Two of Swords
The divine person is a source of danger as well as of blessing; he must not only be guarded, he must also be guarded against... thus, the practice of putting kings to death either at the end of a fixed term or whenever their health or strength began to fail.
Sir James George Frazer, The
Capt. Futvoye Halfnight, F.R.S. considered his puttees. A fleet eland had given its all in their manufacture yet he was not happy with them. His puttees were a fine suede, unborn oryx, skinned alive in its mother’s womb, their extreme softness achieved by a vigorous rubbing with placental blood. This was a native practice which the captain deplored, but it did produce a grand puttee of an optimistic fawn color. He regarded an irregular blemish of smut on one freshly brushed puttee. It was not the arrival of the vagabond smut that he found disturbing, for smut happened. It was the speck’s irregular shape, a portent of the unanticipated.
“I am only having a look-about,” pronounced the captain for any unseen listener. “I like to know where I am,” He whistled up his left eye. “Pweet! Here Claudia!” The original eye, which had been hazel, he had lost chucking quoits with the dervishes of the Taklamakan Desert. A native healer had plucked a replacement eye from a pile of battlefield offal. It was of perhaps human origin.
“Pweet! Here girl!” The eye came rolling toward him across the forest floor from where it had been investigating the nest of a spotted vole.
The captain popped the eye into its socket. “Ahh.”
What he saw was not reassuring. “Ohh...” A great gnarly man was leaning against a tree and staring at him. He wore a cooking pot tilted backwards on his head and was naked but for the skin of a tiger draped over one shoulder.
“You pilgrims should carry rearview mirrors. You leave an inventory of lost lesions and dropped appendages all over the landscape,” said the gnarly man. He approached with the side-saddle gait of a cripple. One hip had been dislocated and poorly healed. “You are in the woods. My woods. Capt. Halfnight I presume?” He gave the captain’s eye a speculative look. “Hullo, there, Claudia.”
The eye winked.
“You know my eye’s name. And while we’re at it, how is it that you know my name?”
“Easy enough. You were yowling it all through the sacred wood. And that’s a mighty handsome eye ’ee got there, if’n ’ee don’t mind me saying. Should be mine. Mustn’t let one’s eye go poking about unsupervised.”
“You presume overly much.”
“I never presume anything. You haven’t commented on my limp. That is polite of you.”
“Uhn, sorry. I didn’t notice,” Halfnight lied.
“Don’t give it a second thought.” The man lifted the leather flap of an eyepatch to reveal an empty hollow behind. “They took my eye, too.” The gnarly man looked appraisingly at Claudia. “They put me out of joint and I healed crooked; they figure I can’t get far.” The gnarly man winced and lowered himself to the ground. “I’m likewise missing most of my teeth.”
“Odd you should mention oral hygiene. I am a diplomate of Macclesfield Dental Academy. Teeth were my bread and butter till I answered the call of King and Country. I had a flourishing dental practice in Derbyshire—genuine replacement teeth, wed inextricably to the jawbone. You would be an excellent candidate.”
“A winsome smile won’t save yer brisket here, laddie. The basic diet of a sacred king is oat porridge, butter and honey—hogsheads, puncheons, barrels, firkins, rundlets and tuns of butter, the fatter the better. I keep on the go so’s not to pack on the pork. The girls haven’t yet started sizing me up for the stewpot. But I can’t leave off answering the dinner chime—goes with the job; when the girls decide, I die. And that, me laddie-buck, is where you come in.” With a great greenish-black smile consisting mainly of rotten stumps, he held out his hand. “I was once called Charley Blackwell. And you?”
“Futvoye Halfnight, F.R.S, V.C., D.D.S. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society. The V.C. does not denote any military distinction. Very Careful. I am very careful.”
“Careful is as careful does,” offered the gnarly man. “We all are lamed; soon it will be your turn. See, my time is approaching and if I don’t come up with a surrogate, well... there will be a fight to the death for my fiefdom—a fight with the next comer, which I gather to be you.”
“You are a king.” Halfnight found himself wishing he had packed the ceremonial sword presented to graduates of the Macclesfield Dental Academy.
