The next day Docs Manha and Thorn dismissed them at midday. “The elders will lunch with you,” Dr. Thorn said.
Jorn and Nehma both started. “Where? At the storehouse?” Jorn asked.
“All of them?” Nehma asked at the same time.
The docs laughed. “Thenorn and Belna will meet you in your cave. You best go and prepare for them.” They dismissed them, and Jorn and Nehma rushed home. Jorn hoped that Elfather had eaten no more mushrooms.
They headed straight to the workroom to determine which of the food not yet taken to the storehouse would be good to serve. They settled on the walpigate, and Jorn wished he hadn’t given in to his father and stopped adding the vemint to the fires. He didn’t understand why Elfa thought it was a waste when Thenorn had even mentioned it during the ceremony as a good thing that they’d done. But it was disrespectful to disagree, and even Nehma said little now.
That Nehma had become silent at home bothered Jorn, but he didn’t know why. Nehma was showing respect to Elfather, but maybe… maybe it was because Elfather wasn’t showing Nehma any respect at all.
Jorn took a deep breath and refocused on their stores.
“Jorn?” Nehma asked quietly, concern evident in his voice as it often was.
Jorn gave him a slight smile. “I can’t figure out what we need with the walpigate.”
“I’ll get some fronds from below and meet you in the gather room.”
Jorn watched him leave and then took the two foot scallop shell of dried walpigate out to the gather room.
Lajarn crouched in the corner working on another arrow, and his eyes narrowed. “What’s this?”
“The elders are coming for lunch,” he said quickly, trying to decide the center of the oblong chamber. He carefully set the shell platter down and glanced around.
“The elders? Why are they coming? Is that childish brother of yours backing out of his commitment? Is he petitioning to break your bonding?”
Nehma appeared with another shell tray of greens. “No. I am not backing out of my commitments.” He set the tray down and faced the entrance as Thenorn and Belna stepped in.
Lajarn set the unfinished arrow aside and rose. “Welcome,” he said solemnly. “I wish I had known you were coming. We would have prepared properly.”
Thenorn raised one eyebrow. “The meal looks excellent.” He and Belna settled on one side of the platters.
Jorn glanced at Nehma and they crouched on the other side. Lajarn silently crouched beside Jorn.
As was polite, they let their guests enjoy their meal, but Jorn could barely eat. His stomach churned. Had the doctors decided they didn’t want them?
Thenorn settled back. “Good, as usual. I suppose you haven’t had the time to find more vemint.”
Jorn glanced at Elfather, but Nehma spoke, “I can get it, but Elfather asked us not to use it. We have deferred to his… wisdom.”
Elfather rolled his eyes.
Thenorn barely glanced at Lajarn, instead focusing on Jorn and Nehma. “Respect for your elders is admirable and will serve you well throughout life. Listen to much advice. Some is bound to be conflicting, and then you must decide what is best for your cluster and the Mersue people as a whole.”
Lajarn shook his head. “You came to talk to them because they were no longer using vemint?”
Thenorn glanced at Lajarn before saying, “No. I came because the Flying Elk Cluster is of special interest to Belna and me. These two young men have the potential to become leaders in the community, and it is essential they learn how to make wise decisions from the start.” He leaned forward. “They are not learning if you make their decisions for them, Lajarn.”
Elfather jumped up. “I see what has happened here. Nehma can’t control Jorn, so he has gone to you so that you can take away all I have left in the world.”
Had Nehma asked to have elfather removed? Jorn stared at Nehma in disbelief.
“No one has spoken to me since Jorn and Nehma asked about acquiring a boat,” Thenorn said calmly. “As I said, we’ve come because each new cluster is scheduled to have visits throughout their first few years, and Jorn and Nehma are assigned to us. As to the other, I am simply pointing out to these boys that just because you do not like vemint, does not mean they must not use it. They must think for themselves. It is their cluster, and therefore any responsibility, any praise or blame, will fall on them.”
“I do not dislike vemint, but it is not a hunter’s job to take time for it.”
Thenorn’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? It did not seem to slow them down while earning their racks.” Then he shook his head and waved his hand as if to push all that had been said aside. “Vemint is unimportant. The cluster should do as they desire, not as you or I may desire. We cannot maintain unity in the major issues of the community if we quibble about personal taste. No one has been harmed by lack of or too much vemint.” Thenorn focused on Jorn and Nehma. “So, have you had time to work on your net idea?”
