Prologue: Ice and Smoke
She was born on one of the longest nights of the year. The coldest night, when the sun offered little more than a faint burnished glow at the edge of the horizon. When the only light that touched their village for more than a moment was the faint glimmer of stars and the vivid, twisting ribbons of the aurora.
The moon was full on the night she was born, and the air was so bitter that even the thickest layer of furs didn't keep the wind out for long. It was a sign, Gran-Gran insisted. The spirits were restless to meet the newest child of the Southern Water Tribe—so restless that the moon herself came to watch.
Until her second summer, Katara was perfectly ordinary. She was cheerful and stubborn, quick on her feet and full of mostly-nonsensical chatter. She toddled endlessly around their tent, and on warmer days, around the whole village, usually no more than three steps behind her brother. Sokka seemed pleased, most of the time, to have such a dedicated mimic.
It came as no surprise to Kya when Sokka threw a tantrum at the sight of the washtub, and Katara watched, eyes wide with fascination. When Katara's turn came—and Sokka stood to the side, wrapped in a towel, dripping and grumpy—she kicked and screamed louder than her brother, putting up a fight that even Hakoda's most fearless warriors might have balked at. Kya was unfazed. Scooping Katara up like a bundle of screeching, squirming laundry, Kya swung her over the basin of warm water. Kya didn't notice the fraction of a second when Katara went silent and rigid with concentration, but she did notice when, rather than plunging into the bath, Katara ended up sitting on top of it. The basin had frozen solid, and Katara pressed her plump hands to her mouth, giggling hysterically. No one was particularly surprised to discover that Katara was a waterbender, but only Gran-Gran had been certain of it from the start.
When Katara was three, a series of small fires broke out around the village. It began with patches of snow turning glossy and sunken, then there were spots where the snow was melted completely, exposing stones that hadn't come to the surface in more than a decade, leaving them blackened on one side. While the unexplained fires were troubling, few considered it to be much of a threat. After all, in their perpetually frozen landscape, there was very little to burn.
Most of the villagers believed it was some strange accident of the weather, that perhaps crystals of ice in the air focused the sunlight in such a way that it melted the snow. Kya and Hakoda believed it, and though Gran-Gran had her doubts, she had never seen anything quite like the blackened patches that now dotted the village. Freak ice crystals didn't make much sense, but neither did anything else.
Then one morning, while Hakoda took Sokka fishing, Katara set fire to her brother's bedroll in full view of both her mother and grandmother. In an instant of shared shock—and frantic pounding to put the flames out before they spread—both women knew that the fires were no accident of the weather. The rest of the village had celebrated Katara's waterbending, but this was different. This was dangerous. Without speaking a word, the women agreed that no one could ever know.
As time went on and Katara grew, it became almost possible to forget that she was anything more than a waterbender. The series of fires ended, and the village moved on. Under her mother's instruction, Katara learned to cook and sew, under her grandmother's, she learned the stories of their tribe, and under her father's, she learned to row a canoe.
In the autumn when Katara was six, Sokka smuggled a tiny fox-rabbit kit home in his pocket. In his sternest voice, he told Katara that the kit could be her pet too, but only if she agreed to keep it a secret. But Katara was too enthralled with the kit's large, dark eyes and silky white coat to listen. Despite her brother's insistence that their new pet stay hidden in the supply hut, she slipped in a few hours later and smuggled the sleeping kit out in the hood of her parka.
For most of the afternoon, the kit remained still and unnoticed, but when Katara began to sniffle and rub at her eyes, Kya gave her daughter a suspicious look. And when Katara finally gave in and let out a sneeze, the blast came with so much force that it lifted her feet off the ground and unlaced the tent flaps from top to bottom. A small, curious face poked out of Katara's hood, and as Kya fumbled to relace the flaps, she banished the fox-rabbit kit from the tent. A pet was one thing. A pet that revealed Katara's unusual bending was quite another.
And then, when Katara was eight, her world fell apart. She saw the smoke before it reached them—distant plumes of inky black that solidified as they drew nearer.
There was nothing to be done. The men had all gone hunting—by the time that the ash began to rain down on the village, it was too late to run for help. All that remained was for the women and children to hide or fight for themselves.
When the bow of the steel ship sliced through the wall of ice at the edge of the village, Katara ran. The soldiers in red didn't seem to notice her as she sped past as fast as her small legs could carry her. She had to get home. Everything would be okay there. There was no place in the world safer than her family's tent.
She burst through the open flaps of the tent to find yet another crimson figure standing over her mother. The man looked back at Katara for an instant, his narrow brown eyes skimming over her like she was hardly even there.
Kya looked around the man and whispered to her daughter to hide.
Too frightened to argue, Katara obeyed. She ran outside and cowered out of sight in the space between the inner and outer layers of the tent wall. From her hiding place, she heard the soldier ask her mother which of the villagers was the waterbender. They had orders, he told her, to burn the village to the ground if they couldn't find the one they were looking for. And as Katara squeezed her eyes shut, she heard her mother's voice, calm and steady.
It's me. I'm the waterbender.
There was a sound Katara couldn't identify, and then silence. As quickly as the chaos had begun, it was over. She wasn't certain of how long she hid, burning to know what had happened and yet paralyzed with fear. When she finally gathered the courage to emerge, the soldiers and the ship were gone.
