1: Your Precious Heart
Charcoal-grey smoke meanders through the small house in wafting clouds. The rockwork around the fire pit is daubed with black soot, yet the fire below still dances merrily in flashes of dark and light as if it is unaware of the carbon tracks it emits. A small, broad-shouldered man dressed in plain brown robes is stirring something in a large pot hanging in the center of the fire, the long wooden spoon in his hand for just this purpose. Save for a few bats hanging amidst drying boughs from the wooden rafters of his two-room cottage, right now he is alone.
The man shuffles some on the uneven wooden flooring, the supple soles of his worn leather boots barely making a sound as he crosses the room to where a large chest rests near the door. He flips it open and pulls out a large vermillion, hand-woven blanket; this gets carried over and spread out on the floor in front of the fire. After seeing that the blanket is exactly where he needs it to be, he unhooks the cooking pot from its stand and maneuvers it over towards a bench on the wall to the left of the fireplace, then ladles himself out a bowl of the stew he’s been simmering all afternoon. He grabs a hunk from the fresh loaf of rye bread next to the pot, a smaller, more ornately carved spoon, and finally settles down cross-legged on the blanket with his supper and eats slowly, savoring each bite as the orange flames flicker and waltz. His cerulean eyes take in the dance before him and he seems to be in a zen-like state, perhaps reading a story in the waltz and tango of the flames.
He empties his bowl and returns it to the bench next to the pot then checks to be sure the second bowl and spoon laid out there are clean. The man nods to himself and pulls at the sash around his middle to loosen the knot keeping the well-worn robes closed. They fall freely open, showcasing the golden trail of hair that winds down his firm stomach to end in a thatch of wheat-colored curls between his legs; a fine pelt just a shade lighter than the that on his head. Except for the thin braid that hangs between his shoulders, the man’s hair is cut sharply over his ears and across the nape of his neck. He scratches at his belly and stretches then relaxes back against the blanket, pulling and pinching until he has made an oval-shaped nest out of the soft material.
With a sigh, the man closes his eyes and promptly turns into a hedgehog.
The little mammal gives one last squeak before burrowing into the blanket. Sleep comes quickly thanks to his full belly, his soft blanket and the warmth of the fire.
Outside the tiny cottage, darkness falls complete and the unguarded forest comes to life. Sky-kissing ancient trees surround the man’s home and animals move amongst them either in silence or with only the faintest hint of their passing. Wolves, foxes, griffins and wyrms cross back and forth around the place, yet none dare hunt there.
From the inky depths of the forest something large passes through the trees to stand at the door of the tiny house. Red scales gleam vivid against the velvet night, like red paper lanterns lit from within. The sound of enormous lungs breathing in and out make an inquisitive field mouse scamper out of sight as it accidentally runs between the massive creature’s front legs that are tipped in pure-white claws the length of carving knives. The dragon lashes its tail but otherwise seems to ignore the rodent.
A faint glow begins on the creature’s back and then it simply disappears, replaced by the shape of a tall, lean human male. This man is taller than the man in the brown robes and at this moment, the precious seconds after his transformation, is completely naked; except for a fringe over his eyes, the dark hair on his head is cropped close to his skull yet it does not hide the smooth waves of curl to be found there. His skin is pale and only faintly dusted with auburn hair and then that only on his lower arms and legs. Old, almost forgotten scars crisscross his back.
He raises a fist to the door and instead of knocking, draws an arcane symbol in the darkness with an index finger. For an instant a tiny golden orb appears, lighting up the ivy that clings to the stone cottage like a lover clings to the heart of his soul mate. The man speaks a single word. Several of the nocturnal denizens of the woods crowd close so that they might hear that single word spoken in the hypnotically plummy, plush voice of the one who may wield it as a weapon or a blessing.
As the final consonant is dropped from his tongue, an otherworldly hush falls over the forest surrounding the tiny cottage, almost as if it is holding its breath; the wooden door swings open to admit the man who has to duck his head to pass over the threshold. It returns to its former state of being as he steps through and again raises his hand.
“Ceran.” The mage’s tone melds easily with its environment, almost a whisper: gone in a single exhale.
In the still cottage, he finds the blanket on the floor near the fire, the sight of it a balm to his heart after a tiring day spent in the woods. He nods to himself then tugs down a set of black velvet robes from a hook that hangs over the long, light bow that rests against the wall, a small stack of ivory tipped arrows on the floor beside it. Pale jade eyes take in the empty stew bowls, one used, one clean; the fresh bread, the stew and the dying fire before he reaches down and pulls back a corner of the blanket. The little wheaten-furred and white-spiked hedgehog is curled in a tight ball, fast asleep, completely oblivious to whether the man now in his home is friend or foe.
After carefully extracting him from his nest, then pulling the blanket up from the floor, the ebony robed man gently cradles the creature in hands so broad the hedgehog is virtually invisible as he carries him to the only other room in the cottage. A narrow bed stands in the corner, covered by a threadbare sheet and a single feather pillow. Everything is old but clean and serviceable. One single shelf hangs on the wall above the bed; several hand-bound tomes rest against each other there.
In no time at all, the man relaxes against the straw-stuffed mattress, lying on his side and arched around the hedgehog, long, black robes hanging over the edge of the bed; bare feet almost hang off the end of it. His body feels heavy, unwieldy; as it always does when he returns to his human form at the end of yet another long day. It bothers him sometimes that he prefers the powerful body of the dragon to this often-weak, slow-reacting, emotionally exhausted shape.
