Neither Zuko nor Ralof spoke much during the walk to Riverwood. When they arrived Gerdur was sweeping her front porch.
"Hi sister, did you miss me?" Ralof greeted her from behind
Gerdur jumped slightly, since Ralof had startled her and then she turned around and said "Ralof?! What are you doing here?" Ralof opened his mouth to speak but before he could reply Gerdur noticed Zuko and added "Who's your friend? Wait, don't answer yet-"
Not that you've given us a chance to answer anything Zuko thought does this woman EVER breathe?
"Come inside first. What were you thinking running around dressed like that?! You must be freezing! I know I'm getting chills just looking at you."
Zuko glanced at Ralof…he didn't like this
"Go on lad" the man encouraged
Warily Zuko followed Gerdur into her house, where she immediately urged him to sit by the fire and get himself warm
Once situated Zuko had to admit he did feel a bit better, but he was keeping an eye on the door just in case he had to make a quick escape.
Ralof's stomach let out a loud growl
Gerdur laughed "I'm afraid dinner's not ready quite yet, but you can have some bread to hold you over."
Ralof eagerly grabbed the nearest bit he could find while Zuko politely declined…he wasn't entirely certain nothing was poisoned.
"So why are you here?" Gerdur asked
"Well, the imperials set up an ambush and we walked into it. We were badly outnumbered and Jarl Ulfric decided to surrender. They took us to Helgen and were planning to execute us but the city was attacked by a dragon-"
"A dragon…that would explain that thing I saw flying over yonder…but how can that be possible, dragons don't exist."
"I can hardly believe myself and I was there…actually its' thanks to that dragon that we're alive, we managed to escape in all the confusion."
Just then a man and a boy walked into the house
"Uncle Ralof!" the boy exclaimed excitedly "You're here! Can I see your ax; do you really know Ulfric Stormcloak? How many-"
"Whoa, settle down there Frodnar" Ralof said "all in good time"
The man however was focusing his attention on Zuko, he was trying to figure out what the boy was, clearly not an elf, Breton, or one of the beast folk, too pale for a redguard, too small for a Nord which meant an imperial but looking at him, that didn't really fit either
"I take it this is one of your comrades?" he asked
"No, not yet." Ralof replied "he's a friend; he saved my life in Helgen just now." Ralof answered
"My name is Zuko" Zuko said "Ralof's got it backwards; he saved me more than I saved him."
"Now that's not true" Ralof replied "If you hadn't incinerated all those imperials, I would've been cut to ribbons-"
"And you led me out of Helgen" Zuko responded
"So you saved each other's lives" Gerdur interrupted wanting the arguing to stop 'By the way, I don't believe we've been properly introduced, my name is Gerdur, I'm Ralof's sister, that's my husband Hod and our son, Frodnar."
"I'm Zuko, son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai" Zuko replied formally
"That's a weird name" Frodnar said
Look who's talking Frodnar Zuko thought
"Frodnar don't be rude" Gerdur chided her son and then she turned to Zuko
"So where are you from Zuko…you never did say"
Zuko looked at Ralof
"What, we did agree to a question and answer exchange didn't we?" Ralof asked
"Yes, but I doubt you'll believe what I tell you" Zuko said
Ralof chuckled "lad, after what I've seen today, I'll believe just about anything. Try me"
Zuko sighed "It's a complicated story"
"We have time" Gerdur responded
"All right, just don't ask questions until I'm done. "
The Nords all nodded, even Frodnar
"Okay, I come from a place called the Fire Nation…I am beginning to think its' another world or something because everything here seems so different."
