The branches of the Whirlwood webbed into a canopy above, reaching out in wild curls and twists, filtering the daylight into rays of sunshine. Corkscrew willows, live oaks, and the occasional pine filled the woods, surrounding the rambling trail. The fresh air did not agree with Theodore’s lungs, which had grown accustomed to dusty, neglected office spaces. He wasn’t allergic or asthmatic, but he felt it was never too late to learn.
“Drafted, huh?” Fritz said. He had been kind enough to carry Theodore’s suitcases for him. “That’s rough, pal. No wonder you’re so out of place. I don’t envy you. Ranger Deputy has got to be the worst post in the kingdom. You’re out here all by yourself. Even if you didn’t have to worry about ghasts, you still have fairies who’ll want to magic you. And the animals are all wrong too. Once the magic gets inside them, they start talking and acting like they’re people. You know the last few guys they assigned out here went missing, right? It’s a death trap if you ask me.”
Somehow the Lieutenant’s sympathy failed to comfort Theodore. They splashed through a shallow creek, and Theodore found himself glancing around the too-quiet woods, wondering what might be out there. He touched the knife tucked into his belt, nervous, only to remember that it did not belong to him.
“I forgot to return this to you,” Theodore said, offering the knife.
“Keep it.” Fritz shrugged. “You did us a solid back in the fight. Besides: I think you’re going to need it more than me.”
While no less anxious, Theodore felt grateful. “Thank you.”
They continued on in silence, until Fritz decided he felt like talking.
“I knew this guy, right? A fairy offered to make him strong enough to cut through stone. Think it was a nymph, maybe a pooka, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Anyway, thing is, the idiot took the deal. Guy couldn’t handle his sword without snapping it in half. Couldn’t eat without breaking bowls and plates and tables no matter how gentle he tried to be. Took the healers weeks to dissolve the spell. Then there was this private who…”
Both of them stopped in their tracks. Ahead, a grove of trees looked as though it had been set to torch. Several of the trees looked as if something big had torn them open, clawed and gutted. Theodore stepped across the burnt grass and bent down to find toy sized furniture strewn about and broken.
“Hey! Hello! Hi!”
Startled, Theodore looked up to see an iron birdcage dangling from a low hanging tree branch. A bluebird inside cocked its head at him.
“Can you help me? Please? I’m trapped in here and I really want out!” The little bird spoke with a woman’s voice, high and bright.
Fritz bent down behind him to whisper. “Do not engage. Just keep walking.”
“Okay.” Theodore stood up. They passed the cage, and the bird flapped, bouncing around the inside and sending the whole cage swinging.
“Wait!! Don’t go! They locked me in here and no one will help me! I’m all alone! I don’t want to die! Please! WAIT!!”
Theodore stopped, guilt clenching his throat. He looked back.
“It’s a trick,” Fritz said. “Let’s go.”
“What if it’s not?” Theodore said.
“Then it’s a stupid feral that managed to get itself trapped. Not our problem.”
Fritz moved on. Theodore tried to do the same, but felt haunted. He turned back and reached out to open the cage’s door. It was locked.
“What’s wrong?” the bluebird asked. “Oh no. Oh no. It won’t open?! Can you break it?! I don’t want to starve in here!”
Fritz dropped the suitcases with a huff and called back at them. “You’re going to get yourself killed!”
Theodore pulled a couple pins out from his hair. He still remembered when his father tried to teach him lock picking. It was something Theodore never felt comfortable learning, but Lance was insistent that it was a skill even a knight might need. He probed with the hairpins, getting a feel for the mechanism. The lock was simple, and the bolt gave without much fight. The birdcage swung open, and Theodore wondered if this really would get him killed.