In the morning they went around the southern edge of the island. At the medical ward they entered and strived to report for duty.
Doctors Thorn and Manha chastised them immediately for staying out too long. “With all the hypothermia we’ve had lately, I thought you two at least would know better. Into the ward. Take a bed. I’m not letting either of you out of here until you’re completely recovered. What were you thinking? Off you go.”
Jorn and Nehma turned toward the ward. Jorn couldn’t help feeling relieved that he would not have to face his elfather for a while.
“Jorn! Is that scorch marks? How did you fall into the fire?” Dr. Thorn took his shoulder and examined his back.
Dr. Manha touched Nehma’s cheek, and then shook his head. “Brothers should never strike each other.”
“He didn’t!” Nehma said quickly. “We didn’t fight. That’s not what happened.”
“Oh, then what did happen?”
Nehma glanced at Jorn and then looked at the floor.
The doctors sighed in exasperation and led them to the ward. The ward was filled with two feet of warm water. The Elsue hammocks were positioned above the water, while the Merree were tended under the surface. Jorn lay on his stomach and allowed the doctor to rub cream over his burns.
He heard Dr. Thorn leave the ward, and he looked down to Nehma under the water beside him. “Why did you protect him? He tried to kill you.”
Nehma raised his head from the water. “It’s not him I care about, but you. If I say anything or make any decision about him, you may eventually believe that I control you, like he says. I can’t say anything. This is your struggle.”
“So,” said Dr. Manha.
Jorn jumped. He’d thought both the doctors had left them.
“I suspected that there was trouble with Lajarn, but not that he’d react violently.”
“I… He….” Jorn fumbled. He was so used to defending his father, but he glanced back at Nehma and his resolve strengthened. “I will not let him hit Nehma again. He won’t hunt with us either.”
“What about you,” Dr. Manha said softly. “Will you still allow him to strike you?”
“I’ve noticed a few bruises on your face before, and I’m assuming they came from the same source.”
Jorn sagged and curled up, holding his knees loosely, his wings hanging on either side of the hammock. “I love him, but I can’t ever please him.” But then his anger returned. “But he won’t hurt Nehma. Nehma has always defended me and tried to do what is best for us. No one will hurt him.”
Dr. Manha gripped Jorn’s shoulder. “Where is your elfather now?”
“I… I’m not sure. He might be home. He left us at Ironwood Island, and we spent the night in our old cave because we were too cold to go further. I’d had to dive into the water ‘cause Nehma didn’t see the rajadrake.”
The Elders strode into the ward with Dr. Thorn. “Rajadrake?” Thenorn asked. “You weren’t hunting rajadrake, were you?”
Jorn took a few deep breaths. If he told the elders, Elfather would lose what little respect or rank he had left. But he’d tried to kill Nehma! “Elfather saw it first, and signaled Nehma to it.” His anger became overwhelming again. “He tried to kill my brother!”
Jorn didn’t think he’d ever seen the elders become so stern. He had a brief impulse to protect his father, but he couldn’t. Instead he rested his forehead on his knees.
He heard Dr. Manha explaining what he’d discovered, Jorn’s burns, Nehma’s bruise, and their night spent east.
Thenorn took a deep breath. “We need to find him. And Jorn, I don’t think it would be wise for him to stay with you any longer.”
Jorn nodded. “I don’t know why he hates Nehma. He kept making me feel like I had to choose.”
“Jealousy,” Belna said softly. “Lajarn has always been a controlling and jealous man. It is why your mermother asked to leave as soon as your merfather died. She wanted to take you also.” He shrugged. “He never seemed to grasp that respect is earned not by how much you can control, but by how well you care for those around you, even to the point of giving them up. But you remember it, Jorn. Don’t cling too tightly and make the same mistakes later in life. Always do what is best for those around you.”
“But I can’t do what is best for everyone. I can’t please Elfather and do what is best for Nehma.”
“It is not best for your Elfather to always please him,” Thenorn said. “Sometimes it is best for someone when we say no to them. When you have children, you will say no when they want to hunt before they are ready, and you will say no when they want to fly dangerous wind currents for fun, and you will force them to work at a bonding when they become of age, because it is for their own good. Your father should have rebonded years ago, but he has refused. Perhaps, now that he knows he can no longer control you, he will accept what is best for himself.”
“He might kill himself,” Jorn whispered.