Four pairs of eyeballs widened at that but no one spoke
"Anyway, I was fishing on my ship when suddenly a big fiery dragon appears in front of me. He claims that he's Agni and that there is something very important that I need to do but it will be very difficult and then next thing I know, I am on a cart with a bunch of people dressed in strange clothes, talking about strange things and I have no idea what's going on"
"Who's Agni?" Frodnar asked
"The sun dragon, guardian spirit of the Fire Nation" Zuko answered
"You mean Akatosh?" Hod questioned
"Maybe, he did say that he's been known by that name" Zuko remembered
"I see" Gerdur said slowly
"How are you able to hold fire, the way you did in the cave, I've never seen magic that looked like that?" Ralof asked
"I told you" Zuko replied slightly exasperated "It's NOT magic, I'm a firebender, it means I can use my chi to move fire when I want to." Then to give a demonstration Zuko tilted his head back and breathed. Fire came rushing out of his mouth until he stopped breathing and he lowered his head to look at the Nords
Silence was all that greeted him and then Frodnar spoke up "Awesome, do that again!"
"What's chi is that magicka?" Gerdur asked
"I don't know what magicka is" Zuko responded
"internal energy that allows people to use magic." Ralof explained "everyone has it and everyone can learn to use magic, though some are better at in than others."
Zuko thought about it for a moment "maybe…I don't really know much about this kind of thing." He wished his uncle was here, uncle would have a much better time figuring this place out than he did.
Then they were all distracted by the smell of burning meat.
"The ham!" Gerdur exclaimed and rushed over to the fire with Zuko right behind her.
Sure enough the ham was on fire which had been roasting over the fire was now on fire, not much just a little bit on the one end. Before Gerdur could do anything, Zuko breathed while motioning downward slightly with his hand and the flames went out.
Gerdur turned to him and said "I don't suppose you can…"
Zuko shook his head "I can't restore what has already been burned away."
"Then I hope you like your meat well done." She said and gave him an embarrassed smile.
She then motioned for Zuko to go back to his spot at the table so she could serve dinner.
Zuko decided that they probably wouldn't poison food that they themselves were eating so he decided to eat with them; he also decided that it was his turn to ask a few questions.
"So what's a stormcloak and what's an imperial?" he asked
"Well it's a long story" Ralof began "it's probably best to start with the imperials first. The continent we live on is called Tamriel. The Septim empire used to control the entire continent. However during the Oblivion Crisis 200 years ago, the Summerset Isle down south broke away and declared itself an independent country a while later they got Valenwood another southern province to join them-"
"Province?" Zuko asked hesitating just slightly over the unfamiliar word
"They're regions that share a somewhat similar culture and history." Ralof explained "Each is also historically home to one of the different races that live in Tameriel. Right now we're in Skyrim, the northern most province…it would be really helpful if I had a map to show you but oh well. Anyway Skyrim is home to us Nords, then to the west of us, there's High Rock ancestral homeland of the Bretons, below High Rock, there's Hammerfell, where the Red Guards live, and just to the South of us is Cyrodiil, capital province of the empire and homeland to the imperials that rule it…although the word imperial can often be used to describe officials and soldiers that serve the empire regardless of their actual race. East of Cyrodiil is Morrowind, land of the dark elves though not many of them live there now, since Red Mountain blew and buried it in ash. South of Morrowind, we come to Black Marsh, as its name implies it's mostly swamp and marshes, it's also home to the Argonians. Then south of Cyrodiil, is the desert region of Elsweyr where the Khajit come from. To the East of Elsweyr are the forests of Valenwood, home to the wood elves naturally and finally off the southern coast of Valenwood is the Summerset Isle, native region of the high elves. Got all that?"
Zuko nodded, though he really didn't understand what Ralof meant by races…the only kinds of races he knew of involved moving very fast towards a finish line but he didn't think that was what Ralof meant.
"Right so, when the Summerset Isle and Valenwood joined together, the Thalmor…the bastards who run the place called it the Aldermeri Dominion. Shortly after that, Elsweyr left the empire and joined the Dominion too…stop me if I'm going too fast for you" Ralof said
"Keep going, I can keep up." Zuko responded
"All right, anyway about 30 years ago. An ambassador from the Dominion showed up with a list of demands. First disband the Emperor's personal guard and intelligence force, the Blades. Second, cede southern Hammerfell to the Dominion and three, outlaw the worship of Talos."
