Hello, Old Friend

By

Jack Bushell

Chapter 1

The Boy on the Cross

The sun shone brilliantly in the midmorning sky. Aang was lazily lounged over Appa's tail while Sokka frolicked with his fishing pole a few feet away on the riverside. Toph, though not sleeping, was still laying on the ground, not wanting to get up and Katara, who had been down the local village market, was making her way up the side of the grassy knoll, carrying a basket full of food. She quietly, almost somberly, placed the container beside the campfire and sat on the dirty ground, staring dully into the flames, as if hypnotized.

"Yay! Finally some decent food!" Exclaimed Toph as she finally raised to face the day.

"Food?"

Aang hopped from atop Appa to sit with Katara.

"Did somebody say food!?" Sokka excitedly ran from the river, his tongue dragging on the ground.

"Is there an echo here?" Toph laughed. "What'd you get us, Katara? Katara?"

But the girl was not answering her blind friend, she only stared still into the fire.

"Hey," Aang shook her shoulder gently, "what's wrong, Katara?"

"I'm…I'm a little disturbed right now."

She looked at her friends and seemed to awaken from her somber mood.

"There's a guy there…in that village…and he's…he's…" She seemed at a loss for words.

"What?" Sokka prodded her.

"Well, he's bound to a big thing in the village square. They're torturing him."

"What?" they all cried in unison.

"Is he a criminal? What are the people doing to him? Did you talk to anyone?"

"Well, I did, actually." Her words were slow and deliberate. "I felt so horrible for him, hanging there all bloodied and beaten and people were spitting on him and throwing rocks and stuff at him. It was awful! I spoke to a village elder and he told me the man is a thief and knew the punishment for his crimes. He told me that their laws are cruel so as to snuff out crime altogether."

"What the heck did he steal to warrant that kind of treatment?" Toph, too looked upset.

Sokka, though, seemed unimpressed. "Well, a thief is a thief. It may sound a bit rough but it is the town's law."

"Aang," Katara pleaded, "I think we should do something."

"I kind of feel like Sokka does," He seemed to be deep in thought as he stared into her eyes, "but torture is extreme."

"Aang," she took his hand. "he's just a boy."

In no time at all, the small group of friends were entering the village square, all thoughts of food far gone from their minds.

"Oh no…"

Aang looked in horror at the sight in the middle of the square. Two long tree trunks had been buried in the middle to form a massive x. The noontime sun beat down upon it in full force, slow cooking the already badly sunburned figure upon it. A boy, no older than himself, was hanging from the makeshift cross. His hands, nailed to the upper trunks, were black as were his feet, which had been likewise nailed to the lower trunks. It was obvious to Aang that the lad had been repeatedly beaten terribly as there were fresh wounds on top of old ones. Even the young man's hair had been bleached by the sun. How long had this boy been hanging here? Was he even still alive? By the looks on the other's faces, they felt the same as Aang did: sickened.

The village elder took notice of the kids and he gasped as he approached, bowing low before Aang.

"It is my humblest pleasure to have our village blessed with the presence of the Avatar."

"What's going on here?" Aang demanded of the old man.

Slightly taken aback, the old man looked at each of their faces, to the boy on the cross, and then back to Aang.

"That man was caught stealing a loaf of bread a few weeks ago. This is his punishment. It is our law."

"A loaf of bread?"

Katara, enraged, turned on the man.

"This boy has been hung here to die for a loaf of bread?"

"Young lady, it is our law and our laws are absolute. This is why this village is crime free. And we will not let him die. He will learn his lesson and be set free."

"He probably only stole it because he was starving!" she screamed at him, tears streaming down her face. "By now he's probably praying for death!"

"Probably." The old man smiled. "And once I hear it from his lips he will be set free."

"This is not morally right!" Katara screamed back.

A small crowd of people had gathered to watch the argument.

"But it is our law…"

"And absolute we get it."

Sokka held Katara so she could not attack the village elder.

"If I, as the Avatar, requested you set him free now…"

"I'm sorry, Avatar Aang, but though I respect you…"

"Shen Fo…"

An elder woman stepped next to the old man.

"This is the Avatar, he is the savior of this world."

The crowd that had amassed seemed to agree in unison at this woman's words.

"If the Avatar wants the filthy criminal let him take the scourge away from our village."

The village elder surveyed the crowd and then Aang once more.

"So be it."

With a wave of his hand, a few men fell upon the cross and shortly the unconscious boy plummeted into a heap on the ground.

Without words, Aang and Sokka carried the boy out of the village, followed by Toph and then Katara, who was openly weeping because she saw that the village people had tied to his left wrist the stolen loaf of bread.