“Rex Nemorensis, the king of the sacred wood,” said the gnarly man. He reached into a pouch he carried slung over one shoulder and, extracting a treacle, began ecstatically gumming away at it. “You know, all that Golden Bough mumbo-jumbo. And call me Charley.”
“Sugar treats will rot your teeth, Charley.” said Futvoye Halfnight. “A word to the wise. You do floss?”
“You are here to kill me. What care you if my death-rictus is cavity-free?” Charley Blackwell spat his treacle into the trees. “Solicitude for the well-being of a victim is unbecoming in an assassin. But I forgive you, for this is the practice in the Lady’s wood.”
“I have taken an oath to save life, not take it. I am an army surgeon... well, dentist. I became separated from my unit in a dust storm in the Taklamakan Desert. Now I am here.”
“An eventful life,” said the gnarly man as he picked his remaining teeth with a twig, trying to excise a wedged-in treacle bit.
“You don’t know, then. Well, you’ll get educated right quick soon as you kill me. If you kill me. There’s a world of hurt a-waiting for those as disrespect the Lady. This is her wood, actually—the sacred king’s on sufferance. Unless he has True Grit,” added the gnarly man.
Halfnight felt about in his pockets. “I am gritless, I fear.”
“There is a chance—a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless—that we may both cash in on the Lady’s good will and find favor in her eyes. And salvage our own humble flesh in the bargain.”
“Eyes... again. And this Lady...”
“The Lady.” The gnarly man grew thoughtful as he spat out a tooth. “There’s a ghost in Her machine needs excising. Some says...” He drew closer. “It’s the Basilisk.” The gnarly man shuddered, composed himself and, extending a little finger, gave off picking his teeth to perform a vigorous excavation of an ear. “A big chicken with the tail of a serpent. Very big—spits poison draughts into the eye of an adversary: a great contentious creature big enough to gulp down a brewer’s dray in a single swallow. We shall have to be prudent on our quest. And if you’re so careful, Halfnight V.C., how come you lost your eye? Twice, I might add. Pweet! Here, Claudia.” Whereupon Halfnight’s stuck-on battlefield eye leapt from his head and snuffled rapturously at the very large feet of Charley Blackwell, the Rex Nemorensis.
“Quest...” Halfnight did not recall volunteering. His mouth gaped open; Charley scooped up the disembodied eye from the Taklamakan Desert and chucked it in.
“Mmmm... urph!” exclaimed Halfnight. He swallowed.
“Neat toss. Huh, just having a bit o’ fun, I was. You shouldn’t have done that—swallowed your eye. Here...” Charley began pounding the displaced dentist vigorously on the back all to no avail. “I’ll have to Heimlich, don’t fight it,” said Charley as he clutched him from behind and drove his massive fists deep into Halfnight’s abdominal cavity.
“Urp!” Halfnight F.R.S. gave a mighty belch and the dislodged eye flew high into the air. “My ribs,” choked Futvoye Halfnight, F.R.S. “I think you broke some.” The gnarly man held up a hand to signal for silence. “Shhh...” said Charley, head cocked to one side. There was a great thrashing of twigs in the underbrush nearby and the flying eye was caught in an enormous, parrot-like beak.
“Basilisk?” asked Halfnight.
“Basilisk,” replied the gnarly man.
“Very. We must be close to its castle. Run like hell.”
“Pardon my mentioning it, but you are a cripple.”
The gnarly man came close. “I’ve got me an exercise regime,” he whispered. “Not much good fer walkin’ but I can scale me a cliff fast as any mountain goat.”
Charley hobbled, bobbled and wobbled, seemingly without a labored breath. Futvoye jogged along behind, turning red from the effort and wheezing mightily. The gnarly man thrust aside an elderberry thicket with a single swipe of a massive arm. “In here. You’re about having the apoplectics. You need a rest, m’boy.” The dentist collapsed gratefully. From the distance came a general thrashing and laying-about that indicated the Basilisk had lost their trail. “He’ll catch our scent again, never fear,” said Charley as he popped a fresh treacle into his mouth. “But for the nonce I presume a riddle. Why does the Basilisk cross the road? Think it over, our very existence depends upon a proper answer. You’re a one-eyed dentist, more’s the pity. I’d a been happier with a one-eyed chiropractor all be told.”
