Jorn and Nehma had not seen much of Palorn and Panha recently, except as they left the medical ward each day at noon. The doctors, apparently hoping to keep the rift from growing, had assigned Jorn and Nehma to work from early morning until noon meal, and then Palorn and Panha would work from noon to sleep time. A patient had said that from evening meal to sleep time, Palorn and Panha tended the clinic alone, although Nehma guessed that the doctors were always available because their home cave linked up to the medical ward.
Several days had passed since they’d returned from Flying Elk Island with the saddle and bridle, and Jorn and Nehma had each made copies of the book, one to stay with Treliss and one to stay at the Flying Elk Cluster’s home. The few times they stepped out to stretch after hours of copying, they had seen Treliss, Wind and Breeze in flight, but they made no mention of it. She was obviously enjoying herself and that made even the apparent reprimand worth it.
Although Nehma still didn’t understand what they could possibly do to make Thenorn regret giving them permission to the library. His confusion and their schedule had not allowed them time to go, but now that they’d finished copying the book, they could go, depending on the weather.
It was a quiet morning in the ward, as usual. Sometimes a person had gotten sick over night, but not today. Usually Jorn and Nehma just tidied up the ward, repaired things, made sure everything was stocked up. Nehma guessed that Jorn was getting just as frustrated with the work. They weren’t really learning anything, and there was only so much tidying up a person could do. They were checking the smaller ward when they heard voices. “Quick. We need help.”
They both jumped up, but then Jorn held Nehma from entering the main room. “It’s Panha.”
Nehma frowned. Yes, it was, but he needed help.
“What’s wrong?” Dr. Manha asked soothingly. “Bring her to the exam room.”
The exam cavern was smaller than the wards, but big enough for an Elsue and a Merree hammock and for the doctors to move around. Moss grew on every available surface making the small cavern much brighter than most.
A female Merree cried out in pain and then groaned. As the groans got lower, Jorn and Nehma quietly left the smaller ward and stood outside the exam room.
“She’s having a miscarriage,” Dr. Manha stated.
“But she can’t lose the baby,” Panha said frantically. “Both she and Shaliss are going to give birth near the same time. It’s going to be perfect.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Manha said. “Go make some wor-root tea.”
“No!” Panha shouted, desperation in his voice. “That’ll flush my baby right out of her.”
The woman groaned, and Nehma remembered that Panha was mated to the glistening sky blue female named Rayli. “The idiot,” Nehma mumbled. “Thinks only of himself.” He went to the shelf of medicines, and Jorn drew some fresh water and started it on the fire. Dr. Thorn glanced out of the exam room, noted that Jorn and Nehma were following the command given to Panha and nodded approval.
“Panha,” Dr. Manha said sternly. “It’s too late. All you can do is ease her pain now.”
Panha stalked from the exam room. Dr. Thorn followed him. When Panha saw Jorn and Nehma at the medicinal station, he came to them. “Gloating, I suppose,” he sneered.
“Never,” Nehma said, not meeting Panha’s gaze. He was not gloating; he was angry, but he didn’t want Panha to know it.
“Well, get out of here. This is my business, and I don’t need you around to gloat that you passed her right over.”
Nehma felt every muscle tense, but he firmly willed himself not to look up into Panha’s eyes. The idiot. Did he really think they’d passed because they didn’t think the women were good enough? Did he hold that against Rayli? He better not.
A gentle touch on his shoulder brought him from his seething. “I think you and Jorn should take the rest of the day off,” Dr. Thorn said softly.
Nehma ran from the ward. The furious swim home did nothing to cool his anger. Jorn landed in the gather room as Nehma pulled himself up. “He’s an idiot.”
Jorn nodded. “Yeah. Glad to know I’m not the only one who thought so. If I ever think so much of my own needs that I forget someone is in pain, you beat on me.”
Nehma sagged against the wall. “Panha was in pain. He was losing his first child. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Jorn shrugged. “Still I would guess Rayli will remember his words the rest of her life.”
“You remembered her name.”
“Well, she was just bonded and mated this summer. It wasn’t hard.”
Nehma acknowledged that it probably wasn’t unusual. But he didn’t add that he didn’t remember any of the other females who had been bonded this past summer.
“It’s a bit cloudy. Maybe it’s a good day to go to the library. I’ll drop this book off to Thenorn and meet you there.” Jorn flew off.
Nehma let the last of the tension leave him. Jorn was right. They couldn’t do anything to help Rayli. The term “apprentice doctor” seemed to be a joke, so the only thing they could do was go to the library and try to teach themselves. Maybe they’d be ready if they were ever needed.