Jorn shook his head. He knew his father was fuming that the elders did not respect him. He couldn’t say anything that would seem like he cared about Thenorn’s opinion or his father would take it as treason. But he could not say anything that would cause Thenorn or Belna to be disappointed in him either. The two elders had been generous in their praise and kindness. Even before he’d been bonded to Nehma, the two of them would occasionally seek him out and ask how he was. Jorn assumed it was because they cared about the whole community, even a lowly boy who’d lost three of his four parents.
Nehma glanced past Jorn to Lajarn, but then shook his head. “I have been thinking about the plants and medicines the doctors are teaching us, and when I am not trying to remember that, we are hunting.”
“How is your boat coming?” Belna asked.
Nehma smiled. “We got the tree for the hull yesterday — bigger around than my arms, almost as big as both our arms around.” He grinned when the elders smiled. “It was a lot easier to cut down that monster than those two ironwood vines.”
Belna and Thenorn laughed. Belna glanced at the conch sitting at the edge of the room. “That’s a nice sized conch.”
“Yeah,” Nehma agreed. “I think it’s even bigger than the first one we got.”
Both elders glanced around the room. “The first one? What did you do with that one?”
Nehma glanced at Jorn. Then he shrugged. “We had to leave it when we found Telern, and Getna… well, he thinks Telern got it, and it wasn’t worth fighting over.” He hesitated. “Except Getna’s parents accused us of trying to steal it. That’s bothered me some, because we didn’t. It was ours.”
“Do you want it back?” Belna asked.
“We don’t need it. I just don’t like them thinking we’d try to steal from an injured man to make our racks.”
Belna reached across to pat Nehma’s shoulder. “I don’t think anyone can honestly think you got your racks by stealing. They were just distraught.”
“Yeah. That’s what we figured. That’s why we never said anything — didn’t mean to bring it up now.” Nehma’s face became slightly red.
“You did what was best for harmony in the community. That was very compassionate and wise of you both.”
“You two are continually impressing us,” Belna added.
Nehma blushed slightly, but then gave Jorn a sideways glance. He focused on the elders again. “It helps to have an excellent brother. I’ve never thanked you for putting us together.”
Jorn stared at Nehma. He seemed completely sincere, and the elders seemed to believe him.
Thenorn gave a gentle smile. “My sibling’s daughter would be pleased to know her son is so well bonded.”
Jorn focused on Thenorn, and his mouth fell open. “I… what do you mean?”
Lajarn snorted. “We’re all related.”
Lajarn glared at Jorn and he bit his lip.
“Your mother’s mother was my sibling. She was killed by disease when you were two years of age. She loved you as your own mother, Jorn.”
Jorn didn’t know how to respond, and all his mind could latch on to was that somehow he was related to the elder Thenorn.
“We’re all related if you try hard enough to find a connection,” Lajarn repeated.
Thenorn gave a small tilt to his head. “True. We are a small community, and to survive we are naturally all interrelated.”
Nehma again glanced at Jorn, but Jorn didn’t know what he was looking for. “Why tell Jorn now, instead of years ago,” Nehma asked, and Jorn realized he wanted to know that also.
Thenorn chuckled. “As Lajarn has said, we are all related somehow. And I did not realize my statement would be a surprise to you. I thought you knew. I did not try to hide it.”
Nehma shifted to rest his arms on his knees. “You know a lot about the community. May I ask you one more question?”
Belna chuckled. “You may always ask, Nehma, as long as you do not mind unanswered questions.”
Nehma again glanced at Jorn. He always seemed to do that, as if making sure Jorn was okay, or if he objected to what he was doing. He took a deep breath. “Why did you assign Jorn to Burna last year? Didn’t you see that he was a liar then?”
Jorn felt his eyes grow wider, even though he tried to control himself and not show any reaction.
“Burna is none of your concern,” Elfather said abruptly.
“But I think perhaps Nehma doesn’t know that Burna and Jorn used to be siblings. When they were younger they were as two born together. When Lajarn suggested him to me, I could see no problems with the match. I did not anticipate that Burna had dealt with the loss of his merfather by blaming Jorn and his elfather.”
“Why didn’t you tell me Burna was your sibling?” Nehma accused.
“He’s not,” Jorn countered quickly. He couldn’t stand it if Nehma now thought he’d lied. “He hasn’t been since Merma and all her merchildren were taken to live with the Baleen cluster. I have no siblings now. They don’t wish to be my siblings.”
