"This is amazing!" The exclamation came out quietly, as the young woman didn't want to startle the potentially dangerous creature. Her only goal that day had been to take a stroll in the woods near the castle, but she had never anticipated coming across a young green dragon curled in a tree. The young creature raised it's head and looked her in the eyes. Strangely, she found herself drawn to the beautiful dragon and approached. "You are beautiful," she said, her hand raised as if to touch it.
The dragon cocked it's head to the side and hissed, a sound she had heard often from the palace cats when they were agitated. "I won't hurt you," she assured it gently. "I'm not sure I could." The last was said in a low tone. Despite her strange comfort with the young beast, she was well aware of the danger she was in if it took exception to her presence.
The young dragon raised it's head, looking past the woman and suddenly leaping to a higher point in the tree as a palace guard pushed approached. "Milady, you should not have wandered off. These woods can be dangerous."
She sighed. Her alone time had come to a sudden end. "Very well, Captain. Lead the way." The guard turned back where he had come from, and the young woman glanced up in the tree, feeling sad that her encounter with the dragon had been so short.
"Princess Ava, you should know better than to leave your guard behind." Her father scolded once she reached the camp. "They are there for your protection. Bandits and thieves roam these woods."
"Forgive me, Father," she bowed her head in apology. "These woods are just so...magical. Apparently my feet ran away with me." She resented the limits placed on her, but understood her father simply wanted to keep her safe.
The small group of ten guards, Ava's personal maid, the king, and two of his advisers, had left their kingdom one day earlier to meet with the royal family of their main trading partners. Ava was the youngest of her family, with two brothers and a sister already married and starting families. This trip was to introduce her to the Prince, who was only a few years older than her, and to possibly create a union between the two.
Her sister's had seemed fine with their arrangements, but Ava was always a little more wild, and yearned for freedom from the strict society. The dragon in the woods, to her, had meant freedom. The sight of it had stirred something in her that yearned for adventure, which was improper for a lady of her status.
"Keep to the middle of the group, princess," one of the guards urged as I drifted to the edge, halfway hoping to catch another glimpse of the woodland's most mysterious occupants. Most believed dragons were merely a myth, or at best were nearly extinct. My family were among the few who knew the truth: Dragons are very real, and they are still numerous. They remained hidden, able to blend with the surroundings where they were born. The little green dragon a good example. There were other kinds of dragons in different areas of the world, but only a few were lucky enough to even see them.
We had visited a kingdom near a volcanic region a couple years earlier, and there had been a black and orange fiery dragon almost completely camouflaged where some of the lava had trickled over the edge. It seemed unaffected by the heat of the lava, and was also not worried about our group wandering through it's territory. They may be dangerous creatures, but from my observations, they would likely only attack if threatened.
That was more than could be said for humans, I mused as a group of masked men emerged from the woods in a circle around us. "Stay behind me, Ava," Gerald, one of the guards, and a good friend, said quietly. "They haven't seen you yet."
I pulled out my weapon, a silver short sword with a thin, but sharp, blade, and did as he asked. Sure, I could protect myself, but the guards were stronger, and it looked as if the bandits were also stronger. My heart pounded in my chest as we stood at an impasse, the guards in a circle around the servants, and the servants in a circle around me. My father was currently out of my view, but he was a fine warrior, and would likely be in the outer circle.
Sending a quick prayer for his safety, my eyes darted around the circle, trying to see what was happening. "Let us pass!" my father's voice was strong and showed all the authority he carried.
"Sorry, your highness," the bandit's voice carried, and to my surprise, didn't sound much different than my father's. In terms of authority, that is. This voice was younger, and also seemed to carry a hint of true remorse. "We are more numerous than you, and will take what we need, or you all will die. I have no desire to spill your blood today, and what we take will be returned to you. So I ask you to send out the Princess Ava, and no harm will come to her or any of you. If you try to stop us, we will take her by force, and I can't promise her safety.
My heart beat ever faster, and I stood straighter. As princess, it was my duty to protect those under me. I may not be the warrior my father is, but I am no cowering woman. If this person wanted me, and truly would not hurt anyone else, was it not my duty to go?
