Zander Terrani’s father and brothers were going fishing in the big boat and claimed that Zander would just be in the way if he came also. Zander’s grandfather just gave him a sympathetic look. Zander’s mother suggested that he collect a bucket of divitberries, ending the argument, because his father instantly agreed with her. He’d be stuck with his childhood chores for the rest of his life.
After his father and brothers had gone, Zander grabbed his longbow, his fishing pole, and a bucket for divitberries and limped down to his rowboat beside the dock. He tried not to let anger or despair dominate his thoughts — anger over his crippling injury last year, nor despair that his father now thought him a burden. He’d always thought he’d join his father and brothers in their fishing business when he was old enough, but it appeared that his father and brothers no longer wanted him. But he’d show them. He’d hunt and fish just as well as any of them.
Zander saw the wild wingdeer herd grazing peacefully in the grasses on the east side of the island. He wouldn’t disturb them. He had tried to catch a calf last year and had fallen off the edge of the cliff onto the rocks below, breaking his hip. Zander didn’t blame the wingdeer for his mistake. They hadn’t done anything but fly away, and Zander had been focused on them and not the loose soil and rocks at the cliff’s edge. He’d always been fascinated by the creatures ever since he was seven and a stranger riding a bull wingdeer in full antler had stopped in their small village for a week.
Zander rowed around the island and pulled his boat onto the far side near a thicket of divitberries. He’d bring back a bucketful for his mother, but first he’d hunt. Large water fowl nested on the southwest end of the island, and Zander hoped to get at least one with his bow.
Zander grabbed his bow and quiver and limped down the narrow trail, behind the bushes, but close to the water’s edge. He glanced into the sky to see if any of the birds were about.
A black bird came from the west, dropping lower. Zander couldn’t take his eyes from it. He’d never seen anything like it. As it neared, he could tell it wasn’t a normal bird. Those ancient geneticists had made a menagerie of flying creatures, but this one looked almost… human! And it carried a cross bow. It aimed at the water, as it flew toward Zander.
The arrow released, and Zander almost screamed when he saw the boat. The flying creature had shot at someone on the boat. And hit him!
“Hide! Dive…” The first voice was getting more frantic.
The black birdman dived again with his crossbow ready. Zander lifted his bow. He couldn’t let that creature kill the people on the boat. His arrow hit the moving target, and the crossbow tumbled from its hands and into the ocean. The birdman faltered and splashed into the ocean a little ways away.
The boat was almost on the island now, and Zander limped from the bushes to meet it. “Hey! Are you okay? Hey….” Zander stopped inches from the boat and stared into a face surrounded by deep blue scales. The man’s face was normal, with grey blue eyes, and so was his chest, but his arms were also covered with scales. The man seemed as surprised as he was.
“Help me, please,” the fish man said. “Jorn’s been hurt.”
Zander helped pull the boat to rest on the sand, as he looked in on the fish man’s friend. It was another black bird man, and an arrow pierced his left wing. Blood glistened on the black feathers.
The bird man, Jorn, briefly met his gaze, and Zander could see the pain in his eyes. “Please, Nehma. Hide. He’ll be back.”
“I shot him,” Zander said.
Both of them jerked their gaze to him, and Zander felt suddenly as if he’d done something dreadfully wrong. He’d killed a man — bird man or not, it was a man. “I… I thought he was trying to kill you. He was, wasn’t he?” He felt weak. He’d never hurt anyone on purpose before.
The fish man — Nehma — nodded. “Yeah. He was trying to kill us. Thanks.” He rested his hand on Jorn’s shoulder.
Jorn appeared to be in even more pain.
“We need to get that arrow out,” Nehma said softly, and Zander was suddenly aware that although he could understand the two, they had a strange way of saying their words, as if speaking too quickly.
Jorn focused on Zander. “He isn’t dead, is he?”
It took a moment to realize that Jorn was concerned for their attacker. Zander’s gut churned as he guessed that they were related. “I… I don’t know. The crossbow fell and then… then he fell into the water. I just watched you guys after that.”
“Jorn,” Nehma said again. “We must get that arrow out and stop the bleeding.”
“But Elfa…,” Jorn moaned.
“I’m sorry,” Nehma said.
Jorn gritted his teeth. Then he focused on Nehma. “He meant this arrow for you. He was trying to kill you again.” He looked at Zander. “Thank you for saving my brother.”
