The day Katara's life changed, her dreams were filled with blood.
It had been a while since she'd dreamed of the raid that stole her mother from her, but she knew it would never truly exceed from her memory. It always appeared when she least expected it to, launching painful reminders from the past back into full force. The dream was always different every time, and it was hard for Katara to distinguish between fact and fiction. She found she could barely remember the original day as it was at all, without any wicked embellishments that her mind had conjured.
Tonight, her nightmare formed a trail of blood, bright red and fresh, melting into the pure white snow. The starkness of the scene never failed to startle her, whether in dream or out. A metallic perfume intermingled with the cold air, making Katara feel dizzy. She knew what she would find behind the closed igloo flap door- she knew she knew she knew- but her mind loved to taunt her. And she couldn't stop the final step she took forward.
The picture before her was devastating.
She rushed to kneel before her mother, who lay still and curled on her side, blood gushing from a prominent wound to her abdomen. Katara grabbed the leather skin bottle by her hip, uncapping it to use the water inside for its healing properties. Her hands couldn't stop shaking.
Her mother was already dead, but she couldn't seem to stop.
Tears blurred her vision, and her fingers were stained scarlet. The water glowed and swirled above her mother's wound, Katara trying desperately to heal what couldn't be. Even great healers couldn't bring the dead back to the land of the living. But she couldn't accept the fact that her mother was… no, no she wasn't. Katara just had to heal her. She willed the water to.
What use was her bending if she couldn't save her loved ones when they needed her the most?
The footsteps behind her, loud and encroaching, did nothing to quench her desire to save her mother and served only as a mere distraction. She neglected the way they pounded the snow with assured squelches, secure and looming.
It was almost done now, wasn't it? Her mother was almost better-
The hand on her shoulder was nothing like her father's, who's grip was firm yet held a gentleness to it, which this man would never obtain. It was vice-like and suffocating.
Katara gasped, spinning around quickly to come face-to-face with the intruder. In the process, the hand on her shoulder had wrenched off by default from her jerking actions. The healing water splashed to the ground, sinking into the snow, without the care of her concentration. Her mother's lifeline drained with it.
The broad man was dressed head-to-toe in red and black armour, a masked helmet covering all his features but for his eyes, which were cold and cruel and victorious. He peered down at her like she was nothing, an insignificant bug that he would have no difficultly squashing.
She had come to learn over the years that this was the way Fire Nation soldiers were. Bred for war and hatred, beasts in human form, no compassion in their loyalty to the Fire Lord. Nothing would come in their way. She could read that in his eyes easily enough.
So, Katara wasn't surprised when the man raised his weapon above his head and brought it down upon her.
She woke with a sharp gasp, drawing a lungful of bitterly cold air to quench her alarm.
That was not how the original day had gone, of course. Katara had been a lot younger than the eighteen years she was now, and it had been a lot more confusing at the time. A younger version of herself had run towards her mother at the first sign of ash-filled snow falling from the sky. She found her mother on the ground before an imposing soldier, and she had told Katara to run from the hut and find her father. One look at the raider was all it took for her to heed her mother's warning. It was the last time she'd seen her mother, for when she returned with her father and brother, Kya was gone.
Her hand clutched tightly against her throat where her mother's carved necklace lay secure. Katara had never taken it off, not since the day she found it crushed in the packed snow floor of their home. No doubt from under the boots of the raiders who had stolen her mother away. The piece of jewelry had become her most prized possession, a part of her, as much as her limbs or her waterbending was.
The remnants of her dreams were fading into the background, becoming nothing more than a dull, aching pain in the back of her mind, as reality surged forward. They joined the gallery of similar nightmares, though this was the first time it had ended with her death.
She could hear the bustle of communication and work from outside, her village already full of unapologetic life. They were a small town (much smaller than the Northern Tribe, a result from war) but their spirit never failed to amaze her. From a quick glance around the room, she found she was alone in their hut. Her family members had already shed the warm fur blankets in favour of the chilled outside and the chores that awaited them. When Katara looked out the window, she realized that it was already past noon. She had slept in for far longer than she normally did.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and the few dried tears that had escaped, she rose from the bed warily to start her day. Katara tried to busy her mind with doing her hair, counting out the monotonous brushing as she stroked through the unruly locks with a whale's bone comb. Her fingers worked quickly and efficiently in braiding her hair, knowing by heart the folding motions for she styled her hair in the same traditional and simple do every day. She clipped her front sectioned hairs back with blue pins to form loops. But even as she washed her face in a basin, the uneasiness of her dream had stuck with her all the while.
