Rhetta emerged from the oak trees with a very self-satisfied expression. A few paces behind, hanging his hooded head, walked a familiar figure. His tanned skin was obscured by smears of mud, but it could not disguise the black marks across his face. The three-wolf guard trotted at his ankles, driving Clever out into the open.
“Well, of all the addlepated--!” began Marte, lowering her bow.
“Hostler Clever,” Finn cut in, “what in the God’s name are you doing here?” Llyde was visibly confused as the dogs began to lower their guard.
At first, it seemed Clever might not answer at all. His cheeks were flushed and, although he did not fidget, he was consumed with nervous energy. It radiated out from him, making the pack dogs scratch and snap and shift their weight uneasily. Finn had learned the art of silence; he waited for Clever to calm himself enough to speak.
“You left,” Clever finally mumbled. He glared at them all from the cover of his cloak hood, daring them to disagree.
“Yes,” said Finn. “We are returning to the capitol.” He ran his hands across his face and grunted in frustration. “What are you doing here?” he repeated with waning patience.
“And you’re gonna go all that way, by yourselves?” said Clever.
“What are you doin’ here?” cried Marte. She returned her bow to its position across her slim back, but her eyes shot arrows all the same.
“Look, all you left without a word,” said Clever. “Marte’s been packin’ for days but won’t say why. Then I hear it’s th’ capitol callin’, and you three answerin’ th’ call, and I got to thinkin’—“
“Yes?” prompted Finn.
“I got to thinkin’ that maybe I’d better come too,” he said. “Just to keep an eye out. Only maybe I wasn’t allowed.” He adjusted the pack on his shoulders warily.
“So you snuck after us?” said Llyde.
Clever merely shrugged. “Sneakin’ is a way to put it…”
“Clever,” said Finn, “I’m afraid I still don’t understand. Why did you think you should accompany us?”
“I got uses!” cried Clever. “You’ll need help with th’ horses and hounds. You’ll need someone to watch your backs, since Gods’ only know why you brung a soft-hands scholar and a little girl!” Marte made an angry noise which he ignored. “’Sides, I’m bound to you, ain’t I?”
“You’re bound to the country, Clever,” sighed Finn. “To Duragand. It’s not a personal attachment.”
“It is to me,” replied Clever.