“No dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Inside the tree-shaded tent - set up to allow her to examine patients privately - Keller could easily hear the delighted shrieks of children outside. Based on past experiences, she could visualize the scene outside; a determined half-pint posse chasing her heartheld around the village in an attempt to bring him down to their level. An increase in the noise-level led her to believe they'd finally been successful, although it was much more likely Ronon had allowed himself be caught.
"Okay, that should do it, Melena." Straightening up with a little groan, Jennifer smiled at the tiny girl who'd been squirming during Jennifer's examination, eager to rejoin her friends outside. Handing her patient a lollipop, Jennifer pointed toward the door of the tent and released the fidgeting child from captivity. "Go on. You can go play now." With a whoop of joy, the girl darted outside, her shrill voice immediately joining the chorus.
"That is the last of the immu-immunizas?" the child's mother asked, shaking her head over the unfamiliar word.
"Immunizations." Jennifer corrected with a smile. "Yes, Shaleen. They will help protect the children from getting sick from kiskas and the Zolan cough, as well as merla fever."
Shaleen nodded. "That is good. Sometimes children die from those, or worse, go blind from merla fever. The blind do not often escape the Wraith." Wiping her hand across her eyes in the Satedan gesture used to banish bad thoughts, Shaleen summoned a smile and asked, "And you, how are you feeling these days?"
Rubbing a hand over the high-rise of her belly, Jennifer smiled in return. "I'm fine, really. It's just the bending that makes my back ache a little sometimes."
"Well, then you should come with me and sit in the shade while we drink some cool mintas tea," Shaleen insisted. "Let your man take care of the rest."
Jennifer turned to the medic, who had been recording the exams and immunizations, and asked, "Is that okay with you, Dennis?"
"That sounds like a good idea, Doctor." Dennis smiled and shook his head. "If Shaleen hadn't suggested it, I would have. I don't want your husband coming after me because I let you overdo it."
With a shrug, Jennifer admitted he was right. After a quick visual check of the tent, she retrieved Ronon's weapon and holster from the center tent pole, where he'd left it before roughhousing with the children. Shaleen led her outside and toward a semi-circle of chairs shaded by the giant banyon-like tree that anchored the village square. Draping Ronon's holster over the chair back before settling into the surprisingly comfortable carved wood, Jennifer released a content sigh. "I have to admit it feels good to be off my feet."
"Perhaps you should have let your Dennis handle today so you could stay in Atlantis and rest?" Shaleen asked as she offered a small leather cushion for the small of Jennifer's back.
Jennifer smiled and shook her head even as she accepted the cushion. "And miss a trip to Belkan? Never." Looking across the square, trying to locate her personal Pied Piper, she smiled as the troop rounded the corner of a house at full speed. She was soon surrounded by a crowd of excited children jumping in place, all vying for her attention.
"Doctor Jenny! Doctor Jenny! Are you finished?"
Jennifer nodded, laughing when they shouted, "Now we can have a story!"
"And who is telling this story?" Jennifer asked, suspecting she'd been set up to share an Earth fairy tale by Ronon.
The children responded with a different name, shouting, "Ronon! Ronon! He promised!"
Ronon leaned over the back of her chair to share a kiss, rubbing a proprietary hand across her belly. A hearty kick acknowledged his presence. He beamed down at her. "I think he wants a story too."
Although she was surprised that anyone expected her less-than-verbose heartheld to string together more than a few words at a time, Jennifer composed her face and nodded seriously. "Well, a promise must kept, so I suppose we'll all have to listen then." She waved them away, saying, "But not until everyone has something to drink. I'm too tired to treat children sick from the sun." While the children were occupied getting drinks, she looked up at Ronon, wondering what had happened while she was occupied in the tent.
As if reading her mind, Ronon shrugged. "Went to school with Solen. He told them I used to tell stories after lessons."
It took a few minutes for everyone to get settled on the soft grass with clay mugs full of sweet mintas tea that had chilled in the village well. Jennifer sipped at hers, the bright taste refreshing after a long afternoon of work. When the children had quieted, Ronon rose to his feet, handing his empty mug to Jennifer before striding to the front of the crowd, a Satedan prince holding court in the cool shade. They had left him plenty of space to tell his story - about twice his height in length and nearly his height in width.
He began with a question. "What story shall I tell?'"
The children erupted again with shouted suggestions, but they were all versions of the same theme – a story from his days of running.
