The rest of the day passed easily enough, the only danger being the monotony of the endless grasslands. We did not see—or hear—any more dire wolves, and though we heard a strange whistling sound every so often that our guides explained to be dire mole flocks, the monsters did not attack.
By the time we had found a place to sleep for the night, in a small copse of trees springing out of the grass like weeds, I was more confused at the lack of danger than reassured by it. It felt like we were being lulled into a false sense of security.
“Not that I am complaining, but I was under the impression that monster attacks were common in the grasslands.”
“What gave you that idea?” Harold asked with a raised eyebrow. “The grasslands are easily the safest place around, short of the town. Most monsters are carnivorous, and there is simply nothing to eat.”
“Except for the dire wolves,” I pointed out.
The archer smiled. “They fight back more than your average prey animal.”
“Are there more normal prey animals left?” Roark queried. “I have not seen any sign of deer since we left the King’s Forest. do not tell me every single one has gone dire. That seems implausible.”
“Dire deer are not too different from normal deer, except that they all have sharp antlers—even the children—and are more aggressive,” Harold explained. “They eat the same things as normal deer, breed the same, so on. They have been displacing the normal deer. They—normal deer—are still the standard prey animal these days, but they are quickly being overtaken by the dire variant. It will not be long until there are not any left.”
Roark seemed disturbed by this, but did not say anything else.
I gestured to our hideout, a small grove of six pine trees. The grass did not grow inside the circle, likely because the shade kept them from getting enough sun to survive. “I take it we do not have much to worry about here? Dire squirrels or something?” The boys and I chuckled at the joke…until we realized that Jack and Harold were not laughing. “Please tell me there are not dire squirrels.”
“Well…” Jack said slowly. “There are things that might be dire squirrels. We have never actually seen them go dire, but they appear in the same areas you would find squirrels, and we have been seeing a lot fewer squirrels around recently…”
“Squirrels,” I muttered. “Fine. Dire squirrels. How dangerous?”
“Short version?” the swordswoman began. “Think rats. Only they mostly stick to forests, because that is where their food is. But while they are only annoying alone, they often swarm. They do not eat meat, though, just nuts and bark.”
“At least they will not eat us, then!” Vale said with forced cheer. “Do you see any signs of these rodents?”
Jack rubbed her hand on the nearest tree. “Some, but not much. I suspect a small family or mated pair traveled through here a while ago, and left when they heard the wolves, or a dire mole swarm got too close.”
“You said the dire wolves do not eat meat,” Norn pointed out.
“True, but the squirrels do not know that.”
Before Norn could formulate a response, I put my hand on his shoulder. “All right. Let us not get bogged down in the minutiae of these things. If there are any here, how do we prevent an attack, and how do we survive if they do attack?”
“Fire,” both villagers replied instantly.
I blinked. “All right. I suppose that sounds easy enough. Their fur is flammable?”
“Actually, it cooks them in their shells,” Harold corrected.
I closed my eyes. Of course. Of course there would be something strange and disturbing. None of the monsters we had heard about were cute and cuddly. No, they were all shells and blades and whatnot. “…fine. Whatever. Roark, help Harold with the campfire.”
The ranger nodded. “In case we get attacked?”
“That, and I want hot food tonight.” I dug around in my pack for something to use to make soup. We had stopped a little earlier tonight, so we would actually have time to do so. “Who has the pot?”
“I do,” Norn supplied, pulling the small metal dish out of his pack. It might not be big enough for six people, but we could probably do two potfuls if we had to. “I am not sure if soup is a good idea, though. All our food is dry, and I do not think we should waste water.”
I glowered at him. “did not you used to tell me about your mother’s famous soup? You, of all people, should understand the utility of a good bowl of soup. We can get more out of it than if we just cooked anything dry.”
“It is just that we have not seen any water sources since Grandsbriar,” the big man pointed out. “We should conserve what we have. Our food supplies are not stretched so thin that we need to find ways to make them last longer.”
Before I could retort, something bopped me on the head.
I rubbed the spot where I had been hit and found the object that had struck me—a smooth-skinned fruit of some kind, which looked quite a bit like an apple, except that it appeared to be pink. At first I thought it was just the light of the newborn campfire, but even as the light grew, the color remained the same.
Glancing up, I saw the source of the projectile. Jack had clambered up one of the trees when I was busy arguing with Norn.
“Very mature,” I called sarcastically, hefting the fruit in one hand. It was more dense than I expected. “Though I will admit I am curious where you got this. Pine trees do not produce any fruit worth mentioning.”
“This is not a pine tree,” she replied cheerily. “It is a clone tree.”
I just glared at her, expressionless.
She rolled her eyes. “It is no fun if you do not play along.”
“What is a clone tree,” I deadpanned.
“It is tree that pretends to be another tree! But the thing is, it is not very good at it. So it ends up looking like a couple different trees squashed together.”
