CHAPTER FIVE

This time, Brageldr lead her to a part of the caverns she had not yet seen; his sleeping chamber. Phosphorence glowed greenish white along the walls that glittered with crystal. Soft sand lay in drifts along the floor. And against the far wall bubbled a pool of molten rock, casting a warm glow and throwing heat.

Brageldr settled onto a pile of sand, circling to find the most comfortable spot. "Come," he beckoned with a hooked claw. "Sit and I will tell you the story of your capture."

She settled against an outcrop of rock in front of him and waited.

Brageldr sighed, looked at his claws, then at her with his glowing lantern eyes, and began.

"I was not always thus. Once I was a monster. I found this valley, hidden away from humans so that I could cease to be a monster. And I did. But this valley was hidden for a reason. It is special. But your father found a way into my sanctuary. And he stole from it. So he promised me payment for his theft."

"What did he promise you?" Ingerith asked, curious and a little afraid.

"You," Brageldr said simply.

"What?!" she cried, incredulous that her beloved father would so easily promise her away.

Brageldr saw her aura flare in fear and confusion and betrayal. "It was I who set the terms of payment," he said. "Your father despaired to give you up."

"Why?" she demanded, hurt and confused.

"I do not know – it was an impulse," he sounded rueful, "I thought you would be a child."

Ingerith still looked shocked by the revelation, "So you came to take me?"

"No," Brageldr heaved a sigh. "I came to threaten again, or to collect payment. But you attacked me and I reacted. It was not what I had planned. And you were not what I expected."

"How did you know I was his daughter?" she asked, softer now.

"I..." he paused, thoughtful, "I don't really know. I think perhaps it was the look on his face as I left – he was the only one who did not look afraid, only very, very sad." A thought occurred to him, "Why was your mother not sad?"

Ingerith let out a bitter little laugh, "Because she is not my mother. My mother was a thrall, but Father still loved me and took me as his own. Gunnhild did not like that."

A low rumbling noise made her look up in surprise – was Brageldr growling? He was certainly flexing his claws.

"Did she mistreat you?" he asked quietly.

"Yes and no – she did not beat me, but her words cut me all the same," Ingerith sighed a little and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Maybe it is better that you took me," she whispered. Brageldr did not know what to say to that, so he laid his head on the floor and simply looked at her, glowing eyes unblinking.

Ingerith buried her head in her arms and started to cry, softly, but deeply, as if her heart were breaking. Brageldr could feel the swirl of her emotions – fear, anger, despair, loneliness, sorrow, longing – and how much she simply missed her father and the only home she had ever known. Before he even knew what he was doing, he got up and curled himself gently around her – not touching, but simply being a warm presence near her.

Ingerith heard the soft scrapings but until she felt the heat coming off of him didn't think he had moved. The surprise of the gesture broke her crying. She sniffled softly, frozen in place. Then, thinking how nice it would be to touch another living thing, even if it were a dragon, she slowly leaned back until she was leaning against him. He was warm, even if his scales felt odd – solid, but not hard. She didn't mean to, but before she knew it, she had drifted off to sleep.

Brageldr froze the moment she had touched him. He felt her body relax against him, then felt her consciousness drift off as she fell asleep. He didn't know quite what to make of this person – this young woman who by throwing herself at him threw herself into his life. A life he had thought was never going to change. Then, he remembered what Try and Freya had said – to love and be loved in return, that would break the spells on his eyes and body – could this fearless, flawed girl be the key? No. He ruthlessly shoved the thought out of his mind. She could never love him – no woman could. That was Freya's trickery. He sighed sadly. But that did not have to stop him from loving. Maybe. He looked down at her small form, so soft and vulnerable. He would keep her from harm, he decided. She did not have to love him, and he did not have to love her, but he would protect her from whatever person or thing tried to harm her. He and others had done enough damage to her life – he would not allow any more.

With that resolve firm in his mind, he curled his neck to make a protective circle around her, then closed his own eyes and went to sleep.