Water. The Land of the Nile, black silt raised from a silent ocean when the world was young. A wet world, dictated by the Nile, The One, the rising of cool floodwaters over fields of black, black earth. The people of the Water-Tribes went to tombs of dry stone in the burning west when they died, but in life water was their world; it cooled scorched faces, it flooded fields, its power pushed five-ton blocks of stone into pyramids to honour the kings of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Stoically, the benders of Egypt guided the floodwaters and channelled the rivers; the sons and daughters of Egypt lived most of their lives ankle-deep in the cooling Nile and could imagine nothing other.
Earth. Enki created man from clay, and from clay, man created the world. In a land where nothing grew, they took earth and water and built an empire of mud, a radiant land of temples and cities of sunbaked earth and clay, scorched pottery and tilled sand. Everything they possessed, everything they knew was of the earth. The mightiest temple to the stars, the simplest child’s writing lesson or rough-shapen drinking vessel; like man himself, they all began as a handhold of cooling mud lifted reverently and molded in the palm in the land between two rivers.
Fire. The priests in Elam, the Land of Holy Fire, claimed that their sacred dominion was created last of all the elements, but that may be a legend. Their priests worshipped five kinds of sacred fire in their temples in the distant mountains, while their kings and princes carried banners of Azi Aadakha, the dragon of the world who taught them how to bend and channel fire into their battles across the earth. To maintain God’s holy fire was to uphold the battle between good and evil on those sunsoaked plains, their cities of crimson and gold, their hot, dry land where smoke was akin to everlasting life.
Air. In the beginning, there was Iluyanka, the thunder-dragon; man lived in darkness and neverending rain until Tarhun, the storm-wielder found balance and learned to repel her and control the heavens and drive Iluyanka to the furthest reaches of the sky. Most of their people lived in grand cities of black stone, thundering gates and hot volcanic earth, but in the distant mountains above Hattusa, the priests of the air-nation continued Tarhun and Iluyanka’s never-ending battle, controlled the wind and clouds and brought rain down upon the earth. Their kings were great warriors, but the only blood spilt by the Storm-Keepers, Tarhun’s servants in his eternal war, was Iluyanka’s, which became rain as it fell. In a hard land of stone and thunder, they wove and twisted soft clouds and wefted elusive storms like flax. They dwelt among the stars.
My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace; when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Kingdom, Earth Cities, Land of Holy Fire, and the Storm-Keepers. But that all changed when the Land of Holy Fire attacked.
Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders, but when the world needed him most, he vanished.
A hundred years have passed, and the Land of Holy Fire is nearing victory in the war. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the north to help fight against the Fire-Benders, leaving my brother and I to look after our tribe.
Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Storm-Keepers and that the cycle is broken. But I haven't lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.
Chapter One- The Boy in the Clay
They were gathering pollen for sugar-candy when the storm came. Khirret, they called it: the yellow life-giving grain of the marshes, the maze of date-palm rimmed channels and eddies that led down from the lofty towers of the Earth-Kingdom’s temples to the wide and lapping sea they called their home. Boiled down with date syrup, it became lumps of a sulphur-yellow sweet that could be traded north or nibbled at will when other food sources were scarce. Katara had the paddle; swiftly she guided her and her brother’s cheap canoe of lashed and bundled reeds through the marshes, occasionally driving the oar down hard into the swirling silt so Sokka could deftly grab and cut the yellow tops from the spring-blossoming cattails, pile them in the bottom of the craft to dry in the burning sun.
“We’re getting close to the ocean, Katara,” said Sokka, peering over the edge of the boat. “We’re running out of reeds.”
“I know,” said Katara, tugging the paddle free of the earth and switching it over to the other side. Sweat poured down her face; she brushed it away with the back of her hand only to leave a smearing of kohl across her cheeks, saw Sokka grin at her mistake from between his own thickly painted lashes.
“You just want to go to the ocean and practice waterbending saltwater, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” Katara grumbled, paddling onwards. “No-one ever said that offended Enki. And this is still freshwater here anyway, I can feel it.”
