The day before the post bonding ceremony dawned hot and sticky. Nehma and Jorn took the boat intending to go to the east side to gather, but there was no wind for the sail. Finally they gave up, put the boat away, and pulled out the raft. They stopped outside the cave in the bright sunshine to discuss their options.
“We could go back to the medical ward,” Jorn suggested.
Nehma shook his head. Panha and Palorn were getting mentored in detail about the Disease, because a Merree man had come in, sores cracking open where his scales met his flesh. “Wish we could.” He wanted to hear everything he could about the Disease that plagued both the Merree and Elsue. He had overheard a little in the last year. Sores opened and ran along any surface where mammal and bird or mammal and fish flesh met. Often the disease set in after a minor ailment, a broken bone, a lung infection. First pregnancies in women could set it off or adolescence. Sometimes babies developed it immediately. It was almost always quickly fatal, but in a few people, the sores were not as large, nor as numerous. It was more of an irritating skin condition which limited the bearer, because any normal activities such as diving for food, or flying wind currents, caused the afflicted areas to break open, bleed, and spread. As far as they could determine, the disease wasn’t infectious, but could be genetic, as one was more likely to acquire it if one’s sibling had it.
And that’s when Palorn and Panha had noticed him listening, which caused Drs. Manha and Thorn to send them home. “It’s really stupid not to teach us at the same time,” Nehma finally said in frustration. “He’s just going to have to repeat it all again. It’s just because they’re so jealous. The doctors must see it.”
“Well, they should have two weeks off after the ceremony,” Jorn said. “Unless they pass again this year. We’ll probably have a lot more time in the ward while they’re gone.”
That was something to look forward to, at least. Nehma shifted from the raft into the cool water. “Let’s just go straight out west. We’ve avoided it.”
“The brothers are doing their last minute gathering there.”
“We won’t gather, then. But let’s go to Finger Island. I haven’t been there in years. And hardly anyone goes beyond it. Let’s see what’s past it.” Finger Island was barely visible in the western sea from the cliff heights. Nehma’s fathers had taken him and his siblings there once to show them the long, narrow strip of land. Beyond it, Nehma had seen nothing. But he’d been exploring with Jorn long enough to know that just because he didn’t see something, didn’t mean there was nothing there.
They set the raft back in the cave and just took nets. Nehma enjoyed the sense of nostalgia he felt passing the various reefs and crevices. He’d learned to hunt and gather here with his fathers and siblings. Several times he passed other Merree, gathering or just relaxing. When he finally reached the island he pulled himself from the water. A gust of wind nearly knocked him back down.
Jorn landed beside him almost immediately. “We’ve got to go back. Why weren’t you watching me? How can I warn you when you don’t look at me? I would have dived if it wasn’t so shallow.”
Nehma didn’t need the warning now. Between the scant trees on the island, he could see beyond it to the dark clouds rolling toward them. “We need to alert everyone we can.”
The storm hit before they made it back, but they were soon away from the lashing wind and waves. They’d gone straight to the medical ward, knowing that they’d be needed there.
The post bonding ceremony was delayed, as injured Elsue and Merree filtered into the medical ward throughout the night and the next day. But finally, the elders declared that the wounded were recovering, and that the ceremony could be held.
“Shouldn’t we have a better warning system,” Nehma complained as they readied themselves.
“I’m sure if you think of one that the Merree will pay attention to, it will be implemented,” Jorn teased. Nehma knew it was his fault Jorn had lost a few feathers from his newly healed wing, but at least he hadn’t been hurt otherwise.
“I’m sorry,” he said, yet again. “You’re in a good mood.”
“Yeah. I’m looking forward to having Palorn and Panha away for two weeks.”
Nehma grinned. “Let’s try to find out as much as we can while they’re gone.” Nehma slipped on the post-bonding robe to keep him moist during the excessively long ceremony, and then they made their way to the ceremonial clearing.
As soon as everyone was gathered, Treliss had Elders Fenna and Katarn and their wives sing. They had wanted Jorn and Nehma to sing with them for this, but Nehma had flatly refused, and only confided to Jorn later that he didn’t want any more attention drawn to them. It was bad enough they outranked over half the unmated brothers of the past few years.
After the songs, the sisters were brought forth and their accomplishments extolled. The highest ranked pair was a sky blue Merree and a reddish brown Elsue. If Nehma had been interested, he conceded, the blue Merree was pretty. But he wasn’t interested.
“Now,” Thenorn said. “It is time for our highest ranked brothers to claim their wives. Jorn and Nehma of the Flying Elk Cluster, do you wish to choose this year?”
