The Illuminated Dragon
By Sarah Prineas, illustration by Kari Christensen
3 June 2002
Rafe Greatorex thought he'd spotted a dragon. From where he stood on the cobbled street that ran between the leaning tenements, only a narrow strip of sky was visible. Rafe craned his neck. He was sure -- almost sure -- that something had flown by, above. A black shadow, an X against the distant blue.
He looked down again, rubbing his neck. No, it was nothing. Dragons had been outlawed thirty years ago. He must have imagined it. Sighing, he adjusted his glasses, took up the string bag of potatoes with one hand and the canvas bag of books and supplies with the other, and trudged on toward home.
Finding the supplies he needed for his work on the bestiary had been difficult. He must have walked for miles through the tangled streets of the city to get it all. Gold leaf was almost more than he could afford; he had a bit of it pressed between the pages of a Rationalist text in his breast pocket. The inks, he could still find, and the paper and parchment, but the brushmakers had cast furtive looks up and down the street when they took out their wares, had accepted his payment and scurried away into dark alleys. Of all the paraphernalia of illumination, the colors had been the hardest to find; they would be illegal soon, one pigment-grinder had whispered. "You must take what you can afford now, sir," the woman had advised, "for it may not be here tomorrow."
Rafe plodded on. Arriving at the open space before the cathedral, he looked up again. Still no dragon, and the blue sky had faded to the more typical glassine white which would in turn darken to heavy gray and rain before nightfall. Rafe sighed, switched the book bag from his right hand to his left, and went on. Then he stopped and looked up again. Something was different.
As usual, the cathedral loomed over one side of the square, buttresses sprawling. The body and the soul, Rafe always thought, when he saw it. The heavy gray stone of the massive cathedral was the body crouching beneath the weight of its sins, while the surprisingly airy filigreed-stone steeple strained toward heaven, the soul hoping for release from the gravity that bound it.
Rafe frowned. Something was missing. . . . The gargoyles. They'd hacked off the gargoyles. Just last week he'd come this way and the dragons and he-goats and demons had poked their smirking faces from drainpipes, from above doorways and along rooflines. But they were gone now; only stumps of stone remained.
Rafe stared. Bad enough that all of the statues were gone, not to mention every tapestry and painting in the city. But gargoyles? What would they take next? Graffiti? Tattoos? Children's drawings?
Illuminated texts? Shaken, Rafe considered it. His work, he'd always told himself, was close enough to writing, sufficiently unlike representational art, that he was safe from the ponderous wheels of law that ground slowly but exceeding fine. Thirty years ago, maybe, the Rationalists might have seen a man with Rafe's talent as a threat, as someone to arrest and interrogate and reeducate. And thirty years ago, Rafe admitted, he might have been a danger, however slight, to the Rationalists. But he'd finished with the resistance long ago; he wasn't sure such a thing as resistance even existed any more. The Rationalists would leave him alone, wouldn't they?
The thought of Men of Truth pawing through his shop appalled him. He imagined them hacking away at his lovely illuminated parchments, the capitals with their snakes all a-twining and a-shimmer with gold leaf, the speckled pards crouched at the foot of a page, the marginal dragons delineated in the most delicate strokes of vermilion, the gryphons stippled with argent. Rafe shuddered.
The fear of invasion spurred him on toward home. After leaving the cathedral square, the road grew narrower, sometimes branching off, the divergent paths leading down into a tunnel or up into the warren of tenements to join the web of narrow walkways that twisted overhead. He passed other people, all dressed in rational gray, their eyes lowered, some, like Rafe, clutching string bags of potatoes, wearing anonymity as armor. In his haste, Rafe splashed through the overflowing kennel that ran down the middle of the street, pushing through a crowd that had gathered before the door of a butcher shop with a bloody pile of what looked to Rafe like offal displayed in its window. The people shuffled out of his way like cows, docile.