“Ah, sure.” Zander said, not quite sure he’d heard him right.
“Stretch out your wing. You know I have to remove the arrow.”
Jorn did as Nehma asked this time. Nehma examined the wound and then looked at Zander. “Do you know how to start a fire?”
“Will you? I will need to make a tea. It’s a good thing we found those hairy cucumbers.”
“Pain med. Yeah. That’s what I need,” Jorn said, but his voice sounded weak.
Zander hurried to gather a bit of tinder and kindling. When he returned, the arrow was out of Jorn’s wing, and Nehma was applying some kind of salve he had just made from something in their boat. Then Jorn rested, sitting and curled with his arms around his legs and his head down. His wings spread open on either side of him.
Zander watched Nehma prepare a tea of seawater and some kind of sea plant Zander was unfamiliar with… or maybe it was an animal. Nehma, the fish man, had deep shimmering blue scales instead of hair. They disappeared beneath the scant tunic he wore and they reappeared on his legs beneath the short pants. His blue legs ended in feet unlike any Zander had ever seen. There appeared to be a five-spined fin instead of toes at the end of it. Nehma’s arms were also covered with the blue scales, as were the back of his hand, but aside from the color, his hand appeared human, with the correct amount of digits and joints. Nehma’s face was fully human, although Zander could never say he saw the “whites” of Nehma’s eyes. That part was grey, his pupil black, but the iris matched his scales. Where the scales met flesh on each side of Nehma’s neck was a slit. Zander guessed it might be gills.
He turned his attention to the bird-man who crouched unmoving on the beach. His jet black feathers covered the top of his head, down his bare back and across his wings. His face, arms and legs were fully human, but his feet were bare and not human at all. They were fully birdlike with thick claws at the tip of each of the three forward toes and the two backward toes. Both of them wore woven short pants and tunics. Jorn’s covered his chest, but tied at his waist and neck, leaving his wings free.
Nehma took the tea from the fire and focused on Zander. “I am Nehma. My brother is Jorn. Thank you for your help.”
“I’m Zander Terrani. I… I never knew… I mean there are rumors of merfolk, but my father said it wasn’t true, and… and bird people? I….” He shook his head.
Nehma took a shell with his tea to Jorn. Jorn lifted his head only long enough to drink it. Then Nehma settled to sit beside him facing Zander. “Zanderterrani, we were told that your people would kill us if they knew we existed. Is that true?”
Zander started to shake his head, but then realized that he had quite possibly just killed one, and he hadn’t even meant to. And he couldn’t guarantee what others would do. “I don’t know. Would you kill us?”
“No. We wouldn’t. We would defend ourselves, but we would not attack.”
“But… That other bird man. He would have.”
Jorn lifted his head. “No. He wanted to kill Nehma. He did not intend for you to see him.”
“Why? Are the bird people and the fish people at war?”
Nehma’s mouth twisted into a smile. “No. We are one people. The Merree and the Elsue form the Mersue community.” His smile left and he glanced at Jorn. “Lajarn has been ill. He is Jorn’s elfather and….” Nehma touched Jorn’s shoulder. “He has been ill a long time,” he finished softly. Nehma glanced back at their boat. “You need to see Dr. Thorn.” He focused on Zander again. “I do want to speak with you more, but I must get my brother to the doctors. Wing injuries are delicate, and it is a long way. Will you promise not to tell anyone about us?”
“I….” Zander hesitated. He could tell his friend Ethan, but would he even believe him? “I’d like to see you again, also. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Thank you, Zanderterrani. When Jorn is well we will visit again. He loves to fly with the elk.” He tapped Jorn.
Jorn rose from the ground. He swayed a moment, as if he might lose his balance, and Nehma steadied him, helping him to their boat.
Then Zander glanced beyond them. “There!” He pointed to the black feathered clump drifting toward them.
Jorn and Nehma hesitated and then Nehma jumped from the boat and disappeared under the water. He reappeared beside the black lump. The lump moved and swatted at Nehma. He was still alive!
Nehma ignored the man’s protest and floated him to their boat.
“Leave me,” the man said weakly.
“We can’t,” Nehma said. “You are too close to the Fulls. Zanderterrani, can you help me get him into the boat?”
Blood covered the man’s chest, and the end of Zander’s broken arrow protruded from his shoulder.
