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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23. The Story of the Gruellus

Despite glancing backward nervously several times at the road, they didn’t see anyone following them. They made good time, and on the last overnight stop before reaching the palace, they diverted down a narrow farm road and asked at the farm house to sleep in the barn instead of stopping at an inn. Ashlin wondered idly if having a shiny bronze badge with Royal Badger Survey of Atlar on it would have got them a soft bed or the end of a pitchfork at various different points in history.

Avoiding an inn seemed to be an unnecessary precaution, throwing off imagined pursuit that was not in any way evident, but as it turned out they got a better breakfast the next morning, and were bitten by fewer beasts in the night than they would have if they had stayed in the cheap beds at the inn a few miles back.

“I chose this place because if we are being followed and they asked for us at the inn, there will be no word of us. It will seem that we must have taken the south road back to the capital.” Jenna chewed at her lip thoughtfully. “It’s not much of a ruse, since if anyone has overheard or read that letter, they know you are expected at the Summer Palace tomorrow anyway. But let’s get moving.”

They maintained their vigilance on the remainder of the journey, but saw nobody suspicious. Except Justin, who always was, a little. He seemed quieter than usual, and kept looking to either side of the road, into the trees.

“Did you hear anything?” he asked once, stopping abruptly in the middle of the road.

“No” was the consensus.

Justin scratched at his head, shook it, and hoisted his pack. “Right then. It’s just me going mad then.”

“What did you hear?” asked Ashlin.

“Nothing. Never mind.”

They got to the palace quite late in the day, and it was in full frantic preparation for tomorrow’s arrival of the Jarl Olaf, distant cousin of the last king and and claimant to the throne of Atlar. They were shooed away from the kitchens, but were able to grab some ingredients for supper, which they took around Ashlin’s little forge in the stables.

“You like it here, don’t you?” asked Jenna, poking Ashlin in the shoulder. “You really are happier plying the family trade, hitting old bits of iron and attaching them to horse’s feet.”

“It’s the farrier that fits the shoes. I just help make them. It’s better than nearly being killed. I mean to say, I had already decided to leave the survey because I was getting bored with it, even though I really knew blacksmithing probably would have been boring too, and in fact it is. But nearly being crushed under a monster badger just makes me appreciate the boredom more.”

“Being half eaten does that too. Makes you appreciate things,” said Justin.

“Such as?”

“Not being eaten.” He took a mouthful of chicken. “Eating.” He yawned and scratched his ear.

“Sleeping all day and scratching yourself like a dog,” muttered Jenna.

He scowled at her. “I’m a simple man with simple pleasures. Anyway, you won’t think it matters, but I don't sleep so well as I used to at night. I get bad dreams.”

“What like?”

“Dreams where I’m being eaten by that thing, and then I’m the monster, and I’m eating other people, maybe myself. And I can just hear this terrible roar right in my ear.” He paused. “I sometimes think I can hear that roar when I’m awake.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to---”

“You didn’t mean to care is what. Now you feel bad about it. Tough.”

There was a huffy silence. Ashlin made the tea.

“Justin,” asked Derk, “what you heard on the road earlier ... was it that roar?”

Justin made no reply.

The silence continued until the doctor, without his medical bag but with a small hamper of food, arrived in the stables.

“They told me you were out here. Here’s some ... more supper, it seems. Oh well, I expect too much supper is better than not enough. I do not give this as a medical opinion, you understand.”

“We were given a letter at Kennis. I understand Doctor Grey is not able to be here at the feast? And I am to help in some way?” Ashlin enquired.

“Quite. A second ambassador has unexpectedly sent word that he plans to attend, and the Regent Counsel has told me that he himself therefore cannot be present. He added that if you are as observant as usual, you will be able to determine why.”

“Mysterious as ever. What can I do that will be of any use? No horseshoes will be needed I suppose?”

“You will be dressed in livery and pour the wine. And watch. You will not speak.”

“I can do that.”

“Jenna couldn’t,” grumbled Justin.

Jenna looked offended, but didn’t want to say anything, so as to prove him wrong.

“What about the poacher?” asked Ashlin.

“What about him?” Doctor Hopkin didn't seem pleased by that sudden change of subject. He chewed at one of his thin cheeks and fiddled with a button on his jacket.

“Is he well? The letter said so, but I wonder, we wondered really, why he was mentioned.”

The doctor looked about him, then sighed.

“He is fine, pensioned very generously for the loss of his leg, and hobbling contentedly between his hovel and the inn every day. As I understand it, his tale has grown in the telling, and as he tells it now, his leg was bitten clean off by a mountain lion. So now it has a happy, or at least safe, ending. But of the far distant beginning of his tale, he knows nothing. And I think Doctor Grey would have me tell it to you now.”

