Nehma returned at dusk so exhausted, he had to take a few seconds to rest before he pulled himself from the water onto the ledge outside the medical complex. He couldn’t let Jorn know what happened or he’d really be upset. He had to focus on the news from Zander.
Jorn was waiting at the cave entrance. Nehma gave him a smile and clasped his arm briefly, but he didn’t linger. He wanted to get this over with and get home.
He quickly sought out Drs. Thorn and Manha, and motioned them and Jorn into their private office, as Dr. Manha sent Panha and Palorn to work away from them in the large ward, checking on supplies. From the beginning the elders had said that they were to tell no one, and only their mentors, the doctors, were to know of his visits. In the small office with book slings along the wall, and work counters along the side and a table with benches for studying down the middle, Nehma began his babbled summary that he’d rehearsed on the way home. “Zander’s going to study to be a doctor. He’s going to try to get us some medicinal plants, but he’ll have to take small slips and grow them. When I get them, we can plant them in the medical garden, right?”
Manha gave Thorn a glance. “We’ll make a corner for experimental cures. I assume you’ll know how they need to be prepared and the common dosages for Fulls.”
“Yeah. I’ve got to get him octink and our paper so he can write down what he learns for us, because his paper won’t survive getting wet. And we can write stuff for him, too, right?”
“Only things that aren’t specific to the Merree or Elsue,” Dr. Manha cautioned. “Those things can be used by the Fulls, but they’ll have no need to learn about feather molting or scale dry-out.”
“Right. But this will be useful, won’t it?”
“We’ll see,” Dr. Manha said. “What makes you so sure we don’t know everything they know?”
“Zander says that Dr. Ryans gets something called the Alexander Medical Review. It’s a journal from the teaching hospital about new stuff they find out. And he says every so often they get new plants with new cures. He’s found out a lot so far, and he’s only been an apprentice less than a week.”
Dr. Thorn chuckled. “Get home. Perhaps in the morning you two can take that boat of yours out and try to get some tried and true plants from the ocean floor.”
Nehma was more than willing to take his advice. He saw the apprentices Palorn and Panha watching them from the larger ward entrance as they left, and Nehma hoped Jorn didn’t sense their growing hostility. He had enough to worry about without those two suddenly getting nervous about the newcomers showing them up. Minor rivalry was common among siblings and among age-mates in classes, but Nehma had not let it bother him before. If not for his concern that Jorn would be hurt once more, he wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Pushing the raft home drained him of the last of his energy, and he sagged against the wall when he met Jorn in the gather room. “So, how was your day?” Nehma asked. He didn’t want Jorn to ask. Sure there was plenty Zander and he had discussed, but it all was shadowed by the rajadrake that had startled him on the way home. He was too tired to sort it out now.
Jorn hesitated a moment, then shook his head. “You’re tired. Go to your nook.”
“Everything okay here?” Nehma said, sensing that Jorn had decided not to tell him something.
“Yeah. It was boring. You didn’t have any trouble did you?”
Nehma yawned. “I’m exhausted. Guess I’ll see you in the morning.” Nehma dived, but guessed that Jorn saw through his bluff. Hopefully he wouldn’t bring it up. There was nothing that could be done about it, and he’d gotten away safely — this time.
They were kept busy with lessons and gathering over the next few days. Jorn did not bring up Nehma’s trip to see Zander, but he knew it bothered him. He spoke little, but for Jorn that wasn’t entirely unusual. Mid-week the doctors sent them scouting for elkrod. Out in the boat, Jorn seemed to relax a bit. The wind blowing against him as the boat skimmed across the water must give him a taste of flying. But as they sought the elkrod in vain, Jorn became moodier, until he tossed aside the net full of bow crabs Nehma had just brought up. “What good am I? I can’t scout, and I couldn’t even see you down there. Anything could have attacked, and I wouldn’t have seen it.”
Nehma tried to lighten his mood by chuckling. “I’m sure you would have seen a drake from the boat.”
“Not in enough time to give you a decent warning. Why do you stay with me? It’s not too late to be re-bonded to someone better next week.”
Nehma had been waiting for this explosion, and he knew it was just his fears and frustration with his injured wing. “I don’t want to be re-bonded. You know that, brother.”
“I don’t want you dead!”
Nehma smiled. “Neither do I. If it helps, I told the elders I won’t go back to see Zander until you can go with me, even though Zander expects me in a few days.”
