I’ve found another old short story which I submitted to a few contest then forgot about. Please enjoy!
The Fox and the Illuminator
The Royal Illuminator was working alone, as always, in the castle scriptorium, squinting against the dim light and coughing occasionally from the layers of dust which gathered on the towering stacks of books. He had been spending the past few months illustrating a book of the kingdom’s history, carefully painting each ornate letter with precision. It was an incredibly important book that the King himself had commissioned from him and was to be the grandest book in the royal library.
As such, the Illuminator put even more care into the manuscript than usual to make it exceptionally magnificent. The illuminations lit up the page, brighter and more beautiful than any book he had ever worked on before. Each picture reflected the glory and lustre of the event it depicted. He loved his work and was gratified by it, but the long hours spent in the silent, empty scriptorium often grew wearisome and lonely.
In the middle of one such day when the sun was high in the sky and the warm sunlight peeked in through the windows, the Illuminator found his hand steadying, his mind drifting, and his eyes drawn towards the garden outside the window. The trees gently swaying in the breeze and the sunlight sparkling on the lake looked particularly inviting that day. If only he could take just one day off from his work, he thought, to enjoy that sunshine, but the manuscript was close to being finished and the King was incredibly strict with deadlines. He noticed a fox wandering around the garden, thinking it strange that a fox should be out at that time of day.
His eyes followed the Fox as it prowled towards the lake where the swans were resting on the bank. With a single quick motion, the fox snapped up one of the swans in its jaws, sending the others flapping and squawking away in a panic. The Illuminator forgot all about his work, jumped to his feet, and ran outside.
“Stop that.” He shouted as he sprinted towards the Fox, who was dragging the dead swan away in her jaws. She looked at him curiously as he approached. “Those swans are the property of the King. It’s illegal to hunt them.”
“But surely that law applies only to people, not to foxes?” The Fox said, dropping the swan to the ground to speak.
“Well…yes.” Admitted the Illuminator, a little stumped to be talking to a fox who spoke his language. “But I still have to stop you. Those swans are protected by the law.”
“Why? Aside from their size, they’re not that different from the other birds in the trees, and there’s no law protecting them.” The Fox said.
“It’s the law. I have to uphold it.” The Illuminator replied.
“Do those trees belong to the King?” The Fox said, pointing her snout towards the forest of tall oak trees.
“Yes. That’s the King’s hunting ground.”
“And yet you would not stop a squirrel from gathering an acorn for its winter store.”
“I suppose I wouldn’t.”
“Most of those trees are there thanks to squirrels gathering acorns and forgetting where they buried them. If not for them, you wouldn’t have the berries that make the inks you use for your books.” The Fox said, noticing the coloured ink stains on the Illuminator’s hands which gave away his profession. “Killing this swan may be against the King’s laws, but if I don’t bring it back to my den then my cubs will starve.”
“I didn’t think of it that way.” The Illuminator said. He’d never realised how important those trees were to the work he treasured. The trees provided the wood for his pencils and the other equipment in his workshop. Without the inks, his pages would be dull and colourless. They provided him with shade in the summer to sit underneath them and read, on the rare occasions when he was free to read. “Go quickly then, before the guards see you.” He said.
“This will not be forgotten.” The Fox said before picking up the swan and carrying it away.
The Illuminator smiled and returned to his work, his mood lifted and his earlier boredom forgotten.
Not long after, the Illuminator’s work was suddenly interrupted when two armed guards burst into the scriptorium.
“What’s going on?” He said.
“You’re under arrest.” One of the guards said, grabbing the Illuminator’s arm and jerking him to his feet, leaving a large green smear across the page he had been working on.
“What, why?” The Illuminator asked.
“You were seen. Talking to that fox and letting it off with a swan without trying to stop it.” The second guard said as they dragged him out of the scriptorium.
The Illuminator desperately tried to explain why he hadn’t stopped the Fox, but they wouldn’t listen. They led him through the palace and straight to the King, throwing him down to the ground in front of the entire court, who all gazed down on him scornfully.
“Do you care to explain,” the King bellowed in his loud, imposing voice that made the Illuminator shudder, “why you allowed a fox to steal one of my swans?”
“Please your Majesty, the swan was already dead by the time I got there.” The Illuminator pleaded.
“The swan’s body is still my property, and you let the fox go unpunished.”
The Illuminator tried to explain and repeated what the Fox had said to him, but the King still wasn’t convinced.
“You disregarded my laws and for that you are banished from my castle and my service.” The King said.
“Your Majesty, can you not take comfort that one swan will save an entire litter of fox cubs?” The Illuminator tried one last plea.
“Foxes, horrible mangy things. Now I’ll have even more poaching my swans and raiding the chicken coop. Away with you. Go and live with the foxes if that’s what you want.” The King commanded. Before the Illuminator could say anything more, he was pulled away and forced out the gate into the street.
“Wait, at least let me gather my tools. I need them for my trade.” The Illuminator said, but the guards had already slammed the gates closed.
No matter how much be pleaded with the gatekeeper, the Illuminator wasn’t permitted to retrieve his tools, or even the possessions in his chamber. Some of the materials he used for his trade were incredibly rare. He had travelled far and searched wide to find them – gold leaf, dye from Mediterranean Sea molluscs, crushed opals, rich green cobra venom. He was the best illuminator in the kingdom, but without his tools and materials, he couldn’t find any work. Illumination had been all he’d ever known and loved since he was a boy and he didn’t have any other skills. Nobody wanted to hire a vagrant who claimed to be an illuminator.
