“Mara, did you put those new baskets away like I asked you to?” Rahin asked from the front of the shop.
“Yes Rahin, I did,” I called from the back.
I heard the sounds of a distressed animal coming from outside. The village’s normal sounds fell quiet. I walked to the front of the store and looked out the window to see a man riding an exhausted ostrich horse slowly passing by. The man is wearing a brown long-sleeved shirt and brown pants. He has a sedge hat tied around his chin that covers most of his face, especially since he is looking down. I can still see what looked like a scar on his face though, but I’m not sure what kind or what from. He slightly turned his face to look at me as he passed the window, made eye contact for a second, and then looked away. He stopped at a shop across and to the left of us, talking to the shop owner.
Rahin walked over to the window, “You seem very interested in the traveler.”
“Who is he?” I asked him, not taking my gaze away from the man.
“I don’t know. But it’s probably best not to try to socialize with him much.”
I nodded to Rahin. When I looked back at the man, the earth kingdom soldiers had taken interest in him. He turned around to face them, and I saw on his waist a sheathed sword. I watched as the soldiers stole the animal feed that he had just bought, the soldier I knew to be Chaone laughed about it being a contribution to the war. Chaone was the lead soldier, the one that told the other three what to do. The other soldiers I knew to be Luoto, the second in command, Fan Fe, and lastly Bo Ge. Bo Ge was the dumbest one in the group, I was surprised that he was even able to become an earth kingdom soldier. Once the soldiers left, a boy I knew to be Lee started talking to him, and loudly offered to feed his ostrich horse at their family farm. When they had gotten out of my view, I sighed.
“Why do those Earth kingdom soldiers have to be so mean to everyone?” I asked myself.
“Are you going to continue working or are you going to stare out that window for the rest of the day?” Rahin asked from behind me, making me jump.
“I’m sorry Rahin,” I bowed my head to him, “It’s just that nothing interesting ever happens here, so when someone that we don’t know stumbles into our village...” I trail off.
Rahin gave me a knowing look, and then turned away further into the shop. I followed him, still thinking about the man.
“Those are beautiful flowers,” I hear a husky voice behind me.
“Thank you, I work hard on them. These are the only source of flowers in this village,” I respond, smiling.
I hear the man sit down next to me. I looked over at him and recognized him as the man who had come into our village this morning. Instantly the smell of sandalwood swirled around me and filled my nose. It was so intoxicating that it made me lose my focus for a moment.
“How are you able to grow them in this environment?” he asked, motioning to the sand and dust surrounding us, bringing me out of my haze.
“I make my own soil; I sieve the sand multiple times until I get all of the rocks and stones out of it, and then I mix it with some secret ingredients and water. It took me a few months to completely figure it out, but it’s been working for a few years now.” I brought water out of my flask, swirled it into a sphere, and then flattened it an inch above the flower bed. I then slowly brought it down evenly onto the soil.
“You’re a water bender,” the man said in surprise.
I chuckled, “Guilty.”
“Why are you here in an Earth kingdom village?”
I stopped what I’m doing and turn to him, “Well, my home water tribe was attacked by the fire nation when I was young. My father sent me away with my uncle, telling him to take me somewhere safe. He had a friend in the Earth kingdom that he wanted me to stay with, in order to protect me from the fire nation. Once we got here, my uncle found the friend, Rahin, the owner of this shop, he entrusted him with my care, and then left to go find my family and help them fight. That’s the last I heard from or saw my family. I was told a few months later that my tribe had been defeated, and that there was nothing left to go back to. So I stayed with Rahin here, and I help him with his shop.”
“Wow,” he said quietly, looking at the ground, “I’m so sorry.”
I sighed, “It’s alright. Everyone has lost people they love to the fire nation. Ask anyone here, and they will tell you. Rahin lost his wife when the fire nation tried to invade this village. That’s why those earth kingdom soldiers are here, they are supposed to protect us. In my opinion, they do more harm than good.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
I was able to get a better look at him now that he was right in front of me. His eyes were a golden amber color, something that I had only known and seen from the fire nation. I still couldn’t see the scar much since he still had his hat on, but I could see that his left ear was badly scarred and damaged. From under the hat, I saw he had dark short hair. Strong dark eyebrows and a sharp jawline defined his face.
“I’m Mara, by the way,” I smiled.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he responded.
I was a little thrown off that he didn’t respond with his name, “It’s nice to meet you too, mystery man.”
I saw a small smile come on his lips, and then it was gone.
“Mara, can you come help me with thi0s?” I heard Rahin calling from inside the shop.
“Coming,” I called back. “Well, I should go help him. I’ll see you around?”
“Not for very much longer. I am leaving tomorrow,” he responded, his husky voice making the hairs on my neck stand up.
“Oh,” I stood up, dusting the sand from my light brown tunic dress, “Alright. I hope you have safe travels, and that you find what you are looking for.”
“Thank you,” he stood as well and looked down at me.