Belna’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “If he chooses to do so instead of using his remaining years to contribute to the community, then that is his selfishness and not because of anything you did or did not do.”
Thenorn gazed into Jorn’s eyes. “Do not allow him to manipulate you any longer, Jorn, either trying to earn his approval or by guilt for his life or your merfather’s life.”
Jorn let his gaze fall to his feet. “Last night I knew. I can’t follow people, but I have to do what’s best for the cluster and the community, like you said.” He lifted his gaze. “Why isn’t he proud of me? Why doesn’t he love me?”
Thenorn touched Jorn’s opposite shoulder. “We’re proud of you, Jorn. We’ve always been proud of you and Nehma.”
The apprentice Palorn entered the room. “We found him. He’s unconscious on the floor of the Elk Cluster gather room.” He held up a mushroom.
Dr. Manha took it. “Where does he get these, Jorn?”
Jorn shook his head. “I’m not sure. He would just have them and… and I’d try to avoid him for a few days. He only hit me when he ate them,” he added, and then wondered why he was again defending him. He hadn’t been eating mushrooms yesterday, and he’d almost killed Nehma.
“Does he use them often? When did he start eating them?”
“After Merfa died. It’s always worse in winter.”
Dr. Manha shook his head. “Seven years then? These have some medicinal use, but misuse can cause permanent personality changes. I’m sorry, Jorn. He can not be trusted with any responsibility which could involve another’s life. He’s been using them too long.”
“He…? Sometimes he seems better,” Jorn protested. He realized that he still hoped his father would regain the respect he so desired.
“If he doesn’t have any more, he may eventually regain some self-control, but….” He shook his head. “His future is up to him. And an extreme overdosing like this is… I’ll know more when I see him.” He dismissed his apprentice to find help in bringing Lajarn into the ward.
They were able to go home the next night. Thenorn and Belna went with them and removed Lajarn’s belongings. Nehma could only be relieved that Lajarn would no longer be with them. He could barely imagine what Jorn was feeling. His fathers would never have betrayed him like that. What would it be like to love and hate someone at the same time? Jorn did not speak of his father and Nehma did not push.
The next day, Nehma and Jorn strived to report to work. The doctors were in the smaller ward, attending Lajarn. He was awake, and shouting. Nehma and Jorn stood outside the ward entrance, unsure if they should enter. Lajarn first cursed Nehma. Then he cursed Jorn, blaming him for his brother’s death.
“That’s why he did it,” Jorn said, his voice low, as they stood before the ward entrance.
“Hear him? He thinks it only fair that my brother die like his. I killed his….”
“You didn’t kill his brother!” Nehma whispered fiercely. “It’s a lie. Even the elders told you that.”
Jorn shrugged. “He has always said it was my fault — always believed it. Everyone blamed him, but it was me — my clumsiness.”
Nehma grabbed Jorn’s arm and pulled him away from the ward entrance. “If you say that one more time….” Nehma didn’t know how to end the threat. He was helpless to take this burden from his brother.
Jorn’s lips lifted slightly in a smile, but then he shook his head. “I won’t let him kill you.”
A hand clamped on Nehma’s shoulder. He whirled around, and realized Jorn had been similarly greeted. It was Dr. Thorn. “Your father is very sick, Jorn. You do know that his rantings are irrational?”
Jorn hesitated. It was as if he didn’t know how to respond. Nehma wanted to tell the doctor that Jorn believed those lies, but he couldn’t.
Dr. Thorn sighed and rested his hand on Jorn’s shoulder. “No wonder you’ve always been so quiet,” he said softly. “Please understand that your elfather is sick and has been sick since your merfather’s death. You had no part in your merfather’s death….”
Jorn shook his head, but Dr. Thorn’s grip tightened on his shoulder.
“A child has no responsibility in a hunt. They are not to be given that responsibility until they are bonded. You must not believe the rantings of a delusional man. Do not unnecessarily burden yourself and your cluster with false guilt. A man has enough real responsibilities that he doesn’t need to waste energy hanging on to lies.”
Jorn remained silent, and Nehma could not tell what he was thinking. He could only be grateful to the doctor for repeating what Nehma knew was true.
Dr. Thorn sighed again. “Why don’t you two take a few days off. I’m sure you have things to do… nets to make or repair….” He shrugged, and glanced back toward the ward where Lajarn’s voice could no longer be heard. “Follow me.”
