
“I didn’t do anything, honest, we just didn’t get along.”
The wolf cocked its heavy grey head.
“Doesn’t matter mate, they’re otters. Not been around their lot much have you?”
Eli shook his head, which meant nothing to his vulpine opposite, so he said ‘no’.
“They’re nutters, the lot of ‘em. An otter’ll take your eyes out as soon as look at you, sooner in fact if he gets lucky. Haven’t you heard the saying? ‘Never cross an otter, they’re wankers’? Woodland basics there mate. No idea why your bear friend even hangs out with one, mind you he does keep strange company eh?”
They could have been having him on, wolves could be like that, they got bored and spread rumours. That’s why half of the forest was still convinced that he’d been caught being unnatural with an elk, a completely unfair accusation. But then they might be telling the truth, savvy as he liked to think he was Eli knew he was still a novice in the law and lore of the woods.
“Look, I can see you’re not convinced son so I’ll come straight with you. I know we’ve got a bit of a reputation, givin’ it the big one and all, but I’m bein’ honest with you here. Not gonna help you out or nuffin’ but I fuckin’ hate those semi aquatic little wankers so fair warning, stay away from rivers for a bit and watch your tail. That one’s free.”
With a savage nobility that still impressed him even not that he knew what liars they were the wolves turned and trotted off into the trees, their last words drifting back to him.
“And stay away from the elks, you dirty bastard.”
Eli was starting to panic, muscles tensing from his twitching feet to his his unkempt thatch of hair. The wolf had seemed honest enough, for a wolf anyway and even if otters weren’t exactly what you’d call nature’s fiercest killers they were still capable of doing damage. He needed to find out if the rumour was true though, that was the thing to do, not just go running off in a frenzy.
And for truth you couldn’t beat an owl.
It didn’t take Eli much searching to find one, they were surprisingly easy to track once you’d gotten used to them. It was disappointing really, for an animal he’d always assumed to be wise and profound in its way they had a habit of being startlingly obvious. He’d learnt long ago though that owls were, for want of a better phrase, ‘thick as dirt’. If you needed to find one you pretty much just needed to follow the sound of forest animals sniggering and there you’d have it, an owl in the middle of a circle of mocking fauna doing something stupid. In this case it was waddling as fast as it could head first into a tree, for reasons best known to itself.
The circle of gawkers didn’t break up when he arrived, they were used to him for the most part and those who didn’t know him to look at probably assumed that, in the worst case scenario, they could mob him anyway. He watched over the top of the smaller animals as the owl repeated his thudding exercise, seemingly un-phased by the blows to the skull and determined to pursue whatever strange end it thought it was heading towards.
The bird was a Barred Owl and no one Eli knew, not that he hung around with owls, or birds in general for that matter, it gave him a sore neck to try having a proper conversation with them and even the smartest never seemed to have much to say beyond mildly offensive jokes about raccoons- a deeply rooted form of bigotry no one had ever been able to explain to him. Familiarity didn’t matter though, the one good thing you could say about the mystic looking flyers was that they were honest to a fault. Mostly because, it was said, they were too stupid to manage lying. He’d asked one for the real reason once, as it sat looking wise on a low level branch, it had just stared at him and, for no good reason, fallen out of the tree and landed on its head. It definitely hadn’t lied as it did it though.
Stepping over a giggling rabbit he broke up the entertainment by planting a foot in the owls path, bringing it skidding to a halt as it looked up at him in confusion, wondering where it’s tree had gone.
“Alright owl, quick question for you and then you can get on with your, uh, business here. I hear the otters are after me, true or false?”
The bird thought for a second, or more likely froze while the slow processes of it’s brain kicked into action, before replying.
“Yes, absolutely, definitely. Otters are going to kill you.”
Eli felt his shoulders slump at the same time as his mind sank to his feet. Owls didn’t lie, there was no arguing with it. And he didn’t fight, not if he could help it, besides half a dozen otters on a dark night, even if he struggled it wouldn’t matter.
“Are you absolutely sure? I mean, I know you wouldn’t lie, but could you be mistaken?”
The owl paused to process the question and turn slowly around in a circle a few times.
“No, definitely true, otters are going to kill you, any second now, lots of them, very angry.”
“What? How can you know that? You’re not allowed to exagerrate.”
“I’m not, they’re behind you.”
With a lazy sweep of his wings the owl took off and drifted off above the trees, leaving Eli to turn and face a line of more than two dozen otters with vicious looks on their faces. A rabbit brushed past his ankle as the circle of creatures which had been watching the self-destructive Barred Owl expanded for some new entertainment, otters eating a human. Something a mumbling badger happily admitted that you didn’t see every day.
Putting his hands up placatingly as the snarling critters came closer Eli took a slow step backwards.
“Now lads, I’m sure we can sort this out. I’m very, very sorry if I caused offence.”
“Lazy beavers are we? Fuckin’ ‘ave it you twat!”
The furry mob surged forward and with in a panicked dash Eli took off in the opposite direction. Long legs versus short legs, he knew that was his advantage but they wouldn’t stop coming and, given how out of shape he was, he was willing to bet that otters would outdo him on stamina.
It made no difference though, forward was the way to go and there were no other choices even as branches snagged him and rocks chipped away at the skin of his usually leather like feet. Go far enough though and something had to change didn’t it? For once he wished he had more of a sense of direction. Strolling around randomly might have been fine for a gentle day around the forest but a destination would really have helped in a life or death dash. He recognised nothing though, the forest was as anonymous as ever, trees were trees, dirt was dirt and trucks were trucks.
Eli skidded to a halt and bowled over the orange jacket and camoflage wearing hunter who been idly taking a leak into the bushes. Ignoring him, the niceties of human society having faded a bit in his mind over the years, he made straight for the unexpected truck and didn’t turn to talk until he was firmly secure inside it.
“OTTERS! LOADS OF THEM! SHOOT ‘EM!”
The hunter didn’t look bemused for long before he saw the tide of semi-aquatic animals swarming towards him and, to his credit, he packed away his manhood in record time. Barely pausing to shake before starting to take pot shots into the crowd with his rifle and making a measured retreat to the truck before jumping in alongside Eli.
“DRIVE! OTTERS! KILLERS!”
Shaking a little the hunter turned the keys and, still too confused to ask any questions, gunned the pick up truck out of the clearing it had been in and off down the track.