I smiled and walked to the entrance of the shop, taking one last glance at him, and then going inside.
“Mara, I told you not to socialize with him,” Rahin scolded when I walked up to him.
“I didn’t go looking for him, he came to me. I was only being polite.”
He gave me a harsh look, “It doesn’t matter. We don’t know who he is or where he’s from. He could be a trouble maker.”
The next morning, I watched from the window as the man left our village. While he was passing our shop, I saw him glance at me from underneath his hat. I smiled at him when we made eye contact, and he blushed and looked away.
A little while later I was outside tending to my flowers when I heard a commotion at the center of the village. I looked over and saw Lee being tied to a wooden post by the Earth kingdom soldiers. I started to stand up, grabbing my water flask.
A hand on my shoulder stopped me, “Do not interfere, we do not want them thinking that you are a threat. They allow you to stay here as a waterbender because they think you are harmless and untrained.” Rahin said quietly from behind me. He walked down closer to the center to ask others watching what was happening.
Lee was struggling against the ropes, “My friend will come back once he finds out what you did. He will come back and help me. Just you watch!”
I sighed and looked to the entrance of the village. No signs of the mysterious man coming back. It pained me to sit by and watch this happen when I knew that I could help Lee. All of a sudden I heard in the distance what sounded like an animal approaching fast. I looked back to the entrance, and sure enough, there he was. He slowed when he got past the stone walls.
“Hey, there he is! I told you he’d come back!” Lee yelled.
The man stopped and got off of his ostrich horse, taking off his hat. I could see his scar clearly now, covering his left eye and moving towards his hairline.
“Let the kid go,” he said as the soldiers walked up to him.
They laughed, “Who do you think you are? Telling us what to do. Do you really think we’ll listen to you?”
He does not respond to the first question, still concealing his identity. “You guys should be ashamed to call yourselves soldiers, you’re nothing but bullies who abuse the power that has been given to you.”
I do not hear what the soldier I know to be Chaone says to another soldier, Bo Ge, but the next thing I knew, he is running to attack him. The man quickly brings his sword out of its sheath, hitting Bo Ge in the stomach with the pommel. The soldier flew back and landed next to where Rahin was standing and scrambled away. He sheathed his sword; he must not want to seriously hurt these people. The soldier Fan Fe was next to attack, running towards him. The man easily pushed his spear out of the way, put his hand on the soldiers face, and effortlessly pushed him down onto the ground. The next soldier, Luoto, ran towards him, yelling. The man waited for him to get close, and then high kicked the middle of the spear, breaking the head off of the staff. Luoto stood there in shock for a few seconds, and then he turned and ran away. A crowd had formed now, all watching this mysterious man fend off the earth kingdom soldiers without even trying. Only Chaone was left now, he brought out his two hammers and assumed his fighting stance. The man now fully unsheathed his swords and put one in each hand. Chaone sent a large rock at him, he blocked it easily. Three more rocks were sent his way, he struggles to block two and then gets hit in the stomach with the third. This is the first that I’ve seen him struggle in this fight, let alone get hit with something. His strong eyebrows furrowed from anger and concentration. He crossed his swords together and ran at Chaone. The crowd cheered him on, it seemed like the whole village was over there watching. I stayed on the ground next to my flowers. If I got too close to the fight I wouldn’t be able to help but join.
Another group of three rocks go flying towards him. Again, he blocks the first two, and gets hit in the stomach with the third. This time, he gets thrown to the ground from the force of the blow. Once he hit the ground he rolled back and was on his feet again. I can tell he is in pain, he is hunched over with his back towards Chaone. I fight back the urge to go help him.
“Look out!” a man from the crowd yelled.
“Behind you!” Lee yelled.
My eyes widen as Chaone hurled rock after rock at him. He managed to block them all this time, many more than three. The soldier then shot the ground up at him, which hit him in the stomach and sent him flying backwards. I gasped as he landed in front of me, his eyes closed. I reached toward my water flask, looking at Rahin. He made eye contact with me and shook his head to tell me no.
“Get up!” I quietly yell to him, “Come on, hurry, he’s coming!” I started to get nervous when Chaone walked up to him and raised his hammer.
Just then, the man’s golden eyes snapped open, he grabbed his swords that were lying beside him, and did a spin kick that sent fire out in a circle radiating from him.
My eyes widened and I brought up a wall of water from my flask in front of me to shield myself from the flames. Chaone didn’t have any defense for the fire and he was thrown back towards the center. The man glanced at me to check to see if I was okay, with apologetic eyes. I nodded at him to tell him that I am fine.
He stood up, with flames still surrounding him. Everyone in the crowd went silent. Chaone also stood up, trying to shake the knockdown, and went back into his fighting stance.
The man yelled and ran towards him, spinning his swords, which shot fire at the soldier with every swing. Chaone was thrown back, once again, and hit the side of a building. Rocks fell down and trapped him so that he couldn’t get back up.
“Who are you?” he struggled to say.
