The island pushed out of the sea like a turtle’s back against the morning sun. Jorn landed beside him on the sandy beach. “All trees. Few clearings. A small underfed pond in the middle with a stream letting out on the other side. Lots of birds. Think I saw a wingfluff and something like a whitedeer but brown. The whole thing is not much bigger than the Ceremonial Clearing.” He paused. “There’s another island far to the east.”
Nehma grinned. “I bet we could island hop for a while.”
Jorn smiled also. “It’s tempting.” He shook his head. “We better focus on our rank.”
“Yeah. Maybe next summer when we don’t have to prove anything.”
“Next summer,” Jorn agreed. He walked to a tree with a long thick vine running straight up its trunk. He ran his hand along the smooth wood of the vine not even broken by a few leaves. “An ironwood.” He glanced around. “Quite a few of them.”
Nehma shrugged. “Do they have an edible fruit?” He didn’t know if Jorn was speaking about the tree or the parasitic smooth vine.
Jorn turned to him with a shocked expression. “You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know,” Nehma said, irritated that Jorn was making an issue of his ignorance. “Do you know everything?”
Jorn faced the tree again, but closed his eyes, his hand still on the smooth vine. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Guess it’s just something used in my fathers’ work. Why should anyone else know unless they worked with it?” He took a deep breath and then faced Nehma. “What do your fathers do?”
“Build boats and rafts.” Nehma shook his head. “So what do your fathers do? What’s the tree for?”
“They made hunting tools — the wooden parts.” He shrugged. “Bone, too, but they had to get any knife edges from the stoneworker. Elfather makes crossbows and arrows, and Merfather….” Jorn rubbed the smooth vine again. “Merfather made trenks… from vines like this. They’re rare. It takes a long time for them to grow big enough to make a trenk because they’re so dense. They usually get them from an island in the north, but only so many a year are ready.” Jorn looked through the trees, pushing through the underbrush, stopping to rub several other ironwood vines. They weren’t on every tree, and some vines were far thinner than a hunting trenk.
Trenks were essential to the Merree, and hard to come by. Losing or breaking your trenk was a major loss. One would often have to wait a year or more on the waiting list to replace it. The excitement began to mount in Nehma as he realized what Jorn said. “This is a fresh supply. These would go into that miscellaneous useful category and probably earn us tons of rank credit. Incredible. Do you know how to harvest them? Do we have to do something special?”
“Elfather probably knows. Let’s go back and ask.”
Nehma was about to run back into the water when he hesitated. “He can’t help us. That’s the rules.”
“He can’t help us harvest or hunt, but we can get supplies and information.”
Nehma grinned. “Right. Where does he live?”
Jorn laughed again, and Nehma was sure he could get quite used to the sound.
Jorn directed Nehma to the southwestern cliff face, and then dropped to a float.
Nehma tread water beside him. “Something wrong?”
“There’s no sea entrance. See that rocky beach? I’ll go find him and bring him down to meet you. He might even be hunting.”
“He lives here? With no sea entrance? How does…? Where does your mermother live?”
“They got her a new mate, and all my mersiblings had to go with her, so they’d have someone to teach them to hunt.”
Nehma felt his mouth open but couldn’t find any words. He knew a small community couldn’t afford to let a fertile woman stay barren, but…. “They took your mermother away from her sister? They’re bonded for life, too, aren’t they?”
Jorn stared at the cliff wall and didn’t look at Nehma. “My elmother died when I was born. I have no elsiblings. Elfather and I moved over here out of everyone’s way. I’ll bring him down to the beach.” He flipped and was in the air.
Nehma was left to stare after him again. Jorn lived completely alone with his elfather. Nehma had a hard time comprehending it. His family was large and always changing. His older siblings bonded and younger siblings were born it seemed every year. Last year his oldest elsibling had become a woman and the year before his mersibling had completed his bonding. But Jorn had none of that. Instead, first his elmother and then his merfather had died. And then his mermother had been taken.
Nehma saw two dark Elsue overhead and realized that Jorn’s Elfather had also suffered all those losses, and this year he’d lose Jorn, because he and Jorn were now brothers and would form their own cluster.
Nehma swam to the beach as Jorn and his elfather landed. Elfather resembled Jorn with jet black feathers on his wings and head, but his face was different. Instead of Jorn’s impassive face which hid his emotions, his elfather’s face seemed to reflect distrust or fear or maybe weariness. Nehma realized he couldn’t interpret what the man was thinking, but it didn’t seem to be contentment of any sort. Maybe it was just loneliness.
