September Stories (9/12)

So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-12

Eye for an Eye
By Danielle Davis

“Easy,” Jane crooned. She touched the fleshy crest that topped the basilisk’s head. She felt, rather than saw, its movement as it prowled a circle around her. “Easy, beauty, easy…”

It was agitated. Both of them could hear the horsemen above, the clatter of metal armor and the thick thud of horse’s hooves as the group approached. She cocked her head, trying to shut out the movement of the basilisk and concentrate on the movement of the soldiers—not an easy feat from the way sound tended to bounce around the stone enclosure of the pit.

Not more than four, she estimated. Which meant the king was present. She sucked in a sharp breath and stepped quickly back to the pit wall, as if she could hide in one of the crevices between the cool stones. Her legs gave way so that her bottom slid to the packed dry earth that lined the pit. It was too soon, too soon.

Her distress further aroused the basilisk. She felt the air shift as it reared high, balancing on the lower half of its body, and let out a squeal of defiance. She quickly whispered soothing words to it, words of caution and remembering. Though the pit was barely wide enough to accommodate a full-grown basilisk—one whose middle length was twice the diameter of a fully mature tree trunk—all precautions had been taken to ensure the basilisk’s pit was deep enough to contain it. The king had made sure of that and he was nothing if not a careful man.

The basilisk hissed a warning and Jane smelled the noxious rotten egg scent that killed men within seconds. Had she not been carefully acclimated to it over the years of training, it would have killed her, too.

The hoofbeats above halted. Jane quivered and reached out a hand to gently caress the bulk of the basilisk’s scaled tail as it moved past her.

“Jane Edith Yarrow! The king has need of something from his basilisk.” The voice that called into the pit rang with the false edge of authority inherent in the king’s primary servants. It was filled with self-import and the smug confidence that she would answer because she had no choice.

His basilisk, she seethed inwardly. With her cheek still pressed against the coolness of the stone, she shook her head. “I will not answer,” she whispered between clenched teeth. “I will not heed his call.” The basilisk hissed again in response. It fed off her emotions, and though she tried to quiet the anger and fear running through her body, she knew it could sense it anyway—basilisks were especially tuned to the chemical scent of human emotions.

“Basilisk handler, you must answer your king. He has bid your service and does not appreciate being kept waiting.”

“Is he there, our king? Is he waiting on the edge of the pit with you? Did he come in person to collect his prize?” Her mocking voice echoed off the walls of the pit like there were several of her yelling.

The basilisk’s tail moved backwards, so that it crept between her and the wall, and slowly tightened so that she was drawn into the midst of its strong coils. Once she was sheltered in its protective circle, it reared high again and spit out another poisonous cloud.

The men around the edge of the pit reeled back, gasping in their haste to draw their protective cloths across their noses and mouths.

“Make it stop,” the second voice warned, muffled through the hand that held his cloth in place. “Make it settle or we will be forced to withhold the next few meals from the both of you! I doubt the basilisk will be so content with your company once you are the only food source available.” The last was delivered in a jeering voice that made Jane’s ears burn.

She knew the basilisk would not harm her, such was her unique bond with it. But that was not common knowledge and she detested the fact that everyone thought her the basilisk’s prisoner. Especially when both her and the basilisk were the prisoners together. And the man with the crown above them was the jailer that held the keys.

Jane took a deep breath and smoothed her hands over the wall of scales that surrounded her. She pulled her palms along it in sweeping caresses with one hand following the path of the other. Using that touch to ground her, she took deep breaths in time with the movement of her arms. She let the strong feel of the basilisk’s muscles under its skin seep into her mind. His strength is mine, she chanted. His strength is mine. As she calmed, the bunching of the muscles under her palms slowed, too.

When they were both calmer, she tilted her head upward and called out to the men ringing the edge of the pit. “What does my king require of me?”

There was a long pause, and then she heard a small snick to her right: the sound of metal hitting earth.

“We need blood,” the king’s man called down.

Her throat worked as she gulped. Blood-letting the basilisk was always difficult. It was a temperamental creature and, like all predators, did not tolerate wounds well. She wished the request was for something easier, like saliva or tears. Those the basilisk gave to her with minimal effort on her part.

“How much?” she called back, hoping she wouldn’t next hear a bucket crash to the ground next to them.

“A pence-bag full,” was the answer, and with it she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. That wasn’t much. The smallest nick would probably do it. A small thud came from the direction where she’d heard the other object fall.

Unfortunately, she knew the men wouldn’t give her the assistance of withdrawing their agitating presence while she drew it. The king was an impatient man, she’d learned, and his lackeys weren’t much better. It was a wonder any of them stood still long enough to take a piss, she thought to herself. Or maybe they just let fly while they strode along on their way to conquer whoever it was this week that needed conquering.

She whispered to the basilisk, hissing and whispering the things she thought might be pleasing to a basilisk to hear: words that spoke of its beauty and its strength, its fearlessness and heart, its large body and gleaming fangs, of prey that fled before it and birds that fell from the sky at its breath. Under her web of words, the basilisk quieted and slowly she convinced it to uncoil enough for her to move out of its protective circle.

Her hands crawled along the pit floor, finger twitching like spiders, as she felt her way in the dark to find the items pitched down to her. Finally, her fingers curled around the hard bone handle of a knife. With her other hand, she slid her fingers carefully along the flat of the blade to see its length. The alien feel of the cold metal seemed to repel her fingers, so unlike the natural coolness of the stone that welcomed her touch.

