The Waterbender opened her eyes, her cheek feeling hot and swollen. She gingerly reached up and felt a sticky ooze trickling from her temple. She groaned and sat up hazily, her head throbbing.
“Aang? Sokka?” She found herself lying next to the campfire, but neither of her companions was around. Who had dragged her away from the bushes?
Momo chattered worriedly, pawing at her face.
“Momo…” she looked around and froze. The great beast stood silently watching her from the edge of the campfire’s light. Dimly, she could see a matted track where her body had been dragged from the edge of the woods. The lemur could not have moved her, leaving only the great animal standing vigil over her now.
Katara stared into the creature’s long, solemn face, its dark eyes following her every movement. It stood proudly, its sinewy neck flexing to show the relief of strong, supple muscles tracing through its lean body. Its coat was snow white, flecked here and there with grey spots, and its mane was jet black, as were its hoofs. The water girl thought she had never seen a more beautiful or noble looking creature in all the lands.
“You’re… you’re a horse, aren’t you?” She asked quietly, awestruck. She didn’t know if it could understand her, but its eyes watched her intelligently, almost questioningly.
The creature stood a moment more, and it nodded – a bob of the head, its ears flickering in acknowledgement.
Katara's breath hitched. A real live horse! Aang would be so happy to know they existed – no, were still alive!
She slowly stood and the creature skittered back warily, tossing its head.
“Whoa, whoa, it’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you,” Katara stayed slightly hunched, as low as possible, her arms out. She moved sluggishly to the pail of water and dipped her hand in, forming the blue healing glove, which she gently placed over her swollen cheek and then on the cut on her forehead. She relaxed and let the soothing coolness trickle off her face before wiping it clean with a towel, then got to work on the bloodied scrapes on her hands and arms.
When she was done, she looked over at the horse. It was rooted to the spot. In the moonlight, she could see a nasty gash and several bloody nicks on its underside.
“Hey, do you want me to help you with your injuries? I’m a healer,” she said to the horse. She picked up the pail and took a step forward, but the beast shied away, its hoofs sounding loudly on the hard-packed earth. Katara backed off once more, unsure of how to deal with this skittish creature’s moods.
She thought a moment and reached for her sack, taking out a small apple. She carefully cut it into eighths with a penknife and offered a slice up on her upturned palm.
“Here. Have some,” she said. The horse’s ears flicked and she could hear it snuffling in the dark. The beast stepped forward and Katara reached out, extending her arm out as far as she could reach, her hand trembling. She wasn’t sure what the thing ate, though she was mostly certain it wasn’t little girls. Momo liked apples – maybe this beast would too.
The horse stretched out its long neck, sniffing at the air, smelling the fragrant juices of the apple. It reached forward, legs planted and stiff, and lipped at the apple tentatively. A long pink tongue snaked out and snatched the slice up. It instantly retracted his head, munching noisily, salivating and creating a white foam around its lips.
Katara giggled. “Messy eater, aren’t you?” She offered it another piece, a smaller one, and the horse took another step forward. By the time half the apple had been eaten, the beast was standing next to the girl, letting her stroke its velvety grey muzzle. She marveled at the creature’s stoic beauty and smooth lines. She continued to feed it apple slices until she had no more, watching in fascination as its jaws worked, and furtively inspecting the horse’s damaged belly.
“Full yet?” She asked. The creature lowered its head, inspecting her juice stained hands and nipping at her pockets in search of more food. Katara couldn’t help but laugh as it nuzzled her and she flung her arms around its neck and buried her face its thick mane. She could feel its muscles clench and ripple beneath her touch. It smelled slightly of straw and wood smoke.
“You’re beautiful…” she cooed. “I wonder if you have a name. Apart from horse, I mean.”
The horse snorted indignantly as it raised its proud head. The noise seemed almost familiar.
“Let me look at those cuts, okay?” She bent down and the horse did not flinch from her probing touch. She dipped her hand in the bucket once more and formed her healing hand, applying it to the long, bloody gashes on the horse’s side. The horse squealed in complaint.
“Easy boy,” she could see now it was obviously a stallion. “I’m trying to help.” Her hands worked slowly along his belly until all the cuts were healed over. She wiped the blood matted into his fine hairs away with the remaining water and stood back to admire her work.
