It was bad enough that Isobel had been turned into an enormous, hideous, clumsy beast.
It was bad enough that her stepmother had pushed her into the sea as the change took place. It was bad enough that gusts of flame sometimes erupted from her new snout: the salt sea burned her skin and a worse fire burned her from within.
It was bad enough that the magic her stepmother had laid upon her could be broken by only one person, a complete stranger to her.
It was bad enough that the person who had to kiss her to break the spell wasn't a handsome king's son, but a wary-looking king's daughter, a girl no older than Isobel herself. (And not as pretty. But with a certain stubborn set to her chin that did, in fact, help convince Isobel that this was a royal scion.)
That wasn't the worst part of it.
The worst was --
"No," said Olwen.
"What do you mean, no?" Isobel demanded. She had to turn her horrible head away from Olwen, just in case, in her agitation, she sent a deadly gust of flame towards the one person who could help her.
Finding Olwen had been her one piece of luck so far - but it looked as though her luck had ended as soon as it had begun.
Isobel had never been to the High King's castle.
She had known that it was along the same coastline as the beach where she had dragged herself ashore, and so, keeping the waves on her right, she had followed the coast. She could fly, now. She might even have enjoyed it, if everything hadn't hurt. And if everything she saw with a wit to react hadn't screamed, or bayed, or howled, and fled from her.
When she came across a group of people on horseback, the horses fled too. She followed the rider whose horse bolted to the left, separating itself from the rest.
They were so small in comparison to her. It shocked her even though she'd had trees and rocks to compare herself to when she'd come ashore, and birds in the air as small as midges. It was as if she were a cat chasing mice. And just as dangerous.
The horse dashed for the safety of a copse, tossing its rider from its back.
To Isobel's relief, as she landed, the rider - a woman - groaned and sat up. It was bad enough to be a monster; perhaps she could be turned back into a girl before her stepmother's curse caused her to truly hurt someone.
"It's all right!" Isobel said. The words came out wreathed in hisses and snarls, but they were words, and the woman seemed to understand them.
"I am not a beast by nature!" Isobel explained, in a rush. "I am looking for the High King's son. Only tell me where I can find him."
The woman stared up at her. (Up and up and up.) "I have no brother," she said.
As Princess Olwen wasn't running or screaming, it didn't take as long as Isobel had feared to explain that she needed Olwen to kiss her - three times - to break her stepmother's curse.
No, she didn't know why it had to be Olwen.
No, she didn't know why her stepmother had cursed her.
(She did, but that was a thing that hurt more than salt on new skin, more than fire in her throat, and as long as she could avoid it, she would.)
But Olwen wouldn't do it.
"Why?" Isobel asked plaintively, or as plaintively as she could when it came out as a crackling, rumbling boom.
That boom would have terrified her if she had been in her normal shape, and in Olwen's place. But Olwen only stared at her.
"Is that true fire?" she asked.
"Yes," Isobel said, and coughed out some to show Olwen. It blew back against her own snout and she squirmed in pain, stomping on the ground hard enough to sink down into it a little way.
"I could hurt someone like this," Isobel said. She cajoled: "I'm no danger to anyone as a girl."
"If you hurt me, you'll never be a girl again," Olwen said.
That was a threat. This wasn't going anything like the way Isobel had expected.
"I won't," Isobel said. "Please. What do you want?"
"I want you to be my dragon, and fight for me."
"No," Isobel said, horrified.
It turned out that Olwen hadn't been riding for fun. Her companions had been ordered to escort Olwen to the harbour, so that the last of the royal line could flee to safety from attack.
"Enemies have taken the high castle," Olwen told Isobel. "Invaders have slain my commanders and most of the army. There are terrible things behind me." She stared intently up at Isobel. "But none of them are a dragon."
Isobel reeled at the news.
If a dragon had come to Isobel and told her that she, and only she, could turn it back into a beautiful girl, she would have been honored. She wouldn't have hesitated. She was kind and good. Everyone said so.
Everyone had said so until now.
"I don't want to harm anyone," Isobel said.
"I don't want my people to be hurt," Olwen replied harshly. "But they are dying right now. I didn't think I could help them. You could help them."
When she put it like that, it sounded terrible for Isobel to refuse. But she felt sick in her stomach - not in a dragon way, but in a familiar way that belonged to Isobel-the-girl. She didn't want to be useful as a dragon.
And what if it was for nothing? What if the part about the kisses was just another part of her stepmother's tricks?
