Ice Massacre, page 2
The mention of Nilus—and the idea of someone being proud of me—made my stomach clench with guilt.
I managed a stiff nod. I waited for Annith to get her badge, and when she met up with me, nerves had turned her face a little green.
“I’d better get this rabbit home for dinner,” I said, then added hesitantly, “See you tomorrow.”
She looked afraid to open her mouth in case she vomited.
As I traipsed home, I thought of the Massacre in light of the privilege it brought and tried to suppress the feelings gnawing at my insides. I’d been given an opportunity to honour my family and my people, to slaughter the demons that took the lives of so many innocent men. I would get to bury iron bolts in their hearts like I did the rabbit dangling from my fist—only the demons, at least, deserved it.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the rabbit, still not looking at it.
The dirt road led to a dead end where my driveway sat. The house, modest compared to the greatness of the surrounding trees, greeted me with a soft blow of smoke from the chimney. My parents and I lived safely inland. All the beachfront homes had been abandoned after the mermaids came in from the Atlantic. In our mossy glade, the giant cedars rarely let the sunlight warm us. Sunlight wasn’t common, anyway, on Eriana Kwai, because the clouds always ran into the Queen Charlotte Mountains and emptied their rain on us.
I hesitated with one foot on the front step. Gaawhist, read the sign on the door. Home, sweet home. I turned and went around to the backyard, as though I could pause time if I moved slowly enough.
At the edge of the cliff, I flopped onto the grass and looked down the rocky slope to the beach. Two orcas glistened in the distance, and beyond that, the small protrusion of Haida Gwaii.
We were alone on Eriana Kwai. Few people came, few people left, and in my whole life, few ships had dared to cross this far north in the Pacific Ocean.
Watching a pair of seagulls float below, I felt nostalgic for the beach. I curled my toes. I wanted to feel the pebbles beneath them instead of the insoles of hard leather boots. I wanted to feel the crusty salt in my hair, and even the slimy seaweed as it wrapped around my legs. Something about those sensations was simple, and it calmed me.
Footsteps rustled behind me.
I pressed my face into the grass. Not now.
I didn’t turn, but seconds later, Tanuu flattened out next to me. From the corner of my eye, I saw him fold his arms and prop himself up so he could stare at the side of my face.
Reluctantly, I turned to him. The whites of his eyes popped against his dark skin and hair.
“It sure came up fast,” he said softly.
“No. I’ve been waiting for this since I was ten.”
And I don’t feel any better about going.
He must have misinterpreted the bitterness in my voice, because he said, “I know you’ll return home. You’re trained for this. You can kill a crow before I’d even be able to aim. I’ve seen it.”
I rested my chin on my arms and gazed at the darkening horizon.
“Look,” said Tanuu. “I’m not happy about you going. It should be me, and Haden, and all the other guys graduating next month. If the training program hadn’t made the change, I’d be the one going on the Massacre.”
He was right. If I weren’t going, it’d be him, and I knew I had a much better chance of surviving than he did. I pressed my lips together in an almost-smile.
“Here,” he said.
A clover was pinned between his fingers, and he held it out to me. I looked from the clover to his dark eyes, then took it. It had four leaves.
“Make a wish.”
I twirled it between my fingers. Wishing on the outcome of the Massacre would only jinx it.
“Meela,” he said in a low voice, as if trying to make himself sound romantic. “I want you to know I’ll be waiting right here when you get back.”
I sighed. “Where else would you be? Swimming to the mainland?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really.” I supposed I knew what he meant, but I thought he was being stupid.
“I’ll never be with another girl.”
I kept staring at the clover, wishing he would stop talking.
He placed his hand over mine and whispered, “I love you.”
I leapt up, as if I’d been stung by a wasp. “You what?”
“Don’t act oblivious.” He stood and took my hand again. “You know I love you. I think you love me, too, if you’d just admit it.”
I shook my head and stepped towards my house, breaking my hand from his grasp. “No you don’t, Tanuu. Don’t say that.”
He stepped forwards, but I backed away again.
“Meela, you don’t have to worry with me. I have a house, a job, even a savings account—you and I, we could have a family together.”
“Stop!” I turned away from him, and for a second I wished I was still holding a crossbow.
He did stop, and after a moment I turned to him again. He had his hands in his pockets. His eyebrows were pulled down so his face took on the helpless innocence of a big-eyed, baby seal.
I opened my mouth, but any words I might have said got stuck, so I closed it again.
“You should just leave,” I said, finally. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the Departure Ceremony.”
He nodded, a pitifully romantic expression still stuck to his face. “See you then.”
He walked away without glancing back. The second he rounded the house, I faced the water again.
I knew he loved me. When I stopped denying it, all the signs were there. There was nothing wrong with Tanuu. He was smart, and attractive, and probably right that I wouldn’t have to worry if I wanted to have a family with him. The proper thing would have been to love him back.
