For one wild second Erin thought the woman had seen Kota’s mark and her mind immediately sought for some kind of distraction. Her mouth opened and she found herself saying, “Have you all heard the story of how the sun met the moon?”
All eyes turned to her and Erin’s face flushed scarlet, but it was too late to take back her words now. Especially as one of the wayfarers broke into a wide smile and said, “No, do tell.”
They pulled her and Kota down into chairs and, after some encouragement, Erin found herself talking about when the sun rose too early and the moon strayed too late, and they ran into each other. They fell in love, of course, and they left their places in the sky to dance across the earth and over the seas. Without them, one by one the stars grew dim and the sky turned dark, and the people begged them to return to the sky. Reluctantly they agreed, but even now when the sun and moon cross paths they stray together and the world grows dim in their short absence.
As Erin spoke, she was uncomfortably aware that the wayfarers were hanging onto her every word. It would have been better if they had been bored, because then they would have talked about something else, instead of calling her to tell another story as soon as she finished the first.
So she told another story, and another, until one of the wayfarers poured her and Kota drinks and asked, “Where did you hear these stories?”
“Oh, uh…” Erin’s tongue felt tied. She had heard that particular story here in this very inn, which she supposed explained why it had come to mind first. Some of the others she’d heard, sitting by the river in town on lazy Sunday afternoons when she was a kid, but the idea of telling these people about that only made her feel more embarrassed. “I just heard a lot of stories when I was a kid.”
Across the table from her, Kota sniffed the drink he’d been offered and started to warn Erin but the woman sitting next to him laughed and pushed the drink to his mouth until he coughed and choked it down. Erin found her own drink being pushed into her hand by the wayfarer sitting far too close beside her, and she drank as well.
The drink was sweet and bubbly, and Erin was sure it wasn’t anything she and Kota had put out. She tried to put it down, but the wayfarers kept chatting at her and pushing the drink to her lips when she was distracted.
Before long, everything felt distant and surreal. Erin saw Kota slump down in his chair and fall asleep with his head on the table and his mark visibly showing, but it did not seem to matter anymore if anyone noticed. She found herself laughing and chatting just as loudly as the rest of them, and when they all stood up and raced to the door, it felt only natural to follow them and leave the remains of their supper and Kota snoring softly to head out into the night.
Outside, one wayfarer started to sing and the others soon took up the strange tune. Even Erin found herself singing along, the words coming to her and slipping away before she ever really understood what she was saying. The humming chant started in her chest and spread down to her feet, and she felt it go further, down into into the ground beneath. Before them lay the road that led into town, and to Erin’s eyes it seemed to glow with a strange light.
She could feel the road in a strange way, as if it was a part of her. It stretched away and she could sense every bump, every twist and turn, every meandering path that lay within the forest in the other direction, and beyond that. The wayfarers’ tune changed as they marched in the dusty lane between the buildings, but Erin hardly noticed; she could feel the entire empire and beyond spreading beneath her feet, and an aching she hardly knew to go to the places she did not know existed before now grew with every step.
Several split away, and one took charge of Erin and guided her over what felt like every alley and side street until they all returned to the center of town at the same moment. Before them lay the circle around the clock tower, and nearly every road around them lay lit and glowing with life. Laughing and calling to one another, the wayfarers split into groups and began to dance around the clock tower to the sound of their own song.
Erin’s feet found the rhythm on their own, and between them and the wayfarers she danced along while her mind fumbled behind, lost in a waking dream. She did not know how long they spent, walking and dancing and singing, whether it was for seconds or months or years, but she never wanted it to end.
Back at the inn, Kota woke with a start and looked around at the abandoned dishes and empty chairs. He groaned and put a hand to his aching head until he suddenly stood up, knocking over his chair in his hurry.
“Erin? Erin!” He called as he ran to the kitchen and Erin’s room, and then up and down the stairs, but there was no sign of her in the inn. He ran outside into the gray light before dawn and saw the glowing road that led straight into town.
Kota cursed and ran around to the back of the inn where he pushed Erin’s bike upright and threw a leg over it. With a few false starts he managed to get it going, careful to stay on the grassy verge to the side of the road.
He rode into the silent town as the light changed around him, and reached the center of town just as the sky began to turn pink.
“Erin!” The bike swayed and crashed to the ground as he struggled to separate himself from it and run over to the wild, dancing mass that made another lap around the clock tower.
A wayfarer tried to slip her arm around his own, but he brushed her off and walked straight toward the leader of the group who was dancing with Erin. Her eyes were glassy and dim, reflecting the light of the road beneath their feet.
“You had no call to take her with you,” Kota said.
The leader laughed and said, “Who wouldn’t want to come with us? To walk the roads and see the forgotten ways? Isn’t that right, Erin?”
Erin nodded, a blank smile on her face.
“To never stop, never have a home or a family to call your own?” Kota countered.
“And what do you know of home, or family?” The leader laughed again, but this time it sounded colder to Kota’s ears. “Do you think we couldn’t see it in your eyes, and in hers? To leave this place behind, and find an entire world stretching out to meet you?”
“Do you really want that?” Kota said, this time speaking directly to Erin. He placed a shaking hand on her shoulder and said, “You wanted to go to the city, yes, but never to return? To never see your mother, or your father, or your brothers and sisters again?”
“We always return,” the wayfarer said quickly, but the smile faded from Erin’s face and the glassiness faded at Kota’s words.
“Yes, in your own time. After those who are here are long gone. What do the ancient roads know of the people who walk on them? Days, years, centuries can pass before you return. Do you really want that, Erin?”
Erin shook her head and pulled away from the wayfarer. Her legs shook beneath her with fatigue and effort, and she ran a hand over her aching eyes. “Kota?”
Kota started to move toward her but the wayfarer leader threw out a hand and laughed.
“Come now,” he said, pushing Kota lightly so that he took a step back. “I have heard of wayfarers traveling with pets. We’ll take you, man or wolf.”
Behind Kota the sun rose and its light found him standing in the center of town. The wayfarer bent down toward the wolf in his place and said, “Do you think the people here will say the same?”