The first thing that Zuko became aware of was how COLD it was. He hated the cold, all firebenders did (they weren't very big on darkness either) some firebenders were so phobic about cold that they wouldn't even eat ice cream, Zuko wasn't that extreme but he was NOT happy with this.
A split second later Zuko realized that he was moving and it wasn't the same up and down motion that he'd grown used to onboard his ship. It was something else.
At this point he decided to open his eyes. When he did the sight that greeted him was strange. He was in a cart with some other people who dressed in some very odd looking clothes.
"Ah, so you're finally awake." One of the men in the cart said…his accent was strange, Zuko had been all over the world but he had never heard an accent anything like that one and the guy had yellow hair (AN: Anyone else notice that there are no blondes in the avatar universe or is it just me?) that was weird, he'd seen people with white hair but not yellow plus this guy looked like he was rather young to have gray hair.
"You walked into that imperial ambush too, eh?"
Zuko looked back at him, completely confused, he had no idea what the guy was talking about.
"That thief over there did to, got caught in the trap meant for us." The yellow-haired guy continued turned to the bound man beside him. Somewhat belatedly Zuko realized that all of the people in the cart were bound including himself. Certain that this had to be the weirdest dream he had EVER had he pinched himself…it hurt but nothing else happened
"Damn Stormcloaks" the guy muttered
Stormcloaks, what in the world is a Stormcloak? Zuko wondered
"Before you came along the Empire was nice and lazy. I could have stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell."
Empire, Hammerfell…the more these people talked the more confused Zuko got, he tried pinching himself again and again was rewarded with nothing but pain.
"We're all brothers in binds now thief." The other guy replied coldly
"What's wrong with that guy huh?" the thief asked looking at the guy beside Zuko as he spoke
Zuko turned to look at the guy beside him. He was a muscular looking man, bound like they were but he was also gagged, Zuko wondered why
"Bite your tongue!" the yellow haired man snapped
"You are speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King!"
Zuko racked his brain, trying to come with a place that had a high king but he couldn't think of one, he knew the earth kingdom had the earth king and several smaller cities had kings of their own. The Northern Water Tribe also had a king but he wasn't called a high king
"Ulfric Stormcloak?" the other guy said "They captured you?! Gods, where are they taking us?!"
Again Zuko pinched himself and again he was rewarded with nothing but pain
The yellow haired man ignored the guy beside him and turned to Zuko
"Judging from your clothes, I think it's safe to say that you're not from Skyrim…where are you from? A man's last thoughts should be home." He said
Zuko closed his eyes. Home was a sore spot for him…he couldn't go home and he missed it very much. He missed eating fire cakes, he missed being able to talk to people who didn't sound like the navy…about the only thing he didn't miss was Azula but even that wasn't entirely true. The two of them had been close when they were little and if Zuko was honest with himself he missed that. He didn't know exactly when they began to split apart but now it seemed they would never be close again.
"Hey, you all right?" the man asked after a long pause where Zuko didn't answer his question
"I'm fine" Zuko said "I don't want to talk about my home." he then very deliberately turned his face away
"Suit yourself" the other man said and then he turned to the guy beside him and said "How about you horse thief, where are you from?"
"Rorkistead, I'm from Rorkistead." He said
"Never been there" the yellow haired guy said "I'm from Riverwood myself."
Then they entered some sort of small village or town. It was walled like many earth kingdom cities but that was the only similarity. Most of the buildings were made in a simple, rustic looking style that was drastically different from anything that Zuko had ever seen. He didn't understand what was going on. Apparently he was in some place called Skyrim, where in the world was Skyrim…come to think of it what kind of name was Skyrim anyway?
"This is Helgen" the yellow-haired man said softly "I used to be sweet on a girl from here she used to make the best food…wonder what ever happened to her."
The horse (Zuko didn't know what a horse was, he'd of Ostrichorses but not plain old horses) thief began muttering
"Shor, Mara, Dibella, Akatosh…divines help me!"
Zuko didn't recognize the first three names but Akatosh did ring a bell. Agni claimed that it was a name that other people used for him, Zuko supposed that meant that divines were what these people called spirits and that Shor, Mara, and Dibella were some other spirits. He couldn't help but think it was rather stupid to bother asking spirits to help you, nine times out of ten, they ignored you and when they DID decide to answer you, they usually didn't give you what you asked for anyway. No, Zuko had no respect whatsoever for spirits…well, okay maybe he had a little bit for Agni but Agni was different.
A few minutes later, the cart came to a stop
"Why are we stopping?!" the horse thief asked nervously
"Why do you think?" the other guy replied the unspoken stupid practically shouted itself "End of the line"
They were pushed off the cart and in front of a man with a list
"Empire loves their damn lists" the blonde guy muttered next to him
Zuko tried to pinch himself one last time to try and wake himself up from this bizarre dream. Again it hurt but he didn't wake up…he wished uncle were here, uncle would know why the world had stopped making any semblance of sense.
"Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm" the man with the list called
"It's been an honor Jarl Ulfric" the yellow-haired guy said softly
'Oh great' Zuko thought 'something else that I don't understand'
"Lokir of Rorkistead"
"No!" the nervous guy shouted and he began to run only to be cut down by archers
Zuko shook his head, coward running never solved anything
"Ralof of Riverwood" the man called
Zuko saw the yellow-haired guy he'd been with walked over to stand next to the guy with the gag
Then the guy with the list turned to Zuko and asked "Who are you?"
After three years Zuko had learned full well that firebenders weren't exactly popular outside the fire nation but there was really nothing to be gained by lying, his scar would be a dead giveaway to anyone who knew much of anything about the Fire Nation so he braced himself or an explosion and said "My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai." To Zuko's surprise there were no gaps of shock, no looks of horror and loathing. The people looked rather confused...after a moment one of the soldiers (even though Zuko did not recognize their uniforms at all, it was pretty obvious that a lot of these people were soldiers of some kind) said
"He's not on the list-"
"Kill him anyway" a woman barked "he's clearly a lunatic and ought to be put down before he hurts someone."
"I am NOT crazy!" Zuko snapped, well frankly given the crazy things that were happening right then, there was a part of him that was doubtful about his sanity but his pride was not going to let some low-life hag talk down to him like that.
The hag however, decided to continue as if Zuko hadn't spoken "give them their last rites" she snapped at some other lady wearing a brown cloak.
"As we commend your souls to aetherius, blesses of the eight divines upon you."
Zuko immediately began feeling sleepy. Sermons did it to him every time; he thought that the fire sages could make a fortune offering their help to insomniacs. Fire sage sermon, guaranteed to put you to sleep in ten minutes or less, five or less in warm weather.
Abruptly he was jolted out of his stupor by a strange roar
"What was that?" someone asked
"Never mind, keep going." A male voice ordered
The woman resumed her speech and again Zuko began to feel himself getting drowsy but that didn't last long
A large black creature landed on top of one of the towers and opened its' mouth and a ton of flames came out.
Luckily for Zuko, he wasn't in its' path. He decided that now was the time to make a run for it. First he quickly used his firebending to burn the ropes that had been binding his hands.
He looked around and realized he had no idea which way he should go
"Hey, Scarface!" a voice shouted from behind him
Zuko turned around and saw the blonde man he had been on the cart with earlier
"Come on, this way!"
Zuko didn't appreciate being called Scarface, but he didn't have any better ideas so he ran over to the tower.
"Jarl Ulfric, was that really a dragon, I thought they were just legends." A man said
"Legends don't burn down villagers" a brown-haired man replied
"Well, legend or not we NEED to get out of here." Another one said
Zuko immediately ran up the stairs or more accurately he TRIED but before he got far the stairway collapsed
Zuko stopped just in time to avoid being caught up in the collapse. Quickly he turned to the hole beside him and jumped through it.
He ran a few paces and found himself face to face with the soldier who had been calling names from the list
"Still alive there?" the man asked him rhetorically "keep close to me, if you want to stay that way."
The man then began to run and again since Zuko couldn't think of anything better to do, he followed
Soon they ran into the yellow haired man from earlier, Zuko didn't remember his name Ray-something or other.
"Ralof you damn traitor, get out of my way!" the soldier yelled
"We're escaping Hadvar, and I am not the traitor here, the empire betrayed us when they sold us out to those miserable Elvin bastards." Ralof replied
Hadvar opened his mouth to respond but Zuko beat him to it "Look, I don't know what the heck you're talking about but this isn't the time for it, or did you forget about the monster that's trying to kill us?!"
Hadvar looked at him and said "You've got a point lad" then he turned to Ralof and snarled "I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovengarde"
Zuko didn't know what that was supposed to mean but he didn't care, he just wanted to get out of here…part of him found himself thinking longingly of his ship and his impossible task of finding and capturing the avatar…it seemed far more preferable than this bizarre place.
Both Hadvar and Ralof began urging him into the keep. Zuko didn't trust either of them, but he picked Ralof since he was closer.
Once they were inside Ralof said "I can't believe it, a dragon attacked us; they're supposed to be the harbingers of the end times."
"It can't be" Zuko shook his head "Dragons are extinct; uncle Iroh faced and killed the last one well over a decade ago."
"You're talking crazy talk lad" Ralof told him "Dragons ain't be seen for centuries…lots of people never even believed they were real to begin with. Anyway, you'd better take Gunjar's gear, he won't need it anymore."
Zuko did, he decided to equip the armor but not bother with the ax, he'd never used one of those in his life….if he used it, he would probably be more dangerous to himself rather than the enemy.
He had just finished putting the armor on when a female voice said "Get this gate open!"
It sounded like the hag from earlier. Zuko and Ralof looked at each other and then hid on opposites sides of the door
As soon as the imperials came through the door, Zuko hit them with a powerful blast of fire. That one blast severely wounded all three imperials. Then quickly before they could recover Zuko shot off three more quick blasts of flame and two of the imperials died, Ralof finished off the captain with his ax.
