Once upon a time there lived a young man in the far away kingdom of Atlantis. His name was John. His brother David was the firstborn, and had inherited not only the title of Earl, but the land, the factories, stud farms and all the responsibility after the death of their father. John, as the younger brother, had had the choice between a career in the church or the army.
John chose the army. But as he had some minor problems following orders – he was sometimes much too reckless, and felt he knew what to do better than his superiors – he only had made it to Major and his superiors had strongly suggested that he look for another line of work.
It wasn’t that easy to find something that kept John’s interest for long. He had often been bored during the last few months. The freedom to do what you pleased was nice, but John wasn’t a man to live without a goal or responsibilities. After a certain time, it got stale going hunting every day, drinking with his fellow miscreants, or go riding at breakneck speed to prove to yourself that life still offered a thrill for you.
When John noticed that he was seriously thinking about taking on a job as a highwayman out of sheer boredom, he knew that it was time to do something. He needed a task, otherwise he was going to become delinquent. It had been embarrassing enough that David had once bailed him and his friends out of jail where they had been thrown for nighttime disturbance. Okay, perhaps they had caterwauled a bit too loudly in the streets after they had been thrown out of the tavern – but at least their songs had been the favorite songs of Atlantis.
Now John was standing in front of the Mirror of Fate, which was kept in the ceremonial state room of the guildhall. After paying a rather large fee, the asker could type a question into the brass alphabet and receive an answer from the oracle-like mirror. John assumed that there was someone sitting behind the mirror giving the answers. But as money didn’t matter – his stipend was sufficient, and he had enough gold coins – so he had decided that it was worth a try.
He typed, using a one-finger search system:
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall
Where lies the greatest adventure of them all?”
The machine spluttered, creaked and a small cloud of vapor mounted. It squealed as if metal was rubbing against metal, but then the answer appeared, one letter after the other.
“Hidden behind the dragon’s fire
Adventure waits in a far away land.
Whoever frees the duke’s squire
Will obtain gold and the son’s hand.”
(For more information please contact his Highness, the Duke of McKay. Please refrain from written inquiries and call on us directly)
John blinked. Huh, that was very concrete and definitely not an obscure answer! Hmmm… dragons sounded challenging, gold was always a plus, and if he didn’t like the son, well, he was sure they could part in friendship if there was absolutely no spark between them. So – what was he waiting for? Nothing!
But if John had learned one thing in the army, there were few things worse than go into battle unprepared. He went to see Teyla, the majordomo of his brother David. She outfitted him with a rope, a sharp sword, different knifes, a water repellent coat, and travel provisions like cheese and bread. And she added a bottle, which produced white foam if John shook it. She promised that this foam would extinguish any fire – and they both hoped that it would also work on a dragon’s fire.
Equipped like this, John started his journey. For an adventure seeking young man, his voyage to the dukedom of the McKays proved to be disappointingly uneventful. No strange fellow travelers, no hold-up on the streets, not even a tavern owner who wanted to bamboozle him. There was not a single opportunity where he was forced to prove his swordsmanship.
After seven days without incident, John and his stalwart black horse Jumper, reached the capital of the dukedom. From the first moment, John was disappointed. Everything was so small and cute. Compared to Atlantis, this was a provincial backwater. But then he discovered a sign saying: THIS WAY TO THE TREASURE
He followed the sign and shortly afterwards he reached a courtyard of the castle in which the treasure was displayed behind an iron work fence and guarded by two heavily armed men. John found there were so many people staring at the treasure that he had to elbow his way in for a closer look. The treasure box was spilling over with gold coins. Nice. So, this was the promised gold. John took a long glance and tried to calculate the length, width and height of the chest to estimate the volume, then he tried to convert it into gold coins. But John eventually came to the realization that it was useless, because he didn’t know if not only the topmost level was gold and underneath perhaps cloth or something equally worthless.
Therefore, he decided to leave the people staring at the treasure alone, and went in search to find out more about the location where the duke’s son might be held. The gold didn’t really interest him. The challenge of finding the hiding place, defy danger, conquer the dragon and gain the gratitude of the duke and his son, that’s what allured him.
Where should he start with his search? John had never met a dragon before, but he imagined that they didn’t like to live in the city but preferred the country. Depending on their size, a small city apartment would make them feel squeezed. And if they needed to breathe fire often – well, the neighbors wouldn’t like to call the firemen repeatedly.
John left the first courtyard and wandered around in the part of the castle that was open to the public. In a study he saw a map of the dukedom hanging on the wall. He tried to memorize all the rivers, mountain ranges, and the layout of the streets.
“Where could the squire be?” John mumbled to himself, and was very astonished to get an answer.
“Pssst. Hey! You, there!”
“Huh?” That wasn’t the most sophisticated answer he had ever given, John admitted to himself while he looked around in the room.
“Come here.” A young woman whose pretty face was surrounded by golden locks made a beckoning sign with her index finger to follow her behind a floor-length damascene curtain.
“You mean me?” John asked and looked around once more.
“Are there other people in the room?” the young lady asked snappily.
“See. Come already. You don’t want me to revise my good opinion of you, do you?”
“Of course not,” John answered with a charming smile.
Behind the curtain, the young lady opened a door to a passageway – a secret passage as John’s enthusiastic brain informed him. Now the adventure started!
They descended a few stairs until they arrived in a lovely room with a splendid view over the extensive gardens of the castle.
“Take a seat,” the young lady ordered, and gave him a mug of beer. She continued, “I’m Jeannie McKay, Mer’s sister. Mer is my impossible brother who’s kept prisoner by the dragon. Don’t ask me how that happened. But Mer is like that, his head is full of grand ideas, and very probably only upon arriving in the dragon’s lair, did he even notice that he had been abducted.”