Katara disliked the feeling it had left with her, the sensation of ants crawling across her skin and the icky butterflies in her gut. Goosebumps seemed to be permanently risen on her skin, no matter how she tried to hush them with quick friction from her hands.
Something about the day felt… wrong, but she couldn't figure out why. She felt the uneasiness stirring within her. Fate was a funny and unpredictable thing, the spirits never hesitating to throw hints towards unsuspecting mortals.
So, when she stepped outside, she found her answer.
The ocean churned with temper, waves crashing so loudly unto the shores that she was surprised she hadn't heard it before. The sky was mottled with streaks of grey and navy, brooding storm clouds covering the sun from the earth. The spirits were angry today, and the sea promised war. Katara was wary of the premonition hanging in the air, promising worse things to come.
She continued with her chores for the day, apologizing to the patients she had promised to see about healing remedies for her tardiness. Later on, she got roped into helping her brother store the hunting brought in from the morning as best they could. Though, Katara found herself constantly glancing over her shoulder towards the coast, eyeing the shoreline and pounding waves with attentiveness. If the spirits were sending a sign, she wanted to be on high alert.
Animals were hunted by the tribe and used for multiple reasons, most unsuspecting unless you were a Southern native. The lack of natural resources led to creative uses, such as whale-walrus blubber made into oil to light their lamps, or cuttlefish turned into paint for ceremonies. Katara had never learned how to extract the useful properties from such animals, so she was tasked with simply cutting the correct proportions for cooking.
The hunters had brought back much from their excursion, and Katara kept busy alongside her brother, both sitting in a corner of the food shelter. Others sat around them in small assembly groups, murmuring conversation as they did their work.
She was too lost in her own thoughts to pay attention. It was easy for her mind to slip back into a replay of the nightmare and her worries when the movements of skinning an animal were so methodical.
She blinked hard, turning her head to her left towards her shouting brother, who was pulling the carcass from her lap. It was only when she looked down that she saw she'd been hacking away rather sharply at the meat, which now resembled a bloodied mash.
Katara grimaced at her work and the mutterings of her brother claiming they could possibly mix her portions into a stew. They were meant to be gentle and skilled with the knife, wielding the fur from the meat with precision in order to use both for other purposes. Well maintained fur would be washed and turned to coats and linings, meat would be either frozen to be cooked later or dehydrated into jerky.
Her neck grew hot under her brother's incredulous stare. "What's up with you today? You seem even more uncoordinated than usual," he grinned.
Katara gave Sokka and his self-satisfied smirk an unimpressed look. "Says the one who tripped over his own feet earlier today… yeah, I saw that."
It was Sokka's turn to turn pink. "I'm sure you unbalanced the ice with your snow-water-power magic hands," he stated with a pout, wiggling his fingers at the snowy ground for emphasis. But then his expression turned serious again. "But you seem kind of off today. Is there something wrong?"
"I don't know," Katara replied honestly, after some hesitation.
She didn't know if she could explain her feelings to Sokka, or to any non-bender really. Which was unlucky for her, being the only water bender in the Southern Tribe. It meant she had a deeper connection with the ocean than anyone else, and sometimes, she could feel things about the earth and the cycle of elements that the others would never pick up on. It was why she had felt so uncertain this morning, the storm triggering her anxieties even before she knew the waves were gray.
Sokka gave her a blank look. "You don't… know," he asked, clearly skeptical.
Katara heaved an almost comically big sigh in a last-ditch attempt to collect her emotions into expressible words. "I can't help but feel like something's coming. Something big. Didn't you notice the storm outside today, how big the waves were?" At her brother's nod, she continued to pitch her case, "why else would the sea be so restless if something bigger weren't in store for us?"
"Or maybe…" he drew out his words, twiddling his thumbs as if hesitant to give his input. "Maybe it's just a storm, Katara. Maybe the spirits stubbed their toe on a block of ice and are throwing a temper tantrum. You know, not everything has to have some deeper meaning."
The way he dismissed her worries with a joke set her on edge, but she had to respect his honesty, even if their views didn't align in the moment.
Katara swatted at his shoulder.
"I'm serious, Sokka. Something just... feels different about today," she shrugged to undermine her own words, knowing how he didn't take them as seriously as she would've liked. Katara sighed in frustration, not knowing how to express her feelings, "I don't know how else to explain it."
Sokka, sensing her irritation with herself, wrapped his arm around her head. Against Katara's objections, he brought her head down into his chest so he could easily ruffle his hands on the crown of her head, messing up her braid. He let her go with a barking laugh, poking her cheek teasingly and soon, she found herself giving in with a smile.
