Outside Zander rushed toward home, but as he came closer his pace slowed. He’d done it. He’d gotten a job. What would his father say? But he wouldn’t be back until evening. Zander would be gone.
It wasn’t easy telling his mother, but his grandfather intervened. “Neena, please. He can’t remain a little boy forever. If the doctor wants him….”
“He can do chores here. He doesn’t need to do it somewhere else.”
Zander slipped into his room, and then silently filled his pack with his clothes, his knifes, extra wood, and carvings, and his sponge from Nehma. He slung his pack over his shoulder, grabbed his bow and quiver and tried to slip through the house to the door without being noticed.
“Wait until your father comes home,” his mother called.
Zander wasn’t sure if it was a command or a threat. Either way he picked up his pace and limped as fast as he could back toward town.
Was he doing the right thing? He’d be further from the ocean now. What if his father refused to let him use the rowboat to go to the island now?
Zander almost turned back at the thought, but then took a deep breath. He could swim to the island if he had to, but no matter what he did need to have work. He’d rather assist the doctor than remain a child the rest of his life.
Zander lay in his new bed in the small upstairs bedroom. His window faced the road. He wished it had faced the sea, but the other room upstairs was larger and the doctor used it to dry his medicinal plants in. Dr. Ryans had allowed Zander a peek at it and told him that he’d teach him what each plant was used for and how to prepare it. Now as Zander lay in bed, he thought about how open the doctor had been as he explained every step he took since he returned, as if he wanted Zander to know everything. Had he been accepted so fully in just a few short hours?
The doctor had examined his hip after dinner and told him that he thought it was mainly dislocated. Since it had healed that way for a year now, it would be difficult to readjust alone, and one day they would need to take a trip to see his colleagues in the City of Shade.
A pounding sounded throughout the house. Someone was at the front door. Zander moved to the window he’d opened earlier to let in the evening breeze. Two partial moons shed light on the front lawn. He started to stick his head through the window so that he could look directly below it, when he heard the doctor open the front door.
“Was told my boy was here.” Zander tensed at his father’s gruff voice.
“Oh, you’re Zander’s father? Come on in.”
“Just get him, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Is there a problem?”
“We don’t be needing charity.”
“Charity? Oh, no. I’m in your debt, Sir. I’ve been praying for some help around here, and never dreamed I would get not only help but an apprentice.”
“Apprentice? What’s that boy been telling you?”
“It’s his teacher, Mrs. Haver, who told me that Zander would make an excellent doctor.”
For a moment there was silence. Then, “Zander, a doctor?” his father asked in a voice so laced with wonder, that it shocked Zander.
“Yes, Mr. Terrani. I believe your son has what it takes. You will allow him to study with me, won’t you? So many times an assistant would be extremely handy.”
“But… but he can’t walk proper anymore.”
“It’s his mind that will be most valuable as my aide, and his former teacher assures me that he’s one of the brightest students she’s ever taught, and she’d hoped he would be able to continue his studies.”
His father grunted. “She did say that, but what’s a woman know about what a man needs?”
“I assure you, Mr. Terrani. I do need your son’s help.”
Again the silence seemed to stretch.
Dr. Ryans ventured, “Would you like me to call him down from bed?”
His father snorted. “He can stay. But you send him back the minute he’s a burden. I won’t be troubling the village with him.” And then Zander saw his father stride to the street and then toward home.
Zander stayed by the window long after he heard Dr. Ryans close the door and go back to his room. He was actually the doctor’s apprentice. Yesterday morning he didn’t think he’d ever be anything but a drain on his family, and now… now, thanks to Nehma, he was actually a doctor’s apprentice! He couldn’t wait to tell him.
“I’m well enough to sail,” Jorn insisted. The elders were again lunching with Jorn and Nehma, and Nehma had told them that he was scheduled to go back to see Zander Terrani tomorrow.
Elder Thenorn cocked his head to the right. “I have no doubt you can sail, Jorn. It’s your ability to get away if trouble surfaces that worries me.”
“We’re always careful.” Jorn tried to ignore the fact that last time he’d gone sailing with Nehma they’d exposed the group to the Fulls and come back with a hole in his wing. But he didn’t want to be left home again. It just kept reinforcing that Nehma really didn’t need him to be successful.
Nehma touched Jorn’s shoulder. “I can’t sail the boat, and Zander Terrani has offered us gifts.”
Thenorn shook his head. “I’m sorry Jorn. Not this time. We can’t afford to lose you two.”
Jorn tried not to let them see his mental anguish. They just kept proving that Nehma didn’t need him for anything.
“Think you two will be ready for wives this year?” Belna asked.
Jorn jerked to attention again.
Nehma gave a soft chuckle. “Let’s wait until the bonding ceremony. Then we’ll have two months to think about them.”
“You might want to wait a year anyway,” Thenorn advised. “Next year we anticipate 6 sister bondings, whereas this year will be only three.”
“It won’t seem odd if you don’t pick this year since there’s not many,” Belna added.
Nehma nodded, and Jorn wondered if there was anything else the elders could mention that would tense him up again. He wished he could fly and let the wind currents sooth away any tension, but it’d be over a month before he could attempt it, Dr. Thorn had said. Wives. How could he take a wife when he couldn’t even fly?
They still had half the day when the elders left. Jorn paced the gathering room. He wanted out, and more than just a raft ride back and forth to the medical ward.
Nehma watched him until Jorn whirled to face him. “What is it?”
Nehma gave a quick grin. “Let’s take the boat out. You’re right. You can sail, and we can get a few netfulls.”
Jorn would have leapt from the edge of the gather room and flown to the outer cave to their boat, but he caught himself just in time. Instead he walked along the narrow ledge to the dock. It frustrated him more, but when they were finally out on the sea, the wind catching the sail and his good wing and pushing them along, he felt all his fears slide away. He would heal and fly again. He wouldn’t lose his brother and his apprenticeship. That is if Nehma wasn’t killed going all the way to the Fulls alone.
The next morning Nehma pushed Jorn and the raft to the medical caves before disappearing under the water to go to see ZanderTerrani. Jorn sighed and entered the main chamber.
Manha spotted him. “Jorn, this is your day off. What are you doing here?”
Jorn shrugged. “Not much else to do.” He gave his injured wing a slight lift to indicate why. “Isn’t there anything here to do?”
Manha shook his head. “Not really. No patients today. The sun is shining. Go get some fresh air.”
Jorn rolled his eyes. “How? I can’t fly.” He regretted that he’d let his irritation show. Perhaps the doctors would not want a useless apprentice who was also mouthy.
As he started to turn away Manha spoke, “Jorn, go walk about the center. You may see things you never see in the air.”
The medical ward was one of the few caves that had entrances from both the sea side and the center side. That entrance was also at ground level. He wouldn’t need to fly to get out. Without getting himself into more trouble, Jorn stalked away.
The sun was bright and warm when he emerged from the cave. What was there to do out here? If he could fly, he’d hunt, but he hadn’t even brought his crossbow with him. He wandered across the ceremonial clearing and into the brush and low trees as he contemplated his options. He realized that he was heading southeast and stopped. He didn’t want to run into his father, and he’d likely have sought shelter in any cave with a ground entrance to the south. Jorn wasn’t sure how far east he would have had to go, and decided that, on the whole, it might be better to stay near others to avoid trouble. He could only guess that his father would want to make his wing injury permanent, since he’d been grounded as punishment. Jorn couldn’t let him have the chance. He’d definitely lose Nehma if they thought he’d never recover.
He wandered north. The farms and school areas were on the north side of the island. The sun shone mostly from the south, and the area near the southern rim was in shadows. The north, however, was usually bright until the sun dipped below the southern rim of the island. The Northern rim also blocked the winds in the winter, making it the warmest section of land inside the long dormant volcanic rim. As it was spring, Jorn passed several farmers planting seed. He hesitated a moment, wondering if he could help, but the Elsue with the bag of seed scowled at him. Jorn sighed and moved on. It wasn’t likely anyone needed him, especially with his useless right wing.
Jorn avoided the Elsue school children. He could only guess that they’d want to stare at his large bulky bandaged wing and tease him. He didn’t need anyone else confirming the doubts he already harbored. He walked northeast until he heard a song — the legend of the Mersue people. The song had been sung at every bonding as long as Jorn could remember, until the last two years, when one of the sisters, Geriss, died of old age. The last sister, Cayli, was said to be in very poor health. This singing was a younger voice, and a single voice. No echoing melody wove throughout. But this woman sang so well, Jorn wondered why she hadn’t sung at the ceremony.
He skirted some beyberry bushes and stopped. She hadn’t seen him, as she carried on with her picking, but he now knew why she hadn’t sung. It was Treliss, the girl born deformed. She was close to his age, but he’d rarely seen her, as the male and female students were taught in separate classes. Studying her now, he realized that the only deformity she had was her wings. They were far too small to support her normal Elsue body in flight. But apart from being small, they were perfectly shaped and a beautiful light creamy color, matching her head feathers.
“Oh!” She dropped her basket and backed away in fright.
They stared at each other a while. Then she shrugged and knelt down to gather her berries back into the basket.
“Let me help you.” Jorn knelt before her and began grabbing berries from the grass.
“I’m sure you have more important things to do.”
