And so, months after that night, Edward stared at a depiction of a dragon once again. Ripping the announcement down, the parchment in his hand felt insubstantial for the weight of what it stood for. He walked quickly through the square and into the open wooden doors of the keep, a sense of purpose returning to his stride.
Where before he'd felt a certain sense of contentment in his quiet life, since their return to the village he'd found himself restless and longing for things he knew would never be within his reach. As the warmth of summer returned and rumors of uprisings to the south reached the village, the looming prospect of war had given Edward equal parts apprehension and excitement. He knew that he could serve in the same manner as his father, and a part of him longed for the distraction, despite Carlisle's insistence that he was needed at his side.
His struggle with whether to stay or go south to find the King's army had been sealed by the prior day's post, which had brought with it a letter to Lady Esme from the Princess that left him with deeper wounds than any battlefield. The King had promised her hand in marriage in only a week's time to the son of the leader of the uprising in exchange for a truce between the lands.
Lady Esme had shared the news at the evening meal and Edward had struggled to keep himself in check until he could flee the keep and find his way through the moonlit forest by pure instinct. He burst into the meadow, where the small bluebells had not yet blossomed and the tender shoots of grass were not tall enough to whisper to him. Sinking to the ground in the spot that had served to comfort him so many times, his fingers had anchored themselves in the stalks as he threw back his head and screamed until his throat was hoarse and his body weary with his despair. Lying in the grass, watching as the moon rose higher in the sky, he'd slipped into an exhausted and restless sleep.
When morning had come, he'd risen from the cold ground, steadying himself as he made a list of all he would need to prepare for his journey to join the King's forces and lose himself in whatever fight might come.
But as he'd made his way back through town, he'd seen the crowd around the sign, the one that promised the thing he wanted most in all the world.
And suddenly his path was clear again.
Carlisle had been generous and understanding, giving him his own suit of armor, and one of the fastest steeds he possessed to outfit Edward for his journey. Lady Esme, tears in her eyes, had begged him to save the Princess, pressing a small ring she said had once belonged to Bella into his hand as a token of luck.
He'd placed the ring on a leather cord around his neck where he could feel the smoothness of the metal warmed by his own skin, as a constant reminder of her.
As he drew nearer the Capitol, the rumors that had been wild and outlandish in the outlying villages grew stranger. The dragon had appeared from nowhere, out of the mountains above the city, wings spread so wide they seemed to block out the sun. It had wheeled and circled above the Castle, its flames scorching the flags flying above the utmost parapets, before disappearing into the mountains again. Citizens from surrounding villages had flocked to the Capitol, crowding its walls in their terror at seeing such a fearsome creature that many had believed to be myth.
But the worst was not discovered until near nightfall after the dragon's first sighting, when one of the ladies in waiting confessed that the Princess, who all had believed to be within the confines of the Castle, had not returned from her daily walk into the mountains. A shoe that had belonged to the Princess was found near the doorway of the long forgotten tunnels, and the consensus was that the dragon had, at best, taken the King's only child. No one wanted to believe the worst.
The notice of the reward had been sent out the next morning to all the villages by the fastest messengers in the land, and knights and soldiers from far and wide began to flood the kingdom, eager for the reward and fame from killing a dragon. News from the south brought reports of dragon attacks there as well, scattering the uprising that had begun and striking fear in the heart of the countryside. Suddenly all anyone could speak of was dragons.
Edward sat by the campfire in the makeshift village set up near the gates of the Capitol, silently polishing his shield and armor to a high shine as he listened to the other newly arrived brag about their abilities and how they planned to trap and kill the dragon. He was weary, having pushed himself and his horse hard to arrive by nightfall, and he found himself growing angry with the words so freely tossed about, the hubris of all of the men who assumed that a dragon would be slow or easy to defeat. Even though the dragon he had known had been unable to breathe fire or fly, the agility of the creature as it sprinted across the meadow was unparalleled, and he knew that the dragon's graceful long neck and powerful tail could move at whiplash speeds.
The boasting ground to a halt as the sounds of pounding hooves and a frightened whinny signaled the arrival of another traveller. The horse, eyes rolling wildly, staggered to a halt as a man slid from its back, his face blackened and hair singed almost to the scalp. He collapsed after only a few steps, and Edward jumped up, grabbing one of his arms while another hunter supported the other and led him towards pails of water.
Gulping huge swallows, the man's trembling grew less, and he finally caught his breath.
"It can't be beaten," he said, looking around at the group. "It's a monster, and it will kill us all."
Edward listened as the man recounted the party he'd ridden out with that morning. They'd located the creature's lair, a large cave high above the city, and had devised a strategy to try to lure the dragon out and ambush it with a party of nearly twenty men. He had been the only one that survived.
"Its forearms are powerful, massive and equipped with sharp claws that can slice through a man's stomach," he told the crowd who looked increasingly wary. "The flames it breathes makes that campfire seem puny, and its skin glitters like a treasure trove of precious stones, but is so tough, no arrow or sword can penetrate it. One hundred pieces of gold is too paltry a price for the impossible."