Jorn crouched before Nehma. “You’d do that for me? What if I can never fly again?”
“Then we go by boat. I’m safe if I stay in the boat, right?”
Jorn gave him a tentative smile. “Yeah, that would work. I just wish I could scout like I used to. I need to be up high, so I can scan a large area. This looking over the edge of the boat just lets me see what’s right below us.”
Nehma smiled. “You do have the keenest eyesight for finding good stuff and for hunting. I’d never get stuff as good even if another Elsue tried to be my eyes. You’re the best, and I’m not letting anyone else get you as a brother.”
Jorn stood and grabbed the sail to move the boat. Nehma chuckled, watching his brother hide from his emotions again. When he settled the boat in another spot, he asked, “So you’re not going to see Zander this weekend?”
Nehma shrugged. “They’re discussing whether we should take the boat or not go. We’ll see.” It’d been difficult to find an audience with Thenorn or Belna without Jorn around, but he’d finally caught Belna underwater and signaled him into a quiet nook to discuss the rajadrake incident.
“Palorn doesn’t like that he has to deliver messages, since my wing is bad.”
Nehma tried not to wince. He’d hoped Jorn hadn’t noticed that. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I don’t think they like us seeing the elders all the time in secret. Why do you think that bothers them?”
Nehma gave a small laugh. “Can’t keep anything from you, can they? The way I see it, they were assured the status as the future doctors of the southern medical complex. Now they’re afraid they’ll have to share the honor of being Thorn and Manha’s successors. Or even worse, we’ll become the head doctors when Thorn and Manha retire and they’ll be under us.”
Jorn’s eyes widened as he crouched down to face Nehma again. “You really think that could happen?”
Nehma shrugged. “Anything could happen, but it’s the possibilities that scare people — that are causing Panha and Palorn to act the way they do. They figure they have to do all they can to keep us in our place now to prevent it.” Nehma stood and glanced over the edge of the boat. “It’s all a waste of posturing anyway. No one can predict what might happen to change things. I mean, all the stuff with our age-mates, and I never suspected that I’d do great if I got you as a brother, or that we’d want to become doctors. We see a path before us, and yet, it’s an illusion. We’re really on another path that we can’t see at all or maybe just in small glimpses now and then.” Nehma turned to see Jorn staring at him. “What are you thinking?” he prompted softly.
“You . . . you sound like . . . .” He blushed and focused on the sail. Then he remembered he’d already moved the boat, and instead focused his gaze over the rim of the boat, peering into the depths of the ocean below.
“All those wise sayings,” Jorn said, without looking up. “Sounded like an elder talking.”
Nehma chuckled. “Don’t we have enough to keep us busy?” He dived below the surface to see if this new spot would yield the elkrod the doctors wanted. No, he wasn’t looking to be an elder. Too many decisions, and it didn’t appear they had any time to get out and explore. Finally he spotted the elkrod. He pulled his net from his waistband and carefully cut the elkrod as they’d been directed, just one side of a branching V section of each plant.
When he surfaced, he said, “I know we always try to remember where we found stuff, but I wonder if we should make a large map for our gather or work room, and then mark where we find stuff.”
Jorn grinned. “I hoped it wasn’t just me. When they asked for more of those carolots we gathered last year, I had a hard time remembering if we’d found those in the east or on the south reef.”
Nehma was glad he’d thought of it. The project would give them something to focus on for the remainder of Jorn’s recovery.
The elders decided to keep Jorn and Nehma home the following weekend, but consoled them by telling them to spend the day gathering writing supplies for Zander, as well as approving their request for a rare wall-sized sheet of the special waterproof paper to begin their map.
At the papermakers, Jorn glanced around as if looking for something. Nehma studied the various supplies, but couldn’t think of anything else they needed besides paper for their medical books and the large sheet for their map.
The papermakers entered the workroom where they waited. Rotarn had light creamy feathers, almost as rare as Jorn’s black feathers. His brother Dolva’s scales were drab grey, which normally would have made him Rotarn’s shadow, but Dolva didn’t act like a shadow.
“You don’t need a sheet that large,” Dolva said, dismissively. He gave a nod to Rotarn who gathered the book pages together.
“We’re going to make a map,” Nehma explained.
“What do you need a map for? Especially one that big. The historians have any map you need to consult.”
