Chapter 5: The Hill We Die On
She looked past Billy, frantically searching for Matt. Fortunately, he hadn't gotten that far. He was sitting on the ground a few yards off, and Elliot had circled back around to him (after formerly fleeing). It seemed Elliot was braver than he looked to even think of returning. Kind of like... a dog.
She'd ask him about his odd horse later. It looked like blood was pouring down Matt's back.
"Come on," she said to Billy, grabbing his reins and leading him on foot with hurried footsteps.
Looking down the hill, she could see the herd of cattle had pooled together at the bottom of the hill. Some of them were still trying to run away, but others looked like they were hobbling along. Gregor, Percy, and Kenneth were circling around them, but it looked like they had their hands full until the cows calmed down a bit.
Gregor's hat turned upward in her direction, and though he was too far to see his expression, she knew he was staring up at the worm. He faltered a little in his hold on his reins.
There was a beat of silence before he shouted.
"Is it dead?"
Ah, yes. The most important question.
"Yeah!" she shouted back. "Super dead!"
She waved her sword as a small show of victory and then sheathed it at her side, turning her attention to the potentially dying man just a few feet from her.
"Is Matt okay?" Gregor shouted uphill.
Clandestine couldn't answer that without a doubt yet, but she guessed.
"He's hurt but I think he's alright!" she yelled in return.
It wasn't confident, but it seemed like it was enough to put Gregor at peace so he could focus on the herd, which was fine. She'd take care of the mess at the top of the hill while he took care of the mess at the bottom.
She let go of Billy's reins to let him hover close by and walked up to Matt, finally getting a better look at him. He didn't look to be fully aware of her presence. Slightly turned away, he sat stiffly with one hand on his shoulder, tightly gripping a piece of fabric, holding it against the wound - but it looked like it was just outside of his reach. At least, to put pressure on it.
All the fabric was doing was soaking up blood and obscuring her view of the wound.
Kneeling beside Matt, she gently put her hand over his. She didn't expect him to jolt so tensely, but he ripped his hand from hers and leaned away rather violently. His expression, formerly a bit blank and wide-eyed, twisted in pain.
"Sorry," she said, looking at his shoulder as the fabric fell away.
It looked like the worm had nicked him with its teeth.
Of course, a nick from a giant sandworm on a human-sized creature was still a lot. There were dozens of tiny gashes streaking from the top of his shoulder through to the back of his shoulder blade, and knowing the festering cesspool sandworms' mouths could be, sterilizing it was necessary but would hurt terribly.
That would have to come later, though. He was still bleeding uncontrollably.
She got to her feet and quickly ran up to Billy, ripping one of her own shirts out of her saddle bag to sacrifice for the job. Considering this was technically her fault for not killing the worm soon enough, she couldn't help but feel a little guilty he'd gotten hurt in the first place. Of course, she couldn't linger on that.
She hurried back to kneel at Matt's side, and he stared at her.
"You're covered in blood," Matt said distantly.
"Yeah," Clandestine said. "But it's not mine."
Matt had taken off his jacket already - bunched up on the ground beside him. His shirt had been shredded to pieces around the bite, and she took the liberty of tearing it a little more to get the fraying pieces of fabric out of the way. Matt didn't object, at least.
"You're bleeding pretty bad," Clandestine said.
"Yeah," Matt said, clearly responding emptily to the obvious. It sounded like he was in shock. "I'll be fine."
Clandestine huffed through her nose.
"I'm sure you will, tough guy," she teased lightly. "I've got to put pressure on this first, though, to make sure of that. Alright?"
There was a second of hesitation before Matt merely nodded. That was good enough.
Clandestine bunched up her old shirt, knowing it was at least clean, and pressed it down against the oozing wound. Matt's mouth pressed into a line, but he otherwise remained quiet.
And then it was just the two of them. Sitting on the top of the hill while she held his shoulder.
She was positioned a little behind him so she could use the leverage of her own weight to apply pressure, so she ended up looking at the side of his face as he stared down at the cows being rounded up.
At some point in the chaos, he'd lost his hat. Now, without his face half-covered in shadow, she could see his messy, slightly greasy hat hair. It was still reddish-brown, just dirty. He had a sort of... mullet-ish thing going on, probably the result of just letting it grow unkempt.
She found her eyes lingering on the scars on his neck, though. They were smeared with his own blood, but she could still make them out because of the slightly raised texture, and they weren't thin. Once, they had to have been pretty deep to leave a scar like that.
Pursing her lips together, she wondered if this was a habit of his or just back luck. It was a leap to just assume, but she couldn't help but wonder. He might not've ended up in this mess if he hadn't tried to join her in fighting the worm in the first place. In doing so, he separated himself enough from the herd for the worm to place him as easy bait, since he wasn't the one the bullets were coming from.
It wouldn't be very nice to tell the wounded man it was his fault he was wounded, but she figured she could bring it up later. Now wasn't the time to berate him.
