Katara hates the cold.
She’s lived in at the North Pole for five years, but despite the numerous furs draped over and around her body, she feels a chill that makes her long for home.
But where is home to a girl like Katara?
The only sound for miles is the crunch of snow under boots. Katara relishes the noise. For years, she has been chastised for stomping too loudly, but now there is no one to admonish her. Her companion stomps twice as loud, his frustration echoing every step.
It had been a long journey, and there was no end in sight. Katara and her partner, a man named Arluuk, had traveled from ice post to ice post, checking in with every village. It was their duty to connect the scattered pieces of the Northern Water Tribe, the rural outposts far from the capital city. Technically, it was Arluuk’s duty — Katara was ordered along as a precautionary measure.
Arluuk had fought it, as any reasonable man would.
“I can take care of myself. I don’t need some woman slowing me down.”
But in the end he was overruled: it was always a good idea to have two heads to keep watch for wild polar-dogs, and Katara, while still not a fully trained healer, would be a welcome set of hands at many of the more far-flung villages.
It was not lost on Katara that her presence was meant to be an insult. She had rather gotten used to it.
Katara had arrived at the North Pole five years before, hungry for a chance to become a true Waterbending Master. It was not to be; the North Pole did not train women to fight.
She had railed against this for weeks She was the only Southern water bender, and she, of all people, surely she deserved to fight after everything she had been through… after what the Fire Nation had done to her. Sokka, her brother, who had accompanied her to the North, did his best, but he, too, had been young and untrained. The Northerners would not let him train as a warrior so long as he supported his sister’s insane request. They threatened to send her away without any instruction before she quietly acquiesced. Better to learn healing than nothing at all.
Katara was a skilled healer, better than some of the Masters. But her Southern ways held her back. Every full moon, she dutifully applied to achieve the Master rank, but she was turned away.
“Not yet,” said the healers. “You are impatient.”
“Not yet,” they said again. “You are too meek.”
“Not yet. You are too arrogant.”
“Not yet. You are too angry.”
At eighteen, Katara understood what was happening. To let her become a Master was to put the Southern Water Tribe in equal standing in the North, and everyone knew that the Southerners were savages.
So Katara became a savage.
Sokka had long since left the North — it was much easier to declare oneself a trained warrior once one had defeated every last man on the training grounds — although he had been hesitant to leave behind his sister. He had left her once before.
“Never again,” he had said with such fury and conviction that Katara had almost wept.
Still, she pushed him to leave.
“Our people need you,” she said. “You’re not leaving me, not really.”
“Katara, I won’t do it.”
But then word came North that Fire Nation ships were circling the Southern Isles, and even Sokka’s devotion to his little sister could not keep him from his duty.
It was all for the best, because Sokka probably would have stopped Katara from some of her more rebellious acts. Except for the ones involving food — Sokka could never resist a midnight kitchen raid.
Her misdeeds were what had landed her on this months-long mission with Arluuk. Her grumpy companion was being punished by her presence, and the Northern Water Tribe was getting rid of a pest all in one fell swoop.
“There,” grunted Arluuk, pointing to a small outpost ahead. “That’s our stop for the night.”
After five weeks of traveling together, they had settled into a routine. Arluuk would start a small fire while Katara unearthed furs and supplies from the ice chest contained in each shack. They would switch positions — Katara stirring together a warm, quick meal, while Arluuk took stock of the maps and tools. They would make sure each outpost was in order, replacing supplies as needed, before settling into silence and darkness. They slept deeply, buried in furs, before packing up to the next outpost. They had not come across a village in days.
It was supposed to be a great honor, visiting the smaller tribal fractions. Long ago, it had been a way of securing alliances, of reminding people of shared heritage and culture. But as the War of One Hundred Years had waged, the small villages grew smaller still, distrustful of all outsiders, even other Northerners. Those who lived in the capital forgot about the small people, or worse, reviled them. The tour of the north had once been a great rite of passage for young men, and now it was a punishment.
Arluuk was the youngest son of Nanouk, a fearsome warrior in the Northern Water Tribe, and had five brothers ahead of him. Each and every one despised their youngest brother.
The story went like this: Meriwa, wife of Nanouk, loved her sons very much. She was as warm and kind as any woman of the North Pole had ever been. Her only small wish was a daughter, and who was Nanouk to deny her? She was happy when there was a baby inside her, for she loved all her children, but she had a secret hope that this one, the sixth, would be a girl.
It was not to be. A squalling boy emerged bathed in blood. Too much blood. And Meriwa did not stop bleeding, no matter what any of the healers did. She was gone before she could feel the warmth of her last child in her arms.
