thanks to Ninjetti for the beta
It was dark when they arrived. Not streetlamps and moonlight dark, not shop windows and neon signs over club doorways dark, but dark. Pitch black. And raining in drenching sheets that persuaded Franz, their driver, to inch forward at a snail's pace for the last half-hour of the journey.
A magnificent streak of lightning illuminated the silhouette of a craggy castle on a hill ahead. Franz declared it, with relief, to be their destination, though only Lynn, white-knuckled in the passenger seat, and Chris, who had inveigled Justin into giving him his last Mars bar and consequently could not sleep, actually heard him.
The van drew up, stones crackling under the tires. Lynn and Franz scurried to the hotel entrance, coats over their heads, treading carefully in the light from the van's headlamps. Lynn hadn't quite closed her door, so there was a trickle of illumination from the convenience light.
Huddled in back of the van, Chris poked mercilessly at his slumbering companions. "Come on, guys, wake up. We're here. Wherever the fuck here is. JC, where's here?"
JC yawned hugely, then, looking down his nose at Chris like a camel, appeared to consider the question. "It's Wednesday, right? So, um, this must be Transylvania."
"No way!" Chris was delighted. "No fucking way! Transylvania? It's a real place? Oh man, break out the stockings and garter belts."
JC giggled, Joey scowled (Joey would look awful in stockings anyway), and the two babies stared at him, wide-eyed and baffled. Chris beamed benevolently at them. So much to learn.
"Did you say 'garter belts'?" Lance's voice was still rough with sleep.
"Yes I did, you sweet little transvestite, you," Chris replied, pinching Lance's cheek.
"Knock it off!"
"Yeah, baby. I'm making' a man, with blond hair and a tan," Chris caroled. Lance growled menacingly, but before Chris could be torn limb from limb (Lance was like a bleached-blond grizzly bear when just awakened), Franz was back, with a flashlight and two umbrellas, and urging them out of the van.
"There has been a failure of the electricity," he explained, as they grabbed their bags, and Lynn's, too, and followed his meager light back to the hotel entrance, jostling for umbrella-space.
Inside an echoing, stone-floored lobby, Lynn greeted them with a three-branched candlestick in one hand. Beside her was a cadaverous man in a dark suit, whose namebadge proclaimed him to be the night manager. He offered them each a candle and a tiny matchbook on a saucer, with a neat little bow of his head. Chris was ecstatic to note that whatever his first name might be, it began with an I*, and only evidence of a limp, or a hunchback, could possibly have improved the discovery.
Igor, as Chris inevitably dubbed him, led them up a broad staircase, along a corridor, up a narrow staircase, along another corridor, and up a spiral staircase, to three bedrooms in what he proclaimed in a guttural accent to be the tower rooms. Lynn promptly declared the room with its own bathroom to be her property and Justin's, and the rest of them filed obediently into the other rooms. Chris went straight for the bathroom. If he let JC in there first, he'd be frozen solid before he got the chance to brush his teeth.
"Don't forget to blow out the candles before you go to sleep," Lynn called. There was a harmonious chorus of dutiful responses.
"At least by candlelight," JC remarked, "we can't actually see how sucky the rooms are."
"Yeah," Chris agreed, shivering as he scrambled into his night gear and then pulled on a sweatshirt and the thickest socks he could find. "But the spooky vibe really works, man. I mean—Transylvania! Fantastic!" He burrowed under the covers. As expected, the ancient bed bowed beneath his scant weight, but the quilt thing was surprisingly warm and snug. After a few moments, he eased himself out of the sweatshirt and dropped it onto the floor.
He blew out his own candle, and was asleep before JC came back from the bathroom.
* * *
Breakfast next morning was a little disappointing, a perfectly ordinary European-style buffet with lots of ovoid rolls, crusty and marvelously bullet-like, although Lynn gave Chris such a Look that he didn't dare do more than hide a couple in the capacious pockets of his cargo pants, for later. There was ham and cheese as well as more palatable jams and spreads (Nutella! Score!), and not a blood sausage in sight. The coffee was foul, but there was hot chocolate, and that was very cheering indeed.