Rafe turned the corner and entered his own street, an alleyway narrow enough that two men couldn't pass each other without one stepping aside for the other. It was dark there, and airless, and dirty. But it was usually quiet, and his customers knew where to find him. He earned enough from his work for food, when he could find it, and supplies, and lamp oil to work by; nobody bothered him and he bothered nobody, and that was the way he liked it.
As he passed the bakery on the corner, he noticed that there was nothing in the window for the twelfth day in a row. The tailor who lived in the cellar below his shop had told Rafe of a rumor that riots had broken out on the agricultural collectives. Maybe the rumors were true; Rafe certainly couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to buy bread, so there must not be any flour. A few steps onward, and his own shop, the Bookery, came into view. A few neighbors milled around outside it; upon seeing Rafe, they disappeared into their own shops.
Blood. One of the neighbors had a bloody nose; the others had seemed disheveled, casting furtive, frightened looks over their shoulders as they scurried away.
Rafe stumbled to a stop. Had his own fear brought it about? His bags dropped from nerveless hands. He took a step closer. And another, hardly daring to look.
The neatly lettered sign hung askew. Shards of glass spilled out from the front window, and scraps of charred paper blew around the front door, which hung crookedly from one hinge. Rafe came closer and, shaking, peered into his shop.
Shredded papers lay everywhere, in drifts on the floor and the worktable. Any representation of human or animal, Rafe knew, had been hacked out and burnt; the hearth was choked with ash and half-charred pages. Across one wall was a splash of vivid vermilion. The other colors had been tipped onto the floor and ground underfoot. Rafe crept further in, shards of the broken window crunching underfoot.
The bestiary was missing from its wooden stand in the corner. Rafe fell to his knees, pushing tattered papers aside, searching for it. A shard of glass cut his hand, and he left bloody fingerprints on every page that he touched. At last he found the book underneath his worktable, and for a moment his heart leapt; it seemed to be unharmed. With trembling hands, Rafe opened the book. He looked at it for a long moment, then closed it and laid it gently on the floor.
Most of the destruction in the shop had been done by unsubtle thinkers, typical Men of Truth, all brutality and swagger and the knowledge that they were, absolutely and rationally, Right.
But someone else had done the book. Someone subtle, surgical. The pages were nearly untouched. Except that every illuminated picture, every dragon, pard, gryphon, or mermaid, had been carefully and neatly excised.
It had been inevitable, but he had dared hope that the heavy hand of the law would not come to rest on him. Stupid. Stupid to hope so.
Rafe buried his head in his hands and wept.
The baker's daughter found him later, after the clouds had moved in and a disconsolate rain had begun to fall. She was a pale, timid child, her thinness a testament to the lack of success of her mother's shop. A year ago, she had crept into Rafe's Bookery and he, having a few minutes to spare, had taken out a scrap of paper and, with a few strokes of a brush, had sketched her a picture. "What is it?" she had asked, pointing with a twig-like finger.
Rafe, remembering a long-ago childhood of meadows and sunlight, had answered by taking the paper back, adding color and detail to his drawing, then handing it back to the girl. "There," he'd said. "It's a butterfly."
"Oh." She looked at it, not really understanding what it was.
Rafe sighed. "Give it here again." She did so, her eyes wide. Rafe placed the paper on his worktable, smoothed it, then muttered the first few words of the enlivenment spell. His fingertips tingled. Whispering the last word of the spell, he tapped the picture. Sometimes the magic worked quickly; then changes happened in a flash, a living creature leaping from a newly blank page and scampering away from the human who had created it. But this time, the magic flowed like syrup from his fingers into the drawing. One wing of the butterfly shivered, then twitched itself free of the paper; the other wing, the abdomen, and the antennae followed, until the living insect lay trembling on the page.
The girl stared, her mouth and eyes wide open.
Rafe coaxed the butterfly onto his finger. "You have to be careful with it," he explained. "Look closely." He held it up so that she could see. "Its wings are made up of tiny paintbrushes dipped in color. You have to be careful not to get any of the paint on you." She nodded solemnly.
The butterfly flapped awkwardly, testing its wings; Rafe adjusted his finger so that it would not fall to the floor. "Well then. What should we do with it?" He expected her to want the little creature for herself, to put in a box, perhaps.