I frowned, thoughtful. “So the trunk and needles look like a pine, but the fruit looks like an apple?”
“An apple and a peach,” Norn noted as he took the strange fruit from me.
“And the flowers look like sorrels!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a weed?”
Standing up from the fire, Roark nodded.
“Well, whatever,” I muttered. “The question you need to answer, Miss Grandsbriar—”
“That is my mother.”
“—is whether or not this is safe to eat.”
“Of course it is.” She hopped down from the branch she was sitting on, falling ten feet and landing with nothing worse than bent knees. She also had an armful of the pink apples. “Clone fruit is quite good, and very juicy. They will make a good gravy for the soup.”
“Sir Wreth, please tell me we are not going to eat those,” Roark whispered next to me, hopefully quietly enough that Jack could not hear. I had a feeling she could, though; underestimating these kids had not proven to be a safe bet.
“We are soldiers, Roark,” I replied equally quietly. “As long as it does not kill us, we can choke it down. Unless you really think they are poison, we are going to be fine.” He looked uncomfortable, and I rolled my eyes. “You think they are poison.”
The ranger pursed his lips. “I think I am going to let them try the soup first, is all.”
“Fine,” I said with a sigh. “Whatever you like. More for the rest of us.”
As it turned out the soup was a bit thick, more like a gravy than a soup, but otherwise quite good. Even Roark grudgingly admitted it after he saw the rest of us eating with no ill effects. I had no idea what was going on with him. Normally, Norn was the grumbling and untrusting one.
But I did not have time to worry about it too much. Roark would fight beside me when the time came, as would the rest of them. Whatever was bothering him, it would not be enough to change that.
By the time we finished dinner, it was actually surprisingly early. True, it was pitch-black dark outside of our little campfire, but it could not have been later than eight o’clock, if that. With nothing better to do, I tromped over to the edge of the grove, where Jack was practicing.
She swung her blades through the air slowly and gracefully, more like gently moving through water than brutal swordplay. As someone who had been trained in the more traditional style of ‘swing hard and fast until the enemy stops moving,’ I was impressed by her grace.
“I have never seen sword training quite like this,” I noted as I leaned against the nearest tree, once I was sure she knew I was there. Startling someone during weapons practice was always a bad idea, no matter how gentle they seemed to be. “Did you invent it yourself?”
“Somewhat,” she admitted, not pausing in her exercises. “My mother learned it from an Oriental trader she met in London, and then she taught me.” She stepped forward slowly and deliberately, holding an unbalanced pose for longer than I would have thought possible. “I adapted it to swords.”
“What was your mother doing in London?”
“She was born there. did not I mention that?”
“No, I do not think so.”
“Well. She was. My father met her when he was in the city for some mayoral paperwork thing. I do not remember the details.” She moved one of her legs up slowly into the air, holding the stance on one foot, holding her blades away from her body to help keep her balance. “You know how that story goes.”
“I suppose so,” I admitted. “I meant to speak to you yesterday about your training.”
She raised an eyebrow skeptically, not slowing her motions. “What about it?”
“It is good,” I insisted. “Beautiful footwork, and you move your blades like extensions of your own body. This Oriental exercise of yours is part of it, I am sure, but whoever taught you swordplay clearly knew what he was doing.” I smiled. “You are not going to tell me you taught yourself, are you?”
The swordswoman smiled slightly. “No. The footwork was me—well, my mother—but the rest came from Captain Gaven. He is the head of the town guard. I used to sneak into the barracks and watch, but once the monsters started attacking, I was allowed to actually participate.”
“Forgive my ignorance, but it seems odd for a town as small as Grandsbriar to have a barracks.” I shrugged. “Well, before the monsters, of course. From what the king told me, there were no reports of bandits or other dangers before this.”
“Well, it was not so much a barracks as Gaven’s backyard. Only a handful of kids went to his classes every weekend, and it was usually a punishment. He got a big proper one once there was something to actually guard the town against.”
“I can imagine.” I looked in the distance, south towards the Hellpit. “He is still alive, I take it?”
“He was when we left, and—”
“And Mallern’s journals did not say anything. Right. But you checked his house, the barracks and everything?”
She gave me an odd look as she continued her exercise. “Of course. If he is dead, we did not find his corpse. Why so interested all of a sudden? You were not asking about the guards much before.”
I shook my head. “I am just trying to puzzle it all out. It still seems strategically insane to abandon a town with a hole in the wall in favor of migrating to a pit that does not even have that. I thought maybe the best strategist in the town might be dead.”
“It might have something to do with whatever it is that knocked down the wall.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” I straightened, stepping away from the tree I had been leaning on. “But for now, there is not much we can do. We just have to keep soldiering on.”
She nodded stoically, still not pausing her movements.
I smiled and nodded. “Good talk, Jack. See you in the morning.”