Erin and her father stared each other down across the forge until Marcus returned with his arms full of firewood.
“Where’s Mom?” Erin asked her brother.
“Oh, she’s over at the Farmers’ place,” Marcus said after he dropped the wood next to the fire and fed it a few pieces. “She wanted to talk to Delilah, help get her mind off things.”
“Thanks,” Erin turned and spoke to Miles and Kota, “We’re going to the farm next, okay?”
They nodded, both more than ready to leave the forge, but Eli spoke.
“Your mother put together some things you left behind, if you want to get them now.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. “I was going to send one of your brothers to take it to you, but now I think you would just recruit them to work in the inn.”
Erin looked surprised for a moment and then said, “Oh, okay. I’ll be right back.”
She went through the door that connected to the house and Marcus excused himself as well, not even waiting until they were out of earshot before eagerly talking to his sister about something to do with one of the neighbors.
Eli looked at the other two and allowed the silence to stretch beyond the bounds of awkward before he turned and pumped the fire with the bellows.
“I think I’m going to go outside,” Miles said once the blacksmith’s eyes were off him and he slipped out without another sound.
“Hold on there.”
Kota stopped in his tracks, so close to the door that he considered bolting before he turned around and said, “Yes, sir?”
“You’ve lasted longer than I thought you would,” Eli said. He used a pair of tongs to pick up a piece of iron and place it within the fire.
“Sir?” It wasn’t the best response, but Kota couldn’t think of anything else to fill up the void in the conversation. As far as he could remember, the man had not said a single word to him before now.
“How is the inn going? Really?”
Kota cleared his throat and managed to say, without too much stuttering, “We’ve done some repairs, but the roof needs work and the place could use some paint. We’ve cleaned everything except for the attic, which the way Erin describes it we’ll need about three weeks and a bonfire to take care of that. The government sent Miles, who you’ve already met, to inspect the inn. I think you can guess how that’s going.”
Eli pulled the iron out of the fire, examined it, and thrust it back in. He retrieved another iron from the fire that had been waiting and placed it on the anvil before picking up a hammer.
“…Your daughter,” Kota said, after swallowing and working up the nerve, “She, er, is doing a good job. With some help and time, Erin really can get the Last Inn running again. Would…Would that really bother you so much?”
The smith brought the hammer down on the iron again and again, molding it with several quick, calculated hits that rang out and hurt Kota’s ears. When the iron finally cooled and the smith had to return it to the fire, Kota rubbed his ears and nearly missed what he said next.
“You really don’t know, do you?” He turned and stared down at Kota. “I don’t know why you’re here, boy, but you don’t have to tell me about Erin. I know exactly what’s she planning. What about you, what are you after?”
“After?” Kota hesitated and then smiled as he prepared to lie through his teeth, but at that moment Erin and Marcus returned with a couple of bags crammed full of stuff.
“I can’t believe I forgot my red shirt!” She smiled at her dad, the first time Kota had seen her do so, and said, “Thank you. You want me to tell Mom anything?”
“You can tell her I’ve got supper handled,” Eli muttered. He tugged on his short beard and returned to his work.
Erin pressed one of the bags into Kota’s arms and said, “I’ll come back next week, okay? Come on, Kota, let’s go before it gets dark.”
She waved and pulled Kota along behind her.
“Do you really need to do that?” Kota asked, pulling his arm free of her grip once they were outside. “You seem to have forgiven your father quickly.”
“Eh, I wasn’t really that mad,” Erin said.
“That was you not really that mad?” Miles said, his eyebrows going up as he stopped leaning against the wall of the forge. “What does angry Erin sound like?”
“You don’t want to know.” Erin missed Kota’s agreeing nod as she led the way down the street, back the way they came.
“Your father is…” Miles hesitated.
“Terrifying?” Kota supplied.
“He would make a good hunter,” Miles conceded. “He has the eye. I’m surprised he hasn’t spotted Kota for what he is already.”
“Say it a little louder, why don’t you?” Kota said, looking around to make sure no one was listening.
“Okay,” Miles said and took a deep breath before Kota shoved him.
They passed through the center of town and reached the river within a few minutes. It couldn’t be more than a mile from one side of the town to the other, along the main road. A fisherman standing out in the reeds with the water up to the tops of his waders looked up and waved at them.
Kota returned the wave, glad to see at least one friendly face among those of the townspeople who stared and whispered every time he caught their eye. The stares weren’t that much better when they reached the Farmers’ place, where more than one of the workers carried a weapon of some sort and kept shooting wary glances at the forest edge.
Miles whistled and at least one stable hand jumped. “Wow. What happened here? I haven’t seen people this jumpy since that little incident in Rolden.”
“What—” Kota started to ask, but his head whipped around when he caught a familiar scent on the breeze that swept over the farm. It should have promised a welcome rain after a long summer, but the smell of blood marred it. He swallowed and said, “I think we’re about to find out what happened to that horse.”