The day Isabelle met the dragon was the same day she learned, quite by accident, that she was to marry the blacksmith’s son.
Isabelle knew the son well enough. His name was Hob, he could lift a yearling calf in each arm, and he was always sweaty from working in the smithy over the raw coals. He was not Isabelle’s type. She thought him dull and clumsy, and the sweating thing was just gross.
But her twin sister Evangeline thought otherwise. “He’s so strong,” she sighed, picking petals from a daisy and blowing them off her fingertip.
“He smells.” Isabelle shucked her ear of corn with unnecessary vehemence. “He’s always either burning things or sweating, and he never washes.”
“His muscles glisten when he sweats,” Evangeline said dreamily.
“I want someone who has aspirations in life. I want a man who can track a wolf through the mountains and sing like a bard and gamble like a king. I want a man who isn’t content with becoming a blacksmith like his father. Don’t you?”
Evangeline smiled to herself, and said nothing.
Hob wasn’t a bad sort. But he was always coming around their father’s shop, resting his meaty, steaming arm on the counter, and smiling his clunky, red-faced grin at Evangeline. Perhaps that’s why Evangeline never met a dragon. She was always with Hob. And because Evangeline liked Hob, and because Isabelle was twinned with Evangeline, Isabelle put up with his smell and his thick tongue, and she was safe from dragons, too.
Until their sixteenth birthday. When Isabelle ran away from the safety of her family and Evangeline and Hob, into the forest, and met the dragon.
It happened like this. They were celebrating the twin’s birthday as was custom: friends and family gathered around to make merry, wish well, and chase off any evil with song and dance. Hob was there of course. But many others, too, since the girl’s father ran the best shop in the market, and was friendly with many.
Perhaps he should have paid more attention to his daughters and less to his costumers. When Isabelle and Evangeline lined up to greet guests, he insisted on putting Isabelle in the middle. She was forced to accept the well-wishes with Hob grinning stupidly on one side, and Evangeline making eyes at him on her other. It was very distracting.
“May you marry well, and have many children,” an old woman told her.
“We thank you for this blessing.” Isabelle did a little curtsey, rising just in time to catch the next wisher’s words.
“May you remain free from plague, and may your husband prosper.”
Isabelle forced herself to smile. “Much thanks, kind sir.”
The crowd roared with their merrymaking. An old crone caught Isabelle’s hand. Her whole body shook with age, a bobble-headed sort of movement, but her eyes shone with sincerity, and Isabelle had to lean over to hear her.
“Good fortune to you!” she was saying. “And may you marry a man of prosperity!”
“Thank you!” Isabelle shouted in frustration. “Much thanks! Thank you!”
Smiling, bobbing, the old woman doddered away, and Isabelle turned to Evangeline. “Goodness,” she said angrily. “Is that all anyone can think about? Marriage? Am I going to be married off just because I turned sixteen?”
Evangeline blinked at her, but their father laughed from where he stood nearby. “No Isabelle, of course not. There is plenty of time yet to find you a husband.”
And he smiled beneficially at Hob.
Now, this would not have been enough to make most girls realize they’ve been engaged already. Even poor Hob, who was grinning stupidly at Evangeline, didn’t seem to know the man’s intentions. But Isabelle had the gift of perception. She knew the truth of things whether anyone intended her to or not. It was uncanny, sometimes, how much she knew if only she thought about it; the weather for instance, or if an expecting woman was going to bear a boy or a girl.
She could also tell if someone was being truthful.
Right then, when her father assured her she had plenty of time, Isabelle knew right away that he already planned on marrying her off to Hob. He’d been planning it for ages. Hob had been around for ages. He was the blacksmith’s son, which made him well-enough to-do, and he was good at his trade, which made him reliable. And they were always together. It was a perfect match.
Isabelle stared at her father, horror-struck by his assumptions and his naivety. Nobody who knew her would have thought she fancied Hob. Everyone knew she only associated with Hob because Evangeline liked him! It was Evangeline, not her, who should marry the fool!
But their father had never bothered to notice the difference. Isabelle was the oldest, and so Isabelle would marry, and in his mind, that was that.
The crone had been the last of their well-wishers. With a shout, the crowd encircled Isabelle and Evangeline, sweeping them into a center of music and bodies. Evangeline screamed with wild joy. Isabelle just caught a flash of her spinning face, her braids whipping in the air, and then Hob in the crowd, grinning his grin, opening his big fat mouth to yell something Isabelle couldn’t hear. The crowd banged tambourines and clapped their hands and yelled at the top of their lungs. And it was too much. Too many bodies pressing against hers as the floor bucked with too many footfalls and all of them were thinking soon they will marry, well will they marry, marry they will, and well it will be.
It was suffocating. With a wildness of effort Isabelle had never known she possessed, she flung herself through the masses, catching elbows in the ribs and feet that stomped upon hers, and for a terrifying moment she thought she wouldn’t make it, that she’d be trampled here and now. Then she saw the door. She loosed a sob. She burst free of the crowd and ran without looking back.
Perhaps she should have stayed for the rest of the dance. Perhaps, then, her friends would have driven the evil away. For dragons are in fact evil. And whenever they come down from the North, their goal is this: to capture young virgins, and force them to become their brides.
* * *
Isabelle ran through the market. Dogs barked and chased her, chickens scattered, and her own footsteps slapped flat against the dust. Isabelle felt as if the market was reaching out and trying to catch her. There was the smithy, her future home. There were the horses her husband would be shoeing. There was the wagon whose iron rims her husband would bang away at day and night.
No, Isabelle thought frantically. God, no! And she picked up her skirts and ran harder, so that the dogs stopped barking and the market fell behind, and up ahead were fields and the brook and the forest.
The shade soon enveloped her. Isabelle threw herself down by the brook and sobbed as if the sorrow would never cease. But, slowly, it passed. She splashed her face in the shallow water near the bank, and in the silence of her misery, tried to think of what she could say to her father.
Dear father. I don’t love Hob. Please let him marry Evangeline.
Or, Dear father, I hate Hob. I’d rather die than spend the rest of my life with his stink.
But it would be useless. He would have her marry Hob. Her life as she’d dreamt it would end.
Somewhere down the path, someone began to whistle. Isabelle looked up in surprise. Quickly she dried her face and raked fingers through her hair and straightened her skirt. When the dragon knight came around the bend, she was standing and waiting to face him.
He caught sight of her at once. “My lady!” he cried, bowing gallantly. “My fair lady. I am on my way to the town of Eastberth. Would you be so kind as to direct me?”
He was smiling broadly, with a handsome shock of dark hair falling across his forehead, his eyes sparkling, his voice rich with chivalry. He wore a knight’s silver armor that clinked when he straightened up, with red and black silk tied about his waist. Under one arm he held a helmet with a red feather, and his other arm rested lightly on the top of his scabbard. He looked in every way like a knight. But he was a dragon.
Isabelle stood very still. Many times before her skill of perception had surprised her, but never so badly as this. She wondered what on earth a dragon was doing here in Eastberth—for this was Eastberth, and he must already know that. Perhaps he came to claim a bride? She’d heard of evil dragons doing so, much farther North. They changed into human shape and lured young virgins up to their dark kingdoms in the mountains. But it seemed too bizarre that he would pose as a knight, of all things. Knights killed dragons.
She didn’t know what to do, so she spoke, buying time. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, my lord. Eastberth is to the North from where you’ve come.” Then she added, “you will not find what you’re seeking here.”
The dragon knight raised a dark eyebrow. “My dear lady! Are you certain? I was given the most vehement assurances that this was the path to take. I only wonder now, as I have traveled for days without coming across any sign of village or farms.”
He was lying, Isabelle thought. The nearest village was a day by foot on this path, at the most. He couldn’t have missed them. Peevishness got the best of her.
“You must travel awfully slow, my lord. Where is your pack or your provisions for such a journey?” She peered around him. “I see none. Perhaps you have used all your supplies up.”
A little something seemed to slip from the dragon knight’s face. He stopped smiling and gave her a good long look. Isabelle felt as if he’d been acting the part of a charming knight because he’d expected a foolish country girl, and she had deviated from that role, and now she was undergoing a change of status; and Isabelle wasn’t sure where that left her. Perhaps she better leave before he got any ideas about susceptible virgins and brides.
She did a quick curtsey. “Excuse me, my lord. I must be going.”
“Wait. My lady.”
She flinched, rose to meet his eyes. He said, “It’s not safe for a young woman such as yourself, to walk the woods without escort, so far from village and home. Let me guide you.”
Was he serious? Isabelle saw that he was. The mirth was and false charm were gone, leaving sober and sensitive expression beneath. Isabelle found she rather liked him this way, which made her even more nervous.
“I thank you for the concern. But it’s not far.”
“Perhaps I wish your company.”
Isabelle sucked in a breath. “Perhaps I don’t return the sentiment.”
The forest went quiet. Isabelle had never been so rude in her life. If he was a true knight, this was enough to have her put in stocks. If he was a true dragon, the punishment might be even worst. But again he only studied her.
“Then fare well, my lady.” He gave her a brief bow. “Eastberth—to the North you say?”
“To the North,” she repeated, knowing full well it was a lie, and feeling uneasy about it. He must know she was alluding to his identity as a dragon. He could strike her down right now for the insolence of it. Dragons did such things, she’d heard.
But this one was contradicting everything Isabelle thought she knew about dragons. He accepted her lie with a little bow and set off back down the path.
Isabelle exhaled, and turned to go herself. But after just a couple steps she heard him cry, “Oh, my lady!”
She turned back. “My lord?”
“You seem to have guessed what I seek. If you find any, I would be most grateful if you sent a message to me in Eastberth.”
She felt sweat prickle suddenly on her skin. “Find…any? Find any what?”
He grinned at her. “Why, dragons. I’m here to slay dragons.”
She could have sworn he strode off with a new jauntiness to his step.
* * *
Her first thought was that she had to tell Evangeline. Her second thought was that Evangeline would never believe her. A dragon knight? How absurd. He threw that last bit in just to toy with me, she thought. I could swear it.
It was late noon by the time Isabelle trudged back to her father’s shop. Evangeline was tending the counter, humming to herself and hanging up sprigs of rosemary. She paused when Isabelle entered. “Why, Izzy, wherever have you been? You missed the dancing.”
Isabelle trudged to the water bucket, splashed her face, and stayed there, gripping the edges of the bucket. “I went to the forest.”
“Well, that was foolish.”
“I’m aware of that now.”
“What do you mean, aware of that now?” Evangeline turned, eyes narrowing with concern. “Did something happen?”
Isabelle sank down onto the stool beside the bucket, wiped her face, and stared up at her sister. It was strange to look upon Evangeline like this. Like a child to her mother. Flushed from the heat and dancing, hair curling prettily down her cheeks and neck, Evangeline looked like she belonged here, in charge, running the shop. She had become a beauty. Even the dreaminess of her eyes (which Isabelle had always found irritating) lent her a mysterious, seductive allure.
“What?” Evangeline said. “You’re looking at me so.”
“You’re lovely. You’re sixteen and you’re lovely. How have I not noticed before?”
Evangeline blushed, twisted her rosemary, smoothed a hand over her skirt. “Do you mean that, Izzy? I always feel so young compared to you.”
Isabelle dropped her head in her hands and groaned.
Evangeline took a serious look at her sister, than swept her skirts beneath herself and sat down. “What is it, Izzy? You look so strange. And you left without ever telling me. What’s happened?”
Isabelle watched the ripples in the water bucket. She thought about all the things she wanted to tell Evangeline, all the burdens of being the eldest and the more responsible one, how foolish it was that her little Evey should suffer the rest of her life for being born mere hours later than Isabelle herself. And then she said it.
“Father wants me to marry Hob.”
“I’m serious, Evey.” Isabelle lifted her head up to meet Evangeline’s gaze. “When we were celebrating, I had one of my premonitions—I just knew. Father’s been planning to have me marry Hob for years now. He’s just waiting for Hob’s father to come make the deal.” And she sunk her head back in her hands.
Evangeline had stopped laughing. “But that’s so silly! Hob doesn’t love you.”
“Father doesn’t know that.”
“But…” Evangeline was growing paler. She repeated, “That’s so silly.”
What was there to say? It was true. Isabelle gazed at the floor. “Honestly, I don’t know what got into father’s head. Something about me being the eldest, I think. Which, when you consider it, is absolute foolishness—does it matter that you followed me? Why should mere hours dictate who weds first?”
“I don’t understand,” Evangeline whispered. “You don’t love him. You don’t even like him. I’m the one who loves him!”
Isabelle said, glumly, “Father’s just being traditional, I suppose.”
Evangeline began rocking. Her knuckles had gone white, white as her face.
“Oh Evey,” Isabelle said. “Don’t.” She drew Evangeline to her side and hugged her, stroking her sweet face, which was cold now, and damp with tears. “Don’t despair. We’ll think of something. Between you and me and Hob—”
“But you’re right.” Evangeline spoke in a shrill, mournful whisper. “That sounds exactly like father. To assume Hob was courting you because you’re the oldest. To set his mind on you have marrying first. We won’t be able to say a thing against him.” And she gave a little choked sob.
“Evey!” Isabelle stroked her hair urgently. “Evey, don’t! I won’t marry your Hob. I couldn’t. If I have to live even one minute married to his clumsy smiles I’ll—oh—I’ll run off to the nuns.”
Evangeline’s sob turned into an equally choked laugh. “Would you? Really?”
Evangeline sighed. Isabelle stroked her hair, thinking hard now, taking courage in determination.
“There must be another way. I promise you I’ll find it. Surely father would let you marry Hob if I found myself another, perhaps more promising suitor.”
Evangeline leaned her head against Isabelle’s neck, so that her tears went hot against Isabelle’s collar. “But who?” she said. “I know you, Izzy. There isn’t a boy in this village that you’d condescend to marry.”
“Yes,” Isabelle murmured, her hand trailing down Evangeline’s hair. “There’s no boy.”
She was thinking dangerous things. She was wondering, if the dragon had kidnapped her, would her father have let Evangeline marry?
How about if it had been a knight?
“Evangeline. There’s something I must confess.” She hesitated, bit her lip. Began again. “After the celebration upset me so, I ran to the forest, and I met someone—I met a knight.”
“Just dressed like one,” Isabelle added hastily. “I think it was really a dragon. No. I know it was. It was a dragon.”
Evangeline stared at her.
“He asked me how to get to the village. He told me it was dangerous to travel alone. He said he was here to slay dragons!
Evangeline continued to stare at her. “Izzy,” she said, “he’s here to claim a bride. And nobody knows but us.”
She rose. She peeked over the counter to check that the shop was empty, and quickly closed all the shutters and bolted the door. She came and knelt back in front of Isabelle.
“You told no one else?”
They looked at each other. Isabelle felt a vague dread creeping over her, like a shadow crossing the threshold, before you’ve had a chance to turn around. It was something in Evangeline’s eyes. Something that harkened of deeds executed in desperation and blood.
“What are you planning?” Isabelle whispered.
Evangeline squeezed her hands. She was desperate and grim.
“We need to marry you off.”
“No,” Isabelle said, understanding at once. “I couldn’t. I wouldn’t dare! He’s a dragon, Evey!”
“He’s a dragon masquerading as a knight, looking to steal a bride. Father won’t be able to refuse him. You’ll acquiesce, and Hob will be left to me. We’ll marry fast as we can. Three days should be enough, I think. And then you can escape and come back to us. You’ll say your knight was slain by a dragon or something. Everyone will be happy.”
Her lip trembled on the last word. Isabelle pulled her hands away, put them to her face, helplessly to her sides.
“But he already suspects me. What if I were to fail? Only kings make such gambles with dragons. Oh, Evangeline,” she whispered fervently. “Do I dare trick a dragon?”
The two sisters were very close. Isabelle could see her own fear reflected in Evangeline’s eyes.
Evangeline said, “You must.”
And there was nothing left to say. The only matter now was finding the dragon.
* * *
As it turned out, the dragon knight solved that problem for them.
Right as dinner was ending and Isabelle was rising to clear the table, there came a knock upon the door. It had a strange sort of clank to it.
Their father sighed. “Never known a blacksmith with this much persistence.”
Isabelle and Evangeline shot each other startled glances. Evangeline wasn’t expecting a visit from Hob. But there was too little time to do anything. Already their father had reached the door, and swung it open.
“My good sir,” said a rich voice that sent hot and cold shivers down Isabelle’s spine, and was most certainly not Hob’s the thick drawl. “Is this by chance the house of Isaac shopkeeper?”
“Why—yes—my lord! Isaac the shopkeeper is none other than I. Forgive me my lord, I was not prepared…”
“Peace,” the dragon knight said. “All is well. I have come in search of your daughter, who met me in the forest this very day—” and Isabelle looked up to see him smiling at her over her father’s shoulder—“for I have heard she knows where to find dragons.”
If I fainted right now, Isabelle thought, nobody could blame me.
“Dragons!” her father echoed blankly. Evangeline’s eyes were like saucers.
“Yes,” said the dragon knight smoothly. “Furthermore—”
“Furthermore,” her father echoed, like one in a dream.
“—She rendered a great service to me earlier this day when I wandered lost in the forest, by pointing me to your charming town of Eastberth, a service of which I never properly thanked her.” He was speaking directly to her now, and gave one of his chivalrous bows. “My lady.”
“My lord,” Isabelle said, dazed.
She realized a couple things. One, she had somehow gone from sitting at the table to standing by the door without making a conscious decision to do so. Two, the knight had come precisely when she needed him, which was suspicious. And three, her father had the strangest look on his face, almost as if—
He opened the door wide. “Would you come in, my lord?”
The dragon knight tore his eyes away from Isabelle’s. “Nay, though I thank you. I have come with a clear purpose, so let me be clear in stating it. Is your daughter now engaged to any other?”
Isaac seemed to be thinking fast. “Not at the present.”
“Splendid. Then may I ask your permission, good sir, to take your daughter as my wife?” And his gaze returned to Isabelle’s.
Though he was putting on the knightly act for her father, as he’d done for her in the forest, he allowed Isabelle just one glance of that serious side. The look that told her he saw her for who and what she was, knew that she knew. And he still wanted her to be his wife.
Of course he did, Isabelle thought, dazed but a little irritated. He was a dragon. Of course he wanted a wife. Did he think her swayed by the pretense of honesty?
Even her father’s swift merchant’s mind couldn’t keep up with this twist. His jaw worked hard and managed to throw out a sputtered phrase or two. “My—Isabelle—good sir—if you truly—”
“All you have to do,” the dragon knight said helpfully, “is say yes.”
“I—of course—yes. I mean.” He turned to Isabelle, all out of sorts. “Do you have any objections?”
Isabelle looked at the dragon knight. He gave her a soft smile. It made her feel odd in the knees. She looked back over her shoulder at Evangeline, whose face was torn with so many pulls of emotion, she’d frozen half in and half out of her seat. Isabelle thought of Hob, grinning his stupid grin. She imagined his meaty hands taking one of hers. Then she imagined the dragon knight, reaching out with one of his own armored gloves, one of his soft smiles. Her stomach flipped like a wet fish.
“Splendid,” the dragon knight murmured. “Splendid.”
And despite herself, Isabelle blushed.
* * *
The dragon knight returned for her that next morning. It was possibly the strangest thing Isabelle had ever done, hugging her sister goodbye and wishing her—rather loudly, for their father’s benefit—the best of happiness with Hob. Then she had to turn and go. In the background she heard her father mutter to Evangeline, “What did she mean about you and the blacksmith’s son?”
And that was that. Their voices faded. Isabelle was on the road alone with her dragon knight.
They traveled North. From the first moment the entered the trees, Isabelle was waiting for him to reveal himself as a dragon, but he never did. They just walked in silence. It seemed to weigh heavily on the knight. Isabelle began to anticipate what she called their Daily Conversations.
Day one, the dragon knight began,
“My lady, I must confess…”
And Isabelle snorted, “I bet you must.”
“…That I never did learn your name.”
And she had said, “Oh.”
Day two, the dragon knight tried again.
“There is a town up ahead, about another hour’s walk. If you are in need of any provisions—”
“I thought you said you walked this path for days without seeing another town.”
He seemed to struggle for patience. “Maybe I did.”
“And maybe I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and start laying golden eggs.”
He shut his eyes. “I would rather not.”
And once, when they stopped at an inn, and Isabelle was lying awake in bed, listening to the sound of his breathing from the floor, irritated that he could fall asleep down there when she couldn’t even sleep up here, she started her own Daily Conversation by muttering,
“You’re such a liar.”
“Pardon?” the knight mumbled sleepily.
“I said, you’re such a liar.”
Silence from the knight.
“You said you were here to slay dragons. You said I knew where to find dragons. You said you didn’t know where Eastberth was. Do I need to continue?”
“I never said I didn’t know where Eastberth was,” he replied stiffly. “I just asked for guidance. I have never once lied to you, my lady.”
Isabelle clenched her fists. “You’re here to claim yourself a bride!”
“I’m here to win a bride. There’s a difference.” He paused. “Wouldn’t you agree, my lady?”
Isabelle rolled to face the wall. “Don’t call me your lady.”
In short, by the morning of the third day, Isabelle was ready to go back home.
The dragon knight seemed almost of the same sentiment. He was polite as always, but curt in his replies. She didn’t think he’d even bother stopping her if she tried to flee. Surely Evangeline and Hob were wed by now? Surely she should leave while she could?
The problem was the dragon knight. The infuriating, silent, secretive dragon knight. Isabelle was still waiting for him to reveal himself. She was almost desperate for it. Why continue the farce of knighthood? Why pretend he was here to slay dragons when, clearly, he was after a bride? If he was after a bride, and he’d claimed his bride, why not just come out and say he was a dragon?
As they left the inn the third morning and continued traveling North, Isabelle felt almost feverish with wondering. Perhaps that is why she didn’t turn for home when she should have. Perhaps that is why, when the dragon knight spoke to her at midmorning, she didn’t snap back at him, but listened.
“My lady. There is something I must confess—something else I must confess.” He spoke stiffly. Their bickering over the past two days hadn’t made them friends. “You must be warned I am expecting an attack this day.”
That was…not what she’d hoped to hear.
Isabelle sighed. “May I inquire by whom?”
The dragon knight hesitated for the first time. “By my half-brother, Gorgon.”
“Who I suppose is also a knight.” She rolled her eyes.
But her dragon knight only looked at her, the way he had in the forest, like she was too smart to go on pretending to be foolish. He said, “No.”
“Why would your half-brother attack you?”
“Because we both have an equal claim to the throne. Because Gorgon is foul. Because he has been waiting these long years for his chance, and now it has come.” He glanced at her, just a little apologetically. “Because I have a bride, and he has failed to win his own.”
That’s when the forest rumbled. The air seemed to reek with a sudden stench of molten stone and smoke.
Isabelle’s dragon knight shoved her behind him. He unsheathed his sword with the clear ringing of steel, and held it in front of him at the ready.
There was another rumble. Except it was more like a laugh. And then a horrifically dark spade-shaped thing nosed its way out from the shadows of the trees.
“Failed?” it rumbled. “Failed? Is it failure when you have brought her to me, Renfell? And what a lovely one she is.”
The great head was extending now on the curve of what seemed like an endless scaly neck, so that Isabelle choked down a whimper and clutched at the hand of her dragon knight. The dragon was, she realized with horror, talking about her.
“Do not mock the lady in her presence,” the dragon knight warned.
“I do not mock.” Jets of smoke blew from Gorgon’s nostrils, and his serpent’s eyes glistened greedily. “I admire.”
“She is not yours to admire.”
Gorgon seemed to grin—could dragons grin? “Ah, but there you are wrong. You have brought her to me. She is mine. Her gift of foresight will be a great asset in establishing my kingdom, brother.”
Isabelle felt her chest spark with anger. She shoved her way forward and shouted, “You will never be king!”
For a brief moment, like the pause of a leaf fluttering to the ground, everyone was too stunned to move. Her words rang through the forest with the truth of foresight. Or perception. Or whatever they wanted to call it. She’d spoken the truth.
Gorgon would never be king.
He roared, a terrible fierce thing that knocked her flat on her back, and his enormous spade-head lunged. Isabelle couldn’t do a thing. She was lying paralyzed on her back, staring into his gaping mouth as it came closer and closer, a red hot fireball rolling up his throat, and she was going to die. She was going to burn. She was going to writhe and shrivel and burn.
The dragon knight leapt over her. Terrible heat flooded across them, making the world sway a thousand shades of flame as the grass sizzled and the dirt began to puddle into itself and Isabelle could hear the tips of her own hair crackling, but the dragon knight was crouched over her with his shield on his back—when did he get a shield?—their faces inches apart, their gazes locked and holding. It was a strange, terrible, surreal moment, but for the first time there were no accusations between them. Just the truth in his eyes. He would protect her. He would not let Gorgon take her away.
Then the fire stopped, and the dragon knight rolled aside to launch himself at Gorgon. And the real battle began.
Isabelle managed to crawl behind some rocks, but she could not hide. The fighting thundered all around. It seemed to her that the dragon knight was changing—was stretching out and blurring—twisting around Gorgon so that the black and silver and crimson were all mixed—and trees were just toppling over, and flames were everywhere.
And then there was an earthquake. The ground seemed to shudder and come apart. It is a terrible feeling, to have the ground come apart beneath your feet, and start dropping with great jerks and sliding. Isabelle screamed and clung to her rock. But she didn’t slide far. The rumblings stilled, the slide of dirt shifted and slowed, and Isabelle was lying half on top of her rock, panting as she stared into the depression below her. A huge form lay at the bottom. A dragon’s form.
A dead dragon.
Thud, went the sky. Thud, thud, thud, like it was so very tired.
Isabelle scrambled backward and faced the sound. The smoke roiled overhead. Something big and dark began amassing in the cloud, taking shape as it grew nearer and larger, and then it churned to a landing nearby. It was, of course, a dragon. The neck began searching back and forth at once. Crimson patterns swirled down his silver neck to spill like a crest over his shoulders and wings. It was a stunning design. Elegant, bold. Nothing like Gorgon’s blunt ugliness.
Isabelle stared up at the dragon. “Renfell?”
The weary head turned, searching, and then the long neck extended toward her.
“My lady,” the dragon rumbled. He seemed—Isabelle wasn’t sure what he seemed like. He was so tired and blood-streaked and big that it would be strange to imagine he could sound relieved, or glad, or surprised. “I thought you had fled.”
They were face to face again. Like they’d been under his shield. Or his wing. Whichever it had been. She didn’t care. She wanted—she didn’t know what she wanted—to tell him she was sorry for calling him a liar, for accusing him of being here to claim a bride, for being rude when he was nothing but kind.
What she said was, “You killed him.”
The deep golden eyes never left hers. They were sad. “Yes.”
“You’re king, then.” And Isabelle found herself thinking, only kings gamble with dragons. She betted he could track a wolf through the mountains, too, and sing like a bard, and oh, she didn’t care. He didn’t need to prove anything to her.
But he exhaled like a roll of thunder and said, “I have won the kingdom. To be king, I need also to win myself a bride.”
He looked infinitely sad and worn and vulnerable when he said this. Isabelle swallowed. She got up, though her legs were shaking and raw with burns, and she picked her way over the loose ground until she was looking right up into his eyes.
“I consent,” she said, quietly.
Miles away it seemed, his enormous chest tightened, as if he was holding a breath. He rumbled, “My lady?”
“I said…well…I think you’ve already won your bride.” She placed her hand against his nose. It radiated warmth. Then she looked up, trying not to blush. “King Renfell.”
He grinned. So dragons could grin. He bowed his head and touched it to hers, so they were forehead to forehead, breath to breath, and rumbled, “My Queen.”
Which, despite herself, made Isabelle blush.
* * *
© Amanda Smith, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.