“Ahh...” said Halfnight.
Charley Blackwell stood, “Well, break’s over. On your feet.”
The King of the Wood set off in a sideways shuffle at surprising speed. “Follow me and keep close. Be brisk about it. We’ll have to see the Lady, that’s all there is to it,” Charley panted. He charged on ahead, seemingly oblivious to the scrapes of bramble and thornbush. “She’ll sort things out.” His voice grew faint in the distance.
Halfnight followed. “Ow, ow, ow...” The brambles at last gave way on an open vista of marshland and bracken ferns where a swarm of bloodsucking insects attacked them. As he swatted and squirmed, he noticed that the gnarly man was becoming shorter.
“A quaking bog!” Charley called back over his shoulder. “The mud’ll suck ’ee down if you stand still for more’n a heartbeat.” The King of the Wood set out in a labored forward progression that resembled a clockwork toy at the end of its windup. The place reeked of decaying vegetation.
Halfnight tried to follow, leaned forward and fell on his face grasping a tussock of witch grass which he used to pull himself out of a sinkhole. The two moved as quickly as they were able with mud pulling at their shoes with every step. After what seemed an eternity of stings, bites and clinging clods, a gentle breeze drew off the miasma of the swamp and a vista of neatly manicured parkland opened before them.
Halfnight paused to examine his feet. “I fear my puttees are ruined,” he lamented.
“Ooo,” said a mellifluous female voice. “Hello there. Are you here for the execution? We shall have a lovely soirée. Tomorrow night. Don’t be late,” the voice sighed. “I’m named Dryope, by-the-bye. Oh, hiya, Charley.”
While he revolved to view the voice’s source with his remaining eye, Halfnight bumped into an ornamental shrubbery, driving a twig under the lid. “Damned tree.” Through a milky halo a female form became visible.
Charley nodded and picked at his teeth. “Pretty little thing, isn’t she? A nymph. Flat as failed omelets, most of them—naught but tits and gristle. But frisky lasses, one and all. Hee-hee, ho-ho, harrumph, hack, whack wawarrgh...”
Halfnight pounded the King of the Wood on the back till his spasms passed.
“Thank ’ee, lad. Got treacle up me nose.”
“Hmph.” Snorted the nymph. “I should have hoped it to be the memory of our last liaison taking you into transports of rapture.” Dryope was carrying an armload of knotted net bags full of a white substance. She pinched Halfnight’s nose and waggled his head back and forth. “You are not lost by any chance? You are early but I am certain we can find you a place in the line.”
“The line of succession, silly. And you are devastatingly cute in your khaki pantaloons and wooly socks. We shall have jolly times together, you and I.”
Halfnight found himself staring at her naked thighs. The nymph was graceful and slim, dressed in a gossamer chiton that struggled ineffectively to keep her covered. Its excess fabric had been pulled up and gathered under a sash knotted at her waist.
“Yes, I am—am I not?” Dryope said. Halfnight blushed.
“And y-y-you are...?” Halfnight’s blush deepened.
“Delectable. They all say so—both the contenders and the kings.” At the word “king,” Dryope’s cupid’s bow mouth pouted. “But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You must kill him first; for that is the way of things. Bye now.”
Dryope skipped off through the forest undergrowth, humming tunelessly to herself. Charley Blackwell and Halfnight F.R.S. followed close behind. “Following me, are you?” said the nymph, and gave Charley a playful slap on the nose. “You naughty, naughty boys.” The young woman stopped at a larch sapling where a net bag hung from a low-lying branch. She lifted the bag and held it to her nose. “Ugh! Quite ripe. The Lady loves to feed the birds but it has been unseasonably warm this past nonad.” She tucked the smelly bag into her waistband and replaced it with a fresh one.
“Suet bags,” whispered Charley Blackwell.
Dryope gave the gnarly man’s midsection a poke and pouted. “Tsk, tsk. We’re going to have to fatten you up, Charley. Can’t have the Lady’s wrens dropping from famine now can we?”
“Dryope, old cupcake, meet Futvoye Halfnight, V.C., D.D.S. He’s here to fit me out with a set of dentures.”