The girl did not hesitate. "Let it fly away."
Rafe took the butterfly to the open door and blew it from his finger. It tumbled at first, then caught the air in its frail wings and fluttered away, a spot of gold and emerald in the grim alleyway.
After that, the girl, Marie, had come to visit Rafe often, though he'd never created for her again: it was too dangerous. Instead, he taught her bits and pieces of his craft. She had a good eye, and a sure hand with the brush.
Marie picked her way into the shambles that remained of the Bookery, looking around at the destruction with wide eyes. Rafe did not look up as she crossed to the hearth. With a stick, she poked through the ashes and burnt papers, then bent to pick something up.
"I found this," she said, coming to stand beside Rafe. In a thin hand she held a scrap of parchment. "It's not too burned."
After using a corner of his shirt to wipe the tears from his glasses, Rafe took what she offered. A dragon, from the bestiary. The edges of the parchment were charred, but the creature itself was untouched, and it snarled and writhed upon the page as clearly and brightly as the day he'd colored it.
The Men of Truth had failed to destroy the dragon; in its survival of their rampage through the shop, it had earned a life of its own, Rafe decided. Murmuring the words of the enlivenment spell, he gathered the magic, tingling, in his fingertips, and tapped the page. Immediately, the paper burst into flame and the dragon, no bigger than a mouse, snapped into being. Instead of darting away as most created creatures did once they'd gotten oriented, the dragon hovered, its wings a blur before Rafe's eyes, then zipped to his shoulder, where it settled, resting its nose upon its front paws and curling its scaly tail about itself.
"My goodness," Rafe murmured. Beside him, Marie clapped her hands with glee. Rafe turned his head to look at the creature; it opened one obsidian eye and gazed back at him. He raised a cautious finger to stroke it. The dragon did not snap at him; it merely lifted its head and opened its mouth, catlike, to display two double-rows of needle-sharp teeth. I am not a pet, it seemed to be saying. Rafe removed his finger, duly chastised. The dragon closed its tiny maw and settled back down, sighing, a nearly invisible line of smoke trickling from one finely-etched nostril.
Rafe tried to coax the dragon from his shoulder, but it clung to his coat with tiny jeweled claws and glared at him fiercely. Resigned, he let it rest there while he swept up the glass and pigment from the floor, placed the ravaged bestiary back on its pedestal, and collected the papers that had been scattered throughout the room. Marie helped, carrying piles of trash to the kennel out in the street, then trotting back into the shop to gather more. She could hardly keep her eyes from the dragon on Rafe's shoulder.
As night fell, he sent her home. The shop was tidy enough, a board over the shattered window, the door propped into place, and the papers in neat piles on the worktable. He would see to the rest of it in the morning. The dragon seemed to be asleep, so Rafe eased off his coat, the dragon still clinging to the cloth at the shoulder, and made a nest for the little creature, which he carried to his rooms behind the shop.
The Men of Truth had been through there, too, but with less destructive intent. The books had been torn from their shelves and the sheets from his bed, but he could put that right without too much trouble. He set down the dragon, still asleep in its nest, on his pillow, and set about making supper. Marie had brought in the bags he'd dropped in the street. From the string bag he pulled the five gnarled potatoes he'd bought in the city. He sliced and cooked one of them with a bit of onion, ate it, then got ready for sleep, moving the dragon in its nest to the floor beside the bed.
In the middle of the night, he woke up. A light weight had settled on his chest; a faint smell of sulphur came to his nose. He shifted, and felt the dragon's claws grip his nightshirt more tightly. He was surprised that the dragon had chosen to stay with him. If anyone noticed it and made a report to the Rationalists, he would be in danger. But he was glad even so.
It took Rafe a few days to set his shop to rights. His neighbor, a cabinetmaker, helped him rehang the sign outside, but he had no money to have the board over the front window replaced with glass, so the interior of the shop was gloomier than usual.
