Chapter 3: Anxious: The Cows and Me
morning, they woke with the sunrise. Clandestine was on the last watch,
so she got to watch the sun come up over the horizon. With nothing to
obstruct the view but the low, rolling hills, the brilliant sunrise
filled the whole sky, painting the expanse with a gradient of orange,
pink, and blue.
the rising of the sun came warmth, and the chill of the early morning
slowly started to melt away. Clandestine had managed to keep the fire
alive through the early hours of morning, sneaking in a spark of her own
flame. You could say that she was, perhaps, playing with fire, both in
the literal and metaphorical sense of the saying, but Clandestine felt
like it was a low risk to make sparks when she was pretending to use
It was just faster, and she was lazy. Besides, her fire always burned hotter and quicker anyway.
everyone got up, there was no morning meal prepared. Instead, everyone
ate away at snacks they had in their packs while Gregor had his men pack
didn't have much to do besides roll her blanket back up and tie it down
to Billy's saddle, but she did notice that something seemed off with
Now, she was no cow expert, but she knew when creatures were looking a little antsy. If she noticed it, she knew Gregor must've felt it too.
"They're restless this morning," she said, standing by Billy as Gregor passed by.
Gregor looked back at her, worry showing in his eyes.
"That's odd," he said. "I ain't seen anything."
"Maybe they just miss home," Clandestine joked with a small smile.
Gregor grinned, but it didn't seem to alleviate his fears. His brows pinched together.
"Well, I guess that means we should get going, then," he said. "You keep an eye out."
And that was when Clandestine got to see real cowboys at work.
had to admit, she never had the opportunity to see cowboys in action,
herding real cows. She'd only ever run into them when they were outside
of their element, when they stopped into cities, usually crashing
taverns or inns as they passed through.
came around the herd on each side. Gregor went out at the front,
leading the way about fifteen feet or so ahead of everyone. Meanwhile,
Percy pushed the cattle on the left, Kenneth on the right, and Matt
pushed them from the back.
that was where Gregor told Clandestine to ride. In the back, where
she'd be able to have a view of the whole herd - and if Gregor caught
anything up ahead, he said he'd holler back to her.
Of course, things were a little tense.
rode behind Matt for a while. Every now and again she noticed how he'd
look back at her, like he was checking if she was still there. In a
normal situation she'd think he was concerned she'd get lost, but she
couldn't help but wonder if he was watching his back. Something about
his scan of the herd seemed deceptively calm. It was like he was trying
so hard to look calm that it gave off the impression it was fake. A fake
calm. Too calm to be real.
Then again, it was possible she was overthinking things.
pull of anxiety pushed her in two directions. Forward, and back. She'd
inch back when she was afraid Matt would notice something was off about
her and she'd inch forward when she felt like she didn't have a good
enough view of him to make sure nothing was off about him. And of
course, in between, she'd be looking around for monsters or anything
else that was odd.
She played this dance for a few hours before she finally got sick of it and caved.
silence was agonizing. She was tired of feeling anxious the whole
time. Nothing was happening. She was bored out of her mind. She was
used to having to travel alone, but when she was around other people it
was like there was no excuse to just do nothing all the time. She ached
for conversation even if it was with a man she didn't trust.
forward, she noticed Matt glanced over his shoulder again, looking back
at her. For a moment, their eyes met, and she couldn't tell if his face
said: "What?" in the "What do you want?" kind of way or the "What are
you looking at me for?" kind of way. Unable to decide, Clandestine
simply took it as an invitation.
Mustering a small smile, she hurried Billy up beside Elliot and matched their pace.
"So," she said, looking at him closely. "Which cow is your favorite?"
stared at her for half a second with a blank expression, but when her
question processed, his eyebrows shot up and he let out a singular,
quiet "ha" from the back of his throat.
"These aren't milk cows," he said. "They're meat cows. You can't get too attached."
"See, you're not supposed to," she said, narrowing her eyes. "But it still happens."
Matt pursed his lips and looked out at the herd. He hummed.
it the black one with the white spot between its eyes?" Clandestine
asked. "Or is it the smelly brown one with the stringy tail?"
Matt huffed through his nose but didn't quite smile.
"See the brown one over there?" he asked.
Clandestine had to admit, she didn't. Half the cows were brown.
"Uhhhh..." she drew out, trying to figure out where exactly he was pointing. It didn't seem exact.
"I like that one," he said.
Clandestine narrowed her eyes at him.
"You just picked a random cow, didn't you?" she asked.
"You don't believe me?" Matt asked, looking over to her with a smile in his eyes.
she said, sitting up a bit straighter in her saddle. "Tell me one thing
you like about that cow that makes it exceptional."
"It has a very deep moo," he said. "That I find very amusing."
let out a light laugh and grinned, watching as Matt's eyes seemed to
have a glint of comedic mischief in them, even though the rest of his
face seemed relaxed, like he was purposefully keeping a straight face.
"Oh, sure," she said. "I didn't know cows 'moo-ed' in different pitches."
"Guess you don't know much about cows," Matt said.
guess you'll just have to teach me," Clandestine said, a smirk pulling
at the corners of her mouth as she quickly glanced over the herd before
returning her gaze to Matt.
"What's the moo sound like?" she asked.
was pretty busy constantly scanning the area around them, but at that
question, he actually looked at her and raised a brow.
"Just so I can get an idea," Clandestine said. "Your voice is pretty deep. I bet you could do a good low moo impression."
Matt huffed through his nose, and she could see the amusement again in his eyes.
"Sure--" he started to say, but he stopped talking when they heard Mr. Gregor up ahead. He was shouting back at them.
"There's some flying boar up ahead!" Mr. Gregor said. "We'll go around!"
pulled Billy back a little, not wanting to get in the way of the
ranchers as they pushed and led the cattle. Matt rode forward, but she
caught him glance back at her with a look she could only explain as one
that was satisfied there'd been an interruption - as if he'd gotten away
with something, when in reality, he was only spared from being silly.
and Percy began to pull the herd to the left while Kenneth pushed from
the right. Matt began to push against the back of the herd, and
Clandestine merely followed as they came up over the top of a hill at an
they reached the top, Clandestine saw the other side of the hill was a
little more patchy. As they'd been traveling for hours through the
plains, all the hills had looked about the same, aside from a few rocks
or spindly trees here and there. But this one was more than just patchy.
It looked like the patches of missing grass were dug up and unearthed.
She didn't think people
would be digging out here, and this didn't look like the work of earth
mages. And when she was traveling out into the plains alone, she hadn't
gone this way. She hadn't seen anything that could cause holes like
paused at the top of the hill, feeling uneasy. In the back of her mind,
she could only think of one thing that this reminded her of.