The next morning Jorn flew to the tops of the cliffs and Nehma swam to the rock outcropping to wait for the tool masters. Thenorn and Belna came along with two sets of tool masters and Lajarn. Nehma realized that he should have expected Jorn’s father since Jorn had said his fathers were tool makers.
Not much was said before they headed eastward to the island. At the island, Jorn and Nehma were left to stand ceremonially while the others examined the trees for ironwood vines. They didn’t just stay where Jorn and Nehma had harvested but examined the whole island.
Thenorn said that they could relax while they waited, but Nehma didn’t think he could. He did go into the water several times at Jorn’s motion.
After his last short swim, he noticed them assembling on the beach again. Nehma quickly ran up and assumed his stance next to Jorn.
Thenorn spoke first. “Well, what do you all think? Lajarn, you may give your opinion, but as Jorn’s rank credit affects you, you will understand that you cannot vote.”
Lajarn gave a slight nod of acceptance and stepped back to stand beside Jorn.
“Shouldn’t we discuss this without them?” a Merree tool-master asked.
The others appeared to agree.
Thenorn nodded to Jorn and Nehma. “You are free to go.”
“Yes, Sir.” Jorn leapt into the air.
“I will go also,” Lajarn said. He followed Jorn as Nehma dived into the water and swam back to the cave.
Nehma saw Jorn and his father on the rock outcropping when he returned home. He swam to them.
“Why did you tell them about the island? I told you to say nothing about where you got it.” Lajarn asked.
“Thenorn asked . . . .” Jorn said.
“Oh, and Thenorn cares nothing for your rank.” Lajarn spotted Nehma, and his expression changed from annoyance to the melancholy look Nehma had seen before. He stretched. “I better take those tools back to the island.”
Jorn and his father flew into the cave. Before Nehma reached the cave, Lajarn flew out with his tools and headed eastward.
Jorn was arranging nets and firewood when Nehma lifted himself up on the shelf. “We need to go hunting.”
They settled back into their routine of hunting, gathering, and taking the raft to the storehouse. They had decided not to make an issue over the conch. Telern was still in critical condition, and the conch seemed to mean a lot to Getna.
There was only one week left before the post-bonding ceremony, and they still had not chosen a name. As Jorn and Nehma processed their work they would discuss names, but nothing seemed right. Many times a cluster was named after something the pair had killed, captured or found during their trial. Both seadrake and madrake were taken, but Nehma didn’t think he’d suggest it even if they weren’t, since it was a rajadrake that had killed Jorn’s merfather. Even the Ironwood Cluster was taken. Everything good was taken.
“My father would be happy if we chose the Regal Cluster,” Jorn suggested.
“Don’t attribute names have to be earned? I’d feel like we were boasting if we did that.”
“You want an animal name then,” Jorn asked.
“I don’t know,” Nehma admitted.
“Every animal we’ve seen or processed is used.”
“Except curl diggers,” Nehma teased.
This time Jorn didn’t laugh. “What if that’s what we’re stuck with?”
Nehma shook his head. “No. We can’t. Maybe we just have to look further. I know there are other animals. Remember they mention them in the school books.”
Jorn poked at the closest fire with a stick. “Yeah. Maybe we should ask to look at the books.”
“Maybe we just have to go further away to see something interesting.”
Jorn glanced around to Nehma. “Island hopping?”
Nehma grinned. “We are well stocked. We don’t need to hunt anymore.” He shrugged. “But we might gather a bit on the way back.”
Before the sun rose from the eastern ocean bed, Nehma and Jorn were heading to Ironwood Island. They paused only briefly and then headed to the next island Jorn had seen.
The second island was much smaller. Nehma waited on the eastern side while Jorn flew high and eastward to scout for another island. Nehma watched him until he was a speck in the air and then looked for something to fill his gathering bag with. He spotted rainbow claw on the beach, and in the shallows, ray stars.
Jorn returned. “Northeast this time.” Jorn ate several of the ray stars Nehma had found, and then they continued on their journey. Twice more they hopped to new islands, always in a northeasterly direction.
They came to a long, narrow island. Jorn flew low and met him on the western beach. “I think this is it,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I think that next one is where the full ones live.”
Nehma’s eyes widened. “Really? Did you see any?”
