A Mythical Thing
I'm begging for you to take my hand. Wreck my plans.
Summary: A creature of scales and shadows lurks just beyond the woods. Watching.
For a priestess bathed in light and the shimmering bond that tethers them together.
A moment of impulsivity drives them together, wrapping them in fates golden ribbon.
Azriel will do anything to make her his.
Read More: AO3
beta'd by @velidewrites
CW: Dragon monster (more like shifter); past mentions of SA; human men.
Gwyneth Berdara had always been warned not to walk the woods. Not alone and especially not at night. It was a warning she’d heeded her entire life given that terrible, lurking beast had a taste for the flesh of maidens. As a priestess, Gwyn was expected to never take a lover, to never know the touch of a man. It made them all nervous that one day the monster might realize the temple at the edge of the realm was filled with nothing but maidens.
A veritable feast to be had.
But then he was found, paraded back into the city with a massive chain around his throat. Gwyn had watched, hidden beneath her hood. She’d expected a terrifying, scaled beast…not a man in irons walking to his death. They said he’d defiled the last woman, had impregnated her. Gwyn heard the rumors that the woman had liked him, that the two were in love.
She’d seen the agony on that man's face when Lord Nolan taunted him before everyone that they’d find the missing woman. That they’d drag her back and remove the creature living in her body. How he’d remained utterly still, dressed only in a pair of loose fitting pants. His body was so strangely scaled in shimmering orange and gold, his eyes the oddest color of red and brown.
Gwyn liked to think she knew what love looked like. Nolan was devoid of it.
The monster was filled with it.
And that night, Gwyn decided to take the first walk she’d ever had outside the walls of the temple. Moonlight peeked through the snaking tree branches overhead, devoid of their usual greenery as winter approached. Gwyn went too far that first night, drunk on her own success. The monster loved the woman they’d sent him and, to hear it told, had released the rest.
Perhaps the only monsters were just the trees and this shifting, slipping shadows. It had been those grappling, creaking hands that tore at her cloak. The shredding material sent her running back for the walls, heart pounding desperately in her ears when she slammed the gate loudly behind her.
Tendrils of night seemed to drape themselves around her, curling gently against her moon pale skin. She turned her head, a friendly breeze ruffling the copper brown of her hair until it was pushed into her eyes. There was nothing out there but the men from the city, hunting down a terrified, pregnant woman. Gwyn wondered what it was like, to be so sure of something you’d turn your back on your entire way of life just to keep it.
And with a breathy sigh, she walked back to the arching silver doors of the temple. No one was awake save for her. Everyone else was a creature of the light the way their Mother Goddess demanded. Gwyn had tried. For fifteen years, she’d tried so desperately to be what was expected of her. Gwyn suspected she was the outcast because of the circumstances that had seen her dumped on the doorstep of the temple.
Living alone with just her sister had painted targets on their backs. Catrin had fought back but Gwyn…Gwyn had allowed those men to touch her, to do whatever they wanted while she squeezed her eyes shut and prayed it would all be over soon. That she would get through it. Too late and too often, Gwyn wondered if she’d fought back if those men would have let her join her sister.
Catrin was buried at the base of the mountains in the village she’d grown up in. She’d been given a proper burial by a populace more willing to mourn a dead, martyred woman than the very real living one who was now alone. The men were never punished but Gwyn was.
She’d been little more than a child, and yet she’d heard the way the older women spoke about her and Catrin. Women. Seductresses. Temptress.
She’d been thirteen.
Gwyn sighed, taking the steps up the winding tower to her bedroom. If the other priestesses had experienced anything similar, they’d never said. Everyone knew about her. She was safe, if that monster ever invaded but Gwyn liked to think that the creature could tell the difference between willingly handing something over and having it stolen from you. Even before she’d learned he was only a man, Gwyn had thought he might kill her, too.
That she could join Catrin and find some measure of peace.
Gwyn went out the second night and then the third. She considered, tramping against the dead, rotting leaves that were damp from the rain they’d gotten that morning. The earthen smell of autumn warred with approaching winter while that teasing wind greeted her with another playful ruffle of her hair. Gwyn’s steps were bouncy as she basked in the waning moonlight. There was no one out here to admonish, to call her Gwyneth in that disapproving tone.
Gwyneth, don’t sing while you do your chores
Gwyneth, why are you smiling during service?
Gwyneth, where are the scrolls I asked you for—
She grinned now, face tilted towards the sky. Opening her mouth, Gwyn sang the same song from that morning without worrying someone might overhear. Only the trees would witness her. She felt free, untethered and unbound.
Happy, without that usual guilt that she shouldn’t, that she was betraying Catrin somehow, by finding joy when her sister could not. Out here, it was easy to hear Catrins voice urging her to indulge a little. Catrin had always been like that. Gwyn had been studious—serious, given how absent their mother was—and Catrin had been fun. In her darker moments, she often thought it was a tragedy she’d survived and Catrin had not.
Catrin wouldn’t have stayed in the temple. She would have done something. She would have figured out how to move on, to keep laughing, smiling—living. Gwyn’s voice softened, her emotion threatening to overwhelm her. The song changed to a familiar tune sung often in the villages.
Gwyn’s steps took on a life of their own, pulling her towards a denser patch of trees where even shadows couldn’t penetrate. She went, if only to prove to herself that she could. That some small, tiny part of her wasn’t scared. There was nothing, she told herself. Only the dark, only night.
A soft snuffling stopped her the second she was enveloped. The leaves beneath her feet shifted as though something heavy dragged over them. All at once her singing died, her body utterly rooted into place.
“Hello?” she whispered. Silence was the only sound save for the soft, panting breath. She wasn’t alone anymore. Gwyn didn’t move, afraid if she turned and ran the thing would give chase.
Wide eyes cut through the dark, hazel and as bright as stars. She had a sense of this beast now, of the creature’s unfolding wings that made him sing twice as big as the forest itself. He raised himself upwards, tail sliding closer towards her. Gwyn’s heart was in her throat.
She’d been warned, hadn’t she?
Gwyn opened her mouth to scream, turning to run. The monster grabbed her, pulling her close against his warm, dark scales. His wings extended even further, betraying the sheer size of him as a thing so big it didn’t seem possible he’d ever been able to hide here. As he took to the air, Gwyn noticed his scales seemed to shift the most peculiar shade of wintry blue. She reached out one trembling, terrified hand and touched.
He bellowed in response, a ring of fire igniting the world beneath them. She exhaled a breath.
And if she drew another, she didn’t know.
Darkness overtook her, dragging her into the blackened abyss.
He hadn’t believed Lucien when he showed up with the female claiming her as his mate. Gold ribboning her neck, belly filled with child and still Azriel had assumed him to be a liar. Tired of waiting for a female of their own kind to show up, he’d merely bent the magic to his will and taken a human instead. And though Azriel was certainly curious, he hadn’t truly thought he had a mate, either. Like so many other males that had agreed to fight with Cassian, he’d decided to see the woman.
Perhaps cajole one into joining him as a pseudo-mate. It wouldn’t be the same and yet better than centuries of loneliness. If nothing else, he’d told himself he’d get to punish the mortal males that were responsible for the slaughter of his people. That had been reason enough to don his armor and hide among the trees, waiting for the prince to offer a command.
It had been her singing that had drawn him away from the ranks. He’d crept closer, swearing he was only curious as to the sort of female that would wander the woods alone at night. He didn’t think the humans were that brave, not when they were so afraid of Lucien, of all people.
Standing in a patch of moonlight, Azriel had felt that snapping oof, had inhaled her bright scent and had just known.
The smiling, fragile little thing belonged to him and was, without even meaning to, wandering towards an army of males who had likely never seen anything half as beautiful as her. He’d panicked, snatching her up and bellowing a warning when Cassian came chasing after him. He still felt that wildness, that urge to claw out the throat of any male that came too close to the now sleeping human female in his bed.
Azriel didn’t know what to do with her or even how to explain why he’d just kidnapped her. It was all wrong, he mused, but perhaps not unsalvageable. From what Elain had said, humans didn’t know they could be mates—had no concept for it. Perhaps, though, if he explained, she would understand why he’d taken her.
If he offered her a little token, something pretty and small, she might not be so afraid when she woke up. He was torn between leaving her in his home, an isolated cabin at the far end of the mountains. No one but his own kind could get to her up here and, at least for the moment, they were occupied with their war with the humans.
Azriel took one last look at his mate—beautiful, with her long, coppery brown hair and her freckled, pale skin. She was draped in soft blue and he wondered what his own shade might look like imprinted over her skin. If she’d be ribboned like Lucien’s mate was or if it would show up in some other way. Azriel swallowed.
There would be time for it.
He didn’t want her to fear him. More than anything, Azriel wanted to see her smile at him, to sing for him. He wasn’t stupid. He knew she’d cry if she woke and he was pacing like a monster, demanding she accept him as her mate without doing any of the work that was required to make a mate feel safe, loved, or cherished.
Heart lighter than it had been in centuries, Azriel stepped into shin deep snow and took to the skies. He wished he knew what she liked. As he made his way to his own city, cut against the tallest mountain, Azriel decided to just get everything he could think of. Shining baubles and clothes and books and jewels were shoved indiscriminately into a bag. His people loved these things—surely humans must, too?
Azriel returned to find her still tucked in the bed—his bed—and he wondered when the last time she’d had any sleep was. He sat on the edge of the mattress, one scarred hand flat on the thick, black blanket. It had been a well-guarded dream, imagining a mate. A female who might curl beneath his sheets.
Who might belong to him.
His chest tightened, not with pleasure but with fear. He’d kidnapped his mate. Panic flooded through him all over again. She was going to wake up and hate him and rightly so. She’d demand he take her back and he’d be forced to relinquish her, doomed to watch her age and die. Perhaps most horrible, at least to Azriel’s mind, was the fear she’d take a different mate, would find happiness with that male.
Some not insignificant part of him wondered if he didn’t deserve that. After all, Azriel had done horrible things in his life. Things he wasn’t ashamed of, would never feel sorry for. The humans had come when he’d been a boy. They’d killed his mother slowly, torturing her in a tower while she pleaded and begged for them to spare him.
They’d kept him locked up for five miserable years. Five years without another living soul to speak with, subjected to their every cruel and mercurial whim. They poked and prodded, sliced and tore. And once, they’d doused him in flame just to see what might happen, scarring his hands before he’d been able to put it out. The humans didn’t understand that boys eventually became men. His kind was no different. Azriel had bade his time until his form was so massive he could tear that tower apart stone by stone, reducing it to rubble.
And then he’d had his revenge, stalking into the village and destroying every human without mercy. It was retribution for more than just his suffering but his mother, who had been soft and kind. Who had died trying to keep her only son safe. What would his mate think if she knew how soaked in blood he was?
What would she think of him if she knew he’d gone, first and foremost, to taste their blood again?
She shifted, fingers curling around a fluffy pillow. Deciding he would do whatever she demanded, that he would atone however she asked, he waited breathlessly. She was the most beautiful female he’d ever seen, her eyes the color of sparkling, sun warmed water. Rosy lips parted as she looked around the bedroom, taking in her new surroundings.
Taking in him.
Azriel had to fight not to shift, to spread his wings and show her how large he was. He had the sense that would only scare her, though had she been one of his own, she would have understood that males spread their wings to show their females what good protectors they were…and, perhaps, to preen, if only a little. Azriel’s wingspan was large. Some small, vain part of him wanted to see her flush with pleasure when she realized that extended to all parts of him.
She exhaled a sweet scented breath. She reminded him of fresh dawn breaking over the mountains and she smelled like home before the humans came. Like berry soaked pine needles and fresh fallen snow. Azriel’s fingers twitched and he had to fight to keep himself from burying his face in the crook of her neck.
“You…” she swallowed hard, sitting up very, very slowly. Drawing her knees to her chest, he had the sense she was trying to protect the softness of her body from him. “You are also a man.”
“Yes,” he agreed, noting how she flinched when she heard him speak. The scent of her fear rolled off her in waves. Standing quickly, Azriel went for the bag of things. “I got you a gift.”
He heard her exhale sharply.
He set the bag gently on the bed, careful not to touch her. Thinking it might be better if he stayed off it entirely, he instead dragged a chair at the far end of his bedroom, the one he kept by the window, and sat down once he was as close as he dared to get.
She waited a moment before scooting towards it, grabbing the edge and dragging it towards her. With curious fingers, his mate pulled open the flap and just dumped everything onto the bed. He caught her delight, smothered quickly.
“I didn’t know what you liked,” he admitted, watching her carefully. She picked through the baubles and jewels and clothes until she came to the book. Azriel’s whole body ignited with pleasure watching her draw it up, examining the spine. She exhaled softly.
“We’re not allowed to read for pleasure,” she whispered.
“Why?” he asked quickly, sitting so close to the edge of his chair he was in danger of falling out. She looked over at him, her long hair spilling over her delicate shoulders. Biting her bottom lip, Azriel guessed she was wondering if she should tell him what she thought. If he was safe or if this was all a ruse. He slumped, curling in on himself, hoping it made him seem smaller by comparison. One day she’d learned to appreciate his size…but perhaps today she needed to see him as someone that would not hurt her.
“Our lives are dedicated to the Great Mother,” she finally said, her eyes glazing for a moment. A priestess? He hadn’t realized, though the shimmering robes made sense to him now. His kind hadn’t seen one in centuries…they had been the first to go, undefended and isolated as they were.
Azriel couldn’t help but wonder if the goddess didn’t have a sense of humor, pairing him, a creature soaked in darkness, with a female dedicated to worshiping the light. Perhaps this female was meant to be his salvation.
Did that make him her ruination?
“What is your name?” he asked her, hoping very much he was wrong.
“Gwyneth,” she whispered. “Or…Gwyn, I think. Just Gwyn. That was what my sister called me.”
Sadness stole over her features and her hands, once so tight around the book he’d given, now dropped it into her lap.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked him, her fear pungent again.
“No,” he said hastily. Placing a hand to his black tuniced chest, he added, “My name is Azriel.”
“Azriel,” she repeated.
He shivered in response.
“Why…” she gulped down the rest of her words. “How long do you plan to keep me?”
He was terrified, heart hammering in his throat, as he asked, “How long would you stay?”
“That depends,” she said, pushing aside the items he’d brought her carefully.
“Why you took me in the first place and what you intend to do with me.”
She was shaking so hard he could hear her teeth rattling.
Azriel swallowed. His voice a rasping whisper, he said, “You’re my mate.”
Whatever she’d imagined, it clearly hadn’t been that. He took advantage of her stunned silence to add, “I just…I just want to spend time with you. I won’t hurt you. I…” Gods, it was all coming out wrong. “You can trust me.”
“Trust takes time,” she said, looking at her fingers. “If I did stay…say…for a week. Where would you sleep?”
“Anywhere,” he replied, certain she was not inviting him into her bed. “Outside, even, if that would make you feel safe.”
He could guard the door for threats, which might also make him feel safe. Gwyn’s eyes slid towards the window, curtains pulled open to reveal the snow capped mountains lined with that swaying pine forest.
“It’s too cold to sleep outside. Maybe just…not in here?”
He nodded, trying to swallow his eager relief. “Okay.”
“And…” she was still fidgeting. “And you’re not allowed to touch me unless you ask first. Ever.”
Azriel went so still. He could still scent that fear, sharper than before. Who had touched his mate without asking?
“I swear,” he whispered, vowing one day, when she felt safe, he would cajole the names from her. He would offer her the same revenge he’d given his mother and if she wanted, he would put the knife in her hand. He didn’t think she wanted to know what manner of creature he was, how too often he flew alongside death itself as both friend and companion.
“One month,” she added. “And I can go home any time.”
“You’re not a prisoner,” he agreed. “I will take you anywhere you like, even if you want to leave.”
“Will you show me this place? Let me see?”
Azriel stood slowly, watching as she clambered out of bed and smoothed out her dress.
“I will do anything you ask.”
He would do anything to keep his mate.
Gwyn half thought that perhaps she had hallucinated the fire breathing dragon that had snatched her in the night. Azriel didn’t seem capable of kidnapping someone. Had it not been for the wintry blue scales that gilded over his body, she might have thought him just a regular man. A very polite man, but a man nonetheless. She was so curious about his scales, how they edged over his bare, muscular arms before vanishing behind his clothes. The appeared again up his neck and over the side of his face before disappearing once again in his inky black hair.
She was most fascinated by the burns on his hands, scarred and, in places, scaled like the rest of him. They seemed to shine in the light so beautifully it made her chest ache. That was the only reason she’d agreed to stay with him to begin with. Azriel was stunning, so handsome she could hardly believe he was real at all. He seemed to be cut from the same cold stone lurking in the distance, as if the goddess herself had taken the time to lovingly place each feature. Gwyn hadn’t seen a man so close in fifteen years and never one with his high cheekbones, his full, curved lips, or his wide, hazel eyes, his skin the loveliest shade of warm brown she’d ever seen. He was taller than her by a good head and shoulders, his body muscular and broad. All muscle, if the bare arms crossed against his chest was any indication. A warrior, she thought, studying him when he wasn’t watching.
And quiet. His voice was dark and smoky, the sort of thing she swore lingered in the air like shadow. When she spoke Azriel seemed to vibrate, hanging off her every word, but he offered very little outside of his reassurances he did not mean to hurt her and his unending questions about her, her life.
Gwyn had questions of her own. She waited until they were on the bottom level of his home, seated at a square dining table. He’d made a simple dinner and was, as always, watching her with his unguarded fascination. She thought of the golden man that had likely been executed by General Nolan and his anguish when Nolan had promised to find the pregnant, hiding woman. Had they been mates, too?
“Why are your scales blue?” she asked instead, too afraid to ask what she really wanted to know. Azriel’s thick brows shot skyward, his mouth shaping into an oh. He glanced down at his hands before curling them into fists and hiding them beneath the table.
“Mountain dwellers,” he amended patiently in that rich, deep voice. She shivered without meaning to. “We are typically blue or red…very occasionally purple.”
“I wonder what color I would be,” she wondered out loud. Hazel eyes flashed with delight.
“Blue,” he declared, eyes sliding down her neck. He looked no further before his gaze returned to her face and Gwyn could admit she appreciated the way he didn’t seem to ogle her. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she decided to be brave.
“And what are mates?”
He didn’t hesitate. “I am yours, and you are mine.”
It was oddly sweet. “Like marriage?”
He wrinkled his nose.
“Not like marriage?” she pressed. He opened his mouth and closed it again, clearly struggling.
“It is…it is a connection between souls. Blessed by the Mother Goddess herself,” he added hastily, clearly trying to make this phenomenon make sense to her. “I can feel it here.”
His broad, golden brown hand pressed against his chest. She didn’t mention she didn’t feel it, though Gwyn had to admit she did feel something. Drawn to him, perhaps. It had been enough to make her agree to stay when he’d so readily agreed to her terms. There was still danger in the decision given that night was falling rapidly and he might go back on his promise.
“What if you don’t want it?”
He went so, so still in that unnatural way of his. “You want to reject it?” he rasped.
“No,” she said quickly, though that wasn’t entirely true either. Gwyn was merely curious. “I just…I want to know about it, I guess. It’s different for us.”
“Yes,” he said with a quick roll of his eyes. “I have heard about how human males court their females.”
She smothered a smile. “Not a fan, I take it?”
“They do not appreciate what they have,” came his surprising response. “They are cruel to their females, so certain they could just have another should the mood strike them.”
Azriel didn’t know the half of it. Her attackers had remained with their wives, who had protected them. Those women had led the charge to have Gwyn removed, unable to stand the sight of her—of the reminder that their husbands were bad people. The girls were blamed, the men protected, coddled and still respected.
“And your kind don’t?”
She didn’t believe there was any world in which men cared about women let alone venerated them. Azriel’s eyes darkened for a moment, as if he knew exactly why she’d asked that question. Like he would have committed violence on her behalf. It ought to have scared her.
“There are not enough females anymore,” he began carefully. “Centuries ago, when the humans decided they no longer wished to live among them, they slaughtered them first. Children, as well. What remains are the warriors who beat them back. Even if we had an abundance, though…mates are rare. Cherished,” he added too pointedly, as if he needed her to understand what she meant to him. Gwyn swallowed.
“I would rather let you remove my wings than harm you.”
Pretty words, she thought with too much cynicism. She’d wait to see how the night played out before she dared to trust him.
“There was a man like you–”
“Lucien,” he said quickly. “He is a different sort of dragon.”
That, she supposed, explained why Lucien had been gold and Azriel blue.
“And the woman? Is she…?”
“His mate?” Azriel asked softly. “Yes. He is protecting her and their child as any good mate should. While the humans busy themselves with killing him, Elain will have time to escape.”
“Oh,” she whispered. It was all so sweet, in a strange way. She couldn’t imagine self-sacrificing in the hope that your wife and child would escape and yet Gwyn so badly wanted to believe in a world where that was possible. A place built differently. She would never forgive him if it was all a lie.
She hadn’t had hope in fifteen years. Gwyn hadn’t dared, not after everything. Not after Catrin. Staring down Azriel who was, in turn, watching her eat, Gwyn could feel it blooming in her chest. That warm want, that desire to find good in the world. She’d been smothering all of it in ash all these years, had buried it right alongside Catrin.
“Do you like being a priestess?” he asked, unaware of what was happening with her internally. Curiosity still danced over his features and when Gwyn set her wooden spoon inside the carved bowl, finished with the stew, Azriel was on his feet so quickly to give her more.
“I’m not…you don’t have to serve me,” she mumbled, embarrassment flushing over her. Azriel dropped back into his chair, supremely pleased with himself.
“Do you like being a priestess?” he asked again, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
“No,” she admitted. “Not really. I…”
He leaned forward on his elbows, nearly spilling his own half-eaten food. No one had ever looked at her with such interest before. Gwyn’s eyes dropped to her bowl.
“I like parts of it. I just don’t know that I belong, I guess.”
She didn’t know him. Why was she confiding these things? Gwyn forced herself to smile. “I’m still figuring myself out, I suppose.”
Some of his interest shifted, his expression becoming guarded again. They lapsed into silence while she ate though she could practically hear the grinding gears of his mind. He stood when she finished but this time, aware that he intended to feed her until she puked, stopped him.
“No more,” she said. He eyed her warily.
“Are you sure?”
“I swear,” she agreed. “I—” she was suddenly too scared to say she wanted to go back up the stairs, to close the door and pace while she gathered herself. What if he decided he didn’t care what she wanted? If he meant to just…consummate this faux marriage regardless.
“Sleep?” he murmured, guessing her thoughts. “Would you like water for the bath?”
“No!” she replied hastily, wrapping her arms around her chest as she backed for the archway leading to the living room.
“In the morning?” he pressed, so earnestly it made her stomach churn softly.
“Maybe,” she whispered. “I uh…”
“Sleep,” he said again, firmer this time. She took a step, unable to turn her back to him but Azriel remained between the table and the kitchen, watching her with such soft eyes her heart was in danger of splattering at her feet. Gwyn took another, and then another but Azriel didn’t move at all.
And when she darted up the steps, she swore she heard him sigh softly. With disappointment. What was it like to end up with her as a mate? She imagined he’d been hoping for this his entire life, had dreamt of it the way she’d once dreamt of her future husband. And Azriel had ended up with her.
Gwyn heard the door beneath her open once she was locked up in Azriels room. She walked to the window and watched him stand in the snow, hands on his hips as he stared out into the distance. The air around him rippled and then that massive, scaled monster was just in front of the door. He paced in a circle three times, stamping the snow beneath his black clawed feet, before plopping to the ground with a huff.
Gwyn unlatched the window, pushing it open to look down at him. Azriel turned his massive head, those hazel eyes peering up with curiosity.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked. He huffed a steaming breath, big enough she could reach down and touch his scaled head. Fair was fair, she thought, as she asked, “Can I touch you?”
His head bobbed up and down. Gwyn leaned from the perch on the ledge and ran her hand over him. He was hot and his scales soft. She’d thought they might be sharp like knives but instead found them a flexible plating that, when she ran a finger over the edges, didn’t slice open her skin.
He snorted softly, angling his head so he could look, taking a deep inhale of the air around him. Gwyn didn’t know why, but she thought she liked him better this way. At least she knew what he was capable of. With his spiked tail and his massive teeth there was no denying the monster. As the man, though…as the man, Gwyn had to wonder what lurked beneath the veneer of civility.
“I think I am too in love with the dark to ever be a good priestess,” she whispered, telling the beast what she could not say to the man. He blinked, eyes sliding from the pretty hazel into azure for only a moment.
And then he was back, nuzzling her hand with his massive snout.
I know what you mean, he seemed to say.
And Gwyn believed he did.
Azriel had never slept better in his life. His mate had touched him. Hesitantly, sure, and still bathed in that stench of fear and yet she’d done it all the same. He’d woken like king of the mountain, splaying out his wings for the gods so they, at least, could appreciate what he was guarding just inside. Perhaps she’d touch him again, fingers caressing his scales as she mapped him out. Azriel would let her, would stay in his winged form if that pleased her.
He wanted very badly for his form to please her, both as dragon and male. He didn’t dare offer to show her the other, not until she asked to see it. He came inside and waited in the living room, one leg bouncing eagerly when he heard her moving overhead. He wanted her to come down before he offered her bathwater again.
The door creaked open. “Azriel?” she whispered into the early morning glow. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” he replied, standing at the bottom of the steps. Invite me up. Let me see you.
“I um…” he could hear her voice tremble. What was wrong? He gripped the railing, waiting for her to ask him to take her home.
“I need your help.”
“Oh,” he murmured, taking the steps with easy, soft steps so he wouldn’t seem too eager. Gwyn was in the doorway in her same dress, arms wrapped around her torso. Had she not wanted any of the clothes he’d gotten? Azriel opened his mouth to ask but Gwyn spun quickly, gathering her long, thick mass of hair and holding it over her shoulders.
“I can’t…” she gulped down a breath, her whole body trembling visibly. “Can you…?”
He had to bury his fury that someone had seen his perfect, sweet mate and had done something so irrevocably awful that the thought of his touch made her pant with fear.
“Yes,” he agreed, reaching for the blue knots with extreme care. Each new tugged revealed unblemished, freckled skin and Azriel did not dare touch it—not even with his knuckles. He wanted to. All he wanted was to push the dress from her shoulders and see her. She had only asked him to undo the laces and he had sworn not to touch unless she asked. Azriel was a male of his word.
He would not harm his mate.
She turned when she felt that last tug, holding the front against her chest.
“Would you like water for a bath?” he asked her. “I have to turn it on…you can wait in the hall, if you like?”
She nodded quickly, ducking benath his arm as he stepped into the room. His chest expanded when he realized she had put away all the things he’d given her. Clothes were folded in the chest beside his own, the trinkets lining the top of the dresser. The book was at the very end of the bed and Azriel nearly burst with pleasure knowing not only had she slept in his bed, but she enjoyed something he’d given her.
Stepping into the bathing chamber, Azriel pulled down a nice towel and a little candle, lighting it with a snap of his fingers. He set it beside the sink before turning the rusting nob. Cold water poured, good enough for him but hardly conducive for his soft mate. He waited, sitting against the lip of the tub, until it was filled before dipping his hand inside and warming that, too.
“It’s ready,” he told her, stepping back into the hall so she knew he did not mean to follow her. Gwyn watched, backing away like before as though she did not trust him enough to present her back. Azriel swallowed that outrage, too, tallying it in his mind against the human males ledger he would one day see die.
She closed the door behind her and Azriel all but ran from his house, shifting the second his feet hit the snow. If she liked books, he’d bring her more. He’d build her an entire library if that was what it would take for her to look up at him with trust instead of fear.
Azriel would have done anything. Digging out books was hardly anything at all. A small thing, a little token he could offer as proof he was sincere. That she meant more to him than anything he’d ever had. Gwyn was a gift, special.
Azriel gathered a few groceries in town, wondering if Gwyn liked things that were sweet. He couldn’t bake but thought it couldn’t be that hard to figure out. Perhaps, he reasoned, it was something they could do together. She could teach him to make a pie…and he could teach her how to disembowel a human male. That thought excited Azriel more than the baking, though he shoved it down.
Maybe he’d wait on that one.
Azriel arrived back at the cottage, certain Gwyn must be finished bathing. He had clothes that had buttons in the front so she couldn’t have to ask him to unlace her again. Not unless she wanted to, at any rate. He was pulling out a pretty green one, thinking it would look nice against the red of her hair, when the door flung open.
Her face was blotchy and tear stained. She had a dress over her frame, held by one hand, the ends of her curling strands dripping against the fabric and the floor. Azriel dropped it all to the ground, spinning in a circle to see what had caused this onslaught of fear.
“Where did you go?” she asked, her voice squeaky. He froze.
“I…” This was his fault? Hastily, he picked the bag back up, showing her the dress. “It has buttons,” he tried to explain. She stared for a moment, another tear sliding down her cheek. His legs shook at the sight.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“What if…you left and I…”
“You’re safe here,” she said, stepping forward to close the door behind her. “No one can get to you without wings and no other male would dare.”
His reputation ensured that, if nothing else. Gwyn nodded, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her dress. She took the green down and darted back up the steps, leaving him feeling stupid and confused. He hadn’t thought she’d notice and if she had, he’d just assumed she’d be grateful knowing he wasn’t lurking around trying to see something she shouldn’t.
He blew out a breath. Maybe he would have better luck, he reasoned, if he sent her back and tried courting her the way a human male would. Azriel meant to offer when she returned, so devastatingly pretty in the green that Azriel could have died. She didn’t hesitate, launching herself against him, arms wrapped around his middle.
He did, though. She squeezed while his arms hung uselessly in the air, brain struggling to keep up. Had anyone ever dared to touch him like this? It took a moment for him to decide to touch her back, one hand spanning the middle of her back, the other tangled softly in her silky, wet hair.
“Next time, will you tell me when you go?”
“You can come with me,” he promised hoarsely. She was touching him again. Fear didn’t ripple off her, clogging his senses. Only that sweet softness greeted his nose. He lowered his head, resting his chin against her scalp so he could breathe it deeper.
“I would like that. I want to see more of this world,” she whispered, cheek to his chest. He heard her swallow and then she was stepping out of the embrace, her cheeks the prettiest shade of pink he’d ever seen.
“My mate is scared,” he murmured, studying her carefully. She froze, eyes wide even as he stepped from the hall to the living room. He could feel her just behind, watching as he ducked around the couch for the fireplace and the knife sitting against the carved mantle.
He brought it to her, pressing the silver hilt into her hand.
Az. He sucked in a breath at the nickname. “One day you will trust me,” he murmured. “And you will tell me what they did to you.”
She blinked those big, teal eyes up at him, lips parted ever so slightly. Daring to touch, Azriel reached for her soft chin, holding it between his thumb and his finger.
“I will lay them at your feet for daring to harm you. And if you like, I will teach you to become the sort of creature that haunt their very nightmares.”
She leaned ever so slightly into the touch. “I would like that a lot.”
He dropped his hand before he gave in to instinct and touched her lips. Azriel smiled at her. He knew what they said about him. He was cold—cruel. Unforgiving. All of it was true.
But not to her.