Nehma pushed the raft out to sea. Immediately a shadow swept over him, and Jorn landed lightly on the raft, one leg on each side to keep the craft from tipping. Then he placed a bundle in the box built into the middle of it. “I flew home this morning for my bags and nets. I can pull and you can push.”
“Sure.” Nehma handed him the rope tied to both front corners of the raft. Jorn jumped up to pull, and Nehma swam behind, pushing.
Back in their cave, Jorn fed all the small fires. He’d obviously been to the other side of the ridge gathering dead tree branches the night before. They worked silently together. Jorn did not offer any information, and Nehma was not sure if he should mention anything about Jorn’s fathers or last year’s failed partnership.
The third day they loaded the dried meat into the lined box that ran through the center of the raft. They couldn’t fit all their catch and would need to make several trips.
The elders always made Nehma nervous. They were so old and wise and controlled the destiny of the whole Mersue community. They decided the bondings and even the matings. He wondered if he’d said something wrong when they questioned him last month in preparation for the bonding so that they paired him with Jorn. But then it wasn’t such a bad thing to be Jorn’s partner, really. Maybe they knew last year wasn’t Jorn’s fault. But then what had Galarn done to earn Burna as a partner? Nehma couldn’t figure it out, and as he drew closer to the storehouse, his nervousness increased. But they had to be happy about all this food.
A young Merree greeted Nehma as he pushed the raft into the large cave. It was well lighted with the glowing moss shaped into every cluster’s symbol, above and below the water. The Merree storehouse worker swam off to alert the elders. Jorn settled on the docking ledge, and Nehma climbed up beside him. Jorn held his crossbow in the ceremonial position, so Nehma reached for his trenk on the raft, deciding he better stand at ceremonial alertness also.
Thenorn and Belna came out. “You already have a shipment for us, Jorn?” Thenorn said. It almost sounded like amusement in his voice.
“We disturbed a seadrake while searching for a cave, Sirs. We have more to bring tomorrow.”
Thenorn raised his eyebrows. “A seadrake?”
“We didn’t take risks,” Nehma spurted out. “I… I didn’t watch for signs of occupation closely enough. Jorn saved my life.” He didn’t want them blaming Jorn as his fathers had.
Thenorn glanced at his brother Belna, a slight grin on his face. Jorn however stared at Nehma, probably shocked that Nehma would speak so rashly to the highest elders. Nehma felt his face grow hot as he realized how brash he had been. “Excuse me, Sirs,” he mumbled.
“You’ll learn,” Belna said softly. He motioned the storeroom workers to unload the raft. Both Thenorn and Belna supervised. “Ah, nicely cut and dried. No need to repeat your school lessons, is there?”
Jorn said nothing, and Nehma decided that it would be best to follow his lead. After all, he’d done this before.
“Twenty-five racks,” Thenorn announced after the meat had been sorted and weighed. “We’ll see you again tomorrow then.” He gave a slight nod, dismissing them.
“Yes, Sirs.” Jorn reached to grab the tow rope on the raft with his free hand and then leapt into the air. Nehma dived into the water to follow him.
On the way back Nehma fretted on his mistake. He’d made them look bad. Why hadn’t he kept his mouth shut?
Suddenly the raft stopped. Nehma came up to see Jorn dive into the water. “What?”
A few seconds later, Jorn shot back out of the water, carrying both his crossbow and a rainbow fish as long as his arm. He plucked the arrow from the fish, and then swooped and dropped the fish in the now empty box on the raft.
“Wait!” Nehma called as Jorn flew off.
Jorn circled and then landed on the raft. “Yes?”
“I….” Nehma shook his head. He’d never seen an Elsue dive like that. Most were content to leave the water to the Merree. “Where… I mean… I could have gotten the fish. Isn’t that how we’re supposed to work?” He wanted to pull his head back under the water and try to figure out how he’d messed up. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you back there. You….” He lifted his gaze to Jorn’s impassive face. A thought suddenly rushed at him. Maybe Jorn was disappointed in the brother chosen for him. “You don’t want to hunt with me, do you?”
Jorn’s eyebrows lifted. He was still for so long, Nehma wondered if he should just give up now.
“You did not embarrass me,” Jorn finally said. “I am used to hunting alone. Forgive me for forgetting you.” Then he grabbed the tow rope and jumped into the air.