Nehma’s face grew flame hot. He’d told Thenorn they weren’t interested. And why ask them first? He blanched and resisted the temptation to look at Palorn and Panha, or his sibling two years older than him, but unmated. This is what Belna had meant when he said everyone would know their rank.
Jorn touched Nehma’s shoulder. “The Flying Elk Cluster passes,” he said clearly.
“Very well, Palorn and Panha of the Red Shark Cluster, will you choose this year?”
Palorn and Panha stepped past them, but not before giving Jorn and Nehma a quick glare. “The Red Shark Cluster chooses Shaliss and Rayli,” Palorn said. Nehma briefly wished he’d chosen the sky blue female so that Panha wouldn’t now have her. But then he shook himself, and discretely signaled Jorn so that they could move to the back of the sets of brothers.
Jorn complied, but it was not the retreat he’d hoped for. Now all the brothers they’d passed on their rise in rank could look back at them, and Nehma could see their irritation. He wished they could leave. He had the normal teasing of childhood, but he’d managed to pass through it without anyone seriously disliking him. All this hostility made his stomach threaten to release the breakfast he’d forced into it this morning. Jorn didn’t seem at all disturbed by their looks. In fact he seemed to be enjoying himself. Nehma pulled the hood of his robe down further on his forehead, and then pretended to pay intense attention to Thenorn’s lecture on the responsibility of mated pairs. He heard little but the dismissal for dinner.
Nehma quickly ran to the water and then swam away from all the other Merree who were trying to re-hydrate themselves. He couldn’t eat and decided to follow the current through Cinder Flow and out to the sea. He kept swimming, hoping the tension in his body would ease, but the knot wouldn’t go away.
Water splashed above him, and Nehma jerked to attention, searching for the source of the rippling currents. The robe he’d not bothered to take off, swirled around him, impeding his reflexes. What was he doing out in the open ocean like this?
Then Jorn swam in front of him and to the surface. He flew out of the water, turned and then landed on his back in the curved boat style he sometimes used. “You never do watch for me, do you?” he said when Nehma pushed his head above the water near him. “How far do you think you’re going? We have to go back for the male bondings.”
“I’d rather not.”
Jorn cocked his head and studied him. “You seemed sick at this ceremony, too. What is bothering you?”
“Can’t you feel it? Everyone hates us.”
“Everyone doesn’t hate us. But who cares if they do?”
“Jorn! Don’t you care at all?”
“Yeah. People have hated me ever since Merfa died. Now they see I’m not a worthless coward like they said.”
Nehma shook his head. “I don’t think half the people you think thought that really did.”
“And I don’t think all those people hate us. A few are upset, but Thenorn and Belna, they love it. Katarn and Fenna don’t seem to hate us either. If Palorn and Panha want to hate us because they don’t want to work as hard as we do, then let them. If they really wanted to change things they’d work harder at whatever they set out to do.”
When Nehma didn’t speak, Jorn said, “You always said Elfa was wrong. You implied he only said those things because he was the guilty one and not me. Well, they’re the guilty ones. Not us. So don’t let them ruin this for you.”
Nehma took a deep breath. He knew Jorn was right. “I guess I’m having trouble adjusting to all the attention. Sorry.”
Jorn reached over to grip his arm, but almost tipped himself into the water. They both laughed. “Meet you back at Cinder Flow.” He flipped and was in the air gliding as gracefully as he had the first day Nehma had met him. A year ago at this very ceremony they were declared brothers. He should be enjoying himself like Jorn said.
Nehma made it through Cinder Flow and as he left the water his older mersibling stopped him. “Hey, Nehma.”
Nehma had always enjoyed his sibling’s company, but he hadn’t seen much of him since he’d bonded with Jorn. Now, though, all he could think of was that Lenma had to wait until next year to mate because of him. He studied his face.
Lenma grinned. “Great job you and Jorn are doing.”
“You don’t care?”
“Care?” He shrugged. “You mean that you passed me up? Nah. What else can you do with someone like Jorn, but work? He never was one for hanging with the others, was he?”
Nehma felt himself stiffen.
“Too bad you didn’t get Galarn last year.”
“Jorn is my brother, and I don’t regret it.”
“Of course you can’t say anything. I know. You’re stuck, so you got to make the best of it. But relax a little, okay? You’ve never come to Southern Bubble.” Southern Bubble was a large cave in a part of the rim that stuck out like a bubble from the rock almost due south. Many unmated brothers would spend an evening there and even a few mated ones.
“I’ve never seen any purpose for going there. Our fathers never did.”
“They did when they were unmated to pass the time.”
