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August 25, 2014
Nearer and nearer to the border, the snow begins to thaw. Evergreen forests blanket the slowly shrinking mountains from valley to summit. The black rock and earth that was hidden beneath the snow retake the surface. Snow melt flows into brooks, brooks flow into streams, and streams flow into creeks hidden under the foliage of the valley. Jaro's heavy layers of clothing are taking its toll as the temperature slowly gets warmer, and he progressively removes some of the layers.
Late in the day as the group reaches the final bend of a pass, the Captain halts and waits for Jaro and Kharum to reach his position. He stands on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley below.
"Look ahead...can you see it?" the Captain says pointing in the distance.
Jaro squints. At the end of the long valley, he can see the rolling green hills of Ba Sing Se in a far different spring than what he is used to. It is a stark contrast with the black, coniferous covered mountains of the North.
The Captain smiles at the brothers. "Almost there."
As the sun slowly slips behind the mountains shrouding the valley with darkness, Jaro spots the final Marshal outpost on this journey. The fortified camp sits on a rocky outcrop hovering above the valley. The men stationed here are ever watchful for the day when Ba Sing Se decides to end their neutrality with Severnyy.
A huge, muscular man, standing seven feet tall, awaits the group escorting the brothers at the entrance to the camp. His face and bare arms are scarred from multiple encounters with beasts and bandits alike. The armor he wears, though the same as the other Marshals originally, has its fair share of chinks and scratches. It is a wonder why the man hasn't changed armor or at least repaired it. The man dwarfs his fellow Marshals as they pass by.
"Captain." The giant man pounds his chest with his massive right arm in a salute to his Captain.
"Yuri." The Captain returns the salute and stands by the man as the party continues onward.
The two brothers can't help but stare at the massive size of the man. The Captain, who is not much taller than Kharum, looks like a child next to the giant. As Jaro walks by with mouth wide open, Yuri breaks out into a loud laugh.
"So this is little Avatar." The giant man says with the accent of the people living in the far north of Severnyy (a Russian accent).
Yuri then reaches out and picks Jaro up at with little effort at all. He holds the stunned Jaro at arm's length to size him up. Jaro is completely terrified by the shear strength of the man whose massive hands have him firmly grasped by his upper arms. Not knowing what else to do, Jaro tries to squirm free.
"Hey, no squirming. You do not want me accidentally to crush you like sparrow-egg."
Jaro immediately freezes. There is no doubt in his mind that this Yuri character could do such a thing. Yuri laughs at him again, and sets Jaro back down.
"You are funny person, Avatar. Hahaha!" Yuri's bellowing laugh doesn't help but unnerve Jaro.
Jaro fakes a chuckle and slowly retreats from Yuri into the camp.
The Marshal camp is fairly simple but is highly defendable with the Marshals' quarters against and in the mountainside. Large wooden stakes protrude from the ground beneath the camp facing the valley below to defend against any possible assault. Behind the stakes is a wall of four foot high palisades surrounding the entirety of the camp. Inside the camp, there is a small, makeshift armory and also a small granary. At the heart of the camp sits a campfire with a pot hanging over the flames surrounded with open, flat space.
Hotaru approaches the brothers. "The men stationed here have prepared you two a space for the night."
Jaro and Kharum follow Hotaru into the Marshal quarters where he leads them to a room carved out of the rock with two cots placed in opposite corners. A single torch lights the square room. The brothers lay their things down and Jaro jumps into his cot with his hands behind his head.
"Dinner is ready at the campfire when you want it." Hotaru then turns and leaves the brothers alone.
Jaro's stomach growls at the thought of food. He places his hand on his stomach and turns to his brother, "I think now will do."
Around the campfire, thirty Marshalls sit eating and laughing. The men on look-out have bowls brought to them, but their post is close enough so that they are not completely out of earshot of any conversation at the fire. The men joke and tell stories to each other, most made up off the top of their heads. They are true believers in enjoying the little things.
As the two brothers emerge from the quarters, Yuri takes notice and points to Jaro. "Avatar! Come! Sit!" He pats the seat next to him with his massive hands. Jaro swears he felt the earth rumble.
Jaro gulps and walks cautiously to the spot and takes a seat. Kharum finds a seat next to Hotaru across from his brother. A bowl of steaming soup is passed to each brother. Jaro takes a bite.
"Is it good?" Yuri asks tilting his head. Jaro nods his head yes, broth dripping from his chin. "Good! Good! I made it myself! I wasn't sure if squirrel brain and goat brain would mix well together."
Jaro's gag reflex kicks in and coughs on his spoon in disgust.
"HAHAHA! I only joke! I would only mix squirrel brain with brain of small pig!"
Jaro looks as if he might faint. What?
A Marshal who is refilling his bowl tries to comfort Jaro. "Don't worry kid, it's just beef tips. Yuri may be the fiercest fighter in Severnyy but he's also the most humorous." Yuri downs his bowl and turns back to Jaro. "So Avatar, what village do you come from?"
