Ice Massacre, page 10
I counted all twenty men as they emerged from the trail. They walked with broad shoulders, chins level with the ground, and each wore an all-brown uniform designed to repel water on the outside and keep body heat on the inside. Every uniform had a copper badge over the heart: a medal of honour for the warrior’s bravery. The medals were once made of silver, but Papa said silver got too expensive. And, rather than engraving the medals with Eriana Kwai’s national animal, the sea lion, the northern saw-whet owl had been chosen—an animal of the sky, not the sea. I liked the saw-whet owls—Mama said we had a unique subspecies on Eriana Kwai, making them special to us—but I wished whoever was in charge of the badges would stop being superstitious and just use our real national animal.
Besides, I thought a saw-whet owl gave more cause for superstition than a sea lion. The owls were pretty and graceful and had extra large eyes, and even though they looked innocent, they were predators. They were elusive, and you could miss one if you didn’t look closely. They reminded me a lot more of mermaids than a big, chubby old sea lion.
The twenty men lined up on the docks and faced the crowd. I scanned their serious faces. The first warrior in the line continued for a couple of steps before stopping, and stood intentionally separate from the rest.
Something was wrong.
The way the men stared into the crowd gave me chills. They were looking, but they weren’t looking. Their eyes seemed blank, their pupils too large and the retinas too dark. The surrounding skin was bright red, irritated. Only the first warrior really looked at us with knowing, seeing eyes.
I realised what had happened seconds after somebody screamed. And then more people screamed, and the dormant volcano surrounding me erupted.
My focus jumped back to the training master, who suddenly had to defend himself from a woman who’d lunged at him from the front of the crowd. A man stepped forwards to pull her off.
“You’re a monster!” she yelled, her voice cracking. “Where’s your conscience?”
The training master said nothing, watching the man from the crowd pull the woman away. I scanned the faces of the blinded sailors, and not a single one flinched; they remained at attention with their feet firmly planted on the docks.
“Those poor boys!” whispered Mama.
Papa turned to her with small, darkened eyes, then walked away without a word. The crowd let him pass before oozing into the space he left behind.
I leaned against Mama, and she put an arm around my shoulders.
The training master stepped up to the old, brown microphone and flicked a switch on the side. It crackled in the small speaker up front.
“Ladies, gentlemen, people of Eriana Kwai,” he said, speaking with his usual fervour. “It’s my honour to present you with this year’s warriors. These men have toiled and trained for five years, watching others go out to battle and patiently awaiting their turn to prove their strength. We have a new technique in place to guarantee the men the opportunity to slay without interference. These warriors have been trained to fight with one of their senses hindered, and you would be amazed at their ability to sense, react, and ultimately, massacre.”
The training master beamed with pride, but to me it looked forced. He was nervous, just like the rest of us. He was thinking about Papa’s warning, about how blindness won’t help, just like I was.
“And now,” he said after stunned silence met his words, “a dance!”
The drums started. Two high school boys beat a solemn rhythm onto the rawhide. A man in his twenties—a past survivor—jumped in front of the drums to dance the warriors off to sea.
I watched his feet jump to the rhythm, his brown and orange and yellow costume swinging hypnotically like an oversized saw-whet owl ready to swoop down on a mouse. Rough lines that reminded me of feathers were painted onto his coat, and the black and yellow circles sewn into his headdress resembled pairs of owl eyes staring wildly around.
As he sang, the training master’s daughter, Adette, joined in the dance. She was only seven, though I’d seen her at school. Her hair fell loose, braided with thick blades of grass and waving long past her shoulders. Her skirt was shimmery and brown and drawn tight near the ankles. She was a mermaid.
The two of them danced and sang as the ship drew away, and we continued to watch mutely.
The boy at the helm of the ship—the only one who hadn’t been blinded—turned and waved at us, and I was glad I couldn’t see his expression from where I stood. I couldn’t imagine the terror he must have felt. His eyes were the only set among twenty bodies, and his duty was to stay alive for the sake of the entire crew—even the entire island.
The dance grew more frantic, and we watched the ship wordlessly until it faded behind a veil of fog.
That night, I prayed for the sailors to return, and I wept with the guilt of my selfish motives.
If the sailors didn’t return, my training would begin. They would enrol me in the same program as my brother. They would mould my skills and mind into a warrior just like they’d done to him, and my papa, and every one of the strong, tough boys sent out over the years.
If they didn’t return, my fate would be sealed. I would have to become a killer of mermaids.
I woke from a restless half-sleep long before the sun would rise. Staring wide-eyed at the ceiling with a steadily quickening pulse did nothing to help me fall back asleep, so I sat up.
My room had a bitter chill to it that reminded me it still wasn’t summer. I rose and pulled the only outfit from my closet that was still hanging and not tossed to the floor: my Massacre uniform.
They’d been custom-made by the local seamstresses. All earthy tones, all thick to repel the cold, all resistant to water and glued at the seams with a waterproof seal. They were expensive; I had no doubt about that.
