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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43. Monster Hunters and Worse

“We don’t eat anything we didn’t bring with us.” continued Green, “We don’t drink any water without boiling it first. We don’t split up into groups smaller than four. We don’t split up at all unless there is a good reason. I will decide what is a good reason.”

“God above and below, will that man ever shut up?” grumbled Jenna to Ashlin, following ten paces behind the ranger. “You can never get a word out of him at the Summer Palace, and now he’s all full of lectures like some kind of Professor of Dangerous Things.”

“At the Summer Palace, I could assume everyone knew their own local Dangerous Things,” growled Green without turning round, “Ashlin isn’t going to put his hand in the forge, and you badger-botherers aren't going to fall on your pencils. Out here, if I assume everyone knows all the dangers, I lose men.”

They came to a stop and looked up the valley. The pines gathered closer and mist hung between their branches. Green looked very sourly at the trees.

“We'll camp here. It’s getting dark and I don’t like the look of that fog. We’re not going in there at night. Tomorrow we go in for a few miles due north and see what we see. We get out again with two hours to spare before sunset no matter what. I’ll decide what we do after that.”

Ashlin and Derk gathered firewood. Two rangers watched their backs with swords drawn, and kept them from moving out of sight of the camp.

“This is pretty terrifying.” said Derk, looking not particularly terrified, as they came back to the fire, where Jenna was making notes in a small book.

“You know how there’s no excuse of self-defence when a commoner kills a lord?” asked Jenna.

“Yes. Seems unfair, but then judges are generally lords, so, you know.” Ashlin shrugged.

“How about if you killed a king?”

“What?”

“Oh, that again.” said Derk.

“We have some things to talk about.” Jenna laid the book down and looked around. “I think everyone here is in the same army, so there's no need to keep secrets. Let’s talk.”

“Atlar doesn’t have an army, or a navy” objected Ashlin.

“Look around you. No, it doesn’t have an army. It has large numbers of ‘Rangers of the Queen’s Parks’, all trained in wood-craft and survival and combat. I checked, and the last Queen had three small flower gardens and an orchard. I don’t think Green and his men have done any gardening recently.”

“But I'm not---” began Derk.

“Shush, Derk. Atlar doesn’t have a navy either; it has a ridiculously large and well-equipped Coast Guard, not to mention the rather heavily armed Customs and Excise boats. And there was the Badger Survey, up until last year. We were monster-hunters-in-waiting, and worse. I’ll come to that in a minute, Ash.”

She counted off on her fingers: “Mountain Rescue, Embassy Service, Sewers and Drainage, all with more resources than you could really justify for their supposed remit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cultural Council had a team of deadly morris dancers. All of these organisations were created during or just after the reign of King Leonard, all brought one by one under the administration of the Crown Office.”

Ashlin was looking troubled.

“What do you mean we were worse?”

“We were used for something worse. Remember that little shopping trip to get prawns for the would-be-king Olaf? Well, he was never going to be king.” And she told him what Queen Celandine had told her.

“But still,” said Ashlin quietly, “I think that only counts as monster-hunting, even so.”

“Well, in that case we should have been hunting that bastard Lord Bern. Or at least been warned about him.”

“Jen, Doctor Grey told us he had known Bern from before he was a lord, when he was only a boy. He said Bern was never a stupid or vicious child, but he grew up into one.”

“I know what Doctor Grey told us. I won’t hear his excuses for that beast, not from you. I didn’t even want to talk about it. I don’t know why I started.” She wiped a tear away.

“I know. Look, I’ve been thinking about this. Do you know what a volcano is?”

“A what?” She remembered a big plaster model in Celandine’s museum. “Wait, yes. A mountain with all fire inside it, and smoke coming out the top?”

“Yes, one of them. Right. So there have been all kinds of little islands in the ocean that have volcanoes on them, and people living there haven’t really known what a volcano is. It makes a loud noise, it shakes the ground, it sometimes blows fire out the top. They often think it’s a god, or the home of a god.”

“Right, and the point is?”

“Well, the point is, obviously if you have a god living on your island, you have priests who tell the people what the god wants, and take offerings for the god.”

“Do this and the god will bless you, don’t do that or the god will be angry, kind of thing?”

“Yes. Exactly. And the people don’t know any better, and whether they do the things the priests say the god wants them to do, or not, sooner or later the mountain rains down glowing hot rocks on them and burning clouds rush down to the sea, and everybody dies. Everybody. The priests too. They don’t understand what they are living next to, or you’d think they’d get on a boat and move to another island.”

“Am I supposed to sympathise with Bern because he didn’t understand what he was doing? He was going to murder us all! It wasn't by accident!”

“No! I’m not done. You see, I’ve thought about those volcano priests, and I’m not sorry for them getting roasted. If anyone suggested moving to a different island because the god was looking a bit angrier than usual, they wouldn’t allow it. Because then, no more offerings for them. No more pushing people around and being a big important volcano priest, if you live on a safe island with ordinary mountains on it. A mountain that spits out melted rock and choking fumes is quite clearly dangerous. You don’t need to be a geologist to spot that. Someone who plays with that kind of danger because they see a way to turn it into personal power is not to be pitied when they get killed by it. I’m not sorry Bern is dead. I’m sorry we ever met him, and I’m sorry I got you hurt with my stupid idea to go there for help.”

They held each other for a while until Derk coughed, embarrassed.

“Um. So, Ash. Glad you two are talking again, even if it is about death. But you had a nice safe job with the Crown Library, and yet here you are monster hunting again. How did Doctor Grey get you this time?”

“He didn’t get me. I got myself. I happened to, um, ‘borrow’ a key for the basement, and happened to read an index of certain books the Crown Library has stored in a very safe location; I won’t say where.”

He poked the fire, staring into the embers.

“I saw a description of one large black book, ‘donated’ by the estate of Lord Bern, sixty-one pages. Condition tattered, slightly mouldy. Three pages torn out. I’m guessing used up in some way, to do something very unpleasant to one badger, one rabbit, one whatever-it-was with dog parts on it. One page partly torn away, possibly for use on us.”

“Not such a safe job then, crown librarian?” asked Derk.

“I must admit, it made me feel sick. But I knew the book was safely stored, and I was happy to leave it alone, lock up the basement door and forget it.”

“And yet,” prompted Jenna, “here you are.”

“Yes. Because I saw another entry in the index: The Tale of the Happy Bunny.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

“You would think not.”

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