"You have to turn me back into a girl when you get your castle back," Isobel said.
Olwen looked thoughtful. Isobel rushed on. "And you have to kiss me once, now, to seal the promise."
"All right," Olwen said.
Isobel had to turn her head so that a great nervous whoosh of flame could erupt out of her.
"Are you done?" Olwen asked.
"I think so," Isobel said. "For now," she added.
"I suppose I'd better kiss you quickly, then," Olwen said. She stepped cautiously closer. Was Isobel supposed to just let Olwen kiss her, or to kiss Olwen back, somehow? How horrible. And dangerous. Isobel closed her jaws and lowered her head.
Olwen put up a hand to Isobel's snout, and winced. It must feel hot. She licked her lips, quickly, then leaned in. Isobel barely felt the moment Olwen's lips touched Isobel's snout.
But the princess must have managed it, because Isobel felt a gentle coolness, like a soft breeze to her face on a hot day, spreading all the way through her. She was dizzy, and when the dizziness passed, she could tell that she was smaller. Olwen wasn't nearly so far below her. It had worked.
That meant that she had to do what Olwen had said: she had to fight.
She'd never kissed anyone before. She wondered if Olwen had.
(Did it count?)
(It had counted enough for the magic to work.)
"Can you carry me back to my people?" Olwen asked. "That would be fastest."
More haste, less speed, was the order of the day when Olwen and Isobel returned. While one of Olwen's companions went off to find Olwen's bolted horse, the rest of them argued about Isobel, and whether she could be trusted, and if she could be trusted, whether she would do any good.
Isobel said nothing (pretending to be a dumb beast meant far fewer explanations). Olwen stayed silent too, but her silence was of a different type, fuming in mood as Isobel fumed in breath. She stood apart from her arguing soldiers, who weren't really arguing with her even though they looked at her at the ends of their sentences, and waited.
When her youngest soldier returned with her horse, she said, "Enough. We will go to meet Andreas as he gathers men at the ford," and to shut up retorts, she climbed back on Isobel's neck.
Isobel saw the men realise that there wasn't much point in arguing with someone riding a dragon.
She hoped Olwen was right about things, and that the men were wrong.
Andreas, when they found him, had a lot more endurance for arguing.
He was Olwen's surviving general. He had taken on the task of gathering up the remainder of the army in between the high castle and one of the king's largest towns, to slow the invaders' progress across the kingdom.
Olwen had explained this to Isobel as they flew. It had been a tense flight; Isobel was far faster than the riders below, but they had had to slow down to wait for them (because what use was an escort who outpaced her charges?).
Then Andreas had explained to Olwen everything that had happened since Olwen had been sent away, the previous day - and had kept talking.
He looked at Isobel with the same expression that Olwen did. A calculating look.
Isobel couldn't fit in the tent where Andreas and Olwen were arguing. She curled up and waited again.
She wondered how long it would take to win. Probably not a week. A month? A year? She'd only promised to help Olwen get her castle back, not to drive out the invaders entirely. Would Olwen remember that?
Would Olwen keep her promise?
But of course she would, because if she didn't, she would have an angry dragon on her hands. Isobel didn't want to be angry, but she wanted to be a girl. And the more of a dragon she was now, maybe, the sooner she would be a girl again.
Threat and counter-threat. Everything was horrible, and tomorrow Isobel might have to kill people, and yesterday no one would have believed her capable of a cruel word.
When Olwen woke her, it was dark. "We have to go now," she told Isobel, and Isobel thought miserably that she'd been wrong - she'd have to kill people already, and it wasn't even the next day.
She'd promised to obey Olwen, and so she got up, quietly, as Olwen commanded, and let Olwen settle herself on her neck (further back this time - Olwen had found something to use as a saddle). They made their way out of the camp, and Isobel discovered that she could move softly, if not silently.
A sentry challenged them as they left. "It's me," Olwen told him.
"I'll have to report it," he said.
"Of course," Olwen said. She sounded annoyed. Isobel decided she would wait until they were in the air to ask Olwen to explain.
"Where are we going?" she asked presently.
"To the enemy camp," Olwen said, "outside my father's - the high castle."
"I'm sorry," Isobel said. "Did they kill your father?"
Olwen laughed, in a choked way. "No," she said. "At least he didn't have to see this. My father was very old. They waited until he died to invade.
"You would know all that," she added, "if my father's council had done their jobs. They should have ridden through the country, collecting taxes and news and bringing news from my father. Instead, they courted him and encircled him, hoping he would name one of them his heir."
