Chapter 2: I Know Why I'm Out Here. Why are You Out Here?
"So, Clandestine," Gregor said, sounding like he was being careful to pronounce her name correctly. "That's a pretty unusual name," he smiled. "I like it."
Clandestine raised her brows and stared at him for a moment before she let out a light laugh.
"Thanks!" she said brightly, "I like it too!"
"It's a bit of a mouthful," Percy said, ironically talking through a mouthful of food.
"Well, most of the time I tell people they can call me Clanny instead," Clandestine offered. "It's easier on the tongue."
Percy chewed on that (quite literally), and Clandestine joined him, taking a spoonful of beans and meat herself.
"Works for me," Percy said with a shrug after he swallowed.
Clandestine huffed through her nose, smirking.
"Clandestine isn't that hard to say, Percy," Kenneth chided, pointing at Percy with his spoon.
"Is too," Percy objected, still talking through his chews. "That's like... four syllables."
"Three," Kenneth corrected.
"Sure, Ken," Percy said with a roll of his eyes.
At that moment, Kenneth seemed to lean in a little closer to Percy, lowering his voice. Clandestine watched curiosly as his posture seemed to shift from that of a teasing older brother to something more caring.
"You know," she heard Kenneth say. "I could teach you how to read."
"Don't need to read to herd cows," Percy muttered, shoving Kenneth away. "Don't need to write a book about them."
Clandestine leaned away from the fire a bit as the two of them started mumbling to one another, and she only caught a few words here and there. It was clear that their attention had pulled away from her and they were having a private conversation, and Gregor looked to be lost in his food and gazing off at the cows.
Turning her attention back to Matt, she saw that he was almost done with his food. In the few minutes she'd been talking to the others, he'd apparently been shoving food down at the speed of light. Or maybe she'd talked for longer than she thought.
Glancing down at her bowl of food barely touched, she decided it was worth ignoring a little longer if it meant she could get a read on Matt.
She hated this. Not knowing.
What was she supposed to do? Outright ask? Yeah, and if he [i]hadn't[/i] seen, she'd be giving herself away, and boy would that make things awkward.
"You said your name was Matt, right?" she asked. The question wasn't entirely a grasp for straws. She really wasn't sure if she remembered right.
With his mouth full, Matt merely nodded.
"Have you been working with them all this time too?" she asked, tilting her head in interest.
Matt hesitated, waiting to finish chewing. He swallowed and cleared his throat.
"I'm a recent hire," was all he said before scooping up more beans and filling his mouth again.
Clandestine was trying to be decent. If he was just a normal guy who hadn't seen her use magic, she wouldn't think anything of it. People were antisocial and nervous around new people all the time for all sorts of personal reasons that didn't have anything to do with magic and monsters. And even then, it could just be that he was really hungry, or simply not interested in her at all.
Though the latter kind of stung her pride a bit if she admitted it.
"Oh," Clandestine said.
Recent hire. So, he was a newbie. New to ranching, perhaps, or at least new to this group of ranchers.
"How recent?" she asked.
Matt glanced at the others across the fire.
"Three months ago," he answered.
"So not that long," Clandestine said.
He shook his head, taking the last scoop of beans to clean out his bowl.
"Were you doing a lot of ranch work before that?" Clandestine asked.
Matt nodded again, and it was at that moment that Clandestine realized if she kept asking yes or no questions, that was probably all she was going to get. Nods or head shakes. Alright. So she'd have to rephrase her questions, then. Say something more open-ended but still a question.
She hadn't had more than a few seconds to think.
"You mentioned you've been a monster hunter for a few years," Matt spoke up. "Where'd you start out?"
Clandestine hesistated. The answer to that question could go in... a few different directions.
"Well, I registered as a freelancer with the guild a while back, up north," she said vaguely.
"How long ago?" Matt asked.
Cladestine felt like she was catching on a pattern of him mirroring her questions, but she didn't devote more time to overthinking it because she found herself preoccupied with doing mental math. She hummed, trying to figure out numbers in her head.