"What kind of magic was that?" Ralof asked "I've never seen anything like it."
"It's not magic" Zuko replied indignantly "It's firebending, it's an ancient art unique to my people and our culture."
Ralof looked at him but before he could say anything the tower shook as some sort of blast struck it
"Look, I'm sure you want answers from me and I KNOW that I want some from you. How about we get out of here and have a question and answer exchange afterwards?"
Before they left though Zuko grabbed the fallen captain's sword, it was a strange sword, perfectly straight not a curve anywhere…well to be more accurate the BLADE part was perfectly straight, the pommel had a circle on top just like his swords did. He swung it a few times and realized that using it would require him to adjust his technique, although this sword COULD cut, it was designed mainly to thrust and stab. He considered grabbing one of the other swords as well since he usually used two swords ultimately though he decided to hold off on that, first he needed to get a feel for using one of these kinds of swords in combat then he'd start using two.
"What are you doing lad? We need to go!" Ralof urged
"Sorry, I'm used to a curved blade sword; this straight bladed one is going to take some adjusting to." Zuko replied
"Curved sword?" Ralof repeated certain that he must have misheard, who in the world makes CURVED swords that was like making a square sweetroll, people just didn't do it. (AN: Note, Ralof has not yet encountered any warriors from Hammerfell so he doesn't know that there are people in Tamriel that make curved swords)
"Yeah, curved sword" Zuko said he was getting seriously annoyed with all this "Now come on let's go"
They went into the next room
"Quick, grab anything that might be useful, especially any potions you can find." Ralof ordered as he opened one of the barrels
'Potions?' Zuko thought dubiously 'what good could those be?' Still he grabbed a few because heck, the way things were going right now one of those potions might be able to heal a broken bone or some other ridiculous thing.
They moved on, in every room some imperials attacked them. Zuko didn't like it but he had to kill them or they'd kill him…frankly he didn't understand it, why weren't they trying to get away from the monster (Zuko still didn't believe that it was actually a dragon) and then kill each other later?
Eventually they came to some sort of torture chamber. Inside were a couple of Ralof's companions at least he assumed they were, they were wearing the same uniform.
"Ralof" One of them said "Is Jarl Ulfric with you?"
Ralof shook his head "No, I haven't seen him since the dragon showed up."
"He'll make it though; it'll take a lot more than a dragon to take down Jarl Ulfric" the other guy responded
Zuko meanwhile was picking the lock on one of the cages. Lock-picking was a skill that Zuko had acquired during his childhood, that and the ability to move without being seen. They were dubious skills for a prince to claim to be sure but they had helped him out a whole lot during his exile. Once he'd picked the lock, he grabbed everything that was in the cell.
Then the four men pressed on. The next hallway they entered was practically pitch black so Zuko immediately lit a fire in his hand and held it aloft to provide some light.
"How are you doing that?" one of the men asked
"Firebending" Zuko answered simply
"Firebending?" the guy repeated "don't you mean magic?"
"No" Zuko said shortly
In the next room they were ambushed by several imperials. For Zuko that fight was made even more awkward by the fact that his fire was the only source of light in the place and he had to keep it going, helpfully, Ralof stepped in to give him some cover. Eventually they defeated all of the imperials but Ralof bent over a bit clearly wounded. However he took out a red potion drank it and suddenly he was perfectly health again. Zuko stared in shock, he had never actually expected that healing potions really existed…this place was getting stranger and stranger by the minute.
They moved into some sort of cave or tunnel and immediately there was a cave-in. Ralof and Zuko were unhurt but cut off from the other two men
"Guys, are you all right?" Ralof called out to them but there was no reply
"I guess we're on our own then." Ralof said sadly
Zuko didn't reply. He knew what it felt like to lose a comrade and he knew that offering pity didn't help and oftentimes only made people feel worse.
Instead he said softly "We need to keep moving"
"You're right lad…hopefully it won't be too much further."
Soon they were attacked by giant spiders.
'Ugh' Zuko thought 'those have to be the most disgusting creatures I have ever seen!'
A little further onward they came across a sleeping bear
"I'd rather not tangle with her just now let's see if we can seek by." Ralof whispered to Zuko "Or you can take this bow if you're feeling lucky" He handed Zuko a bow and quiver of arrows
Zuko somewhat reluctantly took the bow, he had never been a very good archer and doubted that he would ever use it but he supposed it won't hurt to have one for the worst case scenario…which given his luck was bound to occur, it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when.
Zuko and Ralof managed to slip by the bear without waking her up. Shortly after that they stepped outside into the sunlight and Zuko extinguished his fire.
Ralof turned to Zuko and said "We'd better keep moving. This place will be swarming with Imperials before nightfall. My sister Gerdur lives in Riverwood, just down the road from here. We can talk there and hopefully get a meal besides."
The prospect of food clinched it for Zuko, he like most teenage boys tended to think with his stomach.
"All right" he agreed "lead the way" and the duo began walking down the road.