How they'd made the coffee, and heated the milk for the hot chocolate, was something of a mystery because the electricity was still off. Which meant that they would be rehearsing to a tape on Justin's portable boom box, if the batteries were good. Which actually, they'd have to do anyway, since the rest of the team didn't seem to have made it to Hotel Drachenwald. No musicians, no manager, no minders, nobody.
Lynn announced that she and Franz (he'd apparently had a ground-floor room, which was just as well because Chris didn't think he'd have managed to fit up the tiny spiral staircase) were going to back-track in the van and see if they could find everybody else, and that the boys were not to get into trouble while they were gone. She didn't sound too worried about that possibility, though, and it turned out that there wasn't a whole lot of scope for doing, well, anything. Couldn't even watch Transylvanian TV.
So they trooped back up the three flights of stairs and the two long corridors to their own rooms. At Chris's suggestion they practiced their hacky technique using one of the purloined rolls, but the game was cut short when a particularly ambitious kick sent the roll up to the ceiling, where it shattered, spraying crunchy shards all over JC's bed. There was, necessarily, a pause while he stripped the sheet from the mattress and shook it pointedly in Chris's direction. Justin's plaintive murmur that this was a hotel, dude, the maid would be changing the sheets, wouldn't she? led Chris to speculate that perhaps the sheets had actually been clean last night, but perhaps not. As a consequence of which he had to be sat upon and beaten severely about the head with a discarded sock.
Dignity, and the proper order of things, were restored by Chris's offer to explain the garter belts thing. So everyone settled down, Lance doled out carefully rationed chocolate (despite his perverted lack of real interest in chocolate, he was the only one who could reliably figure out where Lynn had hidden the supplies and maintain a look of convincing innocence when interrogated about its disappearance), and Chris began to explain the Rocky Horror Show, with musical assistance from JC. Their version of Damn it, Janet with JC as Janet and Chris—obviously—taking the manlier role of Brad, was, he assured everyone, a triumph, surpassed only by the dazzling rendition of Sweet Transvestite featuring both of them as Frank because neither would back off.
Justin was announcing he thought it sounded a bit creepy and he didn't see why everyone had to be in stockings, when Lance, who was sitting in the window casement, interrupted.
"Guys, there's no such thing as dragons, right?"
There was a short silence, shortly followed by mocking laughter and mild abuse.
JC, bless his gentle heart, explained that although there were many dragon myths, and much symbolism associated with dragons, in reality the nearest there was to a dragon these days was the large lizard of, he believed, the iguana family.
"I guess that means if I told y'all there's a dragon outside, you wouldn't believe me. What if I tell y'all there's a real big lizard down there?"
JC smiled sweetly and told Lance that lizards were cold-blooded, so the really big ones had to live in warm countries. Which meant, not Transylvania.
There was further mocking.
Lance glared balefully at them all. "Okay then. No such thing as dragons, which, thank you, I already kinda knew. Except there's one in the forest down there."
Chris was not going to be lured to the window by fairy stories, he'd already looked out of there, and they were at the top of the castle and the hill fell away pretty damn sharply and it was, in fact, a hell of a long way down. Joey, and Chris liked to think it was because he was more gullible rather than unafraid, unphobic, about heights, sauntered over to where Lance was sitting, and peered out.
"Nope, can't see it," he said.
Lance pushed him aside. "It was right there," he said, disbelieving, and really, if Chris hadn't known full well that Lance could lie through his teeth and sound utterly sincere, he might have been convinced by that tone.
"Right, then," announced Justin, "we know what we gotta do, don't we?" He looked brightly round at them all. "Let's go dragon-hunting!"
Which was why, ten minutes later, they were wrapped up against the Transylvanian chill, running full-tilt down the steeply-sloping hill and heading for the trees.
