posted August 16, 2009
Zuko's rage grew with the infection ravaging his arm, festering and spreading as the journey stretched, threatening to consume him if he didn't do something. Around him, the warriors – savages – took no notice, giving him food and water at times and otherwise ignoring him. Twice, they rinsed the wound with seawater, the sting of salt making Zuko grit his teeth and strain against his bonds.
Time slipped by like water past the canoe as Zuko felt himself weaken. The grey seas lay endless around them, broken only by other canoes and islands that loomed suddenly from the waves before vanishing again into cloud. He fell into meditation or delirium often, but the chants of the paddling warriors, the steady drumbeats, and the wailing of other captives followed him even then. The attack swam in his memory: eerie cries and fierce painted faces, the blue-eyed man Zuko had choked the life from as blood darkened the water, the stern but laughing chieftain who hauled him to his feet, bound his hands, and threw him into the canoe.
Days – hours? weeks? years? – later, Zuko felt himself pulled from the canoe. He stumbled onto a beach strewn with stones and looked up to low wooden houses painted with fierce patterns, eyes that saw his every thought. Shrieks of excitement rang in his ears as families reunited; his vision swam as warriors stooped to hug children. Zuko tried to shake the sight away, the day too bright and too dim to see as chills racked his body.
The chieftain shouted behind him just before two warriors seized his shoulders and dragged him up the beach and across the rocks. Every step jolted his arm and Zuko struggled to keep himself upright, to avoid being pulled like an animal even if he could hardly stand on his own. They shoved him towards the largest house and pushed him through the narrow opening, the mouth of the painted monster on its face.
Inside was dim, light filtering in from an overhead smoke hole and emanating from a central fire pit. Zuko blinked, dizziness washing over him again before the warriors shoved him to his knees. A crowd gathered around him and Zuko heard the laughing chieftain address them, his voice rising and falling to a cadence. The words were meaningless to Zuko until he caught one from the coastal trade jargon that echoed in his ears and froze his blood in his veins.
He struggled then, the pain in his arm pulsing and blood pounding in his head, but the warriors easily pushed him back down so that he saw only feet surrounding him, soft chubby feet of children, broad dirty feet of warriors, slender feet of women.
One pair of slender feet detached themselves from the crowd to move towards him, stopping a step away. Zuko struggled to raise his head and the warriors gripping his arms released him as he straightened, looked up into blue eyes and a concerned face. The woman looked back down at him, sympathetic and regal, and said something scathing to the chieftain before she reached out to grasp Zuko's chin and study him intently.
Zuko narrowed his eyes and stared back, then sucked in his breath as one of the warriors jostled his arm. Blackness swam across his vision and the woman turned away to bark orders at the surrounding crowd. She turned back to him and Zuko watched her warily, but her attention was on his arm. She reached for it and he dodged to avoid her grip. She frowned.
"Give," she said in the trade jargon.
He remained still and she met his eyes. He saw challenge there, and irritation beside compassion. "Give," she said again, and one of the warriors pressed a blade to the back of Zuko's neck, the pressure enough to threaten but not cut.
Zuko hissed, but extended his arm. The woman examined it, then gestured impatiently to the crowd, repeating her orders. She turned back and waved at the warriors behind him. The pressure on his neck vanished, but when her hand returned to his view it held a long knife, coarse metal glinting in the dim light. He tensed, intending to fight – he would never give up without a fight – but before he could move, she cut through the ropes binding his wrists.
The woman lay the knife aside as a girl struggled through the crowd, carrying a water bucket – no, a basket, its seams sealed with dark pitch. A second girl followed with an empty basket. The woman dipped her hand into the water and to Zuko's surprise withdrew it in a shimmering glove. She met his eyes again and somehow Zuko knew that she asked permission. He nodded, and she brought her hand and the water to his arm. Coolness flooded the ragged wound, soothing it, and Zuko felt the throbbing, the burning recede.
A healer, he realized, and relaxed as fever chills retreated and his mind cleared. The woman smiled and smoothed water along the length of his arm, over the angry red tracks across his skin, drawing the infection away and sealing the wound. She floated the soiled water into the empty basket and turned back to Zuko with fresh water rippling over her hands. The raw welts around his wrists faded beneath her touch before she raised her hand to his cheek, her fingers cool like the sea. The water trailed away, taking the ache of bruises with it and Zuko shook his head as the lingering confusion vanished. He looked up again to see the woman watching him.
"Hurt where?" she asked, gesturing at his other arm and legs, and he shook his head. She lifted an eyebrow, the expression quizzical, and raised her hand again. He stiffened as callused fingertips traced over his skin, over the ripples of scar around his eye. He struggled, trying to turn his head, but the warrior gripped his shoulders and barked a meaningless command. Zuko barred his teeth and growled like some stupid, trapped animal, and then the woman uttered a soft comment and his attention shifted to her eyes.
"No hurt," she said clearly in the trade jargon. "No hurt," she repeated, tapping his cheekbone. "Good." She leaned back on her heels, watching him, then gestured again. "Hurt where?"
"No hurt," Zuko muttered. She arched her brow, then shrugged. She gripped his chin again, her touch gentle but firm as she studied him, then she leaned back and rolled to her feet and brushed her hands on her woven skirt. Without thinking, Zuko reached out and grabbed her wrist. The warrior behind him barked an angry word, but Zuko ignored him and the woman gestured dismissively, watching Zuko with curiosity. "Thank you," he said, the word harsh and guttural and rarely used in the language of trade.
She tipped her head to the side, a faint smile on her face, and it struck him then that she was attractive, beautiful, even, in a fierce, foreign manner. He stared back, meeting her gaze with challenge, and watched her smile deepen as she understood his defiance. She reached out again to tip his chin up with her fingers and opened her mouth as if to speak, but two young children burst from behind the circle surrounding them and ran to her, hugging her knees and chattering. Her attention shifted and she turned, shaking her wrist free of his grasp and guiding the two children away. She called over her shoulder to the warrior standing behind him, then vanished into the gathered crowd.
Zuko watched them go, aware of warriors conversing behind him as the crowd turned away. At length, they hauled him to his feet and pushed him towards the end of the lodge. He shrugged their arms away and walked to the narrow door himself.
The laughing chieftain waited outside, speaking with a small group of men. He looked up and Zuko saw him assess the smooth skin of his healed arm, then nod in satisfaction. "Good," he spoke in the trade jargon, then pointed at Zuko. "You. Slave to house." He gestured to the lodge behind them.
Red horror poured into Zuko's vision. His fists clenched, broken fingernails cutting into his palms.
He stepped forward, hands moving up to fight, but the man laughed. "You," he said again, thumping Zuko in the chest, the gesture almost affectionate. "You kill sister's husband." He turned his head to spit on the ground. "He worthless," the chieftain said, wiping his mouth, then clapping Zuko on the shoulder. "Now, I give her you."
Anger bled into confusion and Zuko stared while the man laughed, amused by some unrevealed joke. He quieted, then tapped himself on the chest. "Sokka," he said clearly, then thumped Zuko on the chest and raised an eyebrow in query.
Zuko turned away, refusing to answer, but the chieftain laughed again. "Good match," he said, and slapped Zuko's back in the way of friends. "Now," he continued. "Learn. You Water Tribe now."
Author's Note: Just a drabble, in answer to a late night rhetorical "Why is Katara the only one to ever be captured and given as an exotic slave?
Revised October 20, 2010