Thenorn and Belna met Jorn and Nehma early on the morning they were to head to Flying Elk Island. Jorn busied himself with the boat, making sure they had enough ropes and nets. He’d already rigged a second quiver of arrows against the top of the mast, so that if necessary he could swoop down and grab them during an encounter. He heard Nehma greet Thenorn and Belna, although by now Jorn could tell that Nehma was faking his upbeat tone. He was as tense as Jorn was, but he hid it well. They hadn’t seen the elders since their fight in the ward. He knew what they’d agreed to then, but since his visit to North Cave he knew he couldn’t live with any of them. Even Nehma agreed with him.
They started out, and Jorn kept his gaze focused as he sailed.
“Let’s swim a while,” Belna said to Nehma.
Jorn felt them leave the boat.
“Jorn,” Thenorn said.
“You should be watching that nothing attacks them.”
“I am. Jorn, you know I love you like a son.”
Jorn ignored him. He had to or all the emotions inside him would explode. Love and anger and hurt. He was even more afraid that it would all come out at the post-bonding ceremony if Thenorn forced them to choose any of those others.
“Look, let’s forget about the girls until the post-bonding.”
“I’m not choosing any of them,” he spat in spite of his best efforts to not speak.
“I don’t want to discuss it today,” Thenorn repeated. “Let’s enjoy this beautiful day. Maybe we can even hunt a walpigate on our way home.”
“We won’t hunt dragons or drake,” Jorn said firmly.
“I would never seek out danger like that,” Thenorn said softly. “You still don’t think I fought that dragon out of pride, do you?”
Jorn didn’t want to concede anything right now, because one concession might release all his emotions. But he’d gone over the attack later and realized Thenorn was right. The dragon would probably have less trouble in the water than they would. He gave a slight shake of his head, knowing as he did that he was admitting that his plan might have gotten them killed.
“It was not an easy decision to face that dragon, and without you I’d have died. Without you I would have fled and still died. Our mistake was one of ignorance. We did not realize how great a threat darkness holds for those people.”
Jorn faced him. “You are not blaming me for my bad plan?”
“It would be the only plan for a single pair of brothers. It was not bad.” He gave a slight smile. “I only regret you do not trust my experience and leadership.”
Jorn refocused on sailing.
“Even then, I understand, Jorn. Lajarn kept you from group hunts, and you learned you had to rely on only yourself. You’ve done very well. You must know we’re always proud of you and Nehma, even when we must disagree.”
Jorn said nothing.
“If you have questions, Belna and I can retrieve answers for you.”
Jorn shrugged. Why was he bringing up Archive now? “Summer keeps us busy,” he said dismissing it.
“We still haven’t gotten access to any of the other rooms. Strange. It no longer says ‘access denied’ but ‘restricted.’“
“Really,” Jorn said, careful to keep his face from Thenorn’s view. “And no one can discover a way around that?”
“No. Belna and I guess that you and Nehma could find a way in, but we decided that mentioning it might keep us from seeing what’s inside those rooms for quite a few years.”
“None of the rooms open?”
“Actually we’ve been granted access to conference rooms on levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. Level 4 also has a cafeteria, which will serve us fairly inedible mush it calls food, saying that other food items are depleted from stock. On each level there are several tiny rooms with water, which we have determined are waste and wash rooms. And we found a fascinating area starting on level four that reaches up through levels 3 and 2 which houses all manner of plants, even trees. I wish I could show it to you. There are even fruit trees, but how do we add oranges and plums to our storerooms without questions? The archive says that the soil content outside is not quite right to support these trees. Apparently they are from a far planet called Earth.”
“So that’s why you asked about fruit trees.”
Thenorn chuckled. “Yes. Archive said that adaptations were made and orchards planted that thrived on this planet.”
Belna and Nehma joined them, and the elders promised to bring Jorn and Nehma some fruit from the underground garden. By the time they’d reached Zander and Owen, Jorn’s tension had dissipated. He knew they still disagreed on the women, but they wouldn’t dwell on it. It had been completely unexpected. Lajarn had never let Jorn forget any disagreement, and he had berated him and made his life miserable for weeks for any confrontation. Thenorn was right. Perhaps Jorn overreacted to certain things because of what he’d come to expect from Lajarn.