"Who?" Zuko asked
"Talos" Gerdur began "Also known as Tiber Septim, founder of the empire, afterwards he became immortal and is now the god of politics and war."
"The altmer have never liked Talos" Hod added "they still haven't forgiven him for conquering them centuries ago. They also claim that it's impossible for a mortal to become a god."
"Well, that's stupid, everyone becomes a spirit when they die and everyone knows that." Zuko said
"Gods aren't just spirits Zuko." Hod replied after a brief moment's hesitation "They created the world, control the forces of nature and guide the destinies of all people."
"Okay, so they're great spirits" Zuko concluded
"Great spirits?" Gerdur asked
"Great spirits are the oldest and strongest of all spirits like Agni the Sun Dragon or Tui the ocean and his wife La, the moon. There other less powerful spirits but many of them don't have names. Ancestral spirits are the spirits of people who have died; they show up in dreams or at ancestral shrines when they want something from their descendants. You really should be talking to my uncle about this; he knows a lot more about spirits than I do."
"Gods and great spirits are close enough I suppose" Ralof said after an awkward silence "Anyway, the emperor refused to accept the Dominion's demands and so the Dominion launched a surprise invasion from the South. They managed to capture the imperial city but the empire rallied and drove them back. However, the emperor decided to 'negotiate a peace' but in reality he simply surrendered to their earlier demands. He sold the soul of our people to keep his precious throne. The treaty is called the White-Gold Concordant and it's a complete farce, everyone knows that the Thalmor won't be satisfied until all men are dead or enslaved." Ralof's voice was filled with scorn as he spoke
"…while the war was going the Forsworn took the opportunity to take control of the Reach."
Zuko looked confused
"Skyrim is divided into nine smaller regions called holds, each hold is ruled by a jarl-"
"I think I remember you saying that you serve a jarl Ulfric right?" Zuko asked
Ralof nodded "yes, as a Stormcloak, I have sworn loyalty jarl Ulfric of Eastmarch-"
"I thought Ulfric was the Jarl of Windhelm" Zuko interjected
"He is" Ralof said "Windhelm is the capital city of Eastmarch it's not unusual for people to identify Jarls by the capital cities they rule from rather than the proper name of the hold. Anyway, the Reach is the westernmost hold in Skyrim. The others are Falkreath, the Rift, Winterhold, Hjaalmarch, Whiterun which is the hold we're in now, Haafingar, traditionally the seat of the High King who rules Skyrim and the Pale."
"So who are these Forsworn?" Zuko asked
"Centuries ago we Nords conquered the Reach from the Bretons who live there." Ralof answered "The Forsworn claim to be descended from those natives who still keep their primitive ways, they view anyone who is not one of them and enemy. During the Great War most of our forces went south fighting with the empire against the Thalmor, the forsworn used that opportunity to seize Markarth capital city of the Reach and take control. The empire was desperate to retake Markarth they put out a call promising free worship of Talos in the city's great chapel of Talos if the city was taken back from the Forsworn. Jarl Ulfric raised a militia force and answered the call. It was an ugly campaign but ultimately Jarl Ulfric and his men won the city's freedom but the empire betrayed them. Almost as soon as order was restored in the Reach, the empire threw Jarl Ulfric in prison for worshipping Talos and gave them the Thalmor 'permission' to hunt down other worshipers of Talos throughout the empire and they don't bother with petty details like evidence and trials...they just declare people guilty of the 'crime' of worshipping Talos like the god he is then drag them from their homes and do who knows what to them."
"Eventually Jarl Ulfric was released. He then went to Solitude and demanded that High King Torygg call the empire to account for its' treachery. Torygg refused so Jarl Ulfric challenged him to a duel according to our ancient ways."
