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|Under the Ice|
Book 1, Winter
October 12, 2012
"Come on! There's such a lot to do today. Isn't it exciting?!"
Naomi couldn't tell what time it was, but she knew it must be early. Henka was shaking her awake, with a stupid, forced-looking grimace on his face. Behind him, she could see his father, Katsuo, rushing around, trying to get things packed. There was no sign of his Grandmother; Naomi assumed she had gone for a walk or something.
"What's going on...? I'm tired."
" We told you yesterday. This is the one day of the year we can go under the ice! We need to be there early, so get up!"
He said this in a kind of sing-song voice, but there was a dangerous edge to it, making Naomi think she should probably get up after all. This she did, not without reluctance.
"It's early. 'T's still dark..."
Henka made an odd sort of growling noise.
"It's winter. It's ALWAYS dark."
Naomi frowned, and walked over to him, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
"And why are you so grumpy? This isn't like you at all!"
He made an attempt at a reassuring look, and failed.
"Sorry. Today's a big day for me. Being a waterbender is a huge responsibility when you go under the ice..."
All of a sudden, he shuddered, uttered a sound like a frightened mouse, and ran out of the tent. As the sound of his footsteps grew fainter, Naomi began to feel a little concerned. She felt Katsuo's hand on her shoulder. He smiled sadly, and stared at the ceiling.
" Don't worry about him. Today is important. If all goes well, we get a good supply of mussel squid for the winter. The village's entire safety relies on us waterbenders, so naturally, he's a little nervous. But I know he'll do great."
"I know, right!?"
Henka ran, desperate to find somewhere he could get some last minute practice done. Although boys were supposed to be brave, he knew exactly what he was; Terrified. And he wished that there was someone he could talk to. His father had been understanding, but even he thought it was something he would soon get over. Naomi knew nothing of bending, and although she was nice enough, was too ditsy to rely on. Master Yuu? That was a joke. Henka was so scared he could cry.
He knew what had started this. He had been so terrified of having failed to save Naomi- and he barely knew her. Even though she had been fine, the thought continued to haunt him. And now, in the winter of his sixteenth year- the first year he was obligated to help protect the others with waterbending when they went under the ice- he was terrified of the prospect of failing, which he knew was only too possible.
His subconscious led him past the chief's hut- there were voices inside. They both sounded suspiciously familiar.
"Akira, I'm an old man. I figured there's something I need to tell you, whilst there's still time. You're an amazing lady, and I would like to spend the rest of my life with you.
"You silly old walrus yak. I have known for a long time. You forget my gift of reading people. But I am flattered. And I feel the same."
Oh no. Old people flirting. Ick. Even worse- it was his Grandma and the chief. Henka glanced from side to side, working out how to retreat. He took a step backwards, making as little noise as he could. Then he grew braver, and was about to run when he heard something which made him freeze.
"I know you're there, Grandson. Why don't you come inside? We have a lot to talk about, after all.
"I'm sorry, now doesn't seem to be a good time, so... Uh... I'll just be on my way."
"Nonsense!" the chief bellowed happily. "Come on in!" Henka had no choice but to comply. As he entered, he nearly stepped on RonRon, who had been sleeping in the entrance. The koala otter blinked twice, yawned, and leaped out of the way, chattering.
"Now, sit down. It's fine, It's fine. Would you like some silver tea?"
Henka shook his head. He knew from a past experience silver tea was just hot water. If anything, it was worse than cold water, which in this land, usually came in the form of shiny, white lumps. He stifled a sigh, and stared at the floor. This had to be the most awkward situation ever. The happy couple didn't seem to think so, however. They seemed quite at ease, although his Grandmother knew something was not quite right.
"Henka, I know something is bothering you. You are worried about your responsibilities today, I believe."
"Y... yes Grandma. If something goes wrong, I don't think I'd ever be able to live with myself. I don't know how to explain it. But you understand... right?"
"Of course. I know exactly how you feel, I am a healer after all. In its base form, your fear is that something bad will happen and it will be your fault. Look out of the window- do they look as though they worry?"
She nodded towards the door, and Henka tentatively walked towards it. Outside, he could see a group of young children, laughing and playing. In their hands, they all held buckets- today, they would venture under the ice for the first time. They would fill the buckets with mussel squid, which they would share with their families. It was true- they had no worries.
"You see? Who knows what might happen. Something might. But it also might not. You have to take that chance in life. All these children are so exited- Naivety is not a bad thing, Henka. Just know that not everything falls down to you. Your father and teacher will both make sure nothing goes wrong."
Her words made sense, and Henka took strength from them. He smiled self-consciously, and began to stand up to leave. The chief winked.
"Always take the chances you can whilst your still young enough! That's what I always say. Bwahahahaha."
The chief laughed for a good few minutes, and the boy felt his small smile turn into a huge grin. Chief Seok really was a great guy. Maybe it wasn't so weird after all, that he was in love with his Grandma. They seemed happy. And now, Henka knew- thanks to them- that he was ready to face whatever the day could throw at him. He was not going to mess it up.
A few minutes later, and it was almost time.
"So, everyone's here, right?"
"Yep. Looks like you're going to be in charge of us kids. Your dad seems to be taking care of everything else."
" Okay. Thanks Suluk..."
Henka took a deep breath, and focused. It was going to begin, and soon. But he could do this. He knew he could.
" You guys need to get into groups of about three or four. I'm gonna take all the little kids with me, as I'm a waterbender. It's a precaution-"
Amak's hand shot up.
"I'm coming with you! If Jian Chi Yi shows up... I can protect you guys."
"Pfft" Henka rolled his eyes. Jian Chi Yi- the sabre-toothed one- hadn't shown up in years. If he didn't know any better, he would say it was Amak who was afraid. That is- specifically if he didn't know any better than to call the tough young warrior a coward. He supposed there was no harm in Amak tagging along.
After a time, everyone was sorted into groups. It wasn't too much of a job, as there were only a handful of children old enough to go under without the supervision of a waterbender. Naomi was borderline, estimated by most to be about twelve years old. Henka had wondered about bringing her with his group, before Sura made a suggestion.
"She could always come with me and Suluk. That would made our group big enough, and it would be pretty cool, right?"
Naomi nodded, furiously. "Let's go, already!"
Sura clapped her hands together in glee, whilst Suluk groaned. He always ended up in the 'girly group.' It was bad enough to always be lumbered with his sister. He cared about her, but she was quite frankly, a liability. The girls remained oblivious to his thoughts, as everyone made their way to the cavern of Huying.
It was enormous, much bigger than Naomi had expected. The waning gibbous moon shone on a huge sheet of sparkling ice, on top of which was a vast ocean of deep, sapphire blue. The cavern was visible cutting into the ice; a tunnel leading right under the ocean itself. She gasped in awe.
"It really is something, isn't it?"
Said Sura, quietly, a note of wistfulness in her voice.
"It totally is!"
Naomi was almost bubbling over with excitement.
The little children rushed inside in a giggling rabble, Henka following behind, frantically asking them to slow down. With a final glance over her shoulder towards the distant village, Sura took Naomi's hand, and they and Suluk finally entered the cavern of Huying.
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