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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10. Tracks in the Woods

A number of things were preying on Ashlin’s mind the next morning, as they prepared their equipment for survey. He spent several minutes reading and re-reading his previous survey notes as though they might prepare him for what was to come.

His thoughts kept coming back to that other book of notes Doctor Grey had shown him. The passage circled in red pencil:

Strange badger sighted in the sedge. Very important, may be ...

Then something scribbled in such awful handwriting that Ashlin hadn’t managed to make it out. It might have been a different language, maybe.

There was something nagging at his mind, perhaps something about the sentence that had followed the circled passage, or something about the first page he had glanced at without really paying attention. Whatever it was, his conscious memory couldn’t bring it forward.

One thing he could remember: the paper in that book had been old and yellow.

As for the other members of the survey, it required very little discussion between them to reach a unanimous decision: that the harpoon head be brought, and the spring balance and sack be left behind.

They lined up by the road, Derk with his harpoon fitted to a length of oak, Jenna carrying a similar staff, although unadorned with any kind of blade. As it turned out, the vicar knew a carpenter and repairman, who had been able to furnish them with the staves. Justin was clutching a short hatchet presumably borrowed from the same source.

“What are you all doing? We’re just here to survey the thing, not hunt it.”

“Maybe, Ash, but while we’re out counting its droppings and measuring its tracks, it might decide to hunt us.”

“So you brought a very small axe? How will that help?”

“Oh, make no mistake, if I see it I’ll be running off directly, but I feel safer with somethin’ in me hand. Otherwise I’d be running off already.”

“What haven’t I been told?” asked Ashlin.

“I went and asked about the disturbance among the sheep,” Jenna explained. “The disturbance was more a kind of...dismemberment. Or a disembowelling. Seven sheep. Possibly eight. Not all the parts were accounted for.”

This news, for the time being, nudged the more abstract, less slaughter-related puzzles out of the forefront of Ashlin's mind.

The vicar Dennis re-appeared with an oilcloth bundle under his arm.

“Here young sir, you can borrow this. I don’t use it any more, and you never know.”

The bundle, unwrapped, proved to be a leather belt and scabbard containing a short, slightly notched sword with a worn grip, but still a very sharp-looking blade. There was some kind of crest on the pommel with worn letters RRSA on it.

“There you are Ash, somethin’ in your hand,” Justin said consolingly.

If anything, having “somethin’ in his hand” just placed there by an old rural vicar long in the acquaintance of The Regent Counsel, as part of an inexplicable plan formed at least 40 years (80 years?) previously, was not comforting at all. Especially a sword that had clearly seen some action, and which that same vicar doesn’t use “any more.”

There comes a point where the mysteries pile up so high that they collapse into a formless heap of “I don’t know” and all you can do is take one understandable part of your job, and get on with it. Ashlin sighed and began buckling on the sword belt.

“Team, we have a badger to survey. Let’s try not to get killed, and by the end of the day I want notes made about everything. And, I suppose if we find any huge badger droppings, we can try to account for missing sheep parts. Any questions?”

Jenna was shaking her head incredulously. Derk shrugged and lifted his pack. Justin followed with some reluctance.

“Alright then.”

And with that, they set out into the woods, Dennis waving them off cheerfully as though they were going on a church-school picnic.

The landscape was hillier and marshier than they were used to, and often presented them with the choice of clambering up and down steep rocky slopes, or following a twisted, boggy path between the rocky outcrops and black, smelly pools. By mid-morning they were fairly tired. Up until then they had preferred the hilly route, partly because the mud around the pools stank and soaked into their boots, and partly because reaching the top of each hillock, they would take a few moments to rest and take advantage of the wider view afforded by their height. So far, there was no sign of anything unusual, and they had already reached, and circled around, the location where the vicar said he had last seen the badger.

“The ground is too hard up here.” Ashlin mused. “I don’t like to say it, but I think we need to go down among the marshes if we want to find any tracks.”

“I don’t like to hear it, but I suppose you may be right,” Jenna replied, poking at the stony surface with her staff. “Plenty of rabbit and hare around here. Some owls too, by the look of it. No badger droppings so far.”

“Rain on the way,” grumbled Justin, looking back the way the had come. Clouds were rolling over and between the distant mountains. “Two hours, maybe less.” Much as his judgement was to be distrusted on nearly any subject at all, he was more often accurate about bad weather than not, and looked likely to be right in this instance.

“How far have we come, Ash, do you think?” asked Derk, leaning on his harpoon and wiping his forehead on his sleeve.

“We are about three miles from Little Sedge. We have probably walked more than twice that.”

“And how far to go?”

“Well, I don’t think there’s any point in going much further out. Badgers tend to guard a territory and stay within it. We have to assume one end of the territory is at Little Sedge, where the sheep were, um, that is to say, where it was last seen foraging. Even if it’s, say, three times the size of a normal badger, its territory probably doesn’t go much further out into the woods than this.”

“Let’s go back that way a bit,” suggested Jenna, pointing downhill into a zig-zagging stretch of scrubby woodland that would take them south and then curve back towards the village. “We’ll probably have to skirt a few of those pools and climb over a bunch of dead trees, but it’s less up-and-down. We’ll have more mud to deal with, but a better chance of seeing some tracks.”

She paused, thinking.

“In fact, we probably would have come that way to start with, if we’d known the lie of the land.”

She looked to Ashlin, for acknowledgement more than approval: she was clearly right.

“Agreed. Back through those woods, straight on to the village whether we find anything or not, then dinner.” Almost without his being aware of it, Ashlin’s hand went to the hilt of his borrowed sword, which needless to say he had no idea how to use. His thumb nervously traced the worn letters on the pommel, and he hesitated. He noticed that he was beginning to expect to find a giant badger down in those woods, and putting off the moment when he would have to face it.

“And, whether we find anything or not, we don’t try anything out of the range of our normal responsibilities. If we find a giant badger-turd we measure it and count it: one. Then we head on to the village. Tomorrow, before we go looking for any trouble, we see if we can get some able-bodied lads with pitchforks, or whatever sharp implements they use for sheep farming, to come along.”

Another hesitation.

“Or we simply go home; that would do for me.”

Down the hill they went, as clouds drifted over the sun and low birches and pines leaned over, darkening their path.

As they approached the first of many dark slimy pools on their way, they encountered an indistinct impression in the mud that could have been a footprint, but lacked enough definition to be sure. It was alarmingly big.

“Shhh!” hissed Jenna. “What was that?”

There was a sloshing, glugging sound, and a deep rumbling belch.

“Sorry,” said Justin, hastily stuffing one of his brandy flasks away inside his coat, probably not ashamed but almost certainly guarding against the chance that one of the others would want some.

There was another deep rumble from further away. A light rain had started, almost a fine mist, but dripping off the trees in fat drops.

“Thunder?” asked Derk.

“Bollocks. Not the season for it, nor the right clouds for it.”

“If we turn uphill here,” said Ashlin, pointing up a steep incline to the right, “we can get around this pool and not have to climb over that deadfall.” And also, he thought suddenly, they would have a better field of view and multiple escape routes. We’re really vulnerable down here. But he didn’t quite like to say so out loud.

They clambered up through ferns and brambles to a flatter slope some twenty feet higher up, that curved above the pond and fallen trees, and under a slight rocky overhang giving some shelter from the rain. They had crested the bank and were just spreading out to search the ground for tracks when the rumbling sound came again, and became a roar. Something huge appeared behind them, moving fast through the trees.

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