Rayli waited until her fathers left. They had come for her mid-night treatment, and she had until breakfast for them to return. She had barely responded to her fathers or to Jorn and Nehma when they’d come that evening. All she knew was that the man she’d wanted since years before she’d become a woman, the man she’d actually gotten, hated her. She used to come into the medical ward to help her fathers, and Panha would be there to tease her. And then he had told her they’d passed the year before she was ready so that he could have her. It seemed she’d dreamed so long and worked so hard so that he would be proud to be her mate, and now he hated her. What difference did it make whether she died quickly or slowly now?
Slowly she rolled from the hammock. She didn’t want to see her fathers’ disappointment anymore. Nor would she be a burden on the Community or the Red Shark Cluster. If she died quickly, then perhaps Panha would know that she’d never wanted to be a burden to him, an embarrassment.
She had to leave the water and walk through the entrance ward. She did so slowly, so that the noise would not alert her fathers. She knew there were secret sound holes that carried the noise of the wards to them to alert them when they were needed. At the dock she slowly slid back into the water. Once submerged she left the warm waters of the cave.
The cold chilled her through instantly, and she almost turned to go back inside. This is what she wanted, she tried to remind herself. The plan was to go straight west until she lost consciousness, but the further she got from the cave the colder the waters became and she found that she traveled north just before the coldest water.
Rayli knew she passed the Storeroom Cavern a while back, and she hadn’t seen any light since. In fact she couldn’t see much of anything, although she struggled to keep going, often she did so with her eyes closed, weariness overtaking her. It wasn’t the light from the undermoss that guided her, but the warmth. When she knew she couldn’t go any further she just floated, although the water did not seem cold at all now.
When she rested a while she opened her eyes. Immediately she knew she was in the north cave where she had bonded with Shaliss. She didn’t call it much of a bonding. Shaliss worked hard because she wanted to be the best, even better than her sister. Rayli worked hard because she longed to please Panha. They’d come out first because their goals were similar, but now Rayli impeded Shaliss’ goals. She wasn’t good enough to be her sister anymore.
Rayli looked up at the dock and right into the eyes of an Elsue female. This Elsue had none of Shaliss’ scorn. Even her face looked completely different. Instead of a reddish brown crown, this Elsue was so light she was almost white, and her wings . . . It was Treliss.
Treliss motioned for her to come, and Rayli did so without stopping to consider why she’d even come out. She pulled herself up until they were both sitting on the edge of the dock looking out over the water. “It’s rather early to be coming to the work room. Are you expecting someone to come in with work for us?”
She gave her head a slight shake. “How did you know I was here?”
“I sometimes can’t sleep, and come out here to work.” Treliss lifted a piece of wood that had been on the other side of her. She had apparently been shaping it into a serving spoon.
“All I’ve been doing lately is sleeping,” Rayli admitted. She stared at the water, not sure there was anything to say to Treliss. She wouldn’t know what it was like to lose her baby and her mate and her sister and her cluster, her whole world. She’d never had anything.
Rayli suddenly jumped up. The exertion caused a momentary dizziness, but she ignored it. “How can you stand it? You’ll never have anything. No mate to love you. No babies, no sister. You’ll live here all alone, all your life. I just can’t do it!” She lunged for the knife Treliss had been using to carve her spoon.
Treliss jumped back, but then when Rayli lifted the stone knife and crushed it against her arm, Treliss grabbed her. “Stop! Stop!”
Rayli tried to resist, but she was too weak, and the knife fell to the cavern floor and broke. Treliss held Rayli in her arms. Suddenly all the tension flowed from her in great sobs. She cried and cried. When she could think, she knew they now sat again at the edge of the dock, but Treliss still held her as she sobbed.
Rayli was still a while when Treliss began speaking. “It is not so bad being here. Sometimes it is lonely, especially at night. But I’d rather be here than at my family cluster. My merfa always found some reason to tell me I would never be anything. But he’s wrong, you see. Now I teach classes and Jorn chose me to care for the flying elk. I am still contributing to our community.” She paused, and then said, “I sometimes wonder if I could compete with the other women. I wonder if I could get as much done. I think I could. Whenever we are low on something in the storehouse now, the elders tell me. I’ll always have time to help out like that.”