I put it on and stood in front of the mirror, hoping to see a fierce warrior and finding a timid, weak-looking teenager instead. I’d gained muscle from all the drills the training master had made us do, but I was still no more than an eighteen-year-old who had yet to grow into her curves.
I studied the copper badge on my chest with mixed feelings. The craftsmanship was so detailed, so impressive up close—but I couldn’t help noticing the anger chiselled into the owl’s eyes, which in nature were only kind and inquisitive.
Nothing pleasant could come of attempting to eat breakfast, so I sat on my bed, wondering how thirty minutes could have passed already. At this rate, I’d be marching down to the docks before my next breath.
I pulled out one of my binders from training and opened it so I could review some notes before my parents got up.
Topic 1: Wounds
- Laceration – tearing. Caused by conch shells, barnacled rocks
- Puncture – calcified sea spears, blow darts
- Abrasion – surface scraping. Falling on deck or narrow weapon miss
- Ballistic – hit from comrade’s iron bolt
- Penetration – stabbing and removal of sea spear
- Contusion – bruising, concussion. Conch shell, rocks, argillite
- Wound infection is common in battle. Cleaning is crucial
- Excessive blood loss weakens the body. Maintaining full strength is vital to survival on the water. Stop blood flow as fast as possible
I snapped the binder shut. I’d accomplished nothing but a cold sweat.
I threw the notes on the floor and curled up under my blankets, trying to stop myself from shivering.
Annith was the best in the class at first aid, and she wouldn’t let me bleed to death. As long as she was still alive.
We’d all proven our strengths over the last five years. I just wished I could be good at everything. Having a weakness—any weakness—was not reassuring when leaving for the battleground.
The lines in the ceiling sharpened as the sun bri
The floorboards in the hall creaked. Someone was awake. I sat up so quickly it was like I’d just woken from a bad dream.
My next breath, my mother was forcing me to eat canned beans for breakfast. The next breath after that, my parents and I were putting on our jackets and boots. The next one, we were walking down the dirt road to the training area.
The universe must have been playing a cruel trick, making time pass so quickly when I wanted only to cherish my last hours at home.
Home. The same place I’d lived every day since I was born. I’d never spent more than a weekend away from it, and even then, I’d only been down the road at Annith’s house.
We stopped outside the Safe Training Base, where the warriors always said their goodbyes before their families went to wait by the docks with everyone else.
My mother and father stopped and faced me. I looked between them, not knowing what to say.
Around me, other girls said private, teary goodbyes. Annith hugged her sister while her boyfriend, Rik, stood behind her with a hand on her back. Eyrin stood next to them, hugging her parents and her little brother all at once. There was Nora saying a passionate, lip-locked goodbye to her boyfriend, and Akirra glancing around as though not sure if it was uncool to hug her parents in public. Dani stood beyond that, engaged in what might have been an intense strategic conversation with her father. Arms crossed, he appeared to be the last person in the world to give anyone a hug.
“You’ve made me proud, Metlaa Gaela,” said my father, and his hug took me by surprise.
A second passed before my arms unlocked to hug him back. For the briefest moment, I felt warmth in his arms as they wrapped around me, and then he let go.
I turned reluctantly to my mother, who seemed to tremble from the effort of keeping her face brave for me.
I threw myself against her and hugged her as tightly as I could.
“I love you, Mama,” I whispered. Although I was taller than her now, I still felt like a little girl when she held me, and I stooped so I could fit my head under her chin.
“I love you, too,” she whispered into my hair.
We held onto each other. She rocked me like she did when I was a child, and neither of us said a word. I blocked out the sounds around me and listened to her heart beating, trying to savour this last moment when I could feel small and helpless under the protection of my mother.
“Time to go, Meela,” said Anyo.
Not yet. It was too soon.
“Wait.” I wasn’t done. I pulled away from my mother and looked around, urgency overcoming me.
“Where’s Tanuu?” No sooner had I spoken the words than I spotted him standing some distance away, not talking to anyone but giving me the suspicion that he’d been watching me closely.
I walked over and stopped an arm’s length away.
“The Massacre we’ve all been waiting for,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “Make us proud.”
I kept staring until he looked at me properly.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I reacted badly. I don’t know what—”
He put up his hands. “It’s fine. You don’t have to say anything. We’re only eighteen.”
I somehow managed a smile. “Thanks. I . . . I do love you. I just don’t know in which way.”
He nodded and smiled back, and I stepped forwards to hug him tightly. He smelled warm, earthy, like everything I loved about the island, and I closed my eyes to seal it in my memory. He rested his chin on top of my head and held me securely in his arms, giving me the feeling that nothing could harm me as long as he was there.
But he wouldn’t be there. And soon he let me go.
“See you when you get back,” he said, and I couldn’t help but feel reassured by his confidence that I would, in fact, come back.
Anyo grabbed my arm now, threatening to pull me away if I didn’t join the line.
“Bye, Tanuu,” I said, my voice frantic.
I searched for my parents in the crowd.