Nehma saw Jorn watching him from a distance. “Guess that’s why we passed you then. We don’t ‘pass our time’, we use it well.” He gave him a nod and then dunked away and headed to Jorn. Jorn was right. If they wanted to pass time doing nothing instead of contributing to the community, then it was their own fault Jorn and Nehma outranked them.
Nehma just caught up with Jorn when Thenorn began calling the assembly back to order. He hadn’t eaten, but then decided that was probably a good thing. But there were no more tense moments, and the brothers were ranked and sent to their new homes.
During the two weeks that Palorn and Panha were gone, Doctors Thorn and Manha worked Jorn and Nehma long days, and they had little time for gathering medicinal plants. They lectured and gave Jorn and Nehma in depth histories of patients and diseases.
They took only one day off to see Zander. Zander met them at the island, and the little wingdeer was with him. “She finds me no matter where I am,” Zander said with a grin. “It’s great. My brothers tried to take her, but she got away and found me. Everyone is envious, but she only trusts me.”
Nehma glanced at Jorn. “So people get angry here also if you achieve something they don’t care to work for?”
They ended up telling Zander all about the rank issue, and Nehma found he was no longer ill about it, but angry.
“Yeah, but who will be the future leaders of your people,” Zander consoled. “It’ll be you two.”
“But I don’t really care if I’m a leader or not. I just want to find out stuff, maybe make a difference, make things better for people.”
“You have made a difference. If you hadn’t thought I could, I never would have approached the doctor. And he’s really great. Even accepted Lady just like that when I told him my friends caught her for me. Just said he would like to meet my friends someday. But the point is, you have made a difference in my life already. A big one.”
Nehma grinned. “I’ve enjoyed our friendship also.”
“Hey, I made another wingdeer carving for you.” He ran to his boat and pulled out a piece of wood. Emerging from it was the head of a mother flying elk touching her nose to a tiny elk head.
“Wow, it’s so real. Jorn made a really nice spot for the other one, with overmoss around it to light it up.”
“And I know just where this should go,” Jorn said softly, taking the carving. “You have such talent. No one among us does this.”
“You have no art?”
“Art is this carving?”
“Or painting or drawing or . . .”
“We drew a huge map.”
Zander laughed. “Maps are not exactly what I mean. We don’t have a lot of art here because we’re a small village far from a city. But we learn a little in school. Even music comes under art. Do you have music?”
Jorn grinned then. “We sing.”
“No, Jorn. We’re just taking the class cause . . . .”
“You were singing in the work room last night.”
Nehma blushed because it was true. And as he feared Zander wanted to hear them. So they sang the song Treliss had been teaching them.
When they finished, Zander said, “Hey, that was great.” Lady nosed Nehma. “She wants another song,” Zander teased.
They left Zander in good spirits and took a more northern route home, exploring more of the sea bed and filling their boat with a variety of crustaceans and mollusks. They ended up finding a herd of large water mammals who were not as fishlike as whales, but more elongated than a walpigate. They were able to take two before they realized it, as they put up little fight and didn’t immediately recognize Jorn and Nehma as a threat. They tied them to the boat as they did the whale, and slowly dragged them home. Jorn turned the sail over to Nehma and tied a towrope to the front of the boat. Then he tried to fly and drag the boat, as Nehma caught the wind in the sails.
“No bonding females to take care of this for us,” Nehma noted in their cave entranceway. “And we have to be into the medical ward at daybreak.”
“Thenorn did say we could contact him.”
Nehma knew Jorn didn’t like suggesting it, but he was torn with the conflicting desire to outlearn Palorn and Panha in medicine. He glanced at the two carcasses, each longer than Jorn and much fuller in body. “We’re gonna need help.”
Jorn gave in and leapt into flight. A short while later he came back. “We take them to the north cave anyway. Treliss is there.”
“She can’t do all this by herself.”
“Thenorn and Belna’s wives are going to round up a few of the women whose children are grown. And classes are back in session. The young females will learn to process food over the next few days.” Jorn and Nehma turned the boat back out of their cave entrance and sailed to the north cavern.
Treliss met them. “Just bring anything you need processed straight here,” she told them. “I’m living here for now, so you won’t have to worry it’ll rot.” She glanced into the boat. “Oh, are those some more of those musical shells?” Then she reached in and withdrew the carving. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Jorn approached her, but he didn’t grab it from her. “A friend made it for our gather room.”
She ran a finger from the mother to the baby elk. “It’s so tender,” she whispered. She focused on Jorn’s face. “Do you think they really care that much for their young?”
“Yes. The Flying Elk are extremely gentle and caring.”
