Erin looked from the wolf to the approaching townspeople, more than a few of whom had armed themselves at the word that there was a monster running around town again. “Terra, do you think you could distract them?”
“Come on, Kota, we need to get to Wen.”
The wolf nodded and Terra stared as they ran off before he remembered the crowd. He threw his hands up to get their attention and before Kota and Erin went out of earshot they heard him say, “Now, I know you’re all wondering about the wolf, but what you really need to be thinking about is how to get a griffin out of a clock tower.”
Erin laughed, if only because she couldn’t think of anything else to do at this point. Everything had gone absolutely insane today, and she hardly even blinked at the gasps and stares they earned as Kota, without missing a step, went from wolf to himself again.
“You have the stone?” he asked and when she nodded that seemed to be answer enough.
They reached the bridge together and Kota just barely managed to stop Erin from plunging into the river as she slid down the bank again. The old man in the river looked up at them and his breath seemed to catch in his throat as he said, “You came back.”
“You, the curse,” Erin gasped out, but after all of the running she could barely string a sentence together.
Kota seemed to understand though as he looked at Wen with a new expression. “You’re the one Sollis wrote about?”
Wen sighed and said, “Aye, I am. What was all of that racket in town?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Erin said quickly, trying not to think of the people already looking for them. “What curse? What happened?”
Wen pinched the bridge of his nose and then said, “Your friend there may want to sit under the bridge while I tell you a story.”
Catching the hint, Kota and Erin immediately moved into the shade of the bridge, both being careful not to look too hard at the darker shape snuffling around the reeds.
“Once, long ago, this land was dry, and barren. No one lived here, no one even noticed it, until a…person saw it, and loved it, and asked that care of it be given to him. That care was granted, and this person channeled life into the land, forming a river and nourishing the ground so that it came forth. People came to the river, and this person loved them too, and the town that they built. Oh, he loved it, the life that they brought with them, and extended his care to protect them, to help them to grow and prosper. The years flowed by like the river, and one generation came to the next, and he watched over them all, until the day he found someone like him.
“She walked the borders and the in between and loved the forest in his care like he loved the town, lending her care to the creatures there. Between them, this land flourished beyond compare, and there was no one closer. The people of the town though, they were afraid that the person would forget them and let the land die because he loved this other. So they resented her, and her children.
“Then came the people from beyond the care, those who walk the roads and call to the forgotten and the outsider. They came to the people of the town, and they offered them a solution so that they might have the love of their caretaker all to themselves. The people of the town agreed, and lured their caretaker away so that the roadwalkers, the wayfarers, could have their way with the other, and they took her beyond his land.
“The caretaker found that she was gone, and would have followed, but the people of the land cried out that they would die without him. He tried to explain that this was not so, but they did not, would not listen. So they bound him to the land, unable to follow his beloved, and with time, forgot him who cared for them, who loved them and this land even then, even now.”
Wen stopped and wiped his eyes, unable to look at the pair sitting under the bridge.
When they finally found the will to speak, Kota said, “So that story, the one you told Erin, about the Sun and the Moon, that was you and her.”
“How could they do that?” Erin cried out as she jumped up. “Why don’t you just leave or do something? Tell someone?”
“I could not tell anyone unless they already knew the curse existed, could not place my hand on the key to my freedom,” Wen said. Now he turned his red-rimmed eyes to them. “That is how they forgot. There is one way to break my curse, but it is to break my care over the land.”
“And it would just go back to how it was when you found it,” Kota said and the old man nodded. “Even now, you’d still care for these people rather than go after her?”
“Sometimes…I wish I didn’t,” Wen said. He looked at Erin with a broken expression, filled with pain and sadness. “But you’re still my people. My children. How could I face her again, knowing what it cost?”
Erin stepped out from under the bridge and threw her arms around Wen’s shoulders. He hesitated and hugged her back, but his knees nearly gave out underneath when she whispered, “Human hands must break what human hands have wrought, right?”
She pulled the sun stone out of her pocket and placed it in Wen’s trembling hands.
“No! What are you doing?!”
The three of them looked up at the silhouette of Mayor Geld leaning over the bridge, close to falling as he shouted down at them. “Free him and the whole land dies, he just told you!”
He pushed past the people crowded around the bridge and river and stopped at the foot of the water. “Someone, take it from him now!”
“You knew?” Erin said, advancing on the hopping mad mayor. “You knew about the curse and the stone, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, every leader of this town knew! Someone had to remember, someone had to make sure this town survived, and you went and destroyed us all, you little–”
It took Erin a second to recognize her own father’s voice, if only because she had never heard that much anger and venom in it before. The blacksmith stepped out from among the crowd and said, “That is enough out of you, Geld. How could you?”
“Me? I did what had to be done, what everyone before me has done, what your ancestors did,” Geld said, nearly foaming at the mouth in his rage. “And you, if you had any sense at all, would do.”
“Oh, I know exactly what to do,” Eli Smith said and, after a glance at Wen to be sure, took the stone from his hands and smashed it on the stones of the riverbank to the cheers of those watching.
From the broken stone the flame rose up and flowed into Wen’s chest, filling him from the inside out with a burning light that, eventually, dimmed to a more bearable shade but did not fade entirely. With the light flowing from within, most of the lines and weather faded from his skin and bones, leaving him looking neither young nor old but ageless.
“Thank you,” he whispered as a different kind of tears gather in his eyes. Eli pulled him close and clapped him on the back, whispering something in his ear that made Wen laugh. He looked to the people, which seemed to be the whole town gathered together, and began to explain that he would be leaving, if only for a short time.
“No!” Geld protested, but his interruption would prove to be very brief when something, no one was entirely sure what, pulled him under the bridge. There were gasps from among the crowd, but no one moved to help him, and even Wen turned his head away when he saw that it was too late to do anything. Instead, he sighed and began to address the townspeople.
With everyone’s attention on Wen, who was reassuring the people about what was to come, Kota edged out from the other side of the bridge, and Erin followed him up the riverbank. No one made a move to stop them, and Terra slipped out of the crowd to join them on the silent walk back to the inn.