Thenorn and Belna led Jorn and Nehma to the south and their new home. It rested not far from Doctors Thorn and Manha’s ward. “You are free to petition to move into any cave that becomes available and the highest ranked pair to ask will receive it. But you may like this cave. It has plenty of room.”
Nehma looked around. Moss overgrew many areas, lighting it up, and he could vaguely see it had once been cultivated to resemble the symbol of a bird. The dove cluster must have moved to bigger caves. “This is bigger than Lenma’s cave, and he’s been bonded for two years now,” he said, referring to his oldest sibling.
Thenorn chuckled. “Your rank is higher than his.”
Nehma whirled around to face him. “How? I thought….”
“Ironwood Island brought you more rank than you imagine, Nehma, but even without it, you and Jorn would have outranked quite a few of the bondings of the last few years. You both have done very well,” Belna said.
“You could mate next year,” Thenorn added.
“So soon?” Nehma stepped back. “I… don’t we have to be older?”
Belna and Thenorn chuckled. “I would recommend waiting also, but I will not want anyone to forget your rank. If you are not ready at mating time or see no sisters that you both desire, you may officially pass for up to five years in a row.”
Nehma took a sigh of relief. Of course. He’d seen brothers pass… once or twice in his life. He wouldn’t be forced into more responsibilities than he was ready for.
“Should we continue hunting now,” Jorn asked, “or is there some other place that you need us.”
Thenorn smiled. “Set up your cave and continue hunting. The masters will petition if they desire you for an apprentice, and you both will have two weeks to talk over your choices.”
“Of course if only one person asks for us then we have to take that,” Nehma reasoned.
Thenorn and Belna laughed again, and Belna clapped Nehma’s shoulder. “You and Jorn will have choices. Never fear.”
Nehma shrugged. “I’m not afraid. I don’t figure there’s much of anything so bad that I’d hate it.”
They kept smiling. “Racks will still be counted. It’s a necessity as some brothers do quit working once they feel no one is watching, although I’m sure you two would work whether anyone watched. Lajarn is free move in with you and contribute to your cluster’s rank now.”
After Thenorn and Belna left, Jorn grinned and held out his arms. “Look at all this room! Let’s clean it out and re-sculpt the moss.”
Nehma loved his excitement, so different from the silent, aloof Elsue he’d first met. They set to work, even though the day had already been long. They found the cleansing pool, which was not near as large as the one at the Whelk Cluster, but as they hadn’t had one for two months, they both enjoyed getting it ready for use.
They went for their raft, docked with the Whelk Cluster’s boats, and tied it inside their own ocean entrance. It appeared that four other caves shared this entrance, and Nehma was sure they’d meet their neighbors, but not tonight. After agreeing to go back to their east side cave to gather the last of their supplies in the morning, they settled in to sleep in their new home.
The next two weeks passed quickly. When they weren’t hunting, they were organizing their new home, and encouraging the over and undermoss to grow into the pattern of their cluster symbol.
Nehma visited his family on a day when rain kept them from hunting. Jorn decided to go see his father at his high cliff cave.
When Nehma arrived, he found that Burna and Galarn were already there. Nehma felt a spurt of irritation. Couldn’t they visit their own family cluster?
After his family greeted him, they all settled in the large meeting room. “Where’s Jorn?” Merfather asked.
Nehma ignored Burna’s glowering look. “He went to see his elfather.”
“I thought he moved in with you.”
“Not yet. He’s harvesting ironwood until the weather changes.” Jorn had not met Nehma’s eyes as he’d said it, so Nehma knew it wasn’t the real reason Lajarn wasn’t with them yet. But he didn’t push it.
“I can’t believe the elders let him help you!” Burna spurted out. “You cheated.”
Nehma felt all his relatives tense, or maybe it was just his own muscles bunching up.
“Now, Burna, I’m sure the elders didn’t….” Merfather began.
“They did cheat. He told Jorn about the ironwood, and he helped them get their racks.”
“No, he didn’t!” Nehma stood. “No one helped us. We asked Lajarn for advice on how to harvest the ironwood after we found it, and we used his tools, but he didn’t come with us. We didn’t cheat.”
“He did help!”
“We’re allowed to ask advice,” Nehma insisted, not sure how they both came to be standing inches from each other. “We didn’t cheat.”
Galarn stood on one side of them, and Merfather on the other. “Hey, Burna, let it go.”
“He cheated, and he knows it.”
“Hey, I know Nehma didn’t cheat, and it’s not his fault if Jorn does.”
“Jorn didn’t. We didn’t.”
“I know Jorn tried to steal Getna’s conch,” Burna said.
Nehma rolled his eyes. “What’s the use of talking to you? I’m going back home. I might as well get some work done.” He dived into the deep and shot off toward the entrance before their fight could escalate.