She took a praliné from a silver tray which she then passed on to John. “And you are…?”
“I’m Lord John. Second son of the Count of Sheppard. I’m from Atlantis.” John tried a polite bow, even if it wasn’t that easy with a beer in his hand and sitting in an armchair.
“Atlantis? I’ve only been there once, when my mother was still alive. A nice city with lovely shops. But I digress. You’re the first candidate who hasn’t stopped in front of the gold with a greedy stare, but who showed so much brain as to search for a map. Therefore, I’ll help you to find my brother.”
“Oh, thank you.” John took another sip from his beer and waited.
Jeannie McKay went to her desk and came back with a smaller map. She unrolled it and tapped with her finger on it. “Here! The red dots mark where witnesses report to have seen the dragon.”
“Quite a lot. And they all concentrate on this area,” John said and smoothed down the map with one hand.
“Exactly. And that’s why we will start there.”
“We?” Ah, that was the fly in the ointment. John looked at Jeannie McKay under furrowed brows.
“We,” the young lady assured him and nodded vehemently. “I want to find Mer as urgently as you do. And you will rely on my expertise. Because only I know where to find the empty hunting cabins or deserted tenant houses where the dragon can hide.”
“Hunting cabins? I don’t think that the dragon brought your brother to a hun…”
“You don’t know Mer. The dragon will not dare to keep him in a cold cavern with a constant draft. No, my brother will have insisted, with lots of words, to be brought somewhere with a bit more comfort – and only I know where that might me.” She looked at John defiantly.
“I’ll find him on my own.” He wouldn’t wander around with McKay’s sister trailing behind him! This quest was something he had to do on his own. Valiantly and gallantly.
“Not a chance.”
“No.” She snatched away the map.
Two hours later they were together, on their way.
Traveling with Jeannie McKay was rather pleasant. Not only had she equipped them with a sophisticated crossbow and a modified firearm, built by her brother a few years ago, which looked so dangerous that nobody dared to approach them. But she also provided him with lots of stories from their childhood, which didn’t shed a very good light on her brother but were very funny. They made good progress, and three days later they were in the northern provinces of the dukedom where the dragon had been sighted.
They didn’t need Jeannie’s map because the owner of the tavern where they had spent the night was only too happy to tell them everything he knew. The horrible dragon had his lair in the fortified castle of Athos. Every other night there was a gruesome fiery glow in the sky, illuminating the old castle.
“That’s on old fortress of the McKay family,” Jeannie explained. She turned to the tavern owner and asked with a shaky voice, “Do you know about the fate of the dragon’s prisoner?”
“Nobody has seen him during the past few weeks.” He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t say if the unfortunate young man is still alive.” His facial expression made it clear that he didn’t think so. “In your place, I wouldn’t go there.”
“We’ll free him,” John said energetically.
The innkeeper shook his head again and made the sign of the cross.
When John and Jeannie wanted to hire more men to accompany them to the castle, they found none. Even the promise of gold couldn’t tempt the people, because here, the dragon wasn’t a far away mystical creature – it was very near and filled them with real fear.
“Cowards!” Jeannie didn’t hide her disdain.
Also, John would have loved to get a bit more help than only advice. But they hadn’t come all this way to return empty-handed.
They spent another night in the inn and the next morning Jeannie was walking silently beside John through the forest surrounding the castle. John thought that perhaps she became slowly afraid the nearer they got, but he was wrong. When they reached a clearing from where they were able to see the castle, Jeannie stopped and stared for a few moments at the rather large building in front of them.
“Do you think my brother is still alive? Perhaps he was able to hide from the dragon somewhere in the building?”
“It’s big enough.” John’s gaze traveled over the many towers and merlons, the high walls and the drawbridge. That was indeed a castle that was easily defended from the inside. The walls were so thick that they would withstand a canon attack, and its position on a small hill was such that nobody could get near without being seen.
When John took another step into the clearing, a deafening noise startled him. Several shots were fired, on the meadow in front of the castle a dozen hay-sticks suddenly exploded and burned with a blending white flame. On the merlons, horrible looking metal creatures appeared which shot arrows into the direction of the forest and the grids of the drawbridge rattled as if by magic and barred the entryway to the castle.
Instinctively, John took a step back and watched the scene with much interest once he had overcome the shock. “It seems that someone doesn’t want to have visitors. Is there another way in other than the drawbridge?”
Jeannie thought about it then her face lit up. “Under the castle there is a vast cavern system. When we were children we weren’t allowed to enter, because all the hallways are in danger of collapsing. The good thing is, these passages and the ceilings are much too low for a dragon. I’m sure it will not use them.”
“Perfect. Let’s find an entry.” John gave Jeannie a thumbs-up.
It was a happy coincide that neither John nor Jeannie suffered from claustrophobia because “small and low” were a rather euphemistic description for these hallways. During the years, stones had fallen and nearly barred the way, sometimes John and Jeannie had to crawl on their bellies to surmount them.
After half an hour they were dirty, dusty and exhausted – but they were inside the castle! They dusted off their garments. Jeannie released the safety catch of her pistol; John drew his sword and held the fire extinguisher bottle ready to throw.
Silently and carefully they opened door after door, until John made Jeannie stop with a sign of his hand. That was a noise, wasn’t it? It seemed that Jeannie had heard it too, because she tiptoed to the door, put her hand on the door handle and looked at John. They had a silent conversation, and when John made clear that he was ready, she opened the door energetically.
Their weapons drawn, they ran into the room. Now they would slaughter the dragon and fame and fortune would be theirs!
