Chapter 1: Never
"Anyone can give up, it's the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that's true strength." –Unknown
My mother had been a beautiful woman once and strong. When others would give up, she would hold on, no matter what. That is the mother that I want to remember. The strong one. Not the one who eventually gave up. Not the one who died in the snow with half a face. I only know of one person these days in the village who still talks of hope and the good things that could happen. Her name is Kanna.
After my mother died, she was the one who took me in and kept an eye on me. She is still a young woman herself, only older than me by a few years at least. I'm surprised she bothered to take me in, especially considering what I am. My waterbending could be a curse to her if they find out. They took her friend Hama two years ago when my mother died. Why would she want another potential emotional burden by getting attached to me at all?
I live with Kanna in her tent. My own home, along with everything I had owned, had burnt that day two years ago. Kanna is a woman taller than I am, but then everyone seems to be taller than me in the village. She has the usual blue eyes and dark hair of our people, but hers is true ebony that she keeps held back in a braid with two hair loops on the side of her face. She is a kind and good person. She is always hopeful. Sometimes I get sick of that. Kanna is…my only friend I have left really. There is no one else around my age left, except for one other. All the others were children born in the past seven years. The others left with their parents to be scattered across the pole or….or they were killed in the raids.
I guess I'm supposed to be one of the lucky few.
Today was like any other day in the village, passed with a quiet unease we knew could be destroyed at any moment. Sometimes it seemed like we could forget, but I never could. The young children would run around in the village, playing and laughing. The men were usually out hunting on the icy fields or out fishing. There were always a few left the guard the village, standing up on the icy wall that surrounded our village. Not that it would keep them out. I was inside our tent, nestled in the warmth snugness, as I cooked a soup over the fire. Kanna sat across from me on the other side of the fire, mending one my shirts. The tent was made from animal-skins and the ground was soft from more furs. I felt warm enough to have my parka off inside the cozy tent. The smell of the seaweed soup, Kanna's specialty she had taught me, scented the air.
"Rana, how did you rip another shirt again?" Kanna asked, pausing while she eyed the rip across the sleeve. "This is the second one in a week."
I stirred the soup, debating on telling her the truth. I had been out practicing again. Last time I had tried to freeze the water…it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Until I got my own arm stuck. I smiled at her. "The soups done," I said cheerfully, putting the spoon down by the pot.
"Nice try," Kanna sighed. "I know you've been practicing." I picked the spoon back up and poked the soup around, avoiding her gaze. "You…you can't be doing that Rana," She said quietly. "They'll find out and come and take you away!"
I dropped the spoon into the soup and looked at her. "That won't happen," I refuted. "I'd die first."
"Don't say that," Kanna said with pained eyes. "There is still hope."
I stood up and pulled the tent flap open to step outside. I looked back at Kanna, who sat with my shirt still in her hands. "I don't see it," I replied bleakly.
The sky outside was an innocent blue with a sharp sun in the sky. The snow was white, crystalline as if pure while it fell down innocently. One of the children, the oldest one at the age of six, tossed a snow ball at me. It hit me in the stomach as I looked the giggling boy. He ran over to me with his light blue eyes sparkling. "You're supposed to throw one back at me, Rana!"
I shook my head. "I don't have time for childish games," I said firmly. "You should be doing something more useful, Takao."
Takao stuck his small tongue out of his pudgy dark face. I swatted for his head, but he ducked with a laugh. I used to watch him when he was a baby. "Go play," I said with a sigh. He nodded and ran off on with his small frame. He paused suddenly and I took breath in. Takao turned and looked at me with fear-filled eyes as we both watched gray ashes fall through the sky. It was like a sick joke…ash mixed with snow like some greeting of death. Yet it was.
"Takao, go home to your mother," I ordered instantly.
He stood root-still, knowing what the ashes meant. "Their coming, aren't they," He asked in a tiny voice. I walked over to him and grasped his shoulders. "Are they going to kill us?" I looked at his face, reassigned, fear-enticed, and yet with a hope that I would prove him wrong.