“Watch out for that sandbar,” said Sokka.
“I said WATCH OUT!”
It was too late. The front half of the canoe was firmly lodged in the black sand and stubbled reeds of the sandbar.
“Great,” said Sokka, rocking the craft with his knees, doing nothing more than make the lashed reeds squeak together and wobble on the sand.
“Now hold on just a minute,” said Katara, a glint in her eyes. Her fingers quivered; and swiftly she raised them upwards to her eyes, focussed hard; concentrating, she moved them sideways and forwards in a wefting motion and channelled a powerful jet of water from below them to force the canoe free. The canoe landed back in the river with a splash and bobbed up and down in the lapping waves. A quiet smile of achievement crossed Katara’s face, then the surge rained down from above them and thoroughly drenched her, Sokka, and the pile of yellow bounty in the bottom of the canoe.
For a moment she sat in stunned silence, cold water drenching through her black veil and linen dress down her back before she finally dared to turn around and face her brother.
“Now you’ve done it,” said Sokka, wringing out one of the drenched yellow cat-tails and grumbling. “Why is that every time you play with magic water I get soaked?”
“It’s not magic,” she grumbled, “it’s waterbending, and-- and we’re going to need it now to find some clams and mussels, because there’s no way these reeds are drying out in time for supper. Come on,” she said, shaking herself off and climbing out of the boat. Once Sokka had joined her, she raised her palms once more and powered the canoe back on top of the sandbar to wait for their return. Sokka gave a weary sigh, then hitched up his tunic up to his waist and Katara hitched up her dress. Together they began the slow half-trudge, half-swim through the marshes and cat-tails down to the sea.
The tide was out in the estuary; channels of soft mud bled through leaf-shaped hillocks of soft sand littered with clam and oyster shells. The channels of seawater rippled underfoot and in the distance, the sun over the horizon turned the shallow sea a faint pink.
As Sokka ran ahead to leap into the cooling ocean, Katara began waterbending, pulling back the inch or so of sea above the soft sand to explose the clams and oysters in the tidal pools. She discarded her sandals and waded outwards; swiftly, she chanelled the tug of water stirring in her fingers to shakily wash the sand from a half-exposed oyster shell and flip it over in the sand. No pearl in this one, nor the next. A pearl would change their fortunes forever.
She hummed a song to herself as she flipped the shells over with her feet.
“Once upon a time there was no snake, there was no scorpion,
There was no hyena, there was no lion,
There was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival. ”
Sokka’s had run back from the ocean to stand some way in front of her. When her song finished, he turned around.
“And once upon a time, there was no Fire-Nation either. Katara, stop looking for pearls and start looking for dinner,” he said “You’re the girl, that’s your job.”
Katara swiped at the water with the back of her hand and brought a surge of it down on the back of Sokka’s head.
With the side of her hand, Katara bent and forced open a gushing channel in the sand next to Sokka’s feet. Before he could walk away, she carved another to intersect it and leave him trapped.
“You are the most sexist -” another channel carved it’s way across the sand trapping Sokka in a small triangle with rushing water on all three sides, “ immature , nut -brained, idiot -”
“Katara, I’m sorry-”
Crack . Still more of the sand parted underfoot and the sea rolled in to cover it.
“Ever since Mama died,” she said- crack , “I’ve been doing all the work while you play soldier!”
“Um, Katara, you might want to stop waterbending--”
Crack . A final surge of ocean shot from Katara’s hands and washed away her previous efforts. A powerful blast drove the tide outwards leaving them standing on the bare, dry sand, the wall of the sea held powerfully back a few dozen feet ahead.
Her hold on the Persian Sea dropped from her hands and fell apart when she saw what Sokka had meant. Just beyond him, in a gaping hollow she had somehow opened in the clay below the sand, was a sphere of soft, glowing light.
“Katara, get away!” her brother screamed, lifting his knife from his belt and shielding the light from his eyes. Katara’s feet seemed frozen in the sand.
“Katara, run!” he screamed and ran backwards without taking his eyes from the sphere. Powerfully, he tackled her over onto the sand and shielded her with his own body, his knife still held to the unnatural light as he guarded her.