There was a man in the room that was filled with strange devices. He was sitting at a table, pottering around. He looked up with a start and squeaked, “What…? What…?” before he got his voice under control and asked in a normal tone but rather loudly, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Mer?” Jeannie let her weapon drop to the floor and rushed to the man. “Oh, my god! You’re alive! Oh, Mer!” She hugged the man, who tried in vain to step around her, then surrendered and tapped awkwardly on her shoulder.
“Jeannie, what are you doing here? And who’s the guy at the door?” He looked John directly in the eye.
Jeannie let go of her brother, pulled John closer and introduced them. “This is John Sheppard, second son of the Count of Sheppard. This is my brother Mer.”
“Rodney. Rodney Meredith McKay”, her brother corrected her. “What do you want? Why are you here?” He looked sullenly from John to Jeannie while he shook John’s hand for a few seconds.
Well, it didn’t look as if someone was in any immediate danger, John decided. There was no dragon to be seen, and this man seemed to be more angered than happy that they had barged into his laboratory, study … or whatever this was.
“We are here to save you,” Jeannie declared and pulled her brother’s hand fiercely to her bosom.
Rodney made two steps back. “Save me?”
“From the dragon,” John explained.
“What?” Rodney pulled up his brows in a questioning manner.
“The dragon who strikes terror into people’s heart and has abducted you.” Jeannie looked a bit irritated.
“Who told you this nonsense?”
“Everyone knows that. The whole dukedom.” Jeannie shook her head disbelievingly.
“Are you saying that there was no kidnapping?” John asked. Then Rodney’s behavior would make more sense.
“There was no kidnapping,” Rodney confirmed.
“But people have seen the dragon.” John wouldn’t give up that easily. After all, this was his task. His dragon to be conquered. His opportunity to gain glory, gold and the hand of the son.
And about the son... he took a closer look at Rodney. He was about John’s height, but didn’t look as if he would spend any of his days in the saddle or doing gentlemanly sports. The duke’s son seemed to be his age, in his early thirties. Rodney’s thin lips were slanted disapprovingly, and his blue eyes were small slits from which he glared at John.
“Superstitious gossip.” Rodney made a dismissive gesture. “People are fantasizing.”
“And the mechanical archers? The self-igniting haystacks?” John asked.
“Simple machines, working on steam. And magnesium burns with a very impressive white flame, if you light it.” Rodney crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked at John with a very smug and self-congratulatory expression.
Jeannie’s next words ended the staring contest. “If it wasn’t an abduction, why are you here?”
“Because I wanted to work in peace and do my scientific experiments. Is that asking too much?” Rodney was whining when he continued, “There’s never time, when I’m in the castle. Unnecessary state receptions and council sessions and lots of other boring appointments which only eat up my valuable time. Everybody complains if I spend more than two days in my laboratory.”
“And so you decided to simply disappear? Without leaving a note?” Jeannie looked at brother accusingly.
“Oh, right… so I can be ordered back immediately?” he snapped.
“To make sure we aren’t worried to death!” she spit back.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Well, you found me.”
Jeannie hissed, arms akimbo, “You’re an egotistical bastard! You don’t deserve that someone might care enough to be looking for you!”
Rodney mirrored her stance. “Fine. Then you can go now. I’m fine – check. No dragon – check. No danger – check. Thank you very much and goodbye. Don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out.”
“Meredith McKay!” She stomped her foot. “You’re disgusting!”
Rodney repeated, “Goodbye,” took two steps to the door which he opened for her.
Jeannie wanted to storm away but John intervened. He wasn’t convinced that Rodney had told them the whole truth. What if the dragon had cast a spell on Rodney and he was forced to answer like that? Weren’t they obliged to find out the truth? Or, if Rodney hadn’t been kidnapped by the dragon itself but by a person who was forcing him – hidden in a secret place, with a drawn weapon – to get rid of all guests as quickly as possible? Perhaps McKay had been forced to create the weapons that defended the castle, including the dragon?
No, John wouldn’t be fobbed off so quickly. He would spend several days in the castle to find out if there was a grain of truth in all the dragon sightings.
John stepped into Jeannie’s way and stopped her with a firm grip to her elbow. “I think we should stay a few days. We’re both exhausted from the long journey, and there’s a thunderstorm brewing.” He pointed to the window, where they could already see the lighting in the dark-grey sky.
“You have enough time to reach the inn,” Rodney said.
That fueled John’s conspiracy theory. Why was McKay in such a hurry to get rid of them? Calmly, he asked, “You don’t want to get your sister soaked to the bone, and risk a pneumonia, do you?”
“Jeannie is robust,” Rodney answered gruffly, but then he relented. “Fine. You may stay for one night. But don’t expect Zelenka to fuss over you.”
“Zelenka? He’s still in our service? How old is he now?” Jeannie wanted to know.
“Not the old Pjotr Zelenka. His son Radek. He’s taking care of everything here, goes shopping, and yes, helps me with my experiments.”
“Radek is here?” Jeannie grinned. She turned to John. “He always played with us, when we children and spent the summer here. He was very nice, even if he sometimes pulled my pigtails, when I was too naughty.” She laughed. “Where do I find Radek?”
“Probably in the kitchen.” Rodney obviously had lost interest in his guests and went back to his experiment.
Jeannie left John with Rodney and went in search of Radek. Rodney ignored John deliberately. But after a few minutes he clicked his fingers and demanded a tool. When John gave it to him Rodney grunted something unintelligible. When the hand plane was exactly what he wanted, he nodded reluctantly. “Good.”
“What is it?” John asked and had a closer look.
“A new security lock. To lock cupboards, chests and doors so that nobody can open them.”
“Is it already finished? May I try it?” John extended his hand.
“Fingers off! Don’t touch anything!”
“How does it work?” John bent forward. “Do you use levers to prevent the bolt from moving in the lock?”