Jorn shook his head. “I saw a water craft, but dived low so anyone on it wouldn’t see me.” He led him through the small stand of trees to the eastern grasses which grew almost to the water’s edge. The grasses would support many birds and small animals that could be used in the storehouse. Jorn held him back behind the trees and pointed out over the water. Nehma drew in a deep breath. The horizon was not an ocean, but shoreline for as far as he looked north and south. “It’s probably as big as our island.”
“If it’s where the Fulls live, it’s bigger,” Jorn reminded him. “Hey,” he pointed upward. “What’s that?”
Coming toward them was a flock of… something. It was too big to be birds. They landed on the grassy beach, large deer-like creatures with leather wings.
“It’s flying elk!” Nehma whispered. “I thought they were just legends.”
Jorn waved him silent, and they crouched behind the trees to watch the large herd, mostly females and calves, although several males stood on the outside edges of the group as if on guard. They were all the same rich brown color. The herd grazed on the long grasses. Sometimes several would leap into the air and circle each other as in a game. On the ground, the elk freely moved among each other, touching a nose to a friend, letting a wing come down to draw a youngster closer.
Jorn slowly walked toward the group. A male on the outside spotted him and gave a snort, setting the herd on alert. Jorn jumped into the air and away. Apparently he was not planning to hunt them. He flew in a large circle, coming lazily closer to the frolicking beasts, until he flew among them.
Nehma ached, wishing he could fly with them. He walked toward the group on the ground, but at his approach, they all jumped into the air, and even the elk with Jorn joined the main herd and they flew off toward the shoreline in the east.
Jorn landed on the beach and crouched, staring after them. Nehma joined him. “You didn’t want to get one?”
Jorn shook his head. “We didn’t need it. Did you see how they cared for their children? They’re so gentle. I could sense it. They’d never try to hurt anyone, but to protect their babies. I wish….” He shook his head, closing his eyes and raising his face to the sky.
“The Flying Elk Cluster,” Nehma suggested softly.
Jorn smiled. “Perfect,” he whispered. Then he rose. “We better start back.”
The sun was setting when they reached their cave. Jorn tended the fires while Nehma unloaded his bags.
“We probably shouldn’t tell anyone we went that far,” Jorn said.
“No,” Nehma agreed. But he knew they’d go again to watch the flying elk.
The rest of the week they hauled their final hunts to the storehouse. The last couple days they only gathered as there wasn’t time to smoke any more meat. When they weren’t working, they drew in the beach sand, trying to work out their cluster symbol. They finally settled on a circle which contained a deer-like head and a wing arching upward. Thenorn only raised his eyebrows slightly when they told him the name they’d chosen, but then he nodded as if in agreement.
The post bonding began at noon so that the pairs could all bring their final racks into the storehouse to be counted and totaled into their rank that morning.
The storehouse was crowded when they arrived. The four other pairs were already there. Burna and Galarn were at the front of the line being totaled, while the others waited. Jorn stood stiffly on one side of the raft, only nodding to the others.
The couple ahead of them was the only pairing which did not contain one of the failed partners from the year before. Both of them, Wetorn and Hevna seemed as nervous as Nehma felt. Hevna smiled at Nehma. “How’d it go?” he whispered.
“Pretty good. Jorn’s a great hunter. How about you?”
“Yeah. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” he admitted.
Nehma nodded in agreement. Jorn ignored them. Nehma wondered if Jorn would always act as though he didn’t care to be friendly.
Burna and Galarn left the unloading platform and moved toward the door. Galarn stopped before them and settled on Burna’s raft. “Hey, Nehma. It’s been a while. You’re looking good.”
Nehma grinned. “You, too. I hear from my overly talkative sibling that hunting has gone well for you.”
Galarn laughed. “Halorn says you’ve hardly been home to talk to.”
Burna climbed up on the raft beside Galarn. He nodded to Nehma, but sneered at Jorn. “The Curl Digger Cluster, I presume.”
The way Burna said it made Nehma want to sneer back at him, but he forced himself to laugh. “Not us. Did you two choose it? Maybe we should save it for Halorn. He seemed to like it pretty well.”
“Most of the good names are chosen already. You lower ranked clusters will have to settle for what is left.”