Nehma tried not to let his exasperation show. “Elders Thenorn and Belna have approved our request.”
“Let them come to me then,” Dolva said with a slightly smug grin. Nehma guessed he didn’t believe them.
Jorn cocked his head. “How soon can a sheet be made?”
“It’s not going to be,” Dolva said, his grin leaving. “I will not waste my skill making special requests for those who haven’t even been bonded a year.” He dived into the watery passageway and disappeared.
Rotarn silently added more book pages to their pile and then handed them to Jorn. “I’ll start the sheet and have it to you soon. Thenorn told me you spoke to him.” He glanced back at the water where Nehma and Jorn’s raft floated, and where Dolva had disappeared. “He’s just upset that Treliss will have less time for paper working now. She would thank you herself if she could. Please accept my gratitude, as her elfather.” He stepped back, as if dismissing them.
Jorn nodded and then stepped onto the raft.
Since it appeared that Nehma wouldn’t find out anything else, he dove in and pushed the raft to their home.
In the workroom he stopped Jorn. “What was he talking about?”
“Not sure. I ran into Treliss when you were with Zander, but then I talked to Thenorn for a bit. I’m not sure what I said that she would thank me for.”
“Seeing as you don’t normally talk much at all,” Nehma chided, a bit peeved that Jorn hadn’t mentioned any of this and it’d been a full week.
Jorn blushed. “It wasn’t really anything, and Thenorn just lectured me about talking to unmated females.”
Nehma chuckled. Did Jorn have his eye on an Elsue female? That might make this mating decision so much easier if they knew at least one of the sisters. “Is she bonding this year?”
“Next year then,” he said with relief. “I’m really not ready, you know. Once we have mates and children we’ll have a lot less time to explore and gather.”
“You mean less time to go to see Zander Terrani,” Jorn said, guessing accurately. “I’m in no hurry either,” he added. “You know Palorn and Panha are up for mates this year, and they were bonded four years before we were. I really think we can wait a few years.”
Was this Treliss that young? But if she was so young, why was she helping in papermaking instead of classes to prepare her for her bonding, mating, and children? Nehma tried to put an Elsue to the name, but he came up blank. Young males and females were generally kept separate except for family clusters and ceremonial gatherings. And being below water instead of above ground for most of young schooling made knowing the Elsue females even harder.
Nehma finally shrugged. “Just let me know when you’re ready. I don’t know any females to have a preference, and like you said, I want to go see Zander as much as we can.”
“I don’t know any females either,” Jorn stated, sorting the paper into piles for both of them and for Zander.
Nehma decided not to point out the obvious contradiction. Maybe Jorn meant he really wasn’t interested in this Treliss. He’d just spoken to her, and everyone blows it out of proportion. Maybe that’s why he didn’t say anything earlier.
It rained all the next two days, but the morning of the pre-bonding ceremony was bright and fresh. Jorn and Nehma prepared themselves and then stood with the unmated brothers in their ceremonial stance. Nehma was secretly glad that they weren’t ranked. He hadn’t thought that gathering rank would come so easy for him, nor that it would cause such tensions among the brothers. He didn’t want to know and didn’t want it announced as to how many other brothers they’d jostled with their continued rise. In some ways, Jorn’s wing injury was a good thing, keeping them fairly limited in their abilities during the first months of the warm season.
Thenorn and Belna again spoke for all the elders at the ceremony. “It is again time to see if our fine young males and females are worthy to bond and become adults contributing to the prosperity of our small community. These last few years, I’ve tried, however poorly, to convey our history, but we have all missed Geriss and Cayli’s rendition of our history. We have discovered, however, that Geriss and Cayli have trained their granddaughter, and Cayli assures me she is a competent singer and musician.
Thenorn glanced around the assembly and let his gaze stay a moment on the unmated males. Nehma almost got the impression he was looking right at him and Jorn, but then Thenorn continued. “The elders have realized that we have neglected music as an important part of our society. We hope to rectify that by allowing Geriss and Cayli’s granddaughter to teach a section of music to our young. She will also hold a training session for any bonded pair who wish to come to this clearing, day after tomorrow, an hour after evening meal. Both male and female bonded pairs are welcome.”
Thenorn waited as murmuring went through the assembled people. Nehma wondered how many bonded pairs would actually go to a music training session. He had enjoyed hearing Geriss and Cayli at the ceremonies, but he couldn’t imagine aspiring to sing like them. He and Jorn had too many other things to do.