Merfather caught up with him. “May I come with you,” he motioned underwater.
Nehma agreed, but didn’t bother trying to speak to him until they were at his cave. He was too angry.
He led Merfather into their main room, and pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the ledge. Merfather sat beside him.
“We didn’t cheat!”
Merfather touched his shoulder. “We know. We’ve told Burna that, but he’s very bitter about last year.”
“What should he be bitter about? He’s the one who purposely failed.”
“He said Jorn wouldn’t hunt.”
“Jorn said Burna wouldn’t hunt, and he’d sabotage Jorn’s nets and fires when he got something on his own.”
Merfather sighed. “Everyone has their own version of events. I suppose we shouldn’t believe everything either one claims.”
“I believe Jorn. I’ve already caught Burna lying. He told you Jorn took dangerous risks, then he tells you he didn’t hunt at all. He tried to tell the boys at school that Jorn was an overbearing coward. None of those things are true, and all of it couldn’t possibly be true. I trust Jorn. I’ve never caught him lying.”
Merfather leaned back against the cave wall.
“I feel sorry for Galarn,” Nehma said, as he had two weeks before.
“Really? Galarn says he feels sorry for you.”
“Me? I’ve got a great brother. Burna is the one who’s hard to get along with. You see what he’s like, don’t you?”
Merfather chuckled. “I see Burna getting easily upset, and I see Jorn so stiff and silent as if he’s above it all.”
“That’s not why he’s quiet,” Nehma protested.
“Perhaps not, but I can see why those two couldn’t work out their differences. It was wisdom on the part of the elders to bond you each as they did this year. Even though we hoped you’d get Galarn, it is obvious that it is for the good of the community that you each were paired with a more difficult partner.”
“Jorn isn’t difficult,” Nehma said, irritated that his merfather still thought Jorn was partly to blame for last year’s disaster.
Merfather chuckled. “Obviously not when paired with you. Keep up the good work. I’m proud to be your merfather.” With that he dived into the water and left.
Nehma stared after him a moment, and then stood to go back to their workroom just around the next bend. He stopped at the entrance of the room. Jorn and Lajarn sat just inside. Nehma drew in a deep breath realizing they’d probably overheard his conversation with Merfather. He shrugged nonchalantly and sat down with them. “I didn’t realize you were home.”
Jorn gave him a small smile. “I guessed that. Trouble at Whelk cluster?”
Nehma gave a small snort. “Galarn and Burna were there, and I had a yelling match with him after he accused us of cheating. I figured I better leave, and Merfather came with me.”
“As your merfather said,” Lajarn said. “We must always do what is best for the good of the whole community. If we don’t, the Mersue will quickly die out like many of the other creatures in our books we no longer see.”
“Maybe they aren’t dead. Maybe they just don’t live here anymore,” Jorn suggested.
Lajarn raised one eyebrow. “The Mersue live nowhere else. We will die out if this community dies. You know our history. Less than 200 years ago the full humans altered us. We numbered a dozen Merree and a dozen Elsue when the fulls left us, warning us that others of their kind would kill us.”
“Do you really think they’d kill us?” Nehma asked. “If I met one of them, I’d be more curious than murderous.”
“Legends are based on facts, Nehma. When we have been spotted, we’ve been attacked.” He glanced from Nehma to Jorn. “Don’t either of you do anything to draw their attention to our community.”
Jorn stiffened. “How…?”
“A lucky guess. I’m right then. You did go further east. That’s where you saw the flying elk, isn’t it? Did anyone see you?”
“No. We wouldn’t risk the group.”
“You risk us just going near them. Don’t do it again. I better get back to my cave. I’ve got work to do.” Lajarn stood and strode from the room.
Jorn stared straight ahead through the spot where his father had been. Nehma waited. He now knew that if he was patient enough Jorn would confide in him.
“We didn’t hurt anyone when we saw the elk. We aren’t careless.”
Nehma remembered Jorn flying among the gentle beasts and guessed that he desired to do so again. “No. We’ll always be careful.”
Jorn smiled then. “Yeah. We will.”
Two evenings later Thenorn and Belna arrived. Thenorn withdrew a sheaf of papers from his pouch. “Almost every master who needs an apprentice and some who don’t have asked for you.” He handed the papers to Jorn. “Look the petitions over, and meet with us when you decide. Return all the papers, also. Some will go on to Wetorn and Hevna and on down the line if you don’t choose them.”
After they left, Jorn and Nehma read through all eleven petitions. A pair of tool masters had asked for them, the storehouse, several farmers….
Nehma lifted his gaze from the petition of the storehouse keepers.
“The curl digger and red claw farmers want us.”
Nehma smiled and set the storehouse sheet aside. “Hey, this is from Docs Thorn and Manha. They already have apprentices.”
Jorn moved to read over Nehma’s shoulder. “Secondary apprentices. We would train, but be free for hunting and helping elsewhere when we weren’t learning or helping.”
