“Chains & Flames”
With a happy sigh, Rhiannon pushed the empty plate away and leaned back against the boulder. “All right,” she said while licking grease off each finger, “that was amazing.”
Bercelak smiled again and she was shocked his face hadn’t cracked. In more than seventy years, she’d never known the dragon to smile at anyone or anything. No matter what awards and treasure her mother bestowed on him or when others may have said something funny. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, princess.”
“What I don’t quite understand is…well… ”
“How you know so much about humans? You can cook like them. You know what they should eat. How they eat. What utensils to use.” They’d forgone the table when Bercelak couldn’t remember where he’d put it last.
Pouring more wine into her goblet, Bercelak confessed, “My father.”
She gasped. “Good gods, your father’s not a human?”
He shook his head. “Now that would be quite a trick… since humans and dragons can’t breed. No, princess, he’s not human. He just prefers human company.”
“He does? Why?”
With a shrug, “I don’t know. He just does. He thinks they’re interesting. And he loves the females.”
Rhiannon shook her head and grinned. “Your father has quite a reputation.”
“Aye. That he does. And he’s damn proud of it. It’ll be interesting when you two meet.”
She looked up from her goblet of wine. “Meet? Why would we meet?”
“I have to introduce you to him before I Claim you. He’s rather insistent on some of the Old Ways.”
“I don’t want to be Claimed by you, Low Born.”
He growled. Low and deep from his chest. She ignored the odd little bumps that spread across her human skin, praying it wasn’t some kind of strange human disease.
“Stop calling me that. I do have a name.” For a brief moment, he sounded like a cranky hatchling, rather than a feared Battle Lord.
“Fine. I don’t want to be Claimed by you, Bercelak. But it’s not personal. I don’t want to be Claimed by anyone. No one has Claim on me and no one ever will.”
“But don’t you want to Claim someone? Don’t you want someone to breed with and to call your own?”
“Not at all?”
“I don’t understand. There is so much passion burning inside you. So much desire. I see it in your eyes. You need to release it or you’ll become—” He stopped speaking abruptly and looked down at his empty plate.
“Like my mother?” His eyes slowly rose up to look at her. “You fear I’ll become like her? Trust me, Low Born, I’m making sure I never become like her.”
“But you already are. As surely as you sit before me now as human. The more you harden your heart. The more you cut yourself off from everyone and everything… ”
“Dragons were meant to be alone.”
“No. Dragons are social. We just don’t need to spend endless amounts of time with each other like humans. But you… they say you go to your den and aren’t seen for years at court or anywhere else. You don’t see your kin. You’ve seen no one since the death of your father.”
She winced at that. The one being she missed with all her heart was her father. He’d loved her. Cared for her. And protected her from her mother. But with him gone… she had no one.
Her siblings were petty and only wanted the throne or what they could grab from the Queen’s treasure. The other royals were not to be trusted. And the unclaimed dragon males did truly fear her.
“You’re young, Rhiannon. Much too young to cut yourself off from everyone and everything. What your mother did to you was cruel…but perhaps we should see the good in it. It forced you out of your den and into the world. The world you’ll one day be queen of.”
Finally, she looked Bercelak in the eye and said with all honesty, “Do you truly believe I’ll live long enough to be queen?”
Bercelak leaned back against the boulder he sat next to and placed his arm on the knee of his raised leg.
“Why would you say that?”
“She wants me dead. She’s always wanted me dead. Why do you think she sent me to you?”
Bercelak didn’t know whether to be insulted by that last statement or merely horrified. “What the bloody hell does that mean?”
“Don’t be a fool, Low Born. She’s testing your loyalty. Once you Claim me…she’ll expect you to either drag me back to her court in chains or to kill me.”
“That’s not true.” He shook his head. He refused to believe that could possibly be true.
“What? You think she sent me here because she thought we’d fall in love? That we’d look in each other’s eyes and have a beautiful and meaningful Claiming? Try again. I’m in her way. Since my birth, I’ve been in her way. When I was younger, I was just annoying. Now she despises me and wants me dead. And you… ” She gave him almost a pitying look. “She thinks of you as her pet. A well-trained war horse. Or some over-sized battle dog. And she’s dropped me right in front of that dog, completely defenseless, and left me. Hopefully to die.”
“And you actually believe I’d kill you on your mother’s orders?”
“No.” She looked weary. Exhausted. “But I wouldn’t put it past you to try and break me.”
“You’re not a horse, Rhiannon.”
“I know that.”
“Then why would you even think that?”
She let out a long breath. “Your reputation precedes you, Bercelak.”
His frown deepened. “Now what the hell does that mean?”
“Rumors of what you do to females once you have them here have circulated the court for years. I hear everything.”
He raised an eyebrow, even more intrigued. “Oh? And what are those rumors?”
“Forget it. This conversation is getting uncomfortable.”
“Forget nothing, Princess. Tell me what you’ve heard. And I’ll tell you if they’re true.”
“Fine.” She stared him straight in the eye and he adored how she didn’t back down from a fight. “Banallan the Gold said you kept her chained here for days.”
Bercelak grinned. He couldn’t help himself. “I did.”
Rhiannon’s body flinched the smallest bit and her brows pulled down into a brutal frown.
“But she wasn’t forced if that’s what concerns you. If memory serves, she enjoyed every second of it…immensely.”
Rolling her eyes, she snorted in disgust.
“What else, princess? What else has you so concerned?”
“Derowen the Silver.”
He really had to search his brain for that one. Derowen the Silver? Gods, it had been ages since he lay with a silver. “Oh. Do you mean old Gobrien’s daughter?”
“Yes. That silver.”
My, what was that tone in her voice? “Yes, I remember her. What about her?”
“One of my mother’s guards said he could hear Derowen screaming from nearly a quarter league away.”
“Aye. She was a noisy one. Fun…but noisy.”
“He said she sounded in pain.”
“Well, there’s pain…and then there’s pain.” He grinned at the expression on her face. “Anything else?”
“I heard what you did to the Argraff twins.”
“Yes. But I only had one. My brother had the other. Don’t ask me which. They both look exactly alike. Imagine coming from the same egg.”
She looked at him in horror. “Dark gods! You’re as bad as your father.”
Bercelak laughed outright at that. He hadn’t laughed so much in his entire life. Always so serious and intense, with much on his mind, this was the first time he ever felt he could relax. “Not in a million ages. There aren’t enough dragons in the universe to compete with him. No, I’d be forced to involve humans, elves and, rumor has it…centaurs.”
“I’m done with this conversation.” She stood up but he reached over and grabbed her wrist.
“Tell me, princess, what truly bothers you?”
“Nothing. But if you think you’ll chain me here and turn me into some broken dragon available at your beck and call, you’re as insane as my mother. I bend for no male, Low Born.”
“I have no desire to break you, Rhiannon. I like you mean.”
Copyright © Shelly Laurenston 2013