Nehma’s merfather woke him with a light touch. “It’s almost time,” he said and motioned in the dim glow of the undermoss. He swam out of the sleeping nook and toward the surface, probably to meet with Nehma’s mermother, and his own Elsue brother and his wife, Nehma’s Elsue parents.
Nehma grabbed his ceremonial outfit and headed to the cleansing pool. Today was the first half of the bonding ceremony, and at 15 years, Nehma would be bonded to his Elsue brother for life… if they completed the two-month trial. Popping up through the surface of the water, he groaned as his Elsue sibling, Halorn, flew to the edge of the pool. He was only seven years, and he still had the choppy flight of a child, his mid-brown feathers dipping too low and almost tumbling him into the water as he landed.
“What if you fail?” Halorn asked yet again.
“I’m not gonna fail.” Nehma tried to focus on his own cleanliness, rubbing the foaming oils into his deep blue scales.
“Hah. Last year two bondings failed. You’ll probably get stuck with one of the failures Balarn or Jorn, and you’ll be back here for another year.” He grinned.
Nehma tried not to let his irritation show. Halorn was just jealous. He couldn’t know that Nehma feared that he actually would get stuck with one of the Elsue who had failed in their partnerships last year. A failed partnership usually meant at least one of the failed partners were still too childish to put the welfare of the group above their own desires — they were selfish and hard to get along with. But they would get a second and third chance before they were condemned to a solitary existence — not expelled from the group, but having no rank or status, nor would a master choose them as an apprentice. Very few failed three times. In fact, Nehma could only recall one person who had in his 15 years — an Elsue who now lived alone on the South side.
“You’ll get Balarn,” Halorn said. He settled on the edge of the pool and let his clawed feet dangle into the water. “And I feel sorry for him.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be on an errand of some kind,” Nehma asked. “Like perhaps getting yourself ready for the ceremony?”
Halorn cocked his feathered head. “I’m ready.” He grinned. “What will you choose for your cluster name?”
“How should I know? It’s a join decision.” Nehma’s and Halorn’s fathers had named themselves “The Whelk Cluster” because during their trial they had found a five-foot whelk shell with the huge slug still inside. They had already fulfilled their food gathering requirements, and the slug put them well ahead of the other competing brothers. The shell now graced the entrance room of their caves, and their mothers carefully cultivated the upper and undermoss into the shapes of shells, mainly whelks.
Halorn smiled. “You’ll get Jorn and have the Kelp Cluster. That’s all you’ll be able to hunt.”
Nehma ignored him as he rinsed and then slipped into his ceremonial loincloth. He was about to dive under to swim to the cave entrance when he heard Halorn.
“Hey, Nehma. I’m gonna miss you.”
Nehma grinned. “Yeah. I won’t be far though.” He dived into the water and through the passages, grabbing his hunting trenk from the rack. It looked like he was the last one out. Out in the ocean he swam along the rock base of the volcanic island until he reached the river at Cinder Flow. Then he swam through the gorge to the island’s interior.
When Nehma walked from the water, the sun was not yet peaking over the jagged eastern rim of the island. Out of the water, Nehma felt weighted down, but this ceremony was for both the Merree and the Elsue and must be held where all could assemble. Nehma found the Whelk cluster. Halorn was already there.
The Elders were assembled on the rock speaking platform, four Elsue and four Merree — four sets of brothers.
The oldest set stepped forward, Belna and Thenorn. Thenorn spoke, and his mahogany wings were like shields behind him, the rising sun making a halo of light around him.
“From the beginning the Elsue and the Merree have been two halves of one people, the Mersue. To survive we must work together and put the good of the whole community above ourselves. Death is ever eager to claim us through accident or disease. As you know, the Disease has claimed two more of our precious females this year. Therefore Sisters, since our future depends upon you, your trial period will be guarded and your food requirements lower. We cannot risk one of you for a little higher food yield when our fine young brothers are perfectly capable of providing for you.”
The pairs of unmated brothers stood to one side. The sisters who completed their trial this year would be mated to some of them. It would be several years before Nehma and his partner would be eligible for mating, and that was if they obtained a high enough rank.
Nehma shifted from foot to foot. The breeze dried his skin, making him uncomfortable, but then it did the same for all the Merree. He tried to listen attentively as the new women were paired in Merree/Elsue partnerships and given instructions.
“And now our new hunters.”
