Chapter 2: I Know Why I'm Out Here. Why are You Out Here?
This was not how she saw her evening going.
"It's not my cow," the man answered. "But it's my boss's cow."
Clandestine stared at him for a moment.
She was careful when she left Bone. It had been close to midnight when she brought out a torch and set it alight with a match, but as she traveled further and further from the town, Clandestine - evidently - foolishly believed that she was alone.
Thing was, waving a torch around wasn't all that hard, but keeping it lit for the several hours she needed it through the night was tiresome. When she couldn't see the town in view anymore she decided to take a calculated risk and use her magic to conjure a flame to keep the wind wolves' attention. With the fire she created, she was able to make it dance and jump around enough to keep the wolves' interest, and she wasn't expecting to run into anyone out on the open plains.
She supposed she hadn't accounted for cowboys being a possibility.
"Oh!" she laughed. Nervously, though she tried not to let it show. "That's great. So, uh, you were out here looking for the cow, then?"
And not trying to find a mage who was using magic illegally. Right? She found herself studying him, searching for some kind of reaction or clue. Suspicion. Fear. Anger. Anything.
For someone who indirectly professed to be a cowboy or something of the sort, he was at least dressed for the part. He had a cowboy hat with a curved brim, a worn leather jacket, a button-up shirt, faded jeans, and dusty boots. Everything.
It was a bit harder to make out the details of his face, seeing as the only light they had was her torch, but it looked like he had a short, reddish-brown beard, and hair just long enough to stick out of the back of his hat. He had thick brows that shadowed his eyes, but she could catch what looked like a few small scars on his face. They were a lighter, whiter tone against his deeply tanned skin. One was on his cheek, and there was a larger one on his neck, peeking out from his collar.
Overall, he looked a little battered. Clandestine didn't expect cowboys to look clean and tidy, but she couldn't help but wonder about the stories behind the scars. Maybe working with cows was rougher than it looked. Or maybe he was more than he seemed.
The man furrowed his brows slightly and looked at her strangely, seeming to notice how closely she was studying him. He inched closer to the cow, holding a rope.
"Yes," was all he said as he brought the rope around the cow's neck.
Well, that didn't give her much to work with. Maybe he hadn't seen it after all, or maybe he was just really good at keeping a straight face.
"Well," Clandestine said, mustering up a smile that felt very forced. "I'm glad you found it."
The silence that followed was painful.
The man averted his attention to tying the knot around the cow's neck and didn't give her a second glance. Was he avoiding interaction because he was afraid of her magic? Maybe he was the kind to look away and ignore it, or maybe he was the kind to ignore it but report it later, once he got to town. That was the safe route. Let the mage hunters deal with it.
If that was the case, she couldn't just let him walk away.
"So," she compulsively spoke up, trying to sound as casual as possible. "You're a cowboy, then? That's why you've got a cow, right?"
This was not her brightest moment. Yeah. Ask the cowboy if he has a cow because--
"Yes," the man answered. There was a small pause, and he pulled the knot tight, then looked up at her.
"And... you are?"
Clandestine was starting to have second thoughts. Maybe it was best to call it quits now. Run away. Abandon everything. Start over. Start a new life. She had to do that once before, anyway, right? She could manage again. Maybe. Except...
"Right," Clandestine said with another laugh. She reached out to extend a hand but reached out with the hand holding the torch first. Realizing her mistake too late, she faintly laughed again as she pulled it back and freed her hand from the reins, trusting her horse Billy to stay still for this one handshake.
"My name's Clandestine," she said. "Resident registered Monster Hunter. I was just out here taking care of some wind wolves. They were bothering some folks out in Bone, just south of us, until I led 'em up here."
She noticed he didn't reciprocate the handshake. He only stared at her hand, like he was thinking about it. Well, that was awkward.
Did he think she was going to conjure fire or something? Like some kind of cruel trick?
"What about you?" she decided to ask. "Where are you coming from?"
After another second of hesitation, the man reached out his hand and shook hers. She didn't know why she even held her hand out for that long. She didn't know if she'd ever had someone be that slow to shake her hand before.
He shook her hand firmly, just once, and then quickly pulled his calloused hand away.
"We were up north," he said. "My boss has a ranch south of here, outside of Bone."
Clandestine nodded. So, they were going south while she was going north. They were probably the only two groups of people out on the plains at this hour, and of course, they collided when she was using magic.
Her mind was working again, trying to think of something to say while she still had this man's attention, before he went off to tell everyone she was a mage.
"Well--" he started just as words began flying out of her mouth.
"What's your name?" she blurted, running him over.
They stared at each other for a second too long.
"Matt," he answered plainly. He looked behind her, past her and Billy. Her eyes followed, looking back to where she'd been running around with the wind wolves before they'd dissipated.
"The wolves...?" he asked, his question incomplete.
Clandestine whirled back around to face him.
"Oh! Well, they've had their fun for now," she said, assuming he was wondering where they went. "I've been keeping them occupied for several miles. They're pretty curious beasts, you know. They're too elusive to be caught, being immaterial and all, but they like a good game. It's the best way to lead them away from places they're causing trouble. Kind of wished I had a firework on me, though. That would've been loads easier than leading them off by myself, but you work with what you've got."
Matt nodded slowly. She found herself belatedly realizing maybe he hadn't meant to ask about where the wolves went at all. If he'd seen her magic, he would've seen them go as well.
Matt opened his mouth to speak.
"Are you and your other cowboy friends close by?" Clandestine said before he could turn the conversation back to her ability to conjure fire.
Matt's eyes flicked to the side, behind him.
"Just over the hill," he said.