They took the boat to see Zander the following morning. As they skimmed past the third island, Jorn asked, “Where did you see the rajadrake?”
Nehma tried not to act surprised. “What makes you think I saw a rajadrake?”
“What else would you hide from me that would make you restrict your visits to see Zander?”
Nehma chuckled. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you.” He looked out over the horizon, and then pointed halfway between the third and forth island. “There’s a deeper channel between the islands, and I have to cross it. Frankly, I don’t know if it was a rajadrake or one of the lesser breeds. It came up out of the dark channel, right at me, and I took off for the third island. Fortunately I remembered the sandbar we almost ran adrift on. It was closer, it was low tide, and the beast couldn’t get past it. Not smart enough to find a way around, or at least I didn’t stick around to watch.”
Jorn focused on the distant sand bar. “Something is stuck on it now.”
Nehma squinted. Merree could never see as far as Elsue, but now that he tried, he could see a bit of grey emerging from the waves every so often. “It can’t be that drake. It was bright orange.
“Probably a whale,” Jorn said. “Too bad it’ll feed that drake. Something like that has so many useful parts for the community.”
Nehma shook his head, guessing what Jorn wanted to do. “Zander is waiting for us. He waited last week, and I didn’t show up. I shouldn’t do that to him twice. He might worry. Besides, how in the world would we get a whole whale back home? It usually takes at least three or four sets of brothers working together.”
Jorn gave one last long look at the sandbar and the grey shape trapped there, before focusing ahead to where they were to meet Zander.
“Let me practice the wind currents,” Nehma said. He’d had Jorn show him a little as they had skimmed about near home over the last few weeks.
Jorn reluctantly allowed Nehma to take the sail. If it weren’t so important for Nehma to know this in an emergency, he’d let Jorn keep the chore to himself, as he so obviously wanted to do. Standing by the sail made his scales dry out even faster, and he could see Jorn trying hard not to become sullen.
As they neared Flying Elk Island, though, Nehma relinquished the sail and jumped in to swim the rest of the way and re-hydrate himself. Zander Terrani stood near his boat and watched as Jorn maneuvered to come beside it. He jumped back when Nehma popped up in front of him and then laughed nervously. “I’m so glad you’re all right! I thought for sure that dragon had got you.”
“Dragons are real?” Nehma asked.
“You don’t have dragons?”
“Not the flying kind. But I imagine sea drakes are just as bad. I was chased by one on the way home last time, and didn’t want to come without Jorn and the boat again.”
“Sea dragons. My Pa and brothers see them once in a while. They were really mad when one got in the net. Ripped it to shreds and almost swamped the boat before getting away.”
Nehma and Zander talked animatedly most of the day, and it was only when Nehma made an extreme effort, did Jorn try to enter the conversation. Mostly he stood looking out over the horizon, as if standing guard. Perhaps he was looking for the flying elk, but they never showed up, and they’d been on the other side of the island the last time they’d seen them.
Zander gave them strawberry plants, and a few colorful hopper skins. He also gave them the Flying Elk carving. This Jorn was fascinated with, as Nehma knew he would be. He did try to participate more after seeing the carving, promising to try to find something just as good for Zander when he could fly again, but after while, he stared out to sea again, this time holding the carving.
Zander kept glancing toward Jorn, but Nehma didn’t know what to say. He was a little upset that Jorn didn’t try harder.
The sun was high in the western sky when Jorn stalked to them. “We should leave. Zander said the dragons hunt at night. We don’t want to be here then.”
Nehma was annoyed, but Zander quickly stood. “He’s right. I want to be inside before dusk.” He had a look in his eyes, a look of fear.
“Nothing to me, yet. But . . . a man was brought in two nights before I was to meet you. The dragon had ripped his legs from him. He didn’t survive, but . . . .” He shook his head. “All last Saturday, I kept thinking you were ripped apart like that. You gotta stay safe.”
Nehma gripped Zander’s arm. “You, too. Get safe before it hunts.”
