Chapter Thirty-Two Bitterness and Thunder
Evening had already set in by the time Z’Lé returned to the edge of the cavern. Arialla had stoked the fire to a massive blaze to fend off the cold that came with the darkness, and she could see from its light that he was keeping his weight off of one of his forelimbs. She would have gone to help him, had she not remembered what h’d told her earlier. Refusing to let go of what he’d promised to Métius decades ago, she turned away as he laid the remains of his prey on the edge of the precipice and limped into the cave. He laid down across from her near the fire.
“I brought you dinner,” he informed her.
Z’Lé watched her through the flames, hoping that she would say something. She would not so much as look at him. Her eyes were still red from her tears, and her cheeks and nose swollen from wiping away all the moisture. The dragon pulled a pack from his side, ignoring the pain in his arm as he moved. He laid it near her, then turned to look for something for his wound.
“It may not be what you’re used to,” he said as he pulled the head of arrow out of the gash on his arm. He tossed it to the floor and reached for one of the furs to wrap around it. “But it will help you feel better if you eat.”
As Z’Lé tore a thin strip of leather from the fur, Arialla turned her head to the pack. Her stomach had been growling for a while; the berries and dried meat from other pack hadn’t lasted for long. She’d considered refusing to eat, just to protest being there, but she was hardly sure what good that would do her.
Arialla pulled the leather bag closer and opened the flap. There were several clay food vessels inside, each with a matching lid, beneath a loaf of dark-grain bread and a few pieces of fresh fruit. She opened the lids to find steaming rice, aromatic stewed meat, and several other items that she wasn’t sure about the contents of. He was right; it was not what she was used to.
“Where are we?” Arialla asked, looking over to Z’Lé as he still struggled to bandage himself. The food had made her all he more curious.
“Thiizav,” he replied.
“Thiizav?!” Arialla exclaimed, rising to her feet. She knew that the kingdom he’d named was on the southernmost shore of Manastaecies. “You mean that we left Onsira– we’ve crossed over all of Enhar and passed beyond Jzamneh Forest?”
“Aye, my love.”
“But… why?” the empress asked, dumbfounded. “Why did you bring me all the way to the shadowlands?”
“I had to get out of the empire,” Z’Lé explained. “Métius was watching me too closely for me to speak to you in Onsira.”
Arialla blinked, then asked, “Yet you felt that coming here, where his worshipers are more common, would be safe?”
“He will not expect to find me here. We will be safe for a time.”
Z’Lé still hadn’t managed to tie the makeshift bandage around himself. Without a word, Arialla crossed the cavern, took the leather strip from him, and used it to fasten the rest of the fur over the bleeding gash in his arm. She tied it tightly so that it would stay secure until the bleeding stopped, then looked up at him.
“How were you hurt?” Her voice was even, almost stern, rather than concerned.
“The villagers were not happy to see a dragon raiding their village. I took what food I could before they started launching their arrows at me. Some are more used to fending off invading dragons than others, it seems.”
“So this was all stolen?”
“What else could I do, Arialla? As far as anyone knows, the Onsiran emperor is missing. I cannot pretend to be anything more than a common black dragon.”
“Yet you did spend all those years pretending to be an elvan nobleman, just to win my heart,” Arialla retorted, narrowing her eyes.
“It was out of just as much love as I am acting on now,” Z’Lé insisted. “I have to protect the kingdom that you welcomed me into, keflay divan, whether you want me to or not.”
“Protect Onsira…?” she asked, unsure of what he was trying to say. “From what, Z’Lé?” She stopped herself short of saying that her kingdom would be better off now that he was gone.
Outside, the wind rose until it blew past the cavern in a chilly torrent. Z’Lé sighed and, leaving Arialla’s question unanswered, crept to the mouth of the cavern. He peered up at the grey clouds that were gathering overhead until Arialla stepped up beside him at the edge.
“It rains for days in Thiizav, doesn’t it?” she asked him, worry making her voice quiver. “I’ve heard–”
“Of the terrible storms, yes.” Z’Lé looked down at her. “I should have gotten more food in that village.”
“How far is it from here?”
“I may be able to get there before the storm gains strength.” He looked back across the hazy sky. “Stay at the back of the cave, Arialla. If we are lucky, the storm will not turn to pour in while we are here. Once I have enough for us to eat, I will try to find us a deeper shelter.”
“You– you’re leaving again?” Arialla asked in disbelief.
“It is necessary,” Z’Lé replied, refusing to look at her.
As he leapt into the wind of the dark evening and took flight, Arialla got the feeling that it was not the first time that he’d deemed something necessary against his better judgment. She tried calling to him, reaching her hand out to stop him, but Z’Lé flew on. She could only watch him until he became nothing more than a patch of moving blackness in the night sky.
The wind built up as the hours passed, and went from a cold whistling to a deep moaning that filled the rocky buttes and the remains of mountain peaks shattered in ages past. Among the towering spires of rock, the rain began to fall, pattering down onto the brown and grey stone and the murky swamps below.
Arialla had tried to gaze out once again at the desolate landscape, but there was no light left to see by. She felt terribly alone in the shallow cavern where Z’Lé had left her. Sleep would not come to her, and all she could think of was that outside, as far as she could see, there was only more rock, and more murky skies; she had no idea how far she was from any village.
In that stormy darkness, alone with her exhaustion and the anger that she felt towards Z’Lé for what he’d done, her thoughts meandered through memories of their years together.When the elvan nobleman she was used to had come down from the mountains to attend the royal court, he’d been so regal, so charming, that Arialla had quickly become attracted to him. He’d had a sharp wit and an endearing smile, but also a stoic air about him that made him seem mysterious; she’d been curious enough that she’d spent more of her time with him than any other suitor. The others eventually saw that she was more interested in him, and only Mearrk’hal had stayed to try to change her mind.