“Yes. And lifting the tumbler above a certain height will allow the bolt to slide past”, Rodney explained enthusiastically.
“That requires very accurate craftsmanship, I suppose.”
“Indeed.” It was clear that Rodney was proud of his accomplishments.
“I’m impressed,” John commented. “If I’ll ever have something very valuable, I’ll buy a lock like this.”
“It’s still far away from mass production. I don’t have enough time.”
“That’s one of the reasons why you’re here.”
They grinned at each other.
Half an hour later, dinner was ready, and John made the acquaintance of Radek. Within a few minutes he liked the man because he reacted to Rodney’s fastidiousness in a way that made clear that he wouldn’t accept being bullied. While eating a thick vegetable soup with large chunks of meat in it and fresh bread from the oven, they talked about any number of things. Radek also dismissed the dragon sightings as the overzealous imagination of the people in the village. Slowly John started doubting himself. Perhaps there were no secrets here, with the exception of McKay’s experiments? The villagers didn’t understand them and therefore they had invented the dragon to explain the strange occurrences?
Nicely full, because Radek had served a warm apple pie with cream for dessert, and with some good wine in his stomach, John went to his room. Jeannie’s room was opposite of his, and he knocked at her door. Whispering, he told her that they had to stay a few days in the castle because he would make sure that Rodney wasn’t under a spell. “And we have to kill the dragon, if there is one.”
Jeannie understood his concern, shared it, and promised to do everything in her power to persuade her brother.
When John was back in his room, he had the fleeting impression of seeing the dark shadow of a creature that looked like a dragon flying over the forest. But then he told himself that his slightly inebriated brain was playing a trick on him, and that he had seen only one of the bats which flew around the castle in great numbers.
The next two days passed without any incident. Rodney had protested when John and Jeannie had prolonged their stay, but he had been powerless against the combined forces of persuasion from Jeannie, John and Radek.
Jeannie spent a lot of time with Radek, visiting all the places from their childhood, and so John stayed with Rodney. They worked together on different apparatuses, for example a vapor powered serving cart or a mechanical doll to play chess. There were also some tiny, mechanical beetles, which were able to beat their wings so quickly that they stayed in the air for a few seconds.
“It would be so cool to be able to fly,” John said when he once again picked up one of the little beetles from the floor.
“There is no possibility of creating wings that would be able to support the weight of a person,” Rodney explained.
“But it would be cool, wouldn’t it?” John insisted.
Rodney shrugged his shoulders and turned around.
Instead of answering, Rodney went to a waist-high table that was nearly three meters long. “Here, I’m sure you’ll like this.” He pushed a round stone that was the size of a gold coin into John’s hand.
“What do I do with this?” John asked. There were tiny metal horses on the table, and in front of them was an obstacle course.
“It’s a magnet,” Rodney explained and pointed to the stone. “Put your hand under the table and try to guide the horses with the magnet around the obstacles. It’s much more difficult than you might think, because you can only see the horses. Try it.” And he added with a smug smile, “I’m the undefeated champion.”
John tried it, and quicker than he had thought he had found out how to make his eye-hand coordination work. He competed against Rodney in a ‘course’ and Rodney won the first four rounds. But John was a fast learner and the fifth course was a stalemate. In the sixth race he beat Rodney, although Rodney fought doggedly.
Breathless from the running along the table, Rodney complained, “That’s unfair!”
“That’s not unfair, that’s … expertise,” John laughed provocatively.
Rodney snatched John’s hand still holding the magnet stone and put the stone back on the table. Then he held his hand against John’s, measuring it. “Your hands are bigger,” he muttered. “That makes it’s easier.”
“No, only my fingers are a bit longer,” John stated. “But your hands are stronger.”
John stared at their hands where they were touching and saw that Rodney did the same. And suddenly the moment shifted, going from manly showing off to something different. John felt a tingling in his hand, felt Rodney’s warmth, and saw how Rodney’s eyes got bigger and bigger. Their accelerated breathing was the only sound filling the room. It was a strangely erotic background noise.
John licked his lips – and in the same moment he thought about how it must feel to run his tongue over Rodney’s chapped lips. To demand a kiss. To make Rodney open his mouth. For him.
Hesitatingly, he bent forwards a few inches…
“You’re still here? I thought you wanted to go to the merlons?” Jeannie’s arrival disturbed the magical moment, and Rodney pulled back his hand hastily and rubbed it.
“We played with the magnetic horses,” he explained with a sigh.
“Don’t tell me you lost?” Jeannie squealed delightedly.
“I only won once, Rodney won all the other rounds,” John explained generously.
“Poor brother mine,” Jeannie laughed with false sympathy.
Fortunately, she had come to call the two men for lunch, so Rodney’s good mood was restored quickly.
In the afternoon John was able to persuade Rodney to sit in the grand outdoor court and play cards with Jeannie, Radek and him. Because the last days of summer were still warm, Rodney put up a canvas awning. The others mocked him a bit but after half an hour they were happy to sit with him in the shadow. They had lots of fun, laughing, drinking chocolate and eating the buttery cookies Radek had put in the middle of the table.
Shortly before sunset they went back into the castle and Jeannie stayed back with John to put the table and chairs away.
“Thank you,” she said and smiled at him.
“Uhm… what for? For letting him win the last round?”
“No, yes, well maybe. But I haven’t seen him this happy and carefree for years now. He’s always so tense and trying to prove to everyone that he’s the best, and he often forgets that life has also other things to offer – not only scientific progress.”
“But all I did…”
“You, like Radek, were very diplomatic. Knowing when to stop the mockery. When it’s only he and I, there’s always rivalry. We both always want to be better than the other. His know-it-all attitude and grouchiness is driving me up the walls.”