“A Full! I told you, you’d get us all killed. I was right. But you listen to your cowardly brother.” His voice became even weaker. “You should have died when you killed your mother.”
Jorn just stared at the man, his eyes wide, and his body stiff. He stood straight upright in the boat, holding the mast.
Zander and Nehma lifted his father into the front of the boat, and he cursed as he settled into the pile of nets and sea debris littering the bottom of the boat. Zander imagined he was in pain. Nehma must have thought the same thing because he ran to the fire where the rest of the liquid he’d brewed still sat in a large clamshell bowl. He grabbed it and the smaller shell and brought them to the man.
“Here, Elfa. This is pain medicine. Just like the docs taught us to make. It will help you rest while I push us home.”
“Push?” Jorn asked. “I can sail.”
Nehma didn’t respond, but fed Jorn’s father three doses of the medicine.
“Some doctors you two will be,” he slurred, but then closed his eyes and was quiet.
Nehma stood and faced Jorn. “You aren’t feeling well.”
“I can sail. It will take too long to push us home.”
Nehma finally nodded. “You will teach me the wind currents when you are better.” He jumped from the boat and started pushing it from the sand.
Zander helped him.
As the boat drifted free, Nehma focused on Zander. “Thank you, Zanderterrani. I will visit you again. You live by the dock which has the raft, the rowboat, and the large, three-sailed boat, don’t you?”
“Tell no one, please.”
“I won’t,” Zander promised. No one would believe him anyway.
Nehma gave a slight nod and then dived after the boat. Soon Nehma had caught the boat and was lifting himself into the back of it. Then Jorn played the sail to catch the wind, his uninjured wing catching the wind also, while the other stayed near to him.
Zander watched until the speck on the horizon was too small to see. He wouldn’t get much hunting done today. He’d better pick those berries and get back home. He looked back at his small fire. Several large black feathers lay on the sand. Zander picked them up and carefully tucked the feathers inside his shirt, covered the fire with sand, and went back to his rowboat for the bucket.
Fortunately, the extra doses of pain medicine quieted Lajarn. Jorn could barely focus on the sails and the wind. He tried not to think about the throbbing in his wing and that he might never fly again if it healed wrong. He also tried not to think about his father’s words. He knew Nehma would say they weren’t true, and sometimes Jorn could believe Nehma, but right now, if he didn’t stay focused on the wind and the sails and getting home, he knew he would start going over and over his father’s accusations.
Several times Jorn’s vision wavered, but he forced himself to stay upright. As they passed the southern tip of their home island, though, his knees buckled.
Nehma was beside him. “Rest. We’re almost home.” Nehma quickly took down the sail and then dived into the water.
Jorn knew when the light dimmed and they entered the doctor’s cave. And then Nehma brought the doctors to them.
“You first, Jorn,” Dr. Thorn said. “I need to look at that wing. Palorn will tend to your father.”
The rest of the day blended together and Jorn guessed that the doctors had given him stronger medicine so that they could probe the wound and reconnect any small bones and ligaments that had been damaged. Finally his wing was bound because he wasn’t to move it for several weeks. He had to stay in the ward, and Nehma stayed with him instead of going home.
The next morning Jorn’s head was clear, but the doctors insisted that he stay in the ward and rest. Nehma only tended patients near him, focusing most of his attention on Jorn. Although Jorn didn’t know what to say, he realized that Nehma’s care was comforting. Someone did care about him even if his father did not.
The elders came to share their noon meal. The other patients were moved to the larger ward on the other side of the cavern, presumably so that the four of them could be alone. Jorn ate little. His stomach churned as he tried to guess what Thenorn was going to say.
He expected they’d talk about his father or about their cluster rank since he may not be able to fly for a good portion of the early hunting season. Or maybe they’d say that Nehma should be bonded to someone else now that Jorn couldn’t fly. He was too good a hunter to be tied to an invalid all season.
Thenorn finished the last of the curl diggers on the platter and set it aside. “I hear you and Jorn have a friend among the Fulls.”
“Huh?” It was not what Jorn had expected.
Nehma shrugged. “Not sure. Just met him after Jorn was shot. He saw the attack and shot Lajarn.”
“He did? Lajarn thought Jorn shot him.”
“No. Jorn was a bit shocked at first, and we lost control of the boat. Fortunately, it went straight to the beach and not the rocks, but that’s where Zanderterrani was. It was too late to think about hiding by that time, and I welcomed the help.”
