ARS DRACONIS • by Jens Rushing

Guillaume de Beurre was a master among master masons. In all of France there were none better. If a Duke one day decided, while stroking his drooping moustache, “I want a new castle, something crenellated,” or, “Perhaps my naves aren’t vaulted enough,” then Guillaume was the man for the job.

So very dismayed was Guillaume when a nice new keep in the Norman fashion, nineteen months in the making, came crashing down one fine spring day. The masonry crumbled and fell; limestone blocks the size of oxen inconveniently crushed his laborers. His patron, the Duke de Guerre, stroked his drooping moustache and grumbled, “Guillaume, if you can’t have my fortress ready in time for the big war, perhaps I’d better cut off your head.” Guillaume nodded dolefully.

Later, he fretted in his quiet way. The Duke demanded an impossibility. Guillaume barely had time to erect a tasteful gatehouse, perhaps with airy skylights to permit the sun, pleasing and natural… Certainly he could not rebuild the keep in time! But neither did he want to lose his head. He’d had it a long time, and was fond of it.

So, not knowing what to do, he went to see the village witch.

He waited patiently until she flipped her sign from “In Congress with Beelzebub” to “Open”, then knocked and went in. He explained his dilemma, she disemboweled a goat, and sought divination in its cooling entrails. “Later,” she said, “I’ll make a nice goulash.”

“Your problem is this,” the witch said. “The keep is on a hill. Under the hill sleeps a dragon. He stirred in his sleep; down came the walls. All you have to do is burrow through hundreds of tons of rock and slay the beast.”

“I cannot!” Guillaume protested. “I have neither valor nor strength of arm!”

The witch shrugged.

Guillaume scratched his chin. “But why would the dragon stir now?”

The witch shrugged again. She had just swallowed a philtre of toad skin and wormwood, and was finding it difficult to concentrate.

“Could it be,” Guillaume mused, “that we just had the grounds blessed?”

“Of course.” The witch snapped her bony fingers. “Prayers are hornets in the ears of a dragon, who is a servant of the Dark Lord, His Thrice-Damned Majesty, on whom be all power and glory!”

Guillaume thanked her, returned to the building site, and gave orders for the construction of a gatehouse.
Some weeks later, the Duke returned. “Well, Guillaume? We go to war next month, and I see you have built only a gatehouse. Tis the vorpal blade for you!” He stroked his moustache exuberantly.

“I beg you to examine the gatehouse for a moment, Your Excellency,” said Guillaume. “If you are not pleased, you may then cut off my head — twice.”

The Duke grunted his assent and they stepped inside.

“It’s very tasteful, with an airy skylight to admit the sun, very pleasing and natural,” admitted the Duke, “but it’ll hardly hold my enemies at bay. There are no battlements on which to cross swords with my foes, nor towers from which to fling spies or mistresses that have caught the scabies. It is worthless to me!”

Guillaume, a pious man, stood under the open skylight, fingered his rosary, and whispered, “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum…”

All counted it a miracle that Guillaume escaped the collapse. The blocks fell precisely around him but left him untouched, while the Duke, alas, was smashed to jelly, moustache and all. His crown passed to his son, who abhorred war and preferred pastimes such as improving his lands and showering prosperity on his subjects.

Guillaume lived happily and well for the rest of his days. Once his conscience pricked him, but he reasoned: would gracious God allow prayers to work harm? Impossible!

Guillaume switched from fortresses to churches, and built cathedrals that scraped the heavens, each one a monumental, yet humble offering to God; the whole of his life became a prayer writ in stone across the width and breadth of the country.

Soon the old Duke was all but forgotten. If he was remembered at all, one crossed one’s self and muttered a quick prayer against wicked men. This sometimes caused small earthquakes on a certain abandoned hill.

Jens Rushing writes in Arlington, Texas.

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