Rethan didn’t look up as Caleb approached – but he took a hand off the reins for a moment to pat the bench next to him, indicating for the younger man to join him. “Sit.”
Caleb did so, taking a moment to adjust to the slight sway of the wagon, and cleared his throat, trying desperately to think of a way to start the conversation. He’d always been terrible at making small talk, even when it hadn’t involved mysterious hooded strangers and quests after mystical artefacts.
Thankfully, the other man saved him the trouble. He looked down at the girl sitting between his boots, watching her hands for a moment, and then inclined his head slightly in Caleb’s direction. “Kitten says she likes you.”
“Er.” It wasn’t that he wasn’t glad to hear it – the opposite, in fact – but he really wasn’t sure what to say in response. “I like her too?”
That seemed to be the right thing to say: Kitten made her happy lilting noise and grinned at him, and her father’s general posture seemed to relax somewhat. “Good. I’m aware she has a tendency to be a little… enthusiastic when she’s first meeting people.”
Kitten’s grin transformed into an overexaggerated pout, and she stuck her tongue out at her father, folding her arms defiantly over her chest. Rethan, for his part, laughed and reached down to ruffle his daughter’s hair with one gloved hand. “Don’t give me that look, little one. You know it’s true.”
A flurry of sign, and another pout – though this one lasted barely a few seconds before the grin broke through again.
Rethan sighed, though the sound was more affectionate than anything else. “She also says she’s allowed to stare at you as much as she likes, and you didn’t mind that she tackled you and I’m being – the word doesn’t translate very well into your language, but I think the closest would probably be ’embarrassing’.”
Caleb couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing.
Kitten giggled and flapped her hands, bumping her head against her father’s knee until he looked down at her again, and then signing a short enthusiastic phrase.
“Oh dear. Apparently she’s decided you’re her new favourite.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Tam, I’m afraid you may have just been dethroned.”
The girl laughed. “Oh no. Well, it’ll give me more time with Kala.” She sat down on the footboard, swinging her boots over the edge. “Not that Kitten’s not adorable, mind, but we could do with the space.”
Kala? That wasn’t a name Caleb had heard before. But if it was a name belonging to someone who was part of the company, there were only two people he’d yet to be introduced to. “Is Kala one of the twins?”
Tam nodded. “Kala and Alak. Not their real names, obviously, but good luck trying to get them to answer to anything else.” She pulled a face. “Sometimes I think they did that just so no-one’d ever believe me when I told people what they were called.”
“Which one’s which?”
“Kala’s the girl, Alak’s the boy. Except when they switch because they fancy being reallyannoying.”
“I heard that!” the girl – Kala – called back over her shoulder.
“Know you did!” Tam yelled, waving enthusiastically at the taller girl. “Still love you, though!”
“Love you too, even if you’re slagging me off behind my back!”
“You come back here and say that!”
“They’re going to be doing that for a while,” Rethan commented, drily. He paused, obviously considering something, and then equally as obviously came to a decision on whatever it was he’d been pondering. “Alright. Let’s get this over with.”
Caleb blinked. “What?”
“As Tam may have informed you, I’m not the most sociable of people. So I’m not going to be overly polite about this.” Another, short pause. “Try not to fall off the bench.”
“What do you-” Caleb began, and then stopped, the words drying up in his throat.
For the first time since the start of the conversation, Rethan had actually turned to face him, hood pushed back enough that the younger man could see his face.
Or rather, would have been able to see it, if there’d been a face there to see.
“Was it really that surprising?” said the voice behind the mask.
He knew he was staring. He knew he should probably stop. But where the other man’s face should have been, there was instead a oval of copper filigree, behind which Rethan’s eyes glittered in the shadow.
Glittered with something that might have been amusement, if the tone of his voice was anything to go by. “Well?”
“I’m sorry, sir!” He shouldn’t have been staring. He’d been rude. Worse, he’d been rude to the person whose hospitality he was currently enjoying. “I didn’t mean to stare, I just- I’ve never-”
“Relax.” Rethan turned back to look at the road again. “I’d have been more surprised if you’d not been staring.”
“But I-” The words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them. “Were you burned? Do you need a healer? I know a man up by the next farm over who can do hedge-witchery on burns, even old ones – my brother Tom went to him after the cowshed out back caught fire and he went in to get the white cow’s calf which’d just been born and the roof came down and-”
Rethan laughed. “Save your breath. Your concern’s appreciated, but misplaced.”
“They’re old scars now, lad. Leave it be.” And though his tone was gentle, there was a finality in it that brooked no argument.
Caleb flushed, looking away. He’d overstepped himself, hadn’t he? There were stories here he wasn’t a part of – didn’t need to be a part of – and he’d gone stamping into them anyway, getting his muddy farmboy boots all over what wasn’t his to ask about. If he was going to be a part of this group, he had better start learning when to keep his mouth shut.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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