The first day out was short, since we set off so late, and we did not see anything worthy of note except for the eternal fields of tall grass, a few small rocky hills here and there, and more tunneler pitfalls.
Unfortunately, by the time the sun had sunk below the horizon, we still had not managed to find any shelter besides the rock formations—which, again, Jack and Harold refused to get close to, citing bone-dancers as the reason.
So, we were forced to camp out on the open on the Whisper’s Grasslands.
Our guides were clearly disturbed at the prospect (and Roark was not much better), but they insisted that the only other choice was to find a tunneler’s cave, which was a bad idea. Even though Vale, Norn, and I did not have as much experience camping outside as those three, we understood why you would want to have at least some kind of shelter while out in the open.
“Why do not you guys clear us some space?” Harold suggested as he put down his pack. He nodded at Norn. “Especially you, with that scythe. It might be designed for combat now, but it can still cut grass well enough.”
Jack whipped out her swords as well, so it was only logical for me to do the same. As I was chopping through the tall grass, I simply could not get over how easy it was. I had helped out on farms once or twice, so I knew that this was normally a surprisingly difficult task. But with my feather-light sword that could cut through the grass as easily as air, there was nothing to it.
It only took a couple minutes to clear a nice wide, twenty-foot diameter circle for our use, cutting the grass down to just a few inches. Of course, then we had to pull up the grass by hand, which took longer, but it was necessary due to the fire hazard.
After nearly an hour, all told, we were done, and Harold had a nice cheerful campfire going in the center of the clearing, feeding it the grass we had just cut down.
“Huh,” I said, staring at it. “That is odd. This grass is green. Why is not it giving off smoke?”
“Whisper’s grass does not smoke,” Harold replied with a shrug. “No one knows why. When Mayor Grandsbriar—Jack’s grandfather—first came here a few decades ago, the grass was already here. Even before the bloodvines in the Briarwood.”
I shook my head. “Strange little corner of the country you have got here.”
Harold grinned, tossing me a chunk of dried meat that I did not want to identify. “Well, before the monsters showed up, it was not so bad.”
“Why is it called Whisper’s Grasslands, anyway?” Vale asked, poking the fire with a long metal stick. It was some blacksmith tool that Harold had collected from the forge. “I do not hear any whispering. Not more than most grasslands, anyway.”
For the first time, I was able to answer the question. “The mayor was named Whisper. Whisper Grandsbriar.” I swept my hand, indicating the field, which we could not see much of because of the tall grass. “And these are his grasslands. Pretty simple.” I took a bite of the jerky. It was not salted, but it was still good.
The blond man shrugged, chewing on what I could only assume was food he had found somewhere. “I suppose. ‘Whisper’ is an odd name, though.”
“He was a foundling,” Jack said, walking up and sheathing her swords. She sat cross-legged in front of the fire, and I noted that her sheaths were specifically loose enough so that she could move them around to an extent, and they would not get in her way as she sat. “He was just Whisper for most of his life. Apparently something about the orphanage he grew up in. Anyway, then he founded Grandsbriar, and people started calling him Mayor Grandsbriar.”
Well, that explained a few nagging questions that had been bouncing around in the back of my mind. “You will forgive me for asking—”
“He died,” Jack answered bluntly, before I could even finish. She looked me right in the eye. “He died in the very first attack on the town, before we had a wall or anything. A sinheart picked up a burnbag and chucked it through the window of the town hall. The whole building burned down.”
Silence descended around the camp fire.
“And your parents?” Roark grunted.
“Still alive,” she assured him. “Or, they were when I left.” She rifled through the pack sitting next to her, pulling out a journal, and flipped to a specific page. “No one died since we left. At least, not until the last couple of day, when Father Mallern did not write anything.”
“That is probably when he died,” Norn pointed out. “I wonder why they did not keep writing, though.”
Harold shrugged again. “Maybe they did, and they just took the newer books with them? Professor Haber has always been a bit scatterbrained, but Miss Orange and even Mister Yaberstein are usually good with records.”
Vale nodded. “Seems logical enough. Though it is a bit odd that they did not take any of Father Mallern’s journals.” He pulled out one of them from his own pack, flipping through it at random. “This is quite useful information.”