She gripped the handle tightly, hating the feel of it, and felt around until she found the pence bag. It was small, a bag whose full bottom would barely fill the cup of her palm. She shook out the rock they’d used to help it fall straight, then turned to the basilisk.

Its warm glare crept over her body. She could feel it, even if she couldn’t see it, and knew the power of its deadly gaze. The merest glimpse into its eyes could kill. She’d been trained about that, too—that had been the hardest part of her training, actually. But feeling the glare of it, like a slight burning that moved across her skin in small twitches and darting movements, had not been too hard to get used to. At the very least, it helped her know when she had its attention, and that’s what she sought now.

“Easy, big beauty,” she whispered to it. With the knife in one hand and the bag in the other, she moved carefully toward where she felt the head to be. She used the heat of its gaze, moving one way when the burning feeling left her and knowing she was getting closer by the increase in sensation on her skin.

She moved the bag to the hand that held the knife and held out her empty hand to the creature. Still, she whispered sweet things to it and let her mind fill with the serene picture of each as she named them: sweet grass, a breeze blowing across the skin, freedom, sky, sunlight.

The basilisk’s heavy head slid over her palm and she let her hand slide along the side of it into a caress. She stroked the soft underside of its chin, feeling the hard ridge of its jawbone against her forearm. Without breaking the caress, she used her other hand to make a small nick on the side of its neck, just behind its jaw where the veins were most numerous.

A scalding warmth spilled across her hand and she quickly moved the bag to its skin to catch the flow. When the basilisk flexed away from her, she sang stronger to it and pictured the images more firmly in her mind. Under the force of their bond, the basilisk remained still as it savored her touch and listened to the murmurs of her voice in its ear.

When the bag felt heavy, like a beating heart in her hand, she stepped away from the basilisk. “It’s done,” she called.

The rope fell on top of her head. She flinched away from it with an angry cry and the basilisk let out a similar squeal. She felt it begin to rear high, and she whispered to it furiously. She couldn’t lose it now, now until they knew for sure.

She turned away from the rope and crossed her arms. “Why don’t you come down and get it yourself!”

“Basilisk handler, you will do as you are bid!” The voice that called into the pit rang with age and authority. It was a voice that commanded members of the high court and soldiers on the battlements and stilled crowds. And now it commanded her.  There was no choice but to act once she heard it.

She reached back for the rope and worked it through her fingers to see how much length she had to work with. “I need more!” she called and another few coils hit the ground next to her. Her quick fingers measured the desired length, then knotted the end to form a loop.

She turned her face to the basilisk, seeking out the heat of his gaze in the darkness. With reaching hands draped with the rope loop, she found it as it swung to meet her. She eased the rope over its head, murmuring to it when it began to rile. She ignored the cries of shock and urgent commands being barked above her.

Within seconds, the rope was in place. They tried to tug it back up, but it was anchored firmly to the basilisk’s head and no amount of pulling was going to move it. Then she tucked the bag inside her tunic and swung her leg astride the basilisk’s great neck.

She gripped the rope with white-knuckled hands and whispered to the basilisk. At first, she wasn’t sure if the basilisk understood. Then, with a great surge, it reared up toward the opening of the pit, reaching farther and higher than it had before.

If she had measured correctly in the dark. If she had calculated the basilisk’s length correctly. If….if…

Then suddenly the basilisk was out and working the upper part of him to the side so he could draw up the rest of his body. The force of the landing threw Jane sideways on his neck, but she hung on and scrambled with her legs to regain her seat.

She heard shocked cries and the frantic clatter of hoofbeats fading as the basilisk gathered his tail underneath him and rose to the sky. She hung on, gasping partly with the effort of hanging on to the rope and partly with exhilaration. They’d done it. After years of painful training followed by more years stuck in the pit with the beast, they were finally free.

She felt the basilisk’s head dip as it looked down at the men frozen where they stood. One gave a strangled cry as his gaze met the basilisk’s—she heard his body crumple to the ground.

“You will control that beast!” the king roared. She didn’t have to see him to know how his face contorted as he spoke. It was one of the last faces she’d seen during her training to become the basilisk’s handler. She could still picture most perfectly the sneering curl of his lip as he gave the command, “Finish it.” She’d looked at him in terror, then to the face of her trainer, until they’d gouged her eyes out with the knife. That had been the end of her training, for no sighted person could ever survive as a basilisk handler.

One hand crept up to her cheek, then slid her fingers into the smooth hollows where her eye used to be. “They were blue,” she whispered. Her voice was little more than the puff of a summer’s breeze.

But the basilisk heard. And understood.

She had just enough time to curl her fingers around the rope before the basilisk’s head darted forward. She felt the great jaws shudder as they crunched through the king’s body. Though the basilisk could have swallowed him whole, she knew it preferred to bite its meals in half first. It liked the squirt of blood in its mouth.

Though her eyes still saw darkness, she thought she could feel the warmth from the sun on her face. It burned like the basilisk’s gaze. It was a feeling she’d welcomed back in the pit and so she welcomed it now. To her, that burn meant comfort. Revenge. Freedom.

She would always welcome the burn.

Total Writing Time: 2 hr.

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