One stiflingly hot August morning, in the very early hours, whilst everybody was safely asleep, an old man moved slowly through the undergrowth of a forest near the small town of Saffron Walden. He stopped, glanced at the brightest star in the sky and smiled with satisfaction. It would be a good day for magic. The old man knew this because he was a wizard. He was not the type of kindly, enchanted figure that you may have read about in books, but a sorcerer of the dark arts.
The old man carefully placed on the ground a leathery looking egg. Pursing his lips together, he made a strange noise whereupon a large grey toad appeared. The toad had been summoned to guard the egg until it was time for it to hatch. The old man left as quietly as he had come. It was 1599; in a few months a new century would dawn, but it was not going to be a fortunate time for the good people of Saffron Walden.
Nine long years passed, then, one day, the egg started to shake and the grass around it began to tremble. The nervous creatures of the forest were the only witnesses to the birth of one of the deadliest beasts of all. For the creature that emerged from the egg, and stretched its young wings, was part rooster and part serpent. Now this may sound a little weird, even funny, but there was nothing amusing about the beast into which this creature would grow.
Rapidly, its terrible form took shape. The creature did indeed have the head and claws of a rooster, but here the similarity ended for it also had the forked tongue of the serpent, the wings of a bat and a long, arrow shaped tail, that could only have come from the devil himself. All along its body were sharp barbs.
Its colour was every shade of black and yellow and on the top of its head was a white spot that looked a little like a crown. Unlike other serpents, it did not wind along the floor, instead it used its two strong clawed legs to move in an upright position, its great tail swishing behind it. However, by far the most terrible feature of this creature was its blood red eyes.
Just a couple of days after the hatching, a young farmer, up early to milk the cows, looked out of his window at the strangest sight. Part of the usually lush green forest that surrounded his land look shrivelled and dead.
“Hey George," he called to his labourer, "come and see this ‘ere.”
“On my word," said George. "I’ve never seen naught like that."
As the two men walked slowly through the blackened trees, they suddenly caught a glimpse of the back of the most extraordinary creature. A strong sense of foreboding (fear of the future) made the young farmer instantly dart behind the remains of a tree. He tried to pull his friend back with him but the young labourer knew no fear.
The creature turned and for a brief second held the labourer's gaze. With a cry of terror the young man dropped to the ground, dead. Trembling, and with his hair standing on end, the young farmer somehow found the means to get his frozen legs to move. Running as fast as he could he went straight to alert the sheriff. The sheriff dispatched his best men to find out more. They never returned and neither did those that went after them.
There was only one option left, they must consult the local wise woman. On hearing the description, the old woman shuddered.
“Do you know what we are facing?" asked the town leaders.
“Yes,” said the old woman, “I fear I know what the creature is, and before this ends many, many of you will die. For in our midst is a basilisk. A rare and evil creature, created when a cock's egg is placed in the care of a toad at the time when Sirius (the Dog Star), appears in the dawn skies with the sun.”
“What shall we do?” asked the sheriff. For once the old woman was silent.
“I cannot tell you what to do," she said, “only what you face. This is a creature that can burn all living matter with its terrible poisonous breath. It destroys everything it travels over and spreads poison wherever it goes; no herb can grow near the place of its abode."
"Its eyes have the power to kill even the largest beast with a single glance. It closes them not to sleep but only to drink. Worst of all, it eats humans. You cannot defeat it with a sword or spear for its poisonous blood will flow up the length of the weapon, like lightning, withering the body of the one holding it. Only the herb rue can offer some healing."
Her words were soon proved true. The monster's breath withered the local trees and rotted the fruit. Its saliva killed the birds flying overhead and it poisoned all the rivers, lakes and wells from which it drank. Soon there was little food or water left. Many tried to defeat the beast but their stones and shot became vapour in its breath. Several brave men tried to kill it whilst it drank at the river, hoping its eyes to be shut, but so alert were its other senses, they too perished.
It soon grew into an enormous man-eating monster. Its size only matched by its appetite. The basilisk killed so many, few folk were left and those that were had long given up all hope. It was just a matter of time wasn’t it? How many poor folk had been consumed already? No one, they sighed could fight such a creature. The town was doomed.
Those who could not leave stayed in their houses and blocked up the windows. As the townsfolk sat trembling, awaiting their dreadful end, a wandering knight arrived at the town. The knight was very brave and had saved many other towns from terrible creatures. On hearing the story of the dying town, he vowed that he would free the people from such evil. The people shrugged in disbelief, so many had tried before.
Indeed, the more the knight heard about the beast, the more perplexed he became. It was clear that he could not get close enough to use his mighty sword, for its breath would kill him. He could not hide in his armour of spikes, because the blood from the creature would enter the suit and wither him. He could not look towards it to unleash an arrow, for its eyes were deadly.
Tired and perplexed, he almost began to agree with the townsfolk, it was hopeless, but he quickly refused to accept such thoughts. He would rather die fighting than accept that this evil could not be defeated.
The brave knight sighed and glanced toward the window. In the window there remained one cracked pain of glass, in front of the window shutter. In the glass the knight was startled to see, staring back at him, his own anguished reflection. In his eyes, he saw all the sadness that he was feeling because he could not help the poor terrified people. As he continued to look, he also saw a flicker of hope – for, at that moment, he realised why the beast needed to close its eyes to drink.
The next morning, the knight slipped out of town early. News soon spread of his departure.
“So much for promises," said the cooper.
“An impossible task," nodded the baker. “Tis no hero that can save us?”
It was just two days later, when a young man saw the most amazing sight. He ran along the road alerting everyone. Overcoming their terrible fear, the people popped their heads out of their doors to take a look.
What a sight they saw! For coming down the street was a knight in glimmering armour made from mirrors of the purest crystal glass. Reflected in the glass were the trees, the houses and the many open mouths of the people looking on in utter astonishment. In his right hand, the knight carried not a sword but a sprig of magic rowan and in his left hand, not a shield but a basket of rue.
Boldly the knight went along the town and towards the serpent’s lair. He closed his eyes tight. Raising itself up the basilisk sensed the knight approaching. It flapped its mighty wings and turned to face its foe with its evil eye and rancid poisonous breath. But, as it turned, it reared backwards and gave out the most dreadful screech of utter pain and devastation. For it saw, not the knight but its own lethal reflection.
In that instant, it felt all the fear in the world penetrating its very heart. It hit the ground with a thunderous crash. Carefully the knight approached, to make sure it was really dead, and covered the beast with the protective rue from his basket. A large hole was dug, in which the remains of the creature was burned.
That night there was great revelry and celebration. The good people of Saffron Walden had been saved by a wandering knight in a suit of crystal glass.
“Do you know,” said the baker, “I always knew he could do it – never give up hope – that’s my motto!”
And that’s exactly the message the glass knight left in the town of Saffron Walden: however desperate you feel, however great the foe, never, never give up.
I should say, before this story finishes, that Basilisks are very, very rare creatures and rest assured, you are unlikely to come across one. However, if you ever happen to be walking through the woods at dawn, when the Dog Star is high in the sky, and you see a large leathery egg, guarded by an even larger toad, just remember, as a good citizen of this country, it is your civic duty to make haste and report it straight away.