"But he didn't," Isobel guessed.
"No," Olwen said. "There's only me. Sssh. Bear a little left."
It was very dark. A crescent moon oriented Isobel in the sky, but left her uncertain of the ground. She felt as though she had been cast into a sea again - a sea of air and darkness, whose shore - the fire-glows of the camp they had left behind - was out of reach.
Isobel's eyes as a dragon were not as good as her human eyes.
"We need to find a rock," Olwen said. "I think I know where."
"What then?" Isobel asked her.
"We'll drop it on the enemy camp," Olwen said. "The castle is on a hill, so they'll be on the slope, or at the bottom of it. We'll have to find a smooth rock so it rolls down, to cause the most damage. Then we'll come in flaming. We'll drive them off."
It was a very bold plan, but Isobel had heard some of it already when Andreas and Olwen had been arguing. Andreas hadn't sounded very impressed.
"Just us?" she asked. "What about the rest of your army?"
"We don't need them," Olwen said. "If we bring them, some of them will die. But I don't think there's much that a human army can do against you."
Isobel wasn't nearly so sure of that. She didn't want to be doing this.
She knew that the reason she wanted to argue was that she was squeamish and terrified. But the more she thought about it, the more reasons she could think of - good reasons - to go back.
"What about the people in the castle?" Isobel asked. "Surely you don't want me to drive them out with fire, too? What about you? Even if a spear won't hurt me, it might hit you."
"Why are you arguing?" Olwen asked furiously. "We could drive off my enemies before morning! We could save everyone! You promised to obey me."
"No," Isobel said. "I won't do this."
She turned around.
"Dragon!" Olwen wailed, furious and betrayed.
Of course. Olwen didn't even know Isobel's name.
"You coward! I'll jump off you." Olwen threatened her. "If you don't turn around and do what I say, I'll jump from your back."
"I'll catch you in my claws," Isobel retorted.
"I'll kiss you, then," Olwen said. "You'll turn into a human and we'll both fall."
"Don't," Isobel said.
"I'll do it."
Really terrified now, Isobel pulled her claws up to her belly and straightened her wings out for a glide. She dived for the ground, trying to figure out exactly how far up she was.
She felt Olwen shift on her back, leaning forward.
She twisted her head awkwardly and snorted fire, hoping that as it streamed away behind her, she would be able to see in front of her. There - she had a fix on the trees below her. She was diving too fast. She pulled up a little, looking desperately for a clearing.
Change rippled through her, this time, an unwelcome chill. But when she crashed into the trees she was still a dragon, and the branches stung her and gave way before her rather than impaling her, and Olwen shouted in anger, but she didn't scream.
Isobel would have liked to just stay there and puff in exhaustion, but she was afraid that she was going to set the trees on fire.
"Get clear," she ordered Olwen.
Olwen scrambled away without replying, and Isobel thrashed until she had uprooted and broken several of the trees around her, and could see clear to the moon and stars. "There," she said. She stretched. She thought she could take off again. She supposed she could pick a direction and smash through the forest until she found a clearing to take off from, but who knew how long that would take.
"Are you going to carry me back?" Olwen asked.
Isobel was sweet-natured, but she wasn't stupid.
"That depends," she said. "Are you going to try to kill us both again?"
Olwen didn't answer.
"Why did you do that, anyway?" Isobel blurted out.
"I said I would," Olwen said defiantly. "I don't make idle threats."
"Then you shouldn't make such foolish ones," Isobel snapped back at her. "I don't believe you know what you're doing out here." She couldn't believe she was talking like this to a princess. Being a dragon was doing nothing for her temper.
Olwen was quiet again. Isobel tore up some more trees, opening up the sky. She was smaller, now, only twice the height of a horse. But she still felt nothing like a human.
She felt hungry and tired and sad and angry.
"I said I'd help you win," she told Olwen. "But even I know you can't win a war on your own. You have advisers. You should listen to them."
Olwen ignored her. Instead, she said, "It didn't work the first time, when I kissed you."
"Yes it did," Isobel said, puzzled. She had felt the magic working when she'd made her agreement with Olwen.
"I mean just now," Olwen said. "When we were flying. I kissed you twice, or I tried to."
"But it didn't work," Olwen said, as if that was the important part, and not Olwen's mad recklessness. "It only worked the second time, when I was thinking about how much I wanted to save everyone. I had to really mean it."
