In the time of Kublai Khan, when a dragon could make true progress in the various realms of reality, fire and water meet in unexpected relationships and Firebrand and Celestine’s adventures are both fierce and joyous.
A pig may be happy in its sty but man is born an unhappy animal, ever singed by a spark of the divine. In a life where all feel misunderstood, not without reason, many have raised their heart towards more starry aspirations. This is the force driving seekers and pilgrims onwards so here the paths filled with people going to a place that had been sanctified by belief and by hope. They had gathered from all walks of life on the way to one common goal, old and young, wise and foolish, healthy and crippled, respectable and criminal. Words of something above them promised a pattern to their life as glorious as that of the stars in the night sky. They sought for a model who had achieved serenity.
Blessed is he who loves everybody alike and who is bound by nothing.
This was Franciscan soil and people were getting together to celebrate his day. Some oldsters had been born before his death (in 1226) but they could hardly remember him from their own experience; a few had perhaps been given his blessing as babies. Yet Francis was never far-off from his own land; all this country of hills set with small towns seemed steeped in his memory. He was a man who loved everything and wanted nothing of it for his own. His celestial birthday – his day of death, to put a less assertive name to it – was a day of general joy and his friars were wont to preach their very best for his feast. It was this expectation which drove people from cottage and manor, from toil and leisure, to his church renowned for sermons. Pleasures were rare at the time and none of them was allowed to go to waste.
“It will be Brother Illuminate this year, too”, an old woman said out of the linen around her face. “I have heard him many times and he always lifts my heart on high. Sursum corda, as they say in the mass.”
Her friend nodded. Her teeth were bad but her eyes were full of vigour which drove the thin body onwards under layers of dark clothing. “Yes, he speaks of our shortcomings in such a way that you feel able to rise above them and really achieve something. Life is not always easy, leading a goodly life is certainly no joking matter, but one really needs the feeling every now and then that it is possible. Or at least possible to try it.”
Some children took up a song which praised the saint and many of their elders recognized the melody, an old dancing tune, and joined in it. The steps were made easier by the rhythm.
A merchant with his face wrinkled by many lines of care turned towards his wife. Their cloaks were rough and hid all the finery underneath, so none should envy them their furs and gold chains and rich cloth. They were generous with their money, though discerning in their giving, but a burden seemed to lie heavily on him. “We give so many alms, yet we are told that they are of no avail if we do not also give our hearts. It is truly difficult to love the miserable of the earth more than riches and business achievements. Charity should lift the soul but mine seems ever more clogged to the soil. Yet when I listen to this Illuminate I manage to feel that I do serve Our Lord himself with whatever I part with to the poor.”
A small group of cripples moved on with some of the arrogance of professional fighting men still left. They had once been warriors, eagerly sought for by many a state but now they had long out-lived their usefulness. “Will there ever be a time when swords are made into plough-bills? Think of how the saint managed to reconcile the hostile factions of our city in his time! One could truly wish that our old profession would be coming to shame, or at least to a stop, when men fighting for hire would not be in demand any more. But I don’t think this will be achieved as long as this earth is still in existence. I hope his prayers may help to get my sins forgiven, though. With what we have done we will have a long and hard time in purgatory, if not in a worse place.”
“Don’t think so much on your death”, another man growled. “God is great, and good to those who repent sincerely. But age and illness are bad companions for men who once were outstanding in valour.”
Finally they had all arrived, flocking outside the church, which was far too small to house them all. Through the open door they could hear the song and the words of the liturgy. When the time for the sermon came, the friar went up on a small stand erected for the purpose. Like a wind, a murmur of expectation drew through the multitude. Brother Illuminate opened his mouth. What he said, however, did not turn out in the way expected.
He started with reviling the vices of the rich and powerful, a fair game this, but suddenly people heard him saying, “So why do you obey them and look up to them? Evil they are and evil are all their ways. It would be better to turn away from them in utter disobedience. Do not let yourselves be made servants to bad masters for you will be judged for their faults.