“Brave boy,” she coddled the horse, patting its thick neck. He tossed his mane, tail raised, looking proud and impressive in the glow of the moon. Katara smiled. Something told her he was happy.
She sat down and prodded at the fire, trying to decide what to do next. How long had she been unconscious? Judging by the stars and the moon, probably not more than an hour. She thought about leaving the campsite and searching for Aang and Sokka, but it would not be safe to wander the woods alone. Better just stay here until morning, at least, she reasoned. Her mind flooded with worry – what if Aang had been captured by the Fire Nation? What if he was hurt somewhere, alone in the dark? What about Sokka and Appa? Where were they?
“I guess it’s just you, me, and Momo for now,” Katara said absently. “Sokka and Aang will sure be surprised to find you here. I just hope they’re okay.”
The horse clopped up next to her and he nuzzled her comfortingly. She smiled at him and stroked his nose.
“You’re quite the affectionate one, aren’t you?” She teased. The horse whickered and gave her a wet kiss on the cheek with his apple juice lips.
“Eew! Silly boy!” Katara gently pushed the horse’s face away and he stood looking affronted while she wiped the sloppy mess off her face. She stood and laughed and reached forward to embrace the young stallion. “Aw, don’t be hurt. I just think you’re moving a little fast.” She chuckled, one hand gently rubbing his withers. He lowered his head so he stood cheek to cheek with her, and sighed.
“It’s funny,” Katara said quietly, running a finger up and down the centre of his long face. “You remind me of someone, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…” She drew her fingers over the stallion’s jaw and up to his ear, absently tracing circles around his cheeks and tousling his forelock. The horse shivered in ecstasy.
Suddenly, a shrill whinny sounded distantly in the woods. The horse started, raising his head, ears flickering toward the call. The neigh sounded again, closer. He whipped around, nudging her away and circling his massive bulk around her protectively, still staring into the trees.
“What is it? Are there more of you?”
Momo, who had been warily keeping his distance from the strange creature, climbed onto her shoulder. She could feel the lemur tensing, his claws digging into her skin, tail wrapped protectively around her neck.
Faintly, there came the sound of heavy galloping. The ground seemed to shudder under Katara’s feet.
The white stallion paced forward, ears pulled back, lips drawn. He lowered his head and marched into a break in the bushes, snorting.
“Hey! Where are you going?” The Waterbender called. The distant neigh was very close now, a piercing banshee’s cry that made Katara shudder. She realized with dismay that all the water in the bucket had been used up, and her water skin was with Sokka, strapped into Appa’s litter. She had no way of protecting herself.
A thunderous rumbling approached. The water girl stared hard into the darkness, looking for the source of the noise. Oh boy, I hope it’s Appa this time.
The white stallion gave a throaty roar of challenge and bolted into the woods, his massive hindquarters kicking up a spray of dirt and gravel. Katara watched the silvery form weave between the trees, dodging shadows, aiming for something…
And then she saw it. The black shadow came darting up from between the trees, an inky mass of barreling towards her. Its eyes glowed yellow as it charged at her, snorting demonic fire.
Momo screeched and leapt from her shoulder, but Katara was paralyzed with fear. A cry of terror and dismay lodged in her throat as she faced the charging beast.
Suddenly, the sound of hoofs on hard earth doubled, and the black horse became a blur of grey as the white stallion crashed into it heedlessly. The Waterbender finally found her voice and she screamed as the huge beasts tumbled to the ground in a tangle of long, sinewy limbs. The bulk of their massive bodies hit the ground with a sickening thud.
The two horses struggled up, snorting. The black horse was the bigger of the two, easily, and it twitched its ears in annoyance, teeth bared. The young stallion stamped at the ground and put his body between the black horse and Katara.
The water girl stared at the black horse. Yellow eyes, snorting fire…
She didn’t know how she came to that conclusion. But she could sense something wasn’t quite right about the animal. It radiated pure malice, heaving with deep, shuddering, unnatural breaths. A dark, bloody foam formed on its lips as it stared back, wild-eyed, at the Waterbender.
But if that’s Zuko, then what, or who, is…
Katara gasped as her feeble brain made the connection.
Horse fact: Horse breeds come in four categories including cold-bloods, hot-bloods, warm-bloods and ponies. Zuko is, by definition, of the hot-blooded variety, marked by fiery, proud, spirited temperaments. I kid you not. Admit it, Nickelodeon, this story is begging to be animated.