“Lajarn was under the impression that you go there often to see him.”
“No. We’ve gone to see the flying elk, but we never met a Full before.” Nehma hesitated. “I’d like to know him better if possible. He did prevent Lajarn from shooting another arrow at us, quite possibly saving us from greater harm.”
“You do know that he could have his people searching us out at this very moment.”
“I asked him not to tell anyone. I hope we can trust him.”
Belna leaned forward. “I am concerned about this contact, but I can also see how it may benefit us if handled correctly. Nehma, you are a diplomat. You are always concerned about others. Even when Lajarn tried to kill you and Jorn, you saved his life by bringing him home. I trust that you will always keep the needs of the whole community in mind when you speak with this new friend, and that you will never reveal where our home is.”
“I won’t,” Nehma promised, and he sounded almost excited.
Jorn studied his brother. It hadn’t been the flying elk that had drawn Nehma back as it had been for Jorn, but it was the possibility of studying the Fulls.
“I got the net idea and the boat idea by watching them. I bet we can learn a lot of things by seeing how they adapt without being able to swim deep or fly.”
Thenorn chuckled. “I had a suspicion that you two had gone farther east than you should have last year when you picked your cluster name, but you aren’t the first set of brothers to be curious.” Thenorn gave his brother a teasing slap on the arm. “Never got the chance to talk to one though. I agree they may have knowledge and things that may be of benefit to us.”
“Maybe we can even trade things with them,” Nehma said, his excitement mounting. “I bet they can’t get some of the deep sea stuff, and they’ve got all kinds of land stuff we don’t even know about.”
“But you must always be careful,” Belna warned. “You do not need to find out everything right away. Even if it takes years to learn something, as long as you are cautious, that is the most important thing. We don’t want you injured, nor for them to have reason to seek us out.”
Thenorn focused on Jorn, and his stomach again churned. “Your father’s wings will be bobbed. He will no longer be able to fly.”
Jorn’s breath caught in his throat. “Never?”
“He almost killed you and Nehma, and he endangered us with the Fulls, letting them think that we are a violent people. He cannot be trusted, therefore he must be grounded. You will no longer need to look over your shoulder as you hunt and gather.” He paused and lowered his voice. “He was also warned that if he attacks anyone ever again, he will not only be grounded, he will die. It is only fair that our community not need to live in fear — that you do not need to live in fear.”
Nehma’s hand rested on Jorn’s shoulder. He’d never been touched in reassurance before, but Nehma did it often, and Jorn was coming to expect it. If they took Nehma…. “I’ll never fly again either, will I?”
Thenorn looked surprised. “The doctors seem to think your wound is minor and you will be out within a month or two.”
“You won’t put Nehma with a partner who can hunt?”
“I’m your brother, Jorn, whether you can ever fly again or not. Don’t even worry about that. They’d never separate brothers.”
Thenorn gave a small smile. “He’s right, Jorn. We wouldn’t separate you two. We probably couldn’t if we wanted to, could we, Nehma?”
“Nope,” Nehma said with a grin. “I’ll never get a brother as good as Jorn.”
The elders both laughed, and Thenorn clapped Nehma’s shoulder in a friendly way.
Then they prepared to go. “You two are excused from the public meeting this afternoon. It is only Lajarn’s sentencing.”
Jorn closed his eyes and felt his jaw tense. His father would now lose what little respect he’d had before. He would be crushed. And with clipped wings he would no longer be able to live in their old home either. He’d have to move to one of the few caves with interior land entrances.
A hand squeezed his shoulder, and then Jorn heard the elders leave.
Nehma began clearing the remains of their meal. Jorn sighed and rose to help him. He felt better today except for the pain and restriction in his wing, and when Dr. Manha examined him later, Jorn declared that he felt well enough to assist others.
To go home that evening, though, Nehma had to bring their raft and push Jorn to the gather room of their cave. A small walkway along the watery path connected the gather room to the work room, and Jorn immediately went there hoping to find something to do.
Nehma followed him. “Not much to work on tonight.”
He was right. They had made arrows and nets and every little odd thing they could think of during the cold season, and now all they needed was to hunt and gather. “What good am I? I can’t do anything!”