They both parted in their respective boats then. Jorn had placed all Zander’s gifts in the head of boat. He’d also organized their ropes and nets while waiting for Nehma to finish with Zander. Nehma had thought he’d done it all out of boredom, but when Jorn set the boat toward the sandbar, he knew that Jorn had been thinking about that whale all along.
“But we’re just two brothers.”
“It’s probably dead anyway. But maybe we can salvage some fat or bone. If it’s been dead a while the meat won’t be any good.”
Well, they definitely wouldn’t be home by sunset.
The tide was higher now, but the whale was still on the sandbar, and it was alive. Nehma jumped out of the boat. Whales weren’t really dangerous, and this one could barely move. They were just very big. Overwhelmingly big, Nehma realized. Standing beside its head as it lay there, it came to his shoulders. And it looked at him with a large dark eye, pleading for help.
Nehma glanced at Jorn, his throat dry. Usually they didn’t touch the creatures they hunted until the killing blows had been made. “Maybe we should just try to help it off the sandbar.”
Jorn bit his lip, looking into the creature’s eye. “I think it’s too late to save it, Nehma.” He pointed to the hide along the back which Nehma couldn’t see from the water. He climbed back into the boat, and saw what Jorn meant. The sun had baked the exposed back of the whale until its skin had blistered and cracked. It probably wouldn’t survive. “It’s in pain. We might as well not waste its suffering when the Mersue could use it.”
Nehma wanted to protest that it was impossible to bring home a creature this big, especially since Jorn couldn’t fly and help pull it. But he decided to let Jorn figure that out himself.
Instead Jorn maneuvered the boat to the back of the whale. He took the ropes and tied one to each side of the boat, and then to the beast’s tail. He was going to try to use the boat to pull the whale free.
“Once he’s off the sandbar, it still might have enough strength to wreck the boat before it dies,” Nehma couldn’t help observing.
“I know,” Jorn said. As soon as the ropes were secure, he took his crossbow and waded back to the whale’s head. He shot an arrow into each eye. At such close range, death was instantaneous. At least the creature would not suffer anymore.
The tide helped, as Nehma and Jorn both pushed at the creature until it rolled into slightly deeper water. Then Jorn ran to the boat and played the sails. Nehma kept pushing until they had it in free water. Then he joined Jorn. The boat moved sluggishly, even with the brisk evening breeze playing in its sails. Fortunately the whale floated, but it was hard work.
“Take the sail,” Jorn commanded suddenly. He jumped from the mast, grabbed his crossbow and shot behind them. Twice.
“What was it?”
“Sharks. I hope the dead ones distract the rest.”
Nehma hoped that none of it attracted a seadrake.
It was dark when they approached their home island. “Jorn, we can’t process this whole whale. It’ll take days; we’ve got work in the morning, these plants from Zander, and it needs to be started on now, so it doesn’t start rotting.”
Jorn silently headed for the storeroom.
“I’ll go on ahead,” Nehma volunteered, since at the speed the boat was forced to, he could swim faster. He jumped out.
In the storeroom, he asked the brothers on duty if they could get Thenorn and Belna. The Elsue flew off.
The elders returned quickly. “Is that a whale Jorn is dragging with that boat?”
“Yeah,” Nehma admitted. “We’re too exhausted to process it, but we don’t want it wasted. Isn’t there anyone who could help us?”
Belna chuckled, and Thenorn laughed. “Told you we should have mentioned it to them.”
“Just in case,” Belna added.
“This would be a great project for those bonding sisters to tackle. We just didn’t think you’d be able to do much gathering for that when Jorn’s wing was injured.”
“But we should know better,” Belna said.
“I’ll go direct Jorn to the North cavern,” Thenorn said, jumping into the air.
Belna settled on the edge of the flooring, letting his feet dangle toward the water, inviting Nehma to do the same. “How’d you catch it?”
“Found it trapped on a sandbar.”
Belna grinned. “You two just can’t stop for a minute, can you?”
Nehma was exhausted, but found Belna’s glee a bit disconcerting. “Is this so important? I actually thought it would be too much for us, but Jorn found a way.”