“Story time again. Oh, good,” said Jenna.

“And what’s the title of this story?” asked Ashlin.

“Oh, this is the story of the gruellus.”

 

Once upon a time, there was a sorcerer, who lived alone near a remote village in the mountains. He was bitter and lonely, having spent his best years trying to find the deep mysteries of life, and had made no friends, courted no wife, fathered no children. But the mysteries were denied to him, and as he grew older he feared he would be left with nothing for all his years of study.

One day, he came down to the village, and bought a horse, and some provisions, and declared that he would leave, and find the secret of life in a faraway land, or die seeking it.

For five years and a day, the sorcerer was gone, and the people of the village were certain he had been lost out in the world, and would never come back. They were not glad to see him, though, when he returned. He brought with him a great black book, and plenty of silver. His old house was fallen in ruin, but he asked for no help putting it in order. He moved back in immediately, and the villagers saw him rarely.

Whenever they dared to venture near his lair, they saw that bit by bit and day by day it was repaired, although nobody ever saw him working on it during the day. When one boy dared to creep up under his window one night, he heard the sorcerer talking, giving commands as though to a servant. But the boy dared not look to see what kind of servant a sorcerer might have.

Then one day there was a terrible scream from the sorcerer’s house, and the sorcerer was found killed. The door of his house was broken open, in pieces, and the trail of something bloody and terrible led from the door deep into the woods.

From that day, the villagers feared those woods. A terrible thing was hunting there, and it killed deer, and wolf, and man. It became a great shapeless beast of meat and antlers and teeth and rotten logs. They hunted it with arrows, and the arrows were spines on its back. They hunted it with boar-spears and it took the spears as claws and teeth. They hunted it with ropes and nets, and the ropes became writhing tentacles to catch its prey.

This thing was the gruellus, and it terrorised the woods all winter, and all spring.

Towards the end of summer there was no game left in the woods, and the people grew hungry, and it seemed the gruellus became hungry too, for it came nearer to the village. One hot night, it reached into a house and took a child. The next day, the men of the village hunted it with fire. The grass was dry and and the woods burned wildly, and the forest fire took the village, but it also took the gruellus, which was never seen again.

 

“I don’t suppose the fact that you began that tale with ‘Once upon a time’ should be reassuring?” asked Ashlin.

“Once upon a time, there was a giant badger,” commented Jenna.

“I always heard it begun that way,” said Doctor Hopkin, “but I am afraid there is too much truth behind it. The thing that bit the poacher, Doctor Grey thinks to have been a gruellus. A work of sorcery that some terrible, terrible fool has produced, now, at the very time when it is most dangerous.”

“Did Green and his men find the thing, after all?”

“Yes, ten days later, and it had grown somewhat. The rabbit parts had mostly rotted away, but it was still using the spring trap to snap at anything that came near, and the thing had ... incorporated an owl, some rats, and a plank with two rusty nails in it.”

“How can it take in planks and things?” asked Jenna. “For that matter, how is a dead owl any use?”

“I didn’t see it myself, for it was destroyed by fire as soon as it was cornered. But Green’s man, the one who got close enough, said it was all covered in slime, and fuzzy mould. My hypothesis is, the slime and the mould are what animates the gruellus, although I don’t understand how.”

He shook his head sadly.

“The dead tissue seems to provide a form or structure for it, and possibly food as the slime rots it away. The other detritus it gathers and uses haphazardly. I say uses, but I don’t think it has a mind; maybe fragments of instinct it takes from the animals it gathers in.”

There was silence around the forge.

“And the poacher. It bit him, so you had to take his leg. In case it can spread that way,” Ashlin said, remembering the screams, the leg being put on ice, the smell of hot iron cauterising flesh.

“Yes. If the leg had begun moving again by itself, the man we’ve been calling John Woods would no longer be among us. Although unusual these days, it would have presented no legal difficulty for the Crown to hang a man for poaching, and to cremate his body discreetly. But, I hated to consider it, and I am glad for his own sake as well as ours that we didn’t have to.” The doctor put down his tea mug and stretched. “Well, I should return to the infirmary. I have to compound something soothing for the Regent to take before he retires for the night. He is extremely nervous about facing the complications of tomorrow’s visit without his Counsel. To be honest, I think he has no stomach for politics, and if it were up to him, he’d happily retire to let Jarl Olaf be king, be done with politics for good, and go fishing instead.”

“I know how he feels,” said Ashlin.

“By tomorrow night, you will understand why he cannot.”

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