Galarn gave a good natured grin and jabbed Burna with his elbow. “Hey, we don’t need to brag. Besides, Nehma might surprise us.”
Burna sneered at Jorn yet again. “I doubt they made their racks. We better go and prepare for the ceremony.” He jumped back into the water.
Galarn rolled his eyes, but then gave Nehma a half-hearted grin. “Good luck.” He leapt into the air with their tow rope and flew from the cave.
Nehma shook his head.
Beside them Wetorn and Hevna exchanged looks, and Nehma could easily read their expressions. They were thankful that they had gotten each other as partners. Nehma could only pity Galarn also. He seemed happy enough, but it must not be easy living with someone like Burna.
After their final delivery, Nehma went to see his family. Jorn said he would prepare at his elfather’s cave, refusing to come with Nehma.
Nehma’s merfather greeted him and drew him into the depths of the family cave, away from his many siblings. “How did you do?”
Nehma glanced around the workroom. It was the same as always, a partially finished boat floated in the deep, the lower ledges with water held Merfather’s work, while Elfather worked on the upper ledges. Nehma settled on the lower ledge. “The elders have told us more than once that we’re not to say.”
Merfather waved his hand in protest. “You can tell me. Did you and Jorn get your racks? How did you get along?”
“Of course we got our racks. We work well together.”
“Do you?” Merfather studied him. “He didn’t run you and us down, did he? He’s not keeping you away?”
Nehma gave in to his impulse to scowl. “No. Jorn doesn’t run anyone down. We’ve been busy.”
“But he doesn’t come here with you.”
“You all didn’t welcome him last time he came. You trust that liar, Burna, and think last year was Jorn’s fault. Well, it wasn’t. And I really feel sorry for Galarn.”
Merfather’s eyes opened wider in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” Nehma said, realizing that he’d spoken in anger. “Jorn really is a great brother. Please don’t let Halorn tease about him anymore.”
Merfather hesitated a moment and then nodded. “You are right. If you’ve gotten your racks, you both are adults now and not a child for us to worry over.”
Nehma grinned then. “Yeah. We got them. I can’t wait to see where we rank.”
Merfather smiled. “So you think you’re near the top?”
“Probably,” Nehma confided. “They haven’t told us.”
Merfather stood and put his hand on Nehma shoulder. “As long as you did your best, don’t be too disappointed. Luck often plays a part in hunting success.”
Nehma laughed. “Like getting a madrake while looking for a cave on our first day together.”
“Yeah.” Merfather led them through the passages but then stopped them before the main room. “You are aware that Jorn may try to force his elfather into your cluster.”
Nehma rolled his eyes. “Jorn didn’t force anything. I suggested it as soon as I realized he would be all alone. I just can’t imagine living completely alone like that.”
Merfather gave him a small smile. “Of course you would. You’ve always cared about others.” He took a deep breath. “Nehma, I hope it works out for you. I hope they don’t take advantage of your compassion and make you feel like an outsider.”
Nehma started to protest, but Merfather cut him off.
“I’m not saying they’ll try. Just that you might have to work at it. Lajarn has a reputation of being difficult. Try not to let it hurt you.” He abruptly led them into the family room where he visited until it was time to assemble for the ceremony.
The day was hot, and with the sun overhead, it felt hotter. There would be many more days to hunt this season before the cold set in. All the Merree wore long, wet robes to keep from drying out during the ceremony, since the post-bonding was always long.
The elders assembled on the speaking rocks. The new sisters stood on the north side of the rocks, and the older unmated brothers were on the south. The first half of the ceremony was for the sisters and the matings. Jorn and Nehma stood with the other new brothers slightly apart from the older unmated men.
Thenorn was again the spokesman for the elders. He smiled at the assembled people, then at the sisters, and finally turned to the hunters, before gazing back at the people eager to hear the results of this year’s bondings. “This has truly been a great year for harvest. Every pair of sisters and brothers have met and exceeded their required racks. The good weather and ocean currents have ensured a winter of plenty.”