They were not necessarily new hunters. Nehma’s fathers had been training him since he was ten, but they would now be hunters without the older supervision. Thenorn called off names — first a Merree, and then his new Elsue partner. Nehma gave a sigh of relief when the rebellious Balarn was paired up with someone else. Now he just had to hope he didn’t get the other failure, Jorn.
“Nehma!” came Thenorn’s sharp voice.
Nehma walked to stand in front of the platform, carrying his hunting trenk in the approved ceremonial way with the sharp knifelike end near his right foot and the barbed end over his left shoulder. He turned to face the crowd; the sun now lit each of their faces. Nehma stood straight and hoped no one could tell how his stomach churned. “Please let them pick Galarn,” he prayed silently.
Nehma kept his face straight as Jorn stepped from the crowd. His head was covered with short black feathers, and his wings glistened in the bright sunlight. He was so unlike the Elsue of the Whelk cluster whose feathers were all light to medium brown. Jet black was unusual. Only a few other Elsue had such distinctive features. Jorn gave a slight nod to Nehma before he turned and faced the crowd, his cross bow held diagonally in front of his chest.
Nehma had never spoken to him before, and all he knew was the rumor of his failed attempt at partnership last year. The official stance was not to lay blame solely on either partner. They must both work together. Unofficially in Merree underwater gossip it was well known that the Elsue were too proud and tended to want everything done their way. And Jorn being older than Nehma would probably try to lord it over him that he knew what he was doing, therefore discounting any suggestion Nehma made. Why couldn’t he have gotten Galarn? He knew Galarn. He often visited with Nehma’s Elsue siblings. He had a sense of humor and good hunting skills.
Thenorn continued after the last pairs were announced. “You must turn in 250 racks of food to complete your partnership.” Twenty-five more racks than last year. “And remember, your ranking and your choice of mates and caves will depend on how much you bring in over your minimum requirement. Consider all things edible. Remember the women cannot forage as far as they had previously, and nothing is worthless if it can bring sustenance to the group. Bring all items to the elders for counting and distribution. Now your first assignment is to find a mutually agreeable cave to house yourselves for the summer. I look forward to inducting all of you into adulthood this fall.” Then he dismissed them.
Jorn stood silent as the group slowly dissipated. The four other newly partnered pairs began striding off to the empty caves to the south, away from the main population which lived mostly in the western caves.
Nehma waited, wondering when Jorn would respond. His eyes were closed, and if it were not for the tenseness of his features, Nehma would have thought he had fallen asleep.
Jorn took a deep breath, and then he opened his eyes and faced Nehma. “Where do you want to live?”
Nehma was surprised to be asked. He assumed they’d go where Jorn had lived last year, but then guessed that maybe Jorn’s ex-partner might have taken it already as it appeared they were the last ones not already rushing toward the empty caves.
“I haven’t looked. My fathers said it was not fair to look ahead. Did you….” Nehma paused, unsure if he should acknowledge Jorn’s failed attempt.
Jorn scanned the rock cliffs to the south until they were blocked by the interior forested hills. “Almost everyone goes south. What do you think of east?”
East would be as far from the group as they could get. There would be little help if they got themselves into a bind, but the food supply would also not be over harvested. They were forbidden from going too far east because the full humans lived east. They were not to show themselves to them, because they might be killed by them. “Probably more food there,” Nehma acknowledged. He didn’t want to argue in their first hour together, and besides, he did not have a better choice. West was where the main population lived and hunted, and North was where the gardens were, and where the new sisters bonded. They were forbidden from going near the new sisters.
“Do you wish to meet me over there?” Jorn asked.
The breeze had dried him, and Nehma would like nothing better than to dive into the stream’s cool depths until it brought him to the ocean. Nehma hesitated. The island was large. Where on the east side would he meet him? He nonchalantly tried to act like his Merree father. “I’ll leave through the Cinder flow.” That way Jorn would know approximately where he was on the ocean side of the cliffs surrounding the island.
Jorn nodded and then leapt into the air. Nehma stared after him. He flew with precision and grace, arching in circles ever higher. Nehma realized Jorn was watching and waiting for him to make his way to the ocean. He ran to the river and dived down into its cool depths.
The ocean was mild today, the tide low, and the sun bright. When Nehma made it to the surface he shielded his eyes to scan the sky. He saw several Elsue. Jorn flew low, and Nehma followed him around the south side of the island until they had left behind all the others. He saw several cave entrances but decided to wait. Perhaps Jorn knew a good spot. As they passed more and more caves, Nehma began to wonder if Jorn was waiting for some sign from him. He wished he knew what he was supposed to do.