When Katara first arrived in the North, she had tried to befriend Arluuk. She had heard the story from the other healers — the best way to get gossip was always to listen to the older women — and she had felt a kinship with Arluuk. After all, she knew what it was to be raised without a mother.
“Go away, fire-eater!” he had shouted, pelting her with a snowball. Her shock at the words fire-eater froze her in place, and the slush exploded in her face. Arluuk had been able to fit in with some of the older boys for a while — they were impressed by his aim — but Katara had learned her lesson and avoided him after that.
Now they were stuck together for an entire season, walking around the North Pole to persuade suspicious villagers that yes, they were all still the same Tribe, still fighting for one cause.
It’s a surprise, then, when on a clear, crisp day Arluuk asks:
“Do you still want to learn to fight?”
Katara’s heart leaps, but she remembers the snowball.
“It is forbidden for women to fight,” she says cautiously.
Arluuk frowns, keeping his eyes on the horizon as they trudge across the ice. Several long beats pass before he speaks again.
“You’re the only one in the entire North Pole who’s ever seen a firebender.”
Katara says nothing. She is not a patient person by nature, but she has learned that it can be worth it to listen to what is unsaid.
“Do you remember how they fight? The style, the moves?”
“Yes.” It’s not something she could ever forget.
“Then… if you knew how to water bend, you could fight back, right?”
She hears the question underneath, so she answers it.
“I could teach you how to fight back,” she says.
Arluuk continues as if he had not heard her. He points to the hut in the distance, their next stopping point, and is silent for the rest of the walk.
They are just finishing their dinner when he speaks for the first time.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “Tomorrow, I will teach you how to water bend.”
Katara does not sleep that night.
Water bending is hard.
Arluuk is a stern, but not unkind teacher. The best part of their arrangement is that he actually starts speaking to her — full sentences, and not just about the daily necessities of their travel — and in the dark of night he tells her Northern folk tales and she shares Southern ones. They are surprised to find so many similarities, and they often argue over what happens in each tale.
“So Tui then pushes the canoe —”
“No, it’s La who guides the way. The men are pushing the canoe!”
“Who’s telling this story, me or you?”
“You, but you’re telling it wrong!”
There’s not much time for training — they have a bigger job to do, after all — but she slowly manages to freeze and thaw the few cups of water they use to make soup every night.
“I don’t understand it,” grumbles Arluuk after a month of practice. “I’ve seen you heal a man who almost got his whole arm ripped off by a tiger seal. How come you can’t make a water whip?”
“Shut up,” Katara practically snarls. “You’ve been trained to do this since you were a child just because you were a stupid boy.”
Arluuk is, strangely, immune to her anger. Katara thinks it’s perhaps because everyone has been angry at him his whole life — he’s just used to it. The fight goes out of her and she slumps back.
“It’s just… scary,” she admits quietly. “When water is in a body, I can feel where it’s supposed to go, what it’s supposed to do. But here… there’s nothing to control it. What if I lose control?”
Arluuk nods, eyes narrowed in thought. Then, his faces clears.
“I have an idea.”
“Tomorrow,” he says, and he rolls over to sleep.
“You know, it’s really annoying when you do that.”
Katara waits. She feels like she’s spent her whole life waiting, but she still doesn’t know what she’s waiting for.
Their outpost is close to the sea this time, and there’s a little rickety boat half-buried around the back. Arluuk, a Master Water Bender at nineteen, is able to quickly free the ship from its icy hold and carry it to the edge of the ice shelf. They both climb in before Arluuk reveals his plan.
“Okay, you’re going to try the water whip here.”
“Here? On this tiny boat? In the middle of the water?”
“Yes,” he says, and he waits.
“What if I crack the boat in half?” Katara feels panic rising in her throat, but calms at Arluuk’s serene expression.
“I’m right here. I’ll keep us safe.”
She takes a deep breath and centers herself. As always, she feels the presence of warm water first. She wonders if this is because of her training as a healer, or if it is her Southern blood, searching for warmth again. She can sense Arluuk’s heartbeat, and it calms her. He is not afraid of her.
Perhaps he should be. He doesn’t know what’s she’s done to get here, after all.
The fury that rises within comes as quickly as ever. She is angry — she has been angry for years — and she is itching for a fight. This is why she had been afraid to bend the water before. The whip she bends points razor sharp, and it cracks the air as it moves. She feels a leap in Arluuk’s heartbeat — fear? Excitement? — and she slams the whip across the face of a nearby iceberg.
