By the time Erin returned to the inn with all of the groceries Kota had asked for, her bike wobbling under the weight in the front basket, the sun had nearly set. She rode around to the back of the inn and knocked on the kitchen door until Kota opened it, careful to stand out of the light.
“Help me with these, would you?” she said. Her arms were already straining to keep the bike from falling over.
He looked around, as if anyone would be watching, before walking outside and turning into a wolf with a sigh. He didn’t seem any more enthused about it when Erin laughed at the sight of the wolf taking the handles of the bags she handed him in his mouth, careful not to bite down so hard that the paper ripped.
“Good boy,” Erin said and Kota’s ears drooped against his head as he ran back inside. She could get the rest, and left her bike by the open door as she walked in.
Kota stood up on his own two legs and took the bags out of his mouth. “So I take it everything went well in town?”
“I guess so. We had enough money, but nobody believed me when I told them about the Judge, or those other strange people.”
“Well, Madame Elzwig didn’t go that way, did she? And neither did the others.” Kota opened and shut his mouth a few times and rubbed at his jaw. “One of those bags tasted weird.”
“So they really did go into the forest?” Erin stopped in the middle of emptying the bags, but Kota just shrugged.
“Yes, I suppose that’s the nearest place for them. Do you think you could shut the door?”
“What?” It took Erin a second to realize that Kota stood in the farthest corner of the kitchen, where the sunlight could not reach through the open door. She shut it and he audibly breathed out before beginning to empty the grocery bags. “Does it really bother you to change that much?”
“It’s not pleasant, and it does make a conversation harder,” Kota admitted. He took out some greens and sniffed them appreciatively. “Oh, this is nice. Did you get this from the Farmers?”
“What did you mean when you said that’s ‘the nearest place for them?'” Erin asked. She stared at Kota, wondering how his mind could wander off so easily. Who cared where she got the broccoli from? “No one goes into the forest, that place is dangerous! They say there are monsters and beasts in there, and the forest itself will twist and turn around you so that you can’t find your way back out again if you go too far in.”
“There’s a road that goes straight through it, more or less,” Kota pointed out.
“And no one ever leaves it, for good reason.”
“So then how would they know if the forest tries to keep people in?” Kota put the green vegetables in the sink and started washing them. “I came through the forest, and it never tried to stop me from leaving. Some of the people in there were very helpful, actually.”
“There are people in the forest?”
“Well, maybe not ‘people’ as you’re used to the term,” Kota admitted. “The only human I met in the forest was the witch I used to work for, Olgytha, many miles from here.”
Erin thought about this while they put away the food, except for the stuff Kota set aside for tonight’s dinner. What other sort of people were there? Did he mean vampires, like Miles, or something else? She couldn’t see Kota taking directions from a vampire, even in their own home.
It wasn’t until she was helping him cook (mostly just by doing some of the chopping and peeling) that she thought to say, “You still haven’t said why you think they would go there. Do you know something about those people or not?”
Kota stirred the sauce cooking on the stove and tapped the spoon on the side of the pot before answering. “They have many names, I think, but the one I know is ‘Wayfarer.’ Olgytha said they walked the roads and the forgotten paths, keeping them alive for travelers.”
“Alive? How is a road alive?”
Kota looked over his shoulder and smiled at her with a little shrug. “How should I know? She was always saying things like that. I just know that they are a strange people, and it is best not to delve into their business. Something you may want to keep in mind while they are here.”
Erin pressed him for more details, but Kota would say no more and she became tired of his constant changes of topic. It almost came as a relief to hear the front door of the inn open and have an excuse to go out and greet the wayfarers as they came in. A crisp breeze snuck in with them before the last one shut the door behind him and hinted of the autumn to come, but the room soon became far too crowded and warm for her.
“Ah, there is our hostess!” the one she thought of as the leader of the group cried when he spotted her. He sniffed the air and said, “Did we make it just in time?”
“The food is almost ready,” Erin said and the statement was greeted with a cheer. The group pulled around tables and chairs with a great deal of scraping and talking.
Erin took the opportunity to get a good look at these so-called wayfarers while they were too busy to notice, and felt a little disappointed. Aside from their height and voices, they did not seem so different from the people back in town. Well, in appearance at least. They laughed a lot more than the townspeople did, and there was a constant air or feeling around them that time was moving differently. By the time they finished moving everything around and Erin returned to the kitchen, she felt as if she had been gone not for five minutes, but more like five hours or only five seconds.
She shook her head and wondered if Kota had made up what he’d said about them. People from out of town were bound to be a little strange, she thought to herself as she watched him put the finishing touches on the food.
Together they took out the plates and the cups, and put the dishes in the middle for each to serve themselves with. It wasn’t until they had put out all of the food that Erin realized it was all fruits and vegetables and cheeses, all variously cooked or raw, without a single piece of meat in sight.
Not that the wayfarers seemed to notice, as they dug into the food nearly as heartily as Madame Elzwig did earlier. Kota and Erin were kept busy for some time refilling drinks, for it seemed as soon as they filled one glass another would be emptied, and by the time they turned around the first would be empty again. They drank more than Erin thought possible, and became louder and more talkative with each glass no matter what the drink.
A woman grabbed Kota’s arm as he passed by and stared up at him, both of their faces red for very different reasons.
“What do we have here?” she cried out, her grip tightening. Kota’s face went from red to pale as his eyes found Erin’s across the room and silently pleaded for help.