I looked towards where the man had stopped in front of the soldier, listening intently to see if he would finally reveal who he is.
“My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai,” he put his two swords back together and sheathed them, “Prince of the fire nation and heir to the throne.”
I quietly gasped, and the crowd whispered to each other.
“Liar! I have heard of you!” a man next to Rahin yelled, “You’re not a prince, you’re an outcast!” he turned to the crowd, “His own father burned and disowned him!”
I looked down at the ground, so that’s where his scar is from. I heard the stories about what happened to the Firelord’s son, but I wasn’t sure if it was actually true. What kind of a father would do something like that to their own son?
Zuko looked down at the soldier and walked towards him, who flinched and cowered in fear. He grabbed something from the soldier’s pocket and then walked over to Lee, who had been cut free by his mother, Sela.
Sela stepped in front of him, “Not a step closer.”
He knelt down in front of them, and held out a knife, “It’s yours, you should have it.”
“No,” Lee said, “I hate you,” he then turned and walked away, with his mother following behind.
Zuko stayed kneeling, looking at the ground.
I looked to the crowd, still silent. They were angry, now that they know who he is and where he is from. I felt a twinge of guilt for not being angry as well. After all that the fire nation has done to my home, my family, and everyone that I know, somehow, I do not direct my anger towards this man. He just defended this village and Lee, everyone should be grateful, not angry.
“How dare you come into this village as a fire nation man and disrupt our peace.” I heard from the crowd.
“Yeah, now when those soldiers come back, they are going to punish us for what you did!”
“You must pay for this!”
“You are no longer welcome here!”
“What peace?” I yelled, standing up from my flower bed.
“Excuse me, girl? What did you just say?” the voice I heard sounded angry, but I didn’t know who it had come from.
“You call being bossed around by soldiers every day, getting your food and supplies stolen in the name of the war, and cowering in fear while the soldiers ridicule our every move peace?”
The crowd started moving towards me now, pushing back Zuko with it.
“We did not have peace before this man came to our village, so how could he disrupt something that we did not have?” I asked the crowd. I locked eyes with Rahin, and I could see that he was wanting me to stop. I looked over at Zuko, who was staring at the ground.
“He made things worse!” Someone from the crowd yelled, with the agreement of everyone else.
“He protected Lee, who is just a boy!” I countered, “We owe him our thanks for coming back and stopping those thugs from hurting Lee. Would you have rather him leave Lee to the mercy of them, to do whatever they wanted? Or allow them to ship him off to war like they did his brother?”
The crowd whispered to each other. “It does not matter. He is fire nation, and fire nation is not welcome in our village. He is lucky that we don’t turn him in to the Earth kingdom!”
“Yeah!” Someone else agreed, “And if you like him so much, why don’t you leave with him! We don’t need someone aligning with fire nation in our village, you could turn against us!”
I clenched my jaw.
“Settle down everyone, this is getting too out of hand. Lets just take a moment to think about this,” Rahin finally speaks up.
“We can’t trust her anymore!” A woman from the crowd shouted, followed by shouting agreements from everyone else.
“Fine!” I yelled, quieting them, “I’ll leave then. I have been nothing but loyal to this village for many years, but if you really feel that way, I will leave.”
“No!” Rahin yelled, but then is drowned out by the cheering of the crowd.
“Good riddance!” I heard as I turned away to the shop.
“I’ll be here waiting for you when you are ready,” I heard Zuko say to me from the side.
I looked up at him with tears in my eyes and nodded. I heard him sigh as I walked into the shop. I went upstairs to where my room has been for as long as I’ve been here and grabbed my bag from next to the door. I rolled up my blanket and placed it into my bag, as well as my water satchel. When I went back downstairs, Rahin was waiting for me.
“Please don’t go, I’m sure they didn’t mean what they said.” He put a hand on my shoulder.
“They meant it; you know that as much as I do. Fire nation is off the table for them, as well as anyone who defends one of them, even if they just saved one of their own. The hatred runs deep here,” I squeezed his hand that was on my shoulder and brought it down.
He sighed, “I know. Maybe one day when the war is over you will come back?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“At least let me give you some food for the road, wherever you’re going.”
I nodded, and he walked away to grab some food that we had in the cupboard.
“Here, take this,” he put a bag of food into my bag. “There’s also something else in there, to remember me by.”
I hugged him, “How could I ever forget you? You’ve been like a father to me.”
We smiled at each other, both with tears in our eyes. “You’d better get going, he’s waiting for you.”
I nodded and put my bag on my shoulder. I walked out of the shop with Rahin following close behind me.
“Ready to go?” Zuko asked, looking down at me from on top of the Ostrich horse.
I sighed and looked back at the villagers who had now gathered pitchforks and staffs, “Yeah, I guess.”
Zuko stretched a hand down towards me to help me up. I turned to him and grabbed onto his hand. He pulled me up with ease, with no signs of struggle, and placed me behind him. With the snap of the reigns, we were on our way to...
“Um, so where are we going?”