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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27. Monsters of Various Kinds

They lit a small lamp in any case.

“The Fer Shea, what you have sometimes called Elves, or even ‘little people'—which you have seen now is quite disparaging and inaccurate—used to live around the coastal regions, from the far north down to the straits of Atlar in the south. They had been living there for some thousands of years when other tribes, notably the Thrann and the Ætlir, arrived by land and began to settle the mountains and the lowlands of what is now Norfjord and Atlar.”

“There was such a disparity in skills and cultural advancement between these civilisations that there was disdain on one side and fear on the other, but some trade and some intermarriage, of course. Because all of them were human, just different tribes of humans.”

“At some point, after a few hundred years perhaps, the Thrann began using iron tools, and planting grain, and they increased in numbers. There came a time when they began open war with the Fer Shea, and at that time, they were beaten back to the mountains. But the Fer Shea were not organised, and not prepared for change. Too quickly, their neighbours advanced in the ways of war, made fortified towns, and carried out well-planned raids. The Ætlir sided for the most part with the Fer Shea, but after a particularly shameful incident that does not need to be part of this story, they switched sides and there was no help for the Fer Shea. They could have become more warlike, they could have surrendered land and wealth to negotiate a temporary truce, but there was no way for them to keep the life they truly wanted—living in peace by the sea and in the forests—if they remained.”

“Fortunately, they had much better ships than the Thrann and knew how to navigate them. Their explorers told of good lands in the far west over the great ocean, so a great many of them left.”

Ashlin said, “So they sailed away over the edge of the world, never to return, like my Grandma used to tell it?”

“Obviously not. You should know, and they did know, that the world is a ball. They sailed far enough away to return to their preferred way of life. When they met other tribes of men there, they did not repeat their mistakes. They married into those tribes, shared their own knowledge freely, and brought the advantages of their own peaceful way of life to others, so that those others would never turn against them in fear and envy.”

“Did that work?” asked Ashlin.

“Yes and no. For the most part it did, but they also didn’t want to make the mistake of underestimating the dangerous men they had fled, your ancestors. They knew to expect ships one day, and they prepared for that day. So they have become a little more warlike than their own ancestors would have liked. Ships from Norfjord are not welcome there. They occasionally arrive, but do not return.”

“You say a great many of them left. Not all, then,” Jenna said.

“Again, obviously not. My own ancestry was mostly Fer Shea, as Ashlin has guessed.”

“So, are you, I don’t know, a thousand years old?” She looked sceptical.

“No, I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone to live that long. I never met one who did. But I am a little over two hundred and forty years old. We age well and slowly, but we don’t live forever. I think that idea may have come about because your ancestors were impressed by our immortal memory, which you yourselves have now mastered.” Doctor Grey gestured to the bookcases all around them.

“It was you that formed the first Badger Survey, wasn't it? You were the King’s Adviser, you ordered preparations against the Great Wave. You knew it was all coming. How? Elf magic?” pressed Jenna.

“I don’t do any kind of magic. I was the King’s Adviser, and his very good friend from his boyhood. I taught him and helped him. He was a gentle soul, no more suited to being a king than his great-nephew Willem is now. I showed him how the world was. And he saw things about how the world might be.”

“What things?” asked Ashlin.

“Annoyingly unclear visions of things, mostly trivial things that it would have made no difference to know, often only hours before they happened. But rarely, things that disturbed me. I wrote them down in this book,” here he held up the book of notes Ashlin had seen before, “and checked them carefully. There is no explanation I can find, but for the most part what he saw corresponds to things that have since occurred.” Doctor Grey shrugged.

“Though he was sometimes confused or vague, he was never wrong. It was he who told me Atlar must never again have a king. Towards the end of his life, he saw a terrible thing: that the moon would lay an egg, and that the egg would hatch into a terrible dragon. The dragon would fall into the sea, and the wave from its falling would smash all cities, and ships, and people along the coast.”

“That sounds unlikely,” said Jenna.

“On the face of it. But when astronomers saw a bright object appear from behind the limb of the moon, and whatever it was—a great rock or piece of ice, perhaps—began its fall, we were as well prepared as one can be. Preparations were made for a Royal Birthday Party, as a pretext to gather supplies and bring as many people as possible up into the hills. As it turned out, Leonard never saw his birthday, and a Royal Funeral was used instead for the same purpose.”

“How did you keep this secret so long? How can you be in the same post for over 80 years without anyone noticing?” asked Jenna.

“It's not that much of a secret,” replied Doctor Grey, “but in any case, it was easy to retire, appoint myself as successor, dye my hair, and get back to work. A few people around me have always known; Leonard, Willem, Willem's father before him. Mostly, people I trusted or whom I expected to outlive before they might become a problem. It's painful to think of colleagues that way, but when you expect to live more than 200 years, you can get used to it.”