Jennifer had heard a few of Ronon's runner stories and had been glad he'd never shared them with her father. He would have protested her return to Pegasus even harder. She wasn't sure about the children hearing them, but she had to admit the original Grimm's fairy tales were filled with blood, death, and dark themes. She had no room to judge Pegasus values on that point, just hoped for one of his lighter memories from before Sateda fell.
"Now this isn't a story from my days of running." Ronon raised his hands to still the protests. "It is a story told by a runner I shared a fire with one night, about another runner whose name was...Nonor." Ronon glanced toward Jennifer and winked, stilling any remaining worry that the story would be too grim for children.
"Audita. And so it begins. In a time and place not now and here, Nonor ran every day and nearly every night, searching for a place safe from the Wraith. One day, Nonor was so tired from running that, when he fell asleep in a cave for a long day and night, a leska built a nest in his hair. When he woke up and found it, he decided to leave it until the leskas hatched so he would have something to eat when he was too tired to hunt."
Jennifer shuddered and was about to go "ewww," when she saw the children smiling and nodding, one little girl piping up to say, "Yum, baby leskas are the sweetest!"
"Yes, they are." Ronon smiled in agreement. "But I prefer simkas." He frowned and shook his head. "There were no simkas for Nonor. He considered himself lucky whenever he found ripe frolsa or was able to shoot a gingken, even though he usually had no fire and had to eat it raw."
Despite the calming mintas, Jennifer's stomach roiled a bit as she remembered the overripe frolsa Ronon has forced her to try. She knew a gingken was like a rabbit, and that she liked it in the stew the mess cooked every now and then, but raw was almost too much for her to handle. She quickly took another sip of her mintas and reminded her rebellious belly that it was just a story.
"There were many days when Nonor was so tired of running and fighting that he was close to giving up." Every muscle and bone in Ronon's body seemed to slump as he shuffled a few steps. "He kept going, but only by promising himself that he would visit just one more world before allowing the Wraith to win. Whenever he stopped to rest, still alive, he made a new promise to try one more world, then another, still running, still fighting until he stepped out of the Ancestor's ring onto a dark world filled with trees. The forest clustered close, so no darts would be able to follow him through the ring, so any trackers would be on foot – his advantage. Even the thick branches overhead would be a protection from darts launched from a hive ship. He believed he could rest for a day, perhaps two before moving on, maybe even hunt and cook something to fill his empty belly."
Ronon paused to mime extreme hunger, hands clutching his stomach and a frown on his face. Jennifer felt her heart break a little when she thought of how often Ronon must have gone hungry. It made his appreciation of even the less-than-appetizing mystery stews in the mess understandable. She made a promise to herself to make brownies when they returned to Atlantis, so they could share something sweet before bed.
The lines of his body still lax and weary, Ronon continued. "Nonor's water bag was empty so he decided he would search for water first, hoping he might catch a dimas or gingken when they joined him to drink. Marking the small clearing before the ring in his mind, he set off down a game trail, pausing often to mark his path so he would not lose his way back to the gate. As he walked, the light grew dimmer, so he suspected he only had a few hours before nightfall."
Ronon paused his slow pacing to look around and up to the sky, shaking his head at what he saw before moving on, his body a little more tense, his speed increased across his packed earth stage. "He walked faster, needing to find water before it was too dark to see. Suddenly, at a place where the trail split into three, ignits swarmed around him, their lights dancing in front of his face. Ignits don't bite like aedes, so he ignored them, continuing down the direction he'd chosen. He only walked a few more steps when he noticed the bugs kept leaving him to fly down a different trail, only to return as if they wanted him to follow. Remembering ignits preferred to live near water, he changed direction and followed, fallen leaves rustling beneath feet too tired for caution."
As Ronon wove his tale before his fascinated audience, his movements drew them into the forest world as much as his words. Jennifer had always thought he was graceful – even when he was fighting – but this was different. It was as though the story had broken through his tight-held control, allowing him a freedom of expression she'd only glimpsed in the most intimate of moments. Watching the childrens' rapt faces, she understood why Solen had insisted Ronon tell the children a story. She was witnessing an important piece of Ronon's past, a talent she wanted him to share with their own children. Gently smoothing a palm over the life she carried, she vowed to help him gather all of those pieces into a whole so that Sateda would never be forgotten.
Halting at the end of his stage, Ronon waved a hand before his face, brushing away invisible bugs. "At the edge of a clearing, the ignits stopped to swarm around him again, but he would not take the chance of walking under an open sky. If they wanted him to follow any further it would have to be the long way around. Before he could choose a direction, the ground shifted next to him. What had appeared to be a thick tree root slowly lifted up, rising above his head. It was an ancient dracor, moss dripping from its bark-rough scales as if it too had a beard. Nonor drew his gun and took a few steps back, even though he believed the dracor would be too old and slow to catch him.