Sacred mother. Katara understood as she lifted her face from the sand. The water gods of the earth-cities were said to glow with an unearthly brightness too painful for mortals to look upon. And if this was a god, Anu forbid- she buried her eyes under her arm- it had seen her waterbend. As far from them as she could go, and one of their gods had seen her waterbend. Sacred mother, forgive.
“Go away,” Sokka screamed as the light seemed to move closer to them, holding his small carving knife in front of himself. “Don’t you dare touch my sister, I’m a soldier, I’m armed!”
No you aren’t, Sokka you brave idiot , she thought somehow, spitting out a mouthful of sand and wincing at her scraped open palms. All you are is the only one left behind. If only Dad were here.
The world seemed to stand still as the sun burned overhead and the sphere of light bobbed and drifted across the clay towards them.
Then, just as quickly, it vanished. The sphere of light faded into the ripples of bright midday sun, and from within the figure of a person was revealed. A human figure, so coated in clay and mud it resembled the battered dolls Katara kept hidden in a rolled up rug beside her bed-mat so no one would know she still had them.
No , she thought. Not Enki. Not the Lord of Sweet-water. Now, there was a different set of words echoing through her head:
“Dust is their food and clay their nourishment; they see no light where they dwell in darkness… ”
The figure quickened its pace and continued walking towards them.
A swirl of wind came down from the sky; the winds swirled in a halo of air and softly brushed the figure completely clear of sand and mud, revealing a young boy in a red tunic who fell to his knees and collapsed on the sand.
Katara and Sokka turned to look at each other; Sokka’s face bore the most quizzical expression as it met her eyes, but then the two of them stood up and nervously paced over to look at the young boy collapsed on the clay.
Just as suddenly, the boy opened his eyes, rose to his feet and brushed some remaining sand from his tunic. He was wearing a red tunic with a black corded belt in an intricate knotted pattern; a strap from the tunic covered one of his shoulders and his head was shaved like a priest.
Katara swiped at and grabbed Sokka’s knife, wishing longingly she hadn’t left her canoe paddle behind, held it defensively in front of her.
“Stop! I know what you are, you’re an Anunnaki, a judge of the underworld!-”
“You control the winds, you’re Enlil, I know it! Did Nippur send you?”
“Enlil? Anunnaki? What are you talking about, I’m from Kadesh!”
He had a young boyish voice; very much a child, very not a fearsome god.
Katara kept the knife raised high. Sokka raised his eyebrows.
“If you’re from Kadesh, what the hell are you doing buried in our beach? Are you a silver trader's kid?”
The boy did not answer. A fierce grunting came from the hole in the ground behind him; as Katara and Sokka recoiled, the boy jumped into the pit and emerged a few seconds later- riding on a water buffalo with bird’s wings.
“What… is that thing? Is that a Lamassu ?” said Sokka.
Again, in an oddly childish voice the boy continued:
“Nah, this Appa, my flying water-buffalo. He’d have to be part-human too to be a Lamassu.”
“Riiight. And this is Katara, my flying sister.”
The water buffalo bent down and began licking at saltwater on the boy’s sandy ankles. He patted the back of the buffalo’s massive head, and then it drove its snout into his chest, sending him stumbling backwards on the sand and laughing. Katara and Sokka looked on in disbelief.
“Soo… do you guys live around here?” he said with his hands patting the flying water buffalo’s ears.
“Don't answer that!” shouted Sokka, turning to his sister who had stepped forward. ”Did you see that crazy bolt of light?! He was probably trying to signal the Fire Fleet!”
“Oh yeah, I'm sure he's a spy for the Fire Fleet. You can tell by that evil look in his eye,” said Katara. She took a deep breath, stepped forwards and held out her hand.
“I’m Katara. The paranoid one is my brother, Sokka. You never told us your name”
“My name is a-a-a- achoo!”
He sneezed and leapt several feet up in the air.
“I’m Aang,” he said with a further grin as he landed.
Sokka’s jaw dropped, and Katara’s heart began to pound.