"I see," Isobel said although she didn't, entirely.
"I really don't mind, about what happens to me, if I can do something," Olwen told her earnestly, and Isobel couldn't help feeling sorry for her, although she was glad that it wouldn't show in her demeanour, as it would have on a human face.
When her stepmother had told her that only one of royal blood could turn her back into a dragon, she'd imagined a warrior hero, a dragon fighter whom she would - somehow - convince to show mercy towards her with her earnest pleading.
Olwen was more like that kind of person than Isobel had first thought.
"I believe you," she told Olwen. "But someone has to have a better idea."
They flew back to the camp.
Andreas was furious with Olwen, and let her know it. It wasn't kind of Isobel to feel satisfied by this, but she allowed herself to feel glad that someone with experience had the same reaction to Olwen's ridiculous plans as she had had.
She was very good and meek and said nothing to Olwen, except to remind her (much later in the day) that however magical she might be, she needed food.
Olwen had a cow slaughtered for her.
"I can't eat that," Isobel said in dismay, staring at the dead animal.
"Why not?" Olwen asked. "Oh. All right." She had it cooked on a great spit.
Probably Isobel could have eaten it when it was freshly killed, with her new jaws and claws and fiery stomach, but it was still her inside this horrible body, and she didn't want to eat like a beast.
No one complained about one cow, but they had ground for complaint in the days ahead. For a week, almost the only thing Isobel did was eat.
"The surprise of a dragon is more valuable than the force and the flame of it," Andreas told Olwen, and in obedience to both of them, Isobel patiently waited her turn. She breathed fire at pots, to boil water for cooking and for surgery. At midnight each night, she and Olwen flew high over the countryside so that Olwen could report on whether the enemy army was moving. The moon was waxing, and by the end of the week, even Isobel's eyes could pick out people below, when there were any to see.
But Andreas staged battles every day: light raids, whose purpose was to ambush the enemy and run away. "They must believe that we have no strength," Andreas told Olwen. "They must believe that they are chasing us." After every conference, her face was drawn and pale, but she no longer argued with him.
Sometimes, after Olwen and Andreas talked, Olwen came and sat by Isobel, as though they were friends. Isobel was glad of the company, but she doubted it was companionship that cheered Olwen, but the sight of Isobel's great bulk and the thought of what she might be able to do for them. Olwen liked to see Isobel breathe fire, and to run her hands along the tops of Isobel's claws.
"You will be part of the battle tomorrow, Isobel." Olwen told Isobel at last. "Are you ready?"
"No," Isobel said.
Isobel could understand why the thought made Olwen so cheerful, because it meant that Olwen and Andreas hoped for victory the following day. But she would finally have to burn and crush and tear people, and it would be terrible.
Olwen looked up at her in surprise.
"I'll do it," Isobel told her. "Don't worry."
"I believe you," Olwen said, rather gently for her.
After a pause, she said, "I can't imagine anyone so poorly suited to being a dragon. Why were you turned into one?"
Isobel had imagined Olwen asking before, and she'd imagined telling Olwen that it was none of her business. But for once, Olwen seemed to realise how much she hated it, and didn't seem to be judging her for that.
(If someone had turned Olwen into a dragon, that day, instead of Isobel, Olwen would have probably rejoiced.)
"It was nothing to do with me," Isobel said. "Not really. I was as good and sweet as I could be. My father's new wife - I did everything I could for her. I would have done more if I'd thought of it. I cooked and cleaned and sang and sewed. I was so good."
Olwen looked up at her, listening intently.
"My stepmother had no use for someone good," Isobel said. "My stepmother could look after herself. And how! My stepmother is the blackest, most evil woman."
Olwen raised her eyebrows.
"She is a witch," Isobel clarified.
"So she turned you into a dragon to amuse herself?" Olwen asked.
"Not even that," said Isobel. "My stepmother is powerful, but all spells have consequences beside the effect that is intended. They rebound on the caster. They return harm for harm." She paused.
"My stepmother thought to use me as a proxy, to collect all the weight and the residue of her evil deeds and lay the burden on me," she said. "She didn't even hate me. She only found me a little annoying. To her I was a sump, a midden, a stream to carry away the filth of her magic. That was all the use I was to her."
"I see," Olwen said.
Jealousy, Isobel thought, would have been better. Spite would have been better.
But it did feel a little better, that someone knew.