Later, when John was in his room, he thought about this talk. He wouldn’t call McKay grouchy… more like a bit eccentric, which he thought was kind of loveable. But perhaps siblings always had a different view of a person who was so close to them, and with whom they had to fight for the affection of their parents. There were lots of people who said that his brother David was nice and pleasant-natured – John would have characterized him as condescending and pigheaded. Well, it obviously was a sibling-thing.
The next day Rodney worked furiously to make up for ‘lost’ time from the previous afternoon. John played along for a while, but when Rodney made the same mistake for the third time, he forced him to take a break. They had a short walk in the court of the castle, before they sat down for a break with some sandwiches and coffee.
John persuaded Rodney to talk about the time at the palace of his parents, and with each passing word it became more and more clear that Rodney hated the thought of being the next duke. Already thinking about spending his life with a wife, lots of noisy children, hundreds of official obligations, and no time for himself. The whole idea made him ill and nervous.
“But you can delegate state matters to your loyal ministers,” John proposed. “If the King is away, his Prime Minister would be doing all the work.”
“That’s different, they govern together. But the only thing I’m interested in would be the Ministry of Science.”
“Perhaps the next regent should be Duchess Jeannie then.” John grinned.
Rodney looked like he was thunderstruck. “That’s… that’s… brilliant! I’ve never thought about it. I always was convinced that it was my duty… oh, my god, John! That’s the perfect solution!”
“Uhm…” John cleared his throat. “I kind of meant it as a joke. But if you really want to do it, I think you should consult Jeannie first, before you plan her whole future for her.”
“She’ll say yes.” Rodney answered confidently. “I mean, who doesn’t want to the title of duke if it’s offered on a silver platter?”
“Uhm… yes.” Rodney scratched his head, then grinned. “I’m the exception to the rule.”
John laughed. “Of course.”
“Now that we have that cleared up, I’ll return to my experiments.” Rodney got up.
Because John thought that Rodney needed a bit more exercise, he snatched the chocolate bar Rodney was nibbling on, and ran a few steps. “Mhhmm,” he opened his mouth, ready to take a bite.
“Don’t you dare! I don’t want to have your spit on my chocolate!”
“Then try to get it back,” John teased and jumped just out of Rodney’s range.
“Rodney?” John stuck out his tongue as if licking the chocolate.
Rodney took a few steps, but John, who had foreseen it, started running. Rodney sprinted after him. Just when Rodney was sure he’d reach him, John accelerated his running. Only when Rodney was really out of breath would John let him catch up with him. Rodney pounced on him and John made himself fall to the ground, taking Rodney down with him.
“Don’t complain,” he told Rodney before he could start, “I cushioned your fall.”
Rodney was lying between his legs, his head facing John’s, and two blue eyes were staring accusingly at John.
When Rodney took a deep breath, John rubbed the chocolate bar over Rodney’s mouth then licked at the smear of chocolate on Rodney’s lips and asked with his most seducing voice, “Would it have been so bad if I had taken a bite?”
“Yes… no… yes,” stuttered Rodney, but before he could reach a decision, John lifted his head and pressed his lips to Rodney’s. Obviously, Rodney was too puzzled for a moment to react, but then he opened his lips and with a little groan, he let John’s tongue into his mouth.
Oh, yes! Since the nearly-but-not-yet kiss, John had fantasized about this moment. But reality was so much more ‘substantial’. He felt Rodney’s weight and warmth on him. He saw small drops of sweat running over Rodney’s face, and then the sensations exploded because Rodney pressed his tongue into John’s mouth, probed and fought with his tongue, playful and greedy at the same time, moaning loudly. For a second John wondered how long it had been since Rodney had had a lover, because John was quite sure that Radek was everything from cook to valet to fellow scientist, but not – he lost his train of thought and concentrated entirely on Rodney when he nibbled on his lower lip.
Rodney’s strong hands held him still as if he wanted to prevent John from getting up, something that wasn’t at all on the list of things John wanted to do right this moment. Rodney’s warm breath caressed his cheeks before he delved in for another kiss. John loved to feel the weight of Rodney’s body, and to realize that Rodney was obviously very turned on by their deep kiss. John moved his hips against Rodney who moaned deeply.
“Oh, God, that’s so good, John.” And then suddenly, with few loudly spoken words, reality came crushing in and Rodney’s face became unhappy and sad. “No, no, no, this is just not possible.” He got up on his knees.
When John tried to pull him down again, Rodney got angry.
“Let me go. It’s impossible.”
“But, Rodney.” John sat down beside Rodney and lifted his hands in a helpless gesture.
“No.” Rodney moved away to put some space between them.
John couldn’t explain Rodney’s sudden change of mind and why he suddenly looked so full of desperation and grief.
“But tell me at least why it isn’t possible. Is there any law in your kingdom that forbids two men kissing?” John asked.
“No, not that. But I can’t explain,” Rodney uttered between his teeth, sprang from the ground and ran away.
“Damn it, Rodney! Tell my why!” John shouted, running a few steps after him, but then stopped. If Rodney didn’t want to talk, he couldn’t make him. He would give him time and bring up the subject again during dinner. John leaned against a wall. Damn! He couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong all of a sudden.
Rodney didn’t show up for dinner. Radek excused him, saying that Rodney was working on a very important experiment which he couldn’t leave without ruining it. John didn’t believe it but who was he to contradict Radek?
But when he was back in his room, Rodney’s not showing up for dinner made him think What if somehow the dragon was behind all of this? What if the magical animal didn’t allow Rodney to have a relationship with a human? Or if the dragon wasn’t a dragon at all, but an evil sorcerer or a mighty sorceress, who had Rodney under their spell and … and would lose him if someone kissed him? Weren’t magical spells always working like that? But then John remembered that he had already kissed Rodney, so this theory had to be wrong.