With no money, no tools, and no job, he had to sleep in abandoned buildings and beg on the streets for pennies. He had to steal food from the King’s orchard, as dangerous as it was to do so, and went to sleep every night alone and miserable.
“If only I still had that manuscript I was working on before all of this happened.” The Illuminator said as he huddled in an old shed with a leaking roof, his stomach aching from hunger pains. “I spent six months working on that book, night and day, and I was so close to finishing it. It was the best work I ever did.”
But it wasn’t really his. It never had been. He’d merely been commissioned to make it. Eventually it would’ve been placed on a library shelf and he would’ve been handed another job.
“If I only had that book to work on and complete then I could at least keep my sanity. I would feel like I had a purpose in life again.”
He saw a dark shape slip underneath the half-rotted door and worried that it was another rat come to bite at his toes. As it came out of the darkness, he saw that it wasn’t a rat. He recognised the speckled red and brown coat. It was the Fox he’d met in the garden all those months ago.
“It’s you. I didn’t think I would see you again.” The Illuminator said. The Fox approached him and he saw that she was awkwardly carrying something large and cumbersome in her mouth, which she placed in his lap. He picked it up and tears filled his eyes as he recognised the illustrations, letters, and gold leafing he had spent hours getting just right. “This is my manuscript. The one I worked so hard on.” He looked up to the Fox, who had sat down next to him. “Why would you do this for me? If the King had caught you sneaking around his palace and stealing from him then you would have been made into a pair of gloves by now.”
“If it wasn’t for your kind act then my cubs would have starved. But now you are the one who is starving.” The Fox said, hanging her head. The Illuminator had never thought he would see a fox feeling guilt, and especially on his behalf.
“I do not blame you for that.” The Illuminator said, reaching a hand towards her head, which she leant into his hand, allowing him to stroke her soft fur. “The King would not listen to reason. He wouldn’t even forgive the death of one swan.”
“Indeed. But I fear this offering cannot fill you belly.” The Fox said.
“No, it can’t do that. But it is more than enough. It may still help me out of my poverty.”
“What do you call this?” The King said as the pages of the book in his hand fell apart as he flipped through them. “Not a single thing in this book is right. The colours are all wrong. The pages are out of order. And you didn’t even spell the name of the kingdom correctly!” He bellowed at the nervous apprentice illuminator at his feet, throwing the manuscript at his head. “Get out. Bring me another illuminator. One who can actually do his job.” He said as the apprentice gathered up his pages and fled from the throne room in tears.
“I’m sorry, your Majesty.” The King’s Advisor said at his shoulder. “That was the last illuminator in the kingdom.”
The King rubbed his temples. “Then hire back the illuminator we let go.” He said.
“We…We uh…” The Advisor said, hiding behind his ledger.
“What’s the problem now?”
“We tried to find the Royal Illuminator, your Majesty, but he’s gone too. He’s not anywhere in the kingdom.”
“This is the best work I’ve ever seen!” The Queen of the neighbouring kingdom said as she enthusiastically turned the pages of the history manuscript.
“Thank you, your Majesty. I admit it’s not quite finished yet.” The Illuminator said. He felt awkward standing in the opulently decorated throne room in filthy bare feet and clothes which hadn’t been washed in weeks.
“I can see that,” the Queen said as she turned to the page with the ugly green stain, which made the Illuminator blush with embarrassment.
He had long since heard that the Queen of the neighbouring kingdom loved books and had a vast library. Even her throne had a tall stack of books next to it, he noticed. As poor as the Illuminator was, he had taken the risk to travel to her kingdom for just that reason. With his treasured manuscript tucked carefully under his arm and the last of his pennies in his pocket, he had trekked over open fields, drunk rain water from puddles, and survived off berries (although he had kept a few that would make a fine ink). Finally, he had arrived at the Queen’s castle with bare feet and worn clothes but to his luck, it had taken only one glance at the manuscript for her guards to escort him straight to her throne room.
“But for unfinished work, it is still wonderful. The colours are the brightest I’ve ever seen. You must tell me how you do it.”
“I would be happy to, your Majesty.”
“Any king or queen would be honoured to have a book this marvellous in their library. Could you make me a history of my kingdom?” The Queen asked.
“Of course, your Majesty, whatever you ask. But it would take some time and I fear I don’t have the tools or the materials.”
“We’ll provide you with tools and anything else you need. And some new clothes and shoes, of course. I don’t want you to get cold. I’ve long heard of the great skills of my neighbour’s Royal Illuminator. I’m surprised the King fired someone of your talents.”
“There was a…small disagreement involving a swan.” The Illuminator said.
“How silly. Still, no need to worry about that now. I expect you’ll be wanting to see your workshop. And then you must join me for tea and tell me about these illustrations.” The Queen said, rising from her throne and handing the manuscript back to the Illuminator.
“Your Majesty, didn’t you say you wanted this book for your library?” The Illuminator asked.
“Yes, I would love to have this book for my library, but I feel that it belongs to you.” She said, placing it back in his hands. “Besides, you probably want to finish it.”
And so, the Illuminator completed his most precious manuscript of all, and many more besides. The Queen of his new kingdom had the most beautiful and well-crafted books in her library that were admired by all who saw them. She and the Illuminator spent many happy hours together discussing books and illustrations. On days when the weather was bright, the Queen demanded that it was too nice a day to spend with work and they spent the day strolling through the gardens and relaxing under trees, talking and laughing together and feeling complete with one another.
As for the Fox, she and her cubs were never again bothered by the King’s guards, and neither they nor the Illuminator ever had to go hungry again.