A Basilisk's Feather: Short Story

This is a story from a world I created for a novel. It will be some time before I get around to writing the whole thing, as it's a little way down my list of novels, but I was inspired to write this piece for a fantasy writing contest.

However, the contest had a 1000 word limit, which is cruelly short. I wrote the story, with no words wasted and as tight as ... something very tight. I'm certain there's a really good simile somewhere, but I'm d*mned if I can think of it. But it was still far too long, and while trying to cut it down to size, I realised I was ruining it.

So I didn't enter it, and here it is, full-length, for your delectation and delight.

But it did get entered, in spite of being too long, and placed fourth, and is now published in Open Doors anthology by Wayman Publishing.

This may or may not end up part of the novel, when (or indeed if, it being so far down the pipeline) I write it, but it's definitely a part of the world. Ctessin's name is pronounced Tessi.

A Basilisk's Feather

            ‘My Lord,’ the young soldier said, ‘the people of Imnaran are here seeking aid. They say the valley is attacked by some monster.’
            ‘The women and children?’ Ctessin guessed.
            ‘No, my Lord, everyone: they have abandoned the village.’
            ‘Let them be given food and shelter, and send their headman to my house.’ The soldier saluted him and hurried away.
            Ban frowned, ‘It must be fearsome, to drive away good Kaihad warriors.’
            ‘Aye,’ Ctessin agreed, ‘a chimaera, perhaps?’ He spoke with excitement. Ban shook his head, slowly,
            ‘Would the warriors flee from a chimaera?'
             ‘It’s a fearful beast.’ He smiled coldly and put his hand to the long, beaded braid that ran from his forehead down his back, touching the coarse greenish feather woven into the left side and the golden plume on the right. ‘Its feather will be a fine crown to my tress.’ He stood up and turned towards the cluster of buildings. Ban followed.
            They walked in silence, until Ctessin broke it, ‘They wouldn’t flee a chimaera.’ Ban said nothing, and he continued. ‘What's worse than a chimaera?’
            ‘I can think of one thing.’
            As they passed through the doorway of a low wooden building, a little brown tabby cat with white paws jumped up onto a shelf, meowing a greeting. Ctessin smiled and bent to touch foreheads with the little animal, while Ban said
            'Good afternoon, Madam.' and walked past.

            ‘You cannot fight this thing alone. It has driven away the men of a whole valley.' Jivvan insisted. 'This is foolish, childish pride.’
            ‘Armies have failed against it.’ Ctessin responded calmly, ‘Lone men have come nearer: Lennatt fought one, alone, and escaped with his life; Mathei was also alone against the beast when he crippled it before he died. I will take two men of Imnaran as guides, and I will not refuse my sword-brother if he wishes to come. But they will not fight alongside me.' The young king stared at the greybeard, 'I will be obeyed.'

            They went on foot for fear that horses might be more easily seen and bring the creature upon them. Kimall and his sword-brother led them by the most hidden paths, and found deep caves before dusk. On the fourth evening they were within sight of Imnaran,
            'Its feather will make a better crown than a chimaera's.' Ctessin said with forced cheerfulness.
            'I've never heard that they have feathers.' Ban replied.
            'If I kill a basilisk, it had bloody well better have feathers, because I'm going to have one.'

            Ctessin lay like stone in the marsh as nightfall crept nearer, breathing slowly and with no more movement than the catspaw breeze made in the reeds. Only his eyes moved freely, behind the fine gauze mask that hid their gleam. He resisted the urge to move his hand to the hilt of his sword or the grip of his bow. He knew where each of his weapons lay, and knew he could wield any of them in a moment.
            A thrush perched on a reed almost above his face, and sang. The sky deepened, the sun dropping.
            A shadow flashed across the corner of his vision, and his eyes snapped towards it. Geese. He lay still.
            When it came, it came from the setting sun, wheeling around and screaming. He lay still as it passed directly over him. Was it hunting? And what?
            Something splashed in the marsh very near to him. Something large. The creature came overhead again, its sinuous body winding as it sought height.
            It dropped like an arrow, vast wings folded, stooping like a falcon and screaming as it came. He held his nerve with every ounce of will. It passed over him, almost within reach, to a great splashing struggle with the animal in the marsh.
            It didn't take long. The basilisk coiled through the muddy water like a snake, wings folded along the curving body, dragging its prey's bulk from the pool.
            It threw itself into the air balanced upon its powerful neck and tail and unfolded the two great expanses of wing, gathering air and hovering above the carcass, stretching its long neck down to tear chunks of flesh, the long tail held stiffly out behind it.
            Ctessin rolled to his feet, grasping his sword and springing towards the beast. He swung the cutting blade at its neck. The neck flexed, the creature dodging his stroke and gaining height with a beat of its wings.
            He had lost surprise. But the huge serpentine creature was on the defensive; he leapt back towards his hiding-place, letting the sword go, and picked up the longbow. He drew it as the beast circled above him, aiming for the place where its neck met its body.
            He loosed the shaft. It hit.
            It fell away, scale or bone turning it. The head turned towards him, the long neck twisting. A burst of something spurted from its long, reptilian nose and kindled in the air before it hit him, splashing fire across his clothing. A few drops hit his face. It stank. He dropped flat, rolling in the mud to quench the flame.
            The basilisk twisted in a circle high overhead. He found his bow, another arrow, and aimed for the throat. The neck writhed, the shaft missed. He felt heat and realised the foul spray had reignited out of the water.
            The creature dropped lower, the great tail snaking towards him. He scrambled for his dropped sword, but was jerked away. Stiff feathers fringed the tail, but the last three feet were bare: overlapping scales elongated into cruel barbs that gripped as the tail wound around him. He was lifted, the vast wings beating against his weight.
            He had no sword. No arrows: he dropped the useless bow. The splashes of fire on his clothing were burning through to his skin, and the drops on his bare face were agonising. He hung beneath the scaly belly and immense wings. The neck curved round, the scaly head with its wicked teeth snaking towards him. He kicked at it: it seized his ankle. Desperately, he wrenched away; kicking it in the throat with his other leg. His boot tore: he couldn't tell if the venomous teeth had pierced him.
            The head came towards him again. He struggled vainly against the muscular coil that held him. Fighting panic, he gripped the handle of his kukri, wrenching the heavy blade from its scabbard. He hacked at the head and made it recoil. Straining, he cut at one wing.
            The beast went mad, head, tail and wings lashing. He slashed again and again, making contact wherever he could.
            The neck encircled him, bringing the head alongside him with its razor teeth and stinking breath. He could see the overlapping pattern of the scales, the slit pupil of the vividly blue eye, the serrated teeth dripping deadly saliva. He was nearing exhaustion.
            He seized the moment.
            He wrapped his right arm around the neck, and held on. He brought the big knife up and forced the razor tip through the creature's hide and deep into its throat.
            It opened its mouth to screech, spraying dark blood. Its wingbeats began to weaken. It fell thrashing from the sky, Ctessin still tangled in its coils.
            He came to, crushed beneath the now-still corpse. It hurt even to breathe. The weight of it was sinking them into the mire. Painfully, groaning at every movement, he pushed himself by inches from under it until he lay, gasping, but free. He trembled, pain burning through his body, and wondered if its venom was coursing through him.
            Killed a basilisk! It filtered through to his exhausted brain. He crawled towards where the tail floated in a turbid pool.
            With the last of his strength, he plucked a basilisk's feather.