“That is easy,” the archer admitted, taking the forge poker and stirring up the fire again. The Whisper’s grass might not give off smoke, but it also burned faster than logs. We would have to put more on soon. “Those are the originals. They took the copies.”
I looked away from the distraction of the camp fire. “I would think it would be the other way around. Take the originals and leave the copies.”
“Perhaps they did not want to disturb the priest’s corpse,” Vale suggested.
“Or they did not have time,” Norn added. “A bunch of stuff still does not add up. If we are right about what happened, then the wall was broken down, something attacked, they fought it off, and left. But—”
“Wait,” I said. “Back up. Why are we assuming they won?”
The big man frowned at me. “Because the town was still standing.”
“But Roark did not see any signs of an army, defeated or otherwise.”
“No corpses, either,” Jack reminded us.
Norn spread his arms wide. “Just as I was saying. Things do not add up. What do you think happened, one of your giants punched a hole in the wall and then just walked away?”
“It is possible…” Harold mused thoughtfully, chewing. “Maybe it managed to get too close to the wall somehow, like the guards were asleep or something, and once it made the hole, they drove it off.”
“…and some outsider snuck in and ripped out Mallern’s throat?” I finished skeptically.
“Not to mention I did not see any giant tracks outside the wall,” Jack added. “I may not be the greatest tracker, but I would have noticed that.”
The archer glowered and took another bite of his jerky. “I was just thinking out loud.”
“No, that is good!” Vale assured him, elbowing me in the ribs, causing me to smile and nod. “It is important to be able to bring your ideas out into the open, where we can discuss them. Otherwise, you might have all the answers, and we will never know because you are worried it sounds stupid.”
Harold looked away. It was hard to tell in the firelight, but he might have been blushing.
“Anyway,” I said after a few minutes of awkward silence. “Why do not we get to sleep early? we will want to set off at first light tomorrow morning. I will take first watch.”
“Me too,” Jack said as the others started unfolding their bedrolls. “The Grasslands might not be the most dangerous part of the world, but we still want to be on the safe side, this side of London.”
I opened my mouth to retort…then closed it again and nodded. “All right. Watches will have to be twice as long to compensate, though. Everyone else fine with that?” They four men all chorused ‘aye’ quickly. “Good. Vale, Harold, we will wake you in a few hours.”
Within minutes, they were all asleep. They were all soldiers, and being able to fall asleep instantly was a skill any soldier learned very quickly. Jack simply stayed at the fire, poking at it with the forge stick.
“I am sorry about your grandfather,” I said after a few minutes.
“Thank you, but that is not necessary. It was a little over a year ago.”
“Yes…” I frowned. “Which reminds me. Why did the town wait so long to send anyone to the capital? it is not like you came bearing Mallern’s journals and the heads of slain sinhearts or anything like that. It was just your word.”
Jack’s shoulders shrugged; she was still facing away from me, looking at the fire, while I sat a few feet back in the dark.
“A bunch of little things. The first couple nights, we had no idea what we were doing, and until Mister Yaberstein grabbed a sinblade, we did not really have any way to defend ourselves. Once Professor Haber stumbled on the dire-weight bracers, we were suddenly a lot safer, but then we needed to build the wall, and that took four months. We needed every hand available for that or guard duty.”
“But that was finished eight months ago,” I pressed. “Why did not you come?”
She put the fire poker down. I had a feeling that if she had not, she would have hit me with it. “Just…stuff kept happening, all right? We finished the wall, then our scouts started running into dire trees. Figured out how to keep them at bay, every single farm outside the wall went dire. Then we had a food crisis, and we had to figure out what was safe to eat. And so on and so on…” She sighed. “And then we finally thought we had a reprieve, and when we get back, the whole damned village is gone.”
“…sorry,” I said. “I have been in bad sieges before. Not as bad as all this, but still. I have at least some idea of what you are dealing with.”
The swordswoman made an un-ladylike grunt, but picked up the poker and resumed stirring the fire. That was some kind of progress, at least.
With little else to do or ask about, I pulled out one of Father Mallern’s so-called monsterpedias and started reading. Knowledge is power, after all.