“You’re pacing again; not a very obedient slave, are you?”
Talons dropped upon the redhead’s shoulders, catching fire strands beneath their daunting weight. Yeva jumped, and she twisted to peer up and into silver eyes. A snake the color of desert cinnamon sat laced between her fingers like a living manacle and Azreal peeled away with a look of controlled distaste. His companion didn’t notice, and hugged the creature to her chest, “Sorry,” She lingered on the bodies being shuffled to the deck, craning her neck towards the sound of despaired sobbing. Chains clacked together and one of the slaver’s shouted orders. The crack of a whip bit the air.
In an effort to keep her focused, the Avriel lifted the collar he had brought, “You told me this was what you wanted.” Azreal brushed back a cloud of curls, exposing her unblemished neck and began to unfasten a clasp.
“It is!” Passion burned in her eyes, but she began to shy away, rubbing where his talons had lingered. The snake in her hands resided to knotting around one fist instead of two, “I mean… does anyone want to be a slave?”
“Shh,” he whispered, reaching down to press the collar to her throat. Now docked, citizens of Athart lingered on the shores, many swooped overhead to try and get the first glance at fresh product. They didn’t need to draw more attention than necessary, “Remember what we talked about.”
Azreal smiled and tapped her shoulder; a silent request for her to move her excessive locks. The heat had made her hair even bigger than usual, and she felt the slave garb tighten against her skin. She tried to scratch at it, which was received with a swat of her hand, and when it was secure, a silver chain followed, hooked by a loop on the choker’s front. He guided her gently towards the ship’s landing, but when the slaver’s began motioning them off the vessel, the Avriel made a show of scowling and cursing at her in cruel succession. Her brow furrowed - she didn’t like when he spoke to her like that - but their plan was the safest way into the city. She stayed quiet, focusing on the warm scales under her thumb and the beautiful greenery that permeated every inch of this place. Athart was lovely.
Her neck craned as they were escorted off the ship, the other slaves without obvious masters spat and scorned at. A rush of anger colored her cheeks, but Azreal grabbed her before she could speak. Sometimes he knew her better than she knew herself, “Keep walking,” he ordered under his breath, tone non-negotiable. His feathers tickled her and it reminded her of why they were here. She wouldn't be able to change an entire culture, but she could learn to understand it.
Together they moved around a castle structure and she struggled to see impressive guards eyeing her and the others with cool indifference, “Who are they?” Lining there wings were bits of armor that caught the light, like razor blades.
“What are they doing?”
“Watching the humans.”
Yeva slowed, looking up at Azreal, his face covered in shadow from the sun that illuminated behind him, “Why?”
He said no more and took her forward, where a group of physicians inspected new arrivals. They waited in the heat, the humid air sticking to her skin. Azreal raised a hand and a medic called them over.
“Name?” he looked at her, but Azreal spoke, replying in a language she had never heard before.
“History of illness?”
Azreal glanced at her, “None."
Azreal frowned and wrapped her chain around his knuckles, “No.”
The medic nodded and continued on as normal, “Open wounds?” he scribbled on his parchment and then began to circle the woman. He poked and prodded, then looked into her mouth and eyes.
Azreal shook his head, “No.”
“Good. Your property?”
The medic tucked the quill behind his ear and waved them through after reciting similar questions (or so she assumed) for her partner in crime. A flurry of unclaimed slaves awaiting the auction block were still jostling and the medic had work to do. Once the health exam was completed, Azreal guided her away from the ruckus, “We need to get you documented and a registered in the human sector.”
“I’m not staying with you?”
Azreal laughed, “No, you’re not allowed.” It would be nice to have a bit of privacy and independence, but in a place where humans were treated so poorly, it made her worry, “You wouldn’t be able to leave when you wanted. There’s no entrance for grounders.”
“I hate when you call me that.”
“But it’s true. Where are your wings, little red?”
Azreal grinned, but he tugged on her collar, “You should learn to not order me in public.”
It was an effort not to huff, “Just let me stay with you-”
“You promised to keep me safe! How will you do that if you’re so far away?”
Azreal growled and then turned sharply, up a cobblestone road that lead past buildings of stone topped with rich flowers and ivy that licked the windows of shops. More shadows swooped across the soil and she stumbled, catching herself after her boot smacked an uneven stone. Azreal made sure not to help her up, the incline increasing the further they went until the road ceased and she was practically climbing up the hill. Her chest heaved with effort and she clutched a patch of grass. Azreal took to the sky, the wind currents from his flight a welcome sensation, “Keep going.”
Yeva gritted her teeth and continued her climb, the pain in her calves growing. Refusing to tell Azreal was right, she slipped her snake around her neck and used both hands to drag her upward. She continued to grip on the foliage and bits of jutting stone the more vertical her environment became. The buildings around them had lessened and the soil became splintering rock.
She looked ahead, seeing the top of the hill, and pushed herself harder, dragging herself onto the peak. What she saw stunned her, and Yeva gave a choked laugh of disbelief.
“Welcome to the Forest of Stone.” he repeated the name again in Lorien, landing beside her. She would need to learn the language.
The hill dropped into a great cavern, seemingly endless, with natural pillars that kissed the clouds. Stubborn jungle trees curled around them and sprouted from their tips, each pillar carved with caves turned to natural residence. She leaned forward and peered at the ground. No humans walked at the bottom that she could spot. Yeva remained quiet, taking in the view.
“See the problem?”
She did, of course. There would be no way for her to reach Azreal’s cave, or leave if she needed to. More than likely, she’d fall to her death or cross an Avriel whose opinions of humans were not so generous, “Which one is yours?”
“That one,” he pointed a sharp talon to a pillar in between two others. Yeva leaned closer to look down his arm, but was still unsure to which one he pointed to, “That cave, third from the top. See the tapestry?”
“Yes.” she grew quiet again, and then turned, “Alright, let’s go.”
Azreal’s relaxed expression chanced to one of inscrutability, “What?”
“We have to,” she argued. “We came this far.”
“It was to prove a point.” he hissed, his head feathers rising as his tone did, “I'm taking you back.”
“No, you're not.” she laughed, slipping under his arm and wrapping around him. Yeva might have worn the collar, but Azreal was the one who listened. She began leading them to the edge. “C’mon, let’s go.”
If he wasn't sure the answer before, he was now. She was crazy, “Aren’t you scared?” He wasn’t confident he could carry them both. Humans were denser, but she was small.
This drew his silver eyes down and a wicked grin drew across his face, “Really?"
Without warning, Azreal grabbed her and jumped, laughing as the small woman screamed.