* * *
Chris and Joey amused themselves enormously by pretending to search for scorch marks on the tree trunks. This made Lance grind his teeth, and led him to point out that he had at no time mentioned that the big lizard was breathing fire. So they looked for scratch marks instead. Lance, glaring, said he supposed that if the dragon was native to these parts it probably knew its way around and didn't need to leave a trail on the trees. This pitiful attempt at sarcasm got him, predictably, nowhere at all, and Chris and Joey continued joyfully 'finding' traces of the creature's passage until they had gotten quite some distance into the forest.
It then occurred to Chris that possibly the creature was hiding in the branches, as everyone knew dragons could fly.
"Did I say it was flying? Did I? Did I even mention wings?"
"If it didn't have wings, why'd you think it was a dragon?" said Justin, determined to join in the fun.
"I think I know what a dragon looks like," Lance said unwisely.
Chris felt that mockery was good for Lance's soul, and this was too beautiful an opportunity to miss. He became quite lyrical on the subject of how, in Mississippi, learning to recognize dragons was a part of the growing up process, also mermaids and centaurs and assorted other mythical beasts, and enquired why Lance had not brought his unicorn along, as the teenies would just love it.
"Oh, look," said JC, who was not listening. "A hut."
"Yeah, 'cause that looks a whole lot like a dragon," muttered Chris, thwarted of the opportunity to drive Lance insane with rage. For the moment. But he went along with the general impulse to investigate the hut.
The investigation looked as though it was doomed from the outset, as the door seemed to be locked, but Chris shouted "Open sesame!" and kicked it. It creaked open. Chris preened.
The hut was not large. It held jumbled items of rustic furniture and, in the corner opposite the door, just beyond the very dirty window, a pile of something large, grey and smelly, which seemed to be the source of the frankly nasty odor in there. Joey, whose sensibilities were less delicate than anyone else's since he came from Brooklyn, poked a cautious finger into the grey stuff and said it was a pile of blankets. Nobody was cold enough to care to investigate further, and it was generally agreed that the hut was not up to much.
They issued forth to resume the dragon hunt, though enthusiasm for this project seemed to have waned.
A shriek of delighted disgust from Justin, loud enough to pierce metal, informed them that he had made a discovery. This turned out to be two corpses—large birds, tied by the feet to a nail next to the hut's sole window. They had been dead, it appeared, it smelled, for several days.
"Uh. Guys." Joey's voice, strangely high. "Uh. Lizard."
"Big lizard," said Lance, sounding vindicated.
"Holy shit!" said Chris.
"Inside!" said JC, sharply. "Quick!"
They hurtled into the hut. JC and Lance slammed the door shut and leaned against it, while the others gibbered.
As one, the five of them sidled to the window, and peered out, noxious smell for the moment forgotten.
The dragon was probably rather bigger than the hut. It had, as it happened, a large and apparently serviceable pair of wings, which it flapped at intervals. Also little spikes all the way down its spine from the top of its sinuous neck to the tip of its long, lashing tail. It was actually, JC said, very pretty, the way its vivid green scales and its long steely claws glittered in the thin sunshine.
"That," said Chris, "is a Big Fucking Lizard."
"Told you so," said Lance, understandably.
It did not look like a dragon that was content with its lot. It looked, in fact, rather irritable.
"Did it see us?" whimpered Justin. "Does it know we're in here?"
"They are supposed to be short-sighted," offered JC, hopefully.
"Good sense of smell, though," said Lance.
Chris elbowed him viciously in the ribs and got a kick on the shin in reply. "In that case, it's either got your stupid deodorant in its nostrils, or else those decaying geese."
Joey brightened. "Maybe it wants the geese. Maybe it's hungry..." He seemed to realize that this was not a felicitous observation.
"Great." Chris articulated the general feeling. "Any more useful contributions, Joe?"
"We could—someone could throw the geese to it," Justin suggested in a quavering voice.
"Who'd you have in mind, J?" said Chris, as calmly as he could.
"It better be one of the tenors," suggested Lance. "We got plenty of those."
"Nobody," said JC, firmly, "is going out there with that, um..."
"Big Fucking Lizard." Chris stared out the window some more. "Which isn't supposed to be there. Which isn't supposed to exist!"
