Treliss and Rayli stared after the boat. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Probably,” Rayli said. It was hard to tell with men his age. A heart could burst so quickly and fatally that there was often nothing to be done. That he was alive and talking probably meant he was safe for now. “But he should be careful. Older men shouldn’t hunt like young men, especially not beasts like that thing, whatever it is.” Rayli crouched by the large head and touched it. “It’s soft. Not mammal, not fish, not bird. Must be reptile.”
“It must be a real dragon! Oh, they could have all been killed.”
“Look at this, six arrows. Two shot out the eyes, and this one the ear, the only places in the skull that will go directly to the brain. Are those Thenorn’s or Jorn’s arrows?”
Treliss studied them. “I think Jorn’s. See the black feather left on the end of this one. Thenorn went for the neck.”
“Then Jorn’s killed it. A more difficult shot, but deadly.”
Treliss gave a small smile of satisfaction. Although Treliss never said it, it was obvious to Rayli that she loved Jorn. If anyone knew they’d tease her mercilessly, but Rayli now knew what it was like to have dreams shattered, and she wouldn’t ridicule the hopeless dreams of another. Besides, she didn’t think she’d ever had a friend like Treliss before. She’d gotten along just fine with the other Merree her age in class, but she knew she couldn’t speak with any of them now about what had happened to her. But Treliss . . . .
She watched the Elsue woman as she went for the knifes, nets, and ropes. Treliss was a hard worker, but not in competition with anyone, as Shaliss had always been. Especially after the mating, Shaliss had worked to gain both men’s favors. Would Treliss be so crass? Rayli doubted it. The woman never seemed to expect anything for herself and was satisfied with the least gesture of Jorn’s in her direction. Rayli realized she’d been similarly satisfied by Panha. The pain was not as deep anymore when she thought of him. That, too, was because of Treliss. The woman gave all she had to Rayli, included her in everything without jealousy, even giving her rides on the flying elk, and saying that she could probably ride Breeze alone in a few months if Jorn found another saddle.
If Jorn found another saddle. Of course they must have found it on the Full homeland, but nobody said that. They set to work skinning in silence. The hide was so tough that they both quickly got blisters. “Too bad we can’t keep it,” Rayli noted.
“It is pretty.”
At first Rayli had thought that her eyes had tricked her, reflecting such dark and sparkling greens, but as she cut the hide away, she realized this shimmering wasn’t just water, and it wasn’t algae or any kind of plant growth that sometimes attached to slow moving turtles. The head was so large, its teeth were as long as her hands.
Treliss sniffed, and Rayli looked up to see her tears falling.
She shook her head and swiped at her eyes.
“Did the knife slip? Are you okay?”
“He’ll kill himself.”
Rayli shrugged. “It’s the Merree brother who usually dies first in hunting accidents.” She thought of Nehma, but she only could recall those miserable days in the ward when he’d tried to cheer her as he applied her medicine, as if anything could cheer her. They’d also brought corals to the ward. She wasn’t sure why he’d done it or why the corals had been brought here with her personal belongings. She focused on stripping a section of hide from the meat.
Treliss kept crying, though, until Rayli finally stopped. “Treliss, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help you. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I love him.”
“Do you? Does everyone?”
Rayli shrugged. “Not everyone knows you as much as I’ve come to know you in the last month. And I’ve been there. I loved Panha just as desperately.”
“Jorn’s nothing like Panha!” Treliss said more vehemently that she’d ever said anything to Rayli. “Jorn would never abandon someone in need. Never! He’d always care.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know. Look what he’s done already, standing up to the elders so I could sing and teach. He did that for me. He got Wind just so I could fly. He did it because he cared. He didn’t just see me and walk away.”
Rayli had to admit that she was right. “It means he’d care about anyone in need. It doesn’t necessarily mean he loves you special.”
“Don’t you think I know that? He’ll mate someone else this summer, and I’ll have to watch the ceremony, sing for them, and . . . and I just . . . .” She yanked at the hide, and jabbed a stuck area with her knife. “I need to get this skinned and this meat dry. The cost was too high. Elder Thenorn is in danger.”
Rayli let her work. What else was there to say? She felt weary, knowing that there was no hope for her or for Treliss to ever be loved like her fathers loved her mothers, or elders Katarn and Fenna loved their wives, but at least they had each other now. “I bet we’d beat out all the other sisters if we were allowed to compete,” Rayli said, going to a safe subject as they rolled the hide into bundles. “What should we do with this head? I’m sure the teeth can be used for something.” They lugged it into an empty nook out of immediate sight. Then they began cutting up the meat.