Rayli pulled away from Treliss and sat up. “Panha hates me. He and my sister have petitioned to have me removed from the cluster so they can have Glini.”
Rayli could see the horror on Treliss face. “That’s awful. Panha, he’s a medical apprentice, isn’t he? Then you’re Rayli. You haven’t been mated that long.”
Rayli couldn’t help her tears again. “I have the disease. I lost my baby and I have the disease.”
Treliss wrapped her arm around Rayli’s shoulders again. “If they don’t want you, you can stay here with me. We’ll work together, and when you’re too sick, I’ll care for you.” Treliss turned them so that she looked into Rayli’s eyes. “You are right. I have no family, but we don’t have to be alone. And we’re not useless.” Her eyes seemed to spark with emotion as she made the last statement.
Rayli gave her a tentative smile, and then lowered her gaze remembering the day the elders had asked if any of the Merree females would consider Treliss as a potential sister. Rayli had avoided their gaze, and her only consolation now was that she hadn’t spoken out against her as some of the others had. “I’m sorry,” she had to admit. “When the elders asked . . . I knew Panha wanted to ask for me, but he never would if . . . if you . . . .”
Treliss gripped her shoulder. “I understand. I’m not a mateable woman. I would have lessened your ability to attract a good mate.”
“I thought Panha was . . . .” She swiped at the tears in anger. “Why did he stop loving me?” But the anger drained the last of her strength. “I’m so tired.”
Treliss helped her to the nook closest to the wall on the right side of the cavern. It wasn’t the one she’d shared with Shaliss during their bonding, and Rayli was briefly grateful. “I sleep here, when I’m not with the flying elk,” Treliss said as she helped Rayli into the warm waters beyond Treliss’ hammock. “Rest. I’m going to tend the flying elk, and then I’ll be back.”
When Jorn and Nehma reached the ward in the morning, Dr. Thorn ran to them. “You’ve got to find her. She’s gone.”
Dr. Manha crouched with his head in his hands. “It’s no use. She loved him. She couldn’t live knowing what she heard.”
Dr. Thorn rounded on his brother. “Snap out of it. She’s stronger than that. She has to be still alive.”
Dr. Manha stood. “How strong could she be? She’s barely recovered from her miscarriage, and her wounds from the disease will break back open if she strains them or misses her treatments.”
“Well then we better find her soon,” Jorn said. “You’ve searched the whole ward already? And she didn’t go back to the Red Shark Cluster?”
“We searched,” Dr. Thorn said. “And I guess I should send someone to the Red Shark cluster, but not you.”
“After the way they spoke of her, I can hardly believe she’d be there.”
“I don’t think she’s there either,” Dr. Thorn agreed. “But we need to cover all possibilities.”
Dr. Manha jumped up and gaped at the doorway.
Jorn and Nehma spun around in time to see Breeze step hesitantly from the docking area into the entrance ward.
“I thought that beast knew she wasn’t to come in here.”
Jorn took the few steps to Breeze and caressed her head. Then he took out his belt knife and swiped it toward her face. A small bundle separated from her halter. Jorn caught it and replaced his knife. “Good girl, Breeze. Good girl.”
Jorn handed the letter to Nehma. “Might as well keep her here until we know if we have to answer the letter.”
Nehma scanned the letter quickly and then read it out loud.
“Jorn, In case anyone is looking for her, Rayli is here in the North Cave. She floated in during the night a bit disoriented at first. If her sister and mate have indeed abandoned her, I offered to let her stay here with me. Would you talk to the elders for us? Also, I think she may need some medical treatment. She didn’t seem to notice that her wounds were broken open and bleeding. If the doctors will show me how to care for her, I would be willing. Treliss.”
“Oh, what a relief,” Dr. Manha said with conviction. “But of course she should come back here.”
Dr. Thorn shook his head. “I would love her here also, Manha, but would it be best for her? Treliss shares a similar fate, and she has adjusted well. Maybe this is just what she needs to learn to deal with her disability.”
Dr. Manha hesitated and then finally nodded. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Treliss has proven to be a strong and resourceful woman over the last half a year. She would be a good sister-substitute for her.”
Jorn focused on Breeze, but Nehma could see his slight smile. He could guess that in his mind Jorn had already granted Treliss and Rayli full sisterhood. But that was something only the elders could decide. Jorn faced them. “Should we send a note back then?”
