Chapter 16: But I'm So Eepy
Nothing was more confusing than being woken up right after you just fell asleep. All that Clandestine understood at first was that she had to be quiet, but she was far less coordinated while half asleep than awake.
Matt, or James - she was still confused about his name - extended his arm and helped her to her feet, hurrying her over to Billy. She wanted to ask what was going on, but in her gut, she knew to ask later. Sound carried so easily in a valley like this. She had to be thankful for the darkness.
But if James was leading the way, she didn't trust him to navigate. Could he even see the stars? He had a hard enough time in the day.
She shook her head, trying to wake herself from her stupor as she jumped into Billy's saddle. Behind her, she could hear James shuffling with something. Faint hoofsteps. Something being tied. She would've looked to make sure he was ready, but her eyes locked onto the light hovering in the distance.
Someone was approaching, holding a torch.
A million questions began rolling through her head at once.
It looked like whoever was holding it was tall. Man-shaped. They were probably a pretty big person up close, and they were moving pretty fast down the hill toward them with purpose.
Could the person see them this far out? Did they see shadows? Movement? The only thing that would've logically drawn a person out this far was the fire, but that was over 24 hours ago, now.
Who were they? What did they want? Why were they still coming closer?
James pulled up to her side on Elliot, and Clandestine's heart jumped in her chest.
"Let's go." he hissed.
She felt frozen. She didn't know if it was fear or apprehension.
It wasn't that she didn't think James would take a bullet for her. He'd already made that clear. But at that moment, she wasn't sure if she wanted to follow him. Did he even have a plan? If this was another bounty hunter, what was he going to do? Run like last time? They both saw how well that turned out.
She stared at the figure, growing larger. There was a small shadow following the man, on the edge of his radius of light. It was partially hidden in the tall grass, but it looked like it might be a dog. A hunting dog, maybe.
"Do you know that guy?" Clandestine whispered.
He'd known Alexander, hadn't he? That was one thing she'd forgotten to clear up. It sounded complicated.
"Does it matter?"
It kind of did. She didn't know why he was avoiding the question.
"Maybe it's just someone from Bone," Clandestine said quietly. "Seeing if things are okay because of the--"
"And how should we explain the dead body?" James cut in, keeping his voice low.
She would've looked over at him, but her eyes were still locked on the moving flame, still approaching closer.
Yeah, that guy was definitely looking at them. No use in running now. Then they'd just look guilty. Not that they weren't, but... it was complicated.
It wasn't that James was being unreasonable. He was a wanted man, and he was very clearly on edge after their shared near-death experience. Of course he wanted to get away and avoid any trouble and extra risk.
But she didn't like running away from things unless it was the only option left. All her life, she'd been trained to face things head on; to run into danger, instead of from it. That was how you had the courage to face monsters, and that was how you had the courage to do things like run after strange ex-soldiers who had a complicated past.
"Clandestine," James said, clearly done discussing. "We're going. Now."
But just as he began to ride forward, the man in the distance waved.
Clandestine blinked. She looked over at James, then at the man. James wasn't looking back, and he probably couldn't see the man very well anyway.
Hesitantly, she lifted her hand to wave back. Then she felt Billy lurch forward, and she whipped her head around, seeing that James was beside her again, this time giving Billy an insistent tap.
"Hey!" she hissed at him. He wasn't going to force her to go if she didn't want to.
James stared back at her with wide, worried eyes, urgency creasing between his brows. He opened his mouth but didn't get to speak.
"I don't mean any trouble!" the man called out across the darkened field of grass.
"That means trouble," James growled lowly, everything in his voice reeking of tension.
It still smelled like smoke in the air. It hit her again as she whipped her head around, seeing the man had already stepped into the patch of burnt grass. With him even closer, she could see he was really tall. Like, a good two heads taller than her, probably.
Okay, so maybe this man was intimidating. She'd give James that. But she wondered what it would take for James to run. Would he leave her behind, if it came to it? He'd done it once before...
Making her decision, she turned Billy towards the stream, riding him slowly towards the stranger. Behind her, James was deathly silent for a tense few seconds before she heard him follow, keeping a distance behind her. If this man was trouble, they weren't in the best state to fight him at the moment - but they weren't going to get any better if they spent the following days running themselves ragged just to get distance.
The man stopped a few feet short of the edge of the stream. They both stood on opposite sides, the light of his torch flickering off the water between them.
With a mere few yards between them, she could see very clearly that the man was, in fact, in the company of not a dog, but a wolf. The wolf was rather small in comparison and had a dark brown coat that looked pretty well cared for. It seemed pretty well-behaved, but there was a harshness to its stiff posture that made her wary. Like if told to, it would attack at any moment.
As for the man, he wasn't any less intimidating. Not only was he tall, but he was broad, and muscular, and he looked like he could probably pick her up and throw her effortlessly and like a spear. Except she'd be a sprawling human in the air instead.
Not only that, but he was dressed in all black - vest, pants, boots, and all - which only reminded her of every mage hunter she'd ever had the displeasure of seeing on the move. The corners of her lips pulled back into a slight, apprehensive frown as she stared at his face: arguably the most intimidating part.
She didn't like to judge people based on scarring, because often scars came from bad experiences out of people's control, but she couldn't lie that the three thick, jagged slashes taking out the man's missing left eye gave him a certain energy that she didn't think she could compete with.
Forcing herself not to clear her throat, she sat tall in her saddle.
"What do you mean, then?" Clandestine called out over the trickling water.