Suddenly Jorn landed in the water before him, curling his wings under him so that they formed a small boat. Nehma drew up beside him.
“I’ve never been this far east,” Jorn said. “It will be fair to look here, won’t it?”
“Fair? Ah, sure.”
Jorn pointed to the cliff face and a few rocks that scattered from it. “Let’s meet back by those rocks and compare finds.” He deftly flipped and was in the air, leaving Nehma to yet again stare after him. Jorn had no adolescent awkwardness about him. None of his Elsue siblings could have risen from a float that smoothly.
Nehma finally dove toward the rock walls, looking for an entrance. When he did find one, he entered warily, his trenk ready to strike whatever creature that might have already claimed the cave as home. The first cave was a small blind end. The second was a series of passages, its occupants small, but many. None threatened him, but he would remember the cave later when he had time to hunt. He couldn’t find anything that led to the surface. A good cave needed a large underwater as well as overwater area, and entrances to both.
He met Jorn back at the rocks. “See anything?”
Jorn shook his head. “Nothing that came down to the water.” He looked up at the sun and then back at the rock cliff. Nehma followed his gaze. A darkened indentation in the cliff face beyond them reached only several feet above the high tide line. Nehma glanced up to try to find another, higher entrance.
“Have you checked that one?” Jorn asked.
“No. I haven’t been beyond these rocks yet.”
Jorn shrugged. “We may as well look.” He lifted himself into the air.
Nehma swam after him. The indentation was indeed a cave which opened wider under the water. Nehma went inside and heard the echo of Jorn’s wings.
“Seadrake!” Jorn yelled.
Nehma flipped his trenk to wield the sharp knife end as the twenty-foot snake-like creature came at him. Barbed hooks would do nothing but enrage the creature and take his weapon from him. He swam backwards, but swiped at the beast with his trenk, cutting off the creature’s long whiskers on the left side and slicing its nose.
It lunged at Nehma, and Nehma dodged, more agile than the enraged monster. Nehma swung his trenk again, cutting into the drake’s right flipper. He needed to cut the neck, but those teeth kept it out of reach.
The seadrake roared, lifting its head briefly from the water as it dived at Nehma again. This time it barely missed, and Nehma sliced under its chin. The creature shook its head, as if not sure where to attack. Nehma noticed two arrows sticking out of the eye sockets. Another arrow sunk into the flesh of the beast’s neck. Nehma dived and then came straight up, shoving the trenk as deep as he could into the neck of the seadrake. Blood spurted down on him, and the beast fell at him. Nehma dived into a crevace while it thrashed.
Nehma tried to catch his breath. He’d lost his trenk. If the beast found him, he had nothing to fight it with. Blood filled the water, making it hard to breath. The irony smell was sure to draw other predators.
And then all was still.
“Nehma!” Jorn dived into the water.
Nehma swam to him and helped him out. “Hey, stay on guard up there. We’re probably going to get a few sharks.”
Jorn grabbed him. “You, come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“Is it dead? Look at all that meat.”
“Nehma! The sharks.”
“I’ve got to get my trenk.” If he couldn’t find it, they’d fail the bonding for sure, as trenks were in very short supply. Nehma dived and was relieved to find his weapon stuck in the seadrake’s neck. He yanked it out and was rewarded with a fresh spurt of blood. If they could get it onto that shelf, the sharks couldn’t eat their catch. “Hey, Jorn. Help me lift this out.”
For a moment Nehma thought Jorn wouldn’t help. Then he grabbed at the seadrake and pulled, as Nehma pushed from the water. They finally rolled the thing onto the platform. A shark came as they finished. Jorn had his bow ready in an instant, shooting the shark through the eye into its small brain. Nehma went for the fresh kill.
“Get out of there, you idiot. There’s going to be more.”
“But we have to get food….”
“What good is it if you kill yourself the first day?” He lifted his crossbow and let another arrow fly into the water.
Nehma scrambled out of the water and onto the ledge. A third shark came into the cave. Jorn shot that also.
“You’re excellent at hunting!” Nehma exclaimed. “How in the world did you fail last year?”
Jorn ignored him and kept scanning the water. “You know this will be under water in a few hours,” Jorn said.