The lights left Nonor to swarm the dracor instead, whose laugh was slow and sounded as if its throat was covered with bark and moss like its skin. 'Oh, little ones. Did you find something tasty for me? It has been too long since my last meal.'"
Jennifer could almost see the creature as Ronon retreated, his empty hand pointed up into the shady tree. He turned his head towards his audience and slowly shook his head.
"Nonor was wrong about the dracor's speed. The dracor's claws snatched at him as fast as a clamperjaw, and Nonor dangled in air before the dracor's open mouth, its breath hot against Nonor's face. Nonor thought he could manage to shoot his way free, but he hesitated, unwilling to injure or kill something he had thought only a legend, a beast that could speak like you and me. Instead, he appealed to the dracor, hoping to come to an understanding so both could live.
'If you please, Sira Dracor, I would rather not be eaten.'
The dracor turned its head so it could examine Nonor with a eye clouded by age. 'So the food has an opinion?' It huffed, its warm breath ruffling Nonor's hair and disturbing the leskas. 'What do you propose we do then, for I am very hungry?'
Now, although Nonor had never met a dracor before, he'd heard many stories as a boy. One legend about dracor had stuck with him - even after years of running. The old ones had claimed that no dracor can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it."
Jennifer smiled as she recalled reading 'The Hobbit' to Ronon and how he'd loved the idea of small people with hairy feet riddling their way to freedom from a scary dragon. He'd made her read that section several times until he'd memorized it and then he'd taken on the role of the deep-voiced dragon, trading riddles with Jennifer's Bilbo. Ronon's story recalled her to the present as he addressed something hidden in the leaves above his head, holstering an invisible weapon.
"'Riddles, I suggest riddles,' Nonor said, hoping to interest the dracor in something other than dinner. 'If I cannot answer your riddle, you eat me. If you cannot answer mine, then I live and bring you something else to eat.' Nonor waited for the dracor to agree, hoping he remembered enough from the riddling games he played as a child. If his memory failed him, he would accept his loss like an honorable man, his days of running finally at an end."
Ronon stood stock still, his posture proud and tall as he gazed upward, then slumped a little in relief as he revealed the dracor's answer.
"'Riddles? An interesting choice, food.' Its claws loosened enough for Nonor to breathe a little easier, though he was still trapped. "Three riddles each, then. I will grant you the first but, if neither of us fails to answer the three, I will crunch your bones between my teeth.'
Nonor had no choice but to agree and hope that he could find the right riddle to win. And so they began."
Holding up one finger, Ronon smiled at his audience. "'Nonor's first riddle was: 'No one can see me, feel me, hear me, or smell me. Behind stars, under hills, empty holes I fill. What am I?'"
Jennifer was impressed by how polite the audience was during Ronon's dramatic pause. They respected the storyteller. Not a single person shouted out an answer or interrupted the story, so pleasantly different from experiences with public entertainment on Earth.
"The dracor slowly blinked and showed its teeth in a frightening smile."
Ronon's grin was suddenly so evil that Jennifer shivered. "'This will be a short contest if all of your riddles are so easy. It is darkness, of course.' It licked its lips with a long tongue then said, 'It can have no color, though there may be darkness within. No weight and holds nothing, and when placed in anything makes it lighter. What is it?'"
Ronon's shoulders slumped again as he shook his head wearily. "Nonor was so tired and hungry that it was hard to think, but he knew the answer. 'A hole,' he said with a sigh of relief. He thought about how he'd gotten where he was so his second riddle was: 'Walk on the living, they don't even mumble. Walk on the dead, they mutter and grumble.'
The dracor's answer was a little slower, but it knew the answer again. 'Leaves. And it is my turn again, food. What is free for the taking all of your life, given but once at birth. It is weak under pressure, but will fell the strongest if held?'
While it waited, its claws squeezed a little tighter, helping Nonor to remember the answer he'd learned as a child."
Wriggling in an invisible grasp, Ronon held his breath for a few moments before blowing it out with a whoosh.
"'Breath. It is breath,' Nonor gasped, his heart pounding in his chest.
Nonor worried for a few moments that he'd gotten it wrong, but the dracor finally nodded slowly, its eyes narrowing as it examined Nonor once more. 'You surprise me, food. It has been a long time since I have been surprised by anything.' It blinked slowly and said, 'This is your last chance to live. Make it a good one.'"