There were murmurs among the crowd, both of agreement and disbelief, and Edward listened for only a moment before he turned and threaded his way among the camps to his horse. Patting her neck, he silently saddled her, hoisting himself into the saddle and began the ride into the hills. He wanted to see the beast with his own eyes, see if in fact it was the small dragon that had sat beside him in a meadow far away. A creature he'd allowed to live, to grow, and now to take the woman he loved.
The dawn was beginning to break when he found the path that led towards the cave high in the side of the mountain that the man had described. Tying the horse securely, he began the climb. There were bodies littering the path, evidence of the dragon's invulnerability, and a chill settled over him. He slowed as he neared the top, veering off the path and climbing a slight incline that gave him a better view of the cave's entrance.
His breath caught as a long neck gracefully emerged, the dragon's eyes immediately turning in his direction, the same honey brown tinged in gold he remembered from so long ago. It was his dragon, without a doubt, though the creature before him was now far larger the stoutest of the King's prized war steeds. It was no longer invulnerable, Edward thought, as a jet of flame erupted from the dragon as it fully emerged, scorching the ground before it.
Was it possible that Bella still lived in that cave? Was it only a fool's errand to think that the dragon would have spared her for any reason?
He scrambled to his feet, suddenly enraged, his arm scrabbling for his sword and the shield he had strapped to his back as his noises attracted the dragon's attention. A part of his mind knew that this was foolish, that he was exhausted, hungry, and ill-prepared to take on a dragon that had easily bested twenty men. But the thought that perhaps Bella might be beyond the beast, frightened and alone, propelled him forward, down the hill and into the clearing before the cave. Everything had a weakness, even dragons.
By the time he planted his feet on level ground, the dragon had reared on its hind legs, wings spread so wide they nearly filled the clearing as its tail surged through the air with a whiplike crack. They faced off, man and beast, and Edward lifted the shield, cradling it against his chest as he stared up into the eyes of the dragon and tried to swallow the fear that threatened to engulf him. He watched as the dragon's jaws opened in a mighty roar, head thrown back. There, just at the base of the dragon's throat, he noted a small soft spot before the shimmering hardened scales began that covered the vulnerable flesh beneath. That was it. His one chance, if he could only reach it.
He was surprised when the dragon dropped its forelegs to the ground, its head dipping lower until it was only feet from him. Nostrils flared, it seemed to scent him, cocking its head to the side as it regarded him with an obvious curiosity.
"Do you remember me?" Edward asked, fighting the tremor in his voice. "I remember you, dragon."
The dragon edged even nearer and Edward resisted the urge to move. Soon it would be within striking distance, and if his aim was true, he could find that spot, plunging his sword upward into the dragon's brain.
"That's right. You came to the meadow in the summer and we played together."
The large head bowed and moved even closer.
"I thought you were beautiful, dragon. The most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. And I never wanted anyone to harm you."
The dragon was close now, and Edward could feel the heat of its breath as it inched forward, nostrils flaring again. It was almost time. He inhaled, glancing down at his shield, and froze.
He'd expected to see the iridescent shimmer of the dragon's scales reflected back in the polished surface. But instead he saw a pair of large brown eyes, a pale face, and an abundance of dark hair. He jerked his head up, staring into the dragon's familiar eyes, than back down to the reflection.
The shield slid from his nerveless hand as he finally understood. Like a key turning in a lock, the pieces fell into place. Bella didn't need to be saved from the dragon.
Bella was the dragon.
Her words echoed in his ears as though she were speaking to him then. Please, Edward, if you do love me, then promise me that you will kill me. You'll know when the time is right.
He tightened his grip on his sword as he slowly raised his head, meeting the dragon's tortured eyes with understanding. "This is what you want then? What will save you?"
It is only the one who truly loves me who can free me from my cage.
He remembered what she had told him as the great creature before him raised her head, baring her throat to him. His breath caught in his throat and he felt tears flood his eyes as he raised the sword.
"Bella, I love you."
He thrust upward, his aim true as he found the yielding flesh and heard the crunch of bone as the blade slid higher and deep within her brain. He felt her body wavering, then a slow slide as she began to crash to her side. Edward stumbled back, barely missing being trapped by one great arm before he tripped on his own shield and fell, his head hitting the hard metal and robbing him of consciousness.
He awakened to the sensation of warmth and softness engulfing him. With eyes closed, he curled closer to the comforting stroke across his forehead. There was pain there, a dull throb, but the touch soothed it away. He didn't want it to stop.
"Edward? Edward, wake up."
He struggled to open his eyes, and when he did, he was certain he was dreaming. Or dead. It was Bella holding him, her small hands caressing him, the warmth of her body . . .
He jerked upright, suddenly, painfully aware that he was lying in the middle of the clearing, a very alive, very naked Bella cradling his body. She smiled at him, her long hair draping around her body barely shielding her breasts from his view.
She smiled. "You saved me, Edward. Just as you promised."
He stared at her stupidly, distracted by the creamy flesh that he couldn't seem to tear his eyes from and the fact that Bella was sitting there, seemingly unharmed.
"But I killed you."
She shook her head. "No, you killed the dragon and broke the spell that imprisoned me. The one my true love only could break. I knew that it was you, Edward. From the time we were young, I knew it would be you." She leaned forward, her lips softly touching his.