"Do you think it breathes fla—holy shit!" said Joey.
Little wisps of smoke went up from the incinerated grass. That'd be a yes, then.
"Maybe," said JC, "we should get away from the window."
The five of them edged into the middle of the hut, and huddled together. More gibbering seemed like the only available option, so they did that.
* * *
After an hour and forty-five minutes, the dragon showed no sign of losing interest in the locality. It had paced round the hut several times, and for several terrifying minutes had scratched at the walls before apparently recognizing that the sturdy logs were not readily going to give way.
Justin was still whimpering. Only Lance's suggestion that dragons were known for their acute hearing had persuaded him to tone it down from a shrill, high-decibel complaint to this more bearable volume, but it was beginning to grate on Chris like fingernails on a blackboard.
"Come on, guys. We need a plan. How are we going to get out of here?"
"Guys, I think I've got it. We could sing to it!" said JC. "Music hath charms to, um, soothe the savage beast?"
This 'plan' was greeted with astonished silence (Chris knew that it was supposed to be 'savage breast', but couldn't be bothered to say so). However, nobody could come up with anything better.
Four bars into God Must Have Spent... there was an earsplitting bellow from the dragon, and three bushes went up in flames.
"Obviously a music-loving species," said Lance, but very quietly.
"Anyone else got a plan?" Chris asked.
"I vote we give it Justin," suggested Lance. "What? It's traditional. To appease a dragon, you hafta give it a beautiful virgin and yes, Chris, I did learn that in Mississippi."
Justin shrieked with indignation. "That's not fair! Why don't you go out there, then?"
Lance smirked. "I don't qualify."
"I bet the dragon would be just as happy to eat you," said Justin, aggrieved. "And you do so qualify!"
"I never understood," Chris broke in hastily, "why dragons care if a person's a virgin or not."
"I am not a virgin!"
"You so are!"
"Chris is right," Joey broke in. "If I was a dragon, I'd want someone a bit more substantial than J. I mean, look at him, he'd be two mouthfuls for that thing out there."
Chris grinned evilly. "Pity Lou isn't here." Lance heard him, and snickered, distracted from his squabble with Justin. Justin seized the opportunity to announce petulantly that he didn't see why he should have to be the sacrifice and he wasn't going.
"Nobody is going to give anybody to the, the, the BFL," JC told them sternly. "Why don't we. Why don't we look around this place, see if there's anything we could use as a, um, to send a signal?"
"Of course! 'Cause there's the telephone by the door, and ooh, look, a ham radio set right here by the window!" said Chris, crossly. He was faintly ashamed of himself, because of the moment when he'd thought the idea of giving Justin to the dragon had not been completely without merit, and really, he wasn't supposed to think that way even if the kid had been whining non-stop since they barricaded themselves in here.
"Could we set fire to the furniture?" Joey suggested, tentatively. "There is a fireplace, if someone saw smoke they might... come see what was up?"
"I suppose it ought to burn," said JC.
Chris spotted the flaw in the plan. "Yeah, but how are we supposed to start the fire? I mean, do we step outside and say, Hey, Mr. Dragon, wouldja mind just breathing on this old wooden chair? Or do we rub JC's legs together until we get a spark?"
"Jackass," said Lance. He fished in his jeans pocket and brought out a small object, which turned out to be one of the matchbooks with the hotel's name on it. The hotel's crest, it turned out, was a dragon. Marvelous.
"Great!" said Joey, enthusiastically. "So, guys, how do we make a fire? I mean..."
"We really need some kindling," Lance asserted, looking round the bare hut. "Um. How about one of those blankets? If we could get that to burn, we can put the wood on top."
Joey, who was nearest to and least squeamish about the grey, dirt-laden blanket pile, tugged at an edge and hauled the blanket towards the fireplace. What was revealed beneath it was not another grubby blanket, but something rounded, gleaming, golden, and the size of an armchair.
It was, unmistakably, a dragon's egg.
"Wow," said Justin.
"It's just beautiful," said JC.
"Guess we know what the dragon wants," said Lance.
