Erin and Kota froze, and the young man fought the instinct to hide at the sound of the blacksmith’s voice.
“Well?” Eli said, crossing his arms and staring down at them. Beside him, a woman with rolls of chestnut hair and bright eyes raised a hand to her mouth to hide what looked suspiciously like a smile.
“We were…Um, taking a day off to look at the snow, and Kota was curious about the clock tower,” Erin answered, jabbing Kota in the side with her elbow.
“Oh, yes, it’s very interesting,” Kota said, taking the cue and rubbing the bruise now forming on his ribs. “They built the town around it, right?”
“No, actually the town came first,” answered the woman. “The river used to be the center of town, until it expanded away from the forest. So you’re Kota?”
“Y-yes, I am.” Kota backed away as the woman stepped closer and looked him over. “So, you’re, uh…”
“Erin’s mother,” she said and smiled. “Naomi. And have you been hiding out in the inn this whole time?”
Kota could feel his face turning red, and was almost grateful when Eli distracted Naomi by saying, “Whatever you two were really doing, you should get back to the inn and send Art home before it gets dark. Yeah, I know where he’s at.”
This last bit was in response to Erin’s surprise, and she said, “Sure, of course.”
“Geld is asking everyone to stay indoors after dark now,” Naomi said. Her face fell and she glanced at Eli before adding, “There was another attack last night.”
“Another one?” Erin said. “Wait, they don’t think it was the wolf, do they?”
“Well, something attacked Darren as he was walking home last night.” The blacksmith shook his head. “Poor guy was cutting wood, didn’t realize the time before it was already dark. Patrol found him this morning, too wounded to walk and half-mad from fear.”
Erin and Kota looked at each other, but both could see that the other had no idea what to make of it.
“Has anyone told Terra?” Erin asked, and Kota nearly bit his lip in half when he heard the hunter reply, “Yes, they have.”
Terra came striding across the faded grass with the mayor struggling to keep up. “Didn’t expect to see you two in town. Finally got bored with the inn?”
“I wish,” Eli muttered.
“Talking about the beast, eh?” Mayor Geld said, puffing a little from the slight exertion. “Terra and I just checked in on Darren, poor fool. Imagine, going into the forest alone!”
“Well, someone’s got to do it,” Naomi said, and looped her arm around her husband’s. “Winter’s coming on, and the people need to keep warm somehow.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Geld said hastily. “Since my tamer seems to have left, I suppose there’s only option left for dealing with the beast, eh?”
Kota stared at the faded grass as if it was the most interesting thing in the world.
Terra caught Erin’s eye and shrugged. “I know the place where they found the woodcutter, so from there I should be able to track down the beast, easily.”
The mayor clapped his hand on the hunter’s shoulder and said, “Attaboy.”
“You’re going out alone?” Naomi asked, and her keen eyes took in the hunter much like they had with Kota.
“Not like anyone else around here would go,” Eli answered for him. When Terra started to protest, he said, “You’ve asked around, haven’t you? The patrol, the apprentices, and what did they all say?”
Terra coughed and decided to change the subject by latching on to Erin and Kota. “You two are ready to head back to the inn, right?”
“Sure, I guess,” Erin said, but her mother stopped the hunter before he could leave.
“You know it’s not a good idea to go after something that you know nothing about by yourself,” she said. “Geld, surely someone can be found.”
The mayor looked about as happy as Terra to be put on the spot. “He is a professional, Naomi. You can see that for yourself.”
Naomi turned on Kota and said, “What about you?”
“What?” Kota froze when he saw that everyone was now looking at him. “I, uh, that might not be the best idea, I mean, I watch the inn at night, I can’t just go running off on Erin.”
Eli looked at Erin. “You can’t handle the inn one night by yourself?”
Erin’s face flushed red and she said, “Of course I can! Who do you think I am?”
The blacksmith shrugged. “Okay then, so Kota can go with the hunter and they can keep each other out of trouble. Sounds settled to me.”
“But–” Kota started, but the words failed when he realized he had no idea how to get out of the hunt without far too many questions being asked. He sighed and Terra smiled when he saw the young man was giving in.
“Great. We’ll head back to the inn then and get ready. By tomorrow morning we’ll put a stop to these attacks.”
Kota and Erin were not so sure that would be how this night turned out, and the walk back to the inn was mostly a one-sided conversation as Terra listed off everything he and Kota would need.
After they returned, Terra pulled Kota to the side while Erin talked to her younger brother Art and said, “Don’t worry. Just follow my instructions, and I’ll handle everything. From the site of last night’s attack it shouldn’t take long to track down the beast. With any luck, we’ll be back before morning.”
“I don’t have much luck,” Kota admitted and Terra laughed.
They left within the hour, Terra with his bow and arrow and Kota bearing a pack with the few extra supplies the hunter thought they might possibly need. They talked little as they went around the border of the forest until they found the old, weed-patched footpath that the woodcutter had taken the night before. It wound on through the forest, but never went fully in. At all times they could see the bare fields beyond the thin line of trees. Kota thought of how Erin had whispered to him, when Terra wasn’t looking, “If all else fails, give him the slip” and he smiled. That, at least, he thought he could handle.
Terra stopped and bent down to look at the ground, brushing aside the little patches of snow to reveal the red layer underneath, stained by the blood on the ground. “Well, I think we’re getting close.”
“This cold, the ground will be too hard to hold much of a mark,” Kota said, and pulled his jacket a little closer. It had been the biggest one he could find in the attic, but he was starting to see why someone had left it behind.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Terra said, and Kota tried to ignore the surprise in the hunter’s voice. “But the beast did manage to leave a trail.”
He pointed off the path to the series of broken tree limbs and trampled bushes that, hidden as they might have been by the remaining snow, still marked the way into the path of the beast.