“Not really. I’m pretty useless until I heal.” Then he realized what he’d said. She’d never heal and fly. She must feel this way all the time. “I mean, I usually go hunting with Nehma when . . . anyway . . . .” He trailed off awkwardly, and they finished picking up the berries in silence.
They straightened when it appeared they’d had them all off the ground. The basket was only a third full. She hesitated a moment and then continued picking from the bush. Jorn silently helped her.
After while he ventured, “You sing well.”
“My grandmother was Geriss.”
“Maybe you and your sister can sing at the ceremony this year.”
She glared at him, trembling. “Is that why you’ve come? You’ve found out and come to taunt me?”
Jorn backed away a step. “I wouldn’t taunt you.”
“Yeah, right. The proud Jorn. Top bonding of last year. What would they do if your wing had been permanently injured?”
Jorn’s first instinct was to flee from her, but he’d endured his father’s rages for years and had learned to show no emotion. He automatically stiffened and waited.
But then Treliss turned and fled through the trees, her basket again fallen to the ground. “Aahh.”
At the cry of pain, Jorn’s paralysis left. He jogged through the bushes, and found her sobbing beside a large-rooted cavel tree. He hesitated only a moment before kneeling beside her and placing his hand on her shoulder. “Did you hurt yourself?”
She shook her head, but didn’t look at him, nor stop crying.
“Let me help. We’ve been apprenticing almost a year to the doctor. At the very least, I’ll know what help to bring.”
She just kept crying.
Jorn wasn’t sure he should do anything. He’d assisted the doctors in treating patients, but never against their will. And he could not remember any female Elsue his age in the medical caves. Her sobs finally subsided, but she still didn’t look his way.
“I’m not hurt,” she finally said. “I just tripped.” She moved to sit on the ground. Most Elsue crouched because their wings hung too low to make it comfortable without letting them spread out.
Jorn kept crouching where he was. “I’m not sure what I said to upset you. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head and looked beyond him. “Were you scared when you failed your first bonding? Scared they wouldn’t let you try again?”
“I was scared that they wanted me to try again,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to go through the humiliation.”
She focused on him then. “You didn’t want to be bonded?”
“Yeah, I did. But I didn’t think it would ever work. But Nehma, he’s the best.”
A few tears leaked down her face. “They won’t even let me try. Don’t want me to have a mate or children. I’ll never have anything.” She stood and began pacing. “Oh, I’ll always have work and food, they say. Probably stay with some relative or other.” Her tears returned as she stopped before Jorn. “Grandelma was the only one who really wanted me though.”
This time Jorn held her as she cried, and he felt his own heart rip with each of her tears. He knew what it was like to be on the outside, to lose the parent who cared about him. When her sobs subsided this time, they pulled apart awkwardly, and after a moment’s hesitation she walked back to the berry bushes and began picking up her berries from the ground again.
Jorn helped her. When they were again picking off the bushes, she asked, “How long until your wing is healed?”
“They think another month at least. Well into the best gathering times.”
“But far before the end of the bonding ceremony. Are you and Nehma going to mate this year?” She asked in an offhand way, but Jorn sensed the tension in her.
“Not this year.” He tried to think of something to ask her to get the topic from himself. “What kind of work do they have you do?”
She shot him a grin then. “Berry picking.” Then she shrugged. “Really about anything that doesn’t involve flying. . . or swimming. Many times I work with the paper makers, since my fathers do that. They always have little chores. And I gather any ground items. What do you do for the doctors?”
“Mostly gather things. We don’t see many patients cause we’re still learning. I think they only wanted to train us so that we could gather medicinal supplies, but I’m not any good at that with my wing hurt. Most of the medicinal stuff is in the ocean, and has to be searched out, except for the small garden, and he had me and Nehma tend that yesterday.”
“I don’t mind gathering berries and grasses and stuff,” Treliss said, focusing on the bushes. “I just wish I wasn’t alone all the time.”
“Yeah,” Jorn agreed. “I don’t know what I’ll do if they ever decided to take Nehma away. If Elfa ever managed to break it permanently.”
She shivered. “I’ve always known my parents were disappointed with me, but I know they’d always protect me from anything. That was scary, what happened to you.”
“I guess everyone knows, don’t they?”
“There was a public sentencing,” she stated practically.
Jorn carried the basket back for her, and they ate the noon meal together. Then they started out to gather the grasses that the papermakers needed.
Jorn glanced back. It was Elder Thenorn. He motioned Jorn to him. “I’ll catch up if it’s short,” he promised her.
She forced a smile, but then quickly walked away.
Jorn went to Thenorn, and then they both walked on the road along the western edge of the rim. “Is everything okay? Nehma’s okay, isn’t he?”
