A woodcutter and his wife, living deep in the woods, were startled one evening to hear a knock on their cabin door. Cautiously, they opened the door and found a stranger on their doorstep, looking like he had traversed the flames of Hell. He was covered in burns and soot, his clothes blackened, and smelling of smoke.
They brought him in, sat him down, gave him water and some bread. Once he got something in him, he spoke.
The man was a painter by trade, who had been doing studies of the countryside when a dragon flew down and kidnapped the painter and all of his belongings, lifting the ground upon which he stood.
The dragon took the painter back to its mountain lair, far in remote mountains. It set him down and explained that it wanted him to paint a portrait of it. The dragon had taken a fancy to portraiture, having many paintings in its horde, and desired one of itself. The painting must be majestic, it stated. If it was, the painter would be released. If not, he would be eaten.
The painter, thinking his chances of making it alive from the mountains were slim, suggested a pastoral scene, in open country or the woods. At least there, he thought, he could escape more easily and hope to survive.
The dragon agreed with the recommendation and hauled the painter and his supplies in his claws to a forest clearing. It set the painter down, waited for him to set up, and then posed. The painter strove to begin, but found himself unable to paint, fear making his hand shake badly. The dragon asked impatiently if the painter wished to be eaten. The painter recovered his wits, saying the lighting was bad and did not show off the dragon’s majestic form.
The dragon considered the painter’s words briefly. It stood up, looked around and breathed flame on all of the trees around the clearing. Once the entire landscape was consumed in flame, the dragon settled back down, surveyed the destruction, and nodded to itself. “You’re right, this IS much better lighting. Now, paint.”
Trapped in the ring of fire, the painter worked, proceeding as fast as he dared, until the flames died down hours later. The dragon rose, walked around and viewed the work in progress. “It’s not finished,” he explained to the great creature, “I need a little more time to complete it.” “Very well” said the dragon. “Gather your things.” The painter gathered his belongings in his arms, and was hauled back to the remote mountain lair again, although he passed out from the shock of cold air and exhaustion.
The next day, the dragon took the painter off to another clearing and repeated the scenario, setting another area of forest aflame. This went on several days until the painter said, drenched with sweat from the heat and his nerves, “it’s done.”
The dragon arose and stalked around to look at the painting from behind the painter. It gazed intently for several long, anxious minutes. Finally a sound rumbled from its chest. “That will do.” It plucked the painting from the easel and stared intently, rapt with what the painter caught - the dragon relaxed, in repose, amid worldending devastation. “Yes, that will do very well. Go.”
The painter blinked and then bolted, leaving everything he owned behind. He plunged into the woods that were only just dying down to charcoal and ran as fast and far as he could. That had been days ago? He could not remember.
"You must think me mad." "Well," said the woodcutter, "I can't speak to that. But three days ago, the western sky glowed orange all night long. Then we heard every creature in the forest rushing through the forest. Now you're here, looking like you were cooked over a fire. Your tale fits."
The woodcutter and his wife fed the painter, let him wash up and sleep the night. The next day, they gave him a sack of food, a flagon of water, and old clothes that were too big for the painter. “Head east,” they told him. “Follow the cart track until you reach the river, then walk downstream to the nearest town. You can make your way from there. But tell no one this tale. No one will fault a man who was taken by a dragon, but no one will appreciate you encouraging it to burn down the forest wantonly.”