“Then we’ll have to move back there when we get a bit more water,” Nehma said, pointing further into the cave. Very little glow moss grew in this cave, and most of it was away from the cave entrance. “Looks like more moss back there anyway. We’ll be able to see better.” He used the barbed end of his trenk to snag one of the dead sharks and pulled it onto the ledge.
Jorn watched until all three sharks were lying next to the dead seadrake. Then he gave a small smile. “I guess we learned how to hunt together.”
Nehma grinned also. “You were great.”
Jorn stood stiff for a moment. “We don’t need to take too many risks. Too many people have died.”
Nehma fixed his gaze on the dead seadrake. He couldn’t look at Jorn any longer. Someone close to him had died, but Nehma didn’t know who. It couldn’t have been during his last attempt at bonding. Nehma didn’t know Burna well, but he knew who he was, and he’d heard Burna blame his failed bonding on Jorn — on Jorn’s cowardice. That was it. Nehma glanced at Jorn again. “You’re right,” he said softly. “We don’t need to take risks. Looks like we’ve got a pretty good start on our racks already.”
Jorn seemed to relax. He bent down, took the knife from his belt and began working on the seadrake. Nehma joined him. Soon Jorn started a fire in the upper section of the cavern. The Elsue were the keepers of the fire, to cook, to dry the meat, and to keep their shelters warm. It appeared that the bloody water had cleared, and no more predators were near. Nehma took his trenk and dived to find kelp to weave into nets to hold their meat as it dried. Nehma had nets and supplies that he had intended to go back for after they found their temporary home, but it was quicker, right now, to make new ones.
They worked together silently. The Mersue community was small, and Nehma knew almost everyone, if not personally then as an acquaintance of a friend. He tried to go over all the deaths that had happened in the last few years but could connect none of them to Jorn.
The tide slowly flooded their workspace and allowed them to drag their meat to the higher shelf. The sun no longer shown in through the cave entrance when all the meat was cut to dry and laid on the new nets.
Jorn stretched and studied the dark surface of the water. “Where are you sleeping? The waters still might not be safe.”
“I’ll sleep on this lower shelf. It’s too shallow for another shark or sea drake. How about you?”
Jorn indicated the corner on the edge of the shelf right above Nehma. Apparently Jorn was taking no chances with Nehma’s life. Did Jorn’s protectiveness keep them from meeting their required racks of food last year?
The next morning Nehma explored the rest of the lower cave. He found the nest of the seadrake and brought up the eggs, along with stars and cabbage to eat.
Jorn said nothing as he reappeared and deposited his finds near the fire.
“Looks good down there, but there’s not a good spot for you up here. We’ll have to keep looking.” An ideal cave would at least give Jorn enough room to stretch his wings in a short flight, but this cavern had very little open space, especially at high tide.
“I’ve lived in tighter spaces,” Jorn said quietly.
Nehma was afraid to ask. Did Burna insist on a cave with less air space than this or was Jorn just talking about an overnight hunting trip with his fathers?
“We might as well keep looking,” Nehma said, practically. “It’ll be a few days until we can take this back to be racked. There’s nothing better to do except explore and find more food.”
“Yeah,” Jorn agreed. “But maybe we should go back south.”
Nehma took a deep breath. “We beat the seadrake. And I’ll be a bit more careful entering strange caves, okay?”
Jorn gritted his teeth, and he began checking the meat, turning it so that it dried evenly.
“It was your idea to try out here,” Nehma pointed out.
“Maybe it was a bad idea.”
“How? We already got racks of food.”
“You were almost killed!”
“There are seadrakes south of here also. We can’t avoid them.”
Jorn’s jaw was so tight, Nehma thought he’d break his teeth.
Nehma tried to clear his head of the anger that had sprung up so quickly. His fathers had warned him that a lifetime bonding took a lot of work, especially at the beginning. They hadn’t always agreed when they were younger, they told him. “Just step back and try to figure out where your brother is coming from. Sometimes we don’t say exactly what we mean.”
Nehma took a few more deep breaths. Jorn’s jaw was still tight. Nehma sighed and sat in the water on the lower ledge. “Why are you upset?”
Jorn shook his head. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “We can stay here.”
“Here? But….” Nehma stopped. He really didn’t want to argue, but the cave was too small for Jorn.
“Yeah, here,” Jorn said firmly. “Let’s go scout the seabed. We’re sure to find a lot to eat out in the open.” He stepped off the ledge and flew off, his large wings folding briefly as he shot out of the narrow opening into the sunlight.