“He’s not back yet that I know of,” Thenorn said. “Look, Jorn. You know unmated men are not to be near the females.”
Jorn stopped. “I was just helping her. Besides she’s apparently going to be unmated all her life.” He found he was a bit angry about that. “That’s not really fair, is it? We’re useless if we can’t fly, is that it? You’d take Nehma from me . . . .”
“Whoa!” Thenorn grabbed Jorn’s shoulders. “Brothers aren’t separated. I’ve told you that.”
Jorn tried to keep his temper in check and remember who he was speaking with. “I’m sorry. But about Treliss.”
“Yes, about Treliss. She isn’t your concern. You’ve got to keep yourself free for your mate. Getting emotionally and physically involved with Treliss will keep you from giving your best to the female you do mate.”
“Physically? I wouldn’t . . . .”
“Jorn, these things are rarely planned. They just happen. That’s why we keep you apart.”
“You don’t understand. They’re not going to let her bond.”
“No, we’re not. It wasn’t an easy decision. If we’d had an excess of Merree females, we’d have reconsidered, but even then we’d be dooming her Merree sister to a bonding that would hinder her throughout life. No Merree female near her age would even consider it.
“But . . . .”
“Jorn, sisters gain their security and status from the brothers willing to mate with them. If one sister is undesirable to the bonded brothers, the pair won’t be picked or will be forced to accept brothers who are lazy or hard to get along with. This is crucial for them. Don’t blame them for that. Besides, we must consider genetics also. If she has children, there is a chance she could pass on her useless wings to her offspring, and that could be disastrous for the Mersue community as a whole.”
“But . . . .”
Thenorn squeezed his shoulder. “We mourn for her loss also, Jorn. But we are too small as a race. We will all die out if we aren’t careful in all we do.”
Jorn’s heart still ached, but he understood intellectually what Thenorn said. It was something taught to them from the time they were born. “Can’t she have any friends?”
“Yes. She can have friends — female friends.”
But they’re all too busy with their own lives, Jorn wanted to protest. But he couldn’t. The restrictions on unmated males and females were also something he knew well. And it only seemed unreasonable now because they were both alone.
“Nehma will be back soon,” Thenorn assured him. “And you’ll be too busy to worry about Treliss’ problems.”
“Yeah,” Jorn agreed, just to get the discussion over. He’d never change Thenorn’s mind about this no matter what he said.
“Now go back to the medical ward. I’m sure Dr. Thorn can find something for you to do.”
“Yeah.” Jorn trudged away, but then turned back to Thenorn who was just crouching to launch into the air. “Sir?”
Thenorn untensed. “Yes, Jorn?”
“You know she can sing, don’t you? We’ve missed the song at the last two ceremonies. Perhaps this year we can hear it again.”
“Without . . . .”
“I know. Not as full as it was with both sisters singing, but she does sing well, and maybe if another singer heard her . . . well, someone should sing, right? And maybe she’d feel like she was contributing even if she can’t . . . .”
“I’ll bring it before the elders. Now put her from your mind. You can do nothing else for her, and it is not your responsibility.”
Jorn gave a nod and then watched Thenorn fly away. He stood there for several minutes. It was not that easy to put Treliss’ plight from his mind. He knew he couldn’t go back to see her, but he didn’t want to return to the medical caves yet either. Nehma would not be back. He finally walked back into the woods, and found a fallen log to sit on. Next time Nehma went without him, he’d remember his crossbow and at least be able to try hunting whitedeer.
The sun moved slowly across the sky. Jorn was contemplating his return to the medical caves when he heard her. “You didn’t catch up.” She came slowly into the clearing and then sat on the ground ten feet from him. “He asked you not to, didn’t he?”
Jorn nodded. “Unmated males and females aren’t to work together.”
She sighed. “He doesn’t like me.”
“He has a heavy responsibility,” Jorn countered. “He didn’t say he didn’t like you. He said he mourned for your situation.” Thenorn was now closer to him than his own father, and Jorn felt he owed him the loyalty he had tried so hard to give his father.
“He could change it.”
“He would if he could,” Jorn again defended, even though he was sure she didn’t want to hear that. “He always has to do what is best for the whole community, so that the Mersue people survive as a race.”
She stood. “I know the history song better than anyone, I think. But sometimes I wonder if we really are worth surviving. We’re just altered Fulls.” She gave her feathered head a nod in his direction to say goodbye, and then walked off.
Jorn stood and walked back toward the medical caves. How could she say that? Flying through the air as no Full ever did was a thrill he never tired of. But she had never flown. How could she know how special it was? And Nehma said the underwater world from a Merree perspective was fascinating and beautiful. The Mersue were a special people. He hoped that someday Treliss would see that.
Go to Chapter 12
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.