Rayli rode behind Treliss on Wind’s back. They’d been out to the North Point Island, the one where some ironwood was still collected. But they hadn’t been there for ironwood. Rayli had collected in the shallows and Treliss collected bags and bags of berries. Now they were loaded and heading back.
“Hey, look,” Treliss said, pointing. “It’s Jorn and Nehma.”
“Looks like they’re pulling something big. And there’s a ton of fish also.”
“We’re just in time.” She angled Wind through the large cavern entrance several lengths before the boat. Some of the sisters on the dock threw them looks of disgust. Most of them had spoken against Wind and Breeze, but as this had been their home, the flying elk stayed. Although they usually retreated to their smaller sleeping cave or the interior of the island to fly and frolic as the crowd made them nervous.
They quickly unsaddled and unbridled Wind and rubbed her back before rushing to put their freshly gathered items in their nook. Each nook had an adjoining smaller private work area for the sisters. They hadn’t used it much before this crowd invaded, doing everything on the large open dock area, but now things were so cut-throat among the sisters that even leaving a partially finished item for a second might invite someone else to take it to their private area, finish it and claim all the credit.
It hadn’t been this bad last year, but then there’d been only three pairs of sisters competing instead of seven in the same space. Jorn and Nehma’s boat was almost docked, and Rayli jumped in to help push the biter against the dock where Treliss and another sister started to pull it up. A third sister pushed Treliss off balance and grabbed the rope.
Jorn stalked off the boat and ignored all the sisters, grabbing the rope from each of their hands. He pulled them all at once, hoisting the biter onto the ledge. He stalked away through the crowd of sisters away from Treliss. He hadn’t acknowledged her, but his wings had flared open as he walked the other way, knocking the other girls back. Treliss had a clear shot at the biter.
Nehma was in the boat gathering up the fish and other miscellaneous items. Rayli pulled herself from the water to help. Nehma filled each net and handed it back to the sister who’d given it to him. On Rayli’s turn, he seemed to be picking out only the finest items, red claw, corals, sponges, and only a few fish, but even these were the rarer, tastier fish. Was he doing this on purpose? Did he know whose net he had?
When Nehma turned, the Merree behind Rayli pushed her. Rayli almost lost her balance, but Nehma caught her. He gripped her hand as he handed her the heavy net, and he looked straight into her eyes with his deep blue ones. “Come in first place for me, Rayli. I’m waiting for you,” he said softly.
Rayli was shoved again, and Nehma quickly helped her to the dock and then continued filling nets. Rayli ran to their private workroom with the stash and then returned with another net. Treliss yelped as another Elsue slashed at the biter to get a piece. Red spurted up.
“Hold it!” Jorn roared. “All of you. Stop it now. Let me through.” He stood over the biter as he sent Rayli for the first aid supplies, and then bandaged Treliss’ hand. Finally, a set of elders’ wives arrived.
“This is a mad house,” Jorn told her. “These women are going to kill each other. I’m not bringing another thing in here. I’ll process it all myself, rather than see these girls slash each other with knives.”
“Oh, Jorn, it’s just that they’re a little excited,” Lariss said. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Yes, it is something to worry about. I’m going to the elders. You women obviously can’t handle this many females alone.”
“What? Jorn, I’m sure you mean well. But it’s always a bit hectic.”
Jorn glared around the room as if he would rather die that pick any of them. He didn’t acknowledge Treliss at all, but at least he didn’t glare at her; that would have killed her. “I’m not coming here again,” he repeated.
He boarded the boat. Nehma jumped into the water and pushed them outside. The sisters jumped at the biter, and Treliss ran into their nook, crying.
Outside Jorn waited only until Nehma climbed inside the boat, and then he set the sail for the open ocean. “Did you see that? All of them were a bunch of animals. Almost killed her. If they don’t get first, I’m sorry, but I can’t take any of them. I don’t care if they put us in last rank and never let us mate.”
“At least last year there seemed to be a bit of control. I think you’re right, there are just too many girls. I mean, reasonably how many people can work on one biter? And with each trying to get the best parts instead of working together, it’s impossible. We do need to speak to someone.”
Jorn glared into the horizon. “No one listens to us. We’re not supposed to get involved.”
“Someone was hurt. We have to say something. It’s obvious that Lariss and Leali can’t accept that this year they’re overwhelmed. And I’ll bet that none of the other elders’ wives are admitting it either. They probably have their own competition.”
“They’re all idiots. Everyone.”
Nehma grinned. “Yep. Everyone’s an idiot, but you. That’s why you have to at least say something.”