I looked at the four-leaf clover still pinched between my fingers and bit my lip. According to Annith, being in love was something you “just knew”, because your heart felt swollen and you never stopped thinking about him and you wondered how you were ever happy before.
Well, my heart felt no fatter than usual, and I found it a bit too easy to stop thinking about Tanuu. I loved him as a friend, but I “just knew” I didn’t love him the same way he loved me.
I held my palm flat, watching the clover’s frail leaves shudder in the breeze.
Darkness was falling. The water below had blackened, and the first star of the night twinkled above the horizon.
“I wish Eriana Kwai will be free again,” I said.
I took a deep breath and blew. The clover lifted from my hand and floated gently off the cliff, beginning its descent to the ocean. The wind carried it away, and I watched it rise and drop smoothly until the sky engulfed it. I wondered, fleetingly, if it would finish its journey in the water or if it would find its way back to land.
When I finally walked into the house, my mother threw her arms around me so abruptly I wondered if she’d been waiting on the other side of the door. She smelled like maple and bannock. We held on for longer than usual, and when she pulled away, her eyes were glassy and pink around the edges. I dropped my gaze when I felt mine start to look the same. I was glad my father wasn’t home yet.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said. Yet her eyes spoke differently. After tomorrow, I might never see you again.
“Do you need help making dinner?” My voice was weak.
She shook her head, taking the rabbit from me. “I’ll fix this up and it’ll be ready in no time. Why don’t you go change?”
She turned to the sink. The bones in her shoulders stuck out beneath her worn blouse, and her spine and ribs had been distinct beneath my arms when I hugged her.
For her, I was glad I’d killed that rabbit.
I couldn’t wait to slaughter the demons who’d made my mother look like this.
I hesitated, wondering if I should forget it. But this was my last chance to release what had been curdling inside me for so l
“I shouldn’t be going on the Massacre,” I said.
My mother dropped the half-skinned rabbit in the sink. A second passed, but she didn’t look at me.
“You don’t think it right to send women,” she said finally, picking up the rabbit to continue her work.
“No. That’s not what I mean,” I said. My tone was angry. I took a breath. “The Massacre is the highest honour for our people. Everyone says so: Papa, the training master, the survivors. I don’t deserve that honour. Not after . . . after . . .”
My voice broke. I hadn’t brought it up in years.
She faced me. “Every warrior of Eriana Kwai deserves that honour.”
“I’m not a warrior,” I said. “I’m trained to be one, but I don’t feel like one.”
“Meela, I’ve known since you were a child that you were born with the blood of a warrior. Our people are blessed to have a woman as brave as you fighting for our freedom.”
“You mean the people I betrayed?” The words were sour on my tongue.
A crease appeared between her eyebrows. “You made a mistake as a child, but it was out of honesty and compassion. You risked everything to defend what you thought was right. That is the mark of bravery.”
I felt my face contort. How could she use the word ‘mistake’ so casually?
“Nilus would have been pr—”
“No,” I said. “Everyone keeps saying that, and it’s not true. Nilus would not be proud of me.”
Her eyes widened. “Honey . . .”
Words flooded out before I could stop them. “What if it’s my fault he’s dead? What if she’s the reason so many warriors have disappeared in the last few years?”
My mother stared at me for a long time. My words hung over us, and I had to bite my lip to keep a hard face. Then she placed her hands on my shoulders and looked at me with a determination I’d never seen in her before.
“Meela, the training master told me your skill with a crossbow is as great as your father’s.”
“That type of skill is not learned. It’s gifted. You were born a warrior. The gods have given you the opportunity to amend your mistakes.”
Vengeance seemed to bleed into me through the hands squeezing my shoulders.
“Embrace your destiny,” she said. “Avenge your brother’s death.”
My breath caught in my chest. She was right. This was my fate. I was a warrior of Eriana Kwai, and my purpose was to fight this battle.
My people had put their faith in me. This was my chance to pay them back—to make up for my mistakes.
The success of my Massacre would determine whether the people of Eriana Kwai would suffer or prosper. For them—and for Nilus—I would get revenge. I would make the demons regret the day they invaded the Pacific Ocean.
Eight Years Earlier
Soft ripples spread out from where the mermaid’s head submerged. Her coppery blonde hair revealed her position, but only just. If I hadn’t seen her a moment ago, I would’ve mistaken it for a clump of seaweed floating in the murky waters.
Slowly, I pulled myself from the bush and crept down to the beach, crouching low into the grey sand and rocks. Black clouds masked the sun’s rays, making it easier for me to blend with my surroundings.
A mermaid hunter must be stealthy, nimble.
With a quiet lapping sound, her hair disappeared. I paused, balancing on two stones with my bare feet.
Steps away from where she’d been, another ripple, this time brushing the line between the sand and water.
I held my breath and focused. The water was shallow in the tide pool. Up to my waist, maybe. That was no reason to assume I was at an advantage.
The rocks under my feet didn’t budge as I stepped closer. After months of practice, I could move with the fluid silence of a puma.