Thenorn made a motion, and an Elsue female parted from a cluster to the north. She seemed odd, too tall for her built.
“It’s Baby Wings,” called an Elsue directly behind them.
Jorn stepped back abruptly, right into the Elsue who’d spoken.
“Ouch. Hey, watch where you’re stepping, you clumsy fool.”
Jorn turned quickly, and his bulky, braced wing slapped the Elsue’s face. “Excuse me.” He faced ahead then and ignored the threats to his person uttered from the enraged Elsue behind them.
Nehma stared at Jorn, trying to figure out what had just happened. Jorn was never clumsy, not even with his wing bound up. But Jorn stared straight ahead at the malformed Elsue female on the ceremonial platform. Nehma had heard about her. He couldn’t remember her name, and he’d never seen her before. But when she started singing, he knew she had inherited her grandmother’s talent. The whole Mersue community fell silent and listened.
When she finished, there was a moment of silence, and then calls of appreciation. She seemed nervous as she left the platform to rejoin her family. Nehma tried to see which cluster, but she disappeared into the crowd.
“Treliss,” Thenorn said. “An asset to her community.”
Jorn rolled his eyes. “Not even her cluster name.”
“Treliss?” Nehma asked, keeping his voice as low as possible. “That’s Treliss, the papermakers’ daughter?”
Jorn gave him a quick glare.
“And now we’ll start with the sister pairings,” Thenorn stated.
Nehma knew that as males eligible to claim one of these pairings, he should be paying sharp attention, but he could only think about the fact that Jorn had almost come to blows with the Elsue behind him over a deformed Elsue woman, granted, one with a unique voice and feather coloring, but one who would probably never have a pairing. His gut churned, and he felt sick. He closed his eyes against the heat of the sun.
“Nehma,” Jorn whispered. He grabbed his arm.
Nehma opened his eyes and studied the ceremony. Thenorn was pairing up the males now. He didn’t think he’d missed anything important. “Yeah?”
“Huh?” He shook his head and indicated that the ceremony wasn’t over yet.
“You need water.” Jorn tried to push him from the group.
Others were noticing now. Nehma gave a quick signal to stop. “I’m okay,” he whispered.
Jorn’s jaw became tight, but he said nothing more, standing as stiff beside him as he had a year ago. Nehma stared at the ground, wishing it was over.
But when it was over, Jorn refused to move. Others crowded past them, the Merree heading toward the water, and the Elsue taking flight. When only a few remained, Nehma said, “Look, I don’t know why you’re upset, but let’s get out of this ceremonial stuff and get into the medical garden.”
Jorn stalked to the raft, but then stopped right before it. “You’re not pushing me anymore. You’re sick.”
“I’m not sick.”
“Yes, you are. I thought you were going to fall over during the ceremony, and then you act like I’m a child making too much noise.”
Nehma couldn’t respond. He did feel sick, but he knew it was not from illness. “Look. I just . . . .” He faced the water, and stared deep into the stream which led out through Cinder Flow and to the ocean. “You want her, don’t you?”
Jorn snorted. “I met her once. Once! And everyone acts like it’s wrong to care if someone is hurting. If it was a broken leg instead of a broken heart, no one would think twice that I spoke up to get her help.”
“Why didn’t you say anything,” Nehma asked, his voice low because he wasn’t sure how to respond yet.
“Cause the elders thought the same as you. Tell me, Nehma.” He grabbed Nehma and turned him to face him. “Tell me the truth. Was it wrong to care when someone is hurting? Isn’t that what a doctor is supposed to do?”
Nehma finally gave a weak smile. “No. It is never wrong to care.” He gave Jorn’s arm a squeeze. “Just complicated, sometimes.”
Jorn stepped on the raft, and Nehma pushed them home.
Two days later, they ate their evening meal in the work room. They still hadn’t gotten their large sheet of paper, but they had made a smaller scale drawing on a book sized page, which they tried to mark with numbers which corresponded to another paper, the location of everything they could think of. Tonight, Jorn didn’t contribute any location memories. He just stared at the paper as he ate.
“What about the hairy cucumbers?” Nehma asked. “They were over here, weren’t they?” He pointed his quill at the western end of the eastern reef.
Jorn remained silent.
