Warning: Darker than it looks, proceed with care.
The soapstone lamp burned low, having consumed most of its blubber oil.
"Tell us a story, Sokka," one of the toddlers begged. Half a dozen large-eyed faces perked up in unison. "Yes, a story!" "A story!"
"Oh, well," the so accosted youth propped himself up on one elbow, "Once upon a time, or rather, not so long ago, I went on a fishing trip..."
Her grandson was a gifted story-teller, Kanna of the Southern Water Tribe – if only by marriage, not by birth – mused, watching ancient legends come to life within the first few words. Very good at acting out different characters, too.
"... Come... closer... closer..." a weak voice mumbled, before breaking into wide-eyed enthusiasm, "Will you go penguin-sledging with me?" The first of the toddlers gave a short giggle. Truly gifted, indeed.
An enemy arrived, seemingly undefeatable at first, but quickly outwitted. Dragons appeared and sea monsters, fire flew and a volcano erupted. His younger sister was listening with radiant eyes, quick to be drawn into the story, herself. "Look at this," she exclaimed excitedly, "It's a waterbending scroll. Check out these crazy moves!"
The story quickly grew more bizarre – great armoured cars of steel climbed up sheer mountain faces – and more dramatic – a masked spirit wove its way into an impregnable fortress, to save a child he did not even like, and was rescued in turn, in the end – even though Sokka's insatiable hunger still peeked through, every now and then. Romance was hinted at, but then the story turned grim. Black snow began to fall.
"They will call me Zhao the Conqueror! Zhao the Moon Slayer! ZHAO THE INVINCIBLE!" The tall, red-clad admiral became so real, so fierce and proud and terrible, that the audience collectively gasped in desperate fear, when the moon-spirit expired in his grip. Everyone cheered, when he was dragged away by the enraged ocean, soon after, and wept when the moon was restored by a lovely princess's sacrifice.
The tone went lighter, then, for a while. Kanna felt a smile tug at the corners of her mouth, when a small, delicate, blind Earth Kingdom girl introduced herself as the 'Greatest Earthbender of the World' – and even gave a short chuckle at her granddaughter's dead-pan delivery of "You're the one whose bag matches his belt."
Yet, the fight was far from over, old enemies were set aside, but new ones, more dangerous than before, appeared. A gigantic city took shape, its wall growing to incredible heights, and filled with fantastic creatures and people. Everyone laughed at the antics of a bear – just bear – and shivered at the creepy smile of "Jo Dee". Before long, the city fell, not by open attack – that had been driven off by courage and ingenuity – but by subterfuge and betrayal. Lightning crackled through the air, deadly and cruel.
All seemed lost – but it wasn't. The old woman proudly watched her grandson grow into a warrior, to plan and partly lead a most daring attack. Marvellous machines moved beneath the waves like hunting tiger-seals, taking a mighty enemy by surprise. The attack did not succeed as planned, but even in defeat a seed of future victory was found. A new alliance was forged, a terrible prison braved and defeated, and dragons danced an ancient, ageless dance of living fire.
The blubber-lamp guttered, the last of its fuel burning off, and the story was brought gracefully to an end.
Kanna shared a look with the women opposite of her.
"Time to go to sleep, children," she said firmly, and everyone, including the adults, snuggled into their sleeping bags with a smile, still filled with wonder from the fantastic voyage, that words and imagination had taken them on.
In the last flicker of light from the dying lamp, Kanna caught the eyes of her grandson, staring at her from a face no longer childish, thanks to sharp cheekbones, and gave him a nod and a smile of her own. The exuberant grin, he gave in return, stayed with her, long after the darkness had fallen.
oo oo oo oo oo
Serpent-class Cruiser Shinsengami, blown terribly off-course by an untimely snowstorm – the winter solstice was only a few days off, which marked the height of summer in these freakish icy wastelands – crunched its way though a big floe of ragged and twisted pack ice; under a blue sky and a sun so blindingly bright, that it made the horizontal icicles, growing along the smokestack only days ago, look like a weird nightmare. An oddly regular feature among the jagged mass attracted the lookout's attention and, consequently, that of the captain. Captain Kao had served his Lord for almost three decades, quite a lot of them in polar waters, he recognized the partly buried village easily enough. Intrigued, he changed course, until the strong steel prow bit into the regular ice float supporting the village, and went ashore with a few of his men. Snowdrifts had buried the whole village during the previous winter – or possibly one long before that – and the recent storm had only partly blown them off. Most of the dwellings – skin tents or igloos – had been crushed and torn away by the elements' fury, but a few still stood, protected by the remains of the drifts. Melting their way inside a decently sized igloo, Kao and his men found three adult women, one old, two younger, two teenagers and a handful of toddlers. All of them huddled into sleeping bags, all of them frozen stiff. All of them showing obvious signs of famine, with eyes too large for their bony faces.
"Typical," the captain remarked to his – woefully green – lieutenant, while the ship churned back towards the open water, "the women and children manage to scrape by on fish and berries and whatever the traps get them, but hunting tiger-seals and ice-whales is men's work, so they have to make do on stored blubber for fuel. When the men stay away on raids for too long, a harsh winter will finish them off. And this year, spring came very, very late."
He paused to stare at the crackly ice mass for a moment. "I have seen this before, couple of times, always makes me wonder, why they keep on going on their useless raids, when their families are bound to face this," a flick of the weathered hand indicated the drifting mass grave behind them.
The lieutenant nodded silently, his mind still full of frost-glazed children's faces. All of them, oddly enough, wearing a faint smile.
Because I honestly doubt the wisdom – and practicability – of taking all the men away from a polar settlement for years on end.
One could tell by the soap-stone lamps in the huts that famine
was near. In good seasons, when blubber was plentiful, the light
in the boat-shaped lamps would be two feet high – cheerful, oily,
and yellow. Now it was a bare six inches: Amoraq carefully pricked
down the moss wick, when an unwatched flame brightened for a
moment, and the eyes of all the family followed her hand. The horror
of famine up there in the great cold is not so much dying, as dying
in the dark. All the Inuit dread the dark that presses on them without
a break for six months in each year; and when the lamps are low in
the houses, the minds of people begin to be shaken and confused.
The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling