The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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29. Beasts

“Royal what?” asked the man who answered the door.

“Royal Wildlife Service. We are here to request help with a dangerous wolf on your lord’s land,” Jenna said, again.

“Royal you say? Well, our rightful king was here only yesterday,” said a voice behind the man, who turned and bowed, then moved out of the way, “and I certainly didn’t hear him say anything about needing a wildlife service.”

Lord Bern approached the doorway, his face slightly flushed, his eyes sliding over them unsteadily.

“And you want help with a dangerous wolf? That is not much of a service, to come to my door begging for help. It seems rather more like demanding that I serve you. Go and serve the Crown; deal with stray dogs yourselves.”

Jenna looked most expressively at Ashlin. He looked back toward the woods behind them, and shrugged helplessly. She tried again.

“It is a dangerous animal, my Lord Bern. I only request that one or two of your men can keep watch for it at the bridge, or,” she seemed to think better of it, “or perhaps we could borrow a horse so that one of us can return at speed to the Palace, and fetch park rangers?”

“A horse, eh?” He stared at Jenna for long moments. “A horse. Well, well.” He seemed lost inside himself for a moment. It didn’t look like a pleasant place to be lost.

“Come inside, then.”

They bowed, and thanked him, as he pointed them to a side room. “Wait in there.”

They waited. A couple of strong, armoured men came and waited in the room with them. Then a couple more arrived as Bern returned.

“So it is. The girl who wants to be a stable boy,” one of them said.

“Well, girl,” said Lord Bern, “it seems I have reason to doubt your word. What am I to do?”

This was beginning to feel dangerous.

“Your Lordship,” began Ashlin, “we are truly here asking for help on an urgent matter to do with a dangerous animal on your land. But you are right that we have no claim on your help. If we have offended you, I am sorry. We are all sorry---we would leave at once and not trouble you again.”

“If you leave, I wonder what you will get up to, as you say, on my land. I doubt, I doubt so much that you will not trouble me again.”

“You misunderstand,” said Jenna, “if we ...”

He slapped her. Not as a reprimand, not as an insult. A brutal swinging blow that made her cry out. Her face went white, and four red lines appeared across her cheek, a human hand without a thumb. Her nose began to bleed.

“Be silent. A girl may be a boy ...” his shifty eyes wandering all over her, “... but a woman cannot be a man. You do not tell me what I do not understand.”

Ashlin, Justin and Derk stepped forward in anger and indignation, but the men of Lord Bern struck faster; they grappled with and disarmed them within moments. After a brief search for concealed weapons, they also retrieved one of their own knives from where it had been tucked into Justin’s boot. This earned him a kick in the ribs.

“Tie them. And bring them to the hunting lodge.”

Their hands were bound rapidly rather than thoroughly; if they were being taken outside, there was some chance of one of them making a run for it. Or so Ashlin hoped, but instead they were driven at knife-point down a steep stair to a basement, lit brown and stinking with tallow candles.

The walls were hung with tapestries of hunting scenes: of men hunting beasts, beasts hunting men, and men hunting men. At one end were wooden racks for boar-spears and other hunting weapons. Ashlin and Justin were lashed to one of these racks. Derk struggled then, desperately, and was punched and kicked until he lay still. Then his feet were tied.

At the far end of the “lodge” was a long table like an altar, on it a huge black-bound book. There were straps at each corner tied round the table legs, for wrists and ankles. And in the centre, dark stains in the wood. Jenna was dragged to this table.

“Man is Beast,” intoned Lord Bern.

“Man is Beast!” echoed his men.

“And Woman is Prey,” said Bern, as Jenna’s hands and feet were strapped in. She was crying, and trying not to. Fierce and terrified.

“Man is Beast,” he repeated over and over, “Man is Beast.”

His four followers took up the chant, as each donned a tunic bearing a terrible and now familiar sign, a thumb-less red hand, and each in turn put on a mask in the form of an animal’s head: a stag, a wolf, a bear, a fox. Lord Bern’s mask was horrific. It was a human face, with blank red-rimmed eye holes and an awful twisted grin.

Ashlin was breaking. Something inside him was breaking. He was weeping and begging them to stop. Justin was shaking, rocking back and forth against the restraints in time to the chant, muttering “shut up shut up shut up.”

“We are the Beast Men, and we summon the Beast, we summon the great weapon for the greatest war. Man is Beast and Man is Prey.”

The chant became faster, as Lord Bern lifted a long, sharp hunting-knife from the table.

“Man is Beast. Man is Beast. Man is—Ware! Ware!”

With a huge crack, the wooden frame behind Ashlin split and dropped him face-first onto the floor. The cries of “Ware!” became screams. Blood, hot and wet, splashed on Ashlin’s face. Something was moving fast and low in the room. It leaped, then dove, one minute biting like an animal, the next swinging broken timber like a knight slaying giants.

It looked like ... a badger? Then a man. It was not that it changed shape exactly, but it seemed to shimmer and trick the eye; as it moved in light and shade, as it was seen from different angles, so the mind interpreted it differently. The mind made the monster.

“Man IS Beast!” cried Lord Bern, exultantly, before the ‘were—that was it: a badger-were—bowled him over and tore him. He screamed, and gurgled, and thrashed, and then Justin rose from behind the table, lurched forward, dropped to all fours, bounded to the door, clawed at it, rose to his feet, seemed to see the handle. He dragged it open with a cry that was part roar, part sob, and he was gone up the steps.

Ashlin pulled his arm out of the ropes that were tangling him, and staggered over to Jenna. He undid one of the straps. Her eyes were pressed shut, the left already swollen shut by the slap, tears leaking from both.

“Jen, Jen, are you ...”

She punched him solidly on the nose. By the time he got up again, blinking and bleeding, she had undone the other straps.

“Out, now!” she shouted, her voice shaking with anger. Derk wasn’t moving, so they pulled him, still tied, onto Ashlin’s shoulders, and Jenna went ahead up the steps, with a sword in her hand, and murder in one of her eyes.

The servant who had opened the door when they arrived was standing by it, staring open-mouthed at something outside. When turned and saw Jenna bearing down on him, bruised, covered in blood, lifting her sword not in threat, but for a killing blow, he ran out of the doorway. They didn’t see which way he fled, but at any rate, nobody was in sight by the time they got out onto the road.

Justin, too, was gone.

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