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.


33. Justin Keeps Running

Justin had at least had the sense to keep running.

He had run, and walked when he could run no more, and hid when he could walk no more. He had stolen to eat, and slept in barns or haystacks. He kept out of sight by day, he moved at night. All he felt was terror. He didn’t even think about the consequences of killing a nobleman. There wasn’t time for that. He was running away from himself.

And in the worst of his terror, he saw better in the dark, he ran faster, he heard men and hid from them, he smelled food in the night and found it. He didn’t remember what he ate.

After he had been on the run for some uncounted nights, he didn’t know where he was. At all.

It seemed like he had been running mostly eastward—when his head cleared he found himself facing the sunrise—so he kept going that way. Might as well. Just keep going, was the thing. He’d known men hunted for crimes both petty and serious. The ones that got caught were the stupid ones that hung around, or unimaginative ones that ran only as far away as they had been before, usually some village less than ten miles away. The ones that didn’t get caught—well, maybe they ran far enough. Or maybe they went and got themselves hanged somewhere else for a similarly stupid crime.

This was a crime that required a bit of extra distance, for sure. And even if he could run far enough to get away with what he'd done, Justin wasn’t sure he’d be welcome anywhere, should people suspect what he feared in himself. Best keep running and hope something turned up.

Eventually, he came to a river that he couldn’t ford, and he followed it south until he came to a bridge. There was a small town there, with stables and a market square. Was he far enough away? Was anyone even looking for him? Could he eat a meal and get a pint of ale and feel like a human, for one day at least, before he kept running?

Turns out, he could.

He was surprised to learn how far he had come. The village of Sheepdim was on the main overland trade route between Norfjord and Andaro, perhaps a hundred and fifty miles away from where he had started. How long had he been running? He paid for a meal, played cards to earn enough for a drink, and asked around about the latest gossip and stories from Atlar. There had been nothing much. In turn he had lied outrageously about his own background and abilities. Somehow he had talked his way into a job in the stables.

So then he spent his days brushing horses, and fetching food and water for them. Mostly travellers on the road were merchants with covered carts and sometimes with armed and mounted guards. He stayed out of their way, but he kept an eye open. If pursuit was coming for him, it was coming along this road.

Then in the early watches of the morning, he woke, and heard the roaring again, deep inside his mind. The rage and the terror. He shook and growled and gathered his blankets and hid, curled up under his bed. He could taste blood, and his nose was full of the smell of something terrible.

Shortly after sunrise, the wind was blowing from the west and he smelled a whiff of it again, very faintly. And then two hours later, a flat-bottomed cart rolled slowly over the bridge and into town, pulled by a pair of old donkeys. It was uncovered and empty, apart from a bundle of what looked like digging tools wrapped in canvas. The driver of the cart and his companion went to the inn, and Justin followed them inside. They spoke with familiar accents, possibly Kennis port.

He engaged them in conversation, and found they were peat-cutters, doing a job for the estate of Lord Bern. They had left before that man’s death, or at least, they gave no sign of knowing anything about it. Justin negotiated for his services as donkey handler, then went back out to their wagon and fed the donkeys. He arranged to pass by the cart a couple of times and steal glances into it. There was brown staining on the planks that might have been from peat.

But why would you travel a hundred and fifty miles to cut peat? Peat is everywhere.

There were two water buckets, as though for keeping the peat wet. But why would you do that? It’s heavier wet, and not much good for burning. The brown-stained wood of the cart seemed to have a sliminess to its surface, and tufts of a whitish mould between the planks. The smell told him more than his eyes.

He returned to the inn, and offered a game of cards. He struggled against the deepest impulses of his nature, and refrained from cheating. Accordingly the men won a few coppers from him, and in their good fortune bought another round of drinks. They seemed like good fellows.

But they were not.

The smell on them was the smell of the cart, and one of them had a leather thong around his neck, and on it an amulet or charm carved from bone. Four fingers, no thumb.

Man is Beast.

Bollocks. Not this man. This man is man. And man is more cunning than beast. Beast knows fear and rage and pain. Man knows duty, and vengeance.

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