Nehma sat and leaned against the wall beside the room’s entrance. “Sure you can. But I can’t wait until you’re healed either.” He grinned. “We get to go back, and we get to talk to them!”
Jorn tried to smile, but he was too weary.
“Hey, we can always spend this time learning more, okay? We’ll be the best doctors possible. Maybe in a few years we can even find out some medical information about the Fulls. Maybe they know how to prevent the disease.” Nehma paused, studying Jorn. “Hey, you’re tired. Let’s just get some sleep tonight.”
“Hello?” A female voice echoed through their rooms.
Nehma glanced out the workroom door. “In here Elma… and Merma.”
Nehma’s elmother flew in followed by his mermother. Elma shook her head. “Just out of the ward and you’re in the workroom.” She bustled to Jorn, her arms loaded with a large walpigate stomach. “Well, you can just rest right here and eat. You have a clam pot, don’t you?” She glanced around, grabbed their small cooking pot they rarely used, and emptied the stomach of steaming broth into it. She set the pot on the work table and then looked up into Jorn’s face. “Come,” she said softly, urging him to sit. “You need food and rest. You didn’t eat yet, did you?”
Jorn was too surprised to do anything but obey her. “No. We haven’t eaten,” he mumbled.
When he sat, she leaned down and hugged him, giving him a slight kiss on his head. Jorn jerked his gaze to her face.
She smiled and patted his arm. “It’s not often you grown boys let us mother you anymore, but as long as you’re sick, Jorn, we figured it was no trouble at all to cook a bit extra to bring down here, seeing as you two have no wives yet to feed you properly.”
Nehma’s mermother had settled a net of greens to one side, and she leaned to hug Jorn also. “Don’t be afraid to ask if you need anything.”
They each gave Nehma a quick hug and then disappeared out the door, leaving the food behind. Jorn stared after them.
Nehma chuckled and Jorn focused on him. “What was that?”
“They’ve adopted you.”
“I told you before. We’re brothers. My family is your family now.” Nehma settled across from Jorn and dipped a shell into the soup pot. “Elma makes a great clam and curl digger soup.”
Jorn finally relaxed and let Nehma’s good humor sooth him. The soup smelled as good as Nehma promised, and it stirred his appetite which he hadn’t had since he’d been shot by his father’s arrow.
Three days later Thenorn and Belna visited them as they worked in the medical ward. “Have you seen your friend yet?”
Nehma couldn’t imagine who they were talking about. He glanced at Jorn, but he seemed just as confused.
“Your Full friend,” Thenorn clarified, crouching on the rocky ledge of the ward entrance where they were gathered.
Nehma frowned. “Jorn isn’t ready to travel that far yet.”
Thenorn glanced at Belna. Belna gave a slight sigh. “Nehma, your loyalty is admirable, but it is essential that we know if the Fulls are searching for us. Can you discretely go and determine if your friend is indeed your friend?”
“Jorn will be fine. Go today. It is a warm, clear day for travel.”
“But who will watch him,” Jorn protested. “Who will make sure the rajadrakes do not surprise him?” It was almost panic in his voice.
Thenorn touched Jorn’s shoulder. “I’m sure Nehma can manage the journey alone. He is not hunting, and he will not tempt them.”
Jorn’s panic seemed to overwhelm Nehma, and if he could have refused the elders’ request, he would have, just to spare Jorn’s fears.
“Go now,” Belna said quietly.
Nehma gave Jorn one last look, grabbed his hunting trenk from beside the entrance and dived into the water. He stopped briefly at home to retrieve a few nets, tucking them into the belt around his waist which supported his knife and a small pouch of string, barbs, and other supplies. Then he headed around the island and eastward.
He stayed along the shallower depths whenever possible, so that he could reassure Jorn that he’d been careful. Rajadrake usually lived in the deeper, colder currents, but they could easily come into the shallower 20 to 50 foot depths also. But visibility was better in the shallows, and Nehma stayed alert for anything unusual, such as schooling fish fleeing from a large predator.
Nothing eventful happened, but when Nehma passed a shallow reef, he stopped a moment to explore. Perhaps he could gather a bit on the way home. He found a colony of rare mink sponges. Their soft, velvety texture made them the first choice of cleansing room accessories, but their rarity made them something only the doctors had unless you found them yourself. Nehma stuffed three of the biggest into one of his nets, leaving the rest to grow and keep the small population viable.
Go to Chapter 10
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.