She bit her lip and handed the carving to Jorn, turning away. “Yes. I’m sure they are,” she whispered. Then she took a deep breath and said in an odd, cheery voice, “What else did you bring back?”
Just then a group of older Elsue women flew into the cavern, and Jorn backed away from Treliss abruptly. Treliss, also, seemed to ignore them as they unloaded not only the mammals which Belna identified as blunders, but all the shells and crustaceans.
Jorn just clutched the sculpture and watched impassively, but Nehma knew he didn’t want to relinquish all their work. Nehma finally stepped forward. “Treliss.” When she hesitated a moment, Nehma asked, “Could you save out those tone shells for us? We want to try to make one of those scale instruments.”
“Sure, Nehma. I’ll clean them and get them back to you,” she promised with a smile.
“Great. Then we better get back to our cave.” The boat was empty, and at Nehma’s words, Jorn immediately jumped up and grabbed the tow rope. Nehma dived into the water and pushed until they were out in the night breeze again.
It was the last day in the ward without Palorn and Panha. Nehma just knew that as soon as they returned, the doctors would no longer draw them into the finer points of medicine, focusing instead on their two older apprentices.
“Are there more books for us to copy with all this stuff about diseases, bacteria and viruses?” Jorn finally asked, after a patient left. It was getting dark, and the doctors had just told them they could leave.
“And stuff about genetics?” Nehma added. “You said the Disease might be genetic. Is there something we can study that would help us understand what genetic involves?”
The doctors both hesitated and then looked at each other. “You really aren’t ready for those books yet,” Dr. Thorn said.
“We won’t tell Palorn and Panha what we’re studying,” Jorn insisted. “We just want to learn.”
Dr. Manha chuckled. “There’s more than rivalry that I’m concerned about. I’ll speak with Thenorn and Belna.”
“I doubt he’ll approve it,” Dr. Thorn said. “Don’t get their hopes up. No, boys. You copied your books last winter. You’ll need to study those a lot more before you’re ready to move on. Now go on home. Get some rest. And take tomorrow off.”
They went back to their home, but Nehma couldn’t help wondering why they couldn’t at least peek at more advanced books. If they weren’t ready, it would just show them how far they really had to learn. “We have tomorrow off. Why don’t we just go to the historian’s library on our own? We can probably learn other stuff while we’re searching for the right books.”
Jorn studied the two Flying Elk sculptures. “If we did it now, wouldn’t it seem like we were disobeying a direct order. Maybe we should wait until colder weather. It’ll seem more natural.”
Nehma stared at Jorn’s back and then chuckled. “You’re right. I guess I’m too caught up in trying to figure out why.”
Jorn turned to him with a slight smile. “And you want to pass up Palorn and Panha, too.”
With Jorn, he could admit it. “Yeah. Their attitude is really bothering me. So what will we do tomorrow then?”
Jorn looked at the sculptures again. “I have been thinking about something, but I don’t think you’ll like it.”
Nehma took a couple steps across the room to stand beside Jorn. “And why wouldn’t I like it?”
“It’s dangerous — or looks dangerous, rather. I don’t think I’ll be hurt.”
Nehma knew of only one thing that they’d done that had been dangerous for Jorn and not him. “You want to catch another flying elk! But why?” He shook his head, backing away. “I was joking with Zander. I wouldn’t mind flying once, but I have no desire to fly all the time. Do you know how much work a beast like that would be? Considering you aren’t kicked in the head first?”
“Not for you, although I did toy with the idea that the Flying Elk Cluster have a real flying elk in it. But we don’t have time for it. I’m thinking of bringing a young female to this island so that someday we have a herd here.”
“For what purpose? The elders will never go for it.”
“Actually I think there is a need. We have several grounded Elsue. They could again taste flight if they bonded with one of these creatures.”
Nehma hoped Jorn wasn’t thinking of his elfather. He’d been grounded for a reason.
Jorn touched the newest sculpture. “Treliss is young, and she will never be bonded. This would not be the same, but it would at least give her a friend and a taste of flight. She would also be able to work more efficiently once the elk is old enough to carry her and supplies.”
Nehma had come to like the flightless Elsue woman also. And he admired her for her hard work in spite of her handicap, and that she rarely appeared melancholy because of it.
“How would we get it here?” Nehma asked softly. “Would that herd ever let you near it again?”
“We will need to go north along the Full shoreline. Hopefully we’ll find another herd. If not, then we won’t be able to do it this year, because soon the young will be too large to fit into the boat.”
Nehma thought the creature might be now, and that it could easily swamp the boat. If it was damaged, they’d really be restricted. But he couldn’t bring himself to voice these cautions. “Guess we better get some sleep then.”
Go to Chapter 15
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.