Now she had a different view of her memories of Z’Lé. With everything he’d done with her, all the words that he’d used to woo her, he’d had in the back of his mind that one day he would have obligations to fulfill. Dark obligations, the worst promise he could have made. She thought back to their Kuetzarrin ceremony, and wondered if he’d remembered his agreement with Métius on that day. Or when Loracaz had been born. Had he spent the months before learning to love a baby that he’d yet to meet, fearing that years later he would have to give one to the Lord of Evil? Perhaps Zarrek had been more of a reminder to him; did he plan how he would take the child, how he would try not to love the next one while it grew in his beloved’s belly?
Those thoughts, the new light on her memories, quickly brought her more pain than she could bear. Arialla spent hours crying into the darkness, sometimes in despair at what she could have lost, others in anger at what Z’Lé had done, and still others in frustration that she’d been fooled by him for so long.
She must have fallen asleep without even realizing it, for when the black dragon returned to the cavern, Arialla was lying quietly on the pile of furs, her breathing calm and steady, her eyes restfully closed. Z’Lé covered her up to keep her from freezing in the cold of the night, then curled up at the back of the cavern. As the wind whistled and moaned outside, he laid his head down close to hers and closed his own eyes to rest.
He was awake again before the dawn came. Lightning crawled across the sky, followed by loud crashes of thunder that echoed through the crags and caverns. Icy rain was starting to shower the cavern floor, and Z’Lé knew that he had to find a warmer shelter before they found themselves in a freezing pool of water. The fire had died down to a soft glow, and he saw no reason to get it going again.
“Arialla,” he called out as he pushed himself up. His arm was still sore from the wound, and the cold only made it feel worse.
When she didn’t stir, he crept over to her side and shook her. The feeling of his claws on her body made her jump, and she squirmed away from him.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried out, eying him angrily as she remembered what had transpired the evening before.
Z’Lé backed away somewhat, eying the storm outside warily. “We have to leave,” he told her.
Arialla turned her back to him and pulled the fur closer around her body. “Go, then,” she said coldly.
He furrowed his brow in frustration and told her, “I did not say that I was going alone, Arialla. Climb onto my back and I will take you somewhere safer.”
“I will have nothing to do with you!” she shouted back, turning away from him.
With a low growl, the dragon crept closer to her, staring down at her as he explained, “I took you from Onsira to keep you out of harm’s way. I will not leave you here to freeze or take ill from the rain. Hate me as you will, but you cannot command me to abandon you.”
Arialla protested and spoke spitefully to him, but Z’Lé ignored it all. He caught her in one massive, clawed hand, wrapped her in the fur on which she’d lain, as turned to the cavern’s wide opening. The empress gazed down at the rocks and swamp below, littered as it was with the naked trunks of a scattering of long-dead trees, and felt her heart race. Reluctantly, she listened to his advice not to struggle as she felt his body leap into the cold air.
Z’Lé’s wings spread open into the shadowy morning, catching as much rain as they did air, scarcely holding himself and the elf aloft. The wind battered his body, threatening to send him careening down between the spires of rock, but he forced himself to fly higher, knowing what it was he endeavored to protect. He dove and rose between the current of wind as lightning lit his way unpredictably. They flew as far as they could through the narrow canyon, to the edge of its stone walls, where Z’Lé took to higher skies and glided down the other side. The trees there grew thick and tall there, and the wind was not so strong.
The dragon found an opening in the stone narrower than where they’d been before, and though it meant flying against the wind, he flew towards it. He landed near the opening, glacing briefly at the single scrawny tree that grew in the thin soil nearby as he crept through. The entrance gave way to a wider chamber, which his draconic eyes were able to recognize despite the darkness. Z’Lé released Arialla’s trembling body and searched his packs, soaked though they were, for what little wood he had left. He laid it in a careful stack near a wall that he knew would be safe from any rain that might invade the cavern, and lit it with his fire Zeah.
In the dim light, Arialla stared angrily at the black beast before her.
Knowing that no words would ease her foul mood, Z’Lé instead investigated the cavern that would be their shelter until the time was right to leave. There was a smaller antechamber dug out of the dirt, which the outer stone had given way to. He pointed out a long-dried nest of twigs and tall grasses. Around it was a scattering of jewel fragments and metallic flakes.
“This was a dragon’s nest not too long ago,” he told her, though she seemed disinterested. “There are still fragments of shell here; they look old enough the the hatchlings must have grown enough to fly out of here with their mother.”
“Will she not return to nest again?” Arialla asked warily; she worried that the dragon would be angry at their presence and seek to harm them.
“No,” Z’Lé answered. “Dragons do not nest again until long after their eggs have hatched, and none other would take her place. You will be safe here until we can return home.”
Arialla sighed and laid the furs across the nest to make herself a bed, on which she sat, refusing to speak any further. She cared not that he was protecting her now; he’d done too much harm in the past few months for her to accept it. Instead, she brooded in her frustration. She was leagues from her palace, lost in a distant kingdom that she had no wish to have visited. Her kingdom was in danger, and the one who’d invited Métius into it was the very same man– no, dragon who had kidnapped her.
He’d dared to speak of love to her; the fool! How could a beast, a black dragon, claim to have any love in his dark heart for an elvan princess? Outside, thunder roared across the sky as loud as she wanted to scream, as furiously as she wanted to demand to return home. Like the rain that poured down and the unmoveable stone of the mountains, Arialla’s heart held no love for him at all.