Nehma dived out after him. Hunting signals were universal for the most part, and Jorn pointed and motioned several times, once to a sea cow, and once to a bed of sargo grasses. The grasses were not only good to eat, they were home to many small crustaceans and fish. They’d come back often.
Back at the cave, they cleaned the sea cow. They hadn’t had the means to search the grasses with the dead cow trailing behind him. “This is a good spot for food,” Jorn conceded. “But I need to go back for my nets and bags.”
“Me, too.” Nehma glanced at the drying seadrake. “Think we can take this net full back?”
“If we had a raft.”
“I have one. Why don’t I go back for my supplies?” Nehma asked. The seadrake really was too much for Jorn to carry, and if they let it get wet again, it would rot.
“You wouldn’t have enough time.”
“I’d come back in the morning. You can keep watch on the food, keep the fires going, and make sure nothing finds it.”
“I don’t….” Jorn closed his eyes for a few moments. Then his shoulders sagged. “Go ahead.”
“I’ll be back in the morning.” Nehma jumped into the water and shot off around the south side of the island. He reached the home cave of the Whelk Cluster at dusk. He glanced up at the sky as he swam into the entrance cavern.
Jorn! Nehma shook his head and kept going. The dark shape could have been anyone. Everyone looked black when the light was dim. Jorn wouldn’t have followed him home, would he?
Nehma reached the Whelk cluster gather room and grinned as his fathers, mothers and siblings greeted him. “Where is your brother?” his Elsue father asked.
“Guarding our meat. I came to get the supplies.”
He slapped Nehma’s shoulder and grinned. “So, you’ve got a cave and some racks already. Great going.”
“Meat,” Halorn teased. “I thought you were hunting kelp.”
“Seadrake,” Nehma said.
His father became serious. “You don’t need to look for trouble.”
“We didn’t,” Nehma said quickly. “We were looking for a cave. It was only a madrake. We’re both fine,” he assured his parents. Madrakes were the smallest of the seadrake family. “Jorn shot both its eyes out, and the sharks… I mean, he’s an excellent hunter.”
Elfather shook his head and whispered. “He’ll be all right. We all take stupid risks when we’re young.”
“Yeah, but with Jorn the risks are doubled,” Merfather said. “Don’t let Jorn talk you into taking unnecessary risks.”
“Jorn? He wouldn’t….”
“I know he probably wants to prove last year’s disaster was Burna’s fault, but you don’t need to take unnecessary risks to do that.”
“I was hoping the elders would choose Galarn for you. But he’s stuck with Burna,” his Elfather said.
“At least Burna won’t get him killed,” Merfather replied in a low voice.
“You two,” said Elmother. “Neither of you will help the bonding by gossiping. What’s done is done. They must bond.”
“Or fail,” Elfather said. “I’ve heard that sometimes if the partners really detest each other, they purposely fail.”
“I thought you told me to do anything to keep from failing. Compromise and all that.” Nehma was shocked. Why would anyone want that disgrace? Could anyone be that hard to live with?
“Don’t compromise if your life is in danger,” Elfather said. “Jorn’s elfather was always taking risks, and it killed his brother, Jorn’s merfather. According to Burna, Jorn is just like his father.”
“But… but Burna said….” To the boys, Burna had called Jorn a coward, not a risk-taker.
“Just be careful. And don’t be afraid to fail the bonding. Jorn already failed once. Everyone will know it’s not your fault.”
“I just planned to stay the night here and take the raft and supplies back first thing in the morning.”
“Jorn should have come with you…,” Elfather began.
“Tryarn,” Elmother warned.
“But you remember what happened seven years ago. Jorn’s merfather was killed because of his elfather’s carelessness. Nehma, don’t let Jorn talk you into a dangerous hunt.”
“I… I think I’ll get some sleep.” Nehma dived away from them, through the tunnels to his sleeping nook. No wonder Jorn was paranoid he’d be killed. If he was, everyone would blame Jorn.
Nehma was up early the next morning and left before anyone could speak to him. Normally he loved to be with his large family, but right now he knew he needed to get back to Jorn. Jorn was not a risk-taker, nor was he a coward. Nehma wasn’t sure what was going on inside Jorn, but he already knew the failure last year was not Jorn’s fault. Burna had lied, and a liar was usually the one who was afraid of the truth.
Go to Chapter 2
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.