Oh, perhaps the witch, the dragon, or who the hell was behind this, had become more careful these days, and nowadays a kiss that was easily given and easily accepted wasn’t enough to break the spell? Perhaps Rodney wasn’t allowed to have … intercourse with someone? That sounded logical, didn’t it?
John was still deep in thought when there was a knock on his door shortly after midnight.
“Come in.” He uttered, hoping it was Rodney, perhaps with an explanation for him?
No, Jeannie entered the room and took a seat on the bed where John was lying. “I have been thinking”, she began, “and I noticed something. We are allowed to go wherever we want in this castle, with the exception of the ballroom. Rodney and Radek told us that it is in danger of collapsing.”
“Yes?” John didn’t know what she was getting at.
“So suddenly? Within a few years?” Jeannie asked incredulously. “During our summer holidays our mother had always played the piano there, and Rodney and I had had races with soapboxes on the marble floor which was smooth as a mirror. The ballroom was in tiptop condition.” She smiled in reminiscence but became earnest once more. “So, I thought, that if something strange is going on in this castle, then it must be happing in the ballroom. We searched all the other rooms, the cellar, and even the attic.”
“How did you come to this conclusion?”
“Mer’s attitude. I saw him in the kitchen before dinner, and he was acting strangely, even for him. He ordered me to disappear from here as soon as possible and take you with me. When I asked him why, he grumbled that he didn’t want anyone in the castle, with the exception of Radek. It would never end well, and we should disappear before someone gets hurt. That was very atypical for my brother. I don’t know… John?” She gave him a puzzled look. “What’s the matter? Why this face?”
John hadn’t realized that he was looking different than usual. When he answered, “Nothing, it’s nothing”, he blushed while uttering this blatant lie.
“John Sheppard! You’ll tell me immediately what has happened between you and my brother.” Jeannie got up from the bed and stared at him sharp-eyed. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything, I swear! One moment everything was fine – then he seemed like a different person, repeating ‘it isn’t possible’.”
“What isn’t possible? What did you do?”
“Jeannie.” John would never have admitted that he sounded whiny.
“Come on.” She prodded him with her foot. “I’m waiting.”
Another kick against his shin, and John said with a deep sigh, “We were kissing.”
“Okay. And then?”
“Then nothing!” John shouted. “One second he’s kissing me, enthusiastically I may add, the next moment he’s running away.” Oh, yes, discussions about his love life were amongst his favorite pastimes. John was so immersed in his self-pity that he only heard the rest of Jeannie’s sentence.
“… the ballroom. We’ll hide there and not give up until we have slain the dragon.”
“And if it isn’t a dragon?” John told her his theory about the sorcerers and witches.
“Doesn’t matter. Whatever or whoever it is, we’ll end it tonight. We’ll kill it, so Mer is free again to make his own decisions.”
There were hundreds of objections in John’s mind, many starting with ‘much too dangerous’, but because he wanted Rodney back, able to kiss him without fear of consequences, he nodded.
“Fine. We’ll take all the weapons we brought, and perhaps we’ll find even some more in Rodney’s workshop.”
One hour later they were in front of the ballroom, nearly disappearing under all the weapons they had brought with them. Jeannie opened the door cautiously, and with a weapon drawn, John looked inside. Darkness. No fire. No candles.
John gave Jeannie a sign and together they tiptoed into the ballroom. The large, full length windows were open, letting the cold night-air and the shine of the moon into the room. In the pallid blue-white light, John saw that all the furniture was covered with white sheets and pushed to the walls. In the middle, under the massive chandelier, was a huge open space.
Suddenly they heard a noise, but quickly realized that it was only the wind playing with the heavy curtains.
“Nobody here,” Jeannie whispered.
“But all the doors leading to the terrace are open. What if the dragon…?”
“Is only gone for a short flight?” Jeannie finished John’s sentence, and John told her that he might have seen a dragon the first night.
“Perhaps it’s out to catch its dinner or,” Jeannie waved her hand, “making sure the territory is clear…”
“Then it has to return sometimes,” John continued Jeannie’s thought. “I propose to establish ourselves here to wait.”
After pushing some of the furniture away from the wall, they barricaded themselves behind two heavy oak tables, which they had toppled over on their sides. They waited, their weapons in an easy distance.
John had already counted on a long night, but it was nearly dawn when finally, something happened. Suddenly, a sharp wind blew through the ballroom, and they heard a strange noise like the wings of a very large bird. Oh, no, they were right! John and Jeannie saw that indeed a dragon was landing on the terrace.
The huge creature artfully folded its wings so that they were hardly discernable from the brown–green scales on its back and flanks. John gripped the bottle with the fire extinguishing powder more firmly. With its folded wings the dragon wasn’t as impressive as before but with his powerful tail he still measured easily ten meters. And when it opened its mouth, two rows of knife-sharp teeth were visible.
John noticed Jeannie tensing, but he was happy that he had something in his hand, because otherwise his fingers would have trembled.
So, the dragon was a real. It wasn’t a fairytale. No figment of imagination from the villagers. It was living in the castle and Rodney knew about it. That’s why he didn’t want them in the ballroom. But that also meant that Rodney was living in a relationship of dependency. If not, why should he lie to his sister and John?
In the meantime, the dragon had squeezed itself through the open doors, barely making it in. The dragon shook itself and suddenly the free space in the middle of the ballroom made sense, because that’s where the dragon dropped down. But once there, he lifted his head again and sniffed the air.
Jeannie nodded to John and he nodded back. Before the dragon noticed that it wasn’t alone, they had to take their chance at a surprise attack. John fired his weapon, and on such a short distance hit the animal squarely in the side. The dragon roared angrily.