“It’s a carnivore like the rajadrake. It will probably taste just as bad.”
“Probably,” Treliss agreed. But they set the meat to dry, and separated bowels, tendons, and bones into useful piles.
They were still working when sunlight filtered through the cavern entrance. Lariss flew in, and Leali lifted herself from the water. “Oh my, girls. You’re almost done. We thought for sure you’d leave some work for us. We just got word.”
“Have you heard how elder Thenorn is?” Treliss asked.
“Just fine. He spent the night in the ward,” Lariss said.
“And Jorn stayed right there all night also. He wouldn’t leave.”
“That poor boy,” Lariss added, “After losing his whole family, of course Thenorn’s more his father than Lajarn ever was.”
“I’d say,” Leali said. “I don’t think much of Penli. Won’t even talk to him.”
“Who’s Penli,” Treliss asked.
“His mermother. It’s no wonder he’s told the elders he’s not ready to mate. How can a man trust family after that?”
“So he’s not mating this year?” Treliss asked, showing far too much, Rayli thought.
“Oh, I didn’t say that. The elders are insisting.”
“Yes. A nice family and lots of children will keep him from killing himself hunting I say,” Laeli said. “What in the world was this? A rajadrake?”
Treliss said nothing, and Rayli noted that she was on the verge of tears again. “We’re not sure,” she said quickly. “We never saw it before.” If the elders hadn’t told their wives, Rayli better not.
Lariss clucked disapprovingly. “Those boys. They really do need to settle down and quit trying to prove themselves.”
“Oh, they’ve no need for that.”
“Of course not, but isn’t it obvious? Poor Jorn is proving over and over to his family who abandoned him that he really is worth something, and Nehma, well, there are so many in his family, that maybe he’s trying to distinguish himself also, stand out in some way. I never could keep any of that brood straight until I met Nehma personally.”
“He certainly does have a nice singing voice.”
“I do wish Thenorn would have kept him from hunting in no man’s land instead of taking them from the group. It would have made more sense.”
Treliss had begun stacking bones. This time she grabbed a big bone from the bottom of the pile and yanked, sending smaller bones flying.
“My girl, what are you doing?”
Rayli ran to Treliss as she attempted to drag the bone to storage. “She’s tired. We’ve been up all night. Come on, Tre. Let’s go to our nook and rest while they finish up.”
Treliss let Rayli lead her into their nook. Once out of sight, Treliss threw herself in her hammock and sobbed. Rayli rubbed her soft back feathers. Usually she knew Treliss loved to visit with the two women. Rayli did, too, but the topic was too close to her heart.
The next week Nehma and Jorn, Thenorn and Belna took the dragon hide and two of the dragon’s long teeth to Zander and Dr. Owen Ryans. The boat was so weighed down that they took turns between the Elsue flying and the Merree swimming. When they reached the island, Zander and Owen were already there. The bundles of hide glistened in the sunlight, and Zander saw them immediately when he ran to help them drag the boat from the water.
“You got it. You actually got it. Owen, they killed it! Oh, man, you killed it. I can’t believe it.”
Owen joined then. “Oh, thank God you’re alive. We saw the beast heading out to sea as we reached the shore, but all we could do was pray that you’d be far enough away.”
“Not quite far enough,” Thenorn said, “but let’s get a fire going. It’s warmer than last week, but I’m not as young as I used to be, as we proved last week.”
They waited until they were all settled before Zander blurted out, “How did you kill it? Nobody can kill dragons.”
“We had no choice,” Thenorn said. “We couldn’t out run it. Jorn shot three arrows into its brain. I finally got an artery in the neck, and once it fell to sea, Nehma and Belna put it out of its misery.”
“Arrow into its brain? Arrows just bounce off its head and most of its body.”
“A cross bow does have more power than a long bow,” Owen noted, “but still, I, too, have trouble seeing how you could penetrate the skull.”
“You don’t have to when you go through the eye or the ear,” Jorn said.
Thenorn chuckled. “He’s the only hunter I know who could hit a target that small with both he and his target in flight. Amazing. Saved our lives, I’m sure. Course like I said, I’m not as young as I used to be, and the fight as well as dragging the beast home, left me in the medical ward overnight lectured by four doctors that I could burst my heart if I did it again.”