The library was in a chamber on the southern edge of the storeroom. All the food and supplies were stored in the chamber on the northern side of the large cavern. A set of brothers were in charge of the storeroom, but the library was tended by an old Elsue. At one time Nehma knew that Feforn used to be on the Council of Elders before his brother died of pneumonia a year or two before Nehma became of age to bond. The Merree generally died younger because of the dangers of the sea, and therefore at Feforn’s age there was no one left to rebond with. Another older Elsue shared the library duties, but he was not in sight.
Nehma stood outside the library until Jorn joined him. Then they walked into the library. Feforn halted them and then peered at them intently. “Oh, it’s you two.” He shuffled back behind a work table where he copied a text. “You’d not be in here if I were still an elder,” he mumbled. “Too curious for your own good.” He sat and then looked up at them. “Well, what are you waiting for?” He waved them through to a large woven drape hanging against the back wall. Jorn glanced behind it and then held it open for Nehma. The doorway was large enough to fit an elk with its wings outstretched. Mosses covered the ceiling, lending light to the many hammock-like shelves holding book pouches. But some shelves near the back were firm and held books like the one Jorn held, like the ones from the Fulls. Both Nehma and Jorn were drawn to them.
“You’d do well to focus on your medical studies,” Feforn called.
When Nehma turned, all he saw was the drapery swing closed again.
“Yeah, well, if you told us where the medical section was, we wouldn’t have to look at every book,” Jorn mumbled as he tilted his head and read the titles of the books.
Nehma chuckled. He’d guessed Jorn had mumbled just so Feforn wouldn’t tell them, and they’d be forced to look at everything. Nehma picked another shelf and began reading spines. “Lots here on metals and minerals.”
“I’ve got philosophy and religions, I think. Might be interesting sometime, like the cultural exchanges we’re having.”
“Hey, I think we got the wrong shelves,” Nehma teased.
Jorn grinned, knowing that Nehma would be interested in his section.
They continued to search the shelves, occasionally pulling out books to glance through, but they didn’t find the medical books by the time the noon horn sounded.
“Let’s go home and eat. You need a swim,” Jorn said.
Nehma agreed, but they came right back to the library afterward. They finally found a medical section. The books were large, and the print tiny. “How are we ever going to copy these?”
“I’m guessing that the doctors just copied the most important parts out of one of these books.”
“So you’re suggesting that we just copy what we think we might need again.”
Jorn shrugged. “What else can we do? Just reading these will take years.”
They asked if they could take one home to copy, but Feforn refused. “They’re restricted for a reason. You drop it in the water, it’s lost forever. It stays here.”
“Why don’t people copy all these onto our paper?” Nehma asked.
Feforn rolled his eyes. “Go ahead. You get it all copied. I probably won’t get half way through the astronomy books before I die.”
Nehma realized that his first question had been rather stupid. He tried for a second though. “Where did all these books come from?”
Feforn jerked his head in annoyance. “Where do you think they came from? The people who brought us here must have brought them. Really, I can’t believe they’re letting you in here. Where did they come from? That’s just what I meant when I told them you shouldn’t be here.” He ushered them out of the library. “We close at evening meal. You can’t come back until morning. Now go and keep your curiosity netted in, will you?”
Jorn and Nehma exchanged looks which meant they’d discuss it at home, and then they parted, Nehma into the water, and Jorn to the air.
The next morning, they headed into the medical ward. As usual there was no noise when they entered. Dr. Thorn came to meet them. “We have one guest in the smaller ward. She’ll probably be with us until she dies, as she is ill with fever and unfortunately, she also has the disease.”
Nehma felt his heart lurch. “Rayli has the disease?”
Dr. Thorn gave a sad nod. “Panha is not taking it well. I’ve given them the day off, but if they decide to come in, it’d be best if you left. He’s not quite rational, yet.”
Nehma didn’t say that he’d never found Panha quite rational. But it must be very unnerving to know that your mate was dying. “Is there any chance that she has the slow version?”
Dr. Thorn shrugged. “She’s in an acute flare up now because of the pregnancy her body rejected. It’s hard to tell at this point.” He motioned them to follow him into the smaller ward.
Dr. Manha was already with Rayli, feeding her breakfast. Rayli’s once bright, shining blue skin was dull, and cracks had broken open along her arms where the scales met mammal flesh. Her eyes showed Nehma that she was in a great deal of pain.
“Rayli,” Dr. Thorn said softly, “These are our other apprentices Jorn and Nehma. Do you mind if they assist me in attending your wounds?”
She shrugged as if nothing would ever make a difference again.
Dr. Thorn directed Jorn and Nehma to the correct medicines and how to prepare the salve for her broken body. Nehma noted that she only ate a mouthful of food when Dr. Manha insisted.