"Whatever it is, Katara. I'm sure you can take them on," he said with much confidence, which made her feel a lot better about the situation. Until he opened his mouth again, that is. "With my help, of course."
"Sokka!" she groaned, rolling her eyes with a laugh.
"What?" he asked innocently, then proceeded to wiggle his eyebrows, "I'm invaluable to you."
The two siblings went back to storing and packaging the food in comfortable silence afterwards, Katara's nerves eased slightly. When they had completed their portion of work, wrapping the meat tightly in a sealskin bag and packing snow over top, she was nervous to go outside again. She was unsure of the state of the water and was expecting the storm to have doubled tenfold. But by the time high afternoon hit, the waves had calmed substantially. Though a dark grey remained in the depths of the ocean, unsettling and ever-present.
Done with her daily duties, Katara waved goodbye to her brother, who ran away lovingly to fetch his boomerang. She found a secluded spot by the shore, away from the rest of the village, to make time for waterbending practice.
She readied herself in a simple stance, closing her eyes to attune herself with the environment and her surroundings. She could feel the energy coursing through her chi points; she could feel her boots planted evenly on the snow. She listened to the crashing motions of the waves. When she opened her eyes, she was one with the water.
Katara loved the movements of waterbending, finding the graceful agility and elegant strides almost like a dance. So different from the staccato rhythm of a firebender, the tough endurance of earthbending or even the swift freedom of the airbenders. While beautiful to watch, waterbending was all about control and patience. Turning your opponent's force back against them rather than striking first. Defence before offence.
And the art was so versatile. Water could be manipulated into any shape or phase, with purposes in its liquid, gas or solid state. Only a true master could easily flip through the states in a short time while keeping a level head during combat. Temper played a dangerous part in an inexperienced waterbender's performance and could lead to great destruction for all, even the waterbender themselves if they weren't careful.
Katara had to admit she still needed to work on containing that… After all, she had first discovered her abilities while cracking ice during a heated toddler temper tantrum.
It was easy to spend hours practicing different techniques and forms, using an old waterbending scroll from back when a master had still lived in their midst. The rest of the village was unsure of what happened to the girl, though different rumours surfaced occasionally. Tales of Fire Nation capture or a secret romance, but Katara wasn't inclined to believe the gossip.
She also considered her learnings from Master Pakku, an old flame of her grandmother's (she shuddered at the thought) who resided in the North Pole. While their ways were a lot more traditional and restricting on women, he had relented to mentor her and teach her various things. While their time together that been short, it had proved entirely useful in honing her skills. Katara still received the occasional tip or two mixed in with her grandmother's correspondence, which seemed to have been steadily picking up within the past year…
In her training, Katara liked to practice a mixture of offensive and defensive maneuvers, for though she'd never had to use them save for on a stray animal or two, it was always good to be prepared for an attack of any sort. She might be the only chance her village had against other benders. And ready she would be.
When the sky intermingled with clouds of pink and orange, Katara realized how late it had become. Her family was already preparing for supper, she was sure. She dropped the water she'd been wielding as a whip back into the ocean and wiped the sweat from her brow. Even in below temperatures, the workout was enough to warm her cheeks and cause her breath to come short.
She grinned to herself from ear-to-ear, noticing the improvements she'd made just in today's practice. Satisfied, Katara turned to go back over the hills of snow to her village walls.
And froze in her tracks.
In the distance, a ship was advancing, slicing through the water with smooth efficiency. It was too far away for her to make out, but enough for her to pause in consideration. Occasionally sailors made their way to the south to hunt animals on their own, but they never paid a visit to the city. This ship seemed to be coming towards her tribe though, but for what reason?
It was too early in the month for Earth Kingdom shipments; the food and materials from the peace treaty between the two lands were scheduled to arrive within the last week of every month. But the last one had been but a mere week or two previous. Unless her father had requested for more?
Katara knew their numbers were dwindling because of the war, soldiers travelling overseas and never returning, but she hadn't realized the cost was steep enough to lack enough food to feed the tribe.
Squinting her eyes in the direction of the arriving ship, she saw two others emerge from the mist, forming a v-formation behind the leading vessel. When they were a few hundred feet from the shore, she noticed the make of the ship, and the design of the red flag marking it painstakingly as Fire Nation.
The peace between them had been rocky because of her father's stubborn refusal to submit to become a Fire Nation conquered state. They had shared a relatively unstable and fragile era of calm. They didn't bother the Fire Nation; the Fire Nation didn't bother them.
It was all about to end now.
This is what the ocean was trying to warn her of. She was right to be worried all along; something was wrong.