"The princess is not here," my father attempted. "I left her back at the castle for her protection." An outright lie. My father had brought me here, knowing there was a threat within our ranks. Someone who knew our family held the secret of the dragons. And knew that I specifically had been chosen as the bearer of those secrets.
A laugh followed my father's statement, and the masked man spoke again. "My spies have told me otherwise, your Majesty. Send her to me now, and you may go on your way. She will join you on your return trip, once you have conducted your business with Reginald."
My eyes narrowed. He was well-informed. "She's here, sir!" A voice I hadn't expected.
"Gerald?" I looked at him in surprise as he gripped my upper arm, not even fighting as he took my sword. "What are you doing?" He had signed his own death warrant. Maybe not with the bandits, but my father would have him killed for treason to the crown.
"Sorry, Ava. But we truly need you. My life is unimportant. Yours is not." He ignored the shouts and jeers of the other guards as he pulled me forward, holding a dagger at my throat. What was happening? Yes, I carried secrets, but only to protect the dragons, not as a threat to anyone.
"Gerald, you will be killed for this, you know that. Why are you doing this?"
"Because I know you. You would have given yourself up. An act of bravery, but your father wouldn't have forgiven you for bypassing his protection."
"He would have. But he won't forgive you for betraying me," I argued softly. "Please, my friend. If you stop this now, I can help to preserve your life."
Shaking his head sadly, my personal guard...and friend pushed me to the leader of the bandits, who took my arm firmly. "Thank you, friend. If you would like to live, please, join us."
Gerald hesitated for a moment, glancing at the hostile faces of the other guards and my father, before nodding and joining the ranks of the bandits. "Our business is concluded. Carry on your highness. Your daughter will be returned to you shortly, and unharmed. You have my word."
"Comforting," I bit out sarcastically. "The word of a kidnapper. What can that be worth," I continued as he pulled me away, the entire group of bandits melting back into the woods. Disappearing with the same speed they had appeared.
We approached a clearing, and the man holding me shouted out his orders. "Spread out! Post guards! Make sure we weren't followed!"
Scoffing I wrenched my arm from his grip. "You must be joking. You kidnap a princess and expect them to simply leave? Of course they will look for me."
He looked at me, his blue eyes showing sympathy as he pulled the mask down from his face. "Princess, I apologize. But once I take what I need from you, your normal guards will probably turn on you. For that I am truly sorry."
My eyes widened and I glanced down at the ring I wore which was the key to the greatest secret of our kingdom. "You can't! Everything would be ruined if you show it. My father..."
"Isn't your father. He is your protector, and your jailer. The ring not only keeps you caged, but it prevents you from even realizing just how trapped you are. And we need that ring to help prevent a true threat. Something you have never been."
As I tried to back away, another of the men stopped me, allowing my captor to grab my wrist. "May I at least know the name of the man who will ruin me?" I asked regally.
"I am Desmond," he said.
"Reginald's son?" That was a surprise. None in Reginald's kingdom, including Reginald himself, were meant to know anything about our secrets. "What is a nobleman's son doing with a rabble of thieves and kidnappers?"
He sighed. "Trying to protect my kingdom. You are a beautiful woman, Ava. But don't you want your true beauty to show?"
Narrowing my eyes at him in confusion, I questioned. "What exactly do you expect to happen? The ring holds a secret, but it will change nothing about me."
"Oh, Princess," he breathed sadly. "Do you truly not know? If that is the case, then I must beg your forgiveness for the shock that will come to you." Without another word he gently pulled the ring from my finger, something I couldn't do alone due to a spell we'd had placed on it to protect the secret.
Staring at him I sniffed haughtily. "You see? Nothing..." I paused, bending and gasping in sudden pain. "What? What's happening?" my voice came out through clenched teeth. Teeth that felt like they were expanding and sharpening. Screaming in pain, my whole body shook as the bones realigned and something grew out of my back. The sound of ripping fabric and gasping breaths tore through the clearing and my eyes teared.
