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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25. Trust in Iron

There was a dangerous atmosphere thereafter. Ashlin observed undisguised disdain on the part of the Fer Shea for everyone else at the table, and only barely disguised hate for them on the part of the Jarl. Lord Bern weaved slightly, and drank more. He stared openly at the Fer Shea, who didn’t seem to find him interesting enough to stare back.

“Careful now,” said the Jarl, as steaming platters of sliced venison were added to the table, “don’t get any iron too near our honoured guests.”

The ambassador’s brothers made as if to step away from the wall and come forward, but he raised a hand without looking round, and waved them back with a light, flicking motion.

“Ah, that old superstition,” said the ambassador. He said nothing more while he watched with interest, as the Jarl’s sword-bearer again tasted the food before the Jarl would touch it.

“We all put our fears on one thing or another, our trusts likewise. The Fer Shea had reason to fear iron once upon a time. Now,” he paused as though to frame his point carefully, “we merely do not put our trust in it.”

And he glanced at the Jarl, then the sword-bearer, then the other man who stood by the wall holding the Jarl’s large iron helm. And his lurid blue-green eyes held the eyes of his audience, and their gaze followed his. The Jarl was reddening.

“We are talking of such things, such sad tales from the past, but instead we should perhaps enjoy our food.” The Fer Shea glanced at the Jarl’s plate, and then at the food-taster again.

Willem wasn’t much of a politician, but he could see a dangerous situation developing, one he had no way of controlling. He changed the subject.

“Jarl Olaf is here making public his claim to the throne of Atlar. It is a claim that I am happy to say has much support among our landowners. And, in his honour we have prepared a surprise for him.”

“I hope better than the surprises I have had thus far.” Olaf laughed, but it was slightly forced. Anger was there, under the surface.

“I hope so indeed. We have sent all the way to Andaro to obtain the Jarl’s favourite prawns, which we now present to him, in the hope that he will, er, enjoy them.” Willem faltered slightly at the end, when he realised that instead of changing the subject, he was reminding the Jarl of the ambassador’s earlier provocation.

A gold dish of prawns was brought forth. The Jarl met the ambassador’s expressionless turquoise eye, waved his sword-bearer back, and taking a fork, stirred one of the prawns around in the steaming sauce. He lifted it to his mouth and bit off a chunk.

“Overdone, too much pepper. Nothing like as good as the ones I have had when I was at the court of Queen Celandine. But not, I expect, poisoned.” Again he tried to make a joke of it. Only Lord Bern laughed. Nonetheless, the dish was left unfinished.

“Now, when my claim to the throne is acknowledged, I mean to make Atlar strong again,” the Jarl commenced, when the conversation eventually turned away from surprisingly dangerous small-talk and onto serious politics, in which the Ambassador of the Fer Shea remained apparently uninterested, as though not taking it seriously.

“And I mean to put an end to the waste and corruption that makes it weak. This business of endlessly surveying wildlife, and sending senseless errands to faraway countries to bring back barely-edible prawns. It is a sickness, and I mean to cure it.” He smote the table. “With taxes so high, the landowners can not afford to maintain a proper army. I will sweep away the waste and lower the taxes, and Atlar will have an army, and yes, a strong navy too.”

This last was directed at the ship-builder, and received murmured agreement from him and his neighbour. The Customs and Excise man smiled, and said, “But of course, you will always need someone to collect the taxes, however low. So my job is not in any danger, I hope.” This was taken in good humour.

“Is it true,” asked Luagh of the Fer Shea, “that your claim to the throne is uncontested? I myself do not dispute it, you understand. I am idly curious, because I understood the situation to be quite complex, the last time I took an interest in it.”

“I don’t know what you may have heard, but I am the rightful king by birth, and if that is not enough for you, then I can be the rightful king by conquest.”

“So, by blood, either way.”

“By blood, and if necessary, by iron.”

“Iron again,” said the ambassador, wearily. “Let me show you something that I hope will entertain you. May I see that fine helmet?” He pointed to where Olaf’s attendant stood.

“You may see it.” The Jarl grinned. “You may see it now, and you may perhaps see it again one day, after I am king.”

The ambassador took hold of the helmet. Olaf leaned in to watch closely, perhaps expecting the metal to burn the Fer Shea’s fingers. It did not, and this seemed to disappoint him.

“Now, let me see ...” Ambassador Luagh looked around the table, then smiled, and placed the helmet on a roast boar’s head, which was facing Lord Bern as though they were looking stupidly at one another in a mirror.

“An insult!” shouted one of the Jarl’s men.

“No, no,” said the Fer Shea. And he drew from somewhere a long thin knife. Or stick, because it appeared to be made of birch or another light wood. He held it point down over the helmet and dropped his hand sharply.

There was a crunch of pork and bone, and the knife handle stood up from the top of the helmet. Ashlin blinked. He was sure he had seen the metal ripple and part like water. The knife was withdrawn, leaving the iron untouched, but again, there was a slight ripple as the point slid away from it.

“A threat!” The table was in uproar.

“A demonstration, that is all. I shall leave now, with this advice: Do not put your trust too much on iron. Where you put your fears, I leave up to you.” The three strange representatives of fairy tale and forgotten lore strode from the hall.

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