Nehma could only follow after him, and the disturbing thoughts continued. Maybe Jorn had hoped for a different partner, one who did not blunder into caves and in front of the elders. He was so regal in his bearing. In fact, his fathers had called their cluster the Regal Cluster. Nehma must seem like an immature child.
Back at the cave Jorn began preparing his catch. Nehma couldn’t bear the silence any longer. He grabbed his nets and trenk and headed back to the cave he’d explored their first day together — the one that housed the many schools of foot-sized fish.
It was dusk when Nehma dragged his full net onto the lower ledge in their cave.
“More food?” Jorn asked.
“What else?” Nehma said, not bothering to look up from the net. The fish were not dead, and if he wasn’t careful, they could still escape.
“You want the bonding to succeed?” Jorn asked.
Nehma stiffened. “You don’t?”
Jorn’s silence beat into Nehma. He clenched his eyes shut and willed himself to stay in control. No matter how Jorn felt, he didn’t need to react as a child.
“I want to succeed,” Jorn said softly. “Do you?”
Nehma whirled around to face him. “Of course, I do!”
Nehma stared at him. What did he mean by that? “Why? Why wouldn’t I?” Nehma felt his response lacked something, but he was too frustrated to care.
“Burna didn’t want the bonding to succeed,” Jorn said quietly. “He told me our first week together that I should quit.”
Nehma sat down beside his squirming fish. “He told you that? But you did stay together the whole two months.”
Jorn sat on the edge of the upper ledge. “I did. He wasn’t always there. He….” Jorn shook his head. “I don’t know if….” He shrugged and stopped speaking, staring into the dark water.
Nehma finally refocused on his fish and began working on one at a time. Jorn watched him silently and then began helping.
When they were eating their evening meal, Jorn raised his head to meet Nehma’s eyes. “Do you really think I saved your life?”
Nehma shrugged. “You shot out its eyes. I couldn’t have done it alone, and I couldn’t back out. It was too close; it would have killed me.” Nehma hesitated, but as usual Jorn was silent. “You’re perfectly accurate. No one could ask for a better hunting partner.”
Jorn stared at him for another moment before a small smile started, but then it faded quickly. Jorn closed his eyes a moment. “You’re not afraid to hunt with me because of my fathers?”
Jorn leaned forward. “It really wasn’t Elfather’s fault. They both decided to hunt the rajadrake, but everyone blames him. You know, rajadrake are the ones with two pairs of arms and three pairs of flippers. There was nothing he could do. Nothing. I was there. I tried to save him, too, but it was my first hunt, and my arrows just bounced off it or didn’t hit at all. I couldn’t hit anything that made a difference. It just made it angrier, and it raked merfather with its claws and….” Jorn closed his eyes again and bit his lip. “We didn’t need the food, but… but they’re rare and, and they wanted the… the skull. Nehma, please.” He stared straight at him now. “I’m not a coward, but I don’t want to watch anyone die again. Please.”
Nehma was shocked to see moisture gather at the edges of Jorn’s eyes. Jorn leapt off the ledge and shot through the narrow opening into the night.
Nehma awoke with a start. The cave was almost dark. He rose and looked across the nets of drying meat. Four of the six fires were out. He couldn’t see Jorn anywhere. Nehma stood and thought about trying to relight the fires, but then decided against it. He remembered his older elsibling learning to control fire. He’d made a mistake and the fire had shot up, singeing the feathers on his head.
Nehma dived into the water and swam out of the cave. He rose to the surface and scanned the sky. Three moons in various phases lit the sky, but he saw nothing flying. He turned to look up at the cliffs, but then saw an odd shape sitting on the small outcropping of rocks south of him.
Nehma swam to the rock and then lifted himself out of the water to sit in front of Jorn. Jorn didn’t move, but Nehma saw his eyes focus briefly on him before staring back to the sea beyond him.
“Are you going to stay out here all night?”
“You can get a release,” Jorn said. “You don’t have to stay with me.”
Nehma tried to figure out what was going on behind his brother’s words. Before it had seemed like he wanted Nehma as a brother, but maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he was just afraid Nehma was like Burna. Nehma decided to risk the last interpretation. “I don’t want a release. I want you to be my brother. If you want to be mine, you better get in there and get the fires relit before the meat rots. If I try it, I’ll end up burning up the meat and all our nets.” He didn’t wait for Jorn’s response. Instead he dived back into the water and headed for his shelf in the cave.
