Chapter 5: The Hill We Die On
Was she lucky? Or was this too good to be true?
Realizing she'd let up the pressure a bit, she pressed harder on the wound. Matt tensed.
"How am I supposed to know that you're not some kind of mage hunter in disguise and this is some elaborate trick? Or that you're not just lying so you can gain my trust and then rat me out later?" she asked cooly.
"You really think mage hunters would take on the guise of a cowboy hoping they'd just run into a mage out in the middle of nowhere one day? I'm surrounded by cows. Not magic," Matt said plainly.
Clandestine narrowed her eyes.
"When you say it that way, it sounds silly," she admitted. "But you could still be a rat the moment we get to Bone."
Matt sat up a little straighter as he turned to meet her eyes, his expression serious and focused.
"Your worry is warranted," he said, much more gently than before. "And I don't mean to minimize the threats you always have to account for. But you won't have to worry about me."
He took in a deep breath.
"I promise," he said, and he sounded like he meant it. "I won't tell anyone."
Clandestine opened her mouth to object one last time, but he beat her to it.
"I have nothing to gain from turning you in," he said. "And it would be dishonorable to turn in someone who just saved my life."
Well. That... made sense, at least.
Clandestine took a moment to let his words sink in. To decide if she really believed him and was willing to trust him.
She surmised, in a way, he'd already trusted her with his life. Granted, he still got hurt, but she took out the worm before it was too late. This was his way of returning the favor, then? Unless he really meant it when he said he had no problems with mages.
Maybe she really did get lucky.
"Well..." she said, not quite sure what to say. "Thanks, Matt."
"Sure," he said. "It's nothing."
"I mean, it's not really 'nothing' when some people literally turn on their family members if they find out they have magic. And that's family. You don't even know me," she said.
"And needlessly make you an enemy?" James asked. "Decent people don't turn mages in."
Turns out a lot of people weren't too decent, then. It did, however, cause Clandestine to wonder...
"So... do you have magic, then?" she asked.
She watched him, hopeful.
"No," he said without hesitation.
"Sad," she said with a sigh. "You don't have any magic to compensate for your blindness."
"I'm not blind--"
Clandestine smirked and threw her free hand up in front of his face, holding up three fingers.
"Quick!" she said. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Four," Matt said, squinting and swatting her hand away.
Clandestine sputtered, trying to hold back a laugh before it burst out of her in a loud "hah."
"Three!" Clandestine said through the wheeze-filled laugh that followed. "It's three!"
Matt, looking entirely unamused, stared at her dead-eyed.
"If you hadn't moved them so fast..." he started to say, but clearly gave up mid-defense and sighed.
Clandestine stifled her laughter and once again had to remind herself to add pressure to the wound again, as laughing had made her loosen up a little too much. Seeing how Matt's blood had seeped through her shirt, practically dying it red, she really needed to hurry up the clotting process.
She pushed down a little harder, and Matt let out a tense, slow breath through his nose. She could feel him tense up again in slight resistance, but he didn't pull away.
"Sorry," Clandestine said softly. "It's just for a little while longer."
There was no reply, and she pressed her lips together in a small frown, nodding to herself as a brief silence followed.
Right. He was in pain. She'd been so caught up with the anxiety of him knowing about her magic that she'd almost forgotten.
"So..." she said, more quiet as she spotted Gregor at the bottom of the hill, starting to ride up. "You really mean it?"
She had to be sure.
"Yes," Matt said quietly in response.
She let out a small sigh.
"Thank you," she said.
Thinking that was the end of it, she stared at Gregor and then scanned the herd below. Mid-cow-counting, Matt interrupted.
"Thanks," he said.
"For what?" she tilted her head towards him.
"Killing the worm."
"Oh," she said with a weak laugh. "No problem. That's what Gregor's paying me--"
"And saving my life."
Oh. Yeah. That.
She offered him a small, warm smile.
Her eyes flicked between Matt and Gregor. From the looks of it, Gregor was unharmed, and so was his horse. They rode uphill at a steady pace, and his ruddy mare finally seemed to have calmed down after all the stress of nearly being eaten by a worm. She just hoped it wouldn't mind the giant dead worm nearby too much.
