“Should anyone here present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

I glanced to the big door at the back of the church. Nothing. She wasn’t going to ruin this for me after all. I looked back to the woman whose hands I held. I’d waited so long for this moment.

She smiled and I smiled back. “I love you, Gwen,” I whispered. “I always have.”

Why was this priest taking so long?

The old man in front of us, dressed in white linen vestments, stood frozen with an equally blanched expression and mouth noiselessly agape. Was he screaming? The glamoured congregation was hushed and quiet and all I heard was my own accelerating heartbeat and the din of breathing not my own.

I smelled sulphur and my head swam as if a spell was broken.

Princess Gwen turned first and squeaked a tiny scream before fainting. Her father, King Thomas, caught her and helped her to the floor. She looked like Sleeping Beauty.

I spun to meet the disruption, my hand instinctively at my side seeking a sword that wasn’t there. My eyes narrowed. “Maud,” I said through gritted teeth.

My best man and best friend Larry, Sir Lawrence to most, hung several feet higher than his normal stature. Blood dripped from the corner of his mouth as a large talon poked through his belly, ripping upwards from behind.

“What tangled webs we weave, Sir Rodney,” said the sweet and pretty voice of someone I no longer recognized. “What tangled webs indeed.” The owner of said voice discarded Larry’s body with a flick of her wrist.

I looked around the room; all eyes and ears were either on me or the largish dragon, carefully picking the flecks of cloth and flesh from her claw. I cleared my throat. “We had a deal, Maud.”

She snorted and smoke floated gently from her nose. “You tricked me.” A twitch of her tail sent the first row of my family scattering for cover. No loss for me. If it wasn’t for my impending fortune, I’d never have seen them. A man on a noble mission was a source of embarrassment, unless he was successful, of course.

My squire, Simon, appeared at my side and handed me my sword. I nodded my thanks to the generally useless boy. His internship was a favour to the King. I raised my weapon to Maud. “You promised to leave this Kingdom if I spared your life,” I said.

Maud moved with an unexpected grace. She blew gently on the array of candles on the altar. They blossomed in flame. “How generous of you. Why it was only this morning, you pleaded to accompany me. For us to spirit away into the mountain valleys beyond.” Her tone was somehow musical. Dragon magic.

I found it amazing that no one left. That this little drama warranted everyone’s rapt attention. “I sought only to appease you and perhaps to say goodbye,” I said and lowered my sword.

“Liar.” A darker turn in her voice. Menacing. I could smell her scent— something from long ago. Lavender?

“I’ve been called worse.” I saw King Thomas to my left. He’d managed to rouse Gwen. At least she was okay.

“Fine,” she huffed. “Coward.”

I winced at the sting and felt my stomach knot, knowing that all the cards had to be played and not held any longer. “You need to get over me, Maud. Move on like you swore. We’ve changed. You’ve changed.” I knew that last would hurt her, but it had to be said.

Maud rose to full height and spread her leathery wings. She was enormous and powerfully wondrous. “And who’s fault was that?” she demanded. “I used to be so beautiful.” To me, she still was.

I took a step closer to her, feeling comfortable that she’d not roast or disembowel me. The crowd rustled. “I warned you not to touch the Dragon’s Crystal. You just couldn’t leave it alone. I had to watch while you transformed. Mutated. It was awful.” I drove the point of my sword hard into the floorboards. I didn’t want to touch that thing again. So much bloodshed. And to what end?

Tears hissed on Maud’s snout and she ignored them. “You know nothing. There is a far cry difference between witnessing a thing and living it.”

I could see and feel the hurt in her eyes, blaming me. “I already apologized for abandoning you.”

“Not good enough, Rodney. We were to be wed ourselves.” The King’s family gasped; mine chuckled. Maud glared at them, death-quiet restored. “Now, this?” she mocked and snorted.

Frustration creeped into my tongue and I struggled to contain it. “This is how my world works, Maud. I’m a knight who slays dragons. I rescue the princess, marry and find happiness.” Behind me, I heard Gwen crying. I felt guilty.

Maud pleaded. “What about my happiness? I’m cursed to live for eons, alone and feared. Will you not love me?” At once, she became smaller, diminished.

The realization hit me and I felt lost. “I do. You’ve always known that.”

The dragon’s desperation and magic crashed together in a sad song of heartbreak. “Then be with me. We’ll scour the lands for another crystal. We can be together. Forever.”

I shook my head slowly, numb. “I don’t want that life.”

“And I don’t want this one without you. You should have killed me. Instead of this… fiction.” My betrayal was fully laid bare then. To Maud. To King Thomas. To Gwen.

All that was left was to face the truth of it. Raw. I took a step closer to Maud and touched her scales, at once warm and cool. “I couldn’t. I can’t.”

Maud backed away and her tail smashed the stain glass of the window behind her. The cool March wind snuffed the candles throughout the church. We were not thrust into dim and darkness; the dragon’s belly glowed with a woman’s anger. “You will or I will roast everyone here and pick their meat from my teeth with their bones.”

That’s the Maud I remembered. I couldn’t help but laugh, despite the danger. “Colourful. You’re bluffing.”

“Don’t force my hand, Sir Rodney. Don’t make me live with that on my conscience.” No dragon magic speech this time. Just Maud— the girl of a younger man’s dreams.

“I can’t, Maud.” I stopped short of speaking a larger truth: I’d rather let the Kingdom burn to ruin and myself with it.

And finally, the ultimatum. Maud blew the candles a-light again and her tears fiercely streamed down her face. “You must. If you love me, you’ll grant me this; then you can have your Happily Ever After.”

And there I stood, in the ruins of my wedding, all eyes upon me. What would be my decision? What could it be? A choice, my choice, that would change the fate of all?

Do I slay the beast as was my birthright? Do I claim my destiny and sire heirs to King Thomas’ crown? Do I end my mortal days with the beautiful Gwen, content and happy?

Or do I blaze a different path— a life of flight, uncertainty and adventure?

And love. There was that.

A day in the life of a dragon. An eternity of days beyond that. Even if we never came across another crystal, it’d be worth the journey.

“King Thomas, I’ve made my decision.”