Nehma was just lifting himself back on the shelf when Jorn flew over his head and landed beside the dead fires. He didn’t acknowledge Nehma, but instead focused on relighting each of the evenly spaced fires. The nets stretched almost from one wall to the other, barely giving Jorn room to move.
“We really need a bigger cave,” Nehma noted.
“We’re fine,” Jorn said without looking his way. “If we get more than this at one time, I can layer the nets.”
Nehma rolled his eyes but didn’t pursue it. Jorn was the one who was cramped, and if he didn’t want to move, then why argue about it.
Nehma settled down to sleep, smiling as he did so. Jorn wanted it to work, too. They were as good as brothers. All Nehma had to do was get Jorn to open up and joke around a little. But that would come. They had a lot of time to get to know each other.
Almost every day Jorn and Nehma would take their raft full of food back to the elders. Nehma learned that the elders rotated, so that each day a different set of elders supervised the unloading. Once they met another set of prospective brothers unloading, but it was not Galarn and Burna. Nehma often wondered how they were doing.
But when others were around, the elders did not announce their total racks out loud, simply showing them the new totals on their register page. The page also detailed what types of food they brought and how well it was prepared. And there was also a column for miscellaneous useful items collected. He hadn’t realized they kept such detailed records, and he and Jorn determined to do the best job possible.
Nehma scouted the underwater vegetation for vemint. He knew if it was added to the fires, it’d give the meat a special flavor. While Nehma searched along the base of the cliffs, Jorn scanned tide pools and the scant beaches for the smaller, but very tasty dietary additions. They also hunted the larger sea creatures, mammals and fish. They found a stream on the east side, and once inland, Jorn brought down a woodland hoofed creature he called a whitedeer and several birds. Nehma helped float the deer back to their cave for processing.
On days that it rained, Nehma still searched the underwater caves and netted schools of small fish. He didn’t tell Jorn though that sometimes he explored new caves.
Nehma and Jorn pulled the raft into the large storehouse cave. Thenorn and Belna were overseeing today. Over the last three weeks, Nehma had come to suspect that the elders were actually glad to see them every time they came in with their full raft. They no longer made his stomach clench up, and he didn’t worry so much about bumbling in front of them. He waited silently beside Jorn as the food, herbs, and the whitedeer hide and many of its bones were sorted and stored.
Thenorn and Belna both came to them now. “253 racks in three and a half weeks,” Belna said, smiling.
“Already?” Nehma blurted and then bit his lip at his blundering.
Thenorn chuckled. “Already. I knew this would be a good bonding, Jorn.”
“Yes, Sir,” Jorn said, not glancing Nehma’s way, but Nehma saw his lips twitch into a smile.
“You two have made your quota. Now you are free to hunt and gather for the pleasure of knowing you are contributing to the well-being of your entire community.”
“And for your future rank,” Belna added.
“Oh, and brides,” Thenorn said, and then gave them a wink. “The girls always need good providers.”
Nehma glanced at Jorn. The elders were acting almost like… like fathers!
“But don’t tell anyone yet,” Belna cautioned. “Remember, totals are kept quiet until we announce rankings at the post-bonding ceremony.”
“Yes. Ranking will depend on total racks, not the quickest minimum.” Thenorn gave them a grin. Did he mean that Jorn and Nehma were the first ones to meet their quota?
“Go on now, back into the sunshine,” Belna said, waving them off.
Outside they made it beyond the Cinder flow before Jorn landed on the raft, and Nehma pulled himself up to sit beside him.
“We’re really brothers!” Jorn exclaimed.
“I can’t believe how easy that was,” Nehma said. “How can anyone not get enough food?” Immediately Nehma regretted his words as he realized that last year Jorn hadn’t.
Jorn studied Nehma, the sunlight highlighting his serious face. “Burna didn’t want to succeed. He didn’t hunt. I tried, but… he kept sabotaging my fires and nets and supplies. I… I gave up. He didn’t want me, and….” Jorn stared up into the sky. “I’d rather live alone than with someone who hates me.”
Nehma shook his head. “I just don’t understand how he could hate you. Sure, you’re a bit on the quiet side, but why would someone hate you for that?”
Jorn gave him that familiar stare, but then he smiled. “I like that about you, Nehma. You tell me straight what you’re thinking, and you’re not trying to manipulate me or anything.”
Nehma had a hard time believing that being honest was such an unusual thing. He thought back to something that had puzzled him though. “Do you know the elders well? It sounded like you’d talked before.”
Jorn shrugged. “Didn’t you talk to them in your pre-bonding assessment?”