The nymph gave a look that signaled disapproval at the suggestion of false teeth. “Humph. We’ll see about that.” And with a twirl of her hips and a toss of her head, Dryope marched away.
“What was that all about?” asked Halfnight as he admired the play of Dryope’s retreating hips.
“My predecessor. His leftovers now line the paunches of chickadees and nesting wrens.” With a crunching of distressed vegetation the Rex Nemorensis plunged into the sacred woods. Beyond a hedge a pathway opened, its course delineated by two rows of squared-off granite blocks. The parallel lines diminished in one-point perspective to where a shrine of toppled pillars rose in a misty distance. “My place,” he said. “The girls like to know where I’ll be when they want me.”
“I say, statues...”
At the base of the first stone lay two swords. “Pick up your sword.” Charley Blackwell stooped to retrieve a wicked looking double-handed broadsword. “Ahh, the only acceptable means of dispatching a king...” Here the Rex Nemorensis took a test cut with his sword, sending the blade whistling through the air a fraction of an inch from Halfnight’s nose, “...or a contender are strangulation, throat cutting and drowning. Not chopping or stabbing. For now, we are both safe.” The explanation sounded weak to Halfnight, but he kept any misgivings to himself.
“This then would be mine, I guess.” Halfnight picked up the remaining weapon, a slender-bladed rapier which he swung in imitation of Charley. It cut the air with a gentle whisper.
Charley grinned an approval, “Sounds sweet as the peeing of a butterfly,” and stabbed the point of his great shining sword into the turf at his feet. “That one’s sharp. You’d skewer me brisket right handy.” He leaned casually on the pommel of his broadsword; he did not appear threatened. “Your dentist’s blade looks like it’d whittle a right smart salad garnish, too—not like this clumsy claymore of mine. Come.”
“We are supposed to go at one another with these swords?” said Halfnight. He felt he was being pointedly ignored. “Was that a conditional utterance I heard? The swords—what for, exactly? If not fighting one another.”
“Now fer dinner,” said the gnarly man, and led the way to where the circle of ruined columns had been roofed over with a gilded dome. “The gold leaf is falling away, but be it ever so humble, etc...” In the shade of the dome was a hammock strung between two columns. Flies buzzed around a sticky-looking pottery porringer and a silver platter filled with partially rotted fruit. The gnarly man flopped into the hammock.
“The swords then,” Halfnight persisted. “Surely not for just chopping cabbage.”
“We will be expected to extirpate the Basilisk, o’ course. ’Tis a weary task but the Lady will demand it of us.”
“B-b-b-basilisk. You said the beast has a taste for human flesh...”
“Just a figure of speech; human souls are their proper purview. The basiliki are not a bright tribe, and rending their victims is the only way they’ve discovered for getting at their insides. If you had a Swiss army knife in those capacious pockets of yours, the kind with a corkscrew and an earspoon, f’rinstance, we might make a trade with the Basilisk and he might—might, mark you—spare us. Better things for better living and all...”
Halfnight made a show of turning out his pockets. “Sorry, old chap, I’m without.”
The gnarly man looked wonderingly at the contents of the pockets. “What’s that ’ee got? A hazelnut bonbon?”
“I was saving that for later”
“Give it here.”
“I say...” Halfnight recoiled as the gnarly man snatched the chocolate from his hand and popped it in his mouth. “Wait. You are telling me that the soul, the self-essence unique to a living being, may be removed from a chap with an earspoon?”
“Dunno, never tried it though legend has it thus. A good sharp sword is my choice for soul-extraction. Time-tested, tried and true, as they say.” The gnarly man looked hopefully at Halfnight. “Chocolate is my favorite. Over earwax.”
“Uhn... I only had the one.”
“Earspoon, corkscrew, whatever.” Charley stood and buckled on his broadsword. “Time we were going. The Lady’s cavern is right under our feet.” He drew Halfnight, F.R.S. after him past a midden of broken pottery and what must have been the personal belongings of previous sacred kings. It was an impressive pile. A short way on where a freshet bubbled from a cleft in the rocks, he brushed aside a barricade of thornberry and wild roses.