Gazing up into the leaves above, Ronon sighed, then he looked back at his audience, his face pinched and creased with exaggerated thinking. "Nonor knew so many riddles that it was hard to choose his best chance to stay alive. When the dracor huffed with impatience, Nonor had to decide.
'I am only one color, but not one size, stuck at the bottom, yet I easily fly. I am present in sun, but not in rain, never doing harm, never feeling pain. What am I?'"
Jennifer thought she knew the answer and she smiled when Ronon confirmed it.
"The moment Nonor said it, he knew he'd chosen wrong. It was too easy. He closed his eyes and waited for the dracor's claws to squeeze the life from him as it answered, 'Shadow.'"
Standing stock still with his eyes squeezed shut, Ronon paused, allowing a few anxious moments to pass before slowly peeking out at his breathless audience. Ronon's second eye eased open, a puzzled look on his face.
"Hearing nothing, Nonor opened his eyes, surprised he was still alive. The dracor gurgled in its throat, and Nonor realized it was laughing. 'Well played, food. You have won, so now bring me something to eat instead of you.' Its claws loosened. Nonor was free.
Nonor knew that he should have lost, but the dracor had let him win. He had thought he was too tired and hungry to keep running, but the dracor had reminded Nonor that trying was always better than not."
Ronon smiled down at the children, most of whom were nodding in agreement. When he looked back up, he smiled at Jennifer, and she beamed a grin in return.
"Now Nonor had to find food for the dracor, as well as himself. He looked up at the dracor and asked, 'Can your little friends lead me to water? I need to drink before I can hunt.'
The dracor nodded and hummed until the ignits danced in front of its eyes. 'They will take you to water, but do not think you can escape if you do not return with food. I may prefer sleeping here in the shadows, but I am very good at hunting when I need to.'
Nonor agreed. 'I keep my promises, Sira Dracor. I will return.'
The ignits led Nonor back toward the ring, taking a different path when they were closer. Nonor was soon able to drink his fill of cool water, which left him with the problem of hunting. It wasn't completely dark - the trees glowed with green lights after the sun left the sky - but he had not seen many signs as he walked, only a few bushes filled with sweet simkas. The fruit helped his hunger for a time, but Nonor feared he would soon fill the dracor's belly better than the simkas filled his."
Ronon's steps were slow and weary again, but then he pivoted, listening, every muscle suddenly taut.
"As Nonor returned to the path leading to the dracor, something stopped him. It was the ring opening, a sound that meant the Wraith had found him again. This time, Nonor laughed. His problem was solved."
A wave of quiet chuckles swept through the crowd as Ronon grinned at them.
"'I think you would taste sweeter,' the dracor grumbled as it ate the last of the Wraith. Nonor was not frightened, however, because then it said, 'Any time you wish to visit me, you are welcome - as long as you bring me more food to crunch.'
And so that's what Nonor did, whenever he grew tired of running across worlds."
Ronon straightened and crossed his arms, nodding his head once. "Terminata."
Ignoring the children's shouts for more, Ronon walked over to the village well. Jennifer watched him lift a dipper of water to his lips before pouring it over his head, wondering why she could see tension in every line of his body. The children swarmed up to him, and the moment passed. Once again relaxed, he grinned and shook his head before making his way back to Jennifer, bending to accept her kiss.
"I think it's time to leave, don't you?" Jennifer asked. She looked over to see Dennis standing by the door of the tent, who ducked inside for their bags at her nod.
Ronon didn't answer her question, merely reaching down to help her stand then wrapping his holster around his waist. They said their goodbyes as they slowly walked to the stargate, assuring their hosts that they would soon return. It was a few hours later, as they approached their quarters, when Jennifer asked the question that had been tickling the back of her brain.
"There aren't really dracors in Pegasus, are there? You made all that up, right?"
As the door opened, Ronon stopped and looked down at her, a smile teasing at his lips. "Of course, they're real." He bent and scooped her up in his arms, ignoring her squeal of surprise as he carried her inside. "And this is how hard they squeeze."
Jennifer giggled and threw her arms around his neck, pulling his head down for a kiss. "Oh, you do tell a good story." She enjoyed the gentle strength of his arms as they flexed and then slowly lowered her to the bed.
When she reached up to draw him down next to her, he shook his head with a grin. "Not yet. You promised me something sweet."
It was a good thing Jennifer didn't mind a few brownie crumbs in bed.