“Important? Ah, a whale is always important. And your rank has gone up quite a few notches. You’ll have any brides you want now.”
Nehma groaned. “Yeah, well, don’t tell anyone.”
Belna grinned. “We don’t have to. It’ll be obvious.”
Now what did he mean by that? “I should go help Jorn.”
“Sure.” Belna dived, and Nehma followed.
Nehma had never been to the far north cavern. It was the training area of the young girls and the bonding sisters. No classes were held during the sister bonding period, and none would be held this late at night regardless, so only the three bonding pairs of sisters were there in the cavern, along with an older set of sisters, Thenorn and Belna’s wives, Nehma realized. All the women watched as Jorn maneuvered the boat, trying to get the dead whale to float over beside the raised work area. Belna and Nehma pushed from underwater to get the creature into position. A sparkling sky blue bonding sister jumped in to help. At Belna’s approval, the other two Merree sisters jumped in also. When the whale was beside the work area, the men tied it securely so that it wouldn’t float away. As the girls climbed back out, a pinkish female veered into the sky blue one. “Don’t show off,” she hissed.
“Well, girls,” Belna’s wife said, calling them to attention. “Nehma and Jorn have brought us a project that should ensure that you all get your racks. Remember, though, rank is also determined on how well you get along as you work, and every other useful item you process. So don’t neglect the less obvious benefits this whale can contribute to the community.”
Jorn just glanced at the women, and then focused on Thenorn. “Are we needed further?”
“No. Go home and rest, and we’ll see you at noon in the medical ward for your report on your visit.”
They sailed home and left everything Zander had given them in the boat, except for the Flying Elk sculpture, which Jorn carefully found a niche for in the gather room.
As Jorn waited for Nehma in the gather room the next morning, he started the process of encouraging the glowing moss to arch over the niche that the wingdeer sculpture was in, so that it would be highlighted. Nehma padded over as he worked. “You should have been more hospitable to Zander, especially as you enjoyed his gift so much.”
Jorn turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
Nehma studied his face and then shook his head. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“What are you talking about?”
Nehma led them to the raft. “Just next time try to stay with us and talk with us. You made Zander think you really didn’t want to be there.”
Jorn wasn’t sure what Nehma wanted. He hadn’t wanted to be there when he knew that whale was just waiting to be harvested. Now they wouldn’t get the credit for the processing.
Nehma finally faced him near the raft. “Look, even if you think this contact with Zander is not important, could you please act like it is in front of Zander? That’s all I’m asking.”
“It’s important,” Jorn admitted. “It’s just that we had to give the whole whale away. We didn’t get credit.”
Nehma rolled his eyes. “What are you worried about credit for? We’ve already got enough older bondings upset at us. Let’s just hope they don’t find out about the whale. We did get credit. Belna told me.” Nehma dived into the water to push Jorn and the raft to the medical ward.
Jorn smiled. So they did get rank credit. But why should Nehma care what the others thought of them. Better they be envious of them than think they were worthless losers. He’d been on the outside ever since Merfa died, and even before then Jorn knew Elfa hadn’t expected he’d achieve much. But Elfa, Merma, Burna, and all his other former mersiblings would know that he had achieved something.
As they entered the medical ward, though, Jorn thought of Nehma again. When the raft bumped the dock and Nehma popped up out of the water, Jorn grabbed him. “Look, Nehma, I never want to hurt you. I thought you wanted us to do our best.”
Nehma gave him a soft smile. “Yeah. But I don’t want to see you hurt anymore.”
“I’m not hurt. ‘Cept this wing, and I really think it’s about healed.”
Nehma clapped his shoulder. “Right. But let’s not make life rough for ourselves by irritating our coworkers.”
Jorn didn’t think Palorn and Panha would be any nicer if they didn’t gain rank. They’d only gloat about it. But he didn’t contradict Nehma as he followed him into the ward.
At noon the elders came to the ward, and Nehma and Jorn lunched with the elders and the doctors. Jorn hid his smile as Palorn and Panha were told to go home for their own lunch. As they ate, Nehma told about their meeting with Zander and the strawberry plants they’d brought back.