He led Jorn and Nehma back to his office and then pulled out one of his large books. He handed it to Jorn. “Copy this one.” Manha entered and Thorn turned to him. “I think the boys should spend some time on their written lessons at home. Every doctor needs his own books, and what better way to learn.”
Dr. Manha nodded. “Yes. It’s time to learn theory. You’ll have to get your paper, ink, and pouches from the storehouse.” He gave Nehma the first book pouch on his shelf. “Winter is a perfect time to make your books. Go on home and study.”
Jorn left abruptly. Nehma glanced back to give the doctors a grateful smile. “Thanks.” Jorn did not need to hear any more of Lajarn’s rantings.
Dr. Manha motioned him to wait. “Everyone has seen how good you have been for Jorn.”
Nehma shrugged. “Jorn’s a great brother.”
Dr. Manha smiled. “I have a feeling your brother has heard too few words of praise in his life. You’re going to be an excellent doctor, Nehma.”
“Jorn will, too. I could work anywhere, but Jorn really wanted to help people. He doesn’t want to see anyone else die.”
Dr. Manha shook his head. “Doctors see more people die than anyone else.”
“But you also help more people than anyone else.”
Dr. Thorn gave a small chuckle. “You and Jorn will both be great doctors. Go study your lessons and help distract your brother from his past.”
Nehma gave a nod and then dived into the water to swim back to their cave.
They worked on their lessons, and when they became stiff from writing, Nehma suggested that they visit his parents and see if there was anything they could do to help on their boat. For the next week they would study in the morning and evening and work on their boat in the afternoon. By the end of the week Nehma could see Jorn beginning to relax as they worked with Nehma’s fathers. He didn’t tease them back, but he would give them a small smile when they addressed him with teasing or praise.
Lajarn stayed at the doctors’ ward for two weeks before he was well enough to return to the cave he and Jorn had used the winter before. Jorn and Nehma didn’t see him, and they began going to assist the doctors again every morning.
Their boat was finished before spring, and on the first clear and sunny day, Nehma and Jorn took it out, sailing south. They almost swamped the boat several times and ended up laughing. Although the water and wind were cold, the sun and excitement kept them from getting too uncomfortable. By the time the sun settled to the horizon, Jorn had mastered the wind currents, using his wings as additional sails. The boat skimmed along the water in whatever direction he wanted it to go, faster than Nehma could ever hope to swim.
Nehma threw his new net off the back of the boat as they headed home. He felt the tug as it filled and he pulled it up as he’d seen done with the Full’s net.
“It worked!” Nehma shouted as he dumped the flopping fish into the bottom of the boat.
Jorn glanced back and grinned. “See if you can get another netfull before we reach home.”
They spent all evening cleaning and preparing their catch. Nehma’s fathers and two of Nehma’s siblings stopped to help and hear how the new boat had performed for them, including Halorn.
Halorn still had the habit of speaking before he thought, but his references to Galarn and Burna had not seemed to bother Jorn as they had worked in his fathers’ workroom.
“Hey, Jorn,” Halorn asked, as he grabbed a fish from the bottom of the boat. He sat down and began to scale it. “Where’s your elfather? He could help, too.”
Nehma’s fathers glanced around as if expecting to see him also. Jorn looked so sick that Nehma had to speak up. “I thought you knew. Lajarn moved back into his small cave. He’s no longer part of our cluster.”
Nehma’s merfather glanced from Nehma and then focused on Jorn. Then he met his brother’s gaze.
“I thought he was helping you get rank,” Halorn said.
Elfather touched Halorn’s shoulder. “Jorn and Nehma didn’t need any help to get rank.”
“Why did he leave?” Halorn asked.
Jorn stood and jumped into the air. He had flown from the room before anyone could speak, and Nehma suspected he’d gone out into the night.
“Can’t you keep quiet for anything, Halorn?” Nehma asked in exasperation. “Just leave him alone.”
“I didn’t do anything!”
Elfather stood. “Come, Halorn, Kelna, let’s go home. I think Merfa needs to talk with Nehma alone.” Elfather herded Nehma’s siblings from the workroom. Soon the cave was silent.
Nehma grabbed another fish. They still had half their catch to clean and smoke over the fires.
“What happened?” Merfa asked softly.
Nehma shook his head, but didn’t look at him. “Elders just thought it best.”