Living on North Point in the tiny cave that was barely big enough for Wind and Breeze to join them at night was definitely more peaceful than the cavern full of fighting women. The south side of the island had a tiny strip of beach that was only uncovered during low tide. At high tide the water came up the cliff face, and Treliss and the elk were forced to wade through the water to enter or leave the cave. Inside the cave the ground had been built up so that they had a dry work area. In a nook right to the side of the door a hole had been dug and lined so that the sea water stayed in it at low tide, giving Rayli a place to sleep.
They would take Wind to search and gather as soon as the storeroom raft picked up their ready supplies, and then they would work all evening and into the night to ready everything in the morning.
Unfortunately, several times their cave was in disarray when they came back from gathering. The first week their hammocks disappeared, and so did a whole sheaf of grasses that Treliss had collected to weave. They dutifully reported each disturbance and disappearance, but never heard if their items were found.
After reweaving their hammocks several times, they decided to take them with them while gathering and use them as nets. They’d found a small crevice to hide baskets, ropes, nets, and mats they were making along with any weaving supplies they found. They were able to complete several projects that way. Rayli had not done much weaving before, but Treliss could produce a fine even weave, and even incorporate shading and textures into her work. Rayli’s specialty was cooking. She saved back berries and various fish to make the easy to carry food the hunters needed. Elder Katarn confided once that hers were the best he’d tasted, and Lariss had asked how she made them. Everything they collected that couldn’t be turned in immediately the following day, they stored in the crevice.
It was the fifth week of bonding, and they’d been at North Point over three weeks. They were gathering on an island just northeast of Point. The island was so small it held only grasses, a few berry bushes, birds and nests. Treliss gathered more berries, although there weren’t many left as everyone came here. They’d only stopped because no one else was currently there. Rayli focused on the shallows, netting any useful shell or crustacean she could find. Any useful plant life was gone already. She swam out and down as far as she dared. Any significant depth might cause her disease to flare up. She tried hard to keep the small fissures under her arms and on her side from growing. Fortunately Treliss hadn’t seen them yet. She’d said at the beginning, when she’d gotten a few sores, that if the stress of formal bonding was going to affect Rayli’s health, she’d quit right then. They didn’t need it official for them to be sisters. Those initial sores had healed quickly when they first came to North Point, but the irritation on her side, under her tunic, remained. It didn’t bleed, but sometimes it itched and hurt. Her fathers gave her medicine, but twice it’d been lost in a raid on their cave.
When they met back up, Treliss suggested they stop at their cache in the crevice and bring back enough to work through the rest of the day. Before they landed, Rayli knew something was wrong. Smoke drifted up from the back side of the rocky cave area they lived in, right from the spot where their cache was hidden.
“No, no,” Treliss moaned as they flew closer.
The fire crackled around the carroot tree in front of the crevice with their cache, but any hope that the fire hadn’t gotten their work was gone. The large floor mat that Treliss had worked on many, many evenings was hanging from the tree, flames dancing up it. She had been almost finished.
“No!” Treliss shouted, and rushed into the flames, grabbing at the mat.
“No, Treliss,” Rayli yelled after her. “Help! Somebody help.”
Treliss pulled the burning mat to the ground and began beating on the flames with her hands and arms. Rayli grabbed her shoulders. “No, Treliss, stop. Please stop.”
And then male hands lifted Treliss from the flames. It was elder Katarn.
Treliss fought him. “No! No! All my work!”
Fenna ran to them and helped his brother. “Treliss, it’s too late. Treliss.”
She finally slumped against them and cried. “Why do they hate me so much? Why?”
“Come, let me see your hands,” Fenna said.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll never catch up now.”
“You’re not behind, but these burns are serious. Rayli, can you call that elk creature? We need to get her to the medical ward.”
“We don’t have time,” Treliss cried.
Rayli called Wind from the sky. When she had firm hold on her halter, she thought she had gained control of her own emotions enough to speak. “Treliss, it doesn’t matter anymore. Let’s get you to the ward.”
“Treliss!” Rayli said firmly, guessing that the pain from the angry red burns on her arms and hands was adding to her hysteria. “I need to see them, too. We were wrong. We can’t compete.”