Jorn finally let a bit of the stiffness leave him. Nehma was teasing him, but he was right. They needed to tell someone. “Do you think Katarn and Fenna are in the storeroom since Lariss and Leali are with the girls?”
“Let’s talk to them. They’re pretty open most of the time.” He headed the boat back to the island.
Sailing into the storeroom reminded Jorn of the library and that they hadn’t even attempted the other entrances to see Archive. Notebook kept them fully occupied. There was so much they needed to learn that Jorn figured they wouldn’t have to go back for years, but he guessed they’d attempt it next winter when they got bored.
Katarn and Fenna were at the docks. “Hey, Jorn and Nehma, what have you got for us today.”
“Nothing,” Nehma said, leaving the boat.
Jorn followed him. He was glad Nehma would speak on this. They always thought he was too emotional over Treliss.
“We just came from taking a boatload and a biter to the North Cavern. Things are pretty crazy over there.”
“Yeah, women get a bit emotional sometimes.”
“Someone had their hand sliced open while we were there because they’re all trying to get the best pieces instead of working together. I don’t dare mean any criticism of Lariss and Leali, really I don’t. But I don’t think a single set of sisters can control that mob. They’re really out of control, pushing, shoving, and as I said, thrusting their knives this way and that. Just a half an inch, and one of those girls would have been in the medical ward. As it is her hand is injured; it’ll hinder her, and it may become infected.”
“Really? Are they that crazy?”
“I doubt that biter skin will be usable either. They just tore into it. I was filling nets, but even there, the girls shoved and pushed and tried to snatch each other’s nets. I didn’t like what I saw at all. If the elders hadn’t ordered us, we’d likely decline most of these girls as mates.”
“I’m not going back there,” Jorn stated. “Someone else will have to bring them things to mutilate while they kill and maim each other.”
Katarn and Fenna both winced. “That bad. We better look into it. Why don’t you stay here, while I fly over,” Katarn told Fenna. “You know Lariss and Leali were never good disciplining the kids. We always had to step in.”
“Wonderful women. Not a mean bone in their sweet bodies, but they can’t be firm about anything.” Katarn flew off.
A set of brothers came in with a raft of food. “Hey, Branarn,” Nehma said, greeting the boy who’d injured his foot earlier in the year. “How’s the hunting going?”
Branarn grinned. “Me and Calna are doing great. We’re working hard so we can be first like you two.”
Calna blushed, the color going to the edges of his face and blending with his soft white scales. “Nehma, Jorn.”
“Someone told me you hunted in secret.”
Nehma laughed. “No. We just went a bit further around the island where everything wasn’t over harvested. It was a longer trip to the storehouse, but we didn’t run into many others going for the same food.”
“Great idea,” Calna said. “Would you care if we hunted there?”
“It’s a big ocean. Go for it.”
Jorn and Nehma left. “I can’t believe it,” Jorn said. “Those two really seemed to look up to us.”
Nehma gave a small laugh. “Yeah. I guess they do. Would you have ever guessed they would when we started out two years ago?”
Katarn and Fenna met them in the medical ward that evening. “You’re right. Things were crazy there,” Katarn said.
“We’ve got to separate them somehow, but no one wants to move. They’re all afraid someone else will get better stuff.”
“Did you see Treliss and Rayli?” Jorn had to ask.
“No. They stayed in their nook. Was it one of them who was hurt? No one seemed to know about it.”
Dr. Thorn looked up. “Was Rayli hurt?”
“Treliss. Her hand was sliced up by another sister trying to get a hunk of meat while Treliss was trying to remove the skin in one piece. I’m sure Rayli will get us if she needs any medicine.”
“But . . . .”
“There were bandages and a healing cream, which I used,” Jorn said. “A quarter inch, and it would have hit a major artery.”
“I did hear you got a bit feisty with the girls.”
“Yeah, well they’re all animals. Cut my rank and throw us into a tiny cave, but I’m not taking any of them.”
“Except Treliss and Rayli,” Nehma said softly.
Katarn gave a soft chuckle. “But Thenorn has other plans, I’ve heard. I know I love my children, but if those two have your heart, it won’t matter. Fenna and I managed to get the ones we wanted. But don’t give up your rank until you have to, my boys. Those two girls might make it.”
“We’ve come to know those two during our music lessons, and they’re real sweet. I think they’re a good choice if you have other priorities, which you two can’t seem to stop finding things to fill your time, so that’s not a problem.”