“Yeah, but….” Nehma shrugged. Perhaps it was nothing.
“I told them I didn’t want to be bonded this year. I figured I’d get more food alone and not have the humiliation. But Thenorn and Belna convinced me to try again.”
That made sense. “But I still don’t understand how Burna could hate you.”
Jorn shrugged. “I’m not sure. Maybe because it was my fault merfather died.”
“It wasn’t your fault. How could it be your fault? You must have been only ten.”
“Nine. But….” He shook his head. “You don’t understand.” He began to rise as if to take off.
Nehma grabbed him. “Hey, wait.” He rose to stand beside him. “You act like you really believe that!”
Jorn attempted to pull away.
“Listen to me!” Nehma insisted, keeping his grip tight on Jorn’s arm. “You were a kid. It was their job to train you, but you hadn’t been trained yet. It wouldn’t have been any of your fault even if you hadn’t fired a single arrow. And if I die tomorrow it won’t be your fault.”
“I’m not planning to die, but don’t hang on to this.”
Jorn pulled away, but Nehma grabbed his whole body.
“Hey, Jorn,” he said softly. “You’re my brother now. Nothing’s gonna change that, okay?” Nehma finally released him and let him fly into the sky, a glistening black dancer on the upper wind currents.
Nehma sighed and lowered himself back into the water. It was too warm to stay on the raft. He loved his quiet, protective new brother more than he would have imagined possible a month ago. He’d be back, and eventually he’d realize Nehma was right.
Nehma still didn’t understand Burna’s motive. Why wouldn’t he want Jorn as a partner? It hadn’t taken long for Nehma to realize Jorn was one of the best Elsue hunters he’d ever seen. Nehma wondered if Jorn had practiced to perfect his hunting techniques because of his misplaced guilt over his merfather’s death.
So why hadn’t Burna wanted him? He couldn’t have possibly believed Jorn was responsible for his merfather’s death. No one had blamed Jorn. Sure, some people blamed his elfather, but Nehma suspected that no one was really to blame. It was an accident. Risks were taken in hunting. Injuries happened frequently, usually minor injuries, but sometimes permanent injuries, and infrequently fatal injuries.
Nehma slowly pushed the raft toward their temporary home. If they had the highest ranking of the new pairings, Nehma and Jorn would get first choice of any available living quarters. None of them would be large, as older bondings still had more rank and usually moved to larger dwellings as they became available, but still anything was better than the small cave they shared now.
Nehma felt the raft jerk away from him. He grinned. Jorn had grabbed the tow rope. They’d get home in time to go hunting again.
Two days later as they were delivering their bounty, the merelder said, “Nehma, your merfather asked if you were still alive. Apparently, he hasn’t seen you. I know the community will appreciate you and Jorn’s diligence on their behalf, but you do know you are allowed to take an occasional break to visit your family.”
Nehma grew hot. “Yes, Sir. I’ll go today.” He had not even tried to contact them after they’d tried to get him to fail the bonding. He glanced at Jorn, but Jorn’s face showed nothing. Nehma didn’t want him to know what had been said. But then perhaps they all meant nothing by it. He’d never wanted to avoid them before. He must have misunderstood them. “We’ll go after we’re finished here,” he repeated.
Jorn’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he said nothing.
Outside the storehouse, Jorn said, “How long will you stay?”
Nehma shrugged and rested his elbows against the raft and looked up at Jorn who had crouched to face him. “Couple hours should be enough, you think?”
“I’ll meet you at the Cinder flow then.” He rose.
“Wait! You’re going with me.”
Jorn shook his head. “No….”
“Yes. When I got the raft, they wondered where you were. They expect it. You have to come. We are brothers now, right? They’re your family now, too.”
“They don’t know that yet.” He took a deep breath. “We won’t stay long.”
“No,” Nehma agreed, relieved he’d given in. At least now he was sure that his family would not caution him as they had before. They wouldn’t be rude to Jorn.
Nehma directed Jorn to a large cavern halfway between the community storehouse and Cinder Flow. The cavern was an entrance to seven different clusters, and it was filled with an assortment of boats, rafts, and barges. Jorn followed Nehma down the second path on the right, leaving the raft docked in the entrance chamber. The path brought them to their main living chamber. He was surprised that the whole family seemed to be there. That was strange for the mid-morning.
“What’s going on?” Nehma asked, fearing someone had been hurt.
His mothers hugged him. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
“For me? But….”