“Huh?” He blinked and then focused on Nehma. After a deep breath he said, “I know you’ll probably think I want to mate Treliss again. But I don’t, okay? I just think this music thing is a good idea, but I’m afraid everyone will be too busy to do it, and . . . and she’ll . . . the music will be lost.”
Nehma worked hard at not rolling his eyes. “You’re not suggesting we learn how to sing, are you?”
“What can it hurt?”
“You are suggesting we learn how to sing.”
“So, do we really have time for this?”
“That’s the point. I don’t think anyone will make the time.”
“So the music isn’t lost!” Jorn stated, as if he were a dense student.
“We don’t have time.”
“I’m going to be making the time to go see Zander with you.”
Nehma had suspected Jorn was not near as enthralled with the Fulls as he was, but he’d never said so. “You want to see the Flying Elk,” he protested weakly.
Jorn glanced at the paper between them. “I’ll go anywhere with you, Nehma. At one time I thought I’d never have a brother, and I’d be alone all my life. But now . . . Nehma, she’ll never have anyone. Didn’t you notice that they didn’t even say she was part of her parents’ cluster anymore? She’ll never have a sister, a mate, or children. This is all she can do to contribute to the community she is a part of. I know what it feels like to believe you are worthless. She needs this as much as I needed you, or I needed this brace on my wing. If a half dozen other pairs show up, we can disappear before we’re noticed. I promise.”
Nehma stood. How could he have doubted his brother? Jorn really did have a compassion that few ever saw. “You’re right, Jorn. It’s never wrong to care.”
“Just complicated,” Jorn added with a slight smile.
Nehma pushed Jorn and the raft through Cinder Flow and up the stream until they were near the ceremonial clearing. Treliss sat alone on the edge of the platform, her legs hanging over the edge. Nehma and Jorn stayed on the raft and waited. Nehma prayed that the half-dozen pairs would show up so that they could silently slip back through Cinder Flow.
Treliss now glanced at them, but then looked away, pretending she hadn’t seen them. She jumped to her feet and began walking around the large platform.
The longer they waited, the more Nehma knew that a half dozen other pairs were not coming. But then two Merree, a male and a female left the water near them. “Jorn, Nehma,” hailed the male.
“Elder Fenna,” Nehma gasped, quickly straightening to ceremonial alertness. Overhead he saw two Elsue.
Fenna chuckled, and glanced up waiting for his brother to land. “You’ve met my wife Leali and Katarn’s wife Lariss, haven’t you?”
“No sirs,” Nehma said. He and Jorn nodded a greeting to them.
“Are you here for the music lessons?” Katarn asked. “It’s a wonderful skill for a family to have.”
“Such foresight to learn before your mating,” Leali said. “I don’t know how many evenings our family enjoyed singing and making music.”
“I was so excited when they announced the lessons,” Lariss added. “I so hoped some of our children would bring their brother or sister and attend, but,” she sighed, “young clusters are all so busy. And they think they know enough already.”
“But you are so wise,” Leali added again. “You’ll be able to teach your wives when they feel they can’t leave tending the cave and children.”
“It will be so enjoyable,” Lariss added.
The elders just smiled indulgently as their wives rattled on. But then they beckoned them to join them as they made their way to the platform and a very nervous looking Treliss.
No other pairs showed up. Treliss’ hands and voice shook when she started speaking, but with Lariss and Leali’s gentle enthusiasm, she soon opened up. She taught them a short song.
“Oh, it’s so singable. I’ve never heard this one before,” Leali said.
Treliss blushed. “I made it up for the lessons. I thought it’d be easy to learn, and then easy for the pairs to modify and harmonize with.”
Singing had never been something that Nehma had thought much about, but he tried hard. He didn’t want to disappoint Jorn or the elders. They continued practice until dusk, and Elder Fenna suggested they meet every seven days at the same time. He also promised to bring the musical instruments their cluster used to entertain themselves. Katarn suggested that the Mersue’s top gatherers could probably find supplies so that more of the instruments could be built.
“As soon as this wing is healed,” Jorn promised.
As he pushed the raft home, Nehma concluded that they’d gotten themselves involved in something far more complex than he’d hoped. But he did notice that Jorn had loosened up and seemed to enjoy himself. Elders Fenna and Katarn had treated them both as part of their big family, and Jorn needed that. He decided that he could do this for Jorn. He just hoped he still had time for Zander, gathering, and exploring.
Go to Chapter 13
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.