As Rayli expected, Treliss’ head seemed to clear. “You were hurt. Where?”
She shook her head. “Not the fire. Just the same old thing. Come on.” When she and Treliss were in the air, she saw elder Katarn take Treliss’ charred mat into the air. He flew low over the water, and Rayli could only guess that he’d done it to keep the flames from flaring again and perhaps catching the whole island and ruining a good supply of ironwood vines.
Elfather and Merfather met them and immediately set to soothing Treliss’ burns. “They’re not as bad as they could have been. At least I don’t think you damaged the muscle or bone beneath, thankfully.”
“What about you?” Merfather asked.
Rayli shook her head.
Merfather touched her forehead where the scales met skin, and the contact stung. “Into that hammock. You’re breaking out as we speak.”
Nehma and Jorn came into the ward right after dinner. “Someone in the ward?” Rayli could hear Nehma ask.
“Rayli and Treliss.”
But then Jorn stalked into the room straight to Treliss who was still sleeping from the high doses of pain medicine she’d been given. Nehma and the doctors followed. Nehma came to Rayli. “What happened?” he whispered.
“Someone set fire to our supplies and a large mat Treliss had been working on for weeks. She tried to save it but burned her arms and hands pretty badly. Me, I just can’t handle all the stress, I guess. Every time we go out we never know what we’ll find when we return to the nook. We really aren’t good enough,” she ended, and she hated the tears that threatened to spill down the sides of her face.
“You are plenty good enough,” Nehma said, taking her hand.
“Will she be all right?” Jorn asked.
“She’ll heal. She may have some minor scarring, but I don’t think the burns were deep enough to cause permanent damage,” Elfather said.
Jorn and Nehma stayed in the ward the rest of the evening. Treliss woke and tears filled her eyes when she saw Jorn. “I’m sorry. We tried so hard.”
“It’s okay,” Jorn said, touching her head. “We’re here and we’re not leaving.”
And they did stay until there was a commotion from the entrance ward. “Oh. This is no place for these creatures. Jorn! Come do something with these elk of yours.”
“They’re used to sleeping in the cave with us.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but they can’t stay in the medical ward,” Elfather said. “Please, Jorn, tell them to go.”
Nehma squeezed Rayli’s hand, and Jorn caressed Treliss’ head again. “We’re staying here.”
Treliss gave him a small smile. “We’ll be okay. Take them to your cave for the night.” When he hesitated, Treliss added, “Go on. They’re worried. They need you.”
“Go on, you boys. Go home and get a good night’s sleep. You know you shouldn’t be here.”
Jorn finally stood. “We’ll be back in the morning then.”
Jorn and Nehma were only gone a few minutes when elders Thenorn and Belna arrived. “Did I just see those flying elk?” Thenorn said from the entrance ward.
“Yeah. We finally convinced Jorn and Nehma they had to take them to their cave, or I think the boys would have spent the night here.”
Thenorn groaned. “This isn’t good. Give them some leave while Treliss recovers.”
“It’s not just Treliss,” Merfa said. “The stress of having their work continually sabotaged has set Rayli back also.”
“I don’t think the boys would take leave. They wouldn’t leave tonight. Thenorn, I know you don’t approve, but you’re going to have a big problem at post-bonding if you try to get those boys to mate anyone else, especially when it appears these other girls have injured Treliss twice now, and on multiple times been malicious enough to vandalize their nook.”
“This has been the worst year for backstabbing among all the sisters that I can remember.”
“It’s not just aimed at Rayli and Treliss?” Elfather asked.
“No,” Belna said, “Although I think they’ve received more because as far as we have seen, they don’t retaliate.”
“Then they are the most honorable ones,” Elfather said with a hint of satisfaction.
“We never should have let it become open knowledge that Jorn and Nehma were choosing the top ranked girls, or perhaps that they were definitely choosing at all. It made first place that much more enviable,” Belna said. “Usually no one quite knows the rankings but the elders. However Jorn and Nehma are so far ahead they’ve actually become legendary among the younger ones.”
“I just wish there was some other solution,” Thenorn said. “We do need some competition, but the women don’t always react well to it.”