Thenorn touched Jorn’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jorn. I had thought that Burna would understand, being as he’d been with you and Lajarn that day. And Lajarn thought it would be best also.”
Lajarn said nothing, staring at the glowing moss cluster symbol on the cave wall beyond Thenorn’s head. His jaw was tight. Why didn’t he tell the elders the truth? But he didn’t. He just stared.
Jorn sagged and stared at the empty platters between them. “It was my fault. I enraged the beast with my clumsy arrows. Burna knows it.”
Nehma whirled around and rested on his knees. He grabbed Jorn’s shoulders. “It is not your fault. Will you stop that? A nine year old child should not be taken to hunt rajadrake. It was never your fault. Don’t hang on to this.”
Jorn could only stare back at Nehma.
Nehma then seemed aware of himself again. He glanced back at Thenorn and Belna and settled into a crouch again. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “It wasn’t his fault.”
“You are right,” Thenorn said softly. “Nine year old children should not be hunting rajadrake. Nor should one pair of brothers try it alone. It was a mistake in judgment by Lajarn and his brother, and Lajarn must live with that.”
Elfather’s jaw became tighter, but he said nothing.
“Jorn,” Thenorn said, just as softly. “Your brother has much wisdom, and he loves you. Do not torment yourself with what cannot be changed. Instead learn from the past, and strive to do the best you can do today.”
Thenorn rose to stand, and Belna followed. Jorn jumped up as did Nehma. Elfather stayed crouching.
“We will see you again, and do not be afraid to come see us.”
As soon as the elders disappeared, Jorn grabbed Nehma’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean it as a secret. He would hate that anyone thought he was my sibling.”
Nehma shrugged. “Still wish you’d mentioned it. His attitude makes sense now.”
“You think he was right?”
“No. Of course not.” Nehma squeezed Jorn’s upper arm in reassurance. “Just that I couldn’t figure out what caused him to not like you right out without even knowing you.” He dropped his hand and glanced out to the passage. “We should go and see my fathers about the boat.”
Jorn glanced back at Elfather, but Elfather still ignored them, staring straight ahead. Jorn decided he better go with Nehma. He leapt from the room, and Nehma dived into the water.
Elfather did not speak as much, but Jorn knew that he was not happy. He sat and stared while the half-completed crossbow was held idle in his hands. Elfather was usually more depressed in the winter, and Jorn tried not to let it bother him. Although, he’d hoped that now that Jorn had a brother and rank, which meant Elfather was now gaining rank again, he would stop dwelling on what could not be changed. Sometimes Elfather stared directly at Nehma, and Jorn felt a churning in his gut. For some reason, Elfather did not like Nehma although Nehma had always been kind to him.
They could not hunt as much. The cold weather slowed reflexes, and hypothermia set in if one stayed out too long. Elfather always went with them, and as always he insisted that real hunters tackled the big creatures and left the smaller for those not strong enough to provide the group with larger fare. He’d voiced that when it was just he and Jorn hunting, before Jorn had been bonded, but if their arrows didn’t bring down a beast, or it snagged itself too far underwater when it died, they lost it.
Fortunately Nehma was very fast and efficient with his trenk.
Their boat would be ready by spring, but there was much work to be done on it. Several times Jorn and Nehma went to help with it after the doctors dismissed them.
It was a bright winter day when the doctors dismissed them early, saying they might as well use the sunshine to get in a little hunting. Elfather joined them. As usual they headed south and then east.
Even though the sun was bright, Jorn knew the water was cold. He wondered if they should really travel so far from home. Already this winter four Merree and two Elsue had come into the medical ward for severe hypothermia, and almost all of them had contracted a prolonged lung infection which made breathing difficult even for the Merree. Two were still in the ward, and one might not recover.
Jorn was about to signal Nehma to head back west, when his father gave a signal that he’d found something to the south. Nehma obeyed instantly, but Jorn could tell his reflexes were slowing down. What had his father spotted?
Jorn flew south and his heart froze. Nehma was headed straight for a huge rajadrake. Frantically he tried to signal him, but Nehma was concentrating on trying to find what Elfather wanted to hunt. How could he get his attention?
Jorn soared over Nehma and then dived straight into the water before him. The water was colder than he’d imagined, and he felt a blackness try to close in on him.
Nehma pulled on him and was beside him as he surfaced. “Jorn!”
“Quick. To the island. Rajadrake.”
Nehma just stared at him.
“Go! Please,” Jorn pleaded, the coldness seeping into his every pore.