“Yikes!” From the branches of a dwarf cypress hung two dolls, suspended by one foot on a twisted scarlet ribbon. Each had a single eye painted in the center of its forehead. One wore a tiger skin cloak, the other khaki shorts and knee socks. “It seems that we are expected,” offered Halfnight. A young woman stood guard at the entrance to a cave.
“Hullo, Electra. The Lady about?”
“Not a good time. Herself is whipping Alcyone—she giggled at vespers.”
“We have official business. The underworld open for visitors?”
“For you, Rexie, any time. Who’s your friend?” The young woman sidled up to Halfnight and, slipping a velvety shoulder out of her chiton, displayed a modest quantity of pink bosom. “Mmmm... you the next king? You’ll be killing Charley, then.” Long slim fingers stroked his face in an unhurried caress. He found himself wishing that he had stopped to shave that morning.
“Your friend is cute, Charley. We had some good times though, didn’t we, you and I?” Electra wriggled her hips.
“Look but don’t touch, dentist-mine,” said Charley Blackwell. “Remember Dryope’s suet bags. The fauna hereabouts are easy on the eye but particularly lethal.” The gnarly man made a grab for her.
Electra slapped him away. “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah... business, you said. The pythoness is in.” She crouched to pull open a grating from which mephitic vapors rose. “Yecch,” she said, making a three-fingered gesture of aversion. “Better you than me.” She passed her fingers under her nose, sniffed and made a dainty face. “Down you go. Be seeing you.”
Rising fumes churned about their heads. Halfnight coughed and cast a wistful glance at Electra; she blew him a lingering kiss: “Remember, the Lady is not the pythoness: she occurs, as though sprung from the ground, a keeper of the spring of mysteries.” Chiseled from the living rock there were steps. “And don’t breathe if you don’t have to.” The Rex Nemorensis and Futvoye Halfnight, F.R.S. descended.
They found themselves in a cavern; phosphorescent mineral deposits gave an eerie greenish cast to their faces. A woman sat atop a bronze tripod that straddled a volcanic vent. A stream of chartreuse vapor swirled about her; her eyes were rolled back in their sockets so that only the whites showed. In one hand she held a wine cup, in the other a green laurel switch with which she was beating a naked girl on the back.
“Uh, hullo, there,” said Halfnight. “Are you the Lady?”
The woman turned at the sound of his voice. The beating stopped. “Company, then,” said the woman. Empty eyes stared blindly ahead. “I am a pythoness, Her representative. You will speak to Her through me.”
“Ahh...” Halfnight opened his mouth.
“When you are told to speak.” The vent at her feet hissed.
“Yes, ma’m,” Halfnight closed his mouth.
“Call me pythoness—only pythoness. I am but an oracle, a gatekeeper. But you will have to pardon me; I am disciplining a wayward nymph.”
The naked girl whimpered and looked up at them. “These are her ways, my lords; better let her get on with it.” The girl looked beseechingly to the woman on the tripod. “Greek. It is a Greek silliness; that is all I said. And for saying that I am to die?”
“You will not die, my child,” said the woman as she began anew with the thrashing. “You see, gentlemen—and that is you, Charley Blackwell unless I miss my mark. For you I use the term advisedly—Alcyone has incurred our wrath by her irreverence in demeaning the rites of the Lady of the Wild Things. She might have been buried in sand to the chin and left to die.”
“But, but...” said the girl.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, my daughter. You blasphemed the rites of the goddess. The vestals of Rome would expect no less a punishment. I fancy myself more merciful than that gaggle of guinea broads. Why do you complain at a mere thrashing? Good for what ails you.”
“Meaning no disrespect, isn’t the beating a mite severe?” said Charley.
“Nonsense. We’ll have her back at play with the hamadryads on Mount Oeta before you can say Jack Robinson. Alcyone, you are dismissed.” The chastened nymph, covering her nakedness as best she could with her hands, slipped quickly past. Through clouds of volcanic exudations Charley monitored her retreat up the stone stairway.
“Ahem. Eyes front, Charley—what eyes you have left. You want something,” said the pythoness.
“Ahh, your ladyship, now that you mention it my dentist friend here would like his eye. Basilisk ate it.”
“I must simply have it and that is all there is to it,” said Halfnight. “Otherwise I shall have to go through life spinning like an angry woodpecker.”