“No,” Dr. Thorn said. “She’s overdue for her treatment. Round up her medicine and bring extra. We’ll all go to see her and train Treliss.” He stepped over and gave Breeze a small pat. “She’s certainly trained this little elk well. She’ll be able to contact us immediately if her condition worsens.”
Jorn and Nehma hurried to gather the needed supplies, and then Jorn fastened them to Breeze’s back even though he could have easily carried them. Nehma guessed it was to further prove Breeze’s usefulness and that in the future they would not even have to take supplies back themselves.
Jorn and Dr. Thorn flew with Breeze, while Dr. Manha and Nehma swam around. Nehma saw the three shapes, no four, Wind was joining them, flying above them as they entered the North Cavern. They all dived, flew in and were clattering on the dock as Nehma and Dr. Manha lifted themselves from the water.
Treliss met them and held her finger to her lips. “She’s asleep. My, you’re fast.”
“She’s due for her treatment. You say she’s worse?”
“Well, I’ve just met her, but she is very weak, and her wounds seemed to get larger as we spoke.”
Dr. Manha shook his head. “She overdid. She should not have gone out in the cold and strained herself. She was just starting to recover.”
“I’m not sure how much you understand about the disease you’ve offered to treat,” Dr. Thorn said.
“I know it is said to be genetic. It’s not contagious that anyone can tell.”
“That’s correct. Do you know that there are those whose condition worsens quickly, and those who can live for many years by following their restrictions and treatment schedules?”
“I’ve heard some. Not much. My parents were papermakers, but we have a relative, my merma’s sibling, who suffers from it. She’s had it as long as I can remember.”
“Then you are more informed than many. Rayli may yet contribute many years if she is careful.” Dr. Thorn continued to tell Treliss about the disease and to explain the medicines that they’d brought. Meanwhile Dr. Manha paced toward the sleeping nooks and then back, as if anxious to see his little girl.
Dr. Thorn finally focused on his brother. “I guess we should wake her and give her the treatment. Then you can do it morning, just after noon meal, right before evening meal, before sleep and once during the night.”
“And she needs proper nutrition,” Dr. Manha said suddenly. “How do you get enough to eat here without a man around?”
Treliss chuckled. “I am fully capable of cooking. And even without being able to fly on Wind’s broad back, there is an interior entrance to this cave and an interior passage to the storeroom. There is no need to fear. The elder’s wives look in on me several times a week, also. We have food and meaningful work here, as well as occasional company.”
Dr. Thorn smiled. “Relax, Manha. The girl will send word by that little elk the minute something comes up that she is not sure of.”
Jorn winked at Treliss. “I know that their daughter is safe with you. Just like my elk friends are safe here, and they love you.”
Dr. Thorn cleared his throat and glanced toward the cavern entrance. “So where is Rayli?”
“The first nook.”
They walked to the entrance, but only Drs. Thorn and Manha went inside the small room. Rayli jumped awake when Dr. Manha touched her. “Merfa? I . . . .”
“It’s time for your treatment, dear. Let me help you to the Elsue hammock.”
“I . . . .”
When Rayli stood, Nehma caught his breath. She was indeed much worse. The sores gaped open and fresh blood began oozing down her arms and legs the minute she was out of the water.
“Oh, sweet girl,” Dr. Thorn said, lifting her to the higher hammock. “You’ve really set yourself back.”
Tears filled her eyes. “What difference does it make? They want me dead sooner so they can have Glini.” She struggled into the hammock and closed her eyes.
Treliss walked into the room and touched Rayli’s head. “It will make a big difference. Remember, we’re not useless, and I know we could outwork them given the chance. All we have to do is work within our limitations and use our time to the fullest.”
Rayli gave a tentative smile as her hand clasped in Treliss’. Then she focused on her fathers. “Let me stay here. Treliss wants me. I’ll just be a child at home.”
“Promise to let her treat your wounds regularly,” Dr. Thorn admonished.
“And come to the clinic to visit. You used to be such a help. You and Treliss can help there also, since we just lost a set of apprentices,” Dr. Manha said.
“He said you would eventually kick them out because of Jorn and Nehma.”
“We never intended to replace them. We can never have too many people who know how to help. We lost them because a doctor should never give up on people. His patients need him to fight for them, to care about them. I don’t know that I could ever trust a life to them now.”
