The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.
It was easy to retrace my path, for I had fairly laid waste to the undergrowth. I walked until I reached my marker, but I was too restless to stop. And so I carried on walking, and carried on praying, until something lying at the foot of a nearby tree caught my eye – something pinkish and white. Something like bone.
I felt sick and afraid, but my need to know was stronger. I parted the grass and found a skeleton – of no man, thank God! but a beast, with long back legs, a curved claw on each hind foot, and a narrow skull grinning with sharp teeth. The very beast I had killed, stripped of its flesh in the space of a few days.
The skull had come loose and lay a few inches away from the shattered vertebrae of the neck. Possessed by curiosity, I reached down and picked it up. It was finely wrought, and light – so light that I felt a pang of pity. There was something almost beautiful in the delicate lines that extended from the cavernous eye sockets, with the two great chambers in front, to the muzzle with its arched nostrils. I became absorbed in studying it, and was turning it in my hands, the spear tucked under my arm, when I felt a gentle draught of warm air on the back of my neck.
I went cold. I heard the creature – whatever it was – draw a long slow breath, and then it exhaled again, tickling the back of my neck and setting my skin crawling. Summoning every nerve, I gripped the spear in one hand and the skull in the other, and turned to face my foe.
It was a bird-lizard – the first I had ever seen upright and at close quarters. He was smaller than I expected, his head no higher than my chest, but I knew too well – poor Olivero! – the dreadful damage his like could do. He looked up at me with a cold reptile stare, tilting his head first this way and then that, assessing me. His short forelimbs hung before him, digits drooping, like grotesque hands. I dared not look down any further, but I felt the presence of those wicked hind claws as if they already pierced my flesh.
The air seemed to thicken. His eyes flicked from my face to the spear – I fancied he knew what it was – and back again. He muttered softly, chuck-chuck-chuck, and cocked his head to look at the skull in my other hand. I scarcely knew what I was doing – to my own horror, I reached out and offered the thing for his inspection, as if he were a dog. He blinked, with that curious sideways blink snakes have, and extended his muzzle, nostrils flaring. For a long moment he examined the skull, while I gripped it with sweating hand, willing my nerve not to fail. And then I felt a tooth graze my skin – sharp it was, and horribly dry – and I gave a convulsive jerk and flung the skull from me, so that it landed in a clump of vegetation some six feet away.
My opponent turned his head and watched the dreadful parabola before turning his attention back to me. I might have taken that chance to flee, but I was powerless to move – and he knew it, I think. I stood with the spear useless in my hand and waited for him to act. I could not even pray.
I can hardly bring myself to set down what happened next. It astounded me then, and it astounds me still. He took a step forward and scented the breast of my cassock, delicately at first and then with concentration, as if he were reading it. I was covered in blood, of course, by now: the blood of countless prey, of the great beast that pursued me, of his own brother-lizard. He paused, his teeth inches from my heart – he let his jaw hang and his teeth chatter, as I have seen dogs do when they scent carrion – and then he raised his head and fixed me with such a look that I could no longer doubt his intelligence.
Something possessed me then – some reckless spirit. I hoisted the spear. “Away!” I cried. “Get away, foul thing! AWAY!”
The creature twitched in a way that gave the impression of shrugging, and then he turned tail and loped away into the trees.
© Alix Montague 2015