That night, at midnight, Olwen and Isobel didn't saddle up alone. The whole army rode, leaving the river behind and gathering at a hill pass. They came around it in a long sweep. Andreas explained that it was important not to show the number of soldiers that had passed.
"The enemy must believe this is the last of us," he explained. "This is a good position, but they must believe that when they have taken it from us, the land is entirely theirs." Predictably, Olwen set her jaw. It was easy to see what she thought of that.
Isobel's own jaw was tense. She realised that if she had been a human, she would probably have been wearing the same expression as Olwen.
Isobel was glad that when the signal came, she was sleepy and dazed. She tried to see the men as mice, and herself as a cat, and to beat the sounds of screaming away with her wings.
She was fighting by herself today. Olwen and Andreas kept to the hill-pass; one part of their army had been sent to flank the enemy from the right and the rear; and when the enemy turned to them, it was her turn to surprise them from the left, and drive the enemy into the spears of the defenders.
Those of the enemy who were mounted on horses soon understood why none of the defenders were.
Isobel caught spears in the air and tossed them back where they had been thrown, and tried not to look to see where they fell. She dived low and swiped her claws across the enemy's ranks, and though they stabbed upwards, it meant nothing. She blew great gusts of fire in front of her, and was glad that she could only dimly see beyond it, where it had struck.
When the ranks of the enemy had dissolved entirely into groups, her side and theirs, grappling together, she tried to dive and grab at enemy fighters, maiming or distracting them to protect Olwen's soldiers.
Then she heard her name called from high on the hill.
Olwen and Andreas were fighting together, Andreas in front of Olwen, holding three of the enemy back. Isobel darted toward them. Perhaps Andreas could protect Olwen - perhaps he was the other fighters' equal - but Isobel knew that Olwen wasn't going to stay behind Andreas - could even see her raise her dagger and step to the side.
Isobel knocked the men off the side of the hill with one snap of her wing, and followed them down to kill each one with her claws.
Dragons, it turned out, couldn't vomit. That was probably a good thing.
Isobel turned, very glad to be distracted, up to Olwen again. Olwen was racing down the hill towards her. "Andreas says this is the moment," Olwen said. "Time for you to carry me again."
They launched together, and this time, Isobel roared, and Andreas bellowed after her, "For Olwen," and every soldier on the battlefield looked up, to the girl and the dragon, a sign of victory and death that none could doubt or defy.
The official farewell to the High Queen's dragon took place in an open field, and Olwen laid a wreath of flowers and leaves around Isobel's neck, and said a mix of meaningless and meaningful things. A priest blessed her, and, supposedly, in obedience to both regal and spiritual authority, Isobel flew away.
And if rumour had it that she might return if the High Queen called for her, that was probably a good thing.
She flew only a few miles, and then, in a clearing of broken and uprooted trees, descended, and waited. The day wore on. There were ceremonies, she expected. It wouldn't be easy for Olwen to get away.
But she would, because she had promised.
Before sunset, a woman came walking through the trees.
"Isobel?" she called.
Isobel opened her eyes, and stretched. "I'm here, Olwen," she called back.
She still had to look down to see Olwen, but not very far. She hardly had to lean down at all so that Olwen could kiss her.
This time, Olwen smiled at her, before leaning in, and this time, Isobel felt the kiss, not just the ripple of change that came after it.
She was dizzier than before - she was too light, the evil drawn off and away. It felt as though a choking rope had been loosened from around her neck. The world spun her and spun her as if she were string being wound into a ball.
When the world stopped spinning, she was standing, but only because Olwen's hands were on her shoulders.
"I'm all right," she said. Her voice came out just as she'd remembered it, and she admired the sound of it in an almost distant way. It was light and lovely, rich and sweet. "You can let go now."
Olwen let go, but only to step back and look at her. "You're beautiful," she said.
It was the last thing she'd expected Olwen to say. It was the last thing she'd expected Olwen to care about. And it was funny, because Isobel cared a lot, about looking like the person that she was meant to be, and somehow it was exactly what she'd wanted, that Olwen should care too.
"Thank you," Isobel said. She thought she was blushing.
"Thank you," Olwen said. "I'm sorry, and thank you, thank you so much. Thank you isn't enough."
They stared at each other with too much to say and no words for it, and then Olwen said, with bravado, half-laughing, "That was three kisses. What would four do?"
"You have to mean it," Isobel reminded her.
"Oh, I do," Olwen said. "I do." She was already reaching for Isobel, and this time, when Olwen kissed her, Isobel could kiss her back, and mean it too.