John was shocked to see that the bullet hadn’t penetrated the scale armor.
“Dammit!” Jeannie also fired her crossbow, but the dragon stopped the arrow with its wildly waving tail.
The dragon was furious and jumped up and marched the few steps to the tables where John and Jeannie were hiding. Both of them fired again and the dragon bellowed loudly. This time one of the bullets had scratched slightly the soft skin of his neck. Blind of rage the dragon opened its mouth and lanced a fire cloud against the tables.
John felt the heat of the flames, but the dragon was too dumb to aim at him directly. It continued to blow his fiery breath against the massive oak tables which withstood the fire for the moment.
In the meantime, John had shaken the bottle which Teyla had given him. When the dragon took a few seconds to take another deep breath, John profited from the momentary pause and sprayed the white foamy mass directly into its mouth.
The dragon retreated, tried to spit fire, but in vain. It coughed, and gurgled, and stumbled back to the middle of the room.
John jumped over the table and drew his sword. If he could find a possibility to push the sword directly into the dragon’s neck, he would be able to kill him.
The dragon took more uncontrolled steps, then it broke down, and was wheezing as it tried desperately to pull air into its lungs.
“Hey, you didn’t like that, did you?” John shouted triumphantly and took a careful step in the direction of the dragon. The wounded animal was now lying on its side and miserably gasping for breath. John advanced one more step. He pulled his sword high over his head to have enough momentum for his strike. Yes, John the Dragon Slayer, that’s how he would be remembered.
It seemed as if the Dragon looked at him directly for a few seconds then it rolled over with difficulty, to present his soft belly to John.
“Kill him!” Jeannie shouted who advanced with her sword at hand.
“Nonsense, John. He enslaves my brother! I mean, you go hunting. Do you ask the deer if it is a good day to die?” She stood beside him.
“He’s not fighting anymore,” John said.
“That’s a trick. Perhaps he’s already in your head.” She prepared for the deadly strike, but John held her hand back with force. “No.”
He shook his head. “Rodney knows about this dragon and I think, at least we should give him the possibility to explain to us what this is all about. We can’t kill the animal and present him with a fait accompli.”
Jeannie hesitated for a few seconds, but then she let her sword fall. “Fine. One day more or less doesn’t matter. We shackle the dragon, then we fetch Mer, and see what he decides.”
It wasn’t that difficult to bind the dragon with the drawstrings from the curtains because it was rather cooperative. It seemed as if it had accepted its fate. It didn’t move, breathed only very superficially, and was shaken from time to time by a deep cough.
“The white stuff in the bottle works really well,” Jeannie said admiringly while she tied the last knot. “All done. I hope we tied him up enough. I’ll go and wake Mer now, and I won’t accept a no as an answer. Perhaps we can bring some iron shackles, because I’m sure Mer has something like that in his workshop.”
When Jeannie turned to the door, the first rays of the sun were shining through the terrace windows and the red golden light was mirrored in the scales of the skin of the dragon. Which got lighter. Translucent. For a moment it looked as if the dragon would disappear in the morning light.
John and Jeannie stared, utterly speechless. When John thought that their whole action had been in vain and the dragon would disappear in the last second, he noticed that something, no, someone else was lying there instead of the dragon.
Both hurried to the naked man in the middle of the ballroom who was trying to hide his head in his hands.
Jeannie kneeled in front of him, John behind him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Please, talk to us,” Jeannie implored her brother who gave no sign that he had heard them.
“Rodney, are you hurt?” Full of concern, John stroked with his hand from Rodney’s shoulder to his elbow.
Rodney coughed. “Of course, I’m hurt! How would you react if someone sprayed such a horrible chemical gunk into your throat?” As if to underline his point, his last word got lost in a coughing fit.
“We need something to drink. Water, anything,” John said, and Jeannie sprang up and ran out of the room.
“Oh, Rodney, I’m so sorry.”
Rodney waved his hand dismissingly. “If you had killed me, I wouldn’t be in this embarrassing situation now,” he complained between two coughing attacks. “Over there, on the chair, are my clothes.”
John got up and helped Rodney to put on his clothes. Just when they were pulling on Rodney’s trousers, Jeannie came back.
“No comment!” Rodney warned her and held out his hand impatiently for the water. Jeannie gave him the glass and he gulped it down. She refilled the glass and Rodney did it again. After he had consumed nearly a whole liter of water he sighed, “I’m sure, now you want an explanation. Am I right?”
“You are really quick on the uptake,” his sister told him. But as she was still petting his arm, it was clear that her snarky tone was self- protection.
Together they went to the kitchen, made coffee, and Rodney explained while he filled three cups, “It’s very simple. You remember Princess Jennifer?”
“Yes, the timid blonde you almost married.”
“Almost being the problem. When she realized that the marriage was our father’s wish and not mine, she became very upset. As she is well versed in herbalism and magic spells, she cast this spell on me. Now I’m human during the day and I have to spend the night as a dragon.” He looked at them defiantly as if he was waiting for them to blame him for his misfortune.
But Jeannie took him in her arms and John asked, “There is no counter magic, no way to undo the spell?”
“No. I already contacted all the distinguished experts like Dr. Frasier and Dr. Beckett. Nobody knows how to break the spell. It seems that you must wait for a full eclipse - and isn’t that nice? - the next one is only taking place in the hundred and three years. Too late for me.”
“But why didn’t you tell us? Why did you simply vanish?” Jeannie shook her head.
“Oh, because it is so easy to tell your family that you will turn into a cute dragon every time the sun sets?” Rodney asked his sister sarcastically. He finished his coffee and put the empty cup on the table. “Now that you can assure dad that I’m still alive and that I’m fine, you can leave today. It’s already light outside, and you know that there are no dangerous dragons here and…”
“I think I’ll still stay a bit,” John decided.