"I think about three years now," she said slowly, hoping she'd landed on the right number.
"That's quite a while for your line of work," Matt commented.
Right. Because a lot of young, gutsy, monster hunters didn't make it very far. It was the careful ones that lived longer.
"Well, if you're good at what you do," Clandestine said with a weak smile. "You can keep at it for years, you know."
"Ideally, yes," he agreed.
"And a good monster hunter," Clandestine went on, "Is good if they hunt monsters. Not the other way around."
She didn't know why she felt the need to defend herself, but she did, and she found herself laughing again. Nervously.
"So clearly I'm good at it," she said, gesturing to herself with a wave of her spoon. "Because. Well. Look at me. I've survived."
Gods. Why did she have to make it weird? She could've just left it at the good monster hunters not being hunted bit. Now it sounded like she was concerned about surviving or something. She hoped he didn't read too much into it.
"I see," was all he said. And that told her nothing. What did that mean? I see?
"Yes," Clandestine blurted. "I also see."
And there she was making it even weirder. Why did she say that out loud? Yeah. Sure. She saw too. Saw that she didn't know if she could trust him still, but it wasn't like she had to say it. Clandestine had no idea how to recover from that.
"I imagine as a freelancer you're pretty well travelled," James said instead, moving on as if that was a completely normal human thing to say.
"Oh. Right," Clandestine said too-quickly, the words sputtering out of her mouth. "I mean. Yeah. I've seen the world a bit, yeah. Why? Why are you asking?"
Sometimes, it was like Clandestine was viewing herself from an outsider's perspective. This was one of those moments, and she was shaking her head at herself.
This was supposed to go the other way around. She was trying to interrogate Matt, but now it felt like she was flailing around and making things worse. She hunted monsters. She wasn't a mastermind at manipulating conversations. She didn't know what she was doing. She just didn't want to die.
With dread she watched as Matt opened his mouth to say something but didn't get a word out before Gregor spoke over the fire.
"Hey, Clanny," he said, quick to use the easier-to-say nickname, "You mentioned that you drove off wind wolves earlier. Any chance they'll circle back? Wind wolves are an awful menace to cattle. They stir the cattle up real bad."
Relieved, Clandestine whipped her attention to Gregor.
"Well, I wish I could tell you that they're gone for good," she said, offering a small shrug. "But unfortunately, wind wolves aren't very predictable creatures. Much like the wind, they come and go as they please without much rhyme or reason to it."
Behind the dancing flames that separated them, the old man's eyebrows drew together and he frowned deeply with worry. Clearly, Clandestine's words didn't comfort him, but unfortunately, she didn't have much more comfort to offer. Wind wolves were impossible to kill, and there was no way to get rid of them for good. You just had to hope they didn't come back with the next south wind.
Gregor cleared his throat and cast his worried glance northward where she'd come from.
"Clanny," Gregor said slowly, turning to meet her eyes. "I don't mean to ask too much fo you, but we're only two days away from my ranch. We've made it this far and I'd like to ensure we make it the rest of the way. I'll pay you for your service if you'd travel with us back to my ranch outside Bone and take care of any beasts if - dragons forbid - they come our way."
It took Clandestine a moment to rip herself out of the awkward conversational disaster she'd dug herself into, but the opportunity to protect others from monsters and get paid was enough to pull her back into confidence. That? That was her expertise.
A broad smile spread across her face.
"It would be my pleasure, Gregor," she said with a superflous wave of her arm and a bow of her head while she held her bowl of beans close to her chest. "I was heading back to Bone anyhow. I don't mind going the long way around to make sure you and your cows make it there safely."
She tipped an invisible hat, trying to channel her inner cowboy. That made Gregor chuckle and some of his worry melted away. He tipped his actual cowboy hat back at her.
"Well," he said. "I'm mighty grateful."
Clandestine smiled a little brighter, but in the corner of her eye, she noticed Matt had left again, retreating to the horses.
Well, at least she'd get paid to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn't rat her out.