The Fire Nation was attacking.
There was no time to run back and warn the others. By the time she gathered enough warriors to defend their village, the ships would already be at their shore. Exhausted from her hours of waterbending, she summoned the last of her energy to defend her home from the invaders.
Wasn't this what she had been preparing for? Why did she feel so scared then?
On her trip to the Northern Water Tribe with her father several years previous, she'd learned from Princess Yue's guards that when attacked by the Fire Nation, their waterbending warriors used primarily ice spikes as the first line of defence when they spotted enemy vessels.
Katara didn't have much practice with this particular skill but attempted to shoot ice spikes from the water by using an upwards thrust technique. She tried to replicate the Northern benders as best she could without the knowledge and skill they'd been trained with. It proved more difficult than it looked, without the proper technique. When this did nothing but jostle the ships slightly, she groaned, feeling her palms grow sweaty from a mix of dread and determination.
Instead, she raised a wall of water high into the air, the top of the wave almost touching the clouds (or so it seemed) and pushed it towards the awaiting boats. This would be almost impossible for her to accomplish on a regular day when the ocean was a bright blue and the waves were peaceful. But the imposing storm from the morning had created angry clouds and a charged atmosphere, aiding Katara with her bending. Because of the ships' accelerated speed, the wave pushed them rapidly back, threatening to overturn them.
Katara didn't want to kill the people aboard (even the Fire Nation soldiers had lives and loved ones), just dissuade them from coming closer and hopefully, warn them against returning.
Using the momentum of her mini tsunami, she crashed waves into the port and starboard sides, rocking them back and forth. She didn't know how much longer she could keep up the charade though. From her tired frustration, the waves seemed to grow increasingly violent, even when Katara tried to tame them. She didn't have enough control to keep them at bay in her exhaustion, and the ocean had a mind of its own.
Katara spun around at her father's command, hands still raised in the air towards their unwanted company. He'd rushed to where she stood with the other men on their council, trailing behind their Chief with looks that varied from impressed to horrified.
Her waterbending was acknowledged but not discussed in polite company very often. They had certainly never seen her wield such force in a violent nature.
She didn't understand her father's command; she was trying to get them to leave the tribe alone. The force was turbulent but not enough to kill. Katara still had it under control…
When she looked back out to the ocean, she saw the ships had hoisted flags. The contrast was stark against the darkening sky, waving madly in the wind. They were white. Of peace, Katara noted in a confused and dazed stupor.
"Father, what...?" she tried to ask but stopped when he jerked his hands to the thrashing sea.
Frantically, before she had time to think, she threw her hands down at the water. It would have been more time consuming to carefully unwind the vigorous waves, the ships threatening to capsize during the time it took to release the intense energy, so this was the next best solution.
Everyone watched in shock, including Katara herself, as the ocean turn to solid ice under her command. The hundreds of feet between her and the Fire Nation visitors were frozen, the boats at awkward angles for dismounting.
She longed to wipe the sweat beading down her temples, but she remained focused. Her hands were visibly shaking before her. Carefully, Katara slowly turned the ice of the ocean back into its original calm state, guiding the ships with a gentle hand so they'd be positioned upright. The ships, after a stunned silence, continued their voyage to the shore.
Once Katara realized they were safe, she gave into the power that drained her. She felt the previous actions- from her forceful counterattacks to the simple methods from a few hours earlier- deep in her bones, pulling her down with its heavy and lulling weight.
She looked dazedly towards the leading ship, its bow angling towards her spot in the snow, and noticed someone watching her through a telescope. Dark hair pulled away from the face, milk-white skin and a strong jaw. When the telescope was removed, her eyes locked with a boy similar to her age. He sported an unreadable expression and a red scar marring the skin of his left eye. It was so noticeable, even from a distance, that Katara almost flinched at the sight. It didn't look fresh, but it was still current. From the last few years, at least.
If a country burned its own like that, there was no hope for the rest of them. She may have been assuming things. It could've been a simple accident. But she didn't think so. She didn't have to be an expert healer to realize the burn formed the vague shape of a hand.
Who was he, and what was he doing here? She wondered in bewilderment.
It was only when they drew closer, within a few feet from the shore, that she noticed the royal crest of the Fire Nation on his cloak. Katara felt her knees start to tremble as she looked on almost as if in a dream. It seemed unreal, almost impossible. Her suspicions were confirmed when the royal headpiece, a golden two-pronged crown that encircled the dark topknot of any heir to the throne, shone brightly in the setting sun. It was the crown prince.
Katara collapsed to the snow.