Edward sighed, enraptured by the exquisite feel of her mouth beneath his and pulled her closer. She gave a small squeak as her bare flesh met the cool metal of his armor. He struggled to his feet, shrugging out of his mail shirt and pulling the shirt from beneath over his head. It was not much, but it would serve as some cover for her.
Bella accepted the shirt gracefully, slipping the too large garment over her head. It fell about her, the thin white cloth doing little to disguise her form, and he felt his heart beat faster.
"Bella, can you explain this to me? I'm afraid I don't understand."
She nodded, but drew his hand into hers, pulling him towards the path. "I will. But we should leave here. There will be others coming soon."
She winced as her foot caught on a stone, and Edward swept her up in his arms, never wanting to let her go.
The cottage she guided him to, the former home of one of the women who'd worked in the Castle's kitchen, was dusty with disuse. But it was still standing and a shelter from the storm that had risen as they made their way down the mountain by a different path than the one Edward had climbed. He found dry wood and kindling, and prepared a fire, as Bella unrolled the packs from his saddle and laid out a simple meal before them.
As they sat by each other in the tumbledown cottage, with his head still swollen from his fall, and her garbed in nothing by his shirt, he felt more at home than anywhere he'd been since he was eight years old. He felt as though he belonged. With her.
She took a few bites of bread and cheese, and after a sip of water, began to speak.
"When I was born, my father was away fighting in the Great War. I barely remember him until I was nearly four, the year that my mother took ill and died. When he returned from the front victorious to find her dead, he took me in his arms and began to cry.
"It was not until the following year, when the weather began to warm, that I first learned that the tears I had thought were for my mother were for me. My father had feared losing the war, and had bargained with a powerful mage to invoke some of the old magic on his behalf. It had worked and the battle turned in my father's favor, but thinking that he could outwit the mage and avoid the heavy price, my father murdered the man instead.
"He did not realize that the mage had a sister, even more powerful. And as revenge, she cursed his only child to become a monster, so that he would always remember what he had done. For part of the year I was his child, though the mirrors in the castle all gave a constant reminder of what I would become before he removed them. And then, when the weather warmed each year, I became the creature. He spirited me away, had me looked after by a different member of his Guard each summer, sworn to secrecy of course. He executed each of them when we returned."
Edward's eyes widened as he remembered the first summer the man had come to the village. "He killed them all?"
Bella nodded. "He couldn't risk someone finding out. When I became . . .when I transformed, it was as though I could see things, remember them, but I was not in control. But still I begged to return each year to your village for as long as he would let me. It somehow made it more bearable, knowing you would be there."
Edward smiled, remembering the many hours they had spent there.
"I looked for you every summer, even when you no longer came. But why now, Bella? Why reveal the dragon, when you'd hidden for so long?"
Bella took his hand. "My father had always sworn that he would protect me and keep me safe in the Castle, if I would hide what the curse had made me. But when he promised me to the son of the warrior tribe to the south so close to summer when I would change, I knew that he had only been waiting. He saw me as a weapon that he could use, a secret he could unleash on his enemy. So I ran, knowing that my transformation would come soon, and then he would not be able to stop me."
Edward looked at her hand curled in his and clutched it tighter. "And me? How did you know what I should do to free you?"
Bella smiled. "It was the one gift of the witch who cursed my father. That first year I was taken to your village, when I met you in the meadow, an old woman came to the hunting lodge at the end of the summer. The frost had come, and I had just transformed back to myself. I knew right away she was different for she put the guard to sleep with a wave of her hand. She sat me down, made a pot of tea, and told me what I was, and why I was that way. And then she told me that if I could find one man who would do the unimaginable and slay the dragon, not out of fear or hate, but out of love, then I could be freed."
Edward regarded her solemnly, his hand loosening around hers. "And now that you are, what will you do?"
She watched as he began to untangle their fingers. "Spend the rest of my life with you." She blushed a bit and looked away. "That is, if that is what you also wish."
"Why, Princess?" he asked. "Because I freed you? Because I love you?"
Bella stood and moved to his side, touching his face softly. "No, Edward. Because I love you.
Edward walked into the meadow, the feel of the soft grass brushing his fingertips as he touched the bluebells that framed the clearing. He'd thought them magic, once, some special protection that kept this place so perfect. Who knew, perhaps they were.
The grass rustled and parted across the meadow. He watched as she rose, her hair long and unbound as she ran towards him, arms out as though she could once again fly. He held out his arms and caught her, spinning her around until their lips met.
It was time for them to make some magic of their own.
A/N: I'm a big fan of fairy tales - the wonder and the magic of a world where everything isn't quite what it seems is very enticing to me - and I love a happy ending. My thanks to katiecav and mcgt for hosting the Twisted Twilight Tales contest and sparking the idea for this story, which was inspired by the Princess and the Frog, and for their kindness in the recognition they gave the story there. You can find more of those tales at .net/u/2594222/Twisted_Twilight_Tales.
And many, many thanks to all of you, the readers, for the time you've taken to read and provide feedback for this story. It is truly appreciated.