“All their possessions are wrung from your toil and so by right should be yours. Every coin of gold is congealed from your sweat neglected. Then rise in rebellion and overthrow them, let the parched soil drink of their accursed blood! Is such thirst from The Evil One? Well, it may be, but why do you not serve Him willingly? You are anyhow condemned to His rule. Do you really imagine that filthy sinners, the likes of you, could ever be admitted to the presence of The Almighty? What would heaven be worth if it were to contain you and your likes, low with lust and mean with greed? The only place fit for your inner rottenness is hell, the only angel who could welcome you is The Fallen One! And He is great in power on earth, He will reward those richly who serve him freely. But about your clinging to your petty goodness and your small loyalty to The Good One? You will be abused in life and rejected after death. Whores and cuckolds, cravens and liars, how can you ever hope for the mercy of Him who is enthroned upon the cherubs? Sink to the lowness of the worm where your home is and then sweeten your misery by pulling down those who have profited from it!
“You have heard fine words, no doubt, on morality, listening to a skulk of friars in your days, or a superfluity of nuns, forgetting what you are in reality, an ingratitude of children and a fawning of courtiers.” (These forms of the plural could be heard on many lips but even when far less disrespectful they were not fit for Sunday speech.) “How the venom and the filth of your minds are stinking in my nostrils, still worse than your vile bodies! If there were at least any pride in you, or any strength, you would rise against your masters and triumph in their downfall. Then at least your death would not be totally ignoble and the historians of the future might devote some words in their chronicles to you and your deeds.”
He could have continued in this vein for a long time still, for he was just beginning to warm to his subject – and sermons were habitually long at the period, when listeners seldom had anything more exciting to turn their attention to – but by now people were recovering from the first shock of surprise.
Whispering started among them as they wondered what on earth could have overcome the friar. Or from below, a whiff of the subterranean realm. Rebels were not unknown but even they never presented their ideas like this and the words were anyhow a shame and an insult to the unwilling listener.
The friar spoke ever faster, the words mingling with drops of foam at his mouth, but he was interrupted by stout men who came up and dragged him aside forcibly. He was gagged and bound with strong ropes and then he was taken away to the convent lying close to the church.
Some women raised a song to Our Lady in the hope of restoring the semblance of order but the holiday feeling of the audience was gone. People were uneasy and upset. The most secret thoughts which they had fought hard to dismiss from their waking minds, how had they become living words on the lips of this man whom they had learnt to consider with respect? What devilry had overcome him, sneaking up even in the fragrance of saintliness?
Brother Illuminate had lost all consciousness. He lay like one dead in the cell. The demon which had taken possession of him obviously had no use for him any more. The friars said prayers over him and they sprinkled holy water on his body but he neither woke nor stirred. Something must be done, but what? Suggestions were made and as soon discarded until one man noted that their neighbours had a guest who was a travelling friar reputed to have much power over hidden beings and occult powers. It might be a good idea to ask him for help.
Brother Celestine was not eager to accept the summons. He was no physician and this sounded like a doubtful case. Also he was very displeased by the rumour of his knowledge for none knew better than him how dangerous such a reputation might become for the person concerned. Yet after some while he ceded to the entreaties. He could not let a fellow man – and a friar at that – be taken over wholly by the powers of night without even an attempt to snatch him from the jaws of the Black One.
So he went to the convent and there he was at once taken to the cell where Brother Illuminate had been put. A couple of friars were keeping an uneasy watch over the rigid form. Now Celestine immediately sensed the presence of a malicious entity and knew for certain that this indeed was a case of demon possession. No signs of a violent disposition could be noted for the time being, though, and Celestine took the risk of dismissing the other men. Their presence would hamper his own activities and their fear was filling the cell with a disagreeable odour. They were most relieved to be allowed to go, yet promised to stay near by so they would be ready in a case of emergency.
He sniffed the air. There was no smell of sulphur nor certain other signs of the minor devils who were as a rule much given to this type of pranks. Nor was there any smell of mould or decay, although one might rather suspect the activity of a ghost. Not all the dead could rest in peace, far from that. Malefactors roamed the undead country and they were able to return to the living and to raise panic and pain in their minds. The speech of the spirit using the mouth of this friar resembled somewhat things uttered by heretics of the past, slain by sword or burnt at the stake. It had been a brief attack, however. As soon as he had been dragged off from the listeners he had lost the use of speech. Ghosts used to be fond of talking once they found a living mouth to use. The silence surrounding them was so very heavy.
