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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28. Plan 'A' Again

They were out in the woods again—Justin with his inexplicably-named 'lucky' hatchet, Jenna with a staff, Derk with a harpoon. Ashlin had thought for all of five seconds before declining a sword. It would only be dead weight.

Autumn had turned the woods glorious but then autumn weather had soaked everything down, taking a lot of the glory out of walking through them.

“So, this monster is hammering at the door?” said Derk, “and all the fools in creation are rushing to fling it open, after which we all get eaten.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Perhaps metaphorically.”

“But in any case, most likely killed quite literally,” said Jenna, “Yes, that’s about the size of it.”

“And we’re trying to hold the door shut?” said Justin, looking around as though he expected to see some gigantic hell-portal among the trees, bursting at the hinges and creaking with monstrous pressure.

“Or we are being propped against it like furniture,” said Ashlin.

They walked onward.

“But we can’t do anything about Olaf, because he’s nearly a king, and has an army and everything. So, we try to find the other fool, the one who is making ... gruelluses?” asked Derk again. “Is that even a word?”

“No.” Jenna sniffed. “I think it very well may not be. But call them what you like, they are classed as wildlife apparently.”

“Bollocks!” objected Justin.

“True. In fact I’m fairly suspicious that monsters in general seem to be classed as wildlife, ever since we got renamed as the Royal Wildlife Service,” continued Jenna, “but anyway, we get to go looking for them. Not hunting them, not fighting them. Seeing and running away from, is the plan.”

“That plan even might work this time,” observed Derk.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” asked Ashlin.

“Tracks. Odd tracks. If we see something that looks like the tracks of a peg-legged cow or a snake covered in spoons, chances are we want to know where it’s heading, or where it came from. Either would be useful information.” Jenna stopped and poked with her staff under ferns beside the muddy path. “Since one of these things might have its legs on backwards, we can’t be sure when we follow any footprints, which end of the trail we’re going to find.”

They continued along the path.

“If we find something, we head back to the palace immediately,” said Ashlin.

“Yes. What else would we do? Not getting all heroic are you?”

“No. Really, no. It’s just, we’re about eight miles away now.”

“About.”

“So, in that direction, about a mile away,” Ashlin pointed down the valley, to the east, “is Lord Bern’s estate.”

“So?”

“Well, if we see something, maybe we could head there first and get some help. Even just some men to keep an eye on it while we get word back to the Palace. In the time it takes us to go eight miles to raise the alarm, even a peg-legged cow could wander off almost anywhere.”

“Hmm. I didn’t like the look of him the other night, and I don’t know what it would be safe to tell him. He's not likely to be happy to see us, either.”

“Well, that is a point. But suppose we say it’s something dangerous but normal, like a bear or a big wolf, whatever is most plausible once we see it. Then if we’re near his estate, we go there for help. If there’s not much in it, distance-wise, we leave him out of it.”

“Fine.” Jenna still seemed doubtful. “But if he starts getting all snooty, grudging us help because his pal Olaf got insulted at dinner, we just thank him for his time and get a move on.”

“Can you smell something?” asked Justin.

“You,” said Jenna.

“Hah. Very funny. I mean, something like wet dog.”

“You?” said Jenna.

“And blood.” Justin stopped and looked into the trees ahead. The others kept walking, but he held out an arm. “I wouldn’t.”

Ashlin peered into the undergrowth. “I can’t see anything.” He stepped forward.

“I wouldn’t,” Justin repeated. He was shaking.

“Well, I have to. It’s the job,” sighed Jenna. She motioned the others to stay back, though. “If I come back this way at a run, get out of my way. I will not be going round you, I will not be weaving between you. I will be going over or through anyone who is between me and my exit. And also, in that case, you will most likely want to keep up. I will only be needing to outrun one of you.”

Ashlin looked sideways at Derk, and they each stepped a few feet away from the middle of the path, leaving a clear space between them. Ashlin rubbed at his knee and wondered how far he could run on it.

There was only the sound of wind in the trees for long moments, then a sharp shriek and the sound of running. Jenna emerged, head down, and was past them before they had time to turn round. They tried to keep up. Jenna swerved left and began running east, down the valley towards the Bern estate.

“So ...” gasped Ashlin as he eventually drew level, “... what? ...”

“Not ... a cow,” was the only reply.

Justin caught up and ran past, “That ... smell!”

Derk, long legged and placidly loping, easily could have outpaced any of them. “There.” He pointed ahead to a stone bridge where a larger road crossed their path and curved away over farmland to a great stone house in the distance.

Justin was more of a sprinter than a distance-runner, and he had stopped at the bridge by the time the others caught up with him, leaning over with his hands on his knees, looking back the way they had come, but unlikely to run any further unless he saw something pursuing them.

Jenna slowed to a walk, and also looked back.

“We say a wolf.” She gestured to the house.

“Was it a wolf?”

She shook her head, “Ash, it was a ... thing. But there were parts of a dog on it.”

“Did it attack?”

“It twitched. I ran.”

“Plan A: scream and run away. Failures 1, successes 1,” said Derk. “We’re getting better at this.”

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