“Will they lose rank?” Rayli asked.
Dr. Thorn shrugged, but didn’t meet her eyes. “That’s not up to us.”
“People are more important than rank,” Jorn said with conviction. “I would rather be with someone who cared than to have rank. Nehma never left me when my wing was broken and I might never fly again, even though our rank would have dropped far if I could never fly again. That’s what’s most important, Rayli. Treliss knows that, too. I’m sure she’s like Nehma that way.”
Treliss attempted to ignore Jorn’s comments, but she couldn’t hide the pink on her light cheeks. Nehma suddenly realized that Treliss loved Jorn. Whether Jorn was just being helpful or whether his caring was the love that Elder Thenorn feared, Treliss was the one who’d fallen for a man she could never have.
Dr. Thorn glanced up at Jorn who was focused on Rayli and not Treliss. Dr. Thorn shifted his gaze to Nehma with a question, but Nehma wasn’t sure what he was asking, or rather he was afraid that Dr. Thorn was asking about Jorn’s feelings as Elder Thenorn had, and Nehma wasn’t prepared to speculate even to himself yet. Jorn had given him complete control over their future wives. He didn’t want to know Jorn longed for Treliss. In the same way he didn’t want to think about the suffering beautiful woman on the hammock who had loved Panha enough to die for him. He hadn’t deserved such devotion. He hoped Panha lost all he’d hoped to gain by deserting her.
The doctors showed Treliss how to apply the medicine and let her finish the job under their supervision.
“Now you contact us immediately if any changes occur. Under most circumstances I’d have her in the ward, but she doesn’t wish to be there, and it’d be bad to move her yet again.”
After a few more admonishments, they all left to go back to the medical ward.
Several weeks passed and Jorn and Nehma were not asked to go back to the North Cavern. They kept busy. Usually there was someone in the ward who’d tempted hypothermia or injured themselves with the slower reflexes that the cold brought. The doctors taught them constantly now, letting them assist on every patient, learn about every medicine, and when an Elsue woman had trouble birthing, Jorn and Nehma assisted in their first surgery, a Caesarean section which saved both the mother and baby girl.
The only time they heard of Treliss and Rayli were the few times that the doctors spoke of how well she was healing, and that finally the open wounds had healed and they believed she was in a state of remission as long as she didn’t put herself in a position to compromise her immune system.
Jorn and Nehma still had most of their afternoons free. If the sun was bright and the temperature mild enough, they would take the boat out, but often they ended up in the library struggling to learn advanced math and read through the many texts on the human body.
“The problem,” Jorn said, closing the book he’d been reading, “Is that none of these books deal specifically with the Elsue or the Merree. We can find out about every obscure genetic disease that ever hit a Full, but we have nothing that tells us what genes we actually have and which ones we don’t. There’s no way we can approach this genetically. We don’t even begin to have the tools they talk about: analyzers, computers, magnification platforms. It’s impossible.”
Nehma had come to this conclusion already, but been afraid to voice it. “I don’t see why they were afraid to let us in here,” he said, broaching a subject that still stung, but was easier to deal with than the defeat he felt when he looked through those completely incomprehensible genetic books. That was why he’d taken to studying the math. At least he had a chance to learn some of that.
Jorn shrugged. “Not like we could copy anything useful from it for Zander since we don’t understand it.” He put the book back on the shelf. “Maybe you should just study your different cultures, and I’ll study the stars.” He pulled out two books that they had grabbed several times when frustration with the medical texts forced them to grab something they could understand.
This time, though, Nehma was sitting at the bench at the table, and his view was lower than normal. As Jorn removed the astronomy book, a small green light glowed near the underside of the shelf above it, almost invisible by the shelves and books in front of it. “What’s that?” Nehma asked. He went and leaned over to get a closer look. Reaching back behind the books, he felt the smooth surface of the green light. It wasn’t glowing moss of any kind. He pushed on it and instead of the hardness of the rock wall, the little glowing square sunk in a bit, and then sprung back. He pushed it several times.
“Nehma!” Jorn said. Although his voice was low, it held panic. “What did you do?”
Nehma jumped up and saw the wall move back away from the book shelves. Then it cracked down the middle and split apart.
Go to Chapter 20
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.