Jorn shook his head. “Her hand is sliced up. It’s not going to heal quickly.” He didn’t add that he thought that dark green Elsue had done it on purpose.
Dr. Thorn gazed at Jorn and then Nehma. “You two really do care for them, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Nehma admitted.
All the girls were in their nooks, most of them in their work rooms. Treliss was in pain, but she tried to ignore it and keep working. But it wasn’t just the pain in her hand. She couldn’t help remembering how angry Jorn had been, how he’d glared at the room as if he loathed every woman there. Treliss trembled. What if he loathed her, too?
Rayli sat across from her, working steadily. “Don’t try to crack red-claw. Fix the nets, or braid rope. Maybe that won’t hurt your hand as much. You’ve got to try not to bend it for a few days so it can start healing.”
“Oh, what’s the use? Jorn hates us, and we’re going to be passed down to the lowest ranked males anyway.” She swiped at the tears that seemed to be ever present lately.
“We have a chance, I think,” Rayli said evenly, her hands cracking a red claw, and then deftly removing the tender meat to add to her pot. “Nehma spoke to me.” As Treliss watched a tremor ran through Rayli. “He has such vivid blue eyes, have you ever noticed?”
“What did he say?”
“He looked into my eyes as he handed me the net, straight in.” Rayli let her hands still as she looked at Treliss. “He said, ‘Come in first for me, Rayli. I’m waiting for you.’ and then that idiot Hagli pushed right into me and broke us apart.”
“He said that? He’s waiting for you?”
“Then that means . . . .”
“Girls,” came a soft male voice.
“Merfa,” Rayli called, “you can come back. Check Treliss’ hand, will you? She won’t stop using it.”
Both Rayli’s merfather and elfather entered. They carried their medical bag that had become so familiar during Rayli’s acute phase. “We heard there was a bit of trouble,” Merfa said. “Let me see your hand.”
Treliss complied. “I’m sure Jorn did it right.”
“I’m sure he did also, but a fresh bandage and medicine is about due, isn’t it? Look at this blood.” He shook his head, but then worked steadily.
Elfa studied Rayli. “I know you’re scared about this re-mating thing the elders sprung on you, but there is a way out,” he said softly. “The elders have a very strong interest in Jorn and Nehma. Too strong, sometimes. And the majority of them think that wives who will produce many children will keep them out of trouble.”
“Yeah, Lariss said that. Or was it Leali.”
“But Jorn and Nehma have chosen you two.”
“What?” Treliss jerked her hand from Merfa and covered her mouth. “Please don’t tease me.”
“I’m not,” he said firmly, but softly. “But the majority of elders have forbidden them to choose you.”
“No,” Treliss cried. Her tears, ever close to the surface, burst forth again.
Merfa patted her back. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay. They argued quite loudly. I was sure you must know by now. They finally settled that Jorn and Nehma must marry whichever pair of sisters are in first place.”
“Even if it’s us?” Rayli asked.
“Even if it’s you. Jorn and Nehma were able to argue that concession.”
“So that’s what he meant.”
“Nehma’s a very gentle man, Sweetheart. You have nothing to fear from him.”
“But how can we win with my hand like this?”
“Well, you may still get Jorn and Nehma, even if you don’t come in first,” Merfa said, “but for their sake, I hope you do. After today Jorn was raging he wouldn’t take any of those others even if he was knocked down to lowest rank. I’m afraid if you aren’t first, those boys are going to cause one big commotion at the post-bonding ceremony, and it could be disastrous for their future. So if you ever needed a reason to work hard, here it is. Do it for your future cluster.”
Merfather studied Treliss’ hand. “I better put a couple stitches in this.”
“For a wound that size . . . .” Elfather said.
“I know. Not usually, but she can’t stop using it. It will just keep breaking open and maybe getting infected. Rayli, you’re going to have to change these bandages three times a day at least, applying fresh salve. You can’t risk an infection.”
Merfather had just finished stitching Treliss’ hand and rewrapping it when elder Traynorn’s wife called into their nook. “Come out here, girls. Everyone must hear what the elders have to say.”
Treliss and Rayli jumped to obey, while Merfather and Elfather moved a little slower.
Elders Thenorn and Belna, Katarn and Fenna, stood near the back wall of the large dock area. Thenorn was a bit taller, and Rayli realized he was standing on the rock slab that the elder wives sometimes used to try to make themselves heard.
The girls assembled, quieter than Rayli had ever heard this group. The elders intimidated them, Rayli guessed, and sourly she also thought they wanted to appear as dutiful, perfect, future wives.