Noticing Gregor was almost within earshot, she leaned in and whispered.
"So why haven't you gotten glasses?" she asked.
Matt shot her a look out of the corner of his eyes that said: "Really?" without saying it. Instead, he answered: "Money."
She, too, understood what it was like to be poor. Surprisingly, though monster hunters were highly appreciated, freelancers didn't get a whole lot of money. That's what you got in exchange for more freedom. You didn't have to work with the guilds that hunted down mages (which she wouldn't ever consider) but you got financed by the people who hired you, not the guilds. And truth be told, most people out in these parts were poor too.
"Maybe if we all pitched in...?" Clandestine suggested.
"I'll be fine. Don't mention it. Ever again."
Clandestine raised her eyebrows and drew them together, but decided to drop it.
If this was the hill he wanted to die on, it was a very silly one, but she'd let him. He was keeping a secret for her, after all. It really wasn't much to keep a very petty one in return, however weird it seemed.
Maybe tomorrow, after they reached Bone, she'd see about bartering a pair of glasses for him just as a final thank you. Then he wouldn't have to so stubbornly get progressively more blind as time went on. Because odds were, it'd only get worse as he aged.
"Sure," she said lightly, letting her expression relax as Gregor and his mare stopped a few feet in front of them.
"Matt ain't falling apart, now, is he?" Gregor asked, hopping down from his saddle.
"No, sir," Matt answered.
"I think the bleeding's finally under control," Clandestine offered. "He got nicked by the worm's teeth."
Gregor, who'd only taken a few steps, faltered, and his face paled.
"Worms have teeth?" he said like this was a brand new, horrific revelation.
Clandestine smiled and laughed faintly.
"Well, uh. Yeah. It's uh. Well, they're omnivores, you know. They eat anything, really," she said, not sure how to make the truth any less terrifying for the average cowboy.
Gregor stood still for a moment, staring out at the felled worm, but then shook his head and hurried up beside her and Matt.
"Thank gods it didn't eat Matt," he muttered, sitting opposite her, putting Matt between them. He was looking Matt over like he was scanning for any other wounds.
"Well, it tried to," Clandestine found herself blurting. "But I killed it before... it..."
She cleared her throat. Now really wasn't the time to sound like she was boasting.
"Anyways," she said quickly, carefully pulling the bloodied shirt away from Matt's shoulder. "I can, uh, help clean it and all--"
"I've got some medical supplies," Gregor said steadily. "I can take care of it. It looks like you, uh..."
He stared at her, up and down, like he was searching for words. Clandestine looked down at herself as well.
She hadn't really gotten a great look at herself yet. Right after the worm was out of the picture, she was worried about making sure Matt didn't die.
She really was drenched in now-drying worm blood.
"Right," she said quietly. The smell really should've tipped her off, but now that her attention was brought to it, the strong scent of iron was almost overwhelming.
"I should clean up," she said distantly. "Before I start to stink too bad."
"That would be wise," Gregor said, gently placing his hands over hers to take the bloodied shirt from her. She muttered under her breath as she brushed her hands away and let him take her place as she got to her feet.
"I'll catch you in a bit, then," she said with a nod, snapping her fingers and pointing at Matt with both hands.
Matt didn't look like he was quite all there, but he didn't look like he really knew how to respond, either.
"...Okay," he finally said.
"I'll just be over the other side of the hill," she informed them. "Holler if you need me."
"Will do," Gregor said.
Clandestine clicked her tongue and spun around on her feet, skipping over to Billy on light feet. He bobbed his head, happy to see her, and she took his reins as she started leading him down the hill.
Billy smelled terrible too, so at least it was the two of them stinking up the plains and not just her. Thankfully, if they stayed on course, they would cross a creek before daybreak. They'd both get a better, more thorough bath then.
Waiting until she was more than sure Gregor and Matt couldn't hear her, she leaned close to Billy.
"Well, that went better than I thought," she whispered.
Billy huffed through his nose.
"I was talking about the magic thing, not the worm thing," she corrected.
"Yeah, I know," she said, petting the side of Billy's neck, scraping off some crusted blood.
"You're right," she said softly. "I guess not everyone out there's all that bad after all."