The morning he reopened, no customers came. At midday, Rafe stepped to the doorway to catch a glimpse of sunshine. A rag and bone man, picking through the trash in the kennel, stopped and told Rafe that the Rationalists had passed new laws about what they called Magical Artifacts. "It's a new crackdown, worst one in years. Can't nobody draw anything now." The man pushed back a ragged sleeve, showing Rafe the new scar on his arm where a tattoo of a mermaid had been. "Burned her right off me, they did," he said, with a nervous glance at the dragon on Rafe's shoulder.
Rafe sighed and went back into his shop.
Some customers did appear two days later, but they were not what he'd been expecting. First a colorless young man with sharp gray eyes came in and stood looking through a poetry collection which he'd taken down from a shelf. Rafe greeted him, then watched him furtively from his high stool at the worktable. Shortly, another customer entered, a woman in a hooded cape. She and the man exchanged a glance; as one, they turned and approached Rafe.
The dragon had been under the table terrorizing cockroaches; as the man and woman stepped up to Rafe, it darted up to his shoulder and perched there, hissing like a tiny teakettle. The visitors seemed not at all taken aback; they simply exchanged another unreadable look.
The sharp-eyed man cleared his throat. "Ah, Mr. Greatorex," he began smoothly. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Edward Neecer, and my companion" -- he gestured at the woman -- "is named Verity Small." The woman pushed the hood back from her face, revealing doll-like blue eyes and a mass of curly brown hair.
Rafe nodded politely. On his shoulder, the dragon twitched its tail.
"Word of your . . . ah . . . abilities, let us call them, has reached us, Mr. Greatorex, and we wondered if you might be interested in discussing with us a possible mutual interest in the pursuance of goals we may have in common."
"That's not very clear, Neecer," Verity Small interrupted. She gave Rafe a tight smile. "What he means to say, sir, is that we know you're a magician and we wondered if you'd join our cause."
Rafe blinked. His "abilities"? He could turn small pictures into small, live animals, that was all. And their "cause"? What was she talking about? The dragon nudged his ear with its snout.
"We are freedom fighters," the woman explained, her face watchful.
"We're part of a resistance movement," Edward Neecer went on. "We're pledged to fight against the repressive policies of the Rationalists."
Rafe frowned, suddenly on his guard. The true resistance to the Rationalist regime had died thirty years ago, but these two couldn't be expected to know about that. Could they? No doubt that version of history was not being taught in the schools. They were both very young, he realized. And foolish, coming so openly, telling him their names. Didn't they know anything?
Rafe froze as another possibility occurred to him. Maybe they did know something. He cleared his throat. "And what is it you want from me?"
"As I said, sir, we know you're a magician," Neecer replied heavily.
It had been a long time since Rafe had had to think according to the convoluted logic of politics. Was the young man threatening him?
"I see," Rafe said.
An awkward silence filled the room. Verity Small stood staring down at the floor; Edward Neecer, a half smile on his face, glanced at the bestiary on its stand in the corner.
On Rafe's shoulder, the dragon paced in a tight circle, then resettled itself, its tail curled almost protectively around the back of Rafe's neck. He examined the two young people sorrowfully. Thirty years ago, Rafe's friends hadn't called themselves "freedom fighters," but they had learned the harsh lesson that magic could never triumph against the rigors of Rationalism. The resistance had been too disorganized; they had lacked a leader capable of deploying fragile and unpredictable magic to advantage. Rafe sighed and shook his head. "I wish I could help you."
"But you can!" the young woman exclaimed, her voice shrill. She pulled a paper from her pocket and laid it out on his worktable. Rafe listened with half an ear to her excited plans, to Neecer's more staid interjections. Something about creating creatures to invade the headquarters of the Men of Truth; something involving blood and chaos and slaughter and the downfall of the Rationalists.
Rafe nodded. Yes, he said, he'd meet them tomorrow in the cathedral square, where the students, the intellectuals, the few surviving artists, and the other members of the resistance would be gathering. Yes, he would join them in their march through the center of the city to the halls of government. Yes, yes, he was with them. He agreed to it all, then ushered them out of his shop.
