Erin sat huddled over, her arms wrapped around her leg to try and fight off the throbbing pain emanating from her ankle, and stared at the last place she had seen Kota. Her hands trembled as she held onto the ragged piece of cloth that had covered the stone as if it could fight off whatever monsters lurked beyond the trees and asked herself, again and again, what she had been thinking when she ran into the forest.
A branch cracked and Erin moaned. “Just a squirrel, just a squirrel, just a squirrel…”
She trailed off when an old, crackling voice that came from somewhere far too close said, “Hope not. I hate squirrels.”
Erin slowly turned her head, but whoever had spoken failed to show themselves. All that she could see were trees and the scraggly plants that grew in the light that managed to filter through the overgrowth.
“Tell me about it. Birds now, birds I like,” said another voice that creaked and groaned with every word.
“Had a raccoon once,” rumbled a third, low voice.
The voices continued to go on about animals, but Erin stared up and around and wondered if she was going crazy when there was still no sign of the speakers.
The first voice chuckled and the tree nearest to Erin swayed as if caught in a breeze she could not feel. “Oh, now that’s good. Can you feel it?”
After a moment or so, Erin did feel something, a steady pounding coming up through the ground that turned into hoofbeats, steadily coming closer. She nearly screamed when the wolf burst through a nearby bush without warning, soon followed by something she had only seen pictures of.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Erin said, and the unicorn snorted and shook its head.
The wolf walked over and nosed her hand before tugging on her jacket sleeve.
Erin looked from the wolf to the unicorn and back again. “You know each other?”
The wolf nodded and Erin tried to ignore the chuckle that came from one of the unseen speakers. The unicorn nodded its head as well and Erin tried desperately to scuttle backward away from the reaching horn that rapped her ankle.
“Sh, it’s okay,” Kota said, and Erin cried out again for a different reason. He pulled up her pants leg as the unicorn stepped back and said, “See?”
Her ankle swelling had already dropped by half, and the pain coming from it no longer threatened to overcome her. “It…my ankle…”
“They’re healers, and this one happened to owe me,” Kota said, and showed her his hands where thin white marks had taken the place of his cuts. “Once he gets back to his herd, one of the others can help him. Isn’t that right?”
He stroked the unicorn’s nose and rubbed the base of its horn. The unicorn snorted again and Erin noticed the jagged red line around its neck as she used the nearest tree to drag herself up onto her feet. She shuddered at the pain, but now at least she could bear it enough to stand, with Kota’s assistance.
“Thank you,” she said and, taking the opportunity with Kota being so close, whispered to him, “I know this sounds crazy, but I think the trees were talking.”
“Oh, good, you heard them, too,” Kota said and smiled at her expression. He glanced up at the sky and back at Erin, who clearly would not be able to get very far on her ankle just yet. “How far do you think I could stretch a favor?”
“What?” Erin looked from him to the unicorn. “No, I am not about to get on that thing.”
“The other female and the catbird are going that way, toward your…oh, what is it called?” asked one of the trees, and another one which sounded suspiciously like the one Erin had used to stand up piped in, “Town, dear, they call it a town. Nasty things.”
“They went into town?” Erin asked, before she realized she was talking to a tree. “Why?”
“How should I know?” the tree grumbled.
“If we go now, we could probably catch up with them,” Erin said. When Kota frowned and looked at her ankle, she sighed. “It’ll be okay. Kota, this could be our only chance!”
Kota stroked the unicorn’s nose and said to it, “She does make it hard to argue, doesn’t she?”
The unicorn snorted and turned its side toward them. Since she couldn’t argue without risking Kota changing his mind or slowing them down, Erin bit her lip and climbed onto the unicorn with Kota’s assistance. He started to say something but groaned and dropped to all fours as a wolf. The wolf sighed and nosed the unicorn before leading the way through the trees, careful to steer them through the widest gaps. As easy as the ride was, Erin clung to the unicorn’s back and kept her eyes closed most of the way. Whenever she opened her eyes, she would see Kota keeping pace with the unicorn, either in the shape of a young man or as a wolf.
Outside of the forest, the wolf loped away and zigzagged around with its nose to the ground until it stumbled over paws that became hands and feet. He staggered upright and waved at them. “They came this way. The tree was right, they are going to town. It doesn’t make any sense though, why would they–”
The sun came out again and Kota turned back into a wolf midsentence.
“Lani did say the stone was the main reason she came,” Erin said over the wolf’s grumbling. As they approached the town, she patted the unicorn’s trembling side. She suspected it felt the same way about the town as she did the forest. “I think this is close enough.”
The unicorn stopped with a sigh of relief and Erin dropped to the ground with only the barest of twinges from her ankle.
“Thank you,” she said again, and the unicorn nosed her face and the wolf’s before cantering back toward the forest. Erin looked at the wolf just in time to see it turn back into Kota. “Are you sure you’re okay about going into town?”
He swallowed and nodded. “Worse comes to worst, I can always run and hide, right? It’s what I’m good at.”
Erin smiled, even though she felt as nervous as he looked, and they walked down the street together, looking for any sign of Lani or the uproar that should have followed the tamer walking into town with the griffin in tow. Yet all they saw were the usual townspeople going about their usual business.
“Back streets,” Kota murmured to Erin as he kept one eye on the sky. “They’re keeping out of sight for as long as possible, until Lani can drop off the stone and get her pay.”
“But who would hire her? I mean, Mayor Geld was the one who sent for her, but that was for you,” Erin started, and stopped even as Kota came to the same conclusion. “Why?”
“I think I might know one person who would have an idea,” Kota said. “That story you told me, about the sun and the moon–”
He groaned and pulled Erin into the nearest shop, which happened to be the tailor’s.
“Look who we have here!” crowed Agatha, and both of them winced.
Erin looked outside at the sunlight streaming across the street and said, “What were you saying Kota?”
“You need to find him,” Kota said before the tailors swooped down on them. “No, I’m sorry, we’re just looking for the moment. Uh, you two haven’t seen a stranger in town today, have you?”
“Oh, do you mean that hunter?” the other tailor said, and the two shared a look and a flurry of giggles while Kota motioned Erin to go on ahead.
Erin nodded and went outside, but she hesitated and looked back at the shop where Kota was trying to keep the tailors talking until he could safely leave. He had mentioned the story back in the forest too, but there was only one person that Erin could think of when she thought of that story.
Erin raced down the street as fast as her ankle would allow, darting around surprised townspeople until she reached the bridge. Sliding down the bank of the river, she waved at the old man standing in the water up to the top of his rubber boots and yelled, “Wen!”