“Whatever, that probably won’t be long. It is the way of things,” said the pythoness. “It’s your life or his, remember? You wish an assignment from the Lady of the Wild Things? Perhaps.” The pythoness’ pupils dropped into place. Her gaze was not at them but through them, as if she watched a drama projected on the walls of the cavern. She remained thus for upwards of twenty minutes. “Very well. The Lady says to bring me the Basilisk’s venom sac. After you have dealt with the Basilisk, then we shall talk. Go!” Her eyes came back into focus and the intensity of her gaze drove them to their knees. A vertical streamer of orange gas burst from the crevasse at her feet. “And have a nice day.”
“Aye, lady.” The gnarly man picked up a smooth rock to hone the edge of his sword.
The mountain range of scraggly scree and boulders rose from a well-watered plain rich with wheat and barley. “High enough, I wot...” said Charley Blackwell, the Rex Nemorensis, “to keep away the idly curious. Basiliki are not the most sociable of creatures. They do love their unscalable pinnacles. Don’t look down whatever you do.”
Halfnight, F.R.S., looked. “It’s not far down at all. Not for all the sweat and skinned knees we have expended to climb this far.”
Far below laborers bent double as they toiled in the fields; their massed voices rose to fill the sweet-smelling dawn. Flooded paddies spoke of the cultivation of rice or cranberries. Halfnight paused to wipe his brow with his military hanky. “That’s it, then. Not quite the mountain fastness we have been led to believe.”
“The Basiliki are subject to nosebleeds and have a morbid fear of heights,” said the King of the Wood. “They are only known to come even this far up in their mating season.”
“Now you are telling me the creature is in rut.” High above a small puffy fair-weather cloud fluttered cheerily by. “And, while we are at it, you never answered your riddle: Why does the Basilisk cross the road?” There was a significant pause as the dentist closed his eyes and looked thoughtful.
“To get laid—for sex,” said the king.
“Well, yes. About the only time they stray off their patch. Otherwise they’re busy ravaging the Lady’s lettuces. Whew, I’m tired.”
In the fields below all singing stopped as the morning calm was shattered by a warbling whistle. The noise was so intense it required the two men to cover their ears. Halfnight raised himself to peek over the edge of a barricade of wattle and daub. “Careful,” hissed the gnarly man. “Inveterate magpies, Basilisks. They accumulate pretty doodads to hang on the arches of their nests.”
Chicken-legged, serpent-tailed and with the body of a winged lion, the Basilisk was gathering sticks and arranging them into an improbable nest. At its feet was a jumble of odds and ends. Ever so often it would consult the pile with the air of an artist at work, select one shiny trinket and place it lovingly into the wall. The gnarly man sat and fanned himself with his saucepan headgear. “The Basiliki have an exhausting and complex mating ritual; this is why there are so few of them. He hopes to lure a mate to his bower by its architectural complexities.” At the sound of a human voice, the Basilisk looked up.
The King of the Wood grabbed at Halfnight’s shirttail and pulled him down. “The eyes, lad. Don’t look ’im in the eye. The creature is so utterly cruel that when it cannot kill men by its baleful gaze, it turns upon herbs and plants.”
“Uhn, sure.” Halfnight F.R.S. scrambled up and over tearing his trousers on the tightly woven latticework of thorn, bramble and cadaverous leftovers. The Basilisk’s escarpment was constructed of chance objects painstakingly fitted together: sticks entwined with what had to be human remains, gobbets of flesh still clinging to the bones, feathers and fur. And a single set of Tyrolean hiking galluses with large pearl buttons.
The Basilisk’s warbling whistle shattered the air, this time followed by a shrill screech. In cranberry paddies below, peasants ducked and covered their ears. “Yikes,” exclaimed Halfnight—for the second time that day, if you are keeping count.
Peering back from the Basilisk’s beak was a bright beady eye. Small and familiar. “Claudia?” The eye winked as the Basilisk opened its beak, dropped it, and let out an ear-piercing whistle. The creature’s razor-edged beak took out a sizable patch of Halfnight’s scalp and hair and, satisfied that honor had been served, it retreated back to its bower. Halfnight went somersaulting head over feet back to the cleft in the rocks. “It is angry,” he said.