"Sounds like an Agni Kai" Zuko muttered softly but not too softly for Hod to hear him "Agni Kai?"
"A fire duel." Zuko said "Sometimes a dispute between two firebenders can't be solved with words so they fight each other to see who's right, who Agni sides with…people aren't supposed to die because you always have the option of yielding but sometimes things happen…" he trailed off not wanting to think about his Agni Kai with his father
"An honor duel" Ralof stated "We do the same kind of thing but normally we use axes. Anyway, Jarl Ulfric challenged King Torygg to a duel and Torygg accepted. They fought and Torygg was killed, the empire is claiming that it was murder and that Ulfric needs to be executed for it. When a High King dies without a named successor the Moot is supposed to meet and decide who becomes the next High King or High Queen. The Moot has nine members from each hold…usually those members are the Jarls themselves but Thanes-respected advisors to the Jarl- are eligible to serve as well, however the moot is contested. Jarl Ulfric should be king since he challenged and defeated the previous king in the proper Nord way but the empire claims it was murder and therefore as Torygg's widow, Jarl Elisif should be High Queen…of course the want her to be High Queen because she's their obedient little puppet unlike Jarl Ulfric.
Stormcloaks, then are those of us who have sworn loyalty to Jarl Ulfric and his cause-we are sworn to free Skyrim from the empire and the Thalmor alike so that Skyrim's people can once again live free and according to the ways of our people. The Empire originally gave us the name Stormcloaks to deride us but we have embraced the name. Storm for the fury we rain down on our foes, cloak for the cloak of brotherhood we all share and Stormcloak for the Jarl who will lead us to victory."
Zuko didn't say anything it was a lot to take in
"Gerdur, I'm worried about Riverwood. What are you going to do if that dragon turns up?" Ralof asked
"I don't know…we don't have walls to protect ourselves the way Whiterun does." Gerdur said softly
"We need to send a message to Jarl Balgruff, tell him to send some men down here." Hod stated
"But who…traveling is dangerous these days" Gerdur questioned
"I can do it. I know how to fight" Ralof offered
"Ralof have to go back to Windhelm, you're a Stormcloak, and your duty is there." Hod pointed out
That pulled Zuko out of his thoughts "I'll go" Zuko declared
They all looked at him "I need to find a way to get back where I came from, I don't belong here in Tamriel, I need to get home and I won't do that by sitting around here."
"But the roads are dangerous" Gerdur protested
"And so am I" Zuko responded to emphasize the point he punched the air and a bunch of flames shot from his fist and blazed briefly before dissipating
"It's the best plan we've got' Hod said
Gerdur didn't look happy about it but her face also showed that she knew Hod was right and then she turned to Zuko "You are welcome to stay for the night, if you like…we don't have any spare beds I'm afraid but we have plenty of spare furs you can use, or if you like you can rent a room at the Sleeping Giant here in town."
Zuko had found some strange looking coins in Helgen that he guessed were money but he had no idea if he had enough for a room. Plus it was probably better to save his money anyway…he could sleep on the floor, it wouldn't kill him.
"I'd be happy to stay with you for the night. Thank you for offering." Zuko said politely
"Oh not at all, you're a friend of the family now and friends are always welcome." Gerdur replied warmly
Zuko didn't really know how to respond to that…in his experience friends were only friends until you lowered your guard at which point they promptly stabbed you in the back.
Gerdur got up and laid a few furs down on the floor "is that enough or do you want some more?" she asked
"No that should be fine." Zuko said
"All right" Gerdur accepted "if you change your mind there's more in the chest over there." She said pointing to a wooden chest by the door "Feel free to help yourself"
"Good night then"
Zuko lay down on the furs and was surprised by how comfortable he felt…in fact he'd slept in real beds that were less comfortable than the makeshift fur one he was laying on now. Eventually he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning he woke at dawn (as firebenders always did) and saw that Gerdur was already up…she appeared to be sewing something.