“What did you think of the girls?” Belna asked.
“Didn’t think about them,” Jorn stated.
Nehma shrugged. “Too tired to think last night. Do all the elders’ wives supervise the girls?”
“Yes. They rotate so that usually there is always someone there. If you make a big haul, even a large catch of fish in your net, you can take it over there to be processed.”
“But of course, you should wait a few days, maybe even a week. That whale should keep them busy for a while.” Thenorn said. “And next time you’re there, you might take a closer look, and see which you might want as mates.”
Nehma rolled his eyes. “Thought you said we could pass this year.”
“Yeah. You can. But if you do see someone . . . .”
“She’ll be snatched up by an older bonding. Look, we’re not ready.”
Nehma glanced at Jorn, and Jorn nodded. He wasn’t ready to give up the quiet, peaceful, and respectful home he and Nehma had together. Nehma was never quick-tempered and unpredictable. He was always able to relax with him. Jorn studied Nehma but pretended to focus on his food. Something was bothering him though. The thing with Zander . . . Jorn wasn’t sure what exactly Nehma expected, but perhaps he should try harder. He didn’t want Nehma to become so upset that he changed or even finally decided he didn’t want to be bonded.
“Well, boys, we’ll let you get to planting your strawberries.” Thenorn said.
After the elders left, Jorn and Nehma completed a few more chores for the doctors, and then went out to settle their strawberry plants.
Two days later the doctors declared that Jorn no longer needed to wear the bandage on his wing. He was to take only short flights each day for a week, and then maybe he’d be able to fly normally. The first time out, Jorn feared he wouldn’t be able to fly, but his wings caught the wind currents just as easily as he’d remembered. But he tired quickly. The doctors were right. He wasn’t used to the exercise.
The next time they visited Zander, Jorn stayed with Nehma and Zander. He felt uncomfortable most of the time, but Nehma’s approval afterward was worth it. After a couple more times, he became used to Zander. He seemed to be as genuine as Nehma. The second visit after his wing was healed, they saw the flying elk, and Nehma encouraged him to go fly with them.
When he returned, Zander was grinning. “That was great. I wish I had a wingdeer. All the babies are with them now, too. It’s best to get them as a baby. They’ll bond to people and let you fly on their back.”
“That’s how you hurt your hip, isn’t it?” Nehma said. “You were trying to catch a baby wingdeer.”
Jorn thought about Zander’s wistfulness. Of course he would want to fly with the elk. How could he not want that? Later, his gaze often went to the flying elk carving that Zander had made them.
They had continued to gather food and supplies every afternoon they had free, processing the food in the evenings. But the elders stopped by before they left the ward and asked if they could bring a haul for the women to process again.
Jorn and Nehma filled the boat with several netfulls of fish, and then they snagged a walpigate on the way back. They came up the eastern side of the island to the north, a different way than they’d taken before, and he and Nehma noted the different reef structures and possible hunting grounds.
They entered the cavern. This time elder wives Leali and Lariss were tending the bonding sisters. Leali and Lariss were becoming like family to him with the weekly singing lessons, and even in front of the potential sisters, they greeted him warmly. Nehma smiled also. Although Jorn knew he hadn’t wanted to participate in the singing, he now seemed to enjoy it, also, or at least he enjoyed the group.
“Oh, boys, so much fish! and a walpigate! However do you find so much?”
“Girls, hurry now,” Lariss beckoned. “Let’s unload their boat for them.”
“Oh, and Rayli, go get those ropes they had on the whale. I’m sure they’ll need them again.”
A Merree woman with scales of shimmering blue, like a clear summer day after a rain, ran to the edge of the room, and then returned with the two heavy coils of rope. Jorn thanked her as he took them and set them on the dock as the boat was still being unloaded of its large catch. Rayli rushed to help the others.
“Oh, girls, be careful,” Leali cautioned as several fish, still alive, managed to flop from another Merree’s arms and back into the water.
Nehma and Jorn dragged the walpigate to a corner and then began helping the girls by refilling their net and taking large loads at a time. Finally their boat was empty of all but the ever present smell of fish slime.