Dr. Manha finally took the food away, and Nehma saw tears in his eyes. He couldn’t help staring open mouthed after him.
Dr. Thorn touched Nehma’s shoulder. “Rayli is in a great deal of pain. This should sooth her skin. It needs to be applied every few hours for maximum effectiveness.” He took them over to Rayli, and she submitted with her eyes closed as he directed them how to apply the medicine, and then supervised while Jorn worked on one side and Nehma the other. Nehma had never touched a woman near his age, but all he could think of now was that the slight pressure he used to rub on the medicine must be hurting her, and he couldn’t bear to be hurting her.
Palorn and Panha never showed up. Jorn and Nehma conferred quietly in a corner, and agreed that it was quite odd. If it was their mate, they’d be with her to the end. It was not even like Palorn and Panha had to change their routine to be with her. They had to change it not to be with her.
Jorn and Nehma stayed late caring for Rayli, along with the doctors. And the doctors did not insist that they leave until after the dinner hour. “Rayli’s family wishes to visit,” Dr. Thorn said.
As they left, they did not see Palorn, Panha or even her sister Shaliss. Instead, the doctors’ wives were patiently waiting for the doctors in the entrance ward along with several younger Elsue and Merree. “Perhaps they’re on their way,” Jorn muttered.
Nehma and Jorn relaxed as Rayli’s treatment continued. After the first day Nehma no longer approached her with fear. In fact, Rayli would attempt a smile when she saw them. Nehma and Jorn had saved themselves out several corals and shells over their gathering during the summer, and they picked out a pink coral and several shells to cheer her. “But only if Panha and Palorn didn’t show up last night,” Nehma said again. “They should be doing this.”
But Panha and Palorn hadn’t shown up, so Jorn brought the net they’d left at the dock, and they arranged the items beside her hammock so that Rayli could see them as she rested.
As they worked in the salve, Jorn began humming a song Treliss had taught them while they were still allowed to go to music lessons. At Rayli’s smile, Nehma joined Jorn, and they sang her the small tune.
“Oh, you two are so good. I wanted to go to Treliss’ class, but . . . anyway.”
“You can sing now. Maybe Dr. Thorn can have Treliss come here to teach you while you recover.”
“I’ll never recover,” she said, sinking back on the hammock. “I have the disease.”
“But you may have the slow version,” Dr. Manha said, joining them. “You will have plenty of time for singing yet.”
Rayli shook her head and closed her eyes, feigning sleep. After the medicine was applied, her hammock was lowered back into the water, and they all left her to rest.
The doctors’ wives were there again when Jorn and Nehma left that night. On the third evening when Nehma saw them, he realized that Manha’s wife was a light blue color. He whirled around and faced the doctors behind them. “Rayli is your daughter.”
“Yes,” Manha said softly. He ushered them through the entrance chamber and out to the dock. “You have both been so gentle with her.” He seemed to fight his own emotions, staring up into the almost mossless cavern ceiling. “Was there a reason you didn’t choose her?”
Jorn said, “Few brothers ever are allowed to mate the year after they are bonded. We felt we were too young for the responsibility. It had nothing to do with Rayli’s worth or beauty.”
Nehma nodded. “She is the only female I remembered from the bondings this year. If we had been ready . . . But surely you were happy that your apprentice Panha . . . .”
Emotions crossed Manha’s face that Nehma had never seen there. He finally said, “We made a vow to teach them, but now I’m not sure they have the merciful spirit needed to see it through. You two have it, though. I’ve seen you with Treliss. You care.” He shook his head again. “You two will be excellent doctors. Now go and never speak of this to Palorn or Panha. Maybe they will yet come to their senses.”
“I hope so,” Nehma said. “For Rayli’s sake.”
It was almost a week before Palorn and Panha came into the medical ward at noon. Drs. Thorn and Manha dismissed them as soon as they heard them in the entrance room. Jorn and Nehma tried to slip out of the ward, but Panha said, “What were they doing in there?”
“Tidying up,” Dr. Manha said quickly. “Rayli will be pleased to see you. Her wounds are healing up. She might be able to go home soon.”
Panha met Dr. Manha’s gaze. “You may take her to your home. I’ve petitioned for the female, Glini, recovering from abuse in the north cave. Shaliss has agreed to take her for a sister, as Glini’s sister was killed last spring.”