“Four doctors?” Nehma asked. “I didn’t know the North Ward . . . .”
“I meant Thorn, Manha, you and Jorn.”
Nehma blushed. “We’re not doctors yet.”
“From what Drs. Thorn and Manha tell me that’s just because tradition requires a six year apprenticeship. You know everything they have to teach you, they say, except experience.”
“I’m going to Alexandria in the fall,” Zander said quietly.
“You’re going to the medical school?” Nehma asked. “So you made the decision?”
“It’s the only thing I have left that I can do. Maybe I can find books and information for you there. I can’t do anything here.”
Before Nehma could respond, Owen said, “Now Zander, I told you, you’ve got to want this for yourself. You’ll burn out trying to work, learn your lessons, and copy the whole library single handedly.”
“Hey, Zander, this is great,” Nehma said. “But he’s right. Focus on finishing and learning for your people. If you want to write papers and give us medical plants we can use, that’d be great, but don’t worry if you’re too busy. That’s a long way away, isn’t it? Will you get to visit home at all?”
“We’re hoping,” Owen said, “that with Lady, he’ll be able to fly home for two weeks each summer. But then he’ll need to get right back.”
“Then we’ll see you at least a little.”
“I’m going to send stuff home for you that Owen can give you.”
“Send . . . .”
They explained sending things through the mails, or shipping items from one city to another without actually going there.
“Then we can have Owen send you stuff, too,” Nehma said.
Owen laughed. “Yep. I’ve promised to be a liaison. But I’ve warned Zander, and I’ll tell you, that when we do get to that point, you shouldn’t mention specific details that you don’t want anyone else to see. Mail is sometimes read by people it is not intended for. But hey, what are you planning to do with that hide? I worked at Tole Tanneries finishing hides just like that as I worked through medical school, but I haven’t the equipment here to do it justice.”
“Well, we hoped you could treat it like a pearl and sell it.”
“You don’t want it back?”
Thenorn shook his head. “It’s unique all right, but I don’t want to tempt any of the young brothers to come over here and try to duplicate our accidental kill. We’ve even disposed of the head, although most would display a trophy like that very prominently.”
“Here also. But I know what you mean. Every year kids are killed thinking they’ll be the first to actually get one. It is so rare, that I only really know of one person who can do it, and that’s Hans Trapper. I’ll send a note to my old employer about how he wants me to ship it. I need to write to him anyway. I’m hoping he’ll be able to give Zander a job to help him through med school.”
“You can’t tell them who killed it.”
“No. I’ll tell them I found it already dead. He’ll know I’m lying, probably, but he won’t question it if he does. See, his son wants to kill dragons, and he’s afraid one day he’ll actually try it and kill himself. The boy, Dannel, is about your age, Zander, and he’s started an air mail service. You’ll probably meet him. He has a male wingdeer named Skyler.”
“I did think about things that we might use,” Thenorn said, withdrawing a paper. “I went to each of our workers and tried to discover if there was anything that could make their jobs easier. Here’s some things we could probably use if you can find them.”
Owen took the list. “I’ll check when we’re in Shade next month. I might even get the gold for the hide before then.”
They left for home right after noon meal.
As the days became warmer Jorn and Nehma began spending more time outside replenishing the doctor’s pharmacy. The days passed quickly. Several storms churned up the sea and filled the medical ward, but then it was calm for the pre-bonding ceremony.
On their last visit to Zander, Thenorn had made a point of mentioning the ceremony and that Jorn and Nehma would be mating at the post-bonding ceremony in two months. Both Jorn and Nehma had tried to ignore Thenorn, but he insisted on the way home also that they should take a keen interest in this pre-bonding as they’d be living with a pair of sisters later. Protests were futile.
Nehma stood nervously with Jorn. Thenorn had insisted that they stand in the front row of unmated brothers, but now he was back up on the platform. First Treliss and Rayli sang the history song.
When the girls left the platform Thenorn said, “You brothers will be pleased to know that there will be seven sets of sisters this year. Treliss and Rayli have requested a formal bonding, and since Treliss has never been through the process we will consider them a young pairing. We’ve also decided, after some debate, that they will also be allowed to mate. Of course their restrictions still apply, but now a pair of you brothers who would not normally have the comfort of a mate will now have that chance.”