“You don’t feel withered or anything. I mean, you didn’t look it straight in the eye, did you?”
“Pro’ly so, ’magine. But it was our eye; the Basilisk has her captive. Am I dead?”
“You appear pretty lively for a dentist, but appearances can be deceiving.” From above there emanated a massive scratching sound. “It’s cleaning up the dance floor; that’s one horny bugger we’ve got up there,” Charley said. “When they’re in rut they forget all else. He’ll climb on top of anything that moves.” The Basilisk’s cooing grew in intensity.
“Don’t move. A crazed Basilisk will think of naught else till it’s had its way with a female of its species. Or whoever’s handy. On the bright side it is oblivious to all but the call of the glands. You may kill it with ease.”
“As king apparent the honor is yours. You’ll have to excuse me—the heights. Thin air gets me weary.”
“Uhn... of course.” Halfnight, F. R. S. took on a dreamy expression. His head bobbed in time with the rhythm of the Basilisk’s song. Over the edge of the brushworks that defined the outer boundary of the Basilisk’s mating floor—came a cooing sound. “Ahhh... sorry to cut short our little entrenous but I’ve got to go.”
Charley sprang to his feet and caught hold of Halfnight’s leg as he fought to return to join the Basilisk’s dance. With his free hand the gnarly man drew his sword, “I hate having to do this to ’ee, lad. But death or chicken-rape—think about it—not much of a choice. Personally I’d choose death meself.”
“That is because you are not in love.” The cooing rose and fell with an increasing urgency. “Mustn’t be late for my own wedding night.” Halfnight drew his own sword and took a ferocious swing at Charley Blackwell’s stewpot helmet, knocking him unconscious and slicing off an ear. “Cheerio, and remember me to the nymphs. Sorry about the ear.” He clambered over the revetment to be enfolded in the coils of the waiting Basilisk. “Ohhh... Urk...” called Halfnight. From behind the palisade of sticks and bones came a frenzied caterwauling.
Regaining consciousness, the Rex Nemorensis raised himself on an elbow looked up with his one remaining eye. “Steady as she goes, m’boy,” he shouted. “Keep him happy and you’ll enjoy a long and eventful life.” As he tore strips of his tiger skin cloak to bandage the stump of his severed ear, the howls and shouts gradually lessened into a subdued chorus of mutterings and moans.
The Basilisk crowed once, then all went still. “Halfnight?” There was no answering call, but a panicked scuffling as through a hole in the gruesome wickerwork of the Basilisk’s palisade the errant eye came rolling toward him.
“Oh. Hullo, Claudia. Seen too much for one day, haven’t ’ee old girl?” Lifting his eyepatch, Charley popped the eye into his empty socket.
“You might say that I done a bunk on poor old Halfnight. I wouldn’t say that, but you might.” Charley Blackwell lay with his head in the lap of the nymph Dryope while she tended to his wounded ear. “Jolly good fella and all, but a bit of a doodle-dash.” He scratched Claudia. The eye quivered rapturously in its socket.
“Tell me about it,” said Dryope. Charley told her about it. The nymph hummed her tuneless song as she braided an intricate design into the bandages that wrapped Charley’s head. “...and that’s about all there’s to tell,” said Charley. “I won; he lost. I gets me another year.”
“I do. Don’t I—another year? I mean the Lady’s rules and all. Some fruit, if you please. Storytellin’s dry work. Don’t a fellow get some fruit to keep him regular after an adventure such as I’ve had?” Charley scratched affectionately at his eye, which had been in turn Halfnight’s and the Basilisk’s. “Aye, the doings we’ve seen.”
With one pink, sandaled toe Dryope nudged forward a silver salver heaped with melons and grapes as she reached beneath their couch.
“Oh, a surprise. I loves a good surprise,” said the Rex Nemorensis. The sacred king launched a grape into the air and caught it neatly between two decaying, greenish-black teeth. “I say, Dryope, is that what I...” His replacement eye winked at the Nymph of the Wood as she raised her axe.
copyright 2012, 2015 Rob Hunter
Two of Swords was published in the April 2012 Quantum Muse. Two of Swords appears in the compilation Platterland—Nine Stories and a Novella.