The day after Miles left the inn, Erin and Kota met the first of the “fall rush” he had told them about nearly a month ago. In ones, twos, or groups of as many as ten at a time, travelers passed through the small town, often staying a night or more at the Last Inn. Most of them proved to be traders, and were willing enough to do what business they could in town before moving on to the capital or toward the coast. The rest came and went for other reasons, but after what happened with the wayfarers, Erin found that she did not want to ask any questions.
They came from every direction, dressed in outlandish clothes and speaking with strange accents, but no one was heading north with winter coming on. Those willing to talk told Erin about blizzards in the north, and the highest mountain villages that were already snowed in for the rest of the year.
With all of these people coming and going, Erin and Kota went back to their agreed routine with Erin watching the inn by day and Kota at night. While Erin kept busy enough, she noticed that most mornings Kota would leave a note for her telling about guests that arrived in the late hours of the night or who had left so early in the morning that the sun had not risen yet.
They had enough money to pay off the rent for the month, and Erin thought the look on Mayor Geld’s face when she gave him the money well worth it, with even enough left over to feed all of these people and themselves.
Unfortunately, they had little time for anything else. Erin could barely start reading Sollis’s journal before someone else would walk in, or they would have to fix whatever the guests had broken this time. She knew Kota hadn’t looked at it, and more than once wondered if he even cared. It was his curse they were trying to break, but every time she tried to bring it up with him he would make some kind of excuse to go running off or try to change the subject.
At least he handled the barrage of people surprisingly well. When Erin asked him about it once, he shrugged and said, “It’s not like they’re going to be around long enough to notice anything. Everyone’s trying to get somewhere else.”
She supposed that made enough sense. People passed through town, they didn’t stay there. Kota must have been unique in that he actually set out with the place as his destination, and not just a stop on the way to somewhere else.
That is, until the hunter arrived.
One night, a band of men with swords at their side arrived on the front step of the inn. Erin thought Kota might pass out when she opened the door and welcomed them in, but he hovered around the door to the kitchen where he could listen to what they said as she asked, “Staying the night?”
“I guess,” one of the men said, his disdain obvious both from his tone and the contemptuous look he threw at the room. “This the only inn in town?”
“Yes,” Erin said, and for once wished it wasn’t. She would have been glad to tell these guys they could go somewhere else.
“Figures,” one of the others muttered.
They paid, after more grumbling, and settled around the tables right in the center of the room. The rest of the guests took one look at them and either moved further into the corners or decided to turn in for the night.
Erin went back into the kitchen with Kota to get the sandwiches and drinks which they had not asked for so much as demanded.
“Do I have to let them stay?” Erin groaned. Two minutes in the room with the men had not improved her initial impression. They smelled, like they hadn’t bathed or showered in weeks.
“They might cause more problems if you don’t,” Kota said. He put together the last of the sandwiches and put them all on a platter. “They’ll leave soon enough.”
“But what if these are the hunters Geld hired?” Erin whispered.
Kota actually laughed at the idea, the sound surprising Erin for more than one reason. He helped her carry the food and drinks out to the table in time to see the door open again and let in another group, this one of young men from the town.
“Ah, the patrol,” Kota said, sounding less certain now.
This was not the first time people from town had stopped by the inn. While they weren’t looking for rooms, they were willing to buy some food once word of Kota’s cooking got around. As an extra bonus, they could get a good look at the latest strangers and get some new fuel for the town’s gossip mill. Building on Miles’s idea to let the townspeople get used to Kota, Erin usually dragged him out and tried to encourage him to chat and get to know them. This made for some awkward talk when the regulars on the town patrol started talking about the “beast,” but otherwise Erin thought things seemed to be going well.
The two groups quickly fell into talking while they demolished the platter of sandwiches between them, and it did not take long before the baker’s son asked the question that Erin had been dying to know.
“So, are you here after the beast that’s been running around?”
“What beast would that be, a rabbit?” one of the men asked, and his friends were quick to laugh.
“No, a giant wolf monster, with a big scar over its eye,” one of the patrol said, gesturing at the wrong side of his face. Kota started to correct him, but Erin elbowed him.
“Oh, another one?” the swordsman grinned and leaned back in his chair. “Let me guess, you haven’t seen it since?”
“Well, no,” the baker’s son admitted. “We think the patrols are scaring it off, honestly. Probably hiding out in the forest, waiting to take out anyone that comes near its den.”
“Yeah, right. You know how many people claim to have seen some monster wolf? And every time it just so happens to ‘disappear’ whenever someone looks into it. We don’t chase ghosts, right boys?”
There was agreement from around the table, along with a “not on the rate your man pays” thrown in.
“See?” Kota murmured to Erin before he stepped up to refill one of the glasses. “Need anything else, guys?”
“I’d like to hear a bit more about this wolf.”
Everyone’s head turned toward the door, where a tall, broad shouldered man nearly filled the frame. He walked in with a strange, loping gait that reminded Erin more of how a cat walked than a person. An unstrung bow in his hand and the quiver of arrows on his back next to his bag were sign enough without the look that Kota gave her as well.
The hunter smiled and added, “A room would be nice, too.”