“Why?” Rodney stared at him.
“There is still some unfinished business.”
“Nonsense. Any unfinished business was finished the moment you learned that I turn into a dragon by night.”
“Why?!” Rodney’s voice was nearly somersaulting. “You’re not going to tell me, that it’s fine … I… I could eat you during the night.”
John laughed out loudly. “You could but you wouldn’t.” He put his hand on the place on Rodney’s neck where the scratch from the bullet was still visible. “Now many actions of the dragon are starting to make sense. You weren’t too silly to attack us directly. You deliberately breathed the fire only against the table. You had to defend yourself but under no circumstances did you want to hurt us. That’s why you surrendered. I bet if you had the serious intention to kill us you would have been able to do so. But you preferred to sacrifice yourself instead of killing us. Am I right?” John looked at Rodney piercingly.
“Perhaps,” Rodney replied, but he didn’t meet John’s eyes and therefore John knew that he was right.
“Oh, God, I nearly had killed you.” Jeannie hid her head against Rodney’s chest.
“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Rodney embraced her clumsily.
“That could happen to anybody?” John asked with a mischievous grin.
On Rodney’s lips appeared the first reluctant grin. “Exactly.”
John took Rodney’s hand into his. Nobody said anything, it seemed as if they were aware how close a call it had been. After a moment John nudged Rodney gently. “Rodney, ask Jeannie about your plan concerning the dukedom and let me stay, yes?”
“But - we’ll be never able to live in the city; we have only the daytime. That can’t be enough for you.” Rodney tried to escape from John’s grip.
But John wouldn’t have it, he pulled Rodney even a bit closer. “Jeannie, don’t listen, and don’t look,” he said and gave Rodney a quick kiss on his slightly open lips. He added, whispering, “Even if we have only the day, we’ll find enough time for everything.”
Jeannie got up. “I think that’s my cue to leave.” She was beaming with joy.
“No, wait a second,” Rodney stopped her. “Uhm… What do you say about taking my place in the succession to the throne? You could marry a nice prince and produce lots of little McKays?”
“Only if they are allowed to visit Uncle Mer from time to time,” said his sister half-jokingly, looking at Rodney for an answer.
“If that’s the price, fine. Deal!” He squeezed her hand.
“Deal. I’ll take the throne.” Jeannie laughed. A moment later, she continued, “The only thing we still have to do, is to convince the villagers that John and I were able to tame the dragon. Hopefully then nobody will try to kill it. And you should show yourself to your neighbors, so that they no longer have to speculate whether you are still alive or not.”
“I’m not good with these social things.”
“That’s why I stay for a little bit longer. We’ll have …” She frowned, and then snapped her fingers. “An open house day! You’ll show yourself outside the castle, bringing some of your harmless toys with you. You’ll create a big mechanical dragon and they’ll understand that there is no danger.”
“Do I have to?” Rodney asked John.
“I’m afraid Jeannie is right.”
“Fine, do your worst, sis.”
“Perfect. If everything is taken care of now, I’ll go to bed, because I spent my whole night dragon hunting.” She kissed both men on the cheek and left the kitchen.
“You really want to stay?” Rodney asked when they were alone.
“Do you need more?” John offered his hand to Rodney who took it. “Then I can tell you that the Mirror of Fate brought me here.”
“Oh, no. Spare me such supernatural nonsense.” Together they left the kitchen, and Rodney steered John in the direction of this bedroom.
“Because dragons are so much easier for an explanation?” John teased.
“Yes, dragons are real.”
John opened the door to Rodney’s bedroom and pressed Rodney against the inside of the door.” Show me how real they are,” he whispered and started opening the buttons on Rodney’s shirt.
Rodney obviously loved the idea because he started unbuttoning John’s vest. He helped John by pulling the shirt over his head, put his hand on John’s chest, starting to comb through his chest hair. It seemed as if he wanted to say something, but nothing came out of his mouth.
“What’s the matter?” John asked. “Aren’t you happy with what we decided?”
“Not happy? No, no. I … I … dammit it sounds so strange, and if I tell you now, you’ll be teasing me mercilessly for all eternity and …”
“Rodney?” John took Rodney’s chin in his hand and forced him to look him in the eye. “Take a deep breath, and then tell me. I swear I won’t laugh.”
What was Rodney afraid of? Did the nightly transformation also transform him, his soul, somehow? Were there still some scales, even in his human form? John would not laugh he promised to himself.
Rodney took a deep breath and asked, “Do you want to accompany me on my nightly flights? I mean, you sounded so enthusiastic when we were talking about flying. You don’t have to, if you don’t want, I only thought…”
“Oh!” John was thrilled. “You’re inviting me to fly with you?”
“I made a quick calculation. If you weigh about 160 pounds, I should still be able to fly. Of course, the flight characteristics will change a bit, but nothing which a bit of training couldn’t overcome.”
“Yes! Yes! I want that!” John kissed Rodney soundly.
“Fine, then you’re allowed to ride me,” Rodney declared straight-faced.
“Yes!” John nodded, and it took him a few seconds to see the ambiguity, because he was already planning on how to fulfill his dream of flying.
He very valiantly fought against the uprising laughter and he bit onto his lower lip.
Rodney complained, “You promised!”
“Yes, and I’ll keep my word. But I want to offer you the same.”
“I’ll take you up on your offer,” Rodney said with a broad grin.
John pushed him on the bed. He crawled over him and said, “Only that I don’t need a saddle and bridle to accommodate you.” He stifled Rodney’s indignant cry of “John! …” with a deep kiss full of passion, and made Rodney totally forget what he wanted to say…
------- THE END ------
@Antares, January 2020