It was, however, the only time she'd had alone with him without the others within earshot.
Joining Matt in staring down at the cows, she considered it.
Currently, she had the upper hand, in a sense. She was fine, Matt was wounded, and if she brought up the question that had been hanging in the air since she encountered him she was in a good position to get away if needed. The others would be too far and too preoccupied to follow, and if Matt tried to convince them she was a danger, they'd probably just think he was delusional. He'd lost a lot of blood. And even if they believed him, she'd saved their lives, and Gregor seemed too noble a sort to rat out someone who slayed a giant sandworm to save his cows.
Yeah, it was a business agreement, but heroic still. Not that she'd ever say that out loud. She just knew how people talked.
Glancing between the herd and Matt a few times, Clandestine tried to think of a good way to start the conversation.
Hey, so, I'm a mage. You know that, right?
No, that felt too casual for something so life-or-death.
So about magic...
No, too cryptic. Or obvious, depending on what he knew.
Clandestine sighed softly. There was no good way to do this. Maybe she could start with that, though - figuring out what he knew, so she didn't have to keep guessing.
"So," she said, finally breaking the silence. "Yesterday."
It was only yesterday, right? Stress made the day feel so long.
"When you ran into me and the wind wolves," she continued, looking over to him for a reaction.
He didn't say anything. He just looked at her blankly, waiting for her to finish.
"What exactly did you see?" she asked, trying to not sound as desperate as she felt for an answer.
Matt's response was delayed. For three agonizingly long seconds he stared out past her with eyes unfocused, and she had to clamp her mouth shut to keep herself quiet while she let him think, trying to remember that he had, already, lost quite a bit of blood, and she couldn't blame him for being a bit slow at the moment.
He squinted slightly, almost looking confused. Or just... deep in thought.
"Not much," he said. "Just you leading them with light and seeing them off."
That was a valid question, but Clandestine found herself the one lagging behind this time.
So he did see her use magic. He didn't stumble in after. He saw her manipulating the flame. She couldn't pretend he didn't know anymore.
She was right. She was right to be suspicious from the start, and she almost felt relieved that all of that overthinking wasn't done in vain.
Her brows knit together tightly as she looked down at the ground.
"... is everything alright?" Matt asked quietly.
Wow. She'd forgotten to reply.
Clandestine cleared her throat.
"Oh. Yeah," she said quickly.
Awkwardly, they just stared at each other blankly for a second before Clandestine broke eye contact first. No need to be dramatic about this.
"So," she said again, a little too abrupt. "What are your thoughts on magic, then?"
Matt's confusion, once again delayed, only seemed to increase. His eyebrows drew together and his mouth opened slightly like he was searching for words. Was he just playing dumb to appease her?
"Magic?" he asked slowly.
"Because I'm a fire mage," Clandestine said with annoyance because clearly, it was obvious.
She didn't know whether to feel bad for him or more annoyed when he stared off to the side, looking deeply confused at first before his eyes widened, like pieces of a puzzle were finally fitting together.
Except, that kind of reaction didn't really match up with what she knew. He said he saw.
"You were--" he started.
"Come on," she interjected. "Don't act like you didn't see--"
"You did see me use fire magic, right?" Clandestine said, fiercely meeting his eyes. "Right?"
She didn't just expose herself for no reason?
Matt seemed taken off guard.
"I-- I saw the fire, but--"
"So you [i]did[/i] see?" Clandestine pressed.
"You saw me use magic and never thought to mention it? You were just going to leave me in suspense? Do you have any idea how much stress I've been under? How--"
This time, Matt cut in.
"My eyes aren't that great!" he said hastily. "I couldn't tell that it was magic. All I could make out was a light. I assumed it was just a torch."
Clandestine stared at him.
"You're serious?" she asked flatly.
Clandestine waved her hand in front of his face, trying to gauge a reaction from his eyes. He leaned his face away, scrunching up his face.
"Stop that," he snapped. "It's not that bad. I just need glasses to see far away."
"How do you even manage?" Clandestine asked. "Your whole job is looking at things from a distance."
"I said it's not that bad," Matt emphasized. "Listen, that's not-- about your magic. You were worried about your magic."
"Oh. Right. You're not going to..."
"No," Matt said, letting out a long sigh as he looked away, back down the hill. "I'm not going to turn you in. If you'd let me finish my sentence, you would know that I have no problem with mages or magic. Go on and live your life. I won't tell anyone your secret."
Clandestine wasn't really familiar with people's responses to discovering she had magic. She'd heard stories from other people, sure, but only from the surviving side, and that was never the mages.
The only person who knew she had magic was the man who found her all those years ago and helped her get back on her feet, but gods knew where he was now.
He'd been surprised by her magic, but never brought it up besides telling her not to use it anytime they were around others. That told her what she needed to know at the time: it wasn't safe to be seen as a mage, and you had to keep it secret.
Ever since, she hadn't told a soul. Not even Lynette.
At least, until now.