"Good morning" she greeted "Breakfast is on the table, help yourself."
Like any teenage boy Zuko immediately went to the food…he had to admit this woman was a very good hostess. Shortly afterward Hod, Ralof, and Frodnar woke up and joined Zuko at the table. Gerdur however didn't begin eating until they were nearly done; she'd wanted to finish her sewing first.
"Delicious as always Gerdur" Ralof said once he was finished eating "Thank you."
"Anytime Ralof" then she turned to Zuko and handed him the clothes she'd been working on "I altered some of Hod's old clothes to fit you, I suggest wearing them under your armor, they'll keep you warm much better than what you were wearing yesterday. Armor is great for protection from weapons and claws but so much from cold…trust me, you'll need these when winter comes around."
"You mean this isn't winter?!" Zuko exclaimed
Gerdur laughed "no, right now it's' only the beginning of fall, winter is MUCH colder."]
Zuko groaned audibly. Then he examined the clothes they weren't red but they felt warm ultimately Zuko decided being warm was more important than national pride…especially in a world where the Fire Nation didn't even exist. He went into a corner to change and turned his back to the others and tried not to feel uncomfortable. There was only a bit of privacy possible in a house with only one room and NO privacy screens…and who had thought that was a good idea anyway?
Once Zuko had changed and gotten his armor back on, all five headed out the door. Once outside Ralof and Gerdur embraced each other "Take care of yourself" Gerdur whispered to him "Talos watch over you"
"You as well" Ralof whispered back
"Uncle Ralof, give those imperials hell from me!" Frodnar encouraged
Ralof chuckled "I will lad"
Ralof and Hod didn't speak but exchanged looks
Zuko hung back, not wanting to intrude on what was clearly a family moment, Gerdur then turned to him and handed a bag of supplies. Zuko opened his mouth to protest but Gerdur cut him off
"Don't even try" she scolded "you helped save my brother and you are helping us make sure our homes are safe…ensuring that you have more than enough supplies to reach Whiterun is the LEAST I can do."
Zuko had to admit that she was making a lot of sense and he WOULD need supplies so he strapped the bag on and then bowed politely to Gerdur, as was proper when departing someone else's home
"Thank you for everything madam" he said
Gerdur didn't really know what to do; she didn't want to embarrass Zuko so she very awkwardly bowed back and said "your very welcome"
"Word of advice" Ralof began "Don't do that. I don't know how things work in your country but Nords never bow to anyone…that level of respect is reserved for the gods. If you go around bowing you'll make people uncomfortable." Ralof said nothing for a moment and then seemed to come to a decision.
"I'll be coming to Whiterun with you." He declared
"I thought you said you needed to get back to Windhelm and report to Galmar?" Hod asked
"I did…but my first duty is to my family and my home, I have to be sure that you're all safe, I'm sure Jarl Ulfric will understand."
"No that's okay-"Zuko began but Ralof cut him off
"No, it's not okay. You're just a kid, a kid's who been dumped somewhere completely different than anything he's ever known-"
"I'm 16 years old!" Zuko yelled "I'm NOT A CHILD!"
"You're not an adult either" Ralof countered "You don't know this land or its' people, you need a guide or you're going to get yourself killed"
"You're wrong, I don't need your help, and I'll do this on my own!" Zuko declared and began walking down the road
"Zuko" Ralof said
Zuko ignored him and kept walking
"Zuko" Ralof repeated a bit louder
Again Zuko ignored him
"ZUKO!" Ralof yelled
Finally stopped and faced Ralof "What?!"
"Whiterun is THAT way" Ralof said pointing in exactly the OPPOSITE direction from the one that Zuko had been walking in
Zuko seethed inwardly for a moment and then stomped back and past the Nords glaring at Ralof all the while DARING him to say anything.
Ralof merely shook his head and followed after Zuko.