“Some men don’t either, but they have a far larger area to compete in. This year especially there just weren’t enough resources, and often, I’ve heard that they search for hours with little to show for it,” he sighed. “But that’s something the elders need to discuss if we can get five minutes from our supervising duties.”
“Are the girls out for the rest of the bonding, or will they be able to do more?”
“Hard to tell at this stage.”
“That was a beautiful floor mat. Tell Treliss the elders decided to give her credit for it even though it was ruined.”
Rayli jumped from her hammock and ran into the entrance ward. “Let us still compete, please. Can’t we work from here? Last year loads of things were brought for us to process. Even if we only get half credit since we didn’t search it, couldn’t we? And I can make medicines, and….”
Merfather wrapped an arm around her.
Elder Thenorn smiled. “If your doctors believe you can work between rest and treatments, then yes, I think we can allow it.”
“Yes. Remember ten or was it eleven years back we had that pair of sisters and one had broken her leg landing wrong in a wind storm. It has happened, so I’m sure your request will be honored. But only what your doctor allows.”
“Thank you.” She quickly ran back and gave Treliss a quick hug before settling back into the water.
The elders left then, and they were able to sleep.
Jorn could barely sleep knowing that Treliss and Rayli had been so badly treated. It just reinforced the fact that these other women were all animals, and Jorn would not live with any of them.
He was up early giving Breeze and Wind attention. Nehma joined him. They ate briefly, even though morning horn had not blown, and then at first light they urged the elk from the cave and headed back to the ward.
Treliss and Rayli were alone and sleeping. Jorn and Nehma crouched silently beside them until Doctors Thorn and Manha beckoned them from the ward.
“We’re not leaving them,” Jorn said firmly.
Dr. Thorn smiled. “Not even to hunt for them? Rayli requested that they be allowed to get half credit if someone else brought items for them to process. Thenorn and Belna approved.”
Jorn started for the dock but then turned. “We can do this, right? Or do you need us here?”
“It’s better you’re out there. You aren’t mated yet. Now go.”
Jorn and Nehma rushed back to their cave and readied their boat. Thenorn caught them right as they were heading around the south end and landed in the boat. “Just a second, boys. You can’t just hunt for Treliss and Rayli.”
“But . . . .”
“But hear me out. It has to be fair. Bring your load to the storeroom, and we’ll divide it equally among the seven sets. How well they process these extra resources will be noted.”
“Everything has to be equal?” Nehma asked, and then blushed. “I mean, they can gather berries and grasses. Treliss weaves. Can’t we try to replace whatever was lost?”
Thenorn sighed. “Keep a list of extras. The elders will sort it out later. But fish and red claw and any sea mammals will all be divided.”
Jorn and Nehma finally agreed, but when he left, Jorn asked, “So how are they going to divide a walpigate seven ways? This is stupid.”
“Yeah, but hey, let’s get going.”
They deposited two boatloads of fish, a biter, and a walpigate the first day. As the sun set they stopped into the ward with a load of sargo grasses. “Not sure you can use this yet,” Jorn said apologetically as he walked into the smaller ward. Both girls were on the edge of the ward which had been set up as a work area. Although both of Treliss’ hands and arms were in bandages, she still wielded a knife, gutting fish. She dropped the fish and knife and jumped up. “Oh, Jorn, how thoughtful.”
Jorn felt his face flush. “I wasn’t sure what kinds you can use.”
Nehma sat near Rayli. “Yeah. We have to share everything we get and give a list of everything we don’t share, but let us know if there’s anything special you need.”
“It’s so hard to believe you’d actually do all this for us,” Rayli said, lowering her gaze.
Nehma lifted her chin. “I hope you don’t mind us choosing you even if we’re thrown down to last rank.”
Rayli’s lips twitched as if she were trying hard not to smile. “We expected to be chosen by a last rank set of brothers anyway.”
“But you deserve so much better.”
This time Rayli’s tears fell, but she seemed to not notice them.
Jorn gazed at Treliss. “Will you be pleased with me?”
Her lips trembled. “I love you, Jorn,” she whispered.
“Jorn!” called Dr. Thorn. “Your elk are back.”
Treliss smiled. “Take care of them for me.”