"Ah Yedintsvo...quiet place...I myself hail from Borkushka where it gets so cold that you can use icicles hanging from your nose as arrowheads." The men laugh at Yuri's humor. For such a large and fierce looking man, he is quite gentle.
Jaro continues to try and speak but is interrupted again. "Ha okay, but I'm-"
"No, I'm serious...it was so cold once that if I had taken off my shirt, I could have used my nipples for spearfishing." All the Marshals laugh. Jaro shakes his head in a double take not sure if he's telling the truth or making an exaggeration.
"What?...ok?...but I'm not...I'M NOT THE AVATAR!"
All the Marshals stop laughing. Their faces become serious and all gaze at Jaro.
Jaro all of a sudden feels a lot smaller. "At least, I don't know if I am." The men's expressions haven't changed. "That's why we're heading to the Avatar Temple to figure out if I am."
The camp remains silent.
Yuri rubs his chin. "Listen, my friend. You are the Avatar. Trust me, I know these things."
"How could you possibly know that I'm the Avatar?"
Yuri puts down his supper and faces Jaro. His face and tone of voice become very sincere. "The spirits have blessed me with gift to know these things. Explain to me how I knew you were Avatar and not your brother when you arrived."
"Okay, how did I know the Captain was escorting the Avatar in the first place? Word does not travel quickly in the North. Why do I call you Avatar and not by your real name?"
Jaro is stumped.
"It is because you are. Plain and simple."
Hotaru reassures Jaro. "Trust in Yuri, kid. He has a gift for just knowing things." Some of the other Marshals around the fire nod their heads in agreement. Jaro looks around the campfire and then to his brother who smiles and nods his head.
Yuri pats Jaro gently on the back. "Always remember that just because you are the Avatar does not mean you have to work alone. You have your brother with you. You have us with you."
The Marshalls all nod in agreement and some of them drink to it. "Here here."
Yuri then gestures to everything around them. "And you have Severnyy with you."
Jaro gazes around at the Marshals. He then looks over at Kharum who again smiles at him and gives him a thumbs up.
Yuri, not wishing the scene to remain so grim, bellows to everyone. "Did somebody die? We don't get to live forever gentleman, there's no point in being serious all the time!"
All the Marshals show their agreement with laughter. One Marshal then begins to sing a shanty. The man sings of Severnyy and its origins and how no man can break the will of its people. He is accompanied by the rest of the Marshals at the appropriate choruses. Jaro can tell it's a drinking song for all the men are in merriment, toasting to each other between verses even though their drinks are no more than water.
The next morning, Jaro and Kharum are in the quarters preparing to leave Severnyy and head into Ba Sing Se lands.
Kharum finishes packing his things and slings his bag and quiver over his shoulder with bow in hand before turning to his brother. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah." Jaro stuffs his bag unceremoniously. "Do you think I'm the Avatar?"
"I honestly don't know...but I'm not ready to call Yuri a liar." Kharum changes his voice to mimic Yuri's accent. "Because he has gift for knowing these things." The two brothers chuckle. "But if he believes it with all his heart, mind, and soul then maybe you are."
Jaro smiles and nods his head. He slings his overstuffed bag over his shoulder and follows his brother outside.
The sun is just barely rising when the brothers emerge from the Marshal Quarters. Outside waiting for them are the Marshals wanting to wish the brothers well in their travels. At the forefront of the them all stands the Captain wearing simple midnight blue garments. Jaro and Kharum approach him.
The Captain starts. "From this point on you are now on your own. The Avatar Temple is a day and a half walk from here. Ba Sing Se is just an hour more. Kharum, stick to the map I gave you and you'll both be fine."
Jaro steps forward so that he can be better seen by all the Marshals. "Thank you for all that you have done for us."
The Captain smiles. "It was no problem, kid. Stay safe on your travels and always remember: Severnyy is the safest place for you if anything should go wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that your meeting with the King of Ba Sing Se is inevitable. So a word of advice: Do not trust the man."
Jaro, just wanting to get going, nods without question. "Okay."
The brothers turn around and head for the camp exit towards Ba Sing Se lands. Before Kharum can take two steps, the Captain puts his hand on Kharum's shoulder and turns him around. He stares Kharum straight in the eye.
He tells Kharum in a hushed tone, "Watch your brother with your life and remember right now what I'm saying to you about the King. He will kill your brother if he sees it necessary without hesitation. Keep this to yourself. No need to scare the boy when he already has so much on his plate as is."
Kharum in a heated stare nods.
"Your father tells me you are an excellent archer and a gifted air bender. Protect your brother with your abilities."
"Kharum! Hurry up!" Jaro is already at the edge of the camp when he sees his brother lagging behind.
The Captain nods at Kharum who turns and jogs to catch up to his brother.
"What was that all about?"
"Nothing." Kharum looks up into the sky contemplating the words the Captain spoke to him.
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