He decided to begin by a standard exorcism: It failed. He tried another, which also failed. Something more unusual seemed called for. This demon could not be frightened away by just being told to get himself off like the legion of his likes had done when they entered the Gadarene swine.
Celestine saw a shaft of light enter the cell and he said in a subtle voice, with a rare intonation, “I exhort you in the name of the Sun of Righteousness, leave this man. Lift your darkness from his mind, your cloud from his speech, and may he be restored to his true being as a Child of the Light.
“As darkness must give way to the onset of day, so may your evil recede from this soul which has been cleansed by the Redeeming Blood. If you do not obey me you will be attacked by the rotten hearts, by the devourers of human flesh, by the suckers of man’s blood.
“Verily true power has been granted to me to draw their anger upon you.”
Then he heard a snort and an unearthly voice hissed, “A necromancer, is he? A master of the black gramarye or what?” Then utter silence fell.
This reaction cheered Celestine, as it was a proof that his words had reached his opponent. They did not yet have the effect he hoped for but in such grave matters you cannot hurry. He made the sign of the cross over every limb of the unconscious man, just touching his forehead, his eyes, his mouth and his ears and then his heart, his belly, both his hands, his knees, his feet, saying each time, “May you leave this man by the force of the cross, by the strength of the blood, by the triumph of the resurrection. If you refuse to obey me may Belial summon you and may Astaroth punish you. May you shrivel before the eyes of the Cruel and may you be consumed by the wrath of the Fiery Womb. Hear me and obey me.”
For a long time his words seemed to echo in the silence of the cell. Then the bound man started to move, twitching in his ropes. With one leap he tried to rise to his feet but fell, looking around with bewildered eyes. “Is he gone now? Where did he take me? Where am I?”
Celestine faced him sternly. “Are you delivered from the evil spirit? Is your right mind back behind your eyebrows?”
Illuminate had no idea of whatever had happened. Had he been taken ill all of a sudden? But why had he been bound? Why did all his body ache and why were his lips parched? He asked for water and Celestine gave him to drink but as for his questions the friars of the convent were tasked with the replies. He was revolted when told what words had been uttered by his lips. Such thoughts had never entered his mind, never, whatever sins he might have committed. He had no memory of his possession, the voice speaking in his throat had left no mark in his mind, he had been sucked out and he knew nothing of what or who had acted inside his body.
He was taken away and Celestine was to have no further contact with him. Penance awaited him, most likely a long and harsh one, but his mind was restored and seemed likely to remain so. For himself, Celestine was grateful that he had succeeded. With demons you never could be certain. Even the apostles of Our Lord had had great pains with some of the more stubborn sorts.
He asked for some food but he remained inside the cell. The malicious presence was not gone. He could feel it lingering, slowly turning from ill will to a mocking amusement. A feeling rose in Celestine’s stomach that he was involved in some game where he did not know the rules for the next move. The departure of the spirit from the man it had possessed had not been forced by the strength and wisdom of the visiting friar. His pride in his achievement flagged.
Then a voice came to him, low but distinct, speaking good Latin, as if using vocal chords, not at all like sounds of wood or wind which an overwrought imagination may mistake for voices. “Rather amusing, this. Fun is getting scarce nowadays. Of course you could never have frightened me off with those simple means but I like your style. Not banal, anyhow, everything considered. I simply cannot say how fed up I am by now with banal exorcisms. Your literary style needs some polishing, though. What more could you offer?”
There was nothing visible to indicate the origin of the voice. For a moment the friar felt sick with apprehension but then his mind changed. This was some hide-and-seek from a spirit who had not had his full pleasure from Illuminate. That one had offered no resistance to the possession. The demon – or whatever it was – might hope for better entertainment from Celestine. Let him hope! He would see a thing or two which he would not have expected.
“Tell me your name, you who speak to me without a body,” he exhorted him (or it, or whatever), “and let me see you in your true form!”
The response was a chuckling laughter. “Not so hasty, oh dear, no rashness, if you please. I have taken a fancy to your metaphors, that is all. I am not one for being ordered around. As for my true name you know very well that I would never tell it. I have many names, though, acquired during a long and eventful existence. Firebrand will do well, I think. I have used it quite a lot lately.