“I love you,” I called, and I had to turn away because my mother started sobbing in my father’s arms.
I lined up with the girls, front to back. A couple of other girls also had to be dragged into the line—Nora’s lips must have been stuck to her boyfriend’s, for all it took to peel her away—and after another few moments, we were all ready to go. I couldn’t look at anyone else. Many had been crying. I breathed deeply, desperate not to let myself cry, too, because if my mother or Tanuu saw me it would make everything so much worse for them. I had to stay brave for their sake.
Our families started back to the docks to join the crowd, while the girls and I marched forwards through the path in the woods. I could see every dewdrop on the leaves as we strode by, and every particle in the mist curling around the branches. I heard birds singing more clearly than ever, and mud squelching beneath our leather boots, and insects buzzing and even leaves rustling. I inhaled the smell of moss and dirt and tried to commit it to memory before I left it behind. Lifting my face, I let the mist cling to my cheeks, cherishing the clean feeling, soon to be replaced by a sticky, salty spray.
In front of me in her brown uniform, Annith stopped. We’d reached the docks.
A few girls murmured and gasped, and I looked around in alarm before realising they were pointing excitedly at the docks. Floating majestically on the sparkling sea was our brand new ship. My stomach knotted from a wild combination of elation that it was ours, pride that my people had built it for us, awe at the craftsmanship, and fear . . . fear that it was so small against the vast ocean awaiting us.
It was a Mediterranean model, one we’d learned to call a brigantine. The body was wide, flat, and about the length of two orcas from bowsprit to stern. The bottom of the hull would be flecked with iron—just enough to keep the mermaids from smashing holes and sinking us, but not enough to weaken the wooden frame. Two masts thrust high above the water: the fore mast, with three square-rigged sails that reminded me of the mast on a pirate ship; and the main mast, fore-and-aft rigged so the sails ran front-to-back like a schooner’s. The saw-whet owl scowled at us from the flag waving at the highest point of the main mast. A few small windows lined the hull, not far off the waterline, presumably to give us a bit of light below deck. The word Bloodhound was painted on the side of the ship in elegant cursive.
A fitting name, I thought, for a vessel designed to track down mermaids so we could run them through with weapons.
We faced the crowd. I stared into the anxious, excited, frightened, and stony faces of four thousand people of Eriana Kwai. The reality of the ceremony hung somewhere in the distance, not reaching my consciousness. This was it. This ceremony had happened every year in recent history, and this time, I was among the warriors waiting to set sail.
“Welcome!” said the training master into the ancient microphone. He motioned to us with a sweep of his arm. “It’s my honour to present this year’s Massacre warriors.”
The crowd applauded. A few people whistled.
“The warriors standing beside me are stronger, fiercer, and more determined than any of those we’ve sent in the past. For five years, not a day has gone by in which they have not worked to better themselves—to train their minds and bodies for the task before them. Today marks the downfall of our curse. We’ll live in peace and prosperity once again, all because of the warriors before you: the women of Eriana Kwai.”
As he spoke, I looked beside me at the girls who would become my shipmates over the coming weeks—the family I’d grown to know over the last half-decade.
Annith stood to my right. Beside her was a slender girl we called Blacktail, because she was shy and skittish like a deer. I thought she also had enormous ears like a deer, but I never said so. After her stood Sage, Linoya, and Zarra, who I imagined would have been the rebellious kids if we’d gone to high school. Next was Eyrin, s
To my left stood the group who liked to play basketball on weekends: Holly, Nati, Kade, Shaani, Blondie, and Fern. We called the one girl Blondie because she was the only one of us with blonde hair—like Nora, Holly, and Shaena, her heritage traced back to the mainland.
At the very end stood Mannoh, our captain. Anyo had chosen her because her father was a former Massacre captain—the same Massacre my father had been on, where they’d killed a record five hundred and four mermaids.
“Before you set sail on your honourable quest,” said the training master, “I’d like to present each of you with a parting gift.”
He reached into a barrel once used for fish, and revealed a leather tool belt. Two large pouches were stuffed full, their zippers left open so he could flaunt the contents. Four daggers, a multi-tool pocketknife, and a water flask lined the right pouch. A compass hung off the side. The left pouch acted as a quiver, overflowing with iron bolts.
I almost sighed with relief at the sight of the belt. Receiving a parting gift from the island was rare, usually reserved for a group of warriors who might actually stand a chance.
Some other girls whispered excitedly. I wondered how much all twenty belts cost. The entire island must have pooled resources to purchase and make these. Even when parting gifts were awarded—and it had never happened in my lifetime—it was usually something simpler than a full belt of tools and weapons. My father had received a compass alone, which he still kept over top of the fireplace.
Other than my onyx ring, Nilus had never received a parting gift.
Annith caught my eye, smiling through the tears streaking her face.
“And one more thing!” shouted the training master, straining to be heard over the buzzing crowd.
He reached into the barrel and pulled out a bottle of something red. “May you all depart in style!”
He removed the lid with a pop, and the crowd laughed and applauded. It was war paint.