“See you both tomorrow evening,” Lariss called as they sailed out.
Nehma shot Jorn a grin as they emerged into the bright sunlight again.
“Hey, you like singing group, don’t you?” Jorn teased.
Nehma shrugged. “It’s not bad. Let’s explore the northwest side since we’re here.”
They did and found various sponges, large shells — a clam and a mid-sized whelk, and various sized tube shells which Elders Katarn and Fenna had made a musical instrument from. Sections of various corals were collected also. It finally became too dark to see anymore, and Jorn turned them home, but not before he spotted an island in the distance that they could explore at another time.
They started for Zander Terrani’s early. Zander said that they measured time in seven day intervals, as they did, except they had names for each of the days. So it was always Saturday when they met. Zander was at the island.
“Why don’t we leave the boats here, and watch the other side,” Jorn suggested.
Nehma gave him a grin. “Looking for the flying elk?”
A little after lunch they spotted them. Jorn stood and coiled the twenty foot rope he’d brought with him. “Zander, is there anyone above that cliff?”
“Then both of you meet me there.”
“What?” Nehma grasped his arm. “You can’t go over there. What if someone sees you?”
“This is the only way it will work.” He jumped into the air. He didn’t fly directly to the elk; that would scare them off. Instead he floated lazily back and forth until he was among them. The baby wingdeer were fascinated by him, making his job easier than he thought it would be. He flew with them until he saw Zander and Nehma on the cliff top.
Jorn felt guilty as he let the looped end of the rope drop over a baby female’s head, and he wondered if he was ruining his chance to ever fly with the elk again. He flew down so that he was overtop the baby he’d roped, herding her down in the direction of the cliffs.
The baby bawled in fright, and the mother wingdeer rushed at Jorn, trying to force him away from her baby. He barely dodged several hooves. When he was forced to dodge away from the baby, the rope he clutched kept it with him. Since he was the more experienced flyer, he was finally able to force the baby down to the ground.
Nehma and Zander ran to them. Jorn kept an arm around the baby’s neck, trying to calm it. But when Zander reached them, he held out the rope to him. “She is yours. Please take good care of her.”
Zander just stared at him. “I . . . You . . . It almost kicked your head! You could have died.”
“I thought you wanted a baby flying elk.”
Nehma shook his head, but a slight smile played on his face. “You’re crazy, Jorn. Really crazy.” He took the rope from Jorn and then forced it into Zander’s hand. “Maybe when she’s big and can fly you around, you’ll let me fly, too.”
Zander gripped the rope, but he still seemed incapable of moving.”
“We better start back,” Nehma said. “We shouldn’t be over here at all. We’ll wait two weeks to come back.” He shrugged at Jorn’s questioning look. “Bondings take time, don’t they?” He gave Zander a wave goodbye and then ran down the steep path of the cliff to the water.
Jorn jumped into the air to follow him. The baby wingdeer tried to jump after him, but Zander came out of his shock to grip the rope tightly until the little female settled down beside him.
Jorn met Nehma at their boat. “You could have warned me,” Nehma said.
“Wasn’t sure they’d come today.”
“Yeah, and if you ever do that again, I’ll . . . I’ll . . . I’ll . . . .”
“You weren’t pleased we were able to give Zander something he really wanted?”
“Yeah, but you could have died! He’s right, you know. It almost hit your head. It would have killed you.”
Jorn smiled. Nehma did care a lot, and it felt good to have someone care, even if Elfa and Merma didn’t. “I didn’t realize the elkma would fight. I should have guessed, but it didn’t occur to me.”
Nehma gripped his arm. “You did good, Jorn. But perhaps we better not tell the elders about this. We risked too much today.”
Jorn shrugged. He didn’t think it would matter either way to the elders, but perhaps Nehma was right, and they’d be upset about the short time they were on the actual Full homeland. As they sailed back, Jorn realized that it was just as well they’d be waiting two weeks to go back. The post-bonding ceremony was coming up, and the elders might want them to find some special food for it.
Go to Chapter 14
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.