“As for my true form the very sight of it would kill you at once. Have you not heard of Semele, the mortal princess in Thebes who had the supreme god of the pagans as her lover? She tricked him into swearing a great oath of granting her whatever she wanted and then she asked to see him in his divine appearance. Before she knew why, she was consumed by the flames of his lightnings. I may not be Jove but I am deadly to behold.
“I asked for some more of your literature, though. If you dare to try, of course.” The voice turned more supercilious than ever and Celestine flared up in pride. It was not permitted to deal in spells and enchantments for your own profit – Church was strict on the subject – but he would answer this mocking voice, he would. What a nasty one – but of high class, no denying this, well-bred – whatever nook of hell had been his university.
Now Celestine needed a proper language for his words. Latin would not do. It was a good language for administration and logic and scholastic theology, excellent actually, but it had its limitations. He must use the tongue of ancient gods of undying power, the secret words of the Greeks that were by the time little known in the Europe of Roman Catholicism. They rang with imperial pride as he began:
“I adjure you by the angel ruling the first heaven, by God’s hearth, by Ariel, surrender to me. I adjure you by the angel ruling the second heaven, by God’s averting power, by Suriel, surrender to me. I adjure you by the angel ruling the third heaven, by God’s grace, by Asrael, surrender to me. I adjure you by the angel ruling the fourth heaven, by God’s fire, by Uriel, surrender to me. I adjure you by the angel ruling the fifth heaven, by God’s healing hand, by Raphael, surrender to me. I adjure you by the angel ruling the sixth heaven, by God’s strength, by Gabriel, surrender to me. I adjure you by the angel ruling the seventh heaven, by God’s incomparability, by Michael, surrender to me.
“By the names of the seven angels do I adjure you, for it is written in the book of Tobit that seven angels are standing in front of God’s throne, wafting the prayer of his holy ones to him. As these have power before the Lord, so may I have power over you before the Lord.
“By the seven angels do I adjure you, for it is written in the Revelation of Saint John that the seven angels blew their trumpets and earth was destroyed. Likewise may your power to act against my will be destroyed.
“I adjure you by the name of Him who created heaven and earth, Himself not created, by the name of Him who separated light from darkness. By the hour when the stars of morning sang in joy before the Creator’s work may your will be attuned to mine!
“I adjure you by the holy and ineffable name that makes the angels shiver and the skies tremble, by the name that makes the foundations of earth quake and the pillars of the firmament shake, the name ruling every spirit and all the aeons. May the wrath of the Tetragrammaton, The Unutterable Name, strike you if you do not obey me! By the Hagios Theos, by the Hagios Ischyros, by the Hagios Athanatos, do not escape into the wilderness but stay at my side and take on a visible form and fulfil all my commands! Child of Lilith, of her who dwells in the desert, child of Beelzebub, of him who thrives on the smokes of sacrifices from the idolaters, I adjure you into my faithful service!”
His words did not go off into empty air. They echoed and shivered as if they were darts in a living flesh which tried in vain to rid itself of them. They had reached their goal. A tension grew all around, an invisible breath seemed to be congealing on the cold stone of the walls. The blood grew chill in Celestine’s veins but his skin broke out with sweat.
From beyond the limits of hearing a hissing sound shivered and the air turned hazy as it will when a big fire is burning in summer. There was a tossing and a turning in the emptiness and a silver-golden shimmer could be perceived. Slowly, very slowly, a mist seemed to grow more solid. Finally there was a form in it, as though of flesh and blood. The hiss fell silent, the air came to rest, but there was a being in a body, a presence which turned the room into a hole in the world of ordinary reality. Celestine gasped for breath as he looked through it. He had never expected such a shape.
The cell was dark by now. Night came through the window and the lamp had burnt out. A faint light was diffused from the unearthly creature, and it sufficed to make Celestine recognize it. This was a dragon. A true draco, as had an illustration in a bestiary come to life – though immeasurably more elegant and self-assured. His wings were neatly folded, his serpentine body shimmered with scales like those of a fish. A thin flame blew out of his mouth and leisurely he displayed knife-sharp claws. His eyes fixed the friar with an amused look. Their colour made him think of the chrysoberyls he had seen displayed on the crosier of one of the wealthier bishops. Their look was impossible to evade. Celestine had never taken dragons quite seriously before. Now he did.