Nehma stopped and stared at them. Everyone had heard about the abuse case as the two brothers were banned from ever having mates again and they were turned out of their cave and forced to find one in the south or east which wasn’t as spacious, warm or well-maintained. They’d only been discovered when the Elsue sister’s parents had complained to the elders that they hadn’t seen her in months. It turned out that she was dead, and the other sister was in serious condition. But all that aside, how could Panha calmly choose that woman over his own mate. How could Rayli’s sister allow it, go along with it even?
Dr. Manha seemed just as speechless as Nehma felt.
Elders Thenorn and Belna entered the ward as Dr. Thorn shook his head. “You could not wait and see how she faired? Did you care so little for the woman you took that you would push her to death?”
“She’s dying. I can’t change that,” Panha said. “We waited a year longer than we had to just so we could have your daughter. Well, that was a poor decision on our part. But the elders say that this shouldn’t interfere with our training.”
Drs. Thorn and Manha both looked to the elders.
Thenorn stepped forward. “We have cautioned Panha, Palorn, and Shaliss, that if they took this step, that this will be the only time. If they are not happy with Glini then they will not be able to set her aside as they have Rayli. If Glini becomes unhappy with them for any reason, we will grant her request to leave, and they will never have the opportunity to take another into their cluster, so they must treat her with respect.” Thenorn touched Thorn’s shoulder. “Rayli would be miserable where she is not wanted. We granted their request mainly for her sake.”
Dr. Thorn shook his head. “Perhaps that is so, but this total lack of mercy or compassion is unsettling. How can a doctor not care if his patients die? Will they wish the more difficult patients to die because it will be convenient for them? Thenorn, Belna, I’m afraid I don’t know if we can continue to train them. This is a serious flaw for a doctor.”
“We would never let a patient die for convenience,” Palorn said in outrage. “This is completely different. We had to speak up for Glini now or there may not have been a sister available when Rayli dies in a few months.”
“But she . . . ,” Nehma began, but Jorn clamped his hand tight over Nehma’s shoulder causing Nehma to wince.
“Rayli may live for years,” Dr. Manha said quietly. “She may have the slow form and the flair up was caused by the pregnancy. Her only restrictions will be depth and procreation. But you know there are ways to prevent pregnancy so that an affected female may continue to be intimate with her mate.”
“Does this information change your decision?” Thenorn asked Panha.
“I want children,” Panha grumbled.
“Shaliss’ children will be yours also.”
“I want merchildren, and I don’t want them to have defective genes.”
Nehma winced. That was as much as admitting that Dr. Manha or his wife had defective genes.
“And you want to be doctors,” Thenorn stated.
“Of course, we do. But they were planning to petition our removal ever since they took on those two.”
Dr. Thorn shook his head. “No. We thought you’d work through your immaturity. We were wrong.”
Palorn and Panha turned to the elders. “You said . . . .”
“Belna and I are not the Council of Elders. Both the Red Shark Cluster and the Mercy Cluster will need to air their case before the whole Council before a decision can be made.”
Nehma thought that no one had represented Rayli’s case at her dismissal from the Red Shark Cluster. But Thenorn had been right. Nehma wouldn’t wish to have Rayli go back to that selfish cluster who would continue to resent her illness. He even questioned the wisdom of sending the already abused and battered Glini to live with them, but he knew he could say nothing.
“I recommend that Palorn and Panha take a leave of absence until this is resolved,” Belna added. “This will have implications for the whole community.”
“You’re going to lower our rank because of her, aren’t you?” Panha said. “That wasn’t our fault.”
“If your rank is lowered it will not be because of Rayli’s illness, but because of your response to it,” Belna said firmly. “Now go. And consider how you may contribute to the community during your leave.”
Panha appeared to want to argue, but Palorn grabbed his arm. Panha shook him off but then stalked from the cavern and dived into the water. Palorn was a second behind him.
Thenorn gave Dr. Thorn’s shoulder a squeeze, and then focused on Jorn and Nehma. “You focus on your studies. It is hard to find a set of brothers who fulfill all the requirements of a doctor. I hope you can do it.” He gave his head a jerk toward the door, and he and Belna left.
Drs. Thorn and Manha stared after them for a minute, and then Dr. Manha went back into the smaller ward to Rayli. Nehma and Jorn followed. Rayli lay stiffly on her hammock. No one had lowered it below the water before the confrontation, but she didn’t respond to her merfather’s touch. Nehma guessed she was faking it, but Manha did not try to wake her. Instead he silently lowered the hammock back into the water.
The doctors seemed unwilling to speak much today, but suggested that Jorn and Nehma change their schedule. They were to work in the ward from waking to noon meal. Then they would have the afternoon to either study or gather. Then they were to be back at the ward from evening meal to sleep. At the blowing of the noon horn, Dr. Thorn ushered them from the room.
Go to Chapter 19
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.