Nehma watched as the sisters were brought to stand before the people from lowest rank to highest rank. Thenorn extolled the accomplishments of each pairing. When they finished, he called the highest ranked unmated brothers, one set at a time, to claim their brides. When all four pairs of sisters were claimed, Thenorn spoke about the responsibilities each new family cluster would be taking on. Finally when Nehma felt his robe was drier than beached driftwood, Thenorn excused them for a meal break. The Merree headed straight to the water to re-soak their robes, including the elders.
After dinner the group reassembled. This time the five new pairs of brothers were on the north side, the newly mated families were with the rest of the people and the unmated older brothers were still to the south.
“As I mentioned before,” Thenorn began, “Each of these bondings have succeeded, all bringing in far more than the required 250 racks. Our lowest ranked pair brought in 308 racks, Balarn and Temna.”
Balarn and Temna walked to stand in front of the elders, facing the assembly. The next pair got 331 racks.
“Our next two pairs are so close in ranking, we weren’t quite sure who would be second and third until this morning. Third in rank, with 382 racks, Wetorn and Hevna.”
Wetorn and Hevna moved into position in front of the group.
“Second in rank with 384 racks, Galarn and Burna.”
“Wait!” Burna cried out. “That can’t be. Jorn isn’t first.” Galarn had begun walking to take their appointed spot when he turned back quickly.
Thenorn’s friendly smile left and he glared at Burna. “The storehouse workers were supervised by elders at all unloadings. There are no mistakes. Take your place.”
“But Jorn cheated. I know he did.”
“You are now third in rank, and if you persist, I will move you to last place. Wetorn and Hevna, move to second place. It is vital that a cluster never consider their own desires above the good of the whole community.”
Burna would have protested again, Nehma was sure, but Galarn grabbed his arm and jerked him to their spot with a loud shushing.
After the murmuring of the crowd quieted, Thenorn continued, his smile back on his face as if he had not been forced to administer a rather drastic discipline. “Our highest ranked pair of brothers have shown all of us what an excellent bonding can achieve when both respect each other and work with the good of the whole community in mind. When I tell you that Jorn and Nehma turned in 437 racks of food, that doesn’t begin to total all they have done in the last two months.” Thenorn waited until Jorn and Nehma stepped into position and resumed their ceremonial stance. “Everything they brought in was prepared with the finest attention to quality, even adding vemint to their smoking fires. In addition to food, they brought in over 100 racks of useful miscellaneous items such as hides, bones, and driftwood, not to mention two perfectly harvested ironwood vines. Ironwood, as you know, is essential to make trenks and is in short supply. These two found a whole island of fresh supply. Our toolmakers assure us that this winter they will be able to accommodate everyone on their waiting list as well as have a back supply.”
Thenorn waited while the murmurs of appreciation died down. Nehma didn’t think he could get any hotter from pride and embarrassment. Everyone stared straight at them. At least Thenorn should be moving on to closing comments now, shouldn’t he?
“As if these two young men were not busy enough, they took a day to help out in the medical ward when we had so many injuries from the storm, after they found and brought in Telern who had been seriously injured. They also sent for help when they found Getna. A cluster has been saved because they generously put the needs of the community above their own needs. I expect these two men of the newly formed Flying Elk Cluster will continue with their compassionate care for us all the days that their strength allows.” Thenorn focused on Jorn and Nehma. “Please accept the sincere gratitude of your people.”
Immediately all the clusters broke out in loud shouts of thanks. Nehma heard some people mention the ironwood directly, others for helping them in the medical ward.
Nehma glanced at Jorn and grinned. No longer was he aloof as though nothing could touch him. He openly stared at the crowd as if in disbelief, apparently unable to accept that they would treat him with such respect. He glanced past Jorn. Wetorn and Hevna smiled and thanked them also, but Burna glared from the other side of them. Nehma was at first annoyed at his attitude, but quickly realized that Burna didn’t matter. He grinned back at him. He’d had the chance to get a great hunting partner like Jorn, and he’d ruined it for himself. Nehma grabbed Jorn’s arm and grinned at him. “Hey,” he whispered. “We made it.”
Jorn relaxed and smiled. He didn’t see the surprise in some of the group. They’d never seen Jorn relax before. They didn’t know he hid his feelings because he’d been hurt. They just saw someone who appeared to have too much pride to care. Nehma grinned. He would have to get Jorn to smile more in public.
Go to Chapter 5
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.