The dragon had assumed a rather smallish size. A life-size dragon is a sight which any man – if not a trained hero – will recoil from in haste. Also it is difficult to translate the true nature of a spiritual being into the gross terms of flesh and blood, of body and wing. Firebrand prided himself on being many steps above the rude and vulgar dragons, such as were killed off by warriors in Northern poetry. His was a subtle nature so he chose his external form with an artist’s discrimination. His dominant colouring was yellow-brown, unlike many of his fellows sporting more striking hues such as the primary colours. He was both enamelled and bejewelled in appropriate tints, though; to a lover of precious stones his wings seemed carved out of amber, brought by storms to the shores of the Baltic. His claws were like crystals of sherry-brown topaz, the skin of his body resembled the shell of the pale tortoise, if it were inlaid with the reddish-brown gem which men have called jacinth. His external scales were almost transparent, like wine from the Moselle vineyards and they shone with the light of a wintry sun behind dropping icicles.
Celestine felt a strange elation as the dragon made an acknowledging bow. “Your incantation was truly binding. I had never thought a man like you capable of bringing me under a spell. Well, it will not do to underestimate an opponent. I am at your service and I hope you will employ me well. The command of a dragon might turn out crookedly if a man does not beware.” Then he added as an afterthought, “Your Hebrew etymologies are a bit dubious. Traditional, though.”
A question escaped Celestine. “Can you make the true sign of the cross?”
The dragon turned sullen. He lifted a paw and made a quick movement but the friar did not catch its significance. It might have been made in answer to his demand but he felt uneasy about it, as though it might be one of the signs used for protection against the evil eye.
He reached for some holy water that by chance was lying in a small vessel close by but the dragon made a movement of deep disgust and hissed, “No aspersion, no, never. It reminds me far too much of vulgar village priests who think spirits like me are some subordinate serfs. It makes me sick, it really does.”
Then he reclaimed his dignity and added, “Our relations must be established on a clearly defined basis. You have bent me to your will when I unwisely exposed myself to your knowledge of things hidden. This, however, gives you no right of condescension. I am a lion-hearted dragon – I say this because you obviously do not know much about dragons, so the mere sight of me conveys less than it might – and full of bile and venom – high terms of praise for a creature of my kind – and I will brook no disrespect.”
Celestine agreed. It is certainly no common situation to have a dragon at your disposal. It might conceivably take some time to work out a satisfactory pattern of relations. Actually he was more excited than he had ever been in his life.
Of course the dragon must be kept a complete secret. Otherwise – well, he did not intend to dwell on thoughts of what would happen if this should be revealed. He might find himself in a very exalted position indeed, on top of a pyre, at the stake. Yet it was worth the risk. Think that all his toil with Greek grammar and the laborious decipherment of incantations had turned out worthwhile! He had often wondered in the past why he really took such pains. Here was the reason.
By now the convent was deep asleep. He alone looked out into the night and he had many questions to ponder before the stars turned pale so for the moment he bid his dragon to rest – he already thought of Firebrand as his own property, a rather mistaken interpretation of the situation, like anybody speaking about his or her own cat, while a cat belongs to nobody, though it may have its people who serve it.
“You are bound to my service until I unbind you. Keep close to me but never appear in a visible form to anybody else than me. Do not take it on even in front of me unless I permit you. Now you may go.”
Firebrand vanished with a hiss and a swish. The cell was sunk in darkness and silence. Nothing seemed to indicate that a dragon – of a spiritual disposition – had ever visited it.
Celestine could not sleep a wink until the bell tolled for the early prayers. His thoughts were hot with the taste of adventure and so his performance in the choir was poor and his attention distracted from psalms and songs. The dragon was growing on his mind.
Florece Vilén shines in this beautifully written narrative.
I really enjoyed Firebrand's journey, the friendships he made along the way as well as the description of overall incredible settings. The rich historical references added on perfectly to the narrative.
Really good. Highly recommended.