The wolf crouched low to the ground as if hoping to disappear under the pavement beneath him as the wayfarers laughed and Erin looked on in horror.
“Let’s see if you won’t change your mind,” the wayfarer said and gestured to the others. With a cry and a shout they scattered, but not before one of them screamed so loud that Erin and Kota jumped and cried, “A wolf! There’s a wolf after Erin!”
The houses and buildings all along the street came alive with motion as the last wayfarer ran down a side street.
Erin had regained her senses enough to yell, “Run!” before a couple of men came running, one of them armed with what looked like the butcher’s cleaver while the other grabbed Erin’s arm and pulled her behind him.
Kota stopped cowering and took off down the street, easily dodging the man who was not so eager to get close to the large wolf. It would have been a straight shot out of town if a group of people had not come out of an alley and blocked his way.
Paws skidding on paving stones, Kota came to a stop and turned only to find the way back to the town center blocked by another group. Among the townspeople he could see a couple of wayfarers, and it was a high, clear voice that followed him down the side street, “Quick, before it attacks someone else!”
The dawn light did not reach all the way in the alleys and back ways of the town, and pockets of shadow covered some areas. The townspeople, most of them already muddled by jumping out of bed so early in the morning, did not know how to handle the clear, echoing sounds of claws clattering over paving stones turning mid-step into footsteps, but the wayfarers knew how to urge them on with cries of a beast and a monster.
Heart pounding and breath racing, Kota raced down one alley after another, changing shapes so often that his hands soon became dirty and scratched from trying to run on all fours as a human. No matter which way he turned there seemed to be more people closing in, and the terror only built as he imagined what would happen if he ran into a dead end.
His foot caught on a trash can and he stumbled with a crash that let everyone around know where he was. Kota scrambled up and into the sunlight as his paws met grass instead of stone and pavement. The sound of the river in front of him could not block out the shouting behind him, and without thinking Kota dove under the bridge and hid in the shadows beneath.
He curled himself up into a ball and hid his head under his arms, unable to even watch as the townspeople emerged from between the buildings, armed with whatever makeshift weapon came to hand.
They muttered and stamped as they looked around, and another group emerged on the other side of the river.
“It must be around here somewhere,” Kota thought he heard someone say. He curled in on himself tighter, unable to stop the trembling.
Then a voice that sounded like Erin’s called out, “I saw it! It went upriver, toward the wastelands!”
The following minutes lasted far too long, as the people discussed what to do next. Despite a few protests from the wayfarers hidden among them, the townspeople finally decided to send a smaller group to follow the wolf while a guard was put around the town. Slowly they dispersed, some even walking on the bridge over Kota’s head.
After what felt like a lifetime, Kota uncurled and looked up, to see the old fisherman standing not ten feet away on the riverbank with his pole in the water. His brown face looked up and a pair of bright eyes met Kota’s own.
The fisherman put a finger to his lips and went back to staring at the bobber on the water as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. Beside him, a duck looked at Kota and ruffled its feathers huffily before turning its back on him.
Kota opened his mouth, but his mouth and throat felt so dry that he could not even make a sound. A fortunate thing, as the bridge creaked overhead and a man called out, “Okay there?”
The old fisherman nodded, and a small smile crept over his face.
“Did you see the beast? They said it came this way.”
A shake of the head this time, and the man on the bridge sighed and muttered something about old fools before walking away.
Eventually the fisherman looked up again and said to Kota, “That’s the same place young Daniel hid when the people of the road came for him, you know.”
“Daniel?” Kota’s voice was barely above a whisper, and sounded thin and scratchy at that.
“Sollis, the last innkeeper,” the fisherman said as he reeled his line in a little. “People who live on the edges are easier to recruit, and the Last Inn is one of the few edges this town has.”
“They tried to take Erin,” Kota said.
The fisherman’s face hardened and the ducks around his feet quacked irritably. “Yes. They also tried to take you.”
Kota swallowed, remembering the wayfarer’s words. If he had been the one to walk the roads last night, and not Erin…
“The road will call them on soon, but until then you two must be careful,” the fisherman said. “Your days draw short enough without their help, young son.”
Kota started at his words, and then again when he heard something move in the dark under the bridge, far too close to him for comfort.
“Oh, forgive Dell. He’s not used to sharing his bridge with others.”
Kota made out a dim, shaggy shape and what looked like rounded ram horns as a very pointed face looked back at him and smiled with an even more pointed smile.
“Ah,” Kota said, but it came out more as a squeak. Finding a troll sitting next to you in the dark under a bridge can do that to a person.
“You should go now,” the fisherman said. He shifted his weight and the mud beneath his feet made gulping noises. “And remember the witch’s words.”
“Go!” The fisherman said with such urgency that Kota’s feet obeyed without waiting for his head to catch up. He stumbled out into the sunlight and raced over the bridge so fast that he nearly did not see the horses and carriage coming, or stop in time to avoid being trampled.
“There it is!” A wayfarer shouted, above the horses’ protests and the shouts of the driver. A few people came running as Kota stared up at the eye surrounded by vines emblazoned on the door of the carriage that opened as he watched and looked for a way to escape.
“What is the meaning of this?” Madame Elzwig said, not to Kota but to the men who came running up with fire pokers and knives in hand. “Stop waving those around this instant, you look ridiculous.”
“It’s that beast,” one of the men tried to explain, but the Judge barely spared the wolf half a glance. Her eyes went over the people around them and took in the wayfarers, who were quickly trying to blend in.
“Oh, I see,” she said. “What kind of fools are you?”
“Fools?” The man did not seem to take kindly to this, and neither did the people around him, but Madame Elzwig managed to shout over all of them. Before long they were all arguing fiercely, and it took a while before anyone thought to look around and wonder what had become of the wolf. Before that happened, Kota was already walking into the Last Inn.