"Go home, Takao," I said once more. He nodded and set his shoulders. In that moment, I saw an adult, not a child. He looked at me with a determined face and set off for home. I scanned the field where the children had been playing, checking for any stragglers. The field, a minute before, had been the playground for the children. Now it was empty with the imprints of where they had played and dark snow that fell to cover it like a grave.
"Rana!" I turned around to see Hotaka running over to me frantically. He is the only other one around my age in the village, even if he is a year older than me. He's several heads taller than me and resembles an overgrown seaweed for now. He has the promising of filling out one day. His dark brown hair is loose to his neck with part of it pulled back in a style like the warrior's knot. He stopped right before me breathing heavily. Underneath his dark eyebrows, his blue eyes, resembling the shade of a misty ocean, were horrified. His face is softer, but with a defiant chin that right now struggled to remain brave looking. "What are you doing out here?" He questioned me appalled. "You should be inside!"
Ever since the raids seven years ago, Hotaka has made it his personal mission to be my protector, even more so than Kanna. He was one of the few left to guard the village today. There were only five right now, including him. In the distance, the cracking of ice rang in the air. A ship or more were approaching! "I was sending the children inside," I snapped hastily. An acidic taste teased my mouth. My heart thudded swiftly as if it would burst.…They were coming! Who would it be this time! Not me! Not me! Not those I have come to love!....
Hotaka shook his head as if I were a dumb child. "There's no time to argue," He ordered, "Now go inside!"
I wanted to stay and fight, but I would be of little use. If only…If only I could truly waterbend. Yet another part of me wanted to run, to run far away, and never come back! I opened my mouth, to argue or to agree, I don't know…
Because the next thing that happened was a huge, iron ship plowing through our village's iced wall. The ground trembled as two of the ship's heads grinded through the wall. An unsettling silence filled the air as the ships moaned. The other men were on the wall, scrambling to get down preparing for them. I could hear their shouts, the screams, and the cries from the woman and children indoors. If the other men were here….we might have had a chance. Hotaka pushed me towards the nearest tent. "Go!" He urged at me. I looked back to see him running towards the men, who waited before the two ships. Both of the ships opened at the front, lowering the rampart down to the ice…
I ducked into the tent to see two woman and three children huddling together. One of them was Takao. The two women were his aunt and mother and the other two children were his siblings. Both girls. The youngest was only a toddler who cried in her mother's arms. "Rana!" Aika gasped, Takao's mother who held the baby girl Chika. Her face was frozen with fear. Her sister, Keiko, threw her arms around me, pulling me to the ground beside me.
"Are you alright?" She whispered, breathing heavily. I looked at her face to see tears in her eyes. She had lost her husband in the last raid.
"I'm fine," I said weakly. She nodded and pulled the other little girl, Emiko, who gazed at us with wide four-year old eyes, into her arms. We settled into an terrified silence as we heard the men outside. There was inaudible yelling and then finally…the sound so of a battle…
As soon as it started, it was all over just like that. In a simple manner of minutes. "Don't worry," Takao said bravely. He stood up and looked at all of us. "As the only man here, I'll protect you!" He held his chest like a miniature brave warrior.
Someone opened the tent of the flap and all of the women shrieked around me. Chika wailed loudly. Takao stumbled back onto the ground. A face looked at all of us. An armored demon's face with dark golden eyes that flashed maliciously against pale skin. "Come out," He ordered threateningly, "Now!"
He held the tent flap open, waiting. Aika and Keiko looked at me. I jerked my head towards the man and they nodded. It would be better to do what he said, until we found out how the battle had went. My knees shook as I walked past the men with the others following behind me. The others of my village stood before the ships in a group with the Fire Nation demon spawn surrounding them. One stood before the two ships, a dark figure in his uniform, watching the crowd. A raven's red flag flashed above the ships. The same as the ones who had come before. The ones who had taken my father and murdered my mother!