Katara felt no surprise at the sight of her neighbors' smoldering tents, no terror at the sight of the blood-streaked snow. When she found Gran-Gran lying in the snow, there was no horror when the old woman didn't respond to her voice, no relief when she discovered that Gran-Gran was still breathing. And when at last Katara returned to her own tent, there was no confusion at the sight of her mother's unmoving eyes or the deep line of red across her throat. Too numb to feel anything at all, Katara sat. There was no use in doing anything else. Her mother was gone.
Katara didn't remember her father's return. She couldn't remember the sound of his footsteps growing louder as he raced back to camp, Sokka clinging to his back, and she couldn't remember the moment of horrified silence that passed before Hakoda shoved Sokka back from the tent and scooped Katara up like an infant to carry her outside. She didn't remember Sokka's confusion, or the way that her father knelt in the snow, holding them both so tight that it was hard to breathe. The sight of her mother's body blotted out everything else.
In the end, nearly twenty women and children died in the attack. Gran-Gran, along with most of the wounded, recovered. And slowly, day by day, the tribe began to heal.
Nightmares became Katara's inescapable companion—most nights, she could count on seeing her mother's lifeless body sprawled on the floor of their tent, that horrible figure in red glaring down at her. Her mind was less faithful with the other details, but her mother and those awful, murderous brown eyes never changed.
Then, when Katara was exactly eight and a half years old, she had a dream that made all the others pale by comparison. She couldn't seem to wake, and the whole tent shook around her, waking both her brother and Gran-Gran. Sokka was terrified—he'd read about earthquakes in scrolls left behind by Earth Kingdom traders. It wasn't safe to stay inside when the ground shook like this. Still half-asleep, he tried to drag Katara outside, but Gran-Gran stopped him. With a sad shake of her head, Gran-Gran woke Katara, and the ground went still again. And for hours after, Katara cried, nestled between her brother and her grandmother.
When Katara was nearly eleven, she came back from looking after their neighbor's newborn to hear her father and Gran-Gran arguing. Gran-Gran insisted that the tribe needed its men, and Hakoda replied that the tribe couldn't possibly be more vulnerable than it already was. The Fire Nation could attack at any time, and the Southern Water Tribe had no allies near enough to come to their defense. The only way to prevent another attack was to draw attention elsewhere—the only way to survive another attack was to have allies close at hand. In order to do either, Hakoda had to take the fight north. Straight to the Fire Nation's gates, if possible.
The children had to be protected, Gran-Gran insisted, and when Hakoda refused to sway, the old woman turned to pleading.
If you have to leave, take the children.
Take your children.
And when her father again refused to yield, Katara sank against the wall of the tent and cried.
As the days grew longer, the men packed the ships to leave. They all agreed with Hakoda—there was nothing to be gained by waiting for the next raid. To protect the tribe, they needed to keep the Fire Nation occupied, and if possible, to bring them down entirely. So as soon as the ice began to clear from the main channels, the warriors left, taking every old man still strong enough to fight and every boy over the age of thirteen. Sokka was twelve years old.
Though it was impossible to know for certain in the years that passed, it seemed that Hakoda's plan was working. Katara and her brother grew up in peace. Gran-Gran taught Katara all she knew of their tribe, of the waterbenders who had preceded her. Under her grandmother's instruction, Katara learned midwifery and medicine, while Sokka, without teachers of his own, took his sister on as his own student. By the time that she was thirteen, Katara was nearly as good at hunting and fishing as her brother. She taught herself as much waterbending as she could while Sokka tried to pass his fighting abilities on to the younger boys in the village, though she understood better than her brother that neither of them would ever be much good at fighting without a real teacher. Such was the cost of war, Gran-Gran told her. Sokka may be an inelegant fighter, and Katara may have to be satisfied with learning waterbending through experimentation, but at least they were safe. At least, Gran-Gran whispered to her, the invaders hadn't found the waterbender they'd come for.
And then Katara was fourteen. Too old to cling to Gran-Gran's skirts, too young to seek her own path, and too restless to remain in camp where she was safe for another instant. On a cold, bright autumn morning, she went fishing with her brother—to keep him out of trouble, she told Gran-Gran. And from across the field of icebergs, Katara saw a nearly-perfect ball of ice, as large as a ship, and as blue as the sky.
I'm incredibly grateful to all of you reading my story! It's kind of a slow start, but I'm hoping I grabbed enough interest to keep you coming back as I update. I am and always have been a Zutara supporter, so consider yourself warned: it'll be a long time before we get there, but Zutara is coming. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the prologue (or at least found it interesting enough to visit again when there's more to read). I have some pretty high hopes for where this little story is going, so I hope you all come along for the ride.
Thanks again for reading,
PS: As of August 17, 2019, this chapter was revised. What can I say? I'm a perfectionist, and when I decided to reread this thing to figure out what needed to happen in my NEXT chapter, I found a lot of things that bothered me in the first few chapters. Not much is changing story-wise, I'm just making some stylistic adjustments (and frankly, I was both rushed and rusty when I first posted), so bear with me while I do some minor (and not-so-minor) tweaks from here through Chapter 6.