“Doctors,” Thenorn’s voice rang out. “I heard there was an injury here today. How serious is it?”
Elfather took a step forward. “Several stitches. She will have limited use of her hand for some time. Hopefully we can avoid an infection. It will place her at a disadvantage, for at least several weeks.”
The other girls looked toward Treliss and Rayli, and several sniggered.
“That is unfortunate. We changed the rules several years ago to keep the girls closer to safety, but we haven’t had a group this large in five years. We understand that all of you girls are earnestly working to secure the best mates you can, so I don’t blame you for feeling a little desperation to get your racks by any means possible. But you must remember there is more to being a woman than securing your racks.”
“Is it true that the Flying Elk Cluster will choose the highest ranked sisters?”
Thenorn smiled. “Yes. That is quite true. But don’t injure yourself and your sisters because of it. Jorn and Nehma do not approve of that in their future mates.”
“What about stealing?” A shell-pink Merree, Fegli, glared at green Hagli. “She grabbed my net when the boat came.”
“That was my net! You’re the thief.”
“Sisters!” Thenorn bellowed. “This is intolerable. We don’t have enough supervision to separate you all, but we’ve decided that one elder will be here during the day with his wives, while the other brother remains at the storehouse for the brothers. Also, half of you can go out each day and spend the alternate day processing your finds.”
“But what if they sneak into our workspaces while we’re gone. I know someone was in our space.” A general outbreak occurred again.
“Silence.” Thenorn gazed at each pair of sisters in turn. “I had hoped the situation was overstated this morning, but I see it is not. I’m very disappointed.”
“Perhaps we should separate half of them to live on North Point. There are three shelters there,” Katarn said, his voice lower, but it still carried to them all.
Thenorn gave a slight nod. “I’d like three sets of sisters to volunteer, and we’ll take you to North Point in the morning.”
“But the boats come here!” cried an Elsue sister.
“No. Not anymore. No brothers are allowed to bring any excess hunt here at all. You do not know how to work together for the good of all, so you will need to fill your racks with smaller food items and the fine workmanship of your industry.”
Several sisters groaned. Rayli tried to show no emotion. Last year the three groups had worked loosely together on large projects and the totals split among them. Large projects added numbers to their totals very quickly, and half the work was already done — the searching and gathering.
“I’m still waiting for volunteers.”
Treliss reached for Rayli with her good hand. “We could go to Point,” she whispered. “Wind will take us, and she’s been nervous here.”
Several other sisters whispered. Rayli had thought of this as their home. And it had been far before the others had come. If anyone should leave, the others should. But no one else was volunteering.
“We’ll go,” she finally said.
“Yeah, you go,” Hagli sneered, “you don’t belong here anyway.” Rayli was sure the girl meant only for Treliss and Rayli to hear her, but Thenorn cocked his head.
“We decide who belongs here, Hagli,” Thenorn said. “You and Weyliss will also go to North Point. We need one more volunteer.” Thenorn waited while the sisters whispered and snickered, but when the voices got louder and no one volunteered, Thenorn chose another set. “Dromliss and Becli.”
Rayli winced. Dromliss was the one who’d put her knife directly into Treliss’ hand. She didn’t trust her at all, and she’d rather not have her near them.
“Now,” Thenorn continued. “We’ll get you set up. There are three small caves on the southern side of the island. You’ll stay in them from sunset to sunrise, just as you would be inside this cave during those times. A set of brothers from the storeroom will come between breakfast and noon to collect anything you have for the storeroom along with an Elder to supervise. They will also stop here. Any problems or concerns are to be mentioned at that time. At any time you may return for help. Be ready in the morning,” he said, dismissing them. As he stepped off the speaking stones, he ran his hands over his face. “We’re going to have some long hours,” he said quietly to the other elders.
Merfather and Elfather focused on Rayli and Treliss. “Actually it’s a good idea. I’m guessing there is more variety over there on the island as well as in the sea. Just be careful. Send that little elk if you need anything.”
Treliss gave a small smile. “Breeze isn’t so small anymore, but we’ll send her if there’s trouble. Although honestly, all I can really do is tell her to find Jorn. That’s all she understands.”
“Be careful with that,” Merfather whispered as Thenorn approached.
“Coming back now, Doctors?”
“Yes. We hadn’t meant to stay this long,” Elfather said. “I hope your changes keep us from another accident.”
They all left.
At Dromliss’ glare, Rayli pulled Treliss into their nook to avoid the others. “We better pack up everything we’ll need.”
Go to Chapter 26
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.