“Elder Vemern told us yesterday that you would be by this morning,” Elfather said.
“Really?” Nehma glanced at Jorn. Jorn stood stiff, in his ceremonial stance, on the edge of the room. If he took half a step back, he’d be in the water. A step to the right would take him into the rock wall.
“My brother, Jorn.” Nehma tried to motion him forward, but Jorn just nodded.
Halorn grinned. “Not yet. You’ve got a month to go. You’ve got to gather a lot more kelp.”
Nehma took a quick glance at Jorn and hoped he did not know what Halorn’s teasing implied. The seven-year-old probably did not even consider that he might be repeating a slur.
“Why should we hunt kelp when you can do that?” he teased back quickly.
“So, have you two been bringing in your racks?” Merfather asked, sitting down on the edge of the ledge.
“You’re going to have to work hard to beat Galarn and Burna,” Halorn piped up.
Nehma noticed Jorn stiffen, but since he was already stiff, he hoped his family didn’t notice that Burna’s name had triggered a reaction. “How do you know? Maybe we’ve already beat them.”
Halorn laughed. “Impossible. They’ve got almost two hundred racks already. How many have you got?”
Nehma felt the irritation sweep through him. Why had Galarn and Burna said that? Nehma focused on his elfather, “I understood that the rules prohibit us from sharing our numbers until they are announced at the ending ceremony.”
“He’s right, Halorn,” Elfather said, touching Halorn’s shoulder. “Galarn and Burna told you that in confidence, and you shouldn’t repeat it.”
“If my friends can tell me, can’t my mersibling tell me?”
“Of course not,” Nehma said quickly. “You’ve already proven you can’t keep your mouth shut.”
Elfather chuckled. “You lost your chance for information.” He focused on Nehma. “Probably shouldn’t get complacent even if you think you’re on schedule. We usually get at least one nasty storm during the bonding, and we’re overdue. You won’t be able to hunt if it comes.”
“Don’t take chances,” Mermother said. “Get to safety at the first sign of a storm. If you can’t get to a cave, get far out to sea and as deep as you can.”
Nehma gave her a quick hug. “I know, Merma. I’ll be careful. Jorn and I have several things set aside to do on a rainy day.”
“Where are you, anyway,” Merfather asked. “No one seems to know what cave you’re using.”
Nehma grinned. “We’re about straight east from here. It’s a bit of travel, but the good….”
Elfather glanced at Jorn and cut Nehma off. “I think you should move closer. In an emergency you’d never get help in time.”
Nehma could tell Jorn knew exactly what Elfather implied. “Jorn suggested that at the beginning,” he said quickly. “But I want to stay to the east. We’re finding a lot of crustaceans. The beds aren’t over harvested.”
“Crustaceans? You mean blue pinchers and curl diggers? It’ll take you forever to get two hundred and fifty racks of those.”
“Yeah, well, we better get back to it then,” Nehma said, irritated at the slight relief he noted in Merfather’s voice. “We’ll see you when we can spare the time from digging in the sand.” Nehma turned to the water.
“The Curl Digger cluster!” Halorn shouted. “That’s what you can be.”
Nehma shook his head and grinned at Jorn. “Ready to go?”
“I bet no one has that name yet,” Halorn insisted as Jorn leapt into the air, and Nehma dived.
Jorn didn’t stop to talk, grabbing the tow rope of the raft and flying home. Nehma didn’t bother trying to hail him. What was there to say? He mulled it over all the way home. As they docked the raft in their small cave, Nehma caught Jorn before he flew out. “Galarn’s been a family friend for years. His merfather and my elfather were siblings. We didn’t… or at least I didn’t really know Burna. He had never been in our home, but I guess Galarn has brought him. I’m sorry.”
Jorn didn’t speak. Instead he focused on tending to the fires.
“I’ve kind of been a little worried about Galarn after what Burna did to you, but I guess they’re doing okay.”
Jorn still didn’t speak.
Nehma sighed and settled in the water with just his head above it. “Shall we go hunting, or do you want to go inland.” He sat up. “Or we could get an early start tomorrow and head for that island you said you saw.”
Jorn finally faced him. “Yeah. We can do that.” He hesitated a moment and then a slight smile played over his face. “Are you sure you don’t want to go digging and be the Curl Digger Cluster?”
Nehma laughed, and then Jorn was laughing also, which made Nehma even happier. The tense morning was gone.
Go to Chapter 3
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.