When they were gone, he closed the door and locked it. The rest of the day was spent putting his affairs in order. He bundled up a stack of blank parchments, the remains of his pigments and inks, and the few sketches he'd managed to complete in the past few days and took them to Marie.
Her mother, pale and worried, answered the door.
Rafe held out the package. "For your daughter."
She hesitated, her glance flicking to the dragon on Rafe's shoulder. "What shall I tell her, sir?"
Rafe attempted a smile. "I'm just going away for a few days." He held out the package again. "Would you let her keep these for me?" It was not a safe thing he was asking. She'd be perfectly reasonable in turning him away.
The baker wiped her hands on her apron -- a reflexive gesture, as they were not floured; she'd probably not made bread for weeks. Then she reached out to take the package and stood in the doorway, hugging it to her chest. Rafe was distressed to see tears rolling down her cheeks. "Goodbye," she said simply.
He nodded, then turned and went home. If there were somewhere to run away to, he might have gone, but there was not. So he would wait.
The Men of Truth came after dark.
Rafe knew that they usually came at night. They inspired more terror that way, dragging people from their beds, coming at them all unawares, shining lights into eyes dilated with fear.
Thirty years ago he had waited in a room very much like this one, waited in the dark for the sound of booted footsteps, the crashing knock on the door, the harsh voice of authority. The others had been rounded up, every single one, and taken away. Their executions had not been public. They had just . . . disappeared. Of all of them, only he had survived. Perhaps they had allowed him to survive, crushed, alone, an example to those who plotted resistance to the grinding mills of Rationalism. Or, more likely, he simply hadn't been important enough to catch their attention.
This time, he knew that they would come. He waited for them in his darkened workroom, his hands folded, the dragon clinging to his shoulder.
The first ones through the door were brutes. Armed with clubs, they stormed into the room, not seeing Rafe for a moment where he perched at his worktable. Then they spied him, dragged him from the high stool, and beat him to his knees. Through it all, the dragon clung to Rafe's shoulder; it snapped at the hands that attempted to tear it away. One Man of Truth lost the tip of a finger; after that, they left Rafe and the dragon alone while they tore the rest of the shop apart.
Rafe knelt in the center of the room, a Man of Truth on either side of him, and felt blood oozing from a bruise on the side of his head, more blood trickling from a cut lip. He tried not to wince as the brutes ripped books from their shelves, trampling them underfoot.
At a curt word from the doorway, the invaders froze, then jerked to attention.
Rafe watched their leader step into the room. As before, Edward Neecer wore glasses and a prim gray suit. He had been the one with the scalpel, Rafe realized. The surgeon who had excised the illuminations from the bestiary.
A flick of Neecer's finger sent the other Men of Truth to stand by the door, on guard. Rafe shivered as Neecer's calculating gaze summed him up and then settled on the dragon. "We have been watching you carefully, Greatorex," he said, his voice precise, almost pedantic. He stepped to the desk to flick through the papers scattered there. On Rafe's shoulder, the dragon tensed, as if preparing itself to spring. "It was assumed that you had come to understand that magic is delusion," the leader continued. "That the only reality is based in the rational." Quick as a snake, his hand darted out and grabbed the dragon. The tiny creature writhed and hissed in Neecer's grip; with an efficient twist of his hands, he broke the dragon's neck, then dropped its limp body to the floor.
Rafe watched it fall, finding himself unable to move, even to breathe.
"Unfortunately," Neecer said, wiping his fingers on a handkerchief, "you seem to be blind to the truth." Another curt word summoned the Men of Truth. As they dragged Rafe down the street, he knew his neighbors were watching from inside their darkened shops. They would not interfere. Rafe didn't blame them.
After the interrogation, they brought Rafe to the condemned cells in the tower to await his execution. The guards shoved him into a cell and he dropped to the stone floor. How long he lay there, he had no idea. The guards' roughness had reopened the wounds on Rafe's body; he lay in a growing pool of blood.