I dropped to my hands and stared in shock as the delicate fingers I was used to seeing began to grow scales and the nails elongated into dangerous claws, sharper and more deadly than the swords I had grown up using. The shock was too much, and I curled on myself, wrapping my tail over my face as I shook and howled painfully.
The pain ended as suddenly as it began, but I stayed curled up, exhausted from the change. "Are you okay, Ava?" Desmond's voice came through, somehow sounding different. A little wary. For good reason, I thought as I growled low in my throat. The sound was primal, and all the men backed away.
Freedom. For the first time in years I was truly free! I tentatively stretched, twitching my tail and flexing my wings. My dragon form was huge, and took up about half the clearing. I was mostly green with some gold highlights, and my wings were edged in black and gold. Talking would be nearly impossible, so I went with the dragons alternate method of communication: Telepathy. "Why have you freed me, human?"
"We need your help, and we needed this device," he answered, gesturing at the ring that had been used to imprison me. "There is a shape changer ravaging our kingdom. She is similar to you, but holds much anger toward humans. But no one can get close enough to her to stop her. You might be able to."
"Why should I help? The humans imprisoned me. Made me one of them with no memory of what I truly am."
He sighed. "You were seen as a threat, but the king wanted to protect you. Others would have killed you. Now I am asking...no, I'm begging you, please help us. This shape changer has killed many innocents, including children. You are our only hope."
Tilting my head and flexing my wings, I considered my options. I could leave. Fly away and not return. But the man who had considered me a daughter, who had taken care of me would likely be wandering into a very dangerous situation knowing nothing of the danger. Despite my anger at being kept in the human cage, there was still love for my human father. "Very well. I will help you. What do you require?"
A smile formed on Desmond's face. "Thank you, Ava. We need you to draw her in. She sees dragons on her turf as possible usurpers. She'll attack you."
Great. The human wanted to use me as bait. "Don't worry," he said, possibly noticing my doubtful look. "You are bigger than she is, and more powerful. You just need to somehow get her down so we can get the ring on her and lock her into her human form.
Spreading my wings I locked my gaze on the human who had freed me. "Where is she? Point me in her direction and I will stop her."
"Stay near us. We will lead you to her."
I shook my head and roared. "How far? Walking is much slower than flying, and I need to fly!" I exclaimed rearing up on my hind legs and flapping my wings.
Looking at me warily, Desmond waved off his men. "Very well. If you must fly, then I need to go with you. Would you permit me to ride you?" he asked.
Had he asked with a little less hesitation, I may have blown him off, but he seemed frightened by the prospect more than excited. Obviously it wasn't his intention to turn me into a slave to be ridden into battle at his will. "Very well. But you will want some kind of padding between yourself and my scales."
"Men, find me some thick leather, a cushion, and some rope," he ordered. To make it easier for him, I leaned forward, resting my head on the ground as they tossed some blankets onto my back and tied them on with rope, leaving enough loose rope for Desmond to hang on to. "Hurry up. She's the impatient type," he said as I snorted in annoyance. He put the ring on a leather strip around his neck and climbed on. "Ready?" he asked.
Shaking my head and standing I once again spread my wings. It would be my first flight in so many years, and I my first ever with a human rider. Although the weight didn't bother me, it did feel a little odd. "Hold on," I warned him as I launched myself into the air.
Flying was magnificent! How could I have forgotten this? It was a freedom I could never find as a human princess, and would never allow to be taken from me again! I felt a tug on one side of the rope. "What is it?" I snapped.
"You need to go to the right," the bandit-prince said in a subdued voice. Flight didn't come so naturally to him. "For the shape changer. She's in that direction."
Turning in the indicated direction, I noticed the mountainside where some of the trees were burning. My keen hearing picked up the sound of people screaming. "Apparently she's a little busy," I told Desmond. As we drew closer we could see what I'd heard. Burning wagons and the dead bodies of hired guards surrounding the injured merchants.
"Where did she go?" Desmond yelled to the shocked victims. "Where is the red dragon?"
"That way, sir," one of the men pointed up the mountain. "I think it nests in the caves."