I looked around for the men as I joined the crowd. Two bodies lay nearby with the smell of burnt flesh hanging in the air. Moon spirit…no…My eyes whirled around looking for Hotaka, to find him near me with only two of the other men. They were separated from the rest of us with soldiers surrounding them. What did they want?
"I have information that there is a waterbender here," A deep voice announced. All of became quiet as we stared at the forbidding looking leader. He was taller than any of the Water Tribe men I had seen. I could feel the shiver tingling in my spine, but there was also the hot blood coursing in my veins of hate. "I would prefer not to have any more deaths…that is if the waterbender will come forward without making any…trouble."
I looked at Aika next to me, whose eyes were trained at me. She shook her head just the slightest. I scanned the ground, hearing their quiet mutterings. Kanna's eyes caught mine and I could see her mouthing the words…Don't do it…Her face was admirably brave and sad as I smiled weakly. She shook her head and I looked away. She knew.
"There are no waterbenders here!" One of the women cried. "You took them all!"
"Silence!" The man barked. He folded his arms as he looked at us. I couldn't make out his face. "Well, if it has to be this way…"
I looked at the faces of my people. They would die than rather give me up. How foolish. And stupid. I would not be taken by them. I would not be! I wanted to live, but if it had to end this way…I would end it my way…
I started to move through the crowd to go before them. Aika grabbed my arm, but I shrugged it off. "Rana, no!" She gasped. I shook my head and kept going.
The man's eyes were on me as I stood before the crowd. He was a mere ten feet away. Everyone behind me talked and some of the woman cried. I glanced over at the men to see Hotaka's expression of pure fear…for me. "I am the waterbender," I said loudly, hoping to sound brave. It didn't.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several of the soldiers closing in on me. "I'm glad you came forward," The man drawled. "I would have disliked having to kill everyone."
"You'll leave them alone once I'm gone?" I queried.
The man unfolded his arms. "Yes."
"Good," I responded, drawing in a deep breath. "Cause you'll have to get me first." It took all of my willpower and determination to send one wave of snow to ripple underneath his feet and send him flying back several feet. I took the confusion at its best and made a run for it. The cries of village were behind me and the shouts of the soldiers.
I heard the violent scream from Aika, "Takao, NO!" I glanced back for only a moment to see Takao's small form lying in the snow. Aika rushed forward to attack the soldier who had killed him. Her sister grabbed her, holding onto the enraged woman. Takao…he had wanted to protect us…no…He was only a child!
Rage and guilt swarmed inside me as I kept running. I ran past the wall, making it outside to the flat icy field outside of our village. My lungs ached as I ran and ran. I looked behind me to see five soldieries in close pursuit. My legs were feeling heavy like boulders. The next thing I was aware of was running into something hard and solid. I fell back into the snow with the wind knocked out of me. I took in a painful breath and looked up to see a dark figure towering over me. It was the man…their leader. How had he gotten here before me? He must have cut around!
I could see the bottom half of his face that was laughing at me. Mocking me! His eyes, visible through the slits in his helmet, were the color the sun filtering through ice. They were amused and totally confident. I scrambled backwards from him as I heard him speak. "I'm quite impressed," He said lazily. "For an untrained waterbender, you put up quite a fight."
I stood up in shaky legs. The soldiers behind me were getting closer. There would be no escape. They had killed Takao! Fierce hatred, hotter than the sun, sang in my blood. "You're scum," I spat. I could feel the cooking knife at my side. I had used it earlier to cook Kanna's soup. Strange that I would use it for this. I could no longer feel the fear. There was only a futile hatred and a knowing of how this was about to end. "You think you won?" I asked coldly. A maniac grin formed on my lips. They would never win. "You'll never get me!"
The man stared at me. I swiftly pulled the blade out, raising it to my throat. "Stop her!" The man bellowed. I felt a hand grab mine, wrestling with the blade as I was knocked to the ground once more. I gazed at armored feet beside my head as one came for my head. The world was dark as I head the man's voice say, "We have her. The waterbender."