Katara prepares another whip and strikes again. It is easy, so dangerously easy, to bend the water as she wills it. She tests it, freezing the whips in the air so that they crackle and splinter into a diamond spray. She blasts cold sea water up in a giant wave. Thrice more she strikes the iceberg before she settles herself back in the boat. She is panting, and she knows that tonight she will be bone-tired from this exertion, but the thrum of adrenaline makes her numb to the pain.
For the first time in five years, she feels warm.
Then, a blinding light, and a ear-splitting crack as the iceberg before them opens and a figure appears.
An airbender, Aang.
Aang is young and impossible, and Katara likes him immediately. It seems the feeling is mutual, because Aang sticks to her side like glue. It makes quite an impression on the villagers they meet — a Northern water bender and Southern healer accompanied by a monk and his bison.
What Aang tells them is stranger than any folk tale: he is the Avatar, an air bending, sixteen-year-old monk who, along with his flying bison Apaa, had become trapped in an iceberg for a hundred years. It takes a few days for this to sink in, and for Aang to get caught up to speed on the modern world. It is a distressing time, and more than once, Aang disappears in his sadness and confusion, only to return at the end of the day to dive under the furs between them.
The one most changed by this turn of events is, strangely, Arluuk. He becomes quiet again. Katara misses their easy companionship — it had, for a brief moment, been like having Sokka back — but she is surprised when Arluuk calls them together for a formal meeting. It seems strange to have such import placed on a pow-wow of three people and a bison, but Katara, for once, bites her tongue.
“Avatar Aang,” says Arluuk solemnly, ignoring Aang’s flinch at the sound of his title. “The world has become unbalanced in your absence. For peace to return, you must help restore it.”
Katara can see the anxiety in Aang’s eyes, and she glares at Arluuk. He ignores her.
“You will not be alone. It would be my greatest honor to help you in this quest. If you would allow me, Avatar, I could teach you the ways of water bending. I am not a man of greatness, but I am a Master, and it is my duty to my people and to you, Avatar, to offer you my assistance.”
He finished his speech with a deep bow to Aang, who looks both pleased and mildly uncomfortable.
“You want to teach me water bending?”
Arluuk twitches a bit. Propriety dictates he cannot rise from his position until Aang has accepted or rejected his offer.
“Can we start right now?”
It’s as close to a yes that Arluuk can get out of the excitable young monk, and he straightens, smiling in relief. He catches Katara’s eye and winks.
Less than a month passes before danger rears its ugly head.
Danger comes in many forms in the North — the roar of a polar-dog, the scream of a blizzard, the silence of the cold. But there is only one danger Katara truly fears.
A Fire Nation ship.
The sight of it almost paralyzes her. Suddenly she is seven again, injured and terrified. Praying that Sokka will come to save her, yet hoping that he is far away and safe.
The moment passes and Katara’s face turns to stone. Not this time, she thinks. This time, I can fight.
The ship chases them from port to port. They fly away on Apaa, but he’s easy to track in the sky. They could move further inland, but there are villages there, and Arluuk refuses to lure danger towards his people.
They send Apaa away as a diversion. It doesn’t work; whoever is running the ship is clever, as loathe as Katara is to admit it.
After two weeks of dodging and fleeing, their trio is exhausted and trapped. The Fire Nation troops have them pinned in a small peninsula. The end is coming, and it won’t be pretty.
One night, Katara purposefully cooks the last of their dwindling meat. Aang, a staunch vegetarian, is unable to stomach the smell and sets about building a large snowman upwind of Katara’s simmering stew.
She gives Arluuk and meaningful stare.
“We can’t outrun them forever,” she says.
“We have no other choice,” he answers, eyes fixed on the horizon.
“The Serpent’s Feint.”
It is one of their shared stories — and a favorite of Arluuk’s. His eyes widen, staring incredulously at Katara.
“You can’t be serious.”
“It would work.”
“Keep your voice down, would you?” She shoots a nervous look at Aang, who is practicing his ice spheres.
“Katara, that’s a fairy tale. This is real. In the real world, we would be captured.”
“Yes,” she agrees. “One of us could be captured.”
“Katara, you can’t… you of all people know what Fire Nation can do…”
“I am not afraid,” she says. It is only the half-truth.
“Then you’re stupid,” says Arluuk. “I won’t let you do it.”
“Arluuk, please,” she says, unable to keep the emotion from her voice. “Aang is more important than any of us, and you need to help him train.”
“And what, throw you to the lion-vipers in return? You know Aang will never agree to that. He cares about you… and I care about you, too. You’re like a… like a sister to me.”
Katara shuts her eyes, wishing she could block the pain from his voice.