A little green dragon suddenly appeared, and I realized it was the same as the one I'd seen in the woods earlier. "What is it?" I asked the little creature, this time speaking in the language of dragons, with a series of growls and undulating sounds.
"Help is coming," he answered in the same way. "I knew when I saw you in the woods that you would be facing the demon."
Desmond cleared his throat. "Uh...what is it saying?" he asked. "What's going on?"
"We'll have help." I told him. "Let's go."
As we flew up the mountain, several other dragons joined us. Apparently all were tired of the antics of this shape changer, and from that I realized Desmond would be right to trap her. Dragons and humans alike feared the witch, and it was time to put an end to her reign of terror. Roaring a challenge I saw a red-headed woman step confidently from the mouth of one of the caves. She wore a red robe that had spikes sticking out of it, and as we drew nearer I could see the spikes were dragon teeth. There was a circlet on her head, indicating either that she was royalty or nobility. "Brother," she hissed as we landed at the entrance. "I'd wondered how long it would take you to come for me."
Snorting in surprise I questioned Desmond, "Brother? Why wouldn't you tell me this?"
"Larissa, you can stop this! Just turn away from the dark magic!" She wouldn't, I realized as her eyes began to glow red and she shed the robe revealing an outfit fully made out of dragon scales. Her own, from the looks of it. Her change was smoother than mine had been, but Desmond was correct. She was smaller. Smaller, but more fierce, and infinitely more angry.
Larissa, as a dragon, was fiery red with more spikes around her head than me. She would have fit well with the fire dragon I'd seen once with my father. Rearing up with a roar I charged her, knocking her against the wall of the cave, "Get off!" I ordered Desmond. "Once I get her still, get the ring on her!" He hurled himself out of the makeshift saddle and rushed her as I pushed the smaller dragon against the wall.
Cornered and angry, the red dragon breathed out a blast of fire, making me blink to protect my eyes, but causing no damage. Swiping my dagger-like claws at her, I managed to rip off several scales, and draw blood, which made her scream in anger.
Another fire blast caught me by surprise, blinding me and I allowed my instincts to take over, biting and scratching and blowing out my own fire blast, I finally knocked the smaller dragon down.
The green dragon and some of the others came then, and helped to keep her that way. Desmond maneuvered around the dragon's spikes and between the little fires burning around the cave, and managed to slip the ring over one of the dragon's claws. Screeching in anger and pain, the red dragon shrunk, showing the red-headed witch once again. Desmond spoke a few words to lock the spell of the ring, making it so Larissa couldn't remove it.
An ancient knowledge allowed me to speak some words in a lost language, and lock it on completely. "No one can remove this ring. You will be forever locked in your human form, unable to perform any act of sorcery. Change your ways, human girl, or I will come back for you!" The other dragons bowed as they left the cave. "Remove the...saddle, Desmond. I will not be a horse again. For anyone."
He did as I asked, but before I could fly away he removed my own symbol of royalty from his bag. "This crown is yours, Ava. It was yours even before you were locked into human form. You are royalty, even in the dragon kingdom. You should visit your father," he added hesitantly. "Tell him what has happened. He will still care for you as his own, and you can still be a part of his life. If that's what you want."
And he wanted the king to see that the supposed bandit had kept his word. "Very well, Desmond. I will let my father know you have only set me free, and not harmed me. You are safe to return our prisoner to your own family for safe-keeping, although I believe she poses no threat now," I spared a glance at the woman who was desperately trying to change. Her eyes glowed, but that was as far as the ring would allow her to go.
"You are royalty, Larissa," I told her. "Take the change with grace, and move on. You could still be an asset to your kingdom. Until then, you will always feel trapped."
With no further need of conversation, I leaped off the mountainside and took to the air. My first confrontation had gone well, only minor injuries had been accrued. But after everything that had happened today I felt exhausted. The only thing left to do was show myself to my father. And then I could rest.
I hope you enjoyed this story! It was based off a couple of pictures on Pinterest, and came out of my desire to write something a little different than what I have been working on. Let me know what you think! I would love to hear from you! :)