The next morning, Erin woke up in her bedroom to the smell of breakfast cooking. She dragged herself out of bed and dressed in between jaw-cracking yawns and rubbing her eyes.
“Morning,” Kota said as Erin walked out of her bedroom and into the maelstrom of activity going on in the kitchen. “Sorry if I woke you, the merchants were already awake and expecting breakfast so I thought I would put something together.”
“How long have you been up?” Erin asked as she watched Kota neatly break open a handful of eggs over the sizzling pan without dropping a single shell.
“Night shift, remember?” Kota said over his shoulder as he piled up toast on a plate along with a stack of bacon. “Speaking of which, could you take this food out to them? I’m afraid they opened the shutters.”
“What? Oh, right, the sun.” Erin cracked the door open and looked out on the men and women talking around a couple of tables. “How are you going to get back to your room?”
“They’re going to head into town soon for some trading and selling,” Kota replied, stifling a yawn as he lifted the cooked eggs onto a platter and placed it with the other food. “I think I can hold out for that long.”
“Right,” Erin muttered as she went through the door with the food.
While the guests were eating, Erin went out the front door and looked around. The morning sun hovered just above the tree line in front of her, and to her left the guards in charge of the caravans were busy preparing for the day under the direction of the mercenary.
An older man dressed in working clothes that looked as if they’d already seen a day’s use strolled up to the porch where Erin stood and smiled up at her.
“Hi, Joe,” she said, breaking out into a real smile. The farmer and his family had been a regular fixture in her life growing up, and he could often be found around her father’s forge on rainy days. “What are you doing around here?”
“Oh, same as everybody else, checking to see what’s going on,” he said in that slow voice of his. “Looks like you’re busy today.”
“Yeah, a caravan arrived yesterday,” she said and Joe nodded.
“Good to hear. Always good for business,” he said. He hesitated and rubbed his neck before saying, “So, how’s that new partner of yours working out?”
“My dad asked you to come by, didn’t he?” Erin said and Joe grinned. “Well, you can tell him we’re doing fine, and the inn is running smoothly. You can see how many guests we already have.”
The farmer shrugged. “You don’t have to prove anything to me. But while I’m here, I did want to warn you to watch out for wild animals this close to the forest. Something’s been bothering my chickens, and we lost a cow last night.”
“Yeah, it was pretty bad. I told Delilah she couldn’t go out into the field until we could take care of it, don’t want her getting upset again.” Joe sighed.
“Do you know what did it?”
Erin and Joe looked around to find the mercenary standing by, his permanently intense eyes on them.
“No, there weren’t any tracks,” Joe said. “The cow looked like a bear’s work, but we don’t get them around here anymore.”
The mercenary thought for a moment and said, “Well, some of the men reported seeing a large wolf hanging around the wagons on our way here. Probably not the same one, but if you have wolves around then one of them might be desperate enough to go after livestock.”
“Huh. Still doesn’t explain the chickens,” Joe said. “We went over the whole coop and still don’t know how it got in. I swear there wasn’t a hole there big enough for a skinny mouse, and I’d hate to meet the wolf that could get in and out like that.”
“Yeah, me too,” Erin said quietly. The two men talked for a bit longer before she finally made an excuse to go back in and said goodbye to the farmer.
Inside, she gathered the empty plates from the chatting guests and went back into the kitchen with a vague plan on what to say. The young man’s back was to her, his attention on washing up the breakfast dishes.
“Are they still here?” Kota asked.
“Yeah,” Erin said. She put the plates down on the counter a little harder than necessary and said, “I thought you said you were going to watch the inn at night.”
“What? I did,” Kota said. “Not much happened. One of the guards came in to ask about–”
“Then what were you doing at Joe’s farm!”
“The Farmers, they own the big farm just over the hill, and someone has been attacking their animals!”
“And you think it’s me?” Kota asked.
“Well, they think it’s a wolf, and I know one who wouldn’t have much trouble with doors,” Erin said.
“Could you please keep your voice down?” Kota asked, casting a glance at the door. “When did this happen?”
“Joe said his chickens have been going missing over the past couple of days,” Erin answered. The mercenary had been interested in the details as well. “And apparently one of the cows got out last night and something got it in the field. You said you could control this whole wolf thing! This doesn’t sound like having it under control!”
Kota sighed and put the dish rag down. “Erin, I turn into a wolf in the sunlight, remember? I couldn’t attack a cow at night as a wolf, and if I tried to do it like I am now, it would probably just sit on me or whatever it is cows do. I haven’t left this inn in days.”
“Oh.” Erin paused as Kota’s logic sank in.
She was saved from apologizing when one of the merchants knocked on the kitchen door and leaned in to say, “Just wanted to let you know we’re heading out. Thanks for the breakfast.”
Erin stammered a reply and Kota nodded.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get some sleep,” Kota said once the merchants had finished parading out.
He walked out and Erin heard the distinct sound of claws clicking across the wooden floor and up the stairs. She sighed and turned to finish the dishes alone.
A few hours later, while Erin was in the front yard picking up the trash the careless guards had left behind, Kota slipped out the back door.