“You just sneezed… and flew ten feet into the air!”
“Really? It felt higher than that,” he shrugged.
“Then if you’re from Kadesh- you’re a stormkeeper, an airbender!”
“Of course I’m a storm-keeper, can’t you tell?”
They were silent for a minute until Sokka spoke up.
“Right. If you’re a storm-keeper of Iluyanka, then I’m Sargon the Great. No one’s seen a Storm-Keeper in a hundred years.”
The flying water buffalo nuzzled its snout into the boy’s tunic once more, then grunted, rose to its knees and trundled over to bury its massive head in Katara and Sokka’s reed canoe, splitting it apart. The buffalo lowered its head and began to devour the soft yellow khirret drying in the bottom of the ruined craft.
“Hey, stop! Shoo!” shouted Sokka, rushing over and attempting to drive away the buffalo with the canoe paddle, running hard into its side and knocking the wind out of himself. It didn’t budge.
Katara remained standing where she was, her arms folded, watching her brother repeatedly run into the buffalo’s chest.
“Well, there goes our ride home,” she grumbled resignedly, stalking across the sand to grab at a bundle of reeds, tossing a handful of them at Aang. “You mind giving us a hand here stormkeeper? We need to make another reed-canoe if we’re going to get home by nightfall.”
“Appa could take us!” he said cheerfully, twisting the string of reeds in his hands.
“I’m not getting on that thing,” yelled Sokka, still trying to push Appa over.
“Well,” said Katara, toying with a fold of her dress “I’ve never ridden a flying buffalo before. And we do need to get home…”
Aang leapt another ten feet in the air, somersaulted onto Appa’s back and patted his neck.
“Sit behind me. And hold on tight!”
Katara and Sokka climbed onto Appa’s back, and the last stormkeeper of Iluyanka flew them home across the marshes.
“Hey,” said Aang, turning back to Katara. Sokka was snoring.
“Whatcha thinkin about?”
“Don’t tell anyone you saw me waterbending,” she said, trailing her hand over Appa’s side to trace it through the wobbly reflections of date palms on the black surface of the water as the buffalo skimmed the surface of the river.
“Why?” said Aang.
“The priests of the earth-cities don’t like it. The god of fresh water’s domain is too sacred for mortal hands. Unless you’re Egyptian of course.”
He looked puzzled.
“I’m confused. Isn’t this the land of the Earth Cities?”
“Yes, the cities up north all are- Ur, Eridu, Uruk, Girsu, Larsa- but this bit of the delta belongs to the Eastern Water Tribe, and that’s what Sokka and I are. Most water-benders are in Egypt, the Water-Kingdom under the Pharaoh, but there’s a handful of us left here.”
“What happened to the others?”
“Lots of things,” she finally said, quietly. “Aang... I was wondering… your being an airbender and all… do you know what happened to the Avatar?”
“Oh no. I didn’t know him. I mean, I knew people who knew him, but I didn’t. Sorry.”
“Ok. Just curious.”
Hours later, they gathered up their sleeping rugs, laid them out in Sakka and Katara’s grandmother’s hall of reeds and sat down to a meal of the salvaged yellow khirret cooked into a porridge, dates, barley bread, water buffalo milk, and some coconuts Aang had glided up into the palms and collected.
The room was silent except for the sounds of chewing and hands gathering up bites of grainy, yellow porridge between finger and thumb. Finally Aang spoke up.
“Why does everyone keep staring at me?” he finally asked.
Katara squirmed; her grandmother cleared her throat.
“No one’s seen an Storm-Keeper in a hundred years, Aang, We thought they were extinct.”
Aang’s fingers stopped in midair around a bite of khirret .
“What do you mean extinct?”
Again, Grangran cleared her throat.
“They all died in the war with the Land of Holy Fire.”
Katara leapt to her feet.
“Come, Aang,” she said. “Let’s go find a spot to tether Appa.”
“Appa doesn’t need tethering-”
“Come anyway,” she said and half-dragged him outside.