The hedgehog, for his part, never awakens, yet still manages to inch over nearer his companion’s warm body until his tiny one is very nearly nestled in the space between the man’s collar and his heart, right beneath where his head rests on the pillow. One curl so dark red it is almost black falls over the man’s forehead and one little paw snags it on wee claws. Now the mage counts the tiny creature’s respirations and his own body responds in kind. As the last remaining crickets of the season offer up their hymns to the universe, the moon begins to rise, the companions sleep in the safety of their mutual existence and a comfortable silence envelopes them as they rest.
In the darkest hour before dawn, the thinner man awakens to the soft sigh of his bedmate. He opens his eyes and looks directly into soft blue ones peering deep into his soul. They waste no time, their bodies drawn together as surely as their hearts ever were. The blonde man grasps and pulls his taller companion as close as he is able while at the same time tugging off the black velvet robes.
“Shyam,” he whispers against his partner’s neck as he kneads the base of the taller man’s spine with his fingertips. Jomar wants to say so many things, to tell his brilliant, beautiful mage how he aches for him throughout the long days but it is difficult to talk because his tongue is busy re-tracing the satisfying definition of perfect lips.
Shyam arches his back and worms his way out of his robes as he is pulled up and onto the other man’s chest.
“Jomar.” Shyam’s voice is pitched even deeper from disuse but Jomar hears the depth of sentiment in it nonetheless.
Jomar rolls his hips so that their now-straining erections brush up against one another and soon they fall into each other’s’ mouths and bodies with abandon: they have absolutely nothing to lose. He pulls Shyam down against him, forcing the taller man’s hands to grip his biceps rather than allow him to use them for balance. The days are miserable, the nights almost bearable, but this one hour they get between the pitch black of night and the crystalline dawn makes their suffering fall by the wayside for a while and they revel in the soft touches, sighing moans, and declarations of undying adoration. Even at this intimate distance, they cannot get close enough.
Too soon, it is over. For a quiet few moments they keep their bodies tucked against one another until the very moment Shyam begins to tremble. He rolls his long legs out of the bed, pale skin already flushing with crimson as it pulls over slowly convulsing muscle and sinew. Pain is only the echo of a lost memory. He makes his way towards the door backwards so he can watch every move his lover makes. Jomar follows, holding his hands. Shyam hangs his head and stops, his back against the ancient wood.
Jomar reaches up, places his fingers under Shyam’s chin and pushes upward so that he can look into those otherworldly green eyes, the rich color shot through with lines of gold, round pupils already changing to the near-diamond shape that they will be until night falls upon their world again.
“Look at me,” Jomar states in a voice made calm through years of practice. Most days it is not like this, only sometimes; and it is then that he proves his strength, his undying hope, and his loyalty, over and over again.
Shyam looks. “I’m sorry,” he says and grabs Jomar’s shoulders, reeling the shorter man against his body in a tight embrace. He nuzzles the top of Jomar’s head, his cheeks already beginning to burn. “I am so sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for, my love,” Jomar speaks against Shyam’s collar bone and soothingly runs his hands down his lover’s bare spine, his fingers indulging in the unusual feel of the scales already coming through otherwise smooth skin. “It is I who should be regretful.”
Shyam shakes his head emphatically against the side of Jomar’s face. A single tear slowly drifts down his cheek. Somewhere beyond the door a woodpecker drums against a hollow tree and a falcon cries its morning prayers.
It is time.
One last, lingering kiss and Shyam opens the door. He steps over the threshold in his naked, trembling form and in an instant he is turning away; long, scaled tail already twitching about the ground at his feet, glossy obsidian horns curling at his temples. The discomfort of this change is so familiar that it no longer registers, until he catches a glimpse of Jomar’s adoring expression and then the sting of it rocks him so hard that he falls to his knees. He hangs his head and drops his hands to the ground, effectively baring his neck to an axe-man that does not exist.
“Jomar, kill me and end this now. I can’t go on like this.”
Frozen on the threshold of their home, Jomar opens his arms. “Only if you allow me to die with you.”
As they always do, the words are a buffer to Shyam’s almost impenetrable misery. He takes a deep breath and leans forward, the lines of his body melding into that of the gigantic red dragon. Without another glance but a nod of the great horned head, he moves into the dappled daylight of the thick forest, knowing that for one more day his lover is safe from danger only because they are forced by this strange biology to be at such a distance from one another.
Jomar watches until the dragon is completely invisible, stands there even longer still after he hears the scream of the animal when its wings finally unfurl and it launches itself above the trees with a powerful thrust of its hind legs. Small branches crash to the ground and birds scatter from the treetops, answering the dragon’s screams with angry cries as their morning peace is shattered. The parting is always the greatest of his sorrows and he regrets falling asleep last night before Shyam returned to the cottage. One of his greatest joys is hearing the mage order the door to open in his bottomless voice.
Their lives have not always been so disrupted. As Jomar begins his daily chore routine that includes cleaning Shyam’s robes and weeding his small garden, memories come and go as images do when one has nothing else much to think about day in and day out. Jomar is content to spend his time alone, only occasionally venturing into town for sundries he cannot produce himself in some way. A few of the locals still consider themselves his friends, but he seldom sees them anymore. He was forced to pull in his shingle long ago, because the pain of being unable to protect the one person who means more to him than his own life was enough to crush him and make him wish for death. Jomar recognizes, in many ways, that this half-life that is still filled with love is the better alternative to facing a lonely emptiness for eternity.
Jomar frowns at his carrots and cabbages, scratches the back of his neck then rolls his braid between his fingers. Shyam did not eat last night, something that seems to be getting worse the longer he is forced to remain in the dragon’s body. His eyes fall on the domed bee houses at the end of the garden. Perhaps he can mix up something sweet today that will entice the mage to take even a small portion of it later tonight.