Chris stared out of the window. The dragon was no longer pacing around the hut, it was lying down, staring towards him, and as he looked it raised its head and let out a deep, mournful cry.
"That's what the dead geese are for," Chris realized. He explained quickly, thoughts tumbling over themselves to get out. "Someone stole the egg, I bet, because how much would this be worth? The blankets are keeping it warm so's it'll hatch, and the geese are to feed it when it does."
JC was predictably indignant. "Stole the egg! That's—that's just wrong!"
"Yeah, well, I vote we give it back to mama," said Lance.
"It looks like our best shot at getting out of here," Joey agreed.
So they spread the blanket on the floor, and rolled the heavy egg onto it, and dragged their burden across to the door. Justin kept watch on the dragon through the window while the other four wrestled the egg through the door and, on the count of three, rolled it frantically through and clear of the hut, then raced back inside as Justin screamed that it was coming!
They kept the door open a crack, and watched.
The BFL's roar stopped as it spotted its lost egg, and there was a soft, deep rumbling instead, so low, lower than piano strings, lower than bass drums, that vibrated their very skull bones. Then the dragon sat back, opened its mouth, and sent a huge jet of flame to engulf the egg. Everyone gasped, except JC, who moaned.
But the BFL knew what it was doing. As the flaming stopped, they perceived that the eggshell had been turned to ash, and inside it, a crumpled and sticky dragonet was twitching and attempting to uncurl itself. The mama dragon crooned, bass viol legato or maybe a really big horn, nudged it with her nose, and breathed on it, and all five watchers sighed at the same moment as the baby straightened its little neck and looked up, touching its stubby snout to mama's. JC was actually snuffling, the big wuss. The dragonet flopped a bit, its little wings gummy and its legs unsteady, but the mother's breath seemed to help, and soon it was standing firmly and waving its small tail. It was about waist-high to a Justin, Chris reckoned.
It was also complaining about something, in a metallic alto like a tin clarinet. Chris figured it out pretty quickly, being accustomed to younglings. He also spotted the moment when Mama Dragon remembered that there was Meat in the hut.
Before he had time to think of a better idea, he darted out the door and ran around to the side of the hut, seized the revolting geese from their nail, and ran towards the dragons, holding out his offering. He laid the geese down in front of the little dragon, which squealed joyfully (sounding disconcertingly like Justin being awarded chocolate) and tore into the rotting corpses with unsettling enthusiasm.
The big dragon was looking at Chris, two vast unfathomable eyes holding him terrified and immobile. Then it blinked, and its head moved closer, and it opened its maw, and... breathed on him. He felt warm all the way down, but not burned up. He tingled.
The dragon visibly dismissed Chris from her mind and turned her full attention back to the youngster, which was shaking one of the goose corpses so that feathers and bits of rotting flesh dropped in a wide circle. Ew, thought Chris, and fled back to his goggle-eyed bandmates in the hut.
JC seized him in a vise-like hug, then let him go and smacked him furiously in the head. "Are you out of your tiny mind? Are you insane?" he shrieked. Joey restrained him, and JC turned to sob against Joey's shoulder.
"You are insane," said Joey, "but that was the bravest thing I ever saw."
"Wow, Chris," was all Lance could manage, and Justin not even that, he just wrapped his arms around Chris and hung on.
After a few minutes of embarrassing emotion, they all calmed down and remembered they were boys, and cool, and turned back to look at the dragons. By now all that remained of the geese were a few feathers and one webbed foot. The baby dragon burped noisily, looked startled, crapped on the grass, and meeped at its mama. Mama dragon gave an approving rumble, and picked baby up with an enormous, careful claw, placed the little dragon on her back, unfurled her huge wings, and headed for the sky.
They watched until the dragons were out of sight.
"We should go back to the hotel," said Lance, regretfully. He was right, of course. Lynn would surely be there by now, wondering where they'd all got to, and besides, it must be lunchtime.
Now that the stink of rotting geese was gone, Chris was definitely hungry.
* It was, in fact, Ignatius.