“We’ll come back in the morning,” Nehma promised.
“We’ll have that list,” Rayli said.
Nehma squeezed her hand, and they left to care for the elk.
Back in the gather room of the Flying Elk Cluster, Jorn and Nehma caressed Breeze and Wind. Jorn’s heart was light. Even the inevitable confrontation no longer worried him. “She loves me,” he told Nehma.
Nehma grinned. “If you didn’t know that, you were the only one.”
For the next three weeks they continued to hunt and gather, sharing with all except for the special items the girls needed. Two storms swept through during the final week and everyone helped in the ward, even both girls. Treliss’ was unbandaged by then, but the flesh was still red. “It was more a contact burn,” Dr. Thorn had said. “Fortunately her skin didn’t actually catch fire. She’ll recover completely.”
Four days remained between the second storm and the post-bonding ceremony. Jorn felt his stomach churn as he anticipated the ceremony. There was little time to process more items, and Jorn and Nehma suddenly realized that they’d be bringing their brides home very soon. At least they hoped they’d still get to keep their home. They realized they’d neglected it recently, and the elk living in the gather room had left gashes in the overmoss patterns and debris in the corners.
The morning of the ceremony was spent in last minute cleaning of their home and themselves. They finally made it to the ceremonial clearing and stood with the unmated brothers.
“Know who you’re picking?” asked Nehma’s sibling, Lenma.
Nehma nodded fixing his gaze on the ceremonial platform where the elders were assembling.
“You know who’s first?” Lenma asked. “I thought you had to pick whoever’s first.”
Nehma turned to face his sibling. “I’ll pick who I please.”
Jorn would have grinned if his nervousness would have let him. Instead he kept his body stiff so no one would see it and tease him.
“Yeah,” someone else said behind them. “You have to pick the first place girls. I heard the elders say you had to even if Treliss and Rayli were first.” He laughed. “That would show you.”
Jorn clenched his fist.
Nehma said, “We’re getting the best girls there, no matter what rank they happened to be.”
“Ha!” came the same voice. “You can’t go against the elders.”
Jorn grabbed Nehma and turned him to face ahead. “Ignore them,” he whispered. “Haven’t we got enough trouble?”
“You’re right,” Nehma mumbled back.
Elder Thenorn stood to begin the ceremony, calling Treliss and Rayli to sing. Then he said, “All the girls have worked hard this summer, and it has been a difficult summer. The storms and currents sometimes send less food our way. This was one of those years.”
Nehma glanced at Jorn. He hadn’t noticed less food, but then he was talking about the north side, and they hadn’t hunted there recently.
“With all the difficulties, we decided that ranking our women would be futile. They all did well. We’ll call them out in alphabetical order.” He began with “Beliss and Secli” and ended with “Weyliss and Hagli”.
Jorn and Nehma glanced at each other. No ranks? But how . . . .
“Sirs, we must have rank,” Dromliss insisted. “How will we know who fairly gets the Flying Elk Cluster?”
Thenorn looked toward Jorn and Nehma. He gave a slight nod and smiled. “Who do the Flying Elk Cluster choose?”
Jorn and Nehma gave each other another look and then stepped forward. Jorn nudged Nehma to speak. Nehma grinned. “Sorry, forgot,” he whispered. “The Flying Elk Cluster chooses Rayli and Treliss.”
“What?” came from behind them, as well as from the other girls.
“But that’s not fair!” Dromliss said. “I know they got less racks than us.”
“Enough,” Elder Thenorn said. “Jorn and Nehma, come and claim your brides. Who does the Rainbow Pincher Cluster choose?”
Jorn barely heard Nehma’s sibling choose as he and Nehma approached Treliss and Rayli to stand beside them. Wind, spotting Treliss for the first time in weeks, flew down and settled between the elders and the women. Breeze followed and they approached Jorn and Treliss, Nehma and Rayli.
The others backed up.
Thenorn chuckled. “No need to panic. It is just the rest of the Flying Elk Cluster. Now let’s get the rest of these brides claimed.”
Jorn closed his eyes and yet knew he was surrounded with a family who loved him. It was more than his rigid emotions could bear, and he felt the tears slide down his face.
The End of The Flying Elk Cluster
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© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.