“Yeah,” Nehma said. “I’ll meet you at the island. Go get a fire going.”
It was almost impossible to lift into the air, but he did, and then he circled and watched.
Nehma had spotted the rajadrake, and worse yet, the rajadrake had spotted him.
Jorn motioned Nehma away, and he clutched his crossbow, grabbing arrows from his quiver. Then he dived until he was almost at the water’s surface, and he let loose an arrow into the beast’s face. It raged upward, and Jorn soared just out of reach, but close enough to keep its attention. How many nights had he lain awake and planned how to defeat this monster and save Merfa? And each time he’d known he didn’t care if he got the stupid skull, just as long as Merfa lived.
Jorn circled around the creature, causing it to twist and fall back into the sea. It searched for him again, and he was ready when it lunged up toward him. Jorn let an arrow fly and this time it took out its eye.
And now Elfather was beside him. He shot several arrows.
Jorn flew higher than the monster could reach and scanned the ocean for Nehma. He was at the island, waving for Jorn to come in.
Jorn shot toward the island. When he reached the beach, his legs crumbled beneath him. He hadn’t realized he was so weak.
Nehma was beside him. “The fire. What do I need to do? Come on. We can’t give up.” Nehma ran to gather some dry twigs and grasses.
Jorn pulled the stones from his waist pouch and tried to focus on the kindling. The fire caught quickly, and Jorn relaxed as the heat began to revive him.
Jorn jerked his gaze toward Elfather’s voice. He stood glaring down at Nehma.
“We could have had it! But you ran like a woman to safety.”
Nehma was bluer than normal, and he shivered slightly. He stared up at Elfather as if shocked.
Elfather raised his hand and brought it down on Nehma’s face.
Elfather had hit Jorn in anger many times, but this time, when he saw Nehma fall back, rage swept through him. He jumped up and grabbed Elfather’s winter tunic. “You tried to kill him!”
Elfather jerked loose. “If he’s half the hunter everyone claims he is, he’d have no trouble, but he ran like the coward he is.”
Jorn took two steps so that he was inches from Elfather’s face. “You tried to kill him! I trusted you, and you tried to kill my brother.” He grabbed Elfather’s tunic again.
Elfather pushed him away. “I see that you believe that liar more than the father who gave you life.”
“I believe what I just saw. You whine about no respect, but you don’t respect anyone.”
The blow sent Jorn sprawling into the fire, knocking his breath from him.
Jorn smelt the burning feathers, and the pain caused him to jump up. He stumbled and Nehma grabbed him.
“Come on.” He pushed Jorn into the sea.
As the cold water surrounded him, he also felt his sanity slowly return.
“Nehma,” Jorn whispered.
“You can’t stay in here too long. Hopefully you weren’t burnt too badly.”
They stumbled back to the fire to warm themselves. Elfather was gone. When Jorn looked up, he saw him heading west, heading home.
It was hard to warm up out in the open, and the chills kept sweeping through Jorn. He tried not to think about what had just happened.
“Jorn,” Nehma said softly, and Jorn noticed it was getting dark. “Do you think you can make it to our old cave? It’s small and would heat up quickly. I think we left some wood and kindling, didn’t we?”
Jorn nodded. “But you… you… The rajadrake.”
“We have to go now while we still have light,” Nehma said.
Jorn took a deep breath and stood. When he stretched his wings, pain throbbed in his back. He’d hit the fire straight on. Hopefully that meant none of his feathers essential for flight were damaged.
He rose into the air and scanned the water, searching for the rajadrake. He didn’t see it, so he motioned Nehma to come. They made it to their small cave, and Jorn quickly lit several fires.
The night passed in a blur. Several times, Jorn woke Nehma so that he could dip into the water. Nehma said the water on the lower ledge was warming with the fire’s help, but it was still not as warm as their cave waters which were further inland and constantly warmed by the overhead air.
All night Jorn could not forget the image of Nehma being struck. His brother continually told everyone how great Jorn was, and yet Jorn had been so afraid of offending Elfather that his brother had almost been killed. He should listen to Thenorn instead. No, he should do what is right for his cluster and the community. That’s what Thenorn had said. He shouldn’t have hesitated to send them back home when he knew Nehma was getting too cold. Never again would he risk his brother. He wasn’t sure how he’d face Elfather again, but he wouldn’t follow in fear of offending him anymore. He wouldn’t forget how his father had tried to send Nehma to his death.
Go to Chapter 8
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.