“That's all very well for you,” said Jenna, “I shall choose to believe you are explaining this because you trust us, and not because you expect this job to get us killed before we might become a problem.”

“Speaking of which, what is the point of this job, really?” asked Ashlin.

“On his deathbed, Leonard saw a terrifying vision of a badger but didn’t know what it meant. He also said a phrase whose meaning he couldn’t possibly have known. It took me some time to find it, and even then I wasn’t sure; I found a similar expression in one of the old Fer Shea languages, but I think the pronunciation Leonard used was different.”

“What was it?” asked Jenna.

“It was the monster,” said Doctor Grey simply. “Gwr-an Tlaurach – From Carrion, the Devourer. This was the closest translation I could find, and didn’t know what it meant. When I found out, I wanted it not to be the answer. But in any case, with no idea of when to expect this strange badger, I instituted a Royal Badger Survey, to find out, apart from anything else, what a normal badger was like so an abnormal one could be detected. And over the years we found albino badgers, black badgers, red badgers, a subspecies of mountain badger that had never been described before, and none of them were dangerous. None of them were Gwr-an Tlaurach, or describable in any similar string of syllables.”

“Until it appeared and we fought it.”

“Until a badger appeared, and you fought that. The monster hammers at the door still, and now I am apparently beset by fools ready to open it. Some hear the knocking and answer willingly, some do not hear the knocking and open the door blindly.”

“Not such fools as us, I hope,” said Ashlin, “because I’d just as soon not go through anything like that again.”

“No. But whatever fool made a gruellus—I do not believe that can happen by itself—would seem to be one such, and an even more dangerous fool is Jarl Olaf. He’s no sorcerer, and in almost every way a cunning and perceptive politician. But a fool.”

“What is he doing that can let the monster in, if he is not a sorceror?” asked Ashlin.

“Do you know what an allergy is?” Doctor Grey asked.

“When you get a runny nose near cats?” suggested Jenna.

“That’s a mild one. Some people cannot eat certain foods. Strawberries, or cheese, or prawns for example. If they do, their body reacts as though they are being poisoned. They choke, their throat swells, they cannot breathe. They can even die if it is a serious attack.”

“So they are poisoned by ordinary foods?”

“No. They are poisoned by themselves, as their body betrays them, and tears down their wonderful edifice of living flesh to battle against an imagined, harmless foe.”

Doctor Hopkin was looking very uncomfortable indeed. “And the connection with Olaf is ...”

“I was coming to that. Jarl Olaf is at heart a violent man. He is impatient to take what he wants, and he needs a kingdom united under him to give him the power to do it. To unite a country quickly, he needs an enemy, someone to blame, someone to turn the people against. His long term ambition is conquest of Andaro, perhaps. But he needs the merchants to support him as well as the landowners, so he cannot yet declare any such intention, and besides, you need to unite your allies against a weak enemy first to build your strength and cement your reputation for victory. War with Andaro cannot begin until Atlar is his.”

“He will tear down the wonderful edifice of our living civilisation to battle against a harmless imagined foe. I refer of course to the Fer Shea and their descendants here. If I know the brother of Luagh, then next year there will be some pretty copper-eyed babes born in Atlar. It’s no longer plausible to explain them as changelings these days. They will merely be called bastards. And they will have a hard enough life for that, without Olaf’s campaign of hate.”

“But there must be hardly any Fer Shea in Atlar. How can he unite people against them?”

“There are many with a little of that ancestry. It will begin with lies, and the exposure of supposed conspiracies, and naturally the arrest of plausible Elvish villains such as myself. But by the end of it, anyone with a green-eyed grandmother will be at risk.”

Ashlin flinched.

“The nation will choke. The monster will feed, and rage, and hate, and distort everything. And Olaf doesn’t know it, won’t see what he is letting loose. It will grow and spread beyond his petty ambitions and it will not be under his control. It will not be under its own control. The ancient writers who first described this monster used a symbol for it. A human hand, with no thumb. It can do this,” and he slashed the air with his clawed fingers, “but not this,” and he picked up a pencil between finger and thumb.

He then held up the four fingers of the other hand, and counted them off with the pencil’s point.

“Rage,”

“Hate,”

“Hunger,”

“Wrongness ...”

He waved the pencil in the air where his thumb would have been if it was not clenched in at his palm. “A Lack, a Denial, a Blindness. It is an incomplete mind. It cannot see itself, cannot understand itself. It will not.”

“Wait, it’s a mind?” said Jenna, doubtfully. “I thought it was a monster.”

“It’s the mind that makes the monster. A dog can be a true friend and most loyal companion. A mad dog is quite another thing.”

Jenna looked thoughtful. “And since all we’ve achieved today against this rage monster is make a powerful man very angry, the plan isn’t going so well?”

“You’ve done all there is to be done about Olaf for now. I need you to do something else.”

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