The sun was setting over the date-palms in the eddies and channels, bright as burnished bronze. They sat together on the edge of the reed island, their toes dangling in the black and lapping water.
Finally, Katara said:
“I’m sorry Aang. Talking about the war isn’t easy for my grandmother. I just didn’t want you to hurt her by saying the wrong thing, and tying Appa was the only excuse I could think of.”
Aang was silent. The water rippled.
“We should swing on some of those vines,” he said, jumping to his feet. “Race you!”
Swiftly, he ran across the reed island, grabbed hold of a liana hanging by the river’s edge and swung outwards into the river, landing with a loud splash and spluttering to the surface.
“Come in Katara,” he shouted, treading water.
“I’ll come in if you teach me waterbending!” she said, lifting one foot onto a knotted portion of the hanging vine.
“One p-p-problem,” he said, his teeth chattering as the shock of the water set in, “I’m an airbender. Not a w-w-waterbender. Isn’t there someone in your tribe who can teach you?”
“No actually” she said, her hand tightening around the vine, her face turned downwards as she said: “You’re looking at the only waterbender in the eastern watertribe.” She sat down and rested her hands on her cheekbones, glumly.
Aang paddled back towards the edge of the reed island, propping himself up on the edge by his elbows.
“This isn't right, “ he said. “A waterbender needs to master water. What about the Western Water-Tribe? If you went to Egypt, I’m sure you could learn!”
Katara sighed, shifting positions.
“Maybe,” she said, “but we haven't had contact with our them in a long time. It's not exactly "turn right at the next date-palm". It's on the other side of the world.”
“But you forget, I have a flying buffalo. Appa and I can personally fly you to the Egypt. Katara, we're going to find you a master!”
She stood up, put her hand around the vine again.
“That's ... I mean, I don't know. I've never left home before…”
“Well, you think about it. But in the meantime, jump in the water.”
Katara grabbed hold of the vine, ran, jumped and swung out over the river, landed with a sharp splash and came up spluttering, her white dress pooling around her like a cloud.
“I haven’t done that since I was a kid!” she said, giggling.
“You still are a kid,” said Aang.
“Let’s swim to the other side,” said Katara, diving under and beginning to swim forwards in broad, wide strokes.
When they reached the opposite edge of the river. Aang huffed and puffed as he dragged himself onto the mud; Katara bent over and began wringing out her braids onto the sand. When she stood up, Aang was pointing. She shuddered when she saw at what. Just ahead of them were the skeletal ribs of what was once a wooden ship, the wood bleached peeling from decades of exposure to salt and sun.
“Katara, what is that?” Aang said, turning towards her.
For a moment Katara was silent and then, finally, she said;.
“A ship from the fire-fleet,” said Katara. “And a very bad memory for my people.”
He began walking forwards, his staff held out defensively in front of him, held in both hands.
“Aang, stop! We’re not allowed near it!”
He swung his staff behind him and laid one hand on one of the peeling ribs of the once mighty craft above his head. His eyes were serious as he turned and told her:
“If you want to be a bender, you have to let go of fear. Come on.” He held out his hand.
Aang ducked and made his way into the sandy, overturned hull of the ship, and Katara followed. The sand underfoot was overgrown with weeds, some of the wood rotten. A staff lay on the sand and he kicked it. Katara wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
“This ship has haunted us ever since my grandmother was a little girl,” she said, looking down. “It was part of the Land of Holy fire’s First attacks.”
“I know people from all over the world, Katara, even the Land of Holy Fire,” said Aang, gravely, kicking a clump of weeds, “and I’ve still never heard of any war.”
“Aang, how long were you in the sand for?”
“A few days maybe?” he shrugged.
“Aang,” said Katara, stepping further forwards into the hull. “I think… I think it was more like a hundred years. Think about it. The war is a century old. You’ve never heard of it, because… you were in the clay the whole time.”
“A hundred years... “
“Who was King when you left?”
Aang kept speaking as he moved deeper into the ship, his voice echoing.
“Sargon. We even stayed at his court for a while before we came here… We were on a diplomatic mission to the earth cities and then-”
There was a crack.