“You want to?” Nehma asked. “I thought you’d want to be a toolmaker.”
Jorn shrugged but kept his gaze on the doctors’ petition. “I can make crossbows and arrows already.” He hesitated and shifted to face Nehma. “Did you really want to work with ironwood?”
Nehma started to say he didn’t really care, but then decided to be honest. “Cutting the ironwood was probably the least fun of all we did this summer, but I’m willing to work where we’re needed.”
Jorn grinned. “I was right. You didn’t like it. You claim I hide my feelings, but you do, too, you know.”
“No, I don’t. I just don’t care too strongly about most things.”
Jorn smiled, but didn’t argue. He grabbed the rest of the sheets and flipped through them. “What do you think? What’s your first choice?”
“We have two weeks. We don’t have to decide tonight.”
“You have no preference besides avoiding ironwood vines?” he teased. He set the tool making petition to one side. “How about curl digger farmer? You want that?”
Nehma laughed and shook his head, letting Jorn set that aside also. “You want to be a doc, don’t you?”
Jorn became serious. “I want to be able to prevent someone from dying if it’s at all possible.”
Nehma nodded. He didn’t mind helping people. Most of them appreciated it. “And we’d still get time for hunting… and hopping.”
Jorn grinned. “Yeah.” He sat and tilted his head back. “I want to fly with the elk again.”
“I wish I could.”
Jorn jerked his gaze to Nehma. “I… you… I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
“What’s to be sorry? I’d like to see the elk again, too.” He really wanted to catch a glimpse of the fulls. How did they live without gills or wings to help them hunt? What did they eat? What other animals roamed their island besides the gentle elk? Were dragons real? But he didn’t tell Jorn. He didn’t want to give him any reason to follow his father’s advice and stay away. They would be careful. They wouldn’t endanger the rest of the people.
If possible, it seemed that Nehma and Jorn became even busier. Each morning they reported to Doctors Thorn and Manha for instruction and assignments. Most afternoons they were free to hunt and gather. They still preferred hunting on the east side though. The west side was too crowded. In addition to food, they now were in charge of gathering medicinal plants. Several times the doctors took them on scouting trips to explain what to look for, how to harvest the plants, and how they were used.
Another storm blew in, signaling an end to the balmy summer days. After the injured were out of the infirmary, Jorn and Nehma vowed to go see the flying elk once more before it became uncomfortably cold to stay away from the caves for long.
The sun was bright overhead when they reached the narrow island right before the land of the fulls, but the flying elk were not around. Slowly, they snuck closer to the mainland, heading for a large cliff instead of the open beaches.
At very low tide, the water almost uncovered the sand at the base of the cliff, and scattered rocks promised to trap all manner of food when high tide receded each day. They found a small cave with a sandy floor which would be dry briefly at low tide. It would be a place to hide from the fulls.
The sun was arching lower in the sky when Jorn pointed up toward the long, grassy island. The flying elk were returning. Jorn flew to them. Nehma approached slowly under water, not wanting to disturb Jorn. He realized that Jorn could be seen from the mainland if anyone was watching, but they might mistake him for another flying elk or a bird if he stayed high enough.
Nehma scouted under water, and came to a dock. A raft and a small boat were tied to one side.
Nehma glanced up to see where Jorn was. He was above the island and motioning to Nehma. It was time to go. Nehma swam to him, and on the other side of the island Jorn dropped to a float beside him. “Careful. There’s a large boat coming. It appears to have three large square hides attached to poles in the center which catch the wind and push it along.
Jorn gave a small chuckle. “Your family builds boats. I forgot. But we don’t use hides… sails.”
“We don’t usually, but my fathers have instructions and books about them. I want to see.”
“Careful. You can’t let them see you.”
“I’m less visible than you are, flying with the elk.”
Jorn bit his lip, and then pointed to the southern horizon. Nehma saw the ship approaching. He dived and swam closer. It was larger than he had imagined; so much bigger than anything his fathers had built. Then he saw the nets trailing behind it and quickly dived to avoid them. Numerous fish were already caught and pulled along too quickly to dart out.
He watched as the net was pulled from the water to the boat, dumping its contents out of sight. Nehma stayed near it until it docked at the pier with the raft and small boat. The sun was almost to the water, when he turned toward home.
He and Jorn traveled the last half of the journey home after dark.
They entered the cave prepared to settle into their sleeping nooks, but they were stopped before the gathering room. Lajarn motioned them into it.
“Elfather.” Jorn settled before him. He glanced back at Nehma and then refocused on his father. “Are you done harvesting? Have you seen the nook we prepared for you?”
“You went back, didn’t you,” Lajarn said. His voice was even, but a chill of guilt ran through Nehma.
Jorn was silent, staring at the rock floor beneath his feet.