Her forehead emerged. Her blue eyes glimmered like sapphires, inhumanly large and adapted for catching prey in the black waters.
My stealth was futile. She looked right at me.
With a war cry, I pounced. I landed on top of her with a great splash, soaking myself and the surrounding rocks.
She twisted beneath me and wriggled from my grasp with ease. I was left on my hands and knees at the edge of the shallow pool for only a moment, and then a pair of arms grabbed me around the middle and rolled me back onto land.
She pinned me on my back with her icy hands.
I thrashed beneath her arms, trying to free myself even a sliver so I could push her off me. “Not fair, Lysi! You’re stronger than me.”
She sat on my stomach and crossed her arms. Her tail waved in the pool, creating its own tide. “My brother says mermaids are stronger than humans.”
Grunting, I rolled onto my stomach and forced Lysi to slide onto the wet rocks.
“I know that.”
She smiled wryly and smoothed her knotted, seaweed-laced hair. “I bet I’m already stronger than your papa.”
I jumped back into a crouch. “A ten year old? Fat chance, slowpoke!”
I soared through the air and knocked her backwards. We splashed into the water in a fit of giggles, scrambling to pin one another down.
“I—made you—something,” she said amidst our scrapping.
Pinned beneath her again, I spared a minute to catch my breath. “What is it?”
Lysi pushed herself off me and reached to the bottom of the tide pool.
Before she could even tell me what it was, I knew it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She must have read my expression, because her face broke into an enormous smile.
“It’s meant for wearing around your neck. It protects you from the wrath of the sea god, or something. Also, it’s pretty.”
“A necklace,” I said, awed.
“Necklace.” She said the word to herself a few times, adding more of my language to her vocabulary. She had a funny accent when she talked, but I didn’t mind because her voice carried in a way that made everything like a song.
I took it gently. It was a string of seashells, beaded along a twisted rope of seaweed in the most beautiful array of colours I’d ever seen—pastel blues and greens and violets, all glistening in the dim light.
“It took me months to find all the colours. I made two.” She pulled another from beneath the water and slipped it over her seaweed-logged hair. “Now we can wear them and think of each other.”
I dropped mine over my head, hoping the necklace looked half as pretty on me as it did on her.
“Thanks, Lysi,” I said, rolling a soft shell in my palm.
She beamed at me with her even, white teeth, and the whole sky behind her seemed to brighten.
“What are the fish like underwater? Are they as pretty as the shells?”
I gazed into the tide pool by Lysi’s tail, where an abandoned starfish clung to a rock beneath the surface.
“I wish you could see them all,” she said. “By my house there’s this rock—no, not a rock—I don’t know how you say it in Eriana. It’s all sorts of colours and fish live in it and even the rock is alive. I like to float and watch it sometimes.”
“I think you’re talking about coral,” I said, still inspecting the shells around my neck.
“Coral. Coral. Coral,” she repeated, turning the word into a melody.
Goosebumps rippled over my body and I hugged my knees, envying the way Lysi never got cold.
“I want to see fish and coral up close. One day.”
I gazed out at the waves. The sea was calm, and not far from us, a pair of seagulls floated on their bellies.
Lysi stiffened and her deep blue eyes widened. “Maybe you can.”
“I can what?”
“See underneath the ocean.”
My eyes widened, too. “How?”
“You can become a mermaid with me.”
I gaped at her for a second, then giggled and
“You could live with me. We can be sisters!”
“Could I meet all your cousins?”
She nodded. “There’s a way to do it. I’ve seen it.”
My breath caught in my chest. “You’ve seen a human turn into a mermaid?”
“Well, I know mermen who used to be humans. I’ll ask my brother how they did it. He’ll tell me.”
“If I was a mermaid, I could meet your brother,” I said. She talked about him often, and it always made me miss my own big brother.
Lysi smiled. “You’d like him. I think he’s like Nilus used to be.”
“How Nilus is, not how he used to be,” I said, careful to correct her. “He could still come home.”
Lysi took my hand, her cold skin leeching what warmth was left in mine. “Of course he’ll come home.”
He would. I’d given him my onyx ring for good luck before he left on his Massacre. It was the same one he’d given me when he came back from training one day, claiming to have found it in a tree trunk. I was sure he had actually bought it from a store—but he and I liked to believe in magic sometimes.
I let go of Lysi’s hand and jumped up, looking over my shoulder towards home. Not far from here, Mama’s voice carried on the wind.
I turned to say goodbye to Lysi, but she was already gone. Ripples spread out from the point where she’d plunged back into the ocean. The rain swelled, making the rings fade and gentle droplets slide down my nose. I huffed in defeat as I stuffed my gumboots in my backpack.
Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I cut through the bush so it would look like I came from the road. I was old enough, now, to realise that pushing through the thorns of the blackberry vines was better than Mama and Papa knowing I was at the beach.
Smoke puffed gently from the chimney, and I picked up a run, excited to be near a warm fire.
The sticky front door popped open only once I’d leaned into it with all my weight.