“Really? Did you and Jorn disagree?”
Nehma stood. “I really should go find Jorn.”
Nehma sighed. He’d never kept anything from his father before, but…. “Lajarn blames Jorn for his brother’s death.” His frustration needed a release. He turned to face his merfather. “Jorn believes it, too. I’ve told him, the elders have told him, even the doctors have told him it couldn’t possibly be his fault, but I know he believes Lajarn’s lies.”
“So you asked to have Lajarn removed?”
“No! I didn’t do anything. Look, it’s just hard, okay? Jorn’s the best brother but I can’t do a thing to help him. I can’t even begin to know how he feels. You’d never treat me like that. I just wish….” Nehma shook his head. He wasn’t sure what he wished exactly. He just wanted to somehow take the pain away.
“I don’t understand how Lajarn could blame his son. He must have been quite young then.” Merfather shook his head. “But this can’t be new. What happened to make him leave?”
Nehma refocused on his fish. “I have to get this cleaned.”
Nehma shook his head. “Let it go, please,” he whispered.
Jorn landed at the edge of the room and strode over to the fish he’d been cleaning. He grabbed it and his knife and focused on it. “I will not let my elfather harm Nehma.”
Merfather stood and his mouth opened in surprise, but Jorn ignored him.
Nehma shook his head, silently begging his merfather not to pursue it.
Merfather took a deep breath, but then motioned Nehma to follow him. Nehma sighed but dived into the water after him and followed him out into the cold ocean. He stopped and lifted his head from the water. “Lajarn attacked you?”
Nehma shook his head, but then shrugged. “He hit me. Jorn defended me, and Lajarn threw him into the fire. But Merfa, Lajarn has been hitting Jorn all along. I didn’t see it, but I knew. And Jorn just accepted it. Until he hit me.” He took a deep breath. “Look, it’s hard for him. He had to choose between trying to please his father and doing what is right. You’d never do that to me, and I know it’s tearing him up. His father hates him now. Maybe he did before. I don’t know. But Jorn doesn’t have any parents left who love him. Please don’t make it harder for him.” Nehma could think of nothing else, so he dived away from his father and swam back to his home.
He had hoped that Jorn was beginning to feel a part of his family as they had worked on the boat, but now Nehma was afraid Jorn would try to distance himself from them. Nehma could understand his caution, his reserve. He’d been betrayed by those he loved most. Jorn never said it, but Nehma guessed that his mermother had chosen to avoid contact with Jorn, either for fear of angering Lajarn or Burna, who was her womb child. Jorn had indeed lost everyone close to him, but Nehma would do his best to make sure he didn’t lose his new family.
It was a while before they had the whole day free again, but they took the boat for small excursions every chance they got. Every time they brought it back to their cave full, proving that it had indeed been worth the time and materials to make it.
They became busier in the doctors’ ward as the warmer weather tempted people to wander out further and the erratic spring storms caught them off guard. Injuries and illnesses increased.
When the doctors offered them a whole day off to hunt as well as gather medical plants, Nehma and Jorn decided to start out at sunrise.
“Maybe we can see the flying elk,” Nehma suggested.
Jorn hesitated. Then he nodded. “We’ll be careful. We won’t endanger the community.”
Nehma touched his shoulder in agreement and then dived from the gather room to his sleeping nook.
Pink and purple streaks painted the eastern sky as they left their cave the following morning. Jorn deftly caught the wind currents with their sails and his wings and steered their boat to the south and then east. Nehma scanned the ocean bed for anything the Mersue community could use. He dived several times to gather plants or crustaceans, while Jorn circled their boat. He could take down the sail or even remove the mast and lay it down in the boat if they needed to go through a small opening, which they talked about maybe doing to hide their boat in the small cave they’d found on the Full’s homeland.
The sun was still in the eastern sky when they came closer to the island before the Full’s home — the island they’d began calling “Flying Elk Island” since it was where they’d first encountered the gentle creatures.
“I’m going to sail us right up onto the beach,” Jorn said, heading toward the sand. “We can leave the boat on the far side of the island and then explore.”
“Sounds good.” Nehma hoped he’d get a good look at some of the Fulls today and how they lived. He glanced up to see Jorn’s familiar dark form following them, his crossbow ready to protect Nehma from danger… except it couldn’t be Jorn because Jorn was in the boat beside him tending the sail.
Go to Chapter 9
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.