“I have said good-bye to a brother before,” she says a little shakily. “But I know I will see him again, just as I will see you again. The Fire Nation did not break me the first time. It will never break me. But if we do nothing, the Fire Nation will take Aang and they will destroy him. They will destroy him and the hope of every person the Fire Nation wishes to oppress.”
“I am faster now,” she continues. “I am stronger. I know what you have taught me and I am not afraid to use it. I will lead the troops away from here, and you will save Aang. Whatever happens, he will need you more than he will need me. Are we agreed?”
Arluuk looks positively mutinous, but Aang bounds over and breaks the tension that hangs between them.
“Guys, come check out my snow man! Or should I say, my snow bison!”
They dutifully praise Aang’s large sculpture before they reluctantly destroy it — no need to give away their position any more than they already are — and Arluuk catches Katara’s eye.
The Serpent’s Feint goes like this:
There once was a very clever young man who wished to marry his true love. However, she was cursed with a terrible affliction — the North and South disagree on what precisely the affliction is — but the young man had to embark on a dangerous journey to save her.
The path was treacherous — again, disagreements abound as to whether it was icy, or windy, or steep, or muddy — but along the way the clever man managed to pick his way safely through obstacles. Finally, there was only one more: a hungry dragon.
The dragon was large, fearsome, and more clever than any trickster who had ever walked the earth. Now, this poor man had to sneak his way into the den of the dragon and steal a potion containing an antidote. A sure way to die, but the man had a few tricks up his sleeve.
The dragon was very clever and so he was very bored. He was intrigued to watch the man approach with hands raised, and palms lowered — no sign of bending or weapons.
“Oh great and fearsome dragon!” called the man. “I have come to seek an antidote that only you possess.”
“Hah!” laughed the dragon. “Do you think I give away my possessions so easily? Look and see if any have succeeded!”
And the man saw the skeletons of many men who had come before him, swords in hand, and had fallen before the dragon. Still, he was not afraid.
“It is not for me that I come,” the man continued. “But my true love.”
“What do I care of love?” said the dragon. “Begone, peasant, and be thankful you were not eaten today.”
“Why would you eat me?” asked the man. “There is a much fatter, slower man coming behind me to ask for your help. He will be worth the wait.”
And the man left.
The dragon waited. He was eager to get a meal, especially if it was going to walk right into his lap. He waited, and waited, and waited.
Clever beings are not always patient, and the dragon was no exception. When finally, hours later, he heard a crashing in the brush nearby, he sprang forward.
The fat man moved faster than expected, and the dragon raced to keep up through the winding trees. Faster and faster they raced, the dragon following the loud crashes until they reached the ravine below. The man was trapped, and the dragon pounced.
Only there was no man. The dragon had chased a large boulder down the hill.
Furious, he raced back to his cave and found nothing amiss. Nothing, except a small bottle of precious antidote.
The dragon searched high and low, but he never found the clever man. The man lived out his days with his true love, her affliction cured, and they lived happily ever after.
Katara tells herself this story as she waits, watching the small troop of Fire Nation soldiers gather beneath the small hill where she hides. She is waiting, waiting for the moment to send out the boulder.
With a deep breath, she settles herself on a small sled and flies down the hill, straight past the waiting troops.
They let out a cry of alarm at the blue blur zipping past them and immediately give chase. She’s loaded up the sled with a bundle of furs that she’s carefully dressed in Aang’s robes. A little bit of bending speeds her along, hopefully disguising the fact that there is no young monk with her.
By now, Aang and Arluuk would be miles away. Arluuk had taken them out by boat before the first light under the guise of practicing new bending techniques. They had insisted Aang swap his robes for more suitable furs. Katara had given him a long hug before they departed.
“Why don’t you come with us, Katara?” Aang pleaded.
“You’ll see me soon enough,” she said.
Now she was zipping over the snowfield, shouts of angry Fire Nation soldiers chasing her down. A few fireballs were lobbed towards her — not close enough to hit her, but they terrified her nonetheless. She dodged as best she could, but the effort slowed down the sled, and soon she had to get up and run.
The jig was up. She would have to abandon the “monk” and flee.
She never did find out what the Fire Nation soldiers thought of the dummy Avatar in her sled. She was too focused on getting away, running as fast as she could towards the nearby hills of snow. There was an empty cave near there — perhaps she could get there fast enough that they wouldn’t see… maybe…
There was a roar so close and so loud she almost fell over with shock.
She turned and she ran. She had a better chance of fighting a troop of Fire Nation soldiers than she did a mother polar-dog.