Shaking, Rafe pulled himself to his hands and knees, head hanging. They'd taken his glasses away at some point; the cell walls around him were no more than a gray blur. He missed the comforting weight of the dragon on his shoulder, the faint pinpricks of its minute claws digging into his skin.
He dragged himself to the wall and slumped against it, resting his head against his drawn-up knees. There had been a kind of desperation in their questions. Tell us about the resistance, they had demanded. Tell us about the underground society of magicians. Tell us about your leader. Tell us his plans and you will go free. What had he told them? He could not remember. Nothing about Marie, of that alone he was sure. He wasn't even sure what questions they had asked, especially toward the end. Neecer was very good with his scalpel. Very precise.
Rafe dipped his finger into the blood that had puddled on the floor. Vermilion, almost, but congealing to a rustier red. He had repeated, as Neecer asked his questions, that there was no resistance. And there had not been. But maybe there would be.
Using his blood as paint, he began to sketch.
He modeled it after the illumination from the bestiary, but on a larger scale, far larger than anything he'd attempted before. His fingertips were paintbrushes; they grew raw from stroking the color over the rough stone walls. Steadying himself with one hand against the wall, he reached up to draw immense haunches, a double row of teeth in a snapping maw, a scaled, powerful tail. After a while he ran out of pigment and had to break open the wounds again, but hardly noticed the pain. The blood itself seemed to pulse with magic, as his mundane scarlets and crimsons never had.
At last it was finished. It sprawled across all four walls of the cell and some of the floor. Rafe slumped in a corner, exhausted, dizzy, astonished at his own daring. Now to make it live. Taking a deep breath, he began, the frailness of his voice alarming him.
As the last word of the enlivenment spell dissolved into the air, the blood dragon pulled itself from the wall, shuddering and expanding to fill the small space of the cell. The fiery light of its eyes reflected the shifting vermilion of its scales. Its massive back pushed up against the ceiling; the wooden timbers groaned and dust sifted down, making Rafe cough. One scaly haunch pressed Rafe back into his corner. He breathed in its heat, the dried-blood smell of it, and shivered. With a swipe of its tail, the dragon broke open the barred window, then turned, using its shoulders to clear a space for its crested head and body, sending blocks of stone tumbling down the side of the tower.
It paused, half out of the cell, its jewel-bright claws gripping the sill of the opening it had made, and looked over its shoulder, acknowledging its creator. Clumsily, Rafe got to his feet, staggered to the dragon's hot, scaled side, stood leaning, catching his breath. He raised his arms, but he'd lost too much blood and hadn't the strength to climb. The dragon snorted, the smell of sulphur filling the room, and crouched lower. Rafe took a deep breath and pulled himself onto the dragon's broad back. The scales were slick under his hands; he clung to the joint where the dragon's wings met its body. The cell door slammed open, and Rafe heard, as if from a great distance, the frightened voices of guards calling for reinforcements.
The blood dragon gathered itself, then sprang out from the hole it had made in the tower. It dropped like a stone for a moment and Rafe nearly lost his grip. Then the dragon opened its sail-like wings with a snap and strained upward, away from the prison, over the sprawling gray city. Rafe laughed aloud, imagined the people far below pointing at the sky, their eyes wide, their mouths open in astonishment and wonder. He and his dragon flew into the bright heavens beyond, becoming, to those below, a magical X against the distant blue.
Images Copyright © 2002 Kari Christensen
Copyright © 2002 Sarah Prineas
Sarah Prineas lives in Iowa City and spends her time on the three Rs: reading, writing, and wrangling her two beautiful children. She has a brand new Ph.D. in English Literature and isn't sure yet what to do with it. Her stories have appeared online at Strange Horizons and Ideomancer; her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
Kari Christensen received his BFA in illustration from Brigham Young University. He worked for three years as an artist for Saffire and Erudite Software doing backgrounds and animation on projects for SSI, Interactive Magic, and Activision. He now works as a Senior Production Designer for the Center for Instructional Design and does freelance illustration, concept art, and private commissions. For more about him, see his Web site.