“If you care nothing for the rest of the community or your own life, think of your brother. They will kill him like a fish on an arrow. He can’t soar away like you can.”
Jorn jumped, twisting in the air and flying out through the narrow passages.
“We were careful,” Nehma protested. He shook his head and looked back down the passage. Then he wondered if he needed to show Lajarn his nook and make him welcome.
“Nehma, do not go back again.”
Nehma faced at him. “We just wanted to see the elk.”
“Do not risk my son,” Lajarn said so softly Nehma had to strain to hear him. “He is all I have left.”
Nehma stared at him a moment. What should he do? He wanted to go to Jorn, assure him that he wouldn’t be killed, tell him the ideas that had occupied him during the long journey home.
Lajarn sighed and stood, trudging toward the sleeping nooks.
Nehma dived into the water and rushed out into the ocean. Outside he scanned the sky, looking for Jorn. He finally spotted him sitting high on the cliff above their home. He hesitated and then swam to the Cinder flow. The gorge also supported a narrow stone trail to the top of the cliffs. Nehma climbed up and then carefully walked along the cliff top, trying not to think about how far down it was. Three moons lit the sky tonight, and he could see the cracks, seams, and jagged edges of the cliff top which jutted higher still.
Nehma breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Jorn still in the same spot. He would have hated to have climbed up here for nothing. He came up beside him.
Jorn jumped away and then grabbed Nehma. “What are you doing up here? You could kill yourself.”
Nehma tried to hide his smile at Jorn’s concern. “I came up here once with my siblings. It’s as close as I’ll get to flying.” He looked up at the largest of the moons. “It’s a beautiful night.” He carefully lowered himself to a crouch, looking out over the ocean.
Jorn sighed and sunk down beside him. “We shouldn’t go back.”
Nehma knew he would say that. His elfather had known what Jorn feared most. Nehma didn’t think arguing would change his mind. They probably wouldn’t find time or good weather enough to go again until spring anyway. “I’ve been thinking of a new way to use the nets so that one Elsue could make a large haul.”
Nehma again hid his grin. Jorn had not expected him to change the subject. “Maybe if we take a large net… perhaps the size that two sets of brothers use together… we can attached the top to a large log and then have weights to hold the bottom down, instead of having two Elsue at the top and two Merree at the bottom corners. Then it can somehow be pulled by ropes at all four corners. When the net is full, you could drop the ropes attached to the top corners, because that will stay up with the log, and just pull the other side up and back. I’m still trying to work out how one Merree could do it. Maybe with a special boat. Do you think we have enough rank to request a new kind of boat for us? One with a pointed front which curves up. It would cut through the water easier than a raft, and with sides we’d be able to fill it a lot fuller. That’d be less trips to the storehouse, and more gathering and hunting each time we’re out.”
Jorn began to chuckle. “I suppose you want a sail also.”
“Yeah,” Nehma agreed, finally smiling. “If we learn to catch the wind right, we won’t have to pull and push it.” He gave Jorn a quick jab. “I bet you Elsue know all about wind currents and how to catch them.”
Jorn gave a low chuckle. “You’re crazy, you know that? We’re the top hunters of our age, and you think we need to improve.”
Nehma laughed. “Who said anything about need? How many times have we found things we weren’t able to harvest because we were already loaded as much as was safe? I really want something bigger and easier to use than the raft. Thenorn said we had rank, and we don’t need or want anything else, do we?”
Jorn nodded. “A boat like that would be helpful. There’s so much good stuff we have to pass right by.” Jorn stood and stretched. “We better get some rest or we’ll fall asleep in the medical ward.” He looked along the cliff. “How do you plan to get down?”
“Over at Cinder Flow.”
Jorn shook his head. “That’s a long way.” He glanced over the edge into the water. “It’s deep enough.”
Nehma glanced over the edge. “Probably.”
Jorn grinned. “Want to fly?”
Jorn came up behind him and grabbed his waist, lifting him a few inches off the ground. “Just what I thought.” He tightened his hold and jumped into the air.
Nehma opened his mouth, but forced himself not to scream as they left the firm cliff face. Air rushed around him, less tangible, but just as real as the water he longed for, the water that was rushing toward him. Then he was only a few feet from the surface of the ocean, skimming along.
“Ready?” Jorn asked. He let Nehma drop into the water, and he soared skyward.
Nehma let himself relax in the familiar, comforting waves. His heart pounded. When it slowed, he got his bearings and swam back to their cave. He caught Jorn in the gathering room, grabbing him into a quick hug. “That was… flying!”
Jorn laughed. “Yeah.” He rubbed his right shoulder. “But don’t gain any weight.”
Jorn glanced toward the sleeping nooks, and Nehma realized that Elfather was probably sleeping… or listening.
“We better rest.”
Go to Chapter 6
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.