“What?” Jorn said in a hushed whisper. “That’s just like saying he’s going to throw them to some low rank lazy idiot who only cares that they’re female.”
But Nehma grinned. “But we pick first, don’t we?” he whispered.
Jorn gave a low chuckle then. “Of course.”
When all the sister pairings were announced, Thenorn bid them well.
“I have a question,” shouted a low ranked Elsue in the back. He’d been last place several years ago after failing two bondings.
“Yes?” Thenorn asked.
“Do we get the elk she flies on also?”
Thenorn focused on Jorn. “I believe that the flying elk was a gift to Treliss, so that it goes where she goes.”
“Good,” the man grunted.
Thenorn sent the new sisters north. Rayli clutched Treliss’ hand as they walked. “How can he do this? I don’t want to be re-mated. We’re going to get the lowest ranked pair of lazy bums out there. Did you see him? He only wanted Wind.”
Treliss tightened her grip on Rayli’s hand to ignore the iron grip on her heart. “But maybe Jorn . . . .”
“You know he won’t,” Rayli whispered fiercely. “Even if Jorn loves you, Nehma won’t want me.”
Treliss knew she was right. She had thought that everything would be perfect when she was allowed to be formally bonded, but now their life would be chaos. “We still have each other,” she whispered fiercely. It was all they had now, but it was everything. And her heart would not give up the hope that maybe, just maybe Jorn would pick them. “We’ll just have to be the best, and maybe someone a bit higher will pick us. I think all the brothers would have to pass to get far enough down for him.”
“Yeah, well Glini’s mate had enough rank to get her, but he almost killed her. Panha had rank. We’ll get someone who thinks we’re worthless.”
Treliss stopped and grabbed her shoulders to stop Rayli’s panic. “No. If it’s bad, we’ll petition out. Remember what he said when they found Glini’s sister killed. Any woman should have no fear, and if she does, her fears will be taken very seriously by the elders. We will petition out if it’s bad. Remember that.”
Rayli closed her eyes and then nodded. “Yeah.”
“Now we just have to prove what we know is true. We’re just as good as they are. You got first last year. You can do it again.”
They reached the north cave, their home which was now invaded by six other sets of sisters and supervising elder wives. For the next two months their life would be a madhouse of competition and tension.
It was two days after the pre-bonding ceremony, and Thenorn and Belna stopped into the ward. “So boys, did you see any girls you liked?”
“Rayli and Treliss,” Nehma said immediately without looking at Jorn. If he looked at Jorn, he knew the elders would think he was choosing them only because of Jorn’s obsession.
“No,” Dr. Thorn said. “Boys, don’t pick her just because she’s my daughter and I fear for her.”
“We’re not. You were right. There are advantages with women who will be able to share in your work. That’s what we want.”
But Thenorn was no longer smiling. “No. You never listen, do you? You will want children.”
“There are no guarantees anyway,” Nehma said. “This way we know.”
“You’re to choose sisters who will give you strong families.”
The doctors walked from the room.
“And you know for sure which ones are extra fertile?” Jorn asked, his voice firm and even. “I didn’t know we could assure that. Did Archive come up with a method? Tell me which girls are most fertile of the six other pairs.”
“You’re being obstinate. We allowed Treliss and Rayli their request for bonding, and then decided it was silly to have them unmated when we have so many low rank brothers waiting.”
“Low rank!” Nehma cried. “You’re going to throw them to lazy sea cows no matter how good a rank they achieve.”
“But you’re only choosing them because you feel sorry for them!”
“We are not! We know them. We don’t know any of the others.”
There was silence for a moment. “Then get to know them,” Thenorn said. “Every time you deliver something, talk to another pair.”
Nehma rolled his eyes. “Do you think that will work? That we’ll suddenly discover a pair of sisters more compassionate, more caring over a few words? Every other set of brothers gets to choose who they want. Why can’t we?”
“No one chooses who they want. Always they wait until their rank allows, and they have to settle for what is available.”
“But that’s what we’re doing. Our rank is up. We’re choosing what is available.”
“And any other brother in your shoes would choose the highest ranked pair of females.”
“Fine,” Jorn said. “We’ll choose the highest ranked set of females. And if it’s fairly Treliss and Rayli will you be satisfied?”
“Will you be satisfied if it’s not?”
“I guess we’ll have to be, won’t we?”
Go to Chapter 25
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.