“My elfather, Lajarn. Elfather, this is my brother, Nehma.”
Lajarn glanced in Jorn’s direction, “We’ll see,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s good to meet you, Sir,” Nehma said.
Jorn motioned them to sit near the cliff wall. “We found some ironwood vines. Is there anything special we should do when we harvest?”
Lajarn raised his eyebrows as he studied Jorn’s face.
“It’s okay to harvest there, isn’t it?” Jorn asked. Nehma wondered if it was his imagination that Jorn seemed nervous. “There isn’t a regular harvest there, is there?”
Lajarn shrugged. “Not that anyone’s told me, but then I’m not told much anymore. Harvest it. Let the elders sort it out.” He explained the exact size of the vine to harvest, the best way to cut it down, preliminary preservation, making sure a new vine could grow from the root, and how to transport their treasure home. “I suppose you’ll need to borrow my tools.” He stood and motioned Jorn to follow him. The sun was getting lower in the western sky.
“Wait,” Nehma said. He could not forget how alone this melancholy man would be without Jorn. They faced Nehma. “Lajarn… Elfather. May I call you Elfather?”
Lajarn gave a nod.
“Elfather, will you consider joining our cluster? Your wisdom would be deeply appreciated.”
Jorn stared at Nehma as if shocked. Lajarn didn’t seem to have any response either. Nehma suddenly wondered if Jorn maybe didn’t want his father around. Maybe he’d made a huge blunder, but he couldn’t stand the thought of anyone being so alone. Nehma ran into the water and started for the cave.
Jorn could fly faster than Nehma could swim and before Nehma reached the cave, he could see Jorn’s dark outline above him.
They entered the cave, and Nehma steeled himself to endure Jorn’s silence. Maybe he could head it off by apologizing immediately.
Nehma popped his head out of the water and sat on his lower shelf. “I’m sorry. If you don’t want him with us, it doesn’t matter. I just couldn’t stand the thought that he was going to be alone now.”
Instead of disapproval, Jorn ignored the dying embers of their fires and crouched in the water by him. “Thank you. Nehma, I didn’t want to leave him alone either, he’s lost so much. I….” Jorn closed his eyes. Then he clutched Nehma’s shoulder. “You… you are a brother without equal. I’d hoped to ask if we were still getting along good, but you just knew. The elders were right. You are the perfect brother for me.”
“They told you beforehand about me?”
Jorn shook his head with a slight laugh. “Not your name. Only that they had someone who would be perfect for me. I didn’t believe them. After all they’d picked Burna.”
“They said they thought I’d be perfect? I’ve always been afraid they think I’m a clumsy child.”
Jorn smiled and gripped his shoulder again. Then he shook his head. “I wonder why Burna and I were paired?”
Nehma wondered, too, but then guessed, “Maybe they don’t worry too much the first time, but if something goes wrong, they take extra care the next time. Or maybe he’s all that was left last year after they had to be careful with the other pairings?”
Jorn shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, they were right this time.” He turned to tend his fires. It was the first time the mention of Burna did not make him defensive.
The evening was spent hunting close to the cave, and then early the next morning they set out with the raft and Lajarn’s tools to the island.
The ironwood vines needed to be cut at the top and near the bottom a little longer than a trenk, and then pried from the host tree. Nehma measured the length and width against his own trenk, and they set to work.
Cutting the ironwood proved to be an exhausting job. It took a large amount of time to make dents in the wood. Neither of them spoke. Nehma wouldn’t give up if Jorn wouldn’t, but he secretly wondered if they would really get as much rank credit from these as they would from processing a small whale, which would take the same amount of time and be closer to the water.
They were almost through the wood when Jorn suddenly stopped and stared at Nehma. Nehma stared back, his eyes not wanting to move in their sockets.
Jorn grabbed Nehma, jerked and almost flew to the shoreline, throwing him into the sea. Nehma was too stunned to protest, but as the cool water surrounded him, he relaxed and closed his eyes. Slowly he realized what had happened. He’d let himself become too dry. The exertion of trying to cut through the ironwood had depleted him.
He rose from the water. “Thanks,” he said, not meeting Jorn’s eyes. “Didn’t realize I needed that.”
“Maybe we should….” Jorn began.
“I’m okay. Really,” Nehma assured him. “I’ll just take a break every so often. We’re almost done with this one, aren’t we?”
Jorn conceded, but Nehma knew he kept just as close a watch on him as he did on the work they were doing. They celebrated when they finally were able to pry their first ironwood branch from the tree, and then decided to try another.
As they worked on the second, the wind picked up, drying Nehma even faster. Nehma took a quick break and stared up into the sky as he rested in the shallow water of the beach. Dark clouds rolled toward them from the west. It may even be raining over their home island.
Nehma went back to Jorn. “We’re almost ready to pry,” Jorn told him.
“There’s a storm coming.”
“Yeah. I know. We better go after we get this one.”
Nehma helped him pry the second ironwood core from its host. Then they lashed them to the raft and started back home.
The wind was violent now, and Nehma felt the small raft jerk as Jorn was blown off course and around. The waves made it hard to stay on course also, but they kept going.
It seemed forever, but finally their small cave came into focus underwater. The tide was so high that Nehma didn’t know how Jorn would get through. He raised his head above the waves to watch him. Jorn fought the wind and headed down to the cave entrance. The wind gusted and sent him into the cliff wall. Jorn twisted so that his back took the blow, but then he fell to the water. Nehma dived to get him and bring his head above the waves.
Jorn took deep breaths and nodded.
Nehma moved them to the raft and helped Jorn on to it. Then he pushed them into the cave during a lull in the waves, so that the box and Jorn would not scrape the top of the entrance.
The lower ledge was so covered that Nehma could float the raft over it. Water had invaded the top ledge also, destroying their fires.
Jorn attempted to get up.
“Stay on the raft,” Nehma advised. “Everything is underwater.”
“But the fires. Our food.” He left the raft anyway, wading around the nets to check the drying food.
Nehma helped him, and they stored what they could. Jorn set a fire in a higher niche. There were several such niches, and they had extra supplies stored in them along with dried food and other items they had not been able to take to the storehouse yet. Fortunately, it appeared that would not be ruined, but all of last night’s hunt was lost. Without the constant fires under them, disease was sure to have set in, and there was no way to relight them with the water so high.
When they assessed the damage and did what they could, they settled in to wait out the storm. The water constantly shifted Nehma, so that he was forced to sit on the upper shelf. Jorn sat on the raft and attempted to smooth his ruffled feathers. The Elsue were not able to reach their backmost feathers though. A parent, brother, or spouse usually assisted them, but Jorn did not ask for help.
Nehma watched him struggle a while longer. The wind had twisted and disarrayed his feathers so that they stuck out at angles and under-feathers lay on top over-feathers. Finally, Nehma went to him. “Please,” he said softly. “Let your brother assist you.”
Jorn glanced up at him and then curled over so that Nehma could work on his back.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Nehma said. “Scared me when you hit the cliff face.” He carefully sorted and smoothed Jorn’s jet black feathers.
Jorn said nothing.
How could he get through to him? “Are you sure you still want to be the curl digger cluster?”
He felt Jorn shake with near silent laughter.
The storm blew itself out during the night and by mid-morning the water had dropped from the upper ledge. They cleaned up the mess and set their nets back up.
“Don’t need to light the fires until we get more food,” Jorn advised. “It’d just waste wood. Why don’t we take what we can to the storehouse, and then hunt this afternoon?”
“How’s your back? You look a little sore.”
“I’m fine. We don’t want to lose the ironwood.”
Nehma sighed but decided Jorn was too stubborn to rest.
They packed up the remaining food and other items for the storehouse, and Nehma pushed the raft into the bright sunlight.
Jorn settled on the raft. “Let’s go close to the shore. We might find some good stuff thrown up by the storm.”
Nehma agreed, and they slowly made their way around to the southwest, stopping several times to gather driftwood or deep-sea plants that had been thrown into the shallows. Then Jorn pointed, and Nehma dived to retrieve a two-and-a-half-foot conch, still alive. Jorn helped lift the shell on to the raft. They’d kill and process the slug back at the cave. As long as the shell was upside down and out of water, it wouldn’t get away.
They were directly south and starting northwest when Jorn motioned toward the base of the cliffs. He’d spotted something else.
Jorn landed on the rocks at the base of the cliff and then knelt down. Nehma swam over and lifted himself up onto the rocks.
Light blue feathers were everywhere. Jorn lifted a battered wing to reveal the Elsue beneath. The Elsue moaned. He was still alive. “We need to get him to the doc.”
“I’ll bring the raft.” Nehma dived back for it.
When he brought the raft close, Nehma removed all their morning’s finds, including their giant conch, from the raft to the rocks, and then helped Jorn lift the injured Elsue to the spot where they’d kept their new finds. The Elsue was barely conscious and could not tell Nehma his name. “He was bonded a couple years ago, wasn’t he?” Nehma asked. “Who is he?”
“I wonder where his brother is.”
Telern curled up into a ball on the end of the raft, his remaining feathers quivering. Jorn grabbed the tow rope and Nehma pushed. The doctors, Thorn and Manha, had a large cave on the southern end of the populated area. Another pair of doctors were settled at the northern end. Jorn flew directly into the southern medical cave. The doctors’ apprentices, Palorn and Panha, met them. When they saw the injured Elsue, they directed the raft down a small tunnel to a larger room. Telern had not been the only Mersue injured in the storm. The ward was full.
Without trying, Jorn and Nehma were soon caught up in the busy routine of the ward, assisting the injured any way they could. Often, they just needed their wounds tended, and then help to their home. The apprentices would attend the wounded, and Nehma or Jorn would assist them home. They also helped to feed and care for the ones too injured to leave yet.
Nehma was not sure how much time had passed, but his stomach was beginning to tell him that it had been quite a while since breakfast. He glanced around for Jorn and saw him on the other side of the cave. At the entrance to the ward stood Doc Thorn and the elder Thenorn. They motioned to both Nehma and Jorn.
Nehma made his way to the two men, his empty stomach knotting. Perhaps he’d overstepped and done something wrong. Maybe he shouldn’t have helped, but how could he have turned his back to their pleas. The apprentices, Palorn and Panha, tried hard, but they could not be with everyone, and the doctors had been busy treating the severely injured, like Telern that they’d brought in.
Nehma stood before them and then realized he couldn’t even be ceremonially respectful because he didn’t have his trenk. He hoped it was still on the raft. Jorn stood beside him, his crossbow gone also.
“Doc Thorn was telling me that you both willingly assisted during our little crises,” Thenorn said.
Doc Thorn gave a nod. “Your help is greatly appreciated. You both have displayed a compassionate and caring nature essential in a doctor.”
Nehma glanced at Jorn. They hadn’t talked about where they might apprentice. Nehma assumed the elders would assign them where they were needed.
“But I’m sure you both are tired, and Elder Thenorn wishes to speak with you. Thank you both for your help.” He gave them a nod and then went to attend his patients.
Thenorn drew them out of the ward. Their raft still sat where they’d unloaded Telern. “You were on your way to the storehouse, weren’t you?”
“Meet me there, and I’ll have dinner for you.” He walked back into the ward.
Nehma glanced at Jorn. “How are you doing? Your back hurting much?”
Nehma rolled his eyes. “Yeah. You’ll live, but I know you smacked that wall hard enough to bruise you up pretty badly yesterday. Probably harder than some of these people.”
Jorn shook his head. “I’m fine. We better get to the storehouse.”
“It may surprise you to know that I don’t want you to die any time soon, Jorn, so stop acting like you have to hide things from me.”
Jorn stared at Nehma. Then a smile slowly spread over his face. “Thanks. But I am okay. Sore, but okay. We better get moving.” He grabbed the tow line and leapt into the air.
Nehma dived into the water and pushed the raft. When they reached the storehouse, they assumed their ceremonial stance. Thenorn, unencumbered by a raft and the necessity of taking the circular route on the outside of the island, was already there beside his brother Belna. Belna knelt down beside the raft and ran his hand along the ironwood cores lashed to it. “You’re right, Thenorn. It is ironwood.” He stood to face Nehma and Jorn. “Where did you find it?”
Nehma sensed Jorn’s hesitation. He glanced at him but could not ignore the elder’s direct query. “On an island east of here.”
Jorn’s body lost a bit of its stiffness. He shrugged, “Guess it’d be better to let the experts harvest it. I’d just hoped we’d get credit for a few more.”
Thenorn laughed and slapped Jorn’s shoulder. “You’ll get credit for finding the whole island. We’ll take the tool masters out tomorrow, and they will tell us what your find is worth.” He motioned to the storehouse workers, directing the Elsue to unload the box and sort their items. To the Merree, he said, “Bring these young men some dinner.” Then Thenorn indicated that Jorn and Nehma should sit with him and Belna.
“You two are doing a fine job,” Belna said, sitting near Nehma.
“Thank you, Sir,” Nehma said nervously.
“Have you thought about a name for your cluster?”
Nehma glanced at Jorn who grinned. “Not really.”
Belna raised his eyebrows. “But you have.” He didn’t sound angry; in fact, Thenorn had a slight smile.
Jorn gave a small chuckle. “Nehma’s elsibling thinks we should be the curl-digger cluster.”
The elders both laughed. “And I take it you both prefer something a little more… aggressive?” Thenorn asked.
Nehma shrugged. “We haven’t actually talked….” He glanced at Jorn. “Did you have an idea?”
“I thought you would.”
“Ah,” said Belna. “You better think about how you wish to be introduced at the bonding ceremony.”
The worker brought Nehma and Jorn’s food and then disappeared under the water. Nehma didn’t want to be rude, but Thenorn indicated that they eat even though the elders had nothing.
“Pick several choices. Your first choice might already be used.”
“Yeah. I almost know all of them, but I might have forgotten some,” Nehma agreed. “And someone else might pick the same name as us, too, right?”
Thenorn kept his smile. “Then the name would go to the higher ranked bonding, although that hasn’t been an issue in over twenty years.”
“Sometimes,” Belna said, “a cluster’s name changes when a special skill or attribute is recognized in the cluster. You may not remember that Doctors Thorn and Manha were not always the Mercy Cluster. They started out as the Rainbow Claw Cluster.”
Nehma shook his head. “But Rainbow Claw is….”
“Once their name changed, the Rainbow Claw name was free to be reused,” Thenorn said. He nodded to Jorn. “Your father tells me the Regal Cluster name is available.”
Jorn stared at Thenorn. “What?”
“Didn’t you both invite him to join your cluster?”
Jorn relaxed and smiled. “Yeah. You’re right.” He shot Nehma a glance. “My brother is compassionate and wise.”
Thenorn chuckled. “Why don’t you two stay on the west side tonight? I understand you banged yourself up a bit yesterday.”
Jorn’s eyes opened wider. He glanced at Nehma.
“No, Nehma did not tell me. I overheard you both earlier.”
Jorn nodded. “I would rather return to the east. I am hoping the items we needed to leave at the cliff where Telern was injured are still there and unspoiled.”
“Then we will meet you on the eastern side tomorrow mid-morning with the tool masters.”
Jorn stood, and Nehma followed. The sun was almost touching the water when they left the storehouse. They moved silently through the water, not stopping until they reached the spot where they’d found Telern. Their supplies were there, but so was a Merree. He held bunches of Telern’s lost feathers and rocked slightly. His scales were dull, and Nehma knew instantly that he’d been on that rock for too long.
“Hey, Getna,” Nehma said softly.
Getna ignored him, staring straight out to the horizon. Jorn grabbed the conch that they’d found that morning to put into their box, but as he turned, Getna leapt up and tackled him, knocking them both into the sea.
Nehma dived after them. Jorn rose from the water, flapping his feathers dry and landing on the raft. Getna retrieved the conch and returned it to rest on top of their pile of driftwood and deep-sea plants. He climbed up beside it and glared at them.
Nehma tried again. “Hey, Getna, what are you doing here? Where’s your brother?”
Getna glared at him, but then scrabbled for the feathers he’d been holding.
“Telern’s his brother,” Jorn said from behind Nehma.
“Oh. Hey, Getna. Telern’s at Doc Thorn’s. Maybe you should go see him.”
“Liar,” Getna hissed, his voice barely above a whisper. He had been dry too long, and the short dunking was not enough to rehydrate him. “You just want our stuff.”
“Getna, it’s our stuff, and you need to see the doc.”
“Mine!” Getna growled.
“He’s delirious,” Jorn noted. “We won’t be able to take him in. He’d fight us all the way.”
Nehma knew he was right. “One of us should go for help then.” He was tired and knew Jorn was probably more so and sore. “I’ll go.” He glanced back at Getna and then to Jorn. Jorn would be okay. He wouldn’t turn his back on him again.
Nehma swam as fast as he could back to the doctors’ cave. He quickly sent the apprentices to find Getna’s family, and then Nehma led them all back to the cliff.
With others there who knew Getna, Jorn and Nehma backed off to let them work. But Getna still refused to leave without the conch. His merfather agreed to take it, and all the rest of Jorn and Nehma’s morning of work.
“Wait,” Nehma said. “That’s ours. We found that stuff this morning.”
“Now, Nehma, we appreciate your help, but you and Jorn cannot take Getna’s work as a reward to try to boost your racks. It wouldn’t be fair. You’ll have to find your own.”
“But we did find it….”
But no one listened to them, and soon they were alone.
Jorn sat on the rock, curled with his arms on his knees. Nehma silently waited, the night air cool against his wet scales.
“If you’re sore, why don’